Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Tears on Everest: the decision to turn back

Here's (maybe) the last dispatch from Colorado Springs climber David Lien on his aborted climb of Mt. Everest. He's done a bit of soul searching on what summits mean. Read on....

Hi All,

As I stated in one of my last updates, the run-up to my summit attempt actually started in Xegar, where a group of us went for a couple days of rest and relaxation, and where I was hoping to recover from my cold. Just about everyone on an Everest expedition likely gets a cold, sore throat, or sick from local food or other regional bugs during their time on the mountain. Some get sick early in the expedition, some late, but all of these ailments are magnified by altitude and the extremely dry and cold mountain air.

It was my turn, for a nasty cold, the week before we departed Base Camp for our summit attempt. Although it had just about run its course by the time we left BC for IBC, ABC, and Camps higher up on Everest, one night of particularly severe coughing caused what felt like a rib or two coming loose and resulted in some ongoing and severe pain whenever I coughed, laughed or slept in the wrong position, or tried to rely on the muscles on that side of my body to do anything.

At that point, I basically thought my Everest expedition was over, but decided to press on with the summit push and hope my coughing would subside and the pain in my ribs would not get any worse. Even though any coughing at this point generally had me close to doubled over, clutching my side in pain, I had come too far to let a cough, no matter how nasty, stop me from at least trying.

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny
matters compared to what lies within us."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the way from ABC (21,000 ft.) up the North Col. to Camp 4 (23,000 ft.) on 18 May, I moved a bit faster than my previous two North Col. climbs, but also felt more fatigued from the effort. The wear and tear of being on the mountain and sickness were beginning to affect me. That night at Camp 4 on the Col., we all tried out our oxygen systems and slept for several hours on a low oxygen flow, which made sleeping easier. The next morning we prepared to move up to Camp 5 (25,200 ft.).

The route from Camp 4 to Camp 5 is fairy straight forward and follows the snow-covered north ridge of Everest up to its rocky and wind-scoured upper slopes, but it's an exposed route. Strong winds whipped us the entire 5-6 hours we were on the ridge, making stops for drinking, eating, or going to the bathroom all but impossible. And although I started near the head of our group, by the time we arrived in Camp I was one of the last. I felt my strength ebbing, and was having problems with my oxygen system.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had covered some of the steepest sections of the days climb without oxygen due to my regulator somehow coming partway unscrewed. The previous night I had also found that the regulator's air flow adjustor was inaccurate, so I was having to experiment as I climbed to determine how much oxygen I was getting. Needless to say, I arrived at Camp 5 exhausted.

"What makes Everest so dangerous is not the steepness of its flanks, nor the sheer masses of rock and ice that can break off without warning; what is far worse is the reduced air pressure in its upper regions," Reinhold Messner wrote in Climbing magazine. "This saps your judgment and strength, even your ability to feel anything at all. That's what makes you so vulnerable and afraid up there."

As did everyone, I slept on oxygen part of the night at Camp 5, but felt good even without it, and spent most of my waking hours pondering my prospects for continuing up the mountain and possibly reaching the summit. It was clear that I didn't have the energy levels I had expected to at this point in the climb, and that my extended cold and aching side has sapped some of my strength, but I had come so far and was now only a 5-hour climb away from Camp 6 (27,200 ft.), then a 10-hour (one way, give or take) summit push from the top.

The year of planning, months of physical preparation, weeks of acclimatization hikes and climbs up and down the Rongbuk Glacier and Mt. Everest covering some 115 miles, all of it had brought me up to this high altitude, now seemingly only a stone's throw away from the summit. I knew I could continue higher, and maybe even reach the summit, but I also knew I wouldn't have the energy to make it down.

"Getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory."
-Ed Viesturs

Many climbers face this test on Mt. Everest. Some are willing to take a chance, after coming so far they're willing to throw caution and common sense to the winds in an all-out effort to reach the top, but Everest preys mercilessly on those with this mentality. Indeed, there were already seven fresh corpses on her upper slopes (just on the north side) this year. I was on the fence, torn between my desire to carry-thru to the summit and common sense. In my opinion, mountaineering is 65% common sense, 25% experience, and 10% luck. If I didn't use common sense here, experience and luck likely wouldn't save me.

That morning I made my final decision: I was going down. After putting on my down suit, Millet mountaineering boots, crampons and climbing harness, then stepping outside and donning my oxygen mask, I walked over to my Nepalese guide, Pemba Sherpa, and told him my decision. He was bewildered, prepared for us to go up, not down. He pointed to Everest and said, "right there."

During 2002 I had been on the south side of Mt. Everest in Nepal climbing Island Peak (20,200 ft.) my first big, high altitude mountain climb and had reached the base of the summit ridge (about 19,400 ft.), also exhausted. I told my Sherpa guide I was going down. He said the same thing this guide had: "right there." Seven climbers this year had also thought the summit was "right there." Now they are dead. I have far more to live for than that.

My decision was final in both of these instances, and the guides did their jobs and followed me down, and I lived to climb another day. The other climbers in our group were standing outside of their tents, preparing to move up to Camp 6. Completely covered from head to toe in insulating gore-tex and down suits, faces covered by sunglasses, goggles, and masks, supported by oxygen tanks carried in backpacks, we looked like a motley crew of second class spacemen.

I started down the slope, and my friends started to move up. As I approached each of them, I said "I'm going down." There was no reason to explain, and none was expected. They all knew that a decision to go down at this point was far harder to make than a decision to continue. We shook hands, exchanged well wishes, and went our separate ways.

When I approached my roommate/tentmate for much of the expedition, Kirk, he (like the others) was surprised that I was turning around. However, the two simple words that he uttered, said in the most consoling manner possible, spoke volumes: "Tough decision." Tears came to my eyes and I was thankful to be hidden behind my oxygen mask, goggles, and glacier goggles, but Kirk and all the others would have understood, and felt the same way.

I was doing the right thing, the only thing I could reasonably do under the circumstances. Climbing Everest had never been a dream of mine anyway. I just sort of stumbled towards her over the years as I set my sights on higher and more challenging peaks after each successful climb. However, now that I was here, I had to remind myself that summits are just the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. They taste good, but don't fill you up like the journey.

It's the entire journey and the challenges you face along the way that mean the most. Without them, getting to the summit would be mostly meaningless, like taking an escalator to the top of Mt. Everest. Tom Koshiol: "Our experiences accumulate and make us who we are. We are constantly becoming the sum-total of all the events in our lives and, in my view, any time spent in the wilderness [and mountains] makes a nice addition to that total."

And so, it would now seem that I have nearly run the course of this adventure, but many more await. Although I will probably not return to Mt. Everest, the world is a big place with many natural wonders to see and explore. In the words of Mark Twain, twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. Now, I hope you will follow Mark's advice, if you aren't already, and create many incredible adventures of you own.

I am also glad and extremely honored that you have taken time out of your busy lives to follow me on this adventure, and want to thank all of you for the multitude of well wishes and encouraging words you have provided over the last couple months.
Please keep in touch.

Thank you all, take care, and best wishes,



Anonymous said...

Dave, I'm curious how you came to quote me in this article. I thought it was pretty cool.
Tom Koshiol

Anonymous said...


That came from an aticle in The Boundary Waters Journal...I'm from Grand Rapids, MN, originally. Good one by the way.