Conquering Her Everest
by Stephani Bee
Photos courtesy of Cindy Abbott

With oxygen levels nearly half that of sea level, Cindy Abbott remains focused. As the trek continues, temperatures drop below freezing, but the mountain's majesty shadows her every step. The ice and snow covering Everest create a stark contrast to the wide-open blue sky. The image lures her forward.

At base camp, Abbott gazes around at her home for the next six weeks. She glances up at the biggest challenge of her life. She has trained for three years for this summit, the minimum amount of training time for most climbers.

She'll never have another opportunity to take on the summit that has claimed more than 200 lives. It is not a race to get up the mountain, but for Abbott, it is a race against time.

Trouble started 17 years ago in her left eye. Her vision was deteriorating but doctors could not find a cause. She fatigued easily and her joints always ached, but the vision loss concerned her most. The thought of going blind terrorized her.

In 2004, she began treatments for vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels in the eye that can lead to blindness, at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. Despite this, she lived a normal life teaching health courses at Cal State Fullerton and looking forward to her next great adventure.

Three years later, as she watched Russell Brice's Discovery Channel documentary, "Everest: Beyond the Limit," Abbott knew she found her next adventure. The view. The challenge. Perfect.

"I think I have to climb Mount Everest," Abbott told her husband, Larry. Despite being an avid scuba diver and climbing only one mountain before, the idea hooked her. On a safari in Africa with her husband in 2006, she scaled Mount Kilimanjaro on a whim. It's not a technical climb – it requires no mountaineer training – but the experience of living high on a mountain was uncomfortable. After that, they vowed to never climb again.

Times change. The dream was born and there was no turning back. Then disaster struck while she shopped at a nursery in June 2007. Abbott suffered an overwhelming case of vertigo. Nausea seeped into her stomach. She realized she couldn't see out of her left eye.

At last, a lead. After undergoing additional tests at the UCLA Medical Center, on Aug. 1, Abbott received her diagnosis. She suffered from Limited Wegener's Granulomatosis, a rare, terminal disease.

Relief washed over Abbott. Even with a grim diagnosis, she finally knew what had plagued her for over 10 years. The disease causes inflammation of the blood vessels and usually attacks the lungs and kidneys. For Abbot it attacks her vision – a lucky break. The doctors' prescribed a 16-pill-a-day regimen, which left her sick and weak. Taking the medication lowered her immune system and she eventually gave up teaching an exercise physiology lab course because contact with the students made her ill.

Two weeks after her diagnosis, she was rushed to the emergency room with mini-strokes. Her desire to climb Everest, however, remained strong despite being 48 years old and unable to climb even a gym's rock wall. Her vision could go at any time. She had to summit. Soon.

She hired high-altitude guide Scott Woolums and four months later they flew to Argentina's Mount Aconcagua to train. High winds lashed them as they tried for the summit, and at 20,000 feet, they decided to abort the climb.

At 19,000 feet, Abbott's boot snagged, sending her tumbling and breaking her left leg. Nobody could help her there. Without pain medication or stabilization, she hiked for five hours to 5,000 feet. A helicopter evacuated her the next day.

Abbott underwent surgery back in the States to insert a plate in her leg. Her experience in Argentina didn't depress her. She knew how much power she had within and when she needed to survive, she could tap into it.

The plate in her leg made full range of motion impossible; once it healed, Abbott went under the knife again for its removal. She needed to be in peak physical shape to conquer Everest.

Training in Southern California to climb the most perilous mountain in the world isn't easy. Putting in an hour and a half at the gym twice a week and hiking Mount Baldy every weekend didn't compare to Everest's conditions.

Abbott and her husband put everything on hold for her climbing training. She signed up for courses with guides who set up scenarios of Everest's conditions. She spent the summer of 2009 climbing around the world with her husband, a sort of prep course for Everest. Each mountain – Mount Rainier, Mount Elbrus and Peak Lenin – gave her more experience and confidence.

Needing to save $80,000 for Everest and out of money for other major climbs, Abbott trained locally, climbing Mount Baldy and using the gym. She also began assembling her equipment. An entire room in her house had her clothing and climbing gear laid out. She weighed each item. Her sleeping bag was 3.5 pounds, her boots 5 pounds, her crampons 2 pounds, her mustard- yellow down suit 5 pounds. She wanted every bit of information possible before departure.

Abandoning her responsibilities bothered her. Abbott had to let go of everything – her family, her job, her life in Southern California. She'd never even been away from her husband for more than a few days. She had to do it, though. Time was running out. On April 2, 2010, Abbott left for Kathmandu, Nepal to begin the trek to Everest's base camp.

On the south side of the mountain there was a village of orange tents amidst mounds of dirt, snow and ice. Not far from the tents is a mountain with loose snow. Avalanches regularly occur, even near her tent, which is situated on a glacier.

Memories from home are evident in her tent. A CSUF thermos keeps her tea warm. There are banners and T-shirts from the National Organization of Rare Disorders and the Vasculitis Foundation to help raise awareness and funds for disease research. She always carries family photos close to her heart.

The first days of camp are all about acclimatization. It's so cold that doing laundry is nearly impossible and climbers must sleep with everything that would freeze overnight. During the day, with her 12 teammates – five climbers, five trekkers and two guides – she plays cards, though the altitude starts to mess with their minds. Keeping track of score is difficult.

Training climbs prove to be more formidable than keeping score. The team journeys to three of the four camps on the mountain, each camp equipped with a unique challenge to overcome.

To get from base camp to Camp One, they go through the Khumbu Icefall, so deadly that even the Sherpas – natives who help stock the mountain with supplies for climbers – will not enter until the blessing ceremony. After the blessing ceremony is complete, a valley of 40 ordinary metal ladders laid over crevices with huge drop-offs awaits. Crampons dig for a solid surface as ice and snow crunch with each footstep.

Camp One is beyond the Icefall at 19,500 feet. To get to Camp Two, climbers venture through the Western Cwm (pronounced coom) — the Valley of Silence. At Camp Two – 21,600 feet – there are five days of acclimatization at a time before heading back to base camp for three days of rest and recuperation. Then the climbs start again, taking them toward the ice wall of the Lhotse Face to Camp Three – 23,500 feet. The ritual repeats; five days acclimatization and then back to base camp.

Even though she's with a team, Abbott understands that climbing Everest means you are completely alone.

The team is set to summit, but the weather isn't cooperating. Finally, as hope starts to wane, a three-day window is projected to open and the team is ready; they must climb the mountain to catch the window. There are several hundred other climbers also waiting on the mountain, and if the traffic jam of bodies slows progress up the mountain, the team might not have enough oxygen to complete the summit. Abbott is ready to tackle the challenge.

With ice squealing beneath her crampons, she makes her way through the Khumbu Icefall. The ladders shift as each team member crosses, ice shards falling in the never-ending crevices. There is no time to stop for water. It's too dangerous.

At Camp One five hours later, it's safe to take a break. She has to climb to Camp Two, where the team plans to spend the next two nights hydrating and resting. Abbott feels strong, despite nearly suffering heat stroke through the Western Cwm. The down suit proved too warm to wear so low on the mountain.

There are no major problems when she hits the second camp. After two days, the team starts toward the base of the Lhotse Face, preparing to summit to Camp Three. Conditions are more dangerous. A jet stream with winds topping 100 mph is lashing climbers with ice-cold gusts.

People in brightly-colored down suits are disappearing in wild, swirling wind.

"This is beautiful," Abbott thinks to herself. "Deadly beauty."

But it's too dangerous. A conga line of climbers is trying to get off the Lhotse Face. Everyone will have to wait out the wind and try to make it to Camp Three tomorrow. The team turns around and heads back to Camp Two. Camp Three will have to wait. The jet stream is gone the next morning, and Abbott reaches Camp Three safely. With another night of rest, she begins the journey to Camp Four.

Armed with an oxygen tank to help her breathe at the increasingly high altitudes, Abbott continues up the Lhotse Face. The ice is slick and steep, the air thinner, but she makes precise steps like a tightrope walker. If she makes the tiniest slip, she would fall thousands of feet down the Lhotse Face, to the end of her life.

"Ten more feet," she tells herself. "Just 10 more feet." The climb is exhausting, but she keeps pushing, her gloved fingers feeling for the next bit of rope, for the next clip that will keep her attached to her lifeline. After scaling the rocky Geneva Spur, she makes it to Camp Four around noon. There isn't much time to rest.

The window to reach the summit and return safely is down to two days. She has to take advantage of that window. Tonight.

The team chokes down a cup of hot chocolate, a difficult feat at 26,000 feet. Humans cannot stay for long in the Death Zone because the body is literally dying: it cannot digest food and the body feeds on its own tissue. No human can acclimatize.

Abbott has lost over 10 percent of her body mass since arriving at Everest. Her joints and muscles are throbbing. She is exhausted. She can't lose sight of the summit, though.

She has to make it.

Going up isn't even the most difficult part of the trip. More people die in the descent. Her brain is numb, but she has to maintain focus.

At 9 p.m. on May 22, only 7.5 hours after arriving at Camp Four, it's time to go. This is going to be the group's only shot at the summit.

Slowly, she makes her way past the Balcony – 27,500 feet – toward the Hillary Step – 28,800 feet. The winds howl. She breathes into her oxygen mask, but something doesn't feel right. It was too dangerous to stop and check now. She has to keep moving.

"Ten more feet," she thinks. "Just 10 more feet." The razor-edge ridge leading to the Hillary Step is frightening, with its 10,000 foot drop-off on each side.

Abbott's gloved hands work their way through the spaghetti tangle of ropes and clips. Rocks and ice fall as she moves forward. She breathes harder into her oxygen mask.

"Ten more feet. Just 10 more feet."

It's a struggle. Everything is in slow motion. There is no room for error. Looking down at the endless fall is more chilling than the icy winds punishing the climbers. Clouds loom in the distance. The storm is coming. The rocky, exposed climb of the Hillary Step seems endless.

"Just 10 more feet…"

At 9:02 a.m. Nepal time, 12 hours and two minutes after leaving Camp Four, Cindy Abbott successfully summits Mount Everest.

She is on top of the world.

"This is amazing," she thinks. "I made it! I climbed Mount Everest!"

The view is spectacular; everything seems within sight. The skyline stretches for miles, an endless beauty.

A line of climbers is below her, snaking their way toward the top. Clouds swirl above and below her. The storm is drawing nearer.

Reality sets in. Deadly cold and fast winds are whipping nearly 40 people standing atop a summit no longer than six or seven feet. Many of the jubilant climbers are waving their arms in triumph, the hooks that had held them fast to the ropes are now unclipped as they relish in freedom.

"I shouldn't be up here," Abbott thinks. "If one of them hits me, I'm gone!" Finding a semi-level spot on the snow, she sits down, and clips to a safety line. She needs to take her medication and have a few photos snapped with the banner for the National Organization of Rare Disorders, the banner she holds in several of her photos. Abbott moves as quickly as possible, tugging her black gloves off and downing her medicine with a swig from her water bottle. A couple minutes later she has her pictures and is scrambling to put her gloves back on. Her hands are numb from exposure. She wiggles her fingers but can't feel them.

The clouds draw closer. She has only been on top of the world for 15 minutes, but now she faces the most daunting task...getting down.

Getting down the Hillary Step and across the narrow ridgeline is tricky. Her frozen hands grip the rope and try to cling to the next rock.

The storm that had been threatening to hit since Camp Three isn't going to wait any longer. It is upon the climbers. Temperatures plummet ever lower. Swirling snow blasts them from all sides, a complete whiteout.

The blizzard isn't all that's obscuring Abbott's vision. She is already functionally blind in her left eye, and now the sight in her right eye is fogging, as though she is looking through a shower door; details are impossible to make out. Her corneas are frozen. Every foot placement, every placement repelled, has become a leap of faith.

"I have to get down," she repeats over and over. "I have to get down."

Every foot forward, she carefully re-wraps the rope, building a safety net on her arm. If she falls, it will only be a few feet.

Her numb fingers feel for the frosty rope. A firm hold is practically impossible. There is no telling what lies below, if she has a solid foundation to stand upon or if she will be

left hanging by her arm. She takes another step.

She breathes harder into her oxygen tank. Something is definitely wrong with it. No matter. It's difficult to think of anything except getting down. She must have faith in her remaining strength, ropes and the clip that binds her to them.

Several hours pass. The storm is relentless.

Finally, Camp Four comes into view. After 18.5 hours of climbing, her muscles and joints are screaming for a break. Settling in her bright orange tent, Abbott strips off her boots and crawls into her sleeping bag. Sleep overcomes her.

The storm raged through the night, making conditions more treacherous. It's 4:30 a.m. when Abbott awakes. Her team is suiting up and soon they are off, leaving the Death

Zone behind.

She is on her own again.

Abbott pushes on. She needs her strength to negotiate the rock walls of the Yellow Band and the blue ice of the Lhotse Face once more.

Because of the storm, traversing the slick ice wall is harder the second time. She breathes into her oxygen mask. She needs to keep her wits about her. One misstep and it's all over.

"I have to get down. I have to get down."

Hour after agonizing hour drags by, Abbott's frozen hands working the rope as nimbly as she can manage. Clip. Step. Step. Unclip. Repel. Unclip.

The Lhotse Face ends within sight of Camp Two. Break time.

Abbott unfastens her gloves.

"Huh," she thinks, examining her hands. "The color must be rubbing off…"

Her fingertips are black. It might not be frostbite, but close enough. She removes her oxygen mask from her wind-blackened face.

A hole is noticeable at the bottom. For days she had been blowing precious oxygen out of her mask when she had been trying to inhale.

No time to dwell on it — she has to get to Camp Two.

"I have to get down…"

She's safe inside a tent at Camp Two. No more oxygen mask; she can breathe freely again.

As she approaches the tents, she notices a long, orange object. She edges closer. It's a body sack containing the corpse of a climber who died attempting the summit a year earlier. Abbott may have left the Death Zone, but the body reminds her that many dangers lie ahead. She will have to conquer the Khumbu Icefall tomorrow.

Another night of short rest passes. This is her final test. She is ready. She has no choice.

"I have to get down," Abbott reminds herself. "I have to get down."

Her fingertips are crying in protest. Using her knuckles, she repels another ice face. The valley of ladders greets her as she approaches a huge crevasse – it's at least 7 feet wide. Something is wrong.

A ladder is missing. It had gone down the previous day, taking a climber who was lucky to survive with it. Only one option remains. She has to jump.

"I'm going to die," Abbott thinks for a split second, then jumps. There's no choice. With a giant leap she hits the other side, not exactly with ninja-like grace. But she makes it. She moves on. She's in for another race – the icefall is collapsing behind her.

The ladders twist as she steps carefully on each rung. Almost there. Step by step, victory is within reach, but it is too early for her to celebrate.

She makes it to base camp a few hours later. She is safe. She conquered Everest. Abbott makes a beeline for the medical tent to get her injuries checked. The doctors reassure her that she'll be all right. The nerves in her fingers will grow back.

Days and nights of celebrations with her fellow climbers and Sherpas follow. Completely spent, she's desperate to come home and books the first plane back to California.

After being away for 60 days and climbing to the top of the world, her family waits at Los Angeles International Airport. Once home, she sees a giant banner outside her house congratulating her on her climb. Finally, she is safe at home with her family. She begins to recuperate.

Less than a week later, her husband approaches her in her home office with a question.

"How about climbing Mount Aconcagua in December?" Abbott's brain still isn't fully functioning and found this request difficult to comprehend.

"How about I get back to you on that?"

One week later, she says yes.