Suffering Above the Clouds

May 7, 2016
May 7, 2016 Kim Hess

Suffering Above the Clouds

Climbing Mt. Everest consists of going up and coming down and going up again and down several times. It is required that your mind and body stay focused as you complete all three acclimating rotations, and of course, on your summit rotation. Rotation #3 would be new to me and I would be expected to hit my new personal altitude high of Camp 3, ~24,600ft, for a night of sleep. Mentally I was beyond ready to go but physically I felt bronchitis coming on the day before we left. Ready or not, I was heading up the mountain into the unknown territory of the Lhotse face.

If I spoke honestly out loud the morning we arrived in Camp 2 it would have been filled with doubt. I doubted my potential to successfully reach Camp 3 the following day. My bronchitis was slowing robbing me out of my energy piggy bank and I desperately needed every penny in there. Efficiency is key at altitude and I knew every time I had a coughing fit was depleting my body of precious energy. I felt rotten. With my guard down, I allowed doubt to creep into my mind, as it would inevitably do at some point during the expedition. I thought to myself, this is not worth the suffering. Suffering had become the all-consuming word in my head. Snap out of it, you’re fine. Drink water. I think you’ll feel better if you drink water.

Lunch was hard to get down but I did my best. Instead of retiring to my tent for a nap I forced myself to stay in the dining tent drinking tea. The more I stayed up the better I started to feel. I took my tea outside the dining tent and stared up at the Lhotse face. I could faintly see teams on the wall. The ant-sized dots followed a somewhat erratic line that appeared to not be moving. The longer I watched it became clear that the ants were in fact moving. Slowly. Very, very slowly. All of the sudden the wall that I had convinced myself would be a piece of cake became intimidating again. I did find minor relief in knowing that we weren’t going to be the first group up there and that others had the privilege of kicking in steps. After staring down my opponent long enough I returned back into the dining tent for more tea drinking time. I hate tea. What a waste of a beverage. Keep drinking.

My annoying alarm began buzzing at 3:15am the following morning. Normally excitement is the emotional following the initial annoyance of my alarm but today I felt nervous. Breakfast went fast and before I had time to psych myself out it was 5:30am and time to roll out of camp. Finishing strapping on my crampons I gave myself a quick pep-talk reminding myself that I can only be the best I can be today. No expectations. Have fun. One foot in front of the other. Off we went. Initially the blistering wind stung my face but I found shelter in the hood of my gigantic downsuit. I felt like a big yellow corn dog waddling up the mountain with the world’s largest muffin top. No one said this sport was glamorous I suppose.

It didn’t take long to go from warm and comfortable in the shadows of the morning to the sweltering heat of the sun. I felt like a roasting chicken in my downsuit. Anxiety took over my body. Must. Pull. Suit. Down. Completing a quick strip down to my waist I tucked the arms of my suit behind my backpack. I instantly felt better but was far from comfortable. One step. Five deep breathes. Next step. Three deep breathes. Find your rhythm and forget about the heat. Next step. Five breathes. I tuned into the air moving in and out of mouth to find a cadence I could sustain. Fresh snow ruined any rhythm I was able to establish. One step up, slide back down. Struggle to get your footing and step again. Out of breath. Breathe, relax and start again. Talk about a real ass-kicker. My throat parched I begged for a quick break to chug some water. Although surrounded by snow we might as well have been lost in a desert. We pulled over awkwardly on the fixed lines for a short break. Although not an ideal place to stop, it felt 100% necessary. Drowning my body in water I felt energy slowly being restored. A smile returned to my face as a team approached us. I tried to muster some encouraging words but my voice was faint in the dry air. The last member of the team passing us happen to be a woman. Short of breathe she managed to blurt out how nice it was to see another woman on the lines today. We introduced ourselves, shook hands, and gave an estrogen head nod encouraging each other to keep giving these men a run for their money. With my water almost empty I was informed that we had one hour left. I jokingly asked Mingma (my climbing partner) if we only had to go around the corner and up over that bulge? He laughed and said “Yeah, only 100m”. Perfect I thought.

The last 60 minutes was quite honestly a mind fuck. To go one hundred meters and have it take a hour is hard to imagine. I kept reminding myself that I can do anything for a hour. Just keep moving. Sing. Count your steps. Do something with your mind. When doubt tried to make an appearance in my mind again I saw tents. Relief. In the excitement of seeing camp I tried to pick up the pace but it was as if my feet were stuck in quicksand. I kept trying to hit the accelerator and nothing would happen. Dammit. Stick to your rhythm them. One step, five breathes. Eventually, I took that final step. Badass. I didn’t waste anytime picking a tent on the walk-the-plank sized platform. I was amazed how the brilliant Sherpa teammates had manage to sculpt tent platforms into the side of an inhabitable mountain. Out of the elements and beginning the rehydration and refueling process Steven and I laughed. We made it to Camp 3, ~24,600ft. We gave each other a zero energy high-five and took a rather pathetic looking selfie before dosing easily into a nap.

The rest of the afternoon was filled with periodic sleeping, eating and drinking as much water as I could stomach. Every movement I made I found myself instantly winded. Have you ever tried to pee at an elevation of 24k? No? Let me tell you how NOT easy it is. I’m pretty sure running an ultra marathon with a 100lb backpack on might be slightly easier. Or perhaps lifting a car off the ground Hulk-style might be easier than trying to pee at 24,000ft. Regardless, day turned to night and everyone dreaded the sleep we wouldn’t be getting. Sleeping at Camp 3 without supplemental oxygen is part of our acclimating process and acts almost as a mile stone to get to the summit. 9:40pm I looked at the clock physically exhausted. My mind kept racing with the idea that I should be very uncomfortable. Was I? Maybe I was just making it up in my head? My legs feel jittery. My headlamp feels too tight on my head but I’m too anxious to take it off-what if I can’t find it and need it? I have the urge to sit up for no reason and stare at the tent crystals. Reading is useless. The minute I dose off I wake up in a claustrophobic panic from the sea of down around my face from my downsuit and sleeping bag. Feeling smothered I jumped up and moved my head to the other end of the tent. Breathe. I fumbled for my headphones in hopes of finding some serenity in music. Etta James, “Sunday Kind of Love”, delicately rang through my head. The piano. The voice. The soul. My heart stopped racing, my legs stopped twitching and I settled into my sleeping bag. My mind drifted into a tranquil state and I finally found peace above the clouds. Goodnight.

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