Just what's up that hill?

Special to SunSpot

"Where have we been?"

Can't you tell by the coughing, wheezing, bloodied noses, limps and gum infections that we've been having fun on the slopes of Mt. Everest? We've been climbing, putting one crampon in front of the other, sliding our jumars up the fixed lines, and hyperventilating to the beat of a country and western song. We even, quite dramatically, lifted our heads and took in the sweep of mountains on the horizon, but only for a second, of course. Always have to get back to the important task of hyperventilating.

Owen, Ellen, Marco, Roy and I left Advance Base Camp on April 28 and climbed to Camp 1. It was a really nice day. We each crawled into a nest of two sleeping bags and settled in for the night. By 8:30 a.m., Owen, Marco, Ellen and I headed off for Camp 2. Roy, at the wise age of 62, headed back to ABC to save his strength.

The route to Camp 2 follows a long snowy ridgeline, from the North Col at 7,000 meters to the rocky part of the ridge at 7,500 meters. Barely 30 meters wide, and with the wind sculpting from the west, the ridge is a frozen wave of snow, with a huge overhanging (or pouting) East lip. Once you leave the security of Camp 1, there is no shelter. You either push into the wind or turn back. This ridge has been the scene of many epics. Storms appear out of nowhere. Our policy: you dress for the ridge as if you are climbing to the summit -- down suits, summit boots, mittens, face masks, etc.

The climb is a long one, even though it is only 1,650 vertical feet. In the Andes this would take no more than 2 hours, but at this altitude times range from 3.5 hours (Marco) to over six.

The Sherpas, who are always a few days ahead of the climbers, have established a few tent platforms out of the snow to form Camp 2. When we arrive, there are two tents standing. Marco and I crawl into one and Ellen and Owen into the other. I was having a rough day. I could keep pushing but never felt strong. This was a surprise, since last year I spent six days at Camp 2, always feeling wound up for more action. I laid in the rear of the tent and Marco keep handing me mugs of tea and asking me why I wasn't eating.

As we were moving to Camp 2, Andy, Asmuss, Jamie, Keiron, Evelyne, Robert and Naoki climbed to Camp 1, following in our spindrift covered foot steps. Our team goal was to get everyone to sleep at Camp 2 and hopefully climb above it. This would meet the acclimatization schedule we had set for ourselves. Once this was accomplished we could all limp back to base camp to rest up for our summit attempts.

On the 30th, Marco woke first and immediately started to melt ice into water. He had big plans, to snowboard down the North Ridge to the North Col and finally down to the flat East Rongbuk Glacier. This descent of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet), with dips of 50 degrees, looked fantastic. The setting was perfect, but the savings in time and energy was priceless.

Nothing could hold him back. By 7 a.m. he had his pack on and was standing on his board. I watched the first five seconds of his 10-minute descent. Three turns and he was below the crest of the top dome of snow. I could hear the shouts at Camp 1 over the radio. He glided down the ridgeline, cutting close to the rocks where crevasses crisscrossed the slope.

Now it was time for the rest of us to move. The sun, which rose early, was behind a cloud and my toes and fingers were freezing, even while I was in the tent. Going up seemed foolish, so we shouldered our packs and headed down (Owen did turn the corner to snap a few pictures of the upper North Face).

We raced down to Camp 1, passing Andy and the gang on their way up. At the North Col, we changed out of our summit gear, into more leisurely climbing clothes. Our high altitude gear is kept at Camp 1, allowing us to travel lighter to and from the North Col.

Marco was of course in ABC enjoying a cup of cocoa. Andy and his gang were struggling up the North Ridge, and I could barely stay awake, laying in the warm sunlight at the North Col. Ellen and Owen, ready to go, prodded me into action. They clipped into the ropes and descended and I stumbled behind them. Halfway down the headwall, I radioed Russ that I was sick, having trouble breathing.

Hanging from the last ropes, I yelled down to Ellen to wait for me. Finally, unclipping, I began to stumble down the low angled slopes to the flat glacier. My lung capacity was about 15 percent of normal, and the world's grossest, most disgusting, revolting, cover-your-eyes-kids-you-might-puke clumps of hardened, dark brown phlegm were pinballing through my throat and escaping past my teeth in an explosion of UUUGGHHHH!!!!! (Ladies and gentlemen, did you know that Peter Hillary actually passed out, choking on a phlegm ball, at 27,000 feet on Everest? His partners were wise enough, despite the altitude to give him the Heimlich Maneuver. A record the Red Cross, hasn't yet given due credit for.)

Owen carried my pack, Ellen guided me down the path, and a Sherpa was sent up with a bottle of Oxygen to help out the sick man. In 18 years of working as a guide/wilderness instructor it was the only time, in memory, that I've handed over my pack. I couldn't believe it, stumbling, hacking up phlegm balls, being stared out by teams of Russians, Japanese and Americans. I declined the oxygen, preferring to pace myself.

A stethoscope confirmed our fears. I had a rapidly growing chest infection. After a cocktail of antibiotics, pain killers and decongestants, I slipped into a two day fevered sleep.

Meanwhile, the fit and good-looking were settling into Camp 2. Roy was heading for Base Camp, and Owen, Ellen and Marco were celebrating the end of this phase of the trip.

By the time Roy reached BC, he had sized up his Everest and decided his wife was cuter and his bed warmer. I'm sure that this decision was hard for him, but the more pronounced our limps and gravely our voices, the more we respected his decision. It’s the journey, afterall, not the summit.

Roy is the second team member to head home. Jess Stock left in mid-April, being wise enough to come to the same conclusions about a cute wife and warm bed, even before Roy. There are four married men left and everyone's afraid to share pictures of our wives. Once the defenses are weakened, it’s hard to hold back. (My wife, in an effort to keep a certain temperature balance in the relationship, is in Africa right now. Going home would be pretty lonely.)

Well, back to climbing. Andy and the gang passed a night at Camp 2. Evelyne, showing off, was back at ABC by 8 a.m. The rest trickled in throughout the day. Robert, actually braved the high winds and climbed to Camp 3 at 7,900 meters.

Meanwhile, our Sherpas were cruising up and down the mountain. On the 30th, four of them climbed from Camp 1 to Camp 3, two staying and two descending. On May 1, Dawa and Chuldim, each carrying nearly 60 pounds (25 kilos) of rope, climbed to Camp 4 at 8,300 meters. Our Sherpas had been there before, setting up tents and stashing oxygen, etc.

Back at ABC, Russ did some math, consulted the weather and it was decided that all of the Sherpas and members would descend to BC to rest, recuperate and wait.

Almost all of us are here now, at BC. After two weeks above 6,400 meters (21,400 Feet) we do have the scars, chapped lips and runny noses to prove we've been tossed about by the altitude. Marco even needed a little dental surgery, coordinated by Dr. Drewyer in Burtonsville, Md. A piece of popcorn was lodged under the gum, had become infected and the tough snowboarder with the pierced tongue was reduced to childlike antics to avoid the knife. "But Chris, I saved your life at Camp 2."

What's our plan? Well, with the winds whipping the mountain (a giant Lenticular cloud rests on the summit right now) and with snowfall predicted, no real work can be done for a few days. Once the forecast is good, the Sherpas have two load carries each, to Camp 4, on their schedule (32 man days of work from ABC).

Robert and Evelyne will hopefully be right behind them, Evelyne hoping to be the first Swiss women to the top. The rest of us will head back up soon enough. I'll keep you posted. Hopefully, during this lull of activity, after the antibiotics finish their work, I'll get around to telling some of the silly stories and maybe even edit a video of Marco snowboarding.

A quick wrap-up: Everyone is doing very well. In fact, I don't know if we have a lens wide enough for the summit shot. Morale is very high. Jaime and Owen, in particular, seem to get stronger with each foot of altitude gained. Andy is a source of strength for all of us: patient, comments well-thought, smiling.

Ellen and Evelyne are such strong, confident and fun women, brightening up each meal with their laughter (plus they are babes). Robert, when not climbing, is amazed by Jell-o. Naoki is putting aside the draft of his new book often enough to look like a Sherpa. Keiron, now the remaining United Kingdom representative, did defend the Queen's honor yesterday. Asmuss coughs the least, laughs the most and rejected his role as Robin to Owen's Batman. Russ is just fine. He has a new suit hanging in the comms tent at BC, having recently been off to visit the Governor of Lhasa. And myself, after the first feverish day, I started to eat, on the second I walked to BC (22 km/13 miles), and now I'm waiting to hit the showers. The recovery period for all of our aches and pains is quick.

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