On Top of the World (Everest Update).
Dear friends & ARK Everest donors,
I am VERY happy to report on a successful climb to the top of Mt Everest, on the 25th May. I am also happy to say my health, which delayed this report, is doing much better.
I write below the short account of my week climbing Everest. As you will see, there have been many difficult times. Through these painful slow hours, YOUR support and the educational cause we are fighting for were a huge source of encouragement to me: THANK YOU!
The below story reflects only my perception of facts, but it involves other people and organization who may wish to keep their privacy, so please keep these lines for yourself.
Friday 19 May
This is the day. The summit weather window has been confirmed for 24-25 May, we are leaving this night at 2am to get into position higher up on the mountain. I am excited. But also, I am tired. I have not recovered well from previous rotations. I have a lingering chest infection, which antibiotics should terminate within a few days and a persistent, dry cough.
I spend the day preparing my pack. So many potential equipment combinations but always the desire to minimize weight! I write the names of the biggest ARK Everest donors on my summit flag. That gives me a boost. So much support. I also prepare a 'Love you sign' for my girlfriend for a summit shot. I really have to make it to the top!
I chat with the ARK scholars on Facebook. As I tell them, being tired is irrelevant, now is not the time for feelings, it's been a 10 year quest and it's all about execution.
I go to sleep, the night is hot and I can hear the cracking sound of the Ice Fall seracs coming down in the distance.
The wild beauty of base camp on a snowy day (ie every day).
1.30am: Breakfast, I am ready, 2am departure. We cross base camp to reach the Ice Fall (5300m). The glacier is quite different from last time, it has been melting a lot.
Reality hits me in the mouth. I am slow, I am out of breath, I have no energy. I need to stop regularly to cough violently. I am afraid I am going to puke, I cannot eat anything. My friend Cesar, an amazing 60-year old Guatemalan, overtakes me easily. First time since we met.
My head starts thinking: how can I even consider climbing Everest in that shape? My sherpa, Pemba is clearly worried too. "Pemba, sorry I am slow, but I'll be ok - just don't wait for me in the dangerous spots, feel free to run ahead".
What can I do? Just don't give up. Don't give up. I think about the ARK scholars and the message on my summit flag. Never give up.
6.00am: I should be approaching Camp 1. I am about half-way. "Just don't quit".
8.30am: I collapse at Camp 1 (6,000m). I am lying on the snow. Pemba brings me some water. I am supposed to carry on to Camp 2.
John, a guide from IMG, evaluates my situation: "you have let yourself fall behind the energy curve, you need to eat & drink, and you will have to stay here for the night"
I spend the day drinking, eating and sleeping, sharing a tent with Cesar. I practice 'mind over matter' mantras trying to convince my body that there is no need to cough or be tired. My coughing does drop.
Negotiating the treacherous Ice Fall and its ladders to reach Camp 1
6.00am: Departure to camp 2. I feel better. I have energy, I am moving. I can keep up with Cesar. At least the first 2 hours. Then suddenly I hit a wall. Feels like yesterday all over again. An avalanche has covered the trail with massive ice blocks. I am glad I wasn't there when this happened! I put on music, seeking motivation. The long slope to Camp 2 seems interminable. But 'hey, as long as you keep moving, eventually you will get there'.
11.00am: I collapse in the dining tent at Camp 2. I wonder how this climb is going to work out. If we have to go for Camp 3 tomorrow, it's going to be tough. If only we could get an extra day of rest here.
And so it is, the weather seems better on the 25 than the 24, so we will stay one more day at Camp 2. This is my chance! Drink, drink, eat, inhalations, honey tea, mental motivation and again.
The ondulating Western Cwmb, between Camp 1 and 2 (thks James for the pic)
Rest day for us. Summit day for IMG Team 1, about 10 climbers of which many friends. At breakfast we learn they all summited. We are so happy for them. At lunch, they are all back down to South Col, this seems to be an amazing success. In the afternoon, we hear on the radio one of the climbers has fallen unconscious at the yellow band (~7,500m). An IMG rescue team goes up. Another climber has breathing problems. Another climber is involved in the rescue of someone from an other expedition. Meanwhile helicopters keep coming to Camp 2 to evacuate people (helicopters can only fly to camp 2 for rescue purposes). We hear about frostbites, people running out of oxygen. The mood is more somber. IMG climbers arrive one by one into Camp. The next one is always in a worse shape. Pain & speed are inversely correlated in the mountains. By 7pm, a Scandinavian friend and Arctic rescuers stumbles into camp and breaks in tears: "North pole, South Pole, that's easy. This mountain, that's the real tough thing".
Climbers compare their stories, it seems they all passed a few lost climbers from other teams on their way, and are trying to figure out which one fell on the rocks, which one was already unconscious, which one could be saved maybe, etc... It's all very intimidating. "I am young, healthy, experienced, and I am climbing with the best team in the world so there is nothing to fear". Eventually the whole team is back down and everyone is in one piece.
4.00am: Departure to Camp 3. We put on the altitude suits. I am the first to leave with Pemba. I am going to eat this mountain! I am quickly overtaken by other climbers, but not Cesar. I have juice. Coughing is regular but ok.
6.00am: We get to the Bergschrund, the giant crevasse at the bottom of the Lhotse face, and the little passage that climbers use to get through it. This passage is a giant snow funnel. All the snow of the face comes down through there. It's like climbing a vertical ice wall with a fire hose in your face. But I knew it, I was prepared and it's actually fun! First time I am having fun in a while.
Ok we are now on the Lhotse face. Can someone stop the fire hose of snow please? It's actually very windy and the wind is pushing snow down the 1,500m face. And I am at the bottom. Keep climbing, it's going to get better. Kind of. The wind is actually getting stronger. We have to stop and bend over to protect ourselves during the gusts. Then make 10 steps during calmness. And again. Cold hands. I like steep alpine faces, but I have to admit that after an hour or two of this fight, my pleasure is limited. We play this game for 5 hours. Camp 3 is near. But I am almost going to bonk. Can't take it anymore. Sharon, an Australian climber just behind me, decides to kick me: "get up, don't stop, come on, chest up", she makes me smile. Thank you Sharon, just don't do this ever again.
Going up to camp 3 (thks James for the pic)
Eventually I stumble in a tent at Camp 3 (7,200m). I made it. In a decent time for the first time this week. Something in me wakes up and says maybe I have a shot at the summit! I am later joined by Dan, a fellow climber and we get a bottle of oxygen to share for the night. That's definitely going to help. The winds don't stop. The tent is perpendicular to the face, so the snow falls on its side. I don't have the strength to go and dig it out, and I am sleeping on the upper side of the tent. I can feel the snow accumulating on my side and slowly covering my sleeping bag. Strangely, the feeling of being warm and protected in these hurling winds is quite pleasurable. Me and my equipment are stronger than this, we can make it. Tucked in my suit and my -40 sleeping bag, I mentally prepare for the following day. It's a big day: in the morning we are going to Camp 4 at 7,900m and then in the evening we leave for the summit push. We have reached an altitude where the body lacks appetite, you have to force yourself to eat. For dinner, I eat a noodle soup. The water, melted ice, has not been boiled. I look outside the tent and I see a team of sherpas lowering an 2m long, tubular plastic bag down the ropes of the face. Not sure who that is and what happened. Gloups.
2.00am: Damn. I need to poo. I try to negotiate with myself. I really don't have a choice. I dress up and crawl out, the tent is on a 30 degree slope and I don't have my crampons on. Scary but magnificent out there. I do what I have to.
5.00am: Getting ready has become increasingly complicated, due to the cold and the oxygen mask, which obstructs movements and visibility. No appetite. I drink a bit and eat one cereal bar. Let's go.
6.00am: I leave with Pemba. The long plastic bag has actually been left here for the night, attached to the climbing ropes. Nevermind. I am ready, I can do this. I move well. I can feel the extra weight of the oxygen bottle (+10kg) but it's a world of difference in terms of breathing. 1 breath 1 step. That's 5x better than yesterday! I can see the 'yellow band', a landmark rock formation found in the Himalaya on very high peaks. This is where things get serious (7,500m). Exciting. I still move well. I drink often in small quantities to prevent my sore throat from burning. I shovel cough drops to keep the system lubricated. Eventually, I get dry and my cough picks up. Nevermind, we have crossed the yellow band and are now in sight of the famous Geneva spur, a second, steep rocky outcrop on the face (7,800m). Behind the spur lies the South Col, motivation is high. It feels special to be climbing on such famous ground. On rocks that have fueled so many climbing stories since George Mallory first came here in 1921.
12.30am: we come around the Geneva spur and suddenly the South Col (7,900m), its monstrous blue glacier and the distinctive Everest pyramid appear in full force. Wow.
South Col, the glacier, the Triangle face of Everest
1.00pm: South Col, a dip between the Everest pyramid and the Lhotse summit. You might as well call this: a wind tunnel. It blows hard. It's cold and brutal. We can hardly hear each other. About half the tents I see are simply destroyed, disheveled, battered by the winds. Items lie everywhere, halfway buried into ice. Life is too precarious here for people to worry about garbage. Still, we ought to do something to clean this mess. I have conducted clean up missions in the past at other camps. Well ok, right now I have bigger problems. Let's get in a tent and hydrate. I am later joined by Cesar and Patrick. Great. Sounds like a good team.
3.00pm: The Sherpas as usual take on themselves to bring us water and the next bottle of oxygen. Without these guys, normal people like me would have a tremendously tougher time on this mountain, maybe even would not make it at all. They pull so much work and always with a smile. I have the deepest respect for Sherpas and their culture. The winds are bending the tent hard. Patrick gets out of the tent and comes back: "guys if you have things to do outside, do it now, it's getting real cold". Damn. I do have to go. Why does diarhea always kick in the worst places? I spare you the details, but it's complicated. Big suit, many layers, gloves, high winds... In a few minutes my whole body is cold. I curse myself for not having pre-emptively taken immodium. Immediately corrected, I take enough to plug a horse. Back in the tent. Going through my backpack, preparing all the little things for tonight. The winds are so strong, it would be madness to go climbing in this weather. Our guide informs us that the wind are supposed to drop and that we will depart for the summit when they do, somewhere between 9pm and 11pm.
I realise that my summit bottle of oxygen has been smashed, one cannot read how much is left anymore. With the sherpa we try to change it. Communications are difficult. With the three of us in the tent, there are quite a few bottles and a ton of equipment, it's confusing. I need to drink. I think about it for a while and I fall asleep. I am clearly weak and tired. "I didn't want to tell you, but you really looked like sh#t in the tent" said Cesar afterward.
8.30pm: "Guys, get ready, we leave at 10pm". Wow. It's still blowing hard out there. And it actually takes me 1h30 to get ready. Everything is so slow. Fiddling with my water I wet my glove liners. Unusable anymore. I have Raynaud's syndrome which means blood circulation shuts down in my hands and feet at mild temperatures (5-10 degree celsius). So frostbite is my fear number one. Wet liners are probably worse than no liners, I tuck them in my suit, hoping they will dry overtime.
10.00pm: Time to leave. I realise I am leaving with the oxygen bottle whose indicators are smashed. Maybe it's half empty? Lack of oxygen is #1 cause of death up there. No time to chat, we go. I know there is a resupply of oxygen half-way through the Triangle face of the Everest. At least the winds have calmed down a lot.
10.30pm: We walk up on the blue ice that makes the South Col glacier. Beautiful. For hundreds of meters above me, small headlamps dangle in the snow. They are not in front of me, they are above me. Damn, it must be steep.
11.00pm: I get on the face. Ok it's steep, but manageable as it is good snow. But my god, there are still headlamps far far above me. How tall can this mountain be? My breathing is clearly impacted by my lung condition, I am so grateful to be climbing on a high oxygen flow rate provided by IMG.
1.00am: Still climbing the same snow slope. "If we keep going like this, we are going to reach the highest point on this planet" I think ironically. Yes we are. But it hurts. I think about my friends, my family, the ARK donors, all the people who have supported me so far, I need to keep going, for me and for them.
2.30am: Finally we reach the 'Balcony', a small flat area people use to rest. I start to believe I can make it to the summit. Change bottle, eat, drink, put on the glove liners. Start again. I am now just behind an IMG guide. Amazing, that means I am moving well. I try to contain my cough. I would hate them to turn me around.
4.00am: The horizon appear, delineated by a thin, long, curved red line. It feels like I am in a transcontinental flight westward and we are running into the sun. Except I am the plane. The day is coming, huge moral boost.
The day is coming, view behind: South Col and Lhotse (thks James for the pic)
4.30am: The big pile of snow is running out. I finally see the sky behind the next rope anchor. Indeed we are reaching the South Summit. 8740m. And the famous summit ridge appears with its many steps and bumps.
Everest summit ridge and Pemba Sherpa
Never seen anything so beautiful in the mountains. Quick break and we go again. I love this terrain. Steep, big drops on each side, mix of rock and ice. This is what I do every summer in the Alps. I finally get to enjoy this! And the prize is there. At each new bump of the ridge in front of us, I turn back and ask Pemba: "is this the summit?", "no, after after". This little game continues. But we are getting closer. Emotions start to grow in my chest. I am going to make it. Most accomplishments in life are diffused through time. Mountains don't. They are impossible for a while and then it hits you in the chest. I think about my girlfriend. The depth and intensity of my feelings for her are coming out. When you squeeze the hardest, you get what is deepest inside. She is certainly there. It reminds me of this quote from H.D. Thoreau: "Wen you achieve your dreams, it's not about what you get but who you have become". By going so far out of home and out of myself, I have uncovered many things about my feelings, my ambitions and the projects I have for my life. I know this trip will change my life.
6.00am: The summit is right there. With a few friends and fellow climbers on it. I cry. Thankfully, we are wearing opaque masks and I can take all my time to cry out my deliverance. I savour the moment. I take pictures, I am so PROUD of my ARK flag, its message and it feels like I share this moment with all the ARK donors.
6.20am: For all its beauty, this is not a place to stay. The point of this climb is not the summit, it's getting home alive. And right now, I have never been further from home nor in a more dangerous place. Let's focus and go down!
The way down
Most people die on the way down. Makes sense: you spend all your physical and most importantly all your mental energy going as far as possible. By construction, you are exhausted but only halfway. I know this. So let's focus. The purpose is to reach Camp 2 at 6,500m by the end of the day.
10.00am: I am back down to Camp 4, fairly tired and dehydrated. Following a confusion at Camp 4, I keep going down with only 0,5L of water. The descent will then be for me a story of exhaustion, deep dehydration, stumbling and crawling. With dehydration, my cough gets out of control. Lumps start coming out of my lungs. Sometimes they get stuck. I can't breathe. But I know my survival only relies on me getting lower and lower. By 6pm I reach 6700m, the bottom of the Lhotse face. Fura, a sherpa I had sympathized with on a previous expedition leads a rescue team and brings me water and oxygen. I am in safe hands.
7.00pm: I reach Camp 2. We get doctors on the radio, sounds like high altitude pulmonary edema to them. I have all the right medicine with me and with supplementary oxygen, I will be fine. I share a tent with Patrick who is roughly in the same condition. We care for each other. Camaraderie is the salt of climbing.
After a day of rest, we go back down to Base Camp and subsequently fly by helicopter to Kathmandu as a fast descent from high altitude is essential to curing my condition. Best flight of my life :-)
THANKS to all you of you, we have raised just under $8k, which will enable full university scholarship for 4 bright, disadvantaged kids, who can in turn live and spread our motto like a snowball: "Dream big, train hard, never give up!"