The Summit Bid

By Owen West

Westwrite, 01/10/2001


23 May: Summit Day 27,250 Feet to 28,100 Feet

Chris lets out the wakeup call at 2330 and “Good morning Everest!” comes through the radios. You and your mates haven’t really slept, though, so it is more kickstart than crank. All the clients except Marco and you are asked if they want Sherpas to carry an oxygen bottle or two up the ridge. Also, if you feel uncomfortable or weak, they have short ropes to help. Everyone declines except Naoki. The schoolyard code is different in some people. It takes an hour to melt your liter of water so when Asmus fires up the stove you begin sipping your full bottle so it will be empty when the refill comes.

You’re wondering why you are preparing to depart over 2 hours before you’ll actually step off into the black; hell, you’re wearing your down suit, gloves, inner boots, etc. already. All you have to do is throw on the big boots, strap on the crampons, plug in the Oxygen, sling the pack and you’re off. But when you reach down to tie your boots you figure it out. It takes you thirty minutes to tie them, resting between the heavier pulls.

At 0145 you step outside the tent in full battle dress. You’re wearing a layer of polypro long underwear, a fleece top, and your huge down suit. Your hands are protected by two layers of wool and a gortex shell. You have two thick balaclavas and your fat hood. Your feet have a thin pair of liner socks and the best boots on the market. On your back, you’re carrying three 10 pound bottles, a space blanket, an extra glove, and a ski pole. Tucked inside your suit next to your body you have 2 liters of water and two cameras. In your hands, your ice axe in one and your jumar ascender in the other. You stagger over to the others and clip into a rope, then you look toward the ridge. You have to tilt your head back and back because the cliff you’re about to climb just goes up and up. And up. A line of headlamps from the climbers (the other teams who departed ahead of you) forms a jagged ‘Z’ on the giant wall, nearly vertical, and you can’t believe how steep it is.

Your thought: I can’t believe I’m about to climb a 700 foot rock cliff in crampons at 27,000 feet. You’re feeling warm but it’s impossible to tell if it’s the ambient temperature or nerves. In fact, you’re feeling downright hot and you strip off your gortex gloves and unzip your suit, reaching for your headlamp. A weak beam pokes its way out from below your hood and illuminates a small, three foot cone as you turn back to the group. They’re looking up at the ridge. “Man, that’s steep Daddy O,” says Ellen. “Fucking A,” is all you can say without revealing the shakiness.

The group huddles together and, headlamp beams cutting across each other, you have an electric feeling of esprit de corps: total trust in all of them (save one) and total pride in even being part of this strong team. This is it. All that work–and 2 months–for the next 6-8 hours. And what great weather! No wind, pretty warm (about minus 10). Easy day. Finally you’re here. You believe that much of life is preparing for opportunities you cannot yet see, and now you are in position to take full advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime. They’ve told you that the casualty rate on the north side of 10% does not apply to this team and, feeling their back slaps and returning their muffled, “Good luck”s and “Be safe”s and “Nice and steady”s, you believe it. You sense the danger–it’s palpable–but in no way to you believe the odds apply to you. It’s the other guy who just sits down and dies. NFW it happens to you. Or your teammates.

Andy steps off into the black and his light quickly gains altitude. Since Marco is not yet out of his tent (he’s the fastest client) you take second place, thirteen others behind you in a file, a mix of Sherps, clients and guides. There is no wind and you can hear the faint hiss of the oxygen somewhere beneath your big inhalations. It’s scary. It’s cool. You’re on 4 liters/minute flow–twice what you’ll use once you crest the ridge and stop the radical height gain–and you feel strong. Andy is 6’4” so you try to keep track of every hand/foot hold he uses along the rocky route, mimicking him. You’re world view has narrowed into a three foot cone of light and after you make the mistake of glancing off to your right–nothing but a sheer 7,000 foot plunge into the black–you make damn sure to keep your eyes pointed just on the next section of cliff to your front.

Andy’s big back comes into view and you see his oxygen gauge reads 5. It’s supposed to read 25. “Andy,” you gasp. “Your tank is only reading five.” He shakes his head and says, “No, it’s four,” then strikes off. It takes your brain a full ten minutes to process this statement and realize that he’s talking flow rate instead of total level. You tap him on the leg during a rest stop. “No, I meant that you only have 5 showing on your gauge. In your tank. Your bottle is almost empty already.” He is surprised by this and waves for you to pass him, then he heads back. You are never sure if he replaces the bottle or just continues on, one short.

So for a short time–it feels like thirty minutes but it’s probably five–you are leading the entire team up the cliff toward the ridge, following faint crampon tracks where there’s snow and a series of frayed ropes where there’s rock. You are way, way out of your league and the adrenaline surge is like an electric current, every muscle and tendon tensed and rigid, eyes wide, head swiveling with the chin tilted way back so you can see the route. You’re relieved when Chris passes right by you with an “I got it” and continues up. He’s moving well. You pick up the pace to stay close to him, second again and loving it. The cliff starts to crack when you pass the yellow band and you’re so focused on angling up through these narrow channels that you almost miss one of the most awesome natural sights you have ever seen.

Fifty or hundred miles away in Nepal a heat lightning storm is flickering in concert, illuminating the tops of the black clouds below you for miles and miles, twenty mile sections at a time. “Look at that,” you say. “Pretty wild. Looks like artillery.” Chris turns his head and nods. “Just awesome.” His axe is shaking in his hand; he’s either cold or just as scared as you are. Well, no, but maybe half as scared as you are, which is pretty goddamn terrified. “Let’s get moving,” he says. You don’t hesitate. Time on a tight rope is best when it’s short.

Chris is climbing quickly but you feel strong enough to hang right behind him. You climb up onto a narrow ledge and there are two people just sitting there, resting, blocking the route, hanging on the fixed line. Chris exchanges some words–why’d they pick this exposed edge to rest–and unclips from the rope in frustration, moving off to the right without protection, circling around them. If he slips he’s gone. Jesus! Now he’s already climbing again and Ellen has caught up to you, asking you to keep moving. It’s only about fifteen feet–and Chris has chopped some steps into a thin track of snow for you to follow–but you can feel the void. You hesitate–processing risk/reward, why am i here, what is this worth, can i do this–and in fewer than five seconds you have unclipped as well and are free climbing. You ppass the two men and you hear an Aussie accent. You get along very well with all the Aussies and Kiwis and you think, “That’s a bad sign, resting so early. It’s like sitting down at Mile 15 of a marathon. Long way to go.” That guy could be one of those people who make up the 10% if he doesn’t get moving faster but, then again, what the hell do you know?

Hours later that Aussie–who everyone agrees was a great guy–sits down and dies. You hear he was thirty-two-years-old.

You’re climbing fairly well (moving with Chris but with much more effort because you are not nearly as skilled) when your oxygen tube snags on a crag. You’re on an exposed pitch and your jumar is extended to the full length of the web sling; you cannot back up to free the snag without freeing the jumar so you lunge, but now your foot has slipped down onto a small ledge and you’re leaning back hard on the rope, breathing machinegun-style to recover, now falling sideways hard onto a small spire, the rope popping free of an outcropping and scraping along the face, sending you into a gulley, twisting around on the face where Ellen’s headlamp beam–and the blackness that points to a glacier 8000 feet below your heels–greets you.

“Let me help you Daddy O,” she says, moving quickly to free my tube and place my crampon on a sturdy foothold. In seconds you’re moving to catch Chris, but without Ellen you’d still be dangling on that face. It’s not the first time you’ve owed her. When you pass the anchor you fell so hard on–a series of ropes connected to a single piton wedged into a crack–you see it rotating and trembling under the strain of the climbers below you. Worse, most of the ropes are frayed and one of them is as thin as a piece of yarn. You’re never too far away from the other side of the razor on this hill.

You reach a bulge in the rock and you’re trying to remember how Chris tackled it when you feel a sharp slap in the ass. Marco passes you on the right, unroped, and he’s FLYING up the cliff, so much faster than anyone you’ve seen that it’s almost surreal. “Salut Big Pimp!” he laughs. “Bon Chance!” The kid must have cruised past all thirteen of you like this, totally exposed to the danger, no ropes, no fear. He’s moving so fast that he and the sherpa who’s carrying the snowboard are out of your sight in about five minutes, but not before you scream, “Get some, Little Pimp!” You believe he will die–and so does the rest of the team–but everyone has tried convincing him not to try this and gotten nowhere; on his final push, the last thing Marco needs to hear is another “be careful!” or “only one life, Marco.” He pumps his fist and disappears over a spire. Marco Siffredi reaches the summit in a blazing four hours, at 0600, unheard of for the north side. He waits a full thirty minutes before anyone else joins him, then gets his snowboard strapped on, and hops toward the edge of the north face itself. Later, you will hear about a video tape made by south side summiters filming who haven’t heard about Marco. As he approaches the cliff they can be heard screaming, “NO! NO!”

Then Marco Siffredi leaps over the edge and disappears.

Just before you crest the northeast summit ridge, after about 2 hours of climbing (you guys are flying!), you suddenly feel nauseated. You tell Chris and he gives you two anti-nausea pills. Five minutes later it is all you can do to rip your mask free before you vomit all over your boots; it freezes in red streaks (tomato soup mix) across your black boots before it can drip free. Two problems now. First, you’ve just spent a few seconds exhaling and you cannot move before you get some oxygen back. You hyperventilate and the headrush slowly abates. You’re ready to climb on. After all, you’ve puked before many times in endurance events–just a function of blood flow and stomach contents and exertion–and it never slowed you. But the larger problem is the loss of fluid. All that effort Asmus spent melting the gold and now you waste it feeding your boots. It’s irritating but it’s not easy to think up here, so you write it off and keep climbing.

Chris is waiting for you on the ridge. You notice the little red light first–he’s filming–and when you step up next to him he says, “Welcome to the northeast ridge.” It’s about ten feet wide and a quarter mile long, bordered on the south by a cornice that runs the length of the ridge and has taken several lives (if you drift too far out near the lip you’ll likely punch through, rocketing 7,000 feet down the vertical Kangshung Face to your demise) and on the north by a tiny shale rock band into which an axe or a crampon spike will not sink if you drift and fall over the edge; from there it’s a 10,000 foot ride to glory. The ridge is not comfortable at ten feet–you feel like you’re just steps away from a fall…well, you are–and you wonder how terrifying it will be when it narrows to 14 inches. You begin finding a place to change bottles but Chris puts his hand on your chest. “You’re moving slowly. Let some others pass.”

You’re surprised to hear this but he’s right: Ellen and Kieron are right behind you, waiting. You lean back against a rock wall and grab Ellen’s jumar, clipping it onto the rope in front of you. “What’s wrong?” she asks. “Not feeling so good,” you say. “Go ahead.” She hesitates–Ellen likes following in the size 13 tracks and she’s stayed right behind you from the moment you departed ABC for the summit–then nods sadly and pushes past. You don’t want to waste time on summit day, let alone that narrow northeast summit ridge. You start moving again after the bottle change and the nausea is a tad worse.

You vomit again and take a knee, gasping. At just over 28,000 feet it takes you a few minutes to recover. Now you’re worried. Not for your life–for the summit. In the haze that is thought process at altitude, you think about fluid levels. You have two liters in your suit. You’ve lost maybe a liter already to vomit, and maybe another two pints to the exertion/sweat. You start moving again along the ridge and some of the sherpas pass you. The ridge narrows and you take your time, sticking close to the rock band, loathe to step out too far onto that cornice. Karsang, who’s humping Naoki’s gear, passes you. Naoki follows right behind. (later, Karsang will attach his short rope and literally drag Naoki up the hill) This is the mother of bad signs; You have been faster than Naoki–to the tune of several hours–since the climb began. What the hell is wrong?

You vomit once more but it’s just a small strain of bile that gives you another vicious headrush on its slow ascent up your parched throat. You are concerned that nothing came up. You are concerned that you’re still throwing up. You are concerned with your pace. Is the coolant tank empty? When you start moving again, you’ve fallen back to the tail end, another bad sign. Now you’re moving at a new speed. What are you doing back here? I belong up front, you think. Andy and Asmus are playing tail-end charlies, guiding Jaime. You’re at the end of the file with them. Asmus doesn’t like the way you are moving and he says, “You’re worrying me, man. You don’t look good.” You move for a few minutes before you realize that you have passed a decision point without actally making one: procrastination is not a decision, especially up here.

The decision isn’t hard–you’ve made promises to your wife and yourself about required fitness levels to go for the summit and you simply aren’t meeting them now–but MAN is it painful. You lean into a cornice for rest, then you slump into the sitting position. It’s devastating, as disappointing as any letdown you have experienced. But you remember your wife instructing the guides on the code words: If at any time they say, “You’re too slow” you have agreed to turn. Period. Chris was trying to tell you that nearly thirty minutes ago but you ignored him. Now your body is telling you. But it’s so hard to stop so close.

Now the glow of the false dawn is filling the black sky, obscuring all those stars that you are so close to, changing the horizon from black to grey to a deep blue with purple and red streaks that bounce across the clouds beneath you. And there it is. The summit is aglow and for the first time it is RIGHT THERE, so close you can taste it. You actually see tracks up the summit snowfield from the day before. When you started the trip you were telling everyone it was all about the adventure, that the summit really didn’t matter; the experience did. Well, now here you are, 3-4 hours away, and the experience has been unbelievable. Like hell the summit doesn’t matter. It matters more than anything in the world right now. Except your life. You think you could make the summit and return safely 3 and probably 4 times out of five, given your condition. These are great odds on which to make a big trading bet. Thing is, you’re betting with your life. These odds suck.

“I’m going to turn,” you say. “It’s just not my day.” And there it is. You’re done.

Andy nods and says, “You’re making the right call.” They move past you with some grumbled messages of condolences. You watch them walk for a few minutes and you burst into tears; so you do have fluid left. You haven’t cried in many years and the feeling is as bitter as the bile in your throat. You can’t believe how much this means to you. You’ve failed many times–probably several big ones a year–and it’s never bothered like this because you were able to learn from them and eventually take two steps up in one form or another. Failure helps because when you get lucky and things go your way you have a tendency to take the achievement for granted and slip into laziness. Now you’ve got a very big loss to draw from but you wonder what the makeup call for this will be. You wonder if you can get back to this hill and give it another shot. It’ll take a few years to build enough capital and probably just as long to convince your wife. And that’s assuming you have no children.

The decision has been made. Time to go. Get low, fast! You stand up and stagger along the ridge, then begin the steep descent down the cliff toward high camp. It’s hard to breathe now because you are still seething. You’re so angry your body let you down. Or did it? Maybe you just pussed out (the word used not for scatalogical effect but because it best expresses your bitterness). Maybe it was just a period of nausea you had to push through, like the wall in longer races, and you just lacked the guts. Maybe you slowed out of pure fear, psyched yourself out. You’ll never know. The fact is, you got signals and had to stop no matter the reason. You think, what comes around goes around, athletic nature come full circle to take revenge on someone who once shook his head at other people–Marines or Eco teammates–for quitting. It always happened to the other guy, the random sickness or the inability to continue, and now…welcome to the party, pal. You pass some Russians at the base of the cliff who are heading up and again you think, man they’re late, they could die.

One of them does.

As you get lower your brain literally begins to clear, even though you are exhausted, and you become more and more comfortable with your reasoning. Not with the event, but with the decision. You cruise past high camp and continue a mad bomber descent, stopping only once to vomit and once for a bout of diarreah. Your water bottle is empty for some reason. You reach the North Col at about 1100, still dressed for the summit, and you are too tired to change into cooler clothes even though the temperature swing you’ve experienced is over seventy degrees. You’re just so thirsty. So hot. You’re redlining. All you can think about is water. You arm rappel down the big ice wall, slower and slower, the sun’s rays bouncing around the bowl, which must be over 60 degrees.

You stumble out onto the glacier and your engine just stops. You sit down on your pack and strip off your down suit, your boots, your gloves. Still too hot to think. You take off your fleece. Still can’t move. You’re in a full, no-shit heat exhaustion blow out. Then you strip off all your clothes except some flannel boxers and sit in the snow. You know you shouldn’t eat the snow–the body has to use more water to melt the snow than it recoups–but like an ocean plane crash survivor drinking salt water you scrape a big handful and begin munching. It hurts at first because your tongue has cracked open. Then you put some against your neck. ABC is 45 minutes away and you have to keep moving. Your plan is to bury all your expensive gear and walk in naked.

“You don’t look so good,” someone says.

You look up and a big Aussie Army guy is standing over you. He hands you a water bottle–you notice he doesn’t have another–and tells you to drink. My God it’s Gatorade, you think. It tastes as good as anything you’ve ever drunk. You guzzle a quarter of it and hand it back but he refuses it. “Drink the whole thing, mate,” he says. “You need it. Believe me, you need it.” You know how precious fluids are and you recognize, even in your sorry state, a true sacrifice when you see it. You want to cry again but you have nothing left. He sits with you for thirty minutes watching you sip the balance, and in another 15 you’re ready to roll, totally rejuvenated, a new bloke. You pile all the gear into the pack and sling it.

“Thank you so much. You saved me, man. I was about to do the crazy naked dance.”

“No worries,” he says, and trudges off after giving you his name. You’ll never forget that man, and he joins a long list of people you owe.

At the bottom, you walk into abc without a shirt or pants and the sherpas look at you like you’re a lunatic. But they don’t say anything because they know you’re disappointed. You get some sprites and chug them, then go lie down in the radio room. You’re ecstatic to learn that, 1: Marco is alive, having snowboarded the north face of Mount Everest, 2: Ellen and all the others have summited and are heading down except Andy, Jaime, and Asmus, who are on their way up the summit snowfield. You’re jazzed that everyone is going to make it, an incredible feat for the north side, probably the best commercial performance ever. If you had continued, you figure, you’d be right with Jaime and Andy, probably travelling with them, and the team would have gone 15 for 15! You ceratinly picked the right team to join and it makes you proud. When they come down your chin will be up when you greet them; your shortcoming has nothing to do with their achievement.

It’s just after noon and you hear Russ’s voice rising a tad on the radio. Here is their conversation, paraphrased as best as you can remember. Chris is descending at this point and meets Andy, Jaime, and Asmuss at the summit snowfield on his way down.

Russ: Andy, you lot are moving too slowly. It’s getting late, mate. I recommend you turn Jaime around.
Andy: We’re just moving safe and steady.
Chris: Break. This is Chris. I just told Andy it’s at least a 3 hour roundtrip from here.
Russ: Yeah, roger. Andy, it’s a long way mate. It’ll be slower the way you’re moving.
Andy: I just spoke to Jaime and he thinks this is a chance of a lifetime and it’s too big an opportunity to pass up. He wants to continue. I think we can continue.
Russ: (pause) All right, mate. You’re the man on the ground. You’re the guide. You can make the call. But if you don’t make some good progress, i’m going to recommend you turn.
Andy: Okay. Okay, Russ.

The trio (Asmuss was travelling with them as sweep) gets progressively slower and calls go unanswered. The sherpas at BC start to get restless and some Austrians who are listening to the radio calls saunter over with a big black telescope. Russ is tracking the trio closely with his telescope atop the north col, repeating his request to turn around.

When they reach the top of the snowfield, Jaime suddenly says, “Andy, maybe we should turn around.” Asmuss is convinced Jaime is just afraid of the upcoming rock traverse (he’s short-roped Jaime up the three steps to give Jaime some needed security) so he stays quiet. He wants the summit too and, after all, Andy is the senior man. “Let’s keep going,” Andy says. Jaime says once more that if Andy wants to turn around, he will. Andy is somehow moving slower than even Jaime at this point. This is the mother of all alarms but it goes unheard. Of course Andy does not want to turn. A few weeks ago he was the strongets westerner on the entire mountain. He is a two-time oxygenless south side summiter and he wants to make this his last time on the north (he didn’t summit year before). Last week he told you that this was the worst time he had ever had in the Himalayas; he picked up a terrible cough early in the climb and never seemed to regain his strength. So he just wants to summit and call it a mountain. Besides, he’s carrying a sign asking for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage. He’s got to get to the summit to propose by photograph.

At 1430, Jaime and Asmuss summit. Jaime is the first Guatemalan to do so and he is a national hero. Twenty minutes later, Andy staggers up and completes his personal and professional mission. He’s gotten Jaime to the summit. He’s made on the north Side. At 1530, Russ calls Andy, obviously worried. Russ is the most experienced commercial operator in the world and he has never had a client get so much as a case of frostbite. All the others have lost people, not just toes, yet Russ has escaped unscathed.

Russ: Andy, where are you, mate!
Andy: We…are at the…big boulder.
Russ: Near the top?! Andy, you need to get going, mate! You’re going to run out of oxygen. You’re moving too slowly!
Andy: We’re just moving steady and safe.

At 1600 the trio comes into view at the top of the snow field and everyone is shocked at how slowly they’re moving. The Austrian says, “They better hurry or they get stuck.” The tiny figures move for a few feet, then take several minutes to rest, then take another step or two. Hypoxia is a silent killer. It’s as dangerous and sudden as a Great White Shark swimming up on you except for a salient diffence: you often don’t see–or feel–it coming. So you have to monitor every and all bodily signs and err toward caution. It simply creeps into your body and depletes the machine. Oxygen is fuel and without it the engine just shatters. One minute you’re moving slowly, the next minute you cannot move at all. And at 28,700 feet that means death.

Russ: Andy! What’s going on? You’ve got to get moving or you’re going to be in real trouble. You’ve GOT to move faster! Andy, talk to me, mate!
Andy: (long pause, scratchy, weakened voice) I’m trying to…Jaime can’t move. He can’t see out of an eye.
Russ: Listen to me, mate. You made the choice to keep going, now you’ve got to get him down!
Andy: He really can’t move too good, Russ.
Russ: Well get him moving! I don’t care how you do it. Drag him if you have to.

Jaime’s contact lens has either frozen to his eyeball, you learn later, or he has the onset of cerebral edema. You watch the pair slowly descending–a snail’s pace–and then Jaime just sits down. He cannot move, he says. He’s at about 28,800 feet. Then, to your horror, Andy, too, sits down. He does not move. Now everyone is panicked. Those three men might as well be on the moon, they’re so far from help.

Russ: Andy. Andy! You’ve got to get up and get going, mate. Andy! (no answer) Assmus. Assmus, what’s going on up there! (long pause while Assmus tries to roust the dying pair)
Assmus: Russ, this is Asmuss.
Russ: Asmuss, what’s going on?
Asmuss: Russ, I don’t know what’s going on. I just don’t know what’s happening.

The sun takes hope with it on its steady descent to the clouds below, and before you lose sight of Andy and Asmuss you take a last look through the Austrian’s scope. Both men are immobile. Both men have pushed themselves over the body’s edge. Both men have erred in judgment.

Both men are certainly dead.

We have 15 climbers total on the team including sherps and guides. Two will die. The north side’s casualty rate applies to us, too. But there is little certainty when it comes to the physical capacity of the human body and the indefatiguable will of the human spirit, and what follows is the single most amazing physical feat you have witnessed.

To be continued