55-Year-Old American Dies of Exhaustion While Climbing Mount Everest

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An American climber was one of two people who died of exhaustion on Wednesday while summiting Mount Everest, the first reported fatalities of a climbing season that comes highly anticipated following last year's COVID-related shutdown.

Puwei Liu, 55, suffered from snow blindness and exhaustion while descending from Hillary Step, between the mountain at South Col and the summit, a spokesperson for Seven Summit Treks, which organized the expedition, confirms to PEOPLE.

An Instagram post from Chhang Dawa Sherpa that the spokesperson referenced said that two additional Sherpas were sent to bring Liu oxygen and food, but that he was unable to be saved, and died during his descent before he could reach the summit.

A second person, 41-year-old Abdul Waraich of Switzerland, also died of exhaustion on Wednesday after successfully reaching Everest's summit, the post said.

Waraich began "experiencing issues during his descent," and help from two additional Sherpas was also unsuccessful, according to the post.

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Billi Bierling of the Himalayan Database told The New York Times that upon reaching Everest's summit, Waraich had accomplished the rare feat of summiting all seven of the world's highest mountains.

Both climbers were experienced mountaineers who lost consciousness around 26,000 feet in an area known as the "death zone" due to its thin air and harsh weather, the Times reported.

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Though Everest's base camp experienced a COVID outbreak last month that led to the evacuations of several climbers planning to summit the mountain, officials denied that Waraich and Liu, who was from California, were infected.

"No COVID. They died of altitude sickness. Had they [had] COVID, they wouldn't be able to reach at that height," Minmga Sherpa, Seven Summit Treks' chairman, told the Times.

Rudra Singh Tamang, the tourism department's general director, reportedly said that reaching the heights that the two men did would have been "impossible" had they had the virus.

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Everest has been scaled by more than 6,000 climbers since Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay did it first in 1953, and at least 311 people have died while trying, according to Reuters.

The coronavirus pandemic forced Nepal and China to shut down climbing season last year, and China has only reopened to Chinese climbers on its side of the mountain, the Associated Press reported.

Nepal, however, is reportedly allowing foreigners to climb Everest, and the government has so far issued permits to 408 people.