Mt. Everest, Asia

My last of the Seven Summits

I am fortunate to have been on numerous climbing expeditions to the great mountain ranges of the world – from Antarctica to New Guinea, Africa to Asia, Alaska to Australia, the Andes to the Alps and many places in between. Each expedition has been uniquely challenging, rewarding, and memorable. Perhaps, for me, none have been more so than my three expeditions to the mighty Himalaya.

All three Himalayan expeditions had the primary aim for me to stand atop the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest. However, nature, and maybe even more so the world’s highest peaks, owe us nothing, simply providing a magnificently picturesque, yet spectacularly indifferent, backdrop to our mortal toils. The literal and emotional highs and lows of climbing in such remote, unrelenting environments perhaps can be best encapsulated by one of the many days I have spent on Mount Everest – May 23, 2012.

That day started abruptly. And early. Too early…

After nearly eight weeks in Nepal, my climbing team was finally in position to climb to the summit of Mt. Everest. Having overcome poor climbing conditions, inclement weather, bouts of illness, basecamp drama, increased avalanche and icefall risks, and some fatalities higher on the mountain, several teams had already packed-up and returned early to the safety of home. Yet, we remained.

Despite all of the challenges and hardships we endured, we were steadfast and determined. We left basecamp (17,500’) in the early morning darkness of May 22nd to begin our final, days-long ascent to the summit. I climbed with my team, one that I helped to assemble the year prior, through the ceaselessly daunting maze of the Khumbu Icefall. We made quick work of it this time now that our bodies were acclimated to the extreme altitude.

From the top of the icefall, the terrain levels out a bit and it is simply a long, arduous, unrelenting trudge to Camp II, at 21,500’. I pushed myself and made it to camp in quick order before the sun emerged from behind Lhotse and cooked everything in the Western Cwm like a convection oven. Arriving ahead of the rest of my team, I had plenty of time to rest and recuperate. Greeting my climbing mates as they arrived, I felt strong and confident about the work that remained to be completed over the next several days to reach the summit.

With our entire team of 12, in addition to our Sherpa support, moving together for the summit push, we needed to share tents at the upper camps, which is typical on an expedition. However, due to some differences in acclimatization schedules among the climbers leading up to this point, this was the first time that I had shared a tent since our team’s arrival in base camp. I shared mine with a good friend and longtime climbing partner.

As is common on long expeditions at extreme altitudes in places like the Himalaya, the conditions and altitude wear you down incessantly until you have virtually no reserves or immune system left. As a result, bacterial and viral infections make their way through the various climbing teams regularly, sparing no one, and taking a marked toll. Our team was no different.

Just after midnight on now the early morning of May 23rd, my tent-mate succumbed to a particularly nasty GI infection that had been making its way around base camp in the days leading up to our departure for the summit. In the misery of the dark and wind and cold of Camp II, he spent the night vomiting in our tent’s vestibule and relieving himself in the nearby “toilet tent,” consisting of a small vertical tent and a bucket. I did what I could to help him, although admittedly in that state and in that location, there wasn’t much I could do other than offer a few minimally consoling words while trying to help him stay hydrated.

As the sun reached our tent that morning, it became clear that his expedition was over. His oxygen saturation levels had dropped to a frighteningly low level and he was clearly suffering. We put him on bottled oxygen to stabilize him and then sent him down to basecamp as soon as he was able to make it down safely under his own power. It was an easy decision to make at the time based on his condition, but no less devastating to see him return home just shy of attaining his goal after nearly two months of effort and resilience.

Somberly, the rest of the team assembled to eat breakfast, on this a scheduled rest day before our final push to the top. Talk inevitably shifted from our sick teammate’s misfortune to the fact that we all still had a long way to go and the necessity to focus on what we had to do to be successful and return home safely to our loved ones. All the while, in the back of my head, I knew that I had just spent the night lying shoulder-to-shoulder with my very sick tent-mate, and that there was no guarantee that I would emerge unscathed.

It was at this point that, seemingly instinctively, our expedition teammate, Heidi Sand, who had taken on an almost motherly presence on the trip, decided to lighten the mood. She removed from her backpack a white chocolate candy bar for all to share and a candle to celebrate my 39th birthday near the top of the world. It was such a shockingly incongruent moment compared to our surroundings and the dour mood of the team witnessing our friend’s realization that his expedition was over, that it remains an iconic moment of expedition trip for me. It was an indescribably thoughtful, touching and humane gesture in such a hostile and unforgiving environment. The sound of 10 raspy, parched, hypoxic voices singing “happy birthday” to me at 21,500’ on the flanks of Everest is a memory that I will cherish always.

The rest of the day passed quietly and innocuously. There were conversations of what to expect as well as time spent inspecting, packing and re-packing the gear we would use to complete the task ahead. The plan was to depart for Camp III at 3am that night, to rest there for most of the day before proceeding to Camp IV at the South Col (26,300’), again resting during the day, before departing for the summit (29,035’) around 9pm on May 25th to summit in the early morning hours of May 26th.

Everyone fitfully attempted to sleep that night afflicted with anxious anticipation of what the next couple of days would hold in store for us. As I finally laid my head to rest around 10pm, the first of the sulfuric belches erupted from deep inside of me. I knew in that instant that my expedition too was over. Within an hour, I was overwhelmed by the same GI infection that my teammate had succumbed to roughly 24 hours prior. Devastated, I quarantined myself from my fellow climbers to suffer through the worst of it. Within 36 hours, the infection had run its course, but I was weakened and my team was now 5,000’ higher, at Everest’s South Col, preparing for their imminent departure to the summit where each of my teammates would proudly stand in the hours that followed.

With the resources we had in place, the exceptionally strong team, the great weather window, and how strong I was feeling prior to falling ill, I believe that I would have had a great chance at “running out of earth” like my teammates. Timing is everything though. In order to summit Everest, you need the stars to align for your one shot at the top when all of the resources are in place and the weather allows safe passage. The “stars” in this case are a good weather window, passable climbing conditions, individual health and the right personal physiology for high altitude. It appears that I had 3 of the 4 on this attempt, which is not sufficient. I gave it all that I had and it simply wasn’t enough in this toughest of Everest seasons.

From the highs of having a dream goal nearly in my grasp and sharing the camaraderie of a special birthday moment in the most inhospitable of places, to the lows of realizing how capriciously the achievement of such a dream can disappear into the ether as well as the misery of being so ill, at extreme altitude, in the cold and dark and wind of the Western Cwm, Everest tests your resolve, character and fortitude like few places can.

However, I left the mountain with old relationships strengthened and new ones forged, with the knowledge that I had the requisite physiology and fortitude to climb that mountain and others like it, and with all of my fingers and toes intact. All in all, that’s the outcome we strive for in the Himalaya. The summit is optional and often beyond our control whether we make it there on any given attempt, but returning home safely, in good health and with relationships intact is a must. From this perspective, my 2012 Everest expedition was an unmitigated success. After all, it’s not reaching the summit, but rather the time spent with kindred spirits in the world’s high places that forms the bonds that cannot be broken and makes expeditions such as these the truly special experiences that they are.