Willie was running around like a man on a mission, trying desperately to rally the troops. Danuru, Tendi and I had a few other ideas, like cramming down one last snack and hydrating like crazy before we stepped off. Willie tried to pull a Dad on us, fast-forwarding his clock by 15 minutes. To me, that was funny because when he'd say "It's eight, we need to go!" I'd immediately look at my watch and at one point asked him if his watch was set fast. Which I knew it wasn't.
Finally, the three of us emerged from our tent to start gearing up and saw why Willie was stressed. Tents lit up everywhere, climbers already gearing up. Headlamps twinkled all over Camp Four.
Willie had already made it clear across the South Col at all the major teams that he planned on departing at 8:00 PM with the intent of moving forward to complete rope fixing that remained to be done from a major terrain feature known as the South Rock Step up to the summit. No small task, given that rope needed to be hauled in addition to fixed along loose snow and crumbly rock on steep faces. This job would go all the way through the South Summit, along the summit ridge, past the Hillary Step and up to the summit itself. Willie has done this job over the last two years and is fully comfortable doing the job again this year -- now if only he can get some help. Lots of "ohh, I can't spare anybody right now" or "how about this compromise? I'll bring 100 meters of rope with me when I follow you up a few hours later." Ridiculous. Danuru Sherpa from IMG was the exception, an extremely strong Sherpa being more or less volunteered that he was going to help out with the Mountain Madness fixing team of Willie and Tendi.
So because of all this drama unfolding up at 26,100 feet, most major teams understood the concept of a fixing team taking a little while once underway. Because of that, they would depart the South Col to move up the Ice Shelf one hour later than our team would. However, there exists on Everest something akin to Freeloaders. These groups pay bargain basement prices to come climb here, typically run without Sherpas, and will poke around to gain whatever benefit they can without having to pay for it. We saw one of these Freeloaders at Camp Three, looking for an unoccupied tent to crash and sleep in when the owners who hauled it up the Lhotse Face were elsewhere. Easier that way, right? No need to haul a tent up that crazy face.
We also saw two Freeloaders ascending up the Ice Shelf from Camp Four last night, who must have heard "rope fixing team leaving at 8, everyone else is leaving at 9," and decided that they were jump in front of the train. Sorry, Charlie. Willie came up on these two, gave them a nice sunburn and they fell back -- I'm sure feeling a little foolish at being called on their actions.
Oxygen regulators we are using have the following flow-meter settings: .5, 1, 1.5, 2, 3, 4. While there are .5 and 1.5 settings used when crashed in the tent, you can also set for half settings between 2 and 4 liters/ minute, with 4 being the highest setting. Most people were using 2.5 as their climb setting, but I prefer 3 because I'm bigger than the average bear and because after using my regulator for a few days I know that it isn't calibrated properly and administers a lower dose. So, 2.5 on my regulator is closer to 2.2.
And so this little game of back and forth ensues. I set for three, then Tendi sees three and drops it back to 2.5. I quietly turn it back up, and Danuru looks half an hour later and drops it back again. In the mean time, my climbing speed zig zags back and forth as I feel like I can breathe, and then can't again. As we set off from Camp Four and onto the Ice Shelf I had set three and was feeling great with lots of speed. This didn't matter though, because as usual Willie is off like a shot up the Triangle Face and through the rock bands below the Balcony.
The entire team was doing well and moving at a fast pace, making our first objective and doing so quickly enough that Willie told us that we needed to slow down and then adjusted my air flow. Oh, great. Right before the hardest part of tonight's climb. He warned us to put on mitts because it was about to get cold. Quite literally ten minutes later, the wind kicked up and snow blew everywhere. Talk about timing.
At the Balcony, the route angles sharply and follows a loose snow ridgeline up and around in a gentle yet steep arc. Where that arc meets the south rock step it turns downright nasty. Loose snow with no traction, hiding crumbly rocks on an extremely steep angle. The snow chute that leads up to the South Summit must be close to 1000 feet in elevation all portions told, and some portions of the rock, snow and ice trail are definitely near vertical. I looked up at Willie, only visible thanks to his reflectors as he roped up the trail.
Francisco and I wondered aloud this brief and muffled conversation through our masks:
"Dude, how are we going to get up this thing?"
"I do not know. But more importantly, how are we going to get down?"
"I have no idea. Can you turn me back up to three?"
Your lungs are aching, even with the oxygen. Willie and Danuru (IMG, not ours) continue to rope and climb higher. Unexpectedly, Danuru (ours) falls out of the climb with stomach pains. And then there were four. Wow, what an amazing turn of events. Tendi then becomes a full-fledged oxygen bottle porter for the team and slows way down. "Hey, put it to three, that'll help you out," someone yells. "Doug, come here and let me see your regulator". Dammit.
So at 28,000 feet our summit push team now consists of: Willie, Francisco, Me, Tendi.
Oh well, drive on, drive on. At one point as Francisco and I scrambled up one particularly nasty stretch of rock in the pitch black, we again started a muffled conversation about how we were going to get down, after all. I have to admit, that lingering question stayed with me throughout the south rock step portion of the climb. But. Onward and upward we went. Higher and higher. The full moon was out and cast its bluish ghostly hue over everything. It was so bright that you could clearly make out Camp Two, not to mention hundreds of mountain tops now far below. It was truly beautiful. I'd show you a picture of it, but my camera doesn't take night shots very well (or more realistically I don't know how to work it's new-fangled settings).
Occasionally, we would get a gust of wind, but for the most part the sky stayed deathly still. At one point, high on the loose snow ramp leading up to the South Summit I even heard another guide radioing Willie from the Balcony, at that point 500 feet down. I don't mean I heard the radio chatter, I mean I heard the guide talk, and then a split second later heard the radio come through Willie's radio 100 feet up the slope. You could hear the "clink" of jumars clicking home, the chalkboard "screech" of crampons on rock and the mechanical Darth Vader noise of regulators pressing oxygen, now back at a rate of three liters/minute thanks to a plea to Francisco which thankfully worked.
Oh, and speaking of which. Try taking off your regulator for a second if you want to know just how high you truly are. Tom L. who works on the 787 at Boeing will know, since he has to make jets fly at this altitude. Yeesh. Immediately after taking one breath at this altitude you become dizzy, tired, and slump over.
Up and up we went. At times when using my headlamp to spot Willie, I'd be looking at his reflectors and straight up to stars. It was beautiful, exhilarating, exhausting and vertical all wrapped into one experience. Around 4:00 AM, I looked off to the east and to faint glow of sunrise appeared. We had already "made" the South Summit -- success! Actually, it appeared before we really expected it and were thrilled to take a break. We knew from discussion that from there, it was only about another hour and a half to the actual summit, so it was a wonderful feeling to know we were so close. It was also here that I think it truly sunk in -- we were going to make it.
From the South Summit, very little remains as far as obstacles for the true summit -- a traverse along this crazy ridge that you put a foot down on and to the left you can look between your legs straight down to Camp Two (SE Ridge), and then the famed Hillary Step. The weather wasn't just cooperating, it was turning into what we knew was going to be a downright beautiful morning. It was also here that my camera decided that it would start allowing me to take pictures. Happy day, happy day. Looking to the west, where the full moon still graced the horizon, this is what the view looked like:
As the sun slowly crept up, all sorts of oranges, reds and yellows began to hit the tips of the summit ridge. Given how high we were compared to every other point on earth, we were the first to see the sun and watch the rays dance on the rocks and ice. Completely windless, we quickly switched oxygen bottles for the final push and then set out along a ridgeline that only six other people had walked on this year.
After about 20 minutes, we reached the last, final technical part of our climb: the Hillary Step. I have read about this 40-foot rocky outcrop, seen pictures of it, and wanted to climb it for years. To see it with my own eyes -- wow. Let's just say that this particular formation of rock and ice has been something I have looked forward to, but have known all along that in order for me to climb on it, I'd have to put in some serious effort just to get there. Oh, man do you have to put in serious effort. And so, here we are, walking up on the Hillary Step with relative ease and quite quickly. It all happened so quickly -- there it is, here we are, here we go, we are climbing it now.
Personally, I can't say that I found the Hillary Step to be all that difficult, but understand that it's quite different today from what Sir Ed and Tenzing Norgay found 55 years ago. Then, it was an unclimbed obstacle. Today there are so many ropes dangling down it from past seasons that when you grab them collectively it feels like a ship anchor rope. But I don't want to take away from the experience, which I found pretty damn cool. It's about 40 feet high for sure.
When you are about to get onto the Step you look to your left and see down to Camp Two, to your right there is a single foothold -- that's it. Miss that, and it's an express ride to Tibet. You essentially grab hold of the five or seven ropes that dangle down the almost vertical face and wedge one foot in between the rock
and snow. There are about 15 footholds that lead you up to a series of rocks that you have to wiggle through until you arrive at one that you have to do this weird squat/hop to navigate around and over. Now try that with crampons on and that 8,000-foot drop inches away. That definitely gets your blood going. Then -- poof -- you cut around a corner to ascend up a snow ramp, and congratulations, you have just navigated the Hillary Step.
I have to say, going up the Hillary Step is great because there's a natural flow to ascending, and when we were going up there were only like five of us even in that general vicinity on the mountain. But on the way down the place was a mob scene and we had to wait for ten people to keep popping their head through the rock before we were able to hand-over-hand our way back down the Step. From this little notch where Francisco and I were waiting, it looked like a 29,000-foot game of Whack-a-Mole the way they kept popping up.
Next stop, the summit. Once you complete the Hillary Step, we were golden. It's about a 20 minute, 300 vertical foot trek to the top from there, mostly along a gentle slope composed of ice and scree (loose small rocks).
Fixing lines the entire way, Willie had beat us to the summit by roughly 40 minutes. So to him, this is what it looked like as the three of us approached the summit carefully and happily:
Willie: 21 May, 06:05- his eighth Mt Everest summit
Tendi, Doug & Francisco: 21 May, 06:45- our first Mt Everest summit, Tendi's sixth
There are hardly any clouds, zero wind and a warm, nourishing sun. It couldn't be any more perfect and you can see forever. Words can't describe the feelings of happiness and exhilaration at reaching this goal after so many months of effort and teamwork.