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The Cuban Mountaineer: “Preparation Saved My Life”

September 6, 2021 Destination Feature, Headline News No Comments
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You can count the amount of Cuban high-altitude mountaineers in the world on one hand. In fact, I may be the only high-climber of Cuban descent who has collectively summited some of the world’s highest peaks including Mont Blanc (15,780 feet/4,810 meters) in France, Mount Elbrus (18,510 feet/5,642 meters) in Russia, Pico de Orizaba (18,490 feet/5,636 meters) in Mexico, and Aconcagua (22,841 feet/6,962 meters) in Argentina.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my climbing career is that preparation can save your life. All of my mountaineering expeditions have been leading to a successful summit of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth.

But it’s a huge goal, and a difficult one to achieve.

Mount Everest expert Alan Arnette attempted to summit the lofty peak three times before succeeding on his fourth try. Legendary mountaineer Ed Viesturs calls Mount Everest an “iconic peak.”

Viesturs has often said Mount Everest is “magnetic” and “draws a lot of people there.”

“To be at the absolute pinnacle of the world and look around, it’s that perfect moment,” he said. But, Viesturs, who is a member of the Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council and the only American to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000+ meter peaks, adheres to a motto that “getting off the mountain was more important than getting to the top.”

With such a maxim, it is no surprise that Viesturs needed three attempts before successfully summiting Mount Everest, a mountain even more legendary than the man himself.

I arrived at Mount Everest Base Camp during the 2021 climbing season with two goals. First, I intended to join the ranks of mountaineers who have successfully ascended the world’s tallest peak. Second, I wanted to make history as the first Cuban to summit the 29,032-foot/8,848-meter peak.

Each of my high-climbing experiences have been part of my preparation to reach my goal. When I climb, I carry two flags; the Cuban flag for my native country and the Icelandic flag for the country where I live with my family and work as a tour guide taking fellow adventurers to the island’s famous glaciers.

Unfortunately, I did not summit the huge mountain on my inaugural attempt. I was no match for Mount Everest…this time.

During my attempt to become the first Cuban to summit Mount Everest, I survived a series of life-threatening complications.

I reached Base Camp in mid-April to begin training, acclimatization and getting familiar with the terrain. A couple of weeks before my summit push, we had done a rotation up to Camp 3 (24,000 feet/7,300 meters), and, at that point, I was feeling amazing. I was very optimistic about reaching my goal and in very good physical condition. For the summit push, we went directly from Base Camp to Camp 2 (21,000 feet/6,400 meters). But when we reached Camp 2, I went straight to my tent that I had left there from my previous ascend and went to sleep. Something was wrong. At this point — even after already reaching as far as Camp 3 — I started was experiencing difficulty breathing, fever and general weakness. I had to end my expedition.

I had never been that sick in my life. I felt like I was close to death, like my soul was leaving my body. As I struggled to breathe, I kept thinking of my wife and my 3-year-old son. My mind was swirling with dark thoughts. I felt very alone. I knew the Global Rescue emergency medical evacuation helicopter was coming for me but the weather was bad, so it took multiple tries over the course of two days for the chopper to get me out. When it did, I was very thankful. I wanted to cry with relief.

I was in the hospital for nearly 50 days. At first, I tested positive for COVID-19 and Right Lung Pneumonia. I was treated and released, but, after a week, I was readmitted because of muscular pain in my lower limbs. That’s when I was diagnosed with Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism (DVT/PE), a condition caused by blood clots forming in a deep vein and then breaking off and traveling through the bloodstream to the lungs, creating a blockage.

I was transported to another hospital for a higher level of care to prevent damage to my lungs, to stop the clot from getting bigger, and prevent new clots from forming.

More than two-and-half weeks later I was clinically stable and able to fly home to Iceland. When I saw my son, I was very emotional. I had been four months without him.

Like Viesturs and Arnette, I will not give up on Mount Everest. I still plan to plant the Cuban flag on the highest peak in the world. I first fell in love with mountains and climbing while living in Iceland. My love for the sport is unwavering.

Yandy Nuñez Martinez was born in Calabazar in Havana City, Cuba. He moved to Reykjavík, Iceland, in 2015 and works as a tour guide. He is open to partnerships and sponsorships to finance his mountaineering expeditions. You can follow @the_cuban_mountaineer journey on Instagram and Facebook.

 By Yandy Nuñez Martinez

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