Life and Death: Finding Gratitude

July 25, 2016
July 25, 2016 Kim Hess

Life and Death: Finding Gratitude

It was a calm morning. The air was crisp, but not too cold. The wind was sleepy. The stars were dampened by the bright light of the almost full moon as camp buzzed with noises of excitement. I laced my boots up nice and tight and made sure my harness was secure. Eating pieces of bacon and gulping down some coffee, it was hard to eat. In a few sort minutes I would be departing basecamp for the last time because it was finally time to climb to the top of the world. I wasn’t nervous. I felt eerily calm. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Ready or not, here I come.

The thirty-minute walk up to Crampon Point was effortless this time. My lungs felt full of air and my chest no longer begged to cough. The mood was contagious. Everyone was smiling. Putting my crampons on I laughed to myself. This is going to be f*&king awesome. The long line of headlamps were bright in the distance illuminating the route through the icefall. It was going to be a busy day to Camp I. Instead of my usual intolerant thoughts regarding traffic, I took a deep breath and prompted myself to enjoy this final lap through the icefall. Although the icefall scares most people, due to it’s inherent dangers, I find serenity in the maze of seracs and crevasses. Mingma and I departed crampon point in high spirits but it didn’t take long running into the traffic jam. My mind wandered into annoyance. Conscious of this mental shift I turned around and focused on the companionship of my brother who was right behind me. It was nice climbing next to him as most of this journey I have been climbing in the company of Mingma only. In this rare opportunity to chat with my teammates, we slowly progressed through the ice obstacles. Eventually, those in front of us tired and as a team we were able to pass them quickly. My body felt great. My lungs felt full of air. My mind was clear. The last time I climbed this route I felt rotten. My head hurt, my chest felt tight, and every breath was followed by a cough. I truly was very sick the last rotation.

Rolling into Camp I four and a half hours after leaving Everest Basecamp was my fastest time yet. Usually I couldn’t wait to crawl into my sleeping bag and fall asleep, but today I just wanted to be outside and enjoy the oh-so-bare amenities of Camp I. The sun was shining and with little to any wind it was hot. There isn’t much to do at Camp I so one must get creative. I personally felt like taking on the responsibility of playing supervisor to a few teammates who felt compelled to make the “toilet” a bit swankier. I use the word “toilet” loosely…it’s a bucket in the snow with a petite privacy wall made out of snow blocks. Eventually it was time to crawl into our tents, even though they became saunas in the sun. Eating our one military MRE of cheese tortellini, I was actually hungry for more. This was a good sign. I proceeded to crush any and all snacks that I could, stealing a few items from my brother and from the caches of food of climbers that were no longer on the mountain. Sharing is caring and it’s fun?

I slept like a rock at Camp I. It was significantly warmer this time around, which was a reminder that the climbing season was in fact coming to an end. It wasn’t as painful as usual to leave the warm comforts of our tent at 6am. My fingers didn’t freeze when securing my crampons to my boots or threading my harness straps. Everything was falling into place as I departed for Camp II. The climb up the Western Cwm was a breeze. Never feeling winded, my confidence grew with every step. My appetite was screaming. I’m definitely going to need some Rara (ramen noodles) ASAP. Traditionally I have taken a break at the bottom of Camp II before the final death march into camp because for whatever reason, the last 30 minutes was always the hardest for me. Dreading this per usual, I took a short break before getting back up to finish strong. Three hours was all it took to move from Camp I to Camp II. Again, I had undeniably crushed my previous times and was pleasantly surprised to feel solid as I put my backpack down. Taking advantage of arriving first, I found the flattest most inviting tent for Steven and I before finding refuge from the sun in the dining tent. We were going to spend two nights here, resting and waiting for our perfect weather window. Much like Camp I, there isn’t much to do at Camp II except eat, sleep, and watch the line of climbers heading up the Lhotse face to Camp III, and across and up to Camp IV. I would fill my time reading about Louis Zamperini and his willpower to endure the POW camps during WWII under the alpine glow of breathtaking sunsets. The moving tale of survival was the perfect read, as I needed all the inspiration I could get.

In the blink of an eye we were gearing up in the dark to attack the Lhotse face once again. I was nervous. The Lhotse face had broken me the last time I paid her a visit and although no one outwardly knew that, I was nervous she would crack me again. Suited up in our expedition puffy suits, Mingma and I doubled checked each other’s harnesses and rolled out of camp with the rest of the team. It didn’t take long to reach the bergschrund at the base of the Lhotse face. Pausing for a moment, I began repeating a mantra silently: “You’ve here before. No surprises. You are strong. Have fun. Breathe. Enjoy!”

Within a few minutes of beginning our ascent, it was blindingly obvious that this was going to be relatively painless compared to last time. Due to the large amounts of traffic throughout the season, the steps had been kicked into the snow and ice so impeccably, that it almost felt like a different route. Lungs full of air and a smile on my face the team was moving effortlessly quick and efficient up the mountain. Moving on the fixed line in the silence of our morning, I heard screaming. I don’t recall what exact words were being shrieked, I just recall looking up and dodging to the side as an oxygen bottle came crashing down the mountain. Within seconds the radios were alive with chatter about someone getting hit below. Sh*t. My heart raced with panic and concern. I started to pray selfishly that it wasn’t one of us and that whomever it was, wasn’t seriously injured. One of our Sherpa teammates had taken a direct hit to his foot. The concern for a broken foot and unbearable pain meant our teammate needed to descend and his summit attempt was over. This was a close call. Don’t let your guard down Kim. It is not uncommon for objects to fall out of or off of climbers’ backpacks at any point on the 40-50 degree slope and take a ride down the hard ice that extends over 1.6 miles.

Shaking off the event that had just unfolded we continued up to Camp III after knowing our teammate would be okay. Five hours from the time we departed Camp II and my brother and I were getting comfortable in our tent. Again, cutting a few hours off of our previous time, it was all smiles in the Hess tent. High-fives and hugs, we were happy to be settling into our sleeping bags, and pulling our oxygen masks on for the first time. Air. It’s a beautiful thing. Any movement at 24,600ft is a monumental achievement in the scarce air, but with the aid of oxygen you hardly notice it. After taking a few selfies and a quick video for mom we laid down. Faintly, through the hums of inhaling and exhaling I heard yelling. Repeatedly different voices shrieked ARREST! Curiously I wanted to crawl out of our sunken in tent but found myself compelled to stay inside. I didn’t want to know. Word quickly spread that someone had slid down the Lhotse face from above the Yellow Band, next to a line of climbers coming up, only to be stopped at the bottom of the bergschrund, 5,000ft below. Survival was an impractical wish. In the moments of chaos in my head I said a prayer for the life that was just lost. Questions flooded my mind and through the confusion, the certainty of this mountain was clear: Don’t. Make. A. Mistake.

It’s impossible to shake an event like that out of your mind and to forget what happened. I knew it would be impossible to not think of that man and his family. I knew it would be impossible to not envision that happening to a teammate or myself. I also knew it was a blessing. Tragedy has a way of revealing a message that often times we need to hear or be reminded of. In this tragedy, I was grateful for the important reminder to always be clipped to the rope and the consequences of making a mistake. Pulling on my boots I crawled out of my tent as the sun was casting a warm haze of color in the distance. I felt at peace gazing up at the summit and I felt gratitude for the beautiful life I had the privilege to be living.




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