41 years, Australia

Daily Mountain

41 years, Australia

28 days ago

Nives Meroi and Romano Benet: A life in the death zone

Husband-and-wife mountaineering team Romano Benet and Nives Meroi were attempting a winter ascent of the world's fifth-highest mountain, Makalu, when things went badly wrong. It was the first of two serious challenges that could have brought their climbing careers, and even their lives, to an end.

The biggest problem on Makalu was the freezing wind. 

Nives Meroi and Romano Benet: A life in the death zone
Photo credit: Nives Meroi

Considered one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb, in early 2008 a relentless gale was making it almost impossible.

Two years before, French mountaineer Jean-Christophe Lafaillle had died trying to make a winter ascent. But Benet and Meroi, and their fellow Italian Luca Vuerich, had not yet given up hope of success.

"For a month the gusts knocked us from here to there, and we couldn't even sleep at night," Meroi remembers.

Despite everything, the trio reached 7,000m (22,966 ft) - about 1,500m below the summit - and decided to hang on, hoping that the wind would die down.

"Instead, the jet stream exploded in a furious crescendo," Meroi says.

"We were running for our lives, when a gust of wind picked me up. 

"My feet lost their grip on the gravel, I slipped between two big boulders and I fell, with my body twisting on my trapped foot.

"The wind continued to howl while I heard the sharp sound of my bone snapping." 

With a broken leg, she could not move unaided.

Nives Meroi and Romano Benet: A life in the death zone
Luca Vuerich carrying Nives Meroi - he died in an avalanche in the Alps two years later

So for two days Benet and Vuerich took turns to carry her on their shoulders. They walked through fog and along a glacier to reach Camp Hillary at 4,860m (16,000ft) where a rescue helicopter was able to pick them up and fly them to Kathmandu.

"Despite 40 years of climbing we still fear the mountains," Meroi says.

Meroi and Benet first met at high school in Italy, and started hiking and climbing together after discovering their shared passion for the outdoors.

"Romano likes to say it was a matter of convenience," Meroi says. "It was easier to have a girlfriend who could also climb, so he didn't have to struggle to find a climbing partner every weekend."

Nives Meroi and Romano Benet: A life in the death zone
Photo credit: Getty Images

The couple's marriage, in 1989, was actually triggered by their desire to go climbing in the Peruvian Andes, on the Cordillera Blanca range.

"It was a dream we had, but we had no money or leave days," Meroi says. "So we decided to get married because our employers would give us two weeks off, and we asked our friends and family to pay for the trip."

The year after the ill-fated Makalu trip, once Meroi's leg had healed, the couple to set out to climb Kangchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain, which straddles India and Nepal. They were closing in on the 8,586m summit when Benet felt unwell. 

"I was tired and slower than usual so I decided to stop, but I told Nives to continue," he says.

If Meroi had climbed the remaining few hundred metres to the summit, she would have stood a good chance of becoming the first woman to climb all of the world's 14 peaks above 8,000m (26,247ft). But she didn't think twice about turning round.

"When I realised there was something wrong with Romano I decided to descend as fast as we could," she says.

"I thought, 'What's the point of me going up there alone?' If Romano had waited in the tent at 7,600m while I was trying to climb to the top I might not have found him alive when I came back."

Benet was eventually diagnosed with aplastic anaemia, a very rare and potentially life-threatening condition in which your bone marrow fails to produce enough new blood cells. 

The couple refer to this as their 15th eight-thousander, and the most difficult one.

"If it wasn't for the difficult situations that we had experienced in the mountains, I don't think I would be able to bear all this," Benet used to tell Meroi during the months of his illness.

He was to undergo nearly two years of treatment, including dozens of blood transfusions.

"Mountaineering is about facing one problem at a time, and about knowing that every step forward is a step we'll have to take coming back down," Meroi says.

"We like to think that climbing mountains gave us the skills to face the disease. It taught us to place one step after the other, to be patient, and to never give up." 

But every therapy that the doctors tried on Benet failed. Their last hope was to give him a bone marrow transplant. Finally a matching donor was found and the transplant was carried out. But it didn't work.

"The doctors had run out of ideas," Meroi says. "But then they decided to experiment with something new - in mountaineering terms, to open a new route."

They thought a second bone marrow transplant from the same donor might just work, even though the first had failed. 

"The person who had donated the bone marrow in the first place was asked to go through the entire process for a second time," Meroi says. "And, bless him, he agreed to do that."

Nives Meroi and Romano Benet: A life in the death zone
Photo credit: GIACOMO MAESTRI

"That's what brought Romano back to life. To this day we don't know who this person is, but his silent and generous act really gives us hope in humanity."

It wasn't only the anonymous donor, Benet says, who helped him to overcome his illness.

"For two years Nives was the best partner I could imagine," he says. "She never left my side. We approached it as we always do, as a team, roped together."

A few years later, Benet and Meroi put on their backpacks again and returned to Kangchenjunga for another attempt.

"I was so thrilled to be back on the mountains - it was like unleashing a chained dog," Benet remembers.

But in their excitement to be back in the mountains the pair accidentally climbed up the wrong gorge.

"I think we are the first mountaineers in the history of the Himalayan ascents to get the wrong peak," Benet says. "But for me being there and knowing that I could still make it was enough."

In 2014 they returned to Kangchenjunga for a third time.

"That time we got the right mountain," Meroi says. "We were the first climbers of the season, so we had to open the route. It was just the two of us, but when we got to the top we realised we weren't alone - the anonymous donor was up there with us, the young man without a name who had chosen to give a stranger a chance of life. We wouldn't have made it without him."

Although Meroi missed out on being the first woman to climb all of the eight-thousanders, in May of 2017 she and Benet became the first couple to climb all 14 - an achievement all the more notable for their method of climbing without Sherpas or bottled oxygen.

This brings with it real dangers. 

Beyond 2,400m, the human body becomes susceptible to altitude sickness, which can progress to life-threatening conditions including high-altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), when blood vessels begin leaking fluid into the lungs or brain.

By the time you reach 8,000m you have entered the "death zone", where the air is so thin it is insufficient to sustain human life.

"The human body is not designed to live at those altitudes - even a tiny problem can escalate very quickly," Meroi says. "And it's not just a physical challenge - even thinking about your next move is tiring."

The couple often climb during the night so that they can arrive at a mountain's summit just after dawn, meaning they can make their descent - which technically can be more difficult and dangerous than the ascent - in daylight. 

"When you climb at night you're guided by the light of the stars and sometimes it feels like you're actually above them," Meroi says.

"And when you get to the top the first thing you experience is a sense of elation," says Benet. 

"The view from the top of an eight-thousander is something you'll never forget because from up there you can actually see the Earth curving at the horizon."

For Meroi, reaching the summit of one of the world's highest mountains gives her a different perspective on life.

"You really get a sense of how fragile human life is and how small it is compared to the power of nature, and you realise that the ambitions that drive us mad at sea level are completely irrelevant up there," she says.

"I feel like I am at peace with nature and that's probably what makes me want to keep climbing, to find that feeling again."

by Sarah McDermott

This article first appeared on http://www.bbc.com in 2017. The original can be read here.

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Bold Attempt to Ski the Lhotse Couloir
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Climber Attacked With Crampon On Manaslu
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Team of blind climbers summit Mt Kilimanjaro
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Winter K2: Now or Never
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A Marine Vet Who Lost a Leg in a Helicopter Crash is About to Scale Everest
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Mugu Peaks in Nepal, new route climbed by Anna Torretta, Cecilia Buil, Ixchel Foord
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Simone Moro to Put up a Surprise on Mt Manaslu this Winter
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Lonnie Dupre Aborts Mount Hunter Solo
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Climber, 68, Rescued from Mount Hood after Whiteout
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A New Film: Dreams of Himalaya
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Crossing Antarctica: How the Confusion Began and Where Do We Go From Here
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Interview: David Lama on His Lunag Ri Solo
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Coedpoeth Mountaineer Leads Team to Summit of Himalayan Peak that Has Never Been Scaled Before
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Polish Climber to Join K2 Expedition
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Maria Tolokonina and Nikolai Kuzovlev Win Combined Worlds in Moscow
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Mummified bodies of three climbers found in Mexico 59 years after they went missing
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Lonnie Dupre to Attempt First Solo Winter Ascent of Begguya (Mt. Hunter), Alaska
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Sherpa Climbers Seek Social Security
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Fabian Buhl, Alexander Huber Climb Choktoi Ri in Karakorum, Pakistan
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Winter 8000’ers: K2 Teams Unite
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Nepali Climbers Scale Highest Peak in South America
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Mountaineers Carving New Route to Climb Nanga Parbat
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Urubko and Barnasse Target New Routes in Patagonia
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Sherpa Widows to Climb Everest to Inspire Single Women
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Colin O’Brady Becomes First Person to Cross Antarctica Solo
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Zabardast: Incredible Freeride Skiing in the Heart of the Karakorum
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Dueling Teams Ready to Attempt K2 in Winter
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Tom Ballard Reaches Camp 1 on Nanga Parbat
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Big New Dolomites Winter Climb
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Eight Climbs at 80 Years Old for Fundraising
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Great Motivation: First Indoor Climb at 99!
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'Warm' Ice in World's Highest Glacier
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Graham Zimmerman and Chris Wright: First Ascent on Mount MacDonald
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Winter 2019: Simone Moro and Pemba Gyalje Sherpa Returned from 6400m
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Himjung in Nepal: Vitus Auer, Sebastian Fuchs, Stefan Larcher climb new route
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David Lama Lunag Ri Solo Ascent Video
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Bodies of climbers found in Himalayas 30 years after they disappeared
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Incredible ‘Mountain Ghost’ Caught on Film Lurking at the Top of Irish Mountain
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15-Year-Old Connor Herson Frees the Nose!
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China To Cut Everest Climber Numbers To Clean Up World's Highest Peak
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Ben Tibbetts Becomes Second Brit to Summit All 4,000m UIAA Alpine Peaks
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Weather Wizards: High-Altitude Forecasting
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Climbers Shrug off Harsh Weather, Vow to Scale K2
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Latok I: Impossible Is Not Forever
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Keita Kurakami Makes First All-Free Rope-Solo Ascent of the Nose
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Never-Seen Images from the First Ski Descent of Lhotse
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Adelaide Woman Could Become First in History to Complete Explorers' Grand Slam
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Everest North Side Goes Green
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Bielecki and Berg Call Off Annapurna
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Climber Rescued After Breaking Leg in Avalanche on Mount Snowdon
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Argentine Authorities Find Body Believed to be Spanish Climber Missing for 30 Years
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Malaysian Climber, Who Was Rescued Alive from Mt Annapurna, Dies in Singapore
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Under Cyclone Fani Impact, 20 Tents Blown Off At Everest Camp
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Mount Everest Weather Forecast Updates
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Dodging Avalanches, Simone Moro Abandons Manaslu
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Peruvian Climber Dies on Nepal's Mt Makalu
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Two Dead on Kangchenjunga
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‘Green Boots’: The Most Famous Body on Mt Everest
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Tributes to 'Incredible Mountaineer' Who Died During Ben Hope Climb
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Snowstorm Kills Five Korean and Four Nepali Climbers
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Melting Mount Everest glaciers reveal dead climbers' bodies: report
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Gone but Not Forgotten: Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard
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Sixty Years Later, Russia Is Still Trying to Figure Out What Killed These Hikers
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American Climber Dies from HAPE on Mt Ama Dablam
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Bodies of Nardi and Ballard found on Pakistan's "Killer Mountain"
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Winter K2 Wins Again: It’s Over for Pivtsov’s Team
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Everest 2019: New Route Attempt
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Search called off for missing Himalayan climbers
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Thousands raised for missing climbers
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Malaysian climber missing on Mt Annapurna
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Three killed, three injured in Lukla crash
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Nanga Parbat: New Avalanche on Mummery Spur; Weather Hampers Rescue Effort
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Breaking: Wrecked Tent and Avalanche Debris Spotted on Nanga Parbat
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Tom Ballard and Daniel Nardi Missing on Nanga Parbat; Rescue Operation Underway
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Updated: K2 and Nanga Parbat Action is On!
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Breaking: Weather Forecast Changes for the Worse on K2
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Bodies of three mountain climbers recovered after last week's Banff avalanche
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Hurricane Heading for Winter K2
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Irish Professor Seamus Lawless Missing Near Balcony Area on Mt Everest
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