Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Summit Push (part 6)

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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