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June 16,1999


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1998 Cho Oyu

1999 Everest



Wednesday,   6/16/99
Part Two of Three

As he stood below the step, Willie couldn’t help but remember the horrible scene that had taken place here only a week earlier during the first ascent of the year. It had put us all in a little bit of shock. On that day, several teams were moving high on the mountain towards the summit, with the lead climbers and Sherpas fixing lines as they went. The lines were supposed to have already been fixed by one of the other teams who had agreed to do just that earlier in the season. One of biggest logistical hurdles of getting a team up Everest, is the fixing of ropes for protection throughout the mountain. This is a monumental task. Even though there is only 11,000 ft of elevation gain from base camp to the summit, there is over 20,000 ft of line that needs to be fixed on the route. Teams will therefore try to share the burden of this task. What typically happens in a normal climbing year is that long before any climbers hit the mountain, all the various teams that will be attempting to climb that particular year open up negotiations with each other to see who will be responsible for what tasks. For example, since all teams need to ascend the mountain via fixed lines, there is really no need for each team to fix their own individual routes up the mountain; only one route needs to be set and all teams can then share it. In this way, economies of scale can be obtained and more efficient advantage taken of the large number of resources available on the mountain. Those teams that don’t participate in the actual fixing of the lines will often contribute rope and or dollars, which is also negotiated up front. The negotiations had gone well this year and responsibility was taken by various teams for all the main sections of the mountain that needed fixing; the Khumbu Ice Fall, Western Cwm, Lhotse Face and summit route. Everything had been agreed to, and by the middle of the climbing season, it was all being executed according to plan. That was until about two weeks before the summit bids began. One team in particular had chosen to fix the summit route, due to their interest in attempting to be the first to summit this year. Just before the summit bids, that team sent a letter out to all the other groups at base camp informing everyone that each team would now have to pay an additional $1000 US per team for their services of fixing lines on the summit route. This was not what had been negotiated and agreed to up front, and they now appeared to be reneging on the deal. People were livid. Believe it or not, this is just typical mountain politics at base camp. Antics like this seem to happen every year up here. Regardless, no one was very happy about the situation and every team basically told them to "pound-sand". As a result, this team pulled their Sherpas off the mountain and refused to fix the upper section of the mountain. This would mean that the teams attempting the first summit day of the year would have to combine forces and fix lines on the mountain as they went, which is exactly what happened. This would greatly slow the progress that day.

Anyway, on that day there were several climbers high on the mountain fixing lines. I have chosen not to use the names of these climbers due to the fact that they were not part of our team. Although the only ones that will ever know the ultimate truth of the events that unfolded that day will be those who had been directly involved, the story that made it back down to base camp was as follows. As one of the climbers was in the process of fixing the Hillary Step late in the morning, there were two climbers coming up from behind. One of the climbers was standing on a corniced, knife blade ridge separating the North and South Faces, as the other came up from behind with some additional rope. Suddenly and without warning, the first climber punched through the cornice that she had been standing on and disappeared down the North Face. All that remained was a hole in the cornice where she had been. Since the section of ridge she was on was not all that technical, there was no fixed line to clip into. Punching through cornices is actually not all that uncommon a situation, especially one that is unstable. You always try to stay to the windward side of the cornice, and keep as low as possible since it is very difficult to judge its thickness and stability. Apparently, this one wasn’t very thick. The North Face is no place to fall. It is about 8000 ft down to the bottom, and although not vertical, it’s pretty damn close. Over the years, many climbers have been blown off the summit ridge onto the North Face, never to be seen again. The problem is that it’s so steep, that once you start falling, there’s absolutely no stopping. The climber who was fixing the line ahead didn’t see this happen, but the climber behind her did; it was right in front of him. He continued up slowly towards the hole. At this altitude, even on oxygen, it’s extremely difficult to move. When he finally reached it, he peered down; amazingly, she had survived the fall and was some distance below the ridge, perched on a very small snow cap. It was nothing short of a miracle. There was nothing on this face as far as the eye could see that could have stopped her fall, except this one little outcropping. And she was conscious. Unbelievable. The chances of surviving a fall like that are probably on par with winning the Power Ball Lottery. Strangely enough, however, the second climber suddenly turned and continued along the ridge towards the summit. He had offered absolutely no assistance whatsoever. One of the things that really amazed me about this mountain and those who would attempt her flanks, was the extremely heightened level of obsession climbers had for the summit. Now I’m often accused of being quite obsessive/compulsive myself, and probably rightly so. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. You’ve got to be very goal driven and ambitious to be crazy enough to attempt this peak. But, that being said, I am still able to maintain a level of rational control, keeping my eye on what’s right, and make proper decisions. And no matter what happens, in my mind, the welfare of another climber always comes first. This is what struck me as devastatingly sobering in the 1996 tragedy where there were a attitudes of "summit at all cost" and "save yourself first" pervading the entire upper mountain on that fateful day. Well, that attitude was beginning to become hauntingly familiar on this mountain now. I had met a new breed of obsession up here, one that made me look nearly lackluster in comparison. Summit or die could have and probably should have been the motto for many of the climbers I met on this mountain. Now, I’m not saying that this was the case with this climber who had just seemingly left his partner down on the face, and I wouldn’t dare to presume what was going through his mind at that moment, but it was surely difficult situation to understand, hearing it several days later in base camp. It was probably nearly an hour later before some Sherpas, coming up from below, actually noticed the hole and thankfully had the good sense to look down, where they saw a climber stranded on the face. They descended the mountain until they were able to find some available ropes lower, and returned to haul her out. Although scared beyond belief (and that’s putting it mildly), she was relatively unscathed. The only problem was that in the fall, she had lost her sun glasses and didn’t have another pair. At these elevations, this is no minor problem. At this height, the sun’s UV rays are much stronger than at sea level due to the filtering effect that happens through the atmosphere. During her descent back to Camp 4, she would become snow blind. This is where the increased UV rays of the sun fry your retinas and you literally go blind. It is only a temporary thing, but on a mountain like Everest, an extremely serious one. With the help of the Sherpas, she would make it safely back to Camp 4, but would have to remain there, for 4 days, on oxygen, while her eyes healed enough that she could safely descend the rest of the mountain. Snow blindness is rarely permanent, but it is extremely painful. When it was all said and done, the other climber did get his prize; the coveted summit of Mount Everest. It would however come at a great personal cost, as his toes had been frostbitten during his descent.

As Willie continued on towards the summit, the sun was now well above the horizon, giving at least the perception of increased warmth. The Hillary Step was fairly uneventful, although a little dizzying from the exposure. As famous as the Step is, the real bone chilling part of this climb is the section of ridge that precedes it. It is a knife blade that falls off 6000 ft to one side and 8000 ft to the other. A mistake either way would be deadly. When a climber had first fixed a line over it a week earlier, he literally had to straddle the ridge, one leg dangling over one side, one leg over the other, and skid across on his butt while he anchored the rope; definitely a little insecure. After these sections however, it’s a relatively innocuous ridge to the summit. Willie summitted the morning of May 12th at about 900am. I was in Camp 2 maintaining radio communications when I heard his voice come over the air waves. He was elated and ecstatic, and said he felt pretty good. He’d made amazingly good time, reaching the summit in only 12 hours from Camp 2. That is no small feat. Of the eight on our original mini-team, one had actually made the summit, and he was truly to be applauded.

After speaking with Willie, I radioed Camp 4 to check on the condition of Katja. Mike said that she had actually improved through the night and was feeling pretty good. Mike felt that she should still go down, but Katja would have no part of it. She is one of the most bold and head strong women I’ve ever met and she wanted to go up. Although I was shocked by Denis’ original decision not to have her descend the night before, I stood corrected (or Denis got damn lucky); she did indeed seem to be better now. The decision was made that she and Mike would stay in Camp 4 that day, wait for Team 2 to arrive, and then attempt the summit that night. I still questioned this decision, but I also knew Katja, and if there was anyone that could pull it off, it would certainly be her.

By mid-afternoon on the 12th, most everyone was in Camp 4. Enrique had returned from the Balcony, Willie was now back from the Summit and most everyone on Team 2 (coming up from Camp 3) had arrived. It was definitely a little tight, but everyone, Sherpas and climbers combined, were in tents resting and waiting for that night’s attempt. As Mike and Nick began to sort and organize the oxygen bottles and regulators, the problems began to arise.

The oxygen bottles that have been traditionally used on the mountain are called Poisk and are manufactured and filled in Russia. They are a super light weight alloy wrapped in kevlar tape. For the last few years, Henry Todd has basically had the monopoly on the mountain for oxygen bottles, and everyone buys both the bottles and regulators from him. They cost about $350 US per bottle, and a typical climber will use anywhere from six to ten on a typical summit attempt. Not a cheap proposition. This year, however, Henry decided to experiment with some new bottles manufactured in England and filled in   India, with the thought that anything manufactured in England must be better than something manufactured in Russia. More importantly, it would be a more dependable supply. So for the mountain this year, there would be two different types of bottles being used, both the Poisk and England bottles, along with a single regulator that was designed to fit both types of bottles. It was learned early on in the season, however, that there was a problem, and the regulators did not fit both very efficiently. After a few days at base camp, someone came up with a solution whereby a relatively simple modification could be made to the English bottles to allow the regulators to fit, along with a minor adjustment to the regulator depending on what bottle you were actually using. This was all learned nearly a month before the summit bids and well before the Sherpas began hauling the oxygen bottles up to Camp 3 and Camp 4, but after many of the bottles had already been taken up to Camp 2. We had naturally assumed that all the necessary modifications to the bottles had been made prior to their being sent up the mountain. Attempting these modifications up high in the thin air is not something that you would want to do at Camp 4, partially because of the extreme cold and the tedious nature of the job, but also because of lower mental and cognitive skills one possesses up there. Well, much to everyone’s surprise, there were still many problems with the bottles, and now, at 2pm at Camp 4, just hours before leaving for the summit, the rush was on to fix all the bottles. In addition, some of the regulators, which were old and had been used on previous expeditions, hadn’t been tested prior to being sent up the mountain; they were all being tested now as well. Within an hour or so, it quickly became apparent that not all of the regulators were functioning properly, and not all of the oxygen bottles could be modified correctly. This was no small issue. You really shouldn’t spend a night at Camp 4 without oxygen, and you certainly can’t summit without it. Although we had enough for the climbing members that would attempt the summit the next day, it appeared we were several regulators short for the total number of people (climbers and Sherpas) we currently had up there. The decision was made that priority for the regulators would go to those members who would be summitting that night. So, Willie, who after moving for the last 30+ hours straight (and was thankfully still feeling good), would actually have to descend to Camp 2, alleviating the need for one regulator. Also, several of the Sherpas that were planning to head up on the summit bid that night in support of the clients, would have to remain at Camp 4 in reserve. This would have the effect of decreasing somewhat, the most important resource for clients on summit day; Sherpa support. A difficult prospect. At 900pm that night, those with regulators left for the summit. Those Sherpas who did have regulators accompanied them with additional oxygen. The last radio call of the evening was confirmation of the team’s departure.

I was now back at base camp, having spent a good part of the day descending the Western Cwm and the Ice Fall; again. I was starting to get a little sick of this. This trip had taken much longer than previous descents. Although the weather had been good high on the mountain, it had remained socked in below Camp 2 for several days now. I had assumed it was just cloud cover, but as I began to move into the Cwm, I realized that there was a tremendous amount of new snow. A few hundred feet below Camp 2, I found myself breaking fresh trail through knee deep snow. Progress was slow due to the depth of the snow, but it was the loss of the trail that really made things difficult. You may remember from earlier postings that the Cwm is loaded with some of the largest and deepest crevasses I have ever seen in all my years of climbing. Over the last month and a half, we had stamped out a pretty good trail, negotiating in and out and back and forth through several miles of crevassed glacier. That trail was now gone. We had used wands to mark the trail as well, but they were spaced so infrequently that it was very difficult to find the best path through the crevasses, and even more difficult to find the ladder crossings. To make matters worse, I was traveling alone and unroped. Now that may sound odd, but believe it or not, with the exception of the summit bid, most of your movement on the mountain was indeed alone (no one was to move alone on the summit attempt). We had successfully fixed lines on the more technical and difficult sections, and most of the crevasses had ladders. Typically, you just picked your pace and headed out. It was a little different, however, in conditions such as these. Many of the fixed lines were buried and impossible to find and the path was completely gone. What may sound strange though, was the odd sense of peace and calm I felt as I moved through it all. As dangerous as it was, with no margin for error and no room for mistakes, I felt extremely focused on everything that I was doing and at the same time, completely relaxed. In many ways it was almost meditative. After clearing the Cwm, I moved into the icefall, which wasn’t much better, except for the fact that some Sherpas coming up from base camp had broken trail as far as Camp 1. At least I would be able to retrace their steps as I descended. Most of the descent was pretty uneventful, with the exception of the last major crevasse crossing I had to negotiate just above base camp. This last crevasse isn’t the widest on the mountain, but it is certainly on par with any of the deepest. What makes it difficult is the fact that you have to descend a very steep set of ice blocks and then step down a small face and lower yourself down to the ladder via a fixed rope that is anchored above you in the ice blocks. Its not really all that hard, but it is a little tricky and the exposure is maddening. As you are descending down to the ladder, you have a direct view all the way down into this abyss of a crevasse. It’s definitely a bit of a white-knuckler. One of the biggest threats in the ice fall (after falling ice or avalanches), is equipment failure of the fixed lines and ladders. The problem is that the ice fall gets pounded by extreme sun all day, and then extreme cold all night. This constant freeze/thaw, coupled with a tremendous amount of traffic up and down the ice fall every day, as well as the constant, never ending movement of the ice fall, means that ladders are often collapsing and fixed lines often pulling out. As such you try test everything before you trust it. Well, I had been moving for about seven hours now, breaking trail for most of the day, and I was tired. In addition, I could see base camp just a short distance away which gave a somewhat false sense of security in that I was almost there. As I began to descend the steep section down to the crevasse, I grabbed the rope and loaded it with my weight to lower myself down to the ladder. As I did, the anchor popped; yanked right out of the ice. It was kind of strange, but everything seemed to kick into slow motion as I rocketed down, face first towards the lip of the crevasse. The whole way down, I couldn’t help but think that there sure seemed to be a lot of slack in this rope and wondered when it would finally catch; I was unaware that the anchor had actually pulled out. The only thing that saved me was the fact that I actually fell close enough to the ladder that I was able to get my left arm through one of the rungs and stop the fall, letting go of my ski pole as I did. When I finally stopped, my head and right arm were literally dangling over the lip of the crevasse as I watched my ski pole free fall into the darkness. The crevasse was wide enough that the pole never hit the side walls. I hung there for what seemed like an eternity. By the time I got to guts to stand up, I had never heard the pole it bottom. Had I actually gone over the edge, there would have been no trace; no sign whatsoever of what happened. I would have just been another one of the many who had disappeared on the mountain, never to be heard from again. Count my blessings? That night back in base camp, after the 9pm radio call, I crawled into my sleeping bag looking forward to the success of my teammates that would hopefully follow sometime during the next day, completely unaware of the horror that was about to strike them.

The morning of the 13th, I woke to a cold and dreary day in base camp. The lower elevations were still socked in and there was fresh snow on the tents and glacier. This was presumably a good sign for those up high, as it indicated that the winds would most likely stay remain low. We could only hope for them. I rose about 5am and made for the radio, calling up to both Camp 2 and Camp 4. There was no answer at either, and no answer from anyone moving towards the summit. No big deal though, I figured that those at the camps were still sleeping and those on the mountain would have left their radios off to conserve battery power. Over the next few hours I tried several more times, but to no avail. In addition to myself in base camp, there was Peter Shin, Mike Richardson, Ang Rita (our sidhar) and a number of Sherpas. Choung who had been sick for a number of days now with severe dysentery, had descended once again to a lower altitude to try to recover and regain some strength with the expectation of making a push during the next window. We didn’t hold out good prospects for him due to the fact that he had spent much of the expedition ill and just wasn’t moving well.

About 9am, the radio cracked to life with Willie (now at Camp 2) talking with Enrique at Camp 4. Enrique, who had just spent the night at the South Col without oxygen, was a mess; really in tough shape. His lungs were even worse and he had not an ounce of strength left in him. Willie asked one of the Sherpas at Camp 4 to start assisting Enrique down the Lhotse Face and at the same time dispatched two other Sherpas from Camp 2 to head up and help further. It sounded to me like Enrique was suffering from pneumonia which is very common to people spending several nights up high on the mountain, especially without oxygen. What happens is that the lung tissue gets fried from the extreme cold and lack of oxygen and becomes very weakened and susceptible to bacterial infection. The result is that you cough up tremendous amounts of fluid and suffer a greatly diminished lung capacity. Not a lot of fun up there. He would have one hell of a descent off the mountain ahead of him.

Those of us in base camp waited by the radio in the mess tent for any further word from those high on the mountain. It was an excessively cold morning due to the cloud cover. About 930am, Nick’s voice came over the radio, slightly broken. Due to the weather conditions at base camp, we could hear both Nick and Willie (at Camp 2), but Nick could not hear us; only Willie. We would listen to their conversation, and use Willie to translate anything we needed to say to Nick. Nick, Cos, Augusto and several Sherpas were approaching the South Summit and preparing to attempt the final knife blade before the Step and it sounded like everyone was feeling pretty good with the exception of Nick who was having oxygen problems. Initially it was difficult to understand exactly what the issue was, but it appeared that he had either run out or was about to run out of oxygen. Personally, I was quite excited for Cos. He hadn’t really been moving all that well on the mountain for the last few weeks, sometimes taking an inordinate amount of time to travel between camps. But on this day, the most important, he was out in front of the pack and moving well. The motto on the mountain, was that you really only need to be fast on one day; summit day. Thankfully for Cos, this appeared to be his day.

At the conclusion of the radio call, Mike Smith, who had been listening, chimed in. He was much lower on the mountain, as were several other climbers (Denis, Katja, and Martin). Mike Smith and Katja had been having problems with regulators and oxygen bottles. Mike’s problems would eventually plague him all day. Apparently, several of them had to wait at the balcony for quite some time as they tried to work out the problems. Katja’s regulator problem was eventually solved by taking the regulator from one of the Sherpas who was thus sent back down to Camp 4. Mike’s problems seemed to be with his bottles, and he would have to wait for more bottles to be brought up to the Balcony by a Sherpa waiting at Camp 4; he would have to wait, immobile, in extreme cold and high winds for several hours before his additional bottles could be brought up. Denis was just getting to the Balcony, and was moving very slow. Denis, as you may remember, was attempting the mountain without oxygen, and it was quickly becoming apparent that he was moving just too slow. For all three, it was awfully late in the day (even though it was only 930am or so) to be at the Balcony. There was no word from the others, but Mike knew they were somewhere above him. Mike would radio down a little later and indicate that he was freezing, and he was afraid he would frostbite his feet if he waited much longer; he decided to continue up without a bottle, and hope the Sherpa would eventually catch up with him. If this had been anyone else on the team, I would have thought they were absolutely nuts. Mike, however, is one of the strongest climbers I have ever met and certainly one of the best performing at altitude. He would hopefully be fine.

At 1030am, Nick radioed back down. He was still at the South Summit, but Cos and Augusto had just completed the Step. I thought for sure that they would have all been on the summit by now, but apparently the ridge was more difficult than expected. Nick was still having problems, and decided that he would wait on the South Summit for a Sherpa to bring up oxygen while Cos and Augusto summitted. An hour later, we got a call indicating that the two had indeed made it and were heading back down, along with Nick, who would now turn around and descend with them.

That would be the last radio call until late afternoon. We sat in base camp all day waiting for some additional word which just didn’t come. It’s a strange feeling when you have teammates high on the mountain and are receiving no word. To make matters worse, the clouds had cleared enough at base camp for us to be able to tell that the conditions high on the mountain were definitely deteriorating. The winds had picked up significantly by mid afternoon, and there was a fairly good size snow plume coming off the summit and lower ridges. This would mean lots of spin drift high on the mountain and along the ridges cutting visibility drastically. Just another example of bad weather reports. The report had indicated low winds all day, and deterioration on the 14th, but mother nature works on her own time clock and this mountain was starting to get ugly fast. There was nothing we could do in base camp but hope and wait.

The next radio call did not come in until 430pm that afternoon. It was from a Sherpa who spoke with Ang Rita in Nepalese. He indicated that all team members were now back in Camp 4 at the South Col and in their tents sleeping. We were a little confused in base camp and no less surprised. Surely we would have had a call from either Nick or Mike, our leaders, rather than hear the news from one of the Sherpas. The radio went silent, and then cracked to life again at 530pm; this time it was Mike Smith. Apparently, the original radio call had been wrong and Denis and Chris still were not back in camp. Mike gave no detail as to what happened during the day, but indicated that the weather was developing into a full blown storm. Even if he had not told us about it, you could hear the winds howling in the back ground over the radio. They were getting hammered pretty good. When asked what they were going to do about Denis and Chris, Mike said that they would simply wait and see. He sounded pretty exhausted. At 600pm, Mike radioed back down again; Denis and Chris were just coming into camp as the sun was beginning to set and darkness overtaking the mountain. Five minutes later, Mike radioed back once more; now Mike Matthews appeared to be missing and presumably still up on the mountain somewhere. There definitely seemed to be a great deal of confusion at the South Col. By 630pm, the mountain was covered in the blackness of a moonless night, and Mike Matthews still had not turned up at the South Col. The weather conditions had gone into complete "melt-down" with winds estimated at 60 knots. We now had a major situation on our hands.

Although the details would not be shared until later, the events that unfolded earlier in the day apparently played out as follows. Sometime after Cos, Augusto and Nick descended from the South Summit, Dave and Katja would summit at different times with no additional oxygen or regulator problems. Martin, who was moving slow, would summit late and make it safely back to Camp 4. Chris and Mike Matthews would move together much of the day, but Mike was moving slower and slower and Chris would eventually move on ahead of him.  Mike Smith and Denis had been even lower on the mountain; Mike due to the equipment problems that he had suffered earlier and the fact that he was now moving without oxygen; Denis due to the fact that he was moving without oxygen as well. Mike Smith was eventually passed by a Sherpa coming down from the top who had a spare bottle which he willingly gave to Mike. This was a welcome relief and allowed Smith to kick his engines into high gear. Chris would eventually summit, followed by the two Mikes, though all at different times. If there was anyone on the team that I had really hoped would make it, it was certainly Chris Brown. I think that he worked harder than anyone else to be here and had really deserved it. He was one of the nicest, most genuine people you could ever meet. Denis would stop at the South Summit and turn around there, eventually teaming with Chris for the descent back to the South Col. The real story was with the two Mikes. Matthews would summit first, though Smith would pass him shortly thereafter on the descent just below the South Summit. Smith, being the last of the four guides high on the mountain that day, tried to slow his pace somewhat so that he could keep an eye on Matthews who was now moving quite slowly behind him.

At 22 years old, Mike Matthews came from a very successful and wealthy family, and was quite a successful trader in the London financial markets and a fairly accomplished climber in his own right. His father is a very ambitious man, also being a climber himself, and that ambition was most certainly passed down to his son who was now attempting to be the youngest Brit ever to have successfully climbed Mt. Everest. The attempt would receive great fanfare in England as well as a tremendous amount of publicity. The pressure that was on Mike to summit this mountain, both personally and publicly, must have been massive. At just 22 years old, that pressure, combined with a very youthful exuberance, meant that there would be no stopping him on summit day. I remember well when I was about the same age, traveling to Alaska to climb Denali. I had very little mountaineering experience outside of the White Mountains of NH, but had fallen in love with the mountain only a year earlier. Two friends and I decided that we would attempt this massive peak by a remote route on the north side of the mountain; one that is rarely climbed. We were all three young and brash and felt completely invincible. At that age, you feel quite cocky, arrogant and indestructible. The thought of death isn’t even a remote consideration let alone a possibility. In your mind, there is absolutely nothing that can possibly happen to you. When I look back on that climb and see what we did; what we went through and what we were able to accomplish as a bunch of kids that had no right to be up there, I am still amazed. Although I will cherish that expedition forever and I wouldn’t change a thing, I’m surprised that we came back alive. And we nearly made it too. Had we not gotten nearly blown off the mountain by a storm high on our summit bid, we’d have done it. Over the next several years, I would take that same attitude and complete many climbs, first ascents and new routes on the remote north side of the Alaska range, gaining experience, knowledge and most importantly, perspective as I went. Good common sense and decision making in the mountains comes from only one thing; spending many years in the mountains. Tinker said it best at the beginning of the expedition; he said that you need to be able to tell the difference between "feeling like you are going to die and knowing that you can continue on", and "knowing you are going to die and having the sense to turning around". Its not as easy as it sounds. The reality is that on a mountain like Everest, you feel like you are going to die every minute that you are moving; it’s that painful up there. But you do push on. What you need to be able to realize, is when this feeling starts to become a reality. I don’t know if Mike had enough experience under his belt to truly know when to turn around, but I know that when I was 22, I sure didn’t. Mike definitely seemed to suffer many of the same qualities that I did when I was his age. He was a great kid, though, and a real pleasure to have on the expedition. He had lots of ambition and lots of drive. Unfortunately, he also that wonderful and dangerous adolescent delusion that nothing can possibly happen to him up here.

Matthews was now descending below the South Summit, above Smith, but very slow. It was mid afternoon (very late in the day) and Smith was nearly out of his last bottle of oxygen. Some distance above the balcony, there is a fairly steep section of ridge, fixed with lines, that split the faces of the mountain. The winds were howling pretty bad at this point and the spin drift was making visibility quite difficult. Smith was waiting down on the Balcony, getting occasional glimpses of Matthews who was still descending the technical section above him. Smith waited for what he said seemed like forever; he knew his feet were now frostbitten and that he had to get down. Eventually the spin drift was so bad that he completely lost visibility of Matthews and turned to descend, presumably assuming that Matthews would be along behind him shortly. As he descended, he would attempt to pull out the fixed lines in effort to make them more visible for Matthews on his descent, although in the current weather conditions, they would just be covered up again shortly. Although Smith's efforts were certainly commendable, his decision to descend ahead of Matthews  was a very questionable one due to the lateness of the day and the fact that this was a client that was still behind him. You would think that the last guide on the mountain would want to play more of a "clean-up" role, and not get ahead of the last client; especially a client like Matthews, who, at 22 years of age definitely had less experience and was now moving quite slow. One of the main advantages we had being such a large commercial expedition was an abundance of experienced resources; plenty of extra guides and Sherpas. One of the stated goals throughout the entire expedition had been that no one would have to move alone on summit day; a guide or Sherpa would be with you at all times. They won’t help you climb the mountain, but they are indeed your only insurance policy if you get in trouble. Why Matthews would be left to move on his own accord so late in the day was confusing. Why he would be allowed to be the last one high on the mountain in such terrible conditions may forever be a mystery.


Part I       |       Part III