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

Monday, May 20, 2019

Altitude problems

I've been a little busy lately with a lot of stuff happening very quickly. Our rotation to Camp 1 went well and I was able to move up through the icefall relatively easily, taking 5 1/2 hours. I spent a good night there and then moved to upper Camp 2 at about 21,300' the next morning. Again, I moved reasonably quickly and was able to eat a good lunch and dinner.

Unfortunately things then went downhill pretty fast. I crawled into my sleeping bag for a 13 hour sleep until breakfast and that's when my troubles started. I hallucinated all night long. I was seeing visions and hearing voices. And they weren't even interesting! Just lines of people in buildings and meaningless babbling that was supposed to be profound thoughts. I don't believe I ever actually fell asleep the whole night.

I also struggled to maintain an even body temperature moving from hot to cold every few minutes. I was moaning all night and in spite of my best efforts I couldn't stop. Finally the sun came up and the interminable night ended. I got up and found myself quite dizzy.

I mentioned all this at breakfast to Big Tendi, one of our guides, and he suggested that I might be having early symptoms from HACE, High Altitude Cerebral Edema. HACE is a potentially fatal result of being at high altitude. It is a swelling of the brain. This "blinding flash of the obvious", to quote an old friend, had me very concerned. After some quick consultation with the team leader it was agreed that I needed to descend quickly.

I dropped first to Camp 1 and then to base camp. I felt normal again at base camp and slept soundly that night. The following morning I consulted with the doctors in base camp at the HRA and they felt I would probably be okay in ascending again. I didn't like the word "probably". I had a series of long discussions with the team leader and two other guides and all said they would not go back up under these circumstances.

In spite of not wanting to hear this, I knew they were giving the correct advice. I have already personally experienced high altitude problems nearly becoming fatal and don't want to repeat it again. So I have abandoned my effort on Lhotse and caught a helicopter to Kathmandu. I feel quite disappointed with this turn of events but the risk/reward ratio just didn't make sense. No mountain is worth dying for.

I don't know what the future holds for me and 8,000 meter peaks. It is quite possible that I'm not really built for this extreme elevation and it's also possible that I over reacted and could have gone back up. I am committed to trying Ama Dablam with Altitude Junkies in the late fall and that will give me an idea. It is actually almost 1,000 feet higher than C2 on Everest/Lhotse but I won't be sleeping at this height. Honestly I am more concerned with whether I can handle the steep, technical and exposed nature of the climb more than I'm concerned with the elevation.

The photos are from within the Khumbu Icefall, the Western Cwm/Camp 1 and 2 and my Sherpa guide Furba who was assigned to climb with me. He was fantastic!

Monday, April 22, 2019

Moving to Camp 1

Things will start to get serious tomorrow. I will be packing my backpack today and hopefully getting a good sleep tonight. I should be up at 3:30 tomorrow morning, eating breakfast by 4 and moving into the infamous Khumbu Icefall by 4:30 am.

The hope is to reach Camp 1 in six hours and then spend one night there before moving to Camp 2 for another 2-3 nights. More is better, but not too much more. At this elevation (about 21,500’) you are obviously forced to acclimate but you are also rapidly deteriorating. Eating and sleeping is difficult and of course it can be really cold.

I will be joining the last of our team on this journey as more than half moved up yesterday and today. The reports are that the icefall is in good condition with only two horizontal ladders. Everyone always has mixed emotions at this point, especially those who have never gone through this obstacle course. There has been a lot of tragedy and death here and only a fool wouldn’t take it seriously.

 But there’s also excitement to get going and make some real progress in moving up higher and seeing all the famous landmarks for yourself. It has an eerie beauty to it and the Western Cwm is an otherworldly place that alternates between stifling heat and serious cold. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Base camp

I’ve been in base camp for three days now and am settling into expedition life. I am with Climbing the Seven Summits and am very impressed with their camp. Our team seems very good and our Sherpa staff is fantastic.

We had our puja on the 18th. Several helicopters circled above us during the ceremony and I imagine it had something to do with the five year anniversary of the avalanche that claimed 16 lives. For me it brought back many sad memories and I felt quite emotional.

Our internet is currently hopelessly slow so I can’t post any pictures. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Enjoying a little solitude in the Khumbu

Due to some changes in plans by others on our team I find myself trekking to Everest Base Camp (EBC) by myself. I’ve been here many times and am actually enjoying not needing to worry about anyone else’s schedule.

It was time to hit the trail after two relaxing days in Namche allowing my body to start acclimatizing. I walked first to Tengboche at 12,500’ and had a good lunch in their famous bakery. It was then a quick 20 minute walk down to Debuche. I slept there then walked the following day to Pheriche at 14,000’.

I decided to play it safe and sleep two nights here. This is the downside of traveling alone as the downtime can be a little boring. I have been lucky to meet some nice people and had dinner with two interesting people from New Zealand.

There is one piece of sad news. This morning a fixed wing plane was taking off from the Lukla airport when something went wrong and it veered into a helicopter preparing to take off. Surprisingly only three people were killed when it could have been five times that amount. There are always tons of people hanging around this extremely busy airport/heliport, not to mention the passengers and crews. By a stroke of good fortune there were no passengers on the plane. My condolences to everyone involved in this tragedy.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Flying to Namche Bazar

I spent a wonderful week in Kathmandu with Patty and our eight awesome kids. We played games, went on a nice walk, did a little shopping and had a fun brunch at the Hyatt Hotel. Mostly we just hung out and enjoyed each other’s company. They are growing up fast but have not lost their sweet dispositions. They are excelling in school and two of the girls are well on their way to becoming nurses. We couldn’t be happier or more proud of them.

Alas all good things must end. Patty flew home on midday Wednesday and I jumped in a helicopter earlier that morning and flew directly to Namche Bazar with a brief stop in Lukla. The flight was breathtaking with perfect weather and indescribable views of high peaks. The video is a time lapse flying from Lukla to Namche.

 I’m staying in Namche for 48 hours to give my body a chance to catch up a bit with the necessary acclimatizing. It’s at almost 11,500’ which is quite a jump from Kathmandu at roughly 4,000’. From here I plan to move to Deboche and then to Pheriche or Dingboche spending (hopefully) only one night at each stop.

 The Panorama Lodge is my home in Namche. This family run lodge is clean and sunny with electric blankets and good food. Best of all is the genuine hospitality. I enjoyed a nice meal and conversation with Lhakpa Doma and her son Mingma, the owners of the lodge. I’ve known this family for 11 years now. I’d never met Mingma until this trip but was pleasantly surprised to learn that he graduated from CU Denver, the same university that Patty and I graduated from. What a small world! More interesting than this is the fact that both of Mingma’s grandfathers were climbing Sherpas on the 1953 British expedition to Everest that put Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on top. Further, his uncle is the only member from that group that is still living.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Waiting in Istanbul

The big day finally arrived and I somehow got everything done in time to catch my flight. The last week has been very hectic with organizing equipment, finishing up stuff at work and getting in my final workouts. I also found time to spend with family and friends which was great. I must admit I am pretty tired from lack of sleep but I did manage to catch six hours of solid sleep on my flight from Chicago to Istanbul. 

I am currently waiting for my final flight, the one to Kathmandu. The layover is about 8 hours - too short to bother with a hotel but too long to be pleasant. I should land in Nepal in the morning and then there will be a big rush. I left my -40 degree sleeping bag there and so I go directly from the airport to our kids' house to pick it up. I hope to be able to get my motorcycle at the same time and then I will head to the grocery store for some cheese. 

Next up will be a stop at the Yak & Yeti hotel to drop off my two duffle bags and then to the Hotel Ambassador for eight nights. My duffles are going up with the main (Everest) contingent of our team on April 3but I'm not leaving until the 10th. It's a long story that got a little messed up with some schedule and client changes that I wasn't aware of. The net result is I will be trekking to base camp by myself. I'm quite happy with this as I don't mind some alone time and I know the way there. I plan to go a little quicker than the rest of the team and may even meet them in Lobuche. Time will tell.

I also want to give out a link to the official Climbing The Seven Summits blog which will no doubt be updated more frequently than my blog. 

It's getting real now!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Heading back for more high altitude abuse

I clearly remember saying that I was finished with high altitude mountaineering after my near death experience on Everest in 2016. But, they say the best mountaineers have the worst memories, and I am the first to admit that my memory is not the best. 

Therefore, I am heading back to Kathmandu in early April to take a shot at climbing 27,940' high Lhotse. It's the fourth highest peak in the world and is on the same ridge as Everest. This ridgeline is horseshoe shaped and has Everest on the left, Lhotse in the middle and Nuptse on the right as you are looking up at it from base camp.

The route is a repeat of what you use to summit Everest until a bit above Camp 3. Between C3 and C4 the routes split with Everest's route going up and to the left in a climbing traverse and Lhotse going more or less straight up. It is a more technical climb that Everest but isn't crazy steep and in fact was skied for the first time last fall.

I am climbing with Mike Hamill, owner of Climbing The Seven Summits. He's a good guy and his company does a great job. Wish me luck!

Back in business

After a two year radio silence, I am going to start blogging again. The last two years have been busy with climbs of smaller peaks in Nepal (some successful, others not so much) and a lot of skiing. The highlight was a week of skiing in Antarctica with my friends Dan and Scott. We joined IceAxe Expeditions and had an absolutely amazing experience. The beauty and remoteness were awe inspiring and the people on the trip were very interesting with some tremendous accomplishments under their belt. You have to go!

Monday, January 16, 2017

I guess I'm famous?

The Discovery Channel was on Everest while I was there and was doing a lot of filming for a series about the helicopter pilots. It is now completed and is called Everest Rescue. The second episode is called "Top of the World" and follows several stories including my rescue and also Ben's.

So, I guess I'm famous - but I still have to pay for a chai latte at Starbucks!

Here is a link to the trailer advertising it.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Two very cool links

Nelson Dellis, one of our teammates, has made a very nice three minute video of a section in the icefall. This particular ladder crossing was challenging due to the bulge of ice encroaching on us from our left. I remember it well. You can see the video here.

And for an amazing journey up the mountain from base camp to summit,  check this out! Mammut is a Swiss company that makes very high end climbing and skiing gear. They contracted with Lukas Furtenbach who's base camp was next door to us. They had several Sherpa carry a very fancy GoPro arrangement and the 360 degree views are incredible. They have combined a couple of summit days into one event in order to have everything done in daylight and a lot of the images above C4 were from our summit day. I remember watching the cameraman go up from C4 during the middle of our rest day there. You can even see a shot of me as he arrives into C4. I am in my orange suit and am wearing a yellow backpack. This is well worth a few minutes looking at. I was blown away by the shots from the South Summit to the true summit. 

What really happened on my Everest summit push, COMING BACK DOWN.

After all the pictures were taken, after I'd had one last look at the view I had dreamt of for 39 years, after I had given myself one more moment for it all to become as real as possible, it was time to descend. There are far more accidents on the descent than the climb up and I was very much aware of this. HAPE and HACE are two of the biggest enemies of high altitude climbers and they can only be held temporarily at bay with modern drugs; the only real solution is a rapid descent.

With the perspective of a few days to review what happened, I believe I was already in the early stages of both of these killers although I didn't really realize it while I was enjoying the summit. Our climb back down to the South Summit should have taken us 15-30 minutes but instead it took more than two hours. Again, the principal problem was the crowds. Passing those going the opposite direction was painfully slow and there were times when I couldn't move for ten or more minutes. In talking with my teammates, we concluded that we lost about three hours on the ascent due to the overcrowding and I think I lost at least another 90 minutes just retreating to the South Summit. Those precious minutes almost cost me my life.

By the time I arrived back at the South Summit things were rapidly falling apart in my body. I had lost all of my strength and found my breathing to be extremely difficult. I spent the rest of the descent setting tiny goals of 30 steps between rest breaks. Most of the time I couldn't come close to the goal. This left me making 10 to 20 steps before I was forced to sit for several minutes and breathe as though I was sucking through a garden hose. Fifty hard breaths would seem to make no difference for me in spite of the fact that I was sitting still.

With Pasang Oongchu leading just in front and Sange just behind, we made our way down the mountain very slowly. It was as though someone was suffocating me with a plastic bag. Air just couldn't fill my lungs. I was also incredibly thirsty and would scoop up bits of snow each time I sat down and swallow them for a little moisture. This snail-like progress continued for hours. On multiple times I would think "if I could just sit here until I feel good again..." but then I would shut out the thought because I knew sitting for a longer time really meant sitting forever. I focused on Patty and my kids as hard as I could and they became my reason for getting down.

As we neared the Balcony we found a young Sherpa with a large load who had fallen off the rope but fortunately landed on a flat area. He was dazed and just sitting there with no idea of what to do next. Pasang Oongchu once again stepped into action and pulled him onto his feet and helped him down the mountain while also tending to me.

At some point not far below the Balcony, I was getting too tired to stand so I decided to glissade down. This is a fancy climber's term for "slide on your butt". I remained clipped to the safety rope and simply slid slowly down the snowy slope on my rear end. I also noticed that Sange was starting to really fade badly. I couldn't abide the thought of his young son never seeing his father again so I pleaded with him to go ahead. He finally, reluctantly agreed and I watched him move further away from me as he went much faster than I could.

I reached the bottom of the Triangular Face, the last of the steeper portions above C4, and could no longer glissade. My next big worry was if I could find the strength to stand up again? And if so, how could I walk the half mile to my tent? The distance looked so great that it might as well have been a thousand miles. Pasang was once again right at my side. He helped me up. He put my arm around his shoulder and he slowly and patiently walked with me on the mostly gentle slope to the camp. We would stop every few yards and I would sit and gasp. He would patiently wait until he knew it was taking too long. At this point he would gently speak my name and I knew it was time to go again.  The down climb should take 4-5 hours in total but I was eleven hours into it and still not at camp.

The one piece of good news up until this point is that everything was downhill. This changes for the last 100 yards where the route goes flat and then makes a very small climb up to the tents. I looked at that tiny ten foot high hill and lost all hope. Uphill simply wasn't possible. I sat down for a long time and in spite of Pasang's urging I couldn't find the strength to stand up. When it became all too clear that I'd reached my limit, Pasang left me and went ahead to our camp for help.

I apologize to those who helped me next, but my state of mind was far from normal and a lot of the details are blurry. Some people (Sherpa?) brought me tea and food but as hungry and thirsty as I was, that was not what I needed. I declined their offer. Eventually someone decided to change out my oxygen bottle. I don't know why because I was still getting Os. Regardless, they fumbled the switch and couldn't reconnect me to the gas I so desperately needed. I fell onto my side and started spasming and I remember clearly thinking, "Okay, so now I know exactly when and where I will die. I have only a few seconds left and then the pain goes away."

Somehow another 60 or more seconds passed and I again felt the life-giving oxygen hit my lungs. Maybe I won't die now? I didn't know and was to a point where I was really not very concerned either way. I mostly just wanted to stop hurting. They told me to stand up and they would help me to my tent. All I could do was sit on the snow and shake my head no. I had lost my voice and was unable to tell them what I needed. I knew I had HAPE and likely HACE. I knew I needed to get down but given the fact that it was almost dark I knew that was impossible. I tried using sign language to indicate I needed a Gamow bag and a dexamethasone injection but no one was understanding me.

Once it became clear that I would not be covering the last 100 yards under my own power, six people hoisted me up and dragged me like a dead man to my tent and rather unceremoniously tossed me inside. At some point during this process Ben and Laura Darlington reached me. They are a young couple from Canberra, Australia and are part of our small Altitude Junkies team. They immediately saw the gravity of the situation and were actively getting out the dexamethasone (Dex) injection that Phil had given to all of us in base camp. Ben is an electrician and Laura is an accountant - just normal people, not medical professionals. But they are smart and capable and knew exactly what needed to happen.

Just as they were preparing to administer the first injection in their life, Billy Nugent appeared. He is a professional guide with Madison Mountaineering and although not a doctor, he does have more training and experience than any of our team has. He later confided with Ben that he believed I would be dead within a few minutes. Billy and Laura crawled in after me, pulled my coats and shirts off my shoulder and I was rapidly injected with the powerful steroid. The results are pretty immediate and significant and it was a bit like coming back from the dead. I was still far from capable of doing anything to save myself, but I wasn't going to die in the next handful of seconds.

(Side note: some of you may be wondering what happened to Phil Crampton in all of this. Well, as we reached Camp 4 on the 17th, another member of our team developed HAPE. Phil was observant enough to spot this problem very early and escorted him back down to base camp, giving up his likely 8th Everest summit to save this man's life. He was in no way derelict in his duties but rather took the correct course of action given the events and information available at that time. Phil left no stone unturned in his efforts to coordinate my rescue from base camp.) 

Ben and Barbara, our remaining team members along with Sange joined me in the tent. I was buried in sleeping bags to warm me and everyone assumed a key role in saving my life. Sange held me in a seated position because if I should lie down I would essentially drown. Laura handled all the medicines, keeping track of what I received and when. She also kept my head from falling off to one side or another and made sure I stayed awake. Ben handled the very difficult radio communications with Phil at base camp. The radio couldn't make the distance to base camp so he held the antenna up against the tent poles for hours in the cold and messages were relayed via Lysle, another teammate who had managed to reach C2. Barbara kept on top of hydrating me. I could only take the smallest sips of water without feeling like I was going to drown because I needed to remove my mask to drink.

Sange was in no shape to hold me up so he switched positions with Mingma who sat back-to-back with me for an hour or more. But this wasn't fair to him either so we finally found some mattresses and put them against the tent wall. I leaned on them through the night and Laura would hold my head for hours. We sat patiently all night long in the cold and dark. We tried to encourage each other and I tried to not die. If you need proof that these heroes saved my life, then look at the deaths of the Dutch gentleman and Australian lady the following day. I obviously wasn't with them but reading their stories makes me believe we were all suffering from the exact same problems. I will live the rest of my life in deep gratitude for what Ben, Laura and Barbara did for me that night in a small tent on Everest's South Col.

Fortunately the morning had reasonable weather and we were able to descend to C2. Another night at C4 would have definitely proven fatal for me. I was extremely weak and could only walk for less than a minute between much more sizable rests. While Sange and the rest of our Sherpa staff broke down our camp and carried 70 to 90 pound loads, Pasang led me down the Lhotse face. He was never more than a step or two in front of me and did all the clipping and unclipping of my safety line for me. His steady pace and capable hands were very comforting.

Meanwhile, behind me was Ben Darlington. Like Pasang, he was only ever one step away from me. At tremendous personal effort, he would hold his right hand out and lift my pack from my shoulders for much of the way down the face. This steadied me and eased my burden. I have never experienced such assistance in the mountains but it was so desperately needed and again I cannot thank these two men enough. There is no way I could have descended without their strength and skill. Once again I was owing my life to others.

The route from C4 to C2 has four main features. The first obstacle is descending the Geneva Spur and then dealing with the exposed traverse that almost stopped me on the way up. Fortunately there had been enough traffic that a bootpack had formed and the footing was much better. It was very narrow - six inches wide at times - but I was very happy to not be fighting for every step. This section should have taken 15 minutes but I needed two hours.

There is then a downward traverse to the Yellow Band which, although crowded, didn't pose too much of a technical challenge. It was just my extreme fatigue that I needed to battle. Next up was the Yellow Band. It had an endless line of climbers on the "down" rope so Pasang moved us to the almost empty "up" rope and we were down it without too much drama. To our dismay, some stranger hopped in between Ben and me. He was not a safe climber and failed to hold himself while descending. He ended up falling about 100 feet and we were alerted by yells from above and the horrifying sound of a human body accelerating towards us. I managed to barely get out of the way and brace myself and the rope that I was still connected to. Pasang had nowhere to go and took the full impact of this man. Miraculously no-one was injured and the rope held. This could have ended very differently with several of us falling well over a mile to the bottom of the slope.

The line of climbers above the Yellow Band.

People above the Yellow Band.

The biggest portion of the Lhotse face is a series of vertical ropes - I would estimate about 30 of them - that go all the way to the bottom. I actually found this the best for me. Pasang would connect my figure-8 to the rope while Ben would downclimb to the next anchor. I'd then rappel down, letting gravity do almost all the work and Ben would carefully guide me into the correct position to get off the first rope and onto the next. We repeated this process for hours and maybe 3,000 vertical feet until we finally reached the bottom of the face.

We knew I had almost no chance of walking the last mile to C2 from the bottom of the face so Ben, Laura and Pasang made arrangements for a rescue sled to be waiting for me and take me the final portion of the way. Six people came up with the sled and Pasang supervised the loading and moving of it. It was lightly snowing as we came into camp. These seven guys were all very tired and yet they took the utmost care with me. The route crossed two smaller crevasses and I was lowered down into them and raised back up on the other side. I knew I was in capable hands and never felt concerned.

We finally reached C2 after 12 1/2 hours of incredible effort. Everyone had given all that they had to make sure I arrived safely. We sat down for a quick bite of food and Ben collapsed asleep on the table. The relatively thicker air of 21,500' vs 26,000' was helping me and I was starting to feel a little better. I remember one of our rests on the face just above upper C3 when I told Ben that for the first time in 24 hours I knew I was going to actually make it. That was a seminal moment for me on the descent.

Phil had arranged to have Jason Laing (a New Zealander and renowned as the best pilot in Nepal) fly me from C2 at first light the next morning. He arrived right on time at 6:15 and twenty minutes later I was in Lukla shedding layers of clothing as I quickly overheated in the thick warm air of 9,300'. Jason dropped me off at the small hospital there while he returned to bring down several more injured people. There had been a number of HAPE cases and a lot of frostbite. After about two hours he returned for me and took me to Kathmandu.

Outside the Lukla hospital.

There was an ambulance waiting for me at the helipad and it brought me directly to the highly regarded CIWEC Clinic. They ran a number of tests on me and determined that I did in fact have both HAPE and HACE. Their advice was for me to spend at least one night in the clinic. Those who know me can predict what I did with that advice! Instead I went to the Hyatt and expected to recover quickly now that I had plenty of air, food and comfort. Unfortunately that is not what happened.

Looking good after a little climbing.

I struggled for three days and nights and wasn't feeling any better. I finally gave in and returned to the clinic where they admitted me and I am now enjoying my third night in a hospital bed. The initial diagnosis ideas were all over the place as they tried to figure out what was causing my endless cough, fluid filled lungs, extreme weakness and general crummy feeling. The final decision is that I have bilateral pneumonia and they have me on antibiotics and a diuretic to remove the excess fluid in my lungs. I am finally feeling quite a lot better and expect to be officially released tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile, there is still more to the story. The long cold night in the tent at C4 gave Ben very serious frostbite on all of his right toes. He never said a word to anyone but just bravely and privately endured this nightmare. He helped me down for 4,500' on the Lhotse at tremendous personal cost. He then declined a helicopter ride from C2 and made his own way to base camp with Laura. It was only then that he told anyone of his own problems.

The following morning he was stretchered to the helipad in base camp and brought to the same clinic that I am in. He is undergoing a treatment with a very promising trial medicine that requires a six hour infusion every day for five days. I have spent as much time with him as my exhausted body will allow and I am blown away by his positive attitude and humble strength. Please keep Ben in your thoughts and prayers as he faces a huge battle to keep all of his toes.

Meanwhile the rest of our amazing team is all healthy and running around Kathmandu bringing us lunches and dinners and enjoying being back in the friendly part of the world.

There were some other players involved that I would like to recognize too. IMG and particularly superstar guides Greg Vernovage and Justin Merle assisted with radio communications and donated the use of their rescue sled at C2. One of their clients also gave me a pill that I'd never heard of (New ???) that gave me a needed boost as we neared the end of the traverse below the Geneva Spur. Renowned climber and expedition leader Russell Brice of Himex provided practical and communications support to me and to Phil Crampton. Trish Crampton spent several sleepless nights doing her logistical part in getting me to Kathmandu and ensuring I was properly cared for once I arrived here. No doubt there are other people that I am either not aware of or that I can't remember. Please accept my apology for failing to list you here and accept my deep gratitude for all you did.

There is always a lot of derogatory writing about commercial expeditions, the quality of their clients and support and the natural competition that business competitors are forced to engage in. I can honestly say from my close up perspective that I saw nothing but the highest professionalism from everyone involved. People forgot their business allegiances when they saw me in trouble and just stood up and did whatever they could to help. I am so proud to be associated with all of these people.

The bottom line for me in this story is that I have been given a second chance at life due to the bravery, skills, hard work and sacrifice of others. I feel like a soldier returning from battle after his buddies carried him through a hail of bullets. Were it not for Pasang Oongchu Sherpa, Sange Sherpa, Ben and Laura Darlington, Barbara Padilla, Lysle Turner, Billy Nugent, Phil Crampton, Jason the pilot, the doctors at the CIWEC Clinic, the six men who carried me to my tent and the six men who carried me over a mile in the snow and dark into C2 there is no doubt in my mind that I would be dead on the side of the mountain that has held my attention for 39 years.

Seven days after summiting. Ben and Robert.

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


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 ...