Tuesday, May 19, 2015
I hope you have been well and found your own exciting adventures in life. Remember that book I promised to write???? I finished it a month ago and it is now in the hands of my Editor (Release pigeons and cue victorious soundtrack). Not sure of the date, but my book should publish sometime in the next 12 months. I'll let you know.
In the mean time I invite you to follow my current adventure at this link:
One Sherpa Home
I have launched a relief effort to rebuild the home of Mingma Chhring, the Sherpa who has my climbing partner throughout the Everest expedition. The tragic earthquakes that rocked Nepal this last month destroyed Mingma's home in the village of Phortse and I plan to take a scrappy band volunteers there this October to build a new home, one engineered to withstand earth quakes, for Mingma and his family. Start to finish, we aim to do this in 9 days work. I will blog the effort, post photos and video, and give you a much deeper understanding of the Sherpa people and their way of life. So follow along. Let's go!
Sunday, September 22, 2013
I have begun writing a book. It will feature my experiences during each of the Seven Summits climbs. More important still, it will tell the story of my life between them; how I learned to love again, to believe in myself again, and the myriad forces which conspired along the way to end this adventure.
If you have enjoyed this blog please check back here in a year. I plan to have the finished work completed and available by then.
I am just beginning the process of seeking out a Publisher. It is my hope that one of the approximately 33,000 Readers of this blog is in that business. If you are, and have an interest, please reach out to me at Dave's Email Address
All the best,
Monday, June 17, 2013
Our flight landed in Seattle at 1:35 in the afternoon. Ty and I claimed our duffels in the International Baggage Terminal and accompanied them through Customs. As he was connecting to another flight and I was not, we would part company at this point. It caught me by surprise that this was Goodbye. I felt like I should have had something memorable to say, but my sleep-induced stupor left me as groggy and confused as Ty had looked when we met below the Hilary Step.
"Let's get together again some time and not do this," he quipped.
"Yeah," I agreed.
We hugged and turned separate ways.
I was riding the escalator up from the satellite tram when it occurred to me Lin would almost certainly be waiting at the top. I felt my senses lurch to life. I had spent so many hours imagining this moment, hoping it would not be diminished by the baggage of failure on the climb, and now I was seconds away from seeing her sweet smile. I tried to improve the horrific state of my hair, but my hand trembled too much to accomplish anything. She would be in costume, as has been her custom meeting me upon my return from each prior climb. What would it be? A Yak? That would be fair after my dressing as a Penguin the last time I picked her up at an airport. The stairs began curling over the top and I could see the faces of the first few people. Then straight ahead, a few feet back, she stood draped in pink veils and exotic shawls. It was Lin's interpretation of a Sherpa woman, and though it looked more "Genie in a bottle" I could not have been more taken. Lin held a sign announcing my accomplishment, OUR accomplishment. I gathered her up in my arms while the people next to us speculated aloud as to what "7 Summits" stood for, and in that instant all we had risked and any rewards that may follow did not matter. We were together and safe and done.
I have some links I would like to share with you.
Here are three short videos from the incredibly talented Elia Saikaly.
The Trek to Everest Base Camp. This was filmed last year.
Everest Base Camp. Also filmed in 2012, this is footage of Base Camp only.
Time Lapse of climbing Everest. This was filmed throughout the 2013 Everest Season. It is AWESOME! The second frame is of our Camp 2 site. The American flag is the same one raised by our Air Force Team Members at the summit.
Three of our Air Force Team members appearing on Fox. I feel so much pride when I watch these guys.
Myself, doing an interview on The Zone sports radio show. Sorry about the sound quality, we did this over the phone.
Ty appearing on Anchorage TV Who would have thought he owns a suit?!
Myself crossing a ladder in the Everest Icefall The Dave-cam returns!
POV shot while I crossed a crevasse.
Above the Icefall. Me. Note the reassuring self-talk.
So many thank you's;
My family; Lin, Trevor, Chase, Mom, my Step-Dad, Dad, and sisters Michelle, Noelle and my climbing partner Ty. You believed in me. You believed in my journey. You sweated the moments. You celebrated the summit. I can never thank you enough.
My Friends; Sonia Alexis, who led the cheer and kept the practice in order while I was away. Chuck Blair, who added much needed levity. John Hanrahan and Rick Kaiser, who convinced me to keep writing. Carol Masheter, who helped me believe I could do it. Pastor Mike Unverzagt, who provided spiritual counsel. Phil Drowley, who coached my mental preparation. Mike Locke, who designed my physical training. Dr. David Netboy, who consulted on various physiological aspects of the climb. Acupuncturist Timothy Lamb, who stuck needles in my person to remedy the various self-inflicted wounds I suffered throughout training and the climb.
My Readers; Sharing this experience was central to what I hoped to do. As I left for Everest this blog had almost 500 page views. It is now approaching 30,000. You view this blog from the United States to China, Russia to South Africa, Australia to Finland, and many other countries around the globe. You have been generous with your comments. loyal with your visits, and watchful into all hours of the night. We climbed Everest together. You and I. And I am grateful to have had you on my Team.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
|Thamel district in Kathmandu.|
I frequented the hotel spa for massage, had my first shave with a straight razor, and caught up with my blog. We did not go to the Monkey Temple, or the Palace. The activity board in the lobby offered everything from zip line rides to river rafting. Ty and I passed on all of them. We were done. We just wanted to go home.
The four hour flight from Kathmandu to Dubai delivered us into a world of modern amenities that hummed with vibrance, even at one in the morning. The contrast to everything we had known for the last two months was unsettling. The ticket agent at the Emirates Airline counter took pity on our confused and bedraggled state. “You cannot ride in economy class on this flight,” he informed us in a deadpan fashion.
“Why is that,” Ty asked, alarmed we had somehow been bumped.
“Because we have upgraded you both to Business Class,” the agent quipped with a smile.
I ordered a Bloody Mary as soon as the jet lifted off. Lowering the motorized privacy screen that separated my recliner from Ty’s, I asked “Have you got any Grey Poupon?” The flight attendant brought us warm towels and shaving kits, slippers and eye shades. After breakfast she made each seat into a fully prone bed with sheets and pillows. I settled in to sleep off as much of the fourteen hour flight as possible, but my mind would not quiet. It needed to make a final accounting of things before critical information was lost in the comforts of the life I would return to.
For myself, I will say it this way; I stayed true to my path.
Sunday, June 9, 2013
The trek back down the Khumbu Valley descended into summer. Dirt patches we had passed next to village homes on our trek up now flourished with rich green vegetables. Yak herders struggled to keep their trains moving as an abundance of trailside temptations lured the beasts to graze. Many cottage entryways had baskets of flowers set out to dry for tea. These were the milk and honey days for a people who endured a hard life the rest of the year. Soon their men would be returning from the expeditions they had worked on the various Himalayan peaks. Husbands, Fathers, Brothers, Sons. A fortunate few will have made enough money to support their families clear through to the next climbing season. They would tend their gardens, play with their children, and remember those who had not returned.
“I have been playing the football and now I am drunk to watch the football,” he announced gleefully, gesturing toward the television at one end of the dining room. Llama had always worried about us each time we left EBC for the Ice Fall. He liked to hug each climber, affixing what he saw as a protective shield. Seeing him finally relax and cut loose that night impressed upon me just how great a stress the past weeks had been for Llama. It had not just been the Climbers, or their families and friends. Everyone had lived this thing. Everyone. And now it was over.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
|The trek out.|
I called Lin back after talking with Noelle. We tried to have the conversation we had both been looking forward to, but I could not find the mood after the conflict with my sister. We chatted about the climb and agreed it was good to be done. Then I felt consumed with fatigue and said I was going to get some sleep. But before I could do so, Paul, the Austrian member of the team, brought me a can of beer and suggested I join the others celebrating near the Comm Tent. This I did, and was glad of the choice, but the combination of two month’s sobriety, altitude, and exhaustion combined to deliver me into a state of almost immediate intoxication. I fell asleep in a folding chair still holding what remained of that first beer.
Waking a short while later, I shuffled off to my tent. I looked into the warm yellow glow of the rainfly as I lay there considering the climb. It did not seem real. Not yet. Any satisfaction for having summited Everest was pushed back by a greater force. My immediate sensations were flooded with a deep gratitude that I had won the right to live the rest of my life. I would get to see my children marry and have children of their own. I would get to grow old with Lin, holding hands like each day was a prom date. I could crab fish, mountain bike, perform Improv, and write. I could return to the work I love as a Financial Planner. I would see Summer and cheese burgers, candles and campfires. I had not realized how completely these things had been set aside. Nothing was on my calendar post-Everest, but now I was free to fill it up with the pile of chips being slid back across the table toward me.
The camp cook’s assistant, Llama, made money on the side doing laundry for Climbers. For 2,000 Rupee (about $16) he would wash, dry, and fold a garbage bag of dirty clothes. I sorted out the worst of my garments and delivered them to him with a Hershey bar meant more as an apology than gratuity. Llama loaned me a tiny mirror from his kit so I could shave, then he filled the cistern for my shower.
The on-demand water heater popped to life as propane and spark came together within. I had showered only twice during the expedition, with the water temperature touching extreme ends of the thermometer with each experience. But on this day a satisfying warmth fell upon me, and steam filled the tented walls. Large flat stones had been gathered to make a shower floor. Their texture felt pleasing against my bare feet. I stood beneath the water sensing something close to comfort, examining the ravages of altitude upon my naked body. There were bruises, cuts, a swollen knee. Much of the muscle mass I had spent months building was gone, consumed by my body through weeks of burning more calories than I could eat. In all I had lost 30 pounds.
I walked out of camp the next morning to meet Ty and Lakpa as they disgorged from the Ice Fall. I had checked with Big Boss the night before and he confirmed they would be coming down from camp 2 in the early hours. Spring had arrived, so even at 17,000 feet the morning temperature was warm enough to sit out in short sleeves. I perched on a boulder tall enough to afford a clear view of the trail and waited. They appeared an hour later, looking tired but happy.
“Gimme that pack,” I said to Ty.
“No. I gotta finish this thing,” he answered with a prideful smile.
We walked together back to IMG Base Camp, discussing the events of the last few days and came to agree that, for the most part, things had happened as they should have given the circumstances. All was good between us and we were now free to celebrate the achievement that had brought us closer than ever.
Sunday, June 2, 2013
Back home in Bellingham Lin had spent the many nervous hours of my climb with her Sisters. They walked a waterfront path, pausing to sit at a bench dedicated to their Father (one of my Angels). She burned her cellular minutes well into overage, calling my Mother, calling Noelle, taking calls from others seeking some kind of update on Ty and I.
I had seen my Attorney before leaving on the expedition. We updated my Will and reviewed the disposition of beneficiaries. I drafted letters to my Boys and described my wishes for any Memorial Service that may follow. Recognizing the extraordinary value of life insurance, in this particular instance, I purchased the maximum allowable from a number of providers. A full questionnaire was typically required for coverage over a certain level so I was careful to buy up to, but not over, this amount. Any inquiry would smoke out what I was up to, and I already knew from past experience that an automatic rejection letter is generated for Climbers with a history of exceeding 17,000 feet.
Though I refer to Lin as my "wife" we are not legally married, so it was necessary to provide for her in the event of my demise. Feeling it important that she know the details of these provisions, I had sat Lin down and gone over the sums and sources of what would become hers if I should die. She was very uncomfortable with this. We barely got through the conversation.
One of the many things I love about Lin is her willingness to be quirky, even random. One such quirk is her belief that the disposition of one's toilet paper roll has some baring on whether they will come into money; paper unrolling from the top brings financial windfall, paper unrolling from the bottom blocks such providence. And so it was in this unique circumstance, the life insurance money, my struggle above the South Col, that Lin realized she could protect me from home with the simple act of reversing the toilet paper roll in each bathroom. She did so, and I am here today to write about it.
Saturday, June 1, 2013
|Myself, rappelling from the south summit. (camera lens cover partially frozen shut.)|
Kyle, one of the Air Force team members, was the first ascending Climber I passed. He was only a few minutes from the top. “Congratulations,” he offered, then adding “be careful with your eyes, it’s freezing up here.” I nodded agreement and slapped his shoulder. “Congratulations!” Kyle would turn out to be right. As daylight arrived everything in my vision had a milky appearance. I put my goggles back on and suffered through the fogging issues.
We were halfway down the Hilary Step when I came head to head with ascending Climbers. They were lined up as far back as I could see. If we backed up and waited for the Step to clear others would arrive and it might be hours before the three of us could descend. Even with extra O2 that would be too long. We had already awakened the Dragon and the race was on. Mingma pressed forward, clipping past ascending Climbers as he swung around them on a ledge barely wide enough for one. Myself and the Assistant Sherpa followed suit.
It was impossible to know who was who with all the gear we were wearing. At one point I had both arms around an ascending Climber, holding the fixed line on either side of him. Neither one of us had room to advance so we just stood there on the ledge, our noses nearly touching. Then I noticed a plethora of sponsorship patches adorning his down suit. I knew a team mate from my Antarctica Expedition was climbing Everest with Jagged Globe and he was particularly well sponsored.
“Guy,” I asked at point blank range.
“Guy Manning,” I confirmed, still disbelieving the odds that would have us meet up in such a way at such a place.
“Dave Mauro,” I said.
“Oh! Congratulations, Dave,” Guy offered with an extra squeeze.
“Same to you! You’re almost there. Kick its ass,” I encouraged.
“Right-O,” he agreed, then we went our separate ways.I would later learn Guy had frostbitten several toes and had to be heli-vac'd out from Camp 2.
I paused a few minutes below the Hilary Step to recover from an inartistic rappel. Further down the cue I spotted Ty waiting for his turn to go up.
“Hey little Brother,” I greeted him.
I tried to make small talk, but Ty seemed totally in game mode. That made sense.
“Congratulations,” I said, adding “The Step is fun!” Then I continued down.
By my estimation Ty was two and a half hours behind me at that point. By the time I reached the South Col he would probably be four hours back. Not a problem. That would still put him square in the middle of what was considered decent progress.
The sun was coming up now, so we paused to take a few photos and put on our glacier glasses. The rappel down to the Balcony went surprisingly quick. We continued descending toward High Camp, taking breaks to drink and breath, arriving at the South Col about 7 a.m. Camp Chief Phanuroo congratulated me as we walked to my tent.
“I give you until 8:30 to drink, rest, eat then you go down,” he said as more an order than request.
“OK,” I agreed, not liking it but having accepted these terms many days in advance. The next 90 minutes passed quickly. I crawled slowly from my tent, unconvinced I had the strength to continue all the way down to Camp 2. Mingma helped me into my gear, set the oxygen flow rate to my mask. The heat was coming on in the Western Cwm. Temperatures began to soar as the sun rose, making my down suit a sweat box. I opened leg and chest zippers to let some air in but this seemed to make little difference. There were delays caused when traffic ascending to the South Col met descending traffic on the only fixed line crossing beneath the Yellow Band. We waited and tried to make our water last.
Various items shot past us down the Lhotse Face as we rappelled; a helmet, a water bottle, an oxygen canister. The careless handling of these things spoke to the level of exhaustion suffered by all Climbers. I was past running on fumes. Even the supplemental oxygen (which we were encouraged to keep breathing all the way to Camp 2) seemed to have no effect now. I had devolved into a Troglodyte, a stumbling drooling beast incapable of higher thought.
I staggered into Camp 2 about 2:00 p.m., wanting only to drink a liter of water and collapse. But something I overheard on Mingma’s radio changed that. Ty was just then arriving back at the South Col.
I made several inquires with IMG Guides and Expedition Leadership. I was told Ty had encountered difficulties descending. He had been administered Dexamentasone, Niphedipine and Diamox by one of our Guides, who then accompanied Ty and his Sherpa, Lakpa, down to the South Col. The Dragon. Though he seemed to be in stable condition a complete “nose to toes” examination was being conducted on Ty.
“I’ve looked at all the findings,” Big Boss Greg Vernovage later reported to me, “and to me Ty just looks like a tired Climber. Nothing more.” It was decided Ty could safely stay the night at Camp 4 with the benefit of the meds he had already taken plus an enhanced O2 level. Aaron, an IMG Guide, slept in the tent next to Ty that night, keeping a close eye on his condition, which Ty would later describe as being nothing more than a vision issue.
I should have checked on Ty before leaving the South Col. I could have had Mingma raise Lakpa on the radio. Then I would have known something was wrong. This is my regret. That said, there would have been nothing I could do about it. At that point I no longer had the oxygen or strength to go back up. My own Dragon chase was on so I could not even wait there for him. “Ty had two Guides and four Sherpas around him,” Greg later told me, “he was in good hands, doing just fine, and the last thing I would have needed at that point was another Climber getting sick waiting around. We would have kicked your butt down the mountain.” I had no reason to believe anything was wrong as I left Camp 4. I expected Ty to be several hours behind me. Still, I wish I had checked.
That night at dinner all Climbers at Camp 2 were told they would descend the following morning to EBC. I said I would be staying behind until Ty arrived at camp 2. No one challenged me on this at the time, but later I was visited by Mingma, then Max, making the case that I really needed to descend the next morning. They made equal cases for the best interest of my own health and expressing confidence that Ty was doing fine and would join me at EBC the day after. I considered this.
It also haunted me that we had not been able to speak with family since leaving on the summit bid, a bid that had been pushed back a day. Ty and I had found IMG’s communication to be lacking at times. What if they had not posted our summit delay? What if they had not posted our summits? What if family had spent the last several days not knowing what became of us? I could call Lin and Noelle from EBC and make sure they knew we were fine. I decided to descend.
As planned, Ty descended to Camp 2 as I retreated to EBC that next day. At some point Ty briefly picked up the cell signal for CMCC, a Chinese Cellular carrier. He sent Noelle a text reading “Coming into Camp 2 on a Chinese Carrier. The last few days have taken a lot out of me.” In Noelle’s heightened state of concern, she mistook this to mean Ty was being carried in on some kind of Chinese gurney. As soon as Lin answered the phone she told me to call Noelle. “Ty is being carried into camp 2 on a stretcher,” she said.
“He sent Noelle a text. He’s hurt. She is really upset. Call her now.”
“But I’ve been following his situation and nothing like that is going on.”
“Just call Noelle.”
In the mean time Noelle had called IMG owner Eric Simonson to get to the bottom of things. This set off a chain reaction of calls between Expedition Leadership, Guides, Sherpa, and Medical staff, most of which can be summarized as “What the hell is going on with Ty?!”
As soon as Noelle read me the actual words of Ty’s text I knew what he meant. I had seen sporadic signals for CMCC on my cell phone at camp 2. But when I explained away this misunderstanding she quickly refocused on why I was talking to her from EBC when Ty was still up at camp 2. I explained his delay getting down to camp 4.
“You left him behind above camp 4,” she asked with outrage.
“Well. Yes. But no. Sort of,” I stammered. I tried to explain the Dragon chase, our differing pace, and IMG’s summit day strategy but she was having none of it. Our word choice quickly deteriorated.
|Daybreak from 29,000 feet.|
Friday, May 31, 2013
"Tomorrow has come like it's drunk on the blood of the men who have dared to be there."
-Jakob Dylan - Valley of the Low Sun.
There are 5 deceased members of our Family that Lin and I refer to as our Angels. We believe each spends time by my side during critical moments of any climb. I paused for a rest and touched on each of these in my thoughts. The doubts slipped away. An hour later we crawled up over a rock ledge and Mingma announced “This is South Summit.”
We took off our packs to rest, and I got out my thermos of hot tea to share while Mingma and his Assistant changed my oxygen tank. We took a brief break to eat and drink, then set out again. Even in the darkness I could recognize we were on the Cornice Traverse. I was trying to recall the order of what landmarks were still ahead, but my brain just could not manage the task so I abandoned the effort. “We are working on this project all night,” I told myself, trying to release the urge to measure our progress and simply exist in the moment. Then Mingma stopped before a series of large boulders and gestured like a Tour Guide “This is the Hillary Step. Very famous.” Even in my addled state I knew the Hillary Step and what it meant. Mingma then scampered up and over the landmark with the agility of a Romanian gymnast. I stood there a moment, remembering where he had placed his feet, how he had used his hands. “You can’t just muscle this thing,” I told myself, “You’ll blow out your arms and never see the summit.” This was rock climbing again. I started up the first rock the same way I had seen Mingma scale it, but had to modify for our differing reach. My crampons wanted to screech down the surface of the icy round boulders, so I created a wedge-like force with one hand braced out to the side. I took my time with each hand a foot placement, testing for surety before weighting it. Mingma looked down from above, shouting encouragements as I advanced. I had read about a rock at the top of the step that Climbers must cowboy-straddle to get over. There is a crack to the right that looks like an inviting alternative for foot placement, but a Climber will almost always find his boot becomes wedged in it. This is quickly followed by flailing and exhaustion. When I came to this rock I knew what I must do, but executing was another matter. To straddle the rock I would have to commit fully with a belly flop onto it and hope I did not slide off backwards. My form ended up being more “beached Manatee” than cowboy straddle, but I made it. A few moves later I was above the Hillary Step.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
|Full Battle Gear.|
From the moment a Climber decides to attempt Everest, he is required to make certain payments to keep his wager alive. First comes the money. Depending on the Guide Company and various other options, this might be $50,000 to $100,000, all paid in advance with no hope of refund under any circumstances. The bet is on. He next makes numerous physical payments in the form of training for hours each day, six days a week. There are payments involving the purchase of expensive equipment, lost wages and forgone vacation time, evacuation insurance and costly vaccines. There are psychological payments, taking the form mental fatigue, the doubts of third parties, and the painful two month absence from loved ones. None of these are negotiable.
But the final payment a Climber must lay on the table is his life. To think one could leave the South Col without doing so would be delusional. If he wishes to wager he can stand on top of the world, a Climber must go all in, betting his todays and tomorrows. This is an easy notion to view in the abstract as one prepares for a climb many months away, but the weight becomes awesome as the last few minutes pass prior to leaving the tent. I watched Ty closely during those minutes.
The wind was blowing harder than the forecast had suggested. If it persisted there would be no making the summit and lives would likely be lost. But we were going. Ty was leaving at 7pm with the first group of Classic Climbers. It was 6:50pm and his Sherpa, Lakpa, had stuck his head into our tent several times already, trying to keep Ty moving along. I could see the nerves winding up through the expression on Ty's face. His eyes were wide, brows raised. There was a sense of resignation. He was making that final payment.
"We can do this," I told him. "24 hours from now we will be down at camp 2 with an Everest Summit under our belts. We are strong enough. We have the skills and the support. We just need to keep a clear head and execute," I said.
Ty nodded in agreement, but his mind was clearly elsewhere. I could almost see him staring at the mountain of chips he had just slid out onto the table. We hugged, then he slipped out the tent door into the darkness. I thought about the call I had made many months ago, the call where I invited Ty to be a part of this climb. Did I regret it? Would I feel better right then had I not invited Ty into this situation? No. Ty was suppose to be here, probably for the same mysterious reasons I was.
The next hour passed quickly and soon I too was making the Grand Wager. I was nervous, but felt at peace with the decision. From the moment Everest had first called me, as I rappelled down the face of Carstensz Pyramid, it had always accompanied a feeling of warmth and positive energy. I was prepared, had a game plan, and had tested both with success through the course of the rotations. I looked one last time at the photos in my pocket; My wife, Lin, sons Chase and Trevor, my Mother, and a recently deceased friend. I examined a small plastic bag with my brother's ashes in it, then returned it to the pocket. Pulling the oxygen mask over my face, I stepped out into the night.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
|The South Col, looking up Everest.|
The IMG game plan for summit day had been articulated to each of us ahead of time. At each instance it was also made clear that any exceptions to that plan would indeed have to be exceptional. What would happen, and how, had been worked out over many years of Everest expeditions, many successful years, and the tinkering was done.
Climbers would leave the South Col in three waves; 7pm, 8pm, and 9pm. Central to this staging was the intent to avoid any large crowds, especially "The Indian Army." The Indian Army was a very large team composed of personnel from the Indian Military. They climbed together in a slow pack that was often impossible to pass. Though they were polite Mountaineers and willing allowed themselves to be overtaken by faster climbers, circumstances rarely afforded a stretch long enough to do so safely. The IMG 7pm Team was composed of the slower Classic Climbers. It was our hope this would get them out ahead of the Indian Army, which was believed to be leaving later in the evening. The 8pm Classic Climber group was the solid core of the Classics, and the 9pm Classic launch was a select group of the four fastest IMG Climbers.
Each Climber would leave the South Col with a fresh bottle of oxygen, then stow that bottle at the Balcony, exchanging for a fresh bottle. Those, like myself, who had opted to purchase an additional bottle would change out again at the South Summit. We were to each climb at our own pace, accompanied by our Sherpa, as our ability, health, and oxygen permitted. This is a critical point. Just above the South Col, a Climber enters "the death zone." At this altitude, by any medical definition one likes, a Climber is dying. He may be dying slowly. He may be dying quickly. But he is dying. Therefore, it goes without saying that every effort should be made to limit one's stay in the death zone. Waiting for other Climbers, climbing in pairs, or lingering for that sunrise summit photo are strictly discouraged. You get up and down as quickly as possible. Period.
As the acclimation rotations passed in the prior weeks, it had become clear to me that Ty and I had very different climbing paces. He was strong, as always, but my preparation had focused on speed. This typically saw me arriving back at camp one to two hours ahead of Ty. Add an extra bottle of oxygen to that and I could be expected to spend three to four hours less in the death zone than Ty on summit day. I could no more ask Ty to speed up than he could ask me to slow down. Either choice would incur unnecessary additional risks. I tried to get out ahead of this by announcing we would not be able to summit together, explaining the pace issue to Ty and Lin, who then passed it along to Ty's wife.
Ty's wife is my younger sister, Noelle. She, more than anyone, shouldered the heaviest load of stress, having both her husband and brother on this climb. To offer some measure of comfort, Ty and I each pledged, as we had done on past climbs, to look after one another. This made every bit of sense on those prior climbs since we were self-guided; no personal Sherpa, no Western Guide, no medical staff and radios to base camp. But on this climb, with very different circumstances to consider, an insistence on climbing side by side would increase each of our personal risks. I spoke with our Guides and Expedition Leader, Greg Vernovage, about this and they concurred that Ty and I should climb separately at our own pace. In any case, as soon as we were placed in separate launch times for summit day the issue was settled; Ty would leave at 7pm, myself at 8pm.
Most stories about Everest end at the summit. It is a convenient point of closure. Yet it is widely understood that most accidents/deaths occur during the descent. There is little question fatigue plays a huge role in this. As well, mental acuity suffers during descent as a climber relaxes, having accomplished his goal. But more serious still is the fact that a Climber, by reaching into the altitudes of the South Summit and higher, awakens a physiological Dragon within himself. This Dragon, breathing the fatal threats of HACE, HAPE, and other sudden illnesses, will then chase that Climber all the way down to Camp 1. It is for this reason IMG insists that a Climber returning from the death zone to the South Col rest there for not more than 90 minutes before then continuing to descend. In spite of everything a Climber has been through, the Guides, Sherpas, and staff of IMG insist that he continue down all the way to camp 2 that same day. It is a grueling, but necessary, demand.
Consider Roger. One of the strongest Classic Climbers on our team, Roger arrived at EBC having taken 3 months off to nothing but climb and live at high altitude prior to the expedition. Confident and fit, he evoked images of Robert Duvall's character in Apocalypse Now. After successfully summiting Everest with our 8pm wave of Classic Climbers, Roger returned to the South Col feeling tired but healthy. In the 90 minutes that followed he contracted HAPE and his lungs began to fill with fluid. As the staff there treated him, he lapsed into HACE with fluid starting to fill his brain. In a matter of moments he went from being a strong, healthy man who had never taken anything stronger than aspirin, to then forcing down Niphedipine, Dexamethesone, and Diamox. He continued descending with help, yet still had to be medivaced out by helicopter a few days later. The Dragon had caught him.
So that was the plan. Leave the South Col, tag the summit, then run like hell for lower elevation. Here is what happened...
Monday, May 27, 2013
|Ty arrives at the South Col.|
The O2 masks tended to gather condensation and then purge through a valve at the base. This moisture spilled out onto my down suit and sleeping bag all night long, creating a sheen of frozen drool. I snapped it off in large chunks and tossed it out the tent door. The dry air had long ago warn bare the lining of my sinuses so they partially filled with blood each night. The first order of any day was to clear this. But the rush for time left me unwilling to seek out appropriate means and thus the right sleeve of my thermal shirt was employed, giving me the appearance of an extra from a slasher movie.
It took a surprising amount of time to do ordinary things. The short leash to my oxygen tank required constant accommodations as I put away my sleeping bag and donned boots. A Sherpa ducked his head into our tent to see if we needed hot water for tea or breakfast. A short while later he returned with my bowl of instant Cream of Wheat half filled with cold water. Unable to find my spoon, I gave it three quick stirs with my index finger and drank it down. Breakfast over.
Such things might ruin the start of a day under normal circumstances, but we had bigger issues on our minds. On this day we would climb the remaining 1,000 feet of steep ice up the Lhotse Face, then traverse across to the Yellow Band, then the Geneva Spur, arriving at camp 4, the South Col, by late morning. Though several hours would pass, we would not likely sleep before launching a 24 hour summit attempt that evening.
Remarkably, Mingma and I were the first team members on the face. But, still weakened from the illness of the prior day, I struggled to find our rhythm. My pack did not feel right. I had a finger “go cold” which required warming. I was breathing too hard, flailing too much. Other climbers passed us by and I felt my ego growl. Still holding my frozen finger in his warm bare hand, Mingma asked me what was wrong.
“My oxygen bottle is leaning to one side,” I said.
“I am moving slow.”
“We have plenty of time.”
“I don’t feel strong.”
“I will turn up your oxygen.”
He did so and the effect was immediate. When depleted muscles receive oxygen, a tingling sensation accompanies it. I could feel this move down my legs like tiny crystals tumbling through a pachinko machine.
I was breathing 4 liters per minute of oxygen, a third more than most other climbers. We would take five steps up and stop to rest. My legs recharged immediately. Five more steps. Then ten steps at a time. We were on the traverse. Then came the Yellow Band.
From a distance, the Yellow Band appears as a lightly colored stripe in the otherwise dark composites that make up Everest. It is steep and thus holds almost no snow. This means climbing the bare rock with the precarious points of steel crampons. There are fixed lines for protection from falls, but little else is apparent to counsel the means by which a climber ascends. I witnessed several methods of dubious logical construct being employed, with the result often being an exhausted climber hanging like a tuna in a net. A complete mental shift is required. The linear approach of mountain climbing must be shed. “I am now a rock climber,” I told myself. Instead of relying on the rope, I looked for hand-holds. Instead of toe-pointing the tiny ledges before me, I reached out sideways to form opposing compression. I thought of my climbing coach, David Hutchinson, and the calm voice he used to call advice up to me from below.
“See if you can get a few fingers around that rock above and to the right,” I heard him say. “Use the legs, not the arms,” he added.
“See if you can get a few fingers around that rock above and to the right,” I heard him say. “Use the legs, not the arms,” he added.
We traversed upward to the Geneva Spur, rested for a bit, then scaled it easily. Twenty minutes later Mingma and I arrived at the South Col. I looked around and recognized much of what I saw from the stories I had read; the steep drop off either side, the wind-straffed rocks, the abandoned camp sites, the demoralizing face of Everest looking down from above. There were bodies. I did not see them, as doing so would have required a deliberate hike to the far side of camp and something about that felt disrespectful. I did not wish to gawk. Like the others scattered about the climb above us, these bodies all rested in uncovered graves, the only dignity imbued upon them coming from the choice to bow one’s head instead of clicking a camera shutter.
I was shown to my tent by Phanuroo, IMG camp chief for the South Col. He was enthusiastic and remarkably lively. I wondered how this was possible until noticing a clear tube snaked up his nose, which led back to a mini canister of O2 in his day pack. I ate an MRE of Chili and two GU packets, glad to find my appetite returning. Mingma returned regularly to bring more water and check on my condition. These first few hours were critical in seeing if I would recover or breakdown in the 26,000 ft elevation of the South Col. I lay still for a few hours breathing bottle oxygen in the tent. As my strength recovered I began to feel restless. I had packed my inflatable palm tree along as a lark, so I pulled it from my pack, inflated it, and tied it down next to my tent. The whole enterprise of the climb had become so intense, so serious, that I felt a little whimsy was in order. In the end, people just looked confused. Fair enough.
Ty arrived a bit later and was shown to our tent. Together we spent the remaining nervous hours saying very little. Just breathing. Together. Breathing.
Saturday, May 25, 2013
|Camp 3, carved into the Lhotse Face.|
We climbed for another 30 minutes to the shelf, where Mingma found a generous space for me to stretch out. Gibby sat next to me. A few other team members joined us for a rest as they ascended the face. All had been monitoring our earlier radio transmissions and asked how I was doing. I ate most of my lunch and swallowed another liter of energy drink. By the time Ty joined us I was feeling much improved. Again Aaron consulted with EBC and received approval for me to continue up to camp 3 where my condition would be closely monitored.
I felt strong as we resumed the climb, making good time the remaining 1,000 feet to where our tents sat, carved into the side of the Lohtse face. Myself and another sick climber were quarantined in a tent by ourselves. As camp 3 is the point where all climbers begin breathing bottled oxygen, we too strapped on our masks and, flowing at 1 liter per minute, relaxed in the luxuriance of breathing. It occurred to me the tearing down process was now complete. When one can experience rapture by the simple act of breathing, life can only get better.
That evening I was visited by our lead Guide, Max. He explained that certain risks to the heart are incurred when taking Azithromiacin at high altitude. So that medication was off the table. Max gave me an initial dose of Cipro to take if my symptoms revisited during the night and also left a radio I could use to raise him or EBC if more urgent developments arose. Fortunately, neither were needed. I slept well with the aid of the oxygen and woke feeling better.
Friday, May 24, 2013
|Classic Climbers in their dining tent|
A plan took shape that would see three successive waves of IMG climbers make summit attempts. The first of these would be the Hybrid Group of eight climbers, plus 4 of the strongest Classic climbers. This team was dispatched to the higher camps, arriving at the South Col on May 16 with plans to make a summit push that night. The second wave consisting entirely of Classic climbers, inclusive of myself and Ty, would arrive at high camp the evening of May 18 to attempt the summit that night. And the third wave, finishing out the Classic climbers, would arrive the evening of May 19 for their summit bid.
Having made the long hard climb directly from EBC to Camp 2 in the course of rotation three, we all knew and dreaded the first leg of our summit positioning. But this time was for real. It was not training or conditioning. This was part of putting ourselves in a place where the many years of dreaming and preparation could be tested. The excitement was palpable. Though the dread of passing through the ice fall weighed heavy, we could find comfort in the realization this would be the last time we would climb it. Mingma and I visited the Punja Altar before leaving EBC, as has been our custom prior to previous trips into the ice fall. I leave the chanting to Mingma. It is my job to toss rice on cue. The air was thick with the scent of smoldering juniper, a fire that will not be allowed to extinguish until all Climbers and Sherpa have vacated the mountain at season's end. Daily temperatures had warmed enough in the time since arriving at EBC to meaningfully increase movement within the fall. Ladders used in the second rotation were crushed miserably between fallen seracs. Parts of the route had been completely redirected to avoid the fields of refrigerator size ice blocks now piled on the path we had once trod. Open sky directed our attention to the now missing “ice cream cone” serac that had dominated one section as a landmark. Where had it fallen? There was no sign of it. Probably it had tipped over and been consumed by the crevasses working their jaws tirelessly at its base.
As the trek continued from the ice fall, past the area that had been camp 1, direct sunlight filled the Western Cwm. The walls of Nuptse, Everest, and Lhotse reflected this heat down upon us, quickly raising the temperature from the low 20’s of the ice fall to 90 degrees fahrenheit. Even after stripping away layers of clothing, the inescapable heat sapped our strength and slowed our progress up the long valley to a halting infantry march. Our only comfort was the knowledge that we would have a full rest day the following day, May 16. Wave 1 advanced to high camp (South Col) as we moved to camp 2.
Wave 1 left high camp that night in very windy conditions. The forecast suggested these winds would abate as the night went on, but they did not. All climbers were turned back short of The Balcony, a small flat notch almost 2,000 feet above the South Col. Several of them returned with frost bite injuries. Two of the Classic climbers descended to camp 2 as they no longer had enough bottled oxygen to attempt the summit. One of these climbers, acknowledging the mountain had won this time, continued down Everest the next day, bound for home. The other climber, Dan, made arrangements to obtain a new supply of oxygen and make a second attempt several days later with Wave 3. The two Classic climbers who remained at the South Col had each purchased an extra bottle of oxygen in advance and so had the means to make a second attempt the evening of May 17. Both prevailed, scoring the first summits for our IMG team this season. To make room for this second attempt, Wave 2 and 3 were each pushed back a day
Hybrid climbers each have their own Sherpa, not unlike Classic climbers. But in addition they have a Western Guide climbing with them at a ratio of 4:1. They enjoy their own separate dining tent and what appeared to many Classic climbers to be preferential treatment when it came to certain equipment and priority for summit windows. For this they pay an additional $20,000 above what a Classic climber pays. Not surprisingly, a blue collar versus white collar tension emerged between the two groups. While the Classic climbers would like to have seen the Hybrid group succeed, the fact that none did seemed to validate a general sense that the enhanced pampering they required did nothing to improve their mountaineering.