So Close, and Yet . . .
The first time I tried to climb Mount Everest was in the spring of 1987. It was a very different mountain then from the swarmed-over scene it’s become today. By that spring, there had been only 209 successful ascents of the mountain by 191 different climbers. A single person, the Sherpa Sungdare, had reached the summit as many as four times.
It’s become almost impossible nowadays to keep track of Everest statistics, but by the end of May 2012, the number of successful ascents was in the vicinity of 6,000, performed by about 3,500 climbers. Two indefatigable veterans, Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa, have now reached the top of the world twenty-one times each.
In the spring of 2012 there were more than thirty different expeditions simultaneously trying to climb Everest via the South Col route, the line by which it was first ascended by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953. I saw photos on the Internet of as many as 150 climbers on the Lhotse Face, lined up like Depression jobseekers in a free-lunch queue, as they jumared their way up the
fixed ropes. In contrast, on the north side of Everest in the spring of 1987, there were only three teams. Ours hoped to climb the Great Couloir from the head of the Central Rongbuk Glacier. A Swedish team had chosen the traditional route from the North Col up the northeast ridge. And a Canadian, Roger Marshall, was attempting a bold solo ascent via the Japanese and Hornbein couloirs—a route nicknamed the Super Direct.
In 1987, I myself was a different person from the mountaineer who, eighteen years later, would become the first American to get to the top of all fourteen peaks in the world higher than 8,000 meters (26,246 feet). I was twenty-seven years old, and though I’d climbed Denali in Alaska twice and had served for five years as a guide on Mount Rainier, this was my first expedition to an 8,000er. No matter how much I’d read about Everest, I was awed by the scale and majesty of the mountain, and not at all sure I was up to the challenge of scaling its north face by the Great Couloir.
The expedition was put together by Eric Simonson, a seasoned veteran who was also my fellow guide for Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI). Although Eric was only four years older than I, he had been guiding since 1973, and I looked up to him as a mentor. He’d already been to Everest in 1982, with a team led by our RMI boss, Lou Whittaker, that reached 27,500 feet on the same route—still 1,500 feet short of the summit. Eric had been hampered by a bad knee after a falling rock struck him high on this daunting face, and in 1987 he was determined to give it another shot.
Our expedition was a bit of a boondoggle, for a climber from Arkansas named Jack Allsup had approached Eric, offering to raise all the funds and pay all the expenses for five RMI guides, if we’d serve as glorified Sherpas for him and his buddies. The deal was that we guides would fix ropes, establish camps, and carry loads
up the route, but not actually guide the Arkansas gang on their attempt—simply set them up so they could make their own independent push toward the summit. The official name of our team was the Arkansas Everest Expedition. Quite an irony: here I was, a guy who had escaped the flatlands of the Midwest to immerse myself in the rich Pacific Northwest climbing culture, only to be going on my first Everest expedition with a team based in the South!
I was grateful to be invited by Eric, who two years earlier had chosen me to serve as his assistant guide on a traverse of Denali with clients. For Everest, Eric also picked my fellow RMI guides Greg Wilson, George Dunn, and Craig Van Hoy. A free trip to Everest! Who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity?
Once our team was assembled, all five us plunged into gear selection and packing, but Eric took on the brunt of the logistical work. A smart, analytical fellow, he’s good at that sort of thing. JanSport jumped aboard as an expedition sponsor, supplying clothing, tents, and packs. They also offered to have our high-altitude suits custom-made by an experienced local seamstress.
I was pretty excited at the thought of getting a high-tech suit for an attempt on the summit. I imagined an extremely lightweight, trim-fitting down suit like the ones I’d seen Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler wearing in photos from their pathbreaking climb of Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978.
Only a day or two before we had to leave Seattle, Eric and I drove up to our seamstress’s house to collect the suits. When I hefted mine, my jaw nearly hit the floor. The suits were filled with bulky synthetic insulation, and the outer fabric felt more like canvas than lightweight nylon. Unnecessary doo-dads such as stripes winding around the sleeves added another heavy layer to the already bloated suits. Rather than the sleek Maserati outfits I had
fantasized about, we had no choice but to head off to Everest with these cumbersome monstrosities.
I was just finishing my doctorate in veterinary medicine at Washington State University in Pullman, out on the state’s eastern plains. I envisioned a career as a vet, although climbing was my true passion. To leave for Everest in March, I had to rearrange my senior-year schedule so that I could graduate two months early. Fortunately, my classmates and teachers fully supported my “hobby,” going so far as to buy expedition T-shirts. Still, in 1987 I could not have dreamed of making a living as a mountaineer. As it was, earning a modest income guiding on Rainier in the summers, but pouring that money into my tuition bills, I was living as cheaply as I could, renting a room in the Seattle home of my buddy Steve Swaim, who ran his own veterinary clinic. Just before the expedition, a woman I’d been involved with for two years abruptly broke off our relationship. I was hurt and baffled, but in another sense, comfortable with the freedom that gave me. I was fresh out of school, with no full-time job or major obligations, so taking off to Asia for an indeterminate length of time didn’t bother me one bit. As I wrote in my diary at base camp, “I guess my life’s pretty simple & uncomplicated at this point—yahoo!”
My Denali expeditions, the longest I’d been on so far, had each lasted about three weeks. But Everest in 1987 would turn into a three-month-long ordeal by logistics, weather, and high-altitude conditioning—literally eighty-eight days’ round-trip from Kathmandu. Although I’d never been above 20,320 feet, I’d already made up my mind to try Everest without bottled oxygen. The example of great mountaineers such as Messner had instilled in me a purist aesthetic. I didn’t want to “lower” the mountain to my level simply to reach the summit, but rather to take on Everest at its
level. And the prospect of having to carry oxygen bottles and wear an oxygen mask on my face, in effect isolating me from the mountain, was unappealing.
Yet having made that decision, I approached the challenge with a lot of trepidation and self-doubt. As early as March 28, I wrote in my diary, “I still wonder what it’s like up there without oxygen—have to see how I do as we go higher. It’d be great to do it without O2—gotta be strong though ’cuz the summit day is gonna be an ass buster, especially coming down wasted. Hope I at least get a chance for the top.”
Today, a truck road leads through Tibet from Nepal, and a spur leads straight to base camp on the north side of Everest. It’s become a milk run—albeit a bureaucratically tangled one—for trekkers and climbers alike. But in 1987, the north side felt so isolated that Eric claimed it was “like going off to the Moon!” The Great Couloir route that we were going to attack is not the easiest or safest way to climb Everest from the north. In 1924, the third British expedition to the mountain reached the North Col at 23,000 feet via the East Rongbuk Glacier, a hidden tributary that the reconnaissance expedition of 1921 had completely overlooked. From the North Col, a shallow spur leads up to the high crest of the northeast ridge. It was on this route that George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine went for the summit on June 8, 1924, and never returned, launching one of the great mysteries in mountaineering history.
Our team, however, made no use of the East Rongbuk approach. Instead, we established an advance base camp (ABC) at only 18,300 feet at the head of the Rongbuk Glacier proper. From there, the face sweeps up in a daunting rise of more than 10,000 feet to the distant summit. The face is also far more threatened by falling rocks and avalanches than the North Col/northeast ridge route
pioneered in 1924. Although Greg Wilson, George Dunn, and Eric Simonson had all tried Everest before without success, and all three desperately wanted to get to the top, Eric chose the harder north face route because he wanted to finish the line that he and George had attempted in 1982.
On a three-month expedition, there are bound to be tensions among the climbers. We had a cordial but ambivalent relationship with the Swedish team. Although we shared some meals with them at base camp and benefited greatly from weather forecasts their team received from back home, we had an uneasy truce about the route itself. The Swedes planned to go up the East Rongbuk to the North Col and follow the Mallory-Irvine route along the northeast ridge. It was only late in the expedition that they changed their plans and decided to go diagonally across the north face and go for the top via the Great Couloir, thereby overlapping with our line on the upper half of the mountain. This worried us, because it meant the Swedes would depend on our fixed ropes, and their presence in the Great Couloir might create additional hazards by virtue of having too many climbers on the same part of the mountain at the same time.
As for the Arkansas gang, their sponsorship of our attempt was something of a mixed blessing. It’s true that the five of us could not have afforded an Everest expedition on our own, and we were very grateful to have our way paid. But several of the Arkansas climbers were, frankly, too weak to have a chance on Everest, and the stronger ones were infected with a mild case of hubris, underestimating the difficulty of the route and overestimating their own strength and ability.
In addition, tensions developed among our group of five guides. It was almost inevitable that the weeks of strain as we slowly advanced
the route should produce conflicts. For various reasons, not everyone was able to contribute equally to that effort. That’s a given on big expeditions: good teamwork depends on everyone making the contribution he can muster. And sometimes your effort is diminished not by any unwillingness to pull your weight, but by illness or trouble acclimatizing. Eric had also hired five Sherpas, who helped carry loads, especially for the Arkansas team members, but we RMI guides accomplished all the leading and fixing.
Though a savvy expedition leader, Eric had a tendency to find fault with others if he thought they hadn’t performed up to his own high standards. One of the roles of a leader, to be sure, is keeping the expedition rolling at a steady and consistent pace, even if it means “directing” the show from below. But on April 7, after George, Greg, and I put in a strenuous day getting gear up to Camp III, Eric called us over the radio from Camp I and voiced his disappointment that we hadn’t moved faster. As I wrote in my diary that evening, “Geo called him an asshole—only half jokingly—over the radio.” Since George had been on Everest with Eric in 1982, their close friendship allowed this kind of sharp repartee. I didn’t say a word. I’d already long since formed my resolve in the face of criticism by someone who was my boss. As I wrote in my diary, “I’ll just do my job and keep my mouth shut. Actions speak louder than words!”
As I would subsequently learn on my thirty-one expeditions to 8,000-meter peaks, I almost never suffer at altitude from any kind of illness. I’d get the occasional mild headache after a long, hot day of climbing to a new high point, or a touch of traveler’s diarrhea, but nothing incapacitating. Part of this is attributable to the rigorous conditioning I always undertake before an expedition. A lot of it has to do with simply being smart and knowing how to take care
of myself. But part of it’s the luck of my genes, which have given me a physiology that functions well with little oxygen in my lungs. I’ve never suffered frostbite or been afflicted by pulmonary or cerebral edema, which has stricken even the strongest mountaineers, including Simone Moro and Jean-Christophe Lafaille, who would become my partners on later expeditions.
But on Everest in 1987, from breathing the cold, dry air, I developed a sore throat so painful that I could barely speak above a whisper. It lasted for weeks, and added to my doubts about getting to the top. On April 17, I wrote, “My throat feels like raw meat from breathing this dry air—really painful. The only way to alleviate it is to suck on hard candies.” Two days later: “I’m losing my voice—it’s rough and crackles and makes me cough. . . . At night my throat gets really dry and painful. Last night I sucked candy, drank some cough suppressants and finally had to take some Nuprin just so I could sleep. Augh!!”
At ABC one night, desperate to halt the coughing, ease the pain, and get some sleep, I took twice the normal dose of hydrocodone, a morphine-based drug that not only has pain-relieving properties but is also a powerful cough suppressant. Sure enough, the pain and the cough went away, but the morphine filled my head with paranoid thoughts about how completely isolated we were and how far from any hope of rescue. My drug-addled anxiety kept me awake all night and I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up and the drug to wear off!
At one point or another, all five of us RMI guides developed dry, hacking coughs. That’s a common ailment on Himalayan expeditions. Climbers have even been known to break their ribs from coughing so hard. That’s exactly what had happened to Greg Wilson on a 1984 expedition to the north side of Everest, wiping out
his hopes of getting to the top. But in 1987, the nonstop coughing that spread among us like a contagion didn’t help our morale, which through April and early May veered wildly up and down.
Slowly, however, we advanced the route, fixing ropes on all the hardest passages. And gradually my sore throat healed, and I began to feel really fit. Those days were long and arduous, and sometimes we didn’t get back to camp till sunset. The fixed rope came in huge spools. One of us would uncoil the spool while the other climber pulled the free end behind him as he moved upward, placing intermediate anchors along the way. Once they were in, the ropes allowed safe passage on each subsequent load carry, and we could zip down them, often using just arm rappels, as we descended.
After a long day of fixing rope and hauling loads, getting back to camp didn’t exactly amount to rest and relaxation. Outside the tent, we had to remove all of our climbing gear—crampons, harness, packs, and hardware. The first person into the tent took off his boots and outerwear, then started the stove to begin the tedious process of turning snow and ice into water. After drinking as much as we could and filling our water bottles, we had to scrounge up a dinner out of whatever we found in our food bags. Altitude and fatigue played havoc with our appetites. Dinner might mean ramen noodles with tuna and freeze-dried peas, or dehydrated lasagna, or instant mashed potatoes with cheese. If we were too tired, we’d settle for a cup of soup and some crackers. Rehydrating was more important than eating well. After hours of kitchen duty, we could finally crawl into our sleeping bags, but it was a rare night when we got enough sleep.
On May 14, we established Camp IV at 26,800 feet, only 2,200 feet below the summit. That may not seem like such a great distance to overcome, but the Great Couloir stays technically serious
all the way, and a summit push over such terrain can take everything you’ve got.
Because of our deal with the Arkansas members, we also had to step aside at some point and give them their shot. We agreed that once we guides had made our own summit bids, the Arkansans could make their attempt. We went first not because we were selfish, but because it was up to us to establish the camps and fix the ropes. Privately, the five of us had our doubts that our “patrons” would be up to such a challenge, and we all dreaded a scenario in which, as they gave it their best try, they’d get in trouble and we’d have to go to their rescue. As it turned out, though, they were wise enough to know when to turn back. In the end, none of the Arkansas team got above 25,000 feet, and none of them got in trouble.
My own mood, after almost two months on the mountain, was a mixture of excitement and apprehension. As I wrote in my diary, “After all this time & effort it’s exciting to start goin’ for the top of this mother!!! . . . I have my fears and doubts about the last 2000'. How will I do? Can I handle the lack of O2? . . . If I summit, how difficult will it be to descend?”
We decided that on May 16, George Dunn and Greg Wilson would get the first try to go to the top. As the other three of us lingered in a lower camp, resting to build up strength for our own attempt, George and Greg pushed up the route over several days. On May 16, I wrote, “Waiting, watching, waiting! We paced around camp all day like expectant fathers at the maternity ward. We watched the upper mountain with binoculars all day.”
Both George and Greg had suffered previous disappointments on the north side of Everest. In October 1984, both were members of another team led by Lou Whittaker making a postmonsoon autumn attempt via the North Col and a diagonal traverse into the
Great Couloir. Despite breaking his rib from coughing, Greg had set out with three teammates from Camp V at 24,900 feet. Strong winds forced them to turn back short of the couloir, then pinned them in their camp for two more days. After that, Greg generously agreed to act in a supporting role to give three teammates—Jim Wickwire, Phil Ershler, and John Roskelley—a last-ditch chance to summit.
Phil and Jim were planning to use supplementary oxygen, but John would go for the summit without. By 1984, Roskelley was widely considered to be the strongest American high-altitude climber, having spearheaded routes on Makalu and Nanda Devi, as well as making the first ascents of such technically difficult mountains as Uli Biaho, Middle Trango Tower, and Gaurishankar. In 1982, in fact, Reinhold Messner, then in his prime, had declared that he thought Roskelley a stronger mountaineer than he was.
On October 20, the three men woke early at Camp VI, pitched at 26,600 feet in the Great Couloir. Wickwire had decided during the night that he would opt out of the bid to reach the top. As he later wrote in the American Alpine Journal, “My drive to reach the summit, which had been untrammeled in 1982 . . . was now inexplicably diminished.” His teammates knew, however, about the terrible string of fatal accidents in recent years of which Jim had had the misfortune to be an eyewitness. And they knew that he had lost part of a lung to surgery after making, with Roskelley and two others, the first American ascent of K2 in 1978. On the descent, he had barely survived a solo bivouac in the open just below 28,000 feet, then had nearly succumbed to pneumonia and pleurisy that forced his heli-evacuation from the Baltoro Glacier.
At 6:15 on the morning of October 20, Roskelley and Ershler left the tent. John led the difficult pitches through the Yellow Band.
But conditions were unusually severe, and no matter how hard he climbed, he felt his hands and feet growing numb, and he started shivering in the first stages of hypothermia. John knew that to go on would probably mean severe frostbite, perhaps even death, so at 28,000 feet he made the agonizing decision to turn around. Breathing bottled oxygen made all the difference for Phil, who pushed on alone over the last thousand feet and summitted at 3:45 p.m. It was a magnificent achievement, for Phil ended up as the sole member of the very strong 1984 team to claim victory.
George Dunn had also played an important role on that expedition. A pair of Australians who had reached the summit earlier that season had left their tent pitched at their high camp in the Great Couloir. The Americans were counting on using that tent for their own summit bid. The day before the traverse, thwarted by high winds that stopped Greg and his teammates, George and two others had succeeded in getting to the Great Couloir, but they couldn’t find the tent. They had to endure a miserable bivouac in the open, sitting on unstable rocks on the edge of the couloir, before retreating all the way to Camp III the next morning. After that, George was pretty much out of commission in terms of summit attempts.
George had also been on the 1982 expedition via the Great Couloir, when he, Eric, and Larry Nielson had made the team’s only serious try for the top. The men had set out from their Camp VI at 26,500 feet, but Eric and George turned around at 27,000. Larry pushed on alone, without supplemental oxygen, gaining another 500 feet, but wisely retreated, knowing he would be stretching his margin of safety too thin. Even so, he suffered frostbite during the attempt and subsequently lost part of a thumb to amputation. Undaunted, Larry came back to Everest the next year and climbed it successfully from the opposite side, via the “standard” South
Col route. He pulled off that feat without bottled oxygen, the first American to do so. By 1987, no other American had gotten to the top without bottled O’s—a fact I was keenly aware of as I made my own attempt to duplicate Larry’s achievement.
Earlier, the 1982 expedition had suffered a tragedy when Marty Hoey, the only female member of the team, was hanging from her jumar on the fixed rope at 26,100 feet in the Great Couloir. Suddenly she was falling free. Jim Wickwire, standing only a few yards away, yelled, “Grab the rope!” Marty was sliding headfirst, but she rolled on her side and made a valiant effort to seize the fixed line, only to fail. Jim saw her plunge out of sight, knowing that her fall wouldn’t end for 6,000 feet. In disbelief, he stared at the intact fixed rope. Dangling from it were Marty’s jumar and her waist harness. Somehow she must have failed to double back the belt through the buckle, and her weight had caused the belt to come loose, allowing her whole body to slip out of the harness. Marty had removed her leg loops from her harness to save weight. Had those loops still been attached, they might have saved her life.
That shocking accident, witnessed up close by Wickwire, would obviously contribute to Jim’s ambivalence about going for the summit in 1984.
Lou Whittaker later organized a search for Marty’s body at the base of the face, but concluded that she had been swallowed up by a massive bergschrund separating the Rongbuk Glacier from the wall. Like those of so many other Everest victims, Marty’s body has never been found.
In a sense, then, by 1987 George Dunn had more Everest “baggage” than any of us on Eric’s team. As he and Greg Wilson went for the top on May 16, it was George’s third attempt to solve the puzzle of the Great Couloir.
Both men were climbing with bottled oxygen, but their progress was slowed by difficult climbing through the famous Yellow Band. They overcame that obstacle, fixing rope as they went, but Greg later said that the pitches he led were some of the hardest and most dangerous climbing he’d done anywhere in the world, at any altitude. The two men reached 27,500 feet before deciding they had to turn back. It was 500 feet higher than George had gotten in 1982, but to have to retreat again with the summit almost within their grasp was a huge disappointment for him.
On the descent, however, George and Greg had a nearly disastrous accident—the closest call of our whole expedition. As they rappelled the fixed ropes they had placed that day, George, descending first, got to the end of the lowest rope, He had a single knifeblade piton, which he pounded into what he called “manky” rock, making for a very insecure anchor. Below him, a steep fifty-foot pitch on which the two had left no fixed rope filled George with malaise—it looked very hard to downclimb unprotected, and the men had brought no climbing rope to belay each other, but only the heavy spool of thin fixed rope they had strung through the Yellow Band.
The last fifty feet above George had been easy going on soft snow, so when Greg rapped into sight, George stopped him with a command: “Cut the rope!”
“Whaa—?” Greg protested. But soon he understood. If the two men could retrieve the unnecessary lowest fifty feet of fixed rope, they could affix it to the knifeblade piton and make one last rappel over the short passage that gave George pause. Greg got out his knife, severed the line, and brought it down with him.
They strung the salvaged fifty feet of rope from the “manky” knifeblade anchor. Again George rapped first. At the end of the
rope, he hollowed out a kind of butt stance in which he could sit. He had no hardware left to put in an anchor, but the going below looked easy. Providentially, George kept the jumar attached to his harness fastened to the end of the salvaged fixed line.
Greg got on rappel and weighted the thin cord. He was about halfway down when the knifeblade anchor popped loose. All of a sudden he was falling backwards, out of control.
As George later told me, “I thought about Marty Hoey. I said to myself, Oh my God, this is it! We’re going all the way! Greg fell past me, then started bouncing. All I could do was sit there and wait for the sudden jerk of the rope.”
Miraculously, George’s butt stance and the jumar held, stopping Greg’s fall after forty feet. “Are you okay?” George yelled down, sure that his partner must have been badly injured.
“I . . . I think so!” came back the quavering answer.
“We were stunned,” George later said. “That’s about as close as you can come to dying in the mountains and get away with it.”
• • •
A few days later, Eric, Craig Van Hoy, and I got our chance. We began working our way back up the mountain for what felt like the nth time. After spending the night at Camp III, just above 25,000 feet, we faced the arduous task of climbing the steep couloir to Camp IV. Before leaving Camp III, we put on our monstrous custom-designed suits, in which we would live for the next few days. Although there was a long fixed rope strung up the couloir, it had been frozen under a windslab of hard snow. With every step we took, we had to pull the rope upward to cut it loose from the windslab. It was excruciating and frustrating work.
By 8:00 p.m. on May 20, the three of us had crammed ourselves
into the two-man tent at Camp IV. Our plan was to wake up at 1:00 a.m. (assuming we’d get any sleep at all) and be off by 4:00 a.m. Eric is a tall guy, well over six feet, and he seemed to need more space than Craig and I did. Eric also had an oxygen bottle from which he was breathing during the night nestled between us. Packed in like sardines, wearing our bulky suits, we kept kicking and elbowing each other as we shifted position. It was a really claustrophobic setup: at one point, I was jammed into the corner of the tent, with the nylon fabric of the wall only an inch away from my face. Had I been afflicted with true claustrophobia, there’s no way I could have gotten through the night. The space in the tent was so tight that I gave up trying to take off my boots and slept with them on, draping my sleeping bag over me like a blanket instead of crawling inside it, boots and all. So much for a restful night before what I knew would be one of the hardest days of my life!
Craig had had a hard time getting from Camp III to Camp IV, and it was clear that the summit push was going to be an ordeal for him. The camp was situated in a truly exposed niche in the Great Couloir, with a “front porch” of snow only about two feet wide by three feet long. Beyond that shelf, the slope dropped off into what felt like an infinite abyss. Only one of us could maneuver outside the tent at a time, and we stayed clipped in to the anchors guying the tent whenever we were outside. Inside the tent you could pee into a bottle, but taking a dump meant going outside and risking your life.
In the morning, Eric got off first. He’d slept all night breathing his supplementary oxygen, and now he loaded his pack with two fresh bottles weighing a total of 36 pounds. Because he had all that weight, he asked me to carry our 500 feet of fixed rope and a few pitons and carabiners. That didn’t really seem fair—since I
was climbing without bottled oxygen, I wanted to go as light as possible—but as is my penchant, I didn’t protest. I just said, “Yeah, okay.” I got moving about fifteen minutes behind Eric. It was still dark out, but it looked as though a good day was in the offing.
A bit later, Craig got ready to leave. As we found out later, he took one look at the couloir stretching above Camp IV and decided against going for the top. Like Wickwire in 1984, Craig lacked the heart for the final push. The ground leading up to the Yellow Band, which had no ropes fixed on it, looked to him too steep and intimidating. Instead, he spent the day carefully descending all the way to Camp II. Each of us has to make his own decision about acceptable risk. For Craig, I think, going down was the right call.
Because Eric was climbing with his oxygen tank cranked to about two liters a minute, while I was going without oxygen, he was faster and stayed a little way ahead of me through the early hours of the morning. Climbing alone, I felt that I was moving in some isolated capsule. Unroped, we had to focus all our concentration as we zigzagged our way upward within the steep confines of the couloir. Then something odd happened: both my left foot and my left hand kept falling asleep. I couldn’t figure out why, but it seemed alarming. I knew it wasn’t frostbite, but I wondered if I might be experiencing a minor stroke, induced by altitude. It was worrisome enough that I seriously contemplated turning around and going down. I thought about Roskelley in 1984, struggling to stay warm without supplemental oxygen, and finally deciding to call it quits. But after a while the tingling sensation wore off, so I continued upward.
Then something else odd happened. Out of nowhere, one of the Swedish climbers, Lasse Cronlund, came bombing up on my heels. He had apparently traversed from high on his northeast ridge
route and entered the Great Couloir very near our highest camp. It was a last desperate attempt by the Swede to salvage his fizzling expedition. He must have rationalized that he could benefit from our fixed ropes and our support on his way to the summit. He was climbing so much faster than I was that I figured he must have his own oxygen set cranked to the max, about four liters to the minute. I let him pass me. Then we met up at the foot of the Yellow Band, where Eric was waiting.
We needed to relead the pitch on which Greg Wilson had pulled loose the fixed rope in his forty-foot fall on May 16. Cronlund offered to go first. It was a mistake. As I later wrote in my diary, “He was clumsy & flailed around, wasted time. . . . At one point he was directly above me, looked as if he was going to fall over backwards & take me along for the ride!”
At last, with a desperate scramble, Cronlund got to the top of the pitch, where he lay gasping for air. Eric and I came up on the rope, then Eric took the lead. By now we had reached the bottom of the ropes fixed by Greg and George, so all we had to do was clip our jumars to the lines and half-climb, half-pull on the jumar as we ascended. But now I discovered that Cronlund didn’t have an ascender of any kind. I ended up tying a prusik knot—the simple substitute for a mechanical ascender, named after the Austrian climber who invented it way back in the 1930s—for him.
As we climbed on, the Swede started to slow down. It looked as though Cronlund was trying to crank his oxygen set even higher, but he’d obviously used up his supply. Then, almost without pausing to give it a serious thought, he turned around and started descending. Without the boost of bottled O’s, he’d shot his wad. Once he passed out of sight below us, we didn’t see Cronlund again the
rest of the day. And as it turned out, none of the Swedish team made the summit.
Climbing through the Yellow Band was arduous and scary. Thank God, George and Greg had fixed ropes here. Even with the aid of the lines, however, I had to scratch for tiny footholds with the front points of my crampons. The rock of the Yellow Band had the texture of a roughly troweled concrete wall—mostly smooth with random irregularities. I felt nothing but admiration for George and Greg. I guessed now that the effort of putting in the route through the Yellow Band had cost them any chance of getting to the summit. But it had given Eric and me a great opportunity.
Above the Yellow Band there was more steep snow, which eventually led to another layer of exposed rock called the Grey Band. It was here that we fixed the 500 feet of rope that I had been carrying all day. Eric found a passage through this section by climbing up a narrow snow couloir to the right
Amazingly, there was no wind. Shortly after noon, I followed Eric as I kicked my front points up the last 60-degree slope of hard snow and emerged from the couloir. This stretch was rather desperate, so I had to move quickly and couldn’t afford my normal high-altitude pace of fifteen breaths per step. As a result, I became hypoxic, flopping onto the relatively flat ground above, gasping for air like a fish out of water. Once I had recovered, I looked at the last section of the climb above me. It dawned on me like a revelation—we were going to reach the summit!
In the postmonsoon season of 1984, Phil Ershler had faced only packed snow on the summit pyramid, so he had been able to climb straight up it to the top. In May 1987, that same pyramid was reduced to bare rock with a few patches of ice and snow, so now Eric
had to angle right, traversing the slope until he intersected the top of the West Ridge route pioneered by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld in their gutsy climb in 1963. We were only 300 feet below the summit.
But Eric, still slightly faster with his bottled oxygen, climbed a short distance above me and ran into a steep rock wall with almost no foot- or handholds. (We would later realize that it was here that Hornbein and Unsoeld had passed their point of no return, necessitating a traverse of Everest down the South Col route to have any chance of surviving.) We were out of rope and pitons. Eric spent a little time traversing right and left, looking for a way through that last rock band. Then we conferred. “Ed,” he said, “I think we could get up this thing, but there’s no way we could get back down without a rope.”
I stared upward long and hard. Afternoon clouds had started to gather, portending a possible storm. But only 300 feet lay between us and the highest point on Earth! At last, however, reason prevailed. I said to Eric, “All right. I agree.”
We turned around and started down. It started snowing lightly, making the down-climbing all the hairier. We reached our tent at 5:30 p.m. Eric was so exhausted that on arriving he vomited in the snow. We spent one more miserable night in that cramped and spooky site. I got back to Camp II the next day, and to ABC the day after. Eric followed a few hours behind me.
• • •
Once I was safe and sound, the turn of fate that had thwarted us only 300 feet short of the summit seemed all the crueler. If I’d been able to top out, it would have meant not merely that I’d climbed an 8,000er on my first try. I would have been only the second American
to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen, after my friend and fellow RMI guide Larry Nielson.
But on May 22, as I ran into my teammates in the lower camps, I learned some shocking news. The same day that Eric and I had gone for the summit, Roger Marshall, the daring Canadian, had tried to solo the north face by the Super Direct. Once he got up the Japanese Couloir, he reached the bottom of the Hornbein Couloir, but then turned around. My teammates had watched through binoculars as Marshall descended with agonizing slowness. They wondered if he was suffering from cerebral edema, which had afflicted him twice before on Himalayan climbs.
At some point—my friends didn’t see it happen—Marshall slipped and fell to his death.
It may sound like an exaggeration, but I literally thought about those last 300 feet every day for the next three years. I knew I’d have to come back to Everest and give it another shot.
But I never second-guessed the decision Eric and I made in the early afternoon of May 21. By 1987, I had already absorbed the lessons that other climbers more experienced than I had sadly left in their wake, when the pull of the summit proved irresistible. Having now felt the tug of war between ambition and common sense firsthand, I could see how in many cases ambition wins out. In 1979, the Swiss-born Alaskan Ray Genet—one of the three men who had pulled off the first winter ascent of Denali in 1967—reached the summit of Everest so exhausted that he collapsed and died shortly below the top on the way down. And the tough and courageous Brit Mick Burke, a stalwart on the trailblazing first ascent of Annapurna’s south face in 1970, pushed on toward the top of Everest as part of another British team forging the first ascent of the southwest face in 1975. Two of his teammates, having topped out themselves,
waited for Burke at the South Summit, just 300 feet below the top, but he never reappeared. To this day, no one knows what happened to Burke, but his partners were convinced he reached the summit. Burke was very near-sighted, and had complained about his glasses fogging up. It may be that, as the mist and fog swirled around him, he made a misstep and fell down the huge Kangshung Face. Like Marty Hoey’s, Burke’s body has never been found.
Later, there was another source of solace in our defeat. As it turned out, during both the spring and fall campaigns on Everest in 1987, not a single climber reached the top by any route. The mountain repelled all its suitors. And 1987 was the last year that Everest pulled off that kind of shutout.
Eric and I could probably have gotten to the summit on May 21. But I’m not sure I’d be here to tell about it today. For all the remorse that turning back so close to the top flooded me with in the months and years after our attempt, I can see in retrospect that it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. It allowed me to pursue my dream on thirty subsequent Himalayan expeditions.
That near miss in 1987 was the first vivid demonstration of a moral I would come to live by as I pursued all fourteen 8,000ers: Listen to the mountain. You can always come back. It will still be there.