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May 242020
Southeast Ridge

The entire team was now on their summit push. The conditions were good, but the toll of being in the Death Zone was becoming apparent. Some of our fictional team were in trouble.

Virtual Everest 2020 – Support the Climbing Sherpas is a joint project of Alan Arnette and several global guide companies. Our objective is to entertain Everest fans during the Coronavirus spring closure and raise money to help the Climbing Sherpas who are not working this spring. While there will be accurate historical references, this series is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Please join us by making a donation using the links below plus by adding your Everest experiences in the comment section.

Summit Push

Passang and Old Man were halfway up the Triangular Face. Pertemba was with them carrying extra oxygen. They were making good time, but not great. They had been moving for four hours and just made the turn at a massive boulder towards the Balcony. Couple with their Personal Sherpas were a bit behind. It was 10:30 on summit night.

The conditions were about as good as it gets on Everest, clear skies, temps around zero, and, for now, a light wind from the west. The South Summit blocked most of the breeze. The 100 climbers had spread out on the Triangular Face, and some were above the Balcony.

“How are we doing?” She asked Mingma, her Personal Sherpa. “Good, Didi, good.” Loner with Lhapka and Dutch with Phurba were right behind them.

They left the South Col right on time at 9:30. After passing almost 50 people on the Triangular Face, they arrived at the Balcony in three and a half hours. They were right on schedule to summit around dawn, in about four hours.

Everest Southeast Ridge in 2011 as seen from Lhotse

Everest Southeast Ridge in 2011 as seen from Lhotse

Mingma heard the radio crackle, “Mingma, where are you?” It was Dawa monitoring the team from the South Col with three other Climbing Sherpas. “On the Ridge above Balcony,” Mingma told the Sidar.

At the Balcony, the sub-team of six stopped to swap oxygen bottles. Even though they were only half empty, they would use a full bottle to get to the summit and back to the Balcony, where they would swap the almost empty cylinder for the half-full one.

The Sherpas managed the bottle swap. It’s delicate work to unscrew the cylinder from the regulator and swap bottles. If the screw threads became damaged, it made the regulator or bottle useless. They carried extra regulators just in case this happened. However, the Sherpas were very skilled at the maneuver, even in gloved hands, cold temps, and high winds.

While the Sherpas worked, the members sat on the snow, drinking half a liter of water. They had put electrolyte replacement pills in their water bottles. Loner liked ones from CamelBak, She from Nunn, and Dutch from Fizz. They all worked similarly, but some tasted better than others. They also took in about 200 to 400 calories. Of course, She ate her Honey Stinger bars while Dutch preferred Gu gels.

Leaving the Balcony, they began climbing the Southeast Ridge proper. Dutch was nervous. Guide had talked a lot about this section being steep and rocky in places. Thankfully they had the Ridge mostly to themselves. There were a handful of climbers above them, headlamps looking like midges, tiny fireflies in the distance. “Look out for rockfall.” Loner leaned over to tell Dutch.

Dutch had gone into deep thought as he took each step. He remembered the mantra from his climbing coach back home, “Short, simple steps.” The secret to climbing Everest was not to hurry, but be patient, even if it feels terribly slow, as long as you are moving, you are going higher. But if you go too slow and don’t turn back, you might die. It’s a delicate balance learned through experience.

“Slow, simple steps. Slow, simple steps. Control my breathing. Control my emotions. I can do this. I am doing this.” Dutch paused for a moment to look back at the South Col. He could see lights from the tents. It looked like a small city. Above the South Col, he saw a line of headlamps on Lhotse. He tapped Loner on the shoulder and pointed. Loner looked away, knowing that he would not get Lhotse after Everest as he had planned.

The climbers moved deliberately, Mingma in the lead, She was two steps behind him. They placed each step carefully and purposefully in the footprint of the one above. It was efficient, preserving precious energy for the final push – and the return.

Guide had talked to the team about the descent almost as much as going up. On Everest, more people perish on the descent than going up. He told them that according to the Himalayan Database, of the 85 member deaths from 2000-2019, 55 were on the descent compared to only 8 while ascending.

Climbers often push themselves so hard that they run out of energy once they top out. Standing on the summit is emotional, and some people find themselves drained, become careless, or lose the motivation to continue.

Also, some use too much oxygen on the way up, failing to monitor their usage accurately. Sadly, their climbing teammates fail to look after each other. Most deaths in the mountains are a result of human error.

Old Man, Passang, and Pertemba stopped and stood side by side at the Balcony, a room-size flat area. Teams in the 1990s, mostly Japanese, sometimes used it as a camp. At 27,500-feet, it’s almost 400 meters into the Death Zone, too high for most to consider today.

Passang and Pertemba worked quickly to swap the bottle, and soon the three were moving higher. They were going very slow now.

Before leaving the Balcony, Old Man looked down the moonlit gulley. He searched for Couple, he could see headlamps, but no movement. This last section before the Balcony became steep; huge boulders dotted the landscape.

Boyfriend was in trouble. Similar to pulling into Camp 3, he was leaning over, hands on his knees, not enough energy to lift his head. He began to hyperventilate. Passang knelt under his facemask,” Bistari, bistari. Slow breathe. No gasps.”

“Help me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Passang turned his regulator to maximum flow, 6 liters per minute.” Girlfriend stood by watching, moving closer to put her hand on his back. He stood up, feeling relief from the higher flow. “Oh, my darling, I’m too tired. I’m done. I’m tired.” He said, barely audible through his mask and the sound of her own breathing.

The four climbers were at the end of the line of climbers that day; no one was behind them. Passang took a step back. She looked up at the headlamps on the Balcony. It was not that far. But She, Loner, and Dutch were over three hours ahead. If he went down, should she go with them? Should she continue with Nawang? Was it too late for her to keep going?

“Guide, come in.” Girlfriend spoke into the radio microphone clipped to her pack strap. “Guide, Guide, we need help.” He didn’t answer. In the middle of the Southeast Ridge, there was a radio dead spot; he must be in the wrong place at the wrong time for her. “Yes, this is Dawa, over.” Dawa served as backup from the South Col. “Dawa, thank God, Boyfriend is on his knees. He can’t breathe. Passang turned his Os up to six, and it helped, but I think he’s done.” Passang keyed his mike speaking in Sherpa “Dawa; he is in bad shape. Send up two men with more O’s. We need to get him down now.”

Boyfriend now on all fours had calmed his breathing, but it was clear that his climb was over. He began coughing, gagging but nothing came up. Now, the priority was to get him back to base camp and Kathmandu as soon as humanly possible, but first was the South Col. He looked up at his future wife and Passang, “Yes, I need to go down. Now.”

She and Mingma were almost to the South Summit, the slope had been moderate most of the Ridge and now flattened out. “Good.” She thought. But then it kicked up aggressively, even the South Summit on Everest makes you work. She followed Mingma up the steps to the top of the false-summit.

Old Man was hurting; his pace was slow. But it was steady. Both Passang and Pertemba had seen this before, a person who didn’t fit the usual profile of an Everest climber struggle, but their deep desire and confidence pushed them to places within that they never knew existed. Old Man was showing his grit, his determination. At a break, the two Climbing Sherpas spoke, “He is slow and old.” Pertemba said. “We still have plenty of time to get the summit and back.” Passang countered. Pertemba, demurring to his senior, simply nodded. “Yes, let’s get him there.”

Snorer and Buddies were just below She, Loner, and Dutch. They moved well, but not as fast as She.

She and Mingma crested the South Summit greeted by a strong wind, maybe 25 mph. “Windy,” Mingma simply said into his radio. Just then, a big gust moved the two climbers a few inches off their mark.

Boyfriend took a 15-minute break and finished his water and energy bars. He stood up and looked at Girlfriend, then moved next to her face. “We talked about this. You go.” And with that, he and Passang, clipped into the ropes and a rope connecting their harnesses, turned and took a step towards the South Col. He took another, and another then stopped. He looked at the lights on the Col. He had turned around on Denali but pushed through the ‘wall’ to summit Aconcagua. Was he making a mistake? Could he do this? He stood still, quiet.

Passang was a few feet behind him. Boyfriend turned around and looked back up. Girlfriend was standing at the same spot where he left a few moments ago, not moving, her eyes locked on him.

“Passang, Gyalzen, and Tenzing have left to meet you. They have two bottles each, so turn him up to max flow.” Dawa was now in command. “Help coming.” Passing told Boyfriend.

Even though it was in Sherpa, Boyfriend knew what the right thing to do was hearing this on the radio. He lifted his down-covered arm and mittened right hand and opened his palm to Girlfriend, struggling to raise a thumb out of his palm. She nodded, turned, and took a step higher.

“One hour Didi, One hour to summit.” With that, Mingma lead her down from the South Summit and towards the Cornice Traverse, Hillary Step, and the Summit. At the base of the Step, “Mingma, Mingma,” she gasped. “My oxygen, my oxygen. Somethings wrong.”

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

Climbing Sherpa Support

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  2 Responses to “Virtual Everest 2020: Climbing to the Summit”


    This is a fun read about my favorite mountain. I’ll read anything Everest I can, especially survival stuff. Thanks!