Apologies for the delay in posting this – the last week has been a bit of a whirlwind, to say the least. So let me start with what I think most of you already know…
1. At 10am, on May 23, 2019 – I was fortunate enough to stand at the top of the world on Mt. Everest
2. The lines to get to the summit were absolutely horrendous (as I’m sure many of you have seen reported in the news). Andries and I had deliberately decided to wait an extra 2 days (i.e., to go on “Team 2”) because we thought not only would the weather be better, but that the lines would be significantly shorter. Sweet god, how wrong we were… If you haven’t seen the images or read any of the articles, just search “Everest” on CNN, the BBC, or wherever you get your unbiased news… Also as a shameless plug (and if you’re interested), you can check out an interview I did on CNN after I got back to Kathmandu…
3. If you remove the outlier events of the serac falling in 2014 and the earthquake in 2015, this spring was tied for the deadliest climbing season on Everest since it was first climbed in 1953 (i.e., tied with the 1996 ‘Into Thin Air’ season with 12 people losing their lives). In my opinion, there were a variety of reasons behind why this year was so bad, but ultimately, I believe it was the confluence of longer-term / systemic problems (such as increasing the number of permits and still not requiring climbers to have minimum pre-requisite qualifications to be on the mountain) with the season’s unusually short weather window, that led to the lines and ultimately to so many climbers losing their lives. Unfortunately, one of those casualties was one of our expedition’s own team members: Robin Fisher (pictured 3rd from right – in the black – below).
So let me start filling in the gaps with what you probably don’t know – starting with a bit more about Robin… Robin, and his extremely nice/wonderful Sig-O, Kristyn, were counterparts to Katie/I on this whole endeavor. Like Katie, Kristyn was along for the trek to EBC – not only to see the sweeping sights of the Khumbu, but also to remind her male companion of important things like safety, showering and of everything that’s waiting back home. Robin and Kristyn were also avid runners, having completed the London, Berlin, New York and Chicago marathons together (meaning they and Katie had much to talk about when it came to running…). And Robin was also just a genuinely nice guy. He had that dry sense of humor you might expect from a Brit, but was always there as a friend and an easy person to talk to (and his Netflix collection when we were tent-mates at Camp 1 wasn’t too shabby either… 🙂 ).
What happened to Robin on Everest is still a bit of a mystery, but what we do know is that he collapsed about 150m below the summit, after having summited – a goal he was fiercely committed to completing. At that altitude (~8,700m / 28,700ft), the cause of the collapse could’ve been any number of things. Sadly we may never know what truly caused it, but I do take some solace in knowing Robin is at least among the mountain he was so passionate about climbing.
You can also read more about Robin on either CNN or the BBC – both of which ran front page stories on his pursuit of climbing Everest. Not that making CNN or the BBC in any way minimizes the tragedy, but it is at least a testament to what Robin was trying to accomplish – and that’s something I think he’d be proud of. We’ll miss you, bud.
Team 2’s Summit Push
Ok, tough transition…
Andries and I left Camp 2 on the morning of May 21st. It was a windy morning, but what was particularly strange, is that people started filing past our tents at 4a in their own bids to move up the mountain (in fact, over the past 3 days, there had been a constant stream of people moving up to the higher camps to put themselves in a position to take advantage of the May 21st – May 23rd weather window). Since Camp 3 is only typically a ~6-7hr move from Camp 2, it seemed strange that people would leave so early, but we didn’t think too much of it. We left at ~8:30a, got in line, and made it to Camp 3 about 3.5hrs later after having sat behind folks on the fixed lines for a while.
Of all the camps on Everest, Camp 3 is easily the most precarious. It stretches ~1,000 vertical feet along the Lhotse Face, with each expedition finding a spot to dig a “flat” tent platform into the side of the nearly vertical icewall. Our camp was around the midpoint of the broader Camp 3, and was perched on a narrow snow ledge that barely fit 3 tents. If you left the tent to go to the bathroom, you had about a ~1ft walkway to do your business, anything beyond that and you’d go flying down 2,000ft to the bottom of the face if you weren’t clipped-in. The other danger of this camp is that you’d constantly have snow/ice kicked down on you from above. So if you were sitting in your tent, you’d constantly be getting bombarded by these pellets – all the while hoping that someone above didn’t trigger an avalanche, or drop an oxygen bottle…
It’s also worth noting that our (i.e., mine and Andries’) tent platform was comically uneven – it was like trying to sleep on a blanket covering a bunch of knocked over chairs. As a result, I think I slept maybe an hour that night – and that hour was basically on top of Andries as we both tried to wedge ourselves between the mounds of snow lumps.
Before we went to sleep though, we were greeted by Iman who was on his way down from the summit! Iman was the first of our group to summit so we naturally had LOTS of questions for him… And when we saw him, the look on his face was priceless – it was as if he’d had some transcendental experience up there, and now could die a happy and fulfilled man (really though, I think that look of happiness had more to do with the fact that he now got to go home, rather than having summited….). As Iman regailed us with his stories of climbing to the top of the world, a few things stood out above the rest…
1. Summiting Everest was one of the most amazing things he’d ever done/seen – despite the fact that he only stayed at the summit for ~4-5min due to really high winds…
2. It was really windy/cold – in fact, he was having trouble feeling 3 of his toes, and was wondering if that might be a “problem” (turns out, it was… Iman would later be helicoptered from Base Camp to Kathmandu because of frostbite on 3 of his toes. While 2 of the toes are on their way to recovery, the status of the 3rd remains questionable as of writing this post)
3. Iman didn’t eat/drink hardly anything on the entire summit push (ascent or descent) – it was simply too hard with the oxygen system and the cold
The following morning, Andries, myself and our 2 Sherpas (Lhakpa and Galjin) left for Camp 4 around 7a. The move to Camp 4 (at the South Col at ~26,000ft) is a much longer move than the one to Camp 3. It’s also the first time we went on oxygen – both of us using ~1.5L/min for the ascent.
Leaving Camp 3, you’re immediately faced with some very steep icewalls to scale. Once you crest these though, it becomes a very steep slog up the Lhotse Face. And this is where we got our first true experience with the lines on Everest… Stretched out before us were probably 100 climbers, slowly making their way up the Lhotse Face. Once we caught up to them, the pace was essentially: take 2 steps, then rest for 30-45sec. At first I didn’t really mind it. While it meant we were inching our way up the mountain at a snail’s pace, it also felt like I wasn’t burning any calories, and gave me the opportunity to actually look around and soak in the incredible views. I mean here we were, in the middle of a 5,000ft ice face, with Lhotse looming directly overhead, Nuptse and the Western Cwm behind us, and the ever-imposing Everest at our 10 o’clock. Not a bad time to appreciate where you’re at…
After a couple hours of this sluggish pace, the route turned sharply left and traversed across the Face. You then scale a strip of sedimentary rocks known as the “Yellow Band” (which for the inexperienced climber, definitely poses some challenges and slows the group’s progress even further), and then eventually pass by Lhotse’s Camp 4. This is where we saw our first dead body. We assume it was one of the 2 climbers we’d heard about a couple days before; but at any rate, there he was – just clipped-in and hanging from some ropes about 50ft below Lhotse’s Camp 4. Again, a sobering and frightening reminder of the lethality of the world’s highest peaks.
About an hour past Lhotse Camp 4, and the trail turns sharply uphill in order to pass over the Geneva Spur: an enormous rock shoulder that marks the last real obstacle before you get to the South Col. Once over the Geneva Spur, and you could not only see Camp 4, but you got your first real up-close view of both Everest and the route to the summit. At the risk of sounding overly corny, it was exhilerating. The South Col (at ~7,950m) is also known as the “highest camp in the world” – in fact, there are only 14 mountain peaks on the entire planet that’re higher than this camp. And the route to the top of Everest… well, I have to admit it looked terrifying and steep; but at the same time it was incredible to see final stage of this month’s long journey, firsthand.
By the time we arrived at the South Col it was around 2p. While this was about ~2hrs later than we’d planned to arrive, I wasn’t too worried because I felt like I hadn’t had to really work that hard to get here (in fact, I took off my oxygen mask and walked around a bit – breathing in the rarefied air). What I was worried about was the wind… Damn the South Col is a windy and desolate place. Everywhere you looked was trash and abandoned tents from year’s past – it truly looked like a post-apocolyptic landscape.
In order to escape the wind, Andries and I dove into one of our tents. We knew we’d be leaving that evening, so we were excited to drink some water, eat a bit of a food, and then get 5-6hrs of rest/sleep before we had to get up in the middle of the night to make our summit push. But our Sherpas had other plans…
For whatever reason, they decided to use our tent for boiling water and cooking food, so for most of the afternoon there were 5 of us crammed into a 2-person tent.
In fact, it wasn’t until after 7p that the Sherpas finally wrapped up and left for their own tent – leaving Andries/I with ~1.5hrs to sleep (which really wasn’t even possible, given every other expedition was starting at 7:30-8p, and making TONS of noise as they amped themselves up for the journey ahead). So in the end, sleep wasn’t happening. Oh well, I’ve pulled all-nighters before… It just stunk that this was now 2 all-nighters in a row, leading up to what would be one of the most physically and mentally demanding challenges of my life…
Which actually reminds me – the departure time… There was some debate around this. When we asked Lhakpa and Galjin what time we should leave, they felt we should depart around 7:30p. Andries and I on the other hand, didn’t want to leave until ~9:30-10p. Our thinking was that we were going to get stuck in the lines no matter what, so we’d rather limit the amount of time we had to stand out there in the cold (we both had a very real fear of frostbite – and I particularly did since I think I was the only person on the entire mountain not wearing a full summit suit). We ultimately landed on 9:30p as our departure time – we figured that’d give us a couple hours of climbing without lines, and then we’d just try to pass people as we caught up to them.
At 8:45p, the alarm went off and we started getting ready in the dark. A few minutes later and Lhakpa arrived with some porridge, which would serve as our base fuel for beginning the summit push. In addition to that, I also had 5 Cliff Shots (energy gels), a couple candy bars, a Cliff Bar, and a couple peanut butter packets; along with a 1.5L of water to get me thru what I assumed would be an 8hr ascent & 4hr descent.
When we setoff around 10:15p, we could see the (very) long line of headlamps stretching up the mountain above us; but for now, we were all alone. It was me, Andries, Lhakpa, Galjin and Dani (our guide, who had decided to join us for the summit push).
At first our pace was brisk (to put it mildly). We tore off across the ice field and began up the very steep snow slope. There was also no wind. In fact, I got so warm at our pace that I almost stripped down to base layers.
After about an hour or two, we caught up with the lines. And from there, the going went much slower. Instead of moving steadily up the mountain, we fell into the line’s rhythm of: “take 3 steps, stop for 2-3 minutes… take 3 steps, stop for 2-3 minutes… etc.”. It was comical how slowly we moved. That said, I wasn’t all that mad about it at the time. Aside from starting to get a little chilly from the lack of movement, I figured this would just mean I’d conserve more energy on the way up – energy I could use to enjoy the summit more, and perhaps even use that surplus to indulge in a bit of Johnnie Walker…
For ~4’ish hours we continued at this pace on our way up to the Balcony – a relatively flat spot on Everest’s eastern flank (at ~8,500m / 27,500ft) that serves as both the halfway point on the summit push, and also as a storage location for each team’s oxygen tanks. For the vast majority of Everest climbers, people use 2 oxygen canisters on their summit push. The first half of the first bottle is used to get to the Balcony, where it’s then exchanged for a new one – which will get the climber from the Balcony, to the Summit, and back to the Balcony. Upon returning to the Balcony, the climber will pick up their original bottle (which is still half full), and use that to get back to Camp 4.
When we arrived at the Balcony, I also assumed we’d take a bit of a break to grab some food and water to prep ourselves for the 2nd half of our ascent (which is a fairly common practice). However because the lines were so bad, this was also our opportunity to jump ahead of a LOT of people – an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. So rather than eating/drinking, we continued upwards. Mistake #1 for Ian Stewart. Mistake #2 came when I accepted my 2nd oxygen bottle and realized it was only 2/3’s full (rather than having the standard 250 bar of oxygen, my bottle only had 180 bar). You might wonder why I didn’t ask for a different one. I’ll tell you why: hubris. I figured I’d be fine.
So upwards we continued. We were still in the lines, but at least now we weren’t at the tail-end of them (we were now just in the last 20%…). From the Balcony, the terrain becomes increasingly more technical. There’s still fixed lines leading up the entire mountain, but rather than walking up a steep snow slope, you now had to contend with numerous mixed rock/ice sections. Again, not that difficult if you have climbing experience, but as many of you’ve read in the news – many people on Everest did not… So the pace again slowed – significantly.
After another ~5hrs, we at last reached the South Summit at 28,700ft (only ~300ft below the true summit). While the South Summit isn’t that much lower than the true summit, the route to get between the two is extremely narrow and precarious as it follows a single-track knife-edge ridge (this is likely the picture that most of you have seen with the lines on Everest – this is on that ridge).
Fall to the left and you’ve got an 8,000ft fall down the Lhotse Face into Nepal; fall to the right and you’ve got an 11,000ft fall down the Kangshung Face into Tibet.
For nearly 2hrs we sat on this ridge trying to make our way to the summit. In addition to its narrowness (which created even more bottlenecks as descending climbers tried to get past), the other problem with this ridge is that there are a few tricky obstacles along the way – the most notable of which is “The Hillary Step”. And while The Hillary Step is only a mere shadow of what it once used to be before the 2015 earthquake, it still creates quite the bottleneck as climbers try to scramble across/over the rocks, and try to navigate the many ropes that’re there from both this year, and year’s past.
In fact, hanging from the Hillary Step is yet another dead climber – one that got tangled up in the wrong ropes; and after what I’m sure was a struggle to get himself untangled, gave up and just died hanging there.
Above the Hillary Step there are then a few small ice ledges you have to scale – each about 4ft tall. Again, nothing serious (as each has a rope you can pull yourself up by), but at one point I found myself behind an Asian lady just staring at one of the 4ft ledges while her Sherpas yelled at her to climb. For 15min she just stood there, until I finally had to get behind/under her and boost her up by her ass while her Sherpas pulled her up by her arms. I should note that this lady put forth zero effort (perhaps out of sheer exhaustion), so it was essentially 3 of us lifting/dragging a limp body over this lip. Once over the lip, I was then stuck behind this lady for the next ~30min up to the summit.
At 10:15am though, I finally stood atop the summit!
I wish I could tell you that I had the same transcendental experience that Iman had – or that I even had 10% of the time that I’ve had on other summits to soak in the view, the accomplishment, and the relief of not having to walk uphill anymore. But I didn’t. When I got to the summit it was a zoo. And within minutes, the realization that I didn’t have very much oxygen remaining left me scrambling to collect my stuff and get back in the queues to descend,
Honestly, it’s all a bit of a blur, but here’s what I remember…
1) Arrive at summit, take off goggles and oxygen equipment to have Dani take pictures of me for proof that I summited (the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism won’t accept your summit photos if your face isn’t clearly visible)
2) Start to take a few other pictures of the landscape, but because of all the people, it was hard to get a good shot. Also, it was really windy… We were supposed to have 15kph winds at the summit, but instead it was more like 40kph – which made taking pictures with my bare hands pretty painful
3) Dani and I realize we’re running very low on oxygen and need to descend ASAP. I had just started getting out my thermos and digging out some food, but we didn’t have time to eat/drink, so I resign myself to the fact that I’ll have to wait until we’re below the South Summit
4) As we suit up and start descending, I realize that I haven’t taken my “Johnnie Walker picture” yet, so I make Dani snap a few more photos of me (whew, that was a close one…)
When I left the summit, I had ~⅓ of a tank of oxygen left – which under normal circumstances, should’ve been enough to get me back to the Balcony (⅓ tank = ~2.5hrs of oxygen on 2L/min flow rate), however as we all know, this wasn’t a normal a summit day. Within ~10min of leaving the summit, I arrived back at the top of the Hillary Step, where an enormous queue had developed – both people trying to come up, but mostly people trying to go down. Somehow Dani worked his way thru the line, cutting in front of people, and ended up ~15 people ahead of me in line. I, on the other hand, just sat in my place in line and waited for it to move. Which it didn’t.
After ~40min, I’d probably moved forward by 5ft, and tensions were starting to flair. There was another Asian girl trying to make her way up the Hillary Step, but was having a bit of panic attack – either due to the vertical exposure that was beneath her (the Lhotse Face drops suddenly away here), the dead person hanging nearby, or perhaps just from sheer exhaustion. Either way, people started screaming at her, “hurry the fuck up” and “Everest isn’t the place to learn how to become a mountaineer”. All the while, I sat there silently watching my oxygen run lower and lower, and wondering to myself, “what’s the appropriate protocol here? Do I start yelling too? Do I just sit here and die silently while I watch my oxygen run out? Just sitting here and dying slowly seems weird, but really not sure what else to do…”.
At some point I realized Dani had made it down the Hillary Step and was cruising along the ridgeline far ahead of me. It also occurred to me that Dani (who had a radio) was my only lifeline to the rest of our team, and to our oxygen supply… So I just started screaming. While everyone else on the mountain seemed to hear me, Dani didn’t. So I kept on screaming. Finally he turned around. Through some erratic gesturing, we agreed to meet up at the South Summit. Whew, I now at least had someone on the mountain waiting for me – now I just needed to get down the Hillary Step.
I eventually did make it down the Hillary Step, but my troubles didn’t end there. My lack of eating/drinking for the past 13hrs seemed to hit me like a ton of bricks. For anyone that’s an endurance athlete, you’ll know the term “bonking”. I bonked in a major way, and at 28,000ft…
Panic started to well-up as I realized that not only was I on the ridgeline above the South Summit with ~1.5hrs of oxygen left, but that my legs were refusing to work. I tried to calm and reassure myself that as soon as I caught up to Dani, that I’d stop and force myself to eat/drink, but even doing that was a struggle.
In the midst of all this, I had yet one more obstacle to contend with… in mountaineering etiquette, it’s incumbent upon the descending climber to unclip from the rope to allow the ascending climber to pass in the event of a single-rope / single-person pathway (which we were on). Normally you have 2 safety lines so that you’re always clipped-in (one on either side of the ascending climber) – particularly since there’s an 8,000ft drop-off inches away from your feet – but because everyone is so ‘puffed-up’ with their downsuits and climbing packs, it became really difficult to clip-in around the ascending climbers. So each time a person passed, there were a few terrifying seconds where you were completely untethered from the mountain. And a split-second after one of those times, I fell. Thank god I’d just barely clipped-in, otherwise I’d have been going for a very long fall. And while there wasn’t anything that physically impacted me (as my harness / safety line caught me), psychologically I was terrified and on the verge of losing it.
Eventually though I made my way to the South Summit and Dani. By that point I had less than an hour of oxygen remaining. I told Dani I desperately needed to eat/drink, but again, there was no time, so we began the trip down towards the Balcony.
At this point I was utterly exhausted. I could barely hang on to the rope as we rappelled down. My legs seemed to work in 5-step increments, and then I’d have to sit down and take 10 deep breaths. Whenever we got to a section that wasn’t mixed rock/ice, I’d just sit down, wrap my arm around the rope a few times, and sled down on my ass until I got to the next anchor point (hoping that I wouldn’t hit an unforeseen rock along the way). I also reduced my oxygen flow rate down to 1-1.5L/min (which is what people typically sleep on).
This went on for seemingly ever. It all felt like a really bad dream that just wouldn’t end. And good god, where was the Balcony??? I kept searching for it, but all I could see was more rock/ice to rappel down… Also at some point (and I can’t remember when), a massive ice-storm moved in, bringing with it 50+ mph winds and blasting any exposed skin with stinging ice pellets. Super.
At the point where Dani/I both had about 20min of oxygen left, I saw Galjin in the distance walking up towards us. And with him were 2 fresh bottles of oxygen… Sweet Jesus, thank the lord. I knew Galjin had had to leave Andries in order to bring these up to us, but I also took solace in the fact that he wouldn’t have left Andries if he hadn’t been in good condition. But mostly, I was just happy to have oxygen… My chances of losing a fingers/toes just reduced dramatically.
After switching bottles we continued for another 45min until we reached the Balcony (with me continuing my mixed rappel / butt-sliding technique). Once at the Balcony, I refused to move any further until I had a chance to eat/drink, so we sat there in the snow with ice pelting us in the face, while I finally took a sip of water and ate a candy bar and had an energy gel. Dani also gave me some dextrose (i.e., sugar) tablets for an added boost, and then we were off again.
For another ~2.5hrs we made our way down from the Balcony. My exhaustion was still there, but at least at this point I wasn’t worried about dying anymore (though I did trip over a dead person’s outstretched arm on the way down, which – as you can imagine – was a bit unnerving…).
As the storm continued to rage around us, I looked around and saw LOTS of other climbers in very rough shape trying to make their way down. Many of them sitting down in the snow with their faces buried in their knees, trying to protect themselves from the ice and wind. I wondered how many of them would make it. I wondered if I could help them. But I was still so overcome with exhaustion that I knew the answer was, no. We continued down.
At the bottom of the steep snow slope, you come out onto this icy plateau above Camp 4. From there it’s maybe .25 miles to get to Camp 4 – and occasionally the clouds would part long enough for you to see the yellow & red tents that represented salvation. Yet littered all over the plateau were more climbers just sitting/laying on the ice – too tired to even make it the final 5-10min into the safety of their tents. I wondered about them too.
And then, out of nowhere, I started to cry (which, btw, is an odd thing to admit when I think about some of the people that’re reading this…). The crying wasn’t from relief, or for sadness for those I’d passed and assumed wouldn’t make it, but from shame. I felt like I’d broken a major promise to Katie, my family and my friends – a promise that I wouldn’t let climbing “a hill” jeopardize my life. Yes the summit lines were bad, but it was my mistake in not eating/drinking (a mistake I’d even made before with Charlie/Nick on Aconcagua); and it was my mistake in accepting a 2/3 full oxygen bottle. And I made both of these mistakes with the arrogance that I was above the rules of “surviving Everest.” I could’ve very well ended up being one of the folks that died that morning, and it would’ve been my own fault. And for some reason as I was walking the final few feet to my tent, that really hit home.
A Night at Camp 4
That evening, Andries and I laid in the tent, sucking on oxygen and listening to the wind tear through the South Col. It’s amazing how a thin piece of nylon can mean the difference between life and death. But there we were, covered in snow and ice, and nestled into our down sleeping bags – alive and safe from the storm.
The next morning brought sunshine and slightly lower winds, so it was time to begin packing for the descent back to Camp 2. We still had no idea what the full extent of the damage was (i.e., that 4 people had died the previous day), but we knew it was time to get the F out of dodge, so we crawled out of our tents, put our crampons on, and began the journey back down the mountain. God I’m done with this mountain.
As an FYI, I’ll do one final post on the descent from Camp 4 and include a few closing thoughts. If you’ve read this far, thank you. Climbing Everest has been an interesting experience, but I’m more than ready to come home. There’s a lot of sitting and beer-drinking that needs to be done in Austin, and someone’s gotta take up that challenge…