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Elia Saikaly

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The Summit of Cho Oyu, Part 2: Between Life and Death

Posted: 10/19/11 10:56 AM ET

It's 1:00 a.m. and we still haven't left camp for the summit. The wind is violently shaking our little North Face tent at 7,100 metres above sea level. What happened to our perfect weather forecast? I'm currently breathing supplementary oxygen and I'm finding it challenging to see through the mask. I'm also slightly paranoid about my toes. I ALWAYS have issues with my toes above 8,000 metres and the wind sounds unforgivably cold. I force myself to consume dehydrated vegetables and pasta in a pack and I ceremonially prepare for the final ascent.

We step outside the tent and it's bitterly cold. There are no other climbers in sight. Strange, I think to myself, "perhaps we are late?" Just prior to leaving, Dawa gives me his oxygen cylinder and says to me, "Here, this one is full." I give him my tank and I take his. I remove my goose down mitts for a brief moment to strap my crampons onto my feet in the dead of the night and nearly lose all sensation in my fingers. "This is going to be a cold one," I said to Dawa. He nods and sets off. It's pitch dark. I look up at the 1,100 metres ahead of us, the galaxy in plain sight and recite a little Tibetan prayer before setting off.

Within seconds, I'm exhausted. I'm overheating. I have no energy. What's wrong with me? I shout to Dawa "Please turn my oxygen tank up." He cranks it up to three litres per minute, which is quite high. I climb another 10 metres and I can barely carry on. "Dawa, please crank it up all the way." He turns the dial all the way to maximum, four litres per minute. I have NEVER climbed at four litres per minute with oxygen.

"Something is terribly wrong," I think to myself, and I carried on.

In the darkness we climbed. Slow and steady is the key in high-altitude mountaineering. Imagine being so out of breath that you need to stop to catch it every four steps. We had over 20,000 to make that night. I looked up at Dawa and he seemed to be fine, I on the other hand felt like an 90-year-old trying to climb a flight of stairs. To make matters worse, my toes were beginning to freeze and we'd only been gone 20 minutes. There was no sign of other climbers anywhere on the mountain which was concerning. Did we miss the memo? Did all of the other climbers receive news that we didn't? With the speed of the wind that was blasting us from what seemed to be all directions, I soon realized that we were the only ones climbing that night.

I was suffering immensely. "I can't do this," I thought to myself. What's going on? I only slept an hour and yes it's my first time this season at 7,100 metres, but it shouldn't be this challenging. There were no safety lines for much of the route and climbing in the dark is terrifying because one false step and you can slide right off the side of the mountain. I envied Dawa and his strength. He kept looking back at me and in his eyes, illuminated by my headlamp, I knew what he was thinking: "What's wrong with you Elia? You're usually super human up here. That's when I began to lose my confidence. As mentally strong as I am, if my body is shutting down for physiological reasons, there isn't much I can do except turn around.


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First I lost feeling in my left foot, then in my right. Every step was a herculean effort. The wind was piercing, but it would have been manageable if I had been healthy. Step. Catch my breath. Step. Step. Step. Catch my breath. "You can do this Saikaly," I kept saying to myself. I dug deep and looked for strength. I thought of all the students back home who I'd preached endlessly to "aim high" and "never give up" and I clung to those words and those students. The suffering continued for another two hours and we finally reached camp three. Seriously? I though to myself. I feel like I'm going to die and we've only hit camp three? Failure was a real possibility here. I could have kept going regardless of any pain, but my toes and the lack of circulation is something I could not risk. I refuse to lose a toe, or worse, my foot!

I was relentless. Kicking my feet together, trying every trick in the book, including Chi Kung. This helped, but required such an incredible amount of energy that it left me drained each time I warmed my left foot up. You have nothing but time in the darkness on an 8,000-metre mountain. You think about very little, as any lack of focus on your next step, especially without safety lines, can lead you to your demise. You hear nothing but your crampons biting into the snow and the sound of the oxygen flowing through your mask.

By 4:30 a.m. we made it to the Yellow Band, a yellow portion of rock that was once deep beneath the ocean. A sheer vertical cliff. I clipped into the safety line and hauled myself up. Imagine being in total darkness, knowing if you fall you die, and being so completely out of breath and energy that you can only move forward an inch at a time. The cracks are thin and placing my crampons into them for leverage is nearly impossible. My toes are still freezing, but the pain of losing a digit is overtaken with the idea of losing my life. FOCUS SAIKALY! I carefully make my way up, ignoring the pain, ignoring the wind and thinking of nothing by getting to the top of the Yellow Band.


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I'm wasted. Finished. Out of energy. I stop for a moment and hide under a pice of rock and place feet warmers into my boots. Sadly, this doesn't help much. I then proceed to to swallow four GU energy gels, a Mars bar, half a bar of Cadbury chocolate and a mouthful of Gatorade. My only savior at this point is the sun. "Please rise," I kept thinking to myself. To the east I saw the horizon turn a bright orange. The orange that would be my savior. Perhaps the sun would give me energy? "Please hurry," I kept saying to myself. I carried on. Dawa would look back every few steps to ensure I was alright.

By 6 a.m., first light was setting and I had just about had enough. I shouted "Dawa! Wait..." I inched my way towards him and said, "Let me see your bottle." None of this made sense to me. I am not this weak, this should not be this difficult.

"Your bottle is at four litres per minute." He replied dramatically shouting over the wind.

"I know, but something is wrong."

"Nothing is wrong."

"Dawa, look at me. Something is very wrong!" I yelled.

"Dawa, let me try your bottle."

As I switched my hose and plugged it into his tank I immediately felt a world of difference. My body felt warm.

"It's the bottle!" I shouted angrily.

"Please give me another one."

I had given Dawa my emergency oxygen bottle and I switched mine with his. That second oxygen bottle was faulty and I had just climbed most of the mountain with a malfunctioning cylinder. I couldn't believe it. I remember thinking "weird." I should have trusted my instincts. A simple gesture from the heart to ensure Dawa had enough oxygen resulted in five of the most difficult hours of my life. I turned around for the first time and watched the sunrise light up the Himalayas. Majestic! I looked at Dawa and said "Let's do this!"


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From that moment on, it was night and day. Within three minutes, both feet were warm. I was right behind Dawa and actually had to wait for him to recover. I had pretty much climbed all night without oxygen and now with a functioning bottle I was flying up the final steep section of the climb. Dare I say, I was easy. It was the Elia Saikaly I knew from previous Everest climbs. I was strong, I was fast and I was warm.

We ascended the final steep ridge without safety lines and found ourselves on the summit plateau. It looked like the South Pole. The wind was blowing incredible amounts of snow and there was a never-ending gradual incline leading us to the true summit. Occasionally Dawa needed to rest and I happily waited for him. I felt powerful, healthy and strong and I knew we going to make it. They say you know you're on the summit when you can see Mt. Everest. I filmed as much as I could and at 9:15 a.m. the most dramatic reveal of Mt. Everest occurred and the next thing I knew we were on the summit of Mt. Cho Oyu. Elated, overjoyed and eternally grateful, WE MADE IT!

Dawa and I were the only ones on the summit. There were prayer flags on the ground marking this famous location. I snapped a few pictures of Everest, a few of Dawa, a few with my iPhone and proceeded to send a GPS update from 8,201 metres above sea level in sub-zero temperatures.

My tears instantly froze as I thought of Kheiry. This was his climb. This was his moment. Eighteen months of preparation and a dedicated six weeks of my life to helping him reach this point and sadly he was not here in the flesh, but he certainly was in spirit. I asked Dawa to snap a few pictures of me with my DSLR and unfortunately they were all out of focus... Except one. Me, with Everest in the background, holding my hand up with a sign of love. It was ironic, because the students at Hopewell in Ottawa loved that pose so much from my Everest shot. This time it's Cho Oyu with Everest in the background.


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I hugged Dawa and wouldn't let him go. I joked, "You sabotaged the oxygen didn't you? So you could slow me down?"

He laughed. I love that man. He's an honorable Sherpa, he's tough as nails, he has a heart of gold and I'm proud to call him my friend.

Once I had everything I needed, I decided to send one more GPS point just incase the other one didn't work. Out of respect for Cho Oyu, I typed into my iPhone via SPOT Connect under violent winds "I just bowed down to the Turquoise Goddess -- Summit!"

An extraordinary and epic ascent of the sixth highest mountain on Earth. Now all I had to do was get down. Compared to what I just endured, piece of cake!

 

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