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.
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 :)