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The Orange County Register
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Story appeared in Sports section
on page Cover
ID: 62511979
Edition: 1
Elation on Everest // One O.C. climber summits. Another reaches his apex.

June 17, 2003

One ran out of gas, the other was running out of oxygen.

Two Orange County climbers were at Earth's rooftop making life-and-death decisions as they took stock of their reserves and resolve to summit Mount Everest.

In the end, their choices resulted in one withdrawing short of the peak and the other plodding forward to reach the highest point on Earth.

Yet as different as the outcomes were, both climbers returned with a sense of pride and personal triumph and, most im portantly, with their bodies intact.

Jeff Mathy, 24, of Fullerton and James Clarke, 39, of Costa Mesa had spent two months making acclimatization climbs from Everest Base Camp to prepare for this day, this final push to the 29,035-foot peak on May 30.

After several days of wind delays at Camps II and IV, the Alpine Ascents expedition, with Mathy and Clarke among the 16-member team, was on its way to the top, a 13-hour ascent from Camp IV.

Along the way, the dream climbs for Mathy and Clarke were interrupted by critical decisions on whether to forge ahead or turn around.

At approximately 28,000 feet, below the South Summit, Mathy hit the wall. Fatigue gripped his body and told him to go back, the risk was not worth it.

Believing he did not have the energy to summit and return to Camp IV safely, Mathy decided to turn back. Guide Willi Prittie, who was suffering from a bronchial condition, agreed to join him.

Above them, at the South Summit, roughly 450 feet below the peak, a guide told Clarke that he should go back because he was down to his third and final bottle of supplemental oxygen.

``I'm never going to come up here again. You got to give me another option,'' Clarke told the guide.

He did. The guide told him some have made it using an oxygen flow of two liters per minute instead of four.

``You'll probably run out of oxygen on the way down,'' the guide added.

Clarke hesitated a moment, then said, ``I'll do it.''

It was a monumental decision, but one he had basically made before going on the trip, said Clarke, who is single.

``When I went to this mountain, I realized I was going to push everything I had to the limit to get the job done,'' he said. ``When it came up, it was a foregone conclusion I'd keep going forward. I don't think you can climb this mountain without taking on substantial risk.''

The former Army Ranger trudged upward. He crossed a narrow ridge with a drop of 7,000 feet to one side and 9,000 feet to the other. He scrambled up and over Hillary Step and was 20 minutes from the summit.

``You get goose bumps,'' Clarke said. ``You realize, `My God, I'm really going to make this thing.' When I finally saw the flag in the distance (marking the peak), I started to cry a little bit. I was like, `This is a lifetime dream, and I'm actually going to make it!' ''

Clarke stood at the top, said a short prayer and slowly did a 360, taking in views of Tibet and Nepal. He snapped off several photos and had his picture taken with his license plate -- ``29035FT'' -- and an American flag.

After 20 minutes, Clarke and 13 other clients, guides and Sherpas made the seven-hour descent to Camp IV. When Clarke got there, the same low flow of oxygen he summited on was still trickling to his mask.

``I think there was so much adrenaline flowing at that time, it carried me,'' he said.

Like Clarke, Mathy also had made a decision long before stepping foot on Everest: If it became too risky, he'd turn around.

On the Balcony, at 27,300 feet, Mathy informed the others he wasn't doing well but kept going, hoping to catch a second wind. It didn't help that frostbite was attacking his fingers and right big toe every step of the way.

To warm his fingers, Mathy would stick them under his armpits.

``(The toe) was painfully cold, and then it would go numb and I'd shake it like crazy and wiggle it, do anything I could to get it warmed up again,'' Mathy said. ``I'd be able to go on for another hour or so, and then I'd have to stop and re-warm it.''

About 700 feet of elevation gain later, Mathy was finished.

``The summit was so close I thought, `Well, I certainly could make it to the summit if I wanted to,' but then I wasn't sure if I could make it back to Camp IV without assistance,'' he said.

``If you need help getting down, then you're in big trouble. So I made the rational choice instead of the risky choice and decided to head down with Willi.

``I'd rather stop there and feel good about the way I've climbed the mountain than summit and then have to be rescued.''

They didn't descend right away, however. They sat and talked and enjoyed the views, and Mathy shed tears of joy over reaching 28,000 feet and of sadness that the adventure was coming to an end.

``I felt like I reached my own personal summit that day,'' he said.

Mathy also felt closure. A year ago, illness caused by tainted lemonade prevented him from even making a bid for the summit, leaving a sour taste in his mouth. No regrets and no looking back this time.

Officially, Mathy still needs Everest to accomplish the Seven Summits, though he never was enamored of such records.

Will he try Everest again? He said he has no plans to do so. He does intend to take up Argentine tango and horseback riding, hobbies his girlfriend, Allison Harding, is interested in.

For Clarke, however, there are two more mountains to climb. Everest was the fifth of his Seven Summits, and most expensive at $70,000. Vinson Massif in Antarctica and Carstensz Pyramid in Oceania remain as personal quests.

When asked his timetable for climbing them, he said he's in no rush, probably within the next two years.

But with Everest still in his rearview mirror, Clarke is ready to take a break, a nice long break.

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Climbing Everest

Copyright 2004 The Orange County Register
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