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He barely made it two steps before he was hit by a wall of white. He tried to break his fall, but the snow was coming down too fast, getting in his mouth and clothes, dragging him 600 meters downhill. Blindsided by the mountain, he regained consciousness on a steep incline, unable to move and with a broken knee, collarbone and ribs.
‘It was a fine day and I was quite lightly dressed. I wouldn’t have made it through the night that way. I was shivering,’ recalls Christos Lambris.
The avalanche on the morning of October 22, 1985, brought the first Greek climbing mission to the Himalayas to an inglorious end and killed two members of the team. Christos Lambris, who was 24 at the time, was only saved thanks to the help of team captain Michalis Tsoukias. “He located him, wrapped him in a sleeping bag, and left some food and medicine to help him survive a few hours until a rescue team could reach him,” recounts Panos Chlorokostas, another member of the expedition.
The critical hours at 6,400 meters forged bonds that evolved into strong, lifelong friendships. Thirty-five years later, the team was tested again not by a slip or a falling rock while ascending great heights, but by the coronavirus pandemic.
“With training and experience, you know how to deal with a threat on the mountain. The virus was something completely new,” says Lambris when we meet him at his home in the northwestern city of Ioannina, 10 days after he was discharged from the local University Hospital.
After spending three weeks in a medically induced coma and more than a month in hospital, he had lost 17 kilograms – mainly muscle mass – and was so weak he could barely lift up his young daughter, who weighs just 8 kilograms. He is looking at weeks of physical therapy to regain his strength and full range of motion.
The Ioannina hospital started bracing for the coronavirus pandemic on January 20, reviving its defunct infectious diseases unit for patients with Covid-19, creating negative pressure rooms and getting specialized personnel to help out. In total, the hospital has treated 12 coronavirus patients so far.
Lambris’ case was pivotal, however. He had no underlying illnesses and nothing to suggest that the infection would take such a dangerous turn.
During his final days of treatment he learned that Michalis Tsoukias, who was also infected and being treated at the Sotiria Hospital in Athens, had died on March 24. He was 64 years old. The news of his death was reported across Greece, not just because he was a well-known climber but also because he was the first Covid-19 patient in Greece to die without having any other health problems.
“After hearing of Michalis’ death, I kept hoping that Christos would make it, that at least one of them would make it,” Chlorokostas says. In the Himalayas back in 1985, his job as mission medic was to wait for the team at base camp. He saw the avalanche coming down the mountain, sweeping away his friends’ tents. He heard the silence over their radios. He didn't know if they were alive.
Back in those days, conquering the 7,219-meter Annapurna South peak was no easy matter. “It was something completely new and we had to improvise even as we made the climb,” says Lambris. “If we’d had more experience, perhaps we would have abandoned the effort earlier, but we persisted because we believed that it had to be that hard in the Himalayas.”
Being aware of the epxedition's possible dangers they paraphrased the Greek song «Σε πότισα Ροδόσταμο» (in lyrics by Nikos Gatsos and music by Mikis Theodorakis) singing: "When you go to Annapurna, be careful not to fall in a crevasse" (crevasse is an open crack in a glacier).
The 12-member team comprised of experienced climbers from different parts of Greece. Reaching base camp at 4,200 meters meant a 10-day trek through dense vegetation. One of the things Lambris remembers most about that adventure is the leeches, which were everywhere, falling off trees down his shirt and sticking to his legs. The team also had around 100 Nepalese assistants to help them carry nearly 3 tons of gear and provisions.
The higher they got, the worse the weather became. The snow slowed their progress. At some point four members of the team got trapped in the second camp. Their supplies ran out and they ate candy until they were able to return to the base camp.
Despite the difficulties they didn't quit. A day before making their final push for the summit the avalanche hit them. Klimis Tsatsaragos and a German climber from another mission were buried in the snow. Tsoukias got away. Having lost his boots, he tramped around in socks collecting what gear he could find and trying to help the injured climbers. He got Dimitris Boudolas into a sleeping bag and then into a tent. He did the same with Lambris. Then a second avalanche swept Boudolas away and killed him.
The only solution for the team captain was to get help. Lambris, in the meantime, waited. “As night fell, chunks of ice would come racing down the slope like another avalanche. All I could think about was surviving,” he says. His rescue took an arduous climb of almost four days down to base camp, where he was evacuated by a military helicopter.
“When I got to base camp and was put in a tent, I was able to relax and think about the events of the previous few days. That’s when I cried,” Lambris remembers. After coming back to Greece, it took six months of successive surgeries to fix his knee, but longer than that to stop hearing the roar of the avalanche in his ears. “It made me jump,” he says.
After a while he returned to the mountains. “I had no fears or nightmares. I kept notes of my story while it was still fresh and that might have helped me heal," he says.
Chlorokostas remembers it was some time before he could climb with other people again. He was 24 years old at the time of the avalanche and wanted to focus on finishing his medical degree.
“Later, when the wound of losing two friends had healed, conversations with Christos and Michalis would only go so far – there was a point that was too sensitive to cross,” he remembers.
Lambris and Chlorokostas became friends with Michalis Tsoukias after he became their instructor at the climbing school they both joined. “We were younger than him and looked at him more as a teacher than a climbing buddy,” says Chlorokostas. “After the Himalayan mission though, after being in the grips of death, it is only human to form a bond that is more than a friendship.”
In 1986, Tsoukias and Lambris founded Trekking Hellas, the first travel agency in Greece dedicated to outdoor activities, organizing climbing and river rafting excursions, among others. They later branched out to overseas trips, with trekking tours to Nepal, India and the Sahara. The company expanded even more into a franchise. “He had amazing organizational skills,” Lambris says of his late friend and business partner.
They both spent the last few years working from their respective homes but met up on March 5, when Lambris picked up Tsoukias from the airport when he returned from a trip to Italy so they could attend a conference in Trikala.
“They both became ill. I knew Michalis’ medical history and always regarded him as being made of steel. I never would have thought that he’d be brought down by a virus. It was the early days of the epidemic in Greece and he was one of the first serious cases,” says Chlorokostas.
Lambris spiked a fever when he got back home to Ioannina. He took the test after learning that Tsoukias had also tested positive and was admitted to hospital on March 13. His health deteriorated rapidly and he had to be intubated.
He suffered a cytokine storm, “an overreaction of the immune system that fires up the body’s defenses and causes complications in respiratory function,” explains Ioannina University pathology professor Charalambos Milionis.
“The experience we gained from his case helped us react to other cases much faster and effectively. Even though he was in hospital for a long time, his strong disposition and willpower helped him survive intensive care,” adds the doctor.
Lambris has no memory of intensive care, except for a dream that he was on a stretcher trapped under a heavy blanket unable to make the slightest move.
Over in Athens, Chlorokostas examined Tsoukias on March 11 and was the one that called an ambulance to have him rushed to hospital. “Here was a person with no prior medical problems, but without basic weapons like an effective or special treatment, he lost the battle in two weeks. I still don’t know why he didn’t make it,” says the victim’s friend.
Lambris estimates that his recovery will take around three more months. He talks about trips he would like to take again, to the Andes and Kilimanjaro. He is eager to get back to the mountains.
Reporting: YANNIS PAPADOPOPOULOS
Camera: GIORGOS MOUTAFIS
Video Editing: GOGO BEBELOU
Archive footage: CHRISTOS LAMBRIS
Text translated from Greek by: CHRISTINE STURMEY
For Kathimerini and Kathimerini's English Edition eKathimerini.com.