As I watched the jeep drive away with my climbing partner Kheiry, Jeremie, Pema and Namgyal, it suddenly hit me: I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. The truth is this: While Kheiry was sick, I put myself second and failed to share the fact that I wasn't well and that my own pulse/ox (the amount of oxygen saturation in the blood) measured 68/100. At sea level, this measurement would grant you a one-way ticket to the emergency room, at near 6000M it is not uncommon, however it is a warning sign to slow down and recover. Sadly, I did not have that luxury.
It was 2:45 p.m., Kheiry was on his way down to safety and I had to get back to Advanced Base Camp with Dawa before the nightfall. We had no idea that the storm was as bad as it was. In fact, so much snow had fallen that all climbers high up on Cho Oyu had abandoned their summit attempts and we were descending back to Advanced Base Camp.
I looked at Dawa and asked, "Do you think we can make it?"
"I think so, I know a short cut" he replied. Oh boy... Last time we took a short cut I ended up scaling a 45M rock wall in 8000M boots! We had to move and we had to move fast.
The hardship was never ending. My hands were freezing, my toes were cold and the wind combined with the elements made for increasingly uncomfortable climbing conditions. Within an hour we were in a white out, in snow up to our knees and without a path in sight.
For two hours we broke trail in snow up to our waists. Getting Kheiry down the mountain consumed all of my energy and now I was fighting to get myself back to safety. I knew we had a short amount of time before we lost all ambient light and we were nowhere near camp.
By 6:45 p.m. it was almost pitch dark. Dawa forgot his headlamp so I gave him mine and used my iPhone to illuminate my path.
The wind was howling and I was losing sensation in my toes. Imagine being in the dark, freezing, seemingly lost and feeling as though reaching your destination is hopeless. It was being caught in a bad dream that you simply wanted to end. If I have one fear up here, it's losing a finger or a toe. With nothing but time on your hands, it's easy to allow the mind to work against you. I refused to lose hope and I refused to allow negative thoughts enter my mind.
For another 90 minutes Dawa and I attempted to find our way to Advanced Base Camp. The path was non-existent and there no tents in sight. I was so completely burnt out and robbed of energy that I needed to stop and rest every minute or so, suck back as much oxygen as possible and carry on. This strategy was worrisome as I was well aware that the constant movement was all that was keeping my toes from freezing.
Sink. Step. Sink. Remove leg from deep snow. Step. Sink. Breathe. Rest. Step.
Finally, after five hours of suffering a light from heavens seemed to be upon us. It was Tashi our Tibetan cook-boy who came to find us. He guided us back to camp.
Gratitude came upon me as I entered the warm tent. I tore off my hiking boots and socks and warmed my toes by the heater our expedition company graciously provided. I sat shivering trying to build up the courage to remove all of my clothes and replace them with warm fleece outfitting. I was safe and finally this epic day had come to end.
As I crawl into my -40c sleeping bag, I can't help but wonder what the future holds. Is it all over? Has Mother Nature already made the decision for us? With all the climbers having recently descended, does that mean the mountain is shutting down? How are Kheiry and Jeremie? Will I be okay up here by myself?
For now, it's time to attempt to rest in the sub-zero Himalayan temperature and to allow life to unfold, to embrace whatever comes as I believe this was exactly the way it was meant to be.
Thank you to Gabriel, Allain, Ramsey, Garry, Amanda and everyone else who made this evacuation possible.
The unknown awaits...