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.