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The right stuff at 8,848 meters

At 5:30 on the morning of May 26, Katmandu time, after almost having to concede defeat, Bernardo Guarachi placed the Bolivian flag on the summit of Mt. Everest.

The 43-year-old climber was both the first Bolivian and probably the first native American to reach the 8,848-meter summit.

His expedition had not played out in textbook fashion. After arriving in Nepal in late March, heavy snows forced Guarachi and a growing number of other climbers to wait at base camp.

Guarachi spent the next two months conditioning himself with climbs to Camp II and III. "It was very, very frustrating for him," says David Atkinson, IDB representative in Bolivia, himself a climber and one of the organizers of the drive to fund Guarachi's attempt. "It took a tremendous force of will and character just to spend two months under those conditions, living out of a tent, losing 10 kilos, cut off from his family."

Then, on May 19, the weather finally cleared, and Guarachi and 53 others set off up the Nepalese side of Everest, which straddles the border with Tibet. But by the time they reached the famed Hillary Step, a 10-15-meter dropoff of rock and ice just 100 vertical meters from the summit, they had run out of rope, and had to turn back.

Back at Camp IV, Guarachi's limited English caused him to misinterpret the plans of the members of his group, and he returned to base camp. Then, realizing his error, he did an about face and pushed straight through once more to Camp IV. On midnight of May 25, he struck out a final time with a group of climbers from Singapore.

"From base camp to the summit, 3,548 meters in 72 hours--that's got to be some kind of record," said Atkinson.

It was Guarachi's second Everest attempt. His first, in 1994, ended at 8,180 meters when bad weather forced his return.

Hailing his countryman's success, Bolivian Vice President Jorge Quiroga Ramírez, himself a climber, said Guarachi's feat is evidence of "a very big heart, and even bigger lungs."

And in fact, Guarachi had been training for this moment all his life. Raised near the windswept Andean town of Patacamaya, where his father still tends the family herds of sheep and llamas, he has spent much of his life above 5,000 meters. As a mountaineering guide, he has made more than 170 ascents of 6,450-meter Mt. Illimani, the famed peak overlooking Bolivia's capital of La Paz. He made his most dramatic Illimani climb in 1985, when he was hired by Eastern Airlines to locate the wreckage of an airliner that crashed on New Year's Day.

But in addition to determination, skill and stamina, an Everest expedition requires money, and lots of it. A plan to finance the climber's second attempt was hatched--appropriately--during a 1996 climb up Mt. Illimani in which Guarachi guided Quiroga and the IDB's Atkinson. The two, along with Bolivian Times Publisher Peter McFarren, formed a group dubbed Amigos de Guarachi that raised $33,000 in donations.

Atkinson is unstinting in his praise of Guarachi, both as a man and a climber.

"Good guides are not necessarily world-class climbers, and world-class climbers rarely have the patience to be good guides," he said. "Guarachi is the exception, for he is both."

He added that Guarachi's feat is something in which all Bolivians can take pride. Although the country did not make it to the soccer finals in France this year, it achieved much greater heights in May, he said.

Guarachi returned to Bolivia to a hero's welcome, and on July 2 received the Condor de los Andes award, his country's highest distinction, from Bolivian President Hugo Banzer.

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