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Prayer flags above Dingboche. Lhotse and Island Peak in the background.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What really happened on my Everest summit push, GOING UP.

There has been a fair amount of unknowns and conjecture about what took place on my Everest summit push and this is largely my fault. I have been too tired and sick to put words to screen. Thankfully I am feeling a little better this afternoon and will do my best.

People tend to have some good days and some bad days in the mountains and I certainly had both on this push. We left our base camp at 1:00 am on Saturday, May 14. I was feeling a little sick and battled diarrhea all day and also vomited once as I climbed to Camp 2. I needed 10 1/2 hours to reach our camp which, while not a bad time, certainly is no speed record either. I was very tired and overheating badly when I finally pulled into camp.

Sange and I preparing to leave Everest Base Camp

Camp 2


The following day was a scheduled rest day and I rebounded very quickly. In fact, when we left for Camp 3 on May 16 I found myself being one of the fastest in our team. I took five hours to make this move up the steep Lhotse face. I was coughing a huge amount but this is not very unusual for me in very high elevations. Our tiny, exposed tents would vary from very hot to almost cold as the clouds would shade us and then move along. We spent all day resting and attempting to eat and drink. This may sound like a pretty simple thing, but one of the many undesirable side effects of high altitude is a loss of desire to eat and drink. I've discovered the hard way that more vomiting will arrive on the scene if you force yourself to eat more than is comfortable. So the only answer is to eat and drink very slowly.

The Lhotse face. Our tents are about half way up in the center of the picture. The Yellow Band is the pistol shaped rock formation in the upper left quadrant.

With Sange outside our Camp 2 tent.

The view of Cho Oyu and Pumori from Camp 2



Camp 3 is steep and exposed.



May 17 was our move from C3 to C4, the highest camp on the Nepal side of Everest. It is located on the South Col at about 25,900'. At first we made rapid progress, reaching the Yellow Band in three hours. Although not exactly the half-way point, it certainly is close enough to be used that way. The weather was cold and windy but I stayed warm inside my down suit, big boots and gloves. We were climbing on oxygen at 2 liters per minute.

I injured my left shoulder in a foolish motorcycle accident in 1988 and it has progressively gotten worse. I am in need of a complete replacement now and my left arm is very weak and hurts constantly. As a result I really can't use it for climbing. In fact, simply washing my hands hurts a lot. This made my climb up the Yellow Band a lot more challenging than I would have liked and took quite a bit out of me.

From this point on things became dramatically harder. The already strong winds felt like they doubled in strength as we continued upward. They would hammer us from one side, stop for a moment or two, and then attack us from the opposite side. I routinely needed to completely stop and just brace myself from being blown over. My (quite possibly inaccurate) internal wind gauge was telling me that some gusts were above 80 mph.

The most difficult portion was the traverse leading to the Geneva Spur. This is a steeply sloped sidehill with a huge amount of drop-off. On this particular day it was covered in swirling powder snow. You would try to follow in the footsteps of the person ahead of you in hope that they left a solid step behind but the snow was blowing so much that it was hard to find their step. And even if you did, the chances of the step being solid were essentially zero. I found myself kicking and kicking every single step for perhaps an hour or more in an attempt to find solid purchase.

I was reaching the end of my comfort zone when I watched one of my teammates about 20 yards ahead slip and fall. She was saved by the rope she was attached to but it took a significant amount of effort for those around her to get her back on her feet and on the correct path. It was at this point that thoughts of turning around first started to enter my mind.

As I was reaching the top of the Spur I suddenly found myself struggling for breath. I quickly realized that I'd run out of oxygen at about 26,000'. After a huge battle to reach the very top where things flatten out and it's safe to change bottles, Sange gave me his bottle and struggled into camp without oxygen. My admiration for this hero would only grow from here.

The final easy portion as we approach the tents of Camp 4. I don't know who this person with the GoPros is.


The top of the Geneva Spur


I realize it is a cliche, but Camp 4 looked like a war zone. Tents were being uprooted and shredded by the powerful winds. Everyone was freezing cold, trying to hold on to their tents and fighting for survival. I was very fortunate in that our team of amazing Sherpa had already managed to erect our tents and I collapsed inside out of the wind. The second half of this day took me eight hours.




High winds on Everest the day we moved to C4. Photo credit unavailable.


Our original plan called for us to leave C4 that same evening but the winds were just too strong for anyone to make a summit attempt. But that didn't matter to me; I had already realized I couldn't go up which meant I had to go down. In fact, going down was the only option that seemed reasonable if I wanted to survive. I texted Patty that my trip was over and I was okay with that decision.

Initially there were four of us crammed into a three man tent but at some point one of the Sherpa (some of the details are foggy and I can't remember who the 4th person was) found a tent with more room so I spent the night with Sange and Sonam. I never took my boots off all night, nor my climbing harness. I wanted to be prepared to immediately move if the need arose. And then suddenly at some point in the night the wind just died. We woke up to sunshine rapidly warming our tent and drying up all the ice and snow both inside and on our down suits. At this point I felt like our fortunes were changing and maybe I needed to reconsider my decision to retreat. I found myself eating and drinking a bit and no longer cold or wet. Life was suddenly on the acceptable side of things again. I thought about my dream of climbing Everest, one that I've held since I was 15 years old and weighed that against the final amount of work and risk it would take to summit. I finally did a math problem: 39 years vs 12 hours, and decided to try for the top.

Sange in our Camp 4 tent with better weather

Sonam in our Camp 4 tent. He is now my roommate in the hospital in Kathmandu.

The tents at Camp 4 the day following the high winds.


Camp 4


Feeling ready to climb again after the weather improved.

I prepared my clothing and gear, got fully dressed and stepped out into the night on May 18 at 7:45 pm. The skies were clear and cold, but I was truly warm from head to toe. By 8:00 all the last minute well-wishes and details were attended to and Sange, Pasang Oongchu and I were slowly plodding towards the top of the world. Climbing at night by headlamp and with an oxygen mask is a surreal experience. There might be quite a few people nearby but you feel very alone. Communication is difficult and so it is essentially you, the pool of light from the headlamp and your own thoughts and doubts.

Phil Crampton, our expedition leader, provided us with the best and latest masks from Summit Oxygen and enough bottles of O's to let us climb at 4 liters per minute (4 LPM). What Phil didn't count on was the huge crowds and incredibly slow people who left an hour before us. We caught these people within an hour or so but it was unsafe to pass them. Passing would have required unclipping from the safety rope and free climbing in the dark for 30 minutes. I was definitely not going to take that risk so I contented myself to very slowly plod upwards behind them.

We were able to pass from time to time as people took a break and that definitely helped but in general I felt like I was not working very hard as we inched upwards. I asked Sange to turn my O's down to 2.5 LPM to conserve my life-giving gas. Above the Balcony (similar to the Yellow Band in that it is about the half-way mark) I started watching as people became colder and colder. Even the amazing Sherpa guides were starting to suffer from the cold and lack of movement. Somehow I never felt cold the entire day. It seems that my hard won prior lessons were paying off that night and my gear was exactly what I needed.

Every Everest enthusiast is aware of an obstacle near the very top called the Hillary Step. It is frequently cited as the most difficult part of the climb. Others will point to a series of cliff bands between the Balcony and the South Summit and some have even named these the Tenzing Steps after Hillary's climbing partner. For our particular night, I think that these were the tougher obstacle for people. I know I certainly had to focus hard to climb them one handed as my left arm is simply not up to pulling my weight up anything.

We reached one particular step-up of perhaps six feet in height. There were two climbers ahead of me and they tried and tried to climb it but simply couldn't. Finally, Pasang went ahead and pulled them up while Sange pushed them from beneath. They didn't look graceful but at least they were up. When it was my turn, I surveyed the potential footholds and found myself walking up without much drama. I think what this mini event plus several more like it show, is that there were quite a few people that evening who had little business trying for the top of the world. A lack of skills, experience, physical conditioning and perhaps even acclimatization was endangering themselves and those around them. This is a common complaint on Everest and one that needs to be properly addressed (but won't be!).

Before too much longer I noticed the blackness of the night was starting to yield to the sun. At first there was the smallest hint of light in the east but it quickly grew to the point where headlamps were no longer needed. And then the sun came over the horizon to my right! We had made it through the cold dark night and things would be improving for us. I particularly enjoyed watching the enormous pyramid shaped shadow that Everest cast across the mountains to her west. It really gives you a sense of the size of this great peak. Unfortunately I was unable to get a picture as both my camera and phone were frozen in spite of being in inside pockets.

Pasang, Sange and I soon found ourselves on the South Summit looking at the famous Cornice Traverse, Hillary Step and final gentle ridge to the true summit. I heard a speaker once describe this traverse as having a 10,000' drop on the left and 12,000' drop on the right. The path itself tends to be 12 to 24" wide. His suggestion is that if you are going to fall, go to the right as you will live longer!

Once again, the crowds here posed lots of trouble for us. People were all pushing their way both up and down without thought of others. Rather than wait to pass on a wider section when someone was already on a narrower part, they would push out onto the narrow bit and cause one jam after another. Nobody in their right mind feels comfortable unclipping from the rope and leaning backwards over drops of that size just to get around somebody who felt too important to wait a few seconds. I found it very frustrating and dangerous.

Finally we made it over the Cornice Traverse and surmounted the Hillary Step and now we only had the final snowy ridge to negotiate. The extra width and fewer people made this a lot quicker and before I realized it, I was staring at the summit from less than a hundred feet away.

I plodded up those last few feet with Sange and Pasang, overflowing with emotion. I was excited, elated, relieved, teary-eyed, in awe at the beauty, thrilled to be sharing the moment with two great friends and possibly even a little sad that this 39 year journey was now finished. We spent 23 minutes on top taking in the views, taking pictures, shaking hands, hugging each other and just relishing in the moment. The skies were cloud free, the winds were nothing that concerned me and I was as in the moment as much as my hypoxic brain would allow.

Summit success!

I appear to be in pain, but I think it was just the very bright sunshine.


Looking past the summit crowds towards Lhotse


Looking northwards into Tibet


330 degree panorama from the summit


I had carried some pictures of my family with me and had my picture taken while holding them. Without my family's support, this goal would never have been possible. Thank you Patty, Chris, Soni and Caelen. I love you all very deeply. I also carried up two photos of my close friends John and Ryan Dahlem, the oldest father-son combination to ever summit. John has become almost like a father to me in his encouragement for this climb over the last six years that I have known him and I wanted him on top with me also. My last task was to bury two tiny stones I had retrieved from the bottom of the Dead Sea last April and bury them in the snow on the top of the world. My good friend Scott Bigelow gave me two tiny wooden maps of Nebraska that he had made in his woodshop and I left one of them with the Dead Sea stones.

My wonderful family


Family

Me with John Dahlem in a warmer place


John and Ryan Dahlem on the summit of Everest, May 24, 2010.




Considering where I was and how things had been only 36 hours earlier, I felt like the climb up was not that difficult. But, wow! how things were about to change ...








9 comments:

  1. Robert, I can't begin to thank you for taking us on this very personal and inspirational journey these last several years. I must admit, I feared for your safety at one point or another, but always inspired by your passion.
    Thank you,
    Eric Riddle
    D3 20 club partner

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Robert,

    Congratulations! Glad that you are back safely. If you wonder who these GoPro guys are, please have a look here:

    http://project360.mammut.ch/#route
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l67iGZeVvNs

    Regards
    Daniel

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PS: Of course, I can only second Eric's words.

      Daniel

      Delete
    2. http://project360.mammut.ch/#route/mount-everest/south-route/392/map

      The exact picture of the "gopro man", we see you behind him, just before or after yout picture.

      Delete
  3. Robert,
    Great to read about your climb! You are one tough hombre! Can't wait to here the rest of the story...
    Scott

    ReplyDelete
  4. Simply amazing! I'm so happy for you. What an inspiration you are too many. Congratulations!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Congratulations on completing this journey. Many in the Norris community are very happy for you!

    ReplyDelete


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