Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Everest Wrap-up (summit day, broken ropes & rescue)

Summit ‘day’ started in our tents on the South Col at 8:30pm on May 20th with the call to start getting ready. For the next hour we struggled to get into down suits, boots and crampons for the long climb. Most of the preparation just required me to pull clothes out of the foot of my sleeping bag as they had been stowed there so they would stay warm. My excitement was mixed with concern that I remember the critical "extras"… extra food, water, goggles, and gloves. A short list but on the South Col, at just below 8,000 meters, my brain was having trouble remembering these little things.

Most, if not all, of the route to the summit is fixed with what can best be described as water ski rope. The rope appears strong but does not seem to hold up to the rigors of rubbing against ascender teeth and rock as well as a high quality climbing rope. About 1:00am as our group of around 20 western climbers and Sherpa were ascending the ropes up the face to the Balcony at just over 27,000/ 8200m, the rope all of a sudden went slack and people started yelling. My worst fear had come true, the rope had broken but fortunately those closest to the break were able to stop their fall before tumbling out of control into the line of people below. In my mind, I could just see the Outside Magazine headlines “Rope Breaks And Kills 20 on Everest”. Great. I immediately unclipped my ascender and backup carabineer from the rope while those closest to the break tried to reattach to the line. After about 15 minutes of tugging and yelling, the rope was back in place. I was still a bit paranoid, however, and stepped off the rope to solo up to the Balcony with a few other concerned climbers.

From the Balcony we headed up a ridge to the South Summit. Despite the size, our team was making good time and the weather was fantastic with no wind and the temperature warming up. On the ridge leading to the South Summit, the sun started to come up over Tibet. As the sun rose and the curvature of the earth was exposed, the Tibetan peaks came into view. Once the sun crested over Everest, it created an incredible shadow of Everest in almost pyramid-like form into Nepal. I didn’t expect the beauty of the moment to be so overwhelming and it was one of the most incredible natural images that I’ve ever seen.Everest Shadow

We arrived at the South Summit at about 6:00am and quickly traded our empty oxygen bottles for full ones. My tent mate, Sebastian and I were eager to get going to the summit as there was a large group building that we wanted to get ahead of before the Hillary Step. This last part of the climb was the most exciting part of the entire trip. We traversed a knife edge ridge with views 6000’ down in to Nepal on one side and 7000’ down into Tibet on the other. Once we arrived at the Hillary Step, I paused to take in the enormity of the moment. Here I was, climbing on what has to be one of the most famous sections on the highest mountain in the world. The moment was ours to enjoy and I have to admit that I was choking up as I navigated snow and rock to the summit ridge.

I got to the summit at 7:00am on May 21st. What an incredible summit day. The temperature had warmed to around 0 degrees Farenheight with no wind and clear skies. I stayed on the summit for about 45 minutes before deciding to descend.

As I descended back to the South Summit, my sherpa indicated that his oxygen mask was malfunctioning and that I could go down by myself which was just fine with me. I slowly made my way off the South Summit, back down the ridge and headed to the Balcony completely enjoying the relative solitude on the way. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was completely comprehending the reality of where I was and what I was doing. Alone on Everest descending in great weather, after having gone to the summit; wow, was I stoked! More times than I could count, I just sat down to take in the views and enjoy the moment. Topping out of the Hillary Step

As I descended below the Balcony I came across internationally known guide Dave Hahn who was removing his oxygen system and strapping it to climber who was on the snow unconscious. As I approached Dave, I offered to help in any way I could and was quickly enlisted in the rescue of Usha Bista, a member of the Nepali Democratic National Team who had been left by team members on the mountain in critical condition and was suffering from severe frostbite and cerebral edema. More shockingly, I later learned that days before this climber had been told by several people, including doctors at the Himalayan Rescue Association at Base Camp, not to climb. Dave Hahn, myself and Sebastian (now the youngest Belgium to summit Everest) worked for over an hour lowering Usha until we were relieved by sherpas and a team who had come up from the South Col. As a postscript, it took a lot of climbers 3 more days to get Usha to Base Camp where she was helicoptered to Kathmandu and is believed to have lived but suffered significant amputations from the frostbite.

From the point where others were able to assist Usha, Seb and I continued down until we reached our tent at the South Col where we spent the night. The next day we descended past Camp 3 and onto Camp 2. The following day, May 23rd, we had our last trip through the Khumbu icefall to Base Camp and then were finally considered relatively safe and on our way back home. Top of the World!

After years of reading how Base Camp is a zoo and the South Col is a ‘yak trail” I found most of this to be offensive media hype. Granted, Base Camp is not a remote and isolated place without basic comforts (you’re there for 2 months remember) but it is not the completely excessive affair that some would lead you to believe. Also, most of the climbers that I saw were very fit folks who had trained extensively for the climb and had significant big mountain experience. The route was not technical, but anyone ascending the Hillary Step would be hard pressed not to say that it was a complete rush. Overall, I had an incredible adventure and it was truly a lifelong dream to climb on, let alone summit, Everest.



Blogger A. Buchanan said...

That was totally awesome to read. Sometimes in all the books from the big climbers we miss out on the cool details. I couldn't imagine that rope breaking! Nice job on the rescue.

6/15/2007 12:45 PM

Blogger Baxter & Molly said...

Thanks! It was a cool trip but nice to be home in SLC enjoying the warmer weather.

6/16/2007 7:40 AM


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