On very little sleep, I’m staying in the tent melting ice and snow to make water. I had my biscuit and gravy breakfast and a few bites of macaroni and cheese, but can’t eat much. I will have a bowl of ramen noodles after I get up. We wake at 6 p.m. and start by 7 p.m., our turnaround tim is 1:30 p.m. tomorrow afternoon. The body of the Dutch guy is now in a bag sitting on a rock behind our tents…a stark reminder of what could happen.
The three guys in the second group are George, Les, and I. We get dressed and everyone is feeling good. The wind blows all night, not hard, but enough to rattle tents. We get dressed in our summit gear and get started at 7 p.m. right on time. Once we get out, we meet a group of eight heading for the summit. George gets in front of the group and it’s the last I will see him until fourteen hours later. Les has to go to the bathroom and turns back, I continue on with my Sherpa, Tendu. George has Sherpa Minima, and Les has Callus. Our Sherpa are carrying extra bottles of oxygen that they will store at the balcony half way up; this will support our descent. Not a large group on Summit Day; the weather forecast is not great so that may be a possible reason for the few climbers.
Shortly after we start, maybe two hundred yards from camp, we meet a guy descending on his feet, but barely able to walk, staggering badly in a bright yellow suit. I remember thinking that’s what I will look like in eighteen hours. I thought he left a few hours before us and developed issues along the way. I also noticed he was alone – no Sherpa or leaders. Little did I know that he had been out all night, and was part of a larger Indian group that was all in bad trouble. We were not on the steep uphill part yet and I thought it odd he was in such bad shape so early.
The dangerous part about close to camp was large crevasses. They had the trail marked with tent stakes, but they also had big holes marked the same way. They call it “falling into the grove”, which could be the last they see of you. I ask Dan how you get out if you fall into a thirty-foot deep crevasse that we were constantly jumping, sometimes with safety rope but most of the time with nothing. It is funny how much further you jump when you are not tied off. If you fall into these crevasses, you can cross climb or you can walk down the bottom of the crevasse to where it gets narrow and climb out, but I really don’t want to find this out. To fall in and climb out will waste so much energy; it may end any summit push. Plus, our Sherpa are there to keep us out of trouble. It wasn’t steep, so no ropes and the snow and wind covered up the footprints. If you stepped off the packed trail you were in drifts up to your waist. I am close enough to the group in front that I stay on trail avoiding holes and deep snow. Tendu is right behind telling me when I get off the trail. The wind is blowing hard already.
Four hours in, the wind picks up. The sky is an inky blue and you can still see the stars, but I know I have a long day and I choose to keep my head down. To look up and see the lights of other climbers above you is heartbreaking. Not many lights like the last few mornings. The weather forecast may be the reason. I choose to look only a few feet in front of me, looking at the next foothold or fixed line.
I have two climbers fifty feet stopped above me. One is a Sherpa and yells to Tendu there is someone coming down the rope out of control and to look out. I am in front of Tendu, and I see a climber falling towards me – feet and crampons first. I am jumared to the fixed line, and time my jump over the falling climber’s crampons just before her carabiner hits my jumar. The ice anchor holds and we end up in a tangled pile hanging from our harness. I noticed she had the same bright yellow suit we’d seen earlier. We are face to face and I can tell she is in bad shape. She tells me she can’t breathe. I look at her mask and the outflow valve is frozen and her bag is also full of ice. She is still coherent, and I clear the ice from her mask so she could breathe better. I secure her to the rope and slide her to the next anchor. There is a large group below that has extra Sherpa, and we passed her down to them for the Sherpa to help down. I’m very rattled by the close call. I also realized she has been exposed overnight and was near death. I continue my climb and after another hour I see another climber hanging by his safety on the fixed line; the same one I was jumaring up on the very steep area. I felt the rope slip and I noticed another yellow suit as I got up to him. I see he is undoing the ropes to release himself down the mountain as I move to him to get anchored above him. To my horror, I see he is missing a glove and his one hand is frozen. Unlike the lady, he isn’t speaking, but grabs me as I climb above him. Tendu asks him where is his Sherpa and who is he with, and finds out no Sherpa, no oxygen. He said it was stolen at the balcony. He has already lost his hand and he was very weak. I tell Tendu we need to do something. He tells me there is nothing we can do for him, as we don’t have equipment to rescue and to attempt will be risking both of our lives. I have a satellite phone and we try calling larger groups to see if they could help. It is 5 a.m. and we cannot reach anyone. We sit for another thirty minutes, secure him to rope, cover his hand, and hope extra Sherpa below have access to a rescue party. I move on and one more hour, just below the balcony, I run up on my fourth person in a yellow suit. This time the guy has both hands frozen and is immobile and can’t speak. It is getting lighter out, and again I ask what we should do. Again, my Sherpa and I have an argument about what to do. He again tells me we can’t do anything, and he is too far gone and will not make it. He goes on to tell me that if we stop, we too will run out of oxygen and freeze, and that we have to keep moving. I have the most helpless feeling. I don’t blame Tendu. He is right, and all I can think of is to make the sign of the cross and say a prayer for him to get off this cold mountain and into God’s arms.
We start moving back up the rope, leaving him; I noticed he was secured. I found out later George first ran across him upside down and tied him to the rope. I am in the most inhospitable place in the world, and the Sherpa understood the risk and was getting fed up with me stopping.
I finally get to the balcony as the sun was rising on this already crazy morning. I am getting hypoxia and trying to process what is going on around me. What I saw is already haunting me. I notice Tendu unloaded his oxygen, and put both tanks on his regulator and didn’t change mine. He is starting to show signs of altitude sickness. As the sun rises, I am walking a ridge to the south summit, both sides falling off thousands of feet to the storm clouds below. The snow is up to my knees. On my right is the inky blue sky, with the moon above clouds that are at around 7000 meters. They are dark gray and ominous looking. On my left side, the sun was up and lighting the clouds below a bright white. I thought it looked like Heaven and Hell. With everything I had seen this day, I couldn’t believe I could see something of beauty in such a harsh situation.
I am nine hours in and only a few hours from the summit. I am having problems focusing my thoughts. I continually go back to the dying climbers – with their frozen arms flailing around or the lady asking for me to help her. I keep moving, my last ridge before the Hillary steps one hour from the summit. I catch up with George at the Hillary steps. He by far has been the strongest climber. I see Mingma above him on the last pitch. We tie off and George tells me he is turning around, that he is not sure he can make it to the top and all the way back. The weather has gotten worse and when we descend, we will be going into a snowstorm below us. We talk about the dying people we passed on the way up and it is obvious we are both shaken by what we have seen, and the summit is not as important but getting down alive is. We have four hours before the turnaround time, but the conditions have beaten the strength out of us and we are questioning whether we have the strength to get back. Our Sherpa are also split, with one wanting to go on and the other sick and wanting to go back. We try the radio to get an update on the weather and get nothing so we assume the weather is just going to get worse. We look around, no one is in sight, and everyone has turned around. I take out my summit flags to get photos and we head down into the heavy snow.
We make it to the balcony and I reload another bottle of oxygen. The weather is bad and I tell George it isn’t time to panic. It is 11 a.m., plenty of time to make it back, and we are not too cold. Oxygen is good, but my legs are gone, and the only muscle still working is my brain. George is also trashed. I point out Sherpa sitting looking down the mountain. I begged Tendu to drop his heavy pack and go down with us and he is unresponsive. I leave the group on the balcony, and rig my harness with a strap and slide down in the heavy snow. The Sherpa finally leaves George, who was unaware, but his hose was broken and he was climbing without oxygen. He found the broken hose and fixed it and continued down alone, walking the steep slope with his harness and figure 8 backwards as I would be if my legs were strong enough. I get to where the yellow suits were and only one was still tied to the ropes dead. I have to crawl over him to tie back to the lines and keep moving down.
I get to the flats and know I have a few hundred meters to my tent but it is snowing so hard that I can’t see. This is the same place four died on the 1996 expeditions made famous by the movie and book, Into Thin Air. I remember the big holes and the snow is covering the all the trails that were marked. I walk and crawl from stake to stake. I take my time feeling confident I am going to make it back for the first time. I stop and eat my last snickers bar. My water is frozen, and I have a little tea in my thermos to wash it down. I get my satellite phone. It has been almost twenty-four hours since I called home, and it is after midnight in Kentucky, but I want to tell them I am okay. Lisa is still up, and had already heard about multiple deaths and was very worried. She has been unbelievably strong and supportive for the last two months, but the last twenty-four hours were bad for my entire family. I had not told her about the three deaths, and had no idea the news would make it home so quickly. I tell her about the terrible things I saw the night before and that I am going to be home as fast as I can. I hang up and keep moving. Tendu and Mingma catch up to me while I was taking a break and keep walking. George is not in sight and I worry about leaving him. I meet Les looking for us, and he tells me he found the Indian climber and he couldn’t get the large group to help, so he ended up getting her to his tent and lost most of his gear in the process. The second climber was also rescued, but didn’t make it. I wait for breaks in the blowing snow to see glimpses of our tents and after twenty-two hours, finally arrive back in camp. George arrives an hour later and we collapse in our bags in our suits covered in ice.