Go directly from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest (29,035 feet) without an oxygen tank, and you die within minutes. Even hooked up to extra O2, you can't charge up this mountain: High altitude can reduce expert mountaineers to stumbling loons before they know what's hit them. It wicks away appetite (just when you need it most) and demands several breaths for each heavily labored step; common sense deflates, the mind becomes a flat tire. Those who attempt Everest must first make a series of increasingly high ascents, trekking back down after each to adjust to the dwindling oxygen—a process that typically takes at least a month. Even so, above 19,000 feet, almost two miles below the mountain's peak, humans never fully adapt. And then there are the unpredictable avalanches and devastating storms that have littered the slopes with corpses. For every 13 climbers who get to the top, 2 die trying.
In March of 2002, five ordinary women from various parts of the country set out for Nepal, hoping to become the first all-female U.S. team to summit Everest. The idea had originated nine months earlier with Erin Simonson, who works for International Mountain Guides (IMG) getting media attention for the company's expeditions. Realizing that fewer than a dozen American women had ever conquered the world's highest mountain, and never together in a group, she e-mailed a few recreational climbing addicts she knew. If they could just raise the money, she suggested...
A big if, considering that such a trip would cost up to $75,000 per person. But when Alison Levine got the e-mail, the then 35-year-old investment advisor for Goldman Sachs in San Francisco started pounding the corporate pavement for sponsors. In December, Ford Motor Company agreed to fund the entire expedition. With only three months left till departure, Levine and another climber on Simonson's e-mail list—Lynn Prebble, 49—chose three more teammates, including a 58-year-old breast cancer survivor with diabetes. Levine raised an extra $10,000 to build two schools to promote literacy among girls in Nepal and about $70,000 for the V Foundation, which funds cancer research. Dubbed Team No Boundaries, the five women insisted this was the dream of a lifetime.
Over the next two months, they confided their fears and triumphs to O, crowding around a cold, crackly phone line—sometimes a computer—at base camp between acclimatization runs before the final ascent.
March 27, 2002: Before boarding the plane to Nepal
"People will often ask me as I'm going up or down a mountain, 'What are you training for?' And I say, 'For life....' This particular trek is very karmic for me. My husband and I had planned a climbing trip to Nepal right when I got breast cancer. I said to my doctor, 'You don't understand, I'm going to Nepal.' He said no. So I had to cancel that trip. And now, five years later almost exactly to the day, I get to go." —Marjorie "Midge" Cross, 58, management consultant in Mazama, Washington
April 30: Everest, Camp II (21,300 feet)
"I came out of my tent early that morning and went into our kitchen tent. Everybody had this grim look. Peter Legate, a British climber on another expedition, had fallen down the Lhotse Face and died. We were all just kind of looking at one another with big eyes, saying, Oh, wow. I mean we had to go up the Lhotse Face the next day. I said, 'I'm really scared. I need a hug.' And we all gave hugs, and there were a few tears. It was a difficult day, all of us thinking, What the hell are we doing here?" —Jody Thompson, 39, ER nurse at Summit Medical Center in Frisco, Colorado
Next: The altitude effects at nearly 5 miles high