87: Lesson from Everest

87: Lesson from Everest

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

  
Lesson from Everest

I have climbed my mountain, but I must still live my life.
~Tenzing Norgay

Phinjo and I cried with heaving sobs as we clutched each other tightly on the summit, the tears instantly freezing to our cheeks in the minus twenty-five degree air. Phi reverently removed a yellow kata scarf that he had painstakingly printed with our names and the date in English and Nepali and lashed it on to a strand of prayer flags snapping in the wind. The already brutal chill was intensifying and it penetrated and enveloped my body even in the cocoon of my down one-piece suit. I didn’t dare remove my heavy gloves as I rummaged for my camera, knowing that my fingers would become frostbitten if I touched anything metallic in this incalculable wind-chill.

As I removed the tiny Canon from my insulated pocket I was alarmed to see it encased in ice. Evidently, dripping saliva from my oxygen apparatus had seeped into the pocket and frozen solid. I couldn’t believe my luck as I hit the ON button and it came to life, needing only a little persuasion to open the lens cover.

As we took pictures of each other and radioed to Tuck and Jangbu at base camp, it was already time to go. After all the years of planning, training, and sacrifice we stood on the top of the world for a scant ten minutes. At a little past 5 A.M. on May 24, 2008, with one cramponed boot in Nepal and one in Tibet, Phi and I start the descent of Everest’s southeast ridge route realizing full well that our journey was only half completed. We now had to get down with all our fingers, toes and a pulse.

The most dangerous part of this endeavor is the downclimbing, as often there is a psychological let-down of attention post-summit, leading to a missed clip or a stumble with the crampon points and either one can kill you quickly here. The debilitating effect of low oxygen pressure wreaks havoc on accurate decision-making and climbing technique and the more time spent in the “death zone” above 25,000 feet the more risk of cerebral edema, which often kills Himalayan climbers. One moment lucid and the next comatose.

Now bathed in full light of day there was no escaping the gut-tightening exposure as we descended past broken rock and corniced overhangs. The most pressing issue was that we had been running on pure adrenaline for hours as it was simply too dangerous to stop for an energy gel and a swig of water. At first we made good progress but then we had to pass two ascending climbers who were too exhausted to move to the side and give us rope. Time ticked by as we snaked by the down-clad figures bent over their ice axes with heaving lungs, oblivious to anything but their own suffering.

Finally, I follow Phi’s lead, simply grabbed a handful of old ropes and swung down Tarzan-style past the last guy. A slip in any direction would have been our deaths as there was 7,000 feet of air on our right and 10,000 feet on our left. In fifteen years of climbing I had never taken such risks on any mountain and I chastised myself firmly Passing other climbers on the Hillary Step and the South Summit was a shock, “Did I look this bad on the way up?” I asked myself, as people seemed to have a very tenuous grip on reality, and they still had hours to go. The precipices were beguiling and terrible. “No mistakes now, focus on every step and each clip, focus on every little movement, stay alive,” I repeated in my mind.

The fatigue built as we clambered over the lesser south summit. The sun was out and no cloud was visible in the milky blue sky but it was frigid in the gusty wind and my hands alternated freezing as I maneuver the safety loop and carabiner around the anchors. My legs were fine but my arms were so wasted it took all I had to concentrate on these simple tasks which were my only connection to relative safety. We descended mindlessly for hours and I constantly tried to change arm muscles by using a cadre of friction techniques to get down the rope.

I repeated my mantra from other climbs and hikes when I am knackered with fatigue: “The trail never ends.” For some reason this always gives me solace and hope. I had become sunburned here in the troposphere and the oxygen mask had rubbed my face raw in several places. With each labored respiration the mask ground itself into the wounds. My glacier glasses fogged badly, making it nearly impossible to get accurate depth perception. I was hot here and cold there and all at the same time. When I tried to vent a body part, another was chilled. I felt increasing anger and irritation. To top it off Phinjo was way ahead of me. Each step elicited a moan and an epithet.

Two climbers slid up behind me and I guessed they had enough because one of them said, “Dude, you summited, right?” I still did not recognize him in my altitude-addled mind when he said, “Hey, great place for a picture,” and motioned for my camera. Finally in my hypoxic state I realized it was Walter, an Austrian mountain guide. The thought occured to me that I would never have stopped and looked around if Walter didn’t shake my tree.

I focused more on moaning and groaning than looking at the amazing world that I was at the top of. Now I noticed the pristine day, the snow, ice, and rock of the world’s biggest mountain under my boots; I saw Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain on the planet, was on my left, Makalu, the fifth-highest, was on my right. I would be safe! Tears came as I suddenly realized how lucky I was. “I will never be here again so I better look around,” I reasoned.

The past was history and the future a dream and all that existed for me was that second. I was in a beautiful, fascinating place, having an extraordinary experience and I would not miss it. I reminded myself with every step to live in the moment and be aware. On the other hand, I could not linger as a lack of focus on the climbing could and would kill me. It’s the yin and yang of Everest: extreme beauty and death can occupy nearly the same moment. I realized the source of mental irritation at myself and Phi: I was, and had been, utterly terrified. I explained this to Phi at the balcony at 27,500 feet as we shared the first gulp of water in many hours. Phinjo Sherpa, devout Buddhist and five-time Everest summiter nodded in wordless understanding.

~Dr. Timothy W. Warren

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