- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - It takes a long time to get to the top of the tallest mountain of the world.

The nearly 39-mile trek from Lukla, Nepal, to the base of Mount Everest can take from eight days to nearly two weeks. Getting to the summit takes another four to six weeks of breathless climbing and multiple passes through one of the most deadly and dangerous spots on the mountain.

The swiftest groups - pre-acclimatized and kissed by good luck with a well-timed weather opening - make it from Lukla to the peak of the 29,029-foot mountain in four weeks. Ellen Gallant hopes to make it in about seven, by her 51st birthday on May 16.

But if she’s honest about it, it’s taken her 15 years to get here.

“In my life it’s about pushing my limits and finding where I cry ‘uncle,’” Gallant said. “I start with running 10Ks and I move to marathons and I move to triathlons and then Ironman triathlons. I’m pushing the limit to see where I reach my limit in terms of what I’m physically capable of.”

Gallant has faced this mountain three times before - the first, a trip that launched a love for Nepal, mountaineering and the mountain itself. The other two treks to the mountain, taken in the spring of 2014 and 2015, were marred by such severe tragedy that she returned to the states with nightmares of what she’d seen.

Gallant, a cardiologist and mountaineer, twice switched from hopeful climber to working doctor, triaging the wounded and identifying those killed by an avalanche. She’s seen the mountain swallow men whole.

That’s why she’s going back. She doesn’t want to remember Everest as a place of tragedy.

“I feel like I can’t leave things the way I did in ‘15,” she said. “I got to give it one last go.”

FIRST CLIMB IN THE TETONS

The first mountain Gallant ever climbed was the Grand Teton.

She was working in Austin, Texas, at the time, and a friend suggested they take a trip to Jackson. She’d never even been in a climbing gym, but she’s always been someone who likes to push herself. The two took an Exum climbing course and summited the peak in the summer of 2000.

After that she was always trying to find her way back.

“It’s always been about trying to find a way to live here,” Gallant said. “It was 15 years or so of trying to get to Jackson.”

Gallant landed a job in the community in 2015, coming on as a cardiologist at St. John’s Medical Center. By that time her love for mountaineering had also solidified, starting with a trip to the Himalayas in 2002 that first set her sights on Everest.

She had traveled to Cambodia and Thailand with a group of friends, but branched off on her own to Nepal, wanting to take the trek up the Khumbu Valley to Everest base camp.

“It was incredible running around camp, seeing all these interesting people,” she said.

On the trip back she stopped at Gorak Shep, a small settlement along the trekking route. She spent the night, and in the morning plopped down at a big picnic table with a bunch of other women for breakfast. The women turned out to be a group of American climbers, assembled for the first all-female expedition up Everest.

“Literally, it was this 30-minute breakfast with these women and they talked to me about climbing, why they loved it,” Gallant said, “and it just absolutely changed my life.”

She climbed Mount Rainier in Washington the following fall.

“It was my first time on crampons, first time with an ice ax,” she said. “Since then it’s been about getting back to Everest, being worthy of the mountain and being ready and trained.”

She’s since climbed Rainier eight times by five routes. She’s climbed the Grand six times, the Matterhorn, a 14,692-foot peak straddling the borders of Switzerland and Italy, and Cho Oyu in Tibet, the sixth highest mountain in the world at 26,864 feet. She’s summited three of the “Seven Summits,” named for being the highest mountains on each of the seven continents - Aconcagua in Argentina, Denali in Alaska and Mount Vinson in Antarctica.

“I’ve been lucky to climb all over the world, beautiful mountains,” Gallant said. “But it’s always in the back of my head: Everest. I want to know if I’m capable of standing at 29,000 feet. And I just don’t know the answer.”

ATTEMPTING TO SUMMIT

Gallant knew she wanted to make an attempt at a summit in the spring of 2014, but she also knew it would mean sacrifice. One of the first was leaving a practice of eight cardiologists. She spent the final months of 2013 and the first few of 2014 focused on training, and left for Kathmandu in March of 2014.

The acclimatization process included climbing Lobuche, a nearby mountain, before starting rotations up Everest. In April, her team planned a rotation through the Khumbu Icefall, but decided to wait another day because one member of the party was having trouble with the altitude.

The sound when the ice avalanche released was the loudest thing Gallant had ever heard.

“When I heard it I unzipped my tent, looked toward the West shoulder and saw this ice release coming,” she said. “It seemed like it went on for a minute or two.”

There were a lot of Sherpas, people native to Nepal, in the icefall that day, backed up because one of the ladders used to cross was out.

Gallant threw clothes on and ran out to see what had happened. A Western guide equipped with a radio intercepted her, and pointed her to “Everest ER,” a medical tent set up at base camp.

“This is really bad,” he told her.

Sixteen men were killed and buried in the avalanche. Dozens of others were injured.

“We had a number of walking wounded who came in,” she said. “We had five or six folks who were helicoptered to us in critical condition, and then there were 16 men buried.”

After treating the patients in the tent, Gallant was called to the helipad, where climbers had been working to get the bodies out from the ice.

“There’s this belief in Buddhism that the families need the bodies to allow reincarnation,” she said. “So these amazing Sherpas, these amazing Western climbers stayed there in harm’s way to dig out these men.”

She stood with other climbers as helicopters long-lined the dead from the icefall to base camp, where they were unclipped, placed under a blue tarp and photographed with an iPhone. She scrolled through her phone with sirdars - lead Sherpas - showing them pictures of the dead, asking for identification.

“It was just this horrifying thing that still lives in my brain,” she said.

The mountain closed to climbing after the disaster and Gallant made her way back to the states. She returned the next spring, ready to face the mountain again.

“I wasn’t ready to give up just yet,” she said.

SECOND ATTEMPT AT A SUMMIT

Gallant returned to Everest in 2015 with a new team. They acclimatized as they had before, climbing Lobuche, starting rotations up to camps one, two and three.

The group had one last rotation up to camp three planned, and then they’d be waiting for their weather window for the summit.

A little before lunchtime on April the rumbling started. She unzipped her tent and looked toward Pumori and Lingtren, two mountains west of Everest, across the Khumbu Valley.

“It was the earthquake happening,” she said. “By the time I unzipped and looked, there was this massive avalanche coming toward us.”

The quake registered at 7.8 on the Richter scale, triggering massive ice and snow avalanches on Pumori and Lingtren.

“It wasn’t a typical avalanche,” Gallant said. “If I’m in the backcountry, I get buried. That’s not what happened. Because of the geology and how long and skinny the valley is, the earthquake triggered the avalanche that then led to an air blast.

“What killed and injured people was blunt-force trauma,” she said. “It was 16-pound propane tanks being thrown across camp.”

Gallant was thrown on her face into her face in her tent, knocking out her left front tooth. Bleeding from her mouth, she shoved the tooth back in and rushed to find the other doctors on site. Two tents were set up, one for head injuries and long-bone fractures, the other for internal injuries. They split up the work, each taking a dozen patients to look over.

She made rounds aside Dr. Ritesh Goel, a doctor with the Indian army. Together they injected doses of Decadron, a steroid that reduces cerebral swelling, and parceled out pain meds they’d collected from other climbers.

“In the states all of these patients would be an IV going and saline and pain meds, and we just didn’t have it,” she said. “Everyone in camp, whatever drugs they had, just gave them to us. We basically did what we could.”

Around 2 a.m. a Sherpa brought her a sleeping bag. She was exhausted and she needed to sleep.

“I tried to lie down on the ground and it was completely soaked with blood,” she said. “I remember the smell - that sort of iron smell of blood - and I couldn’t take it. All of these men, all of these incredible Sherpa who were so critically injured, they’re lying in this blood-soaked carpet.”

Two hours later a Sherpa was brought in unconscious. Soon after that his breathing became shallow and his pulse weak.

“There was really nothing to do,” Gallant said, tears coming to her eyes. “I sat down next to him, held his hand and knew he was about to die.”

Ritesh held a stethoscope to his chest and confirmed the silence. Together they placed his body in a sleeping bag, duct-taped the ends and tagged it with a time of death.

“I later found out that he was in his late 30s, he guided for one of the local Nepali companies and he had three kids,” she said. “And he was there because of us. He was there because he was a Sherpa climbing with us. Things like that just vividly live in my memory at this point.”

GOING BACK TO THE MOUNTAIN

In many ways preparing to head back to Everest for a third attempt at the summit feels familiar.

Gallant spent months sleeping in a high-altitude tent, a chamber that replaces oxygen with nitrogen to create an oxygen-deprived environment similar to what she’ll face on Everest. Since October she’s been sleeping above 8,000 feet, most recently spending most nights at 18,000 feet. On weekends she has been climbing into the tent and setting it to 23,000 feet to watch “movies that I don’t have to think very hard about.”

She spent her evenings and weekends hiking the bootpack up Snow King and Mount Glory in crampons, hauling a 40-pound bag of cat litter. She spent mornings cycling on her road bike, set up on a trainer in her living room, watching CNN with a hypoxic mask strapped to her face and a pulse oximeter on her index finger to measure her oxygen saturation.

She had a personal trainer asking her to smash tires with 25-pound sledge hammers and a massage therapist helping prevent another tear to her hamstring, an injury she suffered in 2015. Again she resigned, leaving her position at St. John’s so she can return to Nepal.

A lot of the preparation has been the same. Though mentally, it’s a different journey back.

YOU’RE NOT IN CONTROL

“In ‘14 and ‘15, I was so sure I was going to make it - no question about it. I was ready, nothing was going to stop me. And two major disasters happened. What I took away is that I’m not in control of everything. That is probably a good lesson for life. I’m just going into this in a very different, quieter mindset this year.”

She wears a red prayer cord around her neck, a gift she hasn’t removed since it was given to her by a monk at the Tengboche Monastery as she was hiking out from base camp after the 2015 earthquake.

She holds this blessing, along with notes she’s received from people all over the world, close to her heart. She reads the letters often, like the one she received from a Sherpa who wrote her in August 2015. The mountaineer had lost a cousin and several friends in the earthquake.

“Sherpa are Buddhists by religion and our faith is deeply rooted in karma - as you sow, so shall you reap. So, Ellen, karma is like a mirror and your good karma will someday reflect back with good consequences, for sure,” she read, choking up a few times. “I on behalf of the people of Nepal and all climbing Sherpas, would like pay my highest gratitude for your wonderful contribution to save the victims and survivors of the avalanche tragedy both this year and in 2014.”

“After ‘14 and even more so in ‘15, I kind of felt like a failure. I go twice, I quit a job for 2014 to train. And the thing that I found most humbling was messages like this,” Gallant said. “It was good friends who said that what I ended up doing was what I was meant to do.”

She knows she might again fail to reach the summit. And for everything the mountain, the people and the place have given her, she has plans to give back, regardless of what happens. She aims to become more involved with dZi Foundation, established to improve the health and lives of remote communities in Nepal, and One Heart World-Wide, a Nepalese-based nonprofit aimed at preventing mother and child deaths caused by complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

Even if she never gets to the top of Everest, a piece of her heart will always be in the Himalayas. This year she’s looking to offer that piece a little healing.

“The way I’m going into this is I’ve done everything I can. I’ve trained as hard as I can and I’m mentally prepared and I still don’t know. I still don’t know if I can do it. I think so much of it is the mountain goddess deciding. Just very quietly and humbly I’m going into this, and we’ll just see how it happens.”

___

Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, https://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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