Sorry for the delay. I have been relaxing and recovering, eating 10 times a day (mostly junk food because it tastes good :)), and rebuilding the tan I had on Everest. Trust me, I've deserved it (not the tan....the relaxing). Anyways, I've been meaning to share with you what happened on my summit day, Friday, May 13th. There were a LOT of summits this year, and overall it was an amazing (and bizarre) season on Everest. While our summit day was perfect (albeit, a bit dark and windy near day-break), I ran into some issues that forced me to turn around oh-so close from the summit. Here's how it went down...
So we got to the South Col (a.k.a. Camp 4) at around 2pm-ish, on the 11th of May. It was a LONG and tough day; probably the most challenging day I had faced so far. For the first time on the trip, I felt like the mountain was beating me. Getting over the Geneva Spur (which is the last slug upwards one faces before arriving at the South Col), was ridiculously tough. One of our sherpas passed by me at one point and saw that my oxygen tank was only flowing at 1.5 liters/min. He was like....um, you should have that at 2 liters/min. So he turned it up and I flew up the rest of the way. Nice. Either way, by the time we had gotten to the South Col, I was knackered; destroyed; beyond exhausted. Whatever you want to call it, I was that.
The tough thing about going to the South Col (elevation: 7900m - roughly 26,000 ft) is that you enter the Death Zone (a place where the body can't acclimatize anymore and your body is basically wasting away - in other words, you're body is "dying." So you need to get your summit out of the way and get the hell out of there as quickly as you can). So the plan was to get to C4, rest a bit, then go for the summit that very evening. Luckily (or unluckily, I'm not sure yet), the winds were way too high to try anything. Luckily (definitely luckily), two people from our team had turned around and didn't make it to the South Col. That meant we had leftover oxygen tanks. So we all decided to sleep at C4 on oxygen and push the summit bid until the next evening.
Sleeping at Camp 4 is a BAD idea (unless you have lots of oxygen to spare, which we did) because it's in the Death Zone. Like I said before, you don't want to linger around there more than you should. Surprisingly though, with plenty of oxygen to spare, you can hold this process of deterioration off for a little bit. That night, I actually slept amazingly well. The one problem that I had was that I didn't really have that much food since we had only planned for an immediate summit, and not spending a whole night there. We all had to ration our food stashes a bit, and looking back now I wish I had packed more snacks and boil-in-a-bag meals. I was expecting my appetite to disappear at that altitude, but it didn't.
At some point in the day on the 12th, Angel (one of our guides) announced that we were leaving for the summit at 7pm. YES! I was so pumped. 7pm is really early to leave for the summit and it most likely means that you are going to summit in total darkness....bummer, but oh well. So I started gearing myself up, putting on my down suit, boots, crampons, harness, helmet, oxygen, backpack, etc. It takes a bloody LONG time to do anything at 8000m above sea level, so my sherpa (Phu Tashi) and I only started heading up at around 8pm.
We were the first people out of camp behind Kevin (my tentmate), his sherpa, and some chick and her guide from some other team. We quickly passed her as we headed up the first steep face of the Everest triangle. Beautiful moonlight and stars were over head. Everything was going great.
Before I continue, let me explain what summit day consists of. It can basically be broken down into 3 parts. Camp 4 to the Balcony (a small "flat" platform at about 8400m), the Balcony to the South Summit (at about 8700m), and the South Summit to the Summit (8848m). The times it takes to climb each section is roughly (and these are considered good times) 4 hours - 4 hours - 2 hours.
So I got to the Balcony in about 3.5 hours after what seemed like a never-ending slog up this very (more than I ever expected) steep slope. I still felt great though. I wasn't tired at all and my hands and feet were still warm. I was stoked. Once we got to the Balcony, Phu Tashi changed my oxygen bottle for a new one while I ate half a candy bar and drank 1/3 of a liter of water (which actually ended up being the only thing I drank or ate for the next 12 or so hours). We were good to go.
I put my oxygen mask back on again and we continued up the narrow ridge to the South Summit. Immediately though, I realized something was wrong with my mask. It had frozen up. Because you're constantly wearing it and breathing through it, a lot of snot and saliva (sexy, I know) tends to coat the inside. To drink or eat anything, you need to move the mask to the side away from your face, temporarily exposing it to the -40 degree air (which is what I did). Unfortunately I wasn't cautious enough to keep it all from freezing while I did that, so parts of the mask froze. There are ways to remove the ice if it builds up like that, but its not easy to do when it's pitch black and your fingers get so cold you can hardly move them.
After a while, I eventually figured out a way to breathe with it - sort of (I later realized that I was breathing more of the "real" outside air, which I wasn't fully acclimatized to yet since I had been sucking bottled oxygen all the way from Camp 3). By the time I had reached the South Summit, I was utterly exhausted. For the first time on the whole expedition, I had hit a wall. After hours of breathing air that my body wasn't supposed to, my body just shut down. I had nothing left to give. It was definitely a foreign feeling to me. I usually can keep going during long hauls, and even when I'm tired, I can mentally push myself to carry on for a good while longer. This time was different. I could barely muster the energy to take one measly step.
So I just sat there as my sherpa changed my oxygen. I actually felt so woozy and tired at that moment that I nearly fell asleep. In fact, I'm pretty sure I was in and out of sleep for a few minutes there. I was totally out of it. My sherpa later told me that he saw me dozing off and turned my oxygen all the way up to 4L/min, which is like giving someone at sea level, speed (kinda). It did nothing. I told my sherpa that I needed to turn around and he urged me to continue on to the Hillary Step and then decide from there, so I agreed and sluggishly climbed over to it (If a sherpa takes you to the summit, they get their full $500 tip. They also rise in rank and stature among their peers. Summiting for them, is VERY important). Once I got to the base of the step, I looked up. This monstrous black shadow of an evil mountain stared back down at me. I saw headlamps moving in and out of it's twisted, rocky obstacle course.
I started realizing in my head that there was absolutely no way I was going to make it another few hours up and back to this point AND also make the rest of the decent without facing any serious problems. On top of all that, the night had just turned into absolute darkness - no moon, no glow of a setting sun (or rising sun), NOTHING. Not only that but it had become extremely windy, and also suddenly, very cold. I found myself sitting at the base of the Hillary Step, in and out of awareness, debating between going up or going down. I felt like I was sitting there 10 minutes, but I know (from what my climbing partners have told me) that I was there for at least 45 minutes. My sitting there, deciding whether I wanted to go up or down started to make my hands incredibly cold, and that's a really bad thing at almost 9000m above sea level - the altitude where most commercial airplanes fly. Now I had no choice but to turn around or else I was going to lose my fingers, and potentially even more.
So I gulped, took a deep breath, and turned around.
It hurt. So bad. But I knew it was the right decision. The mountain will always be there, I kept telling myself. But I still felt like crap. I started to cry a bit, but I kept my decision. Another thing that had played a large part in my decision to turn around was that we had seen the body of a Japanese climber who had died the night before along the same route we had just climbed up. So when I was facing those problems at the Hillary step, I was extremely aware of the possibility of death. Everything at that moment was so surreal, but the one thing that remained strong and real in my mind, were the memories of the ones I loved, and my memories of back home and how I wanted to see them all again. I didn't want to die. I wanted to go back home and do all the things I loved, and to see all the people I loved. That was more important than the summit. The summit is just a point. That's all. The summit by itself is absolutely meaningless. Memories and real life experiences with people you care about is what life is about.
So I chose to go down; to come back another day.
The climb down was a bit tricky at first, especially since my hands had become mostly numb. I tumbled a few times, very clumsily, but luckily the rope I was attached to stopped my fall. The climb down become a bit more pleasant once the sun started to rise. It gave me a second wind. I started to feel better. My body also started to warm up just a little bit. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises I had ever seen. We had been climbing all night in the dark and then slowly, it was as if Everest, along with the rest of the Himalayan mountains, had decided to reveal themselves by lifting up this dark blanket. Amazing. It's the kind of thing that makes grown men weep (or in my case, shed a few tears).
After a couple more hours of tiresome down-climbing, I finally made it back to Camp 4 safely and with all my fingers and toes intact. But it could have been a different story. I could have summited, but damaged my hands and feet, or more.....Not worth it, in my opinion. Looking on the positive side of it all - it now gave me an excuse to come back ;)
More of my thoughts on the expedition to come.....