I"ve received such positive feedback on my summit day account that I just had to re-post the whole thing here (it was sitting on the Fusion IO - my sponsor"s - website - www.fusionio.com/memorychallenge). Enjoy.
The Pre-summit push
Lets start out with PRE summit day. Coming off of two nights at Camp 2 (we were only supposed to stay there one night, but high winds kept us locked in place), I was a bit nervous. Our expedition had us running thin late in the season, which meant a lot of my strength had dissipated, and an extra night at 7800m (near the death zone) with no oxygen—we had to conserve it for later—and no food but a soup packet, some crackers, and a few candy bars (to save weight I only brought up a limited number of meals, which I had already eaten), I myself was running thin as well. But I made do. Once the wind died down the 21st, we made the move to Camp 3.
Now Phil and every other source known to man had me believe (and our whole team too) that it was gonna be a short climb up about 500m, two to four hours, to put us in place for our summit push at Camp 3. A short day so that we could rest for the same evening departure for the summit. It took me eight frigging hours, and was probably one of the most challenging mountaineering days of my life. Phil took an oddly-slow six hours, and one of our members (who is typically fast) took an excrutiatingly long 11.5 hours.
What. The. Hell. Happened?
Maybe it was the fact that our Camp 2 was slightly lower this year, maybe it was that extra day we had to stay at Camp 2, maybe it was the weather or air pressure, maybe it was just a crap day for all of us. But the bottom line is it screwed us all. Me especially. I was one of the slowest that day. Mentally, it was painfully hard for me. For some reason, every step I took was so difficult to take. I"d take one, then look up and see I"d made so little progress, each step requiring about 10 breaths.
Camp 2 sits on this rocky spine on the North East Ridge and was just a shifty rock scramble to get out of (took ages), but from there there was a snow ramp and then more shifty rock. Once I reached that point (about 8000m—officially in the "Death Zone"). I sat down and looked out at the Himalayan expanse and just started sobbing. I don"t know really why, but I guess at that moment I suddenly felt completely defeated. I thought of all the people I was going to disappoint, especially myself, but I just couldn"t get myself up and keep climbing. What was the point? Get to Camp 3 exhausted and then not have anything left for the summit? But I had put so much into this to just turn around.
So I sat there. It was stunningly beautiful. Just facing me and sitting higher than this opposite peak Changtse, and diagonal from the sixth highest peak in the world, Cho Oyu, I was literally sitting above all the surrounding Himalayan mountain range. A few minutes later, a team member came by me and offered me some encouragement (and some candy). She got me up and moving again up this second snow slope.
That whole effing slope was the death of me. It must have taken me hours. Part way up it, my team mate had long zoomed around the top corner and my Sherpas had scooted up as well (probably slightly annoyed with my slow pace). So I slumped down and sat there again, this time 100% convinced it was all over. I think I sat there for 40 minutes before I moved at all. I finally tried to search my bag for my radio to phone Phil to talk ,but I was so helplessly weak I just gave up. Luckily I was able to wave down one of my Sherpas, Lakpa Dorje, off at the top of the stretch, who was waiting for me, and he came down. He gave me his radio and I called Phil.
"Phil, this is Nelson, over."
"Copy, Go ahead buddy."
"I"m screwed. Totally screwed. I"m moving VERY slowly and I"m having an emotional breakdown . I don"t know what to do anymore."
"Where are you?"
"At the snow ramp, just above 8000m."
"Okay, Camp 3 is just over the hill. You can do it buddy."
"Yeah I know you can."
First of all, Phil lied through his teeth. It wasn"t just over the hill. Good GOD it wasn"t. Second, the way he said the last part of the conversation just made me get up and go again. Not sure why. Phil has this way of making everything seem okay in the way he speaks, and I guess it was what I needed to hear right then and there.
So I got up and moved. I also knew I was at a point where my oxygen was running out, so I knew it was important to get to Camp 3 just for a fresh bottle. That helped too. For the moment I told myself, let me just get to the top of the hill and see what"s around the corner. Usually when I can see a tent or two, psychologically it does wonders for my physical progress, and then I"ll make my next decision. Bite size pieces.
It must have taken an hour, but I plodded on. One step at a time.
Turned the corner and—nope. Another ramp up. Oh, and a dead body. Yup. A Sherpa had just plopped down and died a few days prior, and there he was lying on the trail, face up. It looked like a bad joke or a not-so-funny scene from "A Weekend From Bernie"s," but the reality was that this guy was doing the same thing I was—and he died. That thought can sober you up and motivate you real quick, let me tell you. Having to step over him to continue on the trail can also help with that too.
The next corner.
I couldn"t see a tent, but I could see a section flattening out . I knew it had to be a suitable place for a Camp. More plodding up and finally I saw some yellow tents. Then I could suddenly see all of them. It just took another hour or so to get to them. Once I did, I fell into my tent, had my Sherpas undo my crampons, and I sprawled into a corner of the tent as two other Sherpas followed suit. I was exhausted, but safe. I changed my bottle and just lay there, in disbelief of what I had just done.
The feeling I had of getting to that point—Camp 3, 8300m, the highest campsite in the world—was complete, utter joy. I really can"t compare it to anything I"ve ever done before. I can usually put myself through A LOT of pain and stress, but that climb topped everything and anything I"ve ever accomplished. I had pulled something deep from within that I had never seen before. I had done something incredible (incredible to me, at least). I didn"t care about the summit right at that moment anymore. I was just so proud of myself for pushing through. It was truly the most monumental thing I had ever done for myself. And for that I was satisfied.
After getting some melted snow in my system (thanks to my amazing Sherpas), Phil broadcasted to us over the radio that some people had yet to arrive. That made me feel better—I thought I was the last of the lasts. A few hours later everyone was in, so Phil discussed the summit plan for the evening, saying we would leave at 9:00 p.m. Those that had arrived later could leave later so they could rest more.
I guess being charged by my recent performance, I was suddenly pumped to continue for the summit. After all, from Camp 3 the summit literally looks like you can touch it. It"s right there, only 500m above.
The Actual Summit Push
So I got in my zone. Listened to all my "climbing" music, ate a candy bar, and laid there as the sun set and began to get freezing. Oh yes, I was gonna do this thing. I quickly forgot about how tired my body was, having not eaten real food for a couple days, not having slept much, oh and haven gotten the crap kicked out of myself that very same day.
8:30 p.m. came around and I reached for my headlamp and started packing my rucksack and arranging my gear. Two headlamps, heavy mitts, candy bars, one liter of water tucked in my down suit, hand warmers in my climbing gloves, electronic foot warmers in my boots, harness—I. Was. Ready.
I dangled my legs out of the tent, seeing some of my team mates already heading up. It was biting cold, but clear star-lit skies with a bright half-moon over head. Lakpa helped me with my crampons (Sherpas can handle cold better with their hands more than the "Inji" can), I threw on my pack, clipped into the rope, and I started moving. It was just after 9:30 pm. I could see the small trail of headlamps filing up the rock wall above. I followed.
At first, slow and cautious—I didn"t want to over do it, given my body was tired (mentally I had convinced it not to be, but I knew the reality), but soon I got into a rhythm so good that I soon over passed a few climbers, including honorary Sherpa Phil. I felt awesome.
The first part of the summit climb is up part of the North Face that leads you up through a vertical maze of rock, then through a few massive boulders called the Exit Cracks. Through these, you get up into the North Ridge. This ridge leads you right up gradually, except for a few noticeable negotiations, to the summit.
So the first part took about two and a half hours. It reminded me a lot of the steep slog up to the Balcony on the South Side, just with way more rock. Once I cleared the Cracks, I stepped into the exposed ridge and WHAM, was hit full force by the wind. It"s very exposed on that ridge. I mean, you are standing where jetliners typically fly! The wind bit through all my gear—so cold. I could feel the snot and moisture from my mask instantly freezing into thick icicles on my beard. I pulled my down suit hood deep over my head, which helped a lot, but suddenly my extremities were getting sharply cold. But I kept plodding along the ridge, getting a quick shock when I spotted "ol Green Boots, the dead body of an Indian climber from years ago who had crawled into a small cavernous rock for safety, but who now lays sprawled out partly on the trail as a supposed "monument" — exposing his neon green boots. Great, another dead body, I thought.
I"ve always had poor circulation in my fingers and toes, and over the years of climbing I"ve figured out ways to fight this problem and make sure I don"t get frostbite. I"ve come close a few times, but luckily only walked away with some frostnip (which heals a LOT better and lets you keep your digits). I"ve always managed to learn new tricks and combinations of gear to prevent this. But up at 8500m, no matter what you"ve learned, it"s hard to fix coldness. There just isn"t anywhere to get heat from other than yourself moving or maybe the sun (which in my case wasn"t coming up for another few hours).
First it was my hands—my hand warmers, which had been toasty all the way up through the Exit Cracks, suddenly were rendered useless. The wind had overpowered their warmth. Every few moves up the rope I had to slide my gloves up and clench my hands around the hand warmers to extract as much warmth as I could from them inside my glove. It worked until I realized the line of headlamps behind me was slowly closing in. Up ahead of me loomed the First Step—one of the three negotiations on the ridge I mentioned earlier. I wasn"t gonna be able to continue like this with all these people up my ass, especially with a big rock climb ahead of me. So I pulled aside (not really much room to go "aside" on a ridge, but I did my best). I asked my Sherpa if he could reach into my sack for my big mitts (these puppies are massive and warm—think puffy down-filled baking oven mitts). At this point Phil and my other team mates were beginning to pass, quickly asking what was up but then pressing on (not really much time or space for a real Q&A up there). I got my mitts on, clapped my hands together a few times and continued on.
Then it got worse. My hands were warming up slightly, but my thumbs just wouldn"t move. That makes using a jumar, beener, and rope very difficult—yeah, you can"t grab stuff without out thumbs (ask your dog, he knows about this). I couldn"t figure out how to move up the rope safely enough. So I kept stopping and trying to warm my hands. All the while, my foot warmers had decided it was too cold to keep working—the batteries had died—so now I was worrying about my toes as well. Not a good combo.
I could have kept going, and maybe my toes and hands would have eventually warmed up on their own through movement, but the bottleneck of people up the First Step ahead suggested to me that I might be moments away from losing digits. I wasn"t going to be moving fast enough to generate much body heat.
Being in this position before, and having to decide the importance of getting to a single point in space or not, vs. losing my life or things important to my life—i.e. my fingers and toes—the decision was easy. Turn around.
Don"t get me wrong, I want and have wanted to conquer this mountain for years, and I will someday, but not today. Not like that. I value the journey more than the single point.
The decision came easily this time. No regrets. I turned around. I came down with the help of Lakpa, who helped me clip in and out of the rope with my frozen blocks for hands. My toes were getting worse by the minute but at least I knew in a couple hours I would be warming them back up in my sleeping bag.
The descent in the dark was terrifying. I kept tripping over past years" ropes and worrying whether my hands were really gripping the rope as tightly as I was thinking they were (I couldn"t feel them). I stumbled a good number of times down the rock face, but luckily managed to straighten myself out safely and quickly enough. I"m sure if it had been in daylight, with the massive drops in full sight, I would have crapped myself righteously. But luckily the depth of my headlamp into the abyss was only 20—30 feet down. But it was still frightening. Really frightening. At one point I slid and a rock shot out from under me. As I turned my head to see where it landed, I saw it "thump" against the back of a face down dead body just a few feet below me. Jesus Christ. A Japanese climber had fallen and died there just a few days ago on his descent. In that instant, my choice for turning around were completely and wholly justified. I mean, seriously, screw this, I thought, what was I doing here?
I was on some other level at the point, zoned in to just make it down to my tent, which I did safely from that point on. Getting inside my tent and my gradually warming sleeping bag was one of the most glorious feelings ever. I was asleep instantly, but just before passing out, I remember giving out one of the largest sighs of relief I"ve ever given out.
After all was said and done, only four of our team members pushed on through to the summit (plus six Sherpas). The rest turned around for one reason or another. It was a tough summit day. A very cold and windy one.
I hate giving excuses, and I know I"ve provided many above for why I turned around (cold extremities, poor nutrition, pure exhaustion), but the fact remains that other people still summited in the same conditions, even worse conditions on previous days, yet I didn"t. So why did they summit and not me? Why didn"t I even after my second try? I"m strong, I prepared extremely hard, I put EVERYTHING I had into this. And still it wasn"t enough. Why?
What I realized on this expedition is that summiting Everest takes a lot of things to go perfect and in your favor. So many things. Everyone is different—mentally, physiologically, and physically. Some people have a higher tolerance for cold and pain, some people are stronger for longer periods of time, some people have better patience, some people are more willing to risk things when it comes down to it. Maybe that"s my limiting factor: to what point I"m willing to push my body and to what cost. Maybe I"m too scared of that point and that"s what stops me. Who knows? Whatever it is, I honestly don"t care. I"m happy with what I"ve done and I"m happy that I am able to come back in one piece to talk about it. The experience to me is more important than the actual summit really. What is that summit anyway?The mountain will always be there, but I might not. So why make it worth anything damaging to yourself?
I"m sorry to those who where rooting for me and for those who supported me. I tried my very best, but sadly came up a bit short. But, I"m okay with that. So hopefully you will be too. The joy and experience this climb/expedition has given me is more than any standing on a summit will ever give me, so thank you. I"m now safe at Base Camp enjoying beer and steak. Now begins the quick process of getting the hell out of here and back to the luxuries of normal life (showers and pizza). I am happy and with a shaggy beard.