Thursday, May 26, 2016

I laid in my shared tent on the evening of May 18th and tried to sleep, which was difficult given the cramped space, oxygen mask, and bulky down suit that I was wearing.  The song Desperato from the Eagles kept running through my head for some reason.  I didn’t feel nervous or unsure of my ability to successfully climb the 3,000 feet of snow, rock, and ice that separated me from the top of Everest … I just felt ready.  I did sleep, eventually, and woke up when one of my tent mates shook me and sad “It’s time to climb to the top of the world”.  I was nearly dressed, I just had to add boots and a climbing harness.  Even so, this was an arduous task at 26,000 feet in a crowded tent.  As I laced my boots I thought about the steps that had brought me to this point … my first summit of Mt. Rainier, annual trips to more remote locations to try my legs and lungs on tougher peaks, beating cancer just before my first attempt at a Himalayan peak, missed dinners with friends, early morning runs in the rain, leaving a career that I loved … I reminded myself that everything was meant to bring me to this moment.  “There is just one thing left to do”, I thought and crawled out of the tent into the frigid night.

Aside from feeling like I was in rush hour traffic when I left camp 4 with my team, things started off smoothly as each climber jockeyed for his or her spot on the on the fixed rope.  The night was crisp and beautiful.  Countless stars pierced the dark sky, and the head lamps from climbers ahead of me created a chain of twinkling light, it looked like they were climbing right into the sky.  

The long line of climbers that I was in moved slowly, so I took the opportunity to focus on taking care of myself by eating chocolate covered coffee beans and honey from the pocket of my down suit.  This was a monumental task given the thick gloves and oxygen mask that I was wearing, but I was determined not to run out of fuel on this day.  The toes of my right foot were starting to feel the effects of the cold night and I made frequent efforts to wiggle each toe to be certain that I could still feel it.  I told myself that if I could no longer feel them, I would turn around.

Finally the sun started to color the horizon and relieved my concerns about getting too cold.  I watched it slowly rise over my right shoulder, and eventually I could see Tibet, a giant glacier sliding through it.  

To my left were the peaks of the Himalaya and the route that I had taken from base camp.  Before I knew it I was staring up (straight up!) at the south summit, thankfully the crowds had dispersed at this point and I could climb at my own pace with my Sherpa partners.  I thought about the terrain ahead …the south summit, the Hillary step, and the true summit … in the past year there had been countless obstacles between me and the summit of Everest, and now there were just two.  I started to get emotional about that, but shifted my focus back to breathing and moving my feet.  I wouldn’t let myself celebrate until I was safely back at base camp.

Unfortunately the crowds found me again on the southeast ridge, and I focussed on precise placement of my hands and cramponed feet.  The ridge felt like a one-way street trying to accommodate two-way traffic.  

Many, many times it was necessary to un-clip from the fixed line in order to move around fellow climbers who were descending.  I noticed my breathing getting heavier from the fear of falling, and I focused on taking slow, steady breaths.  These were “no mistake” moments.  

I'm the last climber in line

At 8:10 there was no place else to climb.  I was on top.  Of the world. 

Final steps to the summit

I wish that I could say that the feeling was fantastically euphoric, that I felt enlightened.  But I didn’t.  My emotions were much more practical.  I felt like I had a lot of descending to do, and I knew that negotiating the crowds on the descent would be physically challenging and mentally stressful.  I felt like the wind was picking up and I didn’t want to get caught in an unpredicted storm.  

I also felt thankful that several members of my team were on top with me, we had worked so hard together and bonded over the past two months, it would not have felt right to enjoy the summit without them.

Nick Perks, me, Stuart Erskine, Phurba on the summit!

After the requisite photos, I took a few moments to think about some of the people that helped me achieve my goal.  Each person played a part, some big, some small, some probably didn’t even realize that they had made a positive impact.  Like the girl that I met while training who hugged me and whispered “you got it, girl” after I explained to her why I was doing laps on Mt. Si.

It has been a week since I summited Everest, and I still believe that my accomplishment hasn’t really sunk in.  People have asked me if I feel different, and I think that I probably do, I feel braver and stronger.  I think about a favorite quote:

Promise me you'll always remember: you're braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you know  ~A. A. Milne

I also feel hopeful and encouraged and more aware that the world is full of possibilities if we are just open to them.  

People have also asked me what is next; it is true that normally I have chosen my next mountaineering objective before I have finished the current one.  This time I don’t have an answer.  I suspect that I will climb more 8,000 meter peaks, the idea of summiting and unclimbed peak is also appealing to me.  

But first I am going to the beach :)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Preparing for the summit rotation!

My backpack is nearly packed, I’ve spent most of the morning checking and re-checking gear and packing the essentials that I will need for the summit rotation - extra warm clothes, crampons, food (mostly sugar), a small supply of meds to manage my constant nasal congestion, chemical hand and foot warmers. 

After months of thinking about and preparing for it, it’s time to climb to the summit!  I feel 50% excited and 50% anxious, which is an improvement over yesterday when I was 75% anxious.  I am keeping my mind focussed on what I need to accomplish each day, which helps me to not get overwhelmed.  

Tonight, around midnight, the Madison Mountaineering team will depart for camp 2.  I’ve climbed there twice already, so the terrain is familiar and, aside from spending hours in the shifty Khumbu icefall, I know what to expect.  

The following day, the team will rest at camp 2, and the day after we will climb to camp 3, which is also familiar.  After that, I’m stepping into the unknown … the next day the team will climb to camp 4, which is situated on the south col, and at 26,000 feet is the last stop before the summit.  I’m feeling healthy and strong - although I can’t believe how much muscle I have lost in the past month!  Plus, above camp 2 I will be using bottled oxygen, which will help to keep me warm and alert.  

I know that the next week will present incredible challenges for me - mentally and physically - but I am confident that I have the skill and ability to overcome those challenges.  I also realize that those challenges are not meant to stop me from reaching my goal, they are a part of the path to my goal.

I also feel incredibly grateful that I have even been afforded this opportunity, as there have been a lot of obstacles that threatened to prevent this climb for me. 

All of the preparation is over, and there is just one thing left to do!

While I am on the mountain, you can find regular updates here.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A perfect day in Namche ... yoga, meditation, massage, dessert after every meal, and an
Om mani padre hum stone.

The revised plan is to fly back to base camp tomorrow in order to begin climbing on the 10th and take advantage of a favorable forecast, which looks good until the 15th :)  

Almost game time !!!

Friday, May 6, 2016

I woke up this morning to the sound of a rock being banged against an empty metal gas cylinder … time to wake up … and fly to Namche!

Today the Madison Mountaineering team traveled by helicopter to Namche Bazzar, which is about 5,000 feet below base camp.  We will spend 4 or 5 nights here in order to let our bodies recover from living at high altitude for the past month.  The idea is that our bodies will be less stressed at 12,000 feet, our appetites will soar, and our sore muscles will recover, putting us in the best possible position for a successful summit.  

Loading the heli at base camp
Photo:  Lisa White

As soon as I exited the helicopter in Namche, the thick air hit my lungs, even though I’m at 12,000 feet, it feels luxurious!

The risk of leaving base camp, where we are relatively segregated, is that we will catch a cold or bug in the busy tourist village of Namche.  So, I am taking hand sanitizer everywhere that I go, not shaking hands with anyone, and breathing through a buff.  Fingers crossed that it all works!

Namche Bazzar
Photo:  Lisa White

May 4 - Back at base camp!  

The team left camp 2 early (6 am) yesterday morning.  My motivation for getting up early was a shower and thick air ... and cake.  We are now moving efficiently through the icefall, although I still don't like being there.  The route changes slightly every time, a reminder that the ice is constantly moving.   By noon I'd had my shower :) What a joy to be "shower clean", instead of baby powder - wet wipe - hand sanitizer "clean". 

Descending from Camp 3 to Camp 2

The Madison Mountaineering team is now resting in the luxury of base camp - comfy tents, Internet, and thick air (plus cake) - and making plans to do a "drop back" to a village at a lower elevation while we wait for the route to be fixed to the summit and for a good weather window.  Descending to lower elevations for a few days will allow our bodies to recover from the stress of high elevation.  Our oxygen saturations and appetites will improve and in general we'll feel like rock stars while we continue to mass produce red blood cells.  Then, just before the summit push, we will return to base camp, rested, recovered, and ready for the summit!

May 3 - camp 3

Today I learned that breathing at 23,000 feet is very difficult, especially while you're trying to climb straight up snow and ice. 

The team left camp 2 at 6 am, bundled in layers of down and well rested, ready for the challenge of the Lhotse face.  We climbed pretty much straight up for about 5.5 hours until we reached camp 3, a collection of tents perched on the icy face.  

When climbing on steep, monotonous terrain like this, it's easiest for me to find a rhythm, so I focused on taking one step per breath, and then sliding my ascender up the fixed line.  Breathe - step - breathe - step - slide.  Repeat.  

Climbing the Lhotse Face
Photo:  Stuart Erskine
We were all tired at camp 3, and we laid in the snow on the mountainside, bundled in down suits, meanwhile Sherpas from another team were digging tent platforms with a pick axe.  I don't know how they do it.  After about an hour, clouds started to move in, cutting our high altitude nap short, so the team descended the steep slope in arm wrap style (using a carabiner and rope attached to my harness, holding tension behind me while walking straight down the 40 degree slope (it's mostly terrifying)), with a few rappels, and returned safely to camp 2 just as it started to snow.  

Camp 3 - 23,000 feet
Photo:  Stuart Erskine

Thursday, May 5, 2016

May 2 - Camp 2

The climb from base camp to camp 2 yesterday was challenging, although the terrain was now familiar to me, ten hours of climbing coupled with an unexpected snow storm was exhausting!  It was much harder than I expected, I was grateful for the Sherpa that met me and Purba an hour outside of camp to share warm milk tea - just what I needed for the final push up the rocky moraine to camp!

Waiting to ascend a vertical ladder in the icefall
Photo:  Stuart Erskine
Khumbu icefall
Photo:  Stuart Erskine

It's now 5:00 pm on May 2nd, I'm laying in my tent at camp 2, trying to remember to breathe, drink, and eat.  I take short naps and then wake up, roll over, reluctantly unzip my sleeping bag, let the cold, dry air hit my face and lungs, and then breathe, drink, and eat a handful or M&Ms.  At sea level I wouldn't have to remind myself to do these things, especially the eating M&Ms part, but at 21,300 feet everything is a chore.  Outside I hear snow softly hitting my tent.  It's small pellets of snow, confirming that the temperature is probably below zero.  Every few minutes small piles of it slide down the nylon sides of the tent and I am worried that there will be too much unconsolidated snow to safely climb the steep Lhotse face tomorrow morning.  The plan is to climb to camp 3 (23,000 feet) to get familiar with moving up the face efficiently and safely and to dial in the equipment that will keep us warm and safe - down suits and mits, electronic foot warmers, ascenders.  Although tomorrow will be a tough day - 6 hours of climbing straight up - I'm hopeful that the weather cooperates because it will be important for building confidence for my summit attempt in a few weeks.