An athlete truly at his peak


Forget Aaron's 755 home runs. Cal's consecutive games streak. Secretariat's Triple Crown. Laver's Grand Slams. Take them all and put them in the attic. None of these sports heroes can breathe the same air as Babu Chiri Sherpa. Literally.

Chiri is the 34-year-old climber from Nepal who, on May 21, dashed to the top of 29,035-foot Mount Everest in just under 17 hours without using bottled oxygen. He shattered the old record set in 1998 by 2: hours.

Before you yawn and reach for another bagel, consider this: Most people take three months to get from base camp at 17,500 feet to the summit, using a gradual acclimatization process. The final push from high camp at 26,000 feet to the summit can be a midnight to 7 a.m. grind for climbers sucking pure oxygen from a canister.

To climb almost continuously using only the oxygen your lungs can pull from the thin air "is like strapping a pillow to your face and running uphill for 17 hours," says Ed Viesturs, one of the world's greatest mountaineers, who has made three of his four Everest ascents without breathing assistance.

Above 26,000 feet, climbers step into the "Death Zone." With less oxygen available, the body begins shutting down, and climbers experience hypoxia. Muscles and brain cells die. The skin takes on a blue cast. The lungs' lining becomes dried and irritated; coughing is sometimes so violent that climbers break ribs.

"There isn't anything that anybody does in regular life that feels like hypoxia," says Dr. Murray Hamlet, director of research for the Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass. "Every movement takes a concentrated effort. Your chest feels like someone is hitting you with a broom handle."

"There's only enough oxygen to support basic metabolism, like laying on a couch," Viesturs says. "Ninety-eight percent of people who climb Everest use [bottled] oxygen. Without it, the average person is reduced to a slug."

But Sherpas are not average people. Called "Tigers of the Snows," they guide and serve as porters and cooks for Himalayan expeditions. Everest was first conquered in 1953 by a Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, who stood on the world's rooftop with Edmund Hillary.

Living for generations at high altitude has given Sherpas more oxygen-carrying hemoglobin. To them, Everest is Sagarmatha, goddess of the sky; her slopes are their back yard.

Exploits of the mountain tribe are swapped by expeditions returning from Nepal. Sherpas talking and chain-smoking cigarettes while climbing in air space usually reserved for jet planes. Sherpas carrying 100-pound packs. Sherpas rescuing people in blinding snowstorms.

"Sherpas are tough as snot," says Hamlet. "They are genetically designed to do altitude. But 17 hours is just remarkable. It's a real challenge to go that hard for that long."

Viesturs says Babu Chiri made it look easy, like Tiger Woods playing golf or Michael Jordan hitting a three from downtown, but "what he did is almost incomprehensible." Not to mention fraught with severe long-term consequences for his health.

Mountaineering records are not new for Babu Chiri, who when not climbing or guiding others in the Himalayas lives in San Francisco. Last year, he set up a tent at the summit and stayed alone without bottled oxygen for 21 hours to set an endurance record. He is tied for second for most successful ascents of Everest with 10. In 1995, he climbed the mountain twice in two weeks.

His assault on the record was carefully planned, with camps stocked with fresh clothing and hot liquids and food. Still, he could not have planned for the snowstorm, frozen fog and 60-mph winds he encountered on the slopes.

His own Sherpa support team lost radio contact with him after he reached the summit, and for hours it was feared the gale winds had ripped him from the face of the mountain.

Then, spotters at base camp saw him descending. When he reached the bottom two days later (he rested on the way down) and learned of everyone's concerns, he joked to a reporter for "You shouldn't have worried about me. I had a beer waiting for me down here. I had to get back."

But Everest veteran Rick Wilcox of Conway, N.H., cautions not to make too much of the man-against-the-mountain story line.

"Sure he's king of the Sherpas, the toughest of the tough, but he's really standing on a lot of shoulders to do this," says Wilcox, a search-and-rescue expert. "Other Sherpas had to fix the ropes, stock the camps, help him as he climbed higher. That took more than 17 hours.

"If he had to build a road before he ran a marathon, you'd say, 'Gee, it took him months to finish, not 2-: hours.' "

And Hamlet notes that even with the fame and the potential for increased income from clients who will want to climb with him, Babu Chiri has paid a price.

"The problem is, he's lost and is losing brain cells, lots of them. He's lost serious neurological function," says Hamlet, who likens the damage to that suffered by boxers. "Whether it becomes a series of mini-strokes or loss of some other skills, he faces a problem."

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