Santiago Perez grabs for the carabiner, but it slips from his frostbitten fingers. His glove liners are worn away, so ice crystals form on his skin. Fearing he might lose digits, he tries to flex his hand inside the cavity of an unwieldy mitten, but it merely twitches. Nothing can dull the alternating sharp pricks of pain and aching numbness in his fingertips.
Stuck with two blocks of ice for hands, the bearded, gaunt climber relies on his feet. He swings his crampons into the mountainside, but falters. The metal spikes of his boots screech along the icy surface. He looks down and shudders. Just a couple of hours ago, when he and his group had left Camp 4, a desultory way station on the climb up Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, his toe heaters had stopped working. At the time, he told himself not to turn back. But as he pushes on, every step is a near miss.
As Santiago looks up to check progress, his goggles fog with a thin layer of ice. He lifts them and struggles to see. The wind sears his cheeks.
Gasping into the vacuum, the withered 40-year-old climber breaks into a hacking cough. At this altitude, 27,000 feet above sea level, a nascent lung infection has worsened. With each hollow, dry sputter, Santiago becomes more certain he's choking to death.
He knows this landscape punishes hesitation. The frozen corpses that litter the route are evidence. But the pain is too much to handle, so he stops to rest.
Hours ago, he was walking among the stars at a height traversed only by commercial aircraft. Now, night has yielded to day. Though there's no air pollution here, he's immersed in bleached white. "It's like you're inside a Ping-Pong ball," he says.
Only positive thoughts, Santiago tells himself, but doubt creeps in. After all, many routes are flooded with inexperienced climbers, and the winds are hitting well over 50 mph. In just the past few weeks, six alpinists have died, including one of the world's most accomplished free climbers, "Swiss Machine" Ueli Steck. He had been exactly Santiago's age. And he had perished trying to acclimatize. Roland Yearwood, an American doctor from Alabama, had also literally drowned in the thin air just a few days earlier.
As Santiago stalled for time, he couldn't help but think, I'm in the death zone — at the very same height where my buddy Nelson almost died, not just once, but three times. Santiago had heard the heart-stopping stories when he and Nelson Dellis, an idiosyncratic, six-foot-six 33-year-old, trained together at a CrossFit gym in Wynwood. They were two guys from the flattest part of America. You couldn't write that in a movie script.
A couple of months ago, they had stood beside each other, lifting weights and challenging one another. But now here Santiago was, alone, thinking the unthinkable: Everest takes down even the mightiest of men.
In 2014, a column of glacial ice on the western shoulder of Mount Everest caved. The falling ice serac — "the size of a Beverly Hills mansion," according to writer Jon Krakauer — caused a devastating ice avalanche weighing 31.5 million pounds. Sixteen Nepalese guides, called sherpas, were killed in what would be called the Khumbu Icefall. Three bodies were never recovered.
On average, sherpas make $5,000 per year — $4,300 more than the national average — but for the remainder of that season, they all went on strike out of respect for their fallen colleagues.
The following year brought little relief. Many climbers from the aborted 2014 season returned, but late that April, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rattled Nepal and surrounding countries. One hundred thirty miles from the earthquake's epicenter, "Mountain Daughter" Pumori shook violently, triggering an avalanche that swept from its peak into Everest's base camp on the south side.
Ladders flew through the air like giant spears, and tents tumbled across the Khumbu Glacier into the lower icefall. Nearly 9,000 people in Nepal died that day — more than a dozen at base camp. Considered the deadliest season on record, 2015 was the first time in 41 years that no one reached the Everest summit.
To resuscitate business, the Nepalese government in 2016 announced that all unused permits from 2014 and 2015 would be extended into 2017.
Even so, many of the 350 to 450 sherpas who shepherded climbers each year had become certain the mountain was either cursed or deeply displeased. Some alpinists decided to wait before returning. By early April, authorities had issued only a fraction of the usual number of permits — even though the weather and climbing conditions were near perfect.
In 2017, when the extension granted after the avalanche and earthquake was set to expire, many climbers returned. Nepal added to the demand by advertising in India and China. By late March, the government had issued 371 permits, the most in generations.
Over the next few weeks, base camp filled up. By mid-April, Everest welcomed almost a thousand people — including sherpas and guides — on and around the mountain. Among them were inexperienced climbers and guides eager to make an easy buck.
But the weather on the 29,029-foot mountain wasn't good. Usually, climbers get an average of 12 summit-worthy days in May, when extraordinarily high winds die down and monsoon rains have yet to begin. But in 2017, the mountain was wracked by unpredictable storms and deadly windchill. Daylong weather windows turned into hourlong keyholes. Even sherpas couldn't fix the ropes.
A few teams risked narrow openings and attempted to summit, while Everest veterans bided their time hoping for five-day windows.
First to die on the mountain was the Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck, who on April 30 plunged 3,280 feet to his death during an acclimatizing climb near Camp 2 on Mount Nuptse.
Less than a month later, four climbers died in just one weekend. On Saturday, May 20, Ravi Kumar, a 27-year-old from Moradabad, India, made it to the summit at 1:28 p.m. after forcing his guide to push through rough weather, but he fell more than 600 feet to his death during the descent. His guide was later found unconscious, suffering from frostbite and snow blindness.
That same day, 48-year-old skier Vladimir Strba from Detva, Slovakia, summited without supplemental oxygen but fell ill during his descent. A group of sherpas with oxygen bottles was dispatched on a rescue mission, but by the time they found him, he was in critical condition with massive frostbite on his hands and feet. They dragged him to a camp at 26,000 feet, but after three days in the death zone, the father of four died.
The next morning, Roland Yearwood, a 50-year-old doctor from Georgiana, Alabama, died at 27,000 feet, not far from the mountain's peak. A day later, his daughter appeared on NBC's Today and attributed his death to altitude sickness. Little else is known about him except that he had survived the 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche that killed 18 other climbers.
Around the same time, on Everest's Tibetan side, Francesco Enrico Marchetti, a 54-year-old from Australia, died as he climbed down to a 25,000 foot camp on a Sunday morning. Along with his wife, he had also survived the 2015 earthquake.
Seven days later, on May 28, Santiago Perez left Camp 4 for the summit. The weather hadn't improved.
It was an hour after midnight May 19, 2016, when Nelson Dellis, Santiago's workout buddy, awoke at Camp 4, the final stop on the way to Everest's peak. It was his third attempt. Outside, the sky was dark and an 80 mph wind blasted the walls of his nylon tent. By then, he had already awoken twice to dry coughs. This time felt different. Something was pushing its way up his throat. He hacked into his shaking, bare hand and looked down. In his palm were slick slabs of a black gelatinous mass filled with congealed blood. His heart skipped a beat. Not again, he thought. Please, not this time.
Having recovered from lung surgery just over a year earlier, Nelson had an inkling of what he'd found. As the sun peaked over the slope, he wriggled out of his sleeping bag and, cupping the black gunk, trudged to his guide's tent. It took only a quick look for Phil Crampton, a wry, scruffy British veteran climber and guide, to know what it was: high-altitude pulmonary edema, a condition in which excess fluid builds up in the lungs. The effects could be lethal. Without immediate emergency treatment, the mortality rate ranges from 44 to 60 percent for mountain climbers.
Sensing Nelson's anguish, Crampton murmured, "Ultimately, it's your choice, but you know what we've got to do." Shattered, Nelson began his descent.
"I was right there, you know... like it was the night before Christmas," Nelson says, his voice soft and pained. "But in the end, I didn't want to kill myself."
At first glance, Nelson isn't the kind of guy you'd expect to be a mountain climber. The handsome, scruffy giant of a man with slicked-back red hair and piercing light-blue eyes towers over everyone he meets — including his friend Santiago Perez. And his memory is among the world's best. He can recite 10,000 digits of pi offhand and learn the order of an entire deck of cards in just a few minutes. He has won the USA Memory Championship four times and makes at least $100,000 per year, mostly through speaking engagements. He has appeared on Dr. Oz, ABC's Nightline, and Today and in National Geographic Magazine.
Born in Wimbledon, England, Nelson spent his childhood shuttling between London and Paris with his family. His French father, Fredy, was a prominent businessman who was CEO of Europcar and president of Hertz. In his early years, Nelson regularly visited his grandparents in a small village in the Champagne region, where he often sat in his grandmother's kitchen and watched her bake tarts, cakes, and pies. "She was a tough lady," he says, "fierce but sweet."
Then, when Nelson turned 6, Burger King hired his father as president for a year, so the family moved to South Florida. Though the Dellises returned for a time to Europe, they permanently uprooted to Miami in 1998, right before Nelson began high school.
As a teenager, he attended Gulliver Preparatory School, where he was a solid student and excelled in basketball and tennis. His first real challenge came during his freshman year at the University of Miami. He had enrolled in a physics course but soon realized his peers were far more advanced: "They were geniuses who just understood [the subject], but that was never me."
Dellis was determined, though. He studied day and night, writing proofs over and over, reading textbooks cover-to-cover, and finishing assignments weeks in advance. In the end, his professor gave him an A-plus. "I had mastered something that was hard for me," he says. "After that, I knew all I had to do was match that obsessiveness." He graduated in four years with a bachelor's in physics, minoring in math.
In 2009, Nelson's grandmother, Josephine, died of Alzheimer's disease. She was 90 years old. "Toward the end, she couldn't remember me," he says. Reunions that had once been joyful became painful. He couldn't shake the thought: Dementia had a genetic component.
Soon he became obsessed with memory. While studying for his master's degree in computer science, Nelson did memory exercises for several hours each day. Before long, he could quickly master the exact order of a shuffled deck of playing cards and match hundreds of names with faces.
In 2010, he signed up for his first USA Memory Championship on a whim, but he placed third. The next year, he won first place for with the most numbers memorized in five minutes: 178 digits. (He would win that championship three more times.)
Despite his overnight fame, Nelson kept his full-time job as a software developer. He had done a few speaking gigs at his high school and the University of Miami but didn't think much of it. "It sounded crazy, you know? To be a 'professional memorizer.'" But then he got a gig one Friday afternoon speaking to a group from Living Social, a competitor of Groupon. For $1,000, he taught employees memory techniques to improve their productivity.
The following year, in 2011, he hired an agent, who promised him megadeals with companies like Gatorade and Adidas. "None of it materialized, but I was young and naive."
Nelson's special charisma led to full-time work as a motivational speaker. He preached four pillars of improving memory: Train your brain, be socially involved, eat right, and, most important, exercise. Over time, Nelson had realized that skipping workout days, whether they involved running or weightlifting, deeply affected his memory performance.
So he began climbing mountains. Not only did it challenge the body, but it also tested the mind. By 2010, he had conquered peaks including 14,411-foot Mount Rainier, 20,310-foot Denali, and 15,781-foot Mont Blanc. "When you're climbing and dealing with the elements... you're constantly questioning, Why am I here?" he says. "But that's why I loved it."
One afternoon, the then-26-year-old read about a woman who told everyone she met that she would climb Everest — and then did. Inspired, Nelson began telling everyone he planned to do the same. Less than a year later, he was running four miles a day on the Charles River, weightlifting in the gym, and springing up and down stairs with a heavy pack on his back in preparation for climbing the world's highest peak.
In March 2011, Nelson signed on for a climb up Everest with a New York-based expedition company. He spent six weeks doing pretty much nothing in an orange tent at base camp. "It was like that movie Groundhog Day," he says.
Eventually, he and several others began the ascent. By evening May 12, as the sun was setting, Nelson's team had reached the Balcony, a small platform at 27,600 feet, the first pit stop of summit day. Nelson turned off his oxygen mask and took a swig of water, but then he couldn't turn the air back on. "It was frozen solid," he says.
He soldiered on until the group reached an icy bridge. "There was enough space for your boots, but on the left side was a 3,000-foot drop into Nepal and on the right side a 5,000-foot drop into Tibet."
Then a sherpa unhitched his carabiner. "He said we were going to cross this with no ropes," Nelson recalls. Looking over the edge, Nelson realized why. The night before, a climber clipped to the support rope had fallen, nearly dragging his comrades to their demise. His dead body sagged off the side of the mountain. "It was a super wakeup call," Nelson says. He turned back.
Two years later, he returned. In March 2013, Nelson once again tried his luck, this time on the Tibetan route on the north side of the mountain. But only 280 feet from the summit, he couldn't feel his fingers and toes. He knew he'd have to trade his digits for success. Once again, he made the decision to head back, accompanied by his sherpa.
On the way down, at 27,900 feet, Nelson slipped on a rock that shot out from under his foot and hit the back of a dead man's body. "This was serious," he recalls, "like I could slip and be that guy."
The next year, he was training for a third attempt when he spit up some blood. Doctors soon discovered a pulmonary infarct — some dead lung tissue — probably the result of his climbs. They surgically removed the tissue and stapled his lung back together. "It was painful," he says.
Soon he began training again, and six months later, on March 30, 2016, he returned to Everest. That was the climb when his lungs began bleeding at Camp 4. Defeated, he descended and found a medic, who gave him drugs to clear the excess fluid. Two days later, he was cured, so he headed to base camp. There, he learned that another climber with his group, 54-year-old Robert Kay, had also bled from the lungs. Nelson remembered him coughing during their last conversation. The climber had to be carried down by ten sherpas.
Eventually, four of Kay's toes were amputated. "I went to go see him," Nelson says. "He looked like a ghost."
As a child in Madrid, where he was born, Santiago Perez followed his father along shrubby dirt trails at the base of the Andalusian mountains, an old group of peaks roughly a third of the height of Everest. Though he loved the outdoors, Santiago never ventured up a major peak. By the age of 20, the plucky, gangly teenager had focused on a business career, earning a degree in finance from Saint Louis University in Madrid, followed by an MBA at Boston University.
In 2004, Santiago moved to Miami. He lived close to the beach and soon picked up a host of watersports, such as scuba diving and swimming. Mountain climbing never occurred to him. "Where would I climb?" he jokes.
Then, in 2013, his girlfriend, Celi Marquez, was assigned to work in Tokyo for a year. Santiago decided to tag along and study Japanese. He practiced calligraphy and recited lessons until, one day, a local told him of the view from Mount Fuji at sunrise. "I already loved Japan's culture, and this sounded so beautiful," he whispers dreamily.
So the 180-pound, six-foot-two Spaniard bought a bus ticket, packed two bento boxes, laced up his oldest pair of running shoes, and pilfered an emergency flashlight from the lobby of his apartment building. It took him seven hours to reach the summit. "Older people, like 70 years old, were passing me, but I was so tired," he says. Nonetheless, by the time the sun peaked over the horizon, Santiago had made it to the highest temple on the mountain. As the sky blushed with a golden hue, the temple's monks began a ceremony, instructing passersby on what to do. Santiago says enthusiastically, "We clap three times to salute the sun and thank our ancestors." He insists he's not a religious man, but in that moment, he was undeniably hooked.
"To climb up to this isolated temple after a difficult hike and to find this beautiful ceremony... even if you're not spiritual, you feel something and it's incredible."
After a failed try at Mount Rainier, Santiago adopted a vegetarian diet, supplemented by small portions of lean proteins like fish and lentils, and committed to a heavy CrossFit training schedule. "If he's not working, he's working out," says Marquez, a poetic woman with chestnut-brown hair and thin, expressive eyebrows. She says he often heard her boyfriend patter up and down their building's staircase to the garage while toting a 30-pound backpack.
Soon Santiago had summited the rocky, 22,841-foot peak of Aconcagua in Mendoza, Argentina, followed by the 20,310-foot Denali in Alaska. "I thought, Why take a break? Just a little more time... and maybe — maybe Everest," he says.
Motivated, Santiago hit the gym. For months, the cheery, pepper-bearded 40-year-old did lunges while harnessed to a black iron sled with 40-pound weight plates. Denying himself water and rest, the eager, lean athlete stuck to a demanding schedule of supinated chinups, dumbbell thrusters, and goblet squats, as designed by his personal trainer, Santiago Callejas. "[Callejas] made me swim in the water and do sprints... running in the sand with a 30-, 40-pound backpack," he says. "He told me it's the closest we can get to the feeling of what it is like to step in the snow."
After several months, Callejas introduced Santiago to Nelson, who was a regular at the CrossFit gym in Wynwood. During their first encounter, Nelson described his near-misses and near-death experiences on Everest. Santiago says the meeting inspired him. He inquired about everything from boot warmers to acclimatization schedules.
"It was easy hanging out with Santiago," Nelson recalls. "We just talked mountains."
Naturally, as an Everest veteran, Nelson found himself sizing up Santiago throughout the conversation. "[Santiago] seemed confident, but not in a cocky way. I could tell he was the kind of guy who had it in him to summit on his first try."
Over the next few months, Santiago trained diligently, often shooting Nelson texts about gear and logistics. Two weeks before his trip, he and Nelson met up for a final sendoff at the CrossFit gym. "I was curious," Nelson says.
The two went through a heavy cardio workout — five rounds, five minutes each — of 200-meter runs, burpees, and box jumps. That afternoon, the gym was packed, so Santiago and Nelson did sprints in opposite directions. Nelson ran 200 meters and Santiago closer to 300. Nelson chuckles: "He still finished at the same time as I did, but my heart was beating out of my chest. That was the big moment when I thought, Wow, this guy is going to do really well."
Four months before his flight to Kathmandu this past March, Santiago complained of a sharp pain in his back. "He couldn't sit, he couldn't stand, he couldn't drive," his girlfriend, Marquez, says. "We thought maybe he hurt his back while training."
A quick visit to a chiropractor said otherwise. Because of his intense work schedule, Santiago had developed a debilitating herniated disc, the result of sitting idly in a stiff office chair for hours every day.
For the next week, he lay strapped to a tilting table. "If he didn't have his physical endurance and strength, I worried, maybe he won't make it," Marquez says. "But people who climb mountains have a different way of thinking."
Within a few weeks, Santiago called clients. He said he planned to climb Everest. "I told them, 'Please plan accordingly,'" he chuckles.
Outfitted with two hefty duffel bags, hydration pills, and electrolyte supplements, he boarded a plane March 28 for Kathmandu via Qatar. On the way, he stopped in Madrid for a quick one-night layover. "I wanted to see my family before I went to Everest, but I couldn't tell my father," he says. "His health wasn't good, so I couldn't tell him."
The ten-day hike to base camp begins in Kathmandu, where climbers meet their guides. Santiago arrived two days early to explore the city, but on his second night at a luxurious hotel, he came down with a heavy bout of gastroenteritis, likely from brushing his teeth with bacteria-infested water.
Thinking it was just a common stomach flu, Santiago met with his eight-person team the next morning to check gear and meet the sherpas. The next day, they flew to Lukla, at the base of the Khumbu Himal — 9,000 feet above sea level. There, they began a ten-day, 39-mile trek through the Dudh Kosi valley and on to the half-million-year-old Khumbu Glacier.
A couple of days into the hike, as they passed into the Buddhist monastery in Tengboche, Santiago contracted the infamous Khumbu cough, a high-altitude hack so violent its victims can tear chest muscles and break ribs. "It was like having very bad bronchitis, but there was no air to breathe or heal," Santiago says.
Though his guides prescribed two courses of antibiotics, he declined because he knew they would weaken his body during the ascent. By Santiago's recollection, Nelson hadn't had much issue with the Khumbu cough.
Santiago spent the next month at base camp — a sprawling campsite at 17,500 feet, packed with billowy, carpeted tents, bored climbers, tired sherpas, and the occasional yak. There, he cycled through intense cramps, diarrhea, fever, and heavy, dry coughs.
Handicapped by all of this, on May 19, Santiago feebly joined his team on acclimatization climbs up and down from the camps. With every step, he wobbled and quickly fell behind the group. "It was like someone was stepping right here," he says, pounding on his chest. By the end of week one, Santiago had taken three emergency medical trips from the higher camps down to base camp. As for his teammates, four of the original eight climbers went home.
On May 25, the team began its assault on the mountain. Because of the buildup of permits, almost a thousand people were there. Lines formed at the beginning of each icy stretch. At nearly every ladder and ledge, Santiago watched inexperienced climbers teeter across the terrain. Some had never used crampons, he says: "Their first time was on the icefall."
He watched rescue teams shuttle injured climbers on gurneys down the mountain. Every so often, he'd hear helicopters in the distance. "It was like a war zone," he says.
Near Camp 3 at 24,000 feet, Santiago saw a blur of red and yellow parkas inching up the mountain. Then one fell. A sherpa had lost his footing and plummeted 50 feet off a crevasse, landing in a soft snow embankment.
Santiago's crew just continued walking. "We kept going," he says. "We had to keep going." (He later learned the man survived, hurting only his leg.)
Eventually, the team neared Camp 4 on the South Col, the sharp-edged pass that climbers must overcome before making it to the summit. During a break, Santiago tucked his ski gloves into his collar and grabbed for his water bottle. As he leaned over, his right glove dropped down the mountain. "That was bad, really bad — it was my dominant hand," he says. "I started to get frostbite on my fingers."
The next night, Santiago's team made it to Camp 4, a cemetery of shredded, old tents from previous expeditions. A few feet away were the charred remains of a camp of four climbers. Concerned, Santiago approached his guide, Ben Jones, an easygoing man of few words. Jones explained the group had been cooking dinner when the wind blew the flames onto their gas tank, setting off a flash fire.
Santiago didn't sleep well that night. He rasped and hacked. Early the next morning, on May 28, they began their final ascent. "I was dying," he says.
Until then, the top of Everest, "the Pyramid," had been obscured by other sections of the mountain. But as Santiago slowly climbed, a snake of headlamps from climbers ahead illuminated a winding path up the peak. For hours, the team pushed onward. Though his chest shook with a deep, unbearable pain, Santiago persevered.
"The pictures will never do justice to the moment," Santiago says. Taking off his goggles, he saw little more than white ice and a blue sky. "My camera was the highest thing in the world, you know? I was as high as someone on a plane, standing among the clouds."
Twenty minutes later, the team descended to Camp 4.
Later that day, around 1 p.m., Santiago, still sick and frostbitten, decided to make it two. While his tent-mates rested, he and two sherpas began a two-hour traverse to Lhotse high camp.
Lhotse is an adjacent mountain, the fourth-tallest in the world at 27,940 feet. "Most climbers prioritize Everest and leave little energy to survive both," says Jones, the guide. "There are very few expedition teams that even offer Lhotse as an option after Everest."
For Santiago, the climb up Lhotse was lonelier and more technically difficult: "The snow is steeper and softer, so you can't get a good grip." Kicking his foot forward laterally, he demonstrates the force needed to latch onto the slippery slope.
At one point, Santiago felt chunks of snow fall on his head. Looking up, he realized one of the sherpas had fallen and was sliding past him. Sixty feet down, the sherpa caught the rope.
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By most accounts, fewer than 20 people in history have climbed the two summits back-to-back. To attempt it is ridiculous and to succeed virtually unprecedented. But now, at 40 years old, Santiago — a mountain-climbing anomaly — stood on Lhotse's peak, where he could see the full range of the Himalayas, with Everest at its center.
"When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut," he says. "Now I was here, touching the sky."
Nearly two months after Santiago's return, he and Nelson met up once again. With a big hug, Nelson proudly congratulated his friend. For hours, the two laughed over shared stories.
"It's the immensity of Everest," Nelson says, smiling. "Not many people can really understand it. To have someone to talk to about it — well, it's hard to express." Next spring, he adds, he plans to attempt his fourth climb up Everest.