Newsletter 2123 May 2001
The Summit Bid
At 1:30 am, we were congregating outside of Asmuss' tent, dressed for battle, but with the spiritual hopes of pilgrims. Asmuss was yelling "Where is Chris?" through his oxygen mask. "I'm right here," I yelled back in muffled syllables. He sounded angrier the second time, so I took the mask off. I knew right then that communication would be limited to the person whose eyes you could look into. We were entering outer space: our headlamps shot forth bright beams of concentrated light, our masks were fed by tubes leading from the cylinders on our backs, ice axes were in our hands, and crampons strapped to each foot. A jumar, attached by a tether to our harnesses, was gripped by our mittened hands and clamped onto the rope that stretched outward and upward into the darkness.
Andy lead out, followed by Owen, Ellen, Keiron and then me. Our headlamps peirced the darkness. A few scattered climbers lights and a million stars were the only other beams of light above us. Before we could get a rhythm, Andy was having oxygen issues. I passed to the front, hell bent on summiting Everest. My world became even smaller: blackness and my beam.
The darkness, deprived of warmth and oxygen, remains a bit blurry. Soon we came upon two Austrians laying in the snow, resting, a silly thought as we had just began. I carved a new trail around them. Then two other guys collapsed on the trail at the narrowest, steepest, scariest, dumbest place imaginable. Needing to pass them, I grabbed the one guy by the scruff of his neck, greatly adding to my security. In another narrow gully, two Spanish climbers were retreating: New Jersey educated, Peruvian perfected, oxygen mask muffled, Spanglish convinced those two to sit and wait. "Don't get in my way, madam, my friends and I are climbing Everest."
Within no time we were nearing the top of the "exit cracks." But we were no longer a tight team. Two hours of climbing had spread us out. Owen was showing signs of Cerebral Edema and Asmus was advocating his descent. Out in front, my focus remained on moving us forward. Within a few feet we had come to the crest of the ridge. My directions: Stop there and replace the Oxygen cylinders. Reduce flow from 4 to 2 liters per minute. Proceed to the First Step.
We quickly moved on. I wasn't even aware that Owen was heading back. He had been my right hand man during the first two hours. My job was to move us forward, and I set out from this cylinder exchange with purpose. Only I was lost. There I was, standing on top of a cornice: the Kangshung face sweeping 7000 ft. beneath my feet and there wasn't a track to be found. "PHURBA!!!!" It was time to find a Sherpa, who had been here before, to lead the way.
Phurba leading, my immediate gang became: Phurba, me, Keiron and Ellen. Naoki was guarded by Karsang (Nepal). Asmuss, Andy, Dawa and Jamie were behind them. Evelyene and Robert, Marco, Lopsang and Karsang (Tibet) were well out in front. We were pulled like a Slinky, stretched out along the easier sections and then bunched up at others. In between our team, were various climbers: Sherpas and Sherpanis, Rumanians, Australians, Russians, Spanish, Columbians and Venezuelans.
The First Step surprised me: if you aren't used to climbing rock with crampons on, forget it. Two twenty meter sections (60 ft) of hand over hand pulling, requires you to look for subtle edges to rest your weight. This was full on mixed climbing. And about five of your friends are also pulling on that same piton. Yahoo!!!! Nothing like adventure travel.
The Second Step was even worse. PULL, PULL, PULL. But stay in balance. I had a great plan. I'd whip my video camera out at the top of the Second Step and film Keiron on the ladder (which by the way is really easy and overblown in it's reputation.) Just needed a quick breather. By the time I recovered my breathing Keiron was at the top. I had to move on. Never got a second of video of him and it hardly seemed fair to ask him to back down and repeat the moves.
The Third Step actually had the single most "airy" move. The fixed ropes were anchored to a large rock, which is only held in place by the fixed rope and little bit of snow. As people step on this rock, it slips a bit more. Now the ropes are piano wire tight. Here we go, another hard climbing move, at 8750 meters, unprotected by a fixed rope (too tight and pulled too far to the right to use). Ladies and gentlemen place your right crampon by your right ear. Now step upwards, rock over the right foot and shift your weight onto your tippy toes. Piroutte. Continue upward.