The majority of deaths happen on the way down. I know this, and I also know that the next few days will require focus and lots of pain. From the top back to base camp is a distance of three days; summit to C4, C4 to C2, and C2 through the ice falls one last time before hitting base camp. Unlike most peaks, the way down is not a celebration and reflection of the climb up. I refuse to let myself relax or daydream about the beauty that surrounds me. I cast aside thoughts and visions of the summit. It will have to wait until I am safe and in base camp. The plan upon arrival is to pack my gear and catch a helicopter to Kathmandu. I decide to fly from base camp to Kathmandu instead of another 3 days of walking, mainly because I am homesick and beat to hell.
I take my time down from the summit to C4. The sherpa are gathering the used ox tanks and carrying heavy loads, but they graciously give me time. It is a stunningly beautiful day. I stop at the balcony and take 20 minutes while the sherpa gather the last of the tanks. I look up for one last view of the summit and look down at how far I have have come. It is 8:30 in the morning and I am an hour from C4. I will be up and down in 12 hours which is faster than I had ever thought. I feel remarkably strong. My body is running on who knows what, but whatever it is, I hope I get 2 more days of it.
C4 to C2: This comes with a climb down the Geneva spur, Yellow band, and steep Lhotse face. Today is more crowded with people on their way up chasing the perpetual weather window. I start the day in the cold in my summit suit. When we descend into the western Cwm the temperature raises into the 40s and higher.
I arrive at C3 hoping to change into lighter weight clothes that were left in my tent. Instead, I find our clothes have been packed and brought to base camp. So, after a brief tantrum I realize I will inevitably be in this suit until the end. I am on the last few hundred feet of the Lhotse face and C2 is in sight.
A loose ox tank flies past missing me by a few feet. Thirty minutes later, a large rock falls down the rope hitting a sherpa in the head. Most sherpa don’t wear helmets because they carry their bag with a strap on their head. He is severely injured and needs rescued. Our sherpa stop to help and we wait for the helicopter. We are at the highest altitude that a helicopter can land. The heli comes and touches down with the tips of its skids. The injured sherpa is loaded and taken away. I am now without ox and the fatigue is adding up. I make it to camp 2 by mid-afternoon exhausted.
C2 to Base camp:
I wake after a long, sleepless night. Our departure is at 7am. I am thankful to be back at a camp with a kitchen, as we start our last day with a delicious breakfast. The climb to C1 is the easiest, a mere 300 meters downhill. I arrive at the top of the Icefalls and exhaustion is already slowing me. I am concerned that my 6th trip through the Icefalls may be perilous. The sun is beaming down, which adds to the risk. After much encouragement from the leaders, I start down. My feet are raw and the ice I step on is very unstable.
We power through and 4 hours later, we have made it. I pop out of the last large ice block and a group is waiting with beer. Ang Dorgee greets us with a white Kata. The climb is officially over. I have a walk along the trail to our camp and walk for the last time around our prayer flags. When we arrive back, I am met by sherpa and staff beating on pans and wildly celebrating our victory. The tears come before I realize what is happening to me. I have accomplished my dream and will be home very soon.
The sherpa throw us a party with music and dancing. They make it clear that sitting and watching is not an option. I get winded dancing and have a 5am departure so I slip out early. The sherpa dance and sing until 2am. We get a call saying our heli is now delayed until 730. I could have danced longer had I known. I am up early and walk camp for the last time. The tents will come down by the end of today. I see Mike R. leaving early, and the rest of the group will leave later. We catch the heli and fly to Pheriche, then Lukla. We land on a foggy runway and soon after the airfield is closed. We get a room and get ready for a long wait getting out.
The heli can fly until 6pm but it’s not looking good. My friend Brad comes back and has arranged for us to walk to the lower town that is not covered in fog. We get porters to carry our bags and 10 gallons of jet fuel for the heli. We descend in a light rain. Trail and rocks are slippery. We emerge from the fog and find ourselves in a small village with a helipad. This is where we meet the heli and fly down the valley to Kathmandu.
As we fly out I take one last look at the valley. As the clouds lighten the mountains come back into view. This is my third time up this valley and as I look around I think to myself, “Will I ever see this again?” and I get sad. Will this be my last view of the mountain? Maybe I can bring my kids or grandkids and show them what I have seen. I climbed my first mountain with my boys, trained with my wife and friends, but choose to climb alone. I miss the interaction and would like someone to share the experience with, but this also comes with responsibility of others and splits focus. Most people still don’t get it or understand why I do this. It took me years to fully understand my “why” and every mountain gave me more clarity. After I get done with one peak I looked for the next mountain, usually bigger and a higher level of difficulty. There is nowhere to go up from here. I climbed Everest, the highest mountain in the world. What is next?? Even as I write this I don’t know. Maybe the 3 smaller peaks on the 7 summits? It is too early to think about, but I will always have a mountain to climb. So, to my critics that gave me so many reasons “why not” and with only a month until my 61st birthday, I give you my “why” using the words of Dylan Thomas.
“Do not go gentle into that good night;
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Lesson to grandchild:
“Pursue happiness”, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. When asked by Adams and Franklin why he chose the words, he told them we have no right to happiness, but the freedom to pursue happiness.
Mountains make me happy and I have been chasing them for the last several years. My wish for my grandkids is to find their own mountains. Do not wait, the future value of time is far less than the present value. Yet people defer happiness to someday in the future. In doing so they don’t live in the moment and miss happiness that happens every day.
Don’t let anyone define happiness for you. Many people don’t understand what I see in climbing or how it can make anyone happy. It is cold, little oxygen, a long way from home, expensive and dangerous. No two humans are alike, so why should we have one definition of happiness? We must define what makes us happy. If not, society will do it for us and we will always fall short.
This is a list of lessons to my grandkid that has been a result of 2 months on Mount Everest and a guilty reaction to missing my first grandchild’s birth. I started this before Ford was born, and I hope the lessons will continue until I am gone.