‘Everest is Easy!’

From a recent Skype conversation with a long-time friend:

 – Mila! Omg! I saw the photos from the summit of Everest! SO Awesome!

 – Yes, it was amazing up there. I’m really tired, though: they say you need several months to recover after an expedition to an 8000-meter peak, and at this point I think this sounds about right.

 – Really? I actually read or heard somewhere that Everest was easy to climb these days: you know, with all the porters, and the guides, and the oxygen…And there are all those really young people doing it, and older people, too… So many people up there!

 – They’re not just random ‘younger people’ and ‘older people’ – those of them who succeed train very hard before they come to Everest. And I doubt it that any of them would refer to the climb as ‘easy’.

 – But it must have been easy for you! You’re so sporty – you’re doing something crazy all the time!

 – Not at all. Climbing Everest was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I believe, many Everest climbers have similar conversations with friends when they come back home from Nepal: ‘I read/heard/saw on TV that there were steps carved into the face of the mountain, and that they were building an elevator to the summit…’ Mainstream media portrays Everest as both deadly and easy, drawing the ‘wrong’ demographic to the foot of the mountain. Unfortunately, faced with the harsh reality of Everest, those people can’t help but demonstrate their lack of climbing- and mental preparation for an ‘adventure’, which was supposed to be easy. In this post I would like to say a few words about the media reporting on Everest news. I will also try and explain that Everest is nothing if not hard, and draw future climbers’ attention to the fact that mountaineering experience is required to climb it safely.

I brought enough good books with me to our base camp in Tibet that I had little interest in world and Everest news. Many of my team mates, however, did keep track of current affairs via their iPhones, Blackberrys and Kindles, and 3G at base camp. Alan Arnette’s blog at www.alanarnette.com was our team’s go-to site for Everest news and analysis thereof. The reason is that, in addition to other mountains, Alan has been to Everest 4 times, reaching the summit in 2011. As an experienced climber, he knows exactly what he’s talking about, unlike, unfortunately, most journalists who report on Everest in the mainstream media. When the team came down to base camp after summiting and looked at some of the many media articles about overcrowding on the South Side and of the 10 deaths linked to Everest, the sentiment we shared was disappointment. Chomolungma, the Holy Mother, the stunning mountain which is a dream to climb on for so many, is only in the news when another picture of, perhaps, a hundred climbers following fixed lines emerges, or when a fatality occurs; the deaths on the mountain are usually – incorrectly – blamed largely on overcrowding (I won’t go into this in this blog but here’s a great article to look at if you’d like to know more: http://www.alanarnette.com/blog/2012/05/30/everest-2012-season-recap-a-study-in-risk-management/ ). The same journalists, who write in dramatic language about the dangers of Everest then come to the most unusual conclusion – that Everest is easy to climb. Imagine: you see a photo of tens of people moving obviously slowly and painfully towards the highest point on Earth; they are dressed almost like astronauts and are breathing supplemental oxygen; you probably know that people have died on the mountain before; so then, naturally, you think: ‘this is a piece of cake’… How?

It is true that nowadays almost anyone can attempt to climb Everest thanks to the presence on the mountain of many commercial expedition operators with varying ethical standards. But would it be easy for ‘almost anyone’ to actually climb it? A climb on the normal route with a well-supported commercial expedition could, perhaps, be relatively easy for Reinhold Messner who made the first solo ascent of the mountain with no oxygen in 1980, in addition to being the first to summit all the 14 8000ers. However, an average Everest climber with her/his average skill, strength and stamina is very different from someone like Messner – so different, in fact, that calling them different species would not be too much of an exaggeration.

For me, an average climber, Everest was very hard indeed. I could never have reached the summit and come back down without Altitude Junkies’ support: logistics, Sherpas, oxygen… Still, even with all this support available, all the climbers on our team had to bring something to the table before we could join the expedition – something which the ‘Everest is Easy’ articles make ‘climbers’ believe is not required – experience in mountaineering. Experience won’t make climbing Everest easy but it will make it safer for you and those around you. It will also give you a better chance to reach the summit, or turn back if your body tells you it’s time. Experience is understanding – of mountains and of oneself in the mountains, and this understanding is survival, with a bonus of 10 fingers and 10 toes.

I believe that the media with its ‘Everest is Easy’ stance is at least in part to blame for the abundance of inexperienced climbers on the mountain. A relatively wealthy person could sign up for an Everest expedition out of sheer curiosity or boredom, inspired by the media’s imaginative accounts of Sherpas carrying climbers to the summit and back down. Thus, one often sees ‘climbers’ looking at crampons with childlike wonderment, unsure as to their application – at the foot of the world’s highest mountain. When such long-time climbers as my team mate Grant Rawlinson from New Zealand bring this lack of experience to attention, and in their personal blogs give their personal opinions in their personal style, the media jumps on and criticizes them for their ‘insensitivity’. One of the most emotional pieces from Grant’s post (http://climbforhope.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/may-24-climb-to-the-roof-of-the-world/ ) was picked up by the media in his home country, taken out of context of the mountain and the person, and offered to the general audience for ‘judgement’. And the audience readily judged. In spite of all the controversy, which Grant’s blog post generated, I would like to say that I second the sentiment he expressed. Knowing Grant and having climbed on the mountain, I can say that it is out of compassion for them that he criticizes some mountaineers for their lack of preparation. How is wanting to ‘stick a burning teddy-bear up someone’s behind’ an expression of compassion? It is, if the alternative is to watch people injure themselves and endanger their peers’ health and even lives. In my opinion, telling the truth about how risky and difficult something is, and writing about the possible consequences (for oneself and others) of pursuing potentially dangerous goals without adequate preparation, understanding and respect, is an act of compassion.

To finish this rant, I mean, post, I’d like to suggest that those of you reading it, who are contemplating a climb on Everest take your time to gain some real mountaineering experience – which your adventure company may call ‘recommended’, but which is absolutey ‘required’ – before you pay your bills and pack your duffel bags. Not that you won’t stand a chance to succeed if you don’t – you may well be lucky… However, you will doubtless enjoy your expedition more if you know what you’re doing on the mountain; you will also be able to appreciate where you are – on the slopes of Goddess-Mother of the World – if you climb on several other mountains first; if you summit, you will feel like you actually earned – as opposed to just paid for – your place on top of Everest.

 

Everest 2012: the Descent

Passing Camp 1 on the way down

On our way down from the summit Pasang and I meet Mark Dickson and Ang Gelu, Ian Cartwright and Kami, and Mark Horrell and Chongba – all already negotiating different sections of the summit pyramid. We shake hands, and part ways. The only inji-climber from the Junkies’ team I am yet to see is my friend, Margaret Watroba. I tell myself that, perhaps, we’d already passed but failed to recognize each other due to our single-minded focus, on the summit on the way up and survival on the way down, or just exhaustion. Besides, with climbers dressed in nearly identical down suits and boots, with goggles and oxygen masks over their faces, it’s hard to tell friends from strangers…

 I let go of all the thoughts which could worry me, and carry on down, slowly and carefully, but soon find myself loosing all ability to focus. My body feels like it is made of lead, and my mind, too, is heavy like a sleeping elephant. It is when we reach the Third Step that I realize just how sick and exhausted I really am. My legs are so limp that they won’t support me and my arms – so weak, they can’t hold me on the rope. I make myself look at the corpse in the snow under the vertical Step for ‘motivational’ purposes before I begin the descent. Once at the bottom, I can only bring myself to make a couple of small steps, and sit down to rest and cough. It’s not a safe place to stop, as the body behind my back reminds me. I must get up and continue downwards; this thought and the movement it eventually triggers – everything is in slow motion.

 When we reach the top of the Second Step, I finally see Margaret. The chest infection we both caught in the tent village near base camp has taken greater toll on her than it has on me (Margaret summited Everest from the South Side in 2011; she is 62 years old, I am 25). My friend is struggling, running out of energy, oxygen and time to make it to the summit. We sit down behind her, Cheddar and Nima Nuru to rest – again – when Margaret, very quietly and gracefully, decides to turn around. Knowing exactly how she feels, I am humbled by her courage and integrity. It is not only for her own sake that she makes the choice to descend now: it is for the sake of her Sherpas and the whole team, who would have to put their lives at risk if a rescue in the death zone was necessary. As she turns her back on the summit, I sense that she will return for and get it next year.

 I look down from the top of the Second Step at the long drop to the Rongbuk Glacier underneath – again, for ‘motivation’ – and begin climbing down. Slightly past the foot of the Step my knees bend under the weight of my exhaustion once more; then, I must get up again. When at length Pasang and I reach the top of the First Step, I’m finding it nearly impossible to get back on my feet after taking a ‘cough break’. Seeing how weak and unfocused I am, Pasang suggests that I rappel instead of down-climbing. My fingers are ‘dumb’ with fatigue, and my climbing partner has to help me with the figure 8. He climbs down first. Then, I get in position to rappel; I can’t do it as my arms will not hold any weight at all. There are people immediately behind me and I cannot go back, so I simply let myself tumble to the bottom of the rock face, slowed down a little by the rappel device. Pasang looks at me and, it seems, cannot believe what he’s just seen. ‘I know, I know…’ I mumble into the mask. Anywhere else I’d be embarrassed for such a display of climbing skill, but at over 8000 meters embarrassment is too long a word to pronounce and too small a feeling to bother with.

 We are now between the First Step and the Exit Cracks. The yellow tent town of Camp 3 is in clear view below us, seemingly close, but I don’t believe I’ll make it there. I am now staggering rather than walking, lingering at every rope anchor and, finally, I am unable to make another step. ‘I can’t do this,’ I whisper into the mask repeatedly, as if this unhappy mantra was my breath, and lie down. Resting on dark rocks under warm afternoon sun, I listen to the lullaby my mind is singing me: ‘You need to rest, to close your eyes – just for 15 minutes. A little bit of sleep will give you strength. Go to sleep, go to sleep…’ It’s a peaceful death: falling asleep in the warm sun, and never waking up again; or not so peaceful: waking up to an empty oxygen bottle at night and stumbling off the mountain in confusion. Suddenly, my daydreaming is interrupted as an array of faces appears out of the black emptiness of my mental exhaustion: my mother, my niece, my friends… Last night, as I was going for the summit, they were praying and cheering for me, sending me their love and strength from all over the world. And what did I do? I let myself get carried away by summit fever, and now I’m going to sleep. What a selfish pig! They love me and trust me, and I’m… what?… tired? Just tired?! Angry at myself, I wake up from what could have been my last dream. ‘Hey?’ I hear Pasang’s worried voice. ‘Sorry!’ I apologize. Still, I can’t find the energy to get up. ‘I can’t do this!’ every cell in body is screaming, so I slap myself on the face as hard as I can. Again, Pasang is looking at me like I am completely crazy. ‘I know, I know…’ I say, and we carry on down.

 The steep Exit Cracks pose the last obstacle on the way to Camp 3. I can’t remember how I make it down, but I’m guessing it wasn’t pretty. From the foot of the Cracks all we have to do is follow the slope to the campsite; we sit down again before my climbing Sherpa believes I’m ready to take on this ‘monumental’ task. Although I’m only the third inji to make it back to Camp 3, tired as I am, I cannot continue the descent to the North Col. I sit by the tent like an abandoned rag doll, my whole body numb with exhaustion, pain and shame. I am thinking about the dead of Everest – of climbers just like me, with the same dream; with mothers, and children, and friends, and a home somewhere – about how they will never walk into Camp 3 like I just have, or get into a warm sleeping bag like I soon will, and then, in a few days – go home to be happy at times and unhappy at times and just alive, like I still am. This summit day, one of the hardest of my life, will never end for them, and I am so, so sorry for those climbers and their loved ones! Sitting there, in the loneliest place in the world, I remember how close I was to going to sleep, too, and I recall what – who – made me open my eyes again.

 Pasang takes my crampons off for me, and we crawl into the tent. We doze off for a while, then, he begins to melt ice for our tea and soup. Soon, all the Junkies’ injis and Sherpas return to Camp 3, all – too exhausted to go any further. We spend a cold and windy night in the death zone, but nobody can sleep: the wind all around is too loud and angry, the exhaustion is too great, and the bright flashing images from summit day keep the mind working. It’s only in the early morning, after coughing for hours, when I finally see nothing and feel nothing – I must be asleep. It will not be long, however, before I open my eyes again and see that everything inside the tent is covered with a thin layer of snow. My feet are seemingly frozen and my hands are cold, too; they’ll have to warm up as I continue the descent to ABC almost 2000 meters lower. Quickly Pasang melts some snow to make water and tea before we leave the tent.

 Pasang and the other Sherpas have a tough day ahead of them: taking down Camp 3, the Junkies’ one remaining tent (and its contents) at Camp 2, and a part of our North Col Camp 1; then, they will carry all of that down to ABC on their backs. I cannot fathom how the Sherpas can do it – I can hardly imagine getting myself with a half-empty backpack down to 6400 meters… Someone like me could never reach the summit of Everest and come back to tell the tale without the help of these mountain supermen. All I can do in thin air – and not very well, and not always – is put one foot in front of the other and, wasting my breath, whinge about how hard it is. Everything else that had to be done for me to succeed and survive was done not by me but by the Junkies’ leader, Phil Crampton, and his team of Sherpas: sirdar Dorjee Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu Sherpa, Pasang Nima Sherpa, Kami Nuru Sherpa, Ang Gelu Sherpa, Nima Nuru Sherpa, Cheddar Sherpa, Chongba Sherpa, and our awesome cooks Da Pasang Sherpa and Pemba Sherpa. In fact, I think I have contributed ridiculously little to my own summit success, so I am very grateful for it to all the staff and team members of the Altitude Junkies 2012 Everest expedition.

 My descent through the vast, windy Everestland on the 20th of May is uneventful: still very weak, I fall once, getting entangled in an old rope between Camp 3 and Camp 2, but the safety line holds; then, I get severely windburned on the long, exposed snow ramp leading to the North Col – I’ve always wondered what windburn was, anyway; then, I think I’ll die of exhaustion (yes, again) as I ‘arrive’ at Crampon Point, but our kitchen boys are there with hot and sweet milk tea, and I’m back to life after drinking six cups of it. Eventually, Margaret catches up to me, and we stagger into ABC together, coughing in unison; after a light dinner, we drop half-dead in our tents.

1
At ABC after descending: sunburn, windburn and joy!

The next day is a rest day at ABC. Then, we head down to Base Camp, walking along the Miracle Highway for the last time; it’s melting. At BC we celebrate with a gorgeous dinner and sparkling wine. I am persuaded to have a little bit of the latter and, although I don’t drink, I agree, happy to entertain my entertaining team mates. We rest and pack for the next two days, and on the day before our departure for Zhangmu I go to my turquoise glacial lake for a good-bye swim. The lake is bigger than I remember but not warmer: it looks different, yet, it feels the same.

With me it’s vise versa: now back in Kathmandu, I look the same after as I did before Everest, but I don’t feel the same: there’s something enormous, dark and cold stuck in my chest and, no matter how much I cough, it won’t come out. Everest is now a big part of me, with its conquerers and its victims, its icy nights of millions of stars and white windy days, with its hypnotizing power… I will never forget smiling at the rising sun on the Second Step of the sometimes merciful but, really, wrathful Chomolungma, or weeping for Her dead, who welcomed me. What can I say? I have summited Everest, but it remains a dream to me, as, perhaps, it should, to a mere human.

Everest 2012: The Summit Push, Part II

Sunset on Everest, view from BC

I’m sitting in the tent at 8300 meters, bent over my sleeping bag. Every time I lean back for a rest, angry cough immediately makes me sit up again. I drink as much water or tea as I can, and check my watch often – I am waiting for 10:30pm, when I plan to start getting ready to leave – for the summit of Everest. Meanwhile, I talk to my summit day climbing Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu, with whom I was previously climbing on Manaslu, Ama Dablam, Ganchenpo and Cholatse, about our ‘strategy’: times, oxygen etc… It is never mentioned in the conversation that, sick as I am already, I could get worse while we’re climbing, and helping me down would be desperately hard work. The very narrow traverses over vertiginous drop-offs of 3000 meters and steep rocky pitches, such as the notorious Second Step, make rescues in the death zone impossible: one has to reach the summit and return on their own two feet, or stay on the mountain; no one could ‘carry’ you to the summit or back down – it is ignorant and cruel of people, who have no mountaineering experience, to suggest otherwise. Pasang and I are both well aware of the risks that pushing for the summit entails for each of us, but, having climbed together before, we know that we can trust each other’s judgement: I would turn back if I felt I absolutely had to; I would turn back if he said I should. Yet, as the sun sets, and the icy evening descends upon the highest campsite in the world, turning back is not what’s on my mind. I choose to think only the most trivial thoughts, and sit, wait and hope that, when I start walking, I feel stronger and warmer than I’m feeling now.

It takes a small eternity to put my boots, harness and crampons on, but at 11:15 pm I am outside the tent, ready to leave at our team’s departure time 15 minutes later. The weather is cold, naturally, but not the coldest I’ve had to climb in, and the wind is not too strong. Headlamp beams of the climbers who have left Camp 3 before us dance along the route to the top of the world. I can’t see any features of the route – just this dance of scattered lights, some close to me, and some – too far away.

At 11:30 pm on the dot we take our first steps towards the summit. They are so unbearably hard on my drained body that I have to shut my mind down completely – all it can do now is tell me to please, please stop this torture and turn back, and I don’t want to hear that. The pace I’m walking at is, perhaps, a bit too fast (not in sea-level terms, of course) as I have to sit down and rest at almost every other rope anchor. Yet, I have to push myself, or the ‘reasonable Mila’ I’ve been trying to silence will start talking again: ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this…’ – she is such a whinge!

Soon we reach the famous Exit Cracks – the steep rocky pitch which leads climbers onto the North Ridge. I have been warm until then but, stuck in line behind slow, inexperienced climbers I begin to freeze: I am loosing feeling in my hands in spite of wearing two layers of gloves plus down mitts, and my toes are painfully cold; I massage my palms and move my toes non-stop. I cough and shiver for some 30-40 minutes, until it’s my turn to go. Pasang and I climb onto the Ridge, and continue up. On our way we pass a few climbers; most memorably, a young Chinese woman with her guide. She is slow and insecure on her legs, and he shouts at her angrily. I am sorry for her, and I wonder how she can carry on like that.

Another long traverse – crampons against cold, bare rock, a couple of cold rest stops, a mouthful of cold water against my cold, aching throat; cold, cold, cold – and we reach the First Step. It is a famous feature of the North Side geography – a steep rocky pitch, similar to the Exit Cracks but a bit longer and harder. I have no recollection whatsoever of climbing it on the way up – I must have been struggling too hard to remember…

‘The Second Step should be close now; perhaps, another hour,’ I tell myself. The Second Step is a long, difficult climb up vertical rock, rock with as much history as the mountain itself. Its technical difficulty is such that two ladders have been anchored to it: one small one at the foot of the Step and one tall one, which leads to the top. It is between them, where climbers tend to struggle as they get past a couple of large, protruding rocks, which requires some skill and, perhaps, a bit of courage. The problem is that the Second Step is very exposed – there’s a 3000-meter drop off all the way to the Rongbuk Glacier under your feet, and all that’s standing between you and a ‘speed descent’ is 8.5mm rope, an aging ladder and your strength. It’s an intimidating thought, so I chase it out of my mind, and start for the Step. It will be another 20-30 minutes before I reach the first ladder – the climbers ahead of me are moving up the Step very slowly. It is the coldest hour of the morning, right before sunrise, when the first pale, bloodless-pink strip of light cuts through the still-dark sky. I wish I had my camera, but I’d given it to Pasang to keep warm, so I simply stare at the white peaks, all far below, at the sky, shedding its night skin, and at the light, which will soon bring a little bit of warmth to the death zone’s unwelcome visitors… Climbing the first wobbly ladder is no problem. However, the rocks, hovering over the white abyss, require me to abandon all half-hearted attempts at graceful climbing: pulling hard on the rope, I straddle one of them, cough a piece of something up, get on my knees, and go for the second ladder – but not before I’ve looked around me. I’ve never seen anything more special: already higher than any mountain on Earth, I am standing at the edge of the sky, a part of this mellow dawn and of the great, harsh Chomolungma… ‘Will it be worth it?’, I remember asking myself on the way to Camp 3. ‘Of course, it’s worth it.’ The second ladder is no trouble to climb.

From the top of the Second Step I can see the Third Step – the last one on the way to the summit, now also in clear view; it looks so close… As Pasang and I approach the Third Step, I notice someone I know sitting in the snow to my left. Inside his red hood his face is black – I cannot make it out but I recognize the suit and the posture. He is one of the dead of Everest, one of the many bodies, which rest on the mountain; he is also the ‘visitor’, who woke me up on my first night at Base Camp. That night I was very cold, but his nights up here, how cold they must be! It hurts me to look at him. Suddenly, I am freezing, too; I can feel the pathetic remains of my strength and determination leave my body as I cry quietly into my dark goggles. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I whisper into my mask, ‘I am so infinitely sorry!’

Under the Third Step another body, dressed in a yellow down suit, lies in fetal position, very close to the rope leading up the Step. Having waited, as usual, I take my turn climbing up. When I’m almost at the top, I see a climber come to the edge of the Step, with his Sherpa behind him, and sit right on the rope. I try to get around him but the rope won’t let me do so without unclipping: there’s already one corpse at the foot of the Step, so I won’t do it. As the climber watches me struggle, he also directs my efforts to get past him – he simply won’t move. ‘Move back, please!’ I growl at him in my sick, gurgling voice, angered by his insolence. Immediately I have to giggle when the human obstacle almost jumps back and, effectively, out of the way. Never knew I could be quite so scary!

‘Now, up the snow ramp, and there it is, the summit,’ I tell myself at the top of the Third Step. Silly me! The way does lie up the ramp but that’s not the end of the way. After the snow ramp there’s still a very exposed, narrow traverse to negotiate, then, another small rocky ramp to climb, and then, the summit is just up the slope – and it feels like such a long slope to me. As we make our final steps towards the summit, we meet Pasang Nima, Grant and Phil, on their way down. We shake hands and chat briefly before going our separate ways. Several more steps, and I stand in the strong summit wind, which dances dementedly around me; I can see the whole of the sky.

Yours Truly and Pasang Wongchu Sherpa on the Summit of Everest (19.05.2012)

Here it is – the world’s most famous ‘mountain’ of prayer-flags and khatas, which marks the summit of Everest. I have seen it so many times before – in movies, in pictures – and now I can touch it, touch the very spot where Light first touches the Earth. It’s 8 am, and there are about 8-10 people on the summit, taking pictures, laughing. Pasang takes my camera out of his pocket and snaps a photo of me next to the prayer-flags. Then, I take my backpack off, and reach for a small bag of white cotton, where I’ve been keeping things to take to the summit: a khata from Pema Choling Monastery’s kids, a thread bracelet from a friend, who dreams of climbing Everest, and something from my mother – these three things I leave for Chomolungma to bless, and pray that She take care of the people whom they belong to. Then, Pasang and I take another summit photo with my camera (the battery in his is frozen), and agree to head down. We change our O2 bottles, look around one more time, and leave.

Although we’ve only spent about 20 minutes on the summit, it’s enough. Now, on the way down, I feel strangely calm – in spite of the cough, and the wind, and the utter absence of strength in my limbs, and the fact that I am hours away from the relative safety of camp… In fact, I feel so calm, I am almost falling asleep as I’m walking along the terribly narrow traverse on the side of the summit pyramid. I think, I’m as calm as someone dying in peace.

Everest 2012: The Summit Push, Part I

Trying on my O2 mask at Camp 1

It’s 6 am at ABC, and I begin to pack my backpack for the summit push: down suit, 8000-meter mitts and gloves, an extra layer of thick thermal underwear, goggles, sunscreen… I have to pause often: to cough and spit out large lumps of mucus-like stuff coming out of my lungs. I still have a bit of a fever, but it doesn’t matter anymore because I’ve decided at night that I would go for the summit anyway. The day before, Margaret, also sick, and I arrived at ABC last, at 4 pm, and I’ve had plenty of time to think about what to do. A reasonable person in my place would return to base camp; but then again, a reasonable person would not be in my place to start with. Thus, I decide not to pretend to be this ‘reasonable person’, although I’m well aware of the risk this entails. Among other potential problems, the chest infection exposes me to an increased likelihood if developing HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) at any point; my strength compromised, I would find it very challenging or impossible to get down if that happened. Shivering all night in my tent, thinking of the people who love me, I decide that that would be fine. It would be fine because I love those people, too, and will fight to the last to come back to them; it would be fine because, since they love me, they would forgive my failure, either to reach the top or to come back: I trust their love to help me down, and I trust it to help them let go of me if it doesn’t. After all, the courage of those who push their limits and reach their goals is also this of the people who stay behind waiting for them.

‘How are you?’ Pasang Wongchu, the Sherpa I will climb with on summit day, asks, lifting the tent flap and looking at me as I stuff my backpack.

‘I’m fine, fine-ish‘ I reply, trying to sound cheerful (-ish).

‘You’ve been coughing all night. Too much coughing.’

‘Mm,’ I nod, ‘it’s ok.’

‘Give me your sleeping-bag,’ he suggests, ‘I’ll carry it.’

‘You’re not supposed to carry my sleeping-bag. And you have your own stuff and the group gear to drag up the mountain, remember?’

‘You’re not supposed to be coughing your lungs out. It’s no problem for me to carry your sleeping bag.’

The offer Pasang makes is very timely, and what is ‘no problem’ for him would weigh heavily on my shoulders in my current state of health. Ashamed as I am to give my sleeping-bag for him to carry, I do so – and with a lot of gratitude.

After a breakfast of pancakes and scrambled eggs the team is ready to leave for the North Col. I once again follow Mark Horrell, the best pace-setter on the mountain I know, as he walks to Crampon Point and then clips into fixed rope on the steep slopes leading up to the Col. We are not the only team headed up: there’s a big group of Chinese climbers, the Russian 7 Summits Club, an Indian team and more aiming to top out on the 19th. The ladder across the bergschrund which bars the way to Camp 1 is the only place on the route where the number of climbers causes a problem – a half-hour bottleneck in fairly strong, cold wind. I begin and can’t stop coughing and shivering as I wait for my turn to climb the ladder. Finally, I get over the bergschrund, and, climbing steeply up the couloir which leads to Camp 1, stumble into our campsite. Pasang Wongchu and Pasang Nima call me into our tent and as I warm up in my down suit with a cup of hot milk coffee, I can’t believe it that I’ve reached 7050 meters; I cough and smile at the same time.

At night, my cough fits become more frequent: I have to sit up every five-ten minutes, drink water and apologize helplessly to the Sherpas with whom I share the tent: they can’t sleep because of me, and as the hardest-working people on the mountain they absolutely need their rest. ‘It’s ok,’ they both keep repeating, but it’s not ok. My ‘eccentric’ thermal regulation system too reminds me of my other ever-present problem – circulation: my hands and feet begin to freeze, so I stick some heat patches under my two layers of socks and massage my palms. When dawn comes at last, I am relieved because it means we’ll get moving soon.

At about 7 am after a breakfast of coffee and Snickers which I prefer to energy bars, an oxygen bottle takes the place of the down suit in my backpack as I leave the tent. It is on the way to Camp 2 where climbers will first put their O2 masks on – but not yet. The 4-liter bottle won’t last an average person the whole way up to 7800 meters, and so the climbers on our team are advised to start using oxygen at around 7200-7300 meters…

I am not the last to leave Camp 1 but I soon fall behind the rest of the team, stumbling in the footsteps of Margaret and Cheddar, her personal Sherpa. I quite literally can’t breathe, suffocating from cough. The higher I go, the harder it is to breathe as the air gets thinner, and my chest begins to hurt – a reminder of what I could be doing to myself. I check my altimeter frequently, but the numbers on the screen remain a disappointment as I am still too low to put my oxygen on. I contemplate turning back, perfectly aware of the fact that it is just a thought: it is an impossibility to turn my back on Chomolungma, yet, it is almost equally impossible to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. At the 7300 mark I meet Pasang Nima, who helps me put on and adjust my mask and turns on the oxygen. I sit in the middle of the endless snow ramp, and breathe: inhale, exhale – slowly, deeply, like when I first step into an icy lake. Soon, I have not only the will but also the strength to get up. I make 15 steps and stop for a breather. ’15 is too many; make it 10.’ So I make 10 steps next, but 10 is not enough. I settle for 13 and, having thus set my pace, make a fresh start. Oxygen is definitely working, and before I know it I find myself catching up with and passing several groups of people; I am also warmer, and I cough less. However, I am already very tired when I get to the final 300-meter-long rocky section of the route to Camp 2. Covered with ropes, old and new, the loose rocks look treacherous to me, and I sit down to rest before I am ready to tackle them. I take my time recovering, and, while I’m at it, three climbers catch up with me; I wave at them to go ahead. They clip into an old rope and begin performing what looks like a strange dance on the first steep section, the top of which they reach only on second attempt. There they all sit down: their inexperience is not only exhausting to them – it is dangerous in that it makes them believe that anyone would know better what to do; now they are waving at me: ‘you go first,’ so I climb past them, and notice that they clip into the rope immediately behind me. How do they know that I have picked the right rope, that I won’t slip and fall, pushing them, too, all the way down to the rope anchor? They trust a stranger’s climbing skills more than they do their own – it’s a bad, unsafe attitude; I am relieved when they fall behind.

Passing two of my team mates on the way, I slowly arrive at Camp 2, where Pasang Nima and Pasang Wongchu are waiting for me in the tent. My oxygen flow rate is lowered to 0.5 for resting and sleeping. As I warm up with tea and hot soup, my cough comes back with a vengeance; it will stay the night and wake me up in the morning after a couple of hours of half-sleep. The oxygen I breathe through the mask is very dry, and so the big lumps of mucus coming from my lungs are dry, too, and seem almost to scratch my throat before I can spit them out. I feel very ill that morning, like I can’t go on at all. Yet, like a well-programmed machine, I follow the morning routine: coffee and Snickers, packing, get out of the tent, harness and crampons on, backpack on, and go – up, naturally.

Again, I fall behind all but Margaret, who is as sick as I am or worse, and Cheddar. We climb together the rest of the way up to Camp 3 at 8300 meters in what is known as the death zone – the zone above 8000 meters where the radically reduced amount of oxygen in the air is insufficient to keep the human body alive; one’s body would simply shut down if they overstayed their short welcome there. In spite of the fact that I am now breathing oxygen at 2 liters per minute, I am constantly out of breath. Margaret and I frequently stop to rest and cough, although, no energy is regained by stopping, and time is wasted. On one of the more exposed sections of the route, a rocky traverse, a man is sitting at the rope anchor, holding onto his chest. His Sherpa is turning up his oxygen for him and giving him water. I have to look away – I could be in his place any minute now, and I want to, I have to keep going. As we climb higher, the weather changes and it begins to snow. Down suit-clad figures, following a thin rope, disappear in the white disintegrating sky. Why are they following this rope and why am I among them? Where does it lead? Why is it so unbearably hard to get there? Will it be worth it? It takes too long to get to Camp 3, and my oxygen-starved brain tortures itself by asking questions without answers non-stop. Finally, we are at the campsite. It is a strange place: warm, because it’s so close to the sun; cold, because it’s so close to… nonexistence. Pasang Nima and Pasang Wongchu have built a more-or-less flat platform for our tent on the slope. Oxygen bottles, mittens, sleeping bags lie scattered inside in disarray. To me it represents the fact that we don’t want to be here, in the death zone, for more than a passing moment, and, thus, there is no need to make the place look ‘nice’. It is about 3 pm, and we’re leaving for the summit at 11:30 pm. I am drained by the climbing, the coughing and the questions I’ve been asking myself all the way up; it is humanly impossible for me to find the health and the energy to climb to the summit through the icy Everest night, and then, spend half of the next day descending. It’s impossible. It’s impossible. It is simply not possible. But I’ll try my best to do it all the same.

Everest 2012: Decisions

I am gasping for air. A million long needles seem to be piercing my body through my skin’s every pore. My eyes closed, I focus on my breath: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – slowly, deeply. When I open them again, the beauty around me makes me smile. I am on the steep bank of one of the small icy lakes scattered across the Rongbuk Glacier, near Base Camp. The turquoise water in which I am immersed up to my neck is glowing in the bright afternoon sun, and small pieces of ice glitter here and there in the corners of the lake. I push myself away from the shore and swim towards the other one which, given the water temperature, seems miles away. However, when my feet touch the bottom of the lake again I am no longer cold – there’s just some fiery liquid energy running through my veins. I laugh and stop for a little rest; then, I swim back to where I’d left my clothes, and get out of the water. The wind is strong and, I think, cold, but I am certainly colder. Dressing takes a while because my fingers and toes are frozen. Once finished I climb back on top of the moraine, and stare, mesmerized, at Chomolungma, standing gloriously against the clear sky. I know, I have been looking at the mountain every day, but here, away from everyone, it feels like Everest is looking back at me. I will return to the lake tomorrow – and every day while we are resting at Base Camp before the second acclimatization rotation to ABC and the North Col.

My private swimming pool

It will be hard to walk from BC directly to ABC, and it will take me 8 hours to get to 6400 meters; it will be hard to climb the North Col again, even in perfect weather; the hardest thing, however, will be coming back to Base Camp after the successful rotation knowing that the next venture into thinner air will be the last one – the summit push.

Camp 1 on the North Col, second rotation: (left to right) Dorjee Sherpa, yours truly, Mark Horrell, Phil Crampton, Margaret Watroba

Before the summit push it is the daily weather forecast that brings the team together in the communications dome at 11 a.m. – we are waiting for the ‘weather window’ which would permit the team to climb to the top without freezing or being quite literally blown off the mountain. The most important factor for those climbing from the Cold Side is the wind – we are looking for something around 30-40 mph. For days now the forecast has been suggesting that the 18th, 19th and the 20th (perhaps, the 21st as well) will be good days to go for it, with relatively low winds and manageable temperatures. We initially decide to make the 20th our summit day: we would get in position for the summit push at ABC, rest there for one whole day after the tiring trek from BC and then climb to the North Col; this would be followed by a night at Camp 2 at 7800 meters, then, Camp 3 at 8300 meters, and late in the evening on the 19th we’d leave for the summit.

Jet stream blasting the summit of Everest

‘You just have to stay healthy now, be careful,’ our leader, Phil, tells the team. ‘No swimming, Mila!’ I will not go to the lake again. However, just to keep active Margaret and I, warmly dressed, with Buffs over our noses and mouths, will go on little walks around BC – they will have to be short because of the strong, cold wind. All is well until we decide we want to see the nearby monastery and send some postcards to our loved ones from the China Post office in the tent village some 45 minutes away from BC. Before we leave BC on our unnecessary mission I ignore my instinct warning me not to go. When, three or four hours later, Margaret and I return to Base Camp, I already know I’m falling ill. We drink tea with ginger and honey but its warmth can’t chase the cold wind and the dust out of our lungs. Soon, we both have a persistent chest cough; I become congested and feel my body temperature rise. ‘It’s fine,’ I tell myself, ‘I still have two full days at Base Camp to recover.’

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. On the 13th of May we don’t get our daily weather forecast – perhaps, the most important one of the season. After we go to sleep in our tents, however, Phil receives the forecast and asks the team to gather in the kitchen tent. All the Sherpas and the inji, sleepy-looking, are passing the computer with the forecast from one person to another. We all agree that the 20th does not look so good anymore – we’ll have to aim for the 19th. If we are to have a rest day at ABC, we have to leave the next day, but we are not ready. The Sherpas, after doing two carries to 8300 meters back to back, are down at BC for a more than well-deserved rest, and they certainly still need another day at base camp; as for us, the inji, we need that day before we leave for the mountain to pack, make our last pre-summit push calls/write blogs and just get mentally prepared for some of the most exhausting days of our lives. Thus, we decide to skip the rest day at ABC and give ourselves another day at BC instead: we will be leaving for 6400 on the 15th of May.

The route to Camp 2

That night I start another course of antibiotics. I know that what I have is not the so-called ‘Khumbu cough’, which is superficial, but a full-blown chest infection. I am coughing a lot, and my body feels sick, limp and heavy. At sea level it would take me about a week, perhaps, 10 days, to recover from a sickness like that; after spending some 40 days at over 5200 meters, I dread to think how long for and how seriously i’ll be ill. I have one day – just one day before I have to leave for the summit push on Everest – something I’d dreamed of and visualized for years – and now I know that I probably won’t make it to the top, maybe, not even ABC…

It is a long, bad night at Base Camp for me.