Thursday, June 28, 2018

Post Everest Recap: Part #3 (of 3) - The Aftermath

The final part of this 3-part series recapping my Everest climb culminates in drama.  Below, I recount that drama in as much detail as I had available either by first-hand account (from my own eyes) or from other's first-hand accounts.  Errors in the details are mine.  I verified all pieces from those who directly observed the events.  The purpose of me retelling them here is to provide you all a full story of what happened to us all on Mt. Everest this year.  I did not intend to impugn anyone by retelling these events.  If you feel your story was retold incorrectly, I urge you to submit comments (or ignore the post altogether).  If you stumbled across this blog post by search engine, I encourage you to read Post 1 and Post 2 before reading on.

NOTE:  Prior to posting this recap, I had my climbing mates comment on the material.  All but two commented after I sent requests (Franz did not reply and Jon was busy climbing Denali - and summited!).  After a few discussions via WeChat and such, I had to make some tough decisions.  Those decisions pertained to how much material to reveal to the public and what impact those revelations might have on the individuals.  Let me begin by saying that what I wrote below is my perspective.  Some material was edited because my perspective was incorrect.  In those places, I chose to report what actually happened rather than what I thought happened.  Those corrections are noted in bold.  Additionally, I do not want to implicate SummitClimb as a prime cause in the outcomes mentioned below.  These events unfolded organically and, I suspect, almost all expedition groups experience similar problems.  From the leadership at Kathmandu through the cook staff, all those employed by SummitClimb did a fantastic job and I would happily climb with them in the future.  Finally, I am reporting these events for completeness and not to raise the attention of the media.  If you are a member of the media and are interested in following up with these stories, look elsewhere.  You will find many others willing to engage you; I am not one of those people.  My friends, family, and followers who were loyally tracking my adventures are the primary beneficiaries of these stories.  Thank you for attending to this important disclosure. 

The Aftermath

Hopefully, I left you wondering what transpired with the rest of our SummitClimb team.  There were several climbers that remained in my thoughts - mainly Magnus because he was acting so oddly on the summit ridge.  Brendan and I sat for a good portion of May 20th - the day we arrived at ABC from the North Col - discussing the summit experience.  He pointed out that I was clueless on the summit.  He was right; I was clueless on the summit.  Not wanting to spoil the mood, I didn't go into my mask problems just yet.  Instead, we enjoyed (well, perhaps not really enjoyed) our first tastes of beer.  We talked about how our rehearsed script for pictures and video on the summit was an utter failure.  We never planned on windy, cold, and crowded conditions with no cell phone cameras.  After a few laughs, we turned back to our team.
Uhm...."enjoying" a cold beer.  Cold it was, good it was not.  Yes, I used this picture before.  Want another?  Check out the rest of my pictures here (careful, there are almost 1600 pictures and video with more to come)..
Where on Everest is Magnus?

We got to chatting about the rest of the group.  Magnus was fresh on our minds.  Before getting to Camp 3 off the summit ridge, we passed Magnus and Ang Pasang.  He was falling and seemed utterly exhausted.  I felt the same way.  My legs just stayed under me but Magnus stumbled a bunch and he had about 100m (vertical) to go until he reached the camp.  We could all see the tents below but it is amazing how hard it is to walk when that exhausted.  I recounted my discussions with Magnus where I said "Magnus, let's walk down together.  I am beat and will take my time."  He didn't respond at first but eventually said that he was going way slower than I was going and would just take his time.  Brendan, meanwhile, was almost at camp.  So I said to Brendan during our beer time together, "I wonder what happened to Magnus."  He wasn't in good shape.  I knew he was struggling and it appeared as if Ang Pasang continued on down to Camp 3 without him.  My guess was that Magnus told Ang Pasang to go ahead and that he would amble on at his own pace.  
Magnus (R) and Martin (L) in front of the famous "Big Plate Chicken"
Put this little exchange in perspective; Brendan and I were at ABC drinking beer and recounting events that were taking place above Camp 3!  My exchange with Magnus happened at or above 8400m or 27,500 feet - well above the start of the "Death zone" on Everest.  Magnus needed to get down or else he would run the risk of dying on Everest.  I started to worry about his safety.

Jon's Arrival at ABC

After about an hour of working through that horrific can of what Tibetans call beer, Jon arrived at ABC.  He walked in and was in great spirits.  Immediately, we asked him how the rest of the team fared on summit day.  What struck me as odd was that Brendan and I had no idea how things went with them.  The last time we saw Jon was after we summited.  We passed by the rest of the Summit Climb team as they headed up the snow slope just before the summit.  My guess is they had about an hour before the summit.  Everyone seemed to be doing well except Jon.  He is an affable guy; always quick to respond and almost always in a good mood.  When I passed by Jon, he didn't say a word.  That seemed really out of character.  Right next to Jon was Grant who was in his characteristically focused manner on the climb.  Grant "high fived" us both before we left them but we couldn't get anything from Jon.  I was curious to know how Jon fared.  My guess was that he summited and returned without incident.

Jon recounted the summit day with great clarity.  He opened up a Lhasa "beer" (3.3% Alcohol by volume doesn't warrant an unqualified beer from me) and we talked about the events.  The first thing he mentioned was some trouble with Franz.  Apparently, Franz had little problem on the climb up but had no energy for the descent - a full story that I shall recount below.  Jon then went on to explain that he developed a really bad cough and was coughing up green phlegm into his mask.  The thought of that made me nauseous.  Perhaps it was the Lhasa beer.  I don't know but it was disturbing to say the least.  Jon also said that he went on ahead - leaving David, Martin, Franz and their Sherpa behind.  He had no idea what happened to them because he descended without others.  It seemed like Jon was on his own or with his Sherpa for the rest of the descent.  

At this time I realized how fortunate I was to be climbing with Brendan.  We looked out for one another and made sure each was safe.  Jon didn't have this luxury but he did have a Sherpa (Chewang).  Brendan and I had one between the two of us and that was good enough given the fact that nothing went wrong.  Had one of us been in trouble, Gelje couldn't have done much for either of us - not because he was incapable but because the spare oxygen bottles were nowhere to be found and we were on a mad dash to get down.  Jon, apparently didn't have too much of a struggle with oxygen but his cough really hampered his climbing ability (Readers interested in Jon's first-hand account of his climb should read his blog posts).  Jon is a strong climber.  The fact that he was beaten down when we saw him on the ascent told me that something was wrong.  Indeed there was but I leave that for him to describe.  Again, read his blog posts (linked above).  David mentioned to me via email that Jon complained about his mask.  Jangbu carried two spare masks with him at the back of the pack.  After swapping out masks, Jon realized that the problem was his lungs and not his mask.  Jon just developed an upper respiratory infection that hampered his climbing ability.

Jon gave us a hint about Franz but we had no idea the impact it might have on others.  Brendan and I remained concerned about Magnus and figured Franz was in good hands.  Jon mentioned seeing Ang Pasang at the higher camps but did not know where Magnus was on the mountain.  At that point, I grew really concerned.  The last time I saw Magnus was when he was slowly working his way down off the summit ridge above Camp 3.  Magnus was meandering off the beaten path and seemed rather lost but certainly exhausted.  I understood his exhaustion and felt it first-hand.  Franz remained a mystery to us all.  

After sitting in the dining tent for some time, our teammates slowly showed up at ABC with more details.  Everyone sung the same tune; Franz stopped in his tracks after the summit and refused to continue down.  Jon summed it up perfectly in his blog recap where he said "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."  Wow!  That is a powerful summary in my book.  We all know when a climber is in trouble.  When we are that high on a mountain, we must find the energy to carry on.  Nobody is capable of saving you (or me).  Franz believed in his Sherpa and expedition leader (David) but that belief is misplaced.  We must believe in ourselves to get down.  Climbing up is optional; climbing down mandatory.  Despite the common tune sung by all, we still lacked the whole story.

The tune became crystal clear when David and Martin showed up later that night.  They were obviously exhausted and equally irritated.  David retold the events in sequence and we all sat riveted to his every word.  The way he described the event was that Franz essentially gave up.  He claimed to be snow blind, scared, and incapable of moving.  We all experience some level of fear in these events.  Some of us ignore it while others get consumed by it.  Apparently Franz felt anxious enough where he couldn't overcome it or cover it up from others.  I suspect fear is not something that most men like to show other men.  None of us want to appear weak.  In some countries, accusing another man of being weak might be the equivalent of stealing his horse or sleeping with his wife.  At any rate, Franz was scared and could not see well enough to keep going.  David then described his efforts - along with "my" Sherpa Jangbu - of placing Franz's feet in locations to ambulate him down the hill.  Yes, one step at a time they guided him down; together they required 12 hours to descend from the summit to Camp 3.  
Image may contain: one or more people, sky, outdoor and nature
Franz waving hello on the climb to the summit.  Given the number of read suits, I presume the boys are surrounded by the 7 Summits (Russian) team.  Photo by David O'Brien.
Time for a little perspective.  The highest mountaineering rescue ever happened on May 19th (!), 2013.  Yes, the same day 5 years prior to this day, a mountaineer was rescued near Camp 3 at 7000m or 23,000 feet on the south side of Everest via helicopter (thanks David for pointing that detail out).  No high rescues were ever reported higher than 7000m by any means.  The summit of Everest is 8848m or 29,035 feet meaning that David and Jangbu rescued Franz at the highest point anyone could be rescued.  I want to emphasize that point because as Jon pointed out in his blog post, Franz would not be alive had it not been for the selfless effort put forth by these men.  Real heroes I would say.  Why they were put in that situation I plan to go into detail below but suffice it to say that they acted as good humans for a cause that many might find questionable.  Saving a human is a good cause for sure; I would never question that point.  Saving a single human from a preventable situation where three others lives were jeopardized complicates matters.  Saving a human who has no appreciation or gratitude for the efforts of others further complicates matters.  Let me expand upon all three points below.

Saving Humans on Everest

A 7000m rescue record on any mountain is both rare and amazing.  There is a certain feeling of helplessness that we all feel above even 6000m.  We are preoccupied with our own lives and the safety of those around us.  Helping another person sounds honorable but in reality it is not possible for most of us.  We can barely walk let alone climb.  I know some of the strongest, most accomplished climbers who have been in horrible states.  They struggled for many odd reasons but they were not capable of helping others.  Even the Sherpa have limits.  They get exhausted.  Saving a human on Mt. Everest is both rare and amazing.  Saving a human above Camp 3 is unheard of on the Tibet side of Mt. Everest.  Here, on our team, we had two heroes who saved one climber.

An ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure

Every error on a climb is preventable.  I believe that to my core.  We all make mistakes or errors during a climb but most of them are inconsequential.  My slip on the descent of Step 2 only affected my pride (and ribs) but did not jeopardize my life.  I clipped into the fixed ropes, regained my composure, and kept my wits about me when things went sideways (literally and figuratively).  Preparation helps us all prevent those errors and recover from them.  Years of being in the mountains, skiing, snowboarding, climbing, and camping made me prepared.  Franz had little to no preparation for Everest.  He showed up in Kathmandu without any of the essential personal climbing equipment such as a harness, carabiners, crampons, boots, helmet, summit suit, etc.  Something as basic as a climbing harness and setup should be fixtures by the time someone attempts a big mountain like Everest (or any other 8000m peak).  Learning to use these pieces of gear on a big mountain is just asking for trouble.  

The real evidence for Franz's lack of preparation wasn't merely with his gear.  We had a gear test on the ice pinnacles the day before our first rotation up the mountain.  If you read my summary, I conveniently omitted some details simply because I was not sure if what I saw was accurate.  Now, we can pull back the curtains and reveal what really happened.  Most of the team scaled the pinnacles with ease; some, like Martin, helped others gain insights into better technique.  None of the team members stood out from the rest other than Franz.  He obviously never climbed before.  Magnus noted (via email exchange) that he observed Franz's ability and decided to avoid him when on the mountain.  There were times during the rotations that Franz's lack of preparation were abundantly clear.  Case in point - he fell into a small crevasse opening while descending from the North Col on rotation one.  In Magnus' words:
My initial thought was to stay as far away from him on the hill as possible.  With that [the events during the previous day recounted above] fresh in my mind, during the first climb to the North Col, I found myself just in front of him when getting on the ropes at the bottom. I tried hard to push away, but he kept coming up behind me. When I decided to turn around, of course he also decided the same thing… You know this already, but on the way down there was a little crevasse around 30% up the hill. Franz was right behind me and so around 10m before the crevasse I started running (running is relative up there) down the hill and managed to get a 25m gap between him and me. Having never done an arm-rappel in his life, he slipped, fell on his ass and slid right into the crevasse. As he held is legs up, he managed to slide like on the bottom tip of a letter “U” and stopped with his calves on the bottom side of the crevasse and shoulder blades on top, like a plank.....  He was yelling Help and “What should I do”. I yelled to him to get out his axe or attach the jumar or anything to get an anchor set, but he was unable to do anything. Dorjee came running down from above and pulled him out quite quickly, but I am still surprised over how little this incident seemed to affect Franz.
I was a bit perplexed as to how a person who never used alpine climbing gear could feel prepared to climb Everest.  Some of us tried to help where we could but we all felt somewhat uneasy that a climber with us was not able to ascend or descend a small ice pinnacle.  I felt bad for David and for the rest of the climbing team who were responsible for Franz.  They had to shoulder the burden of Franz but neither I nor anyone else realized how much they would have to eventually shoulder.  NOTE:  At this point, I feel obliged to weigh in on this material to absolve SummitClimb for any direct responsibility.  We all know weaker climbers who manage to find their way onto these expeditions.  If you took the time to read past recounts of expedition teams, then you will certainly know that not all high alpine climbers are equal.  Some climbers are bold and unprepared and others are well seasoned and prepared.  That continuum exists on every expedition.  The price one pays for their expedition team does not ensure that all fellow climbers are equally prepared; that price ensures that all are equally well-off financially to pay for the expedition team.  The services that we had from SummitClimb were equal to or better than most other teams.  We know; we visited every team while at Basecamp.  So if you think that weak climbers get excluded from the high-priced teams then you are sorely mistaken.  Every climber must assume responsibility for himself or herself. 

We're all victims of our own hubris at times -- Kevin Spacey

What Franz showed in the weeks leading up to summit day was a lack of preparation prior to his arrival combined with a lack of care to prepare while he could on the mountain.  I encouraged him to practice clipping into a fixed rope, learning to use his ascender with gloves and mittens, and getting his gear in order.  If you read my previous posts then you will realize how funny it is for me to encourage others to get their gear in order when it was my poor preparation with my oxygen setup that almost cost me my climb and potentially my life.  Hypocrisy aside, I encouraged him to learn and practice.  He did no such thing.  Instead, he spent countless hours watching videos on his phone inside the dining tents.  Not once did I see him do anything but eat and watch videos.  He showed no interest in learning more.  I believe, in retrospect, that he thought he knew everything he needed to know to climb Everest.  No way was he going to ask for help from anyone else.  

That false sense of competence and air of confidence came out in almost every conversation and even when he returned from the summit.  When Franz stepped into the dining tent at ABC, most of us had several hours to process the entire recap from David, Martin, Jon, Grant, and even Magnus's points of view.  All those perspectives told us one thing:  Franz was lucky to be alive and yet he felt no gratitude about the efforts to save him.  Imagine saving a dog from a burning house only to be bitten by him.  Well, that imaginal example might be a bit extreme but I assure you that David and Martin felt (yes, felt) the lack of gratitude.  David seethed during the recap.  Both David and Martin are mild-mannered guys and they were visibly angry when retelling their stories.  I don't think anything could feel worse than saving an ungrateful person.  

Why are you guys punishing me?

When we finally got down to Chinese Basecamp, we had a full day to process the series of events.  The emotional responses were raw for most if not all.  Some did not chime in to the discussion while others were quite vocal.  David and Martin - the two most vocal - had many words to say on the matter but most not suitable for little kids ears or eyes.  I won't repeat them here but suffice it to say that I could easily infer that they felt an internal conflict between helping an ungrateful person and doing the right thing.  After repeated discussions, we all realized that the conflict was deepening.  David and Martin felt strongly that Franz needed to show his gratitude by providing Jangbu a sizable summit tip.  It was Jangbu, afterall, who did a fair portion of the "lifting" when Franz was being almost carried down the mountain.  The efforts by David and Jangbu made me quite convinced that had they not intervened then Franz would not be hailed as the first Paraguayan to summit Everest.  My sense is that he would not have survived.  Jon saw it first-hand and reported to me that he thought that was the last time he would see Franz.  Again, powerful statements.  Just like Mallory and Irvine before us, he would have failed to return from the summit and his attempt would be deemed a failure.  I figured the failure needed to be reflected somehow or another and the best way for it to be reflected would be in the Himalayan Database by recognizing Franz as a German climber.  His climbing permit was issued under his German passport because Paraguay has no diplomatic relations with China (they recognize Taiwan).  Thus, Franz became the first by a technicality and by luck.  I suggested to the team that we honor Franz and the efforts of his three rescuers by recognizing the four as two Germans, a British guide, and a Sherpa.  Franz asked "why are you picking on me" and then preceded to tell David that he created a hostile environment throughout the climb.  

That latter comment made us all boil.  David is an excellent guide by all measures. I have climbed and done all sorts of adventures throughout my life and few people would equal David in his skills, patience, and diplomacy.  Count me in for those who would sign up to climb with David any time.  David was the champion for Franz to continue climbing - a point David recounted as a source of guilt.  I don't believe for a second that David deserves a shred of guilt.  Everyone on Everest makes a decision to go up based upon his or her experience.  Some climbers do not have sufficient experience to make informed decisions.  Franz was one of those climbers.  David did his best to guide Franz but apparently Franz did not listen.  He climbed to the summit without any eye protection despite repeated directives from David to put on glasses or goggles.  Franz did not know enough to turn around when he was fatigued nor did he know enough to communicate his level of fatigue to either David or his personal Sherpa.  These failures were Franz's and Franz's alone.  The fact that David did not run him off the expedition team is not a failure on David's part but rather a failure of the system that allows complete novices to climb big dangerous mountains.  I favor the open system that allows any and all to climb.  What I do not favor is that those who are unwilling to prepare for such challenges do not take full responsibility for their actions.  Franz never owned up to his lack of preparation.  In fact, he said that Jangbu should not be thanked or paid because he "was doing his job."  Sorry Franz, Jangbu risked his life for you and you barely had the courtesy to thank him.  

I was so thoroughly disgusted by Franz's behavior that I wanted nothing to do with him.  He lost equipment I loaned him (four brand new locking carabiners), never thanked me for even loaning it to him (on record by several accounts), and skipped out on paying for things when he was responsible (later in Kathmandu).  I might sound bitter but I am not at all.  What I am is sorry that two men had to risk their lives for an ungrateful person.  I am sorry that one person - David - feels one ounce of guilt for something he deserves to feel proud.  I am sorry that Jangbu cannot gain the recognition he so deserves for risking his life for someone who did not value his life.  Sorrow is what I feel more than anything else.  If by writing this missive I can offer those guys an opportunity to feel some gratitude from others then I have succeeded in my objective.

Ending on a good note

Remember Magnus?  I sure do.  He is a fine man.  Apparently Magnus was preoccupied with experiencing what made Everest unique.  The summit is not unique.  Well, that is not true.  The height of the summit is particularly high but not unique.  Most mountain summits are rather boring, flat spaces where people stand atop while posing and preening about.  Magnus wanted none of that.  He merely wanted to experience the three steps.  Once he got atop the 3rd Step, he felt satisfied with the experience and turned around.  Apparently Magnus, Ang Pasang and David chatted about Magnus turning around.  They agreed that Magnus ought to turn around after the 3rd step - something Magnus felt quite good about in retrospect.  Contributing to that decision was the fact that he felt pretty tired and wanted to live a long life.  I applaud him for that decision.  Dominic made a similar decision.  Dom - as he preferred to be called - decided against risking his life and turned around when his oxygen mask failed.  Both of these guys made wise decisions.  I felt for them afterwards only insofar as they didn't achieve what I believe both set out as their objectives but I think they both achieved something far greater - a life beyond the mountains.  I gained more respect for these guys than anything that Franz ever did on that mountain.  These men made tough choices and decided to take matters in their own hands.  I respect them for those decisions and would gladly climb with both in the future.  Magnus and Dom are alpinists - individuals who dare to be different but also accept responsibility for their daring behavior.


We are happy to be done and headed back to Kathmandu to party.  Oh wait, we started already.
Everest was quite an adventure.  My journey started many years ago when I decided I wanted to do my own triple crown - not one to brag about or create a list where I invited others to compete with me.  I wanted to be weird and do three totally incompatible things that would allow me to be me.  Those things?  Swim the English Channel, climb Mt. Everest and sail around the world.  I achieved two of the three.  The question most people ask now is "what is next?"  To them, I tell them I want to sail around the world.  My brother and I plan to make it happen.  We don't aim to sail continuously around but rather in "legs" between interesting destinations or waypoints.  Friends are welcome on certain legs but we want to have fun so we welcome those who wish to have fun with us.  I feel satisfied with my individual achievements and do not plan any specific climbs or swims in the near future.  Perhaps I will climb in the Karakorum and swim where sharks dare not go.  I invite you all to follow along with my adventures.

Credits and Acknowledgements

Everest was a huge endeavor.  I thank my friends and family for their support.  Yes, I realize that hearing my plans to return to Everest after a few tough trips without success made them uneasy but I thank them all for believing in me.  Your support meant the world to me.  Thanks to Brendan for making this trip better than I ever imagined.  Without his presence, the climb would not have been the same.  In fact, I suspect I would not have as many fond memories.  My teammates on the climb were fantastic.  Simply fantastic.  David O'Brien, Martin Szwed, Brendan Madden, Jon Lawrie, Grant Maughan, Dominic Renshaw, Magnus Nerve, Heikki K. and even Franz Rassl made the trip unforgettable.  Each of these guys contributed to the team dynamics and made it all a real treat.  Thanks for your support guys.

From L to R:  Grant, Magnus, David, Franz, Dom, Martin, Jon, Brendan, me, and Heikki

I encourage all of you to read the summaries from the other climbers.  To date, I have these recaps posted online:

Jon:  Sand To Summits
Grant:  Dingofish Express

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Post Everest Recap: Part #2 (of 3) - The Summit Push

The second part of a three part summary contains all the information worthy of print and public consumption.  If you missed Part 1, check it out before reading further.

The Summit Push

After nearly a month waiting, walking, and wondering about our summit window, the day finally arrived when we would head up.  That day?  May 13th.  Up to this point, we had only ventured up the mountain - that is above Advanced Basecamp (ABC) - for 3 days.  Yes, we come to these huge mountains to mostly wait around at lower altitudes and get accustomed to the thin air.  May 13th came after a three day respite in a Tibetan town called Tingri.  During that rest, we ate and ate and ate until we couldn't eat any more.  Brendan's fluency in Chinese and Chinese cuisine enabled us to eat such fine delicacies as "Big Plate Chicken," Beijing Hotpot, and other delights.
Hotpot meal beat most meals we had at basecamp
Once we returned from our "low" altitude rest (at 3000m or 10,000 feet), we knew the summit push was all that was left to our climb.  That push involved another trip up the Rombuk moraine from Chinese Basecamp (CBC; 5200m or 17,000 feet) to Interim Basecamp (IBC; 5800m or 19,000 feet) and then to Advance Basecamp (ABC; 6400m or 21,000 feet).  As I mentioned before, I was not looking forward to that part but I knew it was a necessary step to getting to our climb.  We all found the trek to those camps quite easy this last time around.  The previous trips required a fair effort over 5 to 6 hours; this last push required only 3.5 hours each so we all felt pretty good.  Again, Brendan helped me pace myself and not deplete my energy needed for our summit push.  Thanks to him, we were both relaxed and rested for the trek into ABC.  Once we got to ABC, we knew we had a rest period.  Just to give you some perspective for timing, we left CBC for IBC (5.4 miles) on May 13th; left IBC for ABC (4.4 miles) on May 14th; and then rested at ABC on May 15th and headed up the mountain for the real push on May 16th.  Our goal was to summit on May 19th because the weather window looked perfect for us on that day.

The reason we rested for a full day at ABC was two-fold.  First, we all needed to be as strong as possible.  Resting for that day allowed us to eat, drink, and rest.  Most of us were pretty anxious to get going but the rest helped.  Second, the Sherpa just returned from the higher camps and they needed to rest.  Those guys do a tremendous amount of work and if they were tired from their prior work, summit day would be more dangerous - even more than it already is with a rested team.  We needed everyone rested before we climbed higher - the extra day allowed us all to rest and recuperate.

The Real Push Begins!

We were all anxious to get going.  The summit push is what we long for on all mountains and Everest just kept us waiting longer than any mountain I climbed before.  Our time was here!  We headed out right after breakfast on May 16th - about 10:00am.  Grant, Magnus, and I headed out first.

Almost to crampon point!  Photo makes me sad.  My beloved fleece was lost on the climb (more on that point later).  I'll miss my friend.  We spent many days together.  I hope he finds a good home.
My plan was to take it easy so leaving early allowed me to pace myself up to crampon point (about a 45 minute walk uphill from our camp at ABC) before the real climb starts.  It was sunny and warm when we took off despite the fact that it snowed the night before.  Most of the trail from our ABC camp to crampon point was obscured by the dusting of 2" of new snow.  The going was easy and I made it even easier by just taking my time.  Brendan's voice was constantly in my head...."take it easy."  Perhaps that was Glenn Frey of the Eagles.  I don't know...but it sure sounded like Brendan.

Our goal was to get to the North Col (Camp 1) - a total distance of 1.2 miles - without expending too much effort.  We made it in 6.5 hours and I was beat!  The heat really took it out of me.  My legs felt fine; my breathing was not terribly labored, but I simply overheated and couldn't cool down.  Thinking back, the reason I chose to climb from the North side was because it was way cooler than the South (Nepal) side but this year proved that you cannot count on Everest weather ever being normal.  Every time we climbed to the North Col, I found myself overheating with just a tech shirt and a fleece top.  I was worried when I reached the North Col.  Being that tired meant that my body would work overtime to recover from the effort.  I needed to be fresh for each of these climbs because summit day would require a huge effort.  So our first leg didn't go so well for me.

Brendan and I had a great night at the North Col.  We melted snow, boiled water, ate some fine meals (Brendan ate that disgusting Mountain House stuff while I enjoyed a wonderful bowl of Chinese noodles).  It seemed we both shook off that first long day pretty quickly.

The heat killed me going up to the North Col.  See the bloodshot eyes?

Oh yeah!  Shrimp flavored noodles.  Mmmm....mmmm...good.

Brendan not looking psyched.  Not sure why.  We were tired but excited.
I think we both slept pretty well despite the fact that we were so excited to get up, get down, and celebrate.  One step at a time.  We just completed the first leg of the climb from ABC to the North Col.   Tomorrow, we head for new ground!

The Unexplored Part of the Mountain (Above the North Col)

We woke up after a reasonable night sleep feeling energized and ready for the huge snow slope outside the North Col.  That snow slope separated Camps 1 and 2 so there was no avoiding the big day of walking up a huge snowy field.  Our previous exposure to the mountain was limited to only Camp 1 (the North Col) and we never had a chance to climb above due to the weather.  Today (May 17th) was the first day of our exposure to the higher camps.  Camp 2 was objective today and we headed off at about 10am - just after porridge and some eggs.  I lost my taste for porridge a while ago and just couldn't muster the enthusiasm for it any longer.  The eggs I could tolerate to a degree and I knew I would need to eat something before we headed out.  I ate, Brendan ate (porridge if I recall correctly), and we both suited up to leave. 

My setup - finally got it going after some delays.  Boy was I unprepared this morning!

Oxygen Fiasco

Today was our first day using oxygen and we were hardly prepared - at least I wasn't.  We spent about 5 minutes setting up our masks prior to this day.  The morning required us to suit up quickly and head out with all our gear functional.  I should have spent more time getting used to the setup but I was preoccupied with getting my other gear in order.  Some of us - perhaps me mostly - were in a mad scramble to get going.  Everything seemed to go wrong on this morning.  My mask leaked air and made hissing noises that seemed like most of the oxygen was going into the atmosphere rather than in my lungs.  I had a crappy mask for sure but my poor preparation made it impossible for me to figure out the oxygen setup.  Plain and simple, I really messed up by not setting up my oxygen kit before and for relying upon SummitClimb's masks.  The TopOut folks never returned my email or phone messages so I didn't have that option from the start.  The other vendors didn't have any distributors in the US so I had nobody to contact.  Yeah, it was my fault for relying on subpar equipment but I figured oxygen would not be a limiting factor in my climb.  Read on!

Gelje and the rest of the team ready to go.  Me?  Still futzing about with my oxygen kit.  Note the snow slope in the background.  That was our day's objective.  Camp 2 was at the top of the snow slope.

Missing Gear

Once we got going, I realized I was missing my ice axe.  In my fog, I thought I asked Brendan to hook it to my ice axe loop and fix it to my pack.  Apparently I never asked him and my ice axe remained at Camp 1 - stuck in the snow next to a tent.  We headed up the snow slope steadily gaining on an Indian team of youngsters who were clearly untrained with moving in the mountains.  These "kids" (probably in the mid to upper 20's) were taking about 15 really big and fast steps up the steep snow slope and then collapsing exhausted from the effort.  Meanwhile, we hiked up at a slow and steady pace.  We all quickly closed in on these novice climbers when they kept taking breaks on the route - remaining clipped into the fixed rope and laying prostrate on the ground gasping for breath.  OK, perhaps that is a slight exaggeration but it was pretty close to how they were acting.  We were even passed by several lower on the hill and then passed them as we neared the top of the slope.  The only difference between us and them was that we got to Camp 2 without wearing ourselves out; them?  They were beat with bloodshot eyes and no ability to recover from that monster effort up the snow slope.  I sure hope they got down safely.  No way did they summit.

One of the Indian "runners" right ahead of me.  I lead out our pack despite the fact that I was a total mess in the morning and completely disorganized.

Camp 2 (7600m / 25,000 feet)

When we arrived in Camp 2, I was one of the first climbers to reach camp but had no idea where our tents might be located.  Instead of meandering in camp and potentially climbing above our campsite, I sat down and waited for our Sherpa to arrive.  Wasted energy at Camp 2 would be...well, a waste.  I waited while Jangbu brought up the rear of our group.  Once he and Gelje got into camp, they sorted things out and we were in business.  By this time, I was beat.  I didn't expend too much energy but I did realize that the day was harder than I thought.  Climbing for much longer would have put me in a severely depleted state and I wasn't confident that I could recover quickly enough to make our next camp climb an easy one.  That fatigue also brought on some grumpiness.  I was ticked off that I had to climb all the way to the top of the camp - perhaps another 50m vertical - to get to the tent Brendan selected.  The selection was not entirely Brendan's doing and I knew that but still my emotions were getting the best of me.  Instead of climbing into the tent and being a real jerk, I decided to sit outside, take a few pictures, and cool off.  The time by myself helped a ton.  I finally

Not sure how I mustered a smile.  It is 4:35pm and I was shaking off my grumpiness.  Still, I was happy we made it to Camp 2 in one piece and relatively unscathed.
Olivia and I were enjoying our time at Camp 2.
Brothers in arms!  Well, at least brothers on the mountain.  We were doing well.  Tired but doing well.

Here is our view from our vestibule.  Brendan did select an outstanding location.  Once again, Brendan saved the day!

Brendan and I had a good night at Camp 2.  No, we didn't sleep that well but we did enjoy our time there.  Noodle soup and ample water made recovery much easier than I initially thought.  The guys (assuming they were guys and that is a good guess) who setup our tent were magicians.  You cannot see from the angles of the pictures but our tent was located on this very small patch of sharp rocks.  A few feet to each side was a rather dramatic drop - from about 1-2m to about 50m in the back.  I tried to dump something out the back vestibule only to realize that it looked down a rather steep drop of 50m to another tent site.  Despite the precarious location, our tent didn't budge.   The winds tried their best to rip our tent apart but the inner part never moved.  Sure, the tent fly rattled in the wind and reminded us that the outside conditions were inhospitable for a late-night sojourn but we were safe inside.  Brendan and I remained impressed throughout the night....but still couldn't sleep that well.

Camp 3 (8300m / 27,400 feet)

We were off at 10am the next day.  Feeling great and ready for the final push.  Our aim...get to Camp 3, rest, rehydrate, get stoked for the summit push.  Here we go!!!

Morning of the push to Camp 3

I figured out my oxygen mask finally - after a night of sleeping with the thing on at half a liter per minute.  That flow rate allowed us to recover but not consume too much oxygen.  Given our limited supply, we had to use the oxygen judiciously.  Once we got up, we cranked it up to 1.5 l/min.  I was feeling great on the extra oxygen.

A last-second view from Camp 2 before we head out.  You can see ABC from here.  Look way down there where the moraine begins and the glacier takes a big left turn.  At the end of that turn lies our camp.  Amazing, huh?
We arrived at Camp 3 feeling great!  I couldn't believe how easy the climb was between Camp 2 and 3.  Here are a few pictures that show our climb between the camps:

Brendan looking poised to get this climb underway.  See the summit pyramid above his head?  Oh yeah, we were psyched.  Jon is in the background.  Sorry Jon, didn't have a good one of both of you.

Things progressed smoothly for us all.  We got up to Camp 3 without drama.

Here I am!  At Camp 3 breathing the wee bit of oxygen in the air.  Not terribly tired and ready to climb higher soon.
Do you think we were psyched for the summit push?  Oh yeah!  Here we are celebrating each step toward that goal.
Thanks to my friend Stu Williams, I could show some patriotism.  Proud American on Everest.  Here at Camp 3 and feeling grateful.

Yo!  The image above shows our view.  At Camp 3, we are higher than most mountains in the world.  How about an even better view?  Below is the view at sunset just before our summit push began at 10pm.  I snapped the picture at 8:50pm.  Not sure what I was doing other than taking photos out of the vestibule opening.  

Camp 3 lasted a total of 7 hours for us (3pm to 10pm) before we were to head out.  A few funny stories are worth mentioning.  First, we asked Jangbu when we were planning to head out to the summit.  He said something like 7:30pm.  When I looked at my watch, 7:30pm was about 10 minutes away.  He insisted that time was correct.  No way were we going to push off that early.  I wasn't ready.  Brendan wasn't read.  Heck, the Sherpa were not ready.  Finally, we figured out that Jangbu never changed his watch from Nepal time; 7:30pm was 10pm Tibet or rather Beijing time.  Once we sorted out that bit, we were set with our recovery time.  Second, when we arrived at Camp 3, we noticed there were no Summit Climb tents.  After waiting for nearly an hour, Jangbu directed us to climb into any unoccupied tent.  Brendan and I were assigned a tent that clearly had some inhabitants before us.  The tent was littered with tons of gear - probably gear owned by one of the many Indians on the mountain.  We just laid on top of the gear with our gear spread about.  Brendan and I both felt a bit strange - perhaps like Goldilocks invading bear territory.  At any rate, we stayed in the tent for the night until we pushed off for the summit.  Very strange though staying in someone else's living quarters.
Here we are spread out in someone else's tent.  Strange?  Yep.
The Final Push (Everest Summit: 8848m / 29,035 feet)

We headed out just as planned at 10pm.  The others were standing around waiting for something to happen but Gelje wasted no time.  I stepped in each of his boot tracks noting that my headlamp didn't really light the way.  Mistake 1:  not checking how well my "new" batteries were functioning in my headlamp.  After about an hour, I noticed that I couldn't see anything in front of me other than Gelje and his boot tracks.  The rocks would come at me with each step and surprise me.  Gelje held a good pace - at least for me - and allowed me to take 3 breaths between each step.  I felt great.  About every 10 minutes I checked in with Brendan.  I assumed he was taking pictures and video; my aim was to climb with him and make sure we both drank enough going up.  The danger in these climbs is to expend too much energy on the summit push up and leave nothing in the tank for the descent.  Drinking and eating was one sure fire way to keep those energy stores high and ensure sufficient energy for the descent.  

Throughout the entire night, I didn't think of much other than hold back, save energy, and stick to Gelje so I wouldn't fall.  As the darkest hours approached (2am-4am), I realized my headlamp was dead.  A few quick efforts to change the batteries showed me that I had made a serious error.  I figured 2 sets of spare batteries stored in the outside of my pack were useless.  Also, the batteries in my headlamp corroded the contacts so changing them out with dead cold Lithium Ion batteries did nothing to restore the headlamp.  I was stuck!  My tracks had to be between Gelje and Brendan.  I felt so stupid but immediately shook off the error and stayed focused on our objective - a quick summit push and a relaxed descent to ABC (if possible).  Our pace remained steady and strong through all the climbs hurdles.

A strange encounter

We encountered several climbers about 2-3 hours into our ascent.  As we approached them, I figured they were from the 7 Summits Russian team but they were our team mates - Magnus, Ang Pasang (Magnus' personal Sherpa), and Franz.  Magnus was hilarious!  He said...."mountaineer is mountaineer Magnus" and then went on to tell me he was feeling confused.  Magnus and Ang Pasang were sitting on a rock just to the side of the fixed rope.  Ang Pasang seemed irritated but Magnus was in high spirits.  I asked him how he was doing and he said his head felt funny.  Immediately, I thought he had early signs of HACE because he complained about being disoriented.  Later I found out he was just confused about where he was on the mountain.  I had no idea.  When he said "I don't know where I am" I immediately responded with sarcasm as in "well, you are on earth, on a mountain, on Everest...." and figured if he were OK then we could move on and let Ang Pasang sort out the details.  Magnus turned out to be just fine.  Franz was uncharacteristically animated - as if he were high or drunk.  I didn't really make much of it but he did seem odd; perhaps not as odd as Magnus but he acted strangely.  Brendan and Gelje were not fond of standing around chatting much longer so we pushed on leaving them behind.  

Just before we ran into these guys, we passed by a few bodies.  I found the experience of seeing dead bodies rather odd.  Death doesn't frighten me but seeing recently deceased bodies made me think of the stupidity of climbing high mountains.  Yvon Chouinard said we were "conquerors of the useless" and just seeing those bodies reinforced the absurdity of it all.  Still, I felt a strong kinship with these other conquerors and feel dedicated to alpinism.  Death is part of life and big mountains just accelerate life both in intensity and duration.  We all chose to be here.  Dying in the pursuit of the absurd is what affected me.  I thought for a moment, reflected on my life, and then took the next steps to pass by these bodies.  Moving for me?  Yes.  I cannot explain it in words here other than it deeply affects me to see death in the pursuit of hobbies.  Knowing many others who have died in various pursuits doesn't make these experiences any easier.  

The steps just kept coming.  I lost count of them after we finally got over the 3rd Step.  These rock obstacles were actually the fun part of the climb.  I finally got to use some of my rock climbing abilities - more than on any other area on the mountain.  Climbing on ladders, scaling rock faces with crampons on my feet, and feeling for good hand holds brought me back to my days on the crag.  It was a great feeling to get over these hurdles without expending much energy.  David mentioned that we ought to increase our oxygen flow rate when we hit the 2nd Step.  Well, that step was so easy, I didn't even know we passed it until we hit the summit pyramid.  

The Summit!

We summited at about 7:30am - not sure the exact time.  My watch stopped working in the cold and my phone was in a constant reboot so I couldn't take any photos or tell what time it was when we were there.  Brendan saved the day!  Not only was he the pacing controller, drinking supporter (water...and later beer), and eating buddy but he saved our summit documentation by taking some top-notch video.  I failed in that category.  Here I am on the summit:

Mask off, right glove off, totally psyched, and relieved to have half the summit push behind us.  What the picture above doesn't show is how winded I was and how little oxygen I was getting from my mask.  

Mask Failure

My mask froze in two locations during my ascent - one area where I could clear and didn't affect me much and one area that I could not clear and that profoundly affected my ability to breath.  The second area is the intake valve from the ambient air.  The valve was protected by a piece of plastic; inside that plastic protector was a huge ice ball.  I couldn't free the ice ball and, as a result, I couldn't draw air into the mask.  The mask failed about 100m below the summit and I just had to make do with my mask.  I twisted it so I could take in air around the mask but by doing so, the air coming in was way too much.  The amount of oxygen I could get to my lungs was probably around 1/2 liter/minute.  At 8800 meters, that flow rate doesn't really help much.  I could feel myself getting weaker and weaker as I climbed higher.  Now, at this point, I was on the snow slope above the summit ridge and I knew I had the energy to get up and get down.  Each step, however, was harder and harder.  Below is a picture of me during the descent.  The summit ridge ends just below the snow field above - about where my mask stopped working properly.  The part that froze is the black knob looking thing to my left - on the mask.  I cleared out as much ice as I could but the ice remained solid around the valve.  

We spent about 15 minutes on the summit in a stiff breeze (probably 25-30 knots).  My brain was in a haze.  Brendan was yelling at me to take out my flags.  We had rehearsed all our steps but I was useless in the process.  I couldn't remember a thing nor could I muster the energy to do anything but sit there and take in the sights.  Sorry Brendan.  I promise to make it up to you on the next climb.  

The rest of the descent was a blur.  I stumbled my way down - trailing Gelje and Brendan by as much as about 100m at some points.  During my descent on the 2nd Step, I lost my footing while descending on one of the lower ladders, swung around (doing a "barn door"), and hanging over a huge drop.  When I say huge, I mean huge - probably 5000m drop to the glacier way below.  I knew I was roped in so nothing to fear; I just regained my footing and pulled myself back to firm ground.  Once there, I felt embarrassed for the misstep.  Oh, but the calamity continued.  Gelje said "watch out for that step...very slippery" and so what did I do?  I slipped on it.  Damn near fell to my death had it not been for being clipped into the fixed rope.  Now I really felt stupid.  I couldn't keep my feet steady on these seemingly easy steps down.  My oxygen mask now didn't work at all and often kept me from being able to breath.  The lack of oxygen was really getting to me.  I was slow and clumsy.

Left alone to pace myself

I told Gelje and Brendan to go ahead.  It was clear to me that I would get down but I had to go at my own pace.  Those two were way faster and were waiting for me to descend the easiest snow slopes.  I just couldn't catch my breath.  My oxygen was running out but even if I had a new cylinder, the oxygen wasn't getting to my lungs or brain.  I had to get down and I decided to just keep moving.  Once I got down to Camp 3, I knew things would get better.  I had to get some water in me, eat a few snacks and then head down to Camp 2.

Missing Gear at Camp 3

When I finally got down to Camp 3, Brendan was waiting there on a pile of gear for probably an hour.  I was beat and feeling woozy at best.  He said our gear was missing and spread around Camp 3.  Apparently the Arun Sherpa and/or climbers collected our cached gear (stored in a large plastic bag and tied off), sorted through what they wanted, and discarded the rest.  They told Brendan that they were just collecting the gear left behind by their climbers and didn't know that we had occupied their tents.  What made me irritated was that they took my climbing gear - my -40F sleeping bag, some electronics, and a few other odds and ends - while leaving other gear to simply blow away from the camp.  The guys Brendan interacted with were very defensive but I could see their conundrum.  They were assigned the duty to clear the camps but chose to only clear what they deemed worthy.  As they were about to head out, they cut the Arun labels off the tents and left the tents erected.  I suspect they cut out the labels to eliminate the climbing authorities from holding them accountable for littering the mountain with their tents.  Well, Brendan and I saw them cut out the labels and would be more than happy to report them.  They also stole some of my gear that I could easily estimate to exceed US$1000.  

Despite the loss of equipment, I was still psyched and knew my climb had to continue to at least Camp 1 to be safe.  We pushed off frustrated by the experience at Camp 3 toward Camp 2 not knowing what was in store for us there.  A few hours later, we got to Camp 2.  Note we had no pictures.  I barely had the energy to descend and had no plans to stop to take pictures.  The others in our group no doubt have pictures.  I will post some when I find a few.  We made it to Camp 2 - I arrived about 30 minutes after Brendan.  He walked around and couldn't find our equipment store tent.  Apparently it was gone.  Well, that wasn't good.  Some of my other gear was in that tent.  I was starting to realize that a good portion of my alpine gear would be missing.  Brendan pushed on from Camp 2 and I slowly got through it.  Once we hit the snow slope toward Camp 1, I could see Brendan but he was slowly pulling away from me.  I stumbled my way down the snow slope toward Camp 1 and completely lost him in the fog/clouds.  

Camp 1 Reunion

I got down to Camp 1 exhausted with barely enough energy to do anything other than lie down on the glacier and breath.  The past few hours were spent alone trying to handle the low oxygen without a functional mask.  I struggled and felt incredibly weak.  Still, I got down to Camp 1.  I felt like that was a great accomplishment and one I would note later as the hardest thing I ever did.  Yep, I endured the hot waters around Manhattan for my 20 Bridges swim - an effort that ended with my entire body cramped up and with a feeling of total exhaustion.  The descent from the summit on Everest trumped that by a long shot.  I couldn't move once I got to Camp 1.  I was so tired I just laid down on the glacier with my pack under my head and fell asleep.  It was about 4pm when I got into camp and our summit push started at 10pm the night before.  By my simple accounting, the duration of that effort was 18 hours and we were still not out of the woods.  Camp 1 was not our desired destination; we wanted to get down to ABC but I was in no shape to go any further.  

More Missing Gear

When we got to Camp 1, I had no energy to look for my gear but I knew the sleeping bag I expected to use was gone from Camp 3.  Gelje was kind enough to loan me a sleeping bag for the night but I was fine with passing out with my summit suit only.  The fatigue I felt would carry me to a blissful night sleep regardless of my sleeping arrangements.  Gelje's loaned sleeping bag did make it easier.  In the morning, however, I learned that the storage tent was a total nightmare.  The gear I left at Camp 1 was not in the tent.  I left my hardshell top and bottoms - the gear I use for all my alpine outings - my giant Mountain Hardwear puff jacket, and several other layers at Camp 1 in the storage tent but they were all gone.  My favorite blue fleece top was gone too along with my ice axe.  All gone.  Not a trace of that gear was evident in the gear tent or anywhere else.  I was supremely bummed to say the least.  My gear loss on this trip was starting to add up.  I figured I had US$4000 of gear gone in total.  Everest is expensive but now it was getting stupid expensive.  

Above, Brendan and Dom were waiting with me to get more water.  We needed the water to descend from Camp 1 to ABC.  On May 20th, the warm weather arrived.  There wasn't even a slight breeze today.  We had no idea how the climb unfolded for the rest of the team but we learned that Dom suffered similar problems with his mask.  His problems started well below the summit and he felt compelled to turn around.  We all agreed he made a wise decision.  It was difficult to be so happy about our summit while we consoled and supported Dom after he didn't summit.  He was strong to be sure and Brendan and I were bummed for him.  

Descent to ABC

The climb down the headwall toward ABC went smoother than I thought it would.  We were all dehydrated and exhausted - even after a night sleep at Camp 1.  The little bit of water we got from a Sherpa would need to suffice until we got down to ABC.  I didn't know how I would muster the energy.  The previous day sapped me of almost all my energy and I was still struggling to breath.  Getting down to ABC was a necessity and we had to do it on our own power.  We pressed on down toward crampon point where I could retrieve my approach shoes and then stumble my way into camp.  When we got to crampon point, our blue barrel was gone!  My shoes were missing.  Damn!  I couldn't believe the luck I was having at this point.  I was so tired I just couldn't think straight.  Missing gear at every point on the descent was starting to take its toll on me.  I was angry, sad, concerned, and then just depressed by the whole situation.  We left crampon point with me feeling totally beaten down.  I had no shoes for the trek other than my mountaineering boots and that would be next to impossible to walk 20km in those boots.  Feeling rather hopeless, I stumbled on through many abandoned camps.  About 30 minutes away from our camp, one of our cook boys (that is what they are called but they are grown men) came up to me with a coke and some juice.  I almost cried.  For the past 2 hours during our descent I had been dreaming of a Coke.  Here it was and it was delivered to me before we hit our ABC tents.  

I was exhausted, demoralized, and angry but I wasn't going to let some material possessions get in the way of relishing a great accomplishment.  Things can be replaced.  Memories are what matters most and I wanted the memories to be fond ones not bitter ones about loss of possessions.  I spent some time collecting my thoughts before I walked into camp.  Once there, I learned that the cook staff retrieved our crampon point cache and they had my approach shoes.  Wooohooo!!!  My trek wouldn't be as miserable as I imagined.  

Brendan and I celebrated our return by opening up a few beers.  These were the first beers we had since December.  

I was so happy to share the experience with Brendan.  He and I are a good match for these endeavors.  We enjoy the time together and we have similar dispositions.  A little late, Jon joined us in our celebration.  We were all thrilled to have successfully summit days behind us.  

We "enjoyed" the beers and a few Cokes on this day.  What we didn't know was how the climb was going for the rest of the group.  We now knew about Jon and Dom but the others were still high up on the mountain.  The fate of the others will be the focus on my 3rd Part.  Stay tuned.

I hope you enjoyed my summit recap.  Please feel free to post pictures or share the recap on Twitter or Facebook.  Thanks for the support.