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Everest Traverse Special - The boy in the bubble
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May 18, 2005 18: 50 EST
Previously published May 6, 2005 03: 15 EST

The Everest Traverse is the most unusual climb on Everest normal routes this year. The climbers will go up the south side and come down the north. Although there have been a few other traverses on Everest before, this kind of Nepal-Tibet traverse has only been done once before.

In 1988, the ambitious China-Japan-Nepal “Asian friendship Expedition” consisting of a whopping 254 members broke up into two squads and launched simultaneous climbs from both the Nepal and Tibet sides of the mountain, meeting at the summit on May 5th. They had lugged cables all the way up the mountain, and installed a massive 4.5 m antenna dish high up on the north side to beam their show to the anxious viewers six miles below. Six climbers (one Japanese, three Tibetans and two Sherpas) accomplished the traverse, three of them from each side.

This year, four-time Everest summiteer Luis Benitez and a sherpa will guide Australian Piers Buck on the unusual climb.

Asthmatic kid

Diagnosed with severe asthma as a baby, Luis spent his entire childhood in oxygen tents and emergency rooms, downing powerful drugs. He was literally the boy in the bubble, locked away indoors, buried in the pages of National Geographic. At the age of ten, he began seeing a new doctor who suggested a (then) radical treatment. Along with drugs, he recommended endurance exercise to strengthen Benitez lungs: swimming in chlorine laden, allergen-free, indoor swimming pools and - trekking at altitude.

Benitez began hiking in the Andes Mountains. His first official summit: Mt. Cotopaxi (19,350 ft) in Ecuador. He was 16 years old. Hurling and dizzy, he summitted at sunrise, as lightning flashed over the jungle below. He was hooked.

Record for most consecutive summits of Everest

Now, at 32, Luis is one of the world’s most busy high altitude mountain guides, leading expeditions year round. Although many experienced professionals are a decade or more older than him, Luis stands out in his own way: In 2004, he claimed the world’s (non-Sherpa) record for most consecutive summits of Everest: 4 in 4 years. And he was one of the guides on blind climber Erik Weihenmayer's 2001 summit, documented in the feature film “Farther Than The Eye Can See.”

Dislikes elitism

A humble guy, Luis dislikes elitism. In "King of Cardboard", one of his dispatches, he criticizes “mountain porn” magazines for their coverage of the world of "the bold and the beautiful" and the athletes referred to as "the brotherhood” who smirk at the international guiding profession.

Luis defends the blind guy's dream of Everest and Joe Leroy, the “king of cardboard”. Joe, who left school at an early age to help out with the family bills, packing boxes day and night, sometimes working 24 hours to get the job done. Joe was neither cool, bold nor beautiful - but he was solid as a rock and he had a secret dream - to climb Everest. “Luis”, he said, “I have worked hard for everything I have and I will work hard for Everest if you let me.”

The everyday warrior, the underdog who fights against all odds - that's Luis' kind of guy.

A great climber doesn't make for a great guide

A great climber doesn't automatically make for a great guide. Guiding is a unique profession; one that requires equal measures of caution and courage. Benitez is a certified wilderness EMT, and there has never been a fatality on any of his expeditions.

Hired by Outward Bound in Colorado, he initially conducted courses in mountaineering, rock climbing and avalanche training, as well as teaching skiing, ice climbing and kayaking. Luis has always chosen his outfitters well. Leading for Adventure Consultants since 2004, from 1998 until 2004, he was a guide for Alpine Ascents International, another of the world’s most respected mountaineering expedition companies.

On each expedition, Benitez is also responsible for overseeing the reports, satellite transmissions and webcasts - using edge communications gear. A mountaineering correspondent for ESPN Satellite Radio Network, Luis is also one of the pioneers of the Contact 3.0 GEO system this season.

Burning bridges is good for the soul

The Everest Traverse - the road less traveled and the first ever commercially led - is a major attempt for the young guide. Luis knows that it won't be easy.

Just before his departure on the expedition, he wrote, at 5 a.m. in the morning: "Most say that when you depart on these types of trips you burn bridges, as the emotions are sometimes too much to handle. I for one think burning bridges sometimes is good for the soul. It teaches you to never take anything for granted, to always live each day as if it is your last, and to do what you believe is right and what you believe to be your best, no matter what the cost."

“Down with the cowards and the skeptics"

Currently in Camp 2, only a few weeks remain for the climbers summit push. Much will be at stake. Will the weather cooperate, will the client be strong enough? And after helping his fellow guiding mate Mike Roberts with the rest of the Adventure Consultant's team - will Luis himself have power left to take his little crew over the mountain and down a new path? Time will tell.

Till then, let's leave with a quote from one of his favorite philosophers, Teilhard de Chardin.
“A passionate love of growth, of being, THAT is what we need…” “Down with the cowards and the skeptics, the pessimists and the unhappy, the weary and the stagnant.”
“Do not mock for an instant anything that looks like faith in our future.”

Luis chooses lines like these for a reason. The boy in the bubble already summitted Everest four times. He should know.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1972; his mother Italian/American; his father, an immigrant from Ecuador, Luis has been a busy guide. He has summitted Everest 4 times, Aconcagua 10 times, and stood on other "Seven Summit" peaks 14 times. Since Everest last May, he's been to Elbrus (5642m) in the old USSR, Ama Dablam, Antarctica (Mt Vinson with Annabelle Bond), and Aconcagua. On each of his expeditions, Luis has been dispatching pics and reports over Contact 3.0. Currently single, Luis lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Piers is a 30-year-old climber based out of Melbourne. He began climbing 5 years ago, and has spent most of his vacation time climbing in New Zealand and the European Alps. In the Himalayas, Piers attempted the Kangshung to Rongbuk traverse via Lho La but had to turn back due to deep snow. He climbed Cho Oyu via the Northwest Face.

The difficulty of an Everest traverse is obvious: Climbers don't have the advantage of following a familiar route on their descent - they will have to negotiate new terrain when they are at their most tired. They also need special climbing permits, double visas, and logistics prepared for both sides of the mountain.

Adventure Consultants, founded by the legendary climber and pioneering Everest guide Rob Hall, and now directed by Guy Cotter, is one of the world's leading Everest climbing outfits.

Images top to bottom:

1. Teams current position over Contact 3.0 GEO on Everest South side.

2. Teams route of descend on Everest North side.

3. Luis working the camera and Piers (insert) live image over Contact 3.0.

4. Teams current altitude (camp 2) over Contact 3.0 GEO.

All images courtesy of Luis Benitez and Adventure Consultants.

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