Lucky to be Alive

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-by Anders Chistofferson

Lucky.

That’s how I would describe my success thus-far on all six of the Seven Summits I’ve attempted (only Carstenz in Australia remains). To a certain degree, my experience as a triathlete and Ironman participant carried me through. But with any big mountain, there are conditions outside of yourself that you cannot control (weather, route, team, fitness, etc.), which need to align just right if the climb is going to be a success. As a mountain climber, it is imperative to train as well as possible, to put your body in the best shape possible to handle whatever the mountain has to throw at you. But you also have to get at least a little bit lucky.

And if you don’t get so lucky, the consequences are severe, harsh, and final. That is what I learned this year, during my climb of Mt. Everest.

I had been consistently training for endurance sports for the past 15 years, so I was no stranger to the concept when I began working with Steve House near the end of the summer of 2016. But the work I found myself doing with Steve was completely different from what I was accustomed to. Instead of long fast workouts at high heart rates on flat surfaces, I was plodding uphill with a heavy pack, sometimes at paces that felt painfully slow. At first, the workouts wrecked me. But it wasn’t long before I began to notice improvement, and that trend of constant strengthening continued all the way up until March 31, 2017, when I stepped onto the plane at LAX, and departed for Kathmandu.

Anders Training for Everest

Anders Training for Everest

If you are a fan of climbing, you’ve probably heard that this year on Everest has been a hard and tragic one. My trip up the famed mountain brought me face to face with some of those unfortunate headlines. I was climbing with Brent Bishop, which is something of a famous name in mountaineering—his dad, Barry Bishop, was the first American to climb Everest in the 60’s. Brent, himself, had summited multiple times by the start of the trip, and works for a company called Madison Mountaineering, which ran the logistics for our climb.

Very quickly, it became apparent that Brent and I were feeling really strong, and in a position to push ourselves early in the climb. With two other teammates (Geoff and John), we planned to jump the acclimatization, go as fast as we could, and be ready to attempt to summit in the first weather window (around May 10). We did two rotations to Camp 2, and then to Camp 3, during the first week or two on the mountain. By May 5th or 6th we were feeling pretty acclimatized, and ready to give the summit a shot.

Unfortunately, there ended up being a bit of a fiasco around fixing the route on the south side at that time. On May 8th we got to Camp 2, only to find that miscommunication and potentially poor planning led to the route not being fixed on time. So we were stuck at Camp 2 for three more nights, and then eventually had to come back down. That was our third rotation through the ice fall, and 10th or 11th night at Camp 2, which (if you know anything about elevation) is less than ideal and very tough on your body. This effort left our team fairly wrecked, and we hung out in basecamp for another 8 days before we could try to go up again when the next weather window appeared.

The time in basecamp after our first failed summit attempt was tough. A lot of people left out of frustration with the route not being fixed. There were also rumors circling that the monsoons would come early this year, which caused some people to pull the plug on the trip, too. It was hard waiting, but we finally got news that it looked somewhat decent around May 20-22, so we geared up to go for it again.

Our second attempt started out pretty well, but eventually hit some road blocks. We made it to Camp Three about halfway up the Lhotse face uneventfully, and our team was climbing well. The next day we had some major traffic issues going through the Yellow Band and the Geneva Spur, and what should have been a five-to-six hour climb ended up taking closer to ten hours. That delay caused us to get into Camp 4—the last camp before the summit—at about 6PM, as opposed to earlier in the afternoon. We had planned to go for the summit that night at 11PM, so our arrival time was less than convenient.

To add to the troubles, when we arrived at Camp 4 we couldn’t find our tent. It took us over an hour and a half before we finally realized that some climbers from another team were squatting in our tents. Camp 4 is just a terribly difficult place to be. It was windy, very cold, and we were dehydrated / depleted from the day’s climb. Needless to say, wandering around for an hour and a half was not the best start to our summit evening. By the time we got settled in at about 7:30pm, we didn’t have time to do much more than boil water, refuel as much as we could, and wait until 11PM when we started our climb after what basically amounted to a complete all-nighter, under-caloried, and under-hydrated.

Of course, our summit bid would prove to be the most trying day of all. We ended up not leaving until 11:30pm and were the last team to leave Camp 4. Up until this point our team had been climbing fast, and we believed that departure time would safely give us enough time to get up to the summit and back, with appropriate safety margin. After a cold start, we climbed for about three hours until just below the balcony, when we came across a fallen climber lying down, just off of the route. His face was exposed, and completely frozen. We could hear him moaning and see him moving his hands, but it was clear he was very bad shape. He was utterly alone – there was nobody around him. No guides, no teammates, nobody.

My team stopped for about an hour to try to help the man. We gave him injectables, dexamethasone, anything we could do. But he was so far gone he couldn’t even respond. His mouth was frozen shut, hands / face severely frostbitten, and he was immobile. We eventually determined that the man was not able to be saved, and we had to continue on. The man, sadly, ended up passing away.

About five minutes later, we came across another fallen climber in similar state, but slightly more coherent. He was able to sit up, but was clearly suffering from extreme altitude sickness, likely edema, and already severely frostbitten. Again, he was all alone. We tried to communicate with him. We gave him oral dex, helped him find a lost glove, and tried to bargain with some of the other teams who were on their way back down to try to help save the fallen climber. Ultimately, no one would help. They continued on to summit, or back down to Camp Four, and left the man to die alone. So my team, at this point, decided to abandon our own summit bid to try to save the man. He was coherent enough that if we could get him down, we thought he might actually have a shot at saving his life.

At this point we started to climb down. Another climber on my team, Geoff, reversed his jumar, started to belay him, and we got him down about 50 feet before Garrett Madison, the leader of our expedition, got on the radio and told us he had found a couple Sherpa who could team with Brent Bishop, and had agreed to forgo the summit to try to bring him down.

Ultimately, Brent and an extremely strong Sherpa named Tashi spent the next 8 hours trying to get the man back down the hill to Camp Four. This was a heroic effort that would be unlikely to be successful if attempted by climbers less skilled than Brent and Tashi. Sadly, the man did not make it and was alive for another 12 hours before passing away at camp 4. But I don’t believe Brent and Tashi’s efforts were for naught. Instead of suffering in the cold with no hope and dying alone, the man was able to spend the last hours of his life knowing that people were with him, caring for him, and trying to save his life. Once he was back in camp he was put on oxygen, shot with adrenaline, and made comfortable in a warm tent surrounded by caring people. Brent and Tashi were true heroes on this day, and their efforts allowed the man to pass peacefully.

The combination of these two events were hard on our team. It was certainly hard to switch gears after the first incident to climbing again. And then with the second incident, deciding to forgo our own summit attempt, and ultimately finding out the summit bid was back on and starting again. We were all physically and emotionally drained. But, all you can really do is just snap back into it and focus on the task at hand. Brent was incredibly supportive, and encouraging, and so, the other three of us continued on.

In the hour or so after we departed, none of us really talked. It was still dark as we approached the Balcony, and everyone seemed to be lost in their own thoughts. At this point, given all the time we spent with the two distressed climbers, we were behind every other team on the mountain. It was very windy, and quite a few of the other climbers were getting up to the Balcony, abandoning their summit bid, and coming down, and we got severely impacted by traffic. We spent the next couple hours from the Balcony climbing to the South Summit, and then again on the summit ridge, playing this game of trying to go really fast to get by people, and then waiting behind the next party until we could pass them.

During this massive game of leapfrog, my team got separated, and as a result we ended up climbing most of the summit ridge by ourselves. This was an interesting time for me. While I was feeling very strong and knew my preparation was paying off, I had never expected to be climbing alone on the summit ridge. After a while I adjusted to this new reality and was able to get into a solid groove. It was incredibly windy and very cold, but climbing the ridge was a highlight for me – being able to see both China and Nepal, and the massive Himalayan range, from 28k+ feet is a special sight.

When I finally made it to the summit at about 10:15 AM, I was completely alone at first. Nobody else was around, and I spent about five minutes in the wind and cold waiting for others on my team to arrive. The view, of course, was beautiful. I was really struck by looking over to the north side and seeing the route up from Tibet. I was extremely excited and proud to be on the summit, and this was a realization of a decade-plus dream, and 50 days of hard work on the mountain.

After a few minutes I was joined by a Sherpa from our team, Siti, and began to prepare for the decent. I had run out of oxygen about 20 minutes before the summit, which had caused me to get quite cold, so after a quick change of the oxygen bottle I took off alone down the summit ridge. The descent ended up being pretty crowded again, and after rejoining my other teammates near the South Summit, we again played a game of leapfrog with slower climbers. However, once we made it to the Balcony and started heading back down the homestretch to Camp 4, things mellowed out. This was when I really started to feel okay, and the stress of the summit push began to finally melt away.

Climbing Everest was an amazing and life changing experience for so many reasons. On the one hand, it was very challenging to witness people dying on the mountain, and even more challenging to see the response from other climbers who walked right past these men. While Everest is a special place, it is certainly not worth dying for, and I hope that there continues to be increased importance placed on caution, and regulations that promote safe behaviors on the mountain. On the other hand, it was an incredible experience to be part of such a great team that achieved success on the mountain. I learned so much from Steve, who helped me get to Everest in optimal shape to approach the mountain safely, and from my climbing teammates Brent, Geoff, and John, who helped make our time on the mountain safe, fun, and ultimately successful. I’ll never forget the times I had on Everest this year, and for that I feel very fortunate.

Up next, I plan to attempt my last of the Seven Summits (Australia) later this year and have some ultra-running objectives to focus on over winter. I’m not sure if I’ll return to Everest, maybe with the right team and potentially exploring a different route, but this trip ultimately helped fuel my passion for the mountains and I’m already looking forward to revisiting the Himalaya.

Anders Christofferson reports from Everest 2017

Anders on the lower mountain early in the trip.


 

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