Our summit bid journey from C2 to C3 was marked by high winds reaching 70 miles an hour. Jumar (an alpinist tool used for ascending up the rope) served as a lifeline on a 40 degree slope. You had to hold onto it really tight in order not to get thrown around by wind gusts. At lower C3 I was so frozen that I was ready to unzip and crawl into any empty looking tent to get some respite from this freezing wind.
This is where I was given my first oxygen bottle to continue the trip to the upper C3. Suddenly, the world around me reacquired colours. Breathing deepened and much needed second wind reappeared.
Upper C3 at 7200m was a tiny patch of snow carved out amidst crevasses on a 40 degree slope. I fell into the tent to find Colin sitting in a mummy position amidst sagging tent walls laden by snow squeezing out the area available to sleep. We melted snow for hours and then fell into deep sleep wearing black plastic muzzles of oxygen masks.
The next 48 hours was a blur. We walked to C4 on the South Col at 7900m in searing heat. Even with oxygen flow on each step on the steep section was a struggle. I was cursing my new down suit in this sweltering heat. I tied the top half around my waist and carried on. We passed the Yellow Band and Geneva Spur – the steeper sections where my alpinist experience did help me in making time by making me more efficient. The hare and the tortoise. Some 5 hours later around 2pm I pulled into C4 at the South Col. I had 8 hours to rest before the final summit push. Despite all talk of lost appetite, I was exceptionally hungry. Little pouches of boil-in-the-bag turned out to be slim pickings. Granted I was permanently attached to my oxygen tank.
At 5pm weather reports came showing a significant pick up in wind up to 45 miles an hour. One of the reports stated ‘winds are too high for a safe summit’. Weather for the next few days was set to deteriorate further. My heart sank. It was clear that this weather may end my summit bid. It is generally unsafe to stay at C4, in the ‘death zone’, for more than 2 days. Coming down back to C2 would mean the need to rest for at least 5 days to regain some strength and to resupply oxygen to C4. We were simply running out time given that down below the spring was melting Khumbu icefall.
I was teaming up for the summit bid with formidable Lydia Bradey whose private client sadly had to abandon his bid a few weeks before. Lydia was the first woman to summit Everest without oxygen back in 1988. This was to be her 4th summit. I trusted her instincts and knowledge of the mountain. We have decided to give the summit bid a go despite deteriorating forecast and to hedge our decision by leaving early and turning back should the weather deteriorate.
We zipped up our tent to start the climb at 10pm. It was full moon and the air was warm with no sign of bad weather to come. The climbing line up Everest was magically lit up with head torches. Masses of them. The next 9 hours to the summit was a highly charged journey – one marked by crowds, waiting in lines and overtaking slow climbers on steep sections. My heart raced with every effort of taking over another slow-moving group at 8000+ meters. This was a safety exercise and Lydia knew that well. ‘Turn on your oxygen to 4L – let’s pass another group’. She was a pro and soon we found ourselves on the Balcony, a third of the way to the summit. Here the line stalled altogether. Winds started to pick up. My heart sank yet again… ‘Would we have to abandon the bid?’ I added another layer of down under my suit and tried to quieten emotions. As if by magic, the sun appeared on the horizon lighting up majestic Makalu and Lhotse. I forced myself to look around to take in spectacular scenery and that moment in time. It was easy to miss that point amidst all the worries about weather, crowds, incompetence and potential failure.
Soon we were moving again amidst steep sections to arrive to the South Summit. Some 20 minutes later as we walked on the steep and exposed snow cornice, I looked ahead and saw a section of rock and snow. I realised that this was the Hillary Step, a much talked about section some 30 minutes away from the summit. I started crying as it dawned on me that I will indeed summit Everest, that we would not have to turn back, that I will make Theo and Freya proud. I was overwhelmed with feelings. The summit itself at 7:30am was somewhat anti-climatic – a snow cornice busy with downsuit clad people all wanting a picture with a flag. I hugged Lydia and thanked her for her amazing company and support. By Murphy’s law my camera batteries failed, it was freezing and I kept telling myself that we ought to be heading down knowing that we will have to battle lines of people on very exposed sections without being clipped on the rope. Some 3 hours later we climbed back to C4. Exhausted by some 12 hours on the move, I fell into my tent for a brief rest, rehydration and food before heading down another 1500m down Lhotse face to C2.
On the way down, we were told of a fatal accident involving Sherpa falling some 2000m down during fixing of Lhotse. We saw imprints in the snow of a falling body culminating in a bergschrund. A tragic reminder of the risks one takes here.
At C2 after a healthy portion of dal bhat, I crawled into my tent and fell into deep slumber. I could not even start reflecting on the day or the summit. I was hallucinating with a tapestry of images, so deeply tired and spent that if you were to ask me where I was I would not have an answer.
Today we woke up at 6am to make our final journey through the Khumbu icefall back to the basecamp. Spring has changed the icefall beyond recognition and made it much more dangerous. I felt I was sleep-walking fully spent physically and emotionally with the past 10 days of worry, exertion and exaltation.
Now safely back in the cradle of EBC waiting for a heli to take us down to Kathmandu so that I squeeze in a week with Tim, Theo and Freya before my final push on Denali in the quest to break the female record in #explorersgrandslam.