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National Geographic photographer saved on Mt. Everest

April 30, 2012  By National Geographic

April 30, 2012, Nepal - A National Geographic climber and photographer was airlifted off Mount Everest Saturday after suffering a possible, though as yet undiagnosed, pulmonary embolism—a blockage of an artery in the lungs, often due to a blood clot.

The photographer, Cory Richards, is part of a National Geographic Society and North Face expedition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. ascent of Everest. It is not yet clear how his illness might affect the project. (National Geographic News is a division of the Society.)

Saturday afternoon, local time, it became clear that Richards—then at around 23,000 feet (7,000 meters) with expedition leader Conrad Anker—would
need to turn back due to shortness of breath and an inability to
maintain a normal respiratory rate. Despite initial reports, Richards's
ailment "is not an altitude issue," he emphasized via email from Nepal
early Sunday, local time.

Later Saturday, down the mountain at Camp 2 (21,200 feet/6,462
meters), doctors, fearing an embolism, gave Richards supplemental oxygen
and advised him to continue down Everest, Richards said.


At the time National Geographic magazine
picture editor Sadie Quarrier emailed magazine staff from Everest Base
Camp (17,600 feet/5,364 meters) that Richards was "in immediate need of
helicopter rescue … "

With "clouds brewing," though, and no helicopter able to reach Camp
2, the Boulder, Colorado-based climber descended to Base Camp largely
under his own power, according to Quarrier. There, doctors administered
blood thinners—commonly prescribed for pulmonary embolism—and again
advised evacuation.

Even at the lower altitude, though, Base Camp was "not flyable" for any rescue helicopters, according to Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic deputy director of photography Ken Geiger.

One pilot, though, wouldn't be grounded. "Cory and I were so happy,"
Quarrier said, "to see [a helicopter arranged in part by Richards's
friend and climbing partner] Simone Moro fly in and save the day."

At a medical facility in nearby Lukla, Nepal,
Quarrier wrote Saturday night that she and a doctor would "watch over
Cory tonight in shifts (staff is too tight here) … He's been given
blood thinners and tomorrow they'll check on lungs," she added. "He's
had soup and doing well."

On Sunday morning Richards was admitted to a hospital in the Nepali
capital of Kathmandu, where he remained Monday. The climber is in good
spirits and awaiting a final diagnosis, according to magazine staff.

As part of the anniversary expedition, Richards, a North Face team
athlete, is planning to ascend Everest's risky, little-traveled West
Ridge route with fellow North Face climber Anker. Another team is to
follow the more commonly climbed Southeast Ridge.

"This expedition is a culmination of my career as a photographer and climber," Richards said on National Geographic magazine's Field Test blog. "It is the realization of a partnership, friendship, and mentorship that reaches beyond words."

Though the expedition is Richards's first attempt at the world's
tallest mountain, he's no stranger to the roof of the world, having
become the first American to summit a mountain taller than 8,000 meters
(26,250 feet)—Pakistan's Gasherbrum II—in winter.

Richards's experience underscores the vulnerability of even the
strongest climbers high on Everest, so far from the nearest hospital
and, with its thin air, so difficult for helicopters to reach. Just this
month a Sherpa guide who had summited the mountain several times
succumbed to apparent altitude sickness, becoming the first fatality of
the current Everest climbing season.

If all goes well, Richards intends to head back to the mountain,
though friends and doctors were advising him Saturday to take it "one
hour at a time," according to Quarrier.

In the end, it may be Richards's climbing partner who makes the call, National Geographic magazine editor Peter Miller told National Geographic News via email.

Anker won't make the climb alone, and won't ascend with just anyone.
"Conrad feels it's very important to climb with someone you know well
and trust," Miller said.

"In short, we won't know how this affects the climb until Conrad tells us."



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