For all those wondering (who may not follow me on Facebook or Instagram), I am down safe from Mt. Everest, back home, healthy, and recovering. The quick story is that I didn't summit. I got sick and decided to yet again, turn around near the summit.
It's been about a week now since we got to the apex of our summit push. I apologize for not posting as soon as possible but I wanted to make sure me and all of my team had returned down safely before I posted anything. Also, having not made it to the summit again, I needed some time to ruminate on what that meant and how to come to terms with another seemingly-failed attempt. Not the easiest thing to swallow.
But anyways, let's start from the beginning of the summit push, which started on the early morning of the 14th of May.
The forecasts this year were total garbage for the most part, but we had to believe in something and make a foray up to the higher camps to really feel it out and see for ourselves. So within our small team, we decided on the 18-20th as a possible weather window (Just a quick reminder, the summit of Everest is so high that it's nearly pummeled year-round by the jet stream. Somewhere in May, before the monsoon season comes in, this jet stream lifts out of the way. That's when climbers sneak in and snag summits. So all through May, this is what climbers are paying attention to the most in the forecasts, whether the jet stream is there or not).
We decided on those dates a few days before, so that gave us about 2-3 days to pack, organize our gear, and get mentally back in the game. Just 10 days prior we had taken a short break down in Kathmandu to refill our reserves. I had waited 5+ years for this moment, so I was super anxious and excited to get up there and climb this thing. I had slightly injured my ankle a few weeks earlier, but it was all healed and ready to go. No worries.
The night of the 13th (Friday the 13th, to be sure), we ate a delicious steak sizzler from our amazing cook Da Pasang and went to bed early at around 5:30pm. I couldn't sleep. I never can sleep before going through the Ice Fall. It's the one part of the mountain I absolutely dread before going through it. It just feels like a Russian Roulette to me. All season long, all day long, all night long, you hear the thing groan and creak and avalanche and collapse. Most of the time it's nothing that would harm anyone, but sometimes it is...people are just lucky not to be around when it happens. Not to mention climbing through it in the dark of the night. There is nothing more soul-breaking than climbing in the dark through that thing. I hate it. It's cold, bleak, scary, ALL THE THINGS. Watch this for a taste:
Anyways, balance that fear out with excitement for the summit and it ends up okay. Plus, once I get moving and climbing, I'm in my happy place and I'm fine. It's just the build up, more than anything, that I hate.
Day 1 - Base Camp to Camp II
Midnight hits. I wake up. I've got all my layers on, boot liners on, in my sleeping bag, already toasty as hell so that when I exit my tent, I'm not searching for warmth. I throw on all my outer shell layers, strap on my high-altitude boots, activate my hand warmers, make sure my pack is ready and packed, and then go to the dining tent. Everyone except Robert is already there and we get served a quick potato omelet and some toast (and hot tea and water, which fun fact, I can't drink. I just can't drink hot drinks).
Time to go.
I zip up my tent, secure my harness, helmet, hand warmers. Throw on my pack. Chest bump Sangay (my Sherpa climbing partner), throw some rice onto the Puja while he says a little prayer, and then we're off in line with my team up through Base Camp to crampon point. It's about 12:40am, pitch black, and surprisingly warm. I feel great and I'm oddly not scared at all. In the zone.
We arrive mostly as a team at crampon point about an hour in and I think to myself, NICE, already an hour of this Ice Fall climb behind us. One less hour of climbing that I'll never have to do in my life ever again. We all stop on this icy clearing to put on our crampons. All of us except Robert and Barbara, who are a bit behind. They show up just as I've tied on my crampons and we huddle for a big HOOAAHH! cheer (I learn later that Robert is a bit behind because he's fighting a stomach bug that's suddenly making him vomit and "scheizensplatzen").
Up we go. And up, and up. Climbing in the dark is terrifying, but there's also a peacefulness to it. You have your headlamp on so you can only really see a few meters ahead of you at a time, which makes your surroundings a little less noticeable. Before I know it, I'm passing landmarks that are quite a ways up the Ice Fall. Nice! And suddenly, we are traversing from the right of the Ice Fall to the left. I know at this point, there's about a third left to go and then the final headwall up over onto the Cwm. I can see Lysle (team member) and his moving headlamp up above me as a guideline. The break of day hits just as we break out of the Ice Fall and I feel good. I'm about 45 minutes faster than I was the first time through the Ice Fall. Acclimatization has been good to me. I rest about 10 minutes before continuing on, weaving through the massive crevasses before Camp 1.
I get to Camp 1 at around 5:30-5:40am and rest for a good 30 minutes, letting Laura and Ben catch up and eventually overtake me. I'm suddenly cold, but there's no where to take shelter. The only way to warm up is to keep climbing and make my body work...but suddenly I'm also exhausted. I remember thinking that this is strange. I worked efficiently through the Ice Fall and usually I can just keep going at the same pace, but I'm suddenly wasted. I don't want to move, and can't imagine spending another 3-5 hours plodding on to Camp 2. But there's no choice. I have to keep moving.
Right out of Camp 1 are 7 ice walls. You climb down into a crevasse, then back up the next wall, higher than the next. Each has its own difficulty, one with a ladder, another with ice steps, another with a combo of a ladder and steep climb. They are exhausting. But right after them is an "easy" walk to Camp 2. I get through each one as if they are their own mini-Everest, exhausted beyond measure after each. But I make it. And I soon find myself on the home stretch.
Let me explain this "home stretch" a little. You can see Camp 2. It's right there. And the slope up is nothing crazy, just a gradual incline. You're essentially just walking. But for some reason, it is the hardest thing to do. It just never ends, and it tires you out. And me especially this time round...I can't take more than 30-50 steps before I not only have to stop, but drop myself into the snow to just lay there, catching my breath while my Sherpa looks at me (he's totally fine). I quickly accept that I'm basically going to be taking a minimum of 30 of these breaks to get to camp. And by now, the sun is slowly creeping up the Cwm. It's just dozens of meters away from me, but it just won't reach me. I'm freezing, and the sun is just right there. I have an idea that the sun won't hit until an hour from now, so I can't just wait for it or I'll freeze. I need to keep going to stay warm. I'm miserable.
Finally after 7 or 8 hours of climbing from Base Camp, I reach the base of Camp 2. Unfortunately, there's still 100 vertical meters or so to climb in Camp to get to our tents. It's the worst 100 meters of my life. You're just so spent at this point (no matter how fit, tired, or upbeat you are). Luckily, Sangay had radioed ahead and had one of the kitchen boys bring down some juice for me. Absolute LIFE SAVER. Also, thank god, the sun has finally hit and I'm warming up just a little. I sit there and drink the juice, thinking to myself, OK, I'm almost there. Just take your time. No rush.
I muster the strength, throw on my heavy pack, and take the next 10 steps....and then stop and lay down again. Are you serious?? Is that all you've got, Nelson? Apparently so. I take my crampons off and then repeat the process. It's really all I can do. I start to play a little game with myself. Don't sit/lay down until you do 3 or 4 sets of 10 steps. You can stop at each 10 step increment, but only sit/lay down after 3 or 4 sets. Deal? OK. I do that for the next hour until I get within 30 meters of camp. Lysle finally notices me and comes over and gives me some sweets. Thanks bud. He offers to carry my pack the last few meters but I refuse. IM GONNA DO THIS ON MY OWN. 9 hours from our early morning start, I've finally made Camp 2. Kill me.
Day 2 - Rest Day at Camp 2
I spent the whole rest of the day and the next day (15th) doing two things: resting and trying to figure out why I had crashed. My whole team convinced me it was my heavy pack. Just a bit of context on that...one of my sponsors had given me a beautiful VR camera to document my story. I was hell bent on carrying that thing to the summit. Only problem? It weighed about 12 pounds. That may not sound like much, but it's A LOT at altitude (plus it needs a laptop to run, which I was also carrying). I decided, after much difficulty, that I was going to have to ditch the camera at Camp 2. F$#% storytelling, I needed to summit this mountain. If a camera was going to the be the end of my summit push - the very camera trying to capture my summit - there would possibly be no summit to story tell in the end anyways...so. I felt better instantly. No pressure. Just me and my legs. We finished out the rest of Day 2 feeling good, recovered, and strong. All except Robert who was possibly harbouring some stomach virus, still puking and pooping all over (I was somehow the only person worried about this?? HOW?).
Day 3 - Camp 2 to Camp 3
We headed out at around 5ish. Robert and Barbara left a little earlier than us, but I was adamant about starting closer to sunlight hitting just because I needed more warmth. I was quick out the gates to the Lhotse Face. The path to Camp 3 starts by slowly meandering upwards (on an easy incline) out of Camp 2. It's really just a chill walk until you hit the base of the face, which folds into itself like a calzone, aka - the Bergschrund. Things suddenly got steep, and we were suddenly on the fixed ropes. Good. Because I'm better at this than walking anyways. So up we went. Robert leading the pack (and looking good, surprisingly, despite his stomach issues). I remember in 2011 I enjoyed this part of the climb tremendously. It's a 45-60 degree slope with some ice sections here and there, and you just climb up it with your jumar like a steep staircase. A few steps here, a few steps here, and you make incremental progress over the hours. I again, felt great, up until I didn't. I hit a wall about 3 hours in and then suddenly, I was the slowest climber ever. Ben and Laura overtook me on the home stretch, just as we entered the lower part of Camp 3. Getting to our actually camp (a few tens of meters higher), felt like an eternity. I just kept staring at it as it didn't get closer and closer, even though I was taking steps. It actually was getting closer, but man, it just felt like it wasn't. I plopped into camp and just sat there looking out on the beautiful views, in the bright sun, outlooking the Cwm. Stunning. Robert was behind me in great spirits, talkative, and clearly feeling a million times better. Laura and Ben had also made it in and were comfy in their tents relaxing. Lysle was there too - was he even trying?? It was at this point that I knew something was wrong with me. I had climbed the Lhotse Face in 5 hours. Not bad, not great, but not horrible in the grand scheme of things (for comparison IMG was giving their clients a 12 hour time cap to climb that....some weren't making the cut). But I knew, from my pretty obsessive training, that I was performing under par. And with no clue why....just gassed.
I got in my tent and was totally expended. Not to mention it was hot. Especially inside the tent, with three climbers (me, Lysle, and Sangay) just laying there. Within minutes, I was practically naked, begging the outside for a breeze. That was rough. And my breathing was quite labored. I couldn't quite catch it. Despite all that, Lysle and I had a good time in that tent that day just sleeping in the heat, eating our tasty freeze dried meals. It soon became night, and I laid down to rest in my downsuit, in my sleeping bag, squashed between two other dudes. It was the most claustrophobic and uncomfortable sleeping situation I've ever been in. I panicked many times in the night, and probably didn;t sleep a single fucking wink. But eventually it was morning, and Sangay was boiling water already, prepping for our push to Camp 4. UGH.
Day 4 - Camp 3 to Camp 4
No joke, I woke up (didn't really sleep, but okay...) thinking to myself, I'm done. I'm turning back down today. Something is wrong. I don't feel good. But before I knew it, I was putting on my boots, cranking on the oxygen, and getting out of my tent to start climbing. Once I got out of the tent, there was Phil, climbing up (he had joined us after delaying a few days because of a small head cold). Something about Phil, he makes you feel like everything's gonna be okay. I CAN DO THIS, I thought after seeing him. Before I knew it, I was out on the Lhotse Face trail again, plowing up on 2L/min, and at a pretty good pace too. Phil came by me after an hour of climbing and told me I was moving FAST. Nice to hear. I'm moving, and feeling pretty good. The only difficulty is the weather. The winds are UNSTOPPABLE. Blasting with sleet and gusts of around 80-100mph. Not constant, but every minute or so we get blasted by a gust. Maybe it's better higher up? Before long, we had reached the left hand turn on the face where you turn to cross the Yellow Band (a famous feature on the mountain noted by the "yellow band" of rock). I got to the Yellow Band in just under 4 hours, not horrible. Getting up the thing was a lot harder than I had remembered in 2011, but I got on top without much trouble. There was a line of Sherpas ahead of me, which I actually ended up passing. I pressed on.
Next up was a feature I like to call the Geneva Bowl, kind of a bowl shaped ramp that leads up to the Geneva Spur (a jutting rock that stands between the Lhotse Face and the South Col, aka High Camp). Once you get over the Geneva Spur, it's essentially a flat walk to camp...so there's that to look forward to. But this thing is a slow burn. You can see everyone in front of you traversing the bowl, but they just don't make progress. It's slow. To make matters worse, I'm looking ahead and seeing those same people slip and have a hard time. It looks like there is some deep snow up ahead. Not fun.
And then it happens all over again. The crash. I'm crashing again. I'm exhausted. I can't breath. My legs are jello. I want to turn back. Give up. But I know I'm closer to Camp 4 than turning around. And also, I'm almost up at the end of my oxygen bottle (8 hours at 2L/min = empty oxygen bottle). If I turn now, I'll run out of oxygen and then I'll truly be fucked. Dangerously fucked, to be honest. So I continue. I eventually get to that deep snow section I had noticed earlier and it's as bad as I had anticipated. One step and you sink down and slide down the face. You have to violently kick in each step and it's so much more tiring. Not to mention the wind is blowing you over and filling in each bootstep you make before you even make it. 2 steps at a time and I collapse in the snow to catch my breath. I finally swallow my pride and ask Sangay to go first to help me kick in the steps (what a savior). He does. It helps, as long as the wind gusts don't hit, otherwise the steps disappear and I'm on my own.
Finally we reach the steep final section of the Geneva Spur. It's essentially a vertical section, with two ropes to help support you, but the snow is loose and soft. It's going to be a painful battle. This is going to hurt. I know it. But just on top is the home stretch, and then I can rest. So there's that... Laura and Ben are suddenly on my tail, so there's no more wasting time. I need to move. Step by step I hoist myself up. I'm honestly mostly using arms at this point. I pull and I pull, gathering 5-7 steps up at a time (half of them are wasted steps, sliding me back down a bit because of the snow). After 4 or 5 exerting efforts, I'm on the last pull. I see the lip of the Spur and know it'll be the last one. But I just stand there, slouched over in the snow, wishing I was anywhere but here. Breathing my fucking lungs out. This fucking sucks. Why do I do this? Why does anyone do this? Why didn't I just summit the first time? I wouldn't have had to come back.
Okay, enough whining...finish this.
I practically kill myself getting over the lip, but I'm rewarded. There, in plain view, is the final summit pyramid of Everest (with a massive looming lenticular cloud over the top of it) and a nice rock to sit on while my lungs scream for air. Beautiful. I sit there...no, lay there, sprawled on my back trying to find some way to calm my breathing and make the pain go away. It'll take 10 minutes before I'm okay again. And then I get up and walk again. Get blown over by the wind. Lay down. Walk again. Get blown over by the wind....etc. Repeat. For another 30 minutes until I finally see tents....the South Col! .... Only the tents are flapping in the wind, mostly ripped to shreds. What's going on?
I see Phil and he looks at me through his mask and makes a cut-throat signal with his hand. No tents, he screams. Too windy! We have to turn around! Bad weather. All the teams have turned around. Wrong forecast! We have to go. NOW! Um...what? Lysle, Laura, and Barbara are huddled in some random tent (not ours) trying to stay warm. I just plop myself on the ground outside the tent as I continue to get hammered by the 100mph gusts of wind. This is bad. Really bad. My hands start to freeze and I worry if I'll ever be able to warm them again if I stay here. Luckily, Phil makes a final decision and says we are all going down. Now. It's way to dangerous and we can maybe try our luck on a different date. Yeah right, I think to myself. If I go down, I'm done. My trip is over. I don't have the strength to do this all over... sorry. But orders are orders. I turn around and head back to the Geneva Spur. It takes another 15 minutes but I run into Robert, who is still on his way up. He's out of it and completely knackered. I explain to him that Phil has turned us around and that we aren't going for the summit tonight. I try to decide if Robert's relieved or disappointed by the news. At about the same time, I hear Pasang yelling my name from a distance. I turn around. COME BACK! he yells....huh? Okay... I'm skeptical. And a bit annoyed to head all the way back again to the Col, but I do. And it's a good thing I do too, because just after I had left, Phil had apparently changed his mind. The Sherpas had started erecting tents and the plan now was to wait out the storm. According to the forecasts, the winds were eventually going to die down and we would be able to go for the summit one day later, on the 19th.
Fine. Whatever. I don't care. Just get me in a tent.
They first stuff me in a tent with Ben. We get in, and just lay there chuckling to ourselves and at each other as we break off the icicles hanging from our beards. No sooner do I get comfortable, I'm told by a few of our Sherpas that I'm supposed to be in a different tent with someone else (WHO FUCKING CARES, IM EXHAUSTED!). I eventually leave, a move that takes way too much energy, and I finally collapse in my proper tent. I stay there for the rest of the day, half in my sleeping bag, half awkwardly smooshed up against the tent walls as 3 other Sherpas cram in. But at least I'm resting...somewhat.
This is my life right now. 8000 meters above sea-level, cold, in pain, exhausted, stuffed in a tent, with killers winds outside. Waiting. Just waiting.
Part 2 to follow...