Saturday, June 1, 2013

Chase on.

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.