Twenty-six thousands feet above sea level on Mount Everest, we crawled from two small tents into the -40° Himalayan night. It was 11 p.m. on May 11, 1988. The wind had stopped, and the sky was a glittering tapestry of stars. Three desolate beams of light from our headlamps sliced across the expanse of snow, ice and rock. Tomorrow would be summit day. If we could climb the remaining 3,000 feet to the summit and return alive, our expedition would be a remarkable success.
Our goal was audacious: to take a new route up Everest's 12,000-foot Kangshung, or East Face, without bottled oxygen, or Sherpas to carry our supplies. This enterprise was so risky that our friends at home worried about whether we could survive the effort. The dangers of even a "routine" Himalayan climb are many: avalanches, ice and rock fall, hidden crevasses, monsoon storms and, of course, frostbite. But ours would be far riskier. More than once, I questioned my own sanity. Later we learned that even Reinhold Messner of Italy, who is perhaps the world's most accomplished mountaineer, had dismissed our new route as too dangerous.
The passion to climb the highest mountain on earth was shared by our team of four: expedition leader Robert Anderson, 30, and me—I'm 32—from the U.S.; Stephen Venables, 34, from England; and Paul Teare, 28, from Canada. My romance with Everest began at the age of 11, when I read Everest Diary, based on Lute Jerstad's chronicle of the first American ascent in 1963. His descriptions of Chomolungma—the Sherpa name for Everest, meaning "Goddess Mother of the Earth"—fired my young imagination. During the next 20 years I became a skilled rock climber and mountaineer, making ascents in many parts of the world, but I wondered if I would ever get a shot at Chomolungma. Given the small number of Everest expeditions and the intense competition for positions on each climbing team, my prospects seemed slim.
My break came in 1985 when my mountaineering articles and my wide range of climbing experience finally paid off and I was invited to join an ascent by way of Everest's West Ridge. It was a large-scale outing—the traditional way to make the climb—with 20 mountaineers from the U.S. and a dozen Sherpas. Supplementary oxygen was used. I made it to 24,500 feet, which was more than 10,000 feet higher than I had ever reached before. Anderson, a native of Colorado who now lives in New Zealand, was one of the strongest climbers on that expedition; he once got to the 28,000-foot mark on the West Ridge and once to 28,200, but because of a malfunctioning oxygen tank, he failed each time to make the summit at 29,028 feet. I was part of another Everest expedition, in 1986, that attempted to reach the summit via the North Col (a saddle-shaped depression on the crest of a ridge). It also failed, so Anderson and I both had unfinished business. When Anderson suggested another expedition to me, this time up the East Face, I was ready.
January 16, 1989
Anderson, who was the natural choice for expedition leader, obtained our climbing permit from the Chinese Mountaineering Association in Beijing in 1986. A year later Teare, another experienced mountaineer, signed on with us. Norbu Tenzing Norgay, eldest son of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who was Sir Edmund Hillary's partner on Everest's first successful ascent, agreed to handle the logistics for us. In celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Hillary ascent, Lord John Hunt, leader of that illustrious British climb, became our honorary expedition leader. He suggested that we include at least one English climber, and he recommended Venables, one of Britain's best young Himalayan mountaineering specialists.
In addition to the four climbers, our expedition included medical adviser Miriam Zieman and photographer Joe Mark Blackburn, both from the New York City area, who would support us at our advanced base camp on the Kangshung glacier at 17,800 feet. A Sherpa sirdar ("headman"), Pasang Norbu, would cook for us at base camp 600 feet below, with a Tibetan cook boy, Kasang Tsering, as his assistant.
Six weeks of dangerous, technical climbing saw us over the mountain's lower difficulties to the South Col and the highest of the three camps we had established on our route to the summit. Now we were in familiar territory, our new route up the East Face having brought us to the same point reached by several other expeditions, including Hillary's, which had made their ascents from other directions. It was from the South Col that we began our final push late on the evening of May 11. That morning Teare had become sick. Quite likely he was suffering the onset of cerebral edema, a form of high-altitude sickness that leaves the sufferer weak and disoriented. If it's left untreated, it can kill swiftly. An immediate descent was Teare's only hope, but who would accompany him? Whoever went with him would be virtually forfeiting any chance of reaching the summit. As leader, Anderson had to remain; either Venables or I would go with Teare. We were both healthy and feeling strong. Before Venables and I could decide which of us would leave, the door of the tent in which we were talking was unzipped. It was Teare. "I don't want either of you to come down with me. We've all worked hard for this climb," he said firmly. Then his voice cracked with emotion: "I can get down on my own. Just make me proud, O.K.? Get to the top?" He grabbed his pack and disappeared, alone, toward our advanced base camp, 8,400 feet down the mountain.
The South Col may be the windiest place on earth. It forms a natural wind tunnel between the world's fourth-highest peak, the 27.890-foot Lhotse, and Everest. Wind gusts of more than 100 mph have picked up whole tents—with climbers inside. To be extra safe, we stacked rocks inside our tents and anchored them to boulders with climbing rope. On the night of May 10, ferocious winds blasted the tent walls. A rip in the fabric would have forced an immediate retreat. Then, miraculously, at midday on May 11, the winds diminished. The gods of Everest were going to let us have a crack at the top.
With Teare gone, Venables, Anderson and I began the final 3,000-foot ascent in the pitch dark. The metal crampons on our climbing boots crunched securely into the wind-packed snow. Cold, dry, oxygen-poor air irritated our already parched throats, and each four or five steps required up to a dozen deep breaths. It is said by mountain climbers that high-altitude climbing is similar to running a marathon with a paper bag over your head. Our decision to forgo the use of bottled oxygen would make the final stage of our ascent pure torture.
Mountaineers, like other athletes, are always trying to outdo each other. A noteworthy climbing achievement might entail a new route up a mountain or a new technique used on a particular ascent. In the case of Everest, this competition has revolved around the use of supplementary oxygen, a practice that has been hotly debated since 1921, when British climbers—without oxygen—mounted the first Everest expedition. Ever since, the battle has raged over whether climbing Everest using supplementary oxygen represents an ascent "by fair means," a standard of some importance to climbers. In '24, Major E.F. Norton of Britain reached a record 28,126 feet without oxygen on Everest's North Face. The first men to complete an oxygenless ascent to the summit were Messner and Peter Habeler. of Austria, in '78. Two years later Messner made the first solo oxygenless ascent of Everest.
Of the 270 people who have climbed Everest, only 15 or so—and only one American, Larry Nielson of Olympia, Wash.—have reached the summit without the aid of bottled oxygen. It was this pure, lightweight style of ascent that we hoped to achieve. But we had lengthened the odds by choosing a difficult new route.
That night we climbed 1,500 feet above our tents. As the Himalayan dawn broke, the sun turned the upper wall of Lhotse, a mile or two to the south, into a sea of vivid pinkish orange. I had to take some pictures of this scene. Never again would I witness anything like it.
Though the sun had risen, the temperature where I stood, shaded by the crest of the ridge, was iron cold, perhaps -30° or -40°. My mind, dulled from the lack of oxygen, struggled to concentrate on the task at hand: To take the photographs, I would have to remove my bulky outer mittens. Underneath I wore much thinner liner gloves. Would my fingers be frostbitten? I needed to act quickly; the beautiful colors were beginning to fade.
I yielded to impulse. After all, I had been shooting spectacular sunrises throughout the expedition. I pulled out my camera and in two minutes took a dozen pictures, even taking care to vary the exposures to ensure a good picture. But the moment my fingers touched the metal of the camera as I took the first photo, I knew what I was doing was dangerous. It felt as if I were clutching a piece of dry ice. The cold was so intense it burned. I grimaced, cradled the camera, and then finished the sequence. I had no idea how costly those pictures would be.
Venables had been blazing the trail for us all night, and he continued on into the morning. It appeared that nothing would stop him until he reached the top. Anderson and I paused for a rest next, to a Japanese tent that had been left the week before by the $7 million, 252-climber Asian Friendship Expedition, a Chinese-Nepalese-Japanese effort that had resulted in the first live TV broadcast from Everest's summit. Some of the footage was shown in the U.S. on NBC. Upon our return home, we found that many Americans confused our climb with the Friendship Expedition, but the scale and means—they used oxygen and Sherpas—of the two expeditions were very different.
From where we were resting, I watched Venables climb a steep snow gully onto the mountain's final, knife-sharp ridge. Would I be able to catch up to him? We were now at 28,000 feet, and as I resumed my ascent, each breath strained my lungs to their capacity. I couldn't seem to force in enough air. As soon as I began to move, I was exhausted—I needed to rest after every second step—yet I had to climb still higher, where the air was even thinner. Time, like willpower, seemed to slip away. My already tenuous grasp of reality was rapidly weakening. Anderson climbed below me; Venables continued above. We were teammates but also individuals, as alone as anyone can be on this planet.
We climbed with intense concentration, our mental controls locked on automatic pilot. No one spoke. Two hundred feet below Everest's South Summit (at 28,750 feet, it's a peak 278 feet below the real summit), I felt my last, fragile connection to reality slowly dissolving. Snow was swirling off the ridge, creeping around me. There simply was not enough oxygen for me.
Looking up, I saw flashes of color and the movement of fluttering objects. Then I noticed that several people, apparently Buddhist monks, had gathered. Nothing about this felt unusual or out of place. The rocky ridge above me was ornately carved and brightly painted. Colorful prayer flags were strung between the outcroppings, and the purple-robed monks paced back and forth, chanting. To the right, Venables sat resting in the snow. He looked at me, but he didn't speak. Only later did I realize that the scene had been a hallucination.
Suddenly a wave of exhaustion washed over me. I couldn't stay awake a second longer. My head slumped forward, and I passed out. Maybe 15 minutes later—I can't be sure of the time—I awoke with a start. The monks were gone. I'm on Everest, I thought to myself. I've got to stay in control.
"Will you help me break trail?" Venables yelled. He was frustrated at having to lead all the way, but I couldn't catch up to him.
"I keep on falling asleep!" I shouted back. With that, Venables trudged his way toward the South Summit, a snowy knoll 200 feet above us. A second later, he disappeared from view.
I still thought I could make it. But 30 feet ahead the angle of ascent steepened abruptly. To speed our progress we were climbing unroped, and to either side of me there was a 12,000-foot drop. I began to feel very insecure. What if I slipped and fell or, even worse, passed out again from the lack of oxygen?
I looked at my watch. It was 3:30 p.m. At my present rate of ascent, I would be forced into a makeshift camp near the summit, with no tent or sleeping bag to keep me from freezing and little oxygen to sustain me. If I began descending now, I would still have time, I hoped, to reach the security of our tents on the South Col before dark. My bid to climb Everest was over.
I knew I was making the right decision. I thought about my other goals in life—writing my books, for instance. I deemed them just as important as reaching the summit of Everest. With only a trace of regret, I started back down. I was content to have reached a point higher than the summit of any other mountain on earth "by fair means." Behind me, the final ridge disappeared into the mist.
I met Anderson 200 feet down the mountain. He still thought he might make the top. I said I would wait for him above the Japanese tent. After more than an hour, Anderson stumbled down out of the clouds. He had been just below the South Summit when he had called it quits. He had seen no sign of Venables.
It was dusk, and we still had 1,500 feet to go to our camp at the South Col, so we decided to stay in the Japanese tent for the night. At least we had shelter from the wind. With no sleeping bags, we huddled together, clad in our high-altitude climbing suits. Was Venables dead or alive? We had no way of knowing.
At 5 a.m. we awoke and crawled from the tent. A lone figure staggered toward us, haggard, his face frosted by ice crystals. It was Venables. We embraced. His voice was very, very weak. "I made it," he said. "I got to the top."
We were overjoyed. Our expedition was a success. Venables had become the first British mountaineer to climb Everest without oxygen, 67 years after the feat had first been attempted by his countrymen. All we had to do now was to get down the mountain alive.
Mountaineers say that descending a mountain is harder and more dangerous than going up. Nowhere is this more true than on Everest. We stumbled back down to our two tents at South Col. Even here there was absolutely no chance of our being rescued; our support team was too far away to reach us, we had no radio and rescue helicopters cannot function above 21,000 feet. Nor did we have Sherpas to make tea and soup, stuff our sleeping bags, carry our packs or otherwise assist us. We were utterly exhausted and very much alone. We had existed for two days in what climbers call the Death Zone—any elevation above 26,200 feet.
For the first time I wasn't sure I would survive the climb. Oxygen deprivation, tiredness and the lack of food, water and sleep made us feel incredibly lethargic. We began to live in slow motion. After making and drinking some hot tea, we slept the remainder of the day and night. It was May 13. These additional hours spent at high altitude delayed our descent and probably were a mistake, but our bodies craved the sleep. The day spent climbing toward the summit had taxed us to our limits. Now we were ready to head for home. The question was, Could we still get there?
At 12:30 p.m. the next day, with our supply of food expended, we had no choice but to begin our descent to Camp II, the second highest of our camps, at 24.500 feet. The two tents, too heavy to be carried in our enfeebled condition, would be left behind: we would have to bivouac in the open in our sleeping bags at Camp II that night. And we would have nothing to eat, because we had cached no food there. On the next day we would continue to Camp I, 2.500 feet below, where we had stowed two tents and extra food. I glanced at Anderson, who was listless in his tent. Every so often he would sit up, fiddle with his crampons and then collapse. Venables lay corpselike on the ground in front of the tent he shared with me. When I pulled out my camera to click a picture, he waved at me halfheartedly to prove he was still alive.
My fingers were cold and numb. Earlier, when I had examined them in the tent, they had looked and felt woody. The fingers of my left hand, which had held the camera for my sunrise photo session, seemed particularly bad.
Stepping off the east side of the col, I immediately plunged into waist-deep fresh-powder snow—good for skiing, but not very easy to walk through. Storms the past two days had deposited large amounts of snow, and additional quantities had been blown over the col to our camp by the powerful winds. Conditions had worsened dramatically since our ascent. The possibility of an avalanche was extremely high.
I waded down the slope, my ears straining for the slightest sound of the snow settling or cracking, warning of an avalanche. A cloud bank obscured my view. I awaited disaster.
"What's it like down there?" yelled Anderson.
"Dangerous! Whatever you do, don't glissade," I shouted. "Don't slide down the slope!"
I could see Anderson silhouetted 500 feet above me, on the rim of the South Col. Seconds later he was level with me, standing 100 yards from me in the center of the huge avalanche-prone snowfield. He had slid the entire distance.
"What are you doing?" I shouted, incredulous.
"I glissaded. It looked fine," he said. "I guess I got going kind of fast. I dropped both of my ice axes, too. Could I borrow your extra ski pole?"
I left the pole for him and resumed my descent. Adrenaline carried me down the next thousand feet. The snow remained deep, but by dusk we were all at Camp II. We drank some hot water and then passed out.
The next day we couldn't make ourselves move from our sleeping bags for several hours after we had awakened. I found myself getting angry because I thought we might die. The climb had been such an accomplishment, and Venables had reached the top. To die now just didn't seem fair. Except for my frostbitten fingers, Venables and Anderson appeared worse off than I. They were hardly stirring. "Stephen," I said to Venables, "you're not going to be famous unless we get down alive."
But we kept delaying our descent. We're going to leave by 11 o'clock, we said, then by noon, by one, by two, by three. It took me two hours to stuff my sleeping bag. Finally at 3:45 p.m., in the hope of getting the others under way, I left. Whatever the cost, we had to try to reach Camp I.
I began to wade through more deep snow. The sky was a light-gray curtain that blended evenly with the snow-covered slopes. Visibility fell to 30 feet. Suddenly I tripped on a short, icy step and was sent sliding down the slope headfirst on my back. I knew there were crevasses below. Instinctively I clutched at my ice ax and jabbed the pick of the ax into the snow, and then I kicked hard with my crampons. I stopped.
A hundred feet farther down the mountain I saw a gaping crevasse. I swallowed hard. That was too close. The others had taken my cue and were descending toward me. It would be dark in an hour; this was insanity. It would make more sense to return to Camp II, get some sleep and descend early the next morning. We had wasted the entire day.
It was dark when we arrived back at Camp II. The effort it required to climb back up to 24,500 feet nearly killed us. We collapsed. We had eaten nothing in two days. I fell asleep knowing that if I didn't make it to advanced base the following day, I was probably going to die.
On May 16 the sun rose gold over Tibet. It felt so good just to lie in my sleeping bag; I could have stayed there forever. That was the problem. Again I was the first to leave our camp, this time at 10 a.m.
Storm clouds and light snow set-tied over us. Slowly, carefully, using every bit of route-finding skill I had learned in 20 years of climbing, I broke trail and navigated through the crevasses. Each step, I feared, might be my last. Keeping to our route was almost impossible, but occasionally I would get a glimpse through the mist of one of the bamboo wands flagged with orange tape that we had put in place during our ascent to mark the trail. Unfortunately we had used far too few of them, and some had probably fallen over and been buried in the snow. By late afternoon Venables had caught up with me. Anderson still lagged behind, but he yelled to us not to worry, that he was O.K.
Venables and I finally reached Camp I at 5:30 p.m., but even though we found our tents and food there, we couldn't stop. We had to reach advanced base, 4,200 feet below, as soon as possible so our companions could care for us. As we prepared to descend, darkness fell, and Venables and I discovered that neither of our headlamps worked. Then my right crampon came unclipped. I couldn't fix it because of my frozen fingers. Rappelling down the ropes that we had set up earlier connecting Camp I to advanced base camp, in the pitch dark, with useless fingers and only one crampon, was a nightmare. At last, 10½ hours later, we staggered into camp. After an emotional reunion, Zieman and Teare, who had successfully made his way back, tended to us. Because of the cloudy weather, they hadn't seen a sign of us in five days. They had thought we were dead. We went to sleep hoping with all our hearts that Anderson was still alive. To our great relief, he survived that night alone on the mountain and somehow found the strength to descend safely and join us the next morning.
I had never grown to hate a climb or a mountain, but I now loathed Everest and my memories of our assault on it. T could no longer bring myself to even look at the peak.
At base camp two days later, Zieman changed the bandages that she had wrapped on our frostbitten fingers and toes. Pasang boiled water for sterilization. Zieman carefully cut off the layers of bandages. Until then I had never imagined that I would lose even part of a finger or toe. I looked blankly at my fingertips. Almost all of them were black. I immediately suspected the awful truth I would learn within two weeks: I would lose all the fingertips—they had to be surgically removed—on my left hand, three fingertips on my right hand and parts of three toes on my left foot. (Venables would receive bad news as well: He lost three and a half of the toes on his left foot.)
Would I ever be able to hold a pen or pencil again? Write a letter to a friend? Sign my name? These questions about simple skills we take for granted flashed through my mind in those first seconds of disbelief. I tried to hold back my emotions. I visualized a sunny day of rock climbing in Eldorado Canyon near my home in Boulder, Colo., my fingertips caressing the rock. Then I again looked at my blackened, blistered and frostbitten fingers, and I began to cry. I'm ruined, I thought. I'll never climb again.
Since returning to Colorado in June, I have undergone seven operations and a physical therapy program. Despite losing eight fingertips and parts of three toes, I can wash and dress myself (buttons are tough), drive a car, write normally with my left hand and prepare meals.
Could I climb, though? On Oct. 61 went to the indoor rock-climbing wall that I had designed at Westminster City Park in Westminster, Colo. Formed of natural stone and built against the wall of an indoor basketball court, the wall provides a safe environment to learn basic climbing skills or just to keep in shape during the winter months. I was nervous.
I put on my harness, slipped my rock-climbing shoe on my right foot (I had to wear a hospital shoe on my left) and roped up. Then I surprised even myself by climbing three different routes up the wall. My life as a climber isn't over.
Nor is the rest of my life. I have adjusted to my injuries, I have accepted fate, and more than anything I am just happy to be alive. My goal was to climb Everest without oxygen. That goal was nearly reached, and our team of four became the smallest expedition to climb a major new route to the world's highest peak.
I came face to face with Everest three times in four years. I saw the sun rise from the gates of heaven, and I survived. I feel good about my future and glad for the camaraderie and success I experienced on Everest with my friends. Even my. sunrise pictures turned out beautifully. As Anderson recently wrote, "I never knew footsteps or a friendship could mean so much."
SUMMIT 29,028 FEET
SOUTH SUMMIT 28,750 FEET
CAMP 3 26,200 FEET
SUMMIT OF LHOTSE 27,890 FEET
CAMP 2 24,500 FEET
CAMP 1 22,000 FEET
ADVANCED BASE CAMP