The truth is that I've been sick ever since Kheiry left. After evacuating him from ABC (5,700 meters) I had to climb back through a storm, got lost in the middle of the night in snow up to my waist, nearly lost all sensation in my left foot and never fully recovered. For those that are unaware, up here cuts don't heal, colds don't just go away and any form of sickness evolves into a much more serious condition. Perfect. All I had to was get up an 8,201 meter giant and in four days.
I received a weather forecast stating that on the night of Oct. 1, I'd have a shot at the top.
The reality here is this: People die on 8,000-meter mountains and it is irresponsible not to have a plan in place in the event that something goes wrong. I found myself packing all of my gear as though I was never going to return. Duffle bags were sealed, the pelican case with all my TV gear was put away, my passport, emergency contacts and wallet were given to Pasang, our Sherpa cook, with specific instructions of what to do in the event of my failing to return. This wasn't the first time I've had to do this. With so much to lose back home and so many loved ones, it's never an easy task preparing for your possible demise.
Four days to go from advanced base camp (5,700 meters) to the summit and I'm not acclimatized. Can I do this? Safely? With a minor cold? I know my body very well, I know my limits, I know the limits of where my limits begin, I know my strengths and I certainly know my weaknesses. You see, I get along quite well up here in the throne room of the Gods for two reasons: consistency and genetics. Genetics permit me to acclimatize. You have it or you don't, plain and simple. What most people forget is that I have trained consistently for 17 years. My foundation is as a powerlifter. I've broken a world record, I used to swim in the river in the dead of winter and use the art of Chi Kung to maintain a balance between mind, body and spirit, and I was taught how to use this art to remain warm in sub-zero temperatures.
For a decade I've molded and transformed my body into whatever I needed it to look like or, more importantly these days, perform like. I treat nutrition like a scientist: I am aware of every calorie that goes into my body, how it makes me feel, how that calorie and quality of that calorie contributes to my recovery and performance. My body is my temple and I look after it. Every athlete has their formula and philosophies up here, these are some of mine that help me remain healthy and strong above 8, 000 meters.
While climbing to camp one, I bumped into a trusted and well-know guide named Victor Saunders who I climbed within Russia in 2008. He explained to me that his team tried to summit, but that there were no safety lines above camp three. On his own, he could have easily climbed to the summit, but as a responsible guide with a team with limited experience, he opted to turn back. This news was not promising as I preferred not to climb without safety lines. Less risk and quite frankly, less work! As I made my way up to camp one, I remember filming myself and saying, "We're probably not going to have a chance at the summit, but that's okay. That's the challenge of an 8,000 meter peak, you never know what's going to happen."
I slept at camp one with Dawa and dined on rice and goulash in a dehydrated meal pack at 6,400 meters. It was cold. Very cold. Dawa and I were now partners on this climb. He had a lot on his plate as the only Sherpa, so I decided in my mind, at that time, that until the end of the expedition I was going to carry as much weight as him. I also decided I was going to give him a bottle of oxygen to use. His original plan was to climb without.
The climb from camp one to camp two was difficult, but far from impossible. The crux of the climb was a giant ice wall beneath 7,000 meters. We're talking sheer vertical ice. Dark blue, often impenetrable ice that you need to ascend wearing crampons (spikes) on your boots. To be honest, I found it rather easy and a bit overrated. I suppose if it is your first time climbing, it could present itself as a real challenge, but after several Everest climbs, the Lhotse face makes this ice wall feel like a walk in the park. Nonetheless, I'm careful and precise and even manage to shoot with my GoPro camera most of the way. I chose to take my time so as to ensure proper acclimatization. I promised myself that if there were ANY SIGNS of poor acclimatization, I'd turn around.
By 6 p.m. at camp two, Dawa and I settled into our cozy little North Face tent and watched one of the most incredible sunsets on planet Earth. The view was simply outstanding through the vestibule. I wolfed down some noodle soup and waited patiently. Will I get pulmonary edema? Will I end up like Kheiry? Am I crazy for attempting the summit without having been up this high before? I did not dwell on these potential outcomes as I believe we manifest our thoughts. I was simply aware and that was enough.
I waited for five hours. I sat up staring at the oxygen. I knew that if by 8:30 p.m. there was no headache, I'd begin my plan of breathing from one of the bright orange tanks. And so I drank. And waited. Then drank. And waited some more. At high altitude, before food there is water. If you can drink six litres a day up here, you're minimizing your risk of mountain sickness and edema. And so I drank... and continued to drink. Gatorade and melted snow.
At 8:30 p.m., I strapped that mask onto my face and plugged it into the Poisk oxygen bottle. From that moment on it was Darth Vader all the way. I immediately felt better. Stronger. I felt my body warm up instantly. I remember looking over at Dawa and feeling as though something wasn't right. Here we were at 7,100 meters above sea level and his plan was to climb from camp three on oxygen to the summit as I climbed from camp two to the summit. He would breathe at a lower rate than me, making his bottle last longer. Somehow it didn't feel fair, so I did what felt right. Of my three bottles, I decided to give him yet another -- my only emergency oxygen cylinder. He was grateful and thanked me. He twisted the regulator onto his new full tank and as he was doing so struggled slightly. It took him an extra amount of force to get the system set-up. I remember thinking to myself "weird." That's not normal.
We cocooned ourselves into our bags and attempted to catch a few hours of sleep before the final summit push which was to begin at 1 a.m. We had our forecast, other climbers were also preparing to set off around the same time as us and I was feeling great on oxygen. This was it. Based on how I was feeling, mountain sickness wasn't going to stop me, the only thing in our way was the weather.
And so began what would become one of the hardest trips of my because of a simple mistake that was also a pure act from the heart.