Wichita mountaineer barely survives Himalayan expedition (Part 1)
Glenn Nyberg had just reached the top of Tibet’s Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world and the highest he had ever climbed.
It was Sept. 29, 2014, and in the distance he could see Mount Everest.
“It was a beautiful morning,” Nyberg said.
But something was wrong. As he waited on the peak for the rest of his climbing party, minutes turned into more than an hour.
Nyberg took off his gloves and noticed his fingers were discolored from the extreme cold. Another medical problem brewed – complications from an ulcer in his stomach – that would sap his energy and threaten his life.
Nyberg had tackled a nearly 27,000-foot mountain, but the journey ahead would prove more difficult.
You ‘push yourself’
Nyberg’s journey to the top of Cho Oyu began long before 2014.
Nyberg, 58, started climbing in his mid-20s. He has climbed about 50 of the 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado, where he first started backpacking.
It’s the challenge that Nyberg said he loves.
“(You) push yourself to a point where you don’t think you can really go much further, and then you just continue to go,” he said from his home in College Hill.
“To me, that’s part of the experience, getting to the top.”
His first experience with glacier climbing was on Mount Rainier in Washington, and he also has climbed three mountains in Ecuador, one in Mexico, one in Chile, Aconcagua in Argentina and Machu Picchu in Peru.
“Leaving the country gets you involved in other cultures, other environments, and you get outside of your comfort zone,” Nyberg said. “You get to experience those other cultures, and you also get to climb.”
His expedition to the top of Cho Oyu, through the company SummitClimb, began Sept. 1, 2014, and the team’s goal was to reach the summit around Oct. 1. His team had experienced climbers from around the world: China, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Austria, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
His wife, Camille, didn’t want him to make the climb. She worried about his safety.
“I had a fear in my heart,” Camille said to her husband during a recent interview. “I didn’t want you to get hurt, but still even then, there was no way for me to imagine the scope of the injuries that you had when you came back.”
Finding a window
The journey to the top of a mountain like Cho Oyu requires climbers to get acclimated to the increasing elevation.
Kathmandu, where Nyberg landed in Nepal, is about 4,500 feet above sea level, and the trip up from there is slow. Over the course of about five days, he traveled by jeep into Tibet and to Chinese Base Camp, which is about 16,000 feet above sea level. Climbers then trekked to Advanced Base Camp, at 18,500 feet.
Guided by four sherpas and expedition leader Dan Mazur, the climbers began a process of ascending and descending, setting up tents and equipment at different points along the way.
“You slowly make your way up and up and up until you reach a certain elevation, and then you come all the way back down to Advanced Base Camp and you rest, and you wait for a window,” Nyberg said.
That window is when the forecast predicts the best climbing conditions.
The ‘Death Zone’
Once they climbed to 24,400 feet, Nyberg and most other climbers started to use supplemental oxygen.
“From there on up, it is the ‘Death Zone,’ ” he said.
The level of oxygen in the air is only about one-third the level at normal altitudes, Nyberg said.
As the altitude got higher and the air thinner, the climbers got weaker. They burned about 8,000 to 12,000 calories a day, but it was hard to eat at such high altitudes, and they had little appetite.
“You’re slowly wearing your body down, and you’re losing a lot of weight and it’s pretty much muscle,” Nyberg said. “So that’s having an effect on you.
“Mentally it’s dragging you down … so I don’t think anybody’s feeling that good at that point,” he said.
Around 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 28, Nyberg and his team left camp to make their final push to the summit.
“It’s really good conditions,” Nyberg said. “And when I tell you this, it’s 15-below temperature, and the winds are blowing maybe 30 or 35 miles per hour, which is good climbing conditions for that elevation.”
But problems soon began for Nyberg.
He had been taking his thick outer gloves off to better manipulate his climbing gear. Though he had liners underneath, they didn’t provide enough protection.
“What ultimately happened was as I got about halfway up, my hands began to freeze,” Nyberg said.
What ultimately happened was as I got about halfway up, my hands began to freeze.
Frostbite had begun.
“It really didn’t occur to me because my hands had been cold before – hunting, snow skiing, being out in the cold – and I just didn’t think that much of it,” Nyberg said.
Nyberg reached the summit of Cho Oyu around 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 29, his wedding anniversary.
“That’s how I remember that day,” he said.
But something was wrong.
“When I got to the top of Aconcagua down in South America, I remember feeling very elated and emotional up there. I just had this great feeling,” Nyberg said. “That wasn’t the case when I got up (to Cho Oyu).”
He had reached the summit before the other members of his team, so an exhausted Nyberg waited for the slower climbers.
“I sat there for a long time, what ultimately became about an hour and 20 minutes … which is way too long to spend on the summit,” he said.
As Nyberg waited, he inspected his fingers. They were light blue.
“The main thing at that point was to get everything covered up and to get down as soon as we could,” Nyberg said. “If you can get down quick, you’ll have a better chance.”
Little did he know, he also had an ulcer causing him to bleed internally.
‘Something hit me’
Tired and physically exhausted, Nyberg knew it was time to descend.
Nyberg was again ahead of the others in his group, but he collapsed within sight of the camp they had left 18 hours earlier.
“Something hit me, and I just fell over,” he said.
Other climbers who passed him asked whether he was OK, and he said he just needed to rest.
“It took me a long time to get that final 100 yards down to our camp,” he said.
Nyberg needed help to get his backpack off and crawled into his tent to rest. Mazur, the expedition leader, cared for him through the night and watched his condition worsen.
“That’s when I got really sick and started bleeding out,” Nyberg said.
The morning of Sept. 30, Mazur assigned the strongest sherpa, Tenji, to help Nyberg down the mountain.
“The sherpas did a lot,” Mazur said. “They deserve a lot of credit on this whole thing.”
But the internal bleeding was draining Nyberg.
Two members of Nyberg’s team abandoned their push to the summit to help him. They helped to short-rope Nyberg down, keeping him in front of them with ropes attached in case he fell. They arrived at Camp One, at 20,450 feet, around dark.
Bartering for life
When it was time to leave Camp One, Nyberg crawled out of his tent, raised up, blacked out and hit his head on a rock.
After a short rest, he tried again — and blacked out again.
“At that point, I don’t know how I’m going to get out of here,” Nyberg said.
Helicopter evacuations are forbidden by the government in Tibet.
Mazur, with the help of sherpas, began negotiating with Tibetan porters – who carry equipment up and down the mountain – trying to broker a deal to persuade the porters to carry Nyberg down the mountain.
“I would basically sit on their backs at the base of their lower back and straddle them, put my arms over them, and they would begin to carry me as far as they could,” Nyberg said.
Nyberg didn’t think about death.
“I had too many reasons to get down,” he said. “… That didn’t ever enter into my mind. Not at all.”
Once they made it to Advanced Base Camp, the porters would not go any farther.
So another deal was brokered with other porters to get Nyberg farther down the mountain.
“These guys wanted to be paid before they moved me much further down the mountain,” Nyberg said.
More than 18,000 feet in the air and battling for his life, Nyberg was out of cash, so the porters used a satellite phone to make a credit card transaction.
But Nyberg’s credit card was declined. It had expired.
He handed over his debit card, and it was accepted. The process of carrying Nyberg down the mountain began again.
Nyberg’s feet were fine at Advanced Base Camp, but while there, someone had taken his leather boots off and put on his trekking shoes, which are lighter hiking shoes. He said he doesn’t know why.
On the way down, the wind was blowing hard off the mountain, mainly hitting Nyberg’s outside foot, his right foot.
“What that move did is it cost me my toes.”
About 48 hours from when they originally left camp to summit, Nyberg and the others finally reached a beat-up road. After two rides on motorcycles and another in a jeep, they checked into a hotel at the Tibet-Nepal border. It was 3 a.m., so they couldn’t cross.
In his room, Nyberg saw discoloration in his toes, just like his fingers. He called his wife.
“I knew something was wrong,” Camille said, “because I said, ‘Did you summit?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Congratulations, I’m so proud of you.’ And it was silent.
“He said, ‘It wasn’t worth it.’ That’s when my heart went. I knew something was wrong, and he said he was sick.”
Only the beginning
Nyberg finally reached a hospital in Kathmandu, and his plan was to have his frostbite treated and then go home.
The doctor told him that if he left, he would die.
He needed a transfusion, but he didn’t want to have one in Nepal. So he got his family doctor on the phone, who told him to get the transfusion immediately.
Over the course of the next week, Nyberg waited for his hemoglobin levels to return to normal while the nurses treated his frostbite. He said he underwent five blood transfusions in Kathmandu.
With his hands wrapped up, he wasn’t able to do anything, so the nurses bathed and fed him.
“These nurses were unbelievable,” Nyberg said.
On Oct. 7, 2014, Camille tried to tell security at Wichita’s airport that her husband was sick and would need help when he landed, but they wouldn’t let her pass.
“I see him come around in his wheelchair, and he was just a shadow of what I remember,” she said. “The guy tried to push him in the wheelchair to me, and he pushed the guy away.
“He gets up out of that wheelchair – I don’t know how he did it – and walked down the ramp to meet me.”
Nyberg’s first night back in the U.S. was difficult for them both. He just wanted to go home and rest.
“He was adamant that he was fine,” Camille said.
Two blackouts and a phone call with a doctor convinced Nyberg that he needed to go back to the hospital. His internal bleeding was back.
“I knew that we were going to be in for a long haul,” Camille said. “I knew that from the time I saw him get off the airplane. He was so frail, thin.
“You never think that’s the way he’s going to come back.”
‘All hell broke loose’
Forty pounds lighter than when he left for Nepal, Nyberg was weak and in the burn unit at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis in Wichita. His frostbite was similar to the type of burns treated there.
The doctors had treated his bleeding ulcer again. But he began to vomit blood in the middle of the night, and things happened quickly after that.
“All hell broke loose,” Nyberg said.
His ulcer had pressed down on an artery and infected it, causing it to burst.
He heard the surgeon say: “I’m losing him.”
“I looked over at (Camille), and I said, ‘Tell my kids I love them.’ ”
Nyberg woke up hooked to tubes. The surgeons had stopped the bleeding, and Nyberg spent the next two weeks in the hospital. He received more blood transfusions than he did in Nepal.
Camille slept at the hospital with her husband every night he was there except one.
“I was afraid to leave him because he couldn’t push a call button,” Camille said. “He had nothing.”
I was afraid to leave him because he couldn’t push a call button. He had nothing.
Camille Nyberg, Glenn’s wife
Nyberg had his first amputation about five weeks after leaving St. Francis.
He and Camille decided to have doctors from the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City evaluate and treat his frostbite.
“There’s nothing you can do about it, so you just have to accept it,” Nyberg said.
Doctors were able to save his left foot, but they had to remove the toes on his right foot.
Within a week, they amputated each finger. They removed the tips of two fingers, some at the middle knuckle and others below that.
Not knowing what was going to happen was the hardest part.
“The unknown was how I was going to be able to live my life with what I was going to have left,” Nyberg said.
‘A day lasted a week’
Nyberg began physical and occupational therapy about a month after his last amputation.
The therapists came three days a week and at first simply worked to help him retain the flexibility in his hands, stretching and pulling the parts of his fingers he had left. Then he began working on his balance, and by Christmas, Nyberg could walk down the stairs.
“At the time, it seemed like it was forever,” Camille said. “Like a day lasted a week.”
But also around Christmas, the therapists stopped coming, and by January 2015, Nyberg was back at IMA Financial Group working half days. By February, he was working full time and was once again able to drive. He retired from IMA last January.
“People are resilient. They really are,” Camille said. “You have a weakness, and you use one of your strengths to overcome.”
After Nyberg accepted his amputations, it was just a matter of adjusting to a new way of doing things. Small tasks were the most difficult.
“I had to learn how to tie my shoes, which sounds pretty easy, but I couldn’t do it for awhile. And button my buttons,” Nyberg said. “But just over time, you learn how to do it.”
Gradually, Nyberg was able to get back into the physical activities he was doing before his climb. First, he started swimming, and from there, he began lifting weights and riding his bike.
His hands still hurt, and he has to be careful in the cold, but everything is basically back to normal.
“There are some things I don’t do the same as I did before, but I can’t really think of anything that I was doing before that I’m not doing now,” Nyberg said.
During the summer of 2015, he made a few trips to Colorado, where he climbed some 14,000-foot mountains with his 25-year-old daughter, Morgan. He has been backpacking and climbing with her since she was 5. They planned to climb again in Colorado this month.
“We’re climbing a difficult mountain that I won’t let her climb by herself,” Nyberg said.
Camille said it was her husband’s determination that not only got him up the mountain, but back down and through all of the hardships.
“He’s humble in that way where he doesn’t make a big deal about what he’s really accomplished,” she said, “because that’s just what he was going to do.”