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.