As most of you know, I summitted Mt. Everest a few minutes before 8:00 a.m. on May 19, 2011.
In our tents at Camp 4, we began preparations on May 18 at 8:00 p.m. and were on the move by 9:30 p.m. The available weather forecast indicated favorable weather.....yet the wind was blowing about 20-30 miles an hour with snow and spindrift activity....and probably -10 Degrees F. That being said, I was warm and snug inside my down summit suit and needed to begin venting off excess heat almost immediately after we began....I climb hot.
Based on random circumstance, I found myself climbing in second position directly behind our lead Sherpa. I had told Sherrie many times that so many people climb Mt. Everest that there is a well worn path through the snow up to the summit. That understanding proved to be inacurate. Our lead Sherpa was breaking trail through fresh snow that was somewhere between knee and waist deep....with me in second position....and my Summit Sherpa directly behind. In second position, it required intense concentration to find the footsteps created by the lead Sherpa....otherwise I felt like I was breaking trail myself (which wasn't true but I sure wasn't walking in established footprints)...which proved to an incredible energy drain. This was especially true because I was fighting my oxygen mask all day....the direct result being that my goggles would fog up from escaping vapors...which meant I could not see well, if at all. Eventually I was forced to take off my goggles to ensure that I could find the recently minted footsteps of our lead Sherpa. This proved to be an essential part of my successful summit...being able to see clearly reduced my energy expenditure down to where it should have been to been to begin with....and I was able to hide my head inside my hood to protect it from the wind and blowing snow.
A SIDE THOUGHT: Two years ago, a friend of my attempted Mt. Everest and experienced intense wind and associated spindrift that over time irritated his eyes to the point that he suffered temporary blindness at the South Summit (i.e., a point close to the top....300 vertical feet below and an hour away from the summit) and was forced to turn back. This knowledge was up front in my mind as I buried my goggleless head inside the hood of my summit suit and continually turned by head away from the blustering wind...all while wondering about the weather forecast that had predicted good weather for the day.
Then something happened that changed the dynamic of the climb in a positive way. We took a brief rest and, while doing so, a different climbing group passed us....grumbling that we had been moving too slow. However, as soon as they passed us, they were forced to break trail and began moving even slower than we had been. In fact, they were moving so slow that our lead Sherpa left our group, went to the front of the pack and began breaking trail for everyone....leaving me in the first position for our group. It was at this point that I finally found the "well blazed" trail I had been hoping for, where I finally found a good rhthym, began gaining confidence, eventually realized that I was going to make the summit, and at some point knew that nothing in the world was going to prevent me from getting to the top. As with several major peaks in the past, I eventually felt the summit grab hold of me and simply pull me in....making the last part of the summit climb essentially effortless....a strange and wonderful experience.
About the halfway point, we climbed out of the "bad weather" and the day eventually turned into a windless day higher up on the mountain....and we found the "perfect" climbing day the weather forecast had predicted. The higher we climbed, the better the weather...leading to the essentially-unheard-of-windless summit day....a rare event for the summit of Mt. Everest. We were blessed and very fortunate to experience the mountain on such a day. Three days earlier, a first contigent of our group summitted in 50 mph winds and returned beat up and traumatized (i.e., albeit successful). It is not uncommon for climbers to reach the South Summit and turn back in high winds because of the dangerous summit ridge leading from the South Summit to the top. The summit ridge is a narrow pathway, with China on the left (i.e., straight down a couple of thousand feet) and Nepal on the right (i.e., also straight down a couple of thousand feet). On a windless day such as we experienced.....not a problem. In high winds, a potentially deadly trek. Again, a rare "good" summit day.
As an example of how fickle the mountain can be, several groups that left Camp 4 about an hour later than we did, turned around because of bad weather. The annoying wind and spindrift activity we had experienced had apparently turned into a minor blizzard....and I suspect that the footprints we had established had disappeared in the heavier winds....causing them to have to also break trail....the combination of which can be quite discouraging. That is where the expericence of our guide team proved to be essential. They kept pushing us through the early "bad weather," while the later groups turned around....and missed out on a rare perfect summit day. Those same groups tried a second summit bid the next day, started late, ended up getting behind the next day's wave of heavy climbers, and turned around again, this time due to climber congestion....and ended up not summitting even though both days were "excellent" summit days.
In hindsight, we were one day ahead of the crush of climbers. There were only two or three major groups summiting the day we went up....and even then it seemed congested. I can only imagine the frustration associated with even more climbers going for the top and moving at inconsistent speeeds.
Despite all the preparations, the careful planning, the extraodinary efforts....there are still many many many many ways not to summit Mt. Everest.....I credit the experience of our guides, and their willingness to push on in "apparently" poor conditions with why we had a successful summit bid.
Someone once asked me how many people have summited Mt. Everest. If I recall correctly, before I could answer the question, Sherrie piped in and said, NOT VERY MANY. I believe that is the best answer I have heard,
not very many.