To set the scene, last spring I attempted to climb Everest via the South Col after two years of training and countless years of dreaming. I climbed hard throughout the expedition, managed to stay healthy, and made the decision to make my summit bid on May 16th: the day before the beginning of the weather window. I chose to go a day early because the winds were forecasted to subside and I chose to risk the weather over the crowds.
Throughout training I told myself that I’d be OK with not summiting as a result of weather, but not summiting because I was stuck behind someone who didn’t belong on the mountain was not an option. Ten other guys felt the same way and so we made our push arriving at Camp 4 on May 15, intending to leave for the summit that night. I remember sitting in the tent eating as many Swedish Fish and Reese’s Cups as I possibly could in between pulls from my oxygen mask. I thought to myself, “This is it. The last two years of my life all come down to the next 12 hours. Execute.”
Loving the challenge
There is an unfair stereotype of recklessness associated with high-altitude mountaineers. Most of us, at least the guys I climb with, truly love taking calculated risks. We love pushing ourselves physically and mentally, we love the strategy involved with mountaineering, we love the camaraderie, the challenge.
There is nothing sweeter than the feeling of putting every ounce of your being into a goal and seeing it play out just as it did in your head. It’s poetic, really. The biggest challenge of all, however, is realizing and accepting the fact that, even after all the preparation and calculations, there are no guarantees. That’s mountaineering.
When we left our tents at 9:30 p.m., the wind was blowing a steady 40 mph with gusts up to 60 mph. We were fast climbers and hoped to reach the summit in five hours, long before sunrise. We climbed hard for two hours, passed all of the other climbers attempting the summit that night, and arrived at the balcony around 11:30.
Over the course of those two hours, the weather had deteriorated. The wind remained steady, it began to snow, and we entered a cloud of Rime Ice that was freezing our oxygen masks and corneas. The temperature had plummeted to around -25F, not including the wind chill. As we arrived at the balcony (a section of the summit pyramid) we quickly realized that we were in a very dangerous situation.
60 seconds of reflection
Kancha Nuru, my Nepali climbing partner with five Everest summits, turned to me, recited a prayer, and told me that he was scared. I sat there and in a period of 60 seconds reflected on the past two years. I thought about the moment I made my decision to climb Everest, I thought about the countless hours of reading and studying maps and dispatches, I thought about the leftover Everest ice cream cake I had waiting in the freezer at home, I thought about Da Rita Sherpa, the man who died in my arms just a few weeks earlier on a acclimatization rotation at Camp 3, and I thought about my family, my dogs, and my beautiful fiancé. My chilly montage was interrupted by the sound of Greg Vernovage, my expedition leader, screaming at me over the radio to turn my team around. And that’s exactly what I did.
I was crushed. Physically, mentally, and emotionally crushed. I had lost 26 pounds over the course of two months living on the mountain. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I did everything right yet I didn’t reach my goal. I was also dealing with strong feelings that I hadn’t done enough to save Da Rita during that tragic morning at Camp 3. During the first two weeks after my return home I tried to jump back into to life as usual because I feared that if I slowed down for a minute I would stop forever. This method proved to be unsustainable; I needed a break.
So last summer I took a few months away from the mountains. Although I continued to train, I spent most of my time with family and friends reflecting on my experience. And sure enough, after only a short time, I got the urge to prepare for another expedition.
Trekking Mount Kenya
Mount Kenya, more specifically the North Face of Batian, has always been on my radar. Despite spending around three months of the year in Kenya, I’d never climbed Mount Kenya. From what I heard it was a quiet mountain, absent of the crowds and drama that plague Everest and that seemed to fit the description of what I was
On a rainy day in late September I pulled up to the Sirimon Gate of Mount Kenya national park, paid my fees, and set off alongside a guide I’d hired in the mountainside town of Nanyuki. Our objective was simple; a casual two-day approach to Shipton’s Camp followed by a one-day “speed ascent” of the North Face of Batian, a 26 pitch, 5.8 route on chossy rock above 5000m. The walk into Shipton’s was rainy, muddy and cold- the kind of cold that settles into your bones and sets up camp. Setting up camp that first night on the mountain brought me right back to Everest; the smell of gear, camp fuel and sweat is a beautiful thing.
Our objective towered above us as we boiled water for tea and discussed final plans for the assault. Batian is the true summit of Mount Kenya, standing at 5,199m it shoots out of the earth like a mutated skyscraper on steroids. We planned to leave camp at 5:30 a.m., timed so that we would arrive at the first pitch as the sun was rising over Meru National Park. As I laid my head down on my bunched up down jacket, I stared at the tent wall and visualized myself standing on the summit. I went through my mental checklist, just as I’d done at Camp 4 on Everest only a few months earlier. I was back in my element.
When the sun arrives in the high mountains it’s a momentous occasion, high-fives are had by all as you regain feeling in your extremities. The first ten pitches were relatively straightforward, enabling us to “simul-climb” (two climbers roped-together but not placing any protection). We moved fast and efficiently. As we began to reach more difficult pitches we started to build anchors and place protection.
In no time at all we arrived at the crux pitch, Filman’s Tower. What we saw next was incredibly disappointing but not overly surprising: Filman’s Tower was a sheet of ice. We expected the rain that we experienced on the trek in to be snow higher on the mountain. We had no iceaxe, no crampons. We were discouraged but not broken. I took the sharp-end of the rope and began chipping away the ice from the holds with my GoPro tripod. After two hours of this I had only gained ten feet, it was hopeless.
When we made the decision to descend I was wildly disappointed. We were one-part unprepared, one-part unlucky and wholly going home with our tails between our legs. But we were not done. After we rappelled the final pitch, we trekked down the mountain and cached our technical gear under a rock. From there we made a fast ascent of the trekking summit, Point Lenana, and returned to Shipton’s for lunch. Finally, we broke down camp and set off for the 25km trek down the mountain. Within an hour of departing it began to rain hard. Very hard. We were being tested. We didn’t arrive at Sirimon gate until 10 p.m. – a seventeen-hour day of pure, wet disappointment.
Despite this, my previous disappointment on Everest ensured that I wouldn’t be too downhearted for long. Like last time, I’d take a break, recover my energy and be prepared to channel the inevitable climbing itch into ensuring that next time – next time – I’d make it all the way.