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.

Epiloge

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