March 01, 2011

Traffic Jam at the Top of the World

By Tim Lavalli © 2011

As I cleared the cornice of the massive boulder I saw the line backed up in front of me. There had to be fifteen or more climbers going absolutely nowhere. I sagged back against the rock face and tried to steady my mind. Time was critical, we were in the death zone, who the fuck thought it was a good idea to call it that? Death Zone! Shit can’t let my mind wander like that, I needed to focus on my options. I had 600 minutes of oxygen from the last checkpoint. Now how long was this bottleneck delay going to take? Who were all of these people at the top of the world? Where did they come from? Maybe we should have taken a number at base camp. Shit Eddie stop that, focus on the minutes of air you have.

OK, count them six, nine, thirteen, fourteen in the queue and one on the ladder. If they each take five minutes. How many fives in an hour? Three in a quarter, so twelve can go up the ladders in an hour. More than an hour to wait for my turn on the ladders. Take 60 minutes off my 600, no wait, damn. Not sixty, there are fourteen climbers in front of me – 70 minutes plus the guy on the ladder now - 75. Maybe I should time him and see if five minutes is a good estimate, I mean it is for an experienced trekker, but who knows if these people even know how to climb. I mean we nearly are at the summit of Everest but… oh man I have got to stay on task here.

Let’s see the guy is already half way up the face, where the two ladders tie together, so another two and a half minutes to the top? But what the hell! He isn’t moving, I can hear voices shouting at him, what is that – Chinese? He’s stopped halfway up and those ladders hold one and only one climber at a time. Move you fucker, get off the damn ladder!

I leaned back against the rock face again and tried to calm my breathing, I had to stop getting emotional about this situation and deal with the facts on the mountain. Every time I got upset my breathing accelerated and my O2 supply went down. I looked back to my right and two more climbers had joined the line behind my climbing partner. I barely knew the climber I was teamed with, Ollie the Norwegian sailor I had been climbing with for the last ten days had to go back down yesterday after an attack of pulmonary edema. I had met George this morning, we were a team only because we paid the same expedition company to set up the tents, food, oxygen and Sherpa guides; other than that, he was a stranger.

Just then one of the team leaders from Finland came round the boulder, the Fin team all wore the same bright neon blue parkas; he took a short look at the pile-up of climbers and ducked back behind the rock. How many of his climbing team did he have back there? They were now sixteen, no eighteen climbers from the ladder. He had to be doing the same calculations I was. I looked back down the line to my left and saw the Chinese climber finally at the top of the ladders, he was being helped by another of his team to clear the top rung. Another person stood next to them, could that be someone wanting to come down? No, it was too early in the day for a returning climber – it was then that a cold hard freeze gripped my chest – all of these climbers ahead of me might well be ahead of me on the way back down when oxygen would be short and everyone would be even weaker then they are now. What would I do trapped at the top of the ladder with a dozen people in line in front of me and death staring me in the face? Politeness might just have to give way to survival.

There it was – take my ego out of the equation and the calculations were precise, not all of these climbers could make it up the ladders to the summit and back down again. Time, altitude, oxygen and the limits of the human body were all X factors, known quantities; if I just removed “me” from the calculation everything fell into place. Some of these people were not going to survive the day. I was, but only if I turned around now and got out of this traffic jam at the top of the world. This is the decision no one wants to make on Everest. I made it in two seconds flat.

I braced myself for that task of passing climbers going down the narrow ledge, I wish my mind were more clear – then my second epiphany hit – I now have excess oxygen, I am not going to summit, I have nearly six hours of spare O2. I cranked the flow up to 2 then 3, what the hell – 4, I could turn it down once I got off this crowded ledge. My head became clearer with each rich breath. Time to get the fuck off this mountain.

I turned to George, lifted my mask and spoke into this ear – “The line is too long, we won’t make it, I am going back down.”

He looked at me like I was a crazy man or maybe a coward but he said only: “One step closer for me.”

I unsnapped by lead carabiner and reached around him to hook on his down slope side, then I unhooked the trailing hitch and slid by him. The two climbers behind us saw the move and immediately flattened against the rock face allowing me to make the same maneuver around them; they too were moving one body up the queue. As I came around the boulder face, the Fin guide gave me a worried smile and leaned in to speak – “My people will not listen, they want to keep going up.” I shook my head and move around him, once I was able to pass his group of four I would be off the narrow ledge and able to make much better time. As I moved through the group of Fins, the leader was telling them that I was a very experienced climber and I had decided the risk was too great. My thought was only to get past them and leave fewer climbers between myself and base camp.

Ten minutes further on I encountered another group of six, off the ledge now we were able to gingerly pass on the trail. I did not intend to speak to them but the last of their group was Nikki, who I had met several days before at base camp #2. Every man on Everest remembered Nikki once he had met her. There was a vastness in her pale blue eyes that could haunt your dreams and even covered by all the cold weather gear, Nikki was able to stir a man’s soul like nothing short of the summit could. I had to say something – “You are 28th in line for the ladder, you have many bad climbers in front of you.” She looked at me as if I had said the moon is made of green cheese. “There isn’t enough time, the lead climbers are moving too slowly; you should turn back.” She smiled and said only – “Thank you.” I moved off down the mountain.

Once free of the other climbers I began to experience a mountain high that often comes from lack of oxygen, I knew mine was because I had made a decision that would save my life. I backed the O2 flow down to 3 but I knew it was not mountain euphoria, I was safe even though still in the death zone. I walked into Camp 4 well before noon and made a quick exchange of extra food I would not be needing for two bottles of hot sugared tea. I changed out my oxygen and left the nearly half full bottle in the expedition tent in case someone had need of it late tonight. I strapped on my last full bottle and in less than half an hour was ready to depart Camp 4 and leave the death zone forever. Just as I squared myself for the trek to Base Camp 3, I heard a call; the leader of the Fin expedition was entering the high end of camp with three of his four climbers. He had a look of relief and grief at the same time. I trudged over to him and gave him a hug. “You saved three of them,” I told him. He was already lamenting the fourth.

At this time of day, I was the only climber on the way down from Camp 4 to Base Camp 3. I was wrapped in my own personal glow of triumph, I truly believed I had made a decision to save my life and I was not ready to wrap my mind around what George and all of those other climbers were going to face trying to get off Everest later today. Several groups were coming up to Camp 4 for their attempt at summiting, which would begin early the following morning. How many of them would be daunted by the gruesome tales about to come down from on high tonight?

I reach Base Camp 3 in the last afternoon and decided I had enough and would rest here and make the trek down through Camp 2 and Camp 1 to the true base camp early the next day. In less than 72 hours I would have exchanged a deadly traffic jam for a seat on a plane leaving Everest forever. I did find as many of the team leaders as I could at Base Camp 3 and told them of the situation I had seen at the ladders, I wanted to prepare them for what was going to be a very dangerous and I feared deadly night.

Just after eight, I wriggled into my sleeping bag and slipped on an oxygen mask at low flow, I was still rich in O2 rations and I wanted a real night’s sleep before I stormed off the mountain in the morning. Around ten o’clock someone crawled into the tent, I couldn’t believe that George had turned around, but who… ? As the other climber pulled off the other parka and zipped into the other sleeping bag I looked over and into those bottomless pale blue eyes. “Thank you again” was all she said.

Tim Lavalli is the co-author of Mike Matusow: Check-Raising the Devil.

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