I spent 15 minutes at the summit of Everest, the highest person on earth. What was it like, you ask? Well, not as euphoric as you might expect. It was -23C / -10F and somewhat windy up there, and I was really quite tired after the exertion of the climb. I was also acutely aware that I was only at the half way point. Stastitically, more people die on the descent than on the way up, and that was the second rookie mistake I wanted to avoid. Beyond that concern, I knew I was slowly dying. Without supplemental oxygen at the summit the human body (and brain cells) are actively breaking down, and I was keen to return with most of my brain cells still working. They don’t grow back, after all. Happiness and satisfaction at the summit, certainly, but no elation and little time to appreciate it all anyway.
That said, there was a strong sense that I was in a very special place, especially as there were only the three of us (myself, Thunang and another sherpa carrying my emergency oxygen) on the entire upper mountain by that time. I could see literally hundreds of miles into both India and Tibet, a view which encompassed the entire width of the Himalaya from plains to plateau. Snowy peaks and endless mountains receeded to the horizon like waves on the ocean, each wave fainter than the previous. From my vantage point I looked down on mountains far below; mountains which had previously towered above me as I looked up from Base Camp. The scale of the place and the sheer size of Mt Everest was hard to comprehend. I had decided to climb this mountain in part because it was a unique experience and a unique place, and it did not disappoint.
We took some photos and soon it was time to leave. With one last look and the widest of smiles I stepped off the summit for the last time and began the walk back down to Earth – at least that’s what it felt like. With most mountains this is where things get less strenuous. Not on Everest. We certainly were moving faster, but not as quickly or as easily as I expected. Breathing still controlled my world, and I was still a slave to that harsh master. Descending to the South Summit was also technically tricky, culminating with me putting a crampon point right through my down suit. Ooops. Oh well, it wasn’t like I needed it for much longer, and a few feathers in the wind never hurt anyone. We crossed the Cornice Traverse and made the short grueling climb to the top of the South Summit before descending the ridge below. When we reached the steep rock section midway down I quickly understood how people get themselves dead on the return leg. With my broken wrist wrapped around the rope as a brake and my crampons slipping on the rocks I have had better moments. It was just so draining to keep concentrating and progress was slow, but eventually we were back on safer snow and nearly at the Balcony.
It was now I completely ran out of gas. Each burst of action was only 2 steps followed by a rest. With so little oxygen available the body tries to burn glucose for fuel, and I was now fully depleted. At this stage the body is forced to then burn a combination of fat and muscle, which it can only convert slowly, and two steps was all I could muster before giving my body a brief chance to metabolize some new fuel. I could see where we were going but it seemed like a mirage, never getting nearer. The climb up to the Balcony that morning had been brutal, and the same section in reverse was no better. Not my favorite bit of mountain, that much is certain.
On the climb up my body had started to visualize different actions in strange ways, and here it began again. Each conscious breath in was accompanied by a sense of blue and left. It wasn’t a hallucination and I didn’t see anything visually, it was more like a daydream but one which ran concurrently with my waking mind. The level of blue – and hence my rate of breathing – was then overseen in my mind by an old man with a white beard. Nope, I have no idea either! It was like my body was communicating to me in the third person. In addition to blue and left, I found that when I hyperventilated out of my control those sensations disappeared and I instead had a sense of yellow and right. I think it was my body’s way of giving feedback on my levels of hypoxia and it’s cause, but I don’t know. I said I wanted unique experiences, and these certainly qualified.
On the way down things were slightly different. Here, the number of steps I could take was oddly controlled in my mind, not by the old man with the white beard, but by a German banker in a dark suit! I used to work for a German bank when I was younger, but it was still very random. On the final approach to the South Col I remember negotiating with this banker on whether I could instead take three, or perhaps even four steps in a row! He said no!
Finally, at around 4pm I was only yards from camp, still taking 2 steps in each cycle. I pulled off my crampons and unceremoniously dived inside my tent, too tired to move much more. A very kind sherpa made me some instant noodles while I crawled into my sleeping bag (still fully clothed, minus the boots) and I soon fell into a deep sleep. My face was covered in ice and I was the most tired man alive, but otherwise I was in one piece, past the majority of danger (for now), and happy. I had reached the summit of Everest and stage one of the descent had been a success!