A life lived and lost on Mount Everest
Shriya Shah, a Nepal-born Toronto woman shown here in a picture from her website, died while descending from the summit of Mount Everest on the weekend.
Published Thursday, May 24, 2012 5:31PM EDT
Beyond the end of the tree line where the jagged landscape drains of colour is a dusty clearing on a Nepal mountain ridge marked by piled stones and prayer flags that are whipped and weathered by the wind.
The climber's memorial, as it is known, is an eerily quiet and solitary place. It rises after a steep climb past the point where any human or animal can survive year-round. The air is thin and dry and afternoon clouds somersault up from the Lobuche valley. It is where every trekker or mountaineer lured to Mount Everest stops to pay homage to those who followed the same humbling path before but did not make the journey back.
Shriya Shah-Klorfine and her expedition mates would have passed the memorial weeks ago on their way to base camp to acclimatize for their eventual bid to summit what one writer aptly describes as, "the most iconic mountain on Earth".
There are stones and plaques to fallen sherpas and climbers like Scott Fischer, an experienced climbing guide who died with seven others in a snowstorm in 1996. It was Everest's deadliest day, relived in the book, "Into Thin Air" and eventually made into a movie of the same title.
It is dangerous and treacherous and the weather can be swift in its betrayal yet standing for a moment at the top of the world is inarguably a great feat. Mount Everest has captured the imagination of humankind for so long because it took so long for humankind to finally scale it. People since feel hooked by adventure or the exclusivity of its achievement or feel spiritually drawn to experience a place so few have traveled.
Like many mountain enthusiasts, I did the trek to Mount Everest base camp with my husband last year, reaching the edge of the Khumbu glacier. To even look to the summit of Everest from its slope is breathtaking. I remember thinking, "it doesn't get any higher than that" and then I said it out loud because I felt like I had earned it. That we were so far removed from the rest of the planet -- days away from an airstrip and two weeks walk from the nearest road -- felt exhilarating in its own way and before leaving base camp we stretched a set of prayer flags between two rocks in memory of our dear friend who had died just months before.
It was that sort of personal wonder, of being captivated, that Shriya Shah-Klorfine telegraphed in an interview before leaving Canada for Nepal. She said she was nine years old when she first saw Mount Everest from an airplane and decided that one day she would climb it. "I'm doing this because I wanted to give a message: Follow your dream," she told OMNI Television, "You have one life. Live your life."
Hers would ultimately be short-lived.
The way witnesses tell it Shah-Klorfine set out with a rush of climbers who had been waiting days in camp for the weather to clear. It was already widely known that this has been a dismal climbing season on Everest and the windows of opportunity to summit have been few and limited. Some expeditions outright canceled citing the dangerous combination of too little snowfall and too many climbers. Still, Shah-Klorfine saw it as her moment. She donned her red-and-white down suit emblazoned with a maple leaf. She had spent nearly $100,000 to that point and worked out every day to be in ready physical condition.
But a marathon runner or a professional athlete or even an experienced climber cannot know how their body will react at high altitude. The symptoms of sickness -- headaches, dizziness, nausea, lethargy -- can start after 4,000 meters and the summit of Everest is at 8,848 meters.
Higher altitude means less oxygen; a climber is easily fatigued. Illness worsens to confusion and loss of appetite to cerebral edema where the brain swells and stops working. Medical studies have shown it to be the leading cause of death among climbers on Mount Everest.
According to witnesses who saw her, Shah-Klorfine started from the South Col at 7,900 meters at about 8:30 pm on May 18th and tired quickly. She was struggling with every step and consuming several bottles of oxygen. Sherpas leading her and other clients from outfitter "Happy Feet" urged her to turn back; she refused and signaled that she had to keep going. She did, and it is believed she reached the summit sometime after 2:30pm on May 19th.
Several hours later they had apparently descended to the edge of the Southeast Ridge and that is where Shah-Klorfine's last oxygen bottle ran out, apparently her ninth. Outside Magazine collected this information from sherpas and other witnesses at base camp about what happened next:
Temba and Dawa Dendi rigged up a rescue rope and attempted to lower her down the Triangular Face, the last major slope before descending climbers reach the safety of Camp IV, at 7,900 meters on the South Col. But at 10 p.m, still with climbers behind her, she collapsed a few meters away from the body of guide Scott Fischer, who died during the 1996 Everest disaster. Her Sherpas couldn't revive her. Dawa Dendi took the camera from Shah's pocket—the same one she'd used to record her summit photos only hours before. The following day, he returned and photographed her body. Only a few eerie frames separate the triumphant summit photos and the crumpled figure draped in a Canadian flag.
Three other climbers died the same day, a toll blamed not on weather or the will of the mountain but human error. Time is crucial to survival on Everest; climbers must summit no later than 2:00pm to ensure they return to camp safely. Yet the traffic jam of people waiting in line to edge along the route looked more like the queue outside a nightclub on its busiest night.
Shriya Shah-Klorfine was 33 years old. (Slide #10 is a picture of her when she summited Everest)
In a few days when the weather is clear again a team of sherpas will attempt to recover her body. And soon, when a trekker or mountaineer passes through the climber's memorial, where the wind carries the clouds from the valley, there will more piled stones and prayer flags on the ridge to remember a young woman who nurtured an idea and eventually lived it.