In a flash I went from being a famous Everest climber to
just another guy with a strange tan slobbering on himself in an airplane
seat on the long trans Pacific flight. I flew home to New
Mexico from Kathmandu this last week while Nicky and Greg Messner
did the smart thing and took off to the beaches of Thailand.
The IMG 2008 Mount Everest climb is over and done with. We had a few nice dinners together in Kathmandu. I know that I bragged in the last dispatch that we'd go out to the Rum Doodle and sign the famous summit-climber boards, but that didn't really happen. They require a heck of a lot of proof these days for such autographing... you have to have signed affidavits, corroborating satellite pictures, blood and urine samples etc... so we just ate dinner and looked up at everybody else's signatures in awe and envy.
I'm happy to be home and am getting ready for my next mountains. It should be a fine summer on Denali and Mount Rainier. But I'm still thinking of Mount Everest. There was a small and measured flurry of media interest over my tenth trip to the top. The standard news blurb being that I'd set a record for non-Sherpa climbers and that I was the first (and at the moment, only) Westerner to hit double digits. I'm a sucker for seeing my name in print and to be sure, I'm proud of my own achievements on Everest. But I perceive them to be slightly different achievements than those I'm credited with.
Apa Sherpa Holds the Record
I'm not a strong believer that there should be a record for Sherpas and a second record for non-Sherpas. Apa Sherpa holds the real record, plain and simple, and in fact he upped it to 18 ascents just a few days before I got my tenth. I'm flattered as heck that people in Nepal now introduce me to each other as "the American Apa" but I have no pretensions of equaling the real Apa's achievements. And to compare me too seriously to Apa does a disservice to those great climbers that have more summits than ten and less than 18.
Until quite recently, I never dreamed that I'd reach ten summits myself and still further did not dream that I'd reach it ahead of other non-Sherpas. It isn't a "lead" that I expect to hold for long. Younger guys like Willie Benegas, Kenton Cool and Dave Morton will come screaming past my numbers in a few years if they haven't already been passed by old hands like Vern Tejas and Gheorghe Dijmarescu and Peter Athans in the meantime.
Like I say though... I do like getting publicly recognized for something... even if it requires explaining away and disclaiming afterward. But my simply notching up a 10th ascent wasn't really the trick and shouldn't surprise too many of my friends. At this point, with good health, I really ought to be able to drag my own carcass to the summit of Mt. Everest any number of times. After all, I've been up top in snowstorms and in darkness and while ill and injured and alone and from both Tibet and Nepal. I do know the way and I know how to sit back and let others do the hard work and trail-breaking and route-fixing. So planting my own two large feet at 29,000 ft again was really no big deal... honest. What I want credit for is successfully and safely guiding the summit of Mount Everest on May 27th, which I think is an entirely different animal and worthy of great praise and admiration . . .or at least a free drink or two.
The Summit Climb
At 11 PM on May 25th I set off for the top with Nicky Messner, Samduk Dorjee and Phinjo Dorjee. But the wind was blowing at the South Col and just as we began, a cloud blew in across the Col, blotting out the stars and spitting snow and reducing visibility... along with making me nervous. I led the way out of camp, by memory and Braille since my headlight wasn't cutting through the freezing fog very effectively. I turned around every few minutes to check on Nicky, to make sure her oxygen was flowing and to see that Samduk and Phinjo were close in behind her. In our huge down suits and boots and crampons with packs and climbing hardware clanking and with faces covered by rubber masks with hoses coming and going, none of us was particularly nimble or comfortable. The freezing fog and wind and noise contributed to the claustrophobia.
We plodded for an hour up the moderate slopes that led to the steep "triangular face" where from time to time I was granted glimpses of the headlights of climbers who'd left the Col earlier in the evening. Mostly they were shrouded in the murk and blowing snow and I was left to guess at their progress and our nearness to the wall. I'd stopped once or twice to tell Nicky and the Sherpas that we would turn around soon if the conditions didn't improve. Rime ice was forming on our suits as the wind pushed the damp cloud continually over us.
In my mind I reviewed our situation over and over. I believed this to be our only shot at the top. I guessed that we didn't have resources to sit all day sucking oxygen at high camp waiting for another try. I guessed that the attempt we were making would take vital strength from Nicky and that we didn't have a lot to waste. I assumed that from the forecasts I'd heard, the weather would be getting steadily worse as the jet stream approached Everest.
I imagined that our expedition would be under great pressure to get clear of the mountain since we were the very last summit bid and 28 of the team had already topped out. So I didn't think we'd make it if we turned around... but I began to feel strongly that we had to turn around. I've made the summit in squalls and storms... but I haven't often started for the summit in a storm, much less guided in one.
Just as I chewed things over with my dark thoughts, there was a small explosion to my immediate left. Turning my head I looked down and back and Nicky said "My ice axe is gone." And sure enough it was. She'd said it as such a flat statement of fact that I was perplexed and stared at her face and then at her left hand which had held the axe. At once we realized that something had fallen out of the night and off of the Triangular Face and hit her ice axe, ripping it from her hand. I shone my light back down the 25 degree slope we'd been climbing. There was no axe.
Samduk immediately ran down, out of the range of the light, looking for the axe. Curiously, Nicky said "He won't find it... it's gone." But I was sure he would and after a few moments he came back into the light with the axe, but he must have gone at least a hundred feet before having found where it came to rest. He handed it to Nicky and we each looked at the violent dent of mashed metal at about mid-shaft of the axe. In fact, the whole shaft of the axe was now bent and angled at the impact point and we each calculated what that unseen rock would have done to a knee joint or a shin on a flight path a few feet to one side of the axe. I turned back to the hill and took about three more steps in the blowing wind and freezing cloud. "I'm sorry, but we are turning around. We can't do it." And we headed back toward high camp, each alone with his or her thoughts, but each believing that our Everest climb was finished.
It was a horrible night. I got out of the tent a few more times to check the weather and we talked with Mark Tucker via radio about weather forecasts, but within the tent, we were now cold and discouraged. Our suits had ice coating them and so we were wet within the sleeping bags we draped over ourselves.
The most encouraging forecast we could get specified that the next day, the 27th, would be too difficult to accurately predict. On the good side, Mark Tucker and Ang Jangbu down at basecamp encouraged us to give it another day. They said that the Sherpas could wait in pulling down high camp and that we had oxygen enough at our disposal to sit out a day.
Discouraged and Dejected
So despite our dejection and our fear that the jetstream was coming close to the mountain, we determined to sit and wait and try again. At daybreak, I peeked out at the now-visible Triangular Face and watched the wind ripping over the Balcony and South Summit. I was doubly discouraged because I knew that even on this lousy day, people would be tagging the summit... I couldn't guide the mountain on such a day, but it might turn out to have been our only chance. But with daybreak I was also warmed by the sun on the tent. We passed the day drying out in our tent, drinking water, eating food and sucking oxygen. The wind rattled the tent all day long, but even so, our spirits picked up and we began to believe that we had one more good shot at the summit.
This time we walked at 10:45 PM, having gotten slightly better at the routine of leaving camp. The wind was blowing, but not hard, and the stars were out. We passed our high point of the night before and pushed on up the steep Face. A cloud once again came over us and I began to worry. We encountered two parties of two on the face who'd decided to turn due to the poor weather. In speaking to them, I revealed that we might end up doing the same thing if the weather didn't improve.... But for the moment we were pushing on. I had a feeling that we'd climb out of the cloud this time, and the winds seemed to be dying down ever so slightly.
We were still in pitch darkness and bitter cold by the time we reached the Balcony at 27,500 ft. but I was gaining a sense that the weather was going to cooperate. As usual, it was a finger-freezing chore to get our oxygen tanks switched over and repacked at the balcony. Phinjo's and Samduk's loads were halved at this point and I considered that I could now count on an abundance of strength from both of them in the event of any emergency. While I messed with the oxygen regulators I badgered Nicky with questions about her condition and grilled her on how many calories she'd taken in while warning her that the next "break" wouldn't come until the South Summit. But finally, after days of pessimistically preparing her for the worst, I was at least now enthusiastically predicting that we would make it to the South Summit. "Enthusiastically" being a relative term while shaking blood back into cold hands and wrestling with oxygen equipment.
When we set out climbing again, I could begin to make out the upper mountain in the night and I was wildly excited to only see two headlights ahead of us. I'd begun to perceive that Nicky was climbing wonderfully on this morning and that a day at the South Col had only helped her strength and reserves and confidence. Winds were dying down to nothing, clouds were gone, the "trail" and fixed ropes were in fine condition and I couldn't believe that we were going to be permitted to tackle the steep slopes of the South Summit without the hazard and encumbrance of crowds.
But, we weren't actually permitted that. We caught the only two climbers on the route at nearly a dead stop on the steepest pitches, but managed to pass them without expending too much extra energy. And by then, we were being treated to an out-of-this-world sunrise with its attendant pyramid shadow of Everest cast surreally out into the western sky. The Kangshung Face and Lhotse were turning brilliant shades of pink while Makalu and Kangchenjunga were glowing on the eastern horizon. We looked over the edge of the Southeast Ridge into the Khumbu Valley and were captivated by "little" Ama Dablam far below, with its elegant summit magically lit by the sun while everything else in the valley remained in deep and dark shadow. We pointed to Pangboche in those shadows, across from Ama Dablam... home to both Phinjo and Samduk.
On to the Top of the World
Nicky was climbing well, not weighting the ropes any more than was absolutely necessary and transferring from crampon frontpoints in ice to delicate rock steps without any apparent difficulty. Her previous summit days on Cho Oyu and Denali and other cold mountains were paying dividends now. It was still quite cold as we reached the South Summit and took another busy "rest" in the sun, cramming in food and water and fresh batteries for my radio. We were treated to the billion-dollar view of the Hillary Step across the crazy ridge separating the Southwest Face from the Kangshung Face... and above that was the summit and there was no plume of either cloud or snow streaming from it. We were in perhaps five-miles-an-hour of breeze and that didn't appear to be changing. We worked our way across the tricky steps to the base of the Hillary Step and I cautioned Nicky to not be intimidated by appearances. It can appear from below to be ridiculously difficult to get up the step, but it is not, in actuality (with rope and a few helpful steps kicked in the snow by others) Even so, as I swung up to the awkward but well protected traverse we now do in the middle of the step, I thought again of how bold Sir Edmund and Tenzing had been to tackle this step without fixed rope or even useful protection in 1953. Just a rope between them and the amazing self-confidence to believe that they could find a way -both up and down- in an unknown and uncertain world.
The four of us were past the step in short order and working up the final easy track to the top. I had plenty of time to look around in amazement at how little snow was on these upper slopes in this exceptionally dry season. And then we were walking onto the summit together and enjoying the views and the satisfactions of a goal close to completion. We were able to speak with our friends -and Nicky's husband Greg- at basecamp via radio and to brag of our perfect conditions. And we were able to take our summit pictures... well, Nicky was able to take those pictures. I'd actually forgotten my camera at high camp. A first for me, but one that I was smiling at as it seemed to allow me great freedom for once on top of the world.
Our climb down was easy, unhurried, uneventful and safe, as such climbs should be. In fact, we were comfortably into Advanced Basecamp at 21,300 ft and well out of the "Death Zone" by late afternoon... quite happy that we'd taken a chance on just one more try at the top. The next day we were safe at basecamp.
In the end, we enjoyed all the advantages. The IMG trip had great leadership and extremely competent Sherpa support. It lacked for nothing in terms of necessary equipment and provisions. Nicky and I had climbed with each other before and had the benefit of several years of shared friendship before we embarked on this enterprise together. We'd worked up to our summit bid patiently and carefully, staying healthy and focused for two months time. And we got lucky. Can I take credit for that? Try to stop me.