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A former Navy rescue swimmer reaches Everest's summit - and survives a harrowing return trip

Jun. 30, 2011 - 02:46PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 30, 2011 - 02:46PM  |  
Former Navy rescue swimmer Brian Dickinson's self-portrait at the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal.
Former Navy rescue swimmer Brian Dickinson's self-portrait at the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal. (Brian Dickinson)
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Brian Dickinson stood atop Mount Everest savoring the moment. The former Navy rescue swimmer had just solo-summitted the world's highest peak, a feat accomplished by only a handful of climbers.

Then everything went blurry. Within minutes, he knew he had been stricken with snow blindness.

"The sun banks off of the ice, fries your corneas, and you're done. It's like a sunburn for the eyes," Dickinson says.

During his ascent, Dickinson dropped his goggles. He recovered them, but the 500-foot fall cracked the inner lens and made his goggles virtually useless.

Snow blindness usually lasts up to 48 hours, a luxury Dickinson didn't have. To survive, he had to get out of Everest's "death zone" above 26,000 feet as quickly as possible.

It was May 15, and Dickinson had already been awake for more than 24 hours. He spent the next seven hours descending blind from the 29,035-foot summit to the safety of his camp 3,000 feet below.

The 37-year-old said he relied on his Navy rescue training to keep from panicking.

"If you panic, you die up there," he says.

Dickinson, who served from 1993 to 1999, decided in 2007 to climb Everest as part of a goal to summit the highest peak on each of the world's seven continents to raise money for AIDS research.

Just a day before his attempt to summit Everest, the plan began to crumble. Dickinson's climbing partner got sick. With a small window of fair weather, Dickinson knew he couldn't wait.

He started his summit attempt at 7 p.m. May 14. Just three hours from the top, his Sherpa guide got sick and had to return to camp. Feeling strong, Dickinson took the radio and an extra oxygen bottle and pushed on to the top alone.

"I had no intention of soloing the mountain," Dickinson said. "That's just how it worked out."

At 5:30 a.m. May 15, he walked onto the summit.

Overwhelmed with emotion, Dickinson said he sat down and radioed to all camps below that he had made it. By 7:30 a.m., he was only able to see bright white light, as if he was staring directly into the sun.

But Dickinson was determined to make it.

"I had a mission. … I had to get down," he says. "It was the scariest thing I ever faced."

Using the pre-positioned guide ropes, Dickinson slowly inched his way down to the point where he could rappel down the mountain.

At one point, he slipped and tumbled about 20 feet before his safety line stopped his fall. Before reaching safety, he nearly suffocated trying to change out his oxygen bottles.

With his sight returned and the experience behind him, Dickinson is preparing for his next climb Antarctica's Mount Vinson, a summit of 16,067 feet.

"It's the coldest place in the world," he says.

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