Summit Reflections – Part One

It is Sunday May 26th as I write this.  It has been nine days since 7:00 am May 17th when I stood on top of the world. It is a nice morning in Kathmandu. The sun is hidden by a grey featureless sky, but the air is warm and humid and my body after all these days still just wants to bathe in thick, moist air.  There remain whispers of frost bite scabs on my face and my finger tips are numb, but that day seems so long ago.

Yesterday we moved from the Yak and Yeti to the Kathmandu Guest House.  The Guest house has a laid back vibe with trekkers and travellers that know nothing of the mountain, while the Yak and Yeti is the mecca of the Western climbing scene in Kathmandu buzzing with excitement. Everest hangs thick in the air of the restaurant and lobby as climbers exchange tales and conduct interviews. We wanted to put some distance between us and the mountain to decompress, reflect and remember.

When it was time to go we were ready, 24 plus hours inside the yellow fabric prison of a VE 25 Northface tent at 26,000 feet had made us ready. The wind at the South Col had been relentless collapsing the tent from time to time during the night.  We had planned to go up the first night we had arrived on the 15th but the winds were too strong.  Climbers had tried that night only to be pushed back into their tents for a broken rest before retreating down to Camp II the next day. We waited.

The first night at the col is lost to me. We tried to rest, we tried to talk but mostly we just lay there lost in our own thoughts, listening to the roar of the wind. We hydrated and waited for the warming sun.

The next day passed quickly, we made our summit climb plan with Dawa the lead Sherpa. Daniel who had struggled between Camp III and IV was now ready to give the summit a go.  Todd had been ready since the night before.  I did not know.  I had not been able to eat since Camp II.  While I had rested for over 24 hours I knew having lost over 20 pounds to reach the South Col my reserves were growing thin…or not there at all.  I never thought of not going and I was not worried about dying but I knew the risk was out there, between the South Col and the summit.

An hour prior to leaving we sat in our tent in a triangle facing each other with all our gear on. No one spoke, we were hollowed out, our faces were pale, grim but set with resolve. This was the final push.  We sat and were rocked by the wind buffeting the tent until the final appointed departure time of 7:00 pm.

I remember the motions, one step in front of another, the stunted vision in the darkness and the blowing snow; the continual struggle for air and energy with every action.  At first Dawa led, but about an hour into the climb Tashi and Todd sped past us.  I watched their lights grow distant up high above as the storm wrapped us in a tighter embrace. I kept checking Daniel’s progress and his light faded as well into the gloom.  At times Dawa and I could see no lights, at times we were alone on the mountain.

That night many teams had been scheduled to leave.  We had left at 7:00 pm to climb through the night ahead of the expected crowds.  Dawa and I had discussed our climbing strategy during the day.  We had expected to be slow but we had not expected a storm.  The weather was supposed to improve and the winds were forecast to drop. Now many hours later high on the mountain just below the Balcony I struggled to pick myself up. A powerful gust of wind had knocked Dawa and I flat.  I pulled out my ice axe and switched to the lead.  Rime ice coated us head to toe.  The fixed lines were buried by new snow and useless; my ascender did not grab the rope, it slid freely providing no tension at all. We tried to clear the line.  While it was useless for us we could again see lights below.  Perhaps if I scraped off the ice with my ascender as Dawa pulled it free from the snow others could use it.

 I could tell you I never failed in my resolve, but that would be a lie.  At the height of the storm that hit us that night it was a struggle just to stand and I wanted to quit.  I could not use my goggles so I knew I was getting frostbite on my face and the wind whipped snow and ice was battering my eyes.  Cold relentlessly crept up from my axe and ascender and my hands were revolving between numb and warming pain in continual cycles.  I was also tired, so very, very tired.  I gasped at Dawa  “the wind…the storm…we need to decide.” He nodded and answered “at the Balcony”

The Balcony is an aptly named flat spot on the route.  Sometimes a turn around point depending on how you are feeling. If it has taken everything you got just to reach here, the rule is turn around.  Teams stop, hydrate, change oxygen bottles and access whether to continue or not.  Dawa and I had struggled hard just to get here.  The storm did not seem to be going away or getting better.  I thought for sure I had sucked back too much O2 but surprisingly I had a fair bit left.  I pulled my nalgene bottle out of my suit, lifted my mask and gulped down some hot orange.

The ridge is not very steep at this point so I walked forward along it, planting my axe and breaking trail in the fresh snow. Dawa pulled the line and I continued to slide my useless ascender along it subconsciously…and then it hit me.  I got mad.

After 56 days on this mountain I was not going to let a storm turn me around.   I was breathing well, moving well and I was firmly planting my axe in every step. At this point I knew Daniel and a lot of teams had turned around, I also knew I now wanted carry the torch and summit for Daniel. I wanted to summit from my friend Warren Thompson.  I knew my wife believed in me.  This wasn’t just about me anymore, I now climbed with renewed strength for them. Energy surged through me as I pushed back against the wind and climbed up the steeping ridge. 

Then I could see Todd’s and Tashi’s lights, way up high. Alone in the deteriorating conditions of the storm and the darkness they had gotten very concerned.  They had turned around and were heading down.

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2 Comments

  1. Eli Mendes
    May 29, 2013

    Good Morning Steve,

    I am so proud of you and your perseverance on filling the barrel of buckets on the bucket list. There are very few people in life that have the drive and ability to do what you just achieved. I take my hat off to you for following your dreams. You are a very special person and thanks for allowing us to walk to the top of the world with you. Last but not least go back to work and empower your trailer team for many more years!!! ELI

  2. derek o'connor
    May 30, 2013

    Truly a remarkable feat Steve – congratulations to Todd, Daniel and yourself

    The Westco Construction pm crew
    Let bridge, Alberta

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