Reflections From Everest
Today I Summited Mt. Everest…
A friend of mine wrote to me and pointed out that it was pretty rare one can open a blog post with that line, so guess I better take advantage of it.
Truth be told it really has not sunk in for me at all. Since reaching the summit of Mt. Everest at 7:30 AM on May 19th, 2016 I haven’t had much of a chance to catch my breath. As I write this I am on a plane from Seattle to Anchorage already en route to climb the final peak (Denali) in the BEYOND 7/2 challenge.
But before I get too far ahead of myself I want to make sure to savor the Everest experience and reflect on the trials and triumphs of the climb.
It was a very tough month, with many setbacks that tested every inch of my being. I originally set off on my summit push the night of May 10th to pass through Khumbu Icefall and onward to Camp 2. About halfway through the treacherous icefall a commotion was taking place between Sherpas, and I quickly learned that several ladders collapsed and that the route was blocked. This was my first chance to turn back. The icefall is known as a place where you don’t ever want to stop, not even to take a 5 minute break. It’s just too dangerous. Nevertheless I stood there for 3 hours, waiting for the “Icefall Doctors” to work their magic and repair the route. Overhead were huge seracs (precarious ice cliffs), that I wiled to stay put and not fall on top of me.
Adrenaline pumping hard, several hours after leaving base camp I hadn’t even made it to Camp 1. Finally we reached the top of the icefall, but it was many hours past when we expected to arrive. First a heat spell, and then a quick turn to a blizzard made the route from Camp 1 to Camp 2 significantly harder than the time before. The circumstances of the day turned a projected 7-8 hours of climbing into a 15 hour epic day to reach Camp 2. Before my summit bid had really even begun I was exhausted.
Mercifully the next day I was able to rest at Camp 2. However, that night I was informed that the weather forecast had changed, and the weather window had gotten smaller – with only 36 hours left in the projected summit window. This meant my only choice was to skip Camp 3 the next day. Passang Bhote, Dawa Bhote (my amazing sherpas), and I woke up at 4AM to get ready for the huge push from Camp 2 (21,200ft) to Camp 4 (25,700ft). In my entire time on the mountain I did not hear of any other non-Sherpas making this push in a single day.
This was actually my strongest day of climbing on the whole trip. I think the excitement of climbing higher than I had ever been fueled me, as well as the fact that there were only about ten others aiming for the summit during that window, and crowds have always been my biggest fear on the Everest climb. I reached Camp 4, and although the day had been nearly perfect weather up to this point, Everest again showed its fierce and fickle nature and decided to bite back. A nearly windless and sunny day turned into a gale force storm. It took nearly two hours to get a tent erected at Camp 4, and I knew then that my summit bid the next day had been thwarted. I spent a long night with the tent smacking around in the 50mph+ winds, before having no choice but to descend the next day back to Camp 2 to regroup.
I’ve been told that few people make more than one attempt to Camp 4 in a single season. My level of fatigue that I am feeling now is a testament to that. However at the time I was fueled by determination and adrenaline, and I knew I wanted/needed to go back up the next chance I got.
I had two days to catch my breath and recover in Camp 2 before another small window appeared to open up around the 18th of May. Similar to my first approach we decided to yet again skip Camp 3, and go for a two camp push again in a single day. We left at 3AM this time, and in the first hour of climbing I already had a feeling it was going to be a hard day. The wind was howling up high. The forecast called for that to subside, but the higher we climbed the harder it got. Roped in to the nearly vertical Lhotse Face I was literally blown off my feet by numerous 50+ mph gusts. We reached the lower camp 3, and I jumped inside an abandoned tent for a 30 minute reprieve.
Sensing a small break in the weather we decided to continue. But that was short-lived. Another 500 vertical feet higher, and we arrived at high Camp 3, a precarious camp carved into the Lhotse Face. A team friendly with ours had tents already set up, and had given us permission to use them in a pinch. Passang Bhote and I discussed our choices. Many people seemed to still be going up to Camp 4. However we had just been up there a couple days earlier in a storm, and what we were seeing above looked WAY worse. It was a tough call, but I didn’t see any safe way to continue, so we took refuge at Camp 3 for the night hoping for a change in the weather.
A fellow climber who I met as I was flying to Kathmandu yesterday told me he was there on the Lhotse Face that same day and had tried to push on from where I stopped. He was caught in a small avalanche just above Camp 3, and that was the end of his climb. I was terrified hearing his story, but it also justified my decision to alter my plans.
It was easily the scariest night I have ever spent in a tent. I had to get out and dig my tent out as the snow and wind were collapsing it and pushing it off its tiny platform. But the next morning I was relieved that the projected weather forecast appeared to be true. The wind died down revealing a perfect day on the 18th. I had a small pang of regret that we had not been able to reach Camp 4 to capitalize for a summit push that day. But all we could do was take advantage of the window and move from Camp 3 to Camp 4 in what amounted to a tough but uneventful push. At last I was back to Camp 4 in position for what I knew would be my last chance at an Everest summit push.
Having been thrown around by the weather several times at this point I was somewhat gun-shy to pull the trigger on the summit push. The forecast was calling for a borderline day including -35°F temperatures and winds up to 40mph. This is a serious recipe for frostbite. However, after having been turned back once at Camp 4, I was eager to get my shot to climb to the top of the world.
When I arrived at Camp 4 a few days earlier I was one of only 4-5 teams up there. This time it seemed that the vast majority of climbers on the mountain had mobilized for this summit window. I looked out of my tent at 6PM and already people were leaving for the summit. Although I wanted to avoid the traffic of the crowds, I felt it was unsafe to leave so early and risk summiting during the dark and coldest time of the night.
Patiently I waited as team after team left. In hindsight I may have left a little bit too late, but at 11:15PM on May 18th, Passang Bhote, Dawa Bhote and I left Camp 4 for the Everest summit. We were literally the very last people to clip on to the fixed ropes as a string of over 200 headlamps lit the the route above us.
Fearing a long and cold day waiting on the lines we quickly decided to unclip from the ropes and overtake as many climbers as possible. This meant a less safe choice in terms of rope safety, but it did save us many hours of standing around. By my estimate we overtook at least 150 climbers up the triangle face before reaching the Balcony at 27,500ft, roughly halfway to the summit from Camp 4. I could not believe our fortune. There was not a breath of wind so far at this point and the full moon lit up the night sky making my headlamp almost superfluous. It was a perfect evening for a summit push.
Even though we had passed a majority of climbers at this point our fortunes changed. The terrain above the Balcony gets more and more exposed and narrow. We approached the “Tenzing Step” – a near vertical mixed climbing section on rock and ice. The line of climbers in front of us came to a halt. As the route turned left and upward we became exposed to the wind. Standing still behind the other climbers it was the first time I began to feel the biting cold, and realized the true risk of trying to climb to the summit on such a crowded night.
Determined not to turn around yet we waited patiently as we crept up the route step by step. It was a couple hours before we made it to the South Summit where we changed out oxygen bottles. From there I knew I was close. I had a fear all night that conditions or the crowds would force me to turn around, but when I reached the South Summit I knew the top of the world was within my reach.
Many people talk about the challenges of the Hillary Step as the final technical feature blocking the summit. This year, due to high snowfall, the Hillary Step was rather innocuous. However what I didn’t hear so much about was the cornice traverse and the extremely narrow and exposed terrain just before the Hillary Step. I was forced to navigate some very narrow sections with a thousand foot drop off on either side. At this point, well above 28,000ft, progress was very slow, and as my brain suffered from hypoxia and fatigue it was crucial to focus on each torturously slow step.
I was exhausted at this point, but seeing a gathering of climbers in the distance and a mound of prayer flags I knew I was in sight of the summit. At roughly 7:40AM I walked the final steps, and reached the “Top of the World.” My initial reaction was to pull out my GoPro to document the moment. I pulled off my oxygen mask to hoot and holler, and quickly realized how thin the air was without supplemental oxygen. I could barely speak, but it didn’t matter, I had made it. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
By complete coincidence on a day filled with many faceless climbers, I reached the summit just behind Stuart Erskine. BEYOND 7/2 began with Stuart Erskine – he was one of the skiers on my small team to the South Pole. We certainly didn’t plan our Everest summit day together, but it was a major blessing to share the summit with a dear friend. We spent the next 30-45 minutes taking pictures and drinking in our accomplishment. There was a bit of wind, but we were lucky enough to have a hospitable enough summit to take off our gloves and masks sparingly and capture the moment. It is a time I will cherish for the rest of my life.
I was expecting to only be on the summit for five minutes, so when I got more than a half hour I felt extremely lucky. But even that time flew by, and before I knew it Passang Bhote was urging me to go down and return back to safety. We began our way back, and as many climbers were still on our their way up the true nightmare of a crowded mountain played out.
On some of the corniced sections above the South Summit there is barely room for a single person. Now there was two way traffic over these sections forcing people to unclip the rope and try to pass as falls of thousands of feet were just one errant bump away. The elation of the summit wore off quickly as I focused intently on the task of descending safely from the summit.
About halfway to the South Summit my energy level plummeted, and for the first time all day I had to stop and sit down. I was terribly worried. Had I forgotten to eat? Had I made the classic mountaineering mistake of using all of my energy on the way up? I told Passang Bhote I needed a moment, and put my head in my hands. It was still a very long way down. I felt Passang Bhote fumbling around in my backpack, but I didn’t have enough energy to say anything. “Your oxygen has run out,” he said and he helped me quickly change it. Luckily, we had plenty more oxygen and my world transformed again as oxygen re-entered my bloodstream suddenly. My energy was back and I was ready to continue. Feeling life without supplemental oxygen above 28,000ft even just for a few minutes gave me a newfound respect for the elite few who have conquered this mountain without the use of supplemental oxygen.
Upon reaching the South Summit, I was finally protected from the wind for a minute and I pulled out my satellite phone to call Jenna. Unbeknownst to me a big group of my family and friends were gathered around watching my progress on the satellite tracker. They congratulated me on speaker phone and I immediately lost it in tears. I sure I didn’t sound too great to them, but it was an extremely happy moment for me to hear their voices on the end of the line as I was struggling my way back down Mt. Everest. I could hear the pride in their voices, and that simple moment made all of the struggle worth it and I was rejuvenated to continue.
The final scare of the day came for me just after descending the South Summit. I recognized a dear friend of mine sitting down on the route. I yelled her name in joy and bent down to give her a big hug. She looked right at me, and didn’t even respond. Her eyes were glazed over, and it was as if she was looking through me. Her guide assured me she was fine and was just having problems with her oxygen mask. I wished I could do more, but all I could muster was another hug, and some words of love and encouragement to get down safely.
The rest of the descent went rather smoothly. I climbed down to Camp 4, and then after resting a couple of hours, I made my way all the way down the Lhotse Face to the safety of Camp 2. Many climbers stay in Camp 4 for the night, but I have heard too many stories of falling asleep there after the summit and never waking up. Despite my deep fatigue I was determined to get down to thicker air.
After a quick meal at Camp 2 I crawled into bed for a dreamless sleep. The next morning I was up again early to finish the descent back through the Icefall and down to the safety of base camp. I was pleased I’d reached the summit but I knew not to let my guard down until I actually reached base camp. When I walked into base camp I felt an enormous sense of relief. I did it! I climbed Mt. Everest!
I spent a single day in base camp waiting on a helicopter before the whirlwind of BEYOND 7/2 took over my life again. 48 hours after standing on top of the world I was thrown into motion again, taking three helicopters and then three flights (Dubai, Seattle, Anchorage), to get me to where I am currently; sitting at the base of Denali in Alaska getting ready to tackle the final mountain in the BEYOND 7/2 challenge. Jenna met me at the airport and is with me now. I am so lucky for her continued support on this project!
As I took a series of helicopters back to Kathmandu the tragedy of Mt. Everest was forced into my view. One of the main roles of the helicopters this time of year is to rescue hurt climbers. The helicopters were full of climbers with severe frostbite and other debilitating injuries. I shared a chopper to Kathmandu with an Indian man and his Japanese climbing partner both of whom had severe frostbite on their faces and feet. Surprisingly, they still seemed happy with their summit despite being whisked away to the hospital. For me, success doesn’t look like that. Success is always returning home with all of my fingers and toes, and the summit is just a bonus. I have prioritized my safety over all else because I know what it means to be severely injured – I have been there. I am happy to report that despite some deep fatigue I’m all in one piece and ready to tackle North America’s tallest mountain; Denali.
A final note: I just heard from my friend who I saw in bad shape on the South Summit. I am happy to report that she regained her strength and made it to top and back down safe and sound. Let the journey continue!