I stared up at the ceiling of the abandoned tent. The monotonous rhythm of breathing through my oxygen mask had almost lulled me to sleep, but the slight headache, and anxiety for the night to come wouldn’t allow it. I had been on the move since 6am and was wide awake when my alarm went off at 10pm.
It took about 30-40 minutes to get ready. I was sluggish, and every little movement required massive amounts of motivation. The sun had set a few hours before, and the evening light had followed shortly after. It was cold and pitch black. The condensation from my oxygen mask dripped down onto my one-piece down suit, forming a good-sized chunk of ice. I crawled out of the tent, shining my headlamp into the darkness that surrounded me.
Earlier in the day Renan Ozturk, Mark Synnott and I, along with 6 sherpas, ascended from 25,000 feet, up the fixed lines on the north west ridge of Everest. It was a slow process that was even slower because of my inability to catch my breath. The actual process of hiking up is simple, yet exhausting: Take 5 steps using the fixed line to take some weight, stop for 30 seconds, pivot at the waist and place one hand on the uphill leg, look down at the ground, breathe heavily. Repeat for hours.
We left our tents and hiked up into the void. Exhausted by the previous day’s work, we put our heads down, focused only on what our headlamp illuminated, and pressed on. After a few hours, we reached the main ridge. A few more hours after that and we reached mushroom rock; a prominent point on the way up to the summit. Just on the other side of mushroom rock is an inviting slab that makes the perfect bench to rest. Behind the bench is a body. The first one I noticed on the way up.
I don’t remember many details other than the body splayed out directly behind the slab, like a back rest, his face obstructed. My mind still has hard a time processing this image. All the bodies we encountered looked like mannequins, contorted in unnatural positions; frozen in time as omens, reminders of the what the future might hold for the unlucky and unprepared.
After switching out oxygen bottles, we made our way up the 1stand 2ndsteps, small mostly vertical sections where jumaring is essential. After the 2ndstep I found myself alone, walking up the slightly sloping ramp leading to the 3rdand final step. I stopped, sat down for a break and turned my headlamp off. For the first time since we left 27,000 feet, I was able to fully see my surroundings.
I sat in deafening silence, filled with wonder by the infinite that stretched out above me and the world below. Stars began to fade as the earth slowly rotated. Below me I could see headlamps milling about, making their way slowly up the trail toward me. The wind had tapered off and the frigid temperature from the night before dissipated to the point that I could take my gloves off.
As the group below me worked their way up, I set up a quick shot. Placing my pack down on the ground, I pushed the camera down onto it, making it as stable as possible. They were still about a hundred yards off, so I took a couple photographs and sat back down to watch the sunrise.
Throughout the trip I had been pretty aloof to the prospect of summitting. Before I took the job with Renan, it had never crossed my mind as something that I would ever do, nor was it something I had ever aspired to do. Even when we were pushing up from advanced basecamp, I was skeptical that we’d summit. But as I sat there utterly exhausted, watching rays of light dance across the landscape, a smile crept across my face. This scene before me would be one that I’d remember for the rest of my life.