May 14, 2019
Expedition Day 42
Summit Rotation Day 4:
The plan was to move at 5 AM due to Sange’s input of it taking us at least six and half hours to get to camp four — based on our pace the day before. I am confident we moved by 630. In our defense, getting ready in camp three was an absolute nightmare with the arrangement. It was nearly impossible to crawl out of the tent and gear up safely on our “platforms”. One day we will learn our lesson of putting me in a tent with Christopher too. I need room to get ready with the prosthetic and with him taking up 7/8 of the tent, nothing gets done in a timely manner.
I’m not sure why I had in my head that the move from camp three to camp four would be one of the easier ones for me, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Whoever’s genius idea it is to make the move in a summit suit can also go to Hell. The sun baked me inside of the down comforter I was wearing. I was already moving slower due to my pack and the lack of oxygen, and then we decided to layer me up like the damn Michelin Man. Perfect.
The features started instantly on the trail. There was ice wall after ice wall to jug up. My arms were already feeling it from the day before and I know it was showing. I had to remind myself that the altitude makes everyone slower so I didn’t beat myself up too much. The four liter bottle of oxygen and the regulator sticking out of the top of my pack kept pushing my helmet over my eyes, adding to my frustration. Spending three weeks above six thousand meters has definitely taken its toll on my body. I felt weak.
Sange seemed to announce to every Sherpa that we passed that I only had one leg. Maybe he was using me as an excuse as to why we were moving slow or explaining why it looked like I was struggling, but I became bitter quickly. I hate feeling like I am on display, like I am the dog and pony show. If people are curious, I welcome the questions — but I don’t appreciate someone instigating others to stare at me.
After finally catching my breath and picking my head up, my day got worse. There was a traverse leading up to the yellow band — a rock formation that lines the face of the mountain and separates Everest camp three and Lhotse camp four. From down low everything looks vast and far, but when you are actually on the move, everything seems to be compressed. Staring at the traverse and the people shuffling their way along it, it didn’t look so bad. I wanted to crank the flow rate on my oxygen bottle up to the max, but knew how valuable it would be up high. Sweat poured down every inch of my body and soaked my layers. I felt as though I was suffocating as I struggled to unzip the vents on my bright blue suit.
For the first time in days, I was excited — all because I was nearing the section with fixed lines and rock where I could use my hands. It was exactly what I needed to boost my confidence. I scrambled over the rock faces with ease. Sure, my crampons slipped from time to time, but I was thankful for a feel other than dragging our feet through the snow. My hands moved in conjunction with my feet as we maneuvered to the top for a break. Easily the best views on all of Everest are sitting at the top of the yellow band with a clear sky. I could trace the line of climbers like ants all the way back down through the valley.
There was another traverse through Lhotse camp four and I felt like throwing a tantrum. It just never ended. The boys constantly checked my regulator to see what my O2 gauge was at. It was no secret that I was huffing and puffing and the more the sun came out, the worse it got. On our approach to the base of the Geneva Spur, another steep rock formation that would eventually round us in to the South Col, Sange stopped at a pile of HST oxygen bottles and tore through them looking for one with more oxygen than what I had. After a quick swap, we continued on.
After coming over the top of the Geneva Spur, I was simply confused. I had my heart set on some wild views of the surrounding mountains and being flooded with emotions that would take my breath and thoughts all away. But what I found was a tangled messes of old lines, tattered packs and rice bags, and oxygen bottles thrown all over. Sange shook his head and threw me on a tether. It was like playing the land mine game on Microsoft 95. There was no way to travel smoothly along the fixed lines that followed the rocky route. My crampons scraped against the loose scree and a lump formed in my throat. This was going to take me forever to get through.
I teetered and wobbled along as Sange pointed out a massive boulder, “See that? Right past the big rock is camp four.” I took a deep breath and continued to focus on my feet. He then told the boys to go ahead to camp four and replace their oxygen bottles. Rob moved ahead quickly like the mountain goat that he is while Christopher stayed back. Even though it was harder on his body, I was grateful that I wasn’t left alone.
Twenty minutes later we rounded the corner into camp and I was appalled all over again. What a waste land. Dozens of frayed tents lined the shale with countless empty fuel canisters and Japanese food wrappers. My crampons pierced plastic and foam pieces on our uneasy walk to our tent. I had never seen anything like it and my heart sank. I heard the stories and rumors about the trash that lined Everest — but I never saw it until here. I cringed and hoped that my outfitter hadn’t been a contributor to the mess.
I crawled in to our tent and realized how tight our timeline was. As one of the Sherpa threw in a thermos of hot water and we scavenged what was left of our MREs, Greg from IMG came over the radio congratulating us on how far we’d come, but also laid down some beta. He let us know that at our pace and considering what we were up against, we should leave around 830 PM — just four hours from the time we got settled. Our original plan was to leave a bit later in the night. I forced my stale cinnamon bun down and decided it was best to get comfy. Seeing the three of us crammed in one tent would have been a sight for sore eyes. Christopher said he would set his alarm for 745 and we all threw on our oxygen masks to get a little shut eye.
At 750, Christopher finally said, “It’s 745.” “We’re both well ahead of you,” I replied. Everything seemed to be rushed, even though we were clearly moving in slow motion. There was a brief debate as to why our O2 bottles weren’t completely topped off while Sange sloppily helped me with my harness and I struggled with my prosthetic. I nervously asked the boys to double check my kit and oxygen tank in my pack. Nothing felt right, but against my gut (stupid), I carried on. By 915, Sange and I were finally on the move with the other two Sherpa and the boys not far behind.
May 15, 2019
Expedition Day 43
Summit Rotation Day 5:
Midnight rolled around quickly. Three hours had gone by and I still wasn’t sure if we even put a dent in the summit push. It was a beautiful night — almost like for the first time on the expedition things were actually going to line up. I moved at a steady pace until we hit a steep rock field. Then, I wrestled with finding my footing in the soft snow. Since it was the first summit day of the season, and the first real day the fixed lines were even open for use, there was no boot pack. I mumbled under my breath getting annoyed with my slow performance and the snow not phasing any one else.
I guess it could have been the MREs or my nerves, but my stomach ached. I was glad I couldn’t totally see what was going on around me, but the darkness forced me to focus on my pain. I seemed to stumble over every snowflake as I pulled my short legs through the nearly untouched terrain. My life is a constant battle of picking a poison — I could’ve fought traffic and the threat of frost bite or my I could set my own path; both irritating and painful in their own ways.
I know it’s bad when I start to count my footsteps to pass the time, but that’s where I was at. I was beyond singing the tune, “The Ants Go Marching…” and resorted to the mini milestones of putting my right heel in front of my steel left toes, over and over. I remember hitting 32 when there was a lull in the movement. There was an issue with Rob’s mask — terrifying at that altitude when the abyss goes on ahead of and behind you. Rob yelled to Sange who was much further ahead to stop, and gestured to his mask.
With a bizarre irritation, Sange grabbed the mask, gave a rapid exhale in to it as if to clear a valve or line, paused for a moment holding it to his face, and handed it back saying, “It works.” Rob grabbed the mask as Sange walked away, tried to breathe for a minute, looked at Christopher and I with blood shot eyes, and said, “There’s nothing.” But Sange was gone, one Sherpa had gone down due to being cold, and the other was under the thumb of Sange and incapable of making a decision to help us. Luckily, the three of us were huddled around a large boulder in the middle of the route requiring two Sherpa from Mike Hamill’s Climbing the Seven Summits team to go around us. The lead Sherpa from Mike’s team stopped for a few minutes to help clear Rob’s mask appropriately so that we could attempt to move ahead and find a new mask. Many, many thanks to Tendi Sherpa — YOU, my friend, are a lifesaver.
Off in the distance, Sange sat perched against a rock feature. As we neared him, Christopher called out, “How much further to the balcony?” Sange replied, “Just up here.” He was full of shit. It wasn’t the balcony, but another overhang where the youngest of our Sherpa (Chappie, keeper of the five spare oxygen bottles) was sitting. Rob called out again that his mask wasn’t working as Christopher chimed in that we needed the (only) spare that we had. Clearly annoyed and nearly argumentative, Sange came down, pulled out the new mask, and briefly showed Rob how to use it before he set out on his way again.
Once we made it to Chappie, Sange quickly opened my pack, swapped out my half empty bottle for a new one, and cinched everything back up. Christopher and Rob both voiced that Rob was running a bit low, but no one batted an eyelash. Repeatedly the boys mentioned needing to swap bottles, but apparently we were in the Oxygen Crisis of 2019 and the locals weren’t willing to share. My blood boiled — again, where is the concern for client success and safety? I was thankful they were worried about me, but what about my team? I wouldn’t be where I was without the boys and all of their help. Sange and Chappie avoided the questions and insisted the oxygen swap for everyone else would take place later.
We continued the slog for another hour. I post holed, sunk, got stuck, and cursed like a sailor. I fought back my tears and tried to control my breathing. The sun began to rise and broke the darkness with sharp blues and reds that pierced the sky. The whirlwind of colors was a nice distraction as I reached the large boulders overlooking the horizon. This was the balcony — a much deserved name. The oxygen bottles were swapped over and I swallowed hard staring at the ridge line ahead of me that had thousand meter drops on both sides.
Narrow trails are not my favorite as my feet simply cannot navigate them any more. There was no room to use my forearm crutches and the soft snow was guaranteed to trip me up. I fumbled my way over the ridge. What would normally take someone thirty minutes took me twice as long. Every inch of my body was filled with terror. With no room for a mistake, I tried to drown out the noise and the distraction of death. To add to my fear, my leg kept breaking suction — the last thing I needed was to lose my leg and not have a way to get down.
I eventually made it across and threw myself on to the ground right below the Hillary Step to take my leg off. I shuttered at the idea of exposing my now sweaty limb to the elements. My fear of frostbite could have been a reality. Once my leg was back on, it was hard to convince myself it was time to go again, but up we went. Every muscle in my body was screaming. With every step, I could feel my prosthetic cutting in to my groin. Mountaineering is not for the weak minded or hearted. When everything in your body is telling you to stop — you grin and bear it, then push onward.
Sange stared down at Christopher, Rob, and I as he lounged in the snow. It was hot now with the sun overhead. We had been moving for nearly twelve hours and were so close to the South Summit that I could almost taste it. Rob and Christopher stopped at Sange to talk about a further plan, while I continued to the next anchors. The same sweet Sherpa who helped with Rob’s mask inched his way past me with his client named Mark in tow. I looked at him and asked how much further to the summit. Fighting to move against the altitude, Mark looked at me and said, “Two hours,” while his Sherpa said, “Three hours.” Only a couple hundred more vertical meters to go, but it would take forever to get there.
Looking down at the boys and Sange (while Chappie sat off to the side staring into space), it almost looked as though they were bickering. Then, the conversing stopped and a look of grief came over everyone. My gut knew what was coming as Sange clipped in to the fixed line. As he made his way to me, Sange said, “You need to make a decision. We can continue to the summit, but it will take a long time to get up and down and they don’t have enough oxygen.” We went back and forth briefly discussing options, but I wasn’t going any where without Rob and Christopher. I looked at Sange absolutely gutted, and said, “Let’s go down.” He asked me a couple of times if I was sure, and I was. I would not be able to live with myself if anything happened to one of my team because I was too stubborn to make the right call. There had already been too many threats of injury and our operation simply did not have the appropriate logistics in place.
Never in a million years did I think the descent would be far worse than the ascent… but it was.
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