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)

videoIt 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?