Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'
I was perplexed this morning at Advanced Base Camp [ABC]. Shouldn’t a night’s sleep have healed all wounds and refreshed me enough to seize one more Everest day? But as I lay—uncomfortably—in my sleeping bag at 5:30 a.m., rubbing my eyes, stifling coughs and wondering why so many muscles hurt, I remembered what we’d accomplished the day before and why we deserved every bruise, blister and affliction in return. I could hear my team starting to stir and stuff sleeping bags—in between prolonged bouts of coughing. I made myself get up and get packing and coughing since we only had to put in this one more hard and dangerous morning. Get down through the Icefall this last time without a trip, a stumble, a busted rope or ladder, an avalanche or collapse and then we might start reflecting on how nice it had been to stand on top of Mount Everest the previous day.
In the early morning shadows, I could see Kent, Melissa and Seth going about their packing business with puffy faces and grim determination. We didn’t say much to one another about how knees and backs hurt... or about the blasted cough. Like I say, we deserved it all and we knew it, we’d climbed good and hard for several days and to top it off, we’d tacked on the vertical mile of descent from high camp the afternoon following the summit. As horrible as it all felt at 21,300 feet [6,490 meters], none of us had any questions as to how much worse it might have been to be waking at 26,000 feet [7,920 meters] on this morning.
The cough bordering on retch was a direct result of breathing bottled oxygen for several days. The gas had done the trick... none of us had even a hint of frostbite and we’d all turned out to be strong enough when it counted... but all of that zero percent humidity oxygen had irritated the heck out of our sinuses and throats and already it was considered normal for either the speaker or the listener—or both—to pause in any conversation for coughing fits, groans and spitting. We’d have made an entertaining foursome as we tightened our climbing harnesses, cinched our spikes and shouldered our packs... had anybody still been around ABC to watch. But the place was largely devoid of Western climbers by this morning. It was mostly Sherpa crews tearing camps down and constructing massive and uncomfortable loads for carrying. Our own packs were heavy enough, but nothing compared to the awkward loads we were seeing. We walked out of camp, silent, preoccupied with our Icefall descent, but surprisingly limber. Now that we were up and rigged for climbing again, we quickly shook off the elderly affectations of the early morning.
The night before, in between coughs, we’d each admitted how surprised we were to have actually made the summit. Apparently, we’d each written off the possibility at several junctures... but each had then gone on just the same, hoping for a break. The stormy afternoon and evening on the day we’d battled our way up to the South Col wasn’t exactly compatible with summit climbing. But as we sat in our tents listening to the wind, we knew we didn’t have any options for either waiting or canceling the bid in favor of some future attempt. It had all come down to this one... and so we meant to make the best of it. When the winds did drop and we got out to climb at midnight, we may have been surprised, but we were also ready. We set out, six Sherpas and four members in identical down suits. Most wore clear goggles or glasses since the wind was still present and still capable of freezing eyeballs. We could see several teams up on the headwall we needed to climb, strings of headlights moving—but not very quickly—upward.
We passed the other climbing teams, one by one, as we went up the face in the night and just as dawn was beginning to the East we overtook a final team at 28,000 feet [8,530 meters] and felt fully in control of our pace and destiny as we took on the South Summit. As daylight came on, I knew it was one of the prettiest mornings I’d seen from up high. But I didn’t reach for my camera. The morning was pretty because there were clouds at many levels and in many directions. I didn’t take pictures for the same reason I wouldn’t if I saw a large tiger coming my way with fangs bared. It was clear that our good weather window was closing and we needed to move fast and hard if we wanted to squeeze in a summit.
We felt the full force of the winds as we crested the South Summit, but all were strong and all nodded their heads when I pointed across the crazy traverse topping the Kangshung and Southwest Faces and leading to the Hillary Step and the summit. We went for it, but even before we’d scrambled up the Hillary Step, clouds had covered the mountaintop. Visibility was poor at 6:45 a.m. when we stepped up to the summit. Most of us kept our packs on, knowing our stay would be short. It was not a day for photos and flags... just a few handshakes and hugs and we were out of there. We made quick time back down through the storm to high camp. Lucky.
And sure enough, this morning we were lucky again. The Icefall barely put up a fight for our final passage. The ladders were solid and the ropes held. Base Camp, our friends and a world of comforts—along with a few more coughs—welcomed us off the mountain.