Mountaineering: The Art of Suffering – 5.25.2012

Mountaineering certainly deserves its nickname.  After 10 months of planning and training and 2 months of living on the mountain to put myself in position, it all ended 4 hours before we were to depart Camp II (21,500′) for Camp III (24,000′) on our final push to the summit.  The disappointment is indescribable.

As I write this though, my thoughts are first and foremost with my climbing teammates who are right now resting at the South Col (Camp IV – 26,300′), wrought with nervous anticipation as they prepare for their summit attempts tonight that will begin around 9pm Nepal time.  I wish them all the best and they will be in my thoughts and prayers until they are all down safely in base camp on 5/27 or 5/28.  They are an exceptionally strong team and if the forecast holds there is a very good chance all of them will stand on the top of the world at some point the morning of 5/26.  I am sorry that I won’t be there to enjoy the view with them and congratulate them in person on their exceptional achievement.

Upon departing base camp on 5/22, I made quick work of the Khumbu Icefall and the Western Cwm and arrived at Camp II in only 5 1/2 hours, well ahead of the pack.  I felt great and as bulletproof at that point as I had the entire expedition.  Since the whole team was moving together (for once on the trip due to illnesses, etc. on previous rotations), I had my first tent-mate of the expedition that night, who’s a long-time climbing partner and good friend, Dave.  Unfortunately, Dave succumbed that evening to a violent GI infection (vomiting, etc.) that had been making its way around base camp and our team over the previous week to ten days.  This, unfortunately, cost him his summit bid, and his bad luck also became mine as I succumbed exactly 24 hours after he did.  I’ve bounced back quickly from the other setbacks encountered on this expedition, but I fell ill at 11pm on 5/23 (my birthday no less), which was only 4 hours prior to the team’s departure to Camp III.  Despite trying everything (literally – Cipro, Z-Pack, Flagyl, Immodium, etc.), there was no way I could depart with the team.  This means I missed my summit attempt by 12-24 hours, and if I had succumbed even a day earlier I would likely be resting at the South Col right now with the team.

At that point, reality and disappointment began to set in, but I wasn’t ready to give up.  I even discussed and had the green light, based on my strong performance thus far and track record of quick recoveries, to attempt an epic move from Camp II (21,500′) at 12:30am on 5/25 straight to Camp IV (26,300′) to rejoin the team just in time to rest for 8-10 hours before pushing on to the summit.  This would have required a herculean effort (about the equivalent energy-wise of summiting Everest on back-to-back days with 8-10 hours of rest in between), and in the end I didn’t have nearly enough energy to attempt this, after fighting the GI infection for only 24 hours, without putting me and others in jeopardy.  So, there was only one call to make and that was to head down to base camp.  Unfortunately, there’s no solace in that, even though it was the right/only decision.  Absolutely devastating…

I’ve typically had the ability to power through things on expeditions.  Prior to Kilimanjaro in 2010, I had a collapsed lung from a soccer game that sidelined me for a month and therefore only had 2-3 weeks to prepare/train.  That’s a mountain that will permit that though.  Coming off the summit of Carstensz Pyramid in Papua in 2011, I had an infection of the Pleura (lining of the lung), which we thought might be a life-threatening Pulmonary Embolism, but with no chance of rescue in the middle of the Papuan jungle/highlands I had to hike out ~40 miles with it and it was the only time in my life that I thought I might die.  Everest, though, is a mountain that you cannot simply suck-it-up and do it, as unfortunately the 10 deaths (hopefully the tally goes no higher) this year on the mountain attest to.  So, after 4 GI infections, a frost-nipped nose (no permanent damage), an upper-respiratory infection, ~25 lbs of weight loss, and countless other small ailments (all in 8 weeks), it’s time to retreat home to friends and family.

The hardest part is that after all the time and effort, I never really got to challenge the upper mountain and do the truly exhilarating climbing that it has to offer (the Southeast Ridge, South Summit, Hillary Step, etc.).  With the support resources we had in place, the exceptionally strong team, the great weather window (if the forecast indeed holds), and how strong I was feeling prior to falling ill, I believe that I would have had a great chance at “running out of earth.”  Timing is everything though… in order to summit Everest you need the stars to align for your one shot at the top when all of the resources are in place and the weather looks good.  The stars in this case are a good weather window, good/passable conditions, individual health and the right physiology for high altitude.  It appears that I had 3 of the 4, which isn’t enough.  It just wasn’t meant to be for me, I suppose, and it hurts.  I gave it all I had and it simply wasn’t enough in this toughest of Everest seasons.

29 thoughts on “Mountaineering: The Art of Suffering – 5.25.2012

  1. I know you gave it your all and I admire your effort and correct decision to retreat to base camp. You have seen things few of us will ever see and had experiences through climbing most of us can only imagine through your stories and pictures. While I share your disappointment, I am relieved you are heading home safe and look forward to seeing you in a few weeks to celebrate your safe return. I look forward to sharing a laugh with you back in Denver and buying you some large meals to help put some weight back on you!

    • Thank you for all of the very nice comments. I’m extremely lucky to have such a great group of friends/supporters. It means the world to me and certainly makes coming home all the sweeter and the disappointment easier to digest. I’ll certainly recover from this and turn the page (likely, much sooner than later, especially with your help) and move on to new adventures (whatever form they may take).

  2. Still an inspiration to all of us. Following your story has taught me how Everest isn’t 1 big story, but hundreds of stories that you’re in a better position to share now than had you pushed on. Safe travels back…

  3. What an incredible journey you’ve had. I can’t imagine how difficult the last 24 hours have been . Still an amazing inspiration though both in perserverance and pursuit of a dream as well one of the most difficult things there is – making the right call at the right time under extreme conditions. I wish you continued healing and a safe journey home. If we ever make it to Denver (we constantly talk about moving back but have made no movement on that front) or you’re in Chicago, I’d love to catch up.

  4. I have been following your every movement and know this is such a disappointment to you, but am so happy that you made the right decision. What a story you have to tell (as usual). I admire your entire effort and you were there — just not at the top – or where you run out of earth – as you put it. You experienced 98% of the trip and I salute you for that. You are among a small percentage of the people on this earth who can say they accomplished what you did. I am very proud of you. I wish you safe travels back home. Home will feel so good after this trip.

  5. Jim,
    You are amazing!! What you accomplished already has been unbelievable! We have thouroughly enjoyed this whole journey with you. We are so glad you made the decision to be safe! Safe travels back to Colorao….

  6. Wook,
    We can’t begin to imagine how you are feeling, but I’m glad you are safe. I’ll see you in a few weeks. Congrats on everything and I guess now you still have a checkbox to look forward to.

  7. Gut wrenching decision made by you, and we all know making the right decision is not always the easiest path to take, but it is important that you know it was the right thing to do. And now selfishly (and shared by all of your fans and supporters), you have once again shown your generosity by reversing the tables and giving us all a gift on your birthday: Your safe return! It will be a great honor to see your smiling face again in the near future.
    Now while we all share your disappointment with the turn of events, I feel confident that we will live vicariously through you and your upcoming experiences in the near future. Safe travels and keep your head high as you have accomplished and experienced so much more than any of us will ever be able to.

  8. You made a really brave decision. It must have been almost unthinkable to turn back. I know you must be disappointed, but I have never been so proud. Congratulations on all you accomplished. Hurry home for many heavy beers and tons of food!

  9. We’ve been in this game a long time and know that summit success can turn on the smallest factor. That being said, my heart literally is hurting for you right now. You gave this everything you could give and had enough respect for the mountain to not give it absolutely everything. That is the embodiment of courage.

  10. Jim
    A tough but good decision and will make your inevitable summit all the sweeter!!! Keep the faith. First beer is on me!!!

  11. Jim, your decision shows the altitude has not impacted your judgment. You lifting up your teammates despite your condition illustrates your character, which is unwavering. I look forward to seeing your smile once again.

  12. Jim, I cant say anything that hasn’t been said in the earlier posts. I do understand the crushing disappointment. Safe travel home and I still cannot wait to hear stories. Your pal, Vondo.

  13. walk away with your head up high my friend, what you already achieved is a huge accomplishment in itself and at least you can say you were on it, but it just wasn’t meant to be

  14. Jimbo – Chin high, what an experience. Look forward to catching up back here. Hope Dave is also recovering quickly and doing well. Ben

  15. You’re a hero in my book, Wookie. Get on back to Denver and lets layer some fat on those bones and build up the energy for what, I suspect, will be a second trip to the top of the earth. Glad your safe and all the wiser. You’ve inspired us all.

  16. Hey Jim, I could not imagine how difficult it is for you and all the emotions you must be feeling but in the end as long as you are safe that’s all that matters. The mountain isn’t going anywhere if you decide to go on that journey again. Great accomplishment and what an amazing experience you’ve had. Corrie

  17. Jim – many of us here on earth (ok, well, at least me) live a sort of Walter Mitty-like life, imagining what could be someday. You are one of those who actually gets up and DOES it! Have been following your adventures closely and living it a little with you vicariously (although thankfully not the GI stuff). Amazing journey; I know you’ve inspired me; maybe some others as well. While you may not have nailed that last 2%, your effort was herculean and you will get to enjoy the 98% of amazing experience forever. Congrats to you and safe travels home. Dave

  18. Oh, JIm – my heart aches knowing what this means to you. That is the cruelest of blows to be so very close. You are a warrior and a hero. Thank you for coming back to us in one piece.
    Caroline

  19. Jim, either way, you’ve been in my tales for the past few weeks. Knowing a nutcase to challenge Everest has been a great story and will be mine forever. Yes, I guess you can use the story from time to time as well with my permission. Awesome Job!!! Glad to hear you will be safely heading home soon!!! I look forward to hearing the tale first hand over a beer in Denver. Love, The Quinns.

  20. Hey Jim,
    Just wanted to say how sorry I was hear to this news on your summit bid. Obviously the right choice, but tough no less. Safe travels to you and your compatriots on the way back home. It’s been very inspiriational following your and the teams’ progress these past few months. There’s a beer with your name on it from me when you make it back to Denver. –Ryan

  21. Jim,
    In addition to your enormous personal accomplishment, you’ve made something most of us have previously followed from only an impersonal distance, very personal. Also highlighted the incredible details that all need to fall in place for an expedition success. Your efforts are very inspirational. Safe travels home.
    Mike

  22. a very wise man named wooks once told me, “i’ll try anything twice.” this experience just gave you the baseline knowledge for your second shot. i know this is disappointing right now, but you have many opportunities ahead of you. this isn’t over by a long shot, unless you choose for it to be. warm your nose back up, heal that stomach, and start planning for round #2. 🙂 thank you for being such an incredible inspiration. every time i feel physical pain doing anything, i always hear you telling me it’s all about what’s in the heart tank. can’t tell you how many times that has saved me. i’m so very proud of you…

  23. I can’t imagine how difficult that decision must have been for you. Like I said before you left, I am in awe of what you’ve accomplished – even more so now! Glad you’re safe and back to good health. Safe travels to you! LV

  24. Jim, I have been trying to write something for the last 24 hrs and have deleted everything. I still can’t muster the words. I know this was an agonizing and grueling decision. My heart aches for you. Hold your head high and as we sang after Orizaba, The mountains win again. I am glad you are safe and lets cheer the rest of the team on for a safe return. You are an amazing friend and I can’t wait until our paths will cross soon. Looks like it will be Dec when we will visit.
    Persevering,
    Clay D.

  25. Jim, so sorry to hear about your recent set back on Everest. While i am sorry to hear it i am glad to hear you are safe.. Sounds like it is pretty crowded up there this year. Your drive and dedication have always been an inspiration to me and I know you will accomplish this at another time if your heart is set on it. You have always lived life to the fullest and I have no doubt you will continue to do so. I look forward to catching up soon….

  26. Such a stunning disappointment must be very difficult to even fully experience at first. Hopefully you will be able to award to yourself the sense of accomplishment which you so richly deserve. In the meantime try to

    FACE,
    ACCEPT
    FLOAT
    and LET TIME PASS

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