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The Dark Side of the Mountain


When a doctor reached the peak of Everest, he celebrated with his guide and crew. So why was he left to die?
By Michael Leahy
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page W12


Nils would realize how nervous she'd be, she thought. He'd call, he'd call soon.
Gladys Antezana lay in a Baltimore hospital bed, resting after minor surgery. Her husband was halfway around the world at that moment, and her questions about his safety and precise whereabouts had her on edge. At 69, Nils Antezana was attempting that day, May 18, to become the oldest American to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on the planet. It was a trek accompanied by considerable risks, Gladys knew. But Nils had climbed many mountains before, and, at the end of such expeditions, he had nearly always called Gladys as soon as possible, to tell her he was safe. Aware that she would be awaiting his call in the hospital, he had promised to be in touch quickly after his triumph. She expected his call to come at any minute. But it didn't.

Her anxiety grew. That day passed, and then the next, and still no phone call came from either her husband or his mountain guide, an Argentine named Gustavo Lisi.
Finally, she says, on May 20, at about 11:30 a.m., Washington time, her cell phone rang.
"It's Gustavo," said the voice.
She sensed immediately that there had been an accident. Before Gladys could speak, Gustavo Lisi plunged ahead. "Nils and I summited," she remembers Lisi saying.
"Where is my husband?" Gladys demanded.
He had a terrible accident, a catastrophe, Lisi said.
Gladys couldn't speak.
He stayed there on the mountain, she remembers Lisi saying. He couldn't come down, Gladys. But he was extremely happy, elated. It was so beautiful.
"Did you send someone up for a rescue?" Gladys says she finally managed to ask.
No, she recalls Lisi telling her. Nils couldn't have survived up there.
Why didn't you send someone up? she snapped.
Because I was sick myself, Lisi answered.
Lisi then shared, Gladys recalls, what he said were some of her husband's last words. "Nils said, 'I want to stay here. The mountain is my home.' "
For a moment, she could not think.
She recalls Lisi emphasizing that he had pleaded with Nils to continue moving. She recounts that he told her: "I said to him, 'Nils, you have a family. Let's go. Come on.' "
But Nils couldn't move or even respond, Lisi said. He added that Nils had been a wonderful friend, concluding, "He was happy at the end."
Before saying goodbye, the guide asked Gladys where he should send her husband's personal effects.
Lisi wouldn't need to send Nils Antezana's effects anywhere. He wouldn't need to do a thing because Antezana's daughter, Fabiola, would be flying to Katmandu, Nepal, within four days to get both the effects and a meeting with Lisi, during which she would demand an explanation for what had happened. What she had heard in telephone calls made to other climbers led her to believe that Lisi had made mistakes no guide should make, and therefore was responsible at least in part for her father's death. Fabiola knew she wouldn't be bringing her father back, but she wanted to leave Katmandu with the truth about how his dream went awry.
HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS HAD ALWAYS CONSIDERED NILS ANTEZANA TO BE FULL OF SECRETS AND SURPRISES. He had a pilot's license and a plane, but his close friend Nick Ellyn never knew about either. For a long while, his flying buddies, with whom he co-owned the single-engine Cessna, knew little about Antezana's mountain climbing. Until after Antezana left for Everest, his wife had no idea that he had climbed a peak in Bolivia during a visit there a month earlier. "He was missing for four days, and I was asking people where he was," Gladys Antezana remembers. "[A relative], who heard it from somebody else, finally told me . . . I don't know why he didn't want me and others to know, but sometimes he was that way."
David Antezana, the couple's oldest child, saw the secrecy as a reflection of his father's desire for control over a few parts of his life. "He did a great deal for our family and other people," David says, "and I think he wanted something that belonged just to him. Many proud men are that way. They have things that are their own secrets."
For more than two decades, Nils Antezana had been the chief of pathology at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Alexandria, but when the hospital closed in 1994, Antezana did not rush out to reacquire an executive title, contenting himself instead with doing pathology work for a variety of medical offices and offering consultations at a local hospital. He was an immigrant who had received his medical training in Bolivia and then, although he spoke limited English, passed a U.S. exam to win his medical license in his new country in 1963. During his off hours, Antezana provided free treatment to patients in many of Washington's impoverished neighborhoods. Eventually, he brought his volunteer work into his home, where he set up an auxiliary office to treat the sore throats and flus of the poor, and examine economically squeezed cancer patients looking for a free second opinion, sometimes spending 30 hours a week treating the needy, apart from his normal job. He was indefatigable. Then came the closure of Jefferson Hospital, and for the first time in his life, Antezana had time on his hands. While continuing his charity work, he learned to scuba dive. He windsurfed and did some hang gliding. He got in a harness once with a sky diving instructor and jumped out of a plane at 14,000 feet. But nothing absorbed him as much as his new passion for scaling mountains, a pursuit that began with modest treks in the United States but soon took him out of the country. He climbed mostly in South America -- renowned peaks that, while not nearly as high as Everest, were the tallest on the continent.
He threw himself into his workout and climbing regimens, confident that he could slow down his aging process as he moved through his sixties. He did not like talk of his age. His daughter did not even know Antezana's real age before he left for Everest, believing up to the time the expedition ended that he was not 69, but 62. "He took pride that his body never had had real problems," Fabiola remembered. "He said his body was like a virgin's, untouched."
Still, life was not perfect. One morning, a few years ago, his wife remembers, he asked to speak to her. With a little bow of his head, he murmured: "With you, I am very happy. But I seem to be missing something." He told her that he needed the mountains.
She would not, could not, stop him, she knew. During their 38-year marriage, each would always grant independence to the other. She had a construction and property development business that consumed her hours, and he now had his climbing.
Late last year, he came out of the shower one day and sat down on the brown marble of the bathroom's Jacuzzi, another accouterment in the wonderful life they'd built, which included a nearly finished vacation house in Annapolis and a large network of friends and admirers. They'd achieved everything Gladys could want, only now it wasn't enough for him, and she had come to know it.
He had a towel around himself. He crossed his hands, in a prayerful position, and said to her, "Gladys, I want to go to Everest."

She had heard of his Everest dream for years, and she knew that some climbers died there. She realized he was looking not only for a blessing, but also for a bit of reassurance. She pushed back his wet hair. "God bless you," she said, equal parts blessing and a prayer. "God bless you."
He assured her that he would be okay, that he would get good people to coordinate the expedition, as well as experienced climbers to accompany him. He was fit, he told her. He would be ready. He would be as strong as he had ever been.

According to his wife and daughter, Antezana prepared hard for Everest, going off to South America to climb more and reading medical journal articles about the dangers of being oxygen-famished at high altitude, highlighting critical passages with a pen. He reread Jon Krakauer's harrowing Everest book, Into Thin Air, which chronicled two disastrous Everest expeditions in 1996, when the mountain's overall statistics were horrific: 98 summits, 15 deaths. At the same time, Nils began calling his son in Portland, where 37-year-old David works as a neurosurgeon. Sometimes he was calling David twice a day, inquiring about medications that might ward off the worst effects of altitude sickness.
"I think he was concerned," David says. "I think it hit him near the end, what he was trying to do. I don't think he would have been calling me so often if he felt good about everything." David sent his father a prescription for a performance-enhancing drug called Epogen, but Nils didn't want it. "He didn't like drugs," David says. "He didn't like receiving any extra help that others wouldn't be getting."
Antezana looked forward to Everest -- and beyond. He had plans, he'd told friends. He wanted to learn to ride a Harley when he returned. He wanted to water-ski. He hoped to climb Kilimanjaro. He was already looking forward to the next conquest.
ANTEZANA AND GUSTAVO LISI WERE INTRODUCED IN ANTEZANA'S NATIVE BOLIVIA ABOUT TWO YEARS AGO, as the older man prepared to summit a South American peak. Within weeks, Lisi became his climbing partner. Those who observed the two together said they could only guess at Lisi's appeal to Antezana. The younger man, they said, was usually affable, and Antezana seemed to appreciate a Spanish-speaking guide. When Antezana decided to confront Everest, he asked Lisi over the phone late last year to accompany him. According to Antezana's wife and daughter, Antezana agreed to pay all of the younger man's expenses and an unspecified salary, with a bonus of $10,000 for successfully bringing him to the summit and back.
In early April, the two men flew together to Rome, where they met an Italian named Manuel Lugli, the head of an expedition company, Il Nodo Infinito (The Infinite Knot), hired by Antezana to provide his small group with virtually everything they would need to summit Everest during the next two months. Those provisions included food at a series of camps, drink, stoves, tents, bottled oxygen, scaling equipment such as ropes, spikes for boots and so-called ice axes, which look like poles and serve to balance climbers on unsteady and steep terrain. Lugli would also look to hire climbing aides from among Nepal's Sherpa community, a Tibetan people known for their endurance at high altitudes.
Most importantly, Lugli would arrange to buy a permit to climb the Nepalese side of Everest. Expeditions with fewer than seven people, like Antezana's, pair up with larger teams to acquire a permit from the Nepalese government, paying about $10,000 per climber for the privilege. Antezana and Lisi hooked on to an expedition led by a Mexican climber named Alejandro Ochoa, becoming part of a combined nine-man group. But, under Nepal's rules on Everest, it is not mandatory that members of any team climb with their official leader. Having secured their portion of the permit, Antezana and Lisi could climb alone.
Lugli hired two experienced Sherpas who had scaled Everest before and would provide whatever assistance Lisi and Antezana requested during their climb. But Lugli had nothing to do with the involvement of Lisi, who would claim later, in an e-mail to The Washington Post, that he had never gone to Everest as Antezana's guide, only as another climber. Indeed, no one on Everest is officially characterized by Nepalese authorities as a guide. But guides are hired routinely for Everest expeditions, and Lugli said that Lisi's role was clear. "Both Lisi and Nils talked about Lisi as the guide," Lugli says.
Lisi declined to speak directly to The Washington Post about Antezana, but he responded generally to questions, via e-mail, about the expedition on Mount Everest. Their Everest experience began in the Nepalese town of Lukla, where, at more than 9,000 feet, a climber's acclimatization to high altitude begins. It is generally a six-week process during which the climber treks and gradually climbs upwards while his body on its own produces more oxygen-carrying red blood cells to compensate for the diminished oxygen in the air. Virtually everybody en route to Everest treks the 40 miles or so from Lukla to the Base Camp at the foot of the mountain, usually a week-long journey during which the first symptoms of high-altitude complications often appear in climbers -- headaches, nausea, gastrointestinal problems and colds. Antezana experienced all those problems soon enough.
Traveling in Antezana's party during that first week, Lugli kept an eye on the elderly climber's progress and difficulties. According to Lugli, Antezana told him that midway through that opening week, while ascending toward a small village called Pheriche, at an altitude of about 14,500 feet, Lisi trekked so far ahead of him that Antezana lost sight of his guide and got confused when he arrived at a fork in the path. Antezana chose the wrong direction and walked for about an hour before he realized his mistake, then doubled back as the temperature was falling, feeling tired and sick, incensed that Lisi had not waited for him. Lisi would later deny through e-mail that there had ever been a serious problem between them during their climb.
Antezana went off the next day to seek treatment for a sore throat from American nurse Rhonda Martin, who was in Pheriche with a medical team researching high-altitude illnesses. Martin says she listened as Antezana fumed about Lisi, whom he described as rude and disrespectful. "He said that Lisi had called him 'stupid' for getting lost," Martin remembers. "Nils kept saying: 'He yelled at me. You don't treat anyone like that, especially a paying client.' " Martin recollects that Antezana talked about the possibility of firing Lisi. "Nils said, 'This is not working out.' "
After Lugli left Everest to return home, new problems arose quickly, according to Antezana's journal, retrieved with his possessions by Lisi and the Sherpas at the end of the expedition. Antezana's cold developed into an upper respiratory tract infection. He was stricken as well by worsening gastrointestinal problems, suffering from diarrhea, dehydration and a weakness that left him unable to move on some days. He lost 16 pounds from his 5-feet-10, 160-pound frame, before he had even begun the trek on Everest. He told his family in a phone call that if his illness persisted, he might come home.
But Antezana was a determined man, and after four days of rest, he began the process of acclimatization climbs. There are four camps above Base Camp, and the acclimatization treks are limited to the first three, with expeditions trekking up and down the mountain -- over frozen, dangerously unstable icefalls as tall as skyscrapers and along perilously steep faces where climbers latch themselves on fixed ropes nailed into the mountain and where a mistake can mean a fatal fall.
Antezana wrote in his journal that Lisi continued to leave him behind during their climbs. Antezana expressed his anger in the journal: "I almost fired him . . . He does not have a good sense of responsibility and confuses it with servitude."
On Friday, May 7, an accomplished Mexican climber named Hector Ponce de Leon says he saw the Antezana party descending from the 24,000-foot Camp Three toward Camp Two, a journey that eventually took the climbers onto a glacier pitted in places by crevasses undetectable beneath the snow. Ponce de Leon glanced at Antezana and worried. He looked for Lisi, who was, Ponce de Leon remembers, about 220 yards ahead, a speck in the distance. "I thought to myself, 'Gustavo left him . . . Unbelievable.' "
Antezana appeared unstable, unable to walk a straight line. "He was wasted, and they were only in the [acclimatization] climbs," remembers Ponce de Leon. "He was so wasted he couldn't even see the right way to the camp."
With his faculties impaired, even the simplest things were becoming hard for Antezana. Ponce de Leon guided him until they were off the glacier and onto the solid ground of a valley. Nearing their destination, confident that Antezana could see the camp ahead, Ponce de Leon left him and hurried to confront Lisi, already in Camp Two. Ponce de Leon remembered swearing at him. "What are you doing here?" he yelled at Lisi. "Your client is back there. Go back and get him."
Lisi went back and got him.
About the same time, Antezana spoke to his family, who had worried since his arrival at Base Camp and the stories of his gastrointestinal problems and weight loss. His daughter, Fabiola, became particularly concerned during one phone call when Antezana stopped speaking in Spanish, his customary language when having a private conversation with a family member. She blurted: "Why are you talking in English? What's wrong?"
"I don't want him to hear me." Fabiola says she understood: Him was Lisi.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"It isn't going so well," she recalls her father saying. She pressed him, and he repeated what he had written in his journal: Lisi was unreliable. "I don't trust him," he said, according to Fabiola, but just as she had been ready to plead for him to return home, he added: "But I can rely on the Sherpas . . . They are good."
SEVERAL PROMINENT CLIMBERS AND EXPEDITION LEADERS HAD CONCERNS ABOUT THE 33-YEAR-OLD LISI. That group included Basque climber Edurne Pasaban -- the only surviving woman to have summited both Everest and the famously dangerous K2 on the Pakistan-China border -- and Ponce De Leon, as well as the brothers Damian and Willie Benegas, Argentine Americans who led a successful American-based expedition company. Among the most damning claims was that Lisi had inflated his climbing credentials when he told Antezana and others that he had reached the summit of Everest in 2000. Although the registries of Everest summits included no mention of Lisi ever having scaled the peak that year, the claim of his purported summit had been posted for a long while on Lisi's Web site, according to Damian Benegas and the Antezana family. Government officials in Lisi's hometown of Salta, Argentina, formally recognized his purported Everest achievement in a 2000 proclamation.
Lisi would later adamantly deny that he ever claimed to have summited Everest that year. But other climbers recalled Lisi touting such a feat. After arriving in Nepal in early April of this year, Lisi casually mentioned his success again, according to the American nurse, Rhonda Martin, who remembered Lisi saying that he had scaled the mountain's Tibetan north face in 2000.
Lisi's purported claim infuriated no one in the world more than a Spanish climber named Juan Carlos Gonzalez. The two men had been climbing Everest together in 2000, when, as Gonzalez tells the story, a weary Lisi abruptly gave up on his quest to reach the summit, stopping for good at the third of four camps between Everest's Base Camp and the peak. Gonzalez went on to summit, only to run into difficulties on the way down the mountain. A storm blew in, and he was forced to spend an entire night high on Everest.
Noting Gonzalez's absence, two other climbers, far down the mountain, hurriedly ascended in a rescue attempt. According to Gonzalez, who would lose seven fingers to frostbite in the incident, Lisi not only declined to participate in the rescue but later stole film from Gonzalez's camera while the saved man rested. The film showed Gonzalez atop the summit, film that, Gonzalez alleges, Lisi used to claim on his Web site that he, not Gonzalez, was the goggled man who had reached the peak. The controversy received notice in the South American press. Lisi has steadfastly denied all wrongdoing, adding that he participated in the Gonzalez rescue. The charges continue to dog Lisi's career in the insular alpine communities of Latin American and Spain.
Word of mouth has limits in moutaineering, however. On another continent, as 2004 began, Nils Antezana had heard nothing that dented his confidence in Lisi.
THIRTY DAYS INTO THEIR EXPEDITION, DURING THEIR FINAL PUSH TOWARD THE SUMMIT, Antezana climbed without bottled oxygen from Camp Three to Camp Four, which lies at 26,000 feet. The vast majority of climbers -- experienced guides and novices alike -- use bottled oxygen between camps Three and Four. Because the so-called Death Zone on Everest begins at 25,000 feet, and the air's oxygen level drops there to about one-third of what it is at sea level, those who trek without supplemental oxygen risk arriving at Camp Four exhausted before making their last and hardest climb up the mountain. Worse, any oxygen-famished body will be that much more susceptible in the Death Zone to such conditions as hypothermia and cerebral edema, the latter a condition where fluid leaks from blood vessels and swells the brain, bringing a coma and swift death if untreated.
Lisi would later say that Antezana had insisted on climbing without bottled oxygen between Camps Three and Four, that he wanted nothing that others in the party wouldn't be using. "When I asked Nils [about using supplemental oxygen], he said, 'No. Don't even think about it,' " Lisi recounted in a taped discussion with Damian Benegas, the prominent climber and guide later hired by the Antezana family to find out what happened during the expedition.

Benegas expressed his disapproval with Lisi's acquiescence. "As the guide, I would [have said to Antezana]: 'You're going to use the oxygen. If you don't use [oxygen], you're going back down the mountain.' "
Lisi insists that Antezana experienced no problem from Camp Three to Four. "He went perfectly without [bottled] oxygen," he says.
But Benegas said Lisi's two Sherpas told him a different story: that a tiring, slowing Antezana had been forced to use oxygen during the final hour and a half of what turned into another protracted climb. "Nils was totally drained by the lack of oxygen," said Benegas, recounting what he says Lisi's Sherpas later reported to him -- that the Antezana/Lisi party had arrived several hours late to Camp Four because Antezana was spent.
While denying that Antezana's condition portended problems, Lisi later acknowledged that the expedition called for a rest day at Camp Four, insisting that the extra day at the highest camp on the mountain had no negative effect on the climbers. "A terrible decision," Damian Benegas says. "The air has so little oxygen up there that every moment you spend there takes something more out of you. It is no place to rest that long. Everybody knows that."
On May 17, Antezana used a satellite phone to call his wife, who by then was in a hospital bed, already recovering from her surgery. She says she had felt increasingly tense as her husband drew closer to the summit, and now it was becoming too much for her.
He told her that he would be going to the summit that night. That he was leaving in darkness only made her more afraid. She didn't want to know any more about this climb. No more, she said.
He was trying to talk to her.
"No, I don't want to hear any more," she recalls protesting. "It makes me nervous. It makes me sick."
"Keep talking to me," he said.
"I don't want to hear any more."
"I love you," he said.
"Don't tell me any more. I don't want to hear any more." And she handed the phone to her daughter, who would say goodbye for both of them.
TO THE ALPINE COMMUNITY'S CHAGRIN, EVEREST MAKES FOR POPULAR DISASTER LITERATURE. But that obscures, notable climbers say, how manageable the mountain has become. An estimated record 250 people, including Antezana, made it to the top during the 2004 climbing season, and about half of them were first-timers, according to Tom Sjogren, an Everest summiter himself who co-founded a popular adventure Web site, Explorers Web. About 70 percent of Everest climbers made it to the summit of Everest this year, says Sjogren, whose estimates placed the success rates of the first-time climbers at 30 percent. That latter percentage has steadily risen in recent years.
Still, death is always present -- seven climbers died on the mountain during the 2004 season alone, about the average over the last 10 years, according to Sjogren. The risks remain. "If you don't push yourself harder than you have ever pushed yourself before, you'll fail," Sjogren says. "And that presents the challenge and the worry: How do you know when you've pushed yourself too hard? Or not enough? There are no guarantees, I'm saying. You need to reconcile yourself to the possibility that you might not come back."
No matter the number of fatalities, he notes, the climbers keep coming -- the rich, the middle-income, the CEOs, the postal workers, the climbing veterans, the novices, the type-A personalities, the thrill-seekers and the spiritual. Sjogren also sees an ever-growing contingent he calls "the trophy climbers" -- those looking to acquire an Everest summit for the same reason others want Mercedes hood ornaments: because the name has cachet and might give those associated with it a little extra stature. The mountain's allure for Americans in particular is undeniable. Sjogren estimates that Americans make up 30 to 40 percent of foreigners' summit attempts on Everest each climbing season. Some will arrive on Everest with large support teams befitting their wealth and prominence; others deplete bank accounts and take out second mortgages to pay expedition companies for the chance to climb with complete strangers.
Antezana fell somewhere in between, an affluent physician who would hire as his guide not a renowned climber who would have commanded from $25,000 to $65,000 -- but an unproven Everest climber, to whom he'd pay a lesser salary and a possible bonus. In Lisi, he had found a guide whose climbing ambition matched his own. For Antezana, that was enough.
ON THE EVENING OF MAY 17, ANTEZANA BEGAN HIS FINAL TREK TOWARD THE SUMMIT, wearing a mask and breathing bottled oxygen. The plan was to summit in the morning, in plenty of time to get off the highest, most dangerous part of the mountain before darkness fell and made it more difficult to see the terrain and locate camp. Climbers estimated the temperature around Camp Four to be minus 7 degrees, which is about normal for that area of the mountain. Early into his climb, Antezana began laboring, leaning hard on his ice ax for support, according to nearby climbers. At about 10 p.m., an Irish team led by Pat Falvey, which had left Camp Four about a half-hour after Antezana and Lisi, was already prepared to pass the Antezana party on a steep icy patch. Falvey was climbing with a doctor named Clare O'Leary, who was on her way, at 33, to becoming the first Irish woman to reach the summit. O'Leary came alongside Antezana and looked over. "I couldn't really see his face, but he was stooped over, and you could see he was struggling," she remembers. "I just assumed that he'd soon be turning [around] and going back [to Camp Four]. There was just no way that it seemed possible he was going to make it."
Falvey was slightly concerned. "I thought it could be dangerous for their whole [group] at the rate they were moving," he recalls.
According to Falvey, O'Leary, and Damian Benegas, the two Sherpas with Lisi and Antezana would later claim that, at roughly this point on the mountain, they first urged both the guide and their client to halt their climb and return to Camp Four. Until that moment, the Sherpas had been reticent, in a manner characteristic of climbing Sherpas, who typically receive $1,500 to $2,500 for two months of work, a considerable sum in a land where average annual per-capita incomes are a fraction of that. They are particularly deferential in the face of high-paying Westerners, who often bestow bonuses of several thousand dollars upon them for a successful summit and return. Antezana offered his Sherpas such bonuses. As Falvey recounts, the Sherpas said they had done nothing to that point to exert influence, despite the fact that their credentials were arguably superior to those of their guide. The senior among them, listed in Everest registries as "Mr. Dorjee Sherpa," was known to have summited Everest nine times already (more than Pat Falvey and Willie and Damian Benegas combined). Dorjee was thought to be in his early forties and living in a nearby Nepalese village. The other Sherpa was 35-year-old "Mr. Mingmar Sherpa," addressed simply as Mingmar and known by accomplished climbers as an amiable and strong companion.
After their Everest expedition ended, the two Sherpas would head back on a long trek to their remote villages in the Himalayas, unreachable for comment. But, before leaving, claim Falvey and Damian Benegas, the Sherpas would talk about their experience on Everest with Antezana and Lisi. According to these second-hand accounts, the two Sherpas suggested to Antezana that he should not continue to the summit that night. But Antezana indicated he did not want to quit, and neither did Lisi.
Dorjee and Mingmar's disdain for Lisi had grown during the expedition, others say. "I'd seen Dorjee at the beginning of Base Camp," says Lhawang Dhondup, a Sherpa who says he has twice summited Everest while guiding Westerners and lives in Berkeley, Calif. "He already wasn't feeling confident [about the expedition] because, he said, Lisi wasn't listening to anybody. Dorjee thought Lisi was too cocky. He was worried it could get all messed up when they got high."
Lisi led the group on the slow push toward the summit. Pat Falvey and Clare O'Leary crossed paths again with Antezana several hours later. Falvey and O'Leary had reached the summit early in the morning and had begun their descent after a mere 20 minutes on the peak. Now, a little more than 300 feet down, they saw Antezana moving laboriously along the narrow ridge of what is called the South Summit. O'Leary passed within a few inches of him. Focused on the trek, neither said a word to the other. "God, he's still here," O'Leary says she thought to herself in alarm.
As Antezana and Lisi passed, Falvey said to O'Leary that, given the older man's halting pace, it would take him and the other climbers in his party another three hours or so to arrive at the summit, over a stretch of terrain that generally demanded no more than an hour. Falvey kept moving, intent on getting O'Leary down the mountain before it became dark.
In those last hours, Antezana would have heard little else but the sound of his own breathing through a mask. His trek had become alarmingly slow, but finally, after roughly 14 hours of climbing from Camp Four, he summited at about 10 a.m., the dream realized. Already, however, the cost of the dream hovered. Here he was, the oldest American and second-oldest man in the world to accomplish the feat, and now he looked out over Nepal on one side and Tibet on the other. He was at 29,028 feet, an altitude at which planes cruise and the air has only about 30 percent as much oxygen as at sea levels. Even with his bottled oxygen, his brain would have been slogging by then, his reactions slowed, his thoughts suddenly primitive, as they are for nearly every climber, according to experts. The wind howled. Antezana's group lingered, standing for 40 minutes on the summit. "Too long," Damian Benegas says. "Most people go down a lot quicker than that. You don't stay that long up in air [so thin], especially when you were so slow getting to the summit, and you still need to get down."
They started their descent, and almost immediately Antezana ran into trouble -- not with any rocks or the snow but with his own limits, and that thin air. Antezana was discovering what other climbers had learned before him: that, with an adrenaline rush gone and a climber's energies spent on the ascent, it is often harder to go down Everest than up.
Within the next couple of hours, Antezana collapsed for the first time, according to accounts that Damian Benegas and Pat Falvey's team say they later received from Dorjee and Mingmar. Antezana was exhibiting the classic signs of cerebral edema: He was disoriented, unstable, his sight impaired, his movements reduced to stumbles. His group was at the Hillary Step, a 40-foot ridge down which climbers typically rappel on ropes to the bottom. Dorjee and Mingmar had to harness Antezana to a rope, then slowly lower him.

About three hours later, the Sherpas said, the group had traveled no more than about 300 feet down from the summit. Exhausted and woozy, Antezana nearly fell off the side of the mountain. The Sherpas steadied him, carefully placing his feet on the narrow ridges. As they struggled, it was getting colder and darker. Now it was clear that it would be nighttime at the earliest before they arrived back at Camp Four, and only if they could drag Antezana most of the way.
Later, Lisi would claim in the taped discussion that it was about there and then on Everest's South Summit, as Antezana foundered again, that Dorjee told Lisi to go down the mountain to lift the fixed ropes from the snow and clear them of any ice, so they wouldn't become unusable. Damian Benegas says that Dorjee later denied that he ordered or suggested that Lisi do anything, insisting that Lisi began descending on his own, without discussion. What is undisputed is that for the next several hours, Dorjee and Mingmar alone helped the stumbling, sometimes babbling Antezana, picking him up whenever he fell, eventually supporting him as he tried to put one foot in front of another
.

Lisi stayed ahead of them by 50 to 110 yards, he said later, within sight but out of touch, until finally, sapped of energy and temporarily unable to continue, he dug a bivouac in the snow and climbed into a sleeping bag to nap.
The Sherpas were spent themselves by late afternoon. High on the mountain, Antezana collapsed again. According to the accounts, the Sherpas tried giving him water, but he could not even drink now. He was having difficulty putting words together. He seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness and babbling nonsensically, thought the Sherpas, who had spent the day worrying about this very possibility.
Now, according to accounts from Lhawang Dhondup and Falvey, the Sherpas thought they were all in trouble. They rested the stricken man against a block of snow and ice, an alcove of sorts above a thin promontory on the mountain known as the Balcony, a point about 1,600 vertical feet above Camp Four. Sixteen hundred feet does not sound like a long way -- a little more than a quarter-mile in altitude from their goal -- but, because of the doctor's condition and the need to support him, it would take them hours to make the descent over twisting terrain bedeviled in spots by ice and upon which the correct path to the camp is not always discernible at night, even to climbers wearing headlamps. There was the understanding that, given the cold, the darkness and their own deteriorating condition, none of them might make it back that night if they continued moving so slowly -- and that the night might turn into forever.
When the Sherpas bent to put two oxygen bottles next to Antezana in the snow, it was a signal. Even in his stupor, the doctor seemed to understand it, they later said: They had decided to leave him. One of the Sherpas told Falvey and Damian Benegas that he removed his down jacket and laid it upon Antezana, to give him an extra layer of warmth -- and an extra chance against the thing that none of them talked about. By then any assumptions about unbreakable loyalty had crumbled, as they sometimes do on Everest. The instinct for self-preservation had kicked in.
Antezana was drifting in and out of consciousness, though now almost entirely out, the Sherpas thought. "I'm going to stay here, and you stay here with me," the fallen man said, according to accounts that Falvey and Damian Benegas reported from the Sherpas. "The mountain is my home. Don't leave me. We should all die together."
The Sherpas made sure the oxygen bottles were within the doctor's reach and checked a last time to make sure the extra down jacket was securely around him. Then they turned to walk away. In this last instant, Antezana pleaded in the only way he had left. He grabbed at the legs of one of the Sherpas and tried to hold on. The Sherpa pulled his leg free, and the two men strode down, hurrying toward the mountain's highest refuge.
THE FOURTH AND LAST MAN IN THEIR FRACTURED PARTY, the guide who had been away for several hours by then, was still in his sleeping bag down the mountain. Within the next hour or so, the two Sherpas discovered Lisi nestled in his makeshift bivouac in the snow. To the Sherpas, he appeared asleep. If Lisi didn't wake up, he'd likely freeze to death during the night. The Sherpas shook him hard until he stirred, and continued down the mountain toward Everest's Camp Four, but not before Lisi asked what had happened to the doctor.
He is dead, Lisi would say the Sherpas told him. Later, in a taped conversation, he changed that characterization, saying that he was told the doctor was unconscious.
The three men set out toward camp, the weary Lisi trailing. A few hours later, with night having fallen, a British party of climbers on their way toward the summit passed within a few yards of Lisi. The guide of the British team, Victor Saunders, exchanged glances with Lisi. It was the first real opportunity for Lisi to summon help for Antezana.
To Saunders, Lisi looked awful, bent over and stumbling. Saunders also noticed that Lisi had the thermal material known as down coming out of a hole in the back of his pants, seeming evidence that he had fallen somewhere. Rough climb, thought Saunders.
Ahead of Lisi, Saunders saw his own hired Sherpas talking to the two Sherpas from Lisi's group. When the groups of Sherpas parted, Saunders recollects overhearing a couple of his group's Sherpas say, "Bad Sherpas."
What was all that about? Saunders asked them.
One of the Sherpas explained that Lisi's Sherpas had gone off while one of their climbers was high on the mountain, atop the Balcony.
Saunders says he didn't take this complaint to mean that the climber was abandoned or stranded, simply that the unknown person was lagging perhaps, in need of a brief rest. He and his team resumed their ascent, while Lisi and the two Sherpas continued down. One of the Sherpas was in dire need of quickly reaching the camp. Having placed his down jacket upon the fallen Antezana, he was shivering, on the verge of hypothermia and collapse himself. The two Sherpas hurried, leaving behind Lisi, who at some point fell and lost his climber's headlamp. Descending alone under a dying light, he finally stopped on a patch of ice because he could not see, he would later explain.
He was only about 220 yards above the tents of Camp Four, but it might as well have been 200 miles: He had no way of knowing where he was, and a wrong step on the ice might be disastrous. He was stuck. The weather was turning bad. Dying was a possibility now, especially as his oxygen had run out. Stranded men and women had perished even closer to Camp Four during nightfall, discovered at daylight as frozen corpses. Lisi started screaming.
He howled a long time, as he remembered, until two Sherpas with Pat Falvey's Irish expedition team heard his cries, climbed in the direction of the shouts and, after about a half-hour, found him and guided him down. Although tired and stumbling, Lisi was conscious and alert as the three men arrived at Camp Four, but conscious and alert are relative terms high on Everest. It was somewhere between 10 p.m. and midnight, a moment that those close to Antezana would thereafter struggle to comprehend. Having been rescued, Lisi made no mention of his client. Besides Lisi's Sherpas, the camp's residents at that moment included the sleeping Falvey and Clare O'Leary. Instead of rousing them, Lisi walked past their tents. He accepted oxygen bottles from his two rescuers, found a tent of his own, and promptly went to sleep.
Having been starved for bottled oxygen for several hours, perhaps Gustavo Lisi had nothing left but an instinct for survival, some climbers would reason later. Some saw the possibility that, despite his screams, Lisi was semi-comatose, his brain cells numbed by air he couldn't breathe. "This was a man who'd been climbing up over [25,000 feet] for 25, 26, 27 hours by then, and a lot of that time without [bottled] supplemental oxygen," said Victor Saunders, who, after passing Lisi, was heading up the mountain on a summit path that would have taken him directly toward the spot above the Balcony where Antezana had been left. But he turned back after a storm hit high on the mountain, relieved that he hadn't needed to make part of the trek without oxygen like Lisi. "You're woozy [without oxygen], and it's not always obvious. I'd like to think I would have done things a lot differently than [Lisi]. After all, he was conscious, he was able to talk, and he could have talked, certainly. But I don't know what was going on in his mind. Passing judgment is hard in a place that extreme."
For his part, Lisi insisted in the taped conversation that he would have been with Antezana every step during that last day, but for his own struggles. That he needed to climb into his sleeping bag only underscored the magnitude of his horrendous fatigue, he said.
When Lisi awakened, it was morning. He called his mother and then his Web site manager on a satellite phone, to tell them that he had reached the summit. His Web site soon reported his accomplishment -- GUSTAVO LISI CONQUERS EVEREST -- without mentioning Antezana at all.
Lisi had yet to contact the Antezana family. At Camp Four, members of the Irish team say, they listened as he made his phone calls. Before Lisi said a word to any of them about the crisis up the mountain, they already had deduced that something was terribly awry: A man from the Lisi party was missing. Pat Falvey says he approached Lisi, who finally acknowledged that he had a client stranded near the Balcony. That point was within sight of Camp Four, achingly close. But with the new storm hitting high on Everest, Antezana was hidden and all but impossible to reach.
Climbers stranded overnight had been saved before. But the next morning at Camp Four, with the storm only growing worse, Pat Falvey and Victor Saunders decided that a rescue attempt was futile and dangerous. By then, Gustavo Lisi had headed down the mountain, escorted by two of Falvey's Sherpas. By day's end, nearly everyone on the mountain concluded that Antezana was certainly dead. The following evening, as the weather cleared, other expeditions started up toward the summit. They passed the spot where Antezana had been left. He was gone. Saunders and others guessed that Antezana had risen or crawled briefly before falling off a ledge or down a face of Everest. After almost 83 years of known expeditions, the mountain is littered with unrecovered bodies.
FABIOLA ANTEZANA IS, IN ALL WAYS, HER FATHER'S DAUGHTER -- relentless and resourceful. Her bond with her father was so tight that her brother, David, viewed them as alter egos. "I was never able to get into my father's head like my sister did," he says. "She got in so deep that they would know what each other was dreaming."
She grew up in Washington, for the most part. But because her family had the means and her father wanted her to learn languages early, she has studied and worked all over the world -- in Paris, Madrid, Moscow and London, to name a few places. The result is that, at 35, she has one of those accents described in another era as continental, which invests her tone with an upper-crust moral certainty.
She had decided to conduct her own investigation, at least in part because she had heard of no Nepalese officials questioning Lisi. Rather than ask Lisi to provide a statement, the authorities in Nepal's Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation had accepted a report on Nils Antezana's death from the official leader of his expedition, Alejandro Ochoa, who never climbed with the Antezana party and who had had no association with Antezana since the two men jointly purchased a climbing permit. According to ministry official Purna Bhakta Tankukar, Ochoa stated that Antezana died of "high-altitude sickness," providing no additional information.
That wasn't nearly enough for Fabiola Antezana, who had flown to Katmandu with her husband, Davide Percipalle, and Damian Benegas, whom Fabiola had hired to look into her father's death. Fabiola came to Nepal to build a case, though she understood there was no history of Nepalese authorities charging Everest climbers with criminal or civil negligence. Instead, she says, she wanted to blacklist Lisi in the alpine community. For this to happen, she decided she needed an audiotape of any conversation she might have with him, and for her to get him on tape she believed she had no other choice but to sneak a cassette recorder into her backpack for when they met.
She faced Lisi at a table in the lounge of a Katmandu hotel. Her backpack, with the tape recorder running inside, was on the table. She stayed silent for a long while. Her husband sat alongside her, as Lisi listened to Damian Benegas, who had been questioning and sometimes lecturing Lisi. Everyone at the table spoke in Spanish. On the tape, Lisi did not dispute references to himself as Antezana's guide. "Gustavo, from a professional point of view, certain things you did, morally, ethically, were incorrect," Benegas said.
"For example?" Lisi asked in a gravelly voice.
"You took two days to inform the family," Benegas responded "Look, Damian," Lisi said. "I will explain something to you. I believe I don't even have to explain it to you. I didn't have my notebook [at Camp Four]. And I was dead, dead, dead."
"Pat Falvey, the Irish, [said] when he went for you [the next morning], you were on the phone."
"That's when I [received a call]," Lisi explained. "And I didn't have Nils's home telephone number. And I could not send information the next day not knowing what had happened."
Benegas pointed out that Lisi had sent word of his own summit to his Web site. "It would have been better for you not to inform your Web page of anything," he said.
"No, no," Lisi protested. "What I informed my Web page -- "
Benegas cut him off, snapping: "You [said] you did the summit." Then, fuming, he added what Lisi had failed to mention on his Web site. "A person died on you."
Benegas moved the discussion to Lisi's decisions on the final day of Antezana's life. "I'm sorry, Gustavo," he said, "but all of you should have [turned around]."
"Damian, I did not know he was 60 years old," Lisi said.
"He was 69 years old," Benegas corrected. "All the more reason."
Lisi's voice soon began rising. "He was walking very fine during the entire expedition."
"You were seen going too slowly."
"You know something? A lot of people see you on the mountain," Lisi responded.
Soon Fabiola Antezana could stay quiet no longer. She and her husband wanted to know why Lisi had not immediately told others about Nils at Camp Four.
"That night I came down at 11 o'clock," Lisi said. "I was dead tired."
"But you were not unconscious," Fabiola said.
"No, Fabiola, I was not unconscious," Lisi said. "But I was dead tired . . . "
Her husband could not conceal his contempt. "You were tired."
Lisi stayed calm. "Coming down I suffered a fall. Look, I have the marks from the bumps."
Fabiola wanted to know about her father's last hours, so Lisi repeated the story he had told others. "The day we were bringing your father down, when I arrived at the Balcony, I remained there, waiting. They were 50 to 70 yards further up. They were helping Nils because Nils could no longer do anything by himself. He could not stand, could not walk, could not talk, nothing."
"Could not talk?" a skeptical Fabiola said. "Nevertheless, [you said] he told you, 'The mountain is my home. Leave me here.' "
"He told me that further up there, before I came down to the Balcony."
Shortly before they parted, Lisi tried offering more of an explanation. "I'm not going to lie to you . . . ," he said. "I was dead tired. It didn't occur to me [to notify people at Camp Four], don't ask me why, I don't know what happened . . . When I woke up, the first thing I did was ask Dorjee and Mingmar what we were going to do about Nils. The weather was horrible . . ."
Lisi suggested the group was looking for a scapegoat. "You have to find who is at fault. I know the story."
Benegas vented one last frustration: "I hope you question your career. Because, personally, I am going to make sure no one else will have you as a guide."
AFTER RECEIVING HIS CERTIFIED SUMMIT CERTIFICATE FROM NEPALESE OFFICIALS, GUSTAVO LISI LEFT KATMANDU AND WENT OFF TO CLIMB IN BOLIVIA, while hoping to attract clients for future expeditions. In an e-mail to The Washington Post, he reiterated his explanations about what happened on Everest, and asked that the controversy be allowed to end: "I AM SURE THAT MY FRIEND DESERVES TO REST IN ETERNAL PEACE, AND STOP QUESTIONING HIS EXPEDITION."
It has been left to his mother, Maria Marinaro Lisi, to speak about her son. "He phoned [from Everest] to say he had arrived [on the summit]," she says. "It was fantastic . . . It was everything to him that he made it to the summit." But, she adds, at some point later while talking from Everest, her son became inconsolable over Nils Antezana's death, the subject consuming most of their conversations. "He was sobbing uncontrollably."
Maria Lisi says she doesn't like talking about Everest. "I hate the mountain, I hate the mountain," she says, explaining that when her son goes climbing, "I never know if he'll return to me. You never know what the mountain will do."
In some ways, Gladys Antezana has learned exactly what it will do. Halfway around the world from Everest, she lights candles in memory of Nils on some days, and on some days she doesn't. There are moments when she gets so angry at him that she calls him names. She goes back and forth about it. They all go back and forth about Nils and his needs.
In one way or another, he had been climbing throughout his accomplished life, but, as he had said to his wife on that quiet morning, there was something missing. In Gustavo Lisi, he discovered a kindred companion, another man still searching for his peak. Despite their differences, they had found each other, and that was the real danger.
Michael Leahy is a Magazine staff writer and the author of the recently released When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan's Last Comeback. Magazine production manager Leslie A. Garcia, Oscar Camacho and Tadeo Hernandez translated interviews for this story. Leahy will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.