Our climb began in earnest on May 9. By then we'd successfully negotiated the Khumbu Icefall, surmounted the Western Cwm, and now were halfway up a moderately steep, four-thousand foot wall of blue ice called the Lhotse Face, which the prudent climber will traverse very carefully.
This extreme care is a function of the physics involved. With hard ice such as that found on the Lhotse Face, there is no coefficient of friction; you are traction free. Fall into an uncontrolled slide, and your chances of stopping are nil. You're history. A Taiwanese climber named Chen Yu-Nan would discover the truth of this, to his horror, on the morning of May 9.
Because the Lhotse Face is a slope, you pitch Camp Three by carving out a little ice platform for your tent, which you crawl into exhausted, desperate for some rest. No matter how tired you are, however, you must remember a couple of fairly simple rules.
One, don't sleepwalk. Two, when you get up in the morning, the very first thing you've got to do, without fail, is put those twelve knives on each climbing boot, your crampons, because they are what stick you down to that hill.
Chen Yu-Nan forgot. He got out of his tent wearing his inner boots, took two steps, and went zhoooooooop! down into a crevasse, leading to his death.
Our plan was simple. We were going to get up with the sun and climb all day to get to High Camp on the South Col late that afternoon. We would then rest for three or four hours, get up again and climb all night and through the next day to hit Everest's summit by noon on May 10, and absolutely no later than two o'clock.
This point had been drilled into us over the preceding week: Absolutely no later than two. If you're not moving fast enough to get to the summit by two, you're not moving fast enough to get back down before darkness traps you on the mountain.
We reached High Camp on schedule late that afternoon. The South Col (from the Latin collum, or "neck") is part of the ridge that forms Everest's southeast shoulder and sits astride the great Himalayan mountain divide between Nepal and Tibet. Four groups-too many people, as it turned out-would be bivouacked there in preparation for the final assault: us, Scott Fischer's expedition, a Taiwanese group and a team of South Africans who would not make the summit attempt that night. Altogether, maybe a dozen tents were set up, surrounded by a litter of spent oxygen canisters, the occasional frozen body and the tattered remnants of previous climbing camps.
If you wander too close to the South Col's north rim, you'll tumble seven thousand uninterrupted feet down Everest's Kangshung Face into the People's Republic of China. Make a similar misstep on the opposite side, and you zip to a crash landing approximately four thousand feet down the Lhotse Face.
The wind was blowing quite hard when we crawled into High Camp. It was cold. And at some visceral level I was secretly grateful because I knew that we couldn't climb in those conditions. I was pretty hammered. I said to myself, If you can just rest tonight, you are bound to feel better tomorrow than you feel right now.
This was rank self-deception. The whole point is to arrive at High Camp with just enough energy to get to the summit and then retreat in one piece. I wasn't going to get any stronger up there. Quite the opposite. They call it the Death Zone, because above 25,000 feet, the mountain slowly kills you, whether or not you ever leave your tent.
So we turned in. Doug Hansen, Lou Kasischke, Andy Harris and I all lay under the tent in our sleeping bags, listening to the wind howl. Then about ten that night, the gale quite suddenly blew itself out. A perfect, albeit frigid calm came over the Death Zone.
"Guys," Rob said, sticking his neck into our tent. "Saddle up! We're going for it!"
I started pulling my gear together, thinking to myself, Well, maybe you've timed this okay. Yeah, you feel pretty crummy. But you feel better than you thought you were going to feel.
But I was very concerned (prophetically so) for two members of our group. In the sleeping bag to my immediate left was Doug Hansen. Doug had been sick and wasn't climbing well. He looked like he'd been worked over with an ice ax. Even more so than the rest of us, he hadn't been feeding and watering and resting the machine that has to carry you up the hill.
Being turned around the year before, so close to the top, had come to possess him, to rule his every waking thought. Doug came back to Everest in 1996 vowing that under no circumstance was he going to be turned around again.
I, too, was fanatical about mountain climbing, but I wasn't crazy in that way. I lived by mountaineering's general rule that going to any summit is optional. Getting back down is mandatory.
Also, I was like the great majority of climbers in that the only competition I felt was with myself. Before arrival in Nepal, I had set as my personal goal to get at least as far as the South Col. I'd accomplished that. If I didn't make it to the top this time, I'd still feel the trip was worthwhile. Before leaving Dallas I'd told my colleagues that I simply wanted to experience Everest and all it had to offer. I'd probably rephrase that sentiment today.
One of the things that you must honestly ask yourself on a mountain-it is a moral obligation to your fellow climbers-is, With this step, how much do I have left? Can I still turn around and get back down to safety?
I didn't think Doug knew that any longer, and I didn't think he cared.
The other person for whom I was concerned was Yasuko. She was an itty-bitty waif of a person, could not have weighed more than ninety pounds dripping wet. But the gear she had to carry weighed exactly the same as mine and everyone else's. I just didn't think that tiny body of hers could cash the checks that Yasuko's mind was writing.
We got out of the tents and put on our oxygen masks-MIG fighter-pilot surplus. Now we looked like a bunch of homeless top guns on Halloween. We also pulled on our enormous down suits, the kind of thing your mom sent you out in to play in the snow. You can't do much more than waddle in them.
Our group started out first. The Mountain Madness climbers and the Taiwanese were about an hour behind us. It was an exquisite evening as we began to move across the flat expanse of the South Col leading to the summit face. The moon peeked at us over the 27,790-foot summit of Makalu in the distance. The wind was absolutely still. The temperature was about ten below zero, which is quite warm for a big mountain.
Besides our headlamps, there was no artificial light anywhere, which allowed the stars above us to shine with incredible brilliance. You even could see them reflected in that cold blue ice beneath your feet. They seemed so close, as if you could just reach up and pluck them from the heavens, one at a time, put them in your pocket and save them for later.
Our pace was that slow, rhythmic, metronome-like gait ingrained in the frame of my being through years of prior climbing. With each step those knives bite into the ice with a distinctive creech-ch-ch. As you move and shift your weight in the cold, the metal in your boots and the bindings on your pack squeak in response.
We moved across the South Col, heading to the summit face. There was nothing to it, really. Just keep plowing straight up. You travel in a private bubble of light from your headlamp, the rest of the world as lost to you as if you were alone on the face of the moon. All you have to do is step and rest, step and rest hour after hour after endless hour-until halfway up the face we shifted over in a traverse to the left.
A traverse is an inherently more dangerous kind of move in mountaineering. It is harder to protect a traverse. You've got to be able to see where you're putting your feet. And that spelled a private disaster for me.
As we started up the summit face, I was fourth in line, following Ang Dorje, our chief climbing Sherpa, Mike Groom and Jon Krakauer. Over the preceding weeks I'd tried to conserve my strength. The philosophy is to start slow and back off, because you know it is not how strong you are on day one that counts. As a result, I had strength in reserve as we moved up.
But I gradually realized, to my deep annoyance, that I couldn't see the face of this mountain at all, and the reason I couldn't also slowly dawned on me. I am nearsighted and struggled for years on various mountains with iced-over lenses, balky contacts and all sorts of gadgets designed to keep my field of vision clear. Nothing worked. So a year and a half before I went to Mount Everest, I had my eyes operated on so that I would be safer in the mountains.
The operation was a radial keratotomy, in which tiny incisions are made in one's corneas to alter the eyes' focal lengths and (presumably) improve vision. However, unbeknownst to me and to virtually every ophthalmologist in the world, at high altitude a cornea thus altered will both flatten and thicken, shortening your focal length and rendering you effectively blind. That is what happened to me about fifteen hundred feet above High Camp in the early morning hours of May 10, 1996.
At first I wasn't really worried. I'd experienced minor problems with vision shifts in the past, most recently at Base Camp and when we went through the Icefall. I'd had more than my usual difficulty seeing at night, as well as in the morning until the sun was out enough to require sunglasses.
But I felt more inconvenienced than handicapped by the problem and did not mention it to anyone. Nor did I panic when the shift recurred in the dark at 27,500 feet. I really couldn't see, but I knew coming to me in the next couple of hours would be a solution to this problem-daylight.
The sun at that altitude is an enormous ball of light so powerful that it can burn the inside of your mouth and the inside of your nose. If you take off those protective glasses, within ten minutes your retinas will be seared to total blindness.
Hence, I expected that, once the sun was fully out, even behind my jet-black lenses my pupils would clamp down to pinpoints and everything would be infinitely focused. I was certain I was right. It had to work.
In the predawn darkness, however, I was too blind to climb. So I stepped out of line and let everyone pass, going from fourth out of thirty-some climbers to absolutely dead last. It wasn't unpleasant, really, watching everybody traipse past me. I basically stood there chatting and acting like a Wal-Mart greeter until the sun began to illuminate the summit face.
As I expected, my vision did begin to clear, and I was able to dig in the front knives on my boots, move across, and head on up to the summit ridge. Then I compounded my problem by reaching to wipe my face with an ice-crusted glove. A crystal painfully lacerated my right cornea, leaving that eye completely blurred. That meant I had no depth perception, and that's not good in that environment. My left eye was a little blurry but basically okay. But I knew that I could not climb above this point, a living-room size promontory called the Balcony, about fifteen hundred feet below the summit, unless my vision improved.
Still believing it would, I said to Rob, "You guys go ahead and boogie on up the hill. At a point that I can see, I'll just wander up after you."
It was about 7:30 A.M.
"Beck," he answered in that unmistakable Kiwi accent, "I don't like that idea. You've got thirty minutes. If you can see in thirty minutes, climb on. If you cannot see in thirty minutes, I don't want you climbing."
"Okay." I hesitated. "I'll accept that." This was not a willing and happy answer; I had come too far to quit so close to the summit. But I also recognized the common sense in what Hall said.
Then I did something really stupid.
"You know," I continued, "if I can't see in that thirty-minute window you've given me, as soon as I can see I'm just going to head back down to the High Camp."
Hall said no to that notion, too.
"I don't like that idea any better than your last one," he said. "If I come down off the top of this thing and you're not standing here, I'm not going to have any idea whether or not you've gone down safely to High Camp, or if you've just gone for an eight thousand-foot wipper. I want you to promise me-I'm serious about this-I want you to promise me that you're going to stay here until I come back."
I said, "Rob, cross my heart, hope to die, I'm sticking."
It never entered my mind that he'd never come back.
I waited through the morning. It was a beautiful day. A cloudless sky. The wind was still. This enormous cathedral of mountains stretching as far as my good eye could see. The curvature of the earth was visible beneath my feet.
By noon, three climbers from our group descended toward me: Stuart Hutchison, Lou Kasischke and John Taske (Frank Fischbeck already had turned back). They said there was a slowdown at the uppermost part of the mountain at Hillary Step, a natural obstacle on the ridge leading directly to the summit. Because of the bottleneck of climbers, the three of them realized there was no way they could make the summit by two.
So Stuart, Lou and John decided to come down, and as they came by me, standing alone, getting colder and colder on the Balcony, they said, "Well, come on down with us."
"Uh, I've really put myself in a box here," I answered. "I've promised Hall I will stay put. We have no radio, so I have no way to tell him that I'm leaving. It would be as if I never honored that commitment at all. I just don't think I can do that now."
They said good-bye and continued on down. Three wise men. In retrospect I clearly should have joined them. But I didn't then sense I was in any imminent danger. It was a perfect day. Also, even though I knew that I was not going to climb the mountain that day, I still hated to give up. To go down with them would be to absolutely concede I'd failed.
Lou Kasischke, by the way, made it back to camp safely, but would endure his own special horror there. Recall that in High Camp Lou shared a tent with me, Doug Hansen and Andy Harris. During the summit assault, Lou removed his protective glasses for too long, and consequently went snow-blind. As the storm came in that evening, he would lay there alone, unseeing, listening to the wind trying to tear the tent apart, wondering what had happened to his three tent mates.