Ill never forget Wednesday May 18 2016.
At 7 pm, as the sun was beginning to set at 26,000 feet at the South Col on Mount Everest, I sat and just watched as a long line of climbers started making their way up the steep slope out of camp four towards the summit - their headlamps all flickering as a line formed up the hill. They were beginning their long summit bid, a night and following day that would take most over 18 hours. It seemed everyone on the Mountain this year had been waiting for this day - predicted decent weather - the summit window - and the majority of climbers here this season were taking their shot. I knew I could not go.
I was with 2 of the most experienced Sherpas on the mountain - Nima and Jangbu, with over 20 summits between them - so incredibly strong - and a rookie - Pemba - eager to prove himself. I could not have hand picked a better group of guys to go to the summit with - and they were there only because I was there and they wanted to support me. Nima asked if I was ok, and told me to go into the tent and eat, but I just stood there, with my oxygen bottle cradled in my arms, and watched as others started off to realize their dream of summiting Mount Everest.
It has been a long week plus since my last post and this will be the final one for this trip. Sorry in advance if I ramble as I sometimes have.
First thing is thank you for all the support I have received over the past 6 weeks. A lot of people I have not talked to in years sent along nice messages and though sometimes I did not receive them for days after they were sent (our communications on the Mountain were pretty much a non existent joke), I read and appreciated every one of them! Also, I know some have already said that they are sorry I didn't summit. There is no reason to say sorry. For me it was a success and I know I made the right decision to stop at the South Col. I was sick, the day did not go as planned AT ALL, and considering what we went through to get to where we were it was somewhat surprising I got as far as I did. I am happy with the outcome - not thrilled - not overjoyed or ecstatic and of course there is a level of disappointment, but as my friend LaP told me before I left - you have to find peace, be at peace with your decisions knowing you did everything you could, then accept the outcome. I found that with this trip. I know I wont be back here but I am fine with that. I know we as a group and me personally did everything to be put in a position to have the opportunity to summit.... but sometimes that is not enough.
SIDEBAR..... I just had to stop writing for a second to say hello to Doug Scott and Sir Chris Bonnington. Google them - pioneer climbers - can not even express how significant their achievements have been! Climbing and exploring as bad ass as they come in their day they did things that have still not been replicated. I think in their 70’s or 80’s now, they are back in Nepal to help rebuild after earthquake damage.
Ok.... so when last we left I believe we were on our way up for our summit bid, and the first day out through the icefall was as eventful as it always seems to be. 4 avalanches that morning an hour before we headed out made me more nervous I think than I had ever been. It really is a game of Russian Roulette each time you head into the Icefall. Once we got going - I started to focus on the task at hand and other than a small slide just above us that luckily didn't amount to much, the Icefall was pretty quiet as we weaved our way through the huge blocks of ice. About 2 hours in, I heard a call over the radio.... another of our team members that was a bit behind me was having some trouble and experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness. About an hour or two later I saw from above as a ridiculously skilled helicopter pilot dipped into the icefall, found a small flattish patch of snow and ice, placed one skeg of his chopper on the shifting flow of ice and basically hovered as the climber was loaded into the chopper and flown directly to Kathmandu. He is fine now.... but we were down to two climbers - Ade and myself.
As I made it to camp one I was alone and the sun was beating down on the Western CWM. I could not even go into the tent it was so hot so I just sat outside baking waiting for Ade. I did manage to boil some water and eat some beef jerky I had brought along and start to refuel the body. When Ade showed up we were both pretty spent, did what we could to get comfy as the sun went down and the cold set in, and got some sleep - thankfully. The next morning we got up around 4 as we wanted to get to Camp 2 before the sun did. We made the trip in under 3 hours and both felt pretty good.... until we had to eat. As i mentioned we actually have a cook at camp 2 - but with what he has to work with, we found we were better off NOT eating the food there - well other than a fried egg and “pancake” and some porridge which was not too bad. While we should have been fueling up for the tough next day, we were actually going backwards a bit. I dont think I slept much that night. The insomnia and cheyenne stokes breathing I have been struggling with were present and the 250mg of Diamox I was taking every day was making my fingers and toes tingle so much I wasn't sure if they would work - but wasn't helping the sleep problem. Again our goal was to set off early that next morning to avoid the crazy heat reflecting off the snow and ice around us. The crux of the climb was beginning as we headed back up to Camp 3 - our previous high point - up 2000 feet of the Lhotse face. Camp three which is literally carved into the side of the hill, is not a fun place and sherpas nearly refuse to stay there unless necessary.... lets just say you do not leave your tent at night to use the bathroom for fear of slipping once and falling straight down the face to your death.
We avoided the heat and most of the crowds of the day and arrived at camp three by midday - I felt good and had made the trip in under 4 hours. Our tents had been battered since we were there a week earlier, and one person is all that could fit really in each or the 2-3 person tents that were set up as snow had filled in and collapsed the sides - then froze - thus making it impossible for us to dig out. Our intent was to leave the next morning for camp 4 - the South Col. Nima stayed with us that night which was great in terms of helping with getting ice and snow for water and cooking. While everything at that altitude is a struggle for us, for super Nima, it is as if he is at sea level. He was very appreciative of me letting him use my Satellite phone to call home to his wife and 4 kids. We had a great relationship from the start and I was so happy to be climbing with him.
Again that night - no sleep. But the bigger problem as morning approached, is that the wind began to howl. I mean HOWL..... and the snow and blowing snow was flying! As the other Sherpas arrived at 3 am to head off to camp 4 with us, we all quickly realized that was not gonna happen that day. Ade and I decided to ride the storm out. Each of us huddled in our tent, we told the Sherpas to head back down to camp 2 and meet us back up at camp 3 at 4am the following morning. Seems like a lot for them to go down 2000 feet then come back up the next day - but really it was no big deal for them, and they would rather that than stay at camp 3. Oh yea..... and we had no space for anyone else to sleep! For us it was really out of the question to go down to camp 2 as we would have had to make the trip back up again and that was not likely. So we stayed, they left, and we hoped the weather would clear.
The wind blew all day. And throughout the day the winds actually increased for a while as they lowered from the summit. At camp 4, any tent that had been left up was blown flat. Where we were, some tents were blown down but for us the issue was the snow building up around the tents. At one point I looked out my tent vestibule and saw that the snow had completely covered the entry to the tent!! The sides of the tents continued to collapse as well as the snow blew in and filled in around them. Ultimately we knew we had to do something and so for much of the day we spent our time digging our tents out with a shovel and our hands. Even a group of Sherpas from another group next to us asked us multiple times if we were sure we did not want to go down as they were bailing out and heading back to camp 2 as well, but we knew that could end our summit chances so we stayed put. Food was another issue as we had not expected the storm. Luckily, one of our climbers from our previous rotation up high had left some food in one of the tents - not much, but a couple Belgian army rations which were actually pretty good. Since she had to go home with altitude sickness, we were able to make do with what we had and what we found in the tent, and tried to make the best of the day. It was impossible to sleep - thinking about when the the wind would stop and really also just the sound of the wind rattling the tents. We kept going back and forth about what our next move would be, when we would be able to leave for camp 4. Ultimately late in the day, we decided we would try to get some rest that night, wait for the wind to die, and leave at 4 am as we had decided earlier that morning. It was a tough, long day that took a lot out of us. We were both beat, questioning what we should should do, a bit hungry. The wind finally died down late in the day, we had some early dinner around 4 and went to bed around 6 to try to get some rest. My plan was to get up at 2:30 to have time to get ready for our planned 4 am departure. Boiling water to drink and cook food, packing up our stuff, getting everything set up including oxygen system takes time. I wanted to be sure to leave early, get in front of the crowds that were certain to be heading up the next morning after a lost day, and get up the Lhotse face before the sun started beating down on me in my -40 below suit that I was to wear heading up to camp 4. The next day I wanted to get to camp four by noon at the latests to have time to rest, refuel, and get ready to leave for the summit at 7pm that evening. The plan was in place - should have been plenty of time. I actually slept good that night because I was so tired from the previous 2 days - first 6 hours of sleep I got in 36 hours. I got up at 2:30 as planned, started to make water and packed up for departure.
When 4 pm rolled around I was ready, out of the tent, geared up. I put on my crampons and turned on the oxygen. Problem..... oxygen system was not working properly. I fiddled with it for a while trying to figure out the problem but to no avail. Ade and I were the only ones around... our sherpas had not made it up yet... I was at a loss. Although we had tested the equipment prior to being at this point... it was not working properly and we did not know what to do. A few Sherpas from other teams started to make their way up but no westerners really yet. I was really frustrated. I knew if I could get going the lines would be pretty clear all the way to the South Col. I got on the radio, woke some folks up at base camp. No one could really help from there.... but finally got word from our Sherpas that they were on their way. It was sometime after 6 that we finally were able to get going..... I knew it was going to be a problem.
That day turned into a long, slow, draining, tiring slog up 2500 feet to camp four. Very steep somewhat technical sections (at least at this extreme altitude) behind people that had no business trying to climb Mount Everest. But who am I to judge?? People that were being coddled and led and dragged every step of the way by Sherpas. People that were unable for clip their own carabiners and Jumars into the fixed lines. People that were being taught how to climb at 25000 feet on Mount Everest - and by the way were NOT learning. I was behind one person that would literally take one step - ONE STEP - then stop for 30 seconds! I stepped over a guy who kept collapsing - only to be picked up by one of his THREE Sherpas that were dragging him up the Mountain. I will refrain from Identifying him but he was extremely wealthy, had spent absurd amounts of money to summit, took helicopters up and down from camp 2 to the tune of $40,000 plus dollars (according to some reports) and had paid each of his 3 sherpas $15000 to make sure he made it to the top. I saw him being led around camp 4 as if he was a lost school boy by whichever of his Sherpa that was in charge of him at that point - delirious. No fault of the Sherpas, the amount they were being paid by this guy changed their lives and their families lives. But this guy bought his way up Everest and was dragged the entire way.
It was one of the most frustrating days of my life as I watched the time tick by. The sun was beaming down and sapping all of the energy out of you as you boiled in your down suit. It took over an hour to climb the rocky section of the Yellow Band waiting for one guy.... it should have taken 10 minutes. It took over and hour to follow another hapless “climber” over the crux of the steep section at the top of the Geneva Spur - at that point I heard her sherpa tell someone she had already used over 3 full bottles of oxygen - most were on less than a half bottle. Again this section was a 15 minute climb at most.
I stumbled into the South Col at 4:30pm..... I had been going for ten hours. I was shot - I was supposed to arrive by noon. Something had also started to cause me to have some trouble breathing. I’ll spare the details but it was not pleasant. As Nima started to organize the oxygen we would need for the summit, I told him to stop. I wasn't gonna be able to go.
As of this writing, 3 people have died this season so far and 2 are missing - they are trying to decide if they will leave the bodies of 2 of them at the South Col or bring them down which is monumental task. There were probably about 200 non sherpas that ended up trying to summit - some made it, some did not. There have been over 30 cases of frostbite that have been reported - certainly there were many more. That is a pretty high percentage based on the number of summit attempts by westerners. We saw the injuries first hand.
That night, one of our Sherpas - Pemba - did summit. It was his first time. He waited on his decent to go down the Hillary Step for 1 1/2 hours because of all the people trying to get to the summit. (No doubt where a lot of the frostbite came from). the lines were absurd and it is not that Everest is crowded - rather it was that everyone went for it at once - and many were very slow and did not know what they were doing. Many people come to Everest and I believe are willing to lose a finger or a toe.... or multiple fingers or toes or hands or feet even to summit this Mountain. That is their sacrifice. I am not willing to do so. I made a decision to not summit - a difficult decision after all the work I had done - because I was in no condition to attempt the summit. I was exhausted and sick. I am at peace with my decision. In hindsight especially with all the injuries and death that occurred as a result of the events of that night - I would not have done otherwise if given the opportunity again in the condition I was in.
I wish the day had turned out differently. I’ll remember sitting there watching others leaving the Col for the summit that night forever. Ill remember the feelings I was experiencing watching them leave to realize their dream - and I will always wonder what the summit is like. But that is mountaineering. I have no regrets. I spent that night in a tent trying to keep an oxygen mask on and just breathe at 26000 feet. My body was not happy and it was a very tough night. the next morning I made may way down to Camp 2 by myself. Two days later we were back in Kathmandu - a world away - after hiring a helicopter to get us the heck out of there. Ade, Hugo and I have had a great couple days relaxing and getting healthy in Kathmandu and just enjoying talking about the trip. We are thinking when we get together again.... it may be on a sailboat in the Med??? A slight change of pace;))))
Thank you to everyone again for all the support.