Summit Push Everest
Bristling with anticipation, we strapped our headlamps and left EBC at 2 am. Climbing through the icefall maze in complete darkness was fun, shining our headlamps into the murky depths of the crevasses I felt looking at zillion stars sparkling beneath my feet. At the first ray of dawn we crossed C1 and soon thereafter arrived at C2. We intended to rest at C2 for two nights and then head up. The first night went without incident. We did all our final gear and food checks. We heard of summit attempts already going on above us. High winds still lashed the mountain above C4 but we were hopeful it would calm down soon.
Next morning our BC manager informed that the weather wasn’t favorable for 21st May summit attempt, the day we had intended to push for the top. After some deliberation we fixed our new summit attempt date for 23rd May. Everest must have smiled above us since 22nd night and 23rd May would eventually turn out to be the worst weather days of the season.
On 21st May we geared up and headed for C3. In my down parka and pants I felt hot though the cold air cut through my facial skin of whatever little was exposed. Lhotse Face was climbed following another team that climbed ahead of us. We met few climbers coming down who had reached the summit on 20th May (which was the best day of the season with barely any winds) and it buoyed my spirits. Finally after 5 hours we reached C3 that was dotted with tents at different levels. Since C3 is right across the Lhotse Face, it is spread across a large area. Platforms are cut on to the slopes one atop another for the tents. Our tent was at the lower camp level, around 7100m.
We would only spend few hours here. I took off my boots and got inside the sleeping bag. It was imperative to conserve energies as much as possible. And here I strapped on to my supplementary oxygen. Satya showed me how to work the mask and regulator and control the flow. Too much of oxygen is as harmful as too low. Optimum flow is paramount to conserve oxygen. The oxygen hissed through the mask and I soon got used to the long deep breathing. My body warmed up and I dozed off. After a while we had some soup and freeze dried fish. The sun dipped and the cold returned. Answering nature’s call was a real effort; thank heavens for the pee-device I had, which allowed me to relieve myself in extreme confined spaces like a man.
We woke up around 2 am and after some light food, started getting dressed. It’s unbelievable how much effort and time it needs to put on crampons, harness, helmet, boots, etc and pack our bags and start at such an altitude. Above C3 the slopes become steeper, the ice harder and breathing more laborious. Confined within my oxygen mask I felt alienated like an astronaut. I followed the faint glow of Satya’s headlamp above, who was always on the lead. Gradually the dawn broke and I could see better around. Nuptse rose like a leviathan to my right even as we entered the Yellow Band. While climbing vertically using the fixed ropes was difficult enough, the horizontal traverses were more daunting as the path that had been stamped out was barely wide enough to plant two feet side by side. I had to be extra careful while shifting myself through the anchor points as one mistake, one wrongly clipped carabiner, one stumble and I would be hurtling thousands of meters to my death. A Sherpa had already fallen few weeks back on this stretch to his doom.
After the Yellow Band came Geneva Spur. And here we got into a traffic jam, caught between climbers coming down and the Sherpas who overtook us. It was a precarious place to be stopped with the entire Lhotse Face falling below and the sheer 70 deg slope sweeping above. I felt trapped between the devil and the deep sea. The 6mm fixed rope to which at least a score of climbers were clipped simultaneously seemed far from reassuring. For some insane reason this year the fixed rope was way below the safe diameter of at least 9mm. Eventually we climbed over the spur and traversed towards the infamous South Col. The moment we rounded off the stone slabs and stepped at the beginning of the Col, all hell broke loose and we entered a place of utter mayhem. We were finally into the ‘death zone’. It was above 7800m.
At such altitude everything slows down including time. I felt as if life moved in slow motion. The raging hurricane that hit us, roared like a jumbo jet, deafening both my ears. I found it impossible to stand upright or even to take a step forward. There were broken tents and oxygen bottles everywhere. Gingerly I reached my tent and crawled inside, momentarily safe from the onslaught of the wind. It was around noon. We were scheduled to leave for the summit in less than 8 hours. As the day progressed the wind got worst. I couldn’t imagine a human standing upright in such force leave aside climbing Everest. My team didn’t show any fear though and all seemed well. After a while my Sherpa Chumbi brought me some food, for which I had to take off my mask and by the time I finished eating I was breathless. At this height there’s barely one third oxygen density in the air and my lungs screamed in agony. We had acclimatized perfectly since not even for a day did I suffer any kind of headache or lack of sleep or appetite, yet I gasped now. My mind had stopped thinking of anything as I prayed to the Gods to get the wind down. I poked once in a while my head into the blasting wind and marveled at the Sherpas who were standing outside handing out water, food and words of reassurance to their members, who cowered inside the tents. As the space inside tents was limited, most Sherpas preferred to remain outside.
The dreaded moment, which I also welcomed, finally arrived. Around 9 pm Satya decided that the wind would not come down and we should at least make an attempt and see how it goes. It was truly stepping into the unknown. Covered completely from head to toe, when I squeezed out of my tent into the tempest I was immediately knocked over. Holding onto my Sherpas I gained balance. I could already see some other lights in the distance heading up. We soon formed our line, Satya leading, and started. Did we walk or climb or float or buffet or simply labored on, I would never know but all I can say that it was the worst night of my life. Never before had I felt so powerless, yet resolute, so fragile yet unbreakable, and so up against nature. I have no idea how I took each step, putting my last reserve and determination into play, gnashing my teeth and telling myself over and over to take one more step. It seemed that the elements were hell bent to annihilate us all into smithereens. No one uttered a word, the Sherpas were also on oxygen now and into the raging darkness we bobbed around like flimsy rudderless boats in a cyclone.
Within couple of hours we witnessed the climbers above us turn around and descend. They had called off the attempt. They crossed us, heads bowed, defeated by higher forces and lucky to be alive. We crossed few frozen bodies of dead climbers, unsure if they had died this season or earlier. Everest had already claimed several lives by then. Stark reality of death upon Everest, stripped of any dignity or human company, hit me really hard. I didn’t want to die, not here in such acute isolation. I had no idea how long I could have continued in that weather conditions. My face and extremities were numb, my toes seemed non-existent. I feared severe frostbite if not death. Even with ski-goggles I could barely see ahead. The slope above swept endless into the darkness. I shut all thoughts from my mind and continued like a robot, determined to climb as long as I wasn’t told to stop. I had no idea what my other team mates were thinking. I trusted Satya with my life and as long as he kept climbing so would I. I knew he never compromised on safety and to him summits are secondary. Life and limb comes first. He has one of the best safety records on Everest and other 8000ers.
After 5 hours of sheer hell, at around 2 am, Satya finally stopped. It was 8250m. He turned around and walked into my headlamp zone. I couldn’t see his eyes, he simply shrugged his shoulders and pointed down to the track we had behind us. It was clear, we were going down. And thus my Everest attempt came to its premature end.