Mount Everest Trip Report (The Last Days and Summit Bid)
Below follows a summary of climbing Mount Everest, beginning May 9, 2019, and continuing through the summit on May 16, 2019, followed by the return to Everest Base Camp. So many things to share about the experience, but this is the meat and potatoes.
On May 9, after spending five days in Dingboche (elevation appx 14,500ft; 4450 meters), to recover and get stronger, I left to return to Everest Base Camp (EBC), and prepare for the summit attempt. When I arrived in Dingboche, I had a lot of joint pain in my knees, my hips, my upper back, and my right foot. Also my lips had been sun damaged and had not healed, and I had a nagging, lingering cough (the Khumbu cough). In Dingboche I slept a lot, and ate a lot, and after that time period, I was in much better shape when I left.
I left Dingboche on the 9th, and it took me seven hours to get to arrive at EBC. When I arrived at EBC, all the Sherpas, including my Sherpa, Ngima (Neema) Sherpa, had departed to provision the upper camps on the mountain. This is standard operating procedure. The advance teams supply the 3rd and 4th camps with oxygen. As such, only one Sherpa remained at EBC, Karma Sherpa, with whom I had climbed previously when doing a rotation through the Khumbu Icefall. Up to this point, the weather patterns on the upper reaches of the mountain were forecast to be windy and unstable through May 11th, but after that, beginning on May 12th, the weather was stable, running through May 16th. I reviewed the weather sites several times, and every time they appeared consistent with the above.
However, up to the time I arrived in EBC, the ropes that are set by the professional Sherpas (the “Icefall Doctors”) to the summit had not been set, and it was unclear when that would happen. There was also a possibility that it wouldn’t happen.
While I was at base camp, I began to mentally prepare myself to go to the summit. Starting the 10th, I began to press Peak Promotion to go up the mountain. I accepted that I wouldn’t go on the 10th, but I wasn’t going to wait too long. When you go up the Khumbu, you always go early in the morning to avoid avalanche risk. I also needed to get up the mountain to catch the end of the small weather window, which was predicted to (and did) close on the 16th of May. At a normal pace, it will take one day to reach Camp 2, one day to reach Camp 3, one day to reach Camp 4, and one day to summit and return. So, if I left the 12th, I would be poised to summit on May 15th. As it turned out, I didn’t make the summit until May 16th. Still, the timing of departure was critical.
I was in regular communication with the base camp manager Dikki, about going up. I was told the weather was too unstable for the 10th for me to go up. So, I waited patiently on that day. I was anxious because I knew that there would be traffic jam high on the mountain. I did not know that it would be such a catastrophic year, but I was aware of the possibility. Everyone could appreciate this possibility. Most, I think, did not push the weather window I chose because the window was predicted to be small, and the ropes to the summit were not fixed until the 14th. I had faith and a belief, based on my prior climbing experience, intuition, and determination, that the ropes would be set.
The 11th came along, and I was told I should not make the attempt to go to Camp 2 on the next day. I refused to accept the instruction, though this is not to be confused with recklessness. Rather, I accepted the very real possibility that I would depart to Camp 2, only to be turned back there, or higher up, because the weather had deteriorated, or because the ropes to the summit had not been set. My fellow Peak Promotion climbers politely attempted to talk me out of my decision, as did the Peak Promotion staff. The argument was sound- if you go up now, but the summit is unavailable, you may compromise your entire summit bid. This is because, although you are strong and acclimated, your overall condition has deteriorated. This is also because I was untested on an 8,000 meter peak, let alone the highest summit in the world.
I did not need a Sherpa to attend to me to go up the Khumbu. I have enough technical skillset to navigate it, and for that matter had been through the Khumbu on 3 separate occasions during my rotations. Rather, the “requirement” of a Sherpa is part of the effort by the government of Nepal to manage injury and fatality on the mountain. In addition, Peak Promotion had assumed responsibility for me, and they felt concern for my well being. Still, I persisted.
I announced that I would go up the Khumbu, with or without anyone. I was bluffing. If I had been told I could not do that, I would probably have acquiesced. However, my bluff was never called, and Karma Sherpa was assigned to assist me. He was the Sherpa assigned to Rasmus Kragh, my Danish climbing companion who was the strongest person on the team, and stronger than some of the Sherpas. He would go on to climb without oxygen, and become the first man from Denmark to do so. In light of that, I did not feel I was depriving anyone of a healthy Sherpa. I also compensated Karma for his extra effort on my behalf.
So, as a man alone, I defied the recommendations of Rasmus, Rahul (my friend from India, about my age), and others at base camp, and left for the summit on May 12th. The night of May 11th, I hugged everyone and received well wishes. That was a very powerful moment. Nobody on the mountain has any illusions about the reality of attempting the mountain. Not just the effort, but the very real likelihood of an injury or worse. You just don’t want to have a bad day on the mountain.
We left EBC at about 2am on May 12th. The weather was slightly windy, but it was not really very cold. It took us 8 hours to get to Camp 2. One thing you think about is the fact you only have to go through the Khumbu one more time. It sucks in there, and it worsens as the season goes forward and more ice melts out. There are these unstable snow bridges you cross, you go up and down, jumping and contorting and moving around. Also the anchors placed for the lines you clip are starting to look like they will fail. Its one hell of a head game.
I arrived at Camp 2 tired but not wrecked. I arrived, and all the Sherpas had begun their descent, except for Ngima, who remained waiting for me. Also present were Ngima Cook, his assistant, and one other man.
On the 13th, Ngima Sherpa and I geared up to make our summit push. Ngima had probably 80 pounds on his back. I mean, it was a very, very heavy pack. He had already run oxygen to Camp 4, but was at this time moving another tent to Camp 4, and more bottles of oxygen. It was just he and I as we headed out to Camp 3. It was reflective of Ngima's just strength as a climber, I mean, the man is just incredibly strong.
We began our climb up to Camp 3 on May 13th, and we left somewhat casually. We left around 11am, after a slow morning assembling our gear. We arrived at Camp 3 without a lot of issues and there were not a lot of teams climbing at that point. As such, we didn't have to wait in line behind other climbers. Also the Lhotse face had been chopped out (steps kicked into the ice) pretty good by all the Sherpas who had been going up and down to provision the mountain. The status of the climb was way better than when Ngima and I were the first Sherpa/Client team up to Camp 3, about 3 weeks prior.
We arrived at Camp 3 to find our tent destroyed by a typhoon that hit India (and the outer bands of which had hit Everest) about 8 days before. The tent was buried, and suffered some damage, and it took us almost 3 hours to dig it out. I would have probably destroyed it digging it out, but Ngima is familiar with these things and he methodically directed me on how and where to dig. It was surprising that no other Peak Promotion tent had been erected, considering all of the 7 climbers on the team would pass through and use this area.
Ngima and I climbed into our revived tent, and we had some food, and then got some rest. I don't remember that I was able to sleep really well. But I don't remember it being as miserable as when I had been there before with Ngima and Rasmus. Still, the floor was not level and we were essentially in a pit. The next morning we woke and it was cold. I have no idea the temperature. Maybe 5 degrees Farenheight in the shade, maybe less. As we were gearing up, we could hear other climbers outside and I saw Kirstie Ennis getting ready to go. And I yelled Lead the Way, Marines! to her and was quite impressed and inspired by her getting on the climb and moving before us. Kirstie is a former Marine, 26 year old single leg amputee, who is also climbing the 7 Summits.
Ngima said it would be 5 hours to Camp 4. I had never been above Camp 3, so I had no idea what to expect. It turned out to be so much harder than what I anticipated. I've read other accounts that say that it is very hard. That's not something I was prepared for. It ended up taking us 11 hours as opposed to 5 hours. I don't know why there was such a discrepancy.
Ngima was moving slow as well. Ngima had done it before in 5 hours, but this day we were both moving very slow. In any event, we got beyond the yellow band, which includes a more technical section. There are fixed ropes, so you’re climbing protected terrain, but it's tiring. Up to this point, I had not used supplemental oxygen. After the yellow band, however, I became lethargic and sick in my stomach. For me, my stomach is a reliable signal of how I am really feeling. If my stomach is aching, like sick, I know I am in a bad way, and it won’t get better. In light of the feeling of discomfort there, I elected to take the gas.
I decided to use the oxygen about 1 hour above the yellow band. I passed this climber descending, and asked how much longer to Camp 4. He told me 2.5 hours, and at that point I knew I needed gas to make the summit. The summit of Everest was always more important than doing it without gas. It’s part of the bigger objective to climb the 7 Summits, in 2 years. So Ngima and I rigged up my pack and we put it on and it was awkward to use it first. It's something that you're not accustomed to. And you don't know that it's working necessarily. Eventually, however, I figured it out.
I was still moving very slow, but somewhat faster than other climbers. We ended up passing a group of climbers who were just rude and wouldn't get out of the way. I can’t fault them, though, because with the masks on and in a state of exhaustion, it is hard to hear or see anything behind you. We eventually got to the Geneva spur and then pulled through the Geneva spur and I was very tired.
I sat down to catch my breath and took in the Western Cwm (Koom) which is beautiful, and just watched as other climbers progressed up the mountain Its an eerie feeling to see the slow movement, and has always caused me anxiety. I don’t like people pushing up behind me. Ngima pressed on to Camp 4, which was another hour or so from that point. You have a traverse on rock with crampons on, so it can be a little uncomfortable, especially when you're tired, and tired is probably an understatement.
I arrived at Camp 4, and Ngima had already begun the process of setting up our tent. At this point, it was 6:30 pm, and the sun was going down. We were supposed to climb that night for the summit (now it was the 14th). But the plan was to have arrived at Camp 4 at noon, then sit still for a good 8 hours or so, then make the push. However, we arrived 6 hours over schedule. I figured Ngima would have us remain for the night, but he had other plans. So when I began talking to him about what we were going to do, he said, we're going to go tonight, and I said, I don't think I can handle it, I am very tired. Ngima began to insist that we go and he said, number one, the weather was going to change. He said number two, my friend Kristie Ennis was making the push, and so we should as well. Number three, that we only had enough canned fuel to melt snow for a couple of days. And we were running the risk of running out of that.
Based on his reasoning, particularly the third statement, I said, okay, all right, I understand. So we sat still for a couple hours, and then we put on our gear. We began our summit push on the 14th of May at about 10 pm. Incidentally, I found out that the ropes to the summit had been set, possibly that day, thus confirming my gamble to push out of base camp. Still, there was no certainty that we would summit, though we were poised to do it. We got geared up and we started moving and it was an ideal night, the moon was out, there was no wind and no clouds.
However, after we had been moving for about an hour, I felt really, really tired. I mean, I was close to wasted. I believed that if we continued, I would get up higher and then turn around. That would have been the end of the attempt. I think part of my exhaustion had to do with the fact that my oxygen setting was low. I didn't know that, and Ngima didn't suggest that we turn up the gas. I just went with my gut, which again was bothering me and telling me that I was exerting too much. At that point, I told Ngima we had to turn around. He did not wish to turn around, and tried to convince me to not turn around. I told him if I didn’t turn around, I knew I would fail. He eventually conceded, but said that if the weather was bad the next day, and we didn't make the summit, because of the weather, I needed to understand that he didn't suggest we turn around. I said I understood that. Ngima knew from experience the challenges of spending so much time above 8000 meters, and I respect his rationale. Still, I knew enough about my condition to know the turn around was prudent.
We arrived back at the tent at Camp 4 around 1230 am on the 15th, and got in the tent and went to sleep. Ngima slept with oxygen on but I did not. I was able to sleep, though I had very, very intense dreams. That day (the 15th), we just stayed in the tent all day. Sure enough, the weather did shift and get slightly unpleasant. This is not an unusual thing at Camp 4, to have the wind just howling outside the tent, but it doesn't make it any easier to deal with. It’s also incredibly nerve racking. Even with earplugs in it was concerning, unsettling, and stressful.
Of course, now that the weather had shifted, I was thinking that we would be unable to make the summit and that I had blown my summit attempt. I had to get over that, get that out of my head. I said the Serenity Prayer (God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference), which I must have said at least 30 times when I was climbing Mount Everest. As the afternoon progressed, the wind continued. Eventually, however, as it started to get dark, the velocity came down some, though it never went away completely. We saw a bunch of other climbers (maybe 40) getting ready to go and then several got on the route. As such, we geared up for the second time and got moving at 8pm on May 15th for the summit.
We started in the dark, though the moon was out and there were no clouds that I remember. Still, it was windy. I arrived at the first somewhat vertical feature, about 2 hours after we started, and was just moving very slow. I'm not accustomed to being the slowest climber. So I commented to Ngima about that, and we turned up the gas setting from 1.5 to 3 (4 is the highest setting). Doing that helped immensely. I immediately felt better, and began to actually pass some climbers and feel strong again.
We pushed up slowly, and then arrived at the balcony, which I've read about. The last feature before the balcony is a snow gully, known as a couloir (cool-wahr). Before the couloir you’re climbing over rock with snow, which is hard and requires more concentration and strength. When we arrived at the balcony, I remember seeing a big rock, which I've now learned is called the 11 o'clock rock for whatever reason. When we arrived at the 11 o'clock rock, I figured we could get some shelter, but the rock was just as cold and miserable as the rest of the mountain.
The winds were battering the Balcony, and were stronger there because you're now coming over something, with a huge drop on the other side, so the wind has a passage and is unobstructed. It was blowing hard, and it was blowing snow on my face. I was cold, but there is not much you can do about it except endure the suck. At this point, Ngima said, this is the halfway point. When he said that, I remember thinking to myself, actually, you know, I don't know if I have what it takes to succeed on this mountain, because I was already so fatigued and feeling pretty rotten. I didn't say this to Ngima, but internalized it. We sat down for a little bit and just collected ourselves.
We got up and started to move, and there were two things that kept me motivated. Number one, when you're on the balcony, at that ridge line, you can see the summit, way up the mountain, about 1,500 feet up. You can see climbers way up high with their headlamps. In fact, somebody had a very powerful one, and it would shine around, making visible many aspects of the high mountain. Just seeing those other climbers, it told me that they were continuing on, and that the conditions were not bad enough to make them turn around, so why would I turn around? It fired up my competitive side. I was thinking to myself, if those people are going to make it well, why can't I? If people aren't turning around, well, why should I?
The second motivator at that time of insecurity and self doubt was my Father. I recalled and drew strength from the fact that when He passed away, when I was holding His hand, and when He had Parkinson's disease, He lost the ability to make decisions. I had not lost that ability; I could make decisions! I still had the ability to decide, to make decisions, and I chose to continue. Such a simple thought generated renewed strength and determination in my soul, and we continued on. I was moving about middle of the pack pace, though I would allow other climbers to pass me because I felt that I was obstructing these climbers. This was probably not necessarily the case. I mean, I wasn't moving that slow.
Eventually, we arrived at the South Summit, and you slide down to a little cove. This is close to where Rob Hall died that fateful day in 1996. I had read about it for years. We rested there a bit. Incidentally, having the damn oxygen mask on your face is incredibly difficult to manage. You can't take it off easily because it's connected in two different places, So you can't just lift it up to your forehead and then put it back down. It has to be disconnected. In order to disconnect it, you have to take off your gloves. And if you take off your gloves, you’re going to risk freezing your hands. Total sufferfest!
We get to the South Summit, and then we engaged the other oxygen bottle in my pack. From the South Summit, you can see the Hillary step. What a sight it is to see! It is also encouraging because you know you are close, and I knew I would make the summit. I can say that the pictures that I've seen of the Hillary Step, compared to how it appears now, confirm that the feature has changed. I think probably what happened during the earthquake in 2015 was some rock fell down, or otherwise changed positions. This allows more snow to accumulate on the feature. Once you have more snow, you can kick steps better, and it's a little more forgiving to allow you to go upwards. It was still challenging.
We did the cornice traverse, which was fun, with huge drop offs on both sides. You’re on a very narrow walkway and if people need to pass you, you need to carefully unclip around them and then clip in again. You must be very careful doing so, and this is compounded by your fatigue, hypoxia, and other high pucker factor issues. This is, incidentally, where so much traffic can occur. You cannot get around people up there. We arrived at the Hillary step, then we climbed the Hillary step. When we made the top of the Hillary step, I was panting a lot. I had to stop and catch my breath for at least a minute at a time. My breathing was intense and fast. You better have a strong heart at this stage!
I started to feel gross. Just very tired, cold, and irritable. Still, I continued on, knowing we wouldn’t have long to go before the summit. From the top of the Hillary step, I thought it was about 30 minutes more to the summit. I also thought I saw the summit, so I kind of fixed on it, as if to say to myself, okay, that's the summit, you can do this. However, when we arrived at that feature, it was not the summit, and the summit was another 20 minutes away. Every mountain I’ve ever climbed has one last big F-You at the top. It’s Her way of saying, you better think twice sir. Still, we persisted, and my mood was quite irritable, and I was incredibly lethargic.
At 847 am on May 16, we arrived at the top of the world. Ngima made me take my pack off, and he said, “Your mission is over.” We walked up to the flag pyramid, and I took in the grandeur of the world. It was pretty amazing. To have done it, under the circumstances, with the many challenges, and in particular pushing when the ropes weren’t set, and turning us around. I wasn’t thinking these things at the time, but as I write this, I know that is why I felt the sense of accomplishment. We stayed there for about 30 minutes or so, and I took my gloves off to use my camera. That brilliant move caused my fingers to freeze in about 60 seconds (it was about -40F/C at the summit). When I put my gloves on, my fingers began to thaw, which caused me to get the “screaming barfies” (a condition where your hands hurt so much that you want to scream and barf at the same time). I would eventually suffer from peeling of the tips of 4 fingers, which suggested I developed very mild frostbite.
Ngima and I began our descent. I never believed that I wasn't going to make it back down. I've climbed enough to know that I have reserves remaining. Put another way, I always leave room mentally for the descent. Not long after we started our descent, but beyond the South Summit, we encountered a much slower descending team. A young woman was just wasted tired, and she couldn't really stand up or repel or go down correctly. This was frustrating because they wouldn't get out of our way. This is what happens on the mountain. This is why I pushed so hard to not be caught in a traffic jam.
We ended up descending slowly to the balcony. Eventually we arrived at the balcony. From the balcony, you can repel a lot easier because it's a little more vertical. So we began rappelling, which was nice, because my knees at that point were just trashed. I eventually arrived at the elevation of approximately 8,150 meters. Unexpectedly, at the bottom of the final features, I developed a debilitating cough. It onset quickly and without warning and I would cough uncontrollably and painfully. It was miserable. If I moved, the misery increased, but sitting still was not an option. I encountered a man and a woman, who were waiting at the bottom of the route, close to where I was sick. The man gave me some warm tea, and this lifted my spirits and helped me continue forward.
I continued descending, but I ended up off route a little bit because there were clouds now, and I had unclipped from the rope. I ended up on this ice feature, this large ice bulge, without being on the route. I was disoriented and thought Camp 4 was closer than it was, and the clouds didn’t help the situation. At one point I slipped and I slid down, I don't know maybe 30 feet or so, and I crashed into some rocks and bruised my elbow. I am accustomed to falling. My brain says, “here we go again” and I begin to make preparations to not get too hurt. This all happens in a split second, but it is why I’ve never really been injured in the mountains (with the exception of the Split Mountain epic). I came to a fast crashing halt, as I slid directly for some rocks. I knew it would hurt crashing into them, but the other thought was if I don’t take that hit now, I’m going to keep riding. I stood up, and was adrenalized but also sick. I then continued going down, but still being off route, punched through snow bridges in this ice bulge that concealed deep fissures known as crevasses. That was no bueno man, no bueno. Nothing catastrophic happened, however, and eventually I located foot steps and knew I was back on route.
When I arrived back at our tent on Camp 4, I was wasted and sick from the cough that I had developed. I was so fatigued I wasn’t really able to do much for myself, and Ngima had to help take off my boots, as well as help me take medicine. I had left my summit climbing pack outside of the tent and it had some pulmonary edema medication in it. Before I left, I had my primary doctor write me a script for many medications, including pulmonary and cerebral edema medications, and many antibiotics, and a bunch of other medications. I was prepared! I concentrated on not coughing, took the steroids, and eventually got through that problem after about 20 minutes. The medications only help manage the symptoms. The only cure for pulmonary edema is to get lower in altitude. I slept on oxygen that night and Ngima cared for me, which was critical because I was in a bad way. I learned later that someone had died that night and was in a tent nearby and dead. This has impacted me in a dark way because I wonder how close I had come to such a fate.
Ngima and I spent the night again at Camp 4, then got up and began our descent around probably 10 am on May 17th. That put us near, at, or above 8000 meters for about 60 hours, which for the average climber is a fairly long period of time. We began the descent down to Camp 3, and then from Camp 3 down to Camp 2. We stayed one night at Camp 2, and the next day (May 18th), we descended down to EBC. On the way down between Camp 2 and Camp 1, we encountered a huge amount of traffic. All the climbers who would go up and end up stuck in a line were coming up. We had to wait at several intervals, but it didn’t matter to me, because we were done. We descended one final time through the Khumbu Icefall; one last bout of anxiety and suffering. I was so happy because I wouldn't have to do it again. In the Khumbu icefall, we overtook Kirstie Ennis, and I learned that she had to turn around at the South Summit, and she was very disappointed.
Slowly and painfully, we made our way out of the Khumbu Icefall. At that point, Ngima had gotten off in front of me quite a bit, and I was annoyed with him because I lost the route and I just wanted to have his companionship. I even punched through a section of ice into a raging torrent of ice water. I was going to say something about it to him, for which I would have had regret. However, when I arrived at the very bottom, the Peak Promotion people, Dikki and Karma, greeted us and had beer and soda. It was a really nice time and we sat there and I enjoyed the hell out of that beer, which I had not had in 2 months. We listened to music including Guns and Roses knocking on Heaven's Door. This was very fitting because I had deposited my parents ashes at the top of the mountain, and I was climbing to honor my Father.
That was the end of the climb, the end of the journey, and it was very fitting.