Wednesday, July 28, 2010
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.