Whether you believe that peculiar sequences of events that we often face in life are fate or coincidence, we can all agree that they always seem to happen at a pivotal time. Just when you are about to lose your faith in something, an event occurs that reminds you of why you had that faith. Personally, I believe that God always has a plan.
If every climb was great, would any of them be great or would they just be normal? Without downs, can you have ups? I guess I’m a believer in the idea that you need to see the bad to appreciate the good, as was the case with Everest.
Everest was a beautiful mountain that presented a great physical challenge to climb but so much of that was diluted by the selfishness of the climbers on the mountain. I have never seen so many people so hellbent on summit success that they would not only put themselves at risk but also neglect to help those in need. It would be difficult to compartmentalize the events of the day and move on to our next objective, Lhotse, but that was the task that we faced…
The original plan had been to descend from Everest by late morning, rest for a few hours, then attempt Lhotse within a 24 hour period. As Anders, Geoff and I descended Everest much later than scheduled, we all knew that this would not be a reality. After the events of the day and the extra time needed for our summit day, we were emotionally and physically drained from a lack of sleep.
We arrived back to C4 at 2:50 PM on the afternoon of the 21st. The entire evening was spent resting and rehydrating, which took a while because I had consumed only slightly more than a liter of water the entire day. The 22nd was a groggy day, filled with naps and snacking. The Lhotse plan was to depart around 2 AM in the morning but Brent’s health had deteriorated and Anders was feeling apprehensive after our experience on Everest. That afternoon, Brent and Anders both decided that they would forego the attempt on Lhotse and descend to C2, followed by EBC the next day. This left Geoff, Siddhi and I as the climbers who would be climbing Lhotse on the 23rd.
The last daylight of the 22nd fades above the South Col.
With our plan in place, we did our best to get sleep but the howling winds made it quite the challenge. When our alarms went off at 1 AM, Geoff and I quickly agreed that another half hour of snoozing was absolutely necessary. The wind continued to howl and the thought of crawling out of my -40 sleeping bag to battle the elements was one of the last things that I wanted to do at the time. Running out of excuses to hit the snooze on our alarms, we hesitantly began to put our gear, while doing our best to avoid getting out of our bags. By the time we were ready, it was 3:15 AM and we knew it was time to move.
I opened the tent vestibule and was immediately greeted by a flurry of spindrift that bit at my cheeks and momentarily blinded me. As Geoff, Siddhi and I weaved our way through the tents at C4, we were nearly hit by several that had broken free of their anchors. It’s difficult to explain the chaos that was occurring at C4 but I’ll do my best… my headlamp only provided visibility for about five feet ahead of me because of the spindrift that was caught in the luminescence. A few tents were wildly thrashing about, holding on by just one anchor and they reminded me of a marlin that had been hooked on a fishing line. I could hardly make it through camp before I had to put goggles on to avoid being blinded by the spindrift.
After traversing the Geneva Spur, we came to the base of the route up the Lhotse Couloir. We picked up a couple of extra O2 canisters that had been cached in the snow and set out for our objective. I lead the group up the couloir, followed by Geoff and Siddhi, making great time as we cruised up the steep snowfield. I remained somewhat apprehensive of the climb as we made progress, most likely due to the experience that we had had on Everest. As the sun rose, my spirits did so as well. We passed the body of a fallen climber as we entered the base of the couloir but it didn’t rattle me, I kept on moving.
Geoff and Siddhi make their way up the Lhotse Face jut before sunrise.
When we reached the bottom of the couloir, we took our second break for water and a snack. Little did we know that this would be our last break of the climb because within minutes, we were being hammered by the wind. We knew that there was a potential for a strong jet stream to hit but it wasn’t supposed to be until late PM… well the experts were wrong. We fought our way up the couloir as the wind slammed at our backs, frequently knocking us to the ground. Words were immediately lost in the wind and we quickly resorted to hand signals. The skin on my cheeks that was not protected by my goggles or O2 mask was left to windburn. I couldn’t help but think that it was only a matter of time before we succumbed to the wind and turn in retreat.
A cold morning in the Lhotse Couloir with Everest in the distance.
That’s about the moment that the sun broke into the couloir and I vividly remember turning to Geoff, who was climbing behind me, and he gave me a big thumbs up. It put a big smile on my face, which was hidden by my mask, but I’m pretty sure that he knew it was there based on my enthusiastic thumbs up that I returned his way. I knew that we were going to make it. I knew that it was going to be a fight with the elements but I knew damn well that we were going to make it because I was a member of the best team on the range.
View from the side of Lhotse. Nuptse is the peak in the left foreground, while Cho Oyu is the peak near the center in the distance, and Everest stands on the right.
Over the next two hours, we fought 50-60 MPH winds that were howling through the couloir. Each one of us was knocked to our knees but each time that we did, we got back up and gave the others a thumbs up. About two hundred feet from the summit, the wind was so bad that Siddhi took a knee and we followed suit. For the next 10 minutes, we would patiently wait there, separated from each other by about 25 feet. Even if we screamed at the top of our lungs, we wouldn’t have been able to hear one another but that didn’t matter, we knew that we were good. We were a cohesive unit, moving in unison and trusting each other with our lives. I would liken it to the experience of the perfect football play, when everything is just clicking and the confidence in your team builds like cold fusion… except that this is occurring at 28,000′ and you are facing elements that are capable of killing you. This was how climbing was supposed to feel, raw yet pure.
Fighting our way through the Lhotse Couloir.
We soon hauled ourselves up the last rocky step of the summit, avoiding the dead Czech man who has protected an alternative route for a number of years. The summit was incredible, a small cone-shaped point that sat on a small mound, which was big enough for two people to sit on precariously. If you haven’t seen it, check out the 360 degree camera shot that is on my Facebook profile, you can see Everest behind me and the summit of Lhotse behind Geoff. Anyway, we spent about 15 minutes at the top because the winds had died to a tolerable level. It almost felt that the mountain was challenging us to put forth our best effort and once we did, she allowed us to sit on top in peace.
Finally, the summit.
Three days later, during a team dinner in Kathmandu, someone asked “What was your favorite moment of the expedition?” It was an easy question as far as I was concerned. My favorite moment of the entire expedition was when Siddhi, Geoff and I were hunkered down on the Lhotse couloir, unable to communicate beyond hand signals, but entirely confident in our team’s ability to conquer. It was a moment that helped me regain my confidence in the ability of humans to care for and protect one another. Whether it was fate or coincidence, Lhotse was a reminder of why I love to climb.