two months on the Hill. The climb to the South Col was difficult. After
a short eight hours, I was on my way to the summit.
"I want to give her Dex. She is not responding to the food and water
like she should." I listened carefully. "The weather is closing in,
we need to get down NOW." "She just had a retinal hemorrhage, we must
get down." I looked around as my eyes cleared from a deep sleep. Am
I dreaming? Am I dead? Where am I?
My right hand hurt. I pulled it out of my sleeping bag only to
see tape, bandages and a plastic tube running above me. The IV
stared down on me like a mother with her sick child in bed. My
head began to clear. I was in the medical tent in the Adventure
Consultants' Everest Base Camp. On the radio, Dave Hahn was speaking
to his base camp about the American Women's Everest Expedition.
They were near the summit when it all fell apart. One by one
the climbers were having problems plus the weather was deteriorating.
I lay in my sleeping bag listening as the drama unfolded.
One more minute. That is all I need. With a roll, I snuggled deeper into
my bag in Base Camp. Then I was out. Put on my 'icefall' climbing gear:
two tops, windstopper pants, harness, boots and crampons in my pack. This
was the beginning of the summit bid - the start of the end. And why we
were all at Everest Base Camp. A quick breakfast lead to a visit to the
Chorten, a rock alter standing five feet high. We had our puja here. And
every day we had been on the Hill, Ang Tshering lit a pine bough at five
in the morning and five at night and prayed for our safety. This morning
was no exception.
One by one, we stepped up to the Chorten. I pinched enough rice from the
pan to toss it into the air three times. I looked at the alter and smelled
the smoke. Looking at our Expedition Sidar, I asked silently for a safe
return. Ang Tshering smiled at me and took my right hand with both of his
and wished me good luck. Chumbgu, Nimga, Dawa and other Sherpas who would
stay behind looked on and each one shook my hand. We looked into one another's
eyes deeply. And then we were off.
Another trip up the infamous icefall. More ladders. Seracs about
to fall. Concrete hard ice. Fixed lines for clipping into. 2000
feet later, Camp 1. A brief rest. I check my watch. Hmm, not
bad only three and half-hours, almost two hours faster than the
first trip to C1. I am stronger. I am going to the summit. Across
the upper Khumbu glacier. Over the hole that was once again hiding
the crevasse that almost devoured me four weeks ago. Enjoying
the beauty of the Western Cwm, I cough. Nothing serious. You
know, the Khumbu cough. Everyone gets it. I cough again. Nothing
to remember or mention to the Doc.
Dave, Rob, Haraldur and I reach the bottom of the rock-lined
gully leading to C2. We pause for water. And I cough. This time
it is different. Long, deep, painful and hard. This cough does
not stop. My body is trying to expel a demon and replace it with
oxygen. When I finish, I am drained. I do it again. Dave watches
me. He offers me hard candy to keep my throat moist. I gladly
accept and move on. The candy helps. I follow Rob up the rocks
to C2. The cough changes from rare to occasional. But I am in
Western Cwm on my way to the top of the world. A cough is not
going to stop me now.
Finally we all arrive in C2. Everyone is feeling good except for Haraldur
who said he is 'off' today and taking it slow and easy. He has done this
before and always bounced back. I admired his ability to know his body
and make the adjustments. The cough is steady now. Bill offers me cough
medicine with codeine. I willing accept to stop this irritation and continue
my way to the summit. Dave looks at me again.
The evening is passed and we start a rest day at C2. Rob and
I sleep in and soon join the rest of the team for breakfast.
Afterwards we are sitting on lawn chairs, sunglasses and sunscreen
in full operation, looking at the Lhotse face. We talk about
everything and nothing. Everyone's mind is on tomorrow ... and
the next day...
No need to hurry to C3. We have been there before and there is
nothing to prove this time. Get there, re-hydrate, sleep and
eat. Again, Rob and I do the plan. This time, however, we sleep
with oxygen. We argue over the uneven icy floor before finally
arriving on a new sleeping configuration that makes both of us
uncomfortable instead of just one like when we were here before.
But the intensity is low since tomorrow was our fist trip above
23,500'. And the beginning of the real climb. We sleep throughout
the night breathing in the oxygen through our Russian MIG pilot
A leisurely morning is complicated by the use of oxygen for our
climb to the South Col. Full down suits, packs with a three liter
oxygen bottle. It was starting to feel different from other climbs.
This was Everest. I started up the fixed lines above C3. It was
steep and packed with climbers positioning themselves for a May
15 summit bid. After an hour of climbing, I felt like I had only
gone up the length of a football field. The shock came when I
looked up and to my left.
All the books. All the stories. All my research. I was still
surprised by the Geneva Spur. I saw it from C2 not fully understanding
the size and angle of its shape. A nose-like rock formation standing
between me and the South Col. As I paused on my uphill journey,
I saw long lines of climbers between the yellow band and the
top of the Spur. Everyone was moving in slow motion. The lines
of climbers stood out on the ice and snow like fans buying tickets
to the Superbowl. They snaked around obstacles and painted a
dark line in contrast to the white background. One by one, each
climber disappeared over the top of the Spur.
A strange sound caught my attention. The hiss of escaping air
and it was near my ear. With Tom close behind me, I asked if
he would check that my regulator was tightened to my oxygen tank.
He generously looked at my apparatus and made some adjustments.
Soon he passed me. I continued to hear rushing air. Each step
seemed hard, but this was 24,000 feet after all!
The sun moving past the top of Lhotse begins bearing down on
all of us. In my full down suit, I had no choice but to accept
the heat. I unzipped as much as possible to relieve the heat
build-up but I was losing more water than I could replace as
I continued my climb. Soon, I reached the Yellow Band - a layer
of limestone that streak through the Himalayas in this area.
Not very difficult climbing but vastly different from the ice
on the Lhotse face. "Stand aside," he asked politely. As I did
I saw a climber escorting another down the Band. Snow blindness.
His sunglasses had tape over the lenses to prevent further damage.
They passed me as I sat down on my pack.
I twisted the regulator as hard as I dared to stop the leak and drank my
water. I coughed. I coughed again. This was truly hard. Now I was the last
of my team going to Camp 4 and the South Col. No teammates, no guides and
no Sherpas. I was alone with other expedition refugees. No one spoke as
we passed one another on the fixed lines. Six hours was the time most climbers
took to make the trip. I was at five and still looking at the steep rock
wall on the top of the Spur. I climbed the snow slope making sure I was
always clipped into at least one of the fixed lines.
Often there were five or six lines attached to snow anchors or
ice screws. You could never be sure which rope was this year's,
last years or five-year-old rotting nylon. I used them all just
to be sure. Looking to my left, the Face dropped 5,000 feet to
an equally deep crevasse. Take it slow; there was no real hurry.
I coughed again as I took a deep breath of oxygen.
Finally I reached the base of the wall. The final leg of this journey,
so I thought. Where was Camp 4? I didn't know. A Sherpa leaned over the
edge and smiled at me. From fifty feet away, I didn't recognize him. As
I started up the wall, I was glad I had experience climbing on rock. My
crampon points held gingerly to the small cracks and edges. A flat snow
ledge provided comfort and rest. The Sherpa, now close enough to see that
he was one of ours, called out to me with one word: "Oxygen?" I said no,
feeling that camp was not that far away and I had enough left in my three
liter bottle. My mask hung around my neck. The claustrophobia too much
and the benefit too little to wear it properly. I heard the hiss and coughed.
Once on top, the Sherpas switched my bottles. Apparently, they
had orders. Pointing ahead, they left at a swift pace. I moved
slowly after them not knowing how far or what terrain I would
encounter. Each step was a struggle now. I breathed the oxygen.
I made steady progress and then I saw it. Tents. Lots of tents.
Lots of yellow tents. Dave saw me and waved his down covered
arms. I managed a small gesture in his direction. Moving though
the maze of tents, someone called my name. I glanced into a yellow
tent to see a friend from another team. I coughed.
Bill and Ang Dorge took my pack and turned my oxygen up to four
liters per minute, the maximum flow. I sat on a rock and breathed
deeply. The hot lemon drink tasted good. I asked for another.
I coughed again, this time long and hard like on my way to Camp
2 a few days ago. I began to wonder about my strength.
Into the two-man tent, I joined three of my teammates. We all
spoke softly as we drank water and munched on whatever we had.
I closed my eyes. Haraldur came by to check on Tom and I since
Tom had problems with his regulator. I asked him if I could use
his satellite phone later. When the time came, I stumbled out
of my tent to find Haraldur phone. Amazed that I could call Cathy
from this lonesome spot.
As I walked to a spot with good reception, I looked around. The
Everest pyramid was to my right. I looked down on 26,000-foot
mountains directly in front. The sky was a blue I had never seen
before. And of course, there was Everest. A huge mountain as
it rose from the South Col. Another 3,000 feet to the summit.
12 hours of climbing, another six to get down. The trail was
barely visible in the setting sun.
Our conversation was short but critical. "I am tired, very tired." I told
her. Hearing the energy in her voice made me feel better. "I don't know
what is happening but something feels wrong." I paused and asked the question
I didn't want to: "Would you be disappointed if I didn't make the summit?" My
wife answered me honestly: "Of course I wouldn't. Just do your best." I
fought back my emotions and coughed. I was tired. But I was climbing Everest.
I returned to the cramped tent and fell asleep. Every movement
woke me up, however the two hours passed quickly. The dressing
ritual was swift since I never took off my down suit. We moved
slowly and deliberately. Leaving the safety of the yellow tent
and into the darkness of the South Col, our headlamps glowing,
the Sherpas took the control of the climbers and made sure our
harness buckle was double backed, our crampons were tightly strapped
to our boots and our oxygen bottles properly connected.
One by one expeditions left the South Col for their summit attempt.
We wanted to get off as well to avoid delays that always happen
at the difficult spots. As I looked around to let the situation
sink in. I was about to climb Mt. Everest. After almost two months,
I was here. In my full down suit, clipped into the fixed line
and equal to all the other climbers. In seven short years of
climbing and preparation, I was attempting the highest mountain
on the planet.
Our team left in a spurt of activity. Ang Dorge, the lead Sherpa
left first with one climber. I followed closely. Then another
of our team and the rest. We all took our place on the fixed
line and moved at glacial speed. A step, a breath. A step, then
wait for the climber in front to move. Slow progress but still
progress. I felt good. I was on my own pace and had made peace
with the oxygen mask. A climber passed me on the left without
being clipped in. Hmm. I continued to play my own game without
feeling pressure from others. I could not see my guides or my
teammates. I felt alone. I was alone.
An hour passed. The lights from the headlamps ahead of me looked
as if there was a lit highway up Mt. Everest. Nothing could have
been farther from the truth. I felt good, an occasional cough.
Step. Breath. The temperature was about zero Fahrenheit. Just
right for my down covering. The facemask was comfortable now.
I was climbing Everest.
Another hour passes. I cough more. I look behind me. A Sherpa.
One of ours? I don't ksure. He looks at me as I continue
climbing. I can't stop now. I am climbing Everest, 29,035 - the
highest point on our planet Earth. Another step, another cough.
The coughing increases as the irritation in my lungs becomes
more apparent. Then it suddenly becomes serious.
I cough. Not a simple one that clears the throat. But rather
one that revels a problem. We have all experienced this. A cold
that becomes the flu. Flu that becomes pneumonia. It is deep
in my chest, a baritone cough. It lasts forever. I lean on my
uphill knee as the episode continues then I take another step.
Another half an hour goes by. This cannot be the end of my climb.
I must push on - I am just hurting, not really hurt. I cough.
Few climbers are ahead. I think I see one of my teammates. Yes, it is Rob
maybe 100 feet ahead. My Sherpa is behind; my slow pace must frustrate
him. I cough again, this time violently. Leaning on my knee, I consider
what is happening. The headlamp trail is thinning. Most climbers have reached
the Balcony and are moving up the Southeast ridge of Everest. Can I make
it? The doubts grow.
The coughing is now with every step. A serious complication develops -
my stomach goes into convulsions at the end of every episode. My breathing
becomes labored at the end. Something is wrong, seriously wrong. Up until
Camp 3, I was strong and keeping up with everyone. The trip from three
to the South Col was hard. Was I not up to it? No way. I can still summit,
no doubt. The next step was clue to the future: a cough followed by a gag
then a heave. You do not climb to the highest spot on Earth in this way.
This time I take a long break. Think. Think about what is happening. I
breathe in the oxygen. It is cool and refreshing. I look up at the lights
above me. I look down to see the camp at the South Col. I look at the Sherpa
behind me. I cannot stop. While this is hard, it is not impossible. The
coughing will pass. Maybe some GU and water will help. I take both.
Another step. More altitude. More coughing followed by another violent
reaction. I lean over to vomit. My altimeter shows 8,350 meters or 27,200
feet, only 1,480 feet and 10 hours from the top of the world. Another step,
another erosion. Then as I recover, it becomes clear... this is it. As
I stand fully upright the words escape my mouth out loud; " This is nonsense." And
with that, my summit bid for Everest is over.
Like turning on a light in a dark room, the right thing to do
became obvious. And once you know the right thing to do, do it.
I needed to get down and get down now. Another hour of climbing
would make me weaker. Another two hours would put me in serious
danger. Another three hours and I might simply lie down and never
get back up - forever. As my options scrolled through my mind,
I thought of all the people who had sent me e-mails with wishes
for success. I thought of Cathy's advice to simply do my best.
And I remembered my own goal of finding my limits, pushing beyond
and if that was good enough, great; if not, then go home alive.
My deliberations were over. It was time to go down.
After a negotiation with my Sherpa, I start down Everest for
Camp 4 on the South Col. I leave alone. Careful with every step,
I never doubt my decision. A small strobe light attached to a
tent shows the way along the fixed line. The coughing continues.
Looking behind me, there are few lights approaching the Balcony.
My emotions are steady. Get down. Solve the problem. This was
not the time for reflection or sorrow. My body had voted and
the outcome was decided. However it was a long way to Base Camp.
Arriving at my tent, I collapse in the sleeping bag. Barely taking
my climbing gear off, I turn the oxygen up and close my eyes.
With only a few hours sleep over the past two days, I expected
to go into a coma, but my condition allows only a few minutes
sleep without interruption. The zipper rips opens and Tom appears.
I am shocked. Tom was one of the strongest climbers on our team.
He falls into the tent.
On my way down, I never think about what I could have done, should have
done or what might have been. My body was in serious trouble and I needed
to get off this Hill. There would be plenty of time to reflect the rest
of my life. I take an extra night at Camp 3, very unusual since it is perched
on the Lhotse Face and no one stays there going down. But I want to get
down safely and it serves as a welcome refuge for my sick body.
At Base Camp, it became clear that my lungs were infected when
the Doctor heard 'crackling' with the stethoscope. After two
liters of fluids to address my dehydration, I started a program
of antibiotics. Lying in the medical tent, I felt grateful to
be there. The cough continued but not with intensity that stopped
"I'm calling it." Hahn said thus ending the American's women
team summit bid. I had met several of them over the past weeks.
They still had to get down but the drama was relaxing. Dave finally
made the call to end their summit bid. Massive disappointment.
It was over. Weeks later I would read quotes from the climbers
that they were pleased with their efforts and satisfied with
the result. I wondered what they think about today. Just before
they fall asleep. Walking the dog. In the shower. Back home alive
with their families and no summit.
A few weeks later my own life is returning to 'normal' but I must admit
that I am having a difficult time recovering from the experience - both
emotionally and physically. I had to go to my Doctor since I was not feeling
any better two weeks after landing at the airport. He heard something in
my lungs so we did chest x-rays, blood tests, etc. Everything came back
negative but I still felt very tired. I must have had something very bad
On the emotional front, I still think a lot about that night.
I know I did my best but it haunts me that I could have done
more/different/something. I know it is not logical but the mind
is a funny thing. I also came back to work and found myself with
a new boss, new strategy and many changes. But this is what life
is all about ... changes - attempts - success - failure - understanding
- learning. What did I learn on Everest? Did I succeed or fail?
Will I try again?