Friday, 12 August 2005 By William Ysaguirre - Staff Reporter
Walter Santos, the first Belizean to climb the slopes of K2, in the Himalayas in Northern Pakistan, returned to Belize on Monday, August 8 amid a blaze of praise.
Santos, a rescue worker from the Belize Disaster and Rescue Response Team, joined the distinguished company of the Sir Hilary and other famous mountaineers when he teamed up with a multinational medical response team which accompanied a group of mountain of climbers from National Geographic and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), on an assault on K2.
K2 which soars to a height to 8,611 metres (27,985 feet), is after Everest, one of the tallest and most dangerous mountains in the world. On hand to meet him on his return were members of his family, his employer Ian Anderson of Caves Branch Jungle Lodge, and members of the Bad Cats Youth Group.
Also there to welcome Walter home was Colonel Alan Whitelaw, Commandant of the British Army Training Support Unit Belize, who said he took his hat off to someone who had come through such a challenging experience.
Walter, a 29-year-old tour guide, left Belize on May 19 and arrived at base camp, 19,000 feet high on June 6. He spent the next eight weeks working with the medical support team. Some five expeditions attempted to scale the frosty heights of K2 this year, but without success. Because of extremely bad weather, the climbers were forced to abandon their efforts and retreat, and wait for better weather next year. Some of the climbers they encountered were low on food and Walterís team was obliged to share some of their food supplies with them to build up their strength to get off the mountain.
There have been many deaths on K2 this season and in past years. This year alone more than 90 persons working with other expeditions have died of altitude sickness. Walter explained that local porters are employed to carry 50 pound packs of gear and other equipment up the mountain for the various expeditions. Working as beasts of burden with this load in the extremely thin air it becomes difficult for a man to breathe. The lungs fill up with body fluids as the lungs struggle to do its work. Victims of altitude sickness literally drown in their own body fluids. If reached in time, the sufferer of this condition can be treated with a Gamma Bag, an ingenious device which Walterís medical team had. This device is like a sleeping bag. It wraps around the victim and is pumped up to simulate the pressure of the atmosphere at lower altitudes. It is like a portable version of the decompression chamber used to treat diversí bends, except that instead of taking a body from atmospheric pressure at sea level up to a pressure at 250 feet below the seaís surface, the bag takes a body from the low pressure at 19,000 feet to atmospheric pressure closer to sea level. The NASA team had brought it for its own use but ended up using it to save the lives of more than 40 persons from other expeditions who had been trapped by the storm and were suffering from altitude sickness.
In the summer thaw, as the ice of the glacier melts, bodies of people who died in accidents and who remained frozen in the glacier for years past become uncovered. Walter explained that part of the medical teamís work was to recover bodies and try to identify them. Some of those discovered this season had been dead ten years. "Itís been very interesting doing this kind of work, very interesting, but very emotional," Walter said. The weather varied between two extremes every day. It would be hot, like 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and he would be working in shorts during the day. But at night temperatures would plummet to 20 degrees below zero. This is below freezing, as water freezes at 32 degrees above zero. Walter described the scenery as "very beautiful, itís ah .. a.. Itís a paradise... Itís beautiful," he recalls. The high daylight temperatures cause some of the ice walls to melt and collapse into the valley below where they cause mayhem among the expeditions that are trekking their way to the summit. These collapses also cause a great deal of stress for the team at base camp who live with the dread that the melting ice might crack beneath their feet or open up a crevasse into which they might disappear forever.
His experience at K-2 was a life changing experience, Walter said. "I have never been in this kind of environment. Itís been very, very
challenging for me, I canít even start to explain all the different challenges and the stress that we met on this trip. Everything has been a challenge, the dangers that we have overcome, especially avalanches and rock falls. Itís a very harsh environment." At the conclusion of his medical mission of mercy, Walter left the base camp on July 26 and en route from Islamabad to Belize via London,and Houston.
Lynwen Griffiths of the Belize Disaster and Rescue Response Team also accompanied Santos and the other mountaineers on the K2 expedition, but she remained in her native Wales in the United Kingdom to edit her video footage before returning to Belize. Ian Anderson said Griffiths plan to edit the footage into an hour- long documentary which would be shown later in Belize to educate Belizeans about what they had achieved.
The K2 expedition was sponsored in part by Ian Anderson, Belize Diesel (Toyota), the Belize Tourist Board, Caves Branch Jungle Lodge, N.A.S.I.G., AdventuresInBelize.com and various individual donors.