Monday, May 26, 2008

Mount Everest Summit, South Col Route 21 May 2008

Previous Post: Up to the South Col From Camp III

Photosynth Summit Panorama

16:00. Camp IV, 26,100'
Well before leaving for the summit of Mount Everest via the South Col Route, Willie was stressed. For hours he had been running around like a man on a mission trying desperately to rally troops to ensure everything went well for our overnight push and that other teams understood the overall, coordinated plan for a collective group that likely numbered at around seventy. The South Col is a large, flat plain with plenty of room, but most tents are clustered in a central area and as a result even that flat plain seems crowded at times. As a result, those seventy people leaving all at once would turn into a giant cluster at key choke points if not properly executed.

Danu, Tendi and I had a few other ideas, like cramming down one last snack and hydrating like crazy before we stepped off. "Here Doug, have some more tea." "Here, Tendi have another Pop Tart."

For the eight hours we had been parked at Camp IV, we hadn't done much beyond lay in the tent and prepare equipment. We hadn't slept, but we were definitely exhausted. Sleep doesn't come easily. Given that our arrival in to Camp IV was somewhere around noon, the sun was baking down on our tent, people were streaming in from the upper Lhotse Face constantly and a regular, disruptive clanking of metal objects on the grey slab rocks that make up Camp IV kept us awake.

Still. Relaxing, heavily hydrating and eating in the build-up was a good thing. It gave us stores of additional energy, aided in acclimatization and physiologically gave us an advantage over other teams that were dehydrated and arrived sometimes three short hours before looking at a final, exhaustive push up well above the Death Zone.

As the afternoon sun drifted lazily by, leading to a beautiful alpenglow of oranges, reds and purples that stretched across the horizon it became quickly clear that our time to kick into high gear was almost there. I peeked my head out of the tent one last time. The slight breeze and warming rays had both disappeared. A smallish bank of puffy clouds had popped up running lengthwise along Nuptse, low on the horizon and well below where we were currently camped. At 26,100', we are at the altitude jet liners begin cruising at, and the view here looks exactly like what you typically see- only without the ten inch porthole experience. Here, the view spans across the horizon and as far as the eye can see. The heavens are still. Stars begin to twinkle. It is going to be a wonderful night to climb.

Our goal was to depart Camp IV at 20:00 as our team was responsible for fixing lines on the last 800 meters of route to the top of the world. No small task, given that rope needed to be hauled up the mountain, then fixed to anchors along loose snow and crumbly rock on extremely steep faces. This job meant that these safe lines would be placed for climbers to anchor themselves to all the way up and past a significant terrain feature called the South Rock Step to the extremely exposed South Summit, along the Southeast Summit Ridge with it's 8,000 foot drop straight down to Camp II, traverse up and over the Hillary Step and on to the summit of Everest itself.

Willie has done this job over the last two years and was fully comfortable doing the job again this year... now if only he can get some help. Lots of "ohh, I can't spare anybody right now" or "how about this? I'll bring 100 meters of rope with me when I follow you up a few hours later." Ridiculous, but understandable. Up here in the rarefied air, almost everyone feels ass kicked with no energy. There is 1/3 the amount of oxygen available up here as what you find at Sea Level, and coupled with a reduced PSI plays havoc on the body. Danuru Sherpa from IMG was the exception, an extremely strong Sherpa being more or less voluntold that he was going to help out with the Mountain Madness fixing team. Still, he was a mad-man and agreed without complaining.

As 20:00 approached, Willie tried to pull a dad on us. Fast forwarding his clock by 15 minutes and getting ever more agitated that we weren't moving to his satisfaction, he would say "it's eight, we need to go!" Sharing a North Face VE-25, Tendi, Danu and I would look at our own watches, see 7:45 and shoot each other strange looks.

"Is your watch set fast? I have 7:45."

"No, it's eight. We are late!"

"Are you sure? I have 7;45, man."

"No, it's eight. Come on out here!"

"Dude, you said eight. We aren't ready yet. Give us a minute."

Blank, confused stares from Tendi and Danu, followed by laughs from all of us before shaking our heads as we continue to get ready. I knew Willie's watch wasn't fast, but he was definitely reading it wrong. Nepal time is 45 minutes off from "regular" time.. so if it is noon in Seattle, it is 00:45 in Nepal. For the entire two months we were in Nepal, it had been set for Utah time for one reason or another. Believe me, I asked him several times why he didn't change it across our trip, and this was where it was impacting us the most. There were the three of us, still inside our tent glomming down food as Willie continued to amp up. We would look at each other, give quizzical looks and not say a word, but continue to finish what we were doing and target an 8pm show time, as planned.

When the three of us emerged from our tent to start gearing up, we saw tents across the South Col lit up, illuminated yellow balls as head lamps twinkled and waved. Climbers were busily getting themselves geared up, breathing labored and curses muffled behind oxygen masks. The metallic scraping of crampons on rock sounded all over Camp IV as Everest loomed above us.

Most major teams understand the concept of a fixing team needing a head start to set the route. As a result, we had requested an hour before other teams would step off at 21:00 from Camp IV in a coordinated, larger effort across the Ice Shelf. The theory being that if we could get that hour, we would have enough time to fix lines without backlogs forming as we advanced. But the excitement of the moment, coupled with an interest in getting out of Camp IV translated in to us departing later than 20:00 (more like 20:10) and other teams stepping off early at 20:45 (definitely not 21:00). In essence, this means our hour of buffer had vanished before we had even reached the Balcony, roughly 1,300 feet up the mountain.

20:15. Ice Shelf, 26,300'
By the time we left the rocky, exposed ground of Camp IV, the ice had already re-frozen and had a crunchy, crisp sheen. Crampons bit as they took firm grip of the snow. Our oxygen was flowing nicely, masks efficient. We were well hydrated, rested and chock full of energy. Adrenaline had been coursing through our veins for hours in the build up to what we were finally doing- the exact thing that two months of training and acclimatization had brought us to this point. We moved fast- much faster than we had expected. Before long, we were able to look back at Camp IV and see the tents become smallish dots. Climbers continued to work on their gear but the 'clink, clank' of their metal tools became more muffled by the distance, giving way to the 'crunch, crunch' of our crampons continuing to bite the snow beneath our feet. The sun had set and even the distant glow was now gone. It was dark. Very dark. Yet, also quite peaceful. As a team, the five of us were at harmony with where we were. All of us looked strong, capable and were clearly excited. As a group, we all knew our strengths and weaknesses and were working together to ensure we were working collaboratively to succeed. Truthfully, if we didn't get a move on and get ahead, then all of the climbers behind us wouldn't have ropes to climb on to the summit. Here we were though.. We were really moving!

300 meters across the Ice Shelf, we started to close in on a team of two climbers.

"Err? What are they doing here?" I asked.

"Let me handle this," Willie flatly said as we continued to dial in two clearly labored, under equipped and slow moving climbers.

There exists on Mt Everest a group of individuals known as 'Freeloaders'. The easiest way of describing these individuals are what you would think: people who pay bargain basement prices- sometimes permit fees only- to come climb here. Wearing older secondhand equipment, frequently under equipped, without base camp support and frequently looking to 'borrow' food or gear these people will typically run without Sherpas and will poke around to gain whatever benefit they can without having to pay for it, tending to run in the shadow of organized groups. They also tend to be the types that get into trouble more often than not, requiring rescue or assistance from the more capable and well-equipped when things go wrong. At one point, we saw one Freeloader at Camp III looking in to another team's unoccupied tent to crash and sleep in while the owners who hauled it up the Lhotse Face were elsewhere. Easier that way, right? No need to haul a tent up that crazy Face if you can find a spare one without an owner in it.

Still, this is fine if climbers don't impact other teams or haul their own gear. And in truth even here, the mountaineer spirit of climbing rubs off and Freeloaders will be taken under wing at times to watch out for them. This was not the case as we continued across the Ice Shelf. Two Freeloaders ascending up the Ice Shelf from Camp IV, likely having heard "rope fixing team leaving at 8, everyone else is leaving at 9." This translated into these two individuals attempting to jump in front of the train and draft us up to the summit. Sorry, Charlie. When we pulled alongside these two, Willie gave them a nice sunburn. Clearly stating the need for them to stand fast and give us room they did- immediately falling back, and I'm sure feeling foolish and surprised at being called on their actions.

20:45. Base of Triangle Face, 26,500'
Ahead of us, we saw nothing but pitch black. Step after step, step after step. Breathing was going surprisingly well and our team was talking constantly as we moved to the edge of the flat expanse of the Ice Shelf. Soon, the flattish blob of Ice Shelf snow gave way to a slowly rising ramp as the route clearly pointed to us beginning the slow climb up the Triangle Face. Looking back, we could see climbers streaming out of Camp IV.

"Hey what are they doing? It's not 9 yet."

"Oh great."

The mob of climbers had definitely left Camp IV, and were streaming up toward the Ice Shelf, only half an hour behind us. What would this mean? How would it go? We still had plenty of ground on these climbers and they did appear to be moving slowly. Yet, you could never tell and in this environment anything could happen. So what did we do? The only thing we could do: Turn around, heads down and put one foot in front of the other. Still, I would be lying if I said I didn't look back.. and frequently.

As we continued up the Triangle Face, snow changed to rocky tuff. Crampons, which just minutes ago crunched in snow now scraped and screeched as metal met stone. The angle of our climb dramatically increased as well. As it did so, we found the fixed lines, which were not present as we meandered across the Ice Shelf. As exposure and angle increased, the fixed lines that we were tied in to were mixed in with quite literally dozens of other older lines- ones that were used years ago, and had not been cut free. Now, years of UV damage, wind and temperature extremes had left these ropes in place, but completely unreliable as a safety measure. Frayed and sun-bleached, they stayed in place among the anchors but looked as sinister as an exposed wire might look traversing a pool of water. It was there and harmless in current state. But relying on it, or clipping in to the wrong rope could potentially spell disaster. This of course meant that it was critically important to watch what you were doing at every second.

21:30. Triangle Face, 27,000'
Oxygen regulators that we are using have the following flow meter settings: .5, 1, 1.5, 2, 3 and 4 with the numbers indicating liters/minute. While the .5 and 1.5 settings are primarily to be used when laying inactive and in a tent, you can also set half settings between 2, 3 and 4. 4 would be maximum flow, rarely used but still available depending on exertion and personal needs. Most climbers establish 2.5 as their climb setting, but I prefer 3 because I'm bigger than the average bear and because after using my regulator for a few days, I recognize that it isn't calibrated properly, administering a lower dose and closer in range to 2.5 based on flow.

As our little band of merry men continues to climb higher and higher, this game of back and forth ensues. I set the flow for 3. Tendi sees 3 and drops it back to 2.5. I turn it back up, Danu looks half an hour later and immediately drops it back down to 2.5 again. Back and forth. In the mean time, my climbing speed see saws. My fingers get cold, then warm again. I feel like I can breathe, then feel suffocated. Back and forth as we continue to climb higher and higher.

As the route at the upper Triangle Face zig-zagged back and forth, I had a comfortable 3 liters/minute of O2 going and was making great speed. Strong, easy breathing and warm, I had my 8000 Meter Climbing Suit unzipped, light nylon gloves on and only my Marine Corps coyote fleece cap on my head, fairly close to breaking a sweat. It truly was a beautiful night. The moon was beginning to cast a glow, having popped up on the horizon behind our face of Everest and off to the north somewhere. As a result we were cast in a shadow and climbing in complete darkness, but if you looked left or right, you could see distant mountains begin to glow and slightly cast their bluish hue. There was still not even a wisp of wind, continuing this as a beautiful night to climb.

As I looked back down toward Camp IV, I noticed that all climbers had departed and were making their way up toward the Triangle Face. Slowly though. Not one team seemed to be moving at the speed we were other than Danuru, who we knew was tracking up to meet us independently. Our team had spread out a bit, Willie up front, me close on his heels and Tendi, Danu and Francisco roughly 100 meters behind. We were making solid progress and at a fast pace.

Higher and higher we went through the rock bands on the summit pinnacle below The Balcony. Despite the ink black sky, I can clearly make out Willie 50 vertical feet above me thanks to his headlight beam and the reflective string sewn into his climbing suit.

It was here that we happened across the first of the several bodies that dot this portion of the route. An American who reportedly passed away in 2005, his climbing suit hood was pulled down to cover his face for what could be all eternity. What an amazing resting place, I thought. As grim and tragic as any person's passing is, this man died doing what he loved. It's a mixed emotion, truth be told. As we learned firsthand just 24 hours later, there is a bit of grim reality when it comes to the dead vs the living up above the Death Zone. To recover a body from up here would cost a fantastic amount of money, and this pales in comparison to the inherent risk it places living climbers in the first place. I have heard endless hours of armchair quarterback debates swirl about this sort of thing over the years. But here, as I slowly walk past an individual who had a heart attack and then promptly froze as he climbed toward the summit three years earlier it is a no-brainer. We all know the score. You die up here, you likely stay. The upper mountain is littered with remains for exactly that reason. I wish this person well, spend a few seconds reflecting, and then continue on. Five minutes later, he is out of my mind as I dedicate all my energy and focus on the Golden Rule of climbing: "To summit is optional. To return is mandatory." I'm driven and focused on the summit, but I'm getting home. Self-check complete, I drive onward and upward, feeling really good.

22:30. The Balcony, 27,500'
"Welcome to the Balcony, Doug. That was some fast climbing" Willie said as I rolled in on this historic and significant milestone. It was here that in 1953 Sir Ed and Tenzing Norgay established the last of their seven camps before their climb in to history. A flattish, minor bluff that sticks out as an outcropping and is roughly halfway between Camp IV and the summit, The Balcony is also a bit of a pit stop. Climb teams cache spare oxygen bottles here by the dozens, do a self-check on their team and recharge before the final, all-out push to the summit. From here the route becomes treacherous and a turnaround beyond The Balcony is doable, but nowhere near as straightforward as if someone turns around at The Balcony.

We patted each other on the backs for making our first objective and doing so quickly enough that Willie told us all that we needed to slow down once our team assembled... and then adjusted my air flow. Oh, great. Right before the hardest part of tonight's climb.

"Hey Willie, we are kicking ass. Are we going to summit before dawn?"

"Absolutely not. The route from here is slow going"

"Really? We are moving real fast."

Willie pauses for a second, and then looks at my oxygen. "Gosh, Doug somehow your regulator reset to 3 again" -click click click-

The moon is beginning to cast a large, shadowy glow from behind Everest now, and when we look around at the first whisps of wind appear. Nothing significant, but after a thirty minute rest break, we were warned to switch out the nylon gloves for down mitts because it is about to get cold. As midnight approaches the temperature is definitely dropping toward what we learn later is negative 20 degrees- fairly standard for this climb at this time of year. Not colder than average, but not any warmer either.

Quite literally ten minutes later, the wind kicked up and snow blew everywhere with temps plummeting. Talk about timing. Frost formed everywhere that there was vapor, making our hoods and masks look like someone had sprayed us with one of those fake snow aerosol cans that sell like hotcakes around the Holidays. While intermittent the gusts were bone-chilling as they sliced past our parkas and hit exposed skin or thin thermal layers, we began to get busily about our work of changing the first of our oxygen cannisters and glom down some light snacks.

Looking over the crest of The Balcony, I didn't see even the faintest glimmer of a head lamp. Danuru had caught up to us and was now alongside, planning out how we were going to team up in order to summit, fix lines and haul gear. Oxygen flowing, some of us grudgingly re-set to 2.5, we were ready to step off. It was six of us, high and alone on the world's highest mountain in the pitch dark. And feeling great in doing so.

23:30, Snow Slope Below South Rock Step, 28,000'
From The Balcony, the route angles up sharply and follows a loose snow ridgeline around in a gentle yet steep arc. Truthfully, when we stepped off from The Balcomy, I thought this was going to be a fairly pleasant part of the climb. The ridge is steep to one side, but relatively straighforward. Winding slowly to the west, we put on roughly 100 vertical feet over 200 meters of trail before coming to the end of the fixed lines. This is where we were to begin our efforts of not only climbing, but also working to establish the route for every other climber attempting the South Col Route this season to follow.

The wind was blowing in force now and where that arc meets the South Rock Step, it turns downright nasty. With every step I was thankful that my down Altimitts were keeping my hands as warm as they were- even with the gloves that I had kept on as liners. Zipping up my climbing suit, my zipper literally snagged midway up my chest and left a good chunk of upper body exposed to the elements. Thanks a million, Feathered Friends. An 8,000 Meter Climbing Suit costing almost $1000 now proved itself to not effective- or safe.. at 8,000 meters. Frost continued to form at all sides of my hood and face. It was defintely, absolutely cold.

All of this may have been the final straw for Danu, who was already experiencing severe stomach cramps and had been struggling since hitting The Balcony. With a frustrated, disappointed look he made the right decision and finally turned around to head back to Camp IV. As we wished him well, this 8-time Everest summiteer was wise enough to know his own limitations and loyal enough to promise to be waiting for us at Camp IV when we all returned. We watched him slowly walk off down toward The Balcony and after reflecting on this for a moment, got back to the work at hand. At 28,000', our Everest summit push team now consists of: Willie, Francisco, Me, Tendi amd our attachment, Danuru.

00:30, South Rock Step, 28,500'
Loose snow with no traction hiding crumbly rocks on an extremely steep angle are the name of the game here, causing all forward momentum of our team to slow down to a crawl as we struggle mightily through this portion of the climb. The snow chute that characterizes leads up to Everest's South Summit is close to 1,000' in elevation all portions told, and some portions of the rock, snow and ice trail are definitely near vertical. I continue to look up at Willie, only visible thanks to his reflectors as rope that is being fixed above us slowly snakes by. There is no trail here, as our team are the people actually creating the trail. So all snow is fluffy with no steps to take advantage of, all rocks are crumbly and sluff off when a misplaced crampon connects with a rock not seized to it's neighbor. As we perched on one loose rock foothold with only crampon points connecting us to the rock, holding on to the wall in front of us, Francisco and I wondered aloud through our masks in this brief and muffled conversation:

"Doug, how are we going to get up this thing?"

"Dude, I have no idea. But more importantly, how are we going to get down?"

Francisco looks down through his feet at the crumbly rock and inky black of what lies several thousand feet below. "Good point.." his voice trails off and he looks upward.

"Hey are Willie or Tendi around?"

"Not right now"

"Cool. Can you turn me back up to 3?"

click click click

At one point, high on that loose snow ramp I even heard another guide radioing Willie from The Balcony, at that point 500 vertical feet below. I don't mean I heard the radio chatter, I mean I heard the guide talk, and then a split second later heard the radio come through Willie's radio 100 feet further up the slope. You could hear the "clink" of jumars clicking home, the chalkboard "screech" of crampons on rock and the mechanical Darth Vader noise of regulators pressing O2s.

Lungs are aching, muscles are burning. Willie and Danuru continue to rope and climb higher. I'm holding tight with Francisco to make sure he's taken care of. Tendi has become a full-fledged oxygen bottle porter for the team and slows way down.

"Hey, brother put it to 3, that'll help you out," I yell.

"Doug, come here and let me see your regulator." Dammit!

Oh well, drive on, drive on. At one point as Francisco and I scrambled up one particularly nasty stretch of rock in the pitch black and for the second time started a muffled conversation about how we were going to get down. I have to admit, that lingering question stayed with me throughout the South Rock Step portion of the climb. But, onward and upward we went. Higher and higher. Francisco looks at me through his head lamp and laughs out loud at a three inch snot stalactite that had sprouted where vapor was escaping from the front nose of the mask. My regulator was switched between 2.5 and 3 no fewer than four more times as we continued up the South Rock Step leg of the route. I wondered aloud if we would ever get there. At some point Francisco started talking in Spanish. I complained that I was craving a hamburger and quoted lines from Tommy Boy. I think Tendi either laughed or wanted to slap me. To this day I'm not sure which. I will say this though- the South Rock Step portion of this climb was the hardest piece of the summit push.

The full moon finally came out and cast a stunning, bluish ghostly hue over everything. It was so bright that you could clearly make out Camp II, not to mention literally hundreds of mountain tops now far below. It was truly beautiful. To this point, I hadn't really recognized how absolutely high we were. But as we dialed in on the South Summit, one quick glance left (into Nepal) or right (into China) left you in awe. This was just like out of a dream. How could this be real? Was I truly seeing this with my own eyes?

The wind had died down again, making the final push up the South Rock Step a little more tolerable. We knew we were close. There is only so much mountain, and we were climbing toward where there was clearly a buttress. Occasionally, we would get a gust of wind, but for the most part the sky settled in to a deathly still.

Up and up we went. At times when using my headlamp to spot Willie, I'd be looking at his reflectors and straight up to stars. It was beautiful, exhilarating, exhausting and vertical all wrapped into one experience.

04:10, South Summit, 28,704'
A little before 04:00, I looked off to the east and a faint glow of sunrise appeared. Minutes after that, we approached the buttress and the fixed line disappeared over the top, leading to a smallish, eight foot by four foot flat bump that allowed us to plop down and take a breather. It was still quite dark- dark enough to not truly understand what we had just accomplished, or where we were sitting. Tendi reached over and said "congratulations, Doug! You are at the South Summit!"

Then it hit me. We had "made" the Everest South Summit- success! Actually, I was definitely surprised at how this milestone had appeared before we really expected it to. We were quite thrilled to take a break, and given how far ahead of every other team on the mountain we were, I knew we could afford to take a long one.

Willie and Danuru were already out on the South Summit Ridge fixing lines when we arrived so the three of is found ourselves sitting there on the South Summit alone, at 29,000 feet. Outside of people riding in airliners, noone in the world was higher than we were at that moment in time. My friend who works on the 787 at Boeing understands what this means, as he looks to make jets fly at this altitude. The air is so thin that immediately after taking one breath at this altitude you become dizzy, tired, and slump over.

This reality of this came crashing home in two sincere and curious ways. One was the sheer exposure that presented itself as the sky continued to lighten with dawn fast approaching. From the South Summit, it's an 8,000' express ride straight down to Camp II from the end of your boots. The other is the experience you have when your oxygen bottle is replaced with a fresh one. One minute you are alert and fully functioning. When your O2 is shut off as the bottle is swapped out, you sag like a deflated doll, your vision crashing in around you and head feeling like you just sucked in three Whip-It's simultaneously.

Personally, I think statistics on accident rates and summit successes of those who try Mount Everest with O2 versus those who try without show that those who try without are off their rockers. Statistics show the slim margin of summit successes relative to those to attempt with Oxygen. That's fine. I get it, it's more challenging. However, statistics also show the extremely high margin of accident rates relative to those who attempt with Oxygen. To me, the argument ends here. Compound this with something statistics don't show: that those who attempt without Oxygen regularly and routinely lose fingers, toes and noses to frostbite as their metabolism slows way down, making them highly suceptible to cold. They also kill brain cells at an alarming rate. I'm coming home, with all my fingers and toes. I'm also going to be able to put a sentence together. Lastly: What is more "pure"? To climb with Oxygen and summit, or to climb without Oxygen, but use the ropes that our team set? The argument as to whether to climb with -or without- Oxygen is lost on me.

We spent a long time on the South Summit. Which was fine by me, because I was taking it all in. This was a life time of work getting here, and I wanted to savor every last bit of it. The sky continued to change colors and become lighter and lighter blue until in a brief instant, the sun crested the horizon and we were introduced to the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen. As the sun continued to blaze higher in the sky, the oranges, reds and yellows of dawn began to hit the tips of the summit ridge. Given how high we were compared to every other point on earth, we were the first to see the sun and watch the rays dance on the rocks and ice. There was still no wind- not even a whisper of air moved. The few clouds on the horizon were gentle, puffy and distant. All we could hear was our own excited voices, the crunch of snow and the mechanical rasp of our regulators.


I knew from discussion that from where we sat taking in the view around us, it was only another 1 1/2 hours to the actual Everest summit. Talk about a wonderful feeling to know we were so close, and feel so good. We all had energy and were strong, alert and feeling good despite where we were. It was also here that I think it truly sunk in- we were going to make it.

As we geared back up to get going, I took off my Altimitts to shove in the now frosted over climbing suit- the same one that I had been cursing the entire climb because the damn zipper was still stuck open. No fewer than ten times since The Balcony I had tried to fix the thing- to no avail. Now here, I wiped back the ice crust and planned to simply jam my Altimitts into the wide open suit. To my horror though, one mitt slipped out of my hand and started sliding directly for the edge of the South Summit. It was like an accident in slow motion. All three of us stared at the slowly sliding mitt. I yelled something like "Oh... Shhiiitttt..." but not a one of us was going to make a move to save the thing. No way. Absolutely not. With that drop? Sayonara glove. As we sat, frozen, staring at the slowly sliding glove it caught on a small nub of ice and caught. Laughing and looking at each other, I got up, tip-toed over to where the glove had stopped, inches from an 8,000' dropoff and retrieved it. Complete luck.


05:10, South Summit Ridge, 28,720'
We finally set out along a ridgeline that only six other people had walked on this year. From Mount Everest's South Summit, very little remains as far as obstacles for the true summit- a traverse along a crazy, highly exposed knife-edge ridge for roughly 150 meters is the first challenge. Known as the "Cornice Traverse", you navigate along the edge, gingerly placing one foot in front of the other. As you look between your legs straight down 8,000' to Camp II (in Nepal), your right hand holds on to the top of the Southeast ridge, occasionally gripping the other side (which lies in China), the 10,000' Kangshung Face. The fixed lines are here to assist in the event of an accident, but should most definitely not be relied on. The route is narrow enough to recognize the importance of being extremely careful and wide enough that you can still find firm footholds. As we found earlier in the day, there was no route yet- we were the first. As such, we were creating the route- establishing footholds for others to follow. The snow was firm and solid as like the Ice Shelf- making our forward progress move quickly and decisively. Yet cautiously. This process continues step after ginger step until the route begins again to put on elevation.


06:10, Hillary Step, 28,740'
The weather wasn't just cooperating, it was turning into what we knew was going to be a downright beautiful day. After a bit of careful labor on the ridge, we reached the last, final technical part of our climb: the Hillary Step. I have read about this 40' rocky outcrop, seen pictures of it, studied it and wanted to climb it for years. To see it with my own eyes- wow. Completely mind-blowing. Let's just say that this particular formation of rock and ice has been something I have looked forward to for a long, long time. But also recognized that in order to climb on it, I would have to put in some serious effort just to get there. Oh, man do you have to put in serious effort. And so, here we are, rapidly approaching the legendary, recognizeable and well-documented Hillary Step with relative ease. It all happened so quickly. There it is, here we are, here we go, we are climbing it now.


I know this may sound surprising, but I can't say that I found the Hillary Step to be all that difficult. I do understand that it's quite different today from what Sir Ed and Tenzing Norgay found 55 years ago though. Then, it was an unclimbed obstacle. Today there are so many ropes dangling down it from past seasons that when you grab them collectively it feels like a ship anchor rope. But I don't want to take away from the experience, which I found pretty damn cool.


The obstacle is about 40' high for sure. When you are about to get onto the Step you stand on this smallish snow platform and look left to the 8,000' straight down to Camp II. On your right, with no protection of a ridge is the 10,000' straight down the Kangshung Face to China. As you face the Step, to your right there is a single foothold- that's it. Miss that, and it's an express ride to Tibet. You essentially grab hold of the 5 or 7 ropes that dangle down the almost vertical face and wedge one foot in between the rock and snow. There are about 15 footholds that lead you up to a series of rocks that you have to wiggle through until you arrive at one that you have to do this weird squat/hop to navigate around and over. Now try that with crampons on and that 8,000' drop inches away. That definitely gets your blood going. Then -poof- you cut around a corner to ascend up a snow ramp, and congratulations, you have just navigated the Hillary Step.

I have to say, going up the Hillary Step is great because there's a natural flow to ascending, and at the time, there were only a hand full of us even in that general vicinity of the mountain. But on the way down the place was a mob scene and we had to wait for ten people to keep popping their head through the rock before we were able to hand-over-hand our way back down the Step. From this little notch where Francisco and I were waiting, it looked like a 29,000' game of Whack-a-Mole the way they kept popping up.

06:40, Summit, 29,035'
Next stop, the summit of Mount Everest itself. Once you complete the Hillary Step, it is a 20 minute, 300 foot slog to the roof of the world. This, mostly along a gentle slope composed of ice and scree. After passing the ridge line above the Hillary Step, the fixed lines come to an end and we can see Willie at the summit, waving excitedly and beckoning us on.


While there is still extreme exposure on all sides, the slope is wide enough up here that having a fixed line is unnecessary, so we think. For years, I have read about this part of the climb. You pass the Hillary Step, you are home free. There are no more challenges, no more dangers. Just you and the summit, 300 feet away.

I continue to stare at a bright blue cloudless sky, prayer flags and the top of the world. Quickly glancing down, I only slightly notice a tuff of soft snow that crosses a trail of hard-pack, wind blasted ice. "I'm home free" I think, stepping into what turns out to be a mini crevasse.

Within seconds, I am rolling on the snow at 29,000'- my leg completely inserted in the crevasse. Tendi, traveling roughly ten feet behind me moves quickly and tells me later that when he comes up to me he hears a thirty second string of swear words muffled behind my Oxygen mask as I curse myself for losing situational awareness with an 8,000 foot drop a short slide away.

Collecting myself, I make a vow that I was getting off this mountain alive and would never, ever let my guard down like that again.

We unclip, and then proceed cautiously up the remaining few hundred feet to the true summit where we can take in the view of a lifetime. Our team grounds it's gear, high-fives, and laughs heartily at our success. We made it! I plop down on the true summit- a narrow shelf about the size of a coffee table, take out my camera and look to the south and for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see.

Fixing lines the entire way, Willie had beat us to Everest's summit by roughly 35 minutes. So to him, this is what it looked like as the three of us approached the summit carefully and happily:

There are hardly any clouds, zero wind and a warm, nourishing sun. It couldn't be any more perfect- imagine sitting on the wing of a jet at cruising altitude. Words can't describe the feelings of happiness and exhilaration at reaching this goal after so many months of effort and teamwork, and we all celebrate.

Looking to the south, we see others start to pop up over the Hillary Step and slowly dial in on the summit. Knowing our time was limited and uninterested in getting stuck in a log jam at the Hillary Step on the way down, we snap as many pictures as we can- of ourselves, and individually.


Photosynth Summit Panorama
Willie: 21 May, 06:05- his eighth Mt Everest summit
Tendi, Doug & Francisco: 21 May, 06:40- our first Mt Everest summit, Tendi's sixth


Anonymous said...

Amazing photos. I was wondering though about the appearance of the stars from that elevations, were they really bright and millions of them? I only saw the one photo with the moon in it, no stars.

ed messner said...

nice blog, only problem is the one about being the first to see the sun rise it doesnt make sense as the sun is always rising somewhere

Nicolai Aasen said...

"To me, the argument ends here. Compound this with something statistics don't show: that those who attempt with Oxygen regularly and routinely lose fingers, toes and noses to frostbite as their metabolism slows way down, making them highly suceptible to cold."

I hope you meant WITHOUT oxygen..

Doug Pierson said...

Great catch Nicolai! I did mean without, edit made. Appreciate it and Happy Holidays. Cheers, Doug