KEARNEY – Robert Kay almost died on the side of Mount Everest.
“I probably shouldn’t be here today,” admits the Lincoln climber and adventurer. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
In 2016, Kay reached the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, becoming the first Nebraskan to accomplish the feat. But while descending from the mountain’s 29,000-foot top, he began suffering from altitude-related illnesses and had to be rescued.
“I could walk downhill for 10-20 steps before (having to sit down) for several minutes at a time,” the 55-year-old wrote in his blog documenting the climb. “All I wanted to do was sit forever, which is exactly what it would have been.”
Kay, owner of Star City Motor Sports in Lincoln and Platte River Harley-Davidson in Grand Island, is the featured speaker at the Jan. 22 Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. His talk includes an in-depth look, photos and video of his 39-year journey to successfully make it to the top of Mount Everest, something only 4,500 climbers have accomplished.
It took Kay four times to realize his lifelong dream. He failed on his first attempt in 2010 when lightning and severe weather stopped him. Frostbite that threatened his fingers and toes ended his 2013 climb, and a deadly avalanche that killed 16 climbing guides stopped his 2014 attempt.
But 2016 was different. After nearly failing again when winds reach 80 miles per hour and swept away tents, Kay finally made it to the top.
“I plodded up those last few feet with Sange and Pasang (Kay’s Sherpa guides), overflowing with emotion,” Kay blogged. “I was excited, elated, relieved, teary-eyed, in awe at the beauty, thrilled to be sharing the moment with two great friends and possibly even a little sad that this 39-year journey was now finished.
“We spent 23 minutes on top taking in the views, taking pictures, shaking hands, hugging each other and just relishing in the moment. The skies were cloud free … and I was as in the moment as much as my hypoxic brain would allow.”
That elation was short lived. On his descent, Kay collapsed on the mountain and began convulsing after losing his oxygen connection when someone tried to change his tank. “I remember clearly thinking, ‘Okay, so now I know exactly when and where I will die. I have only a few seconds left and then the pain goes away.’”
Due to large crowds of other climbers on the mountain, it took Kay five hours longer than planned to summit and return to Camp 2 at 26,000 feet. The extreme altitude allowed fluid to build up in his lungs, a condition known as high-altitude pulmonary edema.
He said he felt like he was drowning. And he accepted he was going to die.
“By the time I arrived back at the South Summit things were rapidly falling apart in my body. I had lost all of my strength and found my breathing to be extremely difficult.”
But Sherpa guides and other climbers drug him to camp, gave him a steroid shot and threw him into a tent, where they held him upright to keep him from drowning in his own fluids.
The next morning, he and his team descended 12 hours to Camp 2, where a medical helicopter evacuated him to a Nepal hospital so he could be treated by doctors.