Re-entry from the top of the world can be an ordeal in itself. Kay LeClaire could barely drive her car when she arrived in Spokane on June 2 from an expedition to Mount Everest. “Even 20 mph seems very, very fast,” she said after two months at a pace that often required three breaths for every step.
Having departed March 29 for Nepal, her South Hill yard was looking rough from springtime neglect.
“My husband (Jerry) isn’t big on maintaining the plants,” she joked this week, recruiting her son and daughter-in-law to catch up on weeding and pruning.
She continued to be nagged by a “Khumbu cough” she’d picked up at dizzying heights. Her one-piece down-filled suit, double climbing boots and other specialized equipment were still scattered on the basement floor.
A huge duffle was half full of gear that had been packed during an urgent pre-dawn departure from base camp. She had to slog through three feet of snow with another few feet still to come just three days after she had stood on Everest’s 29,035-foot summit.
But even yard work was something to relish for the former competitive ballroom dancer after nine weeks of sleeping on the ground, bathing with a pan of snowmelt and going potty in a bag.
“The first thing you miss as you approach Everest is the smell of greenery,” she said.
“When you get down and get your appetite back, you crave things. I went right out and bought a salmon.”
Climbing Everest burned 8 pounds off her already lean 5-foot-3 frame, leaving her a sprite 116 pounds.
Fellow Spokane climber Dawes Eddy lost 10 pounds off his 130-pound frame. “I’m still tired,” he said this week.
By coincidence, Eddy and LeClaire reached the summit three days apart with separate expeditions.
They left the mountain with the distinction of being the second oldest U.S. man and woman to climb Everest and return alive.
The two climbers had booked with companies that charge $50,000-$65,000 – the going rate for a guided Everest attempt. Even at that price, the outfitters cannot guarantee a summit.
“There’s no way I could have done this without the help of the Sherpa guides; they put up the ropes, carried the loads and kept me going when I thought I could go no farther, up or down,” LeClaire said with no hesitation. “They are phenomenal at high altitude. I was not.”
Neither LeClaire nor Eddy pretends to have the technical climbing skills of John Roskelley, Chris Kopczynski or the late Kim Momb – the local climbers who navigated their own routes and pounded their own pitons on the world’s highest peaks. Their mountain craft brought international notoriety to Spokane, especially in the 1970s and 80s.
Nevertheless, climbing Everest is a world-class grunt. Only a small percentage of people can endure the ordeal and the altitude, guided or unguided.
Danger looms virtually every day as climbers yo-yo the mountain, gradually going higher with each pulse to acclimate with the rarified air.
Each up and down subjects climbers to Everest’s wrath. Crumbling ice, falling rock, cavernous crevasses, savage avalanches and extreme cold are constant threats.
“We heard avalanches or rockfall all the time at base camp,” LeClaire said. “When you’re climbing, there are few places where it’s safe to stop, so they keep you moving.”
LeClaire’s group of 12 clients was steadily pruned as Everest took its toll. One climber was too slow and had to be turned around at Camp 3. A climber with frostbite on all of his fingers had to be evacuated with another climber who was suffering from pulmonary edema.
LeClaire had a fitful rest on summit day.
“I’d lie there waiting. I’d hear the wind blow and go ‘Oh, no.’ A Sherpa would reach in the tent occasionally to check our oxygen flow. I can’t even remember eating breakfast.
“It was like being overnight in a hospital. Things are fuzzy in my mind.”
The remainder of LeClaire’s group began the last push to the summit starting at 10:30 p.m. from Camp 4 at 26,300 feet.
They ascended the steepest sections using devices attached to their harnesses that would slide up the fixed ropes but clamp and prevent them from sliding down should they fall.
Still, a screw-up going around a rope anchor could be deadly, with no chance for a body recovery.
LeClaire breathed oxygen from the 8-pound bottle in her pack. She had no appetite, but snacked on Peanut M&Ms and Hammer Gel stashed in her pockets.
“My climbing Sherpa would pull my oxygen mask down every now and then and squirt drinks or GU in my mouth,” she said. “I felt like a chick being fed by a momma bird.”
After climbing through the night and nearing the south summit, a climber in her group had to be led back because of snow blindness while another climber and even the lead guide had to turn around because of intestinal problems.
“I’d been climbing for weeks and was always looking up at the mountains,” LeClaire said. “But then Nuptse, Makalu, all those peaks that looked so tall before, were suddenly below me. All but one.”
Finally, she stood, kneeled, prayed with her Sherpa guide and rejoiced on the summit for 10 minutes before heading down to complete a 15-hour roundtrip to Camp 4. Base camp was still another two days of danger and down-climbing away.
Even the best climbers need luck to succeed on the world’s highest peaks. Six climbers died on Everest this spring, and LeClaire and Eddy both crossed the path of an avalanche that had killed a Sherpa.
“I realize how dangerous this is all the time,” LeClaire said. “At times, it’s just terrifying. You weep because you feel so sorry for this climber and his family.
“Then you hope.
“Then you go on.”