Success on Everest!
May 28, 2010, Kathmandu
Great news!!!! I still am trying to believe it. I summited Mount Everest at 8:15am on the 23rd May. It was certainly one of the most difficult challenges of my life, and it was definitely the most technical and dangerous climb I have ever done. Fortunately, I am suffering only a little frostbite on one finger (I may lose it) and some peripheral edema on my face. Considering everything, I am very lucky.
May 18th we left Everest Base Camp at 2:30am on our 4th rotation, climbed up through the treacherous Khumbu Ice Fall to C1. We hung out at Camp1 for several hours in our tents to escape the mid-day sun that heats up the glacier valley like a fish bowl with temperatures soaring over 100° F. Totally surrounded by huge glacier mountains (Nupse, Lhotse and Everest) the sun reflects on all those icy walls so the temperature has nowhere to go but up. The moment the sun gets blocked behind cloud or peak, the temperature plunges back down below freezing. At 3pm we moved up the Western Cwm to C2. Next morning at 3am the winds were howling so we decided to hold and rest.
May 20 we left C2 for C3 at 2:30am. It was still windy but our weather report called for decreasing winds. Once past the Lhotse Bergschrund and climbing up the steep Lhotse Face the winds increased dramatically. We had about 3000 vertical feet (1000m) to climb to reach C3. The winds kept getting stronger and probably were gusting at 70mph (120kph). It was hell, especially the last 500 feet when the slope gets steeper at 60° on black/ blue cement hard ice.
Camp 3, 24,500’ (7500m) is carved out of the icy steep slope. The tents are stepped-up from each other. You must use crampons even to go out to pee. If you slip you are gone. It has extraordinary views but the geography is deadly.
Those high winds literally blasted and imprisoned us in our tents for the next 30 straight hours. Sometimes it felt like our tent would get ripped up and blown off the mountain. The gusts sounded like a freight train as it came over the South Col and careened down the Lhotse Face at us. The South Col is famous among Everest climbers as it is the perilous pass or col between Mt. Everest and Mt. Lhotse at 26,000’ (8000m). Camp 4 is situated there and it is in the ‘death zone’ where the body cannot sustain itself. Effectively the body is breaking down and dying at this altitude. The idea is to make your visit short.
Finally early evening May 21 the winds calmed so we prepared to leave at first light the next morning. May 22nd we started out before 6am and climbed another 500 feet up the Lhotse Face, then precipitously traversed across its face to a steep rocky vertical section called the Yellow Band. It is a famous band of dolomite rock clearly visible from a distance. Next we got to the Geneva Spur and using our ascenders (jumars) climbed up and over this large rock buttress to the South Col, also known as Camp 4. I arrived around noon.
We rested in our tents all afternoon at C4, trying to eat and drink a bit, and mentally preparing for our ‘summit bid’ that night. It was cold, sunny with light winds. We were all intense and psyched. After two months on the mountain acclimatizing, 4 full rotations, getting up at 2 or 3am in the freezing cold mornings, the moment had finally arrived. Each climber was facing his own destiny. There will be no second shots; we will blow all our energy (15,000 calories) on this attempt. Every member of the team has already lost a lot of weight, up to 35 pounds. Tonight is do or die.
I am the first out of high camp at 8pm. It is black darkness but my headlight opens my path on the rock and ice. The winds are stronger now but still ok. I start climbing a 1,500 vertical foot slope up to the only flat patch on the mountain called the ‘Balcony’, where we will change oxygen bottles, drink and snack a little. We are soon climbing on a 45°+ pitch. Mingma Sherpa is buddying up with me. Step by arduous step we move up. I am sucking on a relatively low oxygen flow rate of 2 litres per minute. It makes my body furnace fire-up and helps keep me warm. The O² tank weighs about 8+kg and is in my backpack.
Hours later we arrive at the Balcony at 27,600’ (8400m). It is still in the middle of the night and very cold around 40° below. You must avoid resting long here since your body will quickly freeze up and mentally shut you down. Many climbers don’t get past this point. I change my Oz bottle and immediately start traversing a narrow ridge with black voids on both sides.
Although we are clipped in to a fixed rope with our safety line, the prospect of falling even 50 or 100’ and banging against rock and ice would definitely cause serious damage to life and limb. Rescue above the Balcony is practically impossible. The climbing route up the mountain is technical and unforgiving. Clipping-in temporarily to an anchor is possible but on a steep slope you are very exposed and if you drop or lose anything (glove, pack, goggles, jacket) you are doomed. Loss of a single mitt means instant frostbite and loss of fingers and hand. The room for error is razor thin.
I arrive at a rocky section where the 1st seven feet is a 90° cliff face. Another climber who is unknown to me is already there. He repeatedly try’s to jumar himself up but fails each time. I stand waiting behind him for what feels like a half hour literally freezing until he finally manages to get up. There was absolutely no way around him. I just hopped from foot to foot to keep my feet from freezing.
Honestly, a lot of the next few hours I do not remember clearly. It was dark and I was so focused on every step and detail. It was really one step in front of the next. When I would need to climb over a really hard section or a very intimidating rock ledge, my heart rate would jump exponentially. Frankly, I was on a mission, I didn’t question myself, I had total blind confidence I would make it. I just had to remember from time to time to keep track of my toes and fingers, and make sure my crampon points bit into the ice. Focus! Focus! Concentrate on your every move!!!
Then I saw it. A slither of a band of reddish glow suddenly appeared across the far distant eastern horizon. After more than 8 hours in the black frigid night, a new day was dawning. It meant warmth, hope, and somehow the possibility of success. Next I saw the extraordinary magical ‘pyramid shadow’ of Everest glow in the distant sky. It was like a ghost appearing out of nowhere. I could also see Everest’s true triangular summit far above me, yet I was already higher than every other mountain in the whole Himalayan Range and world. From Base Camp all these mountains appear so huge towering above you, but now I looked down on them as if they were just snowy hill tops. Only Mount Lhotse and Mount Makalu vied for status in this phenomenal panorama.
Step by tentative step my dream came closer. First the South Summit at 28,707’ (8750m), next the unnerving Cornice Traverse, and finally the famous Hillary Step. The Hillary Step is an imposing 47 foot nearly vertical rock wall. You have to jumar yourself up finding tiny footholds as leverage. It is very precarious to scale considering on your right is the 11,000 foot Kangshung Face dropping straight down onto the Tibetan Plateau and on your left lies the 8,000’ Southwest Wall of Everest.
Above the Hilary Step at 28,750’ the slope starts to become gentler as it rises to the real summit. Almost before you know it, you are standing beside Buddhist Prayer Flags left behind by Sherpa’s and summiteers over the years. You are standing on a small oval slanted rock-hard icy stage the size of a big sundeck. You realize that you have climbed to the very ‘Top of the World’. There is nothing anywhere higher than you on the planet. You have, against all odds, accomplished your goal. It has been years of training, preparing, learning. You risked it all. You did it.
Oddly enough, it didn’t really totally sink in. You know it is 40° below. You know that you are standing on the most hostile, extreme geography, on the planet. You know that if you trip you die. But somehow you are only consumed with the simple job at hand – trying to take photos and video. My camera freezes up; my fingers turn to rigid sticks when I remove my gloves to click the shutter. I must go down soon. I just want to hang here a little longer. I know it never was just about the summit; it was about what I was capable of, how far could I push myself? I did however sense a certain feeling I have had from other big climbs: a warm inner glow really deep inside. But, I also knew this was not the place to celebrate. I must be focused to stay alive and get down.
The hardest and most dangerous part of any climb is the descent. Down-climbing the Hillary Step I slipped and found myself hanging precariously over 8000’ of empty space. I recovered but not without seeing my heart almost arrest. “Just because you’re finished with the mountain, doesn’t mean the mountain is finished with you.” You must refocus on the bare reality – one false step may be your last.
I arrived back to C4 (South Col) sometime around 4pm. I was held up by an attempted rescue operation lowering a climber with cerebral edema just above the Balcony. It was a 20 hour day and I was totally exhausted. I crawled into my tent and sleeping bag and passed out. I desperately needed sleep to recover.
May 24th I woke up realizing I had frostbite on my index finger and ‘peripheral edema’ on my face. My eyes and cheeks were all puffed-up and my finger black. I packed up quickly and descended with Mingma down the dangerous and technical terrain of the Yellow Band and Lhotse Face. We arrived at C2 sometime in the afternoon and slept there that night. Next morning the 25th we all descended together as a team down the Western Cwm to C1 and then continued down through the Ice Fall to basecamp. What a relief to finally be finished going through the hazardous Ice Fall. So many climbers have died or been seriously injured there.
After 60 days living on ice and rock the whole team was desperate to get going off the glacier. We packed-up early the next morning the 26th and started our long hike out down the Khumbu Valley. It is about 45 miles (65 km) of trekking over scree and every type of terrain to Lukla and then a short 1 hour flight to Kathmandu. We covered it in 2 days and arrived this morning in Kathmandu skeletons of our previous selves and physically exhausted. However, we were joyously awarded to real showers, real food and a real bed.
T.S. Eliot once said: “Only those who risk going too far will know how far they can go.” Dare to reach, dare to dream, dare to go after your goals. If you don’t try you will never know how far you can go!
(One final note, by lucky coincidence I summited Everest on my stepson’s 18th birthday, David Gordon. Wow.)