Thursday, May 28, 2009


I reached the summit of Everest at dawn on May 20, 2009, just as the very first rays from the rising sun were bathing the highest point on earth with a golden glow and casting the shadow of a perfect pyramid on the high Himalayas.  It is nothing short of a miracle that I was blessed with this experience, because I found Everest to be a shockingly dangerous mountain to climb.  I am truly amazed that more people don't perish in the attempt to reach its lofty summit. On the way up I took a bad fall on the Hillary Step,which resulted in a series of stress fractures in my right hand.  A carabiner I'd clipped in to the fixed rope prevented me from falling further and saved my life.  I'm thinking of having it covered in gold leaf.  I wasn't about to turn around so close to the summit, broken hand or not, so I got myself back up the Hillary Step and onto the summit ridge right behind our expedition leader Alex Abramov.  He was none the wiser until he saw me fumble with my left hand trying to clip in to a fixed rope on the descent.  The descent was complicated by my broken hand.  Climbing is mostly done with the feet, and maintaining proper balance is critical, and yet the hands are necessary to use safety devices like carabiners, ascenders, and belay/rappel devices.  As much as it was a miracle that I reached the summit of Everest, it was even more of a miracle that I was able to descend safely all the way down to Camp II, our advanced base camp.  I've never been so utterly and completely exhausted in my life.

I'm typing this with a temporary brace on my right hand.  Tomorrow the doctors here in Kathmandu are going to fit a plaster cast.  There is so much I'd like to share, but this is a bit of a challenge.

Hopefully I'll be able to elaborate on these themes at greater length when I get a more permanent solution for my hand, but there are three things I'd like to share.

(1) The incredible true story of courage and friendship demonstrated by my friend Noel, who short-roped our friend Patrick down from the summit--as part of Team II they reached the summit one day later than I did as part of Team I--when Patrick temporarily lost his vision, putting his own life at risk to protect Patrick.  It took them so long to descend in this way they came down the treacherously steep and icy Lhotse face in the dark.  I will forever remember their headlamps shining in the darkness as beacons of true courage and friendship.  By his own admission, Noel, from Northern Ireland, is "a wee man," not particularly tall, but in my estimation he is a giant among men.  Noel, I'm glad to know you.

(2) The remarkable life-changing spiritual epiphany I experienced on the summit of Everest.

(3) The ordeal of the trek down from Everest base camp to Lukla, where I was able to catch a flight back to Kathmandu. We covered those 60-70 kilometers in three days.  I rode a Tibetan pony on the third day from Namche Bazaar to Lukla in the pouring rain, coaxing the sure-footed beast up and down 45-55 degree rock and mud-covered pitches.

More to come, depending on how restrictive the cast is that the doctors here in Kathmandu are going to apply tomorrow.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Summit Push

I've got big news.  The summit push we've been waiting for is on.  We'll be up at 3:30 a.m. Saturday morning and heading up the Khumbu ice fall toward Camp I well before dawn.  The schedule is entirely subject to the weather, the movement of other climbers on the mountain, the health of each expedition member, etc., but if everything goes according to schedule:

Saturday: everyone moves from base camp to Camp I; spend the night at Camp I
Sunday: everyone moves from Camp i to Camp II; spend the night at Camp II; Alex Abramov, the expedition leader, divides the expedition into two teams
Monday: the first team (most likely including me) moves to Camp III and spends the night
Tuesday: the first team moves to Camp IV; the second team moves to Camp III
Wednesday: the first team pushes for the summit starting between 9:00 p.m. and midnight Tuesday night; ideally we reach the summit between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. Wednesday morning; although exhausted, for our safety and survival we descend all the way from the summit back down to Camp II by the early afternoon on Wednesday; the second team moves to Camp IV
Thursday: the first team descends from Camp II to base camp; the second team pushes for the summit and descends to Camp II
Friday: the second team joins the first team at base camp

The earliest anyone will hear from me is Thursday morning in the U.S., but Friday or Saturday is more likely given how unpredictable a summit push can be.  We're most likely to spend more than one night at Camp II waiting for the ideal opportunity to push higher up the mountain.  You've really only got one shot at the summit once you commit to Camp III and Camp IV.

Now more than ever I appreciate all of the thoughts, prayers, meditations, and positive energy that people have been sending my way.  It makes a huge difference, both to me and to every other climber on Mount Everest this season.  With all of my heart I hope and pray that everyone will be able to return to their friends and families in health and safety.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

This is a picture of yours truly crossing a ladder over a deep crevasse in the Khumbu ice fall.MJMonladder.jpg


Reporting from Everest

Just for the exercise and a change of scenery I hiked down to Gorak Shep and back the other day.  Gorak Shep is the closest outpost of civilization--and here I'm using the word "civilization" quite generously--to Everest base camp.  While I was there I ran into a group of trekkers who wanted to hear all about climbing Everest.  They were curious, apparently, because other climbers they'd encountered were a little too full of themselves and couldn't be bothered to spend time with mere trekkers whose only ambition was to get to Everest base camp.  It was a lot of fun to talk with them and hear their stories.  Two of them had just graduated from medical school in England, and part of their graduation requirement was to spend six weeks working in a clinical environment before they went on to their residencies.  So they chose to spend six weeks working at a clinic in Kathmandu.  I was inspired by their altruism, and it would have been a shame if I hadn't taken the time to learn a little about what brought them to Nepal.

As I was leaving Everest base camp on my way to Gorak Shep there was a huge avalanche--the largest I've seen yet--that swept down on the Khumbu ice fall.  It originated from a huge, overhanging cornice of ice and snow far up the nearly vertical slope that defines the western flank of Everest.  I've been keeping my eye on it, wondering when it would finally come crashing down.  i learned after I got back to Everest base camp that the avalanche had resulted in two injuries and a fatality, a Sherpa who had been buried alive and then crushed to death by the huge mass of snow and ice that came crashing down on him.  One of the injury victims was in sufficiently serious condition that he was evacuated by helicopter the next morning.  That speaks volumes about the extent of his injuries, because a helicopter evacuation at this altitude is very dangerous.  Ask any helicopter pilot how his or her craft performs at 18,000 feet.  A rescue helicopter crashed at Everest base camp last year.  All of this was a sobering reminder of just how dangerous this whole business is.  That Sherpa who lost his life in the Khumbu ice fall could have been any one of us.  My heart goes out to his family and friends.

Today our expedition is hosting a huge party to celebrate victory day in Russia, the anniversary of what Americans are more familiar with as V-E day, the day Allied forces, including Americans and Russians, occupied Berlin and World War II in Europe ended.  The Russians, which make up the majority of our expedition, are making a big deal out of it.  Last night at dinner they were trying to think of ways to improvise pyrotechnics in place of fireworks.  I"m afraid by this evening the vodka will be flowing and the Russians will be blowing things up.  Our expedition leader Alex Abramov has invited a number of other expedition leaders, including Russell Bryce, whom you may know from two seasons of the Discovery Channel series Everest: Beyond the Limit.  This should be very interesting.  This evening also marks the deadline by which all expedition members who went down the Khumbu valley to lower altitudes for rest and recovery are supposed to be back in Everest base camp.

I wish the weather forecast were more promising.  We may be stuck in Everest base camp for a good while longer waiting for the right opportunity to make our summit push.  I'm getting really tired of fighting for breath.  Yes, I've acclimatized very well; after all, we're close to 18,000 feet here; but I really long for a truly satisfying gulp of oxygen-rich air and sleeping in my own bed for that matter.  This is where an important part of the mental game comes into play.  The agony of climbing the world's highest mountain would be a welcome torture compared with finding ways to keep from going crazy waiting, waiting, waiting ...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

P1000199 copy.JPG

Safely Back At Base Camp

The dress rehearsal, our third acclimatization climb, was a quiet, uncomplicated success for Team I.  No muss.  No fuss.  Everything went pretty much according to plan, although Erik Ravenstein from Holland dropped out the last minute citing health concerns to stay behind another day and climb with Team II.  That meant it was just me and the Russians.  We climbed yet again through the Khumbu ice fall, spent a night at Camp I, ascended the Western Cwn the next day to arrive at Camp II, climbed the surprisingly steep and icy Lhotse face the next day to spend a night at Camp III, dug into the side of the Lhotse face at around 24,000 feet.  I spent the night with one of the Sherpa, a delightful young man of 20 named Zangbu who despite his age has already been to the summit of Everest twice.  We got along very well, exploring the differences in our cultures, and I'm optimistic that when it comes time for my own summit push he'll be assigned to help me.  The next day, even though a weather front was advancing, we spent three hours or so climbing further up the Lhotse face toward the Geneva Spur and the Yellow Band.  We gained another 1,000 feet before the weather made us retreat.  We climbed all the way back down to Camp II, spent the night and then made it back down through the Western Cwn and the Khumbu ice fall to base camp by 10:00 o'clock the next morning.  We're learning that the less time you spend in the Khumbu ice fall the better your chances are of surviving an Everest expedition.  Today in the late morning there have been several huge avalanche events that appear to have affected climbers descending through the fall.  Rescue parties have been sent and we're waiting for word about injuries or worse.  Personally I'm relieved that I've only got to go through the Khumbu ice fall two more times, once up and once down, and then I'll be happy never to return.

Now that we're back at base camp the plan is to rest and recover for 5-6 days until May 9, when we'll have a look at the weather and plan our summit push.  There's a full moon about that time, which would help with the visibility while we're climbing though the night along the summit ridge.

This dress rehearsal to 25,000 feet without oxygen was a huge confidence builder for me.  Next time I get to Camp III at 24,000 feet there will be a bottle of oxygen waiting for me.  Everything I do at or above that level will be with the help of supplemental oxygen.  There are still a million things that can go wrong, but now I'm really beginning to feel like this might actually go according to plan.

Now all I need to do is stay healthy.  It seems like literally everyone else on the expedition is suffering to a greater or lesser extent from some kind of upper respiratory distress, and few of them learned how to cover their mouths when they cough.  Some of the expedition members are going to descend lower down through the Khumbu valley to help with the recovery process.  I'm planning to stay here at base camp to keep all of the benefits of acclimatization for which I've worked so hard.  I trust the food and water here a lot more than what I experienced coming up here.  We've also got a primitive shower facility and the occasional low-band width internet connection, so I'll just stay put, rest, relax, recover, and hope for good climbing weather from May 9-15.  I wouldn't mind getting to the summit of Everest and getting home sooner rather than later.  This has been an ordeal the likes of which I could not have imagined before I got here and experienced it.

Thank you as always for all of your positive thoughts and prayers.  They make a HUGE difference.