‘We have to leave now’: San Francisco man describes terrifying Everest traffic jam

Woody Hartman had only been on the summit of Mount Everest for a few minutes when his Sherpa guide grabbed him.

“We have to leave now,” he said, “Or we’ll be stuck here.”

Dawa Tenzeng Sherpa, who had just completed his twelfth summit of Everest, could see the danger coming. They were in the death zone, an area above 26,000 feet where oxygen is so thin the human body begins shutting down. Behind them was a growing crowd of climbers. Perhaps you’ve already seen the photograph that went viral last week, a line of humans clustered along the spine of the mountain. Every extra moment spent in the death zone was a minute they could not afford.

“I knew going in, of course, that climbing Everest was extremely dangerous. Even as a young man, I created a will for this and wrote a letter just in case I didn’t return,” Hartman said. “But this year, really even more than any of the advice and preparation that I’d heard from Everest climbers, this year seemed really different.”

The journey began three years ago for Hartman, a 35-year-old San Franciscan who took a six-month sabbatical from Lyft in order to journey to the Himalayas. He was at a friend’s house in Redwood City when the friend suggested he try his new virtual reality headset. One of the options was a virtual climb of Mount Everest. As Hartman tried it, he felt tingles run through him.

“If it feels like this in virtual reality, what would it feel like in real life?” he wondered.

So he began the arduous process of preparing for the climb, building up his endurance, gaining technical skills and, finally, acclimatizing to high elevations.

Two months ago, he flew to Lukla Airport in eastern Nepal to start the hike. From there, he trekked from camp to camp, four in total, on his way to the summit. The window to summit Everest is short. Because of the intense weather at the top, it’s usually only safe for a week in May. This year, the window was even smaller: just about a day.

On the day of May 22, Hartman’s guides told him it was time to go. They would leave base camp that night, hoping to arrive at the summit at dawn. The mood in the camp was tense and tired, punctuated by the ripples of adrenaline as climbers anticipated the night.

Hartman’s group left at 7:30 p.m., hiking in near darkness for hours with only their head lamps for scant illumination. As the sun rose, Hartman saw the huge queue of hundreds of people trying to get up the mountain. The death zone was packed — and the slowdown was catastrophic.

“I start to realize a big part of what’s causing this traffic jam is that people are limp, lifeless on ground, being dragged back down by their Sherpas,” he said.

Not all the climbers made it down alive. Some died where they lay: along the fixed rope laid out on the ridge.

“My carabiner’s attached to this rope, and I have to bend down and almost come face-to-face with a body in clothes just like me, with brands of companies like mine on their jackets, and unclip around them,” Hartman said.

“It really felt like a horror show of these frozen bodies.”

It was a mad scramble to the top before oxygen deprivation and frostbite set in. Once at the summit, Hartman took a few quick photos before his guide told him they needed to leave.

“I had hoped to have even a few minutes on the summit to savor the moment and the accomplishment, but I didn’t have that,” he said. “The fear, the freezing cold, the crowds. I was in survival mode, and I think almost everyone else was too.”

Back home, Hartman’s friends and family heard the news: People were dying on the mountain. Luckily, Hartman says, he traveled with a well-regarded company, International Mountain Guides, which equips its guides with radios. Although Hartman’s family couldn’t talk to him directly, they were able to get reports back from IMG, alleviating a bit of their worry.

Some experts fear less reputable companies — and less experienced climbers — contributed to the number of fatalities seen this year. As mounting Everest becomes more popular, more mountaineering novices are attempting the climb. With the line between life and death so thin, any mistake can be deadly. And there is no minimum fitness or experience requirement to obtain a climbing permit.

“The major problem is inexperience, not only of the climbers that are on the mountain but also the operators supporting those climbers,” veteran climber David Morton told CNN. “Everest is primarily a very complicated logistical puzzle and I think when you have a lot of inexperienced operators as well inexperienced climbers along with, particularly, the Nepal government not putting some limitations on the numbers of people, you have a prime recipe for these sorts of situations happening.”

So far, 11 people have died on Everest this season.

Although the experience was clearly troubling for Hartman, he says it hasn’t diminished his love of mountaineering or the profundity of his achievement.

“For me, it felt significant to be a gay man on the mountain,” he said. “I haven’t met many LGBT mountaineers and actually encountered some homophobia on the mountain, which was part of the many challenges I had to work through in my 60 days. I certainly hope that, while I’m not the only one, the courage of folks like me … helps pave the way for others.”

He’ll fly home soon (“More than anything I owe it to my friends and family, who have been very nervous for the last two months, to come home and spend time with them”) and rest his exhausted body. Hartman says he lost 25 pounds, about 15% of his body weight, during the trek. He’s also thinking of more mountains he hopes to climb — although a repeat trip to Everest won’t be one of them.

“The trek to base camp comes at a fraction of the risk. And I think for many, that would be worth it,” he said. “I certainly will never climb it again.”

When asked if he would recommend the journey to anyone, Hartman paused to collect his thoughts.

“If anyone I cared about asked me if they should climb Everest, I would have a very serious conversation with them about the risk and really make sure it was worth it to them to potentially die on the mountain,” he said after a while.

“I think my knee-jerk reaction to anyone who asked me is no. I cannot recommend climbing Everest unless you’re prepared to sacrifice a lot to do it.”

Katie Dowd is the SFGATE senior manager. Send her news tips at katie.dowd@sfgate.com.

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/everest-traffic-jam-may-2019-woody-hartman-13901485.php.

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