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.