Everest 2002: Summit Bid

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Almost two months on the Hill. The climb to the South Col was difficult. After a short eight hours, I was on my way to the summit.

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"I want to give her Dex. She is not responding to the food and water like she should." I listened carefully. "The weather is closing in, we need to get down NOW." "She just had a retinal hemorrhage, we must get down." I looked around as my eyes cleared from a deep sleep. Am I dreaming? Am I dead? Where am I?

My right hand hurt. I pulled it out of my sleeping bag only to see tape, bandages and a plastic tube running above me. The IV stared down on me like a mother with her sick child in bed. My head began to clear. I was in the medical tent in the Adventure Consultants' Everest Base Camp. On the radio, Dave Hahn was speaking to his base camp about the American Women's Everest Expedition. They were near the summit when it all fell apart. One by one the climbers were having problems plus the weather was deteriorating. I lay in my sleeping bag listening as the drama unfolded.

One more minute. That is all I need. With a roll, I snuggled deeper into my bag in Base Camp. Then I was out. Put on my 'icefall' climbing gear: two tops, windstopper pants, harness, boots and crampons in my pack. This was the beginning of the summit bid - the start of the end. And why we were all at Everest Base Camp. A quick breakfast lead to a visit to the Chorten, a rock alter standing five feet high. We had our puja here. And every day we had been on the Hill, Ang Tshering lit a pine bough at five in the morning and five at night and prayed for our safety. This morning was no exception.

One by one, we stepped up to the Chorten. I pinched enough rice from the pan to toss it into the air three times. I looked at the alter and smelled the smoke. Looking at our Expedition Sidar, I asked silently for a safe return. Ang Tshering smiled at me and took my right hand with both of his and wished me good luck. Chumbgu, Nimga, Dawa and other Sherpas who would stay behind looked on and each one shook my hand. We looked into one another's eyes deeply. And then we were off.

Another trip up the infamous icefall. More ladders. Seracs about to fall. Concrete hard ice. Fixed lines for clipping into. 2000 feet later, Camp 1. A brief rest. I check my watch. Hmm, not bad only three and half-hours, almost two hours faster than the first trip to C1. I am stronger. I am going to the summit. Across the upper Khumbu glacier. Over the hole that was once again hiding the crevasse that almost devoured me four weeks ago. Enjoying the beauty of the Western Cwm, I cough. Nothing serious. You know, the Khumbu cough. Everyone gets it. I cough again. Nothing to remember or mention to the Doc.

Dave, Rob, Haraldur and I reach the bottom of the rock-lined gully leading to C2. We pause for water. And I cough. This time it is different. Long, deep, painful and hard. This cough does not stop. My body is trying to expel a demon and replace it with oxygen. When I finish, I am drained. I do it again. Dave watches me. He offers me hard candy to keep my throat moist. I gladly accept and move on. The candy helps. I follow Rob up the rocks to C2. The cough changes from rare to occasional. But I am in Western Cwm on my way to the top of the world. A cough is not going to stop me now.

Finally we all arrive in C2. Everyone is feeling good except for Haraldur who said he is 'off' today and taking it slow and easy. He has done this before and always bounced back. I admired his ability to know his body and make the adjustments. The cough is steady now. Bill offers me cough medicine with codeine. I willing accept to stop this irritation and continue my way to the summit. Dave looks at me again.

The evening is passed and we start a rest day at C2. Rob and I sleep in and soon join the rest of the team for breakfast. Afterwards we are sitting on lawn chairs, sunglasses and sunscreen in full operation, looking at the Lhotse face. We talk about everything and nothing. Everyone's mind is on tomorrow ... and the next day...

No need to hurry to C3. We have been there before and there is nothing to prove this time. Get there, re-hydrate, sleep and eat. Again, Rob and I do the plan. This time, however, we sleep with oxygen. We argue over the uneven icy floor before finally arriving on a new sleeping configuration that makes both of us uncomfortable instead of just one like when we were here before. But the intensity is low since tomorrow was our fist trip above 23,500'. And the beginning of the real climb. We sleep throughout the night breathing in the oxygen through our Russian MIG pilot masks.

A leisurely morning is complicated by the use of oxygen for our climb to the South Col. Full down suits, packs with a three liter oxygen bottle. It was starting to feel different from other climbs. This was Everest. I started up the fixed lines above C3. It was steep and packed with climbers positioning themselves for a May 15 summit bid. After an hour of climbing, I felt like I had only gone up the length of a football field. The shock came when I looked up and to my left.

All the books. All the stories. All my research. I was still surprised by the Geneva Spur. I saw it from C2 not fully understanding the size and angle of its shape. A nose-like rock formation standing between me and the South Col. As I paused on my uphill journey, I saw long lines of climbers between the yellow band and the top of the Spur. Everyone was moving in slow motion. The lines of climbers stood out on the ice and snow like fans buying tickets to the Superbowl. They snaked around obstacles and painted a dark line in contrast to the white background. One by one, each climber disappeared over the top of the Spur.

A strange sound caught my attention. The hiss of escaping air and it was near my ear. With Tom close behind me, I asked if he would check that my regulator was tightened to my oxygen tank. He generously looked at my apparatus and made some adjustments. Soon he passed me. I continued to hear rushing air. Each step seemed hard, but this was 24,000 feet after all!

The sun moving past the top of Lhotse begins bearing down on all of us. In my full down suit, I had no choice but to accept the heat. I unzipped as much as possible to relieve the heat build-up but I was losing more water than I could replace as I continued my climb. Soon, I reached the Yellow Band - a layer of limestone that streak through the Himalayas in this area. Not very difficult climbing but vastly different from the ice on the Lhotse face. "Stand aside," he asked politely. As I did I saw a climber escorting another down the Band. Snow blindness. His sunglasses had tape over the lenses to prevent further damage. They passed me as I sat down on my pack.

I twisted the regulator as hard as I dared to stop the leak and drank my water. I coughed. I coughed again. This was truly hard. Now I was the last of my team going to Camp 4 and the South Col. No teammates, no guides and no Sherpas. I was alone with other expedition refugees. No one spoke as we passed one another on the fixed lines. Six hours was the time most climbers took to make the trip. I was at five and still looking at the steep rock wall on the top of the Spur. I climbed the snow slope making sure I was always clipped into at least one of the fixed lines.

Often there were five or six lines attached to snow anchors or ice screws. You could never be sure which rope was this year's, last years or five-year-old rotting nylon. I used them all just to be sure. Looking to my left, the Face dropped 5,000 feet to an equally deep crevasse. Take it slow; there was no real hurry. I coughed again as I took a deep breath of oxygen.

Finally I reached the base of the wall. The final leg of this journey, so I thought. Where was Camp 4? I didn't know. A Sherpa leaned over the edge and smiled at me. From fifty feet away, I didn't recognize him. As I started up the wall, I was glad I had experience climbing on rock. My crampon points held gingerly to the small cracks and edges. A flat snow ledge provided comfort and rest. The Sherpa, now close enough to see that he was one of ours, called out to me with one word: "Oxygen?" I said no, feeling that camp was not that far away and I had enough left in my three liter bottle. My mask hung around my neck. The claustrophobia too much and the benefit too little to wear it properly. I heard the hiss and coughed.

Once on top, the Sherpas switched my bottles. Apparently, they had orders. Pointing ahead, they left at a swift pace. I moved slowly after them not knowing how far or what terrain I would encounter. Each step was a struggle now. I breathed the oxygen. I made steady progress and then I saw it. Tents. Lots of tents. Lots of yellow tents. Dave saw me and waved his down covered arms. I managed a small gesture in his direction. Moving though the maze of tents, someone called my name. I glanced into a yellow tent to see a friend from another team. I coughed.

Bill and Ang Dorge took my pack and turned my oxygen up to four liters per minute, the maximum flow. I sat on a rock and breathed deeply. The hot lemon drink tasted good. I asked for another. I coughed again, this time long and hard like on my way to Camp 2 a few days ago. I began to wonder about my strength.

Into the two-man tent, I joined three of my teammates. We all spoke softly as we drank water and munched on whatever we had. I closed my eyes. Haraldur came by to check on Tom and I since Tom had problems with his regulator. I asked him if I could use his satellite phone later. When the time came, I stumbled out of my tent to find Haraldur phone. Amazed that I could call from this lonesome spot.

As I walked to a spot with good reception, I looked around. The Everest pyramid was to my right. I looked down on 26,000-foot mountains directly in front. The sky was a blue I had never seen before. And of course, there was Everest. A huge mountain as it rose from the South Col. Another 3,000 feet to the summit. 12 hours of climbing, another six to get down. The trail was barely visible in the setting sun.

Our conversation was short but critical. "I am tired, very tired." I told her. Hearing the energy in her voice made me feel better. "I don't know what is happening but something feels wrong." I paused and asked the question I didn't want to: "Would you be disappointed if I didn't make the summit?" My wife answered me honestly: "Of course I wouldn't. Just do your best." I fought back my emotions and coughed. I was tired. But I was climbing Everest.

I returned to the cramped tent and fell asleep. Every movement woke me up, however the two hours passed quickly. The dressing ritual was swift since I never took off my down suit. We moved slowly and deliberately. Leaving the safety of the yellow tent and into the darkness of the South Col, our headlamps glowing, the Sherpas took the control of the climbers and made sure our harness buckle was double backed, our crampons were tightly strapped to our boots and our oxygen bottles properly connected.

One by one expeditions left the South Col for their summit attempt. We wanted to get off as well to avoid delays that always happen at the difficult spots. As I looked around to let the situation sink in. I was about to climb Mt. Everest. After almost two months, I was here. In my full down suit, clipped into the fixed line and equal to all the other climbers. In seven short years of climbing and preparation, I was attempting the highest mountain on the planet.

Our team left in a spurt of activity. Ang Dorge, the lead Sherpa left first with one climber. I followed closely. Then another of our team and the rest. We all took our place on the fixed line and moved at glacial speed. A step, a breath. A step, then wait for the climber in front to move. Slow progress but still progress. I felt good. I was on my own pace and had made peace with the oxygen mask. A climber passed me on the left without being clipped in. Hmm. I continued to play my own game without feeling pressure from others. I could not see my guides or my teammates. I felt alone. I was alone.

An hour passed. The lights from the headlamps ahead of me looked as if there was a lit highway up Mt. Everest. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. I felt good, an occasional cough. Step. Breath. The temperature was about zero Fahrenheit. Just right for my down covering. The facemask was comfortable now. I was climbing Everest.

Another hour passes. I cough more. I look behind me. A Sherpa. One of ours? I don't ksure. He looks at me as I continue climbing. I can't stop now. I am climbing Everest, 29,035 - the highest point on our planet Earth. Another step, another cough. The coughing increases as the irritation in my lungs becomes more apparent. Then it suddenly becomes serious.

I cough. Not a simple one that clears the throat. But rather one that revels a problem. We have all experienced this. A cold that becomes the flu. Flu that becomes pneumonia. It is deep in my chest, a baritone cough. It lasts forever. I lean on my uphill knee as the episode continues then I take another step. Another half an hour goes by. This cannot be the end of my climb. I must push on - I am just hurting, not really hurt. I cough.

Few climbers are ahead. I think I see one of my teammates. Yes, it is Rob maybe 100 feet ahead. My Sherpa is behind; my slow pace must frustrate him. I cough again, this time violently. Leaning on my knee, I consider what is happening. The headlamp trail is thinning. Most climbers have reached the Balcony and are moving up the Southeast ridge of Everest. Can I make it? The doubts grow.

The coughing is now with every step. A serious complication develops - my stomach goes into convulsions at the end of every episode. My breathing becomes labored at the end. Something is wrong, seriously wrong. Up until Camp 3, I was strong and keeping up with everyone. The trip from three to the South Col was hard. Was I not up to it? No way. I can still summit, no doubt. The next step was clue to the future: a cough followed by a gag then a heave. You do not climb to the highest spot on Earth in this way. This time I take a long break. Think. Think about what is happening. I breathe in the oxygen. It is cool and refreshing. I look up at the lights above me. I look down to see the camp at the South Col. I look at the Sherpa behind me. I cannot stop. While this is hard, it is not impossible. The coughing will pass. Maybe some GU and water will help. I take both.

Another step. More altitude. More coughing followed by another violent reaction. I lean over to vomit. My altimeter shows 8,350 meters or 27,200 feet, only 1,480 feet and 10 hours from the top of the world. Another step, another erosion. Then as I recover, it becomes clear... this is it. As I stand fully upright the words escape my mouth out loud; " This is nonsense." And with that, my summit bid for Everest is over.

Like turning on a light in a dark room, the right thing to do became obvious. And once you know the right thing to do, do it. I needed to get down and get down now. Another hour of climbing would make me weaker. Another two hours would put me in serious danger. Another three hours and I might simply lie down and never get back up - forever. As my options scrolled through my mind, I thought of all the people who had sent me e-mails with wishes for success. I thought of 's advice to simply do my best. And I remembered my own goal of finding my limits, pushing beyond and if that was good enough, great; if not, then go home alive. My deliberations were over. It was time to go down.

After a negotiation with my Sherpa, I start down Everest for Camp 4 on the South Col. I leave alone. Careful with every step, I never doubt my decision. A small strobe light attached to a tent shows the way along the fixed line. The coughing continues. Looking behind me, there are few lights approaching the Balcony. My emotions are steady. Get down. Solve the problem. This was not the time for reflection or sorrow. My body had voted and the outcome was decided. However it was a long way to Base Camp.

Arriving at my tent, I collapse in the sleeping bag. Barely taking my climbing gear off, I turn the oxygen up and close my eyes. With only a few hours sleep over the past two days, I expected to go into a coma, but my condition allows only a few minutes sleep without interruption. The zipper rips opens and Tom appears. I am shocked. Tom was one of the strongest climbers on our team. He falls into the tent.

On my way down, I never think about what I could have done, should have done or what might have been. My body was in serious trouble and I needed to get off this Hill. There would be plenty of time to reflect the rest of my life. I take an extra night at Camp 3, very unusual since it is perched on the Lhotse Face and no one stays there going down. But I want to get down safely and it serves as a welcome refuge for my sick body.

At Base Camp, it became clear that my lungs were infected when the Doctor heard 'crackling' with the stethoscope. After two liters of fluids to address my dehydration, I started a program of antibiotics. Lying in the medical tent, I felt grateful to be there. The cough continued but not with intensity that stopped my bid.

"I'm calling it." Hahn said thus ending the American's women team summit bid. I had met several of them over the past weeks. They still had to get down but the drama was relaxing. Dave finally made the call to end their summit bid. Massive disappointment. It was over. Weeks later I would read quotes from the climbers that they were pleased with their efforts and satisfied with the result. I wondered what they think about today. Just before they fall asleep. Walking the dog. In the shower. Back home alive with their families and no summit.

A few weeks later my own life is returning to 'normal' but I must admit that I am having a difficult time recovering from the experience - both emotionally and physically. I had to go to my Doctor since I was not feeling any better two weeks after landing at the airport. He heard something in my lungs so we did chest x-rays, blood tests, etc. Everything came back negative but I still felt very tired. I must have had something very bad up there...

On the emotional front, I still think a lot about that night. I know I did my best but it haunts me that I could have done more/different/something. I know it is not logical but the mind is a funny thing. I also came back to work and found myself with a new boss, new strategy and many changes. But this is what life is all about ... changes - attempts - success - failure - understanding - learning. What did I learn on Everest? Did I succeed or fail? Will I try again?

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