Hapless Healy Hinges on Hopelessness; Hustles; Hastens Home, Hears Hosannas

07/27/2010

[This post concludes the day-by-day account of my expedition, which I returned from in May. My webmaster humbly apologizes for the delay in getting this account up on the site!]

My return to New York was all downhill — in more ways than one! Summit dates are uncertain, so I had scheduled my return flights for 6/1, which allowed a few extra days in case of delays. Since I was flying business class using a mileage award, I was sure I could change to an earlier date or, at worst, fly standby. Unfortunately, All Nippon Airways refused to make any alteration to the original itinerary without seven days’ notice.

When I called my son Brian (my travel agent!), he worked up a whole new one-way itinerary that seemed costly ($1,700+), even despite Brian’s assurances that this was a bargain for a last-minute, business class ticket. Having all but blown my entire pension fund on the Everest Hip Hop expedition, I wasn’t about to drop even more bucks for a new ticket when I already had one to get me home. I had just climbed Mount Everest — convincing a reservations clerk to change a ticket would be a walk in the park by comparison, right?

I asked Jiban (the expedition agent in Kathmandu) — who seemed to have more connections than Verizon — if he could change my ticket through his sources. He called his friends at Thai Airways and, sure enough, was able to get me confirmed on the first leg of my flight from Kathmandu to Bangkok the following morning (Thursday 5/28), though I’d have to make the balance of the changes at Bangkok Airport. So I boarded the plane, certain that someone would take pity on an exhausted and malnourished Everest summiteer. WRONG! 

I arrived in Bangkok around 6:00 PM on Thursday night. After much ado, I got hold of an ANA agent by phone.

“Sorry, Mr. Healy, you must call award office in Los Angeles.”

“But I just climbed Mt. Everest — I’m really weary and must get home,” I pleaded. I was truly shameless and went on for five minutes or more. The agent finally said he’d see what he could do and put me on hold. This was good news — he must be pulling strings with a supervisor to get the seven day rule changed., right? WRONG!

After 20 minutes, he came back on the line: “Sorry, Mr. Healy, we can’t make a change.” The agent suggested I contact a Lufthansa agent at the airport since this ANA partner was actually flying me to JFK via Frankfurt. Turns out the Lufthansa agents would not be on duty until 90 minutes before their only flight — 11:55 PM — the same time as the ANA flight to Tokyo! At the appointed hour, I went to the Lufthansa desk: “Sorry, Mr. Healy, you must talk to ANA since they issued the ticket. We can’t make any changes.” So I go to the ANA desk. “You’re flying on Lufthansa, they must agree to a change before we can do anything.” I was back and forth between the two desks so many times I felt like a ping-pong ball.

There was a brief period where it looked like I’d get on the Lufthansa flight — but at 11:50pm, I learned it was not to be. At that point I realized I’d left my computer and carry-on bag at the Thai Airways lounge at the other end of the airport. “Other end” has a whole different meaning at BKK. It’s now the largest airport in Asia and the main building is two kilometers from one end to the other! As noted in a previous blog, I ran the two kilometers between them in record time and had never felt so good running before, which was quite a surprise since I was so hypoxic at high altitude just days earlier. My aerobic capacity had obviously increased dramatically over the past eight weeks and, consequently, at sea level, I felt like Superman!

Too tired to contemplate my imprisonment at Bangkok Airport, I found a by-the-hour hotel within the transit area and booked a room for 8 hours. After a reasonable night’s sleep, I found my way to an airport information desk and explained my situation. “Oh, you could be arrested and fined — transit passengers are only allowed to be on this side of security a maximum of 12 hours.” Now I really felt like a prisoner — and I hadn’t even been convicted!

Traversing the length of the airport yet again, I found a Lufthansa desk around noon and finally got hold of an agent. “I can’t do anything — the ticket is issued by ANA.” I tried calling ANA again but on Saturday, apparently, no one is minding the store. My frustration level was reaching the boiling point. I went back and all but cried in front of the Lufthansa agent. She took enough pity on me to give me the number of the Lufthansa “Duty Manager” — who was on the other side of security. I ran back to the Thai Lounge and made the call.

“The duty manager is not here now, I’ll have her call you.” I gave her the lounge reception number and waited — and waited, and waited. I was sure my call would not be returned, but after some 45 minutes a very nice lady heard my case. “I’ll see what I can do and call you back.”

Another 45 minutes of waiting and she called:  “Mr. Healy, I called ANA and they will not authorize a change in the itinerary.” My heart sank to my feet — I was going to be trapped in Bangkok Airport (as an illegal alien, no less!) until my original departure date of 6/1. But she continued “…however, I’m ignoring ANA and have you confirmed on the flight to Frankfurt tonight AND on to New York. You can pick up your boarding passes at the Lufthansa transit desk around 9:30 PM and we’ll arrange to have your bags transferred from Thai Airways. Your claim checks will be awaiting you at the gate.”

It was now around 7:00 PM and, as frustrating as the past 24 hours had been, I was finally going home. I emailed Joyce with confirmed flight details and, promptly ventured to the Lufthansa transit desk at 9:30 PM, to get my boarding passes which were awaiting me. I sought out the Lufthansa duty agent, now on my side of security, and thanked her profusely for coming to my rescue.

After some 52 hours in airports and on planes, I finally landed at JFK where Joyce greeted me and whisked me home. En route, she suggested I call Brian on my cell phone to let him know I had arrived safely. Little did I know that this was a programmed cue to rev up a welcome home party.

As we pulled up to Jane Street, I noticed a small crowd in front of our house. It was a gathering of friends, neighbors and relatives who had been awaiting my arrival.

Many cheers and hugs ensued and I was really touched by the reception — all the more so when I saw a blow up of the “New York Blotter” (created by Spencer Crook, a long time associate at my company, VGS), with the headline:

HOMETOWN HIPSTER HURDLES HUGE HIMALAYAN HUMP

It couldn’t have been a nicer homecoming!

//Don

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Back to Reality…

06/21/2010

[This is my last post stepping back in time to report on last month’s summit and descent of the mountain.]

I was up at 3:45 AM on Thursday 5/27 — a restless night had me awake well before my alarm went off. I quickly dressed and packed up my sleeping bag and air mattress (all my other gear had been stuffed into my two duffle bags the afternoon before). I had a helicopter to catch!

After a quick breakfast and final farewells to Alison Levine (who was trekking out to Lukla with Joey Kluberton) and the three remaining AAI guides, Michael Horst, Garrett Madison and Lapka Rita Sherpa, Victor Vescovo, Mike Kraft, and I started on the two hour trek to Gorak Shep. As we exited  Everest Base Camp for the last time, we passed endless yak trains that were heading into camp to retrieve the tons of tents and other gear that had been vacuumed off the mountain by teams of Sherpa.

Three members of the cook staff had departed camp a bit earlier than us, carrying our combined load of five duffle bags (each weighing about 50 pounds). We eventually caught up and passed them. But periodically, when we stopped for a break, they would zoom past us despite their heavy loads — all the while smiling like Cheshire cats.

We arrived at the dusty helipad at Gorak Shep five minutes before the appointed hour and Victor used his satellite phone to call Jiban Ghimire, AAI’s agent in Kathmandu, to let him know we were ready for the helicopter. We all had feared that fog or heavy clouds might sabotage our departure, but it was a relatively clear morning and we anxiously awaited the Fishtail Helicopter’s arrival. 7:00 AM came and went as we watched this helicopter pass overhead, not once but twice, after picking up passengers (or casualties) at Everest Base Camp. It was quite windy and the early morning air was quite chilly. We became more impatient as the time wore on.

I borrowed Victor’s phone to call Jiban again. He told us not to worry — we were on the list to be picked up and, sure enough, at 8:30 AM the helicopter finally landed at Gorak Shep. The three of us jumped in while the cook staff that had carried our bags (and who, despite our insistence, had refused to return to EBC and leave us unattended) stuffed the five large duffels into the cockpit with us — the high altitude helicopter does not have a proper baggage compartment. We were packed in like sardines and it was hard to see above the large bags stowed on our laps and into every other vacant space in the small cockpit. We didn’t complain — we were heading home!

After a quick change of choppers in Lukla, we were on our way to Kathmandu.  We seemed even more stuffed in than on the first flight segment. Having flown by helicopter to Kathmandu on the “drop back” earlier in May, I volunteer to let Mike and Victor sit in the shotgun and back row window seat, respectively. (The other back row window was covered by a duffel bag.) I couldn’t see anything, but it didn’t matter. As Mike chatted in German with our Swiss pilot, I quickly fell into a very deep sleep and didn’t awake until we touched down in KTM.

Upon landing, we were struck by the heat and quickly reduced our apparel to the tee-shirt level. A minivan whisked us from the tarmac to the arrivals area, where our agent greeted us with a big smile and congratulatory hugs. Our bags were loaded into a waiting minibus and off we went to the Yak and Yeti Hotel. It was just 10:00 AM, but I was absolutely starving — the calorie burn of the past week had finally caught up with me. Our rooms weren’t ready, but I didn’t mind. I ran to the dining room to catch the breakfast buffet before it was too late.  I gorged myself!

As good as it felt to fill my shrunken stomach, it felt even better to take a shower — one which lasted some 30 minutes. After sorting out my clothes for the final flight home, hunger pains struck again, so I had a leisurely lunch in the Yak and Yeti lounge and jotted down some thoughts on the events of the past few days for my blog. I tried to nap in the afternoon, but the excitement of the past few days and the thought of heading home the next, kept me awake. Around 6:00 PM I met up with Mike Kraft for drinks at the Y&Y bar. We then walked to the Thamel district for dinner at the Rum Doodle and selected a table on an outdoor terrace. As I’ve already written, the walls are covered with white cardboard feet inscribed with the names of prior expeditions and their members. Mike happened to look up behind him and noticed that, quite by chance, the foot directly above him was placed by the AAI Everest 2010 Trekkers!!  We took a photo to share by email with the trekkers who had bid us farewell on 4/11.

After stuffing myself with more food, we headed back to the Yak & Yeti quickly fell asleep. Another large breakfast had me ready to begin the final leg of this long journey. While in the dining room, I saw Jordan Romero, a thirteen year old who on 5/17 had become the youngest person to conquer Everest. (He went up on the Tibet side as Nepal does not issue permits to anyone under 16.) Although not the oldest ever, I was likely the oldest to make the summit in 2010 and it was amusing that both oldest and youngest climbers were in the same room together.

At 10:00 AM the always on-time and always helpful “Jiban” arrived to escort us through the chaos of Kathmandu Airport. He bid us farewell and both Mike and I got on the same plane to Bangkok. Not long after take-off, I happened to glance at the “air show” on the overhead monitor just as the screen showed our altitude was passing 29,000 feet. I glanced out the window to look at the deep void below me and couldn’t help but smile at the thought that I had been this high just four days before, but with solid (albeit icy) ground under my feet. I must confess that I felt very proud at that moment. Against all odds, I had achieved my goal set just three years earlier — I had climbed to the top of the world!

//Don


The Celebration Begins

06/21/2010

[I’m almost done stepping back in time to give you a daily account from the time we left Everest Base Camp on May 17 through the already reported summit on May 24.]

After lunch and a needed shower, I spent the remainder of the afternoon packing up my home away from home. Victor Vescovo, Mike Kraft and I would be trekking to Gorak Shep at 5:00 AM the following morning to meet up with a helicopter that would take us back to Kathmandu. (The Everest Base Camp helipad is reserved for medical emergencies, although this rule is often flaunted!) I wanted to make sure everything was in order before a celebratory party with the Sherpa, scheduled to follow dinner that evening. I had volunteered to bring two liters of Johnnie Walker Black, laboriously trekked to Base Camp in anticipation of such an occasion. (How these bottles managed to remained untapped for eight weeks is something of a miracle!)

With my bags packed, I went to the dining tent around 4:00 PM, to catch up on emails using the AAI satellite link. Garrett Madison, our expedition manager, found me there. Aware of my valuable stash of liquor, he asked if I’d be willing to give up one bottle immediately to the Sherpa  they had already commenced the festivities in their dining tent.  fter all these guys had done for me and the team, I couldn’t refuse. I procured the bottle from my tent and Garrett and I delivered it to the Sherpa. We were greeted with cheers and applause. I was pulled into the tent and given a seat of honor, together with a large cup of Chang  a local high-octane, frothy drink made from barley. The Black Label was immediately opened and I was served the first shot  and an “Everest” brand beer as well. These Sherpa know how to party!! And it was still early  the real party was to begin after dinner.

Fortunately, the Chang was not to my liking and after a few sips, I pushed the cup aside. However, the Black Label and beer were consumed  but only to save face, you understand! By now, it was dinner time and I ventured back to the other dining tent, together with the second bottle of Black Label, to be with my teammates. To my surprise, there were two bottles of Veuve Cliquot on the table, as well as a bottle of red wine. The Black Label was passed around and shortly thereafter, a bottle of bubbly was popped for a toast to our successful summit. Having indulged myself with the Sherpa, I was careful to take but a few sips of Champagne which at altitude has far more impact than at sea level.

Gopal, our chief cook, had baked a special cake for the occasion and after another round of toasts, we all headed to the Sherpa dining tent to join in their party  now well underway. After passing out beer and Scotch to the newcomers, there were several rounds of toasts to thank the Sherpa, our guides, our base camp managers and the cook staff. Then the communal tips (collected in advance from the climbers by Ellie Henke, our base camp manager) were distributed to all the Sherpa according to rank, much like “prize money” on a British war ship in the 1700’s. Needless to say, the Sherpa became even happier and more cases of beer appeared to keep the party going.

Having lagged on the mountain, I felt compelled to show my true strength to my teammates this evening. Indeed, one by one they all left the party early while this 65 year old and the AAI guides stayed on another hour or more to party with our extraordinary Sherpa, whose ability to carry huge loads up the mountain is matched only by their ability to consume vast quantities of alcohol and remain standing. Actually, they did more than stand. An iPod was hooked up to some speakers and before long, the dancing began  first individual dancing in place and then, arms around waists, a circle of bodies was formed and rotated around the table. Try as I might, I could not keep up with the intricate foot patterns that are an important part of Sherpa dance. And to keep things lubricated, Lapka Rita Sherpa popped the second bottle of Veuve Cliquot  but instead of serving it, he shook it an sprayed it over everyone. Not to be outdone, several other Sherpa grabbed cans of beer and showered the crowd.

After too many rotations around the table to count, I was starting to feel more exhausted than I had on summit day  but it was obvious these guys were going to continue on into the night. After another round of “thank yous” to all, I bid my farewell and crawled into my tent. The laughter and cheers from the party continued for at least another hour as I tried to sleep. It was not this noise, but rather the excitement of knowing I’d be heading back home the next morning that kept me awake most of the night  or maybe it was the Chang!

//Don


It’s All Downhill from Here

06/21/2010

[I’m almost done stepping back in time to give you a daily account from the time we left Everest Base Camp on May 17 through the already reported summit on May 24.]

After the descent to Camp 4 on Tues 5/25, I finally got to sleep around 9:00 PM and it came on all too quickly. I had my oxygen set to a relatively high flow rate (2 liters or more per minute) while I was organizing my gear for the descent to Camp 3. Before I knew what was happening, I went into a deep slumber before turning the valve to .5 liters, which is all that’s needed at night. Consequently, I exhausted my oxygen tank all too quickly and awoke at 4:00 AM gasping for air. Oh no, no OOOO’s again!!

The situation was not as dire as when I my oxygen tube was pulled from my mask below the South Summit because I was lying in my sleeping bag, but I nevertheless had to get oxygen before too long. I rattled around trying to figure out what to do, which did not make me too popular with my two tent mates. I finally had to wake up Vern for advice. “Go outside and grab another bottle from the stockpile,” was the answer to my query. Sans oxygen, I very slowly donned my boots, zipped up my parka and made my way out of the tent as snow blasted through the vestibule door further annoying my tent mates.

It was light enough that I could readily find my way to the oxygen supply and I grabbed a bottle and headed back. But as with my nature call two nights before, I quickly became hypoxic. I made it back to the tent but once I was halfway in found it hard to function. I had to get the tank inside the tent and at the same time I had to get my mountaineering boots off and zip up the tent door because snow was blasting through – but I couldn’t figure out what to do first. Vern realized my mind wasn’t operating at 100%, to say the least, and took charge. He quickly issued me step-by-step orders to rectify things. I caught my breath and executed his commands first zipping up the tent door, then removing my boots as he grabbed the oxygen bottle, swapped out the dead one, and handed me the mask which once again flowed with OOOO’s. Mike Kraft, caught in the middle of all this unexpected early morning action, grumbled a bit but went back to sleep without too much complaint, as did Vern. Happy to have oxygen again, I quickly drifted off as well.

Around 7:30, the Sherpas arrived with breakfast instant oatmeal and tea. At 8:15 my “squire”, Ang Sherpa, arrived to assist me once again with my crampons, climbing harness, oxygen, etc.  I had not expected such treatment again, but it was very welcome. It was a gloriously sunny and mild morning – the weather we were supposed to have on our summit day! I wouldn’t need my heavy parka today and donned my lightweight “puffy jacket.” I felt amazingly restored and was looking forward to our descent.

We headed across the South Col and then in quick succession headed down the Geneva Spur, the Yellow Band and the upper part of the Lhotse Face to the site of Camp 3. With gravity working on our favor, the descent went very quickly just two hours to this point although some of the repels were tricky, especially following our exhausting summit climb just 24 hours earlier. 5/24 proved to be the last day groups made it to the summit, and few at that. Consequently, the tents at Camp 3 had been removed but for a few stuck in ice and snow. It was like passing through a ghost town.

The tricky repels continued down the Lhotse Face as we headed to Camp 2 where we would spend the night. At the bottom of the Lhotse Face, the terrain turns into a gentle slope. As usual, I was a bit behind most of my teammates, but caught up with them while they were taking a break after the steep decent of Lhotse. The Camp 2 cook staff had brought some refreshing orange drink to the break site and everyone was in a particularly happy mood the most difficult stretches of the descent were behind us.

At this point, I was able to remove my jacket, down pants, crampons and harness all I had on was a thin pair of long johns and matching top. There were still some full oxygen tanks left over which the AAI staff wanted to exhaust to reduce the burden on the Sherpa taking them down, so Vern Tejas hooked me up with one to keep me revved up. I felt great and all but ran the remaining 30 minutes to Camp 2 where the team had a relaxing afternoon trading war stories in the dining tent. Wearing only my long underwear, my team mates noticed how much weight I had lost (as did almost everyone). I asked Vanessa to take a picture of me and was a bit taken aback when I looked at it. (I weighed myself on my return to Kathmandu and I was about 15 pounds lighter than at the beginning of the expedition, despite eating three square meals daily. But it’s not so surprising one burns an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 calories on a heavy climbing day.)

At dinner, Vern Tejas and Jack Martin bid their farewells to the rest of the team. They were heading down to Base Camp before midnight in order to catch a helicopter from Gorak Shep to Kathmandu the following morning. The early departure was necessitated by Vern’s desire to get to Seattle and on to Alaska within the next 72 hours in order to climb Denali while he was still acclimated. (Jack, a Seattle native, was accompanying him as far as his hometown.) With his latest summit of Everest, Vern had completed six of the Seven Summits in record time. If he could nail Denali within a week’s time, he would set a new world record for all seven. [Vern made the summit on 5/31, knocking two days off the previous world record of 136 days set by in 2008 by Danish climber Henrik Kristiansen!]

For the rest of us, it was an early to bed night. Breakfast was at 4:00 AM so we could continue our descent at 5:00 AM and make it through the Khumbu Ice Fall before the warming sun made it too dangerous. The entire group was moving very quickly now and we made it to the site of Camp 1 in just 90 minutes. As with Camp 3, this camp had now completely disappeared as the last of the expeditions vacated the mountain.

After our break at Camp 1, it was time for our final challenge once again negotiating the treacherous Khumbu Ice Fall. After going up ladders, down ladders, across ladders and after endless repels, Base  Camp, viewable in the distance, never seemed to get closer! All the while, the AAI Sherpa team, their backs loaded with 60-80 pounds of tents, empty propane cylinders, oxygen tanks, and other gear from the camps above, whizzed by me. It’s very humbling to see them in action.

Finally, the ice fall started to level out and the team was met once again by Joey Kluberton (assistant base camp manager) and a refreshingly cold drink. Anxious to get back to Camp, I ventured off on my own and, before I knew what was happening, got lost in the Ice Fall. As previously noted, it is a true maze. The icy pyramids all look the same and, even though I was just a few hundred feet from my own tent, you could not see above the seracs. I was on a trail leading back up the mountain a rather ignominious way to end my conquest of Everest!

Fortunately, I quickly realized I was going in the wrong direction and observed some cairns for a trail that seemed to lead in the right direction. Indeed, the trail brought me almost directly to my tent, so in the end I hadn’t wasted too many steps and I redeemed some of my self-esteem. After nine days on the mountain, it was nice to be back in my own, Nepalese carpeted tent home sweet home!

//Don


Oh No—No OOOOO’s!!!

06/17/2010

[I’m almost done stepping back in time to give you a daily account from the time we left Everest Base Camp on May 17 through the already reported summit on May 24.]

Just below the South Summit there’s a small landing that provided the first real opportunity for a break since our stop at the Balcony. Ang Passang helped me get my pack off and changed out my oxygen bottle to insure I had a sufficient amount to get me to the summit and back to the South Summit cache. I was feeling pretty good. By all accounts, I had conquered the hardest parts of the summit assault and, with the exception of the Hillary Step, had a relatively easy 90 minute climb to my final goal.

As the break ended, Ang Passang helped me get my pack on again (it’s not easy to do when wearing an 8000 meter parka and oxygen mask.) In doing so, he inadvertently pulled the plastic hose feeding oxygen from the regulator my mask — and neither he nor I realized what had happened. I started to proceed towards the summit but after just 3-4 steps, I couldn’t breathe! I didn’t know what was happening but I knew I couldn’t go forward — indeed, I collapsed backwards on to my pack gasping for air and trying to remain calm (not too easy to do!) so as not to exacerbate the situation. Very fortunately, Vern Tejas, who had been assisting Mike Kraft coming up behind me, realized what had happened and ran to my aid. He grabbed the oxygen tube and quickly maneuvered it back into place.

I know the oxygen level at this altitude is just 1/3 of that at sea level, but I would never have guessed that the lack of it would create such immediate consequences. Suffice it to say that I’m in awe of those who have climbed Everest and other 8,000 meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. They have to be superhuman!

With my oxygen flowing again, I picked myself up and continued the final leg of the summit assault, which began with another rock scramble, which was first thought to be the Hillary Step but turned out to be just another unnamed obstacle. After mounting this, we began another intimidating traverse across a knife-edge ridge of snow some 400 feet long. This ridge was done in daylight when you could see the very steep falloffs into Nepal and Tibet — to the left its 8,000 feet down the Southwest Face and to the right, 10,000 feet on the Kangshung Face. I just kept looking forward and had a much better appreciation of the Sherpa Team that placed the anchors and fixed ropes in early May.

Immediately ahead of our break point was what everyone first thought was the Hillary Step — but it wasn’t. It was just another unnamed rock scramble. Once above this obstacle, we could see the real Hillary Step, although it didn’t appear that much more difficult — and I don’t think it was. It’s steep and rocky, but it was easy to jockey up using your ascender and some good footholds. There is one point where you have to straddle a huge boulder and then carefully jump one foot into a 6” wide crack below. Maneuvering around this boulder caused a bottleneck, but there were relatively few climbers this day, so it wasn’t a big problem.

Above the Hillary Step, the trek to the summit was easy, although that’s a relative term. You still have to take 3-4 breaths for each step and just plow on — but you’re on a beautiful ridge and can see the crowd (20-30 people were ahead of me, including my teammates) sitting just to the side of the summit. More importantly, you know with certainty that you’re going to reach it after eight weeks of waiting!

AND I MADE IT!

I’m embarrassed to say it felt a bit anti-climatic! After eleven hours of exhausting climbing, I simply hugged Ang Passang and then sat down and took in the limited view (it was too cloudy to see anything farther than the south summit). Mike Kraft joined me and we looked on with some surprise as another climber came up behind us from Tibet! We took some photos with our trusty Sherpa guides and I tried to call Joyce on a satellite phone (I could hear her but she couldn’t hear me but later learned she was sure it was me given the call came through after midnight in NYC).

Before I knew what was happening, Lakpa Rita Sherpa was yelling at our team to “…get down before the weather turns — it’s dangerous to stay here.” Only then did I realize I hadn’t taken pictures with the banners I had laboriously carried from Base Camp. Fortunately, Garrett Madison (the AAI expedition leader) came to my rescue. He pulled the banners out of my pack, grabbed my camera and started shooting. He then whisked me off the summit and I tried, to no avail, to catch up to my teammates who had run ahead. Ang Passang and another Sherpa, Dorje, followed in front and behind me to insure my descent was a safe one and their assistance was greatly appreciated.

Just how difficult the ascent was did not hit home until I recently read that the distance from Camp 4 to the summit is just 1.07 miles. I was incredulous. It took me eleven hours (which was slower than four of my younger teammates who made it in 9-1/2 hours, but still a respectable time when you consider that some climbers take up to 16 hours). In other words, my average speed was just a tenth of a mile per hour. It sounds almost impossible to go that slow, but you have to realize that you take 4-5 breaths after each step and that the better part of the climb is VERY steep.

Gravity works in your favor going down, although you are quite exhausted from the ordeal of ascending, which is why most mountaineering accidents occur going down rather than up. But thanks to my invaluable Sherpa, my descent was uneventful and took just four hours. However, during the last half-hour, which is on a smooth snow slope leading into to Camp 4, my legs started to get a bit shaky. Seeing I could do with some help, Dorje, who had been assisting me clipping in an out of the ropes on the steeper sections of the descent, grabbed my hand and looked at me with a broad smile on his face. I was especially touched by this act of kindness. It was just the boost I needed after a physically and emotionally exhausting day and we happily walked hand in hand as he escorted me the remainder of the way to my tent.

It was only 1:15 PM, but I had been awake almost 24 hours and climbing or descending for 15 hours. I slipped into my sleeping bag but the exhilaration I felt (or perhaps it was the endorphins running through my veins) made it impossible to sleep. It was a nice afternoon!

//Don


To the Top of the World

06/16/2010

[I’m continuing to step back in time to give you a daily account from the time we left Everest Base Camp on May 17 through the already reported summit on May 24.]

I wasn’t cognizant of the date change from Sunday 5/23 to Monday 5/24. It obviously happened after climbing 2-1/2 hours on the Triangular Face, but I was not conscious of time nor much else for that matter. Only two things counted as the blinding, horizontal snow sandblasted my face:  putting one foot in front of the other and clipping into each new length of rope as we passed yet anchor on this relentless and seemingly endless climb up the Triangular Face.

I started out with goggles  to no avail. They kept fogging up and an hour into the climb I complained to Vern. “Take them off  neither Ang nor I are wearing them!” So I did, but it didn’t help too much  I still couldn’t see but a few feet in ahead. Vern’s footsteps, as well as those of climbers who preceded him, instantly disappeared as the wind whipped powdery snow into the depressions or wiped them away altogether. (Fortunately, I was clipped to a rope so I couldn’t go too far astray.) And now the snow sand-blasted my eyes as well as my face  I had to keep pulling my hood to my left side to shield them as best I could from the onslaught of icy snow coming from that direction.

As the hours dragged on, I kept shining my headlamp upwards in the hope of seeing the top ridge, but it was never there (nor would the light go but a few feet ahead given the snowfall). At one point, it appeared the sky was clearing and I could see the moon  the moonlight must be above the ridge, so there was hope I was nearing the top of the Triangular Face! Alas, it wasn’t the moon  it was a headlamp of a climber, one of many that decided to return to Camp 4 rather than continue to the summit in these weather conditions. Disappointed though I was, I plowed on, though I must confess I began to wonder if those heading down knew something my guides didn’t, although I had great confidence in them. And I was having more confidence in myself, too. The weather was bad, but I did not feel unduly cold or tired  I can do this!!

Vern Tejas was leading the way and my trusty Sherpa, Ang Passang, had my back. Every 1-1/2 hours or so, Vern would stop for a break. There was no flat terrain, so breaks generally consisted of leaning back, feet perpendicular to the mountain, letting the rope hold you in place. Then Vern and Ang would move into action like a Formula 1 pit stop team. Out would come my water bottle and some Shot Bloks or Gu; My oxygen tank would be checked (and was switched to my spare at one point) and I’d be queried about my mental and physical condition to insure AMS wasn’t rearing its ugly head. With everything in order, the command would come to “… move on quickly before you get chilled or the weather turns for the worse.” And so we would continue up, up, up!!

It took almost seven hours of steady climbing to reach the Balcony at the top of the Triangular Face. This was the first flat terrain since leaving Camp 4 and I could actually take my pack off. AAI Sherpas had previously brought up and cached oxygen tanks for the team and Ang quickly procured one to change mine out. My partially used bottle was stored for the return journey and the empty one in my pack was removed to be taken down by other AAI Sherpa.

Refreshed and re-oxygenated, we started up the narrow, South Summit Ridge. Unclipped from the rope, one would fall several thousand feet into Nepal or China depending on which way you tilted! Fortunately, it was still dark so I wasn’t too cognizant of this and the gentler slope of this ridgeline was a welcome relief from the 45 degree slopes of the triangular face.

As another hour went by, the darkness began to wane. As the sky continued to brighten, the snow was abating. Things were looking up  actually, looking ahead, things were looking up too much! We were approaching the “Tenzing Step”  not official name, but one Vern Tejas gave it. (No one seems to know why this difficult feature has not been formally named.) It is a very, very steep and rocky 75-100’ section leading to the South Summit. I hadn’t read anything about this major stumbling block, nor had the guides mentioned it earlier on. This was the first bottleneck encountered on the summit climb  but it was a welcome one.

The delay, which was not serious, enabled me to rest up before attacking this obstacle and once on it, the slow pace of climbers ahead of me provided opportunities to get my hypoxic heart and lungs back in sync on occasion. It was probably the toughest section I had encountered on the whole mountain and it took some great coaching on Vern Tejas’ part to get me to the top of it. Just before this section, my other teammates (who had left Camp 4 at 10:30PM) caught up with me, except for Mike Kraft. He was typically the fastest of all but, still weakened from his illness, was moving very slowly today. I let the other teammates pass me as I knew I would continue to be slower and didn’t want to impede their progress. (Incidentally, Mike almost threw in the towel at this point but, with Vern Tejas cajoling, decided to continue on behind me.)

Once above this major impediment, it was a relatively easy climb to the South Summit, and it was quite exhilarating to get to the top of it. Although it was still very cloudy, the snow had now ceased and the early morning sun was trying attempting to break through the clouds. One could follow the narrow trail along the sharp ridgeline leading to the famous Hillary Step and onwards to the real summit  now finally in sight…

[TO BE CONTINUED!]

//Don


Moment of Fear, and a Night for Knights

06/15/2010

[NOTE:  I’m continuing to step back in time to give you a daily account from the time we left Everest Base Camp on May 17 through the already reported summit on May 24.]

There’s not much to do on the South Col, to say the least! Most groups spend less than half a day resting here and then move on to the summit. Alpine Ascents brings sufficient oxygen to spend more than 24 hours providing extra time to rest and improving summit chances. Thus, we spent the day (5/23) in our tents in anxious “anticipation” of the summit assault, which precluded much sleep.

I did venture out to take in the view of our goal. I could actually see much of the well-trodden path we’d be taking which I’ve outlined on the photo below up to the South Summit  the actual summit is another 90 minutes beyond the South Summit and not visible in this photo.

We received the morning weather forecast from the AAI base camp manager. For over a week, our seasoned guides had been carefully monitoring these expensive, private reports to peg the right summit day. Throughout this period, “May 22-24” continued to be reported as the best window, but high winds prevailed on the earlier dates, so our guides were aiming for the 24. There is also much jockeying for position on the mountain, with a certain amount of misinformation about a given expedition’s timing of their assault put forth in an effort to encourage other teams to go earlier or later in the hope minimizing traffic jams at the Hillary Step and other bottlenecks. In any event, we were down to the wire  we’d head for the summit this evening or the whole eight weeks of trekking, training and acclimatizing would be for naught. Most groups had chosen to peg their summits to 5/22 or 23, so there wasn’t much concern about jam-ups on 5/24 and the weather forecast was still very positive.

Around 3:00 PM, we received some good news. Mike Kraft, who we had to leave behind at Camp 2 because of illness, had made it up to Camp 3 the previous day and was now approaching Camp 4. Vern Tejas, my guide and tent mate, jumped into the tent and told me to immediately prepare room for a third tenant  Mike would be joining us shortly. I scrambled to rearrange sleeping pads and bags as well as oxygen bottles and packs and shortly thereafter, Mike arrived, pretty spent from his trip up the Lhotse Face, accompanied by Michael Horst, another AAI guide. Kraft is over 6’ tall and he took the middle spot in the tent. There wasn’t much room for anything else.

As the afternoon wore on, very high winds whipped against our tents and the temperature dropped dramatically. Light snow also started to swirl in the vestibules. Around 5:30 PM, as I lay in my sleeping bag, I began to panic  could one climb in this weather without serious risk of frostbite?? When I climbed Denali in June 2009, I suffered bad frostbite on three fingers of my right hand (which have fully recovered). Hence, I was particularly sensitive to the weather conditions. I actually asked Vern if it was safe to climb in these conditions and he replied “…Oh this is quite normal for Everest!!” Reassured, I attempted to get some sleep (to no avail) before heading for the summit at 9:30 PM. (He later admitted they were the worst conditions of his nine Everest ascents.)

Around 6:00 PM, Lapka Rita Sherpa, one of our four AAI guides and the expedition sirdar, came to our tent to introduce our personal “Climbing Sherpa.” I was assigned Ang Passang, who has assisted Alpine Ascents for a number of years and had already summited Everest on four previous occasions. It was nice to know I’d be accompanied by such an experienced mountaineer. I was advised that he would return around 9:00 PM to help me prepare for the final assault.

For the balance of Sunday evening, I tried to sleep, but apprehension and lack of oxygen had me too restless. Around 8:30 PM, I started to double check my gear and clothing which I had already organized earlier in the day. At the appointed hour, my tent vestibule was unzipped and Ang Passang appeared with his ever smiling face. “Must get ready now!” I put on my expedition boots as fast as possible, zipped up my down parka and grabbed my pack and other gear and headed out of the tent, as did Vern, who was going to personally lead me up the mountain an hour before the rest of our team was to depart.

As I stood in the blowing snow, Ang quickly went to work to finish the preparations. As my teammate Victor Vescovo noted, one felt like a knight with his squire assembling his armor in preparation for battle. I was helped into my pack, which was immediately loaded with two oxygen bottles. My mask was connected to one and placed over my face to keep me conscious as the rest of the preparations continued. Crampons were placed before me and my feet gently ushered in. My climbing harness was pulled around me and the leg and waist straps quickly doubled-backed. The hood of my parka was pulled tightly over my balaclava covered head and the headlamp I was holding was whisked out of my hand over the hood, as were my goggles. Finally, my heavy expedition gloves were pulled tightly over the liners I was wearing. As indulgent as all this may sound, getting myself in a heavy down suit and breathing through an oxygen mask would have taken me an inordinate amount of time to do on my own, assuming I could even find the straps of my crampons or harness to cinch.

Ang double checked everything and then said, “Ready?”

“I’m ready,” I responded with some hesitation, as the snow and 20-30 mph wind continued unabated and the temperature hovered in the single digits.

Although we didn’t get a revised “special forecast” until an hour or two into our ascent, we learned that a depression moved in from Tibet quite unexpectedly. Instead of a relatively calm night with mild winds that had been promised, we were heading upward in a blinding snow storm!

//Don