Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Summit Push (part 14)

Looking around and seeing nothing but ice while suffering from dehydration is a bit perplexing for the weary high altitude climber. My only choice was to continue to work my way down through the giant maze of the Icefall. Slowy and methodically was my aim. After working my way through the "Popcorn", one of the most turbulent portions of the Icefall, I traveled just underneath some huge seracs hanging precariously to Everest's West Shoulder. This was the spot of a fatality last year. A huge avalanche of snow and ice fell from this spot and swept a climber to his death while leading to the emergency evacuation of two other climbers who were a bit more fortunate. A right turn here, a left turn there. Up a 10 foot ladder and then a 30 foot rappel. All leading to a relatively safe zone, still well within the limits of the icefall and a little safer from falling ice.
Just when I thought fatigue might get the better of me I rounded a huge valley of ice and there stood Sheree, one of our awesome cookstaff from basecamp. He had climbed part-way into the Icefall with a nice, big, refreshing, thermos of HOT water! Ugghh! I am so thirsty. Why hot water, I asked myself? However, this hero had just put his life in a little danger and I made sure he saw nothing but gratitude coming from me. My entire Everest expedition would not have been possible without the awesome efforts of our Sherpa staff. They are always smiling and always willing to lend a helping hand. As thirsty as I was, I could only manage a small sip of water. What I really wanted was some cold juice. I heartily thanked Sheree for his efforts and I continued down.
Another 30 minues of bone-jarring effort brought me to yet another maze of 25 foot tall blades of ice. They looked more like gigantic shark's fins jutting out of the lower Icefall. After turning another corner my favorite Sherpa of all, Bala, was standing there smiling. He wrapped his arms around and gave me a great big hug. The hug was nice but I could not help but see something lying in the ice next to him. He had another thermos. I sheepishly asked him what was inside? Juice, was his reply. Cold, I asked? Yes. Whooohooo! Give me some of that! I quickly drank four glasses making sure to leave some for my teammates still higher on the hill. I thanked Bala for his wonderful efforts and with renewed strength I continued down. Basecamp was now in sight and I began to breath a sigh of relief.
Upon walking back to basecamp I was greeted with hugs, handshakes, and more importantly, cold juice. I was so overwhelmed. I looked back up into the icefall and I could see the tiny dots that were my teammates. I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving. I knew that I was blessed. I had done it! I had safely stood on top of the world and made it back down alive. My happiness felt a bit selfish because I new that not all of my teammates had made it down. I had hoped that the helicopter rescued Mike. I prayed that the helicopter had rescued Mike. Two hours later Phil walked back into basecamp. His head hung low. The tireless effects of what had transpired over the last 48 hours. I asked about Mike and the rescue. Did it happen? Is he safe? Our eyes met and that was enough for me to know the answer.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Summit Push (Part 13)

As each step led me through the Western Cwm and closer to the top of the Khumbu Icefall, my anxiety nearly overwhelmed me. Living on the edge of life, death, and extreme exhilaration for the last week began to consume my thoughts. So much so that as I approached a 3 section ladder spanning a deep crevasse I nearly forgot to tie in to the anchor. I leaned over the edge to begin my rappel and felt an unfamiliar lack of security. That “tight” and “protected” feeling is always unmistakable when laying back on my climbing harness, properly tied in, and fully relying upon the rope to carry my weight. Oops! I nearly became another statistic. Forever lost to the icy bowels of the inner Khumbu Icefall.
I crossed several more crevasses, wound in and out, up and down, and around and made it to the lip of the upper edge of the Khumbu Icefall. There it was, staring me right in the face. Yesterday, upon reaching the safety of our Camp II I began to hear stories of another rescue on Everest. With the monsoon quickly approaching the temperatures were getting increasingly warmer. The icefall was moving and had just suffered a massive collapse. This time, the ice failure nearly claimed another life. A woman was making her way through the Icefall for the final time and had forgotten to clip in while crossing a ladder. At that exact time a huge section of jumbled ice blocks collapsed and she was swallowed up 100 feet below. She was eventually pulled out of the ice collapse and with a broken back she lay painfully awaiting her own helicopter to pull her to safety.
I anticipated this section and was amazed at how different the Icefall looked. What was a few days prior a section of a few vertical ladders was now a large section of 5 ladders lashed together and spanning across an enormous crevasse. I rappelled down, jumared up, crossed ladders, and now stood at this tarnished spot. Anne-Mari crossed the 5-section ladder first. She took step after confident step and I could not help but be jealous. As the ladders swayed, bowed, and rocked underneath her weight, I wished I was 60 pounds lighter. Would the ladder hold? I silently wondered as I stepped foot onto the fearsome span. My steps were slower, less confident, but eventually I successfully made my way to the other side. I breathed a sigh of relief and nearly gulped at the same time. I could now peer sharply down the next section of the Icefall. Wow! The whole thing had changed. Not just a little section. Huge towers of ice now lay toppled over. What once was a flat, safe rest area was now split in half, the past evidence of the violent shaking and moving of the Icefall as it succumbs to gravity. A week prior we had only twenty-something ladder crossings. We now had over 40. To view this was scary and cool at the same time. Anne-Mari and I quickly overtook the slower, more fatigued and less confident climbers on their own way down. With all of the recent movement in the Icefall we wanted to get in and get out as rapidly as possible.
The sun was now brightly shining overhead and I was beginning to suffer from dehydration. In my haste I did not wait to melt enough ice and I therefore ran out of water. Oh well, just a few more hours and I would be down. Hopefully! Generally, travel through the Icefall is relegated to early, early morning while it is still dark and the sun has not yet enticed glacial movement. We were now in the middle and had no choice but to descend – quickly.
In addition to not bringing enough water I chose not to bring a 2-way radio as well. Anne-Mari and I figured that we would just save the additional weight and climb down together. This was now proving detrimental in several ways. First, I could have communicated with Phil higher up on Everest and inquire about Mike’s condition and second, I could have summoned our wonderful kitchen staff to come into the lower Icefall and bring us something to drink. At the time I needed to travel quickly the most, I was doing the opposite – traveling as slow as a snail. Dehydration was beginning to consume me and all I could think of was getting something to drink. With all of the snow and ice around me I dare not take more than a handful to put in my mouth. Upon recognizing this water source my body would begin to shut down even further – using what little bodily warmth I had to melt the ice in my mouth into water and leave nothing leftover to keep my body warm. Eventually, I could succumb to the delirious effects of hypothermia.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Summit Push (part 12)

Photo 1 - A picture of Mike in the Western Cwm on the way to Camp II.

As loud and noisy as it was, the ever-increasing storm outside provided a hypnotic pattern as the wind blew fiercely against my tent. A deep sleep eventually overwhelmed me and I slept soundly. I woke intermittently through the night and each time I did I would pray for Mike's safety. I had heard of many stories through the years of ailing climbers not making it through the night. I did not want to be a part of such an expedition. Mike had to make it through the night, he had to survive.
The morning came quickly and I could hear the sounds of Phil on the radio as he talked with the helicopter rescue team in Kathmandu. I thought that this is a good sign. Phil was talking about getting a helicopter up here to rescue Mike - or was it to retrieve Mike's body? I rapidly put on my down suit and got out of my sleeping bag. I looked outside and I did not see Mike. I walked over to Phil to inquire about Mike's condition and he just sighed deeply. He told me that Mike made it rhough the night but was being very combative and would not get ready for the helicopter rescue. In his reduced mental state, Mike thought that everyone was still out to get him and the helicopter was coming to pick him up in order to turn him over to the Chinese, the very people he was supposedly investigating as part of a worldwide drug cartel operation. They had tracked him down and were coming "to eliminate him from the situation."
I knew the importance of getting Mike on the helicopter. Literally, it was his only chance of living. There was absolutely no way that he had the mental and physical capacity to safely make his way through the gaping crevasses and ladder crossings of the Western Cwm and the Khumbu Icefall. Again, I told Phil that I would take of Mike if he would take care of ensuring the helicopter was on its way. I knelt down and looked inside the tent. Mike's face was round and swollen from facial edema. He looked at me and I at him. I reassured him that the little white pills in my hand were "the good stuff" and that he needed to take them. I explained to Mike that I had talked Phil into summoning 2 helicopters - one for each of us. Because of the extreme altitude, 21,500'+, there was no way 1 helicopter could carry the weight of the pilot and 2 more people. The helicopter could only take one afflicted climber at a time, thus the need for 2 separate helicopters. I told Mike that our mission had not yet been compromised but British Intelligence was ordering our quick return to Kathmandu in order to report on the supposed drug operation. Our only choice was to get on the helicopters and just "play along" so as to not blow our sting operation. Mike agreed and jumped out of the tent. I told him that there was no need to bring his gear and to leave it all on the mountain. You see, I knew two things. First, there was no way that the oncoming helicopter could carry the additional weight of his climbing gear and second, because of that fact, the Sherpas would heroically carry it all down as added weight to their already burdonsome loads.
Mike was outfitted with an oxygen mask and full oxygen bottle and I told him that I was leaving in advance to scout out the sight of where the helicopter was to land. I reassured him the mission was still intact and he was to do nothing but hike back up the mountain to the safe landing sight. I told him that the helicopter was 100% on its way and would pick him up first and then come back for me. We would then reconvene in Kathmandu in just a matter of hours.
I snuck out of Mike's sight and now tended to my own mission of getting back to basecamp safely. I had the most dangerous part of the entire mountain ahead of me - The Khumbu Icefall. The sun was now shining overhead and I knew the intense rays of the sun would encourage the icefall to move, creak, groan, and collapse. I just did not want it to collapse when I was in it. I teamed up with Anne-Mari and we began our descent of the Western Cwm. I had 2 things on my mind. Getting back to basecamp safely and the ever increasing wind and clouds that were building around us. I new the wind would play havoc on the little, light-weight helicopter and that there was a huge possibility that it would not be able to land and pick up Mike. Forty-five minutes later I could faintly hear the unmistakable sound of the helicopter's rotors slicing their way through the thin air on Everest. I picked out a small speck down in the valley and I watched as it hugged the contours of Everest in order to stay as low as possible. I was now standing at the spot on Everest where the highest helicopter rescue - EVER - had occured. The problem was that Mike was another 1000 feet higher. I had my doubts as the helicopter flew directly over our heads and disappeared further up the Western Cwm. I remember looking at my watch thinking that the helicopter would be coming back over in about 5 minutes. No sooner did I make that calculation in my head the helicopter had turned around and flew back over top of us. "That was too quick", I said to Anne-Mari. She agreed. There was no way possible that they picked up Mike. It was literally less than 1 minute since we saw the helicopter fly over us. My heart sank because I knew that the helicopter was Mike's only lifeline with the thicker, oxygen rich, life saving atmosphere of Kathmandu. My heart was broken because I knew that Mike wasn't going to make it and now there was nothing I could do to help. I turned around and began my descent into the gaping jaws of the Khumbu Icefall.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Summit Push (Part 11)

The positive sign I was waiting for ended up being right in front of me the entire time. Our entire team was blessed to have a strong group of sherpas assisting us. Shortly after I arrived back at Camp 2 a few of our sherpas started walking back in to camp singing and praying. Not only had they just gone to the summit the same day our team did, but they had the added responsibility of clearing the oxygen bottles and tents from the higher camps. The amount of weight they had on their back was staggering. Upon learning of Mike's condition several of them dropped their heavy loads, grabbed a couple of full oxygen bottles, and some hot tea and started climbing  back up Everest again to reach Mike. In my book, these guys are the heros.
Several hours later, heavily assisted, Mike gingerly walks back in to Camp 2. I went over to greet him and I knew something was still wrong with him. He had a blank stare and would not talk. He was beginning to suffer from facial edema as well (swelling of the face in addition to swelling of the brain). I assisted with taking off his harness and other essential elements for ice climbing and we put him in our dining tent. A few of our teammates who had arrived with him began filtering in to the dining dome as well. Still suffering from the delierious effects of altitude, Mike began arguing and swearing. He would not eat or drink. I found this extremely strange. Especially since he had not eaten or had anything to drink for 2 days. I sat next to Mike and tried to see how I could help. I spoke softly with him and asked him what was going on. I never imagined what I was about to hear.
Mike looked in my eyes and spoke softly and yet with great conviction. He told me how he had joined our Everest team as a double agent for the British Secret Service. He confided in me that there was a huge illegal drug operation going on and the high mountain passes of Everest were the drug's pathway between China and Nepal. He was put on the team in order to bust the drug cartels and to free this part of the world of illegal drug trafficing. He told me the reason he would not take the oxygen up higher on the mountain was that the bottles, in fact, were not oxygen but argon gas. Everyone up higher on the mountain, wrapped in thick down suits and oxygen masks, were the enemy. This is what his paranoia induced brain was telling him. He would not take any oral dexamethasone pills because they were poison. He was absolutely 100% certain that everyone had found out his position in the B.S.S. and the Chinese had sent people to kill him.
Wow! Why was he telling me this and no one else? Why did he feel confident that I was not one of the bad guys? I thought back to the Bible verse, "The Lord works in mysterious ways". What a mystery this was and I was deep in the middle of it.
After several hours of Mike talking to me I decided to use his comfort and familiarity with me to his advantage. I gently persuaded him to drink some hot tea and to eat a few biscuits. Phil came in to the tent and told Mike he needed to take some more dexamethasone, orally. Immediately, Mike became irate and absolutely refused. "I may have been found out, but I will not be put to death. I will not be poisoned."  You see, Phil had heroically helped Mike for most of the last 48 hours and was exhausted. He took great care and responsibility for his teammates but I could see in his eyes that this situation was wearing on him. Phil and I had gotten to know each other quite well, as this was our third Himalayan climb together. Phil and I locked eyes and I nodded my head. He immediately knew what I would do. I immediately knew what he would do. I told Phil, "I've got this". Secretly, outside of Mike's vision, Phil put the dexamethasone tablets in to my hand and left the tent. All alone in the tent, it was just Mike and I. I looked in to Mike's eyes and I told him, "Mike, this is the good stuff. I just brought this back with me over the border. This is not poison but pills to help with your fatigue. Trust me." Mike looked directly at me and paused. "I like your style" Mike said with complete trust. He grabbed the pills from my hand and swallowed them all - 6 in total. I persuaded him back to his tent and reassured him that the bottle I was giving him was my secret stash of real oxygen. I had successfully determined who was trying to give him argon gas earlier in the day and I had eliminated them from the situation.
Mike slipped in to a deep sleep and I was relieved-slightly. Taking the pills and oxygen had no doubt saved his life but he was now facing, head on, the most important night of his life. I prayed outside of his tent asking God to continue to use me to help save my friend's life. Utterly exhausted I crawled in to my tent. I thought I would fall asleep instantly but I could not. I was worried about Mike. Now that Mike was asleep, Phil had taken over monitoring him through the night. The objective was to do whatever it took to enable Mike to survive the bitterly cold, Himalayan night in great hope for a possible helicopter rescue the following morning. The growing storm outside the tent was suggesting otherwise. I prayed.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Summit Push (part 10)

I must confess that to my surprise Mike did make it through the night. I truly thought that I would hear word that Mike was unable to pull through. I was extremely happy to realize that our entire team was still intact.

I dozed restlessly though the night and found myself continually contemplating what I had just done. Wow! The previous day was so awesome and I hope that today would be equally as memorable. Today I was to begin my long descent back to Camp 2. Upon waking up I drank a little water and started packing. What a chore at 26,200'. I did not bother to eat because I wanted to get down. I peeked outside and the visibility was down to 10 meters. The wind was blowing and it was snowing. I felt bad for those trying for the summit today. I knew it was not possible and I hoped they had more time and strength to wait another day.
I quickly got ready and put on my pack and all of my climbing gear. I knew that I had to take it slowly and be very methodical about what I was doing. I took no more than 10 steps and I snagged my crampon on my Gore-Tex down suit. I immediately fell forward right onto my knees and hands. I looked around and quite a few people saw me fall. Worst of all Dave Hahn who was going for his 11th or 12th summit of Everest saw me fall. He is a climbing legend on Everest. Why did I have to fall in front of him? Why fall at all? Oh well. I stood up and began the traverse to the top of the Geneva Spur passing by the body of a fallen Sherpa climber from years ago. This sight, coupled with my recent fall was great motivation that I needed to be careful. Upon making the top of the Spur I tied into the rope and began my rappel. No problem because I took my time. A downward traverse and I was soon at the top of the Yellow Band. Another two rappels and I continued my very steep descent down the Lhotse Face. I was tired but gaining strength with every step down. I passed several people being assisted down by Sherpas, Guides, and anyone who could help. The past few days took a great toll on many people. There really was no place for me to join in the rescues so I continued down. I made it back to Camp 3 in several hours and I looked over at our tents which were now almost entirely buried by snow. I sure was happy to be going down and not have to sleep another night at Camp 3. The rest of the descent down the Lhotse Face went quickly and smoothly and I gained the top of the bergschrund. I anchored in and waited my turn to rappel over the gaping crevasse that lay 50 feet below me. What should have been a short wait was made much more complicated because I came upon a group of Sherpas who had no idea how to rappel. Hard to imagine but there were many people who did not know this basic form of rope craft. After what seemed to be an hour I finally made the rappel over the bergschrund and I took a huge sigh of relief. The most dangerous part of today was over. I now had to make the final downclimb to Camp 2. I was so thirsty and I was craving juice. I asked several people if they had anything extra to drink but no one helped me. Oh well. I started to pick up my pace. I was completely dehydrated and my appetite was coming back. I hadn't eaten a meal of any sort in 3 straight days. Just a few snacks is all that got me through. Eventually, I gained the rock that delineates the glacier edge from the rockfall of Camp 2. I slowed down and just took in the great views. This would be the last time I would see this place and I wanted to make sure to remember it.
I walked in to Camp 2 and I was greeted by our Camp 2 cook, Pasang Disco. He gave me a big hug and a cold glass of juice. Immediately he slipped away into the cook tent and began preparing a meal. In a few minutes he had a wonderful pasta dish created with fresh grated cheese. The meal was awesome (however a distant 2nd to my wife's cooking) and I enjoyed endless cups of juice. I realized that I was the first person back to our camp. I began to wonder about the rest of my team. I hoped they were safe. After several hours a few of my teammates began to trickle in. However, the one I was concerned about the most was nowhere to be found. Our communications radio crackled and chirped back to life and I could hear the familiar rambling of the Nepali tongue. Pasang Disco came out of the tent with a very concerned look. He turned around and faced the mountain gazing high up the Lhotse Face. I did not have to ask. I knew what was happening. Pasang Disco looked at me and said, "Mike - no good. Very bad up high." Crap. Why did this have to happen. As a climber descends in altitude he should get stronger. However, Mike was getting weaker and as it turned out he had completely relapsed. He had taken a turn far worse than yesterday and now a full scale rescue was in place. The steep, icy slopes of the Lhotse Face are not the easiest places to mount a rescue, but today there was no choice. We eventually made contact with the rescue group that was assisting Mike and we could hear their frustration. He was suffering from cerebral edema and was not thinking clearly. Worse than that he was very combative and would not take oxygen. What seemed like our only option was to call for a helicopter to try to rescue Mike. Unfortunately, a helicopter rescue from 24,000 feet was nearly impossible. As well, the helicopter was in Kathmandu and the weather was turning from bad to worse. I prayed for Mike's safety and just waited. I was waiting for some positive sign that Mike was going to make it down - alive.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Summit Push (part 9)

Photos 1 and 2 - Assisting with Mike's rescue high on the upper slopes of Everest - 28,000'. Notice the ever intensifying snow storm in the background.

As the afternoon slowly turned to early evening, the sun began to set. The splendor of the sun setting on the far horizon was a beuatiful sight to behold. All of this surrounding beauty seemed to hold no significance to my still missing teammates. Phil, Mike and a few Sherpas had not returned and I was mentally preparing myself for the worst. I figured that in his physical and mental condition, Mike was forever lost to the frozen slopes that steeply stretched above me. After all, when I last saw him he was incoherent and very combative. After the Herculean effort all the rescuers were giving, no one would have faulted them for just leaving Mike and saving their own lives. They had tried their best. One of the foundational principles of search and rescue is that the needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few. In this case there were now more than 10 people assisting with the rescue and with the weather turning from bad to worse, death's knock was getting louder. Any death would be tragic, but it would be silly to lose 11 or more people when all but 1 could have made it down.
More than an hour passed, the sky grew dark and there it was. The recognizable sound of climbing hardware jingling around on the harnasses of a group of people coming back in to camp. It was the rest of my team - including Mike! As he was being lowered down the mountain coupled with the shot of dexamethasone he began to regain coherency. By no means was he his regular self but he was upright and stumbling along. I greeted my teammates and told Mike that there were other ways of getting attention if he wanted it. Of course I was just continuing the friendly rapport Mike and I had developed over the previous 2 months. He blankly looked at me and just said "sure". I could tell he was still dealing with the delirium induced by his cerebral edema. Everyone was back safely, however, the most important night of Mike's life was drawing near. For someone in his condition and breathing supplemental oxygen at a high flow rate, the first night is the most critical. We had just a few medical supplies to sustain him through the night but it was obvious Mike would need a lot more attention. If only he would make it through the night. 

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Summit Push (part 8)

A swift, deliberate punch to the face by our sirdar, Dorjee Sherpa was enough to bring Mike to some sort of coherency. He was really quite dazed and confused but after this lucky strike he began to cooperate. He still refused oxygen but there was no way he could refuse a shot to the left butt cheek of dexamethasone. This wonder drug helps to temporarily reduce cranial swelling therefore allowing the would be rescuers to have some sort of chance at bringing a climber down - alive. At this point several famous faces in the high altitude climbing world began to show up. Of course they quickly wanted to assist. I had no problem with that and we all welcomed as much help as possible. Eventually there were many people much stronger than I on the scene and so I decided to get myself down to camp IV and leave the rescue for the more able bodied souls.
 The weather was a complete whiteout but thankfully the wind had died down and was not a problem. I rappeled a couple of the rock steps and made sure to stay tied in to the safety rope. I was exhausted. What an ordeal. I knew I was o.k. to get down. I just did not know how long it would take me. I could only muster up no more than 10 steps and I would have to sit down and rest. Oh well. Not a problem. I knew that eventually I would get down. Upon arriving at the balcony I noticed 2 of my teammates. One was a very accomplished marathon runner and she had some wonderful sports drinks tucked away inside her down suit. Upon seeing this I asked if I could have some and she gave me the entire bottle. The flavor of something other than bland, smokey tasting water was a treat. I drank almost the entire bottle and I noticed someone next to me crying. It was Dorjee, our Sirdar. He was in great shock because of the condition of Mike and he kept repeating that Mike was going to die. As a veteran of 6 previous expeditions to Everest, Dorjee had never lost a climber and he was devastated that Mike may be the first. I gave him some sports drink and reassured him that Mike was in capable hands and would almost certainly get down alive.
With that forced bit of calming reassurance I resumed my descent of the Triangular Face of upper Everest. I still was running low on energy and every 10 steps I would sit down and rest. This terrain looked really different than on the way up. Even though it was a whiteout I could still make out a few rock features that I could not have seen earlier due to the pre-dawn darkness. I knew I would be passing a few famous dead bodies on the descent and I kept my eyes wide open. I could now see camp IV down below and I knew I was getting close. I sat down again and took a few pictures of Lhotse and a few other mountain features as the clouds and snow were moving in and out.  Eventually I got to the flat part of the South Col where, in a whiteout like this one, a dozen climbers got disoriented and most of them lost their lives on May 10, 1996. This time was different. In anticipation of bad weather a 5mm perlon cord was tied from the outermost tents of camp IV to the edge of the flat area. This way a climber could use this safety tether as a lifeline, almost assuring a safe arrival back at camp. I slowly wandered in to camp and was greeted by a few of our superstar sherpas. A hug, handshake and a warm drink were all welcomed enthusiastically. I took off my oxygen bottle and climbed in to the tent. After opening my sleeping bag I strapped on my oxygen and just layed there trying to understand what I had just accomplished. I was so excited for tomorrow when I was to be able to make the phone call home and let everyone who was diligently praying for me what had just happened. As excited as I was for what I had accomplished a Bible verse kept coming to mind. King David's words in Psalm 115 verse 1. "Not unto us (me), O Lord, not unto us (me), But to Your name give glory, Because of Your mercy, Because of Your truth." I still understood that only through the strength given to me by God, only through the mental toughness granted me that day by the Almighty was I able to do what I had just done. Several hours had passed and a few of my other teammates began to filter back in to high camp. Eventually, as darkness began to overcome us, all had returned except for two - Mike and Phil. I knew the rescue would take a little bit longer than normal because of the conditions. I just did not realize it would be this long. I prayed for their safety and dozed in and out of a joyous, hypoxic stupor.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Summit Push (part 7)

Photo 1 - The view looking west toward Cho Oyu at 26,907'. Cho Oyu is the flat topped peak in the background. For such a giant, notice how little it looks compared to my lofty perch on Everest. Glance at the horizon. Notice the curvature of the Earth?

Technically, I did have two options - descend or forever become a frozen bump high on the slopes of Everest. However, I really only had one choice. I had just stood on the very top of the world and I dearly missed my family at home. I wanted to quickly be reunited so therefore, I strapped my oxygen mask on, turned the flow rate to 1 1/2 liters per minute and started down. "Wow!" I said to myself. Going downhill is supposed to be easier but this was tough. I took a step and snagged my cramp-on on my down suit. I stumbled slightly, thankful I was safely tethered to the safety rope. I rehearsed in my mind the sequence of events that would lead me safely back to the South Col and the relative safety of my tent.
I worked my way down making sure to safely pass the climbers still on their way to the summit of Everest. At one very crucial passing, one with 8,000 feet of air beneath my feet, I got tangled up and lost my balance. Again, the rope anchored to the icy slopes held. "That was close" I yelled behind my hissing oxygen mask which was efficiently supplying life saving vapors to my lungs. I actually felt strong despite my seemingly lack of mobility. "Getting down is mandatory" I reminded myself. With that little bit of reassurance I quickly descended to the top of the Hillary Step. Luckily there were not many climbers ascending this steep portion of rock and ice so I worked my way to the rappel line. While rappeling I noticed one of my team members still on  his way to the top. I checked to see how he was feeling and to ensure that he still had ample strength to get to the top and back down. We patted each other on the back, he offered his congratulations on my successful summit, and he reassured me that he was doing just fine. I made a mental note that I had now seen every one of my team members except for two. I easily could have missed them especially since everyone is thoroughly covered by a lofty goose down suit. I clipped back in to the traverse rope and made my way to the bottom of the South Summit. As painful as it was I now had to reascend 20 meters to the top and resume my descent on the other side. Upon reaching the top I noticed another teammate. She was huddled over, exhausted and running out of oxygen. At her pace she did not have enough oxygen to get to the top and back down safely. Therefore, she heroically decided to turn herself around, content with reaching the second highest point on earth.
So that was one more teammate. I had now past all of my teammates except for one. He was usually so strong. He was always near the front of the climbing group. I told myself that I must have passed him and in my hypoxic state did not realize it.
At the South Summit we picked up our empty oxygen bottles that we had exchanged for a full one on the ascent. Slowly I made my way down the Southeast ridge into a quickly building snow squall. I had hoped this would not be a repeat of the disaster on Everest in 1996 when 11 climbers got lost on the descent in a snowstorm similar to the one growing around me. Most of those climbers are still on Everest, frozen in the spot where they eventually collapsed, lost and hopelessly beyond extreme fatigue.
There are a series of rock steps which must be navigated in order to continue down. I threaded the rope through my rappel device and began one of the many rappels that would eventually lead me to my tent 2,000 below. In what seemed to be just a couple of minutes I came upon another bottleneck at the top of another series of fixed lines. Nearing the front of the queue I noticed two things strangely out of place. One was the odd sight  of only seeing the head of one climber because his body was hidden by the sheer dropoff on either side and the other was a huddled mass of yellow collapsed on the ice. It turns out the head I saw was one of my teammates and he quickly recognized me. He removed his oxygen masked and yelled "Mikey's dying, Mikey's dying!" Collapsed on the snow in front of me was one of my teammates. The last of whom I was certain I had recently passed and just did not recognize on the ascent. However, I never did pass him. He never made the summit. As it turns out he was suffering from delusional swelling of the brain and was mumbling incoherently. Without the strength to move he had just sat down refusing to go anywhere. I could only see the head of my other teammate because Mikey was not tied in to the safety rope and he was selflessly being held on to the mountain by a teammate who refused to continue his own descent in order to save the life of another. By this point the snow squall had turned in to a full scale blizzard. I was tired but new what I had to do. There was no way I could leave Mike to die up there. I had to help him down, but first, we had to get him moving and he demonstrated very little effort in attempting to get down. His delusional thoughts had given him permission to just sit there and die and he reassured us that that was exactly what was happening.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Summit Push (part 6)

It was really quite easy to make the decision to carry on. After all, this was the moment I had worked and trained for for so long. However, the life sustaining supplemental oxygen I was breathing was a precious commodity at this elevation and I did not want to run out. Although, I had trained very hard for several years just to get to this place and I was confident in my strength - both physical and metal. With that rational my decision was made. I kept the flow rate at 1 liter per minute and I continued on toward the summit.
Upon reaching the balcony the route meanders sharply up and to the left or slighly northwest. With the aid of my headlamp I was looking around trying to memorize various parts of the route. Upon my descent, should that be in a whiteout or blizzard, I would need all the help I could get to return to camp safely. Even in the dark the ridge was very clearly defined. A sharp drop-off on either side would certainly lead to an express ride back to the bottom of the mountain. I was now entirely on the upper southeast ridge of Mount Everest. I was so happy just to be there. I got to climb at my pace for around an hour or so and there it was - another traffic jam. Here the route turns completely vertical for a small series of rock steps. One rope and a plethora of people who were, at this point, clearly fatigued. I did not look at my watch but upon reaching the top of these steps I knew it had been more than an hour. At this point the eastern horizon was turning a beautiful pink and purple and then quickly I saw bursts of orange, yellow, and red. Watching the sunrise from this lofty perch was truly an honor and a privilege not had by many.
The climbing route continued steeply upward and I just kept taking one step at a time. I would also play little mind games with my self. When was my birthdate? When was my wedding anniversary? When was Alexander born? I would then purposely wiggle my fingers and toes. All of this in an attempt to ensure proper mental clarity and focus as well as warding off frostbite from the extreme cold. Eventually I attained the South Summit of Mount Everest. At 28,800' I was now standing on the 2nd highest point in the entire world. Even better was the beautiful view across the knife edge traverse and the famous Hillary Step. The most famous vertical pitch of rock and ice in all of mountaineering. This was the point where I would change out my oxygen bottle for a brand new, completely full one.
After that essential gear adjustment I began the agonizing descent back onto the ridge and made my way toward the Hillary Step. I had worked hard for every foot of elevation gain and I did not want to lose any by descending. However, to begin the traverse I first had to go down. I quickly made it to the Hillary Step and after a short wait it was finally my turn. Climbing this completely vertical pitch of rock and ice at just a shade under 29,000' was exhausting. Not to worry I told myself. Be patient.
Topping out on this famous feature I bagan to feel that just maybe I would stand on top. I did not want to feel overconfident because I knew that could lead to a fatal error but I knew I was close. Another half an hour of scrambling, jumping, climbing, and perseverance I came to a huge rock. I had to gingerly slide around this rock and hopefully not fall. The amount of air under my feet made even me a little uneasy. I confidently climbed around this rock and there it was. I could see in the close distance a group of people huddled around a bunch of prayer flags. There was a clearly defined hump of snow and nothing but a deep blue sky behind it. It was at this point that I knew I would make it. Five minutes later I took my remaining steps upward to the rooftop of the world."Woooooohoooooo! I did it!" Oh what a feeling of accomplishment. The thrill and experience was all I had dreamed it would be. The time was 8:15 a.m. on May 23, 2010. Eleven and one half hours after starting out for the summit, I stood on top.
I completely took off my oxygen mask and I just looked around. I needed to find somebody to take my picture - and a lot of them! Many pictures and video were taken on the summit and perhaps 20 - 30 minutes had passed. At this point the wind was picking up and the once crystal clear blue sky was filling with clouds. The famous snow plume of Everest was beginning to show and blow off toward Tibet. It was time for me to get down - quickly and safely. I recalled the words of Ed Viesturs, North America's most accomplished high altitude mountaineer. "Going up is optional, getting down is mandatory." In the midst of my joy and celebration I did not realize the amount of time I spent on top of Everest without my oxygen mask on. I did not want to risk dizziness and stumble 10,000' striaght in to Tibet so I quickly put the mask back on and took in a few deep breaths. "Getting down is mandatory" I told myself. "I have to do this." Easier said than done. This is the portion of the climb where most fatalities occur - the descent. Climbers use every bit of their strength to stand on top and leave nothing in reserve to get down. I turned around, tied into the rope and began my descent. At this point I realized my error in judgment in taking off my oxygen mask on top. Fatigue quickly set in and all I wanted to do was sit down and not move. I wanted to rest but I did not want to die, which almost always happens when a climber loses their will to descend. Which option did I want more?
Video Credit: Raphael Gernez

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Summit Push (part 5)

Photo 1 - The view from the South Summit - 28,850'. In the distance is the famous Hillary Step, the bare, vertical patch of rock. Notice the steep drop offs on each side. The left side is a 10,000 foot drop in to Nepal while the right side is an 8,000 foot drop in to Tibet.
Photo 2 - A closer view of the Hillary Step.

Wrapped up in every piece of clothing I had, in addition to a -40F sleeping bag I was feeling quite content. Here I was stretched out in my tent at 26,000' listening to the sound of the wind blow. If the wind did not abate there would be no attempt to summit. However, I remained quite optimistic. I had read about this very situation many times from the various successful summiteers over the years. Every time they would recall how the wind just stopped and their summit push began. 
As a group we decided to stagger our departure from  the South Col. A few of the slower members would leave at 8:00pm and the faster members would leave at 9:00pm. The idea was that the faster members would eventually catch up to the others some where above the Hillary Step and we would all summit together. It seemed to be a well thought out plan.
And then it happened. Just like I had read so many times from other climbers, the wind just stopped. Of course there was a stray breeze here and there but nothing like we had just endured. This was it! It was a go! It was 7:00 p.m. and climbers from other groups began leaving for the summit. We had to hurry. This was not the time nor the place to get stuck behind a bunch of amateur climbers as they re-learn proper rope technique. But, moving fast at this altitude is something reserved for the over ambitious dreamer. The air is so thin that just sitting up will leave a climber out of breath. Earlier in the evening I had melted enough ice to afford me one liter of water. That was it. All I would be able to drink for the next 12 - 16 hours. I then took off my oxygen mask so that I could move about a little easier. I had so many minor things to do. Pack my extra oxygen bottle, re-distribute the contents of my pack, try and eat a snack, and more. Soon it was 8:30 p.m. and I popped my head out of the tent. The night sky was amazing. The stars were so bright. There seemed to be many billions just twinkling away. I was in awe. The best view was reserved for only the select few on Earth who were gazing upon creation from this vantage point. On the far away horizon, where the last of the sun's rays were slowly disappearing, I could just barely see it. The curvature of the Earth. How amazing! I knew that, if given the opportunity, the views would only get better.
I looked at my watch and it read 8:40 p.m. Twenty minutes earlier than what we planned on but I have never been known to be late. Looking into the night sky all I could see was a long line of headlights from the various climbers already on their summit attempt. I had a weird feeling that I would have to accept getting stuck in back of the many climbers because the traiangular face of Everest is no place to climb without the safety of a rope. I could not out climb anyone on this portion of the route. My first objective was a feature known as the balcony. A somewhat flat spot at 27,500'. This is the location where Sir Edmund Hillary built his high camp in 1953 on his way to becoming the first person to summit Everest. At a 2 liter per minute flow I knew that I only had 16 hours of oxygen with me. I needed to be at this spot within 4 hours if I had any shot of making the summit without running out of oxygen.
I quickly caught up to the climbers who had left 15 minutes prior to me and the traffic jam started all over again. We inched our way up ever so slowly. Despite the frustration I remained optimistic. The weather was perfect. Twenty degrees below zero, no wind, and nothing but stars in the sky. I was doing it! The many years of dreaming and reading were all coming down to these next few hours. Could I do it? I did not know but I was going to give it my best shot. The triangular face is very steep. As steep as the Lhotse Face and in spots steeper. This year was a lean snow year on Everest so there was more rock than normal. This fact was realized when we all reached a series of 20' vertical rock steps. There was only one way up and only one rope. These features caused the progression toward the summit to come to a stand still. I did not want to look at my watch but I knew that gaining the balcony in 4 hours was becoming more of a fantasy than a reality. I kept reassuring myself that I could do it. What could I do? I did not want to climb unroped and yet I might have to if I wanted to make the summit and not run out of oxygen. I then considered turning down my flow rate of oxygen. I felt strong and I knew I could do it. After all, we were climbing very slowly. At one of the many stand still moments I took off my pack and oxygen and turned my flow rate down to 1 liter per minute. This is far less than what most climbers climb on but it increased my availability of oxygen by more than 16 hours. At this rate I now had almost 30 hours of oxygen left between my 2 bottles. That reassurance did not make the line upward move any faster. In fact, we were stopping more frequently. I was getting more and more frustrated. All I had to do was get to the balcony and I could begin to pass. After what felt like an eternity I reached the balcony. It was still pitch black and just a light breeze was blowing. This is the spot where many people stop and rest, change oxygen bottles and then continue on to the summit. I knew I could not stop and rest. I had to begin passing people, but first I decided to look at my watch to see just how long it took me to get here. I was hoping for 4 hours and was somewhat shocked to find out it had been just over 6 hours. This was not good. I was now coming to the most physically demanding portion of the summit attempt and I was craving more oxygen. I was left not knowing what to do. Should I turn up my flow rate of oxygen and risk not summiting because I ran out or should I keep the flow rate at 1 liter per minute and risk not having the strength to continue? I wrestled back and forth in my mind for a few seconds before I could come to any conclusion. At that point I made my decision. I knew what I had to do. Would it work?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Summit Push (part 4)

Photo #1 - The steep and treacherous upper Lhotse Face.
Photo #2 - Climbing toward the Yellow Band.

I woke up at Camp 3 on the morning of May 22nd and one thought immediately came to my mind. Tonight I would be climbing to the summit of Mount Everest! I could hardly believe it. All I had to do was safely climb to the South Col at 26,000'. That would be my final staging ground for the assault upon the summit.
I started the laborious task of melting enough ice to fill my water bottles. This took around an hour and while the stove was humming away I started the equally laborious task of putting on my many layers of clothes. I also screwed the regulator onto my oxygen bottle because from this point forward I would be breathing supplemental, bottled oxygen. All said and done, 2 hours had passed and I was ready to begin the ascent of the upper Lhotse Face. I clipped into the fixed rope and made the traverse over to the main route which went straight up. I swung my ice ax with great force and I jabbed my cramp-ons into the icy sheet beneath me. I quickly came to a slope that was close to vertical. I thought it would be realtively easy but not this time. I felt as if I were sufficating. I was not used to climbing with a mask on my face and I felt as if it was sucking the life out of me instead of delivering the necessary oxygen needed to climb skyward. I ripped the mask off and began climbing without it. I began to think that I must get used to this mask. I had no choice if I stood any chance of making the summit of Everest. In 2005, I had safely climbed to 27,000' without any supplemental oxygen. I felt strong enough to do that again but above that was a complete unknown. I talked myself back in to wearing the mask and continued climbing toward the first obstacle of the day - the Yellow Band. I quickly passed the remnants of other team's Camp III tents that had not survived the furocious wind that almost constantly rakes across the cold slopes of the Lhotse Face. I thought I could continue at a quick, steady pace and much to my chagrin so did about 100 other people. The face is so steep and there were so many people, all with varying degrees of fitness, that we all came to a bottleneck. Little did I know that it would be stop and go like this for the rest of the entire summit push.
A few hours later found me at 24,500', the place where a climber begins traversing upward to the Yellow Band. The Yellow Band is a 200' series of yellow, limestone cliffs. It presents the first real challenge on the climb to Camp IV. It was vertical or near vertical for the entire pitch and I was glad when that part was over. I could now see the rest of the route to the Geneva Spur. That would be my final obstacle for this move to Camp IV - I hoped. I eventually made it to the cut off where people climbing Lhotse head up to pitch their Camp IV. I was certainly glad I was not going there. It just did not look fun at all. It was just as steep as the Lhotse Face and full of avalanche danger. I finished the upward traverse and stood at the base of the Geneva Spur. More vertical rock. I was getting tired and so I rested for the first time on the way to Camp IV. I was very pleased that despite all of the delays from the many people I was able to maintain a positive attitude and I knew that all I needed to do was put one foot in front of the other and I would soon be at the safety and relative comfort of Camp IV. Climbing the Geneva Spur was tiring and yet amazing all at the same time. After a couple of hundred feet of doing this I topped out on the Spur and could see the final traverse into Camp IV. I had imagined this traverse to be flat from all the book knowledge that I had of this mountain. Alas, it was not. It was up and down and rarely flat. I passed a climber being assisted down with ropes and I made sure to leave plenty of room so as not to kink up my rope. Eventually, after 5 hours of effort I strolled in to Camp IV on the South Col. I was absolutely in awe. Here I was standing in the exact place of so much mountaineering history. I could see from Tibet on one side of me to Nepal and India on the other. I could see the famous, still never climbed, traverse between Lhotse and Everest. I could see the upper, triangular face of Everest. I could see climbers coming down from the Balcony, a "flat" spot at 27,500'. Most importantly I could see my tent. My safe haven from the now increasing gusts of wind. Even though I was amazed to be here I knew that I would have no chance of continuing my summit push if these winds did not abate. I silently wondered if this was the end of the road. My high point for this journey. Clouds began to move in and it started snowing. The wind was gaining strength and my hope for standing on the roof of the world was in doubt. "Please God, allow me this chance. You framed the world with your hands. You made this mountain I am now standing on. I acknowlege You as the Mighty Creator. The heavens and earth declare Your glory and I recognize that all I have is from you. Please grant me this opportunity" I prayed. As the wind continued to howl the other members of our team began to trickle in to camp. It was not long before the talk around camp was focused upon whether this inconvenient storm that made its home right with ours would remain with us or move on. I layed down in the tent trying to get a little rest before the biggest night of my life was to begin. However, the wind was not abating but, thankfully, neither was my optimism. I just had a good feeling that this time tomorrow I would be in awe from seeing the view from the top of the world.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Summit Push (part 3)

Photo 1 - Yours truly at Camp 3 - 23,500'
Photo 2 - The view from Camp 3. Notice the climber behind on the Lhotse Face. Triangular Face of upper Everest in the far distance.
Photo 3 - The beautiful view down the Western Cwm.
Photo 4 - Vertical ice climbing just above the bergschrund on the Lhotse Face - 21,800'.

During the early morning hours of Friday, May 21st I easily woke up to a calm, peaceful and quiet Camp II. This was the day to move on up to Camp III and the weather was taking a turn for the better. An incredible thought entered my mind. Tomorrow night I would be trying for the summit of Everest. How cool was that? After so many years of dreaming, this was it.  Now I just had to make it up to Camp III today and Camp IV tomorrow. I left Camp II around 8:00 a.m. and the first thing I noticed was the incredibly long line of climbers already up on the Lhotse Face. I figured that I was in no hurry and I would take my time; saving my strength for what lay ahead. Depending upon the location of Camp II the first 10-20 minutes outside of camp follow loose rock on top of ice. This is always cumbersome for me because it is difficult to maintain good footing. Nontheless, I quickly made it onto the glacier proper, tied in to the rope and began my winding ascent to the bergschrund at the base of the Lhotse Face. I felt lethargic and was surprised when I started easily passing many climbers heading for the same place I was. My excitement bagan to build even further and I knew that today was going to be a great day. The Lhotse Face is pitched at an average angle of 40-45 degrees. There are a few vertical sections and a few slightly less than the average. All said and done this is not a place where a climber would want to slip. Any fall from this famous landmark would certain prove fatal. However, there were many guided groups in front of me and they were moving extremely slow. I had two choices. Continue going at a turtle speed or unclip from the safety rope and free climb short sections until I passed the other climbers and then quickly tie back in to the rope. I chose the later. I tried to maintain safety at all times on my climb of Everest. This was not one of those times. I knew I could easily climb unroped and get around these people and I felt a little confident. Not cocky or proud, just confident in my climbing abilities.
It was a little over three hours since I left Camp II and I was the first from our team to make it to Camp III. On my mind most of the previous evening and certainly this morning was what was missing from our tents. I just knew that something would not be how we left it. Upon my arrival I immediately saw what was different. There were quite a few pale yellow and brown spots surrounding our tents. The sides of our tents and the inner vestibules on two of them had been used as a toilet. Can you believe that? Really? No courtesy from this other group that had very poor organizational and logistical support. Now I had to look inside the tents and see if any of our supplies were missing.
It turns out that even though we sent sherpas up to dig out our Camp III tents the previous day, the tents had partially been buried by the wind driven snow overnight. Therefore, I was unable to enter any of the tents upon my arrival, so even though I was tired I set out to try and begin excavating the tents. By this time Phil had arrived at Camp III and joined me in chopping out the bullet proof snow with our ice axes. After clearing the snow from one of the tents I was able to get inside and grab the shovel our sherpas had left up there a few days prior. I also took a quick inventory of our oxygen bottles. Thankfully, none were missing. So other than a few "poopie" marks surrounding our tents, nothing else was out of place.
Over the next 4 hours the rest of the team arrived and settled in for the evening. Eating what little we could force down and masking the retched taste with water melted from the surrounding "clean" ice, we tucked in to our sleeping bags for a fitful night of sleep. The plan was to get up in the freezing cold hours of the early morning and begin the long, slow, arduous climb to Camp IV. I easily fell asleep and began dreaming of a beautiful Everest summit day. This is the life. The stuff dreams are made of.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Summit Push (part 2)

Photo #1 - Self portrait on the Lhotse Face on the way to Camp IV.
Photo #2 - Approaching the Yellow Band. Could there be any more people?
Photo #3 - Above the Yellow Band. Approaching the Geneva Spur.
Photo #4 - On the Geneva Spur. Looking toward Camp IV.
Photo #5 - The final traverse into Camp IV.
Photo #6 - Yours truly upon reaching Camp IV - 26,100'.

Thursday, May 20th dawned very cold, clear, and extremely windy at Camp II. Our team decided this would be our second rest day because the forecast called for continued high winds on Everest through the 22nd. A few other less equiped teams decided to push their summit attempt one day early. Therefore, by the time I woke up many other climbers were on their way to Camp III. One team already had climbers reaching Camp III as I continued gazing upward. It was at that time I noticed something odd. Even considering the distance between Camps II & III I could still make out the long line of climbers slowly ascending. One cluster of climbers in particular seemed to be all congregating altogether - directly next to our tents! I immediately knew what was going on. "No! Not now! Not after all this time and effort. Please don't do this!" Camp III on the Lhotse Face is constantly battered by extreme wind. Consequently, if tents are left erected for any period of time they get completely buried by snow and the poles break. Whereas, the previous day we sent 2 sherpas up to Camp III to pitch our tents and clear away any lingering snow and ice, this other independent team did not. As a result when their climbers reached Camp III they could not find their tents. They were completely buried by the recent snow and incessant wind.
With the wind raging and the temperature well below zero, they needed immediate shelter and our tents looked so inviting. Inside our tents were stoves, fuel, food, and most importantly, life sustaining oxygen. Just enough for our summit attempt. If they were to use our supplies our summit push would be over. All the previous month's work would be in vain. Unfortunately, a huge reality on Everest is that people come to the mountain ill-prepared. They sign up with the cheapest organizer they can find. Consequently, many seemingly small details are overlooked. It would have been so easy for this team to send up a few sherpas to unbury their tents. Instead they considered just using our tents. After all, they were vacant.
Upon seeing what was going on our Sirdar, or head sherpa, went over to this other group's Camp II headquarters and demanded that they vacate our tents and use their own. He loudly exclaimed that our team was not going to suffer because of the incompetence of their leadership. They needed to send up their own sherpas with new tents, oxygen, fuel, and food. Of course they denied our accusations until we provided them with a little proof. One of our team members had a very powerful camera lense. One that, when focused upon Camp III, made it appear as if it were 10 feet away. We took a series of pictures of their team entering our tents, standing outside of our tents, and holding what looked like our oxygen bottles. Their two-way radios magically seemed to work and their climbers were given orders to immediately start vacating our tents - our personal property! Needless to say, after all was said and done, this stress filled event coupled with the lingering thoughts of a pesky cyclone in the Bay of Bengal added a few more gray hairs to my current collection.
The remainder of the day should have been spent relaxing and resting. However, we all took turns monitoring the current state of our Camp III tents. In between rotations I filled my time with eating and socializing with other climbers. That evening, I decided to turn in early because I wanted to get an early start for Camp III the following morning.
 Even though we saw the mystery team's climbers vacating our tents, I just could not help but thinking that something was missing from our tents and our camp. Something had been stolen. It wasn't until the next day, upon reaching Camp III, that I would find out just exactly what it was. Really?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Summit Push (part 1)

Photo #1 - Nima Nuru Sherpa and I hanging out at Camp 2 during the summit push.
Photo #2 - The last vertical section (about 55 feet) before exiting the Khumbu Icefall and entering the Western Cwm.
Photo #3 - The continuous line of people above Camp 3 just before the Yellow Band (24,500').
Photo #4 - Topping out on the Geneva Spur (26,000') looking at the Triangular Face of upper Everest.

After 22 days of "patiently" waiting, I began my assault upon the highest snowpatch on Earth. After many consultations with our weather forecasts, various maps, and other data we decided that May 18th was to be the day. I could not believe it. The day was almost here. It was showtime! I spent May 17th going over my final summit clothing and packing my backpack with the final necessities. In the past I had climbed to the summit of Everest many times in my dreams. However, today was the day to make those dreams reality. So I went to bed early on May 17th knowing that tomorrow would begin some of the most physically demanding days of my life. I was so excited I hardly slept a wink. In fact, I was already awake when my alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. Quickly shuffling to put my clothes, harness, boots, and crampons (ice spikes on the bottom of my boots) on, I decided to shove down a hard boiled egg and some toast. I really wasn't hungry but I knew I would need all the calories I could consume. Five o'clock saw me entering the Khumbu Icefall for what I had hoped was the second to last time. I rapidly made great progress through the Icefall and I was utterly amazed at how much the route had changed in the last 3 weeks. The end of the season was near. The weather was much warmer and the Icefall was splitting open everywhere. There were so many more ladders to span the great depths of the endless crevasses and I silently wondered if I would be able to return on my way down. I was also concerned that my 3 week stay at basecamp would negatively affect my hard won acclimitization but it turns out my concern was not necessary. What took me 5 hours the first time through the Icefall I was now able to do in 3. It turns out my extended rest period was proving beneficial in terms of added strength and acclimitization.
I topped out of the Icefall and worked my way through several more ladders and crevasses all the way to Camp 1. It was now 8:00 a.m. and the sun would soon shine directly on me. The next bit of hiking/climbing was to be one of the hottest portions of the climbing route so I decided to shed a few clothing layers. I ate a quick snack, drank some water and soon started the 2 hour journey into the solar oven known as the Western Cwm. Normally this portion of the route is just a gradual, smooth, uphill hike but this year was different. There were large crevasses that needed to be crossed by several ladders lashed together and a lot of uneven, up and down type hiking. Oh well, not to be concerned. I easily made the final journey into Camp 2 just 5 1/2 hours after I had left basecamp. Our wonderful Camp 2 cook, Pasang Disco Sherpa, warmly greeted me with a cup of cold mango juice. I had several cups of this delightful beverage and then settled in to my tent. This was to be my home for at least 2 nights and possibly a few more. I was a little disconcerted to hear that an approaching cyclone could put a bit of a damper on our summit plans. Rumors of another cyclone and subsequent snowstorm like the one in 2009 that dumped 6 feet of fresh snow on Everest was beginning to float through Camp 2. My dream of a safe summit of Everest began to slightly fade. Immediately I "cast all my cares" up to God and began to pray. A calming assurance overcame me and I no longer was worried. I knew that whatever was to happen regarding the cyclone would still happen no matter how much worrying I did. After receiving our nightly weather forecast, it turns out that the cyclone was heading away from us but there was still a possibility of a few stray clouds and possibly a little snow. Whew!
We decided that the 23rd was still the best day for a possible summit attempt and hopefully was to be accompanied by beautiful weather. That meant that the next 2 days were to be rest days. I would be going nowhere and that was just fine with me. I really wanted to summit Everest but I wanted to do it with strength and in good health. The next 2 days (May 19th & 20th) were spent eating, drinking, and looking up. From Camp 2 there is an awesome view of Everest's south summit and the Hillary Step. These would be a few of the final obstacles I would have to overcome if I was to eventually stand on the top of the world. As it turns out I would have an even greater obstacle and it was staring me right in the face. This couldn't be happening. "No! Not now! Not after all this time and effort. Please don't do this!"

Friday, June 4, 2010

Home safe

Well, this great journey has come to an end. I safely reached the loving arms of my family last night. Today it's off to the park, riding in my truck, juice, tickle fights, and Target. These are the things my son wants to do so we shall do them.
I promised more details on the summit push and I intend to do it. More pictures as well. Stay tuned. Thank you to everyone who looked after, cared for, and prayed for my family and I. We are deeply grateful.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Safely in Hong Kong

Leaving the Kathmandu airport has always been a bit cumbersome. Nepal has only been open to foreigners for close to 60 years so, therefore, they are still far behind the rest of the world. Their technology is antiquated at best. This usually leads to considerable delays when minor problems arise. The delay last night was the fast approaching monsoon. Not that a 'little' rain and a few clouds are a problem. The airport is so small there is no place for passengers to wait when flights are backed up. There are no concessions, no restrooms, and no proper tarmac.
Oh well, no worries now. I have safely arrived in Hong Kong, one of my favorite international airports. I only have 7 hours left and then it is off to the good 'ol U.S. of A.

The long flight home

 My great Everest adventure is coming to a close. My bags are packed and my balances settled. My taxi is due to pick me up in 1 hour. After immigration formalities I begin the long journey home. I fly from Kathmandu to Hong Kong where I only have an 8 hour layover this time. Then it is off to Los Angeles where because of the magic of the International Date Line I arrive 2 hours before I leave Hong Kong. More immigration formalities and then another 5 hour layover. I look for a flight to Denver and will arrive around 9:30p.m. I am so excited to see my family. I have now been away for 71 days. What a long time.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Back in Kathmandu

Hi friends! I have returned to Kathmandu. Wow! What a difference a day makes. I went to my favorite hotel last night and enjoyed a proper bed for the first time in 2 months. I also went and had 3 dinners at 3 different restaurants - all within 2 hours. I have lost about 25 pounds. I know weigh close to what I did in high school. Oh well. I will put the weight back on real quick. Plus, when I return, I start back up in Combat Calisthenics with all of my friends.
I will still offer a few different summit perspectives in the next few days. Thank you for your kind thoughts and prayers. I miss you all and can't wait to see you.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Packing up Base Camp

This is Diana again. The team spent the day packing up Base Camp, which includes the computers, modems and phones. They will leave in the morning to spend 3 days hiking 40 miles to Lukla where they will catch a flight back to Kathmandu. It has been snowing for the past several days. They will need clear weather to fly out of Lukla. If you were following the blog when Ben talked about flying into the Lukla airstrip, you will understand why prayers would be helpful for clear weather. When Ben returns to Kathmandu, he will post another blog. And then he will be on his way home!!!! Thank you all again for following along and for your prayers.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Everest summit photos

May 23, 2010 @ 8:15 a.m.
More detailed report to come. Thank you for your prayers.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Ben stood on top of the world May 23rd at 8:15 am. He is back at Camp 2, safe and completely healthy. His dream of climbing Mt. Everest has come true!! May God get all the glory!

Please continue to pray for the health and safety of the team as they all climb down the mountain to return home to their families safely.

Ben will post an update tomorrow with pictures from the top of the world!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

No News is Good News

This is Diana posting an update since I know there are many anxious to hear something! Anything! On Ben’s May 16ht blog post, he said he was not planning to have the ability to call home until he climbed down from Camp 4 to Camp 2 on the 24th. He will wake up in a few hours and it will be the 24th, but I don't expect him to be able to call me until tomorrow morning (MST) when he reaches Camp 2.

I have been anxious since last night because the team website said that they would take the phone to the summit and call if the weather permitted and batteries lasted. I didn't expect Ben to be able to call me, but rather the team organizer to call his home so that the team website could be updated. Those plans must not have worked out because their website has not been updated. If I received a call this afternoon, I would be concerned since Ben should be sleeping due to the time difference – not to mention the exhaustion he must be feeling.

Ben’s good climbing friend, Gavin, has been in contact with me letting me know about all the good signs. All other team websites are reporting that yesterday was a beautiful day to summit with low winds. Bad news travels fast and no one is reporting anything about rescues or incidents on the mountain. There were a lot of people planning to summit this weekend, I am choosing to believe Ben was one of them.

I hope this sets you at ease for a few more hours until Ben is able to call home. Thanks again for all your prayers! We have the greatest friends & family.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Quick Update from Camp 3

Ben surprised us with a call again this morning. The team has arrived at Camp 3 and the winds are low. When at Camp 2 I could hear the winds outside his tent. Today everything sounded calm. He sounded strong and excited. They will leave for Camp 4 tomorrow morning at 7 or 8 Everest time - about the same time we are in the midst of tonights evening activities (MST). Then they will stick to the plan and leave Camp 4 around 9 pm the following day (9 am MST, Saturday morning). YIPEE!

The important prayer concerns at this time of the trip are for strength, focus, mental health, and of course physical health. I will also be praying that they do not get stuck in any bottlenecks and are able to keep moving on the mountain and in order to stay warm.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

And he is off!!!

This is Diana again with today’s update. This morning’s call from Ben is probably the last one for several days. The team has finished their rest at Camp 2 and will leave for Camp 3 tomorrow morning. The cyclone has not impacted the weather on Everest and the weather continues to be consistent with the forecasts they have been following. They will be able to stick to the schedule Ben posted a few days ago. They have heard of many other teams making summit attempts the on the 21st and 22nd so they are planning their summit push for 1 day later to avoid the crowds and bottlenecks, which can be very dangerous. Ben sounds strong. Although, between the conversations of a chatty two-year old, Ben did mention something about his back which was a concern before he left for this trip. Once again, thank you all for your prayers. The next update will hopefully be good news of Ben’s summit and safe return down the mountain.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Safe & Sound at Camp 2. However?

This is Diana, posting an update for Ben. He has arrived at Camp 2 safely where the team will rest for a few days. How long will be determined by the weather, once again. There is a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal that may hit Mt. Everest or change the weather on the mountain. The team has the computer and modem at Camp 2 for the purpose of checking the weather updates. Your prayers are greatly appreciated.

Finally, Ben would like to wish his nephew, Joey, a very Happy 13th Birthday!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Summit push is on!


Wow! After 21 days of waiting at E.B.C. and 14 years of constant dreaming, it is now time for me to begin my summit attempt of Mount Everest. I am so excited, thrilled, anxious, scared and more. I take comfort in my favorite Bible verse of all time: Philippians 4:13. The verse states, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” For me, this 8 day endeavor to stand on the roof of the world and return safely will be the most physically demanding thing I have ever done. When the word ‘strength’ is mentioned, it is not only physical strength that will be required of me to stand on top of Mount Everest. Mental strength will also be paramount. The mental strength to keep pushing even though I will be exhausted. The mental strength to constantly reassure myself that I really do have what it takes to summit and that I truly have earned the privilege to climb Mount Everest. Perhaps, most importantly, the mental strength and clarity of thought to determine whether or not to continue up or turn around and be able to climb another day. I do not know, and I often ponder what I will face while high on the slopes of Mount Everest. Unsafe weather conditions, extreme cold, snow/avalanche conditions, the frozen corpses of past climbers, and a host of other factors will weigh heavily on my mind as I travel heavenward. As I have stated many times in the past, climbing safely and returning home to my family is much more important than any accolades I might receive from a summit of Everest.

Here is my anticipated climbing schedule for the next 8 days.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010 – leave E.B.C. at 5:00 a.m. and climb directly to Camp 2.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 – Rest day at Camp 2.

Thursday, May 20, 2010- Rest day at Camp 2.

Friday, May 21, 2010- Climb from Camp 2 to Camp 3.

Saturday, May 22, 2010 – Climb from Camp 3 to Camp 4 arriving no later than 1:00 p.m.

Saturday, May 22, 2010 – leave Camp 4 at 9:00 p.m. for the rooftop of the world.

Sunday, May 23, 2010 – God willing, I will summit Mount Everest around 7:00 a.m. and return to Camp 4.

Monday, May 24, 2010 – Climb down from Camp 4 to Camp 2. Call home, update blog.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 – Climb down from Camp 2 to E.B.C. Call home, update blog.

For those who are interested, the time difference between Denver, Colorado and Mount Everest is 11hrs 45min, with Denver being behind. This may help in determining where I am on the mountain in real time. If possible, I will call my wife and she will update this blog as information becomes available so please check in daily.

I am humbly amazed that I have so many people all across the world praying specifically for the team and I. Thank you! May God richly bless your life as He has mine.

Summits of Everest. At what cost?

I sit here at E.B.C. typing away on the computer knowing that right now, at this very moment, there are many people either standing on the summit of Mount Everest or are closing in on the final, few, hard won meters. I salute their courage and tenacity. However, the summit is only halfway. What good is standing on top if you can’t make it down? From the several radio transmissions we have heard a few of these people have been climbing toward the summit for more than 12 hours. They have been climbing through wind gusts in excess of 50 m.p.h. Their oxygen supply must be getting dangerously low. Their chance of severe frostbite is almost certain. Of course the latter observations are pure conjecture. Either way the conditions that these climbers are enduring are outside of our team’s realm of safety. I understand the possibility of trying for the summit if there was no acceptable weather window in sight. I understand trying if your remaining days on the mountain were limited. From what our team can determine a very suitable weather window is developing in just a week’s time. The winds are forecasted to diminish to a more suitable level, the chance of precipitation is dwindling, and the summit temperatures are expected to rise to a very balmy –13F. I do not know what leads one climber to accept certain conditions and another climber to whole-heartedly disagree and reject them as unsafe. I do know that we all have the same goal in mind and that is to stand on top of the world and return home safely. And safety is what I am hoping for for these few brave souls who are presently enduring extreme conditions. No mountain in the world is worth a person’s life. No mountain is worth not returning home to the loving arms of family and friends. For now we will continue to analyze the data presented to us in the hope that we will soon receive our chance of scaling the upper reaches of Mount Everest.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

C.S.I. Everest?

Photo 1 – Taken from Camp 1 on Pumori – Ama Dablam in background.

Photo 2 – Taken from Camp 1 on Pumori – North & South side of Everest, West Shoulder of Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse.

Photo 3 – Why do yaks always stare at me? (Steph, still staring. It never ends.)

A good friend of mine and fellow climber (2x Everest summit), Tunc Findik of Ankara, Turkey gave me the following advice when preparing for this Everest climb. “Stay out of the base camp drama. Keep your mind clear and stay focused on your own climb.” I figured that should be an easy thing to do but never imagined the amount of drama that would actually occur.

Death on Everest is a fact. It is a huge risk that both my wife and I considered when preparing for this climb. However, in life, I believe there are certain risks that cannot be avoided but can be managed. Yes, accidents do happen. Nonetheless, human error is a big part of most deaths on Everest. These errors and subsequent deaths on Everest can be managed by proper education on current conditions for the chosen mountain, safe climbing practices, proper attitude and mental outlook, and more. So far there have been 3 climbing related deaths on Everest this season. This is tragic but it is not unexpected. What has been unexpected is that even with the cool weather on Everest the Khumbu Glacier is melting out at an alarming rate. Along with the melting, the glacier reveals events of the past. This now leads to the drama. In the last week there has been 4 bodies melt out of the glacier and several more are expected because of the knowledge and location of past climbing accidents. After some investigation it has been determined that a few bodies are as recent as 2006 and a few others may be older than 15 years. This sobering reminder of what we as climbers are undertaking suggests a moment for pause and reflection.

Currently, other drama on Everest is a race to be the first Finnish woman to summit Everest. One of these Finnish women is on our team. I believe that climbing should not be about who is first and who is not. What does it really matter? Can anyone name the first American woman to summit Mount Everest? Probably not. Simply climbing at this level is an achievement in its own right, personal accolades aside. The drama in this situation is that the weather up high is terrible and not conducive for a safe climb. However, both women in an attempt to be the first have started their summit push. Right now they are both climbing through very strong wind and subsequent extreme cold. This has led to some multi-hour intensive radio communication on the upper mountain. Down here in the relative comfort of base camp it is hard to imagine that some of the events of the next couple of days will not end in bodily harm. Along with these 2 ladies there are several other teams pushing for the summit. I am concerned because the weather forecast is not supportive of a safe summit push. I do wish everyone absolute safety and personal success.

There is more drama on Everest but I will spare everyone the details. For now I am trying to maintain a positive attitude and keep a clear mind. Today is rest day #18 at E.B.C. There seems to be a weather window developing for a summit attempt somewhere around May 23 – 27. I am focused and determined to give the summit my best shot. However, everything I do here on Mount Everest is encompassed by the thoughts, concerns, and actions of safety. I appreciate your continued prayers for the team and I. As well, please remember my wife and son in your prayers. They have been 100% supportive of my efforts and deserve all my respect.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Weather rules on Everest!

The weather on this mountain sucks. I am getting really frustrated by the continued poor weather and we are running out of time. We have been pinned down by extreme wind here at E.B.C. for 3 days. It is also still very cold here. By May of each year we should be able to walk around base camp in just a fleece long sleeve shirt and pants. However, we are still bundled up in our down jackets and heavy clothing. The conditions on the upper mountain are even worse. We have had 4 tents (mine included) damaged (broken poles) by the wind here at base camp, several more at Camp 2 as well as Camp 3. Our Camp 4 supplies are hopefully safe but no one knows because we have been unable to climb up and see.

The weather forecast is not any better. Actually, the 2 main weather forecasting services are in complete agreement, which is rare. Extreme wind conditions are forecasted on the upper reaches of Everest until May 21st at the earliest. This can change but I am beginning to lose confidence. I have now been at E.B.C. waiting for the weather to improve for 16 days.

There is a small weather window developing for the 22nd – 25th. We are not sure but maybe that is when the jet stream will move off of Everest. We need at least 4 consecutive days of descent weather and manageable wind conditions to approach the summit and descend safely. The entire summit push will take 7 days but we can ascend/descend the lower mountain in less than ideal conditions.

All said and done the weather is out of our control. We just have to deal with what is given to us and stay safe. Thanks for following along. Hopefully, some good news to report in the coming days.