Maine’s Bill Yeo and John Bagnulo stood on the top of the world today.
For Bagnulo, it was a birthday celebration, but more important, it was a chance to hear three special words from his wife.
“I love you,” Joanna Bagnulo said she told her husband when he called from the summit of Mount Everest. “I love you, too,” he replied.
Bagnulo also called his mom from the summit, Joanna Bagnulo told the Sun Journal about 10:20 p.m. Wednesday. With a 12-hour time difference, Bagnulo and Yeo reached the peak at 10 a.m. Tibetan time.
“He sounded good,” Joanna said of her husband. “He was breathing pretty hard, but that’s normal” for such heights, where the air is rarefied.
Yeo was expected to be calling his wife, Julie, as well. She had noted earlier that she had a slew of people to call to give them the news.
The Maine mountaineers had worked their way up the world’s highest mountain above the 25,000 foot high North Col on the North Face on Wednesday after leaving the advanced base camp area Tuesday. Much of Wednesday saw the men continue their ascent.
Weather conditions on the mountain were described as perfect: Bright sunshine, subsiding winds and cold but not brain-numbing temps.
Before the calls to home Wednesday night, it was pins and needles time for Julie Yeo and Joanna Bagnulo. The Yeos live in Durham, the Bagnulos, in New Vineyard.
The men carried a satellite phone in their rucksacks, along with an array of climbing aides like carabiners, ice screws, ice axes and ropes, in order to make their calls. They also toted oxygen and masks, first aid kits, water, food and other needs.
George Martin, the general manager of EverestNews.com, an Ohio-based Web site that tracks the progress of Everest climbers as well as others, said he also was expecting “a summit call” from the climbers.
A day earlier, EverestNews reported that Bagnulo and Yeo had started up the mountain. At the time, they were leading all climbers, but a dozen or more climbers were lining up behind them, the Web site said.
MountEverest.net, another mountaineering Web site, said so many climbers were making their way up the mountain’s North Face Wednesday that traffic jams were occurring when some needed to rope up to traverse crevasses.
Yeo and Bagnulo were climbing with two other men who ditched a West Ridge attempt in order to join with Yeo and Bagnulo, according to Julie Yeo.
Martin said that sometimes the waiting for the call from climbers saying all is all right is the worst part of an expedition.
“You never know who’s going to make it, who’s going to turn back, or who might die today,” said Martin in a phone interview.
“There’s no way of knowing if they’ve been delayed by equipment problems, turned back, or ran into real trouble. I wouldn’t worry if I didn’t hear from them until 3 in the morning,” he said.
The highlands of Everest that are over 8,000 meters – roughly 24,000 feet – are called the Death Zone. That’s the area where the air is thinnest, temps are coldest, winds strongest, and climbers most tired.
And with the summit at 8,848 meters, there’s a long reach of Death Zone terrain to cross before the summit.
On Wednesday, a Czech climber died after falling while climbing the Lhotse wall on the South Face of Everest. He became the fifth climber to die on the mountain this season, and Everest ascents are only just beginning.
Yeo and Bagnulo are among the first to reach the summit this season. They were believed to be climbing with or near Dave Watson of Burlington, Vt., who summited Everest today to become the first Westerner to do so this year. It was his second time on the northern route, according to EverestNews.com. Until today, only a team of six Sherpas and Tibetan climbers had made the climb this year. They did it while stringing ropes for commercial expeditions to follow.
The Mainers had hoped to make the climb without using supplemental oxygen, but Bagnulo’s wife Joanna said that likely changed after the men spoke with other climbers who discouraged an oxygen-less ascent.
They’ve made the expedition on the cheap, climbing under another climbing group’s permit but climbing without guides or Sherpas.
Yeo and Bagnulo are also thought to be the first Mainers to climb Everest via the North Face.
Ed Webster of Topsham has climbed Everest several times, but not from the North Face.
Bagnulo, who turned 36 today, holds a doctorate in nutrition. He’s taught courses in nutrition at the University of Maine in Farmington and also does consulting with physicians and others.
Yeo, 40, is a high mountain guide and something of an adventurer. He’s undertaken ski excursions to the far north and bicycling expeditions around Africa.
He works for L.L. Bean in Freeport where he specializes in skiing and bicycling for the outdoors outfitter.
The pair, already accomplished mountaineers, each began thinking of an Everest assault years ago. Both men have climbed Alaska’s Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet, North America’s highest.
They’ve also climbed high peaks in the Andes of South America as well as in Africa. Bagnulo climbed Aconcagua, the 22,831-foot Andes peak that is the Western Hemisphere’s highest. In 2001 he attempted but halted an ascent of Lhotse, a 27,890 Himalayan mountain not far from Everest.
Both men also are accomplished photographers who intend to put together slide shows on their Everest expedition once they return.
Joanna Bagnulo said that could be within the next week or so. It’ll take the men at least a day to get off the mountain once they return to the North Col, then several days of travel through China and back into Nepal for a flight home from Kathmandu.