Everest Wrap Up

I apologize for taking this long to wrap up Everest 2012 blog. One day you are climbing Everest and the next day you are taking out the trash. In a seeming blur you are dumped back in the real world with real responsibilities and lots of catching up to do. On top of all that I have some challenge shifting from participant to spectator in the unfolding drama this year.

2012 has been the worst season in recent Everest history – possibly the worst ever. There have been 10 fatalities at last count and numerous injuries. No one tracks frostbite injuries but I have to believe for every climber left forever on Everest’s icy slopes there were probably 10 fingers lost and a few disfigured by frostbite. There are always deaths and injuries on Everest. Anyone who has climbed above Camp 4 has seen the frozen remains of people who perished in the no-rescue zone.

I have now been on three expeditions and someone from our group has died every year. In 2006 and 2009 I really did not know the person well. This year death on Everest was much closer. Ebehard Schaaf, who died on the 18th just below the summit was my team mate and next door tent neighbor. We generally sat next to each other at dinner. I enjoyed his company. I remember him as a quiet, kind and gentle man. You would never know he had grown up under communist rule and with great courage fled to the west with all his family just to start over in West Germany. He was an experienced climber and had acted as expedition doctor on other high mountains. He was always quick to help anyone he could. He heard me cough one day and before I knew it he had his medical kit out. He was one of the good guys. For me this year, death is not just someone else’s loss.

I have thought a lot this climbing season about decision making – mine and others. That has always been one of the hardest things about climbing Everest. A lot of these decisions are serious and have very real consequences. Unfortunately they are all made against a back drop of the financial and time investment being made for this one shot chance at the summit. To climb Everest is a significant financial commitment and basically the day your check clears your money is gone. Because I am climbing unguided my costs are considerably less but there are plenty of people on Everest who have spent north of $50,000 for this one shot.

The time investment is also significant. Most people are taking two months away from their occupations not to mention the time away from their family. For some the cost of not working exceeds the cost of the trip. Plus there is a certain amount of sacrifice and suffering that you endure just for the opportunity. In business these are referred to as “sunk cost”. They are history and as such they should not be a significant consideration in future decisions. Unfortunately that is not how it works for most people, me included. When you have a significant amount of money, time and effort invested in something it is very hard to say it is time to quit while you are ahead. Fear of loss is always a greater motivator than hope of gain. In this case loss of opportunity as well as investment.

Against that backdrop people worry most over when and if they will get to make a summit attempt and that is most governed by the weather. In any given year there will be only a handful of days that the winds and weather are favorable for a summit attempt. In 2009 it was 30 degrees below zero the night I left for the summit. That is about average. The big factor is the wind. Most climbers, myself included, consider 30 mph wind to be the max that can safely be climbed in. That is still the equivalent no wind temperature of 67 below zero. If the temps are lower or the wind higher you drop into the range where you can suffer frostbite in less than 2 minutes. Drop your only glove in the dark and you will lose your fingers. I have a picture of a friends hand that was frostbit after only a few minutes inattention. Doctors saved the finger but it was a painful process. So everyone on Everest is trying to pick the right night to go for the summit. It typically takes four days to go from BC to C4 so you are trying to predict the weather four or five days out.

To add to the pressure the logistics and the physical toll of climbing at altitude one summit shot is usually all anyone gets. Our expedition was like most others. We had enough tents and supplies for 6 to 8 climbers to make a summit attempt at one time. We had out team of 7 but we were sharing those resources with an Indian team of 7. We would be going during a different weather window, if (and that is a big if) there was more than one. To sum up, if you climb to Camp 4 and do not feel well; if you misjudge the weather; if you misjudge the number of other people going at the same time; or any one of a hundred other misjudgments, your season is over. You are out the money, time and work. So you study, dissect, discuss, argue and agonize over these decisions.

By the 8th of May I had decided the danger and the long range weather were beyond my comfort level and it was time to call it a season. My partner had already decided to go to the North Side by then. Nevertheless, I have second guessed my decision plenty since then. When I heard that my team mates had moved up to C4 and were going for the summit I worried that I had over reacted. Then when I saw the wind forecast and heard through the grapevine how many others had moved to C4 I doubt I would have gone up anyway. Apparently I was not alone in my concerns. A sherpa with IMG told several people he had never climbed in worse conditions and he could not believe they were going. This guy probably knew what he was talking about since he has summited Everest 18 times (third most I think). Yet he still went up.

For me it is easy to understand. I did the dumbest and most dangerous thing I have ever done in the mountains near the top of the ice fall this year. I crossed a fresh avalanche path minutes after the first of several avalanches swept this same spot because several other people did and I did not slow down to think about it. The fixed lines and all the ladders had been taken out. When I cleared it and climbed above the ice escarpment I was shocked to see at least a 100 people sitting on their packs waiting to see if another route could be found. They were not willing to go down (quickly) what I had just climbed up. I was so exhausted after my uphill dash and climb that I could hardly make the next 30 minutes to camp. So I understand how it can happen. It usually is not a bad decision it is just no decision at all. I will not do that again. The appropriate action would have been to turn and go down and come back up another day.

So will I go back? I have this same reccurring dream several times a year. In it I finally get to the summit of this mountain I have been climbing and when I look over the other side there is a road and a truck stop. I always wake up wondering why I did all this suffering and just didn’t walk up the road. What do I think it means? When you are standing on top of a mountain looking down it never seems as steep, or cold, or scary, or for that matter as challenging as you thought it was standing at the bottom looking up. It is the same with any challenge in life. On Everest I have been within four hours of the summit. I have been through the ice fall, crossed the ladders, climbed the Lohtse Face, the Yellow Band and Geneva Spur. I am not that impressed by any of that anymore. I assume if I could do it most anybody could. So I worry that maybe in that remaining four hours of Everest is the the real challenge, the limit of my personal fear or endurance. I’ll never know unless I try it. And if my personal limit isn’t this side of the summit then I am looking forward to seeing the road and the truck stop on the other side!