Hopes and Fears
Climbing Mt. Everest
Standing on top of the world is my goal. No debate. I will put everything I have - my body, my mind, my essence - into the climb to the summit and then to return home safely. That is my goal.
I see myself navigating the giant seracs in the Khumba ice fall. A long 2,000' between Base Camp and Camp 1. Most people who die on Everest, die here. A huge chunk of ice falls on them. They slip into a crevasse. They do not go higher. They do not go lower - on their own. Their body is turned over to the physics of moving ice. Maybe one day, they will be seen again, if the glacier releases it's icy grip. I, however, escape this trap and move higher.
Camp 1 to Camp 2 feels flat, but it is another 1,500' gain. The smooth nature of this snow field tricks me into believing this is a simple walk. At 20,000' nothing is simple and I still have 9,000' feet to go.
I am waking up every hour waiting for the alarm clock to tell me it is time to train for Everest. 3:45AM. I roll out of bed and make my way to the computer. A quick check of the weather confirms that I need to take my Gortex wind suit on this January trip up Longs Peak. I quickly dress in three layers: lightweight capiline tops and bottoms, expedition weight fleece and the wind suit. I make sure the ice axe, crampons, goggles, gloves and balaclava are in the pack. I throw in another 15lbs of gear to add ballast - after all this is a training day.
Incredibly, Cathy is up as well. She makes me two sandwiches while Mimi waits patiently for a handout. This is the fifth Sunday in a row we have started the day with this routine. A better partner does not exist. Never a complaint, she kisses me good-bye and I drive the hour to the trailhead of this Colorado Fourteener. Driving, I think about the time this is taking. Most weekends, I take one day to go into the mountains for a training climb. When I am not traveling on business, I take another two hours to train at the gym or to run. Cathy has never said one negative word about this time. She knows, like I know, that this was part of the commitment it takes to climb a big hill. I smile to myself and enjoy the satisfaction of such joint dedication to a goal.
Longs was cold this day. The wind chill dropped well below zero. I was glad I had the goggles and the Gortex. With each step into the wind, I put myself between Camps 1 and 2. I thought about the difference of the altitude. Here I was at 12,000' - less than half of my final goal. There will be less oxygen. I remember the feeling at 26,000 feet on Cho Oyu. I remember how great I felt on Ama Dablam and Denali several years later. This growth in my experience will help me when I hurt - and I will. After climbing 3,000' up, I went 3,000' down. A nice round trip with load. I felt good. The training was paying off.
Camp 2 to Camp 3 is another test. Up the Lhotse face. Hard packed ice. The crampons must bite into the ice. I am clipped into the thin fixed line but a fall would not be good. Now I am conscious of my breathing. Each breath does not give me the same relief as it did lower down. I inhale with all my strength - nothing. I think about running back in Colorado at 5,000 feet.
My seven mile run was a nightmare at first. I ran cross-country in high school but stopped when it went to three miles. I couldn't do it then but now, thirty years later (thirty years!), I run twice that distance without a thought. During the sprint section of my run, my breathing is labored as my heart rate approaches maximum. I begin to think about breathing.. Being aware of breathing is not a normal thought. A deep inhale. A short fast exhale. Pressure breathing. Maximize the oxygen transfer. I feel better - both running and on the Lhotse face.
Camp 4 is the last stop. The port of departure for the summit. A cruel 26,000' and a lifetime away from the goal. The winds are unrelenting. The temperatures are brutal. I crawl into my sleeping bag without taking my down off. The ice is firm here and the pad proves good protection from the cold. I roll over on my right side - just like home. My eyes move rapidly side to side. My legs twitch. It feels like the heater is on full blast in our bedroom. I wake up dripping wet. Another dream of climbing Everest? I really do not know what I dreamed, but it was about climbing. something vaguely about overcoming a rocky outcrop - the Hillary Step? I don't know. I reach over to find Cathy and I feel better. I go back to sleep with the satisfaction that fear will keep me safe.
Can I make it to the summit? The highest point above sea-level on Earth? Only 1,415 persons have ever stood there out of a world population of over 6 Billion - .00003%! I am not a professional climber. I don't do this every year. I have only been to 26,000 feet once before - and it was very, very hard. The weather could close in - like in '96. I could get HAPE or HACE. I could vomit my way to Camp 4 losing valuable strength with each regurgitation. I could simply lose the will to go further - or worse - to go lower.
Pam wants two more. My arms feel like putty. I am out of breath. Sweat is pouring down my face. The last action I want at this moment in my life is to pull my chin above the bar. I hurt. I think about 26,000 feet. A quarter the oxygen I have now. Well, maybe it is not so bad. I focus on the pull. Pushing air out of my lungs like a tornado, I get my hair-covered chin to the bar. Back down. One more? OK, one more. Pam has pushed me for the past 5 months. Thank you Pam - you made a difference.
Hopes: Do my best. Not vomit. Play the guitar again. Keep smiling. Sleep in my bed with my wife. Inform my Parents that I lived. Hug Ashley. Kiss Mimi. Tell my Brother I love him. Learn something I don't know about myself. Discover where my absolute limits are.
Fears: Family death. I disappear without a trace. Feeling great - weather closes in and stops the climb. A forgotten piece of gear. Maoists Rebels takes everyone hostage. Failure according to my own preventable weakness.
AND, I will try. I will go beyond my fears. My hopes will serve as entry points. After all, if I don't try then I will read books, see movies and never know if I can...