Trekking up the northwest face of one of the world's tallest mountains, Chris Warner had a terrifying realization: "I knew in about two minutes I could be dead."
The light snow that had fallen all morning on Cho Oyu, a 26,750-foot peak just west of Mount Everest on the border of Nepal and Tibet, had unexpectedly picked up in intensity–snowing six inches in 45 minutes. The two climbers, led by Warner, were at 23,000 feet last September when they decided it wasn't safe to continue up the mountain.
"That's when I noticed two cracks forming in the snow below us," he says. They were a clue the snow was about to give way.
"I had seconds to make a life-or-death decision," he says. "I was thinking, what is the volume of the snow? Is there a way I can trigger it? Will it knock us around, or will it kill us?"
Warner decided he had to trigger the avalanche or it would come later with more intensity. He jumped up and down in the snow to loosen it. When the ten-foot wall of snow gave, it smacked him on his side with the force of a truck. The snow spun him in circles down the mountain until his 300 feet of safety rope ran out of slack. The rope, held in place by multiple stakes, jerked Warner back while the rushing whiteness continued to pass overhead.
Alive, well, and thousands of miles from Cho Oyu, the six-foot-four Warner sits in a Columbia, Maryland, warehouse.
"This is my playground," he says. Two 44-foot climbing walls tower above him. Several people, wearing harnesses, are using the hand- and footholds to climb to the top. "Building this was the biggest expedition of my life," he says.
"This" is Earth Treks, the largest rock-climbing gym in the Mid-Atlantic. Opened in 1997, it has 15,000 square feet of climbing space and enough features to satisfy both beginner and advanced climbers. Last year, Earth Treks taught 10,000 people to climb.
"The whole point of Earth Treks is to show that climbing isn't just for me," he says. "It's for everyone."
Warner has tried to see that Earth Treks feels more like a community center than a gym. Bulletin boards describe upcoming events and member accomplishments. Warner walks around, checking ropes and sharing stories from his recent adventures.
When the rebellious Warner was 15, his New Jersey high school sent him into the wilderness for a week. The hope was that a brush with nature would help him and other misbehaved kids turn their lives around. For Warner, it worked. He was inspired by the guides who taught him survival skills and showed that exploring could be a career.
He's been climbing ever since–150 times reaching the top of peaks more than 20,000 feet high. His goal is to stand atop the world's 14 highest mountains. Thus far he has reached only one, but several expeditions are planned for the near future. Warner is most proud of a 23,350-foot climb up Nepal's Ama Dablam, where he forged a new route to the summit.
"My axes bit deeply into the blue ice, the cold air flowed effortlessly in and out of my lungs, and the rope slid steadily through my partner's belay plate," he wrote in Climbing magazine in 1991. "The crest of the summit ridge was just ahead."
Warner runs his finger up a large photograph of the mountain he describes, India's 21,543-foot Mount Shivling, demonstrating the route he took. At home in Ellicott City, he is far from the risks involved in climbing, a sport in which facing life and death is part of the allure.
He has a slew of stories that combine frostbitten fingers, frozen water bottles, and extreme fatigue. They are his war stories. In the macho culture of climbing, each successful summit illustrates one thing: In a battle of man against nature, man won.
His new challenge is 29,028-foot Mount Everest. Warner, a team of four guides, eight paying clients ($35,000 each), and 14 Sherpas met in Katmandu, Nepal, on March 30. A plane took them to Lhasa, Tibet, where they began a five-day journey by Jeep to base camp at 17,000 feet. The expedition is being broadcast over the Internet, and everything from Warner's ropes to his lightweight camping gear has been sponsored.
Warner shrugs off the prospect of spending 2H months on Everest. Last year, he slept in his tent more than in his own home, leading expeditions in Nepal, Peru, Tibet, and Ecuador. He is 35 and married, but he and wife Joyce have no children and no pets. They returned from abroad in 1988 to wed, then jetted off to Thailand.
"If we had kids, they would fire us," he says. "But I'm the best uncle anyone could have."