Myers called a good one and I am very pleased that he did. He met me, along with Howard after work on Friday. We took the Steenhatchie canoe over the dragon on a warm, summer afternoon.
It’s a long story as to how the canoe got her name. This canoe is one of the old Grummann boy scout types from the 70s and Brian Moran was with me when three of us paddled it over to Eagle Creek on one of the maiden voyages. Brian often fished down in Steenhatchie and we turned Steenhatchie into a verb that equates to FUBAR.
We met Mark Jones, NIck and Allen for the first night at Proctor. We enjoyed a nice fire made so by Nick and rose early the next morning for some hiking around the old logging camp. It was a beautiful day so Howard and I decided to go on a trail run whilst Mark hiked over to Eagle Creek for some new miles.
A refreshing swim was in order where Hazel turned into Fontana. The temperature was just right, very chilly in contrast to the hot lake. After a big trail run and wood gathering, this was the medicine we needed.
(these two pics above are courtesy of Howard)
AJ joined us around lunch time Saturday and Allen departed.
Myers is responsible for all but two of these photos. He is getting the hang of it, I would say.
Around this fire we had a lively political debate. And I mean lively!
Overall, it was a men’s weekend and we all needed the outdoor therapy. Time in nature is like time in church. You need both to commune with our creator. It was a good crew of folks who appreciate what they have. Two of our men, AJ and Myers just saw their daughters off to college within the past week. These are rites of passage not only for the girls but these men as well. Congratulations to them for that is, to me, a great success. Raising children who have entered the world of higher learning prepared for life is the purpose of parenting and I know that Myers and AJ have done a fine job. Mark has too, but his son is quite a bit further down that road.
The weather was fine. It had to be in the 90s but the water felt as if it were in the fifties and none of us complained. Probably one of the best swims I have ever had in the backcountry. The yellow jackets are out, be warned. I predict a nice fall season with more time in the woods this year. I hope everyone here is able to get out.
When we got off the big Uhuru summit of Kilimanjaro we took a shower at the hotel in Moshi. I was now in full blown respiratory distress and spent the afternoon/ night in a fever. Imagine being in a hotel in Africa and freezing to death then burning up. Yes, the idea of a safari, or anything else, for that matter was not enticing. But, then again, neither was being laid up sick. So, we made arrangements, again through Evans, to leave early the next day and drive to Arusha, several hours away and eventually toward Tarangiri National Park.
Tarangiri was warm but the dusty roads weren’t helping my condition. Still, we pushed on and saw our first animals, ones that would signify the abundance of Africa, the Thompson Gazelles.
Soon we were knee deep in zebra and wildebeest.
Then we saw our first elephants.
Thompson gazelle are like the buffet items for predators.
Much like you see in Discovery, animals congregate at the watering hole.
Not that they weren’t plentiful elsewhere.
After several hours cruising Tarangiri, we drove for a bit to our first lodging which was exquisite. For some reason I didn’t take any photographs here but we had individual bungalos and incredible food. We would depart early the next morning for Serengeti.
All smiles for a minute as we paid our fees and entered this marvel of nature. It spans 12,000 square miles and extends well into Kenya. The Maasai people used to inhabit this area and are abundant throughout. You recognize them by their colorful dress.
Howard captured this moment with the Maasai. Then we zoomed in to see how they really felt about being photographed.
Elephants on the move in Serengeti.
We couldn’t get out of the Land Cruiser much. There were dangerous animals around.
(the ubiquitous gazelle)
Three jaguar. But wait until you see what happens here.
Howard captured this Hemingway moment with his phone. It was amazing. We would see many more amazing things later on.
Yes, it was Africa hot in the Serengeti. And since we were in cold temps on Kilimanjaro, this was refreshing. But the monkeys needed shade.
The hippos had the right idea.
It had been a long and eventful day. We rode to our lodging for the night, smack dab in the middle of the bush.
We were treated to a tent resort in the middle of the Serengeti. And it was the nicest tent lodging I will likely ever experience.
It even had a satellite internet connection. There are rules about camping in the middle of lion country though. You are escorted to your tent and you don’t leave your tent until sunrise. But the tents were luxurious.
We even had a campfire at dusk.
Our private bungaloo in the Serengeti.
and a hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it.
After an interesting night in a tent with full size beds, bathrooms and a shower, we were off for another morning in the Serengeti.
(I’m quite proud of this one and may frame it)
The Serengeti is breathtaking. But we had miles to go and reach the infamous Ngorngoro Crater.
We exited Serengeti and had a bit of a time getting out due to paperwork issues.
Ngorngoro is an interesting place both geographically and taxonomically.
And it was here that we were enveloped in a moment that I will never forget. You can experience it with us here through the miracle of video technology.
Simply incredible to be a part of this experience. It was a somber thing and affirming thing to witness.
From the top of the Ngorongoro Crater. We dropped way down into this feature.
We completed our safari with a stop at another park, Lake Manyara. It’s 125 square miles near Arusha. This smaller park is home to thriving elephant, water buffalo and waterfowl populations not seen in other parks. We finished our journey back at the Oasis we stayed in the first night. This dream had seen us all profoundly moved by the wildness of Africa. I strongly encourage everyone to consider a safari. Our land cost was less than $1400 per person for four days, all inclusive. Our guide, Adidas, was simply unbelievable. His eye for wildlife, combined with his no nonsense and crowd avoidant style made him a perfect fit for the three of us. Again, it was Evans with Baraka Trails that arranged this for our team and we are ever so appreciative. Let me know if you are interested in doing this and I will be glad to make the appropriate introductions for you and your family. I know I sound like a paid endorser, but that is not the case. To have someone greet you at the airport and return you there with every detail patiently attended in between is without a price. And we are grateful for it.
Kilimanjaro July 3-18 2019.
Long on our bucket list, Kili loomed like a storm cloud over my climbing resume. Everyone had finished it at some point. Brian Moran told me it was his favorite of them all. Many thwarted attempts to secure plane tickets had been derailed by exorbitant prices. But, late in the spring of this year, ticket prices dropped and so did our credit cards. Before we knew it, Laurel and I had pulled the trigger. A short time later, we mentioned it to Howard who was gung ho following his successful trek to Everest Base camp.
I reached out to my friend from Everest, Sibusiso Vilane. We spent a good deal of down time in Namche last spring waiting for rope fixing on the mountain. I learned that he was quite an expert on Kilimanjaro, having led multiple trips there. He is also quite well know in Africa as being the first black man to summit Everest and has completed what we call the Explorers Grand Slam. That includes all the highest peaks on each continent plus the two poles. He has summited Everest twice and was going for a no oxygen attempt in 2018 which was unsuccessful.
Sibu, aka “Simba” suggested that I contact Evans with Baraka Trails. After a string of correspondence and logistics we agreed upon the 7 day Lemosho Route. That is what Laurel and I had researched as having the best chance for summit success given the acclimatization built into that path. Next we had to determine if a safari would be an appropriate way to conclude our sojourn. Our triumvirate collectively agreed that we would wait until the conclusion of the climb to pull that trigger. Evans had us lined up in that eventuality.
Evans put us up in a great hotel in Moshi and agreed to deliver a copy of my book to Sibusiso at his request. I now have a copy of Sibu’s book about his journey from nothing to the top of Everest. It is incredibly inspirational.
It takes a full day to get to Tanzania. We began in Knoxville, then Atlanta, then Amsterdam then Kilimanjaro International. Very jet-weary, we de-planed and Evans was waiting patiently as we navigated our first objective hazard, Tanzania customs. Our gracious host had been waiting patiently outside for two hours. Nevertheless, he drove us over one and a half hours to Moshi where we would disembark for the mountain. I trusted him immediately, not just because of his recommendation from Sibu, but his genuine honesty and kind face. We were all immediately at ease with our African host and his driver. We were in good hands.
Evans put us up in a great hotel in Moshi and agreed to deliver a copy of my book to Sibusiso at his request. I now have a copy of Sibu’s book about his journey from nothing to the top of Everest. It is incredibly inspirational.
After at day in Moshi and making final preparations, we were picked up early on July 6 where we headed to the National Park for weighing of supplies and permits. Our three -person team was supported by 13 support staff. This included two guides, a cook, waiter and personal toilet tent. These are luxuries I have never experienced on any expedition. Our first day saw us begin in the rain forest as we followed varying monkeys for several hours on a short day to the Big Tree Camp. Here we found what would come to characterize our subsequent journey to the roof of Africa. Food was gourmet, service was unequaled and smiles abundant. Our lead guide was Florian and the number 2 was Mustafa. They never left our side. We had a restful night in the first camp from an elevation of 6900 to 8695 feet at Mkubwa (Big Tree) Camp.
Laurel, Howard, myself and Mustafa, who had to make an unfortunate departure from our expedition later in the trip.
The next day was dramatic. Many, many teams were sharing this campsite low in the jungle. It was quite the party scene amongst the low stung canopy we would soon lose. As we packed up in the morning, monkeys took over for scraps of food as we chased the rising sun up into a different alpine zone. Kilimanjaro is unique in the variety of scenery experienced on the respective climbs. This day would find us ascending something called the Elephant Ridge which reminded me of the Appalachains. It was like somewhere between Bob’s Bald and the Hangover, perhaps even going up Slickrock Creek. The geographic relief was dramatic and we gained a bit of elevation. Some struggled with the increased altitude. Instead of setting up at the next campsite, Shira 1, we pushed on through to Shira 2. However, our team halted at Shira 1 and prepared a full, hot lunch for us. Can you believe our entire expedition stopped to perform this task and set up not just a dining and cook area but the toilet tent as well. It was the best spaghetti I ever had. We would need the carbs for the second portion of our day. This was a full eight hour hike and we found our elevation gain now to be 12,600 feet. Quite significant jump and we were all feeling some effect of the new increase. Shira 2 was above the clouds and afforded dramatic vistas into the jungle below. Some headaches were experienced by Laurel and Howard. Overall, though, the Diamox was doing its job for them and our porters were carrying the heavy loads. I had about 15 pounds on my back just in the form of junk, aka, usual trail detritus. I don’t think it is possible for me to go light on any ascent. We did 12 miles this day and I was feeling them.
The next morning we would climb over the hills and into dust. I was not feeling well at all due to a severe sore throat and sinus issues. It was uncomfortable given the climb we faced. Howard had been struggling with a chest cold he acquired on the airplane and I caught it full bore. Unfortunately, we had some miles to do and elevation to gain.
The Lemosho route gains this Lava Tower for acclimatization purposes. Our porters bypassed this and proceeded directly to the next campsite. The Lava Tower is 15,200 feet but we would lose much of that dropping back down to our next campsite. This is strictly for acclimatization purposes and it is well served for a summit on Kilimanjaro. Climb high and sleep low. That is important.
You can see that the zones are more interesting as we climb.
This is Baranca camp. We would rise early the next morning to make our big ascent of the infamous Baranca wall.
Despite looking great here, I wasn’t doing well. Awaking with the worst sore throat I can remember which turned into a full blown chest infection and eventually, pneumonia on summit day.
Of course, Howard was thriving. He suffered with a cold but it didn’t migrate into pneumonia. I’m proud of how well he handled some challenging terrain.
Our fourth morning we tackled the infamous Baranca Wall, which was over a thousand feet of climbing, some of it required three points of contact. It was cold and we warmed up negotiating the volcanic terrain.
Now I look more like how I was feeling. Usual Buff expedition luck.
It really was quite steep in this section.
We never lost sight of our objective through our travails. I loved the walking, doing all of it in tennis shoes save for summit night.
Laurel contracted a day long nose bleed. I’ll let her tell you how that happened. But it did bleed for most of the day. This was at our high camp from which we were to make our summit bid. (That is Mustafa tending to her on the right.) Unfortunately, Musatafa had to make an unplanned departure from our expedition. His brother had died as a result of self inflicted wounds and we were very sad for our new friend and his family. It was a bittersweet goodbye.
We departed at midnight and I was in full blown fever as we left our warm tents for temperatures that hovered in the low teens. Laurel and Howard learned what it means to make a true “alpine start” as we headed off into the unknown with two replacement porters. Rest stepping and pressure breathing we climbed from 15,000 feet to the volcano crater at 19,000 feet. It took us a full 7.5 hours. Pole’ Pole’ the Swahili language reminds us. Go slow, go slow.
People asked about the snow up there. Now you see what remains. Very little of the white stuff but a whole lot to remind us of the effects of global warming, which is a real phenomena. Glaciers are retreating across the globe and our mountains are losing their snow.
I was not feeling well but a summit raised my spirits considerably. This was my fourth of the seven and minus health issues, thoroughly enjoyed.
I was proud of Laurel and Howard. Another interesting aside is that we lost one of our porters on the summit push to altitude sickness. Yeah, it happens even to the locals. We climbed four thousand feet. After taking some time on the summit, we began our descent and my friends learned one of the cheater ways to get down off a mountain quick; plunge stepping through scree. It is the stand up version of glissading and we dropped elevation fast.
We had a LOOOOONG day ahead. To our surprise, however, our porters and support staff greeted us an hour up from base camp with cold drinks. I can’t say enough about the kindness of our Kili family and Daddy Evans of Baraka Trails.
After a brief respite in our high camp, it was time to descend back to 10,000 feet. Yes, it turned into a Bataan Death march. Although the air got thicker, so did the soles of my feet and blackening toenail. We had been up since 11 pm and it was now well past 2 pm with many more miles to descend lower into the jungle floor.
We arrived at our final camp worn out but chewing on the thick air. After a delicious and celebratory dinner, we retired and slept like the dead. I was coughing and hacking up parts of the dusty mountain in addition to my lungs and spine.
This map gives some perspective of our route.
You can see by the elevation profiles that we did some serious altitude and mileage that final day. But it was worth it. Totally.
I hope you get the chance to visit Tanzania. In my next installment, I will focus on the Safari, which is an entirely different experience and one not to be missed.
It was a hard fought battle but the three of us, Howard, Laurel and I reached the roof of Africa marking personal altitude records for them and number 4 of the Seven summits for me.
Details forthcoming as we are on a safari now and recovering from URI issues. Thanks for following. More details on Twitter.
It took us a full day to get here. Knoxville to Atlanta, then Amsterdam to Moshi. Evans was there to collect us after a protracted customs experience and his hospitality was quite welcomed by the three of us. So far we are finding our in town accommodation more than agreeable and all are healthy and experienced a restful night
Tomorrow morning we leave the comfort of our hotel for the mountain. Laurel and Howard are dosing up on diamox and malarone and hydrating, as they should. My initial vibe of Moshi is very positive. Hopefully I can post stuff along the way. Most likely is the twitter venue given brevity. Stay tuned!
Yesterday, Howard and I made a quick hit trip up to the Chimneys. It is a ritual for me to scale the Chimneys prior to a climb somewhere and last year it was good luck.
Laurel and I will be accompanied by Howard on our trip to Tanzania where we will ascend Mt. Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho route next week. After that, we will likely take a safari. As we stood at the terminus of the Chimneys trail, many memories came flooding back of the times we have climbed out on the rocks, which will likely never happen again with the blessings of the NPS. Out of towners marvelled at the notion of scaling those dangerous looking pieces of Anakeesta slate. For those of us who have done it time and time again, it seems a shame generations are deprived of this privilege. I found this video from many moons ago. In retrospect, very glad I made this grainy, first generation video camera documentary. I’m betting the NPS will keep this area off limits for good.
We are excited about entering Africa and will be climbing with Evans, a friend of Sibu. So this will be epic.
Stay tuned here and on my twitter and instagram feeds for details, if we can post them.
Carol Evans, Reid Hartsell and John Becker were so kind as to have me speak in detail about outdoor opportunities in East Tennessee and my training in Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. John asked some great questions and we laughed as I shared stories from the Smokies to Everest. Take a listen and let me know if any of that sounds familiar. It was a fabulous time and we had a delightful hike up to the summit of Best Medicine Last week as they launched their summer outdoor series with this podcast.
Here is a photo of our little hike last Thursday up Best Medicine where I did a lot of laps in preparation for the last climb and the upcoming one in July. We will be flying across the globe again for……………………
Would love to have you join me and Legacy Parks to share a great trail on which I trained for many mountain adventures right in the heart of Knoxville. Free to the public. RSVP is requested but not required.
An edited version of this story was published in Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, June 2019
Below is my full account of our summit push, Mt. Everest in May of 2018.
Redemption on Top of the World
7.30 p.m. 26,000 feet, South Col, Mt. Everest May 22, 2018
Ang Dawa contorts to wiggle his masked head through a shredded nylon skeleton where Neal Kushwaha and I lay in touristic repose. Drunks we were; intoxicated from purloined oxygen guzzled via discarded cylinders of undetermined age. Their contents were gladly offloaded by descending Sherpa. Our afternoon of sightseeing the moonscape of this high campsite was apparently concluded. “Go time” caught me off guard, given the hours it took me to reach the South Col, this should have been expected. Apparently, Dawa has factored my slothful pace into his summit calculus. We were abandoning 26 k Camp 4 as disparate teams brew and pack. I will be the first aspiring Everest summiter to venture onto the ominous triangular face this evening as the sun teeters off the end of the world and falls headlong into Tibet.
It takes about fifteen minutes to reach a slender slot in a vortex line of snow that culminates in a hell known as the Balcony. By culminates, I mean nine hours of suffering. But well before this, while daylight still clung to the western shoulder of Chomolungma, we climb gently into the longest night of my life.
Snow crunches beneath the weight of my boots as we approach the beginning of fixed lines. These ropes were obviously nearing the twilight of their annual use as we snatch what remains of the final two summitable days on Everest. Nine hours earlier, we took notes as our forbearers ended their negotiations with the nylon, sheathed tethers. Their gait was that of soldiers who had survived the second battle of the Somme. A few stumbled, others sat and some just slid down the endless hill. We could but imagine the expenditure of their previous 24 hours.
Presently, my effort is increasing in proportion to the slope. And daylight is but a faded memory as cold settles into my bones as we attach jumar and jockey around anchor points. Six weeks have taken us through the Khumbu Valley, up the infamous icefall, and into the dreaded Western Cwm where temperatures can soar well over 115 degrees. Yet these were just my first steps on Everest proper. Even beyond Camp 2 at the start of the Lhotse Face, we were ascending a neighbor. Lhotse is but a mere subsidiary peak. Camp 3 occupies the upper end of the Lhotse Face. It was on that face less than two days earlier a great tragedy threatened to derail our entire climb. While Neal Kushwaha, Sange Sherpa, Ang Dawa Sherpa and I rested at the base of fixed lines culminating in Camp 3, an oxygen bottle came soaring down the string of climbers above. It missed us by about fifteen feet. Our small team exited that bullseye and waited for a break in the growing mass of shapes jugging up to the Heavens.
But the next noise was not that of an oxygen tank. It was the stirring of a mountain which sloughed rock from her shoulders. People rushed passed us, casually remarking there had been some sort of accident. Descending climbers leisurely strolled back down into the cwm. We moved quickly and cautiously to the scene. In the snow at the start of fixed lines was a big red oval. One Sherpa was slouched over in what appeared to be a semi-conscious position, while another Sherpa was recoiling in great fear. Our team was struggling to foment the gravity of this situation. I walked the ambulatory Sherpa to a safe place out of the fall line of rock as Sange and Neal tended to the stricken one. The Sherpa I assisted was in his full down gear which looked to have been slashed by Jack the Ripper. Unzipping his suit, we looked for injury amidst his anguished cries and groans. To my surprise, there was no sign of bruising or blood.
Quickly, we ascertained there was little injury to treat despite his terrified gasps. He frenetically implored me to keep looking so I gingerly removed his feather- belching regalia, Aside from the obvious outward damage; no injury was to be found. With that, Ang Dawa and I turned our attention to the other, less fortunate porter that Neal and Sange had now moved to our spot atop the sunny Cwm.
Neal laid him gently down in the soft snow on a beautiful afternoon low on the ice face. I rummaged through his backpack for some type of bandage to stave the bleeding from the gaping head wound. There was so much blood. Sometimes, small cuts at the hairline can cause disproportionate trauma and I desperately hoped this was the case. It was not. We applied a temporary dressing to his head and it became apparent that his skull was cracked open like an egg. Our patient did not know his name, the name of his company or any of his team, who were nowhere to be found. Neal and Sange worked the radio, imploring our base camp manager, Kami to organize some type of evacuation for Mr. Ccherring Dorje, whose name we only later discovered. Surprisingly, there was reluctance to expend any resource for the fellow, given he had no rescue insurance. Already, we had seen half a dozen climbers pass him, unwilling to forfeit valuable summit push time. All I could think to do was have Ccherring sit upright while applying pressure from several pair of socks to his own skull. It seemed prudent to keep him upright and busy instead of laying down as he was wont to do.
A descending team from Adventure Consultants, fresh off a summit, stopped to rest and told us of a physician somewhere behind in their group. Neal and Sange feverishly worked the radio. After an hour, our basecamp manager had managed to cajole a chopper but it would require dropping Ccherring several hundred feet down, back into the lower cwm. This meant sacrificing valuable altitude and energy. Neal and Sange hesitated not. Without a thought they descended and instructed me and Dawa to stay in our spot to intercept the descending doctor. Losing hard-fought ground, my team mates didn’t give a second thought to carrying this Nepali to an evacuation spot. Before long familiar whirring portended a mechanized shadow that crested a crevassed and increasingly cloudy Western Cwm. Upon our return to Basecamp we learned that Ccherring Dorje would live another season to haul loads for climbers like me after a week in the hospital and lots of staples.
Our attention then reverted to our original and belated objective and the indignity of reclaiming part of the face. Neal, Sange, Dawa and I attached jumars and began jugging up one of earth’s highest walls into the late afternoon of May 21, 2018. We lost all daylight about two hours into a four- hour ascent on static lines that had seen the best of their days. Hard cold permeated the previously warm Lhotse face along with fears of potential frostbite. I had developed a significant case in 2011 on another peak, Muztagh Ata. This malady is well known as a high- altitude disease that can resurface with little provocation in thin air. I neglected to don the down suit since we were originally tackling the face in the heat of a cloudless morning. That was forty degrees ago and my hands were conduits for the ascending device here at 23k.
It was 10 pm when I collapsed into a tent at the upper end of Camp 3. Around us, lights flittered as stars pierced unblemished sky. Neal and I welcomed our first sips of bottled oxygen as Dawa melted snow and fluffed our pillows of steel hard ice. We retired in full cognizance this delay may have scuttled our summit attempt. In a sense, there was some relief. My summit day anxiety abated significantly as I drifted into a somnambulant rhythm of air flowing through valves and hoses into this foreign, rubber death mask. It was good to lay down. Whatever happened in the next few days was out of my hands.
(Neal and I low on the Lhotse Face prior to the accident)
A bluebird morning greeted us in our Himalayan home beneath the shadow of Nuptse and Lhotse as arcs of light refracted through some jagged sky- scape. Rest, ordinarily elusive at these heights, was easy for the both of us as we packed and snacked. Subsequent to the realization that my coffee was two thousand feet below, an omission that ordinarily would send me straight to detox, a calm overtook me this beautiful day. Dawa and Sange were goading us from cocoons of down. It was super late in the season for Everest summits. Now into May 21, the majority of the mountain’s 700 plus summiters were fleeing successfully in notorious and ballyhooed lines.
It was here that the mountain was stilled on a gorgeous spring morning as a prone object crept downward gently in my direction. A lithe climber was patiently lowering his friend through a very steep prominence of the upper face. Wrapped in a red sled with full down gear, no eyes returned my gaze from this set of helmet and goggles. He could well have been a department store mannequin; unfortunately, it was a Russian who had expired not far above. Reverently each of us clipped out of the rope while our fallen colleague was lowered as if into a grave with no bottom.
Continuing through a single rope, we gained the Yellow Band and eventually crossed up the Geneva Spur. A sense of being alone on the flanks of Everest was enveloping me as I peered skyward to nothing but a beautiful snow face that intimated the base of Lhotse’s summit. Far below me was a beast with great uniformed tail swishing left and right between anchors. There looked to be over 60 folks negotiating ropes above Camp 3. Passing the high camp of Lhotse, I was totally in sync with Everest, having encouraged our Sherpa to press on. Soon there was no one ahead or behind. Infamous landmarks beckoned me into the clouds and closer to the Col. It was getting late again and I could not possibly care any less.
In fact, I had all but abandoned the idea of summiting. Clouds were moving in and with that some wind. We were supposed to rest at the South Col and push our bid this very night. Neal and the team were two hours ahead but it still was way late. When I crossed over the Spur and rounded the final half mile into Camp 4, the sun was but a scattering of impressionist, orange slivers whose fingertips were barely clinging to this nether land on the boundary of Tibet and death. Little greeted me in this final camp but twitching headlamps, rock and cold. It was 7:50 pm, obviously too late to take off for the highest point on earth this particular evening. In darkness, I searched some 30 tents across the hostile landscape filled with flattened domes and metal cylinders. Dawa found and escorted me into a top floor room with a $50,000 view. Neal was lying on his back, sucking O’s and relaxing. “We’re too late for a push tonight” he yelled above the growing din. Our high home was little more than a makeshift teepee with buckshot holes. We had occupied an abandoned dwelling at 26,000 feet from which some Sherpa had excised their expedition logo.
“Sange says we will go tomorrow; tonight we rest here.” Neal shouts from the side of a rubber mask. This is music to my ears as the wind increases in proportion to our conversation. Secretly, I ponder the dangers of over-staying our window of time in the “Death Zone”. Himalayan winds increase as neighboring teams disappear for their night into glory. Nylon smacks me in the face but I am protected by a mask and lots of down. It is a rough summit evening and Neal conveys what I am thinking. “I’m glad we didn’t have to go out in that.”
11 p.m. 27,500 feet, May 22, 2018
My toes are numbing and the dreaded Balcony is a full two hours up. Dozens have clipped around, at my behest. Ang Dawa crouches, fully secured into static line at the upper end of the Triangular Face but well below a small prominence where we soon will exchange oxygen bottles. The night has some wind but nothing like the one before. It is steep here and I break frequently, too much I fear for Dawa’s liking, though his patience is Olympic. At times I nod off on the rope and snap to violently from dreams that are far from the top of Everest. Focus is escaping me at points. Sleep is dangerous. Several of my toes are no longer viable. Like being at the wheel on an overnight drive, I slap my legs and press onward. From this point there will be no more sleeping. I am miserable, freezing and uncertain. The steady wind beats my frozen face as stars protrude from a blanket of cloud. It is twenty below zero; no promise of sun nor summit resides in this place.
Dawa seats me on a vertiginous slope and I rely on crampons, held together with wire and chips of rock, long ago broken ascending between lower camps on the mountain. Fifteen climbers jockey for some small place to drop a knee while fumbling with canisters as mini explosions detonate randomly. Adding to the surreality of this foreboding hell are distant lightning bolts interspersed with oxygen releases that threaten to jolt each of us from our dangerous perches. These sounds have become quite familiar in this alien environment where none of us would long survive without those regulators and their fragile O-rings. I am brought to days before on the other side of this mountain where a team with Alpenglow experienced a large-scale regulator failure. My friend Dennis was in that group. My set was holding firm, my bowels, not so much. A delicate dance ensues over the precarious lip of the Balcony with me, clipped into Dawa and a rainbow zipper frozen stuck. Beyond this indignation I am reminded, “You can’t save your face and ass at the same time.”
We move upward as hints of light penetrate a Van Gough starscape. Somewhere a trace of moon competes with the promised blue warmth morning can proffer. I know my toes are frostbitten. That feeling of years ago is unmistakable. These are unretractable life decision points; niggling moments of discretion or valor. That damned nascent light magnetizes Everest so I return to a rhythmic jug and glide motion as rope disappears between my legs and across frozen toes. The sun has overtaken darkness and my face accepts warmth being the only portion slightly exposed. We are re-energized at hour 12, now 7:30 am May 23, 2018. No one is visible above or below my Sherpa brother and I here at the foot of a feature unrecognizable. This great wall of rocks appears from nowhere, formidable and austere. Portions of frayed lines dangle from varying pitons. Nothing appears new or climbable. I sit in snow as Dawa tests dangling ropes. How can it be that I was not familiar with this hindrance between the Balcony and South summit? Judging by the looks of things, neither did Dawa who was pulling on these artifacts in hopes of finding the right rope upon which to entrust our lives.
I squat to squeeze an energy gel into my mouth from the side of the oxygen mask which has now rubbed my face raw to the point of bleeding. We spend about thirty minutes here trying to decipher a climbing code with no visible clues as to where our team had ascended. As with many decisions on Everest, we pick the newest looking line and cross our mittened fingers. Astonishing is the amount of technical ability required here to gain what would later be identified as the “Castle”. I am undoubtedly fully awake and Everest holds my undivided attention. Gone are the high- altitude dreams and occasional hallucinations that have marked our time heretofore. We are front-pointing crampons I pray will hold as small chunks of Everest dislodge into my hands. This is hard work on top of hard work. Chomolungma is extracting her toll in form of sweat equity. We likely climb three to four pitches until reaching a prominent stepped slope below the South Summit. By now, teams are descending en masse from the top.
Among them is Neal and his Sherpa, Sange. It was 9 a.m. and Sange tells me it is too late. He suggests that I turn around now. I thought he was kidding. As with most things Sange, he is always smiling and joking. Dawa is ahead; by the look on his brow he has been similarly briefed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. To go through all this and have Sange turn me around is inconceivable. Above, Dawa motions me onward and I defiantly ignore Sange’s admonitions. We soon encountered our expedition leader, Dani Fuller. He donates an extra oxygen bottle as mine is getting low. I’m not above playing the victim now. Soon we touch the flags that signify the South Summit. “You have one hour”, Dawa yells. “One hour.”
From the South Summit I can see all the features that before only resided in my dreams. We drop down a small bit and cross the infamous Cornice Traverse. Our trail is comfortably defined and sheltered. Nevertheless, a strange scene unfolds as we are stalled in an encounter with a couple presumably returning from the summit. The woman has fallen and is dangling from fixed lines in the midst of the Traverse. Her Nepali friend is yelling at her and doing nothing to assist. With little thought, Dawa reaches down and picks the woman up by her pack straps with Superman strength and places her back on the slender snow trail as we clip around them. I am fully awake, cognizant of what is going to happen very soon. Not even this freakish event derails the flow of this point in time. We could have just passed Greta Garbo and Moses but nothing was going to get between me and the summit of Everest right now. We are floating on a carpet of cream. I barely notice what remains of the Hillary Step. After the Castle, it hardly rates a mention. Dawa is blazing onward and I switch on my GoPro. The resulting footage is classic high- altitude stock. Wind is blowing our rope and Dawa is making the final steps. Everest is whipping that classic plume so familiar to us all from around the world. Our weather is perfect with adequate wind and sun.
I follow Dawa for what seems like an hour before committing those last few steps myself and collapse below a small brass statue. Prayer flags snap crisply in winds that remind us we are higher than anyone else on the planet. My leg is crossed beneath me as I crane in all directions to take in this expensive earthscape. Makalu, Cho Oyu and Lhotse are clearly visible as is our path, totally empty. We are the only two humans on top of Mt. Everest and it is 10 am, May 23, 2018. There isn’t another climber anywhere on this mountain to be seen. Our panorama is uncompromised. All of which I am aware is the wind, view and tinkling of bells. This, I know, must be Heaven. There were bells in Heaven and I just got my wings.
It’s easy to lose track of time in deep hypoxia. This high beat any chemical one. There was much to photograph with sponsor flags, mementos and a special message I was tasked with placing. A young friend of mine had lost his mother many years ago. When he heard I was tackling Everest he penned a very special note to her. As I explained to my teenaged buddy, “That was probably the only reason God allowed me to get up there.” Fumbling around gloveless in -20 temps, I wasn’t sure how to best respect the “Goddess Mother of the Earth”, as Everest is known, yet still preserve the note from my young friend. Dawa shot footage of me fumbling with the note and eventually snatches it from my drunken fingers and brilliantly ties it up in a Buddhist prayer flag. My camera had frozen solid after one photograph. Forty five minutes pass like the unique morning lightning storm that welcomed us to the Balcony. Dawa is soon goading me off the Earth’s ceiling.
A long descent loomed, how long I could only presently imagine. We were alone and would be the last to come stumbling in the South Col at 7.30 pm, exactly 24 hours after departure. I fall down several times on fixed lines and make short breaks of it. For the first time I can see Dawa tiring. He had so patiently attended to me on our summit push. Now he was slowing. As the Balcony comes into view, my bowels once again remind me of the lack of atmospheric pressure here. That Triangular Face takes on a steep feeling and the South Col is but a blemish on a distant galaxy. Gone are most of the tents from a day before. Night is enfolding the Himalaya again. I remember thinking that I could just lay contentedly right here on the snow, attached to these lines. Just a few winks here and all would be fine. Then I slap myself and keep moving, wondering how many climbers had permanently succumbed to that very temptation.
Exactly one day after leaving the South Col, I collapse into what little remains of our stolen tent. Neal had apparently given me up for a Beck Weathers sort of fate. My friend is near tears at our beaten caricatures as I fall head first through the vestibule. With great care, Neal begins removing my pack and crampons. Then he asks, “Uh, shall I try to zip up your rainbow”. Apparently I had neglected to properly secure that portion of down suit following last use at the Balcony. We had a few laughs afterward when all were safe in Base Camp.
Broken nylon shreds strike at me through the night as we attempt recovery in the Death Zone. It was to be the last night of summits seen on Everest. Only six other humans depart that evening before the mountain closed her doors for good. I remove boots and examine my waxy toes. No mistake, they were frostbitten again. It was a night of fits and dreamful sleep. More than once I awaken from this position thinking the entire event had been another nocturnal imagining from Knoxville.
It is 10 am before the winds subside enough for us to finally abandon the South Col. Sange pokes his head in our tent and smiles at me above the wind as if to pretend he wasn’t serious about turning me around the day before. I accuse him of employing some form of psychology to get me going faster and he laughs saying, “It worked”. We faced a marathon day dropping into Camp 2 and a final dodge through the icefall. One of our Lhotse team, Tom Taylor, had broken his ankle in a crevasse. Our only female member had succumbed to snow blindness at the South Col and I was frostbitten. None of the route through the Khumbu Icefall is recognizable. An avalanche had swept our previous path clean and we were picking through unfamiliar penitents and towering seracs. The day is warming as thunderous mini avalanches nip at our heels. Tom is being assisted by our Sherpa through the towering, man-eating sculptures as we follow carefully behind their assemblage. Super sketch sections sprout that were heretofore absent in this “Ballroom of Death”. Our group is starting to feel like sitting ducks but none of us want to pass Tom out of respect. It is finally decided that I shall be the one to tell Tom we needed to go around, not that he would have minded. By the time I have steeled sufficient courage to make this proposition, a huge slide explodes behind us. “Go around me, John!” Tom proclaims. And with that we he was solely entrusted to the hands of our more than capable Sherpa.
Basecamp manager, Kami Sherpa greets us at the base of the Khumbu with hot drinks and crackers. We remove crampons and someone graciously liberates my backpack. I am 25 pounds lighter and it shows as we await the arrival of Tom and his entourage. Our first contact with earthlings in basecamp is a Sherpa duo. Neal inquiries about Ccherring Dorje since we have heard nothing since his evacuation. The men stand to shake our hands when they realize that we are the guys who helped one of their own. In Basecamp we examine Tom’s injury; there was little doubt his ankle was broken. It resembled a purple lab pig fully embalmed. Neither he nor I were walking anywhere far. Two days later we negotiate for a helicopter, largely subsidized by Neal that takes us as far as Namche. Everest was releasing us from her gently folding arms.
We were but five of almost 700 successful Everest climbers in 2018. Turns out we picked the right year to take our shot. Unrivaled good weather accounted for the success we enjoyed. But nothing short of Divinity allowed me the privilege of sitting atop Mt. Everest for 45 minutes alone, save for my Sherpa brother Ang Dawa. Some called it karma, I call it God’s will. We could climb that mountain fifteen more times and never experience that kind of solitude and redemption on top of the world. My toes healed but my heart was permanently swollen. This frozen giant dispatched me with blessings untold. I relish each morning with the rising sun and steam from a hot cup of gratitude. When lightning streaks a clear, black sky and storms rumble in from on high, I reach into a back pocket filled with dream dust and scatter some for the coming 24, remindful, reverent and humble.
Contact John if you need help with your Everest project or would like to schedule a speaker for your next event.