Friday, May 31, 2013

Tomorrow has come...

"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.

A string of perhaps 60 headlamps were already reaching up the side of Everest. The Indian Army had gotten out ahead of me. We would have to deal with this through the night. Mingma introduced me to the young Sherpa who would be carrying my extra bottle of oxygen up to the South Summit. We would climb as a trio, spelling one another in the lead as we clawed upward. My Khumbu cough had gotten bad enough to bring on back spasms. I launched into an episode as we stood there next to my tent. My Sherpas waited patiently, then helped on with my pack. It was going to be a slow start for me. I could feel it. At age 50 I was no longer able to bounce up and hit it. My body needed to be put on notice, reminded, then coaxed along for the first hour. 

We started off easy, passing a few climbers here and there as we found our rhythm. I tinkered with my harness, pack, and oxygen system until it all felt right. The half moon set a light glow to the snow. The stars were brilliant and vast. Soon the wind fell off to almost nothing and the only sounds were those of our respirators and the bite of crampons into ice. We caught up to a slow line of eight climbers and left the fixed line to pass them. Then we eased out around another ten climbers as the route entered a particularly steep section of the Triangle Face. We were cooking now. My legs felt solid and the rest of my body seemed to have come to the party. There were groups of four, groups of eight, and a few pairs. Somewhere along the way we passed Ty, though I was not aware of it at the time.  

We reached the Balcony a short while after a large team had arrived there. It was about 10:30pm and the moon had swung around the other side of Everest. The mountain’s silhouette against the stars was the only way to tell what kind of climb was above. It looked astoundingly tall and steep. We changed oxygen tanks quickly, getting back out on the route ahead of the group, and settled in behind a solo climber working his way up the long demanding pitch to the South Summit. He fatigued after forty minutes and waved us by. At this point I looked up the mountain and, noting no headlamps, realized we were all alone. We were the highest humans on the planet, and would remain so for the next several hours. Something inside me relaxed for the first time that night. I took a moment to look up at the stars. I could almost feel their light touching me. I found myself smiling. "Wow," I wondered aloud from behind my mask. I took a moment to admire Mingma’s climbing ability, as he free-handed his way up a rock cliff before us. I thought about my loved ones and all the people who had believed in me. Tears began to come, but I held them back. There was still plenty of hard work ahead. 

In spite of the bottled oxygen, the effects of altitude eventually crept in as we labored higher. My right foot was going numb with cold, so I turned up the electric foot warmer for that boot.   Our pace became more difficult to maintain. I was stopping to breath hard now, unable to keep a continuous cadence. The South Summit had disappeared somewhere in the stars and seemed to be running away from me. I felt a moment of doubt creep in. 

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. 

At this point I remembered my good friend, Phil Drowley, telling me how he began laughing when he got past the Hillary Step. He knew he would summit at that point. I started to weep. My goggles had frozen over several hours earlier, so I was climbing without eye protection. The tears froze immediately to my face and eye lids, leaving my left eye partially frozen shut. I knew I was taking a chance by climbing without eye cover, I had read about Climbers freezing their corneas, but felt I had no choice when it came to navigating the technical aspects of the upper mountain. 

We climbed for another twenty minutes up a gradual snow slope, passing several cornices along the way. Then I saw a pile of prayer flags. Mingma insisted that I clip into a safety line that led up to them. We took those last ten steps together, like Hillary and Norgay, then Mingma invited me to sit down on the highest point of planet earth. “This is summit,” he announced warmly. It was 3:43 a.m. on May 20th. The sun would not come up for another hour and by then the summit would be crowded with other climbers. But for now we had the pinnacle to ourselves. I looked off into the darkness at lights below and far away. The stars were a bowl that wrapped around us from above. On one side Everest fell out across all of Tibet, still fast asleep.  On the other side it stretched down into Nepal. 

We took several photos of the Sherpa that had carried my extra oxygen. It was his first Everest Summit. Then Mingma snapped some pictures of me as I held up images of family members and a banner for The Boys & Girls Club. In those short moments of wearing only a liner glove, my right index and middle fingers began to freeze. I knew how quickly digits could be lost on Everest, so I cut short other plans for celebrating the summit and concluded by releasing a small quantity of my Brother’s ashes. I had hoped to make a call home from the top of Everest, but my cell phone showed no signal. In all we spent 20 minutes at the Summit, and while I did feel the weight of the moment I could not sense its measure. I was simply too exhausted. It was like being paid in a currency you do not understand; Only when it is spent completely will you know its full worth. I promised myself to spend this moment wisely. 
My moment.


  1. Awesome! Way to go Dave! Thanks for doing such a great job of sharing your experience. How cool to spend some time by yourself at the top. Best of luck on the way down. -Curt

  2. Dave, you topped out. Now you get back down here!

  3. Hi Dave,. incredible, almost beyond be alone on the top of the Everest..(with two Sherpas).....that has to be as magnificent as it gets on this planet....I can't imagine
    anything that would top it ( : ) )....I just sit here and shake
    my hit the ball out of the park..way out.....bruce

  4. I have to ask: Are you disappointed you had to leave the summit before sunrise? I mean it's awesome regardless, but isn't part of the deal to be able to enjoy the view from the top?

    1. It would have been nice to see sunrise from the top. No doubt. But I watched the day arrive as I descended the Hillary Step. Beautiful and close enough.

  5. Congratulations, Dave, and thanks. You put yourself on the line and made it! I've really felt the immediacy of your task in these great descriptions. What an accomplishment!

  6. Dave, I've enjoyed all your writing, but this entry has been the best! You've made the experience alive for all of us back home. Thank you. Clark