In the past 100 years, only 4,475 people have made it to the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, standing at 29,029 feet, or about 5 1/2 miles.
Martin Christensen, 34, a 2001 graduate of Unionville High School, is one of those, completing the climb at the end of May.
“I ran out of oxygen on the summit and it was hard to breathe,” Christensen said. “My portable oxygen bottle has four settings, and I put it on full blast, and I knew I had to get down.”
There is 66 percent less oxygen in each breath on the summit of Everest than at sea level. Bottled oxygen only makes about a 3,000-foot difference in relative altitude.
Nearly 300 people have died climbing Everest, most of them in the “death zone” around 25,000 feet and above. Four died two weeks ago. Most die from avalanches, falling, ice collapse, exposure and altitude sickness. Winds at the summit have been recorded at 175 mph and the temperature can be as low as minus 80F.
Christensen made it with the help of two Sherpa guides, who carry tents and equipment, cook food, and provide direction.
It took Christensen two months to climb the mountain, but a bit of bad weather caused him to hit the summit at nightfall on May 16.
“It as pitch black, it was windy and cold and bad weather was coming in,” Christensen said. “I could see as far as my flashlight.”
He said there was some exhilaration of making it briefly to the summit, but it faded into a depression when he began his retreat down.
Along with way, Christensen had to navigate over and around scores of dead bodies, many of which had been there for years. With the weather as cold as it is near the summit, decomposition takes a very long time. Bodies of dead climbers are left on the mountain because they are nearly impossible to retrieve.
On Earth, there are seven summits, the tallest points on each continent. With Everest conquered, Christensen has climbed them all except one. And he plans to climb Vinson Massif, a 16,050-foot mountain in Antarctica, sometime in the next two years.
His first climb was Mount Kilimanjaro, a 19,341-foot peak in southeast Africa. It took him only three days to climb, but he knows now he climbed it too fast. Most climbers make the climb in a week.
His second summit was Aconcagua, a 22,838-foot mountain in Argentina. His third was Mount Kosciuszko in southeast Australia, only 7,310 feet in elevation, the shortest of the seven. His fourth summit climb was Denali, (formerly Mt. McKinley) a 20,310-foot mountain in Alaska, North America’s tallest mountain. His fifth conquest was Mount Elbrus, standing at 18,510 feet, in Russia.
Christensen said he began his interest in climbing the world’s tallest mountain while he was a student at the University of Pittsburgh. He did some reading and began training. For Everest, he trained six days a week for five months. He said his mom tried to talk him out of it, but not his girlfriend.
“She knows she has to let me do my thing,” Christensen said.
The Everest climb was expensive, and Christensen said he did it as cheaply as possible. The Everest climb cost $50,000, which included transportation, food, lodging and Sherpas. Only fools try to climb Everest without Sherpas, he said.
“I’m not doing it again,” he said. “It’s really a grind. You’re in a tent, you sit around for a long time, some days you can’t climb at all. I lost 20 pounds.”
His final climb at Vinson Massif will set him back about $35,000, but it should only take him two weeks to hit the summit and back.
Christensen works as a civil engineer at Salem Harbor Footprint plant in Salem, Mass. Several years ago, he proposed the idea to his bosses and they were supporting allowing him to take the time off from work to achieve his “bucket list.”
Everest is elusive for many because of the climate challenges.
The youngest person to summit Everest was an American, Jordan Romero, 13 years 10 months, on May 23, 2010 from the north side. The oldest person to summit was Miura Yiuchiro of Japan, age 80 on May 23, 2013.