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.