Summit days generally start in the night as it offers the most stable weather, ensures you can return to the camp before dark and allows you to climb in ignorant bliss of the severe drops beside the route. We moved up from the camp to the North-West ridge and a rock system known as the Exit Cracks. At this point to my surprise we were met with a freezing wind that was not mentioned in the forecast. 20 knots on the summit was expected however this was 20 knots at 8,400m and there was still a long way to go. I tried not to think what was waiting higher up.
At this point I started to notice my pace had dropped off. Up until this point in the trip I had felt great, often leading the group between camps in the weeks prior. I would even go as far as saying the climb had been rather easy so far. However now I was struggling with the basics. After taking a large step up I would have to stop and take 20-30 frantic shallow breathes from my mask before continuing on. While my legs felt fine and were making light work of the mountain, my lungs were not and the prospect of many more hours of this was brutal. Somewhere above the 1st step the muscles around my lungs began to ache with the huge effort they were being forced make. I noticed a man that had decided to lay down on a rock, he looked more comfortable than me however by the time I passed him it was clear he was going to be laying there for a while. A sad reality of Everest that nothing can prepare you for. After scaling the 2nd step and breathing so aggressively that I wondered if people around me could hear or if I was going to blow out the exit port of the oxygen mask, I was becoming entirely uncomfortable with this situation. Breathing out of control, no idea why and en route to the worst imaginable place on earth to call in sick. Either I figure out what is going on, or I’m heading down. This part of the mountain is littered with people that carried on when they shouldn’t have. I sat down for the first time in 5 hours and removed my down suit to put on another layer, hardly a pleasant process when already shivering and feeling horribly oxygen deprived. David passed me another oxygen mask in the hope that faulty equipment was to blame however the chaotic breathing continued. Standing below the 3rd step and aware of how hard I would have to push to get to the top as well as the amount of mountain that remained, I decided this is probably game over. As if scripted in a movie I suddenly threw up in my mask. To my relief; several solid green chunks of goodness from the bottom of my lungs now lined the inside of my mask. Although an infection is never good and certainly not at 8,500m, this confirmed I wasn’t suffering something far more serious such as Pulmonary Oedema. Confident now that I wasn’t digging a very big hole, I continued up the 3rd step still breathing like a Bulldog that has just run 50m.
While moving up the summit pyramid’s snow slope I stopped next to the body of another fellow noticing his red down suit which looked like the same Mountain Hardware model as mine. I took a minute and wondered what a ridiculous sport this is. Why would people literally die in the pursuit of a summit? At this moment the wind dropped to zero and the golden sun edged over the horizon lighting up the hundreds of peaks and clouds way below creating a truly beautiful vista surrounding the dramatic ridge I’d just climbed along; maybe it was for moments like these…
Knowing the summit was not far away I thought it was probably time to stop and change my inner gloves. My current ones had become solid with ice as a gradual accumulation of snow had melted and re-freezed leaving my fingers well and truly numb. The onset of frost-bite was leading my thoughts now and so during brief idle moments as the climber ahead reached a rope changeover, I would jam my gloved hand into my arm pits to thaw my fingertips. However it wasn’t long before my new liners became damp and froze too leaving my warming efforts futile.
Rounding the final corner and seeing the summit high above with its array of pray flags strewn over a statue was a relief, however the violent speed in which they flapped indicated things were about to get a whole lot colder. I had imagined my summit experience involving a triumphant hug with those around me followed by a few minutes sitting and taking in the world below similar to the summit of Manaslu, perhaps even a video recording or two. Instead we shared the summit with a number of Russians that crowded the precarious summit while an 80 km/h wind belted us from the North. I shivered now more than ever and knew my fingers didn’t feel on the right side of frost-bite so was happy to keep this brief. Never before had I worked so hard for something which at the moment I gained it; I wanted to be far away from it. I moved towards the Kangshung face where no one was standing to claim a moment as the highest person in the world (given my height this was momentarily true) and gain a summit photo or two although the long descent that lay ahead imposed on my ability to truly feel like I had something to celebrate. Having seen and read of many people collapsing on the decent and knowledge that 80% of climbing accidents occur on the way down I knew this was not the time for my body or mind to even consider the job done.
Together with my Sherpa Chewang, we turned and began down the first of hundreds of obstacles that lay between us and a safe place to sleep. Up until this point climbing had been optional, now it was mandatory. While descending the snow slope at 8,800m fellow climber Franz who had just celebrated becoming the first person from Paraguay to summit Everest, sat down in front of David sighting exhaustion. At this altitude it is impossible to carry another human (hence the numerous bodies dotted along the route) and a helicopter rescue is neither legal in Tibet nor possible from a capability standpoint. Franz, while focused on gaining a ‘first’ had clearly not left anywhere near enough in the tank for the descent and was now looking at a less than sympathetic David for answers. Along with two other fellow climbers I moved onto another rope to continue descending with full expectation that that would be the last I’d see of our Paraguayan friend.
To say that it took every ounce of strength to get down would be a correct statement, however I would have told you that I had expended my final ounce of strength somewhere between the 1st and 2nd step and that I surprised myself with every step I took after that. Trying desperately to avoid the temptation to keep sitting down, I stumbled in to Camp 3 coughing and spluttering green material knowing I was still far from a safe place to call it a day. The constant coughing over the last 14 hours had been incredibly taxing on my energy levels and now each cough strained the muscles around my lungs. I knew that to stop here at 8,200m would mean another awful night with almost no rest with no food and that was before I considered the implications of our company not even having its own tents up here. We continued on down to the wind exposed Camp 2 and the associated loud flapping nylon. I was completely and utterly done, exhausted far beyond anything I’d experience before. Chewang and I collapsed into a tent that had apparently been offered to us; I had my doubts but was too tired to care. We discovered we had no food however I doubt my knotted stomach was going to accept much anyway. My oxygen ran out during the night bringing on almost immediate cold and insomnia, so, similar to 36 hours earlier despite needing to rest, I just wanted to get on with it. As soon as the sun shone, I got up and labored down the mountain 50 meters at a time to Advance Base Camp and a much needed beer, bowl of noodles and a course of antibiotics.
In reflection, I wish we had been more lucky with the weather. Being beaten by a freezing wind tends to unsettle most people and when it is combine with a very unfamiliar place, considerable fall exposure and a fair amount of altitude, it does impose on one’s ability to fully enjoy themselves. As it turned out we probably landed the worst day of the 11 day window however we were not to know and I am grateful it wasn’t more severe which would have turned us around. Discussing my lung infection with David, I gather that this is not entirely uncommon when using oxygen masks (especially the low grade ones we somehow found ourselves with) to contract a lung or throat infection. I am grateful for the fitness that I brought to the climb as without it I believe the lung infection would have brought me down sans summit. I’m grateful to have had the chance to even have a go at climbing Everest as I believe plenty of people dream about an attempt and never manage to get to the foot of the mountain. Not all of the team reached the summit; I am truly grateful it came together on the day and I did get there because I really wasn't sure how I was going to convince Lucy to let all this happen again!
Many Everest summiters talk about experiencing an emptiness in the days and weeks after descending. A feeling of being a little lost now that such a long term aspiration is now gone or perhaps an element of anti-climax as life resumes and there is a realization that there is no pot of gold waiting for them at the end. I cannot say I feel any of these things, Everest is not the end of meaningful challenges for me, and there will be other mountains in the near and long term. However after becoming used to having a formidable goal in front the inevitable question has been asked. What is next?
Well for now that answer is Denali. As many will know, I was unsuccessful last year on Denali for reason that have been tough to swallow. However I am fortunate enough to have a chance to return and this time with an entirely new challenge; I will be climbing unguided. This represents a considerable progression from 12 months ago when I wouldn’t have dared step on a big mountain without a guide, so this will be a very exciting one that will hopefully complete the 7 summits in true alpine style.
Thanks for following along folks, this is nearly it!