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Snoqualmie man climbs Everest solo, descends blind

Brian Dickinson raises his goggles in a self-snapped portrait, 6 a.m. May 15 on the summit of Everest. Moments later, he became snowblind. - Courtesy Photo
Brian Dickinson raises his goggles in a self-snapped portrait, 6 a.m. May 15 on the summit of Everest. Moments later, he became snowblind.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

His vision a blur, his oxygen running out, alone on the frozen roof of the world, Brian Dickinson knew how easy it would have been to lie down and die.

But giving up was never an option for the Snoqualmie mountaineer.

“It would have been peaceful to close my eyes,” he said. But to dally would have meant death, and Dickinson knew that, too. Instead, a miracle happened, and Dickinson managed to get back on his feet, surviving to tell his tale and continue a global quest.

That day, Sunday, May 15, Dickinson, a married father of two and software engineer for Cisco Systems by day, had performed a rare solo summit of the 29,000-foot peak, overcoming challenge after challenge.

Going up

Dickinson is on a mission to climb the world’s seven highest peaks. He had already summited Mount Elbrus in Russia, Kilimanjaro in Africa and Mount McKinley in Alaska before beginning his two-month ordeal in Nepal.

Dickinson is doing more than just climbing. In each country that he visits, Dickinson makes a point of visiting an orphanage, distributing gifts and acting as an ambassador from a prosperous nation. He tries to bring a positive moment to the orphans’ hard young lives.

On this journey, he visited a early childhood development center in Kathmandu.

“In Nepal, when parents go to prison, they bring their children with them,” he said. “These kids were born in prison.” They now learn life skills at the orphanage.

“It’s a really cool place,” Dickinson said. To him, it’s important for the children “just to have some random person—they’ve probably never seen someone from the U.S.—delivering toys,” and showing they care.

Arriving by plane at Everest, he landed at the Tenzig-Hillary Airport in the town of Lukla, at 9,100 feet elevation. From, there it was a 35-mile hike to base camp. Dickinson spent more than a month moving up the mountain camps, acclimatizing himself to the elevation and waiting for safe weather conditions.

“You climb high, sleep low,” Dickinson said. “That allows your body to produce the right amount of red blood cells.”

Mount Everest is so high, it creates its own weather system. Nighttime temperatures run to minus-20 degrees, and during the day, glare from the ice can meant ambient temperatures in the 90s.

Not all adventurers are able to summit, and the conditions make for a number of deaths among the mountaineers every year.

A thin, muscular man, Dickinson lost about 10 pounds from the exertion.

Things get toughest in the “Death Zone” above 26,000 feet, where the air is so thin that the body deteriorates, and where savage storms and climbing accidents can be fatal.

That was where Dickinson found himself alone, attempting to summit during a nighttime ascent with his Sherpa, Pasang. The Nepalese guide, who had summitted three times, started vomiting and was too sick to continue after 28,000 feet.

“I was feeling strong,” said Dickinson, a former Navy rescue swimmer. “I wasn’t feeling the altitude.”

Pasang stashed a spare oxygen bottle along the trail, then headed downhill, while Dickinson trekked the final thousand feet. He was nearing the summit when the dawn broke, and snapped a photo of the pyramidal shadow of Everest stretching west over the Himalayas.

Then he moved to the true summit, marked with Buddhist prayer flags. To get there, he threaded a razor-edged ridge a few feet wide, with two-mile drops on both sides.

The path to the top is lined with rope lines left behind by explorers. In lower places as thick as dreadlocks, in Dickinson’s phrase, the lines get sparser as you go higher.

At the top, Dickinson took a moment to reflect.

“I’m thinking ‘I’m the only person on Everest. How many people have actually done that?’”

In his blog of the experience, Dickinson writes, “as I took my final steps to the top, tears of joy streamed down my face as the entire journey flashed through my mind (physical, mental and emotional preparation, saying goodbye to my kids, JoAnna running through the airport to give me one last kiss.”

He called back to base camp to report the achievement, and heard the roar of cheers over the radio.

Blind descent

Knowing it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, Dickinson spent an hour atop the peak, snapping photos and taking in the view. But as the sun rose higher, his vision began to fail. The worsening blur in his sunburned eyes made Dickinson realize he was snow-blind.

“I didn’t panic,” he said. “I realized I’m the highest person in the world right now. I’m blind. There’s no one coming to rescue me. I have to get down. I promised my family and kids.”

It can take about 24 hours for snowblindness to go away. Squinting, Dickinson could only make out blurs. He had to rely on his other senses to climb down from the summit.

“It was hand over hand, one foot at a time,” he said. “It should have taken me three hours to get down. No one heard from me for seven. Everyone thought I was dead.”

More challenges awaited. During one steep section, the crampon for one of his boots fell off. Dickinson watched the blurry boot spikes slide down the hill. Moments later, he lost purchase himself, tumbling for several feet until a safety rope stopped him, saving his life.

To retrieve the crampon, he had to climb back up, a terrific ordeal at that height and his level of exhaustion.

“Every foot is torment,” he remembered.

Next, part of the hillside gave way, and Dickinson had to grab onto a rope to stop his fall, feeling the friction burn his hand through the leather glove.

Eventually, he reached the point where he and Pasang separated. Low on oxygen, he found the spare bottle, but the frozen tank wouldn’t connect to his system. Low on oxygen, Dickinson became frustrated, knowing his time was running out.

“At one point, I start yelling, “I will not die on this mountain!” before realizing that the screaming just wastes energy.

Yards later, Dickinson realized he was suffocating.

“I’m out of oxygen. I’m going to die. This is it.” Dickinson made a prayer, then tried his spare oxygen bottle.

“It was an instant miracle,” he said. “Right away, the indicator goes to positive. I see the blur move. I had life.”

Still fatigued, Dickinson found the energy to start rapelling down the mountain.

In his sorry state, the rocks seem to be coming to life. He wondered whether he didn’t actually die on the trek.

“Out of nowhere, Pasang shows up,” Dickinson said. The Sherpa rushed to embrace him. Dickinson realized he would be safe. Helped back to camp, he slept for 15 hours. The next day, he, Pasang and fellow climber Dennis Broadwell navigated the route back down the mountain.

More travels

Dickinson—who, with his wife JoAnna, a counseling center manager at Church on the Ridge, has two children, Emily, 7, and Jordan, 4— spoke about Everest at Snoqualmie Elementary last Monday.

Next February, Dickinson plans to climb Antarctica’s 16,000-foot Vincent Massif, the coldest place in the world.  Still on his list: the 22,000 foot Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak in the Americas, and the 16,000-foot Carstensz Pyramid of Papua-New Guinea.

To prepare himself, Dickinson regularly climbs 14,000-foot Mount Rainier and is a frequent summiter of 4,000-foot Mount Si.

Dickinson would like to return to Everest some day, this time with his family. He’d like to see his children absorb some of the culture of the Sherpas.

“They have nothing, just basics,” he said. “Their value system is something that a lot of people take for granted.”

• You can read a blog containing Dickinson's full account of the summit and descent at http://www.climbing.com/exclusive/readerblogs/brian_dickinson/brian_dickinson_-_reader_blog_16/

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