I reached the summit of Everest with a struggle greater than I had ever thought possible. Waves of fear and relief washed over me as I collapsed on to the great mountain’s snowy top. I wanted to cry. For the last 100m of altitude I had wrestled with fear at every step, willing myself to survive and to keep climbing.
Breathing deeply and hoarsely, but without any true relief to my heart, I looked at the view I had been too busy to notice earlier.
From where I sat the landscape swept away before my feet. To the northeast, where the mountain drops off steeply, I could see the arid hills of Tibet; on the other side, where Everest rolls more gradually towards the edge of the South-West face, lay the route by which my Czechoslovakian friends were climbing ice and rock towards me. In the southwest distance the foothills of Nepal were a hazy green-grey. East and west, snowy mountains rippled along the spine of the Himalaya.
Every large mountain I could recognise was a long way below me. I tried to spare some mental energy to absorb the beauty, but I was too exhausted and only wanted to sit down forever. Fatigued, I pondered how much of a chance I had of returning to my tent on the South Col. I wondered if I might as well stay put. So much easier to stay sitting there than muster the enormous motivation required to battle the wind and altitude down to the Hillary Step.
The summit of Mt Everest that October evening was the coldest and emptiest place on earth. The wind was nearly strong enough to blow me off. I had lost my watch, but the sun was low, nearing the lazy bulk of Cho-Oyu — it must have been about 5pm. With the greatest effort I stood up, and placing my ice axe carefully in a well-frozen staircase of steps, I began my descent.
The New Zealand team of Bill Atkinson, Rob Hall, Gary Ball and myself had travelled to Kathmandu in mid-August to join fcrces with four Czechoslovakian climbers in a bid for Everest. During the period of altitude adjustment at Everest Base Camp our combined team of eight climbers formed into three groups. I teamed up with Peter Bozik and Jaro Jasko, both experienced Himalayan climbers, and we became very strong friends.
Our expedition had permission to climb Lhotse, 8511m, a peak next to the South Col of Everest, and Everest’s South-West Face, The Czechs intended to climb the Bonington route — the steepest, most technically demanding route to the summit. Conditions on the mountain made this route too difficult for the four New Zealanders, so we opted for an easier route to the right of the South-West Face.
Gary, Rob and Bill made their attempt on October 13, but were forced to retreat. Rob and Bill came down late in the afternoon, beaten by fatigue, while Gary struggled on alone in deep, crusty snow to 7800m before he, too, turned back.
I realised then that to have any chance of summiting I would have to climb via the South Col route, which had well defined steps trodden by earlier expeditions that season. I did not have permission for this route, but I desperately wanted to climb the mountain and hoped that I could sort things out in Kathmandu on the way back.
My plan was to climb from Camp 2 to Camp 4, 8000m, on the 13th, and from there to strike for the summit on the following day.
The morning of the 14th started early for me. I left my tiny, battered tent on the South Col at 2am and began the long climb up to the South Summit. Conditions were perfect hard neve (permanent) snow at first, then the small, crusty steps from a Spanish team ahead of me. My breathless, stop-start progress made it a long business. Always ahead, and gaining distance with their oxygen bottles, the Spaniards in their red suits climbed up what had become a deep, well-used track.
It took me twelve hours to reach the South Summit, where I met the three Spaniards and two Sherpas returning from the top. They said it was late, 2.40pm, and I should not go on. I asked them how much time it had taken them to get up and back from the South Summit. They said two hours. I decided I had enough time if I left by 3pm. The Spaniards were roped together and would be descending far more slowly than I. I found it hard to understand why they were using ropes, as the ground was technically very easy. Later I discovered they had been quite exhausted and one nearly died of cerebral oedema (retention of fluid in the brain) over the following few days.
Before they left me I took out my camera and tried to take a photograph of them. I was angry and frustrated to find the camera frozen and unworkable. It was a potent reminder that outside the high-tech ‘armour’ Macpac-Wilderness had provided for me it was cold enough to freeze the body. One of the Spanish team went home with severe frostbite, probably losing toes. I determined not to take off my outer mitts for the rest of the climb.
Down from the South Summit I had to cross a little col (dip) before beginning a traverse of ups and downs to the Hillary Step, a difficult 20m stretch of 70° snow and rock. I carefully climbed down to the edge of a bergshrund (a split in the ice) traversed by a narrow snowbridge. The bridge was full of big footprints almost through the snow, and I was afraid to follow in these since I was on my own without a rope. To spread my weight I got down on my hands and knees and crawled. On the other side I sat down and looked back. The last Spaniard, who had been watching me from the South Summit, raised his hand in farewell and walked away down the other side. He looked exhausted. The wind blew more strongly than before.
I, too, was exhausted. In order to keep going on I realised my priorities had to change from “survival” to “climbing”. Instead of thinking, “There’s very little chance of survival if I climb Mt Everest,” I had to think, “There’s a 100 per cent chance of climbing Mt Everest if I survive.”
I traversed the ridge which marks the Tibet-Nepal border until I reached the Hillary Step, A fixed rope (left there by a previous expedition) was bowing in the wind. Concentrating very hard, I twisted the rope in my right hand and stepped left on to steep ground. If I could make it up this Step then the summit was mine. My heart was racing from hard work and fear. I was moving beyond any situation I had experienced before. Bridging the gap between rock and snow, doubt and resolution, I climbed ten steps and bent over to rest; then I repeated the process.
At the top of the Step I found a small knoll and sat down. I didn’t even think about time. I was nearly there. The sun was still bright as I crossed a long, arching ridge, passed a slight dip towards the South-West Face and then climbed the final slope to the top.
It was one thing to have climbed the highest mountain in the world; now I had to find the motivation to get back down. I became frightened even thinking about reversing the Hillary Step.
I had to resist the temptation to dream and the wind was pushing me around. My face was cold and wind-burnt and I felt mentally disorganised from the lack of oxygen. It was important to concentrate on only two things: my condition and my actions. Were my crampons and gloves on properly? Was I breathing correctly? Moving down, I developed a series of short orders to myself. When the wind gusted, “Brace yourself.” As I reached the Hillary Step, “Stand up; turn around; take one step down.” It was really steep where the rope started. I went to the left a bit. I could see down between my feet. A long way, but it wasn’t any more difficult or dangerous than many other mountains I had been on, and here I simply had to use other people’s guiding steps.
With less experience than I had in the mountains, I am certain I would have failed these automatic actions. Tensed, ready for the wind and with pain in my chest from breathing too hard, I started to back down. I never looked at the view, and I remember thinking, “All this scary wind and yet not enough air to breathe! When I get to the South Summit I’ll be okay. I can see home.”
Below the South Summit it became easier to breathe and I had to stop less often. I felt almost optimistic, but there was no spare time for emotions. Downclimbing, my only vision was of my feet, warm in black plastic Asolo Expedition boots. When I sat down to rest I watched the sun glow blood red on Makalu, the world’s fifth highest mountain, and I briefly thought of returning to Nepal to climb it.
I reached Camp 4 well after nightfall, and had trouble finding my tent. I had been guided for the last 20 minutes by translucent light from the Spanish tent. I knew my tent was about 200m from theirs, but I couldn’t decide whether it was south or west, and I didn’t have enough strength to walk all over the South Col looking for it.
Ducking on to my knees I crawled into the sunken vestibule of the Spaniards’ dome tent to ask for directions. Ang Rita, a Sherpa who had just made his fifth ascent of Everest without bottled oxygen, was melting snow for the Spaniards. How nice to have someone to look after you, I thought. Ang Rita turned and greeted me.
“Summit?” he asked. I said yes, and asked him what the time was. “8.30,” he said. He told me how to get to my tent and I left their shelter back into the freezing wind that was raking the South Col.
I was too tired to walk more than five steps at a time before dropping to the snow and hiding my face from the ice particles blasting across the 8000m plateau. I talked to myself, driving myself to go just a little further, until finally I made out the black-against night shape of the twisted American tent that was ‘home’.
I crawled inside and noted with appreciation the stove, pots, lighters and lumps of snow I had organised before leaving for the summit. Methodically I removed my boots, put on dry down booties and began to melt snow in between drifts of exhausted sleep.
It was noon of the following day before I had drunk enough water and felt ready to manage the traverse to the edge of the South Col on the way down. The wind was even stronger than before and the plateau was deserted; the Spaniards had left early to get their seriously ill team member back to Base Camp.
The descent was easier than I had anticipated. I passed the Spanish team on the fixed ropes to Camp 3 and reached Camp 2 at dusk, where I was greeted with hot, sweet coffee. How good it was to be safe and alive! I “yahooed” at the thought of having made the summit, but left the real celebrations for Base Camp, when I would be reunited with Peter, Jaro, Yojo and Dusan. Then we would break out the Russian champagne.
I returned to Base Camp on October 16 in ebullient mood. Ivan Fiala, the official Kiwi/Czech leader, gave me a big hug, and I told him in simple English that his encouragement, understanding and belief in me had helped me make the summit. Ivan had tears in his eyes and kissed my hand.
Meanwhile the four Czechs were still climbing the South-West Face, slowed by poor conditions. After a brief time at such altitude myself, I could scarcely comprehend their achievement the next day when they reached the top of the face.
Then tragedy struck. The weather deteriorated rapidly and the four men disappeared during their descent that night.
I was devastated and spent the next day crying and wandering around in a daze, trying to come to terms with the loss. No remaining Czech spoke much English and I felt completely isolated in my sorrow.
I walked out to Kathmandu, arriving on October 30 to find a further shock awaiting me. In the official report to the Nepalese government the New Zealand team leader had stated that it was impossible for me to have climbed Mt Everest. I stared at the report in disbelief. Why would he say such a thing when he had not been at Base Camp when I climbed and had not seen me since?
I was already in trouble for climbing without permission; now I had to contend with disbelieving team-mates as well — and they were already on their way back to New Zealand. I was confused and didn’t know what to do. There was no-one to talk to. It wasn’t the first time I’d climbed an unauthorised route on a Himalayan giant and it was highly likely that the authorities in the Ministry of Tourism would make an example of me, slapping a five or even ten year ban on my climbing in Nepal.
Five years is bad enough, but ten years is impossible, especially if you are a serious climber. Nepal has most of the highest mountains in the world and is a beautiful country to climb in. What did I have to live for? Again I had to make another very serious choice of priorities.
I decided to withdraw my claim. I had heard that penalties would be less severe if I hadn’t been to the summit of the highest mountain in the world; if I didn’t say too much. It was a most difficult thing to do, to disclaim something I nearly died doing.
When I returned to New Zealand it seemed that all my ambitions, and the life-death love of the mountains that I share with many others, disappeared in a mire of controversy. “Did she or didn’t she?” read the headlines. I wondered whether I had made a mistake in withdrawing my claim. How could I live without sharing the lessons I had learned?With the encouragement of other mountaineers I decided to tell my story; my experience of a beautiful, wild place where I left my friends.