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June 16,1999


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Wednesday,   6/16/99
Part One of Three

Hello Again Everyone:

Well, I appreciate your patience in waiting for this last update from my recent Mt. Everest expedition. I sincerely apologize for the delay, but after the last May 4th update just prior to our summit bid, our generator experienced some type of electrical surge and literally "fried" our entire computer and communications system. Although the technology Gods had been kind to us right up to the very end, they eventually pulled the plug. I began writing this upon my return to the States a few weeks back, and as I did, it just seemed to get longer and longer. In fact, I feel like I could probably still add another twenty pages, but I think there is enough rambling here to keep you all busy for quite a while. Although this will be my last journal entry for the expedition, I will send out one final update in a few weeks telling you that my photographs have been published to my web page. Anyway, here it is.

There are few occurrences in one’s life where the opportunity to pursue one’s dreams fully presents itself, and far fewer less, that one is actually in a position to entertain or even undertake those pursuits. As one gets older, life gets complicated with the truly important things such as spouses, children, futures, etc. The ability to follow one’s dreams diminishes greatly and more likely becomes impossible. In many cases, your new dreams become much more family related, while those you had entertained previously start to become looked upon more as mere adolescent fantasies. Well, I have been very lucky indeed that I have been able to pursue, what for me, has been a life long dream; a fascination that has been with me since I was a child. I can still remember being a kid at my grandparents house, going through old National Geographic magazines, reading the articles about the early ascents of Everest and the first American Ascent of K2, entranced by the photos and the people who dared to brave these extreme environments. And through all my years of "big mountain" experience beginning after my college days with Denali (Mt. McKinley) and growing to include peaks and first ascents throughout the Alaska Range, as well as climbs in Canada, Europe, South America and all over the states, the thought of climbing Everest has been with me always. As I got older though, that thought and that dream, became more and more fleeting. As much as I fantasized about it, I never truly thought that I would ever have the chance or opportunity to follow that dream. That is why it is with great humbleness and thanks that I will cherish forever my experience on this magnificent mountain.

That all being said, the expedition did not end as hoped or planned. Everest is no doubt a very unpredictable and dangerous mountain. Those who come here to attempt her summit know and understand well those risks that hide on her flanks; we know the inherent dangers, the odds, the history. But all climbers on this mountain share one thing; the belief that "it can’t possibly happen to me". It runs in all of us, and to a certain extent it must. The reality is that no rational, sane person would ever step foot on this mountain, especially after you’ve seen both it and its history. You’ve got to be a little crazy to come here. To climb it, there must be an element of kidding yourself, or more accurately lying to yourself, in your belief that you will actually survive unscathed. In all my years of climbing, I have been very lucky in that I have returned safely from every summit I have ever attempted, or been smart enough to know when to turn around. More importantly, I have never been on a climb where a member of my team had been lost. In my days as a rescue ranger on Denali, I had the unfortunate experience of carrying off the bodies of more dead climbers than I care to remember, but thankfully never as part of my own team. Well, unfortunately, all that was about to change. This expedition, the realization of many years of dreams for me, would end in tragedy. When it was over and all said and done, two of my teammates would be dead.

When I had last left off on the May 4th update, we were preparing for our summit bid. Part of the team had already gone high nearly two weeks earlier to make an attempt, but were thwarted at Camp 4 due in part to the weather as well as the illness of John Tinker. Climbers from our team were now scattered all over the mountain, some still acclimatizing, some waiting up high for a window, some resting in base camp, and some, myself included, had actually descended lower than base camp. One of the more common strategies prior to a summit bid is to descend to a much lower altitude for several days in order to increase your ability to recover from the general deterioration of the body that happens while living above 18,000 feet for such prolonged periods of time. Although this involves a descent back down the Khumbu Valley for some distance, it is generally accepted that the increased oxygen at lower altitude affords the body the opportunity to gain a significant amount of strength and energy back. I had gone down to the village of Loboche to a tea house called the 8000 Meter Inn, while others headed still lower to the village of Dingboche. It was well worth it, with plenty of good rest and excellent food, at least compared to what I had been eating on the mountain for the last month and a half. The first thing I had when I got there was a Coke. You can’t possibly begin to imagine just how good a Coke tastes after eating lousy British cuisine and iodine treated water for so long (just remember, England is not known for their culinary masterpieces – I had always believed that Spam was joke from the Monty Python show - not so; it lives and breathes on British lead expeditions). Anyway, when I returned to base camp on May 6th with the rest of our team, I really felt great. I felt like the summit was actually within my grasp and that I was now in a position to make it happen. Prior to going down lower, I think we were all feeling the drain of having been up here for so long. We were tired, feeling very weak and tempers were getting short. Trying to remember just what it was we were thinking when we originally decided to embark on this crazy venture had been a little difficult. But a few days R&R down low, and everyone felt quite rejuvenated; not just physically, but more importantly, mentally.

We had decided to keep the team split into two summit groups. This would have the main effect of a better allocation of resources on a per climber basis for summit bid; i.e., oxygen regulators, tents and most importantly, guides and Sherpas. We had originally hoped for our team, now Team 1, to begin moving back up the mountain on May 7th weather permitting. Late on the afternoon of May 6th however, we received a weather report that looked quite favorable. We had decided a few weeks earlier that we would rely less heavily on the weather reports due to their extreme lack of accuracy thus far, and begin to judge the weather for ourselves looking for what seemed to be a developing window of good weather. We were now quite pleased to seemingly have both in our favor. It did appear that the weather was improving, with a good high pressure up on the mountain, and a separate lower system which was socked in down in the lowland valleys. This often has the effect of lowering the winds everywhere in the range, and that did indeed seem to be happening now. In addition, the weather report that we had just received indicated both a good window, as well as low winds (in the 30 knot range) for the days of May 11, 12 and 13 (with a deterioration of winds and weather on May 14 and 15). This was nearly perfect. The mood in base camp that night was ecstatic; we all felt strong, we were acclimatized and we were ready. Now we were about to get the window that we had long hoped for. Some years, teams wait the entire month of May, never getting a break in the weather and go home without ever giving it a shot. We were indeed lucky.

Some of you may be wondering where we were getting our weather reports. There is a national weather organization in England that maintains one of the most powerful super computers in the world and the largest weather database ever compiled. They have the ability to predict weather around the world, and generally with quite good accuracy. One of their main commercially related abilities, dealing with the world’s airlines, is in predicting varying wind speeds at different altitudes around the planet. This enables pilots to predict in advance of their flights the best flight plan based on the most favorable altitudes relative to the winds. This was the primary data that we were interested in. The ability to predict the actual local weather patterns in a mountain region such as the Himalayas, is a fruitless task, due to the regions ability to produce its own localized weather systems. The jet stream and upper level winds, however, are typically immune from localized systems and can thus be predicted with fair accuracy all the way from England. This is what we needed to watch, and the prediction for the three day window beginning May 11th, looked pretty decent. These reports would emailed to us every other day.

That night in base camp, we decided that we would take May 7th as a final rest day and begin moving up the mountain on the 8th. The thought was that our mini-team, Team 1, would target May 12th as our summit day, and Team 2 would target the 13th. We had really hoped for a four day window as opposed to three days. The reason for this is that a single team will hope for three good days to summit: one day to Camp 4 (from Camp 3), one day to the Summit and back to Camp 4 and one day to descend from Camp 4. With two teams staggering their summit bids back to back, you want to try to avoid an overlap of the teams at Camp 4 due to the lack of tent space and possible regulator shortages. So for two teams, you generally hope to have an extra day in between which will allow the first team to descend from Camp 4 before the second team actually gets there. We would not have that option and would thus have to deal with the overlap. Team 1 would move up to Camp 2 on the 8th, take one rest day, then move to Camp 3 on the 10th and Camp 4 on the 11th. After arriving at Camp 4 on the 11th, we would rest for a few hours, and then leave for the summit that same night at around 9pm. We estimated 18-24 hours for the round trip summit bid, summitting sometime on the 12th. We would return to Camp 4 on that same day, spend the night there and then descend. Virtually the entire time spent above Camp 3, whether moving or sleeping, would be spent on oxygen. Team 2, would leave base camp on May 9th, one day behind us, and follow the exact same schedule, with both teams spending the night of the 12th together at Camp 4 (tight and cozy) due to the overlap. Assuming the weather held and everyone stayed healthy, that would be the plan. Team 1 would include, in addition to myself, Willie (guide), Enrigue, Katja, Mike Smith (guide), Mike Richardson, Peter Shin and Kim Man Choung. Team 2 would include Nick (guide), Cos, Augusto (guide), Chris, Denis, Dave, Mike Matthews, Martin (guide) and Jack.

May 7th was a relatively quiet day in base camp with most everyone staying in their tents. For me, it was a fairly reflective and introspective day. The culmination of this entire year of preparation, all my years of mountaineering and nearly two months high on the mountain was about to be realized in one final shot. There were many feelings of apprehension and anxiety, but also an excited feeling of anticipation. My mind’s eye saw only a black hole ahead of me; I had no idea how this was going to play out.

The morning of May 8th came all too soon. I rose at 4am, barely having slept, and was out of base camp by 5am. That day I felt great. This was my fifth and hopefully last time up the Khumbu. The ice fall was fairly uneventful that day and I cleared the top in just under 5 hours, my best time yet. I spent about half and hour or so at Camp 1 hydrating before taking the long slog up the Western Cwm to Camp 2. During the afternoon at Camp 2, we received a radio call from base camp indicating that Mike Richardson had decided to wait a day and come up the next with Team 2, and that Peter Shin and Choung had turned around in the ice fall, both with some apparent illness. Our mini-team had just been reduced from 8 to 5 (excluding Sherpas) in one shot. We spent a quiet day in Camp 2 on the 9th and then began to head up the Lhotse Face on the 10th to Camp 3. I had been a little worried on this run due to my appetite. Since getting to Camp 2 the evening of the 8th, I hadn’t eaten anything. Overall, I felt quite good and strong, but I had absolutely no appetite, and what ever food I did try to force down, I threw up. This can be a fairly common effect of altitude whether you are acclimatized or not. I had not been affected by it before, but after chatting with the doc, I learned that it can happen anytime. Altitude is a very strange place. You can go up and down this mountain countless times with absolutely nothing wrong, and then suddenly get whacked by something. You have good days and bad days. So far, all my trips high had been pretty good; I hadn’t even suffered so much as a head ache. On this trip, however, it appeared that my digestive track was shutting down. Even with all that, I felt good otherwise, and I was able to get fluids down. I figured that I’d come this far on a starvation diet, I could manage a few more days.

The push up the Lhotse Face was a little more difficult on this run as I was definitely feeling more tired. The weather, however, was indeed holding and looking better and better. I tried to get down some food that night at Camp 3, but no luck. My body just didn’t want anything. We all had an extremely uncomfortable, restless and sleepless night at Camp 3, all with the exception of Willie. Camp 3 is located at 24,000 ft and the body just doesn’t function well there. Sleeping there that night was a very difficult thing to do, partially due to the lack of oxygen, but also due to the fact that we all new tomorrow would be our summit day. We were pretty anxious. Willie, however, had decided to sleep using oxygen that night, and said that he slept like a baby. I wish we had used it also. Mike Smith and I were sharing a tent and rose the next morning about 3:30am preparing to move. I was pretty trashed. I had not eaten in three days now, only fluids, and I was feeling pretty weak. That day, being the 11th, would involve a 7 hour ascent to Camp 4, rest for a few hours, followed by our summit bid that night. I would presumably be moving for the next 36 hours straight without sleep, and most likely without food, since my appetite situation was sure to get worse, not better, as I went high. I thought long and hard about my situation, and eventually made the difficult choice that the timing was bad for me and I needed to head down for a few days and wait for the next window. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but I thought it afforded me a better chance of reaching the summit, assuming that I could regain some strength low and hopefully return with an appetite on the next run. Mike and I chatted for about half an hour where he tried to talk me into going for it now. If I could make it to the South Col today, I would only be twelve hours or so from the summit. If I went down now, there was indeed the possibility that there may or may not be another window. Either decision would be a roll of the dice. I knew the chance and risk I ran by going down, but felt that was a better choice than trying to go for it now. Mike left the tent about 5am with the others and headed up. I then spent the next hour and a half in the tent going back and forth over my decision. I really didn’t want to blow the chance on this exceptionally good window, but I also didn’t want to blow it by burning myself out on a failed summit attempt. Most people who go above the South Col and don’t summit, don’t get a second chance; it just does too much damage to the body up there to be able to recover in any reasonable amount of time. At 630am, however, I through caution to the wind , said the hell with it and decided that I would try to power on through it, and head up to Camp 4. I geared up and grabbed an oxygen bottle. I didn’t have a regulator, but I knew that the Sherpas were bringing up more from Camp 2 that day and would eventually pass me, at which point I could grab one. The moving was very slow and pained and extremely cold. You can’t begin to imagine how slow one moves at these altitudes. In the White Mtns of NH, I can usually ascend at a rate of about 2,000 ft per hour, and more if I’m feeling good. The 2,000 ft from Camp 2 to Camp 3 takes about 5 hours and the same elevation gain from Camp 3 to Camp 4 takes about 7 hours. You literally take one or two steps and then breath for half a minute or so before taking another two; very painstaking. The unbelievable cold was compounded by the fact that I was not using oxygen yet; my body would need to work that much harder without fuel to stay warm. This trip up the mountain had seemed much colder than previous runs. My fingers had been freezing since getting to Camp 2 several days earlier and were completely numb all the way up the face. On this day, my hands were basically clubs; worthless. I didn’t think they were frostbitten, because they hurt, and the standard rule on the mountain is that as long as you have pain, that’s a pretty good sign. But I was not encouraged. Without food, sleep or oxygen, I was feeling pretty trashed.

In addition to a camera for the proverbial summit shot, many people bring some item of importance to them to leave at the top of Mt. Everest. I had chosen to leave on the summit a photograph of my father who had passed away several years ago. I kept his picture with me always, and although this may sound strange, often felt myself calling on both it and my father for strength during difficult days. I know that if he had been alive today, he would have loved to have taken part my experience here and I felt that somehow, in some strange way, that he had been with me thus far every step of the way up the mountain. Oddly enough, the days that I looked to him for strength, I seemed to find it there. Yet on this day, as much as I needed that extra push to help me up the face in these difficult conditions, I could find none. I felt no presence whatsoever. After many hours of pushing, sanity finally re-took control and I decided that this was crazy and turned around somewhere below the South Col. I would have to descend, rest a few days, and go through this all again. Whether it was through some outside influence or just good fortune, the events that would unfold in the days to follow would show this to be one of the best decisions that I have ever made. I am convinced that if I had continued on that day and tried to summit that night, that I would most likely still be on that mountain today. Perhaps in some odd way, this was my father’s way of letting me know that this was not the right time for me.

To give you an idea of how cold it was that day, I would meet an Irish climber several days later in base camp who had been somewhere above of me that day on the fixed lines up to Camp 4. He had not faired very well on that cold and bitter day, and had indeed frostbitten both hands. It took him three days to get back down the mountain, and when I saw him, his left hand was nearly completely black and his right was purple. He had seen a doc in base camp, who told him that he would most likely not lose his right hand; his left, however, would be a battle. This was the one thing that petrified me more than anything on the mountain. I certainly did not want to die up here, but I really tried not to think about it all that much. What really consumed me more than anything was the thought of losing fingers. Toes, I could probably accept, as many of my former climbing partners were missing a few toes here and there, and although it was a painful experience, it really didn’t affect their life all that much. Fingers, on the other hand (no pun intended), would be a different story. I just couldn’t see going through the rest of my life with such an incapacitation; that would be a very difficult thing to live with. Now, speaking with a man who was about to have to face that very reality, was a sobering event indeed. He was off the mountain now and his climb was over, but you could see the fear and trepidation in his eyes, because all of his challenges would now be ahead of him.

Back on the mountain, my descent down the Lhotse Face to Camp 2 was difficult to say the least due to the fact that I had nearly lost the use of my hands completely due to the cold. Negotiating the fixed ropes was painstaking slow, and it took me a good part of the day to finally make it off the face; luckily, however, with no problems. I would plan to spend that night at Camp 2, while Team 2 was at Camp 3 and Team 1 was at Camp 4 (confused yet???). About 4pm, I radioed up to Camp 4 to check on the status of things and was very surprised to hear that Katja was not in very good shape. She had taken an inordinate amount of time to get from Camp 3 to Camp 4, and to make matters worse, her regulator had been freezing up all day, thereby greatly constricting the oxygen flow. Mike was saying that she was now very disoriented showing signs of mental dysfunction, lack of coordination and clumsiness. Now, we all suffer this to some extent when up at that elevation, as that’s just the nature of high altitude, but Katja was showing extreme signs of it. Mike was fairly sure he knew what it was, but decided to radio down to the doc (Denis) who was now at Camp 3 in preparation for his own summit bid the next day. Denis listened to the symptoms and immediately diagnosed it as Cerebral Edema (CE); not a good thing to have up there. CE is the last stage of serious altitude sickness, often progressing to complete physical and mental dysfunction, coma and eventually death. With CE, the body is literally bleeding fluid into the brain, and since the skull cannot expand, the brain eventually gets crushed. In all my years doing rescue work on Denali, the only treatment has been to give the victim oxygen, along with a drug called dexamethesone (this is a very powerful steroid that has the effect of shrinking the brain, and allowing the fluids space to reside) and then immediate descent to a lower altitude. That is the standard treatment defined in all mountaineering medicine books. Anytime this happens, it’s generally a one way ticket off the mountain; your climb is over. Therefore, I was extremely surprised as I listened to the radio conversation between Denis and Mike to hear Denis proscribe oxygen and dex, but not to descend; he recommended that she actually stay there at Camp 4 (at 26000 ft) and re-assess after 6 hours. I was shocked. My thought was that even in her current state, they could probably still get her down the Lhotse Face, right now, although it would be quite difficult. If they waited 6 hours (or more likely until the next morning) and she deteriorated, it may be nearly impossible to get her off the mountain. The last thing you want up there is to have to try to lower a comatose body down 4000 ft of fixed lines on the face. It would be a deadly proposition.

I was a little confused at Denis’ recommendation because we had just gone through this same situation two weeks earlier with John Tinker on our team’s first failed summit attempt. John had reached Camp 4 in pretty bad shape. They put him on oxygen for the night, but by the next morning, he was really a mess. No one wanted to say the words Cerebral Edema; I’m not sure why, perhaps it was because he was the leader. It was a combination of that and less than perfect weather that ended that early summit bid, and resulted John’s difficult removal from the mountain. He was very lucky to have survived the night at Camp 4 as well as the descent due to the condition that he was in. John was so affected by the whole incident that after resting in base camp for a couple of days, he made the difficult decision that he had to get off the mountain; all the way off. I think the fact that he had a wife at home nursing his brand new, three week old son, combined with the reality that he had just nearly orphaned/widowed them both before ever even seeing his son was a difficult thing to swallow. I don’t blame him a bit. I know I would have had a pretty tough time coming to grips with it all myself had it been me in the same situation. John would go down immediately and eventually fly back to London. Unfortunately for the team, however, we had now just lost our leader and this would be the subtle beginning of what would eventually have grave effects on the team. You see, what John brought to the table, in addition to a lifetime of big-mountain experience, was a great level of logistical organization and leadership, both for the team members as well as the Sherpas; that was now gone. From here, Nick would take over with Mike Smith second in command.

Anyway, Katja was now to spend a very tenuous night at Camp 4 with unclear prospects to say the least. Mike Smith decided that he would stay with her. That meant that of the original eight members of Team 1 for this attempt, only Willie and Enrique would be going for the summit that night; they left at 9pm with six Sherpas. There were two other teams that would be attempting that night; a very strong team from Mexico and part of the Henry Todd British expedition.

For the climbers, the night started out pretty rough. The low winds that had been forecasted were not coming to fruition. It was pounding pretty hard up there. Down in my tent at Camp 2, I could hear it howling. To make matters worse, it was one of the coldest nights we had experienced in a while. Even in the relatively low altitude of my tent at Camp 2, I was freezing; I couldn’t imagine what they were feeling 5000ft above me in these early hours of the evening. The three teams pushed on through the dark and moonless night under the glow of headlamps, all of which were going dim from cold batteries. They continued up in very high winds towards a part of the route called the Balcony which is a relatively flat section of ridge halfway between the South Col and the Summit (just under 28000 ft). Climbers usually reach this section just as the sun begins to shed some light in the eastern sky. On this day, they were having a hell of a time getting there; the winds were just too high. Eventually, the Mexican team turned around, several of their members supposedly suffering from frostbite. When Enrique and Willie finally reached the Balcony, Enrique did not appear to be in good shape. He was hacking up large amounts of fluid from his lungs and moving quite slow. In addition, one of the Sherpa’s hands and feet had gone completely numb and there was fear that he would have frostbite. An emotional and tearful decision was made that Enrique and the one Sherpa would head down. Before they split up, however, Enrique would give Willie two pictures that he wanted to be left on the summit: one was a picture of his son, and the other was a picture of the Holy Mother. Willie consoled a tearful Enrique and said that he would summit for both of them, and then turned to move higher. Willie would continue on with the British team as far as they could, but were getting quite nervous about the winds which still hadn’t subsided. About an hour above the Balcony, however, they broke through the wind band. One of the interesting things about Everest, is that the winds often blow extremely hard at certain elevations or bands, but above and below those bands, it can be relatively calm. Well, Willie, with his perseverance was able to push above this band, and when he did, there was hardly even a whisper of wind. He couldn’t believe it, one minute he was ready to throw in the towel, and the next it’s dead calm. It was still bitter cold, but much more endurable without the wind. Willie continued on with one of the British climbers and several Sherpas, breaking trail and fixing some additional lines where the route needed better protection as they moved up towards the famous Hillary Step.

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