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:
– 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……