It occurred to me that I might be dying.
My symptoms matched those which preceded the sudden death of a team member, DaRita Sherpa, the week before. He had been a few hundred feet higher, at Camp Three, when he returned to his tent complaining of dizziness. He was pronounced dead an hour later.
I reached behind me to make sure I was still clipped into the anchor set onto the narrow ice ledge where I stood, thousands of feet up the Lhotse Face.
As I did, my vision narrowed. I remember thinking, “this can’t be good.”
At one point, two years earlier, I had re-read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and decided I would never climb Mt Everest.
I suppose this book has a similar effect on most who read it. But that decision changed in July 2012. I was in Papua New Guinea, climbing Carstensz Pyramid, the highest point in Oceania. I had set out in 2007 to climb the Seven Summits, the highest points on each of the planet’s continents.
Carstensz Pyramid was the sixth one. We had summited that morning and were descending, rappelling down its steep rock face. I stopped on a ledge to rig the next rope in my figure eight descender. It was raining, my leather gloves were soaked, and my fingers were numb.
Suddenly it just came into my mind like the solution to a math problem I had been struggling with: Everest.
It was not so much the word or the image that came with it as the energy. There was a warmth to it. It smiled confidently. Though the only things I knew about Everest scared the heck out of me, the notion of climbing it seemed inexplicably doable.
It was ‘The Call’ I had always wondered about, and it could not have been more clear.
Two months later, I signed on with the International Mountain Guides (IMG) 2013 Everest Expedition.
The next months were consumed with the rigorous training I hoped would deliver me to the top of the world. My entire strategy would be based on speed, moving as fast as possible to limit the time spent exposed to dangerous areas on Everest. This meant short rests of only 10-30 seconds while maintaining an elevated heart rate.
Mike Locke at the Bellingham Athletic Club designed my workouts, borrowing from the training used for Navy Seals. I also had a complete physical evaluation done by my doctor. The blood work revealed an elevated cholesterol level. “We would like you to start getting regular exercise,” his nurse counselled in the follow-up phone call. "I am training to climb Mt Everest," I stated. "Do you honestly think I can get more exercise than that?"
I arrived in the busy city of Kathmandu on March 31.
Twenty-one other members of the IMG Team soon joined us, 11 of whom were planning to join me at the summit. We flew to Lukla two days later.
The next two weeks were spent trekking up the Khumbu Valley through rhododendron and white pine forests, past tiny villages of stone houses, and over long suspension bridges trailing streamers of tattered prayer flags. There were prayer wheels and monasteries, tea houses and yak trains. It felt more like a spiritual pilgrimage than the start of a climbing expedition.
The process of preparing for an Everest summit attempt requires many weeks and several climbs out of Everest Base Camp (EBC).
This is a process designed to gradually tease a climber’s physiology higher, prompting the production of millions of additional red blood cells. These, in turn, help compensate for the thinning air. It is also the chief reason that it takes two months to climb Mt Everest.
First, we climbed neighbouring Mt. Lobuche (20,000 ft), then halfway up the Khumbu Icefall.
Between each climb, we rested for up to five days, regaining our strength. We then climbed through the icefall to Camp One, spent the night, and returned to EBC.
Next, we climbed to Camp Two (21,000 ft), and stayed two nights before returning to EBC. Our last acclimation rotation took us to Camp Three (24,000 ft), again returning to EBC.
It was on this rotation that DaRita Sherpa died in his tent. A veteran of many Everest Climbs, he was strong, reliable, and an expert mountaineer. He was also brother-in-law to my own Sherpa, Mingma Chhring Sherpa, who then accompanied DaRita's body back to their village for Buddhist ceremonies.
The cause of death was eventually ruled “a cardiac event.” He was 37 and left behind two children and a wife. The IMG camp was stunned and saddened.
By May 6, we were stalking a summit date.
Mt Everest (29,035 ft) is tall enough to jab up into the jet stream. Winds there often exceed 100 mph. But the jet stream moves north of Everest as the monsoon season gets underway in mid-May, and for a brief few days, the winds at the summit lay down like a slack tide.
This is what Everest climbers wait for.
In the meantime, they sharpen crampons and repair gear, call home and write in their journals. They also try, without success, to regain some of the weight lost to the ravages of altitude. It is almost impossible to consume as many calories as one burns each day at high altitude. Our team members lost an average of 26 pounds each in the run-up to our summit attempt. I personally lost 30 pounds while supplementing my diet with a case of Hershey’s chocolate bars.
Mingma returned to EBC on May 10 and five days later we began climbing. The weather forecasts were hopeful and May 19 was selected as “summit day.”
The dread of passing through the infamous Khumbu ice fall weighed heavily as we set out from EBC at 3 a.m. that morning.
Mingma and I visited the Puja Altar before leaving, as had been our custom on previous trips into the icefall. I left the chanting to Mingma. It was my job to toss the rice on cue.
The air was thick with the scent of smouldering juniper, a fire that would not be extinguished until all climbers and Sherpa had vacated the mountain at season’s end. Daily temperatures had warmed enough since arriving at EBC to meaningfully increase the movement of ice within the fall. Ladders used in the second rotation were crushed miserably between fallen seracs. Parts of the route had been completely redirected to avoid the fields of refrigerator-sized ice blocks now piled on the path we had once trod. But on this night, the ice was still, and we passed up through the fall in a brisk four hours.
We skipped Camp One, arriving at Camp Two around 10:30 that morning.
Word came as we rested the next day that our summit date had been moved back to May 20. We spent the following two days tracking the progress of our advance team as they attempted the summit in what should have been the first climbable weather of the emerging window. But the forecast of abating winds did not prove correct, and all members were turned back at the Balcony (27,600 ft).
It was a painful hit to team morale as two of our very strongest climbers had taken part, one of them now forced to surrender his dream and return home, frostbitten and dejected.
We left for Camp Three in the dark hours of May 18.
The south route up Everest cheats over onto Mt. Lhotse for this part of the ascent. It is a bootstrap accessing the South Col, from which the summit is then attempted.
Varying from 45-60 degrees incline, the blue-ice Lhotse Face represents a formidable obstacle. It rises two miles over a horizontal distance of just 1.4 miles, making it the steepest face of this size anywhere in the world.
Camp Three sat at 24,000 feet on a ledge carved into the ice with hand tools. It was there that DaRita Sherpa had died suddenly.
Things had been going well.
Mingma and I had ascended 2,000 feet up the face by the time we reached a small ledge where we could rest. Another team member soon joined us. As we stood there, looking out across the vast Himalayas, I suddenly felt very dizzy. “Gibby,” I said to him, “there’s something wrong with me.” Gibby is a rescue medic who regularly leaps from planes to help downed airmen. He immediately shifted into that role. “Talk to me,” he said, “What are you feeling?”
“I’m dizzy. I think I’m about to pass out,” I said.
He sat me down on the ledge and put a Pulse Oximeter on one finger. Then he radioed down to EBC for medical consultation. The most dangerous possibilities were quickly eliminated. I began to feel better as I sat on the ledge drinking Gatorade. I had somehow become severely dehydrated.
“Have you had any diarrhea?” Gibby asked.
“Yeah. I woke up with it this morning.”
“Bingo,” he said. “There’s your dehydration. This is the same thing I saw Fraser for yesterday at C2, GI issues followed by dizziness. It must be a bug going around camp.”
Fraser said he was “100 per cent” when a guide was subsequently sent to check on him. Apparently, it was a 24-hour bug. If I could make it to Camp Three, I might be all right. That would give me the night for this thing to pass. Additionally, climbers start breathing bottled Oxygen at C3, and that would do much to help me regain strength. IMG Leaders gave me permission to continue higher under close supervision.
I was still in the hunt.
I woke the next morning feeling much improved after sleeping with the bottled O2.
We left C3, traversing the Lhotse face, climbing the Yellow Band, and scaling the Geneva Spur to arrive at C4, the South Col (26,000 ft), by 11 a.m. I was shown to a tent where I could rest until leaving for the summit later that night, but nervous energy got the best of me. Digging through my pack, I extracted the crumpled plastic of my inflatable palm tree. It had adorned the area next to my tent at EBC all these weeks. Feeling some distraction might be welcome, I had packed it up Everest.
The double-takes my palm tree gathered from oxygen-deprived climbers were worth every ounce of weight.
Before leaving my tent that night I laid out several photos of family members and spoke to each. I told them how much I loved them. I said I would use my best judgment, and asked them to climb with me, to give me strength. Then I pulled on my oxygen mask and, gathering the pictures up in a pocket, climbed out into the darkness.
Reaching the Sky
There were already 60 or more headlamps winding up the face of Everest, climbers who had left an hour earlier. We could not afford to find ourselves trapped behind them in a long wait up high.
I knew this would be a test of our speed strategy.
But I had planned something special for summit day, having arranged for an additional bottle of O2. This, I hoped, would combine with the hard conditioning we had already done, enabling a rapid pace and, thus a shorter stay in the Death Zone.
Mingma tinkered with the flow rate to my mask while we settled into our climbing pace. We passed a pair of climbers, then a group of five, a solo climber, then ten at once. Each time I saw Mingma unclip from the fixed line, I started hyperventilating to oxygenate my body.
Halfway up the Triangle Face, we threaded into a narrow seam in the rocks. A dozen or more climbers had formed a slow log jam. We skirted past them as soon as we emerged on the open face. It was 11 p.m. when we arrived at the Balcony, a small flat notch in the side of Everest at 27,600 feet. A large group was already there swapping oxygen bottles.
We changed our tanks quickly, so as to get back out ahead of them on the steep route to the South Summit. For the next 40 minutes, we trailed a solo climber who then waved us by. I looked up to see how far the next set of climbers was above us.
There were none. Not a single headlamp showed from the darkness.
We were leading the climb.
Something inside me relaxed for the first time in days. I took a moment to look around and gather the moment. The silhouette of Everest looked impossibly tall against the backdrop of stars, stars that reached around and below us – from this altitude, the curvature of the earth was visible! I felt tiny and grateful, muttering a muffled “Wow” from behind my mask.
For the next several hours, we were the highest humans on the planet.
There was no one at the South Summit, no one at the Hilary Step.
I had put away my goggles when they froze over hours earlier, so the tears I shed as we approached the summit of Everest crystallized in the corner of one eye.
It was 3:42 a.m. on May 20, 2013, as I stepped up onto the highest point on the planet.
Though I would see daybreak arrive forty minutes later, the world beneath me was still fast asleep. I thought about the last six years and the epic journey that had taken me, literally, to the ends of the Earth. There was so much about that journey I still did not understand, but one thing seemed clear, and in that instant I heard myself say, “thank you.”
I am home now and have finally settled back into “normal” life back in Bellingham.
It was not easy at first.
Life on an Everest expedition swings from tedious boredom to high-stakes fear and back again.
There is no middle ground. But modern life is designed to have only middle ground.
The transition from one to the other took some time. It seems the distance to “home” is greater psychologically than the miles actually travelled.
I spent much time thinking about the seven climbs that had taken me to the top of each continent and how I had been changed by these experiences.
More than anything, I came away with a clear understanding of how important it is to find some joy in each day.
Some days that joy is very small, and one has to convince oneself of its authenticity and significance. But if it is the best you can do, count it, celebrate it, and consider this day worthy of your having lived it.
Big goals are great, and we should all have them, but the climbers who think only of the summit rarely reach it.
It is too high, too far away, and the promise of its reward is consumed by moments of pain and doubt. But the climber who remains present in the moment has forgotten the struggles of yesterday and does not entertain the fears of tomorrow. So his summit comes in the form of a payment from which he has taken no advance.
It is pure.
It is just.
It is love.