Monday, May 27, 2013

On the wings of bottled oxygen.

Ty arrives at the South Col.
Virtually all of Camp 3 over-slept. Even the Sherpas. We had worked so hard moving up the Lhotse Face the previous day, and rested so deep with the aid of bottled air, that our slumber was impervious to alarms of all manner. “DG”, my tent-mate began stirring around 4 a.m.. I pulled down my mask. “What time is it,” I asked. My alarm was set for 3:30 and had apparently been going off every five minutes since. “Oh, THAT,” he commented, somehow having not resolved the mystery of the noise. 

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.
“Mine too.”
“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. 

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.