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.
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
He had a terrible accident, a catastrophe,
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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,"
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
What was all that about? Saunders asked
One of the Sherpas explained that Lisi's
Sherpas had gone off while one of their
climbers was high on the mountain, atop
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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,"
"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
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
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.