Perhaps one of the closest of the close of losing out on my nine lives…
The skis went into their ski bags, in the height of summer, in Colorado. And they came off the yak and out of their ski bags in the height of the monsoon, in Tibet. The skis were orange and aptly, or at least nearly correctly, named ‘Nepal’.
With alpine touring bindings and thick purple skins, they went on at 5,800 metres (19,024 feet), and slithered us uphill, sliding up through the soft snow, over the glacial ice, suspending us over the crevasses and leading us up to our Camp 1 at 6500 metres (21,320 feet). The quiet, the swish, the gentle clank of binding and boot, and then, looking up, the 2,000 metres (6,560 feet) of the North Face of Everest.
Other mountains you look up, and then maybe a bit higher. The Himalayas you look up, and then up, and then a long way further and if you are lucky, you see the top sitting out up there in a world where there really should only be clouds. As a climber, you dream of being up there, of crampons biting and ice axe swinging and striding up the ridge to the top of the world. But in the meantime, there is this quiet, swishing, ice- crystal-embodied ski slope.
Mike Bearzi, Mike Duncan, Paul Teare and I had set out at dawn, weaving and gliding upwards, into the realm of Everest’s North Face. No one else had yet arrived that season; we owned the mountain, or as we were soon to find out, the mountain, or at the very least, the monsoon, owned us. The monsoon, while having more snow, tended to fade towards the end of summer, but it was warmer and less icy than the spring season, and not as cold and windy as the autumn season.
The key was to arrive in the summer and the snow, the let the snow fade away. Then before the winds really picked up, find a short window and climb fast to the summit. As we weren’t fixing ropes, placing high camps or had any Sherpa with us to help out with the loads, the normal month of preparation on the mountain wasn’t necessary.
All we were ever looking for was a few good days when the snow stopped falling, the surface hardened up and the sun came out. It wasn’t too much to ask for really.
This was the same route up to the base of the North Face I’d pioneered on my solo attempt two years previously. I felt it was a gateway to the heights that no other route had. Skiing up to 6,500 metres (21,320 feet) on Everest. Who would have dreamed of that?
And when it snowed, which the monsoon never lacked, the ski down could be the best run in the world.
True, there were some big crevasses to avoid. You didn’t want to fall. We skied in mountaineering double boots with little control. We always carried big packs. All that could be overcome, though, and after a few turns, gaining speed, the rhythm and sense of floating down from the heights of Everest was sublime.
If the snow was right and you got the turns working, it was the best ski, with the best backdrop, in the world.
A thousand metres (3,280 feet) of vertical that we could spin out in 20 minutes if all went well. That it took us five hours or more to come up made it even more rewarding. We had been up once before and carefully placed the camp well back from Everest, with an immense crevasse between us and the face. Paul and I knew well the power of the avalanches that came from the mountain, having been together on the Super Couloir. At times, avalanches released from just under the Northeast Ridge and swept the whole face — we wanted nothing to do with that.
We were camped 200 metres below where I’d had my solo camp and the route was the one I’d previously worked out that took advantage of the glacial terrace, but instead of then veering out left up the Anderson Couloir and onto the North Ridge, it cut across to the right and joined the Great Couloir in its upper reaches where it necked down and then shot straight up for the summit.
It was the upper section of White Limbo the Australians had done; it touched on the final section Messner had soloed in 1980. It was also where Marty Hoey had tragically fallen from on one of Dick Bass’s early attempts on the mountain. It was laden with portent and potential. It was a natural route, taking advantage of the high glacier, then a long sweeping slope that led up into the couloir. It was elegant, simple and a naturally direct route to the top of the world.
At our camp Mike Bearzi and I had our tiny solo tents, while Paul Teare and Mike Duncan shared a two-man mountain tent. We pitched them in a crescent with just a few metres between us. And we were well back from the 10-metre-wide, acre-deep crevasse between us and the North Face.
It was a sunny and warm evening, the sun curving around the West Ridge, Pumori and then Cho Oyu tipped the last of the sun off into Tibet. By that time we were deep in our sleeping bags, while all remaining traces of heat escaped the earth in a quick rush back into the heavens. At the tail end of the monsoon it was still warm for Everest, but breath crystals soon coated the tent and reminded me where we were.
What are billed as solo tents really aren’t big enough for even one climber in the Himalayas. The roof is close to your face, the sides squeeze you, the head and tail are right at your head and tail. In the dark they shut out all starlight and are pitch-black. We had a full moon and while outside the slopes were radiant with light, inside it was a dark hole. With the lack of oxygen, a sense of claustrophobia was never far away. The best thing to do was sleep, but exhaustion precluded that. It was more of a collapse, the balaclava wrapped around the ears, the legs wrapped up in long underwear, jostling for space with the inner boots so they wouldn’t freeze. The water bottles were always in the way when turning over; they started hot and cooled quickly. Then I dozed.
I woke to the patter of snowflakes, always sounding louder on the tent. I thought I’d go back to sleep and probably did. Then I woke again with the swish as the snow built up and swept off the tent. When it cleared another wave of snow could be heard, increasing, pelting down. Monsoonal snows are the heaviest, moisture laden, frozen up high, and were dropping like little bricks on our tents. I called out, but there was only silence. I imagined everyone else sleeping soundly.
It snowed increasingly hard for two hours. Then the avalanches started. First the rush and the crash and the rumble, sliding off the steeper slopes of Changtse, the North Peak of Everest, just across from us. But we were uphill of the main slopes on Changtse and across the glacier, those certainly couldn’t reach us, could they?
Then the slides became louder, and thus bigger, starting with a deep rumble and increasing until they sounded like a train. How could that much snow be so noisy? But there were no blasts on the tent, no shaking of the poles. Just incessant snow, pelting down. How much could it snow? How long would it last?
Still pitch-black in the tent. In the basin, in the dark, we were effectively trapped, surrounded on three sides by mountain cliffs covered with more and more snow building up by the minute.
As much as I wanted to believe in our huge crevasse between us and Everest, in our distance from Changtse, the snow building up around my tent and the avalanches increasing in sound and length were getting more and more frightening. But what to do? I looked out of the tent at a wall of white, and my headlamp only revealed my rapidly shrinking tent. I pounded the snow back off the tent walls from the inside, beating it out so it wouldn’t collapse.
The North Face of Everest rose over 2,000 metres (6,560 feet) directly out the back door of the tent. The 10-metre wide, 100-metre deep crevasse just behind the tent and a kilometre of flat ground should have swallowed the avalanche. But, in the end, there was nothing to stop two
square kilometres of snow nearly a metre deep when it decided to fall straight down the face.
A tent is a tomb when it is buried.
The frozen nylon curled around my face and the snow packed around my body, enclosing it like shrink- wrapped meat. From a half-dead sleep, I felt the snow smash into the tent, throwing me about with a terrifying violence.
There was nothing to do but bash the walls out to save a breath of air, while I felt blindly for headlamp and glasses in the total darkness. Hunched crab-like, I scuttled to the far end of the tent and ripped through the top of the door. It was snowing heavily, completely silent. The white was a wall. But I wasn’t buried, I could see snow falling and I was, even then, surprised I still had a life.
One of the tents was still to my right, still intact, 2 metres away. But to my left, nothing. A clear swathe marked where it had been. My sleep-filled mind stared at the place, willing the tent to appear. Paul Teare and Mike Duncan had been in there, somewhere. The other tent held Mike Bearzi, who now poked his head out. One tent had disappeared, my tent was half gone and Bearzi’s was fine. Voices like whispers called through the blizzard. Mike and Paul were there, just buried, sounding like gremlins muttering from under the snow.
In my tent everything was chaos, thrown about and half buried in the folds. Outside, the occasional roar of avalanches still echoed through the dark. One avalanche didn’t ensure there wouldn’t be more, not with this amount of snow falling. Our camp was in a basin surrounded by mountains. The more it snowed the more of a deathtrap the camp became.
My brain was fuzzy. What to do, what to do?
I couldn’t decide whether to dress for the blizzard or get out immediately and dig Paul and Mike out. While I laced my boots, they could well be suffocating. Throwing on my boots, wind trousers and down jacket, I stepped out into the storm. It was snowing so hard my headlamp barely penetrated, the snowflakes reflecting the beam back into my face. The snow was thigh deep, piled high in furrows by the avalanche, alternating drifts of soft snow with hard-packed avalanche debris and ice chunks. out. Only a small patch of fabric poking from the surface marked Paul and Mike’s tent. When the avalanche hit, they’d made a tiny space, their faces smashed together just under the roof. They needed air.
“Sit back, sit back,’ I yelled into the storm.
I could see their faces outlined against the fabric in my headlamp. I didn’t want to stab them. They were pretty much squashed so tightly in place that ‘sit back’ was a redundant request. They weren’t really able to move at all.
The first stab of the ski pole tore the tent fly open. The second ripped through the inner tent. Snow poured in. Paul and Mike’s eyes were big and they gulped air through the hole. Gratitude echoed from their tiny cave. Snow enveloped them to their shoulders, the tent crushed tight against them, holding them tight and immovable in place.
I realised that if the avalanche had been 1 per cent bigger or gone 1 per cent further we all would have been dead.
If they had been pushed down the slope, they would have been impossible to find. Too much luck to even contemplate had held us here. This was one life, but it also held four people. Did that count for four? I hoped not, as lives right now were running thin.
The swathe of the avalanche was a twisted river of ice chunks and snow that had obliterated all before it. Mike Bearzi crawled out of his tent and we dug for an hour to free the others, the snow packed hard, already freezing back in place around them. The tent was gone once they were extracted, squashed and buried. We pulled what we could from it, like pulling gear from a coffin. Camp had now shrunk to half my tent and Bearzi’s tent.
We huddled, drinking lukewarm tea from a thermos. It was still snowing, still intensely white in the darkness. At 6 a.m. a very feeble grey dawn broke through the storm. At 7 a.m. a larger than usual gunshot crack signalled another avalanche release. The roar that followed sounded like a thousand freight trains. A kilometre away and above us, the ice wall of Changtse, Everest’s North Peak, dropped from the sky. It was so far up and so far away it seemed improbable it would hit us.
At first it was just a noise filling the sky and echoing around. Bearzi, standing outside his tent, monitored it like a sports announcer.
‘Sounds okay so far, hard to tell. It’s still coming, you’d better get ready. Oh no, it is definitely gonna get us,” he said, his voice rising in alarm.
The avalanche crashed through the clouds and came into sight in a trough below camp, then headed uphill towards us, a wave of air blasting snow into a cloud 100 metres high. Fearing burial, I dived out the tent door. A chunk of ice the size of a bowling ball flew past my head like a comet and buried itself in the glacier with a thud. I dived back inside my tent.
The wave of air blasted through camp and the tongue of the avalanche took out the side of Bearzi’s tent, flattening it like a burst balloon. We all stood stunned. Second avalanche, all still here, all still alive. But the options weren’t good. No, worse than not good. Terrible. Were there even options?
Mike Duncan clarified our thoughts with, ‘I don’t care what we do, but I’d like to get out of here alive.’ As with Ed Webster on the Kangshung Face when he’d said, “Get moving, get out of here, or die,” this statement of Mike’s made our choices suddenly very clear.
Bearzi, Paul and I had been struggling with an overload of avalanche thinking and mountain experience. Common knowledge says that the worst avalanche danger is during and just after a storm. Normally, staying in place would make sense. And we were trapped above the gauntlet of Changtse, which ran with avalanches all the time. Our only way out of the basin was straight down the ramp set immediately below that face.
But all the rules had been broken. Camping out at over 6,000 metres, non-stop snow for the past six hours dumping out of the monsoonal clouds. Now we had gotten hit from two completely different directions. And it was still snowing. If we hung around another avalanche would soon come. Better to run the gauntlet out of here. Better to be moving, to be doing something than to be sitting ducks. Escape really was the best option if we wanted to not be buried alive.
A curious half-dawn existed, snow still dropping so thick it felt heavy in the air, like a torrential downpour. We grabbed what we could from the tents, filled our packs and strapped into our skis. It felt better, snow and skis, now we could move. Sliding downhill was the only indication there was a slope. Ice chunks the size of cars were only recognisable when I smashed into them. The roaring continued and avalanches disappeared into crevasses hidden in the storm. Looking back just after I left camp, the only distinguishable features were three ghostly figures following my tracks, abominable snowmen emerging from the cloud.
We skied over and under the slope of Changtse. Just don’t fall, don’t slide into a crevasse, don’t tip over with the pack weight. Just go down.
Bearzi caught up, the light improving, the snow starting to fade, and he carved a few telemark turns, showing the way ahead. I suspected he was starting to have fun. I followed along behind and Paul took up the rear, skiing alongside Mike. The slopes of Changtse soon faded and we weaved off into the basin below the North Face. The crevasses were big here, the skiway led left, then hard right and back again, following our infrequent wands.
The light broke out below, we dropped in under Everest’s North Face and stopped. Above, the clouds were still thick, snow falling. Around us the light lifted, sifted up from the glacier below. We skied down through the breaking clouds, appearing on the glacier far below like angels, floating back into life with a laugh and long swooping turns.
Advanced Base Camp had Passang in the kitchen, music, lawn chairs, alpine grass, a small lake for a morning bath, blue sheep and a small flock of fat birds wandering from tent to tent pecking stones. Every night, fifteen minutes of international news via Radio Nepal told of floods and ‘the worst monsoon in 100 years’. The summer climbing season was nearly over. With the storms sweeping through camp with frightening irregularity, Mike Duncan hopped on a lone jeep and headed out overthe pass and back to work. His words had pushed us into the decision we needed to escape the avalanche. The weather wasn’t exactly getting any better, so a retreat did make good sense at this point.
Nonetheless, Himalayan climbers are nothing if not persistent and we were soon joined by Ed Viesturs, also looking for solo opportunities on the North Face. Now we had new company and whiled away the time together around the lake and through the long evenings. Ed was sponsored by Ralph Lauren and their Polo range of gear, so he brightened up our photo shoots and was a very welcome addition to our small cadre of climbers living the light and fast dreams of Everest. I shared all I knew of the route and our history: perhaps he could break through the snowy slopes and get up onto the heights? With his multiple ascents of Everest already behind him, he was one of the few that could actually attempt a real solo in this off-season with any degree of credibility, and we shared all we knew of routes and conditions on the hill. Maybe we weren’t crazy? Ed was here, certainly one of the most talented and accomplished high-altitude climbers in the world.
The weather had no pattern, though, just washes of snow and wind with never more than a day of sunshine. There was just enough sun to raise hopes, inspire us to load up our packs and do a seven-hour, 1000-metre vertical climb back up the glacier, then spend a fear-filled night in our relocated high camp, with perhaps a quick foray out on the North Face to check the slopes, then a powder ski run back down the hill, dodging new avalanche tracks and snow-snakes as the weather closed in again. Ed placed his camp alongside ours, if not even a bit further out on the glacier, our avalanche stories less than comforting in the retelling.
By 10 September I’d given up. The permit was up in five days, and our yaks were scheduled for departure. We had only to clear camp at the base of the North Face. There would be no more of the interminable waiting, the hopes when the sun came out, the depression and fears when it snowed all night and we thought we were lucky not to die. If nothing else, two months waiting in a tent would end. Not successfully, not happily. But it would end and the privations of our 5500-metre (18,040-foot) life in a tent in Tibet would at last be over.
The next day dawned clear, perfectly clear. Our 2 a.m. start for high camp had become more bearable with practice, just part of what needed to be done. We packed enough for the day, and I threw in an extra bag of dried potatoes and a bar of cheese, just in case the weather held. Frustration had settled so deep and hopes dashed so many times that climbing Everest had faded back into my dreams. Paul and Bearzi skied up with me to clear equipment from the camp; they were done. They packed and skied off down the mountain.
What hopes did I have? I wasn’t really sure, but I like climbing high on Everest, I liked climbing up there alone. And maybe, just maybe, this was it?
My one shred of desire allowed a last night up high, alone on the mountain. One day the 100-year monsoon had to clear out and after two months of waiting, I could only hope this would be it. If the weather held for the night, I could at least make a final attempt. The nightmares of my earlier solo, of the ghosts wandering around the camp and the privations of altitude had all been battled into their corners. My lonely dinner was staged to keep busy, keep demons and gremlins at bay, going from soup and potatoes to tea and to sleep, before the ghosts could get me.
Three in the morning, 6,500 metres (21,320 feet), a million stars overhead, no snow, no clouds, one final chance to climb alone to the top of the world. The stove sputtered to life; I sputtered to life. It was a kilometre and 200 vertical metres up to the base of the North Face on my skis. There wasn’t a cloud in sight or a person in sight. Soloing Everest was the loneliest job in the world. But for once the avalanches were quiet.
Trading skis for crampons, the crispness, the exact connection to the earth began, points of steel into the ice, into the mountain. The face isn’t steep enough to trouble a modern climber, nor gentle enough to let you off easily if you fall. Most soloists either fail so low they never get high enough to fall off or they get so high they can’t get down and so perish in the heights.
The weather remained deceptively beautiful, but the month of snow had left the face a sloppy morass. If it was one type of snow, I could have a rhythm to my climbing. But the snow varied from hip-deep sugar to calf-deep crust.
Halfway up the immense slope is a huge rock that towers 10 metres out of the snow. It is the only rock in 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) of climbing, the only waypoint. So the whole first half of the journey I look up at it. It is a huge black shard of rock that we had named the Tombstone after its distinctive shape. To reach it, there are lots of steps and lots of snow. A little closer, and a little closer. The Tombstone is also the only break in an interminably physically difficult climb. Not hard climbing, just long climbing, step after step after step. Not really steep, but if you slipped, if you messed up any of those thousands of footsteps, you would certainly fall all the way to the bottom. Other climbers had proved that.
After the Tombstone, I focused on the corner, the rock corner that forms the start of the Great Couloir. It has a small furrowed-out, wind-honed ledge at its base, a little less than a metre wide and two long. It is conveniently tent sized. Most important, it is sheltered from avalanches and is a haven, a home in a very large expanse of steep ground. We had been up the face a few weeks before and left a tent and it had snowed and we had gone down again.
By 2 p.m. I’d reached 7600 metres (24,928 feet). The tiny tent dug in under the lip of the Great Couloir was very welcome for the night. A miniature stove, and a single canister of fuel provided warmth. The snow was airy and it took cup after cup dished into the pot from outside the door to get a litre of water hot and make dinner: chicken noodle soup from a packet and dried potatoes. I was hungry, a good sign as it also meant I was acclimatised. I was alone but not lonely; I really liked being up this high, in this amazing camp, perched on the side of Everest all alone.
The weather was perfect, sunny, almost warm. The glaciers laid themselves out and spiralled longitudinally out through the Tibetan hills and further out to the plateau. I knew Tingri was out there, and even further out the monastery at Xegar, where I had stood and imagined myself up here on Everest.
It was important to enjoy getting where I had wanted to be for so long. So I enjoyed dinner, and I ate crackers and cheese for dessert. The sun burned low across the plateau, a blazing orange orb that sunk and then the world turned pink and then purple and finally towards darkness in the valleys. Then the ridges caught the sun and then it all flared out and the world went to sleep below me. It was pure magic.
Tossing, turning, a bit of sleeping. Check the watch. Oh, 8.30 p.m. More of the same, must be midnight? Check the watch: 9.15 p.m. Eventually dozing, sleeping and then the ‘oh no, time to wake up now’ feeling. Which can happen any time after midnight. I lasted until 3 a.m., the warmth of the day having long gone away and the cold freezing the stove in place on the floor. It sputtered, it didn’t like the altitude and the lack of oxygen. I zipped down the door and the air rushed in and both the stove and I felt better. Weak coffee, small pack of porridge, then a battle with the boots. Sitting up compressed the stomach and there was no backrest. Reaching all the way down over the down suit was painful. The boot laces were too thin, the gaiters too small to zip, the technology that would keep our feet safe and warm a decade later not yet developed.
I put the crampons on sitting in the alcove to the tent. I needed to be fully armoured up to face the world. I took up my ice axe. It was the moment, the moment to set out for the top of the world.
I was very small. The Great Couloir was great. Moving up it was slow.
From below it is one of the most distinctive features on the North Face, a natural and beautiful way to climb straight up through the rock bands, all on the snow, to high on the face. The angle only gently increases as you go higher. I pulled out my second tool, a short, light ice hammer, but only to keep my pacing and keep moving in the deeper snow sections. I kept hoping for harder snow, but the snow was furrowed with avalanche troughs filled in with more snow. There was never a place to really get moving. It was just up and up, as the couloir became narrower and narrower.
I could see where Messner had moved off to the right and ascended a steep face, so I knew that was a possibility. The Australians had followed a similar route, but they had also had a rope to rappel. I didn’t like the look of the down-sloping rocks, the short snow gully that ran out on shelves of rock in the Yellow Band. And I had no rope to rappel if I got up and didn’t like downclimbing. This wasn’t easy climbing; this was steep and real climbing and it would be easy to fall off. It scared me. So I just kept going up while inside the couloir, towards the abrupt end at the Yellow Band where it cut across the couloir.
I knew from a few previous expeditions that they had climbed up here and pounded pitons and fixed ropes and done those big expedition things. But somebody had to still lead it first and while it looked steeper than the Messner route, the ledges and holds looked more incut. The cliff above looked short and steep but didn’t last long and the snow started again. Maybe? The thought of real climbing, of mixed climbing over the rock with my gloves on, both terrified and excited me.
I stepped off the snow onto the rock. There were tiny ledges, and they were straight in, not sloping. And there was a rope. A rope. In the immensity of this face suddenly there was a thin, frayed rope. It was so thin and threadbare it barely deserved the name. I didn’t have a harness or any gear, but as much as the rope looked from another decade, it showed someone had climbed here before. It was tied directly through a piton 5 metres above and I knew if I really had to, at least I could use it to help me down. I climbed up a short vertical section, stemmed right. The angle lessened, my gloves came off to grab a thin ledge and I moved up again.
I looked down between my feet and realised I would well and truly fall off and die if I didn’t get this right. ‘I’m a rock climber,’ I reminded myself. ‘Forget all this snow stuff you have done, rock is what you are at home on, rock it what you are good at. Just climb.’ I didn’t think about the 8300 metres (27,224 feet) of elevation, that the rock zone and the death zone were as one this high.
I kept stepping up, reached a piton, stepped right again, pushed my feet down and the snow was above and the ice axe came back out of its holster and two more shaky, why isn’t the snow any good, steps, and then I could sink the pick in and pull up and get out of the Yellow Band and back onto the snow and the upper slopes of Everest were mine. I’d forgotten I was at altitude. I crouched on the snow and the relief of getting up only let my body take over from my mind and the excitement it had in the climbing.
I’d forced my body too far and nausea swept over me. My stomach cramped and I threw up, retching bile into the snow. The pain became ugly and my legs cramped from crouching down and my fingers, slowly warming up from being back in my gloves, burned with pain. My arms were so devoid of oxygen and they were wooden, dangling down. My brain was sending out dull thuds and I was gasping and wheezing to get the air I needed. My triumph over the Yellow Band had disappeared, even as I realised the final challenging barrier between me and the summit was now below me. Just keep climbing.
I’d hoped the snow higher up would be harder, wind blown, the ever dreamed of ‘névé’, where the crampon points would go in crisply, right to the hilt, and no further. Where the sound of your feet was a slicing of all the points into a secure platform, and no more. My head was dreaming and my feet were sunk into a reality of sugar snow, disappearing into airy, light ice crystals, hitting a rock, or just stopping once the crystals compacted. I continued up the Great Couloir; now looking left the view was out onto the Northeast Ridge, the Second Step was just off to the side of me. This is where Edward Norton had climbed across into the couloir. Where Mallory and Irvine had traversed across above me. I knew I had to break out right, to get out of the upper couloir and up into the Grey Band. The climbing shouldn’t be hard, more interesting, less snow.
When I moved to escape the couloir, the snow just got deeper; it had drifted in from the west and settled along the outer edge of the couloir. At times I was wading, almost swimming, uphill. My feet had been buried in the snow all day; they were numb. I needed another day, more time, a partner to break trail with me. I’d done the hardest part, was the second person to solo up through the Yellow Band on the North Face, and now, why now, did it have to start getting dark again?
I had climbed for two days straight, and I hadn’t really slept. I knew I couldn’t do another night. My watch read exactly 8410 metres. I stood there, snow up to my thighs, Yellow Band below, Grey Band above. All the history of Everest’s North Ridge was laid out on my left. The summit I could feel above me. I remembered what Jean Triollet had said when I met him in Beijing immediately after his own two-day ascent with Erhard Loretan of the Super Couloir.
“At the top we were going so slow, doing only 50 vertical metres an hour. You just have to keep going,” he said. “No matter how slow it feels, just keep going.”
At 50 metres an hour I was eight hours off the top, and I had no partner to help me break trail. And it was 5 p.m. It was the most reluctant turnaround I would ever do, but I had to go down. I still stood there. The sun started to fall into the horizon. I was in the shade at the top of the couloir. I just had to go down.
Now all I had to do was climb quickly down, back down the North Face, in the dark, and back to my camp. I turned and started, quickly reaching the top of the Yellow Band. It was still light; I could still see.
The Yellow Band disappeared below my feet, looking twice as steep and much bigger than on the way up. I edged down and out onto the rock, front points moving off the snow, back onto the rock ledges, the lack of holds at the top making it an act of tiptoeing in balance on the front points. I reached the top piton and the frayed, pale rope. It was knotted directly through the piton and dangled down over the cliff. I didn’t even want to think how old it was. I wrapped the rope around my arms in a rapid rappel technique better suited to sea-level cliffs or a hop off a short boulder when you want to get down quickly. It was quick, it was easy, it was exceedingly dangerous. The rope slid out through my mittens; my crampons scraped down the rock. My arms were wrenched and legs shaking. Looking down made it all appear so much further. I stepped onto and slid the last vertical section into the snow, shivering, huddled again in a ball on the steep slope. It was a terrible thing to have to push the body this far just to stay alive. I was retching and shivering and whimpering.
The first hallucinations started then; I felt them coming. Unlike being on the Kangshung Face where they crept up unannounced, my mind was familiar with them now. Then they all came sweeping in, almost welcomed, as Paul Teare and Mike Bearzi and Mike Duncan rejoined me on the slope, having materialised to climb down with me and help me out. Then there was a short woman who I never quite saw who wanted me to go left. I knew I shouldn’t go left, but she was insistent. I wanted her to go away.
I had never dropped a mitten climbing, but now I did, the mitten sliding away, accelerating, disappearing into the gathering gloom. It didn’t feel like me that dropped it, though, as my left and right hand were getting confused and even though I just had one mitten, it fitted on to both hands. I had a thin glove; it was enough. I stopped to warm my hands up and night settled in, the sun finally dying, the dark coming up from below, the light fading off the face.
Somewhere I had a headlamp, but it was all just white and going down and I was so used to the slope, to my ice axe, that falling was out of the question. I was a climber and climbers don’t fall. I’d expected to follow my steps down, but they seemed to have disappeared, already blown away or obscured in the dark. Somewhere down there should be camp, but the couloir seemed just too long, too far, too black. I’d bivouacked up high before, maybe I should just do it again. I’d be uncomfortable, but perhaps a rest would be good. I waded through more hallucinations, more climbers, more mountains, music now starting to play, not inside my head but all around. My left hand and right hand were still confused as to what the other was doing. But I didn’t trip, I didn’t even stumble, I just kept climbing down.
Dreams of the tent, a stove, a drink, a chance to warm my cold hands and frozen toes rose up like a mirage. But I couldn’t get there, I couldn’t see where it was and wandered off to the right, to the edge of the couloir, where the slope had little dished-out places, less steep. I dug a hole, a tiny half cave, a half-metre wide and a metre deep. It was enough. I took off my boots and put them carefully under my head and laid back, curled around my ice axe. My toes warmed up against my calves; I knew they were too
cold. I passed out often enough to call it sleep. Time goes away no matter where you are; it is just the speed of its passing which can sometimes be painful. Sometimes the only option is to be patient with time.
A bit of dozing. A bit of warming hands, a bit of warming toes. A glance at the watch, then not allowing myself to glance any more. A belief that the night was not going to end. Or that perhaps I was dying into an eternal night. But there was pain and pain kept me knowing there was life and, as always, luckily, the faintest, tiniest hint of grey in the east eventually, turning to yellow, turning to sun and a sense that life might, just might, really go on.
I put on my boots. They were extra cold now. The morning air spun around with spindrift avalanches and started filling my hole, snow sliding down from above in the morning’s wakening breezes. I took up my ice axe and continued my descent. My body was now telling me it would prefer to die, barely having the energy to shiver. When it did my body was wracked with spasms. My down suit was covered with ice crystals. It was still 1000 metres (3280 feet) of vertical down the interminable slope to the camp of too many avalanches. I’d come too far right to reach my high camp and just went straight down, down, down.
It was all a bit blurry, a bit painful, but as ever a bit more air helped.
I was down below the mysterious big black tombstone rock in the middle of the slope, not so far from the bottom now. And below me there was a person, a shape moving up the slope. Obviously, a hallucination. I kept going down and the shape got closer. A climber, like me, I wasn’t all alone after all. We came together on the immense slope.
“Hi Robert, how are you?” It was Ed Viesturs.
“Hi,” I guess I said. I was still trying to work out if I was hallucinating,
but he did seem quite real.
“Hi,’ I said again. ‘I’m okay, not too bad, I’ll get down,” I said hopefully.
“Did you summit?” Ed asked.
“No, the snow is deep, really deep up high. Worse than here.”
“I’d hoped you summited,’ said Ed. “I was coming up and thinking maybe I would meet you and help you down?”
Ed was always solicitous, an incredible climber, but with a guide’s feel for looking after people. In the midst of Everest, and feeling like death, it was a very welcome meeting.
“Well, the tent is up there if it is of any use,’ I said, and extolled on the wonderful, one of a kind mountain campsite.
“Oh — I’m just going for a look,” Ed said. I noticed his light pack.
“I’m just out for the day. It is pretty steep up here, though. I’ll probably see you back down at camp tonight,” Ed said.
And off we climbed, Ed headed up, me down and down and down. It was surreal. But now we both had a track to follow. I was grateful for that as I just had no power even to go down it seemed. I made it to my skis below the bergschrund and then proceeded to topple and slide down the hill to my camp, the camp of many avalanches, and collapse inside.
Ed came by a few hours later. He was up for camping out for another night and then would head down, our tents just 50 metres apart.
I had food, I had water again, I had noodles and crackers and cheese. I passed out that night, waking to darkness and dreams and a headache and drank the rest of my water and went back to sleep. In the morning, the tent burned with the sun and I woke up as tired and as wrecked as I had ever been. This was the avalanche camp, where we had come a few millimetres from dying under the snow. For now, it seemed fine, the monsoon had faded; maybe it had just been a bit early.
Oh no, I was having bad thoughts already, of what to do next, what I would change to get up the mountain. I could barely walk and yet I was working out next season’s plan. Did I have enough lives for this? This expedition had used up at least two up, with both the avalanche and now my solo. Everest was not treating me very kindly.
Ed came over, walking with his lone Sherpa Tendi.
“Heh Robert, how are you?” I had to admit I was as tired as I had ever been.
“Want us to take anything down for you?”
I hadn’t thought of that, was contemplating leaving it all and just getting myself out of there. I wrapped up my few essentials and handed them across with a “Many thanks Ed, see you in Base Camp.”
It was perhaps one of the kindest gestures ever offered between soloists on a very high mountain.
Then all I had to do was get up, and get my skis on, and ski. But I really couldn’t do that very well; it was impossible to make them turn as it required muscle and I had none of that left. With Ed’s boot track in, I took my skis off and dragged them bumping and clanking along behind me down to the lower slopes, where there was air, and I didn’t really need to turn, just point my skis downhill, stay upright and hold on.
Paul Teare and Mike Bearzi were in camp; they had seen me high on the face, late in the day, and then the darkness. They were happy to see me, and Ed had arrived a few hours early, dropped off my gear and updated them. I needed lots of tea. I needed dahl baht.
We needed to get out of there, as our permit was well and truly up and the Chinese were making unhappy rumbling noises from Base Camp.
At least I had finally had the climb I wanted, solo, if not to the top at least a climb, which is what I had started out to do. I’d gone back up alone and for two days had climbed towards the summit.
The top still awaited, but if what I was after was a good climb, a long climb, a climb alone on Everest, I’d had all that. I just didn’t reach the top.
I knew we had been lucky, escaping the avalanche by literally a micrometre of snow.
And returning from my solo perhaps as tired as a person could be and still get down. I was now in debt on my nine lives, two more gone on just this one expedition.
I was using up lives faster than expeditions it seemed, not the best plan for a high-altitude climber.