The Finale – The Everest Descent

The Descent
May 15, 2019
Expedition Day 43
Summit Rotation Day 5:

When I made the call to turn around, the sun was out and the royal blue sky was untouched by a single cloud. Actually, I would’ve greatly appreciated a cloud or two. Everyone was in high spirits and great physical health as we watched people being drug past us by their Sherpa on what we call dog leashes; safety tethers connecting the harness of the Sherpa to the client. I found comfort in the thought that I wasn’t the one being drug up — I will never be the one pulled up a mountain. I have the backbone to turn around when I should, even though at times that call can be difficult.

“DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH HIS CARABINER,” I snapped at a climber attempting to take Rob’s carabiner off of the fixed line. Proper protocol is to never touch someone else’s protection. One would think that is common sense. My frustration’s started to peak, not for anything that was taking place with me personally, but for what I was witnessing. Most injuries in the mountains are preventable — these injuries happen because we let them. We become complacent, we become sloppy, and we make mistakes. The people who passed me should not have been going up and I was relieved to be leaving the mountain that they were moving along, even if it meant turning around from a dream I had committed so much to.

Sange threw the safety tether I was originally on to Rob and began his descent, without his clients. Twenty minutes later, we called out to Sange to stop. Rob wasn’t doing this — he wasn’t the guide; he wasn’t the Sherpa; he was the client and there to document the climb, nothing more. Rob wasn’t being paid to ensure safety; Hell, he was there to ensure his own safety as he climbed. Slowly, Rob and I worked our way down the Hillary Step.

To avoid having to arm wrap on the rocks in crampons, I opted to skirt the edge. On occasion, there may have been a solid solo step of a boot pack, but every thirty seconds or so I would sink up to my socket. Down hill, per usual, was going to be way worse in the soft snow than going up. Post-holing was going to be the reason we didn’t make it down til dinner time. We creeped our way in to the same spot I changed my leg on the ascent. I needed to take a breather and readjust my leg before the ridge again.

I attached myself back to Sange and along the ridge we inched. Usually, I am not much slower than your average mountaineer, but on terrain like this where one wrong move could mean death, I am going to take my time. Before I knew it, Christopher and Rob both called out to Sange, “Clip in to the line.” He hadn’t even bothered to put a carabiner on the fixed line as he trudged along. I started to question where the pride in his work was or why there was so much carelessness in Sange. Was this just second nature to him — he had been up Everest so many times… was he desensitized to all of the risks?

I hollered for Christopher to move forward and put me on a short rope from behind. I became irritated that Christopher, the “expedition lead” was playing bystander while the chaos was slowly unfolding, but I bit my tongue. As Christopher passed Rob, Sange unclipped me from him (luckily I put my personal tether on the fixed line along that section of the ridge). He dropped the tether and proceeded to walk along the ridge to the other side — back to the rock formation called the “balcony.” I stood there shocked and confused as to what exactly was taking place. Why had the other two Sherpa never said a word to us? Why did Sange demand I pay another $4000, on top of the six figures, I already paid to have him there? Why is my lead Sherpa with fifteen years of experience abandoning his clients?

With no support, Christopher, Rob, and I crawled along. Slow, but at least we were being safe and doing things the right way. I was actually relieved that we went for the first weather window when all of the other large Westerner teams weren’t ready. At least there was no traffic on the lines — no one was slowing us down, we had space, and we weren’t slowing any one else down. There was no one around for hours. Once at the balcony, Rob, Christopher, and I all dropped our packs and grabbed some water and food to take a quick break. Before we knew it, without checking our oxygen, Sange and Chappie both stood and began to leave us. There was no way we were going to make it down the mountain on the nearing empty bottles of oxygen we all had on us. Rob and I started a fuss demanding that Christopher do something to at least get us bottles that would allow us to get to camp four.

Rob made a tether, attached me to him as a safety due to my balance, and we started down towards where Sange and Chappie conveniently sat in the snow for us to get to them. I used a combination of techniques, with no shame. I do what I need to in order to be as efficient as possible. There was some butt scooting, some arm wrapping, and a tiny bit of side stix usage. Sange opened my pack, swapped a bottle from Chappie’s pack, and gave Rob a half empty bottle to get him down. He cinched up their packs, and left. Sange and Chappie LEFT their clients just below the balcony. They deserted us.

For years, I have heard about the loyalty and commitment of Sherpa to their climbers — to ensure the climbers safety in the Sherpa’s mountains. I have heard the stories of Sherpa never leaving their climbers to the point of injury, and death. But mine, they didn’t even want to be out here on the mountain. For the next few hours, with no Sherpa support and very little oxygen, Rob, Christopher, and I made our way in to camp four. I was so embarrassed. I felt so guilty. I trusted Christopher to find a team that would help us and keep us injury free. I asked Rob to document this expedition and ended up putting him in harm’s way with a team that didn’t care about our safety or well being. I wasted my hard earned money on a team who never even cared to see me succeed; one who didn’t even believe in my project. I was set up for failure from the get go and I made excuses for the local team from the start and simply worked harder. I had hoped that I wasn’t being taken advantage of, and turns out, I was.

My pant leg was ripped off of my summit suit, I was covered in down, I’m sure my ass was bruised, my prosthetic seemed to be barely hanging on, but thanks to Rob and his thirty years of experience in the back country, we were down. Still in the “death zone,” but in camp. Back at the tent, we warmed up and sifted through what we had left for snacks. I didn’t complain about my mask anymore. I was absolutely wrecked and wanted nothing more than to just roll over and catch some much needed Zs.

The Descent
May 16, 2019
Expedition Day 44
Summit Rotation Day 6:

The sun baked our tent and we all scrambled out. Everyone was completely exhausted, but we managed to slowly navigate getting our gear ready for the descent. Because I didn’t have an opportunity to take photos at the summit, we decided to still honor my sponsors by taking summit flag shots from camp four while Everest was still in plain view. Sange walked up and asked to take a photo with me — to which, I took the high road and let him. The photo was snapped and off he went down to camp two. Yet again, Rob, Christopher, and I were left with absolutely no Sherpa support, no bottles of oxygen, no comms/radios, and no food.

In disbelief, the three of us continued. I rattled my brain to figure out what could have possibly gone on to warrant this type of treatment. I thought I had been kind, friendly, and supportive for the last seven weeks. But then my thought process transitioned — to Hell with this even just being a job or a paycheck. Where was the ethical or moral treatment in this? How could someone with a heart leave three climbers on the upper mountain? My sorrow slowly turned in to disgust. I felt betrayed.

For hours we navigated the route that we came up just a couple days earlier. I side stepped and wiggled my way along the traverses below the Geneva Spur while still attached to Rob. My side stix slipped and sliced over the narrow path way. My right quad ached. Had I let it, my right leg surely would have given out. Eventually we made it back to the yellow band where the three of us stopped to take another break and check out our oxygen tanks. Rob and Christopher never went above the flow rate of .5 to conserve whatever oxygen we could. Rob was pushing it dangerously low to empty when we decided to keep moving.

Over the yellow band, we used several techniques — again, the butt scoot, and arm wrap, but even a tandem rappel at times. We had a split second of comic relief when an impatient, flustered Russian passed us. I couldn’t take him serious as he winged about all Americans being the same. Out here, you have the climbers you can’t help, but love and then there’s the ones you can’t help, but love to hate. After another section of a traverse, we were finally to fixed lines on a straight descent. I couldn’t have been happier and Rob and I agreed that the butt scoot would get me down this section and closer to camp three the easiest. And let me tell you…. we FLEW down this section. It was controlled, but holy cow did it feel good to make gains on Sherpas far ahead of us; even to the point of passing.

We hit the ice walls where it called for steep arm wraps, or at least that’s what most everyone else was doing. Rob and I decided we would be quicker if we stuck to our tandem rappel. Ice wall after ice wall, Rob and I danced down quickly. We found a rhythm, our transitions were smooth, and we were well on our way. Until Rob ran out of oxygen that is. Hours earlier Christopher had warned everyone that Rob would run out. For the limited time that we had a radio, Christopher called down to Samir in base camp and Sange on the mountain expressing that we needed oxygen. On the way down, we stopped at every HST stash to be able to find something. After seeking help in other ways, Christopher was eventually advised by the founder of HST to swap an oxygen bottle with another company. So, an hour above camp three, we did just that. Yet again, another company was saving our asses because our company and Sherpa weren’t willing to.

Nothing had changed once in camp three. We still had nothing. After rummaging around one of the HST tents, Christopher found some matches and luckily we had a stove to start melting snow for some water. Sadly, we still had no food minus some instant oatmeal packets I had been toting around. What a nutritious, gourmet dinner after exerting every bit of energy we had to come down Everest.

I crawled in to my sleeping bag even though I was barely able to move. We managed to rig the radio to work intermittently and made contact with base camp. Samir reassured us that he would send one of the administrative staff, not a climbing Sherpa, Pravat (P Diddy) up to be with us for the rest of the descent. We were told he would be in by 5 AM. I didn’t care any more. We had managed this far thanks to the “lead guide client” Rob — we would make it down the rest of the way.

P Diddy ended up showing up at 730 AM. But at least he brought ramen up. He could have come up with saltine crackers and we all would have been appreciative. I rattled my brain for what seemed like ages. How did we get to this point? More so, what did I do to deserve to be treated like this — not only as a paying client, but just as a person. Rob was clearly running through the same questions as he asked aloud, “What is Sange’s problem? He should be bending over backwards to be apart of this project?” Rob had made a point that I had harped on from the get go. I wanted to be surrounded by people who were stoked to see this dream come true and wanted to be a part of the unthinkable taking place, but it was clear that I wasn’t.

By this point, Rob and I knew we had a solid system in place. It was time to go down the dreaded Lhotse face, so we got ready in our tandem rappel. Holy. Moly. Did we cruise. Rob and I were in sync flawlessly and before any one knew it, we were down the entire face in an hour. We would be back in camp two for lunch with plenty of time to spare. Feeling good, we hoofed it along the boot pack. Rob needed to get back to camp quickly so he moved ahead while Christopher and I weren’t in a rush. “Is that THE Kirstie Ennis!?” I heard someone yell. I whipped myself around to see my Norwegian friend, Tom — who Rob and I met on Denali last summer. The mountaineering world is tiny, but it is always so good to see friends riding their high of tackling a summit. He looked so happy and healthy that it radiated and picked my spirits up. After catching up a bit, I let him go on his merry way as Christopher and I got our rope set up to move along the KE route around the scree of camp two.

Off in the distance there was a tangled mess with a couple of paths around it. For at least thirty minutes as we neared it, I tried to make sense of what it was. I started to overthink things and freak myself out, saying to Christopher, “I don’t like it.” Regardless, I had to pass it in order to make it back to camp two and a real meal. I bounced along the ice dodging crevasses and weak points. It was another body. This time completely uncovered of snow due to the heat of the past week. It was twisted and contorted in uncomfortable ways — one foot pointing to the East and one to the West. My mind and body shuttered as I created another story for what could have happened to this late climber.

The sun beamed down on us cooking me inside of my all black gear; layers came off without hesitation and I questioned where even the thinnest cloud was in the sky. At least I knew this route well and was able to time things accordingly. As we strolled in to camp, Rob greeted us in his infamous fleece pants saying we made great time, and shortly after Kinsang came out of the kitchen tent wearing a huge smile and held my face to squeeze it. He’s probably the only person I have let grab my face since my injuries. Normally that’s grounds to start a fight, but it was clear that Kinsang genuinely missed us and was concerned.

We grubbed a meal, the usual — spam, potatoes, and cole slaw, but I have to say when you’re starving and all you want is something warm to eat, it really did hit the spot. After eating, I stripped all of my climbing gear down and decided it was certainly tent time. I needed to rest and recover in every sense so that we could crush the move down to camp one and back through the Khumbu ice fall bright and early. It didn’t take much, and I was out like a light.

The Descent
May 17, 2019
Expedition Day 45
Summit Rotation Day 7:

Waking up was painful; not mentally or emotionally because I was ready to be down, but physically. Even the tiniest movement felt like my ligaments were being ripped for their homes. Kinsang served breakfast over an hour late again in an effort to sabotage our departure efforts, I’m sure. But we were still on the move well before the sun tore its way in to the valley. If we moved at a decent pace, we would be at crampon point still in the shade.

We moved well. We remained more than 3/4 of the way to the ice fall in the shade, which was a blessing. Staring at camp one off in the distance, it was a zoo. There were so many little colored specks running around the tents. Even though we didn’t summit I knew we made the right call for this reason alone. I couldn’t even imagine the chaos that would take place on the lines of the upper mountain with this many people chasing a summit in the same weather window. Rob and I looked at each other and just shook our heads. As we ventured through the camp, we were stopped countless times. Some stopped me to say they knew my story and were proud of what I accomplished, some gave silent support, and others snatched Rob up to catch up for old times sake.

I didn’t shed a tear once for our non-summit until now. My peers and their pride in me felt like daggers as tears rolled down my face. I was proud because they were proud. Every single person who has attempted Everest or is an experienced climber knew the Hell I just put myself through. They knew how hard I tried and they knew just how much guts it took me to get there. Every hug, compliment, and gesture caused my eyes to swell, but I also knew in this moment that the call to turn around wasn’t second guessed and was ultimately, respected. To everyone who offered their support, I simply replied, “I will be back for Her.”

As we stood on top of the first ladder, I looked down and said, “F it.” Then, threw myself onto my stomach on the ground and flipped my legs over the edge. The vertical ladders, while still extremely sketchy, managed to remain my favorite because I knew I could cover them without hesitation. Nothing was like I remembered, but I guess that’s what happens with Mother Nature and the changing of the seasons. The sun reflected off of the snow and ice making everything melt, including myself. I broke through snow bridges and knocked over features trying to move my feet quickly. Some of the overhangs and destruction from other collapses gave me a chill though. I wanted to get out of the ice fall as fast as possible, especially after hearing all of the horror stories of avalanches.

I had guessed it would take me seven hours to get down through the ice fall, and it took me six and a half. By no means is it a speedy time, but for a woman on one leg I navigated the technical stuff damn fast. I heard Tom the Norwegian’s voice behind me again. He still wore the bright, cheerful smile and it was contagious. Though I was sticky and my neck was blistered from the sun, I couldn’t help but smile along with them in their celebration. He and one of his climbing partners gave me a cheer and moved past us to their Sherpa who were awaiting them around the corner with Everest beer. Naturally, once I came around the corner, I had to have just one sip. We sat for a while with them as they reminisced and my team all shared a couple of Cokes and Sprites (thank you Mingma Sherpa of Himalayan Ascents). They spoke of how hard core I was for spending such a long time above 6000 meters — but I don’t think it was hard core, I think it was just being dedicated to my goals.

The beauty that I remember on my up through the ice fall had all deteriorated. Now it had all turned to muddy slush, rapid water crossings, and a ton of scree and shale; my least favorite. Just a little bit longer and I could get comfy in my tent and get these spikes off my feet. For another hour, I tip toed over the rocks. When I could see the prayer flags of our camp, I stopped and just started to sob. “I want to walk up to Sange and just shake my head and say you left me up there,” I said to Christopher. I suppressed all of my emotions towards what had taken place the last few days, but now it came barreling out. One of the British team, Geth saw us off in the distance and made his way to me.

God love Geth for sitting there for at least five minutes while I cried my eyes out and vented. He has a pregnant wife so maybe that’s why he handled it so well, but it helped me a ton so that I could swallow my pride and walk in to camp. When the other boys came tumbling out of the dining tent yelling and waving, I looked to Christopher and said, “I can’t do this. I can’t go in to that camp this hurt.” We tried to make an alternate route to avoid all of them, but it was impossible. With a flushed and tear stained face, I went around the group with hugs and thanks. My mind was so worked that I didn’t know what to think.

I didn’t want to be around anyone, maybe out of embarrassment, but I sucked it up and rode it out through dinner, then excused myself. For hours I thought long and hard, which led to an intense case of insomnia. I never said another word to Sange. I saw him briefly before flying out in the helicopter later, but could never find the strength to look him in the eye. He won, and my heart ached.

The entire descent led me to question why some Sherpa carried a pride and love for people, while others had gone numb. I’ve made the joke a few times, “that’s what I get for being the new guy… now I know.” But it’s true. I won’t make the same mistakes I did this time around — and I can guarantee that I will be back for the last 200 meters of the Mother of all Mountains. I have a newfound respect for the mountains and, even more so, the climb itself.

Thank you all for believing in me — or for at least not totally shooting down all of my wild ideas. Dream. Fail. Dream. Succeed. Just don’t stop dreaming.

Love, Kirstie

9 replies
  1. Chris Rowe
    Chris Rowe says:

    Indescribable respect for you in your accomplishments. You’ve shown them all what real determination is, and just what a real Marine can and WILL accomplish when others would fail and quit. Much Love, Honor, and Respect for you Shipmate.

    Reply
  2. Meg
    Meg says:

    You are amazing! I’m so sorry you got completely F’d over by your Sherpa. I hope he never gets another client, but I’m so happy to hear you made it down alive and will be able to continue with your journey. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Reply
  3. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Kirstie, you are amazing. And i so feel for you, the team you choose should be there for you. I just want to give you a hug.

    Reply
  4. RedRock
    RedRock says:

    K….
    (“but could never find the strength to look him in the eye. He won, and my heart ached.” )
    No ma’am, YOU won. It’s not even a competition, but you won. You know this, we all know this. Don’t give it any more free rent in your head. You’re an absolute rockstar. Now go get some much earned rest. <3

    Reply
  5. Kathe Garland
    Kathe Garland says:

    Kirstie you are one badass chick!!! We absolutely love you and tell everyone how awesome you are. Will and I are sooooo proud of you and completely in awe of the things that you have accomplished. Keep doing you and setting such a great example for young girls every where!

    Reply
  6. Chip Meissner
    Chip Meissner says:

    I have enjoyed you blog Kirstie. I really appreciate your raw style. It is captivating. Thank you and good luck on your future adventures.

    Reply
  7. Franziska
    Franziska says:

    Your experience sounds shocking, to say the least. I think your decision to turn around was strong and possibly the best decision you could make. What strikes me most is that your Sherpa left you and your team alone so many times. Whatever reasons… this is wrong! I’m happy you survived and returned safely but we all know not everyone these days was that lucky. It confirms my personal point of view that it’s better not to attempt mountains as Everest when you are not able to care for yourself, when you are fully dependent on a knowledgeable guide. Again, your situation is wrong in so many days but you had the skills to make it back on your own. Others might not… I hope time will heal your soul after everything you went through. I’m sure you’ll be only stronger afterwards. Take care!

    Reply
  8. Jack
    Jack says:

    Thank you for this honest account. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to climb Everest but doesn’t know what they are getting into.

    Reply
  9. Rick Bradley
    Rick Bradley says:

    Kirstie, thank you for your service, and thank you for sharing all the details of this latest chapter of your life. I was heartbroken when I read that you were calling your summit bid (not near as heartbroken as you I have no doubt), I can only imagine how difficult it was for you to make that call. I was so angry to hear how you described being basically abandoned by the so-called professionals who were contracted to safely assist you up, and down the mountain. It still boggles my mind just thinking about that, that complete lack of professionalism, let alone basic human obligation … As a person who has pledged my life to a life of service (active member of the Canadian Forces, 30 years served and still in), I can’t even fathom what thought process would lead professional guides to treat you how you were treated on that portion of your expedition.
    I’m glad you are down safely, and I look forward to continuing to follow your exploits through your blog.
    If you need a personal, full time Sherpa, you just let me know, I’d be happy to submit my CV for consideration.
    Kindest Regards, Rick Bradley

    Reply

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