Continued from Part I ...
I'm huddled in a corner, half in my sleeping bag trying to keep my toes warm as Sangay and Pemba Shiri are boiling water and taking great care of me. Outside, the wind has quasi-died down, but there are still occasional heavy gusts. The 18th is not going to be our summit day. But possibly the 19th, Phil tells us. So we wait.
My tent mates are kind enough to make me a killer RaRa noodle soup, which I surprisingly slurp up in no time at all (usually I have no appetite at extreme altitude, so this is a good sign). We all get cozy in our sleeping bags, lined up like sardines for the night, in the hopes that we wake up to some pristine weather conditions. I'm sleeping on O's tonight, so my situation feels a little better than the night before at Camp 3. I feel tired, but excited and grateful to be in a fighting position for the summit. It's all hitting me now. I can't believe I'm back here, at 8000 meters in the Death Zone, within striking distance of the summit that has eluded me twice before. It's mine for the taking. I really think I can do it this year. I think, If I was just able to climb for nearly 9 hours on the brink of exhaustion from Camp 3 to 4, in those horrible weather conditions, then getting to the summit will be hard, but just a mental slog. Definitely doable. I can do this!
And then...without warning, I wake up somewhere in the middle of the night, roll onto my side, and then proceed to hack up pieces of my lung (some with traces of blood). WHAT? I make sure to spit out these "pieces" to properly examine them on the tent floor next to me. They definitely don't look normal and it's definitely not just some phlem or something. These are colorless, solid chunks of stuff. The coughing eventually stops and I lay there, wide-eyed, suddenly really worried. I think to myself, This is what early signs of HAPE looks like... And even if it isn't, why is there blood coming from inside of my lungs? There's no good explanation for that. I go back to sleep.
The coughing fits happen about two more times before the morning starts, and while the coughed up sputum is troubling, I don't actually feel bad. Nothing feels wrong or painful. It's just a cough, some objects came up, and there was a bit of blood in it. Other than that, I'm fine. No wheezing, no pain, no discomfort (okay, the exhaustion and labored breathing thing, but hey, I'm at 26,000 ft). What makes things worse is that the morning turns out to be absolutely beautiful and calm. I've never seen such a pretty day on a mountain. Everyone is out and about at the Col, standing outside, smiling, laughing, and....no wind. Not a single gust.
So my thoughts at this moment are:
1. Fuck, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen! Tonight will be a perfect summit day. Can't wait!
2. Fuck, I have blood coming out of my lungs. I'm going to have to descend so that I don't risk getting even more sick, possibly dying. Great...
When the words "lung," "blood," and "HAPE" even cross your mind at high-altitude, there's really only one proper thing to do (that is, if you care about your life), and that's to get the hell out of there. Like, instantly. But I stall. I journal, I do some memory training, I eat another RaRa noodle soup, I talk shit with the Sherpas, I go outside for a quick poop, I take sponsor photos with the summit in the background. But then I go and do the responsible thing and chat with Phil. I tell him what's up and the first thing he asks is if my breathing is crackling/wheezing. I say no, and that my breathing is a bit labored but otherwise fine. It's just those chunks I coughed up...and the blood. Blood, he asks? He wants to see. We go over to my tent and I literally hand him the pieces of my lung and place them in his hand. If that's not enough of a WTF visual for you, then I don't know what is. I think if you were holding some of my lung in your hands, you'd ask me to go see a doctor pronto. So that was that. He tells me to think about it (whether to go down or not) and leaves me for a bit, but we both know that I'm going down.
And then it hits me. It's over. Again. Before I even had a real shot. So quickly, it's just done. I can't believe it. 5 years down the road since I first started on this quest, my third attempt, and I STILL can't fucking climb this mountain. What is wrong with me? I wait for my Sherpas to leave the tent, and then I bawl. Not on purpose, but I just can't hold it together. It's really hard to put everything you've got into something, three times, over the course of years, and then suddenly something out of your control just rips it from your clutches. I'm screaming at the top of my lungs inside of my mind, in frustration. It's the most frustrating thing I've ever experienced. Especially for someone like me. If I have a dream, I train my ass off obsessively, and then I go ahead and achieve that dream. Always. I know that sounds selfish and arrogant, but it's true. I've always prided myself on hard work and getting things done that way. And it always works. Why won't it work here?
I take a deep breath, and let it all wash past me. I'm not going to think this over right now. I need to get down first. Right now.
Phil gives me Nifedipine (for HAPE) and we pack up as quick as possible and start heading down. He's decided he's coming with me to monitor me as I descend, to make sure I get down safe and that my condition improves. I give quick hugs and say some hurried goodbyes to the whole team and then I'm off. Karma Gelgin (aka Vin Diesel) joins us to help carry some of my gear (he was chosen because he actually wasn't feel well too and needed to descend). My oxygen is flowing at 4L/min since I'm going down, just to make it as easy as possible for me. It's a hard thing leaving because I actually feel fine - great actually. But I know that inside my lungs, something is lurking and that it could get instantly worse if I continue up. I turn and face the summit one last time, pause, soak it in, and then turn and bury my head into the task ahead: get down fast and safe.
We hand wrap relatively quick and easy down the Geneva Spur, across the Geneva bowl, and then down to the top of the Yellow Band, before we hit any climbers coming up. But there's a good amount of climbers on their way up the Lhotse Face a bit further below. It could get a bit hairy. As we approach the Yellow Band, suddenly that familiar feeling of exhaustion hits me. It hits me like a freight train and I immediately need to sit down. I can see Phil ahead turn to watch me rest and I know he's thinking that he made the right call. He knows I'm a strong climber, and to be descending on 4L/min and still needing to sit down must mean I'm suffering and that something is very wrong. The Yellow Band proves to be a quick steep hand wrap, but it wrecks me, depleting me of all the energy I have, and I need to sit down again. My lungs are screaming. We slowly continue from anchor to anchor traversing the face, me sitting down every number of steps, trying to catch my breath, trying to dig up another ounce of energy to get me through the next few steps, unclipping and re-clipping around the up-climbing climbers. It's so tiring. Way more tiring than I expected. I'm glad I came down. This would have been really bad had I continued going up.
Down and down we go. Anchor after anchor. Clip after clip. Rope after rope. Rest after rest. It's a slow game but Phil and Vin Diesel are extremely patient with me. But we make progress, bit by bit. And I'm slowly feeling stronger the more we descend. We finally get to Camp 3, where I take a much anticipated 10 minute rest, but we still have a ways to go. I'm thinking of other things, how I'll be home soon, breathing thicker air, eating good food, being with my fiancée. It's exciting. And for a moment it helps me forget the failure. We finally reach the Bergschrund at the bottom of the Lhotse Face, and I'm met with a five-meter high mini-climb back upwards to reach the trail down. Really? I'm supposed to go uphill right now?? It takes me a good 15 minutes to walk up (it couldn't have been more than 30 steps). It was the hardest bloody thing, but once I got on top of it, it was now only a gentle slope down to Advanced Base Camp (Camp 2) of maybe another mile in distance. I take my time, eventually stopping at a clearing halfway to sprawl out on my back, drink a half-liter of water and just lay there. Vin Diesel pulls up next to me and sits down with a big grin on his face. We share a moment. He can't really talk (his voice is almost completely gone) but I ask him if he's disappointed that he isn't going to get to summit this year. With his raspy voice he says simply, "No, if I'm healthy, I'm excited to summit. If I'm not healthy, I'm excited to go down". That's it. And isn't that just how it should be? I should be allowing myself to be excited to go down. I don't feel well and that's that. Nothing else I can do. He also tells me he's excited to see his wife and three children. So we share that moment as well, thinking of the family we have waiting for us back home. I instantly feel better about my decision.
After about 10 more minutes, we stand up and finish the remaining walk. It's painful, but doable. We know we are close and that we'll get a good proper rest in no time. Getting into ABC, Phil is already there in Crocs, relaxing. I take off all my gear, my massive down suit, boots, stinky socks, take some more Nifedipine, crawl into my tent, and pass out. For the first time in five days, I feel safe and happy. The worst is over.
That night was mostly a blur, just from being so exhausted and concerned with my own safety. I knew up above, as the night was winding down, that our team and many others were starting to leave for the summit. Our plan down here was to continue down through the Ice Fall to Base Camp as early in the morning as possible. For one, to beat the heat of the sun in the Ice Fall (which can be miserable) and for two, to continue my rapid descent to improve my health. Although I was tired and my body was aching for sleep, that night at Camp 2 was really difficult. I didn't sleep well at all. I was still coughing really hard (although by this point the Nifedipine had kicked in and my cough was nearly completely dry) and still breathing weird. I slept with oxygen on and off throughout the night. Eventually it was daylight, and Phil was shouting from his tent for me to start getting ready.
At about 6am, we were gone. A little later than we had anticipated, but I had run out of hand warmers and was trying to get my hands warm before we left. It was an ice cold morning. We got down to Camp 1 pretty quickly (less than an hour), but then we hit those 7 walls that lead down to the actual Camp 1 tents. These proved to be challenging for me, again because they each just took all my energy and breath away (literally). At the bottom of each I had to gather myself to find my breath...which then followed by me having to go slightly uphill, which at the time, felt like the end of the world. One by one, I made it up and down...slowly but surely. Eventually we found ourself at the top of the Ice Fall where the big rappel down was (pictured to the left). That wasn't so hard, and I actually had fun doing it. And then the wandering through the Ice Fall began. My last time through it. I was moving slow, but I knew that every step I took was just one closer to safety (and possibly a Coca Cola). I mentally lost myself, just focusing on something entirely different, putting my body on automatic. I wasn't my normal climbing self, but I was moving, and doing all the things I needed to do to get down through that freaking Ice Fall. Before I knew it, two more hours had passed and I was starting to recognize the last few bottom features of the Ice Fall...I knew there was one last rappel and then I'd be in the "safe" zone. Phil had asked Lapsom to meet us at this point with some juice, so there he was. I can't remember what juice it was, but it was canned, and it was maybe red grape? I drank it in two gulps and it was the most satisfyingly sugary thing I could have wanted at that moment. He then offered to carry my bag. I think I loved him then.
The rest of the walk down was a dream, just weaving in and out of ice blocks at the very base of the Ice Fall. We had planned to walk directly to the Everest ER to have my lungs checked out, but we first made a stop at the Mountain Trip camp (Phil knew some Sherpas there) where they offered me a Coke (HELL. YES. BELLS OF GLORY.). I could barely drink the Coke I was so thirsty, I kept coughing it up like a dog who drinks his water too fast. But it was delicious. Absolute gold.
The doctors checked me out. I was fine. My lungs sounded perfect, no fluids in there. So whatever I had had up at the South Col, after descending 3000 meters rapidly and taking drugs, was gone. My lungs were clear. Not the news I actually wanted to hear though. It would have been nice to know that I came down because my lungs were a mess and that I had saved my life. Instead, I just have to assume I would have gotten worse had I continued, but that I caught symptoms of HAPE early enough by coming down quick such that nothing bad happened to my lungs. Or maybe I made a mountain of a mole hill and I was actually fine? I'll never know. The only thing I know is that I was coughing up blood. And that can't ever be good. And that I was oddly exhausted and breathing funny. Okay, yeah, I guess that still sounds pretty bad...
Phil and I go back to camp and I feel relieved to be safe and relatively back in comfort. Da Pasang makes a delicious meal for us and now it's just a waiting game. Wait for my team to summit (finger's crossed) and then wait for them to come down so we can all chopper out together as a team. The day transpires as normal, with some radio chatter that our whole team successfully summited and is doing well on their way back to Camp 4. SUCCESS! I go to bed early, being tired and all, and I just lay in my tent trying to process the last 24 hours.
And then Phil wakes me up...
He asks me to run to the neighbors to ask if they have radio connection with Camp 4. Something's wrong. He thinks Robert, one of our climbers, is stuck at Camp 4 in a really bad way and he's trying to communicate with him to figure it out. The neighbors don't have any radio comms with C4 at the moment so I run back down to Phil, who's in the kitchen tent by the radio, speaking with Lysle (another team member) who is at Camp 2 (he had descended all the way from the summit that afternoon) relaying messages from the rest of the team at Camp 4. For whatever reasons, the radios weren't working very well. This can happen, as Base Camp is tucked away out of sight from the summit. Camp 2 gets a better signal, hence why the communication has to be relayed. NOT the best way to communicate. Well, it technically is the best way to communicate - the only way, really - but it's not always the most reliable.
Anyways, everything quickly is revealed to me: Robert summited (along with the rest of the team), but he took the longest and was in "critical" condition back at the South Col. Apparently he had collapsed on his descent, and had been minutes from death before he was administered Dexamethasone (not sure on the details here, but I think by an IMG guide who was nearby). "Dex" is essentially a "come back from the dead" drug. Something you take to help you come back to life so you can get down off the mountain in an extreme crisis. This was an extreme crisis. The only issue was that it was now night time. No one was going anywhere until morning. From our broken communication, we learn that Robert is in "critical" condition, being taken care of by Ben, Laura, and Barbara, all huddled together in the same tent.
I'm not going to go into the details of what he was going through, considering I wasn't there. Since Robert, THANKFULLY, is still alive, you can read his own account of it all HERE.
The whole night was a blur. Phil and I manning the radio, trying to figure out what options there were. Essentially, there were none. As Phil told me many times that night, Robert was as good as dead. It would be a miracle if he made it through the night. And even if he did, he'd need a large team of Sherpas to help him down. Risk 10+ Sherpa lives for one? That's a tough ethics questions... So there we were, basically trying to figure out how to accept the fact that one of our teammates was going to be dead by morning. Heavy. Robert's a good friend of mine; a great guy. We climbed (and failed) together in 2013 on the north side of Everest. All I can think of is the last thing he said to me when I said goodbye to him at Camp 4, after having explained to him that I was going back down and that my climb was over. I'm jealous.
I have to commend Phil on his perseverance. Even though he knew the situation was bleak and that there was nearly nothing he could do, he was still devising plans. Some were absolutely fucking insane plans, but you have to hand it to the guy for not giving up. He was going to try everything in his power not to let Robert die. I think one idea he had was to be long-lined in to Camp 3 (as high as a chopper can realistically go with an extra passenger), jump out, speed climb up to Camp 4, and then save Robert? If you don't know what long-lining is, please OBSERVE. Um, yeah.
For whatever reasons, Robert luckily felt better the next morning and descended. Took him the whole day and with the help of an entire crew of Sherpas (and Ben, who ended up getting frostbite on his toes), but he made it, and is now recovering back home in Nebraska.
As for me, the next morning I was still coughing up "things" and feeling immensely out of breath. I didn't want to take away from the situation that was going on up high (Robert was a big priority), but my own health was of concern too. I was worried about the fact that I wasn't feeling 100% down at Base Camp. With my history of lung issues and blood clots, I wanted to make sure I was fine and not in trouble. That meant I needed a chopper and that I couldn't afford to wait a few days for the rest of the team to descend. Thanks to the Global Rescue folks (I can't stress enough how amazing these guys were. If you are ever traveling anywhere remote, unsafe, questionable, PLEASE buy their rescue insurance. They will extract you in a heartbeat if you need it. It's worth it.), I texted them and after a series of questions, they agreed that I needed to get to the Kathmandu clinic ASAP. They were at the BC helipad within the hour. I quickly packed my duffels, emptied my tent, hugged as many Sherpas as I could, said bye to Phil, and was out of there. I brought Sonam (a climbing Sherpa from our team) with me as he had some severe frostbite on both his hands (he had been to the summit the day prior).
The heli flight was a memory in itself. Ryan Skorecki, who was being filmed all season for an Everest helicopter Discovery Channel show, was our pilot and had just completed his second trip up to Camp 2....in some of the worst weather he'd ever flown in. The clouds had just swooped in and visibility was nil. This continued down the valley on our flight as we navigated just meters above the river that flows down the valley, following it down to figure out the way. It got so bad that at one point he literally "parked" the chopper on the side of a river bank and waited until the fog cleared. This was a kind of hilarious sight because he just plopped the chopper down in the middle of some local village path. Locals were suddenly like "um...why is there a chopper in my back yard?" We hung out there for about 30 minutes, drinking tea, chatting about how one gets their pilots license, and then we were off again. The sky had cleared, so we made a straight shot to a small grass field just below Lukla. Grabbed a tea there, swapped choppers, and headed all the way to Kathmandu.
Once we landed, we went straight to the clinic. I was evaluated and tested real quick, only to find that I had indeed suffered from HAPE, but actually also a bit of HACE as well. Luckily, because of Phil's speedy decision-making and our quick descent, I was doing really well. No fluid in my lungs. X-ray, EKG, blood work, all looked good. But I would need a follow up CT scan back home. For now, I was safe. The Hyatt and some Butter Chicken Masala was calling my name.
And that, folks, was the end of my 2016 Everest attempt. I spent another two days in Kathmandu, buying some last minute gifts, eating food, and soaking in the culture one last time. I got on my flight after that and was home a day later, in the arms of my lovely fiancée and family. I couldn't have been happier. There's plenty more to say about this season, but I'll need some proper time to reflect on it first. For now, I leave you with that story and with the short update that I'm doing well and getting my CT scan shortly. Already back at the gym, sore as hell, and trying to gain back those 37 lbs I lost (I'm already back up 15!).
Thanks again for all who followed and supported me. I've had so many nice comments and supportive messages over the past week, it's been so positively overwhelming. Thank you!
I think this will close up this 2016 Everest blog. I will add pictures and videos that I edit over the next few weeks from the climb (I have some awesome content), and eventually a 360 VR experience of my whole expedition. My normal "everything" blog will resume back at http://www.nelsondellis.com/my-blog, so make sure you switch over to that to hear my post-climb thoughts and everything else related to memory and mountains in the future.
Logging off. Cheers!