2 Maine climbers girding for final assault on Everest

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John Bagnulo is hoping to celebrate his 36th birthday on May 11 standing on the summit of Mount Everest.

Bagnulo of New Vineyard and Bill Yeo of Durham have been resting up this week at Base Camp in Tibet. They’re assaulting the world’s highest mountain from the less-climbed North Face.

And they’re doing it on the cheap. While most climbing parties employ scores of Nepalese Sherpas and Tibetans to haul their dunnage up the mountain, Bagnulo and Yeo are schlepping their gear themselves.

Given that the gear includes tents, cooking kits, stoves, fuel, food, sleeping bags, clothing, medical needs and a bunch of other stuff that adds up to 600 pounds or more, that’s no easy feat.

Already they’ve hauled some stuff to 25,000 feet, beyond an advanced camp at the North Col. And they impressed some Tibetans in the process. They’re the first and so far only “gringos” to carry their own gear that high, the Tibetans have told them. Yeo passed that tidbit along to his wife, Julie, during a chat by satellite phone Friday morning.

Bagnulo spoke with his wife, Joanna, on Monday morning.

The word is both men are doing well.

Joanna Bagnulo, who turns 26 herself this Friday, said her husband told her “he feels great. He feels really strong” and he’s avoided a dreaded physical condition that comes at high altitude: a persistent, wracking cough.

He and Yeo have made one reversal, though.

After giving it extensive thought and speaking with Sherpas and others who have climbed Everest, they’ve decided to use supplemental oxygen to complete the ascent.

Everest has been climbed by some without oxygen, but it’s dangerous to do so. The thin mountain air can leave climbers with loss of memory and brain damage and has led to accidents.

Joanna Bagnulo said her husband and Yeo are enjoying several days of rest at Base Camp this week in preparation for what could be their final climb on Everest.

The pair have partnered up with a group of professional and advanced climbers from around the world as a safety measure. The group has picked two, two-day dates for its assaults on Everest’s 29,000-plus-foot-high peak. The first just happens to fall on Bagnulo’s birthday. If Bagnulo and Yeo make it then, they’ll head back down to Base Camp and give others a chance to reach the goal.

Joanna Bagnulo said her husband told her he’ll call on his birthday from Everest’s summit. “I’d rather he keep his gloves on,” she said – the reference is to the threat of rapid frostbite that can occur at the height jetliners fly – but he told her their phone number is on speed dial on the satellite phone they have access to. Just maybe the number can be reached with fingers protected.

Julie Yeo, in an update posted to one of Bill Yeo’s sponsors, www.greatmoose.com, said both climbers “feel good vibes about the possibility of reaching the top … possibly in the middle of May … maybe on John’s birthday if the weather permits.”

Just before they returned to Base Camp, Bill told Julie they completed a 13-mile hike down 4,000 vertical feet to the base to rest. “Their hike to 25,000 feet felt good. It has been snowing for 2½ days. It is windy and very cold. Bill says he is losing weight (and looks like) a stick right now but trying to eat as much as he can,” she added in the posting.

The team of climbers that the two men have joined is led by Dan Mazur, an Everest leader and multiple summiter who lives in Bristol, England, part of the year and Seattle, Wash., for the rest of the year.

Mazur’s SummitClimb group has taken a liking to the two Mainers, with one telling EverestNews.com that the two are on “Bill and John’s Excellent Adventure.”

Bagnulo and Yeo entertained fellow climbers in the group with a DVD showing of “The 40-year-old Virgin” in one of the Tibetan “tea houses” surrounding Base Camp earlier in April. The two bought the movie in Katmandu. The treat was so rare it warranted a second posting to EverestNews.com. Just having electricity at base camp is a trick since it’s provided by generators fueled by diesel, which has to be hauled up by the barrel.

The showing came as a welcome relief; it followed word of a climbing accident on the Nepalese side of the mountain that killed three Sherpas. So far this climbing season, four people have died on Everest.

On Sunday, a team of six Sherpas and Tibetan climbers reportedly summited Everest. If so, it would be the first ascent of the season. They did it while running ropes for subsequent climbers to use. As of late Tuesday, that climb – on the same North Face that Bagnulo and Yeo will tackle – was still unconfirmed.

Maine to Everest

To support their climb up Mount Everest, Bill Yeo and John Bagnulo are selling “Maine to Everest 2006” T-shirts that feature original art work by Julie Yeo. The shirts are $20. Go to www.billyeo.com.

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