Chicago native climbs Mount Everest, witnesses traffic jam aftermath

CHICAGO (WLS) -- For a brief time, Alex Pancoe stood on top of the world over 29,000 feet high at the summit of Mt. Everest.

"All of the sudden the clouds just started to fizzle and you looked out over everything," he remembered from his Chicago home Wednesday, just two days after returning from Nepal.

During what he called an "emotional" experience, Pancoe tried to soak up the vistas, but couldn't spend long enjoying the view in what's known as the Everest "Death Zone."

"I noticed my energy fading fast, my mental facilities were fading fast," he recalled.

High altitude sickness and exhaustion are common atop the world's tallest mountain. But in recent weeks, those issues have been exacerbated by long lines moving up the iconic Hillary Step.

Images of a now infamous traffic jam show climbers stuck waiting to summit Everest, losing strength as they continue to stay in the death zone.

Fortunately, Pancoe summited a day after the notorious backups that gained international attention.

Pictures from his climb show a much less congested Hillary Step; Pancoe credits his guide team for anticipating bottlenecking and waiting out the added traffic.

They did still witness the aftermath of what Pancoe called "carnage." He said he had to step over a body on the climb up.

"You see that and your heart just sinks," Pancoe recalled.

Experts say a record number of Nepalese-issued permits, uncooperative weather and inexperienced climbing teams (both climbers and guides) contributed to the mountain backups.

Especially in the deadly season-including the 11 people who have died scaling the mountain in the last two weeks.

Pancoe says he stressed the need for proper training (he spent years preparing for this climb on others) and paying a premium for expert guides.

The guides that are prepared for emergencies, such as running out of oxygen.
"It is things like Sherpas with multiple ascents of Everest who know what they're doing," Pancoe pointed out.

He might have perished himself had his team not packed an extra breathing regulator, which replaced Pancoe's when it exploded on the Hillary Step.

"Being where I was, rescue probably wouldn't have happened there," he said.

Pancoe has long known the risks of attempting to summit Mt. Everest.

Whenever he thinks of quitting, he's reminded of kids at Lurie Children's Hospital.

He was once a patient there and uses his climbs to raise awareness and funding for brain tumor research.

They thanked him with a hand-signed flag before Pancoe left for Nepal; that flag made the trek with Pancoe and was hoisted at the summit.

"I use that as motivation," he said.

Now, back home and recovering from pneumonia contracted on the descent, Pancoe prepares for his next climb: Denali in Alaska.

After that, he'll have completed the "Explorer's Grand Slam," a climb to each continent's peak plus both the North Pole and South Pole.
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