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 highMay 7: Camp III (24,000 feet) "The sheer pain of the altitude is enough to make you double over. It is nearly impossible to eat or sleep. The body starts to deteriorate above 19,000 feet." —Group e-mail
"You hear the avalanches—three or four a day. It's kind of a roar." —Lynn Prebble, 49, physical therapist at Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo
"I feel like my body is just eating itself." —Kimberly Clark, 35, nursing student at the University of Colorado in Denver
May 9: Back at base camp (17,600 feet), resting up for the final summit climb "There's a little anxiety among the troops here. We were all very discouraged at Camp III because we felt as if we had already pushed ourselves beyond our limit. You think, God, can I go back up there again—and then go higher? But you know that you have to. Well, you don't have to, but you're going to. Because that's what we came here to do—abuse our bodies!" —Group e-mail
"I have Type I diabetes, and I'm having trouble with my insulin pens. They've acquired air bubbles and don't always give me the right amount. I anticipate problems as we go higher—getting accurate insulin doses, eating foods that don't spike my blood sugar (most of our snacks are very sugary), and injecting in the cold and dark." —Midge
"Other than getting a job in an igloo factory, this is about the worst thing I could do for my Raynaud's [a condition where your fingers and toes can go numb at the slightest chill]. The pain I can deal with, but the inability to move my fingers is a problem because I can't grip an ax, or clip in and out of the fixed lines. Once we get up high, if I can't feel my hands, the trip's over for me. This mound of ice is not worth losing my fingers for. Not even one. A fingernail maybe...but not a finger." —Alison Levine, 35, investment advisor for Goldman Sachs in San Francisco
"It's harder than I expected. It's physically very taxing, and we're climbing at a level that none of us are...were...really quite prepared at first to tackle. So I'm having to dig deep, both physically and emotionally." —Midge
May 17: The summit bid The team set out for the earth's icy apex. After three days of by now familiar terrain, they strapped on oxygen tanks at Camp III. Midge decided to turn back, feeling strong but worrying after an exercise-induced asthma attack that she'd be a liability to the team later on. The other four women embarked in the middle of the night on the last part of the trail, steeling themselves against the minus-40-degree darkness, inching higher and higher into the scratchy air.
"I'm cramping a little bit. Oh no, I got my period—five days early! Suddenly, I realize we're about to get to South Col. This is the Death Zone. You don't stay up here for long. There's something eerie about this camp. It's always windy, never calm. We arrive in the afternoon and only rest for seven hours before setting out again. That evening I get bad diarrhea. I ask the guides where the bathroom is. They say, 'No, not up here.' You kidding me? They say, 'Go to the side where the wind will blow it off the mountain.' So I have cramps and diarrhea the night of the summit bid. Thank God for zip-crotch down suits." —Jody
"After hiking through the dark, I'll never forget the sunrise. It's 6 A.M. and I'm like, Oh my God, we're going to summit! We three up at the front—Jody, Lynn, and myself—are all moving, slow but steady. I'm oblivious to what's going on with Alison, who has stopped behind us." —Kim
"I feel dizzy, my vision starts to get hazy, and my hands and feet go really, really cold. Dave [Hahn], the head guide, says, 'Keep going. In about 40 feet there's a flat area where you can take off your pack.' I am literally only able to take one more step. I sit down on the rocks. He's shoving candy under my mask, but I just spit it out. And then after a while I hear him say, 'No, no, no, this isn't possible!' All of a sudden I perk up and say, 'I feel great.' He says, 'Alison, that's because I just turned your oxygen back on.' [Someone else had accidentally switched it off.] I'm ready to go, but he doesn't think it's wise to continue because there are storm clouds." —Alison
"I am up ahead, right behind Ben [Marshall], another guide, and I hear Dave on the radio saying, 'If you think those girls can make it up and down before the clouds come in, then go for it.' Ben says, 'I think we'll start out.'" —Jody
"I'm not really feeling superstrong, but you have a sort of lassitude when you're up that high. So I'm like, 'Yeah, ready to go.'" —Kim
"I know the summit is a good two or three hours from where we are. And at that point, I have this gut feeling in my stomach that says I personally should not be doing this. I look down at those clouds and think, I have a 13-month-old son to go home to." —Jody
Next: Will they make it home again?
"I open my right eye and I can't see a thing. It's a complete blur. At first I think it might be retinal hemorrhaging. That's when the blood vessels in your eyes start to pop due to the altitude. Or, I think, maybe it's one of the first signs of high-altitude cerebral edema [potentially fatal unless you immediately get to a lower altitude]. I know I need to go down." —Lisa Rust, the third guide
"When there's a storm, most accidents occur in the descent, when people are tired. And I am tired. I tap Ben and say, 'I'm afraid of the weather. I want to turn back.' He says, 'I'm pulling the plug, the weather's coming in. Let's all turn back.' An hour later, we are in a whiteout. It was a hard decision, though. You spend six weeks working at a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and then it comes down to this moment: Do you risk your life to try to get to the top? Maybe we'd only have frostbitten toes or fingers. And at that point, you kind of think, Hey, what's a few fingers?" —Jody
"For three nights after that I kept dreaming about being right there. I probably would have gone up, and I probably could have gotten myself into trouble." —Lynn
"There are a lot of bold climbers, a lot of old climbers, but there aren't a lot of bold old climbers." —Jody
"We thought: Better to come down safely as a team than risk being the big news story because we were a tragedy." —Alison
Home Again The team made it back despite a near fatal collapse of an ice ridge that almost crushed them toward the bottom—a reminder that you're never done until you're down. Four out of the five reached 28,750 feet, 285 feet shy of the summit, but still higher than any other point on the face of the planet. "They were strong," says Erin Simonson's husband, Eric, co-owner of IMG. "If they'd had a little bit better weather that day, they would have nailed it without any question. But they turned around, and that was the right decision."
A week after they returned to their homes, perspective settled in. "At first it was really disappointing," says Lynn. "But the longer I've been back, the more I realize that if you try and you don't make it, that's not failure. To me the failure is if you don't even try."