At the Second Step on the Northeast Ridge, at an altitude of 28,250 feet, I crouched behind a rock to shield my body from the sheets of ice blowing horizontally all around me. My eyes were encased in frozen shards of ice, making it difficult to see and painful to clear with a swipe from my expedition glove. As soon as I stopped moving, my body began to shake and convulse uncontrollably from the frigid, minus 50 degree, weather. As I sipped a cup of hot water, I asked myself the question all high altitude climbers ask in that circumstance: do I continue moving up or do I go down to the safety of a lower camp on the mountain.
To put my answer to that fateful question in context, I need to begin with my move to the North side of the mountain, one week earlier.
I started my trip on the South side of Mt. Everest in Nepal. My plan was to complete a double summit from both the South and North sides 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 made it impossible for me to summit on the South side and then move to the North side for a second summit attempt. If I was going to complete only one summit in 2012, I wanted it to be from the North, since I had already summited from the South side in 2009.
Unfortunately, my Tibetan Visa would not allow me to cross the border from Nepal into Tibet 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. I desperately wanted to put myself in a position to take advantage of the favorable weather window predicted for May 19. It was not to be.
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 for May 17-18, increasing winds on May 19 and further increasing winds on May 20 as the jet stream repositioned itself directly over the mountain. In order to summit on my target date, 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 just moved up from Chinese Base Camp to ABC 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. 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 very difficult day moving up a long and steep snowfield. It was made even more challenging by a dramatic change in the weather, with heavy winds and steady snow pounding me for the last 5 hours of the climb. I arrived at Camp 2 in the late afternoon. If you watch the video of my 2012 climb, you will clearly see in my gaunt face the wear and tear from the move to Camp 2 in bad weather.
On the morning of May 19 at 9:30 am, 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 safe to stay overnight 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 in my tent.
The route from Camp 3 to the summit moves up the North Face of Everest to the Exit Cracks on the Northeast Ridge. At that point, the route turns right and involves a long traverse along the Northeast Ridge 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 especially difficult by altitude, fatigue and weather. The Second Step, a 100-foot rock wall, is the steepest and most difficult, with ladders installed to assist climbers. After maneuvering up and over the Third Step, the route to the summit moves up the Triangular Face to the summit.
I left Camp 3 for the summit at 8 pm on May 19. The weather was bad and continued to deteriorate with each passing hour. I encountered wind, snow and extreme cold. I made it easily to the Exit Cracks, turned right, and began the traverse along the Northeast Ridge. 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, causing zero visibility and extreme pain, as the ice and snow pelleted my eyes like buckshot. The extreme cold, minus 50 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 the blood flowing and my hands warm. I passed several bodies, some from this year, which was unsettling.
When I arrived at the Second Step (28,200 feet), at around 2:30 am, I told my Sherpa I need to rest and have some hot water. 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 in the direction of the summit and could see the lights from the headlamps moving up the Triangular Face. The lights were not far from where I was sitting at the Second Step, but, at that moment, they might as well have been on another planet.
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 better go.” He asked “go down or up?” I said “down.” ****
I made my way back to Camp 3. The difficulty of the descent and the deteriorating weather 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 worsen, with the winds at Camps 2 & 3 shredding tents or blowing them completely off the mountain. The following day, May 21, I moved to Camp 1 on the North Col and continued down to ABC.
I considered a second attempt during the May 27 weather window. However, I had exhausted 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 have sufficient time to return to Nepal to attempt a South side summit. My expedition was over.
I am disappointed that I did not summit Mt. Everest from the North side in 2012. However, I know I made the right decision in turning around at the Second Step. While at Chinese Base Camp, I learned that, while I was weighing my options at the Second Step, a climber was freezing to death just a few feet above me. Apparently, while descending from the summit, he ran out of oxygen at the Second Step and sat there for 24 hours slowly freezing to death. Six of the 10 fatalities on Mt. Everest in 2012, including my teammate on the South side, occurred on May 19 and May 20.
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 in 2012 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 from both the Nepal and Tibetan side in the same season, a unique, unprecedented and unforgettable experience. As usual, the trip was full of surprise, 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.
You can view a video of my South/North expedition on my website.
****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 kneeling 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 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.