Summit Night 2009

I arrived at high camp (26,000 feet) on the South Col in the late afternoon on May 21, 2009. The sky was a deep blue, there wasn’t a cloud in sight and the air was perfectly still. I greeted two of my teammates who had summited that day and were making their way back down to Camp 2. I congratulated them on their success, quickly snapped some photos, and we parted ways in different directions.

The weather stayed good into the evening. After a light dinner of soup inside my tent, I wrapped up in my sleeping bag and had a fitful night of sleep. During the evening, the winds picked up, and, by morning, we were experiencing gale force winds on the South Col. This was what I had feared the most. After all the effort to get into position for a summit run, the weather was turning against me, threatening to put a violent and sad end to my dream of reaching the summit.

I stayed in my tent all day on May 22. There was no other option as the winds were now hurricane force, coming up the Southwest Face from Nepal, picking up speed as they crossed the South Col and roaring down the Kangshung Face into Tibet on the other side of the Col. It was impossible to stand up straight outside my tent and movement on the Col was dangerous. I lay in my tent all day and into the evening, praying for better weather.

Our plan was to leave for the summit at 8 pm so we could summit before the unofficial 2 pm turnaround time the following day. Despite my prayers, the winds did not subside. They got worse. At 8 pm, my Sherpa, Mingma, entered my tent and recommended we delay our departure time until 10 pm. I agreed. There was no surcease in the winds and, at 10 pm, Mingma entered my tent again and asked “we go up, or we go down? Up to you.” Without any hesitation, I said “we’re moving up.” My thinking was that, once we got off the South Col and started moving up the face of the mountain, the winds would be more tolerable. I was right.

Inside my tent, I slowly put on my climbing gear and then exited into the howling wind. I will never forget that moment. I looked up at the sky and could see billions of stars twinkling down in the blackness of the night, indifferent to my peril and my predicament. I felt as though I could reach out and touch them, and, in a strange sort of way, I was calmed. As I looked at the route up the Triangular Face to the South Summit, I could see the headlamps of climbers snaking up the mountain, each person, completely detached from everyone else, frozen in his or her thoughts, dreams, fears, hopes and aspirations.

I moved up and over the famous Ice Bulge on the South Col, and clipped into the fixed line with my carabiner and jumar. Then, I began the arduous move up into the darkness of the night, in fierce competition with the wind that was waging war on my body. Several hours later, I reached the Balcony at 27,700 feet, a small table size area famous as a location where climbers rest, drink water or tea and switch out oxygen bottles before turning left to get on the Southeast Ridge. The Balcony is also famous because many climbers have succumbed at the Balcony on their way up or down the Triangular Face. Their bodies are still there. As I had hoped and predicted, the wind subsided and was no longer a concern.

As I moved up the Southeast Ridge towards the South Summit, it was pitch black dark and frigid cold, but I made good progress. I remember continuously looking over my right shoulder toward the eastern horizon, anticipating the red glow that would signal the rise of the sun, which would bring desperately needed light and heat. Eventually, the horizon turned a fiery red, and the South Summit and all the surrounding mountains began to take shape. The red glow was soon followed by the giant Orb, rising like a ball of fire on the distant horizon. I was instantly filled with warmth, energy, optimism and enthusiasm.

I stopped and enjoyed the outstanding vistas. The sky was a cloudless blue, and I felt like I could see to the ends of the earth. All of the surrounding mountains were below and seemed small and insignificant, even though, from below, they had appeared as towering, magnificent and fearsome peaks. I felt strong and confident and quietly began to celebrate when I considered the summit that was now clearly within my reach. I thought of the satellite calls home from the summit and all the great photos and video I would bring back with me. It was a truly magnificent feeling.

The celebration was short-lived. Thirty minutes later, a storm roared in and slammed into the Southeast Ridge, turning my walk in the park into a hell on earth. The storm, which began as Cyclone Aila in the Bay of Bengal, had arrived one day early. Now, I was encased in wind, snow and ice, and visibility was reduced to zero. My heart sank as I contemplated the possibility of a turnaround so close to the summit.

I continued moving up, slowly and cautiously, until I reached the South Summit, just a few hundred vertical feet below the summit. Before the weather took its turn, I had been looking forward to the spectacular view from the South Summit–the Cornice Traverse, the Hillary Step and the summit. Instead, I saw nothing. I crossed the Cornice Traverse, which is also known as the “Death Traverse” because of the 8,000-10,000 foot vertical drops on both sides. I then began my move up the famous Hillary Step, which is a 40-foot vertical rock face just below the summit.

After scaling the Hillary Step, I began my final approach to the summit over a gentle, rolling snow field. The climbing was safe and easy, and I unclipped from the fixed line. The weather did not let up and visibility was still significantly impaired. After 30-40 minutes of moving up, I came across a gaggle of climbers resting in the snow in the direct line of approach to the summit. I wondered why these folks would choose this strange venue to rest on the way up, especially considering the altitude and weather. As I got closer, it became apparent they were celebrating on the summit of Mt. Everest. That’s when I knew my dream had come true. There was no higher to climb. At 8:30 am on May 23, I reached the top of the world. I dropped to my knees and offered a prayer of thanks and supplication that everyone on the mountain would descend safely in the storm. What a glorious feeling of accomplishment! I will never forget that thrill.

I spent precious little time on the summit because of the deteriorating weather. A few summit photos were taken, but the lack of visibility, the wind and the snow made it impossible to consider adding to my video collection. After celebrating for about 20-minutes, I began the descent to the relative safety of the South Col.

The move down from the summit was uneventful until I reached the Balcony. Just below the Balcony, on the steep vertical face that plunges down to the South Col, Mingma and I encountered a high altitude climbing Sherpa who was having difficulty moving down to the South Col. He sat alone in the snow barely able to move. When he did move, he would descend a few paces and then begin to tumble until his fall was arrested by the carabiner attached to the fixed line. Everyone was passing him, either because they were unaware of his predicament or were concerned about their own ability to survive the storm. Not a word was spoken between Mingma and me. We halted our descent and helped the ailing Sherpa down to the South Col where he reached his tent and climbing group. He survived, but suffered significant frostbite damage.

Mingma and I arrived at the South Col and entered the safety of our tents. The bad weather continued for another week, so we were the last climbers to descend the Triangular Face that season. I spent another night on the South Col and began my descent to Camp 2 on May 24. It was during the descent that I experienced the most harrowing moment I have encountered in all my mountain adventures.

I was rappelling backwards down the famous Yellow Band of rock on the Lhotse Face. As I approached the bottom of the Yellow Band, my crampons hit an ice patch and skittered off the face of the mountain. My entire body swung sideways on the fixed line, so the right side of my body was resting against the mountain and my legs and feet dangled helplessly below me. The only thing holding me in place was my figure 8 rappelling device, which was attached to the fixed line. As I looked down, all I could see was a 3,000 foot fall down the Lhotse Face to a certain death.

I began to hyperventilate from fear and exhaustion. There was a team above me with a camera crew filming for the Discovery Channel watching the drama unfold. The leader of this team began to yell hysterically, telling me what to do. I was too exhausted to do anything. As he continued to shout instructions, I told him that I appreciate his concern, but I know what I need to do to get back to safety. I just need time to compose myself and summon the energy to remove myself from this perilous predicament. After a few moments, I felt stronger, regained my composure and jerked my feet under me, all the while hoping my figure 8 would hold me in place on the fixed line. It did. With my feet under me, I was able to spider crawl back to safety. I will never forget that moment.

Several hours later, we arrived at Camp 2 on the west shoulder of Mt. Everest. The following day we descended to Base Camp. By the time I arrived at Base Camp it was deserted as most of the teams had left in advance of the storm. The storm raged on for another week, leaving me stranded in my tent until it was safe to begin the descent to Lukla for the flight back to Kathmandu.

You can view a 3-part video of my 2009 expedition, along with the post-climb bungee jump, in the Gallery on my website.