The Summit Push: The North Col (23,000 feet) to 25,000 feet

By Owen West

Westwrite, 04/14/2001


19 May: The North Col, 23,000 Feet

We stepped out of ABC at noon on our way to the summit in bright sunlight. I was relatively strong (remember, to acclimatize you have to go high, and in going high you destroy your body so the bizarre thing is that when you go for the summit you are moving faster but you feel much worse in terms of coughing, fatigue, etc. than the virgin trek) and felt, perhaps for the first time all trip, that I could make the summit. The col acts like a reflective bowl–the sun is smething like 5 times brighter up there–and I was so hot that to reach the top of the ice wall at 23,000 feet i was dressed only in polypro long underwear; my gortex was accessible in my pack and my down suit and heavy boots were waiting for me in a tent on the Col (I had humped them up the week before). We made the Col in good time, three hours, careful not to move too fast lest we ruin the taper on the first day. Halfway up, clouds billowed up over the col and we quickly spiked our crampons deep into the hard snow and ripped into our packs, hurrying to get the protective shells on before the snow started and the cold sapped our calories (fiercely guarded at altitude). Jaime’s pack was much too heavy and he took 4 hrs 45 minutes–as slow as Naoki–to crest the Col and stumble over to our tent. He was in tears and they were frozen in saline streaks down the length of his flushed cheeks.

“This isn’t me!” he mumbled. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” This was his third attempt at Everest and felt the weight of his entire country on his shoulders. Jaime is strong, determined, skilled but he’s built like the Pillsbury Dough Boy and his legs didn’t need the extra pounds in his pack–his was much heavier than ours.

Soon his mood improved and his depression abated, proped up by the fact that Naoki would not be bunking with him. Chris took on that burden.

20 May: Camp 2, 25,000 Feet

Chris rousted us early because a giant lenticular cloud had formed over the summit, a harbinger of bad weather. He and Asmus left at 0645 and hiked up the northeast ridge in 3 hours, an amazing time that beat the nasty weather that was rolling in. There, they found our tents halfway buried and began the excruciating job of hacking them out. Tough, tough work at 25k. Ellen, Keiron, Jaime and I hurried to get our Michelin Man down suits and our massive boots on (above 23k you dress in full summit regalia because of drastic weather shifts), checked our harnesses and crampons, and departed at 0715.

I took the lead and was happy to find some steps cut into the snow slope on the way up. We passed Naoki almost immediately and were moving well for three hours. Then the wind kicked up over 50 mph…then 60…and the steps began to fill in and disappear. A light snow began to fall, in itself benign but in the wind it became a hailstorm of BBs. So we had to walk like dogs: diagonally, with our heads twisted away from the wind. With no steps to follow I had to break the new track and it was a terrible and exhausting hour. The good news was that Jaime was hanging close right behind us, apparently recovered from his previous day’s epic. He looked strong.

We took 4 hours to climb to 25k; Naoki staggered in at 6. When I reached Camp 2 I collapsed outside a tent and tried to keep the nausea under control. Ellen was feeling better and she was able to start the stove and the tedious melting process while I moved slowly out of the useless phase.Pathetic. Neither of us slept well that night, but i think we managed 2-4 hours, sufficient for recovery. And, man, we were really going for it. I felt so lucky to be part of this group, getting a shot at a goal I’ve had for many years.