Today was summit day and started at 12:00 am!! We slowly got up and got ready (it’s hard when there are 4 people in a 2/3 man tent with all their mountain packs!). We left at a quarter to two and I could tell that we were climbing some pretty exposed ridges when my headlamp’s beam simply disappeared into the void when I would swing it from side to side. As we crested some ridges we were almost blown over as we climbed onto the edge and made our way along.
Of course we were roped in but I was excited to see what the darkness was hiding on the return trip. The grey tower was much taller than I expected (compared to the yellow tower), and wearing full overboots and crampons added a new element to the ascent. I sometimes wish others could see the sunrise from 22,000 ft. And to experience the colors and shadows it casts in a place like the Himalayas. I would find myself just staring at it knowing that every second something would change and never be the same, accompany that with howling wind and me gasping for air because I constantly feel winded while moving. It’s an experience you can’t have anywhere else for sure.
The route led us through beautiful and challenging ice and rock formations as we tried to stick to the ridges, and progress was both satisfying and exhausting. I didn’t realize how good of time Chris and I were making until we crested camp 3 and had the “Dablam” ahead of us. The Dablam is a hanging glacier that ominously protrudes over you as you skirt to the right side of it for the traditional route. It It translates to be “necklace” or if you were to say the full name “Ama Dablam” would translate to say “mother’s necklace”. Anyway, the group of five that left camp 2 around 11:30 pm were just taking their first pitch of the Dablam and I was surprised that we had caught up to them. It seems that Chris and I always settle into a pace and tend to put a little bit of distance between Swifty and Charley. But we were surprised to have caught up to the other group so easily.
Because of the contradictory weather forecasts, we knew that we should expect wind but we didn’t know how much. As we were climbing, we experienced constant strong gusts of freezing wind followed by calm periods, but I️t wasn’t until camp 3 that the gusts became constant at around 60-65 mph, which could knock you over. A huge ice/snow tail nearly 60 meters long was coming off of the Dablam and the summit. I had over boots and a huge down jacket and big mountain mitts just for this kind of weather so after putting on the coat and mitts I️ proceeded to climb the right side of the overhanging glacier. I️t was slow going but I felt strong and I kept on repeating some of the phrases I had decided on with my kids to keep me going as I approached the summit. The air was thin and I would take a few steps up and then breath hard. Chris was probably 3-4 minutes ahead of me which was only a matter of about 20-25 feet. I was feeling warm despite the weather and strong and the summit was in sight about 100 yards ahead. It was the first time in several weeks that I had allowed myself to think I am for sure going to summit. Then I heard someone yelling in between icy gusts of wind. I turned to see Swifty and Charley below us trying to get my attention. He was using hand signals to convey that he wanted me to turn back.
I looked ahead to the summit, where I️ was close enough to see people’s breath, and then I looked back at Swifty and it was not hard to make the decision. I went slightly further up only because Chris had gone around a snow feature and I could no longer see him. When we met up he was on comms with Swifty and had confirmed that we were to turn around. We both rappelled back to camp 3 and watched our goal slip away. I was not upset or frustrated, neither did I feel ripped off or held back with the summit so close. Swifty had called it because of the extreme cold and wind, and he was spot on. He is just the kind of expedition lead you would hope for. Even though I was feeling warm and physically able to finish the task he immediately took mind of the powerful gusting winds and the -35 windchill and how he and some of the others were reacting to it and made the call. What impressed me more is that this was the same spot that he was shut down last time he climbed the mountain. Out of anyone who had a bone to pick with the mountain, it was him and he made the decision in a heartbeat. What a freaking stud! From the beginning we have had 3 expedition priorities which are:
- We all come back safe
- We all come back friends
- If fortune shines then we all come back with a summit.
In that order.
It brings to mind a few wise words:
“When the Mountain speaks a wise man listens” and “the Mountain will always be there”
The others were feeling the effects of the cold and to push on would risk frostbite and worse. On our way down I was able to see all the amazing cliffs and rock and ice features that we had completed in the dark, and in full sunlight it was an incredible and enjoyable experience. As we were descending the grey tower a Sherpa rushed past us in a hurry and using very little gear or protection. He said that he was just above us when we turned around, and said that it was lucky we did because both of the other climbers to summit today had to be rescued by helicopter because of “extreme cold weather injuries”. They and their Sherpas had to shelter in a small crevasse for hours waiting for a helicopter, and then the helicopter was nearly unable to land because of the high winds.
Just goes to show, never compromise when it comes to safety! I’m sure there was a healthy dose of help from from above, good luck, karma, good energy, whatever name it has for you, it was there and we are grateful to be back at camp 2 safe and sound and crammed in the small tent laughing about stories and drinking lots of fluids and recovering from a fantastic 10 hours of alpine climbing bliss, high winds and good decisions made with no regrets.