Everest summit bid recounted

Special to SunSpot

Editor's Note: Baltimore County resident Chris Warner successfully summitted Mount Everest on May 23. Here is his account of the summit bid.

Moving to Camp 3, May 21

The expedition is moving as two groups from Advance Base Camp (ABC) and the hope is that today we will be reunited at Camp 3. Asmuss and I are climbing with Naoki, Jamie, Owen, Ellen and Kieron. We spent last night at Camp 2, squeezed into two of our tents and two belonging to the Australian Army.

Andy, Marco, Evelyne and Robert are hopping past Camp 2 adding an extra 400 meters to today's climb.

The Sherpas, Phurba and Karsang (Nepal), are pushing from Camp 1 to Camp 4. This will allow them to set up some extra tents and organize the camp for our arrival. Lobsang, Karsang (Tibet) and Dawa will go from Camp 1 to 2. And Chuldim, Danuru and Dorje will go from Camp 1 to 3, then return to sleep at 2. This complicated plan is needed to set ourselves up for success: Oxygen will begin to be used at Camp 3, additional tents need to be set up, all sorts of small pieces are being moved around.

Asmuss, the climbers and I set off around 7 a.m. and begin to climb up the long rocky ridge crest. While not technical, this section is strenuous and exposed to the weather. We quickly become spread out, passing through the camp sites of a dozen other expeditions. As the day before, Asmuss and I push on rapidly (climbing the 400 meters in 2:15), hoping to get to Camp 3 early enough to set up more tents. We would love to have everything ready to go, so that the climbers can simply slip into a tent on arrival, hiding from the winds and beginning to recuperate from the effort.

To our surprise, two of the tent platforms we have carved out over the years, have been "stolen" by other teams. Asmuss and I manage to carve away at the slope and within an hour have a tilted platform for a second tent. We set this up as some of our climbers arrive. Five people are shoved into two tents, allowing them to escape the weather and begin to re-hydrate and suck on the bottles of Oxygen.

I slide down the rocky face a few feet and begin to dig again, but after an hour, I've barely made a dent, never mind a tent platform, so I slide a bit further down. Now I'm hacking at the frozen remains of a Russian tent. Tuna cans, match books and frozen socks emerge with every other blow of the ice axe. Surely this pile of wind torn nylon can be transformed. But alone, I am too winded and barely make a dent.

Maybe it’s just a math problem: five clients and two tents. I get on the radio: "Russ, can we use the American tents 100 meters below us?" "Checked in with them and that's OK," he answered "We'll have Andy and his gang stop there and Asmuss and I will descend with all of the needed gear," was my response.

Then Marco shows up, ahead of schedule as usual. Six climbers in two tents that are dangling off the edge. Of course there is a little personality problem and no one wants to spend the day and night with a particular person … so we massage a few egos and beg for help. I know its 7,900 meters but can't we all be nice?

Ahhhhh!!!! Saved by the arrival of the Sherpas. These guys love to dig. Now we've got a seven person wrecking crew carving out tent platforms like it’s a carnival event. The Russian site is torn apart and we put up a tent. Next we move to my other abandoned site and level it off. The mathematics change: four tents, six climbers and two guides. Andy, Robert and Evelyne will stay in the American camp.

We are soon all swaddled in down suits and overstuffed sleeping bags. The afternoon passes slowly, as we all begin to test the Oxygen systems (we had a detailed class in ABC), and "brew" up. The word is passed around: this is our last great chance to fully hydrate and eat. The next two days should be torturous.

Camp 4, May 22

Asmuss and I are drill sergeants, barking orders to dress and depart. We want to move up and have been brewing up since 5 a.m. Ironically, the rest of the mountain is on a different schedule. The Sherpas are climbing up from Camp 2, Andy's gang is trying to crawl out of these tiny pup tents in which they could barely sleep. A certain lassitude has descended upon the team. Departure is delayed from 7 am to 8 am. Later this is updated to 9 am. We tell our gang to brew up ... quickly.

Finally, unable to control ourselves, we begin replacing each climber's oxygen cylinder with a fresh one. The slower climbers are pushed out the door. The miracle of Oxygen begins to take place. Yesterday I climbed twice as fast as the team, today I can barely keep up.

It’s a three-hour climb, starting with rising traverses across snow-covered ledges. Turn a few corners and the route steepens, going directly up long strips of snow. Off to our right, the summit pyramid rises, a snow-covered triangle capped by a rocky crest. The true summit is just out of sight, lost by the rounding effect of the long summit ridge.

We've made a deal with the Americans to use a few of their tents at high camp. The deal is an old one: Russ and Eric Simonson, leader of the commercial American expedition, have been swapping favors, fixed ropes, food, alcohol and just about every other tradeable commodity. Russ and Eric have been competitors and allies for years. Together they've formed the trade organization IGO-8000 (International Guides and Operators for the 8,000 meter peaks), of which there are now a dozen or so members.

There is a tremendous strength in alliances such as this. When no one could seem to "break through" to the summit, Russ and Eric were planning on our combined efforts, twice the number of Sherpas, guides and clients, to push the route. Happily, though, a sub-group of Eric's was able to bust through on the 19th. With the doors wide open, everyone's summit push was on.

As we were climbing to Camp 4, we watched others climbing to the summit. We could feel ourselves getting closer and closer. Fifteen of us climbed into high camp and were assigned tents. Naoki and I crawled into an American tent. If we were on our honeymoon it would have been ideal: a few boundaries and Naoki nicknaming me "Honey" and we managed to survive. Each climber was given three fresh Oxygen cylinders for the summit push. The discipline of melting water, preparing our packs, and eeking out some rest occupied our efforts. By 5 p.m. we dozed off and by midnight I was up again. "Honey, can you make me some tea?" "Honey, can you empty my pee bottle?"

The Summit Bid, May 23

At 1:30 a.m., we were congregating outside of Asmuss' tent, dressed for battle, but with the spiritual hopes of pilgrims. Asmuss was yelling "Where is Chris?" through his oxygen mask. "I'm right here," I yelled back in muffled syllables. He sounded angrier the second time, so I took the mask off.

I knew right then that communication would be limited to the person whose eyes you could look into. We were entering outer space: our headlamps shot forth bright beams of concentrated light, our masks were fed by tubes leading from the cylinders on our backs, ice axes were in our hands, and crampons strapped to each foot. A jumar, attached by a tether to our harnesses, was gripped by our mittened hands and clamped onto the rope that stretched outward and upward into the darkness.

Andy led out, followed by Owen, Ellen, Keiron and then me. Our headlamps pierced the darkness. A few scattered climber’s lights and a million stars were the only other beams of light above us. Before we could get a rhythm, Andy was having oxygen issues. I passed to the front, hell bent on summiting Everest. My world became even smaller: blackness and my beam.

The darkness, deprived of warmth and oxygen, remains a bit blurry. Soon we came upon two Austrians laying in the snow, resting, a silly thought as we had just began. I carved a new trail around them. Then two other guys collapsed on the trail at the narrowest, steepest, scariest, dumbest place imaginable.

Needing to pass them, I grabbed the one guy by the scruff of his neck, greatly adding to my security. In another narrow gully, two Spanish climbers were retreating: New Jersey-educated, Peruvian-perfected, oxygen mask-muffled Spanglish convinced those two to sit and wait. "Don't get in my way, madam, my friends and I are climbing Everest."

Within no time we were nearing the top of the "exit cracks." But we were no longer a tight team. Two hours of climbing had spread us out. Owen was showing signs of cerebral edema and Assmus was advocating his descent. Out in front, my focus remained on moving us forward. Within a few feet we had come to the crest of the ridge. My directions: Stop there and replace the Oxygen cylinders. Reduce flow from 4 to 2 liters per minute. Proceed to the First Step.

We quickly moved on. I wasn't even aware that Owen was heading back. He had been my right hand man during the first two hours. My job was to move us forward, and I set out from this cylinder exchange with purpose. Only I was lost. There I was standing on top of a cornice: the Kangshung face sweeping 7,000 feet beneath my feet and there wasn't a track to be found. "PHURBA!!!!" It was time to find a Sherpa, who had been here before, to lead the way.

Phurba leading, my immediate gang became: Phurba, me, Keiron and Ellen. Naoki was guarded by Karsang (Nepal). Asmuss, Andy, Dawa and Jamie were behind them. Evelyene and Robert, Marco, Lopsang and Karsang (Tibet) were well out in front. We were pulled like a Slinky along the easier sections and then bunched up at others. In between our team, were various climbers: Sherpas and Sherpanis, Rumanians, Australians, Russians, Spanish, Colombians and Venezuelans.

The First Step surprised me: if you weren't used to climbing rock with crampons on, forget it. Two 20- meter sections (60 feet) of hand over hand pulling, required you to look for subtle edges to rest your weight. This was full on mixed climbing. And about five of your friends are also pulling on that same piton. Yahoo!!!! Nothing like adventure travel.

The Second Step was even worse. PULL, PULL, PULL. But stay in balance. I had a great plan. I'd whip my video camera out at the top of the Second Step and film Keiron on the ladder (which by the way is really easy and overblown in its reputation.) Just needed a quick breather. By the time I recovered my breathing Keiron was at the top. I had to move on. Never got a second of video of him and it hardly seemed fair to ask him to back down and repeat the moves.

The Third Step actually had the single most "airy" move. The fixed ropes were anchored to a large rock, which is only held in place by the fixed rope and little bit of snow. As people step on this rock, it slips a bit more. Now the ropes are piano wire tight. Here we go, another hard climbing move, at 8,750 meters, unprotected by a fixed rope (too tight and pulled too far to the right to use). Ladies and gentlemen place your right crampon by your right ear. Now step upwards, rock over the right foot and shift your weight onto your tippy toes. Piroutte. Continue upward.

In the middle of the Third Step, a flash of purple crested the summit ridge. It was Marco, on his snow board, surfing the summit pyramid of Everest. We were psyched. I stopped and pulled out my video camera and captured a few turns. Giant rooster tails of snow shot backwards, catching the light and magnifying his whole show.

He surfed by us, and then stopped to readjust his binding. I tried to wait for him to carve more turns, but the cold was burning my fingers and the view was destroying my nerve. Marco was literally standing on a crest of a bulge, no it was a sheer cliff face. Catch an edge: you fly then die. He needed to repair his binding and then...

Russ was at the North Col with a powerful spotting scope. He could see the narrow shoots and thin traveres that Marco needed to link up. Problem was that there is no single clear and correct line to follow. Marco and Russ needed to work out a route, based more on Marco's boldness than on the logic and intelligence of their 50 combined years of skiing.

Binding "fixed", Marco pushed off, cresting the bulge and finding the narrow, rightward leaning, band of snow that was the only possible secret through the maze of cliff bands, avalanche prone shoots and dead ends that Russ was second guessing.

Marco's talent can not be underrated. He obviously can surf rocks as well as snow. He has pushed his sport to a new limit, first in the Alps, then South America and in the last few years in the Himalaya. (Remember that he turned 22 on May 22). Marco pushed Russ ("I'll never watch him snowboard again.") showing him that rocks were part of the path, jump and push off of them, stealing tricks from skate boarding to surf Everest.

Marco descended over 6,000 feet (1,900 meters) from the summit, into the Great Coulior. Russ and he eventually teamed up in the Great Coulior, where Marco had to spin around on his board, swing his axe into the ice and then hop over to a safer, softer slope. Once back on the North Ridge, he set off again, descending another 2,000 feet (650 meters) to ABC.

The Summit

The Summit Pyramid, a big triangle of snow that dominates the North Side, is far from the top. In the middle of the slope, our pal Evelyne was descending, after being the first Swiss woman to reach the top. I was so happy for her, and we stopped and smiled and hugged. It was a great hug, filling me with some needed energy.

After filming Marco and hugging Evelyne, I had become separated from the groups, and continued alone across this slope and entered even more slabs of rock. The view: thousands of feet of air leading to the Rongbuk glacier. Thin strips of rope led me on and into a narrow cleft. With little ledges, the downward sloping rock is criss crossed with the scratch marks of crampons. Every crampon that has been here has slipped at least an inch every time a climber weights it. The technique: try to fall upward a bit faster than you were slipping downward.

I pulled myself up the last of this rock pitch and there, a rise or two above me, was the summit - 100 feet away, an undulating crest, a sprinkling of friends and a summit jammed with damned people. It was absurd. Isn't climbing Everest supposed to be hard. Where did these people come from?

At the first crest, I met Ellen, Keiron, Karsang (Tibet) and Phurba heading down. We hugged each other and I shot some more video of them. A bit further along, I watched Naoki and Karsang (Nepal) summit. Robert was searching for some peace just below the summit, enjoying his own little place on the top of the world.

I made it to the top just past 10 am, and searched for a place to sit down. Naoki handed me his camera and I snapped some photos of him. Clouds were hiding much of the view, but Lhotse looked incredible, with the Lhotse Coulior rising straight up the black face. Makalu was capped by cloud as was Cho Oyu.

Over 30 people huddled on the top. "Want to call your wife?'' someone pushed a phone outward. Guys in red jackets were organizing for an historic presentation. Spanish TV was trying to broadcast live.

My Everest was obviously down below. Robert was right, seek peace where you can find it. I slipped from the crowd and found a wonderful spot. The end of a prayer flag was tied to a stone and I chose this flat and safe place to lay out the gifts and mementos I had been given the last two years.

The gold encrusted, bejeweled Jubuliam cross came out first. This was created by the Catholic Church to be commemorate the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. I was now a year late, but... Greg Pickering was an armchair climber, and paralyzed. Greg died this past summer. I was given his "pointer" to leave on the top. He used the pointer to navigate the internet, following dispatches from Everest expeditions. A picture of a gym member's son's wedding, Buddhist prayer flags and a black pouch filled with a crystal from Mt. Kailas. It all made a nice scene, a kind of puja.

I pulled out a laminated photo of Greg. I laughed at the juxtaposition of him wearing a t-shirt, with a leafy background, sitting in the comfort of a motorized wheel chair. "OK Greg, take a good look around." as I swiveled in place so he could get a 360 degree view of the world. "Now you've got your work cut out for you. Get us down safely." After all, I figured that he was an expert at falling down. Greg's diligence might be just what the team needed.

As Robert, then Naoki, Karsang and Dawa descended I took the last of my photos. I wanted to get some hero shots of me holding various banners. No go. I improvised with a rock and an ice axe. There is a subtle difference in artistic interpretation between the white snow of Everest's summit and the white snow of my backyard but I promise this is the real thing.

I pushed myself up and headed down. One last glance backwards and I was amazed that the pageants were still unfolding on the summit. Seeking a bigger stage, people were gathered near the lip of the cornice. A miracle kept them from falling through.

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