My fingers were becoming painful in the cold. Getting the photos I wanted meant wearing just the merino liners, and they could only stave off the wind for so long. I’m not sure what the temperature was on the summit, but would guess circa -10F before the wind chill. Actually, the wind was not too bad that day, maybe 15 MPH. We had nailed it.
And now it was time to go home.
I stood up and got the pack on. It felt heavy. I was tired.
I had spent a few moments without eye protection up there, both to let the goggles defog and to get a photo with my face that would prove to Elizabeth Hawley that it really was me on the summit. But, the fog continued to stick to the inside of my goggles. The oxygen mask fit loosely over the bridge of my nose, and no matter how much I messed with it I could not get the seal to last more than a few minutes, meaning wet air would jet up towards my face with every exhalation, flooding the inside of the lens with moisture. I could reduce this by pursing my lips in the direction of the exhalation valve, but it was tiring to do that, and it did not solve the problem entirely. That goddam broken plastic hook will be the death of me. There was no more time to fiddle or troubleshoot. It was time to descend.
We started walking, Pasang Kami in the lead, then me, then Justin. Steven and Lakpa Nuru had departed a few minutes ahead of us. The GoPro was on my head now, USB cable leading to the auxiliary battery in my suit. I tired to make it operate, knowing that the sunshine would have warmed its circuits within the clear lexan housing, but it turned on for only a moment, shot a few frames, then shut down. Goddam it. I had planned for the last two years to shoot this section… this was deeply disappointing. But there was no time to mess with it. Get to that first anchor, clip in, and go down.
Watching my foot placement was job #1, but the view was spectacular. And I forced myself to look at it. We were exposed to the entire planet, but it was never daunting on the summit block. With the exception of the section of rope without kernmantle, the line looked plenty stout. You will never see this again. Remember this.
Just above the step I encountered someone on her way up. I did not recognize her at first, then realized it was one of my teammates from a different subgroup. We looked at each other for a moment, each waiting for the other to make a move. “Come on,” she shouted, “Unclip!” The custom is for descenders to move their gear past climbers, simply because ascending is so tough. I had become accustomed to climbing, not descending, and was surprised to find myself in this new role.
“Oh, right. Sorry. Climb on. You’re almost there.” I moved my clips past her.
Moments later I saw our beloved Jolly Blue Giant teammate, Siva, on his way up. His extra tall blue Feathered Friends suit was unmistakable. “Siva! You made it! Almost there!” He looked at me slowly, almost disinterested, or focused so hard on the climb that it didn’t matter what I said. I decided to leave him alone. “Congrats man, you are almost there.” He nodded and we passed each other.
A few minutes later, a shock: I saw Siva approaching once again, just above the Step. What the hell…. It was not until the next day that I realized the first Jolly Blue Giant had in fact been one of our guides, Mike Hamill. They wore the same suit and were the same height, and of course no skin was exposed, making identification challenging. I was just about the only person up there with my name on my suit and pack.
As we got closer I could see that Siva was really suffering. We stopped to talk. He shouted through his mask, “I dislocated my shoulder!”
“On the Step. I slipped and dislocated it. It was sticking out at 90 degrees!”
A dislocated shoulder? I had never heard of such a thing on Everest. Suddenly I realized that we were still in peril, fragile and exposed on top of the highest mountain in the world. This is a dangerous place. My medical mind woke up, reluctantly, like a sleepy, drunken eye. Patients with dislocations are usually incapacitated with pain, and certainly not able to use the affected limb. His arm seemed to be working fine for the moment. Actually, he was holding it a bit awkwardly…. “Did you reduce it? Pop it back in?”
“Yeah. But it hurts man. I don’t know. And my extra oxygen is missing!” He sounded concerned.
Well, shit. You can’t climb Everest with a dislocated shoulder and no oxygen! Maybe he was mistaken. “You’re close buddy! Can you keep going?”
“Yeah, I just don’t know how I will get back down.”
That’s what I was thinking. He looked at me silently, apparently eager for my opinion, but I was focused on myself, and I had a tough time putting the situation together. Flashes of the coming hours came into my mind: An extra Sherpa guide belaying him down the Step, then up to the South Summit, then down the Southeast Ridge and into Camp 4… then down the Spur, across the traverse, over the Yellow Band, past Camp 3, down the blue ice of the Lhotse Face, across the Bergschrund, and then past the final 1,000 vertical feet to Camp 2. If his shoulder was truly dislocated, it would be impossible. The right thing to do was to turn around immediately. But, if he was mistaken about the injury, he would be fine. And he looked OK. I could not make this call for him. “You’re really close. Just 10 more minutes…. Where’s Emily?”
“Back there….” I looked down the route. Yes, there she was, the tiny figure of my friend and guide, working her way up the route. She’ll take care of Siva. He took a step forward and advanced his ascender. The decision had been made: He would continue.
“You can do it!”
Moments later I passed Emily. “Dr. Pottinger!” she called out. We embraced.
“Siva hurt his shoulder!” I said. “He’s missing his third cylinder.”
“I know. He’ll be OK. We’ll find it.”
“Shitload of traffic down there,” I said.
“7 hours to the balcony!” That was almost double my time. It was a horrifying idea.
“Holy crap. You’re almost there!” I clipped past her, and she moved ahead.
I had worried for years about getting trapped above the Step if ascending climbers jammed the route. The idea of standing in line had haunted me. I was prepared to rap from a bolt that IMG guides had placed a few years earlier, the highest anchor in the world.
Now, standing here for real, this turned out to be a non-issue. The traffic was light, and I only had to wait a couple minutes for Pasang Kami to descend before I started down. I gripped the rope behind me with my left hand, wrapped the rope in front of me around my waist with my right, and leaned into space, facing straight down the slope. My forearms felt profoundly tired and weak. Fuuuuuuuuuck. How am I going to get down this mountain? Downclimbing uses a different set of muscles from ascending. On the way up, quadriceps strength is everything. I had trained in PT to use my gluteus maximus muscles to augment the quads, by flexing in concert with them to propel myself up with each step. It helped. My legs had not felt tired on the way up. I had been exhausted for sure, but there was never a time when I “felt the burn” in my legs. This is largely due to the slow pace, and the rest step technique, where the lower leg stays locked vertically, bone-on-bone, giving the quads a short break with every step. On the way down, things are different: the quads are in tension most of the time. And, the arms are used much more aggressively on the descent, too, because braking depends on gripping the rope tightly. On the way up, the ascender does all the gripping. I had been cagey on the fingerboard at home, but much of that strength had been lost during the expedition as my muscles melted away during weeks at high elevation.
Here on the Hillary Step a generous cornice separated us from oblivion on our left. The route was in great condition. There was no boulder to straddle, no vertical section to negotiate. I relaxed my grip as much as was safe to do. I focused on my breathing, using a pursed lip technique to auto-PEEP and guide the exhaled breath towards the exhaust valve rather than my goggles. I watched on my foot placement, thankful for the beautiful steps we and others had kicked in on the way up. My grip, my breathing, and my steps. Nothing else mattered.
Below the step we began to cross the Cornice Traverse. I chose the lower route this time. It was rockier underfoot and the anchor system was complex, like a sagging spider’s web of climbing rope. But there was no way I would take a single step higher unless absolutely necessary—that’s how tired I was.
However, I would have to climb higher one more time that day, in order to gain the South Summit. When the route began to rise gently on its way up towards it, I found myself taking several breaths per step. My heart rate surged, higher than it needed to, as my body sensed that it was climbing again. The small rocky col below the South Summit was welcome: This would be our first break of the descent.
I sat on the cornice, about a foot from the edge, while Justin and Pasang Kami rested on the stones. I knew Rob Hall was over there, but I chose again not to look for him. We decided that my cylinder was still full enough, and I stuck with it rather than switching back to the other bottle we had left here. It would serve me fine down to the Balcony, where my first bottle lay waiting, half full. Water and calories were the top priorities at the break. That, and getting my camera to work. The sun was blazing now, which felt good in the wind. The GoPro is mostly black and sits in a clear lexan housing, so it should have warmed up… Come on, baby. Sure enough, when attached to the auxiliary battery in my suit via USB cable, it turned on. I hit the trigger, and it began to shoot. Finally. My shot list was ruined, but I resolved to record everything until the card filled up or the battery died.
I could see three climbers from another team descending the Traverse, and I did not want to get caught behind them. It was time to go. Getting everything in order took longer than it should have. I just could not pull myself together… the O2 system, goggles, still camera, GoPro, honey stingers, water, hip belt, chest strap, harness, and tether system all vied for my attention, and I had difficulty attending to them in the proper order. After standing up I realized that I had forgotten to stow my nalgene, and I could not find the suit’s inner chest pocket, hidden by my mask, so I had to ask Justin to put it in there for me. I unclipped from the anchor then realized that I still had to fasten my chest strap, which I struggled with for about 30 seconds before asking Justin to do that for me, too. I thanked him, clipped in with my safety, and we started climbing.
The snow ramp narrowed as it went up the left side of the small cliff that separated us from the true South Summit. A couple of pee stains befouled the route with dark urine. Who the hell would stop here to pee? Actually… I haven’t urinated all day. So this is how Kim does it. I had always marveled at her ability to climb hour after hour and never void, like an effing dromedary. I thought briefly of my glomeruli, shriveling in agony, then snapped back to reality. There was a double-fisherman’s knot a few steps ahead, and I clipped my ascender past it. This was the tightest spot on the route, about a foot and a half wide, with the Kangshung Face on the left and vertical rock stretching up on the right. My pear ‘biner should have slipped over the knot, but the tails were too long for me to do this one-handed, so I chose to clip past it. The effort of this simple maneuver left me breathless, and I shouted out in pain. Slow down. Almost there.
As I passed the tight spot, the route up was revealed, and I saw a huge cornice jutting out into space, with ropes left over from previous expeditions hanging loosely from it. Pasang Kami sat there, waiting patiently for me and Justin, who was immediately behind me. I took a step, advanced the ascender, breathed three times, then repeated. For a short time I forgot how to climb, and lowered my front foot a bit as I took each step. I was not myself. It felt like an eternity to reach the South Summit… based on my video from that day, it actually took two and a half minutes.
An anchor was buried in the snow where the trail doglegged left at the top of the snow ramp, which required me to bend forward to clip past. This made me feel like suffocating, and I paused briefly to catch my breath.
I looked down and realized that Tibet was under my left foot, Nepal under my right, and the rope lying between my legs was the world’s highest international border. Cool.
I turned around and saw Justin on my six, as always. Behind him, the summit ridge stretched up towards the sky. Climbers were ascending and descending simultaneously, like a line of slow ants passing each other.
“Grab the rope, you’ll have more control,” Justin coached me. Right. I recall thinking that we were so high up in the sky that standard rules would not apply. Stick to the basics. Grab the rope. Nothing fancy or odd. You’ve got this.
As I approached, Pasang Kami stood and began to walk across the South Summit, towards the Southeast Ridge. An IMG oxygen cylinder was clipped to a picket. Its owner’s name was written clearly in sharpie: “Siva!” I called out to Justin. The mystery of his missing O’s was solved. He would be fine.
Focus. Clipping past the anchor again left me gasping, and I stood for a moment to let my breathing settle. Bending forward had broken the seal over the bridge of my nose yet again, and all my exhaled breath had shot into my goggles, fogging my view substantially. I looked at the cloud plume ripping away from the cornice, just a few feet away. I was standing at the origin of one of mountaineering’s most iconic weather features… but it was blurry because my goggles were terribly fogged. Dammit. Pasang Kami was standing atop the steep dropoff that marks the beginning of the Southeast Ridge, watching me silently. No words needed to be said. I began to follow. The trail was beautiful here, wide and well cut into the snow a couple feet right of the cornice, soft underfoot, descending gently. The rope became slack, and I flicked it away from my feet. A glance back revealed Justin transitioning at the anchor… behind him, in the distance, Cho Oyu stood above the cloud deck. Although it is the sixth highest point on Earth, it looked like a little blip of snow far, far below. Turning to look ahead again, I saw that Makalu was still about the cloudsea as well, a dark stone pyramid popping up like an island. Lhotse and the South Col came into view, also higher than the clouds. I peered carefully above the droplets lining my inner goggle lens… yes, there is was, Camp 4. It looked tiny.
A pair of climbers rested on the route at an anchor… I thought they were on their way up, failing to recognize them as descenders from another team whom we had encountered earlier. Pasang Kami unclipped and talked with them for a moment, then stepped past and clipped in again. I clipped past them in order to get out of their way, and stepped into a deep trough in the snow, then realized that I simply could not see well enough to descend safely. I stopped to clear my goggles. It was steep here, so I engaged the ascender. As I started to remove my outer gloves and pack, the pair I had just passed now seemed to start moving down. I gestured, “You going up?”
One of them gestured back that they were going down. Well, fuck, guys. If I’d known that I would have stopped above you. Below me, a party of three more climbers were on their way up, about 20 meters away. Not an auspicious place to break. But, I had to. I just could not see through my goggles.
Justin finished a conversation on the radio and caught up to me, squatting down and giving a querying look with a tilt of his head.
“My mask. Still leaking. It’s all good… I can fix it. I can’t see a fucking thing. I need to tighten it, that’s all.” For the first time that day I told Justin about the broken head strap clasp. I struggled with the system for about three minutes until the mask felt tight again. By the time I got moving again, the team of three below had reached us. “Hello, Namaste,” I said, and clipped past them one by one. I did not recognize them, but of course I had met them hours earlier, in the dark, as I passed them on the triangular face. Based on photos I found online many months later, I believe these were members of the Indian NCC expedition.
A few meters below them, another climber ascended on his own, presumably a Sherpa based on his relaxed demeanor, bare hands, and mask draped casually over his mouth but not nose. As often happened up there, I failed to take deep breaths when clipping, because my attention was on my hands. By the time I was past him, I felt quite short of breath, and focused on using my diaphragm while stepping down.
Moments later, I came upon another pair of climbers. The first was wearing an off-brand bright yellow suit with black sleeves and chest. He paused when our gear met on the line. “Thuche,” I said, Sherpa language for “Thank you.” I could not see his eyes through his black goggle lenses. As soon as I passed him he took a step forward towards Justin. His posture was erect, and he looked strong. A slight head tilt to the side suggested he was Indian. I would not realize until months later that this was Subhas Paul.
Immediately behind him, a second climber. I sensed that this was the first climber’s guide. He lifted his mask so I could hear him. “Time, time? What time it is now?”
“Time?” I had absolutely no idea. Together we revealed my watch, hidden beneath two gloves, my suit, and two base layers. It was 10:23. “10:20,” I said, in hope that this would be easier for him to understand.
“10:20,” I repeated.
“10:20?” he asked again.
“10:20,” I repeated for the second time.
He turned slowly back towards his client and continued to climb.
My analytical mind woke up again, reluctantly and briefly. I considered their situation for a moment—just for a moment. If they could top out in the next two hours they would be there before 2 PM, the fabled deadline. Perhaps they were climbing with the team above, and would have help. It was possible for them to make it.
But it occurred to me that these climbers were likely to die trying.
And I let them continue up. No friendly banter, no gently probing questions, no assessment of their state of mind. No shouting or cursing or frantic waving of my arms. No begging, pleading, or chastising.
I said nothing. I just let them continue up. I was exhausted and focused on myself. Who was I to offer unsolicited advice?
The route here was steep, and tall steps had been kicked into the snow. Each step left the uphill knee bent near 90 degrees. My arms pumped out after several steps, forcing me to pause briefly. Days later, when we were reunited and debriefing, Kim remarked how easy it would be for someone to just sit down and die on the lines. I was never tempted to sit down with exhaustion… progress was the goal. But, I certainly was slow.
Another climber on his way up in an old-school mask, the soft cloth kind with a rubber reservoir, and an odd pink suit. He looked to me like a support climber… but, he climbed very much alone.
About 50 meters below, I saw Pasang Kami stopped on a small patch of exposed rock talking with another ascending climber. He wore a suit with Korean markings and a distinctive star-spangled buff. For months afterwards I wondered what Korean team had been there that day. But, later, I realized based on photos and video that this was Pasang Nuru Sherpa with the West Bengal team.
Now the route began to follow the exposed stone. The Slabs. There was still enough fluffy snow to cushion our steps as we went down, but precision foot placement became more important than ever, lest I catch a crampon point and twist an ankle. Justin sensed this too, and encouraged me to descend in the snow to the left of the spine… which I did for a short time, until the rope forced me back onto the rocks. Now we stepped down to the right of the ridge, onto a narrow snow ledge that fell sharply away, about 7,000 feet down to the Cwm. I had no recollection of climbing this a few hours earlier. Things always look different in the day than in the black of night.
I began to cough, for the first time in more than a week. I was able to splint my chest with my right arm in a chickening position. No coughing!
The route eased away from the knife-edge, back towards the East by several steps. I watched Pasang Kami pass an anchor and continue down.
I recognized no one on the route ahead. Holy crap it’s getting late… where are my friends? They should be here by now. “Nicky and Bob, where are they?” I asked Justin.
“They turned back, Bob had the shits.”
“Oh, no.” How could I have failed to ask about this, failed to notice their absence until now? What kind of a friend was I? The weight of their lost summit bid, the crushing disappointment that Bob must have felt spinning at the Balcony, flickered through my mind. At least Nicky had summited before, that must have made it easier for her to turn around with him. Still, it was awful. But I could not dwell on this.
I reached an anchor and prepared my stance, inadvertently kicking a soccer-ball-sized snowball down the route, right towards Pasang Kami. “Snow!” I shouted. It rolled harmlessly to the left, narrowly missing another descender beyond him.
I caught up to Pasang Kami at the next anchor, where he sat waiting for the person in front of him to unweight the line. The route was truly steep here, dropping away out of visibility. It looked like a reasonable place to rappel. Justin arrived. “What do you think, buddy?” I asked.
“I’d say it’s pretty mellow,” he answered. “If you want, over on the snow.” I gave him a thumbs up. “You can rappel it if you’re feeling uncomfortable.” He sounded perfectly relaxed.
“No, looks good.” I was grateful for the pause, and leaned on the slab catching my breath, forcing the mask against my face. It was still leaking into my goggles in spite of periodic attention. Pasang Kami began down and I made the anchor transition. As usual, the route was less intimidating up close. Once the line became a bit slack I started down. At one point the kernmantle was eroded almost to the core where the rope had been beaten by the wind against a spine of rock. Jesus, this thing has only been here for a couple weeks.
Moments later something caught my eye, a small black and white scrap on in the snow. Could that be….? Yes! The Korbel badge from Kim’s suit was lying there. She was sponsored by the champagne maker, and this must have torn loose during the descent. I grabbed it and continued down to the next anchor, thinking about her. I hope you’re not too far ahead, Atomic Girl, because I’m coming in slow today. The idea of her sitting there waiting for me was terrible.
At the next anchor I realized that I was overheating in a big way. Seriously. The sun was blazing, and every shard of UV seemed to bounce up from the snow onto me.
Justin caught up in a flash. I caught his attention and said, “I need to get cool. Should I do that at the Balcony?”
“Balcony’s a good spot,” he agreed. “No good spot until then with all these rocks.”
“OK.” I paused a short time longer to try to catch my breath and cool off. My respiratory rate was 50 breaths per minute. I felt badly for being so slow, but the heat was crushing me. “Thanks, man,” I said to Justin, and started down again.
Justin remarked that the wind was picking up again. I nodded, hoping this would help cool me down. In fact, I’m sure it did… but not that I could feel. As we went down I continued to hyperventilate, sucking the reservoir totally dry. Get down to the Balcony and you can adjust the layers.
The route eased off and cut right, hugging a rocky outcrop, where a climber from another team was sitting on the trail. Pasang Kami paused to negotiate his way past, and I took the opportunity to get my merino liners off, and to shake the MegaWarmers out of the Point-N-Chutes. So… damn… hot….
The stranger seemed enveloped in a world of exhaustion. “Ok here I come, thuche” I said in a chipper voice, but he had no idea I was even there until I stepped over him and dragged my safety tether across his face. Such poor form, dude….
I could hear Greg on the radio, chatting happily with the guides about the conditions, measuring our progress. “Man, nice job by everybody! Crushed it! How’s the breeze up there?” EBC. It felt a world away.
The lines became complex at this steep section, with half a dozen ropes draped over the rocks. Justin instructed me where to stand while we waited for another group to ascend, and reminded me to rappel the red rope, rather than the ratty mess of old ropes they were ascending. I stepped down about six feet to another anchor, a real rat’s nest of lines tied together on a small flat spot. I grabbed bunch of rope and stepped across the lines, making room for Justin to stand on the other side. “Holy shit!” I said, “I’m hot!” Three climbers were ascending, and based on their progress it would take a few minutes for them to get out of the way, so I sat down and tried to get cool. I waved to the climber on the red rope, who looked back at me confused. Maybe the wave was being interpreted as a “stop” sign. So, I made a “come on up” sign with my hand, then tried to get cool. I removed my liner gloves, switched off the boot warmers (actually, the right one is already off, that’s strange), made sure my base layers were open at the neck, and unzipped the slides of my down suit. None of it seemed to make a difference: I was still roasting.
I watched the three climbers ascend past us. They seemed slow and a bit unsure of how to negotiate this very tight area. The timing could scarcely have been worse for all of us, jammed together at the steepest section of the day. But, they made it by and continued up. How many more people will be headed up at this time of day? Damn it’s late. But, as before, I said nothing to them about this. And, as before, it haunts me to this day. One of these climbers, Goutam Ghosh, would not come home alive. Another, Sunita Hazra, would barely survive after a harrowing night out, saved by a stranger, the remarkable Les Binns and his Sherpa guide.
As soon as Sunita passed me and unweighted the red line, I threaded it through the Figure 8, flipped it into position, and checked the screwgate. “OK,” I said to Justin, “Want to check me over?”
“Yep, looks good.”
I stood up. Duuuuuuuude. My legs are stiff. I moved the safety clip and began to rappel for the first time all day. It felt nice to let the rope do some of the work for a change. “Oh yeah, this will be good.” I made fast progress down the route, with nice snow underfoot. The rappel lasted only about 90 seconds until I reached an anchor. I clipped the safety across to the new line and got off rappel. The route above was hidden by a rock face, so Justin could not see me. I peeled my mask loose and shouted “Clear!” I needed to adjust my mask strap and goggles again, so I sat down in the snow.
When I looked down to grab my right glove and put it on again, I could not find it. Where the hell…? And there it was, tumbling down the Kangshung face, in a long, majestic, inexorable slide. There was no regret. There was no horror. There was no hope of retrieving it. The glove was simply gone. Even in my addled state, hyperthermic and hypoxemic, I did the math in a flash. You have two other gloves and a mitt for that hand in your pack. You are good. Still, it was a sobering moment. I had been so consumed with exhaustion and heat, and I was so comfortable with our climbing techniques, that I had lost perspective on our situation. We were still at 28,000 feet on the Southeast Ridge. A mistake here would be fatal. No epics up here!
This heat has to stop, or I will drop. I daydreamed of feeling cool. My plan was simple: At the balcony I would take off all my gear and clothes—everything—and roll naked in the snow. I wanted to bury my head in the snow. I wanted to stuff it into my sinuses. I wanted to jam it under my arms and between my legs. I wanted to scoot along and create an icicle enema. I wanted to become the snow itself. I could think of nothing else. Looking back, it’s clear that I should have paused to take my arms out of the suit, as I had done the prior day leaving Camp 3. But there was an overwhelming pull to descend, to get to a safe place and take everything off.
I got the merino liner back onto my bare right hand and prepared to move out. I looked down the route. The Balcony was there, right there… so close. I estimated it would take another half an hour to make it. You can do it. You have to.
The descent consumed me. No more daydreaming. No more messing with the camera. My feet, my hands, my breathing, and my vision. There was nothing else.
Wearing a thin wool glove on my right hand meant the left had to do most of the braking, lest the merino wear away due to friction against the kernmantle. I could no longer switch from side to side when my arms grew tired. Instead, I had to take short breaks, just a few seconds each, when my arms pumped out. I knew I was moving slowly, but I had no other option.
When we finally pulled into the Balcony I felt cooked alive. Pasang Kami was there, waiting patiently for us. Josh was there, too, along with Steven and Lakpa Nuru. It was great to see familiar faces… but I could not dump the pack fast enough. Now, get naked. Do it.
But where could I roll around safely? The Balcony looked very different from 1:00 that morning, when it was shrouded in pitch blackness and scoured by freezing wind. Now it was dazzlingly bright, its full exposure revealed. Revealed, too, were the stains on the snow: urine and feces were everywhere. This place is nasty. Poor Bob…. There was a small rise, perhaps 4 feet high, on the south end of the Balcony, and I suspected that fewer people had been beyond it. I scooted around to the other side of the hill, carefully, on a small catwalk of snow. Nope, plenty of poo over here too. A small exposed patch of stone beckoned me, and I made that my resting spot. Below, a gentle slope pitched down about 50 feet into a series of small hills and valleys… each “valley” was a deep crevasse, no doubt, hidden by snow bridges. Beyond that, nothing but the austerity of the Kangshung Face falling away to the cloud deck. This was no place to fall.
I did not care.
Off went the pack… off came the camera and balaclava… off came the top of my suit… off came the first of two upper base layers… off came the crampons… off came the boots (standing in the snow in my merino socks felt spectacular)… off came the harness… off came the suit… off came the first bottom base layer. As I struggled to get out of the last layer, my situational awareness began to return again, gradually. You are sitting at 27,000 feet, unanchored, wearing your underwear. You are starting to slide down the Kangshung Face. This isn’t good. High cloud cover blocked the sun for a moment, and I realized that a breeze was blowing. I shivered for the first time since the South Summit. I had finally purged the excess heat. Get that damned suit back on and get down!
During this time, other teammates arrived at the Balcony, including Emily, Siva, Mike, and Leslie. They took short, sensible breaks and started down ahead of me. By the time I had put myself back together, I was the last IMG climber up there. Justin waited for me patiently—perhaps catching a cat nap—while I got things in order. We changed into the half-used cylinder that had waited for me there on the way up. As soon as I could I stood up, shouldered the pack, and the three of us began to walk.
Descending the Triangular Face felt very different from the Southeast Ridge, because endless acres of steep snow surrounded us, rather than empty space. Steep, but manageable. Pasang Kami led the way, and Justin was right behind me. It was a trudge, nothing more… except my mask continued to leak upwards, fogging my glacier glasses. I had changed out of goggles at the Balcony, in hopes of getting better cross-ventilation, and it did make a difference. But not enough. Plunge-stepping did not feel secure as it usually did, because the trail was beaten into firm, depressed footsteps hidden by the flat light, and by my fogged glasses.
Justin sensed that things were not going well with me. I apologized to him. “Dude, I just can’t see my feet. I’m afraid I’ll take a tumble.”
He was unflappable. “Well, you’ve got your axe, right?”
My axe. Strapped to my pack, all this time. I started laughing, which felt strange after being dead serious day after day. Laughing triggered my cough. “You mean to tell me, the first time I lift my axe in anger this whole expedition is here, on the slope above C4? Well, it’s good I carried the damn thing after all.” And it felt so familiar in my hand, this old friend that had served me faithfully on scores of mountains before. Plunging the spike into the slope reminded me of being on Rainier, or any other mountain. The wind was gone, and the Triangular Face felt like a quiet, private snow slope for the three of us. I focused on the crunching sound the snow made beneath my crampons… the beachy smell of sunscreen on my cheeks and beard… the feeling of the sweaty layer clinging to my body under the down suit… the taste of the rubber mask… the condensation on my glacier glasses. Just like any other mountain, but you just climbed Everest. I did not dare dwell on what we had done. My job was to get home in one piece, and all that mattered for now was reaching the South Col.
My vision became my greatest source of anxiety: Would I go snow-blind? The only way I could hope to see the route was by scooting the glasses forward on my nose, so that the wet exhaled breath might be partially swept away by fresh air behind the lenses. It did help… but lots of glare penetrated the gaps I had created. I estimated that 85% of my field of view was protected. There was lots of high cloud cover… no direct sunshine on my eyes, only indirect glare… but it was still terrifying. I knew what snow blindness meant up there: No one descended Everest blind (well, except Eric Weihenmayer, who is a certified badass). As we down-climbed, my eyes felt more and more irritated and scratchy. I tried alternating closing one eye then the other, to provide a bit more protection, but this ruined what little depth perception I still had through the foggy glasses. My fate was sealed, but unknown to me: The coming hours would tell whether I merely had dry eyes, or whether I had burned the corneas.
When we finally pulled into IMG Camp 4 circa 1:30 PM I was genuinely tired. My body temperature was fine, but the damn pack felt so heavy. I dropped it at Justin’s tent, which was only 15 or 20 meters from mine, but I simply could go no farther for the moment. There was no clanking of pots and pans, no songs of joy, no embraces with teammates. Camp was quiet—as it should be when filled with exhausted people at 8000 meters. I thanked and praised Pasang Kami profusely, placed my hands in a prayer position and bowed to him. He politely accepted my thanks before heading off to his tent to rest.
I flopped down onto the snow next to my pack. Justin was gassed too, and clearly wanted to rest. Goodness knows he had earned it. Leaning on my side next to my pack, I asked him to stay just a moment longer because I had something to tell him, and he kindly paused and sat with me.
I removed my mask. “Justin, thank you so much. You are amazing. I can never repay you for today. What you did up there was incredible. You kept me alive. You saved me more than once. I could never have done this without you. I cannot believe how strong you are, you did all that like a piece of cake. And you were so patient with me, even coming down so slowly. I had a private guide today above the Balcony!”
“I sensed that I should climb with you during the break at the Balcony.”
“Well, thank you, thank you so much. I cannot say it enough. I am so impressed with you.”
“OK. Get to your tent and get some rest.”
“Roger. I’ll get some water first, I’m about out.” I half-carried, half-dragged my pack to the cook tent entrance, fished out my HydroFlask, and handed it to Ang Tshering who was tending the stoves inside. He kindly ladeled some water and handed the bottle back to me… and I made my way to my tent.
I was eager to see Steven and Kim, but I was also dreading this moment. Kim would have been waiting for hours for us, and now the window to safely descend had passed. We were stuck here overnight. She would be pissed.
But… there was only one pair of crampons at the vestibule. Inside, Steven greeted me. Kim had gone down without us, as had Cristiano, Ramin, and Jay. I was sorry to miss them, but glad they had not waited for us, especially Kim, because she is not the world’s most patient person, and our plan had always been to drop to C2 after the summit.
Steven and I swapped stories, and shared our frustration with the slow pace of other teams on the ascent that morning. But, we were profoundly happy. “You know what the best thing is about doing that?” I asked. “It’s that I will never, ever do that again.”
“Damn right,” he said, and we pounded fists.
“Dude, how are my eyes? Do they look red to you?”
“Nah, they’re fine.”
“Really? They feel bad.” I was not convinced.
“Maybe a little… no worse than mine I bet.”
I should have fretted about my hydration, but I was too numb to worry about that, or anything other than my eyes. A strange sensation had descended upon my brain and body—beyond exhaustion, this was a disordered thinking process, a loss of executive function. My ability to put things into proper order was gone. Water? Sure, but first let’s text with Julie… I should adjust my balaclava… oh yeah, I took it off a while ago. Where is it…? Dammit where is the ‘clava? Oh… here, in my hand. I’m looking at it right now. Maybe I should drink. Is the InReach still paired via bluetooth to the iPhone? I’m not hungry but I should eat. When did I last pee? I think before we left…I should drink.
Eventually I headed outside again to see whether Emily had any eye medication, such as mineral oil ointment or—ideally—topical anesthetic. But, she and Justin were slumbering soundly in their tent and I dared not wake them.
I left them alone for about an hour, until I could tolerate the pain no longer. You need to deal with this, now, or you may never leave this place.
Reluctantly, I woke Emily. She was chipper and amazing, as always… and, yes, she had eye ointment and a topical antibiotic, although no anesthetic. She gladly gave me both. They provided soothing relief, both for my eyes and for my anxiety.
When I laid down again in the tent, something tickled the back of my throat, and a spasm of coughing followed, accompanied by the stabbing pain in my ribcage. Up came a single, pea-sized hunk of sputum, dark grey, with the consistency of rubber cement. It was the first sputum I had expectorated since Namche. A bronchial cast. That’s not good. I stared at it resentfully, as if to say, “You’re not supposed to be here. Didn’t you hear? I’m cured.”
I thought about my kidneys for perhaps the hundredth or thousandth time that day. I had made no urine since the Balcony more than 12 hours earlier. You have to drink. The water from our cook tent was filled with unidentifiable objects, little white scraps that might have been oatmeal flakes, might have been shreds of TP…. They’re oatmeal flakes. Yeah, tell yourself that. I sipped it down, one swallow at a time.
After I settled into my sleeping bag I could finally look at the messages that had come in overnight on the InReach. I had heard it chirping away in the darkness, as text after text rolled in. But I never dared try to look at it during the climb.
Julie: You are so close to the top right now. You have no idea how many people are cheering you on!!!!!! I LOVE YOU SO MUCH! [An hour later…] YOU ARE ON TOP!!!!!!!
Me [back at Camp 4]: Yes I was. Now back at C4 for the night. Too tired to descend further. Healthy and happy. Super exhausted. I love you. Not yet sure when I can come home. Got > 30 Delorme texts… many from strangers!
Julie: Love you so much. Not surprised you had texts from strangers. Yesterday was social media at its best. The world was with you! (Also, Alan Arnette shared your Delorme link on his blog). Himalayan Times reports 2 deaths near C4. Hope you are keeping your spirits up.
Me: Oh that is awful. First I have heard of it…. We will move to C2 circa 6 AM. Will text when I get there. Love you.
Julie: At Zoe’s track meet sitting with the Hargreaves. They say you rock.
Me: True. True. How is she throwing? [I assumed she was competing in javelin, as she had done so beautifully before I left on the expedition.]
Julie: Not throwing. Relay. They came in 6th. How cold is it? Any frostbite? The rest of the team?
Me: Cold as hell now but daytime was not too bad. We came thru fine. I have some temp numbness of few fingertips, irritated eyes, cough. All will be OK.
Zoe: Just getting back from the track meet. Sorry to hear about the fingertips, sounds like a weird feeling. And lots of love and congratulations on summiting!! So many people were following you.
Me: Love you dear. All fine here. Hope the meet was fun! Eager to come home in next week or so.
My brother Matt: Amazing job. Been following every step. Now keep your cool and get the f*** out of there… Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Love, Matty.
Me: Roger. I totally agree. Very tough day, but also rewarding. Congrats on your amazing promotion! That is well deserved! [Matt had just learned of his promotion in the USMC to the rank of Major. He was already highly decorated, with the OCS Eagle Award, Intelligence Officer of the Year, and a Bronze Star.]
Ann Sparks: YOU ARE THE BEST! WE LOVE YOU!!!!! CONGRATS! TAKE CARE OF MERLE I NEED HIM!
Me: Thanks Sparky. Tough day but amazing. You will crush it. I bonked on the way down and Merle saved me. He is incredible. OK. Off to bed!
Dad: We have all been watching you as you reached the summit! Amazing feat! Top of the planet! Nothing higher to climb! Only a handful of others have done it! Congrats! A true Pottinger in the long line of them, all doing fun and wild stuff!
Me: Thanks Dad. It was tough but amazing! More in a couple days once I reach EBC. Staying at C4 tonight, too tired to head to C2 today. Love you.
Trina Seligman (treasured friend and patient): Whoop! Whoop! It doesn’t get any better than that! Congratulations you are on TOP of the world! Thousands of us watching with fingers crossed. Be safe.
Me: Thanks Trina. You are super. I am so appreciative of your interest and support! Now, off to bed at C4 on oxygen (too tired to make it to C2 today).
Rafa and Tania: Your GPS says your white stinky ass is on top of Everest. We hope everyone made it up there safely. Do me a peanut butter dance now please! Say hi to everyone.
Me: This must be my Brazilian buddy from DC! Thanks man. We are fine.
That night I heard a woman cry out in pain, from somewhere to our left in camp. It sounded like Hindi to me… a pitiful cry of suffering, a call for help. I looked at the inside of the tent, at the chaos of my gear, and started building a checklist of what it would take to get me outside to go see what was wrong with her. In my state of exhaustion, getting out of the sleeping bag, into my suit, into boots, transferring the bottle into my pack felt like a complex undertaking. Someone else please go take care of her. Where are her teammates?
My prayers were answered, and her calls only lasted a few minutes until they were apparently answered.
I closed my eyes and listened to the wind buffet the tent to and fro. I focused on falling asleep. I had no way of knowing that this was only a foreshadowing of the horror and heartbreak that was to come the next day, which would stick with me for months to follow.