Life or Death Decision: Ex-UCSB Swimmer Gave up Everest Quest to Rescue Fellow Climbers
June 30, 2006
by Mark Patton News-Press Staff Writer
Petit Pinson sees the world differently than most. It is often from the upside down viewpoint of a handstand.
And once, it was nearly from "the roof of the world."
She could have made it all the way, too, if her trek to the summit of 29,035-foot Mount Everest had not turned into a rescue effort just 1,635 feet from the top.
Memories of that fateful journey three years ago -- of sharing her dwindling oxygen supply while nursing a stricken climber -- came jarring back to the former UCSB swimmer with last month's chilling story from Everest:
As British climber David Sharp sat dying in a snow cave, in desperate need of help, 40 people made a much different choice than Ms. Pinson. They walked right past him on their way to the top.
"That definitely brought me back to that moment," she said. "I guess I wasn't surprised, though, unfortunately. It didn't surprise me that people would leave someone to die like that.
"It's just the type of world that it is up there."
Ms. Pinson, 36, graduated from UCSB in 1991 with a degree in English literature. She swam the 100- and 200-meter freestyle for the Gauchos.
"Everybody loved her," coach Gregg Wilson recalled. "She was a good swimmer, but more than that, she was just a great kid. When I heard what she did up there, I wasn't surprised."
A TASTE FOR ADVENTURE
Ms. Pinson became an outdoor educator and guide after returning to her hometown of Three Rivers, right in the lap of California's Sierra Nevada. Sequoia National Park had once been her playground. Adventure was a family ritual. Her father, Allen Pinson, who passed away in January, was the original stunt double for Hollywood's Lone Ranger.
"He had all these stories of doing really crazy stuff, all over the world," Ms. Pinson said. "It was so much fun growing up there, and my parents were so supportive of the things I wanted to do. That had a lot to do with finding the courage to do this."
Her journey to the Himalayas began when she answered a magazine advertisement for a contest called "Global Extremes." Five people would be chosen from an original application pool of 800 to climb Everest for a reality TV show on the Outdoor Life Network.
The competition took 50 of them to Moab, Utah. The group was whittled to 24 by the time they reached Aspen, Colo., and was then reduced to 12 as the contest continued on to South Africa, Costa Rica and Iceland.
"A lot of what we did in South Africa was adventure racing -- climbing and rappelling and kayaking," she said. "In Costa Rica, we raced from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Coast on mountain bike and on foot, with a lot of map and compass and route-finding.
"Iceland was all about glacier crossing and ice traversing."
The entire adventure -- from the Rockies to the Himalayas -- took six months.
Ms. Pinson's boundless spirit got her into the Final Five just as much as her athleticism. The 5-foot-7, 130-pound ex-swimmer was constantly breaking the tension with a rhyme, or by flipping over into an impromptu handstand.
"The feedback that I got was that I'd been picked for my ability to be in the moment and put 100 percent into what I was doing, while at the same time having an open and fun attitude about it," she said. "I connected really well with the expedition leaders.
"A big part of what they were looking for was someone who could work well with the team while doing some really intense things."
But the risk of storms and avalanches -- and most significantly, altitude sickness -- didn't really strike Ms. Pinson until after she had made the final cut. She began to study the dangers of Mount Everest.
"I read somewhere that one of six people who make an attempt for the summit die," she said. "You go above 26,000 feet and it's called the death zone. There is so little air that your body literally begins to die. Even my dad asked me, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' and he was always the one who said you should push yourself.
"When I said goodbye to my family and friends that time, it felt a little different. I realized that it could be for good."
Ms. Pinson even wrote a goodbye letter when she reached Tibet, just in case.
The fear of peril grew even larger when the expedition leaders told her what to expect on the route to the top: A trail of bodies.
"They were saying things like, 'At this point, you'll be stepping over the guy in green boots,' " Ms. Pinson said. "And they told us that the bodies are going to look very much alive. Preserved. I thought to myself, 'Wow, what a morbid truth.' "
IN THE DEATH ZONE
She began to appreciate the enormity of the task during the acclimatization process -- climbing to nearly 26,000 feet and then returning to the base camp at 17,000 feet to replenish her body with oxygen.
"Going back up there again was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Ms. Pinson said. "I've never had to dig so deeply to take another step as I did up there. You feel the fatigue from head to toe, and it becomes a mental game.
"I'd have to tell myself, 'Take 10 steps -- count them.' I'd say the name of my favorite vegetables -- any type of game to get my mind sharp."
Ms. Pinson took some comfort from the sound of the bells that hung from the neck of the yaks.
"That sound followed us up the mountain," she said. "These amazing, huge, docile creatures became part of our team, carrying lots of our gear. That became my iPod, that ding, ding, ding."
But even the yaks couldn't go higher than 21,000 feet. That was where Ms. Pinson did her final handstand.
"After that, you're in gear and you can't breathe very well," she said. "You have to do everything slower. It's hard to do anything more than just roll over and zip up your sleeping bag."
Before making a push to the summit, one of the five contestants in her team decided to turn back.
"I really understood his decision -- we all did," Ms. Pinson said. "That did give me pause. Now I'm going higher, I'm entering the death zone now, and nothing will rescue us unless we rescue ourselves."
Her group spent two days in the death zone. They were at the highest camp, at 27,400 feet, and were preparing for a 2 a.m. push to the summit when they received a radio call from below: Five climbers ahead of them had taken too long with their ascent and were now in dire straits.
"We were told that they were doing terribly and that they were near us," Ms. Pinson said. "And so we had to make a decision on what to do."
She and the others left their tents and peered up the mountain, spotting a stream of headlamps bobbing pathetically in the darkness. The eerie sight made their decision easy.
"We immediately went into this action mode," she said.
Several members of their team went up the mountain to get the stricken climbers, while Ms. Pinson and the others began melting snow so they could give them water.
The five climbers were suffering from oxygen deprivation and frostbite, and one was even experiencing snow blindness. Ms. Pinson took one of them into her two-man tent, which she was already sharing with two others.
"I was definitely thinking that I was now getting myself into trouble, too," she said. "We were trading off, taking breaths from my oxygen, and it was 80 degrees below.
"All I kept thinking about that night was, 'Did he stop breathing? Is he still breathing?' It was a really, really long night."
When it finally ended and Ms. Pinson emerged from the tent to begin the rescue descent, she experienced an epiphany:
"I remember looking out all around, 360 degrees, and feeling this incredible peace," she said.
The tips of the neighboring peaks were aglow from the rising sun, and Ms. Pinson realized that she was at such a high altitude that she could almost see the curve of the Earth. She then looked up at her own mountain and could see how close she had come to the summit.
"Then I looked at where I was," Ms. Pinson said, "and I realized, 'This is my summit.' "
DOWN THE MOUNTAIN
But she was hardly out of danger. She was nearly out of oxygen, so she opted to go without for the rest of the descent. She soon began to feel the hand of death caressing her weary body. At one point, while she sat on a rock, she had to fight a strong urge to stay put: "I had to say to myself, 'Petit! Get up!' "
Ms. Pinson's family had been following the drama on the Internet, and "Global Extremes" set up a satellite phone so she could call them.
"That was a pretty emotional moment," she conceded.
Her mother, Inge, has kept the recording on her cell phone.
"I'm calling from 26,000 feet," Ms. Pinson said. "I'm OK. Everyone's OK. It was a creepy night and a crazy day. I love you so much. Call Dad and everyone else. I'm OK. It's beautiful. I love you. Kisses from 26,000."
After the group delivered the stricken climbers to the advance base camp at 21,000 feet, they debated whether to make another attempt for the summit.
Two of Ms. Pinson's teammates decided to go for it, and they wound up making it.
But Ms. Pinson no longer needed to see the view from 29,035 feet. She had seen enough.
"I had passed some Sherpa who were bringing women from another team back down, and they were nearly dead," she said. "They were left for dead by their teams in tents, and the Sherpa had found them and were trying to rescue them.
"They had been left for dead . . . That seems so horrific. And yet, their teammates felt they truly didn't have the energy left to help them."
That's why she won't pass judgment on the 40 climbers who passed David Sharp on the Everest Trail.
"It's hard to think straight at that altitude," she said. "It's hard to even take the next step."
Ms. Pinson has had three years to think about her experience. A bell from one of the yaks won't let her forget about it, clanging in the wind as it hangs outside her door in Three Rivers.
"I feel a lot more aware of things now," she said. "It's like it enhanced my senses. After having gotten that close to death, I feel more alive than I ever have."
And she still likes to do handstands. Even more so.