Near 21,000 feet in elevation, still more than a mile below the infamous “Death Zone” high atop Mount Everest, Santa Fean Richard Cost began to feel different from the way he had felt on any other mountain quest.
His head hurt constantly. He couldn’t eat or drink. His body was not responding to the simplest of tasks.
It was near Camp Two that Cost realized his quest would not be so much in going up as in getting back down.
And in retrospect, it may have been something of a blessing, because May’s climbing season atop the pinnacle of the world turned into one of the deadliest in history, claiming 11 lives.
Some of the images from other mountaineers were especially troubling.
While Cost was already back home recovering from severe acute mountain sickness and cerebral edema, a photo flashed around the world of a Los Angeles-freeway-like standstill approaching the bottleneck Hillary Step – a clog in the South Col route that limits traffic to one person at a time. And the line progresses only as quickly as the slowest climber.
“There was a part of me that was glad I wasn’t there that day” said Cost, an experienced climber who had been higher than 21,000 feet on several occasions. “I have mixed emotions. I was very upset that everything I put into training and not be able to climb the mountain, but at the same time, there was a part of me that thought I was lucky not to be there that day.”
The deaths on Everest this year came about partly because of a record number of 526 permits, along with 720 Sherpas, with a funneling of climbable days that was narrowed to three to five, less than half the normal window, Cost said.
It also should be noted that a record 437 climbers and 454 Sherpas reached the summit of Everest in that compressed period.
Despite the number of the people, Cost said, he never felt crowded or pressured.
“Interestingly enough, the people that left from my group, out of 13, eight made it to the summit,” he said. “They were up there that day. My thoughts, I don’t want to come across as critical because it’s not my place, but my thoughts were a mixture of sadness at what happened that day. But I also feel like climbing Everest is a dangerous proposition and things happen.”
In some respects, despite the crowds and deaths this season, climbing Everest is safer than ever before. Before 1990, one in 50 climbers died in the attempt, but that number has dropped to one in 240, according to a Time magazine graphic.
“I went into it knowing that I had a 1.2 percent chance of dying,” Cost said. “I knew that going in. That was a decision I made and that was an acceptable risk. Everest, from a death standpoint, is the second-safest of the 8,000-meter peaks. So I have no regrets whatsoever. I was just really thankful to be on the mountain. If I had to do it over again, I would, absolutely.”
He’ll be back – maybe
As for whether he will return for another attempt, that remains to be seen, he said.
“When I got back, I was going through some different emotions,” Cost said. “Physical and emotional disappointment and getting over the illness and almost dying and all that stuff.”
As he’s had time to settle back into life in New Mexico and get back on the local mountains, he said it is a question that has swirled around his brain.
“Maybe. I need to let this settle in,” Cost said of returning. “When I first got back, I was pretty adamant about going back. But I sort of made the decision to let this settle. The commitment is huge, from a training standpoint. To go through that again, I’m still thinking about that. I wouldn’t be truthful if I didn’t say the traffic jam situation also comes into play. I want to see what Nepal does to help alleviate that.”
Just shy of Camp Two, Cost was headed down as other climbers were going up. He managed to make it back down to base camp and then was flown by helicopter back to Kathmandu. After a hospital stay there, during which doctors also discovered a blood clot, Cost was able to head back to New Mexico.
He reflects on what went wrong: “I should have been forcing myself to drink four liters a day, and I was drinking about 1.5 liters. Really the only thing I came up with. It might have been a mistake I made.”