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
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.