October 20, 2006 Post-Summit Dispatch by Rob DesLauriers
I lie awake at 11pm in my sleeping bag freezing and nervous. I knew it was time to start getting ready. We had moved to the South Col in the afternoon, trying to eat and drink as much as we could, not an easy task at 26,000ft. The winds had died down and it seemed that the weather window we had been praying for was opening for us. I began my preparations. Getting everything together for a summit bid on Everest requires tedious amounts of time and effort.
Eventually, we departed for our summit bid at 1:45am. At 3:30am, Dave Hahn stopped us all and pointed to the east. We stopped to watch in awe as the moon rose from below us over Tibet. It was a beautiful orange crescent smile. A light wind from the west forced Kit to put her goggles on in the dark to keep her eyeballs from freezing… it was bone chilling cold. The glow of morning sun caught up with us at the “Balcony” at 27,500ft which we reached at 5:15am.
Three hours later we arrived at the South Summit where we waited an hour and a half as we watched Pasang Sherpa lead through steep loose snow on the Hillary step to the final summit ridge. It was an amazing display of difficult and dangerous route fixing at almost 29,000ft. The winds were picking up and a banner plume flowed off the summit to the north. Eventually, the rest of the team crossed the knife edge ridge and moved through the Hillary step. The entire 14 person team shared the summit by 11:00am with spectacular views. It was a beautiful moment for all of us.
As many people say, the summit is only half way. Now the real challenge began… getting down from the summit of Mount Everest safely. On the summit, Kit, Jimmy and I stepped into our ski bindings. It was a dream come true for all of us as we carved our first turns off the summit. We were all excited for Kit, as we all knew she now held the honor of being the first person to have skied from the summit of each of the “Seven Summits
Our intention of a complete ski descent of Everest meant that we were hoping to ski the Hillary Step. Unfortunately, the Hillary Step was not in condition to be skied with a lot less snow than we expected. We decided to rappel the Step with skis on. The plan was for me to go first so I could film Kit from below. Dave gave me a back up belay, as I began the descent of the Hillary Step. My oxygen ran out half way down the Step, at the crux of the rappel. My world began closing in. The team above was unaware of the situation. Fortunately, Sherpa Mingma Ongell stepped over Kit (with her permission!) and came around the corner to help me finish the descent down the Step.
At this point, Kit checked her own oxygen supply, saw it about on zero, turned the flow down and decided to get down to the cache of fresh oxygen bottles at the South Summit. She wanted to keep the train moving, which meant changing out from skis to crampons at the uphill corner on the Hillary Step while letting Sherpas step around her. Jimmy negotiated the Step with his skis on, but also ran out of O’s mid way through the final rappel. He eventually worked his way to the South Summit after getting resupplied with O’s from Kami Sherpa. In this manner the entire team after two hours of effort - kept climbing toward the South Summit as the weather closed in.
The time was getting late as it began to snow. The weather was clearly changing. The margin between life and death is thin at 29,000ft. Dave, our guide who has climbed Everest 8 times, had been diligent about hammering this point into us throughout the trip. We all knew we were riding the line. The weather change, the time, issues with oxygen and a potential wind loaded slab below the South Summit pointed to one decision, the complete ski descent was shelved in favor of safety.
I was proud that every climbing member and each climbing Sherpa made every possible correct decision. The hearts of the whole team were as one in the effort to make sure that everyone got down safely. A post-monsoon season can go by without a summit window on Mount Everest, and I knew we had already threaded the needle and we had gotten to ski off the summit. I also knew that the most technical and serious skiing was still ahead on the Lhotse Face. But at that point, we needed to get back to the South Col.
We all eventually made it back to the South Col and the shelter of our tents at 5:00pm. Exhausted and humbled, I crawled in and crashed.
Once again it is with deep respect that we express our gratitude for the incredible hard work of the first class Sherpa team we have had during this expedition. During the descent nearly each member was lucky enough to climb down at different times with the companionship of the Sherpas that we had befriended over the last 6 weeks. We all have a special story and memory of their strength and selflessness during that day. It is obvious on the superficial level that they climb Mount Everest, and other mountains in the Himalaya, for a living. Yet, on the human side they climb for the same love of life, sense of accomplishment and mountaineering camaraderie that we westerners experience.