|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...