Rush Hour in the Death Zone

August 9, 2016
Posted in Kim's Blog
August 9, 2016 Kim Hess

Rush Hour in the Death Zone

I woke eagerly before my alarm sounded. Today would be a day filled of places I have only dreamed of. It would be a day occupied by hard work, nervousness, and the unknown. I was excited to see the route, but admittedly, there is nothing worse than simply getting started in the morning. Dragging yourself out of your cozy sleeping bag in the premature morning and into the immobilizing chill of the air is the worst. Reluctantly and eagerly I began to move my ass. I will not be late. It’s time to pay the South Col a visit. Buzzing around my tent it was if minutes flew by in each blink of the eye. Making a conscious effort to stay on my time schedule I felt as though I was fighting the impossible fight. Five minutes behind schedule and with my best efforts put forth, I found myself battling the Velcro on my boots. Glove liners, which are imperative to ward off frostbite, are made of a material that is conducive to sticking to all things Velcro, resulting in a struggle every morning. Through the struggle I huffed and puffed my way into my harness and exited the oasis of my tent. With crampons finally on, I was pleasantly greeted by Mingma’s smiling face. “Kim, we go?” His simple English was comforting. Nodding my head yes, we left Camp III behind. I reminded myself of yesterday’s lessons: Be safe, clip, and enjoy this life you are living.

“Did my friend just die?”

Falling into the line of people on the route, I fought to find my rhythm. Everyone was navigating the cold terrain in his or her own manner, which was causing a bit of a pileup. No matter how many times I remind myself to relax and handle the traffic with grace, I simply can’t dispute my pushy tendencies. In the midst of my annoyance, I took a moment to study the climbers ahead and locate the culprit. In that fraction of a moment, without thought, my hands mirrored Mingma’s and we stretched out to catch him. With impaired reflexes and limited dexterity in the frigid morning, I felt the straps of his backpack in my fingers. As fast as I remember feeling those straps they were gone. He slipped through my grip. Glancing over my shoulder I saw the red Mountain Hardware suit glissading down the Lhotse face, eventually going airborne over an ice bulge. My head swiveled back to my feet. Standing in one place I was short of breath. My heart felt like it was burst through my chest. I know that backpack. I know that red downsuit. My mind went vacant. I didn’t want to know how this story would end. I looked at my hands and looked at my feet and took a step up the mountain. With every step my breath became more frantic. Did my friend just die? Holysh*t. Unable to control my breathing I pulled my oxygen mask off. Standing still once again I felt as if I had just sprinted a mile. Breathe. For fu*&ksake breathe Kim! Seconds must have gone by but it felt like minutes. The radios began to chatter. My teammate, a person with whom I had been climbing with for the last 7 weeks had fallen. I heard yelling and frantic commands. “Don’t move! Sitdown!” The impossible had transpired. A miracle. He stopped on the only flat area on the Lhotse face, the size of two king beds, which was thick with crevasses. He was alive. Most people on the mountain had no idea what had just occurred. Most people never had the panic attack I had because no one except Mingma and I had been the last point of physical contact for our friend and teammate. Why he was unclipped from our lifeline, the fixed rope, is unclear and quite frankly doesn’t matter. He was alive. Crisis averted. CLIP KIM! Getting a grip on my labored breathing I began to ascend once again. Within a few minutes my ears rang with shouting. Our guide wanted answers. “What the f*ck just happened? Did you see anything?” I didn’t have any answers except that we had tried to stop him. I would imagine this is a guide’s worst nightmare. I was happy to see his face and feel his concern for each and every one of us. Your team is your lifeline on Everest and without them you are nothing. He continued up the right side of the route passing climbers one by one and sending a very clear message: CLIP [slamming his carabiner loudly on the rope]! CLIP! F&CKING CLIP! Moving slowly up the Lhotse face I hit a “Y” in the route. Hanging a slight left I could see the yellow band clearly. The yellow band is a limestone rock band that encircles the top of Mt. Everest like a wedding band, and was our first obstacle of the day. Mentally I had prepared that the rock might be tricky to navigate with crampons on (metal spikes and rock don’t mix). The wind picked up as I moved my ascender up the pitch. Swirling snow and powerful gusts of wind only heightened the excitement. This is awesome! I topped out with no problems. Continuing on the oh-so-narrow traverse I couldn’t help but be distracted by the long line of people moving up…and moving down. How could I forget the 100+ people who had summited only 2 days prior? Of course we would hit them on the route. Inching our way closer to the next obstacle for the day, the Geneva Spur, we came to a halt. It quickly became clear that we should make ourselves comfortable because we wouldn’t be moving anytime soon. An expedition was bringing down a member that was in bad shape. Navigating the Geneva Spur is demanding, especially when aiding an impaired climber. I hope they’re okay. Since all we could do was wait, we took the opportunity to sit down and rest. It’s rare to have a chance to physically sit down on the route and take your time refueling your body and mind. The rest was welcomed.

“…we started to dance around each other…”

When the time came to start moving again I was cold and ready. Navigating the traverse once again I came to another halt. People. It was as if rush hour traffic hit except instead of having multiple lanes to relieve the congestion, there was one lane clogging up with bodies. Feet staggered because that’s the only way they fit on the narrow route, I started to feel tugging at my harness. Hands of complete strangers were pulling at my backpack straps and bear hugging me as if they were holding on for dear life. Feeling claustrophobic and angry I looked down at the rope. I realized these hands that were clenching anything within reach, were in fact, holding on for dear life. Most of them were not clipped to the rope. The fastest way to move past people sometimes isn’t the safest, but staying in the Death Zone too long isn’t safe either. I began bear hugging these strangers back and helping them maneuver around my body. Grabbing their safeties, I clipped them in when I could and slowly we started to dance around each other, making forward progress at last. The dancing eased up as I approached the base of the Geneva Spur. Marking the beginning of the South Col, the Geneva Spur is a 150’ section of almost vertical rock and ice that looks extraordinarily intimidating from below. Excitement trumped any hesitation and I wiggled my way quickly up the pitch. Popping my head over the top I gave Mingma a high five. Breathing hard in the absurd amount of effort exerted in that short pitch of rock, I began my casual stroll along a wide rocky footpath. The scary part of the day was done. Throwing my hands up in true triumphant style, I gazed at the 20 or 30 tents that were blowing in the desolate, wind tunnel zone of the South Col (Camp IV). Walking into the barren land before me, my eyes instantly shot up. For the first time I could see the summit pyramid towering above me. It had been somewhat of a “breeze” to get to 26,400ft, but staring at the hurdles before me it was difficult to imagine what the next 2,634ft would be like. Giddy with excitement I crawled into my tent to escape the blasting wind. I made a point to get settled and out of the way quickly before my brother and Paul arrived. Shoving some beef jerky in my mouth I heard my brother unzip the tent. I grabbed his backpack and oxygen tank so we could quickly get him out of the wind. Hugging each other we smiled, we laughed, and we discussed the near death event of the day. After getting caught up on stories, we turned out attention to making room for Paul. Blowing up an air mattress at 26,400ft is a monumental achievement and took forever, but was a welcomed comfort to finally rest on. Passing snacks back and forth and taking a quick video for Mom, Paul came tearing through the vestibule. Pulling him in and again grabbing his backpack and oxygen tank, we got our friend settled in the middle. Camp IV was serving up a Hess sandwich for Paul and he liked it 🙂 Meticulously going through our gear and packing our packs I swear things continuously vanished. Items that we were certain had just been lying right next to us would be gone, and poof, they would appear in a completely different location. Feeling like I was losing my mind in the chaos of the tent we finally found order and serenity. My layers were on, backpack packed with doubles of everything, and my pockets were filled with my snacks. Checking the status of my tent mates I noticed my brother had pulled his sleeping bag over his head in an effort to get some sleep before our 9pm departure. Although my body was pulsing with euphoria, I found ease in lying down, snuggled up in my downsuit. I had checked and rechecked everything. Lying there I pulled my phone out to play some Candy Crush to kill some time. I knew the best thing would be to try to sleep but the thought of turning my brain off was comical. Mid game, the most dreaded thought meandered into my mind….the devil himself. I needed to use the lavatory, which wasn’t my pee bottle. This meant getting up, battling my boots, and exiting the tent without my oxygen. This was going to suck. Paul gave me a pep talk and even offered his boots, which were easier to slide my foot into. I grabbed my camera and headed into the abyss. The South Col was uncannily quiet and static, yet strangely, I felt at peace. Wandering away from the tents I found myself incredibly connected to the mountain. To think about the climbing legends that had once walked these same steps was a powerful thought. Gazing up at Her glowing under the twilight of the sun I grinned, and although my butt cheeks were freezing in the wind, I was exactly where I was meant to be. Eventually the wind got the best of me and I hurried back to the safeguard of my tent. Crawling back onto my sleeping bag I huddled under Paul’s outstretched sleeping bag. Staring at the ceiling we were silly with excitement. This was happening. We were going to the top of the world and only a few thousand feet stood in our way. Closing my eyes I laid there waiting for my alarm to ring, signifying the beginning of what I’m sure would be the greatest adventure of my life.

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