Dispatch—Day 55: May 20, 2009
A Change of Plans
Photo: Descending in storm and snow through the Khumbu Icefall
By Dave Hahn
Photograph by Jake Norton

Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'

Click here to zoom in on the route to the summit »

My team laughed its way through a 3:30 a.m. breakfast and hit the trail promptly at 4 a.m. We trudged along by headlight with the glacier snapping and popping away, signaling again that we were among the first of the day to challenge the Khumbu Icefall. Traffic was sparse since most climbers are higher on the mountain now and going higher still. We represent the tail end of those bound for the summit.

I was pleased that my team was moving well... little talking was required as we switched off our headlights and clawed our way up and down the little ice walls that have now become familiar on the approach to the Khumbu. Subtly at first, and then a bit more obviously as we came into our first rest break, Erica’s pace began to falter and things didn’t seem quite so easy any longer.

This was perplexing at first, since conditions were perfect, the terrain was relatively easy, and Erica’s health was excellent. As planned at this point of the climb, where the Icefall steepens and the avalanche hazard to a group increases, I asked Seth, Melissa, and Kent, along with Ang Kaji, to go slowly ahead. We’d stay in contact by radio. Erica and I finished our rest and moved upward, but by then, it had become clear that Erica was losing confidence in her ability to climb the mountain. Such moods come and go for climbers and I hoped this one would go soon.

We determined to climb on up through the Popcorn section of the glacier and to reevaluate our situation at the Icefall’s midpoint. Through the Corn, I was happy to see that Erica’s strength and skills were intact... but clearly she had the weight of the world on her shoulders with some heavy decision-making going on. Her million dark thoughts were spawning a hundred or so in my own (less nimble) mind.

I stifled the urge to “argue” Erica into an Everest summit attempt as we walked. I wouldn’t do such a thing for an adult... I certainly couldn’t begin anything of the sort for a 17-year-old. Everest is too dangerous a game. I’ve seen too many people die here, people who were rock-solid in their determination to climb the mountain while knowing full well the risks they took on. An individual’s motivation for such a thing must come from within, not from their guide. I’d let Erica wrestle her own (very legitimate) demons.

But that meant that I needed to take my own mind off of her demons for a bit, and so I climbed along with one eye on my client and one eye on the sun’s first rays igniting the surrounding peaks. Seth, Melissa, Kent, and Ang Kaji had prudently waited for us at the midpoint to check on our progress and to make sure we negotiated the latest collapsed bridge on the way into the “Football Field.” At first we just rested, ate, and drank—the typical break. But then we came to the bigger stuff and Erica and I made the decision to descend. The mountain just seemed too big all of a sudden... the way they sometimes do.

Erica decided she wanted more years, more mountains, and more miles before next taking on Everest’s summit and I certainly couldn’t begrudge her any of those things. I barely scratched my way up the mountain for a first time at 32 years. I could not have done it at 17. We sent the others on up to Advanced Base Camp [ABC], and Erica and I worked our way carefully down to safety.

As we down-climbed, both our moods brightened. As much as my ego would have inflated with another great summit guiding triumph, I was plenty satisfied that six weeks of good, safe climbing was instead followed by a smart and mature decision. We listened to my radio as yesterday’s summit team made ready to leave the South Col on their descent to Base Camp. All sounded well with them and we looked forward to seeing them down low. Our own team made their way on up to ABC.

Back in camp, I tried to rest away the bleary feeling that comes with 3 a.m. starts and I set about making new plans for my gang’s summit bid. Latest forecasts show that a storm may encroach on our May 24 attempt... so we may just can the proposed rest day at ABC on the 21st and move up for an earlier bid on the 23rd. I still hope to be of use to my teammates. I want Kent to get his camera rolling on the most spectacular vistas I’ve ever witnessed. I want Seth and Melissa to tag the top, and I suppose now that my priorities have shifted and that Erica is safe in Base Camp, I want to touch the top again myself. And so I’ll move to ABC on the 21st, and Camp 4 on the South Col on the 22nd (they’ll move to Camp 3 tomorrow and then the Col on the 22nd, so we’ll all be there together for an attempt on the night of the 22nd).

At least that is the plan. We shall see how my legs work. We shall see how the weather flows and how the luck breaks. Stay tuned.

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