Summiting Everest: Flashbacks in the Death Zone

Here’s some good reading for when you’re curled up on the couch with the Snuggie after your rainy escapades this weekend. We hope you’ll get inspired to plan your next adventure.

The following excerpt is from a work in progress about climber and guide Robert Chang’s adventures and efforts to promote cancer awareness through climbing high peaks around the world. It originally appeared in Adventure Sports Journal.

Rob Chang on the summit of Everest
SB’s own Rob Chang
on the summit of Mt. Everest
May 31, 2005, 8:10am
Summit Ridge, Mount Everest, Nepal Himalaya

My labored breathing gives way to my astonishment; my heart rate monitor is pegged at over 200.  I peer to my right, looking over the precipice of a 8,000-plus-foot drop from the knife-edge cornice I am climbing on. The last eighty feet in front of me lead to the summit of Mount Everest – the highest point on earth.  The fixed ropes end, so this final eighty will be free-solo; no ropes, not connected to anything or anyone, except the twelve sharp points of my crampons on each of my feet and the pick end of my ice axe clanking onto the hardened snow and ice I am treading on at 28,995 feet.

It’s a quick thought that any slip or fall would obviously be unrecoverable. Death could come quick, or slow and painful, so I opt not to fall.  My mind flashes back to my more novice days, climbing a then-high ridge on California’s Mount Shasta named Casaval.

Climbing EverestThe echoed voice from the past of a cantankerous Shasta Mountain Guide tells me, “step, kick, kick, plant your axe – rest!” and resonates as I come closer to the grail of 29,035 feet. I repeat this almost as an entranced mantra.

Thoughts of my sister, who passed away four years earlier from cancer, come to mind.  My presence on Everest is again a small promise to her that I would fulfill this dream to climb the highest point on earth to promote awareness of a disease that took her away painfully from our family and her friends at the young age of 38.

I rhythmically keep my cadence up, keeping the Marine Corps Hymn in my focus, another thought of my good friends who are also in a far away land, and doing something very dangerous, but of course, on a different scale.  Courage, commitment and training are all things we share in common, and the Hymn has been a constant thing I have been keeping in my mind throughout my ascent.

Twenty long minutes later, I am on top of the world.

My altimeter blinks the numbers, 29,039 feet.  I grin to take in that extra four feet.  The customary hug of my Sherpa, the clicking of a few pictures is all in order.  I pull off my oxygen mask, which opens up my view.  Spectacular.

Shadow of EverestThe shadow of Everest’s pyramid is tilting northward a few hundred miles onto the Tibetan plateau.  To the south, a blue mass of what appears to be water looms on the bowed horizon, which I reckon is the Indian Ocean thousands of miles away.

The frigid wind howls, the minus-forty-degree temperature is getting to us. I have tears in my eyes thinking of my sister and my family and truly feeling where my soul meets the sky.

Our humble 15 minutes on top of the world is tempered by the thought that all of our water had frozen on the way up and we would do our 20-hour round trip in the “death zone” with no H2O.  Not exactly what we preach in our courses back at home, but at this level, you do what you have to to survive.  Instinct and years of huffing up and stumbling off mountains pays off on this day.

As I rappel down the Hillary Step at 28,800 feet, a 5.8, 40-foot technical rock section, I find my hesitation to trust the ropes 100% on Everest a self-realizing nightmare. The 7mm rappel line I am on is frayed and cut three-quarters of the way through from a recent and obvious crampon kick of another climber.

I go into rock-climbing mode, stemming, lying back a bit, and now down-climbing versus rappelling, all in my down suit and crampons, ice axe dangling off my wrist with my puny load of 25 pounds on my back.

Moving over stone, I think back to one of my first climbing ventures with the likes of Barry Bates and Doug Robinson in the Bay Area’s Castle Rock area.  Their mantra of economy of motion and their no-fall ethic quickly comes back to me — I wish I was back there with ‘em on a nice sandstone boulder.  The blaring wind snaps my attention back to my current reality.  My Gore-tex gloves make the final 3 moves feel more like 5.13a.

As I reach the notch at the base of the step, I find the comfort and security of a new 6mm fixed rope to clip into.

Many hours later I stumble into camp 4 at 26,300 feet.  A few days later I find myself back down in Kathmandu relishing those short moments — and licking the wounds of some moderate cerebral and pulmonary edema, facial frost burn and other minor maladies associated with an Everest ascent.

More importantly, I remember how close to my climbing soul are the mentors and instructors who show us the way over the years.  We may never see them again, but their influence and wisdom of the mountains definitely are imprinted in all of us — economy of motion and one step at a time — it’s more of a way to live life than just a way to achieve the glory of a summit.

Posted on 11/5/2010 in Backpacking, Camping, Hiking & Travel | Tags: | Comments (0)


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