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Georgina Miranda

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Everest: Summit, at What Cost?

Posted: 07/12/11 02:44 PM ET

After three hours of restless sleep, I rose at 3 am to pack up my gear, test my oxygen mask, and start the ascent to the South Col (26,000 ft.), the fourth and final camp before the summit of Everest.

This particular climb posed many new challenges. For one, you have to climb with an oxygen mask because you are inching your way toward what is called the "Death Zone," an altitude, generally at 26,000 ft., where your body begins to deteriorate because of a lack of oxygen. Without artificial oxygen, our bodies cannot survive at this height, and even with it we can only make it at that altitude for a short period of time.

When I first started climbing with my mask on, I thought I was suffocating. I kept moving it away from my face for a gulp of fresh air only to sip something that felt nonexistent. As I struggled to breathe, it took every bit of mental focus and strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I had to recite little mantras of encouragement: "You are on Everest! This is what you have dreamed of, you are living the dream!"

I also thought about the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) -- who I was climbing for as part of my campaign to climb the seven summits -- and the incredible resilience they show every day, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. With images of them in my head, I kept going.

After traversing some 100 meters of the Yellow Band on the Lhotse Face, and scrambling 150 feet of snow-covered rock at the Geneva Spur, I caught my first up-close glimpse of Everest. I was exhausted, but fulfilled and ecstatic at how far I had come. For three years, I had been training and planning for the next 24 hours. I was here!

Once in the "Dead Zone" at the South Col, even the tiniest tasks take ages to complete. You're so depleted of oxygen that even your ability to make decisions and feel fully mentally aware is compromised. Because of the toll it takes on your body, the original plan was to start the summit that night, but because of high winds, we were forced to stay another night at the South Col, hooked up to our oxygen tanks.

I felt great when I left the South Col the night of May 12, but about three hours into the climb, the lack of oxygen started to take a crippling toll. My stomach started to cramp up, and I collapsed. Like an instinct, my inner voice told me to keep going, so I got up and pushed through only to collapse again an hour later. Finally, five hours into the summit bid, it happened again, but this time just below the Balcony of Everest (27,500 ft.). I had lost consciousness for a few seconds and when I opened my eyes I saw that I was down, holding onto the rope with my jumar, body against the icy slope.

I lay there for what felt like ages, debating what to do. I saw a stream of headlamps coming up the slope behind me. One by one, 15 or so climbers passed me; only one asked me if I was ok. I felt so alone, doubting that anyone would -- or could -- compromise their summit bid to help me if I really needed it. I knew that if I fainted again past the Balcony, I could fall off the exposed ridge and not only jeopardize my life, but other climbers as well. I asked myself if I was willing to possibly die that day for the sake of reaching the top, and to be a huge step closer to conquering all seven summits.

The answer came immediately: no.

At six or seven hours from my goal, I choked back tears as I told my sherpa I had to turn around. To give up my dream, then and there, was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make.

We headed down and my health continued to deteriorate. I continued to have sharp stomach pains and my digestive track completely shut down, emptying into my down-suit. But I had to push on. Thankfully, I made it back to the South Col at around 3 am.

Before going to sleep, I called my best friend, Trisha, and Crystal from International Medical Corps and left frantic messages. Crying and exhausted, I gave them the news that I could not yet believe myself: "I did not make it. I am so sorry."

I felt like I had let so many people down with my failed summit, not just myself. Right then, huddled in my tent, I vowed I would someday come back. I woke up at 6:30 am to our sherpas ushering me to get up and start our descent. I did not feel like I had the strength to climb all the way down to Camp 2, back over the Geneva Spur, Yellow Band, and Lhotse Face. It took me eight clumsy hours with only a half-liter of water, but I did it, and again for seven hours the next day down to Base Camp.

Once at Base Camp, I saw a doctor who said that I had suffered from Hypoxia, where the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply. When this happens, your body thinks that it is dying and starts to shut off oxygen to non-vital organs. For me, it was my stomach and intestinal tract. Thankfully, unlike a climber just days before me, my body did not cut off oxygen to my brain, and I would have no lasting conditions as a result of the Hypoxia.

When I was in the ER tent at Base Camp, an Australian climber was carried in with snow blindness and severe frostbite on his hands and feet. He had summited. His friends were all congratulating him, but he stopped them: "Well, yes, I summited, but I was blind by the time I got up there and could not see, and now I will lose fingers and toes as a result. I am not sure if congratulations are in order."

My heart broke for him. I felt a rush of gratitude that I had made it back safely without a single life-altering injury. I could still climb and Everest would always be here for a second try.

Now back home in San Francisco, I feel blessed to have gone on this remarkable journey, to have pushed myself to my ultimate limits both mentally and physically, and to be alive and healthy. Everest left an imprint on me and I will never be the same again. I am reminded of it each time I look in the mirror and see my "Everest Tattoo," a scar across my cheek from wind burn on the night of my summit climb.

But while the scar should fade in six months, the memory of Everest, the desire to go back, and inspiration that the women and children of DRC bring to me every day will never disappear. And for that, I am eternally thankful.

Thank you to my employer, McKinney Rogers, for helping make this journey possible, and to my website sponsor, Ning. I will continue on my pursuit to climb all seven summit for the women of DRC. To contribute to my campaign, please visit www.climbtakeaction.com. All donations are tax-deductible and 100 percent of your contributions will go directly to International Medical Corps and VDAY and their courageous efforts in DRC.