Everest Northside – The Run Down

Gosh, where to start on such a long journey! I’d bore myself and likely you as well if I went blow by blow through the entire trip. So I’ll jump ahead to the interesting parts…

May 29th was the day I first arrived to camp one at 23,000ft/7000m. This is significant because it marks the beginning of my acclimatization rotations on the mountain. I spent one night there and then descended back to Advanced Base Camp at 21,000ft/6400m.

The Seven Summits expedition team I had bought onto included 2 Indian and 2 Belgian climbers. They arrived at ABC with me but would descend a few days after spending one night at Camp 1 to Base Camp at 17,000ft/5200m, which is 12 miles back downhill. They would end up staying there until their summit push on the 21st of May, 3 weeks later! The amount that summit teams leverage oxygen on Everest totally blows my mind! The Northside, though, really lends itself to this sort of acclimatization because everything is so high. While they’re strategy was surprising, it does match the south side it’s just that to achieve the same altitude on the south side requires more days climbing. Something about it still seems wrong, to spend so many weeks sitting in the dusty basin of Base Camp and not using the time to explore the mountain.

In any case, their leaving ABC so soon into the expedition is noteworthy because it left me without a cook. Cooking for myself and/or eating with the Sherpa for dinner was an issue because I couldn’t keep up the caloric intake I needed. It was especially problematic when I would return from a rotation on the mountain, as I was usually too tired to cook. In the end, when I left the mountain, I had lost 25 pounds and looked quite emaciated.  For me, weighing 160 pounds is totally crazy, my normal weight is 185.

On the 9th and 10th I pushed to camp 2 at 25,100ft. I spent two nights there and felt great. I slept well, and ate well. On the 10th I climbed to 26,300ft/8000m, touched it, and descended back to camp 2, sleeping the night of the 10th there. After this I went back to ABC, and then all the way down to BC on the 13th of May for the first time since leaving on the 21st of April. So I spent 20 days total at or above 21,000ft, which is sorta crazy. I certainly felt like I was very well acclimatized and ready for the summit – and boy would that go sideways!

I spent two days at Base Camp. Unfortunately, the team I bought onto was going up to ABC the very day I was headed down. So at Base Camp again I wouldn’t have a cook! They did leave the Tibetan cooking assistant down there for me, which is almost always a bad idea having a Tibetan cook for you – think food poisoning. Tibetans rarely shower, like maybe once or twice in their entire lives. Combine that sort of hygiene and my weak western stomach and it never ends well. The day I was to hike the 12 miles back to ABC, the 16th, I started vomiting while eating breakfast. That day hiking to ABC I was feeling super weak from whatever food borne thing I’d caught. Thankfully, after arriving into ABC I had a few days to rest.

I planned to make my summit push on the 23rd of May, the weather forecast showed it as the best day. The forecast called for clear skies and calm winds – it would be colder, but clear and calm.  On the 20th I headed to camp 1, feeling strong and making good time. The following day I went to camp 2, moving quickly and passing many teams – nearly all were on oxygen. I didn’t clock myself, but it was likely something slightly under 3 hours. This is significant because the following day my speed would be the first shoe dropping.

The 22nd around 3am bad weather slammed into the camp – high winds and snow. This was unusual because most poor weather arrives in the afternoon – being a product of normal convection cycles in the Himalaya. Poor weather arriving at 3am is always worrisome, especially since it was coming out of Tibet, whereas normally the weather comes out of Nepal.

So I knew this could change the plan. I also knew I shouldn’t try to move in this weather. Rather, I should push back until the 23rd for camp 3 and go for the summit on the 24th. A lull in the weather at around 11am convinced me to make the move to camp 3. But soon after leaving camp 2 the weather came back in. Pushing too fast with a heavy load, I went to camp 3 at 27,000ft/8300m in 4hrs. Breathing in the very cold air at a high aerobic rate without covering my airway with a buff caused my normal altitude cough to get pretty bad. It also caused some light asthma. Arriving in camp 3, I jumped into a tent with 3 friends, Topo, Carla and Pemba – a team from Ecuador.

The first time I really started to notice something was off was shortly after arriving at camp 3. I recall asking Topo to feel my forehead – as I felt like I had a temperature. Neither he, nor Carla, felt like my forehead was hot, so I discounted the feeling. We all took turns using the stoves for water and food and tried to rest. I fell asleep a few times but with 4 people in a 3 person tent and with a large portion of the tent hanging off the edge of the platform it wasn’t extremely comfortable. But camp 3 is only meant to be used as a short stop over, so it was fine.

That night I told Topo that I was starting to have doubts about going on to the summit. He was surprised, like what the hell are you talking about! We’d all worked so hard to get to this moment. But I still felt feverish and overall just crappy. Topo and Carla left for the summit around 9pm, Pemba stayed behind, opting to rest more, and then catch them later in the night. Pemba and I fell deep asleep, I was planning to wake at midnight and reassess how I felt and hopefully try for the summit. When I woke at midnight I still didn’t feel well, so I decided to call it. Pemba took off to catch Topo and Carla and I went back to sleep. I slept great, slept like the dead… too soon?

The next morning I woke up still feeling off. It wasn’t until I got up to go piss that I realized how bad I was. I felt extremely weak just standing up. It was then that I realized I needed to get outta there. As I started to descend I quickly felt weaker and weaker and my breathing became difficult… And then It slammed into me within an hour of leaving camp, I could barely make 30 feet of downward progress before having to rest on my haunches. It was then I realized I was in trouble – and that descending as far as I could became my priority. But as everything quickly continued worsening I started to realize that just getting to my tent at camp 2 would maybe would be as far as I could go. My voice had now disappeared into a whisper. I was alone and only passed a couple people on the descent.

The above video was taken at around 8250m, so a few hundred feet or so below camp 3 (27,000ft/8300m).

They would ask if I was ok, I would lie and say yes. I suppose out of ego, I really didn’t want help down. I wanted to handle the situation myself; it was a dangerous game I was playing! Because what hadn’t dawned on me yet in my hypoxic state was the realization of how much worse I would become and how quickly it would overtake me. Luckily Adrian Ballinger wasn’t buying it, I chatted with him and Cory Richards for a few minutes telling them I would be ok, that I just needed to descend because I was feeling weak. Really though, I was dying, though I was just starting to realize it. I was still quite confused by the speed of my physical decline and the seriousness of my, at the time, unknown affliction.

Adrian likely took one look at me and saw that I was in pretty serious shape. Being buddies from the time we had spent together in ABC, he unknown to me, got in communication with Monica his expedition doctor in BC. I look back and see moments – with certain people and their actions –that almost certainly changed the outcome for me. This is one of those moments. Monica, also a friend from time spent in ABC together, immediately got in communication with a Chilean team descending past me at camp 2 with a teammate suffering from frost bitten hands. They stopped while passing by me, asking how I was. Again I lied saying that I was fine and that I was near my tent where I would rest. Monica coming on over the radio advised me to continue descending to camp 1. Camp 1, I thought? That seemed like someone saying: “Hey, let’s trek the length of fucking China”! It felt that much out of reach. While I was chatting with Monica on their radio, they slipped a Sp02 counter on me; it read 43. That was when I really realized how out of control this was getting! It certainly surprised the Chileans. I recalled a rescue a few years ago on Aconcagua in which I was the main care provider for two HAPE affected climbers. One passed away in the night. He died with a Sp02 in the mid 50’s. Trusting Monica and her advice, I decided I simply had to make Camp 1 happen.

This video was taken at 7900m the very top of camp 2, my tent is 200m lower at 7700m. At the very end of the video you can see the Chilean team descending behind me.

So obviously, why the hell was I still taking video? No clue, guess it’s sorta become my Wilson… y’know the volleyball from that Tom Hank’s movie…

The Chileans stayed with me; which I much appreciated, as they were also helping their teammate down. I had a hard time keeping up with them, the oxygen mask, and likely the super dry air from the oxygen bottle they gave me, started giving me mild asthma attacks. I’d never used oxygen before and in my current state of barely being able to pull in a full breath combined with the asthma made it all feel so claustrophobic; which just complicated matters and slowed me down even more. But at such a low Sp02, I knew it was essential to keep the oxygen mask on. Eventually we made it into camp 1. The Chileans asked me to stay in an empty tent near them instead of my personal tent a ways away. That way their doctor, who was at camp 1, could keep an eye on me. I hadn’t drank any water since the previous evening and I wasn’t in shape to make water, so I went without fluids for quite some time. The Chileans really didn’t have water to spare as they were making tons of hot water to reheat their teammate’s hands.

That night at camp 1 the oxygen they gave me ran out and there wasn’t any more. Basically, they only had enough for their team; which was fine as I didn’t really have a right to even ask for oxygen as I hadn’t brought any myself. But when the bottle ran empty in the evening I knew it was going to be a long torturous night. Their doctor, Sabastian, came into my tent and told me to survive the night I’d need to sit bolt upright and breath actively and meditatively for the remainder of the night. It was good advice, but sitting up all night trying to consciously control my breathing – breathing that wanted to run out of control, wasn’t easy. Pulling in every breath, while struggling against the weight of fluid in my lungs, was pretty awful. As the hours went by it become harder and harder to breath, and soon a deep breath wasn’t even possible and I just tried not to fall into panicked panting.

My voice was still just a whisper and the radio the doctor gave me wasn’t working – so I sat alone and I now fully understood the serious state I was in. The understanding that I could die kept me pretty focused on what I needed to do, I suppose from necessity.  When the morning finally came, I knew I would need oxygen to make the descent to ABC. I tried to get out of the tent and head to a large team nearby who I knew would have plenty of half used bottles. But as I exited the tent I fell down, as I got back up a Sherpa friend of mine who I’d been supplying with chewing tobacco for weeks, was walking past. He instantly came to see what was up, his worry obviously pronounced in his eyes. He was able to go to the team for me and get a half used bottle, I told him I’d be fine and to continue his climb to camp 2. I knew this was my chance to escape C1 to ABC, I went back into the tent and was about to start packing up when the Chileans came by to tell me a friend from Alpenglow was on his way from ABC. I knew it had to be Zeb Blais who I’d worked with at RMI for the last 4 years, we’d run an Aconcagua trip together and were close friends. I was pretty elated to hear this news. Within just 30 or so minutes he popped his head into my vestibule – and it was like a fucking angel appeared. He instantly went guide-rescue mode making water and packing up my stuff in his bag. Within a few minutes he’d made me two liters of water and we were headed down hill, he’d also brought me a full bottle of oxygen.

The water was crucial because to my surprise and worry that morning I’d pissed straight black. No joke, my urine was black as coffee… I knew this was sub-optimal but at the time I just didn’t have the energy to do much about it. I had even bigger issues, like breathing. We made the descent from camp 1 to ABC in around 3 hours.

My expedition team had packed up and already left the mountain, leaving me behind. They had already told me prior to my summit push that they wouldn’t wait the extra two days for me, and that my exit from Nepal would have to be with another team. So arriving to ABC was an issue. Luckily Adrian, owner of Alpenglow expeditions, offered to have me stay at their ABC tents instead of me being alone in my tent. I had become good friends with the team during the weeks at ABC, especially since we were trying for the same goal – an ascent without supplemental oxygen, and my buddy Zeb was guiding for them. Monica Piris, their doctor, had also become a good friend. Her care and compassion for me is something I’ll never forget. She is probably one of the most knowledgeable high altitude doctors out there. I will undoubtedly forever feel indebted to her, I really can’t put into words what her care meant to me during some tough days. Also Adrian made his extra oxygen available to me which was a huge component to my recovery.

The first night at ABC on the 24th was rough; I wasn’t getting much better, even though I’d now dropped 6,000ft. I recall before I went to bed and I told Monica I was nervous and I remember her words to me, “I am too” with worry in her voice but those words were comforting for some reason. She asked Zeb to sleep in the dome tent with me to watch over me and to get her if things got worse. She warned me that from the hypoxic state I was in that if I did fall asleep I might wake up confused. At this point I hadn’t slept much for nearly two days, so I would nod off for maybe 30 minutes to an hour – it’s hard to say. When I would wake, I was sort of outta my mind. I recall one time waking in the night and I was totally lost. I had no idea where I was or what was happening to me and I remember thinking the government was after me or something… I started yelling at Zeb like a crazy person, Zeb was pretty startled. Now, looking back, it’s pretty funny. I think I was about to start throwing pillows at Zeb and then it all started coming back to me and I calmed down. It was crazy but throughout the night I would wake and have to fight the hypoxic urge to lose it. I could still remember remembering where I was from the last time. But my mind was telling me all these crazy things! And in this fog of crazy thoughts, I had the faint memory of the reality of my situation – but it was hard to hold onto. Anyway, by the next morning I was a little better but I was still very weak and could barely make it the 20 feet to the bathroom.

By the morning of the 25th I was feeling a small amount better but I had the next big hurdle looming in front of me, the 12 miles of moraine to Base Camp at 17,000ft. That was the next big goal! To get myself down to Base Camp. I wasn’t really healing very well at ABC at 21,000ft, so the 4000ft drop was where Monica wanted me to get to as fast as possible. I insisted that I needed the 25th as a rest day at ABC and I’d move to Base Camp on the 26th. Even though I knew she was right… I’d had to fight so hard to get to ABC that I just needed a day to rest – mentally – more than anything. On the 26th the Aplenglow team left Base Camp in the early morning and I walked over to TAG Nepal Tendi Sherpa’s company. This was the team which Seven Summits had switched my permit to for exiting Nepal. Monica had arranged for 6 Tibetans to come to ABC to help me down. Though difficult, walking was possible for me on flat ground, but my resting heart rate had been pretty steady at 130 for the last couple of days, so walking uphill just wasn’t possible. And there was a danger in bringing my heart rate any higher, the danger of after days of a 130 resting heart rate that it could maybe just give out…

So Tendi decided – to my great shame – that the best option was for me to ride a yak for legs of the journey down to BC!

Yes, a fucking yak… My head is now in my hands as I write this, the great shame of my life!

How is it possible to ride a yak you ask? Not easily. They picked the calmest yak and used a sling to make stirrups. Calmest was key; as yaks have a habit of bucking until their loads go flying off. My friends Topo and Carla joined me for the slow ride / walk out which was super comforting to have them nearby. I really didn’t want be left with 6 Tibetans and a yak in the middle of nowhere in my current state. The Tibetan’s were too kindheartedly concerned, when I’d walk they’d always be grabbing and trying to hold me upright, which didn’t help. While we were crossing some ice, I went across this one fin of ice and all of a sudden out of nowhere the Tibetan’s started jumping at me flying by trying to grab my arms to steady me but as they slipped and slide on the ice they were pulling me in 2 or 3 directions. I finally had to ask them to just stop “helping”!

As I walked the last mile or so into Base Camp I was finally feeling an improvement in my condition, the 4000ft drop was helping a ton. Soon a car from the CTMA (Chinese Tibetan Mountaineering Association) showed up, they said they were there to take me to the hospital which later I’d find out was just the airport… As in they were taking me to the hospital which was anywhere but there in Tibet.

Then I was in Kathmandu, it was the 28th of May, and the ordeal was pretty much over, I still had a bad cough but the fluid was nearly gone from my lungs. At 4000ft Kathmandu was where I started making big strides in my condition. On the 3rd of June I flew back to California.

After speaking with a specialist stateside the consensus is that I had a virus in my system during the summit push that combined with some light asthma on the 22nd may have been the perfect shit storm of circumstances to cause a pretty fierce case of HAPE. Though obviously it could have just been brought on by sleeping at 27,000ft and being there for nearly 20 hours. I suppose I won’t know until I retry Everest. I feel the need to go back, but it also worries me. I don’t ever want to experience that again. I don’t ever want to have to fight to survive like that again…

If/When I do go back I will have to make changes to my program, solo / nO’s is only “cool” if you pull it off. What happened to me up there was very much un-fucking-cool. These changes are also out of respect for the efforts of everyone who assisted me. Emergency oxygen cache is an obvious change. It’ll require double carries, which is why I haven’t done it before. A cache at Camp 2 along with carrying a bottle on the summit push. I likely won’t take this precaution on lower 8000m peaks – but Everest isn’t at all like other 8000m peaks. Everest without O’s and without personal Sherpa carrying your things and making camps is sorta crazy. It’s like summiting a normal 8000m peak but carrying a full load to the top, making camp, and then summiting another 8000m after just a few hours of rest… it’s a crazy endurance feat combined with the most insidiously dangerous place in the world.

And now that I’m back in California, I’ve been told to lay low until the end of the month. After which I look forward to a summer spent in my home range of the Sierra Nevada, I’ll be guiding with Sierra Mountaineering International and focusing on getting back into fighting shape. I’ve also been given the green light to return to the Himalaya – and while it makes me nervous because I don’t really want to ever experience HAPE’ing out again – you know what they say, when a horse bucks you off the thing to do is get back on. After being turned back by the earthquake on Annapurna last spring and then this incident on Everest, I would be lying if I said I don’t feel the need for some redemption.

Thank you all for the kind words and encouragement posted to this blog during the expedition and I really appreciate that folks follow along!

  • Alex

4 responses to “Everest Northside – The Run Down

  1. Glad you’re doing better. No effort is wasted – you learn as much from every failure as you do every success, possibly more…

  2. Kick-ass job surviving…seriously. And thanks for writing it up and posting it, and for doing so while it was fresh enough to be real.

  3. Glad you made it out of there! Hopefully some lessons learned that other climbers can take on board. Hope you make it back to the Himalaya, if that’s what you want. Heaven on Earth, in more ways than one.

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