My last night on Everest, alone.
Ropes above leading up, on a jack-in-the-beanstalk climb to the top of the world.
I had been there, or nearly there, reaching the South Summit at 8,749 meters (28,704 feet) four days before. Now we were going down. Only I was no longer part of the we. It was the me, only the me.
I was in a hole in the snow I’d dug with my thin gloves, because I’d lent my big spare mittens to Stephen Venables for his fingers two days before when he had lost his in the avalanche. The snow hole wasn’t really a hole, it was only a psychological place to lie, that was a bit dished out, so I could feign sleeping without simply sliding off down the hill.
Overall it was better than being inside a crevasse, as long as the weather held.
Nine days we’d been on the Kangshung Face on our summit bid. With Paul Teare and Ed Webster and Stephen Venables to start. A day up the refreshingly steep and now ever so familiar ropes we’d fixed from ABC to Camp I at 6,400 meters (21,000 feet).
Then a day that started in the morning dark and ended in evening dusk at Camp II. Then another day of 14 hours of new climbing up out route to the South Col. Carrying all our own stuff, all those tents, stoves, food, pads and sleeping bags that make for a home. None of this up and down load carrying, just put it all in the pack and off we stomped to the South Col.
The wind was roaring and the only way to pitch the tents was to get inside them, flop on the ground to hold them down and have the other person stake it out, then push the poles up to get it into the air.
Paul was awake all night in the tent with me, then bolted boldly back down the route at dawn with cerebral edema creeping up into his brain. He didn’t want any of us to have to go down with him and was out of Camp with a quickly shouted good-bye and a wave. And then there were three.
Stephen Venables (left) and Paul Teare, protecting their rugged visages before a journey up to the heights.
Stephen, Ed and I rested at the South Col for the day. Resting at 8,000 meters is for fools, but we were tired. We had no Sherpas, no oxygen, and had done a new route to the South Col up the Kangshung Face, lucky new route number 13 on Everest.
We whiled the day away with the ever so reticent stoves, and rose at 9 p.m. to take off for the summit at 11 p.m. or maybe 11:30. Stephen as ever was enthusiastically driving our time table. As he recently reminded my of his oft repeated line “this is no poncy California climbing holiday.” Ed, Paul and I had spent too much time hanging out on Yosemite Big Walls and were certainly not Alpine trained to proper start times.
I wandered off across the South Col in a haze. We didn’t really know the way up from the South Col. How hard could it be after doing the Kangshung? So we also did a fine new direct start route beginning up a cliff with a bit of scrambling, then crossed over the normal route and headed out left towards where we really should of been. At dawn the sun crept as slow as the earth turns up out of the sky behind Kanchenjunga, then illuminated Makalu.
Then the sun was up, we could pretend it was warmer though it certainly didn’t feel that way. 8,000 meter cold without oxygen means your blood is not moving anyway. The snow was deep and Stephen had thankfully moved to the front to break trail. He would be out in front all day, something he sometimes very humbly fails to mention.
I’d encouraged carrying no packs, what was there to carry anyway? We had water bottles in our jacket pockets which soon froze. When we hit the ridge Stephen was already headed up high above. Ed was just in front, then paused and suddenly started down. Clouds rose and fell around us, dreamlike, still moving, but seemingly more connected to an ethereal sky above than the earth now so far below.
Ed passed me headed down. “Its late, it’s time,'”he said. “Going down.”
I definitely wasn’t going down. I was fine, I was not moving too fast, but what was fast up here anyway? The snow steepened below the South Summit. The only rope we had seen since the South Col draped and fluttered on the snow, a shoelace of no use. With no harnesses, it was of no concern and the slope was so gentle after all the climbing below. We had left our rope at the South Col, soloing up from there was just a lot easier. Lhotse was hazy and below me, another one of the peaks fading away underneath the cloud.
At 4 p.m. I came to a halt at the South Summit, unable to see anything. I was immersed in the clouds and the mist and couldn’t tell up from down. I’d gotten up over onto the mini-flats of the South Summit and then the clouds all closed in around me.
I circled, became confused, sat down to wait it out, and finally through the mist saw the way down. The climb had been filled with these moments, almost like stop-frame photography, where moments were imprinted that were so full of the sense of the present that what had gone before and what had gone after simply didn’t exist.
The lack of food, water, air and endless physical exertion, coupled with climbing un-roped up from the South Col, where the climbing was not hard, but neither would you want to slip as it was a very long ways down. Down measured in vertical miles is a long ways down.
Stephen was on ahead somewhere. Ed had started down already. I couldn’t see him in the cloud. In the back of my mind I thought I could go down to the South Col, have another rest and come back up again. I knew I couldn’t get across to the top because I couldn’t see it. I could barely see my feet.
Maybe I was lucky, even very lucky; maybe if I could have seen the top I would of gone out there and still be sitting there today. I certainly wouldn’t have been the first, or the last, to make that mistake.
I’ve never regretted not making that final journey then, because I’m convinced I wouldn’t of made it back. Maybe up, but not down.
I descended into the mist and caught up with Ed around the balcony.
“No,’ I answered.
And we followed our up-footprints down into the gullies below the balcony. Or maybe we went down a different way. Even at the time I wasn’t quite sure. The clouds had broken below and it was obviously just a straight shot down to the South Col.
Dark crept across the Himalayas. It starts slow and builds quickly. The purple is deep purple, the pink radiant, the colors distinctive enough to paint themselves inside your head and never be forgotten.
A tilted, hanging on by dear life, tent appeared below and we reached it as darkness set. We could of carried on – should of carried on down to the South Col. But we were tired, oh so tired, and a little bivouacking seemed to make sense.
Sleeping bag-less, stove-less, water-less and food-less we curled up on the tent floor and lay there shivering for 10 hours. I think I may have even slept a little, but it is hard to know. As soon as even a hint of light tinged the sky, we were out of the tent, looking up, for Stephen. Where was that boy?
We were worried. But the surreal weirdness of Everest wasn’t sending me grim tidings. Life, death, afterlife, after deaths: all are on the same plain very high in the sky. And dying seems to send tidings to friends. None of that was happening.
So Ed and I started down slowly, looking up, and soon far above, Stephen came into view, walking, rolling, tumbling towards us, like a kid in a snowsuit. We were very happy to see him. Ed gave him the rest of his frozen water to show him how happy we were. Ed took a photo, as close to a summit photo as Stephen would have of himself. Then we roped Stephen onto us and we all went down to the South Col together.
Ed took another photo of Stephen and I leaning against each other. It was my equivalent of the summit, Expedition Leader and Summiteer together after a successful expedition. Only it wasn’t after, it was really only the beginning.
While I’ve only given this chapter one of my lives, in reality it was about to use up many of them, day after day after day of miracles, near misses and finally, the escape, surprisingly alive, from Everest.
We ‘rested’ on the South Col that afternoon and evening. Our one stove had ceased working. It was now our fourth night at around 8,000 meters or above without oxygen. We really should have been dead. But we weren’t, we still had serious conversations followed by a laugh. We obviously weren’t well. I slept alone in one tent, Stephen and Ed in the other. I heard them talking during the night, like ghosts as the wind howled over the Col.
In the morning Ed and Stephen called out for drinks but my stove wasn’t obliging. It was a struggle. I would sit up, and then I would kinda topple over, baby like.
Then it was later in the day, it was 2 p.m., but we felt the way down would be quick, going down always was. So later in the afternoon we straggled over to the top of the Kangshung Face and looked down the something like 3,000 vertical meters (9,842 feet) and the miles of horizontal at our Advanced Base Camp.
Ed went off in front and had climbed down and along the side of the rocks to the left where we had ascended. That seemed very slow to me. We had talked about glissading, it seemed like a good idea. Might as well get on with it.
I leapt off the Col; rapidly accelerated to 100 miles per hour, hit rocks, flipped over and an avalanche cut loose underneath me. I felt myself being lifted up and cart wheeled down the steep slope. Feet in the snow, then hands outstretched over my head as I went sideways, up and over and came down on my feet again, the avalanche carrying me along.
The avalanche went on and on, then slowly roared off below me and I came back to earth standing upright in a heap of snow. My body was wracked, strung out from the tumbling. It had been like riding in a dryer with a pile of snow and ice. I was amazed I was in one piece. Just standing there perfectly balanced in the middle of this immense slope, the curve of the South Col now far above me and the miles of Kangshung Face rolling away below me.
Worst of all I had lost my ice axe. But I’d always carried a back up, a short tool in a holster. I reached for it and it was gone too.
A mountaineer without an ice axe on Everest might as well be naked. I didn’t have time to feel relief at living through the avalanche because now I was at 7,700 meters (25,500 feet) on Everest’s largest face without an ice axe. I knew I was in big trouble. I looked up and saw Stephen silhouetted on the South Col above.
‘No, no,’ I yelled, ‘don’t glissade.’ It may have been more of a croak.
How could he be so foolish, I thought, how could he not see I’d descended 150 meters (492 feet) in 5 seconds in an avalanche. But he hadn’t, he’d just stepped over to the edge of the Col.
All Stephen could see was me waving far below him, probably viewed as enthusiasm for such a quick glissade.
So he leapt off too, slid into the cliffs, lost control and zoomed towards me, ice axes flying away, snow shooting up behind him. His crampons caught as mine had and flipped him over and over before he too came to an abrupt halt in the snow above me.
He started making his was across the slope to me. It was pretty steep, the snow was avalanche runnels and ice blocks and led down into a big hole. Not something you would want to slide off of.
‘I lost my ice axe, can I borrow one of yours.’
It could have been me asking Stephen, but it wasn’t, it was him asking me. We now both had a big shared problem.
We traversed the slope to Ed, dipping our hands in the snow for balance. We had been climbing so long that balancing across the slope was second nature. And it wasn’t like we had a choice.
Ed was incredulous to see me, having watched me disappear inside the avalanche and thinking I’d gone down the face with it. Stephen he’d been able to see, but I’d stopped a bit lower behind a snowy outcrop and appeared to have simply gone from the mountain until I reappeared with Stephen. Maybe that counts as my next life, maybe not, lets hope not.
Ed undid his ski pole, we snapped it in half and each took a piece. This gave Stephen and I something to stick in the snow anyway; calming, if not exactly effective.
We soon discovered the way down wasn’t all that easy. It was mid-May, every afternoon had dumped a foot or two of snow and in the four days we had been up high the face had loaded up with heavy, pre-monsoonal snow that reached our knees or higher. It was like wading through wet flour, even going downhill.
We’d left the South Col at 2 p.m. as darkness settled. We crawled into the flat ledge of our Camp II. It was a Camp in name only though. We’d left the tents at the South Col, thinking we would be down in a day.
And we’d left the rope; to this day we don’t know why we left the rope. We had a stove, but it didn’t really work. We were entering our fifth night with virtually no food, only a few sips of water, and now had only sleeping bags and no tent to sleep in.
So we faced a night out at 7,400 meters (24,278 feet). But then again, we’d all bivouacked without our sleeping bags at over 8,000 meters above the South Col, so maybe this wasn’t so bad?
And with the Camp under a snow formation we called the Flying Wing, a huge snow abutment that extended out over our heads for 5 meters, we were completely sheltered from above. It was nature’s finest tent, with a view down over the Face and down the Kama Valley curving out and into the clouds of Tibet. It was truly beautiful.
I took off my boots, I lay in my bag, I shivered. There were stars, millions of stars. But on the Kangshung Face of Everest there is no sign of humanity, no lights below and no twinkling villages. We had seem no one beyond our own team-mates for 6 weeks, even at Base Camp. We were the last men on Earth.
At dawn the sum leaped out of the horizon and melted the cold from our bodies. We went from shivering and miserable to limpid pools of humanity lying in the heat, and soon were as hot in the baking sun as the cold of night had been.
But now we knew it should be quick to get down. So we tinkered with the stove, I put my boots on, we got ready, we lolled around. Soon we thought, we will leave, and we will scamper down to Camp I, where there is a tent, and a working stove. Then we rolled over and went back into a stupor.
Late in the day we finally set out, Ed first with the lone ice axe, then Stephen and finally I rolled off the ledge and set off in their footsteps. We soon lost our way, darkness came upon us. I soon bumped into Ed coming back up, ever so slowly.
‘Too late, lost the way, can’t see, need to go back up to Camp II.’
This was ludicrous, but the only sensible option. We had no working headlamps. So we turned and followed Ed with the ice axe straight back up to Camp II.
There was one steep section, just under vertical that went straight back up to the Camp. Ed got to the middle of the ice and realized Stephen and I would need the axe. He planted it firmly, then clambered up, stood on it and climbed off the top of it leaving it in place. Stephen front pointed up, pulled up on the axe, stepped up on top and carried on up. I climbed up, wrenched it out from underneath my front points and climbed on up to the Camp. That one ice axe was being put to very good use amongst three climbers.
We collapsed at Camp II. We were f—– and we knew it. The night was interminable; unbearable. The mind shelters those things away thankfully.
Dawn, then heat and the sun and it felt so good to thaw out. I put my boots on, Stephen and Ed had slept in theirs again, a factor I still think is behind my ½ toe loss versus their 4 each. When you go to bed at night, on a big mountain, and it is cold, take your boots off, wherever you are.
We lolled, we languished, Stephen managed to make and eat some instant potatoes. Ed and I had half a cup of tepid water.
‘We need to get up, get moving, or die,’ said Ed.
His fingers were deeply frostbitten, the skin already dark and broken.
Ed’s words were the one thing that cut through the lolling around.
Oh, that was ugly, that dying part, we hadn’t planned on that.
So we did get up. We left the sleeping bags and the stove. It was time to go down, all the way down, without stopping.
So nine days after setting off from the food and comforts of Advanced Base Camp, we set off on what we knew was the final push back to Base Camp. Getting up Everest paled in difficultly compared to getting down.
So down we tumbled, wading thorough the snow, wandering in and out of crevasses, over the steep parts with a whoop and across the flat parts like children learning to walk. Ed and Stephen pulled ahead of me, it was just all so tiring, then late in the day I finally saw them reach the top of our fixed ropes.
“Go, go,’ I shouted and waved, and they disappeared down the hill.
Some time that day I had come back to life. Not physically, but mentally I’d realized I wasn’t going to give up and die. I had passed that point, I just had to keep moving. And I knew once I hit the ropes it was just some 40 long rappels or so down our well-known route to the bottom.
There was a line I had passed between life and death. As long as I was there, thinking and moving, I was not dead. So if I just kept moving, death couldn’t get me, couldn’t sneak in on me.
Every moment I was lucid, I was alive and never was I more alive than when it would have been so easy to sit down and die.
Every moment, every second was like a new life.
Reaching the top of the ropes was like a lifeline home. They were reassuring for about 5 minutes, then they became hard work. The snow had buried them. Ed and Stephen had just unclipped and passed sections by so nothing was connected. There was no way they could pull the ropes out and no reason why they should have. We just needed to get down. It was all about movement, that oh-so-hard movement.
I came to the crevasse, the crevasse that Ed and I had spent four days bridging on our ascent. The rope was stretched as tight as a cable holding Everest together could be. The crevasse had widened in our absence. I think we would all still be up there if the ropes had popped.
I slid across like a trapeze artist, dangling upside down. Even completely wrecked it was an amazingly fun experience that crevasse. I’d been first across it on the way up when Ed and I had rigged it and put the anchors in, and I was the last to see it, as I dropped off into the steep rappels below.
The dark started to settle and I was struggling. A few feet, a rest, not making much headway, mind lost and not concentrating. Of steps that should hold my feet if only I put them in the right place. The thought of hot lemon drinks, of liquids floating through my now crackling dry brain cells. I was eating snow, had been all day, it was all that was left, there was some water in it, just not enough.
After the crevasse there was a long tricky sideways slanting traverse, then a 100-meter rappel a vertical messy pitch that never relented. I’d watched Stephen lead it, an ice climb that at a civilized altitude would of been extreme. Up here, on our static ropes with 4 ice screws left, it was kind of unbelievable. That’s what this climb had been like, pitch after pitch, just sneaking through, no matter how hard, no matter how crazy.
At the bottom of the rappel it was really finally dark, ever so dark. The headlamp was in the pack but had given up long before.
I had to dig into the snow for the anchor and couldn’t find it or the next rope. It was a big sliding slope leading down to an overhanging wall, the Webster Wall, which Ed had led on the way up. It overhung at the top, then the rope hung free and it was a 30 meter drop straight down until the snow slope moderated again. I knew the top edge hung out over the cliff. I knew I couldn’t afford to go down very far to search for the buried rope, I just knew the rope would come out eventually at the edge and lead me down.
In the pitch black there was no way of knowing where the rope went. I went almost to the edge, I cautiously traversed, I went back up to the anchor. There was nothing to do but dig for the anchor, with my skinny gloves. That didn’t work, so back down to the edge. I had few brain cells left, but somewhere there was an iota of one that told me not to get too close to that edge, not to slip off. I went back up to the rope above and took off a crampon.
I worked out another plan. I would cut the rope above, loop it down, then I would have something to hang from while I searched for the rope going over the edge that was buried in the snow up until it reached the edge. I was quite proud of my ability to work all this out. But crampons aren’t really designed to cut static climbing ropes. They aren’t really designed to cut anything and they certainly wouldn’t cut anything for me.
I thought about crying a little bit, but couldn’t work up the energy or emotion. Here I was, stuck on Everest, my friends had left me, the rope disappeared into the snow and I was trapped in the dark. Oh well, not much to do about it I eventually decided.
How many nights had we been on Everest now above ABC? Nine. Nine nights, with the last 6 with only dribbles of water and a bit of mixed weird indigestible food and four of the nights and days above 8000 meters, then two over 7,000 meters. So while this last one could be the last straw, it really wasn’t that much more. And besides, what could I do?
At some point I dozed and woke and then I started hallucinating. There was a lot of song and music, then I woke up next to a New Zealand pie cart. Just couldn’t get my order in. And yet some of me was always present, always knowing I was on Everest, always knowing I was still alive and not dead yet. Always aware that I was still thinking, still cold, still hurting and that was good because it also meant I was alive.
At times though it didn’t really seem to matter, the living/dying part, one would just be a variation on the other. I wasn’t steely willed to stay alive, I just, rather surprisingly at times, hadn’t bothered to die yet.
Then morning, and warmth, and I snuck down to that edge and leaned over and cast along the edge and finally saw the rope, sneaking out of a tiny hole buried deep under the snow, dropping straight off down into the abyss.
And I felt good now it was morning and realizing I would of never found that rope at night and if I would have been impatient and taken one more step down I would of slipped right off that cliff and killed myself.
And the thought of all that great climbing, and my great friends and this great route all ended in one crumpled body in a heap on the route made me feel stronger. Not strong, just stronger.
The rest of the day was a wasted body and mind, rappelling and rappelling, the rope clotting and icing and all those beautiful ropes all so carefully laid out already being buried by snow and becoming part of the mountain. Looking down, seeing Advanced Base Camp, far out on the glacier, seeing life below if I could just keep going, keep in the now and not let a non-moving, sitting body take over and stop the descent and this return to life.
I rappelled the last rope, the lead I had done at the very start of the Face, the first day Stephen and I had started up the Kangshung Face. I was down.
At the bottom I still had a regret, because the route was over, the new route on Everest and I would never experience that intensity and feeling of being ever so in the present again.