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Cheating death on Everest; World's tallest peak unleashes its fury on Windsor climber 'I said a prayer and thanked God'
Windsor Star
Saturday, June 21, 2003
Page: A5
Section: Local News
Byline: Dave Battagello Star Staff Reporter
Source: Windsor Star

Overcoming bone-chilling cold, killer altitude and gale-force winds that threatened to blow his tent off the mountain, James Clarke was within shouting distance of the world's tallest peak when his guide came to him with "bad news."

Clarke's three oxygen tanks had drained with inexplicable speed and the gauge on his last cylinder was dangerously low. Without oxygen, there is little chance of surviving Mount Everest's summit.

"It happens sometimes . . . the bottles don't work perfect," the guide told him matter-of-factly. "That is your last bottle. What you should do is turn around and go down."

After months of preparation and 60 perilous days stalking the mountain, for Clarke, a former U.S. Army Ranger, Harvard graduate and successful businessman, the choice was simple: "I'm never going to be here again," he said. "You need to give me another option."

Facing the most difficult part of the climb with only half the prescribed amount of O2, Clarke's only choice was to scale the flow from his last tank and hope to be near someone with a surplus when it ran dry.

"I realized that this was a foregone decision. Then I looked at the guide blankly and said, 'I'll do it.' "

At 12:15 p.m. on May 30, Clarke stood on the table-top sized summit reached by only 1,300 other climbers. He is believed to be the first Windsorite to do so.

"It was very spiritual for me. I was on the roof of the world," said Clarke. "I took a deep breath, then slowly turned. I took a slow 360 look at everything. That was pretty awesome.

"I said a quick prayer and thanked God. I felt a sense of relief -- a great burden lifted from my shoulders. It was a realization of accomplishing something that's been a goal all my life."

For Clarke, it was the latest achievement in a remarkable life that saw him leave Windsor at 18. After graduating from West Point U.S. Military Academy, Clarke spent five years as an elite Army Ranger followed by an MBA at Harvard.

Today, Clarke, 40, lives in Los Angeles and works alongside former junk bond king Mike Miliken as CEO of Ya Ya, an interactive media company.

A U.S. citizen, born in New York, Clarke remains a Canadian landed immigrant. He came to Windsor at age 7 when his father moved here to teach at the university. He attended the former Prince of Wales and John Cahill public schools, then Forster Secondary School.

"I think of Windsor as home," said Clarke, who visits six or seven times a year. "My dad still lives there. My oldest friends are there -- guys I've known for over 30 years."

Clarke has also retained business interests in the city as co-owner of OK Tire Centre and Phoenix Industrial Battery.

Those who remember Clarke when he roamed the hallways of Forster more than 20 years ago knew he marched to the beat of his own drum.

"He kept telling everybody he was going to West Point and we just all looked at him, then sure enough he goes," said childhood friend and business partner John Zucchet of LaSalle.

"Then one day he tells me he wants to go to Harvard and you say 'Oh yeah, sure you are.' Then he does.

"There is nothing James can't do. He was a smaller kid, but always out to test the boundaries. He has always been the kind of guy who wants to show the world he can do it."

Clarke said he became hooked on climbing after trying it with friends at a mountain outside Seattle in 1994. A friend gave him a book on the Seven Summits -- the highest peaks on each continent.

Clarke hopes to be among the approximately 100 people to climb all seven, having scaled five, including Everest, Tanzania's Kilimanjaro in 1997 and Alaska's McKinley in 2001.

He has two of the least difficult summits remaining in Indonesia and Antarctica.

"I'm in no rush," Clarke said. "The next two are challenging, but nothing compared to Everest. I will have covered all different corners of the earth by the end of it and that's the fascinating part for me."

Climbers attempting to scale Everest, at 8,850 metres (29,035 feet) above sea level the Earth's tallest summit, are dropped off in a remote village in Nepal at about 11,500 feet. They spend more than a week making the trek to base camp at 17,500 feet.

While the Everest summit takes four days on average from that point, climbers are forced to tackle the task in smaller stages because of the extreme altitudes. About five per cent die trying to make the climb.

"The primary killer is if you go up too quick, you die," Clarke said. "You are only getting about a quarter of the oxygen up there you would at sea level. It takes the body time to acclimatize to that. We just took it methodically."

Clarke paid $65,000 US to be part of the elite climbing group Alpine Ascents International -- whose team this year included eight climbers and four Sherpas, natives to the region who serve as guides.

Clarke's team would climb up a certain distance, build a camp and then return to base. Packing more equipment each time they ventured out, the team would go faster and higher, always extending the distance to the secondary camp before returning to base for rest.

Everest is so tall the top stretches into the jet stream, making it inaccessible except for a short period in May prior to the monsoon season when high pressure pushes away the jet stream.

Several people died during this year's climbing season -- the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hilary's first successful ascent -- including two in a helicopter crash at base camp. A Sherpa encountered by Clarke's group succumbed to frostbite and altitude sickness and a French climber fell into a crevasse.

Countless others fell seriously ill among the 22 teams attempting to conquer Everest and were forced to turn back, including two climbers on Clarke's team. Only 40 climbers, Sherpas included, made it to the summit this year.

Clarke was able to e-mail seven dispatches to friends and family during his journey. His experiences are gripping. They detail sudden 20C or 30C temperature swings, surprise winds exceeding 100 km with gusts up of nearly 200 km, battles with hypothermia, falling ice chunks "as big as houses" and oxygen shortages.

"It's a whole different life," Clarke said. "You really have to pay attention to your hygiene because getting sick can knock you out. Everest has an exceptional amount of danger zones. There are more crevasses, to avalanches, to whatever. There is not a lot of time where you can't be attentive to your surroundings."

Clarke's father, Jim, received several calls from his son during the trek, including one breathless conversation from 26,000 feet.

"I would have told him not to do it, but he made up his mind and I was quietly supportive," said the retired professor. "I was thrilled he made it. I wanted him to make it so much for him because he wanted it so much. He was thrilled, so I was too."

Clarke spent about 15 minutes on the summit before his waning oxygen supply forced a quick retreat.

"It's a very interesting time for me to realize I may never do something so difficult again in my life. It's like doing something out of an adventure book. I got to live a dream. I got to play in the Super Bowl of my sport.

"Imagine if you are an avid hockey fan and got pulled out of your armchair and suited up for the Stanley Cup. You're in there playing and holding your own. I got to do that."


James Clarke sent friends and family seven electronic dispatches chronicling his ascent of Everest. Following is an excerpt from May 6, describing a perilous night camped below the summit, which he entitled Hello Jet Stream:

"Around 4:45 p.m. with the day's last light waning, the guides gathered us in the cook tent with startling news. The just-received evening weather report had reversed all prior expectations. Rather than slowly declining winds, the forecast was for a severe increase in their intensity and duration. As a departure from 'normal' weather patterns shaped by the interaction of pressure fronts, a cyclonic formation over Afghanistan was causing the jet stream itself to rapidly descend over the top of Mt. Everest -- less than five miles from our position.

The options were not pleasant.... With last light fading, a decision was made to fortify Camp I against the storm.

The key was to protect our sleeping tents -- small, two-man, dome shaped, expedition quality made by North Face and generally expected to hold up in winds over 50 mph. Unfortunately, the newly forecast winds were much higher. Ideally we would build an igloo-like shelter of ice blocks around each tent. However, we had no ice saw, so our next best option was to build a wall to deflect the brunt of the wind. We had four shovels and eight men, so we determined that we would work in two four-man teams, rotating one group outside, while the other recovered inside the cook tent with hot drinks. Our goal was to build an 80-foot-long, three-foot-high, V-shaped wall, the apex windward of the line of sleeping tents and with each leg extending 40 feet downwind. We hoped this would reduce the stress borne by each tent to a sustainable level.

At that point, there was nothing left to do but crawl inside and wait for morning and the next weather report.

I had trouble judging the passage of time and I may have dozed off for a while, but I sat up at 11:30 p.m. with a shock. Our tent was under a sustained barrage and flapping wildly. Sometimes the top would compress down two or three feet and nearly brush me as all the poles bent against the force outside. The wind seemed to come in waves, you could hear it hitting and rattling objects in the distance, with gathering intensity as it rolled along the valley into our camp before striking our tents. It was so noisy, that I was barely able to make myself heard to my tent mate. And it just kept building. Sometimes, when the immediate gusts abated slightly, we could hear a roar far overhead, not unlike the sound of a large jet aircraft taking off -- which was the jet stream itself scraping the upper portions of the mountain. I've climbed now on five continents and been captive in my tent during storms for up to a week at a time, but I'd never experienced winds like these.

There was no more sleep that night. The noise, the violent shaking and the imminent danger of the tent being torn apart kept us constantly alert. It didn't seem possible, but the winds continued to build. Shortly before dawn, the wind reached and exceeded hurricane force level, with gusts in excess of 100 mph. At that point, we faced a question of survival. During one terrific blast I heard the grommets and lines begin to pop and tear from our tent. I immediately put on all of my heaviest gear, including parka, goggles and boots. I lay on my back and waited for the tent to tear away and anticipated the shock of a 100-degree wind chill.

Dawn came and one of the guides crawled over and shouted between gusts for us to pack and ... leave immediately."


About Everest

Height: 8,848 meters (29,029 feet).

Named for: Sir George Everest, surveyor general of India from 1830 to 1843, who first recorded the location of Everest in 1841.

First ascent: Tenzing Norgay (Nepal) and Sir Edmund Percival Hillary (New Zealand) May 29, 1953 via the South-East Ridge Route.

First woman to summit: Junko Tabei of Japan May 16, 1975.

First Canadian: Laurie Skreslet May 10, 1982.

2003 records: Appa, who like most Sherpa uses only one name, made a record 13th climb to the peak. Lakpa Gyelu, another Sherpa, raced from the 5,297-metre base camp to the summit in 10 hours, 56 minutes. Professional skier Yuichiro Miura, of Japan, became oldest person to summit, at age 70.

RARIFIED AIR: James Clarke, right and his guide Mingma Tshering, on the Everest summit May 30. Photos courtesy James Clarke
Mount Everest

Idnumber: 200306210128
Edition: Final
Story Type: Feature
Length: 2064 words
Illustration Type: Black & White Photo

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