I am finishing my Everest Book that I have started almost two years ago. Here are two chapters that describe my summit day and the following day that have a little bit more details then my blog related to these dates. I Will appreciate any comments.
May 20-21. Everest Extreme – The Top of the World, 8850m
The departure time is set at 8:30 pm, but I am starting my preparations now. I put on my two warmest pair of socks, but my feet are still a little cold, so I am turning on my electric warming system. I am all about business. Nothing extra is going on in my head, no usual noise of thoughts. May be the lack of oxygen is working its magic on me and I have enough supply for only the thoughts that I need for climbing. I remember to drink and I do so religiously, supplying my body with the liquid that will be so valuable in the coming hours. I am ready to go, but everyone in my tent is still sleeping. I was so preoccupied with myself that I did not see that no one was preparing. What is going on? Oh, God! I am one hour early.
Finally we are ready and getting out of the tents. Thukten Sherpa is in front of me and Nima Sherpa is behind me. We plan to climb in this order so we can find each other with this climbing madness: at night all the climbers look alike wearing the down suits in just two colors: red and yellow.
Thukten starts the climb as a sprinter, jumping the rope line, unclipping from the rope and bypassing two or three people at a time. The more people we pass by, the easier it is to avoid possible bottlenecks on the ropes later. I am afraid to lose him and I am following him religiously. There is not a negative thought in my head: neither about the difficulties of the climb, nor about anxiety to get to a particular point in the climb. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, then one step forward into the little light spot that is always in front of me, shining down from my head lamp. I think they call it being in the moment.
I am constantly monitoring my oxygen system by looking at the oxygen reservoir, a small container that is a size of the beer can. It accumulates oxygen when I am breathing out and feeds it back when I am breathing in. This reservoir is made of a clear hard plastic that protects a flexible plastic bag that inflates and deflates during the breathing cycle. I had some strange problems at camp 4 where the inner bag was constantly inflated so I am afraid that this can happen again. When I see it inflate and deflate, I can tell that system works.
We are constantly unclipping from the ropes and bypassing people. It takes a lot of effort, especially after I am done with each bypass. I need to stop to catch my breath for at least ten seconds. I feel very comfortable without belay during bypasses. My experience in the mixed terrain is paying back.
As climb progresses, I am losing track of time. Actually, it feels like time is collapsing. All of a sudden we are reaching the Balcony, our first stop at 8500m. This kind of time lapse has happened to me a couple of times before, when I was driving the whole night to get to Sierras. I remember looking at the mile counter and seeing that all of a sudden I just covered another 50 miles. It is the first time that I am having this experience during the actual climb. I am surprised that we are at the Balcony, but this thought quickly disappears from my brain. I am back inside myself, no thoughts, but full awareness of the surroundings and deep concentration.
I am sitting down at the Balcony for 5 minutes, drinking a little bit of water. The temperature falling to -20C (-5F). It is still very warm for this altitude. I see a lot of lights coming from people climbing up behind us, but there are still plenty of lights shining from much higher places on the mountain, defining the climbing path. It helps me imagine how much higher we still need to climb. I am mystified by one very particular light that is so high that I believe it is at the summit. Someone is there already.
We continue to climb, bypassing more and more people on the way. I feel good and warm, but sometimes I am really happy to be stuck behind some slow people, so I can get some rest by following their pace. I am still on my first bottle of oxygen. The climb becomes very steep (around 60 degrees) and I am worried that if I ran out of oxygen here, it would be very difficult to replace my empty cylinder with a fresh one. Again, this thought disappears quickly and I am back to the darkness and breathing.
It looks like we are at the South Summit in no time. It is still dark and we are almost in front of the climbers’ line. There almost no lights in front of us. The only light very high up that I saw before is still there. It is so high that I am finally realizing that this is a star. I am smiling inside my mask: it is a big relief.
I know that after the South Summit the route is more exposed, more potentially dangerous. But I do not see much: I just feel the void on both sides of the ridge. Before the Hillary Step we have to traverse some steep rocks that are hanging over a 2000 m vertical drop. As we get there, I see that they do not have any visible holds for crampons. All of this is happening at almost 8800 meters while I am wearing an oxygen mask and a puffy down suit, preventing me from seeing my feet.
There are two climbers in front of us at the Hillary Step and we have to wait for at least 5 minutes while they are getting over it. I am climbing the Hillary Step, and I am surprised that it is not difficult for me at all. However, there is a rock at the top of the Step that needs to be traversed. There is no other way to do so than to go over it as if you would climb up on a horse that is standing on the edge of a cliff opened to a 2000 meter drop.
At 4:15 am we are only 100 horizontal meters away from the summit. It is now visible in my headlight beam. I am looking around for any sign of the dawn, but it is still complete darkness, and I can only see some flashes of lightning very far on the horizon, similar to those sometimes seen from an airplane.
Nothing can stop me now! This realization comes to me for the first time and some relief goes through my body and, again, disappears as my concentration comes back.
There is a moderate wind blowing here and we are hiding behind a big rock on the side of the route and waiting for the sunrise. I am collecting some rocks to bring back as souvenirs. I am happy that I have a minute to collect them here, at the last rocky spot before the summit. There are only 4 or 5 people before us sitting on the snow slope also waiting for the sunrise.
At 4:30 we start to climb the last 100 meters up. It is an easy climb for me. Finally we are on the top of the highest mountain on the Earth, watching the sun rise. What else anyone could dream of?
My mind is still in survival mode. I experience no emotions, just observing and doing what I have to do. I look around, take pictures.
The views from the summit are spectacular. I see no sun yet, but the whole horizon is already lightening up, displaying a mixtures of different colors. A thick cloud blanket covers the Earth all around us, and only 8000 meter peaks stick out from this white mantle. Lhotse and Makalu are just in front of us, Cho Oyu is to the right, and Konchenganga is very far on the horizon. Every minute more and more light is showing up and colors are changing constantly. With the first beams of sun the famous triangle shadow of Everest appears on the west. It is amazing to see its perfect lines projecting to the clouds below.
I have two cameras. Thukten Sherpa has the main camera and I have another one as a backup. He takes some pictures of me and I can see that from his position it is not possible to take a good picture. I check his shots; they are all taken without my head or legs. I scream through my mask and ask him to make a proper distance between us to take an acceptable picture. I am not going to leave here without good pictures!
My camera goes dead after couple of shots – the lens cover is frozen and the camera reports an error – how nice! Finally we finish our photographic business and I am satisfied at least with the one of the pictures.
Thukten and I spend an hour on the summit. Nima is not here yet. We lost him on the way up. It is time for us to start our descend. At this time I see Nic approaching the summit. We hug and I take pictures for him.
Back to the climb. I am all business again. Concentrating on getting down, safe and fast. My mind is so involved with the procedure of getting down that I forget to spend some time to turn around and look back to the summit now, at daylight. As I remember this moment, I am really thinking about all that could have happened if…regretting my survival concentration… Blessing my focus and ability to be present to the task at hand.…. There is no need to regret anything, I tell myself. Maybe it is just another good reason to come back, to befriend the mountain again, to feel the power of concentration, to will myself up reaching my highest dream and find my way back, down to the safety of my home… To experience the thrill and the joy of Being …
May 21. Everest Extreme – Descend
I am coming down from the summit of Mt. Everest! How about that? In the morning light now it is visible how dramatic, difficult and exposed the climb is. The part of the route between the Hillary Step and South Summit goes along the huge cornices that overhang to the China side. These cornices have some holes in them -from climbers’ ice axes, so I can see China, 3000m down there. These holes are just next to my feet. I feel how strange this place is, but do not feel any worry or danger. I do not feel tired, going down at a good pace.
Many people are still climbing up and we switch positions on this narrow path like zombies, behind our masks in complete silence. I am the one who unclipping from the rope to bypass them and give them advantage to stay clipped. I am grabbing someone’s down suit and using it as belay, so I can bypass them securely, without falling down 2000 meters. Some of the climbers are more conscious about this switch and are grabbing me as well, doubling the hand belay but most of them are in trance and do not pay attention to me at all.
It is very hot. I am sweating like crazy and I hate this. At the Balcony I pull down the top portion of my down suit and wrap it around my waist. My hands are now tired from holding the endless rope that leads me down from the summit to South Col. I now see the tents of Camp 4 – just a little longer and I will be safe.
I finally reach the South Col – it is 8:30 am. I am really tired now, but not exhausted. It is the normal tiredness of coming a long way down from a summit climb. I am relaxed and dreaming. Nic is back also and I hear his loud and exciting voice in the next tent. He is suggesting that we should get down to Camp 2 today. What a thought!! I completely forgot that we are still at 8000m and still need to get down. Doing it today sounds like a great idea.
We spend some time resting and re-hydrating, and around 2 pm, we start down to Camp 2. It is hard, and now I feel it. I am at the top of the Geneva Spur. There are so many ropes hanging down that I am confused which one can actually hold me. I am grabbing two of them that look new and start rappelling using both of them – just in case.
I reach the tents of Camp3. Not our tents yet but some other large group that occupies a nice shelf. There are many people there and I assume that it is Mountain Guides group. I sit down on the snow near their tents and drink water. No one notice me. I continue down for another 20 min and reaching our tents. Some people from our second team are there resting after their climb from Camp 2 to Camp 3. I am expecting a lot of excitement and congratulations from them, but they are all tired and somewhat subdued. I sit there, alone, outside of the tents, drinking and waiting for the sun to come down. The clouds form a spectacular view over Pumori and I take some good shoots. I am in strange mood now. There are no more extent nor any other feelings. Just some emptiness…
Around 5 pm I start coming down again. Usually people climb down the Lhotse face, protecting themselves by just holding the rope with both hands. This is how I descended from Camp 3 the first time. This time it is a different story – I feel very exhausted and do not have any strength left in my arms so I decide to rappel on fixed ropes on a steep section of the Lhotse face. It is not that convenient because the down side of each rope span is not free but anchored, still it feels much easier. Fortunately none is climbing up nor going down. I am completely alone on the whole face. I experience a very strange feeling of isolation and loneliness, but I am not afraid.
Finally I reach the bottom of Lhotse face where the snow trail goes down at much lower angle for another mile or so. It is foggy and hot, and I feel like I am in a dream. I can not recognize the surroundings even though I went through this place two times before during my acclimatization trips. I am completely alone here also, and now I feel scared that I lost my way. How do I find my way back in this fog?
I continue to follow an enormous amount of steps that going up and down while trying to convince myself that this trail just cannot lead me to another place, because there is no “other place” here except Camp 2…Somewhere down.. This very logical argument does not work very well for my tired head though.
My feet are very hot and hurting from the whole day of descending. I am constantly stopping and trying to adjust them by sticking my thin gloves in somewhere inside to relieve the pressure, but it does not help.
Finally at around 6:30pm I reach Camp 2. It has been 36 hours of climbing without sleep: from Camp 3 to Camp 4, up to the summit and back to Camp 2.
Nic and I have a dinner together and I go to my tent. I am getting into the sleeping bag, but I do not have time to zip it up. I am falling into a very deep sleep.
I wake up in the middle of the night because I am very cold. What is it? I see that my sleeping bag is still open. I am zipping it up, remembering the day that just passed, smiling and falling asleep again.
In the morning it is even more difficult to move because my legs feel painfully tired after such a long decent from the summit. But the party is not over yet. I have to get to the Base Camp through the Icefall for the last time. I know that I need to get down as fast as possible to avoid avalanches, but I can not move faster. I am managing to complete the Icefall part just fine in 4 hours. It is as much time as I used to climb it up and twice longer that it took me to descent the last time I was here. The final 30 min of the Icefall are painfully difficult, but I already see the tents and safety.
It is a very warm reception at the Base Camp. Everyone congratulates me, and it is very emotional.
I am thinking about the people who love me at home – my family and friends. My wife, who supported me not just in this whole endeavor, but also the million times when I called for healing, moral support, and to just to hear her voice. My feeling of her love and strength are not diminished by the distance that separates us: it is magnified by the magnitude of Everest. My sister, who was always there to help me with my multiple health related problems. My parents, who suppressed their endless worrying, and supported my dream. My son and daughter who gave me the strength and desire to complete what I wanted to do. All the people who thought about me that night and followed my progress. I am so grateful.