To The Top (Part 4)

While I tried to get myself together I was down on all fours. My Sherpa came over and checked my pack, I heard him say, “we need to swap the oxygen tank.” Apparently, I had run out of oxygen or was about to. I managed to sit up right and slide my pack off. As he connected the new tank, I felt a small burst of energy.

I knew I needed to eat and drink but was just so exhausted, the most simple tasks were becoming difficult. I managed to get my water bottle out of my pack. I had mixed a packet of black tea mega energy drink mix in it before leaving on summit day. Sherif had given it to me and said, “ you will love this on summit day!” Apparently it’s like red bull on crack (but healthy ingredients) and he uses them during his long-distance endurance races.

As I unzipped the thermos parka that helps insulate the bottle, I realized my tea had partially frozen. I unscrewed the cap and the surface was frozen solid. I wanted to just scream! Ugh, seriously! Can anything just go right! I could see the center of the bottle was not frozen, but my finger was just not strong enough to break through the frozen top. I unclipped a large locking carabiner and used the hook to start chipping at the ice. I did this a few times until the metal edge broke through the ice.

I disconnected my mask and slowly sipped on the slushy black tea. I was so thirsty, I wanted to guzzle it as fast as I could, but couldn’t, because my teeth were so sensitive to the cold liquid. Also, you get instantly out of breath when you eat or drink at high altitude and at that point I was already gasping for air.

Drinking the tea was an instant relief, my body was severely dehydrated and I was having trouble producing enough saliva to even swallow. I sat and sipped until all the unfrozen tea was gone. Slowly my mental clarity returned and I started a metal check list of what I needed to do to get down. Oxygen-Check, hydration-check, next was food, I reached up to my breast pocket and pulled out two Octaine GU packs. Each pack contained tons of caffeine and calories. I ripped them open and managed to get both down quickly so I could get my mask back on. By this point I was getting a headache from lack of oxygen and probably a partial brain freeze from drinking the half frozen tea.

As I sat there breathing deep into my mask, I reached into my right breast pocket and pulled out a sandwich size ziplock baggy. I had forgotten it was there until I was looking for my GU packs. In it, contained little momentos I brought with me, to have on the mountain.

I had read a mountaineering book and the main Character said he always took little reminders of what was important in his life. I thought that was a great idea and brought a few items from home. The baggy contained:

1. A picture of my fiancé and I

2. A handmade birthday card from my 6 year old niece

3. A picture of my nephew at age 10

4. A medallion of sorts, a symbol of a saint that my brother-in-law insisted I take up the mountain to stay safe.

5. The temporary ring I bought on a whim in Bali and proposed with to Tracy.

A picture of my prized possessions.

I didn’t open it, just starred at the items. Each one reminded me of my responsibilities back home, all major reasons why I needed to get my ass up and moving. It really helped give me the mental mental boost I needed. I’m so thankful I brought them! Sometimes you just need little reminders of what your fighting for, especially when your on the verge of collapsing.

I put the baggy back in my pocket and started wiggling my fingers and toes. I could feel my fingers coming back to life, but my toes were still numb. I have had this happen before, when I was on Denali. My toes had been very cold for hours and It took months for them to recover. I wasn’t worried about losing them, I just knew I needed to get moving so my body would generate more heat.

As I sat there, so many things kept running through my mind. Little bits of motivation and I also thought of those two extremely tough days, where I had pack carried from basecamp to camp 2. Both days I had collapsed from exhaustion, but was able to eat a snickers, have a drink, then bounce back on my feet and finish the climb. Each time, took close to 20 minutes for my body to process the sugar and this time was no different. After 20-25 minutes on the south summit the life came flowing back into me. I rose to my feet, got my pack on, looked at spidy, and said “ dam, that was close, now let’s get off this mountain!”

I find, the first two minutes after any break on the mountain, its always hard to get moving again. This time was even worse. Leaving the edge of the south summit you need to climb up about 15-20 feet of steep rocks to get on the ridge that leads down to the balcony. This was very difficult and my legs didn’t want to participate. As we climbed over to the ridge I was surprised to still see tons of climbers coming up the fixed lines. I still can’t believe how many climbers were on the mountain that day.

One thing the news has not made clear is the amount of Sherpas climbing with the different teams. When they talk about permits and climbers, they are referring to paying tourist. If you are from Nepal, you don’t need a permit and therefore there is no way of knowing just how many people were on the mountain that day. The registration shows Madison Mountaineering summited 11 climbers, 3 western guides and 8 clients. But in reality, all our Sherpas summited as well and there was 1 or 2 Sherpas per climber. When you think about how many companies climbed that day, you can quickly see with Sherpa support, how there were hundreds of climbers.

Although, I was not exposed, like I was on the summit ridge, Spidy and I were again unclipped for large section of the fixed lines as we tried to make it down past the teams that were still coming up. I also knew I had a limited energy source with the food I ate, so I needed to make the next two hours count.

The danger with hurrying on the way down, is you still need to be extremely careful, since most accidents in high altitude mountaineering occur on the decent.

As we worked our way down the mountain about every 10 minutes you would see a climber that looked a bit like the walking dead. I could fully relate to how they were feeling, as I had just gone through the same situation. But there were so many climbers, just sitting there, with their head down or completely collapsed on the side of the trail.

Most had teammates or Sherpas attending to them so I wasn’t too worried. I just hoped they had the strength to get down off the mountain. The clouds were building in the valley below and the winds continued to intensify. The storm was about to arrived.

As We continued down the mountain I saw a Indian woman in a blue and yellow suit. She was exhausted and arguing with her Sherpas. I think they were trying to convince her to turn around. I’m not 100% sure but she kept pointing up as they pointed down.

I had recognized her from the day before. I was hiking behind her, as we approached the yellow band cliffs. She was so exhausted she couldn’t get up the first section and was refusing to step off the trail so we could pass.

After arguing for a minute and several other climbers doing the same, but none could persuade her. So we decided to jumar up the repel line, to get around her and her two Sherpas. This was very difficult since the rock was very smooth on the repel side and our crampons would not stick.

I couldn’t believe she was half way up the summit to be honest. I wasn’t sure if she had even made it to camp 4, let alone tried for the summit. But here she was and again in very rough shape. I have to give it to her, she seemed like a very determined person. Unfortunately she should have listened to the Sherpas.

The next day I learned that several hours later, Stewart had found her sitting on the side of the trail alone. No Sherpas, no teammates, and no one to help, so he said he convinced her to stand up and come down.

Along the way he found another Indian climber stumbling by himself. The climber was exhausted, incoherent, and suffering from AMS. Stewart, helped both climbers down to camp 4 and then they went their separate ways. Unfortunately, we discovered the next morning, both climbers did not survive the night. Most likely, both did not sleep on oxygen that night and died from some form of altitude sickness.

As we made our way down the steep cliffs just below the summit ridge the crowds started to disperse. There was less climbers coming up so I was able to clip in more often. Once on the narrow ridge line, I could see the balcony and breathe a sigh of relief. I knew the danger wasn’t over, but having to unclip from the safety line was over. It was nice to finally walk in a single line and stay clipped in.

As I started to approach the balcony I recognized the backpack in front of me. I had finally caught up to Garrett. We both sat down to rest and get a bite to eat. I explained my water bottles had frozen and he pulled out his personal bottle, so I could get a drink. He had carried them in his suit for most of night to keep them from freezing. Stupid rookie mistake on my part!

The 4 women and their Sherpas caught up while we were sitting there. I was happy to see them and know they were alright! Although they looked tired and cold, they were all in good spirits! All in shock from the overcrowding and fallen climbers, but for the most part in good shape. They continued to impress me with their strength and resilience.

I had been at the balcony only 5 minutes and even though I just wanted to sit and rest, I knew I had a limited amount of energy and needed to get down before I physically crashed again. Plus my feet were really starting to hurt and I wanted out of my boots.

I slid my backpack on, and noticed the clouds were starting to push up the mountain. The beautiful blue sky I had marveled at was filling in with large dark clouds. I estimated about 15 minutes before the storm would swallow the mountain up. I double checked to see how everyone else was doing, they seemed good, just exhausted. Since they were all physically and mentally fine, I turned toward camp 4 and started hauling down the mountain. My legs were getting weak and I could feel them start to shake.

We were moving really quickly when we came across three climbers making their way down the mountain. You could tell they were absolutely exhausted. They were stumbling around like drunken sailors on the high seas. A very large guy in the middle looked to be the worst and as they were trying to descend down a little six foot cliff, caught a crampon and went right over the edge and face planted in the snow. Lucky for him the anchor was at the base of the rocks and stopped his momentum or he would have gone for a ride.

This is another danger you face on the way down. Not only do you have to make sure you don’t slip or fall, but you need to be aware of fellow climbers. They become disoriented, lose their balance, and can take you out while sliding down the mountain.

As soon as the other two climbers untangled him they moved him off the trail so we could pass. He looked very shaken from the fall and you could see the fear and dispare in his eyes. Luckily they were not far from camp 4 and I saw them later walk into camp, so I believe they were able to get down ok.

Around the thirteenth hour of the summit climb, I was 500 meters or so from camp 4 and my -60 sleeping bag. All I wanted to do was get these boots off and curl up in my sleeping bag to rest. My body was starting to hurt all over and exhaustion was setting back in. My steps became clumsy and I started to stumble more.

I pushed on down the path and eventually came to the spot where, the poor Indian woman who had frozen upside down lay. Again her clinched fist and contorted body stopped me in my tracks. My heart sank, as the reality of the whole days events started to sink in. The emotional roller coaster was an insane ride, and I wanted off! Not just sadness, but worry started to set in. For at that moment a strong gust of wind stood me up, as the snow began to fall.

I thought of the book, “Into Thin Air” and how things got really bad when the storm hit. I had already witnessed more death than I had ever imagined and now a high altitude storm was bearing down on us. My team was still spread out all over the mountain and a lump started to form in the pit of my stomach. “I hope everyone’s alright!” I thought.

I knew that Conan, had made it back to camp 4 quite quickly, Garrett had told me on the balcony. I knew Garrett and the girls were not too far behind me which was good. But when it came to Wojciech, Sherif, and Stewart I had no clue. They were still way up by the summit and from last time I saw them, they were moving pretty slow.

The final part of the climb was very difficult for me. Not because it was technical, but because every step felt like lighting through my toes and I completely on empty. Physically and emotionally spent, I staggered down the trail and toward the tents. Spidy stayed right by my side and helped walk me into camp. As we stumbled in, we were greeted by Tengzing, a very well spoken 19 year old Sherpa. He had cups and a thermos full of hot orange tang.

I remember grabbing the cup and struggling to not spill as my hand would not stop shaking. Actually, everything in my body was trembling. There are many reasons why I was shaking; happiness, fear, exhaustion, freezing, low blood sugar,and so on. I believe the biggest emotion was relief! I reached my goal! I had climbed the highest mountain in the world, and survived when so many hadn’t.

Just then I heard Conan’s voice as he unzipped his tent! “Congrats!” He said, “how does it feel? I said, “amazing, but very hard!”

I asked if he had any news on Wojciech, Sherif, or Stewart? He said no but that he thinks they are fine.

Conan told me to relax and wait in my tent. He explained I should stay on my oxygen bottle and he would bring me a new one in a couple hours when the old one runs out. As I turned toward my tent he stopped me and asked to check my tank. As i slid it out of my pack, it read EMPTY!

I had just gotten back to camp 4 on my fourth and final bottle of oxygen. My heart jumped in my throat! If I had not tried getting down so quickly, I would be up on the mountain exhausted and out of O’s. That thought still haunts me!

I crawled in my tent, (with a new tank of oxygen) ripped my boots off and started massaging my feet. I would have to sit and wait for the next 3 hours to find out about the rest of my team. I popped out of my tent several times looking to see if the storm was breaking up. (The video was taken when I heard the final climbers returned. You can see we were in heavy winds, snow, and white out conditions, not to mention it was like -40 degrees plus wind chill)

Eventually they all made it in safe. Sherif and Stewart were the last to come in with wojciech just 20 minutes before them. The storm had really kicked up and slowed their progress but everyone had summited and returned safe to camp 4 from the Madison team.

The worry was over and I was finally able to rest. At around 3:30 pm on the 23rd I lay back in my sleeping bag and passed out.

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To the Top (part 3)

As I inched by the body below the Hillary step, I remember thinking, “I hope he at least made it to the summit and was on the way down.” This way he would have achieved his goal, and I could make peace with that. For if he hadn’t, what a tragic end, being only meters away from the summit.

Everest had been this bright shiny goal I had set for myself several years ago, just after summiting Mt Kilimanjaro. I had listened to other mountaineers on the trip, describe their adventures of, high altitude expeditions in the Himalayas. It sounded amazing, the adventure, the unknown, and of course the danger intrigued me. These were men and women, in modern times, living the adventures that I had read about in history books and novels. Although they were not the first to do so, they showed me it was still possible to capture the explorers spirit.

Unfortunately, this dream of mine, was quickly becoming a nightmare. I hadn’t even reached the summit and things were unraveling quickly. For those who know, getting to the top is only half the journey. It’s the getting back down that will be the real test.

As I climbed closer to the summit, an uneasy feeling started to set in. Not only did I have to pass over these fallen climbers again. I was going to have to get past the hundreds of climbers that were making their bid for the summit.

Once at the top of the Hillary step, you can see the path leading to the summit. Your adrenaline kicks in and you spring to life. The catch is, the last 100 meters is grueling. You start walking faster and breathing harder. This throws you out of rhythm and you expel more energy. By the time I reached the summit, I was bent over gasping for air.

The summit! The top of the world! 29,035 ft. The holy grail of climbing. I had quickly forgotten the days events and was overcome with emotion. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I just stood there for at least five minutes in disbelief! Outside of the Chaos on the mountain, the world looked so peaceful. I felt, no picture or video could capture what I was seeing in person. The sun was just rising in the east and the sky was turning a deep blue, the bluest, I had ever seen it. The mountains looked so grand and majestic with the new dusting of snow they had received over night. It truly is indescribable!

The summit was everything I expected and more. But with this beauty comes the environment that it exists in. The adrenaline started to wear off and the cold was setting in. Both fingers and toes started to numb and I realized my time on the summit was limited.

As I slowly drifted back to reality, I looked around and the summit was packed with climbers. Sherpas all over the place, taking pictures with the Nepalese banner and their religious puja ceremonial flags. Other climbers of all nationalities taking their summit photos and congratulating each other. It truly was a celebration at the top of the world. The only problem, the summit is a small area, maybe 5 meters by 5 meters, and dozens of climbers were approaching from both sides of the mountain!

I quickly pulled out my cell phone and checked the list of things I wanted to do. They were as follows:

1). Make Video For:

– family

– Costa Rica

– Frap pack

2. summit photos

– with Costa Rican Flag

– with USA Flag

– picture with Fathers Kenny Rogers Shirt

– picture with mom’s memorabilia

– pic with Ciro’s banner and bro’s watch

– pic for sisters birthday note

– pic with surf shop flag/banner

I managed to take my mitts off for a second, to turn my iPhone on. I recorded a message thanking my family for all the support and giving them my love from the top of the world. I then sent a shout out to my adopted country of Costa Rica and to my buddies back in the states.

After a moment, I was able to locate Garrett in the crowd of celebrating climbers and asked him to take a couple pictures. He took several quick shots and handed my camera back to me. I did not get all the shots I wanted, but was appreciative of his help. Taking your glove off to take photos in those temperatures is very dangerous. So getting any photos on the summit is considered lucky. I still had things on my list to do, but my hands and feet were really starting to hurt. Considering the circumstances, I realized I had enough and stuffed my phone back in my pocket.

At this point I had been on the summit for almost 20 minutes and it was time to go. As I turned to look for spidy, I ran into the arms of Joyce and we embraced in a celebratory huge. She had just completed her 7th summit and became the first Lebanese woman to do so. Directly behind her the other 3 women on my team were taking pictures and we all congratulated each other on making it to the top.

It was about this time the summit winds really started to blow and we all realized it was time to leave. I think we all could feel the weather was changing.

Just then I spotted Wojciech climbing up the ridge toward me. I yelled “wojciech! Yeah buddy, you made it!” I had worried about him. Last I had seen, he was unclipped and passing climbers behind me, during the first hour of climbing. I realized, I hadn’t seen him since.

We embraced in a huge bear hug and I let him soak up the moment, since he had just arrived. He didn’t waste much time though, he got his ice axe and company flag out of his pack. Then climbed up on the very top of the summit, where I snapped a few photos of him. I told him I was really getting cold and was heading back down. That was the last I saw of him for several hours. I tapped spidy on the shoulder and we turned toward the south ridge. An instant sense of concern started to set in.

All the climbers I had worked so hard to pass were now gathered in what looked like an endless prison chain gang from the 1930’s. Brightly colored full body suits all linked together on the safety lines with just inches between them. Most moving very slowly, from exhaustion and hours of exposure to the harsh environment of the Death Zone. We came to a dead stop before we could even get started.

At the same time, my gaze caught the summit of Lhotse ( the sister peak of Everest and the 4th highest mountain in the world). A large lenticular cloud was forming and below on the Chinese side, storm clouds were rising from the valley. The weather window we had waited so patiently for, was about to get slammed shut. I thought, “ oh crap!” Nowhere to go and the weather is changing.

Spidy and I patiently waited for the line to clear, but it wasn’t. Everyone was moving in slow motion. No one moves quickly at 29,000 feet, but time was of the essence. Five, ten, then twenty, minutes went by and I tapped spidy on the shoulder and told him “I can’t feel my toes, we need to move!” This is where he earned his nickname. Spider-man!

We worked our way to the top of the Hillary step. As I looked down the ridge, I just saw more and more climbers coming. Spidy unclipped and as smooth as the real Spider-Man, started hand over hand climbing around the different climbers. I quickly realized this was not going to be a simple descent. I unclipped, took a deep breath ( actually several deep breaths) and followed him down the ridge.

Coming down the Hillary step I was pretty much unclipped for the majority of it, actually the whole ridge for that matter. I would reach out and grab the rope with my left hand, place my left crampon in front of one of the climbers, then as slowly and controlled as possible (while balancing on a ledge of inches, at the Top Of The World) reach around the climber and blindly grasp for the safety line. Just hoping my right hand caught the rope. Once I had a firm hold, I would bring the right foot around between the two climbers and take a huge deep breath, whew! Made it! Only 400 meters to go!

This went on for 30-40 minutes. Most climbers would see what we were attempting to do and reach out to help secure us. I had several climbers grab my harness and not let go till they saw I had regained my balance. This was not in the playbook. But at this point it was just a fight or flight response and we were doing what we needed to do to get down.

For those who don’t know me well, I have no fear when it comes to heights. I have been skydiving since I was 18, I can look over edges, climb multi-pitch rock walls( hundreds of feet high), and walk across 4 inch beams on large construction sites, all while smiling and whistling a tune. This ability, my “super power” as I like to think of it, has served me well in all my adventures. Well apparently, Everest is my kryptonite!

I don’t know if it was the altitude, the crowds, or fatigue. But this time, this ridge freaked me out and my body reacted as you would expect. My palms started sweating, my knees went weak, and my heart rate sky rocketed. The huge puffy summit mitts made it hard to grasp the rope. My boots and crampons made me clumsy and it was difficult to balance and maneuver gracefully. Finally, hearing your own heavy breathing in your oxygen mask just added to a general feeling of panic! It took every bit of mental strength I could muster, to keep it together. I just kept repeating; “if he can, I can! If he can, I can”. Referring to Spidy and his ability to climb down the ridge.

I was committed at this point, climbers were piling up behind me and there was no going back. I continued this boomerang action around the ascending climbers as I slowly made my way down the Hillary step. I think my only comfort was watching spidy do this with such ease and grace “if he can, I can!” Now that I have had time to think about it, it was absolutely insane, considering we were hanging on the edge of a 7,000 to 10,000 ft cliff.

Now I’m not the only cowboy out there. I saw a lot of climbers doing this, and I talked to several that tell the same story. Like I said, the mountain was throwing all kinds of junk at us. We were merely trying to get down the mountain to safety.

Half way back down the ridge I looked up to find Sherif. He had never gotten around the second group of climbers and was still slowly making his way to the summit. He looked tired and weary, as we all did by this point. I said hi and encouraged him. “ You’re so close buddy! Go get it!” I yelled. Then turned my attention back to the task at hand, getting off this mountain!

Just a few minutes later, I saw Stewart, he was standing with his back to me and adjusting his oxygen mask. Apparently, he had been struggling with the air intake valve. It had frozen up and stopped working. To understand how much of an animal Stu was, he had climbed several hours without suplemental oxygen. At a couple points along the way, Stu himself, said he was hypoxic and wondering around disorientated. He finally got a new mask swapped out and was following up behind the team.

As I approached the end of the ridge, near the south summit, everything started to dim. My vision was burry, my blood sugar had crashed, I was severely dehydrated and complete exhausted. I think the stress and strain of unclipping and climbing down the ridge had spiked my adrenaline to the max. Me system was tapped out, and I was simply in survival mode. The moment my body made it to the south summit, it collapsed. I don’t remember much, I know I just wanted to sleep! I don’t think I lost full consciousness, but I was definitely not coherent. Panic started to set in! How am I going to get down now……

To The Top (Part 2)

May 22, 2019, around midnight.

As we climbed closer to the dark figure, it looked to be a woman from India. She lay, as if she passed out and fell backwards. She was upside down on her back with her legs crossed, both hands made into fists. She was still clipped in and her body was secured to the rope with two other lines. Since no one was around, and from the look of her, I assumed she passed away the night before and it was too dangerous to bring her body down from that elevation.

The effort that is required to bring a diseased body down, is normally too dangerous and risky for the other climbers, so the dead are left to rest among the clouds. I know not much brings comfort to grieving families, but as a climber, this would be my choice for my final resting place.

I slowly climbed past, took one last glance back and reassured myself that would not be me. I focused and pushed the fear and doubt into the deepest corners of my mind. I have found, ninety percent of high altitude climbing is mental. Yes you have to be in great physical shape, but your mental toughness gets you home.

I’ve seen grown men that are very strong climbers, hit their knees crying, just mentally break from exhaustion, fatigue, pain, and suffering. I think it was Ed Viesturs, in his book , No Short Cuts To The Top, who said something like

it’s not physical conditioning that makes great mountaineers, it’s their ability to endure long periods of suffering.

That’s not a direct quote but you get the idea. At this point it was getting a bit scary how many people were falling to the way side. Two bodies the day before, 3 very sick climbers, and this poor woman, frozen upside down, made three dead. This is starting to get ridiculous.

There was not much communication or interaction after we moved away from the Indian woman. The next hour I think people tried to just focus on the objective at hand. This might seem cold or insensitive, but in the current situation you have to stay focused, mentally tuned in. One miss step or missed clip and you could be next. Once your in the death zone, every movement, step, hand placement is critical.

We reached The Balcony ( 27,500 ft) at around 1 am on the 23rd. This is just a flat area that starts a long walk up the ridge line to the south summit. Most teams have already stashed oxygen cylinders there, (this is known as a cash) for the guides and climbers to change out.

My tank was almost empty so my Sherpa swapped out a new cylinder for me. Ahhh 4 more hours of O’s! I took this moment to drop my pack as he changed out the cylinder. Then I put my Madison puffy back in my bag and slip my down onezy top back on. Although this was cold it was nice to get dialed in again. Having that suit tied around me I just felt sloppy and out of sorts.

While Garrett and the Sherpas swapped their own tanks I took a sip of water and had a GU packet. It was birthday cake flavor, my favorite. It’s so hard to eat at high altitude and even though it was my favorite flavor, I could barely swallow it. This would be my last sip of fluid or bite to eat for the next 6 and a half hours. A mistake on my part that almost cost me my return ticket. But at altitude, even with oxygen, you don’t think clearly.

Garrett looked back at us with a questioning look, “you guys ready?” I gave the thumbs up and we started up the ridge. The snow was falling in an almost calming way. There was no wind, just fluffy small flakes that reminded me of my days growing up in Northern Illinois during the winter. “Ok, let make a few more steps!”

The ridge was a gradual incline for the first 500 meters. Simple enough, except, the path was maybe 2 foot wide at best for most of it. From there you had a very steep drop to either side. One little slip and you would fall thousands of feet into Nepal or Tibet. I remember thinking, “ whatever you do, don’t trip!”

This part of the climb was probably the most uneventful. The four of us stayed right in tune, step after step, slowly moving up the ridge at a steady pace. During this next hour and a half the snow slowly dissipated and the clouds started to break up. At one moment, a quarter moon appeared and as I looked back through the dim light, I could see we were getting close to being as high as the Lhotse summit. I thought, Holy crap. I’m like 28, 400 ft! This is happening!

The brief moment ended and the clouds swallowed the moon again. The shadows of Lhotse faded and I turned my attention back to Everest, in front of me was the first wave of climbers. We had caught up to the back of the line. This is where the steepest of the climbing started. The ridge slammed right into several rock cliffs with a very vertical path leading up them.

By this point we had been climbing for close to six hours. Our ability to pass had cut an hour or two off our time and the climbers in front of us, who had been climbing for 7 or 8 hours, were starting to slow down. This made it easy to pass several of them, as they stood off to the side, near anchor points.

I remember, this was some of the toughest climbing we had done on the expedition. It was steep, the terrain was super rocky, so again, difficult with crampons, and fatigue was just starting to catch up. I was approaching being awake for over 20 hours, climbing for 6 to 7 hours, not having much to eat or drink since 4 in the afternoon the day before, which was when we had our last real meal.

My head was down most of the time just focused on the next step, the next pull with the ascender, the next deep breath. When I actually lifted my head, I saw dawn had broke and I could see peaks in all directions, if not just ever so faintly. I think my Sherpa saw me realize my surroundings and he patted me on the back and said “south summit!” ( 28,704 ft) I turned, and glanced back down the ridge, and noticed just how far away the balcony looked. My heart got an instant shot of adrenaline as for the first time, I realized I was close. This just might really happen, I thought! All the hard work and preparation was about to pay off! Victory was within my grasp. But first, the ridge between the south and true summit. Need to be navigated.

Spider-Man tapped me on the shoulder and said “we need to change your tank, it’s almost empty!” Madison had a second cash of O’s on the back side of the south summit. As we dropped down on the landing, I spotted some familiar faces, the girls. We had made up the hour of climbing over the last 1,000 ft and caught up to them. The only ones I didn’t see were Mona and Conan, who I later found out were 30 minutes ahead of everyone and almost at the summit.

This is where I experienced what its like not being on O’s at 28,700 ft. My regulator was iced up and would not thread to the new tank. I only went 5 minutes or so without oxygen but, wow. How anyone climbs with out O’s is beyond me. I became dizzy, my lungs burned, I felt like I was about to pass out. This all in the first minute. Of course panic starts to set in and I had to really focus not to freak out. You got this, other people can do it, so can you. Take long slow breaths. The next four minutes, which felt like a lifetime, were a bit of a blur. “Got it” said spidy, and the oxygen began to flow again.

As my clarity returned, I looked to my right and saw the Everest Ridge line, leading to the Summit. Nelly was out front a ways, Nana was directly in front of me, while Joyce was just behind. Great! I’m back in the pack, I thought.

That feeling was squashed when I looked up and saw the line of fellow climbers sprawled across the ridge. Bumper to bumper traffic!

The ridge line is absolutely beautiful, but extremely narrow. The path is only made for one climber at a time, no matter which direction you are headed. Most of your foot placement is less than 12 inches wide, at best, with thousands of feet of vertical exposure. The problem is, this single route is both the entrance and exit to the summit. Things were about to get messy!

I remember thinking, wow this is crazy, how the hell do I get back down with hundreds of climbers behind me. But at the same time summit fever kicks in and you can taste how close you are. I fall into line and start inching myself out on the ridge.

The view was incredible. You could see directly down to camp two, through the Khumbu icefall and even to basecamp. Pretty much the entire path way we climbed to get to this point was visible.

The mountains that we looked up at the last 6 weeks, were mere bunny hills. They looked so tiny, from this perspective. No picture, could capture the vast scope of this mountain range. It is quite a powerful sight. To see this beauty first hand, is one of the reasons why we climb.

Things really slowed down at this point. As hundreds of climbers are funneled into a single file line. This was the most exposed part of the climb. Both sides fall away thousands of feet to the valleys bellow, so everyone is extremely careful!

Actually I take that back. Out of the corner of my eye I spot Elia, the documentary director and producer, he is filming the ladies making their way along the ridge. He suddenly stands up and yells to PK Sherpa, (his second in command,) “batteries!”

Pk, who is behind me, unclips, climbs up on the cornices edge and starts passing climbers. Of course everyone is shocked and they all start to put their arms up, as if to catch or grab him, if he were to fall.

Somehow, he manages to pass the 25 plus climbers and bring Elia a fresh set of batteries. I think we just about had a heart attack watching PK do his tight rope act along the frágil edge of frozen snow.

We inched along the trail, making very slow progress. The ridge is very exposed and as the sun started to rise, so did the wind. The temperature dropped and I asked Spidy to dig out my summit mitts and goggles. It took less than a minute to swap gloves but I could barely feel my fingers from the brief exchange.

After an hour of slow moving on the ridge, we came to the famous Hillary Step. Since the earthquake in 2015 two large rocks broke off making it easier to climb. But this year there was no snow on this section of rocks and there was little surface area to place your feet.

As we got closer to the base of the Hillary Step, a fourth body, lay frozen just dangling off the safety line. He was tall and fit looking, his face covered with goggles, buff, and oxygen mask. He looked peaceful, as if he decided to lay down for a nap, unlike the poor Indian woman who looked frozen in agony. Maybe this was just how I wanted to perceive it. I had seen a lot of death already and this just made it easier to deal with. Either way this was the 4th confirmed death and I was wanting off this mountain…..

To the Top! (Part 1)

(Before you read to children, teachers please read first to determine if it’s ok for the classes! Or parents for that matter!

May 22, 2019, 6:30 pm, three hours and counting! I lay in my sleeping bag, listening to the light flapping sound of a gentle breeze against the side of the tent. This is a good sign, the weather has calmed down, just like the report had said. The air in the tent is crisp, probably -15 below. I can tell, as my forehead is instantly cold, as I pop my head out of my sleeping bag to see if the sun is still out. It’s twilight and the cold night is coming. Once the sun is gone the death zone becomes a frozen wasteland where no natural life should exist. Where exposed skin can get frost bit in less than a minute.

We are all suppose to be sleeping at this moment. Our wake-up call is at 8pm with a 9:30 pm departure time. I know for a fact my tent mate, Wojciech was wide awake, as I peaked over and he was staring at the roof of the tent, deep in thought. He breathed heavy in his mask. The sound reminded me of Darth Vader’s breathing just before he reveals “ Luke, I am your father!” I almost tried my best impersonation, but left him to his thoughts. We both just lay there mentally preparing for the grueling 12 hour climb to the Top Of The World. I would wager there was not a sleepy eye in any of the Madison tents at this point!

The months and months of training, 3 am stair workouts, miles and miles of heavy pack hiking, hours of Wise workout classes, the social life sacrifices, the very limited consumption of wine! ( couldn’t give that up completely ) and all the other hours of preparation, go through my mind. Did I train enough, did I work hard enough, do I have what it takes, can I do this?

I quickly shook these thoughts from my head. I AM mentally prepared for this! I told myself. I HAVE physically trained for this, I know it, no more doubting questions! I got this! I put my headphones in and crank my newly made summit playlist, the first song, It’s a Long Way To The Top from AC/DC blares through my head phones! I instantly relax and get back in the zone.

Then, halfway through “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica the tent shakes, “you guys up?” Our guide Conan says. Of course duh! Like we could be asleep, I thought. “Yes, we will start getting ready” I said. I looked at Wojciech, pulled my mask down and said “let’s do this!” He looked puzzled, he pulled his mask down and said “what?” Haha, he never fully understood my English the first time or just didn’t hear me. I smiled and pointed at the mountain. He shook his head yes with a determined look.

It took me a good minute to even sit up in the tent. My sleeping bag contained all of my gear that I was going to take up the mountain, such as my clothes, down suit, hat, gloves, inner boots, water bottles and pee bottle,( you always have to sleep with the pee bottle in your sleeping bag or it freezes and then you can’t thaw it.) You can’t move in your sleeping bag when it’s empty, so from camp 2 and higher its a complete Houdini trick to get out when it’s packed with gear. The only thing I didn’t get in my bag was my outer boots and this would cost me.

I got most of my gear on somehow in the tent and stepped outside. I looked up and saw nothing, just pitch black sky. Only three nights ago we had had a full moon and you could have read a book at midnight. Unfortunately for us, we were clouded in and we didn’t even have the stars to guide us.

As I turned to face the south side of Everest, a trail of climbers where meandering up the mountain like a enormous glow worm, toward The Balcony. My first thought was, “wow” thats awesome, until I really looked at it and realized “ damn “ that’s a lot of climbers and we haven’t even started yet.

The good thing about the cloud cover was that the temperature was a bit warmer, so -25 to -30 Celsius. This didn’t stop my outer boots from freezing solid and almost making it impossible to slip my foot into. I struggled for almost 15 minutes getting my outer boots and crampons on. This really irritated me as I like to be early and this task normally only takes max of 5 minutes. But trying to do anything quickly at 70% less oxygen and -30 degrees is not easy.

Because of the boot problems it was 9:32 pm and I was late. I looked around and only Sherif and Stewart were still standing around getting ready. The rest of the team was gone. My personal Sherpa grabbed my arm, asked if I was ready? I think every sphincter in my body puckered for a second, and then I said “HELL YEAH!”

Oh yeah, I finally got a Personal Sherpa to help me. His basic job was to help carry extra oxygen for me (two bottles) and help change the cylinders, when they ran out. His name is Ci De ( that spelling could be way off, so I am just going to call him Spider-Man, as he climbed all over the mountain with ease!). Ci De/Spider-Man, Has already summited 5-6 times and was part of the elite team that anchored the ropes all the way to the summit. So in less than ten days he was about to climb Everest for the second time this year.

Because of being 2 minutes late I started off at a quick pace, my mind was telling me to “slow down stupid” but my ego was sounding a lot like Ricky Bobby, “ if you ain’t first, your last!”

After completely getting out of breathe and covering the first 300 meters of slow incline, I met up with Garrett, who was delayering and commenting on how warm it was. I fully agreed, as I had broken a sweat trying to catch up to the group. I still saw no one from my team except, wojciech who was about fifty meters ahead and starting to climb onto the steep face of Everest.

I looked at Garrett and said where are the girls? He explained that their Sherpas saw the crowds of other climbers starting to head up the line and they left 15 minutes earlier.

At this point I told him I’m boiling and need to delayer as well. I had only started with my long sleeve grey sun shirt, my fathers Kenny Rogers shirt and the one-piece down suit. Because Kenny was made of cotton, the sweat had already soaked into it and froze. It was like a crusty frozen blanket.

I quickly dropped my pack. Pulled out my blue Madison puffy, peeled Kenny off, took the top of my down suit and tied the arms around my waste. The blue puffy and sun shirt left me chilled but I knew as soon as we started climbing vertically, I would be perfect. I was right, but the upper half of the down suit is such an inconvenience and made it so hard to climb in. It covers up you harness and just makes clipping in and out a mess.

This process may all sound very easy, but with your oxygen mask, hose and tank it was tiring and a pain in the butt. Not to mention it’s freezing and when your not moving it gets cold, I mean freaking cold and quick!

After giving My Sherpa the thumbs-up, we fall in behind Garrett, another Sherpa, myself and Spider-Man brought up the rear. Five meters into the climb, we hit the line and we came to a stand still. What the? How are we not even moving? It’s the beginning of the climb, there is no way people can be wasted this early. Well, the truth is, it is possible.

What happens is there are several teams that march their clients up from camp 2 to camp 4 very quickly to save on using oxygen bottles. (Basically trying to save $$$). Then, when they arrive at camp 4 they rest for anywhere between 6-10 hours and then go for the summit. This is like running a marathon, resting a few hours and then trying to do a triathlon hours later. Now, I don’t blame the companies per se. Certain clients are trying to do it on a low budget, and the companies are filling that nitch. But to be safe and covered, it will cost you.

The larger companies have the best safety records because they give you double the O’s and have huge staffs of Sherpa support. Now you pay for it, but I promise you, when that oxygen tank goes out in the death zone, you will be willing to cut your left arm off for another bottle. I waited 5 minutes to get my second bottle, changed out and it felt like a lifetime. Not spidy’s fault. My regulator had frozen up.

So, while doing my research on climbing Everest, I read how Garrett puts his clients on O’s from camp 2 on, during the summit push. This is not to just make it easier to get to high camp. It is to keep you from depleting all your energy reserves, because believe me, even on O’s it’s a beast of a climb to get to the south cal.

Once we arrived at camp 4, we spend a full 30 hours resting in the tent before the summit push, all the while sucking on bought air. Unlike, the other companies that do 6-10 hours. We burn through much more oxygen, but on summit day we are rested and ready to go. Any movement, action, task, or activity in the death zone is 10 times harder than at sea level and there for you get exhausted quickly.

So this is why after only a few meters up the face people are collapsing. There are other factors, such as altitude AMS, physical illness, and like Kenny says, “ not knowing when to fold them!” Getting to the top is only half the battle, the true test is getting back down! As I will come to find out.

As I stood in line, just 20 minutes into my summit bid a little bit of confusion was setting in, along with worry. This isn’t right! There are too many people! This is going to be a long night. Do we have enough O’s? I mean really, how much extra if I get stuck up here? This is not what I expected. Still no movement 3, 5, 7, minutes go by. I hear chatter on the guides radio, “ hey guys, it’s really crowded, might want to lower your oxygen flow rate to conserve oxygen.” I think great! This is already ending before we even get a chance.

While waiting in line, getting cold from taking of my down suit top, not moving, seeing a line of a hundred plus climbers (if not more.). It starts to snow and snow well. Oh man! I don’t believe in signs, but a blind man could see this wasn’t good.

Just then Garrett unclips from the rope and with ice axe in hand, heads out on the exposed face. The face is steep, in some parts pushing 50 – 60 degrees. That may not seem that extreme till you try and stand on ice at that angle. One slip and you pass basecamp on the way down. Fifty to sixty degree slopes for an “experienced” and confident climbers is normal, actually pretty easy. I have no where the experience Garrett has but I do have an over-sense of confidence that tends to get me in trouble. You know the saying “more balls than brains!” Just ask my rock climbing partner, Jim Reilly. Sorry Jim, I know I have put you in some tough spots!

I quickly realize this is my one chance, no coming back, no do-overs. I either need to follow or this could be it. I look back at spidy and he’s already unclipped and just starring at me. Then he asks, “you any good with your ice axe?” I swallowed hard and shook my head yes. At somewhere around 26,500 ft., in the middle of a snow storm, on a pitch black night, I unclipped from the safety line and climb out on the frozen south face of Mt. Everest. Oh Boy!

I want to be clear that most profesional mountaineers might laugh at this statement thinking it’s not that difficult, but all the smart ones will say it’s never a good idea to be unclipped no matter the angle. So now I’m breaking my own rules!

As those who have climbed alpine style in any mountain range, know. You can plan and rehearse everything for your climb, but the mountain will always through you a curve ball.

Later, I would learn, Everest is a hell of a pitcher and has a slider, knuckle, and one heck of a fastball.

As I stepped out I though “ well your committed now!” We started front pointing up the face and slowly passing fellow climbers. ( front pointing is when you only kick the front two spikes of your crampons into the mountain. It almost looks like you are just climbing a ladder.) after about 10 meters I could see what the hold up was. A team of Chinese had a climber hit exhaustion or get AMS. He was laying limp on the path. His eyes were rolling back and forth and since I don’t speak Chinese, I’m not sure, but he seemed to be babbling and not making sense.

The team leader was trying to position him off the path but was struggling to move him. He was still clipped in and if you were not willing to unclipped from the safety line, you would have to climb over him and use your second clip. This is very hard especially in your crampons.

I took a second, assessing the situation, and then pressed on. We all clipped back on the rope, but were quickly stopped again about 100 meters up. This line was longer, it looked to be 50 meters long and out came the ice axe again.

Passing people is very hard work and when you elevate your heart rate with limited oxygen you start getting tunnel vision. Not what you want on the side of Everest while unclipped. I kept my pace slow and tried to control my breathing. I assume it probably looked like one snail trying to pass another. Some how I got past at least 50 climbers and I came to a second team of Chinese. They had a climber wrapped up like a mummy with ropes tied to him. They had removed his crampons and were attempting a rescue, by lowering him down the face. Again this is very difficult, remember the 10 times harder rule.

The climber was non-responsive and I never saw him open his eyes. I have no way of knowing if these two climbers made it, but they were only a couple hundred meters from camp 4 and the night was early. At this point they had a 50/50 shot of survival, I presumed. I stopped for a second, took a quick inventory of my body; Energy level, GOOD, mental health, CLEAR, nerves, STEEL. Ok then let’s push on!!

From my best guess, we were 2 hours into our climb but starting to make progress, as we passed dozens and dozens of climbers. We were back on the safety line and moving at a good pace when the line slowed again. I peaked up and around the line and it seemed to be another climber just sitting on the rope not moving. Of course the two Sherpas and Garrett went around with ease. There were only about 7 climbers in front of me, so I stayed on the rope. I was a bit out of breathe, from keeping up with Garrett’s pace.

As I got to the climber, I recognized him. He was an Indian man I had talked to in front of the Lhotse High Camp the day before. This camp was on the route from camp three to camp four. I had come up on him having breathing trouble or a panic attack, I wasn’t sure. Unfortunately, two of the bodies of fallen climbers were tied to the rope in front of Lhotse high camp. A young looking Indian guy was laid out on his back and was just off the trail, but still clipped to our rope. To pass you simply unclip and clip past his safety line.

Then just 40 ft up another body, which was wrapped up like a mummy in a plastic sled like material. This person was clipped on the line near the head and the feet. Essentially making you have to physically step over the body twice to pass.

As I passed the first climber, I had such a sense of remorse, self reflection, and shock. He was young, nothing looked to be wrong with him and the reality of what I was attempting sank in. The feeling was not a natural one and I quickly walked past him. As I did, I saw a man in a yellow and blue full down suit holding his chest and bent over. I waited for a moment and after he didn’t move, I approached him. He said he was having a hard time breathing, even though i saw his oxygen mask was fine. I suggested he just sits and rests. He did, and I slowly worked my way past the second body. At this point I was already exhausted and tired. I cleared my mind and just started counting steps as I climbed up the Geneva Spur and on to camp 4.

This time, he was in really bad shape, pale faced, not coherent, and shaking. His guides were trying to figure out how to logistically get him down to camp 4.

Next to where this gentleman had collapsed, was a bit of an ice hump and climbers were able to pass by, just clipping over his safety line. So I walked right next to him, I remember thinking, what is going on, we have barely climbed 20% of this summit climb and that’s the third guy completely out of it. It also hit home, as I could identify him, even though he was not a friend, it was much more real since I had talked with him the day before. I’m sad to say, I heard he passed that night on the mountain.

The terrain slowly went from ice and snow to small outcrops of rock. Anyone who has worn crampons know this just increases the level of difficulty and makes things even more dangerous. We stopped for a second, to hear Conan announce on the radio, he and the 4 women climbers had reached the balcony.

By this point we had passed at least 100 climbers and gotten to the front of the group. But, because the girls had started in front of the sick climbers, they were close to an hour ahead of us. There were three major waves of climbers. We had started at the back of the second wave and worked our way to the front and the girls were somewhere in the first wave. Unfortunately Sherif and Stewart were still at the back of the second wave, while Wojciech and his Sherpa were making their way through the second group. Everything seemed to be moving well at this point, so we pushed on.

It wasn’t long till our head lamps spotted a body on the ropes ahead….part 2 to follow

Safe back at Basecamp!

Hello everyone! I’m back at basecamp with the whole team, beat up a bit but safe! What an adventure, what a dream come true, and what a nightmare!

As soon as I am able to sit and write up how our great team of climbers, guides, and Sherpas helped us avoid the most deadly season on Everest (not counting the Earthquake,) I will. We have all been so focused on getting down and out of harms way I have not had time to write. I am also pretty banged up, weak, sick, and in need of some major rest.

At the Top Of The World! Thanks again for all the comments, well wishes, and concern. I truly appreciate it. The summit day write up will be coming soon.

Summited and Back at Camp 2

Hello from camp 2, we all made it down safely. We all have our aches and pains. My toes and fingers will be fine in a few months no permanent damage just dead nerves. Will lose most of my toenails, I’m sure, but it could have been much worse.

I am still processing the last two days and need some time to clear the facts from hearse, and remember what I saw and felt.

So I can tell the real story, of what happened on Everest May 23, 2019.

There are so many emotions of joy, relief, sadness, disbelief and so on. It will take some time to sort out my feelings.

Tomorrow, I will wake at five am. Gear up for the last time on this expedition.(my 53 rd day.) March across the white Sahara and down through the Khumbu Icefall for the last time. And then, when I’m safe in basecamp I will thank her (Everest) for

allowing me to summit and return safely. For not all of us who climb, return. – Chad Gaston