BEIRUT: A few weeks ago, Bassam Sfeir was attempting to scale the world’s highest mountain, but after a series of harrowing experiences he is back in the comfort of his hometown of Broumana, Metn, sifting through digital photos of people he met on the Himalayas’ Mount Everest, pointing out the climbers who never returned.
“This girl, Emma,“ Sfeir says, indicating a photo of a young and seemingly happy and energetic woman clad in mountain-climbing attire, “lost her way on Everest.” Lips pursed, he adds quietly: “She was never found.”
Emma was not the only one to lose her life or go missing on the mountain this year. And although the team Sfeir and his partner Raffi Farajian were a part of did not suffer any fatalities, the two men had their share of life-threatening experiences.
Upon arriving on the mountain and setting up at base camp, Sfeir and Farajian’s spirits were high. The roaring of avalanches, cracking of ice and unrelenting cold did nothing to deter them as they spent 11 days training and growing accustomed to the harsh local climate several thousand meters above sea level. Sfeir and Farajian not only wanted to recreate the achievement of fellow Lebanese Maxime Chaya, who scaled Everest in 2006; they wanted to do him one better by climbing up the perilous southern route.
As the date for the planned ascent of the peak approached, the Sherpas (an ethnic group from which Himalayan mountain guides are drawn) performed a “Puja” ceremony – a Buddhist ritual aimed at securing good fortune. Finally, the journey was at hand.
But trouble was afoot. Sfeir and Farajian had already begun hearing reports of deaths due to avalanches and inclement weather. “That night was endless,” Sfeir recalls. He slept for only three hours, haunted by the story of two mountaineers who had recently died climbing the same ice fall his team would be crossing in two waves over the next day.
Early the next morning, Farajian and several others took off. Sfeir and a second group of Sherpas were slated to begin the ascent the following morning. The schedule suited the climbers ... but Everest had its own agenda.
“I was sitting in the dining tent having tea ... when we heard Chris on the radio,” Sfeir recalls, referring to American Chris Klinke, who had gone up with the first group. Klinke said Farajian was in bad shape and informed Sfeir they would be returning to camp.
|“What am I going to tell his family?! They are relying on me to bring him [home] alive and safe.”
Upon his return, Farajian looked extremely pale and fatigued. As soon as he entered the dining tent, he fainted. Sfeir and the others carried Farajian to a medical tent located a 25-minute walk away. After examining Farajian, the doctors told Sfeir and Klinke that his condition was serious and that he needed to be evacuated to the Nepali capital of Kathmandu for urgent medical care.
“I felt so scared and disturbed, my brain shut down,” Sfeir says.
When the helicopter arrived to medivac Farajian to Kathamandu, Sfeir was blindsided by a question posed by his friend. Farajian asked Sfeir to come with him to the hospital.
Sfeir was torn. “If I leave the base camp, there is the possibility that my climb will be over,” he remembers thinking. The dilemma seemed stark for a few moments, but Sfeir quickly decided to accompany his friend.
At the hospital in Kathmandu, Farajian was informed that he must undergo a medical procedure with all the attendant risks. Sfeir remembers thinking: “What am I going to tell his family?! They are relying on me to bring him [home] alive and safe.”
Sfeir recounts that the time spent at Farajian’s bedside was “harder and scarier than climbing Everest.”
Following a tense and nerve-wracking wait, the procedure was declared a success. After several days in the hospital, Farajian was released. Sfeir remained with his friend at a hotel for a few more days while he recuperated.
But as soon as Farajian was better, Sfeir felt compelled to clamber back up the mountain. On May 2, he grabbed an early morning flight to a mid-altitude destination. “My return to the mountain [had] already put me on [a] late schedule,” he explains, and he was eager to make up for lost time.
What Sfeir did next was exceedingly dangerous. Though he knew that his body had lost much of its acclimatization while in Kathmandu, he threw caution to the wind and scrambled up the mountain with Nima, his Sherpa guide. Because he initially felt fine, Sfeir refused to slow down; by May 8, he had made it back to base camp and was looking forward to reaching the next camp further up, so as to rejoin the members of his team.
Inevitably, his hasty climb left him with altitude sickness. Headaches had been a chronic feature of the Everest expedition for Sfeir, but now they grew severe. Worse, his vision became blurred. He had begun to suffer early symptoms of a cerebral edema, a potentially fatal condition in which water seeps into the brain.
Sfeir vividly recalls the emotional turmoil he experienced during this time. Whereas he had once enjoyed the rigors of scaling a natural wall of rock and ice, he now saw it as a taxing undertaking – even a burden. His “dream was becoming a nightmare.” It dawned on him that he had been obsessed with accomplishing his goal, to the detriment of his personal happiness and even his health.
Sfeir realized that he “had to walk back and leave the mountain” – and his dream. Furthermore, in his weakened state, he needed help. Sfeir acknowledges that without the constant presence of Nima, his trusty guide (who has scaled Everest more than once), the descent might have turned out differently.
Today, sitting in a café in Broumana as he recounts his adventures, Sfeir seems a contradictory mix of hyper-excited and fatigued – a common condition of those emerging from a traumatic experience. In both this interview and emails he sent The Daily Star, he adopts a philosophical attitude regarding his experiences, saying that he has a new lease on life. And he has a word for those who weren’t as lucky to escape death as he and Farajian.
“All our condolences go to those who died on Everest this year. May God bless their souls.”
Without any bitterness, Sfeir also congratulates those who made it to Everest’s summit this year, including his team-member Wasfia Nazreen, a 29-year-old Bangladeshi woman. And with subdued but unbowed bravery, he does not rule out a future try at besting the mountain.
“Everest will always be there,” he says. “There’s always a chance and there’s always a next time.”