At 7:30 this morning, I settled back into my familiar office chair but my mind was still on Everest. I was supposed to be at Base Camp today resting while building more red blood cells after a successful rotation up to Camp 2 and waiting for a weather window to make a push for the summit. Instead, I’m half-heartedly going through three weeks of emails not really paying attention to any of them. I would give anything to be back right now. I’ve learned over the past four years that just being on Mount Everest truly is a privilege and sometimes you don’t realize how special it is until you have to leave. If you are on Everest and feeling good it can be one of the most exciting places on the planet. I don’t know of anywhere else where a person can feel more alive. But when you are not feeling well, Everest can be harsh, unforgiving, cruel and relentless. Most years, you have good days and bad days…that is to be expected. But this year the good days never came.
When I left Birmingham on April 24th, there is no doubt that I was in the best shape of my life. An eight month rigorous and detailed training plan made sure of that. Unfortunately, about a week prior to departure, I developed a sinus issue/ head cold which brought with it a nasty cough, headaches and chest congestion. I have always struggled with seasonal allergies and once again, they got the best of me. Sleeping in a hypoxic tent at home at a simulated altitude of 16,500 feet brought my oxygen levels down to the point where my body couldn’t heal itself so when I left for Nepal; I was to some degree already behind the 8 ball.
Prior to getting sick, I had spent 37 straight nights in the altitude tent, much more time than I had spent in 2015. My guides thought it was reasonable for me to fly into Lobuche at 16,200 feet and start my expedition there. I took a helicopter from Kathmandu and a little over an hour later landed in Lobuche where I met my guide Brent Bishop. That afternoon, we decided to take a short hike up to the Italian weather station just to get our legs moving. We only gained about 200 vertical feet but the walk left me winded and not feeling like myself. I chalked it up to just being the first day on the mountain and thought that I would feel much better the next day. We were constantly checking my heart rate and oxygen saturation level and both were excellent given the altitude.
The next morning, after a good breakfast, we trekked to Everest Base Camp. I had done this trek several times and knew the route well. I also knew how I was supposed to feel on this trek and kept wondering why it seemed so much harder than last year. Several times I had to stop and catch my breath which had never happened in the past. Again, I chalked it up to the fact that it was only my second day on the mountain and things would improve.
Five hours later, we walked into Base Camp and I was far too tired given what we had done. But, I felt that two rest days would have me feeling like my old self again. We continued to take my sat levels and surprisingly, mine was higher than just about everyone else on the team so no need to worry. The hypoxic tent had obviously worked and soon, I would be feeling stronger than last year.
After a couple of rest days, we made our way into the lower Icefall for some training. It had been over a year since I had worn crampons, clipped into a fixed line or done any rappelling so I needed to work on those skills before entering the Icefall for real. Just climbing up the short vertical walls was exhausting and for the first time, I starting worrying that something wasn’t right. The next day, our goal was to go halfway up the Icefall and go over some ladders. Just walking to crampon point (the place where climbers put on their crampons before it starts getting steep) was exhausting. This should have been an easy 20 minute stroll but for me, it was a 40 minute challenge. How could I go from hiking five straight hours at Oak Mountain with a 45 pound backpack to being gassed walking 40 minutes over level terrain? Something wasn’t right.
Over the next 3-4 hours, we wove our way up the Icefall until we got to the first set of ladders. The first one was only a few feet long; on level ground that spanned a narrow but very deep crevasse. I never struggled on the ladders in 2013 or 2015; in fact I loved the ladders because I found them to be a good place to rest. But I was very shaky the first time across and had a couple of scary moments where I thought I was going to lose my balance and fall. I had to continuously reset my front crampons points over the ladder rungs and refocus… something that was almost automatic in prior years. We ended up going over this one ladder several times and it never got easier. On the descent, I started experiencing tightness in my chest and pain running down both arms. I have never had any heart issues but this felt a lot like a heart attack and that is the last thing you want in the middle of the Icefall. Several times, I had to stop and cross my arms to ease the pain. It seemed to be worse if my arms were hanging at my side.
What should have been a rather easy and routine day in the Icefall ended up being a five hour struggle. By the time we made it back to our camp, I barely had enough energy to make it to my tent. And at dinner, I had no appetite and no energy. Even though I was not feeling well, I tried to put on a happy face and stay optimistic, especially around my teammates. I’ve learned that negativity can be a cancer within a team and the last thing I wanted to do was have any adverse impact any of my fellow climbers. Two had already gone home but the remaining seven were fully acclimated, were in very good spirits and were looking strong.
Brent and I both knew something was wrong and that we needed to amend our plan. Maybe doing an easy day hike the next day up Pumori to about 19,000 feet would be the answer. This would get me to a higher elevation (the equivalent of Camp 1 on Everest) without the danger of going through the Icefall again.
The next morning before heading up Pumori, Brent suggested that we make a visit to the Everest ER tent just to be on the safe side. I knew the doctors there and felt like this was a good idea. As it turned out, it could have been a lifesaving decision. The doctors did an EKG and then an ultrasound looking for fluid in my lungs. We never considered High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) to be a potential problem due to my high oxygen sat levels. But we were wrong. The ultrasound found evidence of fluid in both lungs and the doctors diagnosed me with HAPE. They recommended a quick evacuation from Everest via helicopter to Kathmandu for more testing. Just like that, I knew why I had felt so bad and performed so poorly. The doctors explained that sat levels can be deceiving and that they had missed a HAPE diagnosis earlier that week due to the climber’s high sat levels. HAPE can hit anyone at any time and is the leading cause of death of high altitude climbers.
When I took off on the helicopter on my way to Kathmandu, I knew that my climb was potentially over but I didn’t want to give up hope. By the time we landed in Kathmandu, I was already feeling better and I resisted staying overnight in the CIWEC Hospital but the head doctor convinced me that he had seen it all over the years and that I absolutely needed to stay. Over the next several hours, they did three more EKGs and gave me six bottles of fluid intravenously. I thought I had done a good job hydrating on the mountain drinking between 3 and 5 liters of water each day but obviously it wasn’t enough.
After all of the tests were complete, the official diagnosis was HAPE, Dehydration and Rhabdomyolysis. I had never heard of Rhabdomyolysis but apparently it results from the death of muscle fibers and the release of their contents into the bloodstream. Normal levels for creatine kinase in the blood is 40-50 micrograms per liter and my count was at 1650. I still do not have an explanation for this.
When I was discharged, I asked the doctors at CIWEC whether or not I could continue my expedition by flying in to a lower elevation and taking my time making it back to Base Camp. They strongly suggested that I not go back up for a couple of reasons. First, the fact that I already had HAPE once would mean that I was more likely to get it again if I went back. And two, they didn’t like what they saw on one of the EKGs and suggested that I get home and schedule a cardiac stress test. The thought of getting HAPE again up high or the thought of a potential heart attack on the mountain was enough to convince me to end my Everest expedition for the year.
When I started climbing in 2006, success on the Seven Summits came almost too easily. Julie and I were successful on the first five mountains ending on Mount Aconcagua in 2009. We failed on Denali in 2010 but I went back and completed it the next year. In five years, I had summited the highest mountain on six continents and had only Everest to compete the Seven Summits. I never dreamed that five years later I would still be battling this white whale.
2013 was a learning experience. I made it to Camp 2 but admittedly, I was not prepared physically or mentally for the challenge. I worked hard preparing for 2014 but my trip was cancelled the day before I was to leave home when a 30 million pound block of ice broke loose in the Icefall killing 16 Sherpas. I worked even harder preparing for 2015 and felt like I was ready. I flew directly into Pheriche at 14,400 feet and hit the ground running. To warm up for Everest, I climbed Lobuche East at almost 20,000 feet in good time. I had made one trip into the Icefall and had hiked up Pumori twice getting acclimatized. I never felt stronger or faster in the mountains and was very confident that 2015 would be my year. All of that changed on April 25th when a 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal killing over 9,000 people including 22 people at Base Camp. For the second year in a row, the Everest season was cancelled but the confidence I gained led me to train for another eight months and go back in 2016. This year, from the minute I landed in Lobuche I was never myself and once again, the season ended in disappointment.
If I could do it all again, of course I would make different choices. I wish I had left Birmingham a week earlier, before I got the sinus/head cold. I wish I had flown into a lower altitude to start my expedition. I wish when I first started feeling weak that I had gone down instead of up to recover. I will probably beat myself up over these decisions for a long time. But even if I had made the perfect decision every time, there is no guarantee that I would have summited Everest this year. The route seemed so much more difficult than it was last year. Maybe that is because it was more difficult or maybe it is because I felt so weak. Or maybe it’s a combination of both. But make no mistake; Everest this year is going to be a challenge for anyone….from amateur to the elite of the elite. No one will have it easy up there.
I used to think that I could never be satisfied if I didn’t eventually stand on top of the world. I made the mistake of connecting my self-worth to the summits of these great peaks and was slow to realize that, in the end, it is the journey that really matters. While I am proud that I have been able to summit the highest mountain on six continents what I am most proud of is the fact that I have pushed myself to the absolute limit of my potential preparing for these Everest climbs. A lot of people talk about climbing Everest but not many are really willing to put in time necessary to prepare. I am proud to say that in the eight months I trained this year for Everest, I didn’t miss one workout. It would have been easy to skip a day but I never allowed that to happen. I learned a lot about myself over these past four years and while the disappointment of never standing on the top of the world will always be with me, I believe that I have gained something much more rare and valuable in the long run. In my heart, I know that I pushed myself to my absolute limit and while illnesses, avalanches and earthquakes converged to end my dream, I never quit. Maybe that’s the answer I was seeking all along.