It’s the 22nd of May, 2008. I’m 29-years-old, sitting in my tent with my climbing partner Graham. We’re at 8,000 meters high on Mount Everest, preparing for our upcoming climb into the higher realm of the Death Zone. That’s when a guide enters our tent.
“You need to know, a Swiss climber has died in the next tent. There is also a body at the Balcony at 8,400 meters.” Graham coughs — it’s from the dry air on the world’s highest mountain, the famous Khumbu Cough many climbers experience — but that’s all the noise we make.
What else is there to say? I’ve spent the last three years preparing physically and mentally for this challenge. I’ve spent the past 8 weeks living in the Himalayas, climbing up and down, higher each time on the mountain, acclimatizing to the low levels of oxygen in the environment. Hearing information like that can break most people, but our goals were bigger than that. We wanted to climb four mountains on four continents in one year, and to build the Mount Everest Primary School in Uganda with the Irish charity Fields of Life. I had failed at many things already, but this was my chance to do something big, something that would not only be for myself, but something that would eventually help others.
All of these factors outweigh that grim news, motivating us to push for the top.
For the next 5 hours we sit, resting in camp, trying to eat and drink whatever our stomachs can handle — water, hot chocolate, nuts, chocolate, and sweets — as well as mentally readying ourselves for this venture into the dark.
We eventually set out at 10 pm, walking across Everest’s South Col in the dark, accompanied by my Sherpa, Pemba Chirri. He climbs behind me, driving me forward. It’s -20 degrees Fahrenheit, cold, and even with no wind each step is very difficult. Catching your breath at these altitudes can seem impossible. Though I’m using supplemental oxygen, that only increases oxygen flow by 2% because the canister is a mixture of compressed gas and ambient air; this is only helping to keep me alive, not improve my climbing ability.
As the cold rips my skin and my muscles moan with aching, I think about the body we may have to pass, and how I’ll deal with that horrible experience. My mind wanders to the last three Irish people who tried climbing Everest before me, who all nearly lost their lives high on this mountain.
Stop, I think to myself, slowly, calmly, like an adult to a child. There are a hundred things that can kill you on Everest. Focus on the present and doing the right things you have trained to do to keep yourself alive. Focus on each step. Make sure you’re using the right ropes. Pace yourself. Keep your heart rate at a maintainable level. Use only enough energy to safely make the summit and return back down.
Suddenly, the wind picks up. We stop in our tracks as swirling snow whips in our faces. I use my hands to cover my eyes, wanting to turn around. I’m reminded of the high winds and storm that hit in 1996 — when eleven people died in one day on Everest. I really don’t want to get caught out here, high on this mountain.
Then the wind dies down and I know what to do: Keep moving.
It’s still dark, but I can see electrical storms over the horizon, as well as six head torches above me. Other than my Sherpa, I can’t see Graham or any other climbers behind me — and I want so much to get closer to the climbers above. I know Martin, a Scottish climber. If I can get up to where he is it may stop me from feeling so alone on the mountain. I push on.
Every step is unbelievably hard, hour after hour, step by step, pushing slowly forward. About seven hours in, I reach the South Summit of Everest and sit alone in the dark, sipping some water. I’m tired, my left leg is sore, my back is sore. I’m tired and I feel alone.
Just then, there’s a dim light on the horizon. I step off the back of the South Summit and see a climber standing close — too close — to Knife Edge Ridge, which has killed more than thirty climbers over the years.
“Stop! Stop!” my Sherpa shouts from behind me.
“It’s Martin!” comes the climber’s panicked voice. “I’m blind!”
Martin must have lost his sight due to a lack of oxygen and can’t see what he’s doing. But if he falls he could pull us all off the mountain with him.
My Sherpa keeps shouting over my shoulder for Martin to stop and wait, but due to the lack of oxygen at this altitude we can’t run over to help him quickly. Instead it’s a slow, dangerous move to his side. We’re 8,717 meters above sea level on a half meter wide ridge, with a 10,000 foot drop to our right and an 8,000 foot drop to our left.
We draw closer to Martin, and just as we do he nearly steps off the ridge, but with some quick maneuvering we grab his foot and get it back on the route. Finally, after ten minutes, we move Martin around us and on his way back to the South Summit with his Sherpa, where he will hopefully regain his vision.
I move forward towards the Hillary Step, then suddenly break down. I shake deep inside, but not from the cold.
If I go higher and lose my sight I might not make it back down, I think, the fear overwhelming me. I start to cry.
“You are strong,” my Sherpa shouts at me. “Yes?” I nod, knowing that physically I do feel good. “You can do this.”
My mind resets and I move forward, continuing the climb up the Hillary Step, pushing myself the final thirty-five minutes to the summit. The ground soon becomes easier to cover, and for the first time I see the actual summit in the distance. My body warms with adrenaline and I make the final push.
Then it happens. I step up on the summit, a twenty foot long, two feet wide ridge. I take out my Irish flag and logos, hand my video cameras to my Sherpa, and snap a few pictures on the summit.
I’m more exhausted than I’ve ever been in my life, and I’m ready to get the hell out of here.
Ian Taylor now runs his own trekking company leading trips to Everest Base Camp, Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu and more. For more information on trips, or to purchase Ian’s Everest DVD documentary Everest, A Summit Calling, visit www.iantaylortrekking.com.
Ian and Graham Kinch (pictured below, with shovel) did climb four world peaks, culminating in Mount Everest, and raised money through Fields of Life to build the new Mount Everest Primary School in Kitandwe, Uganda.