Summit Night

Costa Mesa, California
June 23, 2012
Summit Night

Dear Family & Friends:

I have posted on my website a 32-minute photo/video presentation of my expedition to Mt. Everest this year. There is some great footage of both the South and North sides of Everest, including (i) the treacherous landing and takeoff at Lukla airport, (ii) the 35-mile trek to Base Camp on the South side, (iii) Base Camp South, (iv) crossing the ladders in the Khumbu Icefall taken with my video sunglasses, (v) an exciting helicopter ride from Lobuche to Lukla, (vi) the bumpy road to Base Camp North, (vii) Base Camp North, (viii) moving up the vertical headwall to the North Col, (ix) moving from Camp 1 to Camp 3 in bad weather and (x) summit night in a storm on May 19-20, including footage of my turnaround decision at the Second Step. Here is the link (be sure to watch it in full screen mode):

Click here to watch it in full screen in a new window.

As promised, this is my report on my summit night on the North side of Everest. In order to put my summit night in context, I need to begin with my move to the North side of the mountain.

I made the decision to move to the North side when it became clear that the lines would not be fixed on the South side until the third week of May. That schedule would not make it possible for me to summit on the South side and then move to the North side for a second summit attempt. Unfortunately, my Tibetan VISA would not allow me to cross the border until May 12. This significantly telescoped my schedule on the North side and played a major role in my decision to make a summit attempt in bad weather on May 20.

After crossing the border on May 12 and spending the night in Tingri, I arrived at Chinese Base Camp on May 13. The next day (May 14) I moved up to Intermediate Base Camp and the following day (May 15) I moved up to Advance Base Camp.

The weather reports called for good weather on the summit on May 17-18, increasing winds on May 19 and further increasing winds on May 20 as the jet stream repositioned itself over the mountain. In order to summit on May 19, I would need to leave ABC for the North Col on May 16, the day after I arrived at ABC. This was not possible since I had moved up to ABC from Chinese Base Camp with no rest and the move from ABC to the North Col was going to be a very long and difficult climb. I needed a day of rest. The weather reports stated that better weather would return to the mountain on May 27. So, I was faced with two options for my summit attempt: take a chance on the weather with a May 20 summit attempt or stay at ABC until the May 27 weather window opened. I opted for a May 20 summit attempt because (i) I thought this would give me time to return to the South side to complete the double, (ii) I did not want to sit for a week at ABC where the altitude (21,000 feet) takes a heavy toll on the body and (iii) I am well accustomed to climbing in bad weather, and I was hoping that the weather on May 20 would be within my range of tolerance.

On May 16, I took a day of rest at ABC and on May 17 I moved up from ABC to the North Col (Camp 1). The weather was good and the trip was difficult, but fun and uneventful. On May 18, I moved from the North Col to Camp 2. This was a long and very difficult day up a very long and steep snowfield. It was made even more difficult by a dramatic change in the weather with heavy winds and steady snowfall pounding me for the last 3 hours of the climb. I arrived at Camp 2 in the late afternoon. If you watch the video, you will clearly see in my gaunt face the wear and tear from the move to Camp 2 in bad weather.

At 9:30 am on the morning of May 19, I left Camp 2 for Camp 3 and encountered heavy winds and snow all the way up. I arrived at Camp 3 at 5 pm. With Camp 3 situated at 27,224 feet, it is not prudent or safe to spend a night and begin the summit push on the following day. So, I opted to leave Camp 3 at 8 pm. This gave me only 3-hours of “rest” and no opportunity to sleep or even doze.

The route from Camp 3 to the summit moves up the sheer North Face of Everest to the “exit cracks” on the Northeast Ridgeline. At that point, the route turns right and involves a long traverse along the Northeast Ridgeline to the summit. There are 3 famous landmarks along the traverse: “The First Step,” “The Second Step” and “The Third Step.” All of these require rock climbing which is made more difficult by altitude, fatigue and weather. The Second Step–a 100-foot sheer rock wall–is the most steep and difficult, and ladders have been installed to assist climbers. After maneuvering up and over the Third Step, the route to the summit moves up the Summit Triangle to the summit.

I left Camp 3 for the summit at 8 pm on May 19. The weather was bad from the very beginning and got worse with each passing hour. I encountered wind, snow and extreme cold. I made it easily to the exit cracks and made the right turn to begin the traverse along the Northeast Ridgeline. I felt strong, but the weather was a huge concern. The wind was howling and, with the light of my headlamp, I could see sheets of snow blowing horizontally all around me. When the snow would blow directly at me, my eyebrows and eyelids would cake with frozen snow and ice and I had no visibility. The extreme cold, minus 40 F, was also a big concern. I could feel my hands freezing inside my heavy expedition gloves; and, at times, I had to bang my hands against my down suit to keep them from freezing. I passed several bodies, some from this year, and this too was unsettling.

When I arrived at the Second Step (28,200 feet), at around 2:30 am, I told my Sherpa I needed to rest and have some hot tea. The instant we stopped moving, my body began to shake uncontrollably as it tried desperately to protect my vital internal organs from freezing. I asked my Sherpa how much longer he thought it would take to reach the summit. He estimated about 4-hours. I looked up towards the summit and could see the lights from the headlamps moving up the Summit Triangle. The lights were not that far from where I was sitting at the Second Step, but, at that moment in time, they appeared to be miles away.

At that point, I asked myself two questions: can I make it to the summit and, more importantly, if I make it to the summit, can I descend safely to Camp 3. The answer to the first question was a confident “yes.” The answer to the second question was “maybe.” I was feeling physically and mentally strong. But, I had been moving with no rest for 17 hours, beginning at Camp 2, gaining 2,616 feet of altitude. And, beginning at Chinese Base Camp, I had been moving for 7 days, gaining 11,144 feet of altitude, with only one day of rest at ABC. If the weather or my condition deteriorated, I wasn’t sure I could make it down safely. Had I been 30-40 years younger, I would have continued moving up, knowing that I could move down quickly in case of trouble. But, at my age, I move up and down at only one speed–slow. I thought about my family and the bodies I had seen on the way up. I was also keenly aware of the fact that most of the casualties on the big mountains occur on the descent. The decision was easy, and I told my Sherpa “we need to go.” He asked “go down or up?” I said “down.” (you can hear this exchange in the video)*

I made my way back to Camp 3 and the difficulty of the descent confirmed my belief that I had made the correct call at the Second Step. I rested for a short while at Camp 3 and then moved down to Camp 2 on May 20. The weather continued to deteriorate and the winds at Camp 2 & 3 shredded many tents or blew them completely off the mountain. The following day (May 21) I moved to Camp 1 on the North Col and then down to ABC on the same day.

I considered a second attempt during the May 27 weather window, but I had used up my supply of oxygen bottles on the first attempt and my Sherpa was unable to accompany me on a second try. I spoke with Dawa Steven at Base Camp on the South side of the mountain but he advised me that I would not be able to return to Nepal in time to for an attempt to summit from that side. My expedition was over.

In a final blow to my ego, and perhaps as a form of retribution for my decision to choose May 20 as my summit day, despite the dire weather warnings, the mountain provided perfect weather for climbers on May 19. See the last photo in my video presentation. Ahh, just further proof that one ignores the warnings of Chomolungma (“Mother Goddess of the Earth”) at his or her peril!

I am disappointed that I did not summit the mountain from the North side this year.However, I know I made the right decision in turning around at the Second Step. As someone who has previously summited Mt. Everest, as well as the highest mountain on every other continent, I believe that it takes more courage and mental toughness to turn around close to the summit than it does to press on when your body, mind and survival instincts are all telling you that it is not safe to continue moving up. The 2012 season is compelling evidence of this truth. Several of the 10 fatalities on the mountain this year can be attributed to climbers who continued to move up when it was not safe, either because of their physical condition, the 2-3 hour delays from traffic jams on the Southeast Ridge and at the Hillary Step or the lateness of the day.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 2012 expedition. I was able to climb Mt. Everest in the same season from both the Nepal and Tibetan sides, a unique, unprecedented and unforgettable experience. As usual, the trip was full of surprises, drama and adventure, and I returned home with some great memories. I have thousands of photos and hours of video footage from both sides of the mountain. I met some really wonderful teammates and made lots of new mountaineering friends. It was especially fun because I went with two close friends–Bud Allen and Allan Smith–and we all returned home safe and sound. The trip was an unqualified success.

Once again, I want to thank all of you for your support and your prayers during my 2012 expedition. I cannot put into words how much this means to me and how it sustained me while I was on the mountain.

I conclude with a quotation from Mark Twain which pretty much sums up my philosophy of life:

Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than the ones you did do.  So, throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, and catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore, dream, discover.

Stay tuned for my next adventure.

God Bless
You,

Bill

*As I replayed this moment over and over in my mind, I had a consistent vision of 3 people discussing what to do at the Second Step–my Sherpa and me sitting down and a third person standing nearby in silence. I tried to comprehend why this third person was in the picture, and it just wouldn’t compute. It was only on my way back to Nepal that I realized that the third person was my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I appreciate that some of you may consider this religious sentimentalism or the byproduct of hypoxia. But, I have always professed my strong belief that success in high altitude mountaineering results from the right blend of physical, mental and spiritual preparation and strength. This is my personal witness to that truth.