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?