Dateline   |  September 06, 2013

Into the Death Zone, Part 4

Climbers enter the “Death Zone,” but realize the crowds mean it will take hours to get to the top – and come back down.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> narrator: it was early morning on may 19 . shriya shah was now about 11 hours into her final push towards the summit of mt. everest . in many places there was just one rope line for climbers to hook on to. that meant all those people were lined up nose to backside, moving only as fast as the climber in front of them. a german reporter took this photograph, with 100 climbers attached to each other. russell bryce has safely led hundreds to is summit over the last decade, he said all those climbers bunched together were a disaster just waiting to happen.

>> i'm looking at that picture and going, has everyone lost their head? now if a rock had fallen, a rock, say the size of my body, those people can't move anywhere. they're stuck.

>> narrator: but bryce's climbers weren't in that line. two weeks before, he made the decision to send them all home from base camp saying that between the crowds and the weather, it was impossible to continue.

>> i think this year was a very special year.

>> narrator: he sent home climbers who paid $50,000 apiece with no refunds. shriya shah had made a different decision. now 15 hours into her climb, she was exhausted and frequently had to sit down and rest. jon kedrowski and sandra leduc were behind them.

>> we're just not made to survive at their altitudes.

>> the easiest comparison is to having too much alcohol in your system and being completely impaired in terms of your ability to rationalize and understand a given situation. you're really focused on one thing only and it's putting one foot in front of the other.

>> how long on the mountain in the death zone is too long?

>> i think a good rule is, specifically on everest , is if you're still going up at the 12-hour mark, there's something wrong. so you should turn around.

>> narrator: shriya shah wasn't turning around. now 16 hours into her climb, she reached a 40- foot wall of rock and ice called the hillary step, the last major obstacle before the summit. here there was a rope line for all of those going up and down. the weigait in each direction had been two hours long. shriya had been so slow and the line so long, she was now down to her last battle of oxygen. she had object 20 minutes left. the sherpas said they tried to convince her to head back down.

>> the two sherpas said we can see that this is not going well, we can see that you're not going to make it. you need to head back down. she said no, i'm going to the summit.

>> even we feel like, you have to go, and strongly. she' like no, i spend money and my goal is to reach the sum prett summit. and i will go.

>> this idea of being able to turn somebody around who's paid so much money to try and make it to the point on the earth that's only another 100 feet is so difficult.

>> narrator: the utmost owner gave her one last bottle of oxygen, about four hours' worth. then he left her and headed down. with single minded focus, shriya battled on, until about 2:00 p.m . on that brilliant afternoon, something remarkable happened. after 19 1/2 showers of climbing, shriya shah reached her dream, the summit of mt. everest , 29,000 feet. shriya 's husband could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

>> i just felt proud. for me that, overshadowed the sense of danger that i had about the whole thing. shriya shah spent almost half an hour savoring that moment.

>> she doesn't look that cold, but she must have been cold. amazing determination, but absolutely stupid.

>> narrator: while she was basking in her incredible accomplishment, shriya was also using up her precious remaining oxygen, which was again, dangerously low.

>> how long would that oxygen likely last?

>> four hours.

>> so she likely would have been running out of oxy general.

>> narrator: she had enough oxygen to go up, but not enough to get back down. she may not have known it yet, but she was now in grave danger .

>> because your body is used to having this oxygen and a all of a sudden it runs out and it's a huge shock to your system. it's like breathing through a straw.

>> narrator: windchills exceeded 55 degrees below zero . as shriya shah finally headed back down the mountain, she would soon find herself in a slow motion race to save her own life.