"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.