(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