Close call on Mount Everest

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John Bagnulo had made it to the top of Mount Everest, had called home to tell his wife, Joanna, that he loved her, and called his mom to describe the view.

Then came the heart-stopping moment.

Bagnulo and Dave Watson, another mountaineer, were making their way off the summit cone and down one of two “steps” – sheer 40-foot-high walls of rock – when a piton, a metal anchor used to secure ropes, pulled from a crack in the wall.

“I was penduluming,” said Bagnulo, swinging from a rope at about 29,000 feet, cruising altitude for many jetliners.

Soon he and Watson were able to stop the swinging and Bagnulo was able to descend the face unscathed.

But it was a reminder of the hazards facing people who climb the world’s highest peak. Already this climbing season at least six people have died on Everest, including three Nepalese Sherpas, men who climb professionally.

It was a week ago today that Bagnulo celebrated his 36th birthday on the peak of 29,035-foot-high Mount Everest.

Today, he and his wife, Joanna, are celebrating their third anniversary.

Until he returned to the country earlier this week, the couple was apart since March when Bagnulo, of New Vineyard, and Bill Yeo of Durham left Maine on their way to the world’s highest mountain.

“I don’t know,” Bagnulo said of how he and Joanna will mark today. “I’ll probably be catching up on my sleep. I’m sleep-deprived,” he said during a telephone interview Wednesday evening. “We might go for a little hike. We do that sometimes to celebrate.”

Whatever they decide, it’ll be good.

“I’m so fortunate to have her,” he said of his wife. “She’s my No. 1 fan and my support staff.”

Indeed, even on Wednesday she was helping to arrange interviews with newspaper and television reporters who have been hounding the couple for a chance to speak with the man who stood atop the world.

It was the trip of a lifetime, he notes, highlighted by achieving a long-held dream of climbing to the top of Everest.

The view alone was worth the effort.

“It was a crystal horizon,” he said of looking down on the world from the summit. Below him stood several of the Earth’s highest mountains.

First to the top

Bagnulo and Dave Watson, a climber from Burlington, Vt., became the first two Westerners to make it to the summit this climbing season. Yeo reached the 8,300 meter mark – 27,000-plus feet – but was forced to turn back after exhibiting symptoms of high-altitude pulmonary edema, a potentially life-threatening condition.

Bagnulo said he and Watson had left a high camp just below the ridgeline leading to the summit about 11 p.m. Wednesday, May 10. Bagnulo led the way, breaking trail through deep snow under a nearly full moon until dawn. By then he was so played out that Watson took over trail-breaking duties.

By 7:30 on the 11th they had reached the summit. Skies were a clear blue, the wind was minimal, but it was cold.

“I had a small thermometer on my pack,” Bagnulo said. “It was bottomed out at minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Another mountaineer, a man from Romania that Bagnulo knows only as George, was with them.

Bagnulo said he and Yeo had planned to leave the advanced base camp on the North Face of Everest on May 7 or 8 to make their summit attempt. Then Watson, who had climbed Everest previously and only recently gave up plans to make an ascent on a yet-to-be-climbed route called the Fantasy Ridge, said if they’d delay by a couple of days he’d join them. Seeing safety in numbers, Yeo and Bagnulo quickly agreed.

As it turned out, with Yeo forced to turn around, Bagnulo was able to continue on with Watson’s company.

Apart from the trouble with the piton on the second “Step,” the climb was incident-free.

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Next up …

The same can’t be said of the trip home. Bagnulo’s flight was delayed for 11 hours in Delhi, India, contributing to the sense of sleep deprivation he was feeling Wednesday.

The mountaineer says he plans on putting together a slide show of photos taken on the Everest expedition, and may offer some lectures as well.

A nutrition expert, he said he’ll also make his high mountain diet available by e-mail to anyone who wants to follow it.

And next up for the man who’s put Everest under his belt: Well, he and Watson have discussed possibly climbing the world’s No. 2 peak, 28,251-foot-high K2 in Pakistan.

Or, Bagnulo says there’s always the “Seven Summits.” That’s the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. He’s already got Everest in Asia, Denali in Alaska and 22,840-foot-high Aconcagua in Argentina on his done those list.

And, he notes, Joanna could join him on a climb Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, one of those still on the to-do list.

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