Ogden man's dramatic rescue on Mt. Everest may lead to medical gains closer to home

Published: Thursday, Aug. 30 2012 8:21 p.m. MDT

William Calton talks about how hyperbaric treatment saved his severely frostbitten toes after a climbing accident on Everest at the Ogden Regional Medical Center Wound Care and Hyperbaric Center in Washington Terrace on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

OGDEN — William Calton could barely wiggle his toes, he was dehydrated and had gotten very little rest.

But the Ogden man had traveled too far to give up and go home — and he was just hours away from reaching the top of Mt. Everest, the world's highest peak.

"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Some people make it and some people don't, but I definitely thought we'd be some of the ones who did," Calton said Friday. "After all this time and all this money, do you turn around for some cold toes?"

The 51-year-old was one of nearly 200 climbers who made the summit of the 29,035-foot mountain on May 19, a victory that he called "short and sweet."

After quickly savoring the view from the peak — he recalls "a beautiful blue sky over numerous snow-covered peaks below" — the next thing Calton remembers is waking up 15 feet from the trail leading down the mountain. He had been cut from the tethered cord that was keeping him on track and his gloves and camera were missing.

"I have no hard feelings. It's survival of the fittest out there," Calton said. "But some wild things started happening up there."

Doctors say Calton must have experienced some high-altitude cerebral edema, causing him to fade in and out of consciousness. He had to have fallen because his body was badly bruised, he had a concussion, two broken ribs and a collapsed lung. His liver and kidneys were also failing, having not been properly hydrated for the intense climb. And his feet were already turning purple from the prolonged exposure to cold weather at such high altitudes.

"I had to focus on the journey," he said. "We'd read about Everest forever … to finally be there, we were thrilled."

Calton and his friend, Tom Burton, had left Ogden on March 24 to travel to Nepal. They joined up with a couple of other climbers and assumed they had found the deal of a lifetime. It was a less expensive and affordable trip to Everest's peak, which would be made with the support of Sherpas, but without a guide.

The two had climbed some of the world's tallest mountains together. They'd made it up Alaska's McKinley, Argentina's Aconcagua and others. It only seemed natural that Everest would be next.

They trained more than a year for what turned out to be a 72-day expedition and the well-conditioned climbers believed they were ready for whatever the mountain gave them. Calton said he had top-of-the-line gear to make the trek and while he made it to the summit, he wasn't sure he'd make it home.

A traffic jam of climbers, all of whom had waited for "a good weather window" to make the summit, slowed the pace and led to dangerous conditions for Calton, which later led to his fall.

According to worldwide media reports from May, it was the most crowded the mountain had ever been; at least four climbers had died, while others had gotten lost.

"Something happened to me at around 27,000 feet," Calton said. "I don't remember Camp 4 or Camp 3." He said other climbers in his group did not stop yelling at him, saying "get up and hike or you'll be a permanent fixture up here."

He could walk for a minute, would collapse to rest and repeat, taking 11 hours to do what others did in three or four hours. After making it down to 22,000 feet, Calton was airlifted off the mountain in the highest helicopter rescue in the world.

After several days of treatment at a hospital in Katmandu, Calton returned home to Ogden, albeit with enormously swollen and painful feet. The full-time landscaper and avid runner realized that his entire lifestyle would change if he didn't get help.

"I was looking at a totally new way of life, one I knew I wouldn't enjoy," he said.

When the blackened toes just wouldn't heal, Calton sought help locally, at the Ogden Regional Medical Center's Wound Care and Hyperbaric Center.

Hyperbaric treatment for frostbite is still investigational, said Dr. Peter Clemens, director of services at the center. The atmospheric pressure chambers are typically used to treat diabetics or those with carbon monoxide poisoning and sometimes used to nurture stubborn post-operative wounds or bone infections. Insurance companies also don't cover the treatment for experimental use.

Despite Calton's injuries, Clemens said the climber was in tremendous shape and could benefit from the treatment.

"When you're exposed to 100 percent oxygen, really good things can happen to your body," Clemens said, fully expecting Calton to lose some tissue from his severely frostbitten toes. It had been 17 days since coming off Everest.

"The sooner you receive hyperbaric treatment, the better," Clemens said. "We get in and we save those cells from the ultimate problem of death."

Calton spent three weeks, 90 minutes each day, under two-and-a-half times the amount of pressure found in the normal atmosphere. He said the "dive," which mimics the pressure found by going under sea water and facilitates the movement of pure oxygen through the blood, is warm and humid, as well as quiet.

Calton's quick recovery, Clemens said, has been "astounding" and will likely end up in medical journals as scientific evidence supporting the treatment.

Though he nearly lost his life, and ultimately, his toes, Calton said he'd "go back (to Everest) in a heartbeat."

"I think everyone picks their poison. Some people golf every Saturday or Sunday, twice a week," he said. "I love mountaineering and climbing mountains."

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