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…..