Famed American mountaineer Conrad Anker knew something was very wrong. He was six pitches up at nearly 20,000 feet, attempting to summit Lunag-Ri, the tallest unconquered peak in Nepal currently open to climbers. He would be turning 54 in a couple of weeks. The severe pain in his chest didn't feel like a pulmonary or cerebral reaction to high altitude.
It was an acute coronary syndrome, also known as a heart attack.
"Having never experienced anything of this nature, I immediately understood this as a time-critical health situation," he later wrote on his Facebook page. Anker and his Austrian climbing partner David Lama rappelled down right away and then called for a helicopter. Anker took an aspirin, but couldn't keep it down, he told National Geographic's Mark Synnott this week.
The two climbers had their eyes on the 22,660-foot summit of Lunag-Ri. Although taller unclimbed mountains in Nepal exist, they are viewed as sacred and closed to climbing, Synnott pointed out. In January the duo became the first to reach the mountain's headwall, but freezing temperatures and wind forced them to retreat, Climbing magazine reported. On November 16, they were trying again.
Once he reached Advanced Base Camp, Anker was taken to Kathmandu with assistance from Sherpa friends. Nine hours after first feeling the chest pain, he was in the cardiac unit of Norvic International Hospital, where a doctor performed an angioplasty and remove the obstruction, according to Anker's Facebook post.
"This procedure is very time-sensitive as the heart can fail, experience fibrillation or lose muscle," he wrote. "Dr. Bhutta installed a stent in my heart and kept me in observation for three days."
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Anker has narrowly escaped death before. Perhaps the most well-known incident happened in 1999, when he was climbing Shishapangma in Tibet with his best friend Alex Lowe and cameraman David Bridges. An avalanche struck. Anker ran one way, the other two ran another. Lowe and Bridges disappeared into the snow and ice. Earlier this year, their bodies were discovered in a partially melted glacier.
When word reached him, Anker traveled to Tibet to retrieve Lowe's body. He told Synnott he rappelled with the heavy body off an ice cliff, down through an ice fall, and hauled it eight miles back to base camp. "I was stressed, and I felt my heart. I had to process the whole survivor's guilt thing all over again," he said.
Following his heart attack and surgery, Anker returned to the United States and went through additional testing at the Mayo Clinic, which has been working with him over the past several years to study how high altitude climbing affects the body. Then he flew home to Bozeman, Montana, where he has been recovering.
"I would like to express my gratitude to my climbing partners, our Nepali staff, the medical teams at the CIWEC clinic, Norvic Hospital, and the Mayo Clinic. The kindness my family has extended is heart warming," he wrote on Facebook. "I am forever thankful."
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