After 3 weeks of acclimatizing for the altitidues above the so-called "death zone", we were ready to attempt the summit. The climb for Camp 2 to 3 was good for me but we were met with high winds and blowing snow. Borge and I made dinner and tried to sleep from 7:00 to midnight, but the winds were howling. Finally it became quiet, the stars shown brightly and we were off:
I moved my down-filled sleeve up my arm just enough to glance at my watch. It was 4:13AM. I had been standing in the same place for over an hour. I was at 25,400 feet just below the yellow band on Tibets Cho Oyu. Stau, queue, embouteillage. No matter what language you used, I was getting cold and worried in this traffic jam. There were at least 20 climbers scaling the 150-foot limestone wall and I was waiting for my turn.
My thoughts continued to come back to Alex. I did not know him well. I had met him along with the other six members of our expedition just 3 weeks earlier. Why he died was a mystery. He and his climbing partner had reached the summit of the 26,907 foot mountain only one day earlier. Reports vary about his condition as they descended, but by all accounts he was eating and drinking fluids when last seen in his sleeping bag that night. When Keitaro and their Sherpa Norbu checked on him the next morning, he was dead. Only 20 hours ago, I had helped bury Alex in a deep crevasse near Camp 2.
Now I was standing here on this steep slope, shuffling my feet and clapping my hands to ward off frostbite. My turn came and I overcame the obstacle. I joined my teammate and guide in eating some food and drinking water. The sun was just rising over the Himalayas casting a soft orange glow on the Tibetan landscape. Off in the distance I could see our Advanced Base Camp that has been home for the past three weeks and the goal for the next day. After the summit.
I was honored and a little intimidated when I first met Borge Ousland in Katmandu. He was the first and only person to cross Antarctica totally unsupported. A true Arctic explorer in the mold of Raould Ammendeson, he was more at home at the poles of the Earth than at 26,000 feet. However, in the true spirit of an Explorer, he was exploring. As we all were. Exploring how we reacted to the extremes of high altitude. The so called death zone. That place above 25,000 feet where your muscle mass disappears, your lungs struggle for oxygen and your mind is in constant battle with itself.
My previous high was 18,500 feet, just over the summit of Cho Oyu at Kala Patar, a common goal for trekkers wanting to see Mount Everest up close. My appetite being sufficiently wetted to climb a big one, I had spent the past 9 months climbing local peaks near Geneva and Chamonix. I was running 10 kilometers daily while always reminding myself that there was oxygen down here. Now I was breathing bottled oxygen at 2 liters per minute and focusing on maintaining steady progress up the sixth highest mountain on Earth.
My mind played tricks, I thought I was going fast, but I was going slowly. I thought I felt good, but I was tiring quickly. I thought I was placing my feet on solid packed snow, only to sink to my thighs. My reserves were draining quickly.
We had set a turnaround time for 12:00 noon and it was approaching 10:30. The traffic jam that had delayed us by almost 1.5 hours was now descending. Only a few hardy climbers continued in these conditions. The sky was getting closer to us and the sun was getting dimmer. The wind was picking up and a gentle snow began to fall.
I passed a man I would guess was close to 60. He and his four Sherpas were taking a rest. He asked one of his sherps how far. The answer: 2 hours, maybe 4. My heart sank. I knew at this pace I would not reach the true summit. But then again, my goal had always been to get down safely. But, I really wanted to stand on the absolute top.
Each trip up the mountain over the past few weeks was to acclimatize my body to survive at this altitude. Every meal was designed to keep the energy flowing through my body. And each thought was focused on the reaching this point. The summit bid. Daily details, while keeping the big picture in view.
Borge and his guide, Jethro, were 50 meters ahead when I glanced up the steep slope and considered my options. Again, my thoughts went to Alex.
Did he simply exhaust himself by pushing too hard? Did he really use
all his reserves and then some? Maybe something else was wrong with him
and the stress of the climb and the punishment of the altitude brought
it out in a tragic finale. Was the same going to happen to me?
Without explanation, we pushed on. Another 50 meters. Another 30 minutes. More altitude and closer to the top. Then it was over.
My mind became clear and with profound disappointment, I simply stopped. The summit plateau a football sized area hosting the summit - 26,600 would be top for me. The true summit was hiding beneath the snow and clouds, a mere 307 feet away, but an eternity of time.
As I retraced my steps, another climber sat surrounded by his Sherpas. He seemed lost in another world. Suddenly, Borge appeared behind me empty and dazed. I looked at him in admiration given that this was only the second high altitude mountain he had attempted. He had made the true summit without Oxygen and was paying the price for his achievement.
We continued down. Checking and re-checking our knots, our caribiners, ourselves, each other.
Safely into Camp 2, we drank hot tea and considered the day. Private thoughts. Personal lessons.
And Back Down Safely, from the top.