A narrow window
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Climbing Mount Everest is most often a game of “hurry up and wait.”
An “excruciatingly boring experience” according to one climber, hours and days idle by into weeks and months at 17,000 feet in a depressing, rocky wasteland where forecasts and weather windows dictate the climbing schedule.
“I’ve never been on a mountain where you spend so much time doing so little,” said another climber.
Though they help, prudence, patience and perseverance are not necessarily rewarded. And that’s mountaineering, Everest-style. Veteran Aspen guide Bob Sloezen, a three-time Everest summiteer by the Northeast Ridge, attributes his success to a “good hanger-outer” philosophy. That is to say, simply being there when and if the innumerable elements converge to allow safe passage to the summit.
That wasn’t quite the case in the summit rush during the third week of May 2003. Climber traffic jams, cold temperatures and howling winds plagued climbers on the Northeast Ridge’s crux Second Step, leading to prolonged exposure at extreme altitude, and severe consequences for some.
In the fallout, Aspenite Jon Gibans, 42, the emergency room doctor and last-month addition to the Steve and Mike Marolt-led Ski Everest Expedition, put his medical skills to use. Gibans treated severe frostbite and snowblindness, and one compound tibia-fibula fracture as a dozen-or-so stricken climbers returned to the 21,000-foot Advanced Base Camp (ABC) on the north side.
More than 100 climbers tagged the 29,035-foot summit during this spring season, coming from both North and South Col routes, and most did it in that first wave. But Gibans and two other British doctors were the only physicians at the north side base camp to aid blackened, blinded, newly certified summiteers.
“Help me, help me – constantly people coming into our camp holding their frozen hands up,” Aspenite Mike Marolt, 38, said later. “And as good a climber as Jon is, he’s a phenomenal doctor, and the guy was working for nothing for a week with all the people coming down sick.”
When the brief May 21-25 climbing window “closed,” nearly all of the 18 teams attempting from the north side beat a retreat for Katmandu, including the Marolt team. Climbing in a purist style – carrying skis, with no supplemental oxygen or Sherpa support – the Marolts and cousin Jeremie Oates skied from 25,000 feet (an American first on Everest) after establishing one high camp with teammates. They did not attempt a summit because of the marginal conditions.
But Gibans was a slightly different story. He had joined the Aspen-based team of nine in March, on the condition that he be able to use oxygen and Sherpa support. He declined to make a bid in the first push because he was hesitant about the weather conditions. Instead he became the camp doctor, dressing the leg of the 32-year-old Englishman who crawled down, and then was carried, after another climber fell on him and snapped the leg at 28,000 feet.
Once the medical ordeal was over, Gibans was prepared for a summit attempt if weather permitted in the waning days of May.
“The Marolts weren’t in a good position to do it in that window … and it still wasn’t a great forecast, but I figured `I’m here and if I have to spend another week or whatever, so be it. I’ve been here two months already,'” Gibans said.
Likewise for Aspen’s Ted Mahon, one of two climbers with the Global Extremes TV expedition. He, too, had waited through weeks of howling wind and foul weather for a chance at the summit.
He got his chance, early on the morning of May 30.
At about 4 a.m., the 30-year-old Mahon had gained the Northeast Ridge with fellow Global Extremes finalist Jesse Rickert of Gunnison, 30, cameraman Jake Norton of Boulder and several of their summit-team Sherpas. Looking around him on the ridge, Mahon noticed two things: First, it was church-on-a-Tuesday calm, in contrast to the 10- to 20-knot forecasts. Second, in the glow of a headlamp at 28,000 feet, Mahon could see that a fellow “hanger-outer,” Gibans, was in fact going for it, plying the Northeast Ridge by himself.
The two had talked briefly the previous afternoon at the 27,400-foot high camp, but Mahon got the impression that Gibans would “call it there and go home feeling pleased,” Mahon said.
Porba Temba Sherpa had helped Gibans establish two high camps, climbing independently but “paralleling” the Global team on the route. But at the 27,400-foot camp Porba Temba felt weak and descended. Gibans left his tent alone at 1 a.m., bound for the summit.
Mahon and Rickert and crew left camp at 2 a.m. Everest time. By 4 o’clock, they were on the ridge.
“We secretly hoped it would be this good, but we never imagined it would be,” Mahon said of the May 30 predawn hours. “It was just totally still; it was amazing to be up there. … And then we see Jon out ahead on the ridge, which was pretty cool at the time, considering where we had both been a week ago.”
It was no breeze getting there, but now visibility was unlimited and there was no trace of the gusts up to 200 mph that had trashed dozens of tents earlier in May. There would be no bottlenecks or survival epics this day, no two- or three-hour waits at the Second Step at 28,000 feet.
Twelve climbers attempted the Northeast Ridge on May 30, and all 12 summited. Gibans, the Snowmass Clinic and Rifle emergency physician was first, then 11 from the Global Extremes team: Mahon, Rickert, cameramen Norton, Mark Whetu of New Zealand, Mike Brown of Boulder, Ken Sauls of Silverton, and Sherpas Karsang (fifth time), Lobsang, Chhuldim, Phuru and Lapka.
Wind, fatigue and frostbite
Mahon and Rickert, two remaining finalists in the Global Extremes Everest team, a made-for-TV event that started last fall with a competition in Moab, aborted their first summit attempt after dark on May 22 when a troubling radio silence was broken by the venerable voice of Purba Sherpa. Recalled Mahon: “All you could hear him say is, `We need help.'”
Global Extremes leader Russell Brice’s other commercial expedition was in trouble. According to Mahon, Purba, the most knowledgeable, experienced and trusted of Brice’s elite Sherpas, was clearly rattled on the radio. The team in distress proceeded to trickle into Global Extremes’ camp at 27,400 feet, most out of oxygen and wholly wasted from their 22-hour successful summit-day ordeal. One was snowblind, another was badly frostbitten on face and hands.
Morally obligated to help, Mahon’s team shared precious oxygen supplies intended for their summit push, sleeping bags, food and water, and tent space that night. Instead of climbing up the mountain the next morning on live TV, Mahon and Rickert, the cameramen, guide and five Sherpas, found themselves ushering down two fatigued, dehydrated climbers, alongside the frostbitten New Orleans man and the first-ever Arab Everest summiteer, a snowblind Kuwaiti nicknamed Zeti (who was carried off Everest last year with a case of cerebral edema by a yak).
Zeti never thanked the team, and only one of Zeti’s teammates, the one stricken worst with frostbite, acknowledged Global Extremes’ efforts in the rescue.
“We get down on the 24th and they’re all talking about it at the lunch tent,” said Mahon. “They’re all psyched, they all summited, and they’re, like, `So why didn’t you guys summit?’ And we’re, like, ” ‘Cause we had to freakin’ help you down.’ And [Hermann, the guide] says, `We didn’t need any help.’
“Zeti can’t even see for three days and he’s e-mailing everyone at home: `I did it, I did it!’ And he’s going home to be a hero in Kuwait. Hero. But, meanwhile, he had to be short-roped down,” Mahon said.
“It’s like the stuff you read about. … I pretty much had a tear in my eye thinking that was our one shot, that basically that was it … `We melted you water, we gave you oxygen, we missed our own summit bid,’ and it was just an extra punch in the face to see how ungrateful they were.”
Moment of decision
After the first wave of summits, the frostbite and exposure, and nearly two months on the inhospitable mountain, teams were in widespread retreat from both sides of the mountain. Aspen twins and accountants Steve and Mike Marolt and five teammates – Oates, Jim Gile, Kevin Dunnett and John Callahan – became the first Americans to ski on Everest, but after enduring 27 “weather days” that barred passage to high camps, the team called off the climb.
Of some 1,500 Everest summiteers, only 1 percent have done it without oxygen and Sherpa support, and the Marolts knew going in it was a longshot.
“We banked on two weeks of bad weather, and we got four,” said Mike. “And those two weeks were the difference between getting the summit and not getting the summit. It’s just a roll of the dice when you go to any 8,000-meter peak, and you’re doing it without Sherpas and oxygen. It’s a longshot, and we ran out of time to do it in the style we wanted.”
The Marolts considered alternatives, such as speed ascents that would eliminate the need for high camps but increase the risk, and toyed with the idea of hiring Sherpas. Both were quickly nixed by the group.
“Personally, I was trying to talk them into it,” Gibans said. “Because I’ll tell you something, those guys are so strong – the Marolts, Jim Gile, Jeremie Oates, I’ve never seen anybody like ’em. They’re just monsters …
“But they were, like, `You go for it, man.’ Steve could’ve been, like, `I’m really sorry, expedition’s over,’ instead he had the confidence in me and my judgment and abilities … so when things didn’t look perfect with the forecast and they said, `We’re not going up,’ even though part of me said, `God, I wish you guys would go for it,’ I really respected it. We were just on different calendars with regard to summit attempts.”
Meanwhile, in another set of tents low on the mountain, Mahon and Rickert were engaged in similar discussions with their team. Global Extremes lead guide Chris Warner dropped out after he was hit in the head with an oxygen bottle during the rescue; cameramen and other television crew members wanted to go home too. Brice, the expedition leader, left the decision up to Mahon and Rickert, the two finalists who had been on the road with the TV show since Jan. 3 in Costa Rica, the Kalahari (Africa), Iceland and finally Everest.
“`It’s not a good idea; it’s a three-day turnaround back to high altitude, you’re gonna be too tired,’ or, `you can’t do that, you guys are stupid,'” Mahon recalled some of the Global crew saying. “But other guys were saying, `Give it a shot, it’s a longshot but you could pull it off if everything goes your way.’ So when [Brice] asked who wants to go, the camera guys were praying, `Please say no, please say no,’ but Jesse and I raised our hands: `We want to go.'”
Like Gibans, Mahon and Rickert followed the same fixed rope, the guide to the .9-mile ascending ridgeline traverse over the 10,000-foot North Face, up the steps to the top of the world. And as it turned out, neither Gibans nor Mahon nor Rickert, the so-called “amateurs,” needed a guide.
“Russell [Brice] made this very clear,” Mahon said. “He said, `You don’t need one.’ It’s very simple: Change your oxygen bottle here, turn around at the top by this time, and if you can’t do those things and you can’t make it up the rope, well, a guide’s not going to help you with that anyway. … And besides, Karsang’s been up it four times, and he won’t say a word unless something starts going wrong.”
Global Extremes and Gibans slogged up the mountain through heavy winds and mixed weather, until finally the wind relented, somewhat, on the afternoon of May 29. After Gibans’ and Mahon’s brief conversation at 27,400 feet at 2 p.m., Gibans returned to his tent and began preparing for his morning solo mission, brewing tea and water, and gathering supplies.
“I got everything absolutely ready, and I felt really with it, really focused, really good,” said Gibans. “I did spill one pot of boiling water in the tent. Luckily, I had a sponge.”
That morning at 1 a.m., Gibans walked out of his camp with two bottles of oxygen on his back, clipped into the fixed line along the route and began climbing through the death zone. He passed two members of the Global Extremes team, cameraman Brown and Karsang Sherpa, who were waiting to get footage of Mahon and Rickert, and kept going.
Mahon, Rickert and photographer Norton started an hour later and quickly fixed Gibans in their sights upon gaining the ridge. Mahon and Rickert, sky-running and trail-marathon rivals in Colorado, soon passed or dropped all the cameramen except for Norton, and the Sherpas of course, taking three hours to reach Mushroom Rock, the start of the technical obstacles and oxygen-bottle switch point. The cameramen were already an hour behind and Mahon was thinking about the obstacle just ahead, the Second Step.
“There’s a lot of talk about it, the ladder, just hearing that it’s a wall at 28,000 feet, you think it’s going to be a lot, but then again you never hear of anyone turning around because it’s too hard.
“And I thought,” Mahon said with a smile, “if Zeti can make it up, I’m going up this thing.”
Recalling the Second Step, Gibans said, “I was real ginger on the ladder. I’d heard the stories about pins pulling out, and if it pulls out I’m by myself, like, `Hello? Anybody there?’ Once I got above that, I felt pretty good and just kinda kept moving.”
Gibans reached the top by about 8 a.m. and was greeted at 29,035 feet by a commercial team from the South Col that included the former governor of New Mexico.
“If I have any regrets, it’s that I wish that I spent more time on top,” said Gibans. “I only spent about 15 minutes and I would’ve loved to have waited for Ted and those guys, ’cause they weren’t far behind, but I was a little nervous about my oxygen and obviously I don’t have any backups.”
By about 8:30 a.m., Karsang led three other Sherpas, Mahon, Rickert and Norton of Global Extreme up to the roof of the world, passing Gibans on his way down with hearty congratulations.
“We never got lazy because we thought we had made it,” Mahon said. “We were always expecting it to get windier as we got higher, it just never did. … At the top, the hard part’s over and finally you can see Lhotse, Nuptse, the whole south side that you couldn’t until then. And on May 30th, one of the last days you could possibly be up there, the whole mountain’s empty, it’s a great feeling to have given it another shot when we went up when everyone else did and it didn’t work out. It takes persistence.”
Gibans retreated safely to the 23,000-foot North Col that day, while Mahon and Rickert finished the day at 6 p.m. at the 21,000-foot camp: not home yet, but safe all around.
Gibans and Mahon both remembered the advice of Aspen guide Sloezen, who said May 31 was the “latest” day anyone had summited Everest. Gibans and Mahon took heed of the information, because that latest-day climber was Sloezen himself on May 31, 1994.
“We always joke, and we always use his words because he’s kind of the guru, but it’s: `You gotta be patient. You gotta be a good hanger-outer,'” Gibans said of the Sloezen slogan. “And it’s absolutely true, and maybe that’s where some credit is due. I hung it out and it paid off.”
Before leaving Everest, the Marolts began laying plans for a return. It’ll be different next time though, hopefully bypassing the interminable boredom of North Everest base camps in favor of a warmup ski/climb of nearby Cho Oyu, another 8,000-meter peak.
Said Steve Marolt, back in Aspen, “2005 or 2006, that’s in the can. Cho’s a pure ski peak, [we can] acclimate on that and then just try to run up Everest as fast as we can. A lot of people think it’s overly ambitious, but everybody’s always kind of laughed at us when we plan something, but we somehow always manage to do it – at least an honest effort.”
Mahon and Gibans, however, aren’t thinking much about big mountains right now. Mahon returned to work at Cache Cache four days after returning home (six months later), and he’s broken out his high-thirteener guidebook again. He doesn’t expect to race much this season, certainly nothing like last summer’s Leadville 100 anyway.
“There had been so many races, just race after race fighting for elimination, that by the time I got to Iceland the start-line adrenaline was all burnt out,” Mahon said. “I just didn’t care anymore. About competition, anyway.”
Reflecting, Steve Marolt said there was some disappointment but no regrets.
“Of course you want to get to the top,” he said. “Anyone that puts them through that and tells you that the top’s not important, I think, is lying to you. I think it’s important. I really want to get to the top, but I also didn’t have any great expectations that we were going to do it on our first trip over there.
“And if you look at the attitudes certain mature climbers have, when you just accept the outcome, you’re really talking about the whole journey of getting to the point where you can have a summit attempt, and that’s the whole goal. That’s the essence of it.”
Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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