Physician lives life on the edge

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CDT
Boone County doctor Lee Meyers stands at a high pass with the Himalayas and Mount Everest behind him during a three-day driving trip to the base of Mount Everest.


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COLUMBIA — As Boone County doctor Lee Meyers watched the independent two climbers set up camp on a barren ridge on the north side of Mount Everest — at about 28,500 feet they were well into the "death zone" where the line between survival and slow suffocation is as thin as the air — he thought it was the last time he'd see them alive.

And it would have been, if Meyers' own crew hadn't sacrificed a sure shot at the summit the next morning to attempt the highest-altitude rescue ever recorded on Everest.

Meyers' view of alpine medicine boils down to one simple principle: Everything gets better at a lower altitude.

Given that, it's not surprising that doing just the opposite — ascending peaks on six continents and dozens of countries — has done little to cure his eagerness to keep moving.

A retired researcher, emergency room doctor and high-altitude medic who lives a frugal, conservative life near Harrisburg, Meyers seeks out terrain as broad, unconventional and unpolished as he is. When he talks about dying on a mountain and being "chucked into a crevasse," he gives the impression that it wouldn't be a bad thing; he chose to commute from Harrisburg to St. Louis for two decades of 12- and 24-hour emergency room shifts rather than subject himself to city life.

In addition to serving as the doctor on three expeditions to Everest, the Vietnam veteran was the first person on record to ascend mountains in British Columbia so far off the beaten path that even Meyers forgets their names. And he was a member of the first expedition to descend the Tekezé River in the Ethiopian highlands.

On May 1, Meyers returned to Nepal yet again, this time for a 20-day trek through Dolpo, a high-altitude area accessible only with special permits.

Why Dolpo?

"I feel like I need to get away," Meyers said. "It's an area I've never been to."

Cheating the death zone

The morning after Meyers spotted the desperate pair on Everest through his scope at advance base camp, his 2001 International Mountain Guides Everest expedition was nearing a successful climax. It was around 6 a.m., and the group's four climbers were within an hour of the high of a lifetime, despite pausing to rescue a Russian crew earlier that morning.

Meyers and the expedition leader, Eric Simonson, monitored the quartet's progress and dispensed medical advice.

On the Third Step, a barren ridge that represents the final but inconsequential obstacle before the peak, their crew encountered the duo that Meyers had spied the night before: a Coloradan and a Guatemalan from a British expedition.

The men were hypothermic and delirious. They had shed their clothes as their failing bodies gave the illusion of warmth. One was half blind from cerebral edema, a sort of water on the brain that can emerge at high altitudes.

When he heard the news over the radio, Meyers asked the British crew what was going on. The answer: "We've abandoned them."

Despite being within a few hundred vertical feet of their goal, Meyers' climbers, led by climbing veteran Dave Hahn, were unwilling to do the same.

"Climbers should take care of other climbers," Meyers said.

Hahn and his clients shared their oxygen and other supplies. Meyers told his group to give the endangered climbers a shot of Decadron, a powerful steroid hormone used to treat high-altitude afflictions.

The drug froze in the needles.

"Stick it into his arm and let it warm up," Meyers told his climbers. "When it melts, push it into him."

Together, the four rescuers carried, pulled and cajoled the ailing climbers down the world's tallest mountain. At one point, exhausted and befuddled, the Guatemalan refused to go on. With the lives of all six men in danger, Meyers said Simonson resorted to desperate psychological measures.

"Tell him 'If you don't walk, we're going to throw you over the east side of the mountain'" and down a 1,000-foot rock face, Simonson said.

It worked. The two climbers made it home with nothing more than frostbite, and Meyers' expedition mates earned the American Alpine Club's highest award for valor. All four have since reached the roof of the world.

'I pronounce him dead, now get on down'

In the late 1990s, Meyers arranged with guide Simonson to lend his medical skills to an expedition on Cho Oyo, the sixth tallest mountain in the world and a popular Himalayan primer for Everest. That trip fell through. But later that fall, Simonson sent a letter asking if Meyers wanted to join an expedition on the north side of Everest.

For Meyers, there was only one answer.

Simonson's expedition sought to climb it in search of the remains of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, British climbers who perished there in 1924. Meyers believes Mallory, then 39, and Irvine, then 24, may have been the first men to reach the top.

In early June 1924, Mallory and Irvine made their final summit attempt. Folks at a base camp caught their silhouettes on the Second Step, a challenging rock face that runs for 160 vertical feet and ends just 729 vertical feet from the summit.

"That was the last anybody ever saw of them," Meyers said.

At least until 1999, when Simonson's expedition, with Meyers as doctor, discovered Mallory's body. Irvine's body — and a camera with summit photos that they hope accompanies it — remains missing. A 2001 follow-up expedition, impeded by heavy snow cover, found only inconclusive traces.

"Our theory is they summited and had to go home in the dark," Meyers said.

"Most people die on the way down because they push themselves too far and don't have anything left," Meyers said. "They sit down and never wake up. There are a lot of bodies up there."

Around 140, at last count.

Meyers has firsthand experience with death on the  mountain.

During a descent, climbers from one of his expeditions caught up with a Ukrainian climber. He wasn't moving. Meyers ordered his climbers to check his pupils. No response.

Any delay would put his own charges at risk, so Meyers didn't mince words.

"I pronounce him dead," he said. "Now get on down."

In 2002, Meyers served as doctor for an all-female group that reached the Hillary Step, a rock wall 289 vertical feet from the summit, before they had to turn back because of a combination of poor health and poorer weather.

That year was a dangerous one on Everest, and Meyers was one of the only doctors on the mountain. His group was in fine health, but other groups relied on him and the thousands of dollars of medicine and equipment he'd brought at his own expense.

Meyers said despite the remote setting, he's able to practice high-caliber medicine on Everest.

"I set up so most of the stuff I saw in the emergency room, I could handle on the mountain," Meyers said. "I could take out an appendix if I had to."

The two most common problems at high altitude are diarrhea and cough. The cough is caused by the cold, thin, dry air, while diarrhea is a side effect of inadequate sanitation in developing nations. Diarrhea is particularly dangerous at high altitude, because it dehydrates people whose bodies need as much liquid and blood volume as possible to acclimatize to the thinning atmosphere.

"You have to be extremely careful when you're around food," Meyers said.

Carrying an incapacitated climber down a mountain is tricky and treacherous, but it's also difficult to haul down a corpse. Before he joined the Everest expedition, Meyers had to sign a form designating how his body would be disposed were he to die on the mountain.

The options were be carried out, be cremated by local monks or be tossed into a crevasse on the mountain.

Given the difficulty of carrying down bodies, and the fact that there is little wood for cremation, Meyers made what he thought was the obvious choice.

"I'd just be chucked into a crevasse," he said. "That'd be fine."

Becoming a doctor 'on a whim'

With the exception of a brief stint in Maryland with his mother after his parents split, Meyers grew up in Poplar Bluff.

He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University and went to the University of Tennessee in Memphis to study biochemistry. In 1970, his luck in the draft lottery ran out. The Army called him up midway through his doctoral program, and he had just enough time to finish a master of science degree before taking up what he described as his first career: "walking through the jungles of Vietnam."

Meyers put his scientific background to work with the Army Chemical Corps, in Vietnam and elsewhere.

A buddy in the Chemical Corps was studying for the MCAT, the demanding medical school entrance exam. Curious, Meyers joined him.

"It was more on a whim than on a great desire to be a doctor," Meyers said.

Meyers got what he called a "pretty good score" on the exam and surprised advisers by getting into MU's medical school.

Meyers graduated in 1976, served his residency in Columbia and Vancouver, Wash., and practiced in Hannibal for a year and a half. He then returned to MU for a fellowship in pediatric oncology and became an assistant professor.

Meyers moonlighted as an emergency room doctor until a St. Louis Hospital offered him a full-time position in the late 1980s. He left research behind.

"I was feeling kind of like I wanted to travel more," Meyers said.

Emergency room work fit well with Meyers' lifestyle and personality. He earned enough that he could take advantage of his flexible schedule and spend a few months trekking, climbing, rafting or kayaking.  Not that money concerns would keep him from getting away.

"Even when I was in medical school, I'd take a little time off and go to Canada to hike and climb," Meyers said. "The Canadian Rockies are just beautiful; I spent many a summer up there."

Last chance at Bio Bio

Many of Meyers' exploits are the sort of thing a person probably shouldn't try to replicate, but a descent down the Bio Bio River is one you simply can't.

Chile's Bio Bio is a whitewater wonder known for the "royal flush," an abusive series of five rapids that tears through a narrow canyon. All the rapids are rated Class V, the limit of navigability. But in the early 1990s, Meyers heard bad news: The river was doomed.

Hungry to increase hydroelectric production, the Chilean government decreed that the river be dammed. Engineers chose the most convenient, narrow location available: the canyon through which the legendary rapids roared.

Meyers knew he had to raft the Bio Bio while it still ran. So in 1993, he flew down to Chile. With explosives detonating in the background, the river dealt Meyers and his companions one of its final hands: the Ace, the Suicide King, the Queen of Hearts, the One-Eyed Jack and the Ten.

"They stopped blasting to let us through," Meyers said.

Meyers' river runs have been no more forgiving than the mountains. He recalled the time when, on Chile's Futaleufú River, his rafting group encountered rapids so perilous they refused to take them on. A kayaker wasn't so cautious.

"He was killed," Meyers said.

Meyers betrayed no emotion while discussing the man's demise at the raw, merciless edge where human endurance meets the might of the planet. When Mother Nature metes out capital punishment for those who push too far, even a veteran emergency room doctor can often do nothing more than accept her verdict.

"It's not good to have a person die on your trip in a foreign country," Meyers said. "The locals take it seriously."

When a probable heart attack claimed a fellow climber during the night on Meyers' ascent of Mercedario, the third highest mountain in Argentina, Meyers suggested they wrap the man's body in his tent and sleeping bag, stash it in a safe place and finish the climb. They were about 18,000 feet up the 22,047-foot mountain, and the weather was clearing.

"That did not go over well," Meyers said. Instead, they hauled the man's body 2,000 feet down the mountain.

Seven summits

Meyers' reticent, almost mumbling voice belies little awareness of the scope of his travels. He comes across as fundamentally unassuming and modest, which makes it all the more absurd when he casually tosses out phrases such as "When I was in Peru last summer on a high-altitude trek..." or "I climbed in Russia a few years ago and..." or "Well, that must have been the year after I went to Kenya to help Somali refugees..."

His wife of five years, nurse practitioner Michelle Meyers, said she's heard most of his stories a few times now, but he still surprises her occasionally with something she's never heard. She called her husband interesting, well-read and intelligent, qualities only apparent once a conversation with him is well under way.

"You start talking to him, and you're really shocked at how much depth there is," Michelle Meyers said. "Unless you take a moment to stop and talk to him — as it is with many people — you kinda lose that. You get caught up in all those modern things like appearance, and it kind of makes it worthwhile to really stop and talk to people."

Today, Meyers lives what Michelle called a "very frugal lifestyle" on about 5 acres south of Harrisburg. Michelle said the family's devotion to recycling and never using more than they need "comes from spending so much time in the Third World."

Meyers cooks on weekdays and helps stepson Ricky, 17, with algebra. Stepdaughter Molina, 23, is studying in Oregon. Once Ricky graduates from Hickman High School, Meyers said, he might consider moving closer to the mountains. But for now, his main concern is planting fruit trees on his property.

"He's really wonderful to live with," Michelle said.

At this point, Meyers has ascended five of the "seven summits," the highest mountains on each continent. Of those, Meyers said Antarctica might have been his favorite. He described the view from Vinson Massif, which, at 16,050 feet, ranks as the continent's tallest peak.

"You see all these smaller mountains jutting up out of the ice," Meyers said. "The ice goes on forever, and it just kinda blends with the sky. It's truly amazing."

With Vinson, North America's Denali, South America's Aconcagua, Europe's Elbrus and Africa's Kilimanjaro out of the way, that leaves only Australia's Kosciuszko (or New Guinea's Carstensz Pyramid, depending on which list he follows) and the real obstacle, Asia's Everest.

Despite his three trips to Everest, Meyers has never been more than 25,000 feet up it. He broke his ankle a year ago and, asked about going back, cites his lack of fitness, the physical hardship and the prohibitive cost of climbing the world's highest peak.

"I just don't think that Everest is realistic at this point," Meyers said. His voice sagged.

But the 62-year-old immediately follows with a list of the oldest people to climb the mountain. The record holder is 76. It's clear that somewhere, in the back of his mind, Meyers still dreams of taking one more run at the big one.

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Panama Red May 13, 2009 | 8:30 a.m.


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