It didn’t take much effort to peel my eyelids open minutes before my alarm went off. My conscious mind was confident that I had never actually allowed myself to drift off into a slumber…the strong cadence of my beating heart made that impossible. I was happy and warm, snuggled up in my downsuit under Paul’s outstretched sleeping bag and although I was giddy for my day to begin, I was tense. Will I see dead people? How hard is this really going to be? I wonder what the world looks like from the top? Will everyone make it? I could have sat there forever asking myself questions I didn’t know the answers to. The only question I could answer was, “Will I make it?“…of course you will.
Navigating around in a tent filled with three moving bodies is an accomplishment in itself. Although I had already packed my bag and was dressed to go, there still seemed to be a lot of chaos in the Pottinger-Hess tent, but there wasn’t a lot of talking. The only noises heard were of labored breathing mixed with grunts of effort as things were stuffed, strapped, and Velcroed on. Mornings are always a crapshoot for timing. You never want to be the first out of the tent because then you are stuck waiting around in the cold for the rest of the team; but you also never want to be the last out because then everyone glares at you with annoyance. Knowing that I would never get the timing right, I looked around my side of the tent one last time and I crawled out of the oasis and into the black abyss of Camp IV. To my surprise, it was snowing. S*#t. Don’t panic. The big snowflakes melted quickly against the heat of my downsuit. This will clear. Relax. I bent down to secure my crampons to my boots when I heard his voice. “Kim, we go to summit today!” Mingma’s broken English always made me smile. “Yes, Mingma, we go to the summit today! Rock n’ roll!” We doubled checked each other’s harnesses and oxygen tanks. All systems were a go. Steven and Paul weren’t far behind as they fiddled with hand warmers and boot heaters. The dynamic threesome stopped for a moment to snap a photo. The next photo we would hopefully take as a group would be from the top of the world.
Our departure time was meant to be 9pm but in true alpine fashion my clock read 9:20pm. We were late. Glancing up at the route in front of me, my eyes locked on the lengthy dense line of headlamps. Well f*%k. We should have left sooner. Scanning Camp IV, it appeared as though most of the climbers had already left on their summit attempts. With a sense of urgency and excitement, Steven and I walked away from our tent as a team. It didn’t take long until we found ourselves moving right behind the traffic that had formed. My breathing was inconsistent with nerves. I found my place behind Steven as we worked to find our rhythm. Relax. We began passing flags that marked the route and I noticed people sitting next to them. What the hell were they already doing plopped down in the snow when they were a measly 15 minutes outside of camp? Wanting to yell at them to pull it together I decided to refrain and save my energy. Attempting to block out all other distractions, I concentrated on my feet until I came to an abrupt halt. Steven had paused for a moment. Assuming he needed to make a quick adjustment I sat tight embracing the opportunity to rest. It seemed like a few seconds had gone by before I noticed he was waving me on to continue. I nodded and said I would see him soon. Mingma took the lead and the two of us marched on like a well-trained military unit. My body rushed with energy and confidence as my breathing eased into a graceful rhythm. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a pair of red headlamps off in the distance. I couldn’t think of any rational reason why two people would be so far off the route. I wondered if they were lost or in trouble but it didn’t seem logical, as they were a few thousand feet from Camp IV. My mind flooded with questions and concern for the two stationary climbers. “If only the weather would clear they’ll see camp”, I thought to myself, and just like that the weather switched off. The snow that clouded the sky parted revealing the luminous glow of a full moon. I convinced myself that those “lost” climbers on my left would be okay and continued up the Triangular Face.
It quickly became apparent that Mingma and I had two choices: 1) Stay behind all of the traffic and potentially have a very long summit day or 2) Pass anyone and everyone. The latter choice flung my heart rate to a new maximum. Mingma turned around to look me in the eyes, “Kim, we go fast?” I knew what that meant. We were going to get ahead of every possible climber. I nodded with uncertainty. Ironically, for the first time ever on this expedition I didn’t feel the urge to go fast. I wasn’t irritated with the traffic. I didn’t want to kill people for taking too long. I suppose it’s because I was nervous as hell.
The terrain was still rather mellow so I broke the very rule I promised I never would. I unclipped from the rope. This was a necessary evil in order to steer around the knots of people stationary on the fixed line. Our only lifeline was that of our safeties clipped together. The first cluster of climbers was an easy maneuver. My confidence grew as we approached the next horde of bodies. It felt like I was in a racecar video game and all I had to do was slowly and methodically pick off my opponents until the terrain would no longer allow. With a sigh of relief, we both clipped back onto the fixed line and joined the cadence set by those ahead of us. Staring down at my ducked-out feet I began to wonder where the rest of the team was? Half of the team, including our lead guide Justin, had left an hour before us. How have I not seen them yet? Did I pass them? Am I going too slow? Popping my head out to the right side of Mingma’s body, I strained my eyes in search of any downsuit-backpack-boot combo that matched the build of any of my teammates. Nothing. That’s weird. Retracting my gaze back to my feet I zoned out. I couldn’t tell you for how long my mind went black but it was long enough that I snapped back into the present only because my ankles were barking with pain. Climbing a sustained pitch with ducked out feet hurts like hell, especially when you have been in this stance for the last 5 days. Feeling impatient and longing to give my feet a rest I popped my head out to the side once again. This time, a few climbers ahead of me, I noticed the gangly tall downsuits of Justin and Bob. I took a deep breath and sighed in relief. You are not alone. You’re team is right here with you. Within minutes their heads disappeared and I knew they had reached the Balcony.
I welcomed the flat landscape of the Balcony. Flinging my ass in the snow I felt instant relief in my ankles. I couldn’t be bothered taking my backpack off knowing that it would be a nightmare to get all of the buckles snapped again in the cold. Being the kind man he is, Mingma quickly swapped out the oxygen bottle in my backpack while I crammed food and water down my throat. It didn’t take long for my static body to become paralyzed in the subzero temperatures. In an effort to combat the bitter cold my body shivered violently and uncontrollably. Mingma, noticing my trembling body, gently grabbed my shoulders and looked me in the eyes, “Kim cold?” I nodded. We both knew I needed to start moving or things could go south quickly. Standing up I staggered through the over populated madness of climbers accumulating in the compact vicinity of the Balcony. My headlamp finally landed on his unforgettable yellow and gray Black Diamond beanie and bright orange Mountain Hardware expedition suit. Moving my oxygen mask to the side of my mouth, I yelled through the wind that I was chilled to the bone and needed to move. In Justin’s lovingly stern Dad voice he shouted, “Eat and drink all the way to the summit Kim. I’m hangin’ back with the rest of the team. Have fun. Be smart. Be safe. Radio if you need anything. See you on the descent!”
In that moment I realized I was the first to leave the Balcony, which meant all of my teammates would be behind me from this point on. The isolating thought terrified me. Focus. Leaving Justin and navigating back to Mingma, I saw my brother through the crowd. I grabbed his shoulder and told him I was entering a scary phase of freezing and needed to keep moving. I don’t know if he ever heard me or even realized it was his baby sister. Climbing Mt. Everest in the dark, although glowing under the full moon, is confusing. Everyone looks the same in the shelter of their oxygen masks and downsuits, camouflaged under layers of ice. I heard my parent’s voices in my head, “Watch out for each other.” Looking at him closely, it was blatantly obvious that he looked solid and strong. Time to move.
In the early morning, around 1am, the world was calm and sleepy around me. The trail of headlamps ahead dwindled as Mingma and I continued to overtake climbers on the Southeast Ridge. The ridge is mind-blowingly magnificent in it beauty. Gazing to my left, the full moon lit up Nepal and in the distance I could see camps III, II, and even basecamp glowing. The steady strong wind brushing my left cheek forced me to find refuge deep in my hood and wander my eyes to the right for my first views down into Tibet. Climbing in the Death Zone for quite sometime now had started to take a toll on my mind. In the distance, I was certain I saw small faint lights moving but that would be impossible-I’m in the middle of nowhere. It was as if Mingma knew exactly what I was pondering. “Kim, climbers Northside.” Holysh*t, the dim lights were that of climbers coming up the Northside. Instinctively I waved to them. Grinning, I rocked my head from left to the right and back down to my feet repeatedly, in an attempt to take in every moment. Flooded with accomplishment as I looked at the thousands of vertical feet and millions of steps I had already taken to reach this point, I laughed. Pulling out chocolate covered espresso beans that had frozen to my Honey Stinger chews I glanced down at my watch. It was almost 4am. I think I’m getting close but how long should it take to the summit? I quieted the questions in my head because the answers didn’t matter…I was exactly where I wanted to be. I wanted time to stand still. I wanted these moments to last forever because I knew I would inevitably forget what each step felt like. The euphoric thoughts floated my body further and further up the mountain and then I saw the glow of the sun trying to peep out from under the horizon.
Climbing through a chest deep narrow tunnel of snow I had reached the South Summit. My body halted to a victorious stop as I admired the beauty around me. Quiet and paralyzed in that moment I reflected on how I got to this point. Why do I climb? I don’t know, perhaps its for a moment like this where I can touch and feel the power of Mother Nature, the power of God, and the power of myself. In that silent moment as I watched the sun crest the horizon and the warmth kissed my cheeks, I cried. Turning my head to the left I smiled as the full moon that once rose on the day I was born was going to sleep in the west and I danced. My dream was no longer a dream because it had become a reality. The next 45 minutes were a blur. I navigated down and around the rock nook of the South Summit and wandered along the knife-edge ridge of the Cornice-Traverse. Through the eagerness, I managed to ignore the fact that the exposure was enough to give anyone vertigo. I’m honestly quite proud I didn’t pee my pants at the 8,000ft drop to the southwest and 11,000ft drop into Tibet. Slowly gaining more elevation as I climbed over the final rolling bumps, I focused on the prayer flags that marked the summit. Those final steps onto the summit blurred together and time ceased to have a meaning. The view to my left quite literally took my breath away. The full moon had finally gone to bed as the rising sun radiated a bouquet of warm colors on the world below. Anthills peeked through the thick veil of clouds and Mt. Everest invited me to capture her beastly shadow plastered below. Admiring her grandness in comparison to the rest of the world my mind, heart, and eyes froze in her charm…along with my phone.
Drowning in the emotions of Lalaland my senses returned to the present when I heard Mingma shout, “Mingma. Kim. SUMMIT!!!” It was 5:04am and I was standing on top of the world at 29,034ft. Mingma quickly handed me the radio. Pure joy radiated from my center of my being as a bellowed loudly, “HESS IS ON THE SUMMIT!!!!!! AHHHHHHHHHHHH”. I swear I could hear my celebration ringing loudly through every radio on every IMG climber all the way down to basecamp. I hugged Mingma tightly and we danced like crazy on the summit that we had all to ourselves. Out of breath we sat down and secured ourselves to an anchor. My phone and my camera were both frozen but in that moment I didn’t care. I closed my eyes and smiled in the marginal warmth of the sun. I did it. I found my happy. It was an honor to be invited to stand where very few people have ever stood. I felt privileged to join the small but bold group of women who blazed the trail before me and have watched at the world below just as I was. In those moments of privilege reality sank in…I had been climbing for seven and a half hours and still had to go down. My face stopped smiling and the pit of my stomach hurt. The euphoric blissful feelings of the summit felt miles away as I zoned in on the work that lay ahead of me…but first, I need a summit photo.