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Climber's sky-high dreams dashed far below Everest summit

Joe Martinet

Climber Joe Martinet en route to the base of the Lhotse Face on Mount Everest in late April.

For six months, starting last September, Joe Martinet went to the gym twice a day for six days a week. He spent hours on a steep treadmill, wearing climbing boots and a 25-pound backpack. Then he hit the StairMaster and lifted weights.

When Martinet, 37, wasn't at the gym, he biked or ran near his home in Reston, Va. On the weekends, he'd drive 100 miles to Shenandoah National Park and scramble up one of the peaks, the tallest of which exceed 4,000 feet.

Martinet, a mountain climber who has scaled Alaska's Denali (20,320 feet), was training to summit Mount Everest this month.


His body wasn't the only thing Martinet, who develops satellite and cellphones, dedicated to his quest to summit the world's tallest mountain: a guided trip through Himalayan Experience cost about $55,000. 

On May 5, nearly a month into his expedition, Martinet's Everest dreams ended long before he ever got the chance to summit.

Himalayan Experience's lead guide Russell Brice announced that day that it was no longer safe to climb the peak, in what was described as a "somber" conversation in an account posted on the company's   website. Minimal snowpack and warm temperatures, among other factors, had led to dangerous conditions, including rock fall and avalanches. 

"[The decision] was almost a blindside," Martinet told msnbc.com. "To me, it wasn’t an option in my mind. When it hit, I was amazingly frustrated ... I’m frustrated I never got to try and find out if I was good enough."

Martinet will not receive a refund, though the company has said members of this year's expedition can receive a discount if they choose to try again in 2013.

Still, Martinet considers Himalayan Experience a top-caliber climbing outfit. Martinet heard and saw two separate mini-avalanches and could hear the ice crack and groan as it moved in a particularly treacherous section. "It was really dangerous this year from what they explained to us," he said.

Two Sherpas have died so far this season -- one after falling into a crevasse and the other reportedly from altitude sickness, according to National Geographic magazine.  More than 200 people have died climbing Everest since 1950.

The cancellation of the Himalayan Experience expedition, however, is the first time that a guided trip on Everest has been abandoned at this point in the two-month climbing season, according to professional guides.

Teams typically begin an expedition in April and spend a few weeks moving between camps in order to acclimate to thinning oxygen levels. No one has reached Everest's peak yet this season, but guides are hopeful that improving conditions will lead to several hundred summits by the end of May, which marks the start of monsoon weather.

"It was kind of unusual and kind of shocking to us that [Brice] pulled out," Todd Burleson, president of Alpine Ascents International, told msnbc.com. Burleson first summited Everest in 1992; his company is currently leading eight clients, who paid $65,000, up the mountain.

Since the Himalayan Experience trip was canceled, Burleson said, more snowfall has helped stabilize fragile ice and rock in the Khumbu Icefall, a specific area of concern for Brice. Sherpas and guides have also established safer routes through the treacherous section known as the Lhotse Face.

Multiple attempts to reach Brice and Himalayan Experience were unsuccessful, but the company listed a number of reasons for the controversial decision on its website.

Of particular concern, it said, were how the team's Sherpas were reacting to the conditions. They felt temperatures were too warm in the early morning, when climbers would be moving through the precarious icefall. The team was also frightened by the rockfall on the Lhotse Face, which had caused accidents. "A few more warm days like today in combination with big gusts of wind will see these rocks flying again," the site read.

Michael Fagin, who provides forecasting services for Everest teams and runs everestweather.com from Redmond, Wash., said the spring had been very dry and windy. In the past week, winds had reached up to 80 mph; climbers on Everest prefer them under 30 mph. Since Everest does not have a weather station, Fagin relies on several forecast models. The recent snowfall and an expected break in the winds should lead to a summit window soon, Fagin said.

Eric Simonson, Himalayan program director of International Mountain Guides, said that to cancel an Everest expedition so early was "quite unprecedented," but added it is unreasonable to expect every team to agree on how to handle difficult conditions.

"They’re betting on there being a problem and all the other expeditions that have stayed are betting on our ability to mitigate that problem. I don’t think it has to reflect poorly on anyone."

Simonson said his team hopes to establish the summit route by May 18. "If the weather complies," he said, "we could be seeing summits shortly thereafter."

Mark Jenkins, a writer for National Geographic magazine, is attempting to climb Everest as part of a joint expedition between National Geographic and The North Face. His team, Jenkins said in an e-mail from Everest's Base Camp to msnbc.com, is looking to summit before or May 25 depending on the weather, and that other teams were eying May 19.

"At this point," Jenkins said, "I believe we have a strong team and a fair chance at the summit. We’ll see."

On Wednesday afternoon, the National Geographic-North Face expedition, led by accomplished mountaineer Conrad Anker, canceled its plans to summit via the West Ridge due to icy conditions, but will still attempt to reach the peak via a different route.

Last year, a total of 537 climbers reached the peak from two routes. Simonson expects that at least 400 or 500 will try to summit in the next two weeks.

Martinet doesn't want Brice's concerns about safety to bear out for fear that tragedy could strike the teams still on the mountain. But it remains difficult for him to consider the alternative: he could still be on Everest, climbing his way to glory.

"There's no way for someone like me to go back next year," Martinet says. It would mean saving up another $50,000, convincing an employer to give him two months off and accept a time-consuming training schedule.

For the coming weeks, Martinet, who was laid off from his job just before he left for the expedition, plans to spend time with his wife and plot his next trip. He's considering Peru after meeting fellow climbers on Everest who had specific recommendations.

"I don’t know what it’s going to turn into yet," Martinet says of the experience. "It’s not settled for me yet. I hope it doesn’t haunt me."

He is, though, left with some good memories of Everest: "It was just a great place to be as a climber. To meet Conrad Anker, to be hanging out at Base Camp. To be in that environment and go through the Khumbu Icefall was phenomenal, I loved it. It was what I had gone for -- I wish I could have done more."

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at msnbc.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

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