Grieving husband shattered by Everest victim’s death

Reaching the summit of Everest 'didn’t mean anything' to the devastated husband of Maria Strydom, without the love of his life by his side.

Maria and husband Robert Gropel were both suffering severely from hallucinations and fatigue attributed to altitude sickness and lack of oxygen as they made their way down from the mountain they had prepared for a year to conquer.

"When I made it to the summit of Everest it wasn't special for me because I didn’t have her there, I just ran up and down and it didn’t mean anything to me," Robert told Sunday Night in a tearful interview.

"Everything else we did together was much more special."

The mystery surrounding Maria's death on Everest is only slightly closer to being solved since her body was recovered from the peak 10 days later.

After the couple spent a dangerous 31 hours stumbling above 8,000 metres — an area known as the Death Zone— they finally reached the camp with medicine and oxygen.

They thought they were saved but for Maria it was probably too late.

Robert still can't fully comprehend what happened to his wife the next day, but it is believed she suffered from fatal swelling of the brain, or cerebral edema.

She collapsed two hours out of camp and could not be saved.

"She was feeling strong, she was walking, I mean she was short-roped because she was still quite weak, but she was walking fine, very slowly but fine. She was talking, I had her back and I don’t know what happened."

"I don't understand, I still don’t understand"

Maria and Rob dreamt of summiting Everest together
Maria and Rob dreamt of summiting Everest together

Maria is one of two people on their expedition who didn’t make it home alive and each year dozens more succumb to the devastating effects of life 8km above sea level.

Robert blames himself.

"Because I am her husband, it's my job, it's my job to protect my wife and get her home. It's just natural for me to blame myself."

Her decline became apparent on May 20 when the couple was due to summit but about 800m from the summit Maria became too fatigued to traverse the difficult final peak.

She said she would wait for Robert to reach the top but by the time he returned, his own condition was rapidly worsening.

They began to travel back to Camp Four and got separated.

Greg Mortimer is an experienced climber who conquered Everest in 1984 and says getting to the highest point on earth is 95 percent mental — because your body is already shutting down.

Footage from Maria's camera during her last expedition
Footage from Maria's camera during her last expedition

"It's such a fine line of survival above 8,000 metres."

"You've got to have the weather, you've got to have the fitness, you've got to have the mental acuity, focus all to come together in that one period. If it doesn't and things come unstuck, they can come unstuck like a plane crash."

Mortimer said the exhaustion most experience near the top of Everest causes confusion in climbers — like Rob experienced when he believed he was being rescued but was, in fact, alone.

"I had no idea the length of time I was out there. From the balcony down with someone with strength and oxygen and it should take more than two to three hours," Rob said.

"With us it took 17 hours because we were out of oxygen."

It is only recommended climbers spend around 15 hours in the Death Zone, but Maria and Rob were above 8,000 metres for double that time.

A map of Everest showing the death zone above Camp Four, where Rob and Maria spent more than 30 hours
A map of Everest showing the death zone above Camp Four, where Rob and Maria spent more than 30 hours

"Maria and I spent 30 hours above Camp Four … I don't know anyone who's suffered what she suffered at the altitude that she was at and could have done what she did."

Rob has fluid in his lungs and swelling of the brain, a condition caused by the body beginning to physically break down.

"If you have got fluid pouring into your lungs you can no longer breath. You can get pressure in your brain, which is pushing your brain down in your skull cavity, fluid in your brain. That's the extreme," Mortimer said.

"You've got 12 or 16 hours where your body can maybe survive above that magic line where you shouldn't be and then things go start to go wrong, time disappears… it can take them half an hour to go a few steps."

According to Rob, he was told they were traveling down the mountain on different routes and he, too weak to go back, expected to see Maria at their destination but he wildly overestimated his progress.

"As we were getting closer in the bottom I would walk 10 metres, sit down and sleep and then a group of travellers would come past and wake me up and I would ask them to check my oxygen.

"They said it was empty and they said you've got to go down or you'll die so I would go down another 10 metres and I'd sit down and I'd sleep."

"I was completely exhausted."

Maria and Rob had conquered six of the seven highest peaks in the world
Maria and Rob had conquered six of the seven highest peaks in the world

Anthony Gordon was guiding the party down from Camp Four via radio and advising the team keep Maria keep moving and talking.

"Let's stay positive buddy, that's the most important thing ok?" He can be heard saying on the radio.

On their way down to Camp Three Maria's condition worsened rapidly, she was speaking gibberish and hallucinating.

"I knew she was in trouble," Rob said.

Their only hope was to keep moving, but it was too much.

Maria died on a sunny, clear Friday morning on Everest.

Maria and Rob's attempt at Everest was the last leg of an expedition to climb the seven tallest peaks on Earth.

On the same day Maria and Rob's tragedy struck, 19 year-old Alyssa Azar succeeded in becoming the youngest person in Australian to conquer Everest.

"[Maria and Rob] were well experienced, good credentials, mentally ready, physically ready and had done all the right things. Ready for it."

"But I don't think we can underplay the little quotient of serendipity of good luck that's involved in climbing big mountains."

It is still not known exactly what killed Maria because her body was not recovered from the mountain until Friday May 29 but Mortimer says, for many fatalities, their bodies remain a part of the mountain landscape.

"We should honour Maria and those other people that died. I don’t mean to [make it] sound too heroic you know but it does maybe help to make sense of it."

"We got an email saying, 'here are our wills'"

For Maria's family, news of her death was made more heartbreaking as they learned her body would remain on the mountain until retrieval could be arranged.

Her mother and sister told Sunday Night they were 'haunted' by the thought of Everest.

"I go through phases where I'm incredibly sad to phases where I'm angry and I'm seeking you know to blame someone for what's happened to sort of appreciating what I've lost," Maria's sister Aletta said.

"Just never receiving a little message from my sister again never being able to just pick up the phone and hear her voice again."

Aletta said her sister knew the risks from her many expeditions, but something was different about Everest.

Aletta discovered her sister's death via Himalayan news reports
Aletta discovered her sister's death via Himalayan news reports

"For the first time ever, before they went, we got an email saying with an attachment here are our wills. They've never done that before"

Her mother described her as a loving daughter and generous person.

She had booked a cruise for her and mum Maritha in December this year and called her on Mother's Day to say how excited she was.

So compelling was her concern that before this trip Maritha, who lives in Queensland, personally went to see them off in Melbourne.

"I do call them and we do see each other a lot but this time it was haunting me."

"This time I just felt I had to fly to Melbourne and go and say goodbye and spent a wonderful weekend together."

Maria's mother was 'haunted' by the idea of her daughter's expedition
Maria's mother was 'haunted' by the idea of her daughter's expedition

The families could keep track of the couple on the mountain through satellite 'pings' but when between Camp Four and the Summit, all was quiet.

They began to worry and a short time later a male member of their party was pronounced dead on the Himalayan Times — they assumed the worst, fearing for Rob's life.

"A bit after that the information was released that it was actually Eric Arnold and as sorry and as devastated that we felt for his family of course we had to be relieved that it wasn't our family that was affected."

But that night the terrible news arrived via the same news website about another victim.

"I did just a quick internet search on Everest news …The first thing that came up as a search result was from the Himalayan times naming my sister Dr Marisa Strydom."

The family takes comfort in the knowledge that Maria didn’t die alone on the mountain, like so many tohers.

"He said he held her hand, and he was there with her. That gives us some comfort," Maritha said.

"Rob would have done anything in his uh reach to help anyone around him. He would die to help anyone. He's that kind of person"

"He promised us he would bring her back healthy and alive. That's why he blames himself."

DONATE: Maria's friends have set up a fund to help pay for her family to bring her body home.

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