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At 26,000 feet, the wind howls like a freight train. I lay in the pitch black, willing the tent to hold its ground, trying not to think about the fact that by 10:00 tomorrow morning either we'd be standing on top of Everest, thumbing our noses at everything that had conspired against us, or we'd be back here in this frozen, wind-beaten sardine can of a tent listening to five years' worth of hope and effort whip away. Which way? The wind taunted me with the question.
Earlier in the evening we'd learned that a climber from another team had not returned from the summit. Inside my sleeping bag, my hands and feet had gone numb; my desire to complete the climb had flickered. But Phil had talked me through it. "What's changed?" he asked. "We knew yesterday that people die up here. Is the mountain less safe today? Are we less capable?" I rallied. I felt eager. I couldn't wait for the alarm to go off at 9:00 p.m. so we could head up to the summit. The image I'd carried for so long-the two of us, arm in arm on top of the world-came back stronger, clearer than ever. But now, staring into the dark, feeling the cold penetrate the nylon walls, that clarity once againreceded.
I heard the beep of Phil's alarm, then the whoosh of gas as he lit the tiny stove. A professional mountain climber, Phil is conditioned to get up in seconds. It would be a matter of minutes before he prodded me to do the same. But I had no desire to get out of my bag. With two layers under my down suit, a hat on my head, gloves on my hands, and two pairs of socks on my feet, I was actually warm, and the churning that had roiled my stomach for much of the last two months had vehemently returned. We had already delayed our summit attempt by a day because of the weather. Shouldn't we wait one more day? But that was impossible. It was May 21, the end of the season. After tomorrow, Sherpas would start dismantling the ropes that fix the route to the summit, and below us the already shifting Icefall would become impassable. Phil crawled out of the tent and a jet of cold air came through the tiny opening. Between the wind gusts I heard him talking with another climber and then, above their voices, a different sound, hypnotic and haunting. It took a moment to realize what it was: Ang Passang, leader of our climbing Sherpas, chanting. Ang Passang was praying for our safety! It must be even worse than I thought! Stop! Relax, Sue, a calmer voice told me. Ang Passang is a devout Buddhist. He probably prays every morning. You just heard him today because he's right outside your tent. I closed my eyes and let his voice wash over me, and for one brief moment I was able to drift-fearless-in his steady, musical prayer. Then reluctantly I pulled my boot liners out of my sleeping bag where I kept them so they wouldn't freeze.
The world above 8,000 meters-26,000 feet-is no place for the human body. Even if you wear an oxygen mask your brain gets too little oxygen, so your thinking is slow, your movements are labored, your circulation is impaired. The simplest tasks-just zipping your jacket or lacing your boot liner-take twice as long as normal. It was ninety minutes before I'd managed all the zippers and Velcro, forced down a little coffee and a cookie, and jammed my warm feet into my outer boots, which were cold as ice. When I emerged from the tent it was into a swirl of stinging snow. All around, under the muted glow of headlamps, our three climbing partners and five Sherpas were hunched against the wind, strapping on harnesses and crampons and checking each other's equipment. I did the same and then, one by one, we fell into line and began the slow march toward the rope that would guide us to the summit.
The South Col of Everest, where climbers pitch Camp 4, is a flat expanse of ice and rock 3,000 feet below the summit. I'd thought the flatness would make the crossing easy, but within moments I realized I was mistaken. The surface was a corrugated sea of frozen shallow waves that I had to straddle with my crampons. It was riven every few yards by narrow, snow-covered crevasses. I couldn't lift my eyes from the ground lest I step into one by accident. My muscles were sore from the day before, my pack felt heavier, my headlamp cord froze where it snaked against my neck. And no matter how I adjusted it, my ascender, swinging from my safety harness, hit my knee with every step. To take my mind off my misery, I experimented with different rhythms: step ... breathe ... step ... breathe ... breathe ... I yearned for the moment when the hypnosis of climbing would take over.
We had been going for twenty minutes when I heard a commotion behind me. I turned just in time to see Charlie Peck righting himself after a stumble. Charlie and John Waechter were the two friends we'd invited to join us for the expedition. Charlie had been Phil's client on Mt. McKinley in the 1980s and had since become a friend. He was a natural choice for a partner because he's one of the few people you can imagine spending two and a half months with clinging to the side of a mountain. But Charlie had been having a hard time the last few weeks. He'd gotten the "Khumbu crud," a deep high-altitude cough that's almost impossible to shake and that makes climbing even harder. He'd been through more pain than the rest of us just to get to the Col. Phil came up behind him and in the merged light of their headlamps, I saw them talking. Phil said something, Charlie shook his head, Phil clapped Charlie on the back. Then Charlie turned around. Wait! I thought. Charlie's going back! If he's going, I should too!
Stop it! I told myself sharply. Don't go there. Focus. But even as I argued with myself, Phil's light began edging forward. Rhythmically, it shrank the ground between us until I was standing in its circle of light. Phil took my gloved hand in his and gave it three quick squeezes: I ... love ... you. Then, carried forward by his nimbus, I bent my head, resumed my breathing, and continued moving.
Phil can do that for me. He is my husband, my mentor ... my hero.
I was thirty-five-already "old"-when I met him; I'd given up on getting married. But within hours of meeting him I knew that I was wrong. I was a high-heeled, high-powered sales executive and he was a fleece-and-jeans mountain guide; we couldn't have been more different if we tried. But he was the most compassionate and genuine man I'd ever met. From the get-go I was as lustful as a teenager. Pretty quickly, though, the lust grew into deep, deep love, unlike anything I'd ever known. By that time he'd taught me to love the mountains the way he did, and I'd begun using every vacation to join him on his climbs. So it seemed only natural that before too long we would attempt what no couple had done before, to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on every continent, together.
What we couldn't know was how close we would come to not making it. Not because of danger on the mountains, or because we lacked the skill or teamwork to pull it off, but because life had something else in store for us. In 1999, seven years after we met, three years after we married, six months after we made the sixth of our Seven Summits, while we were training for our millennium climb of Everest, Phil was hospitalized with cancer. On the day we met I couldn't have imagined the degree to which I would allow my lifelong independence to soften into intimacy; the degree to which I would open up and take him in, make his life my life, his breath my breath. Nor could I imagine the depth of terror and pain I would feel when our life together was threatened. But Phil is as much a mountain as he is a climber: rock solid, undeterrable. And if there is one quality we share, it is the absolute refusal to let someone or something tell us no. We knew Phil might not survive. We knew he might never climb again. We still know the eventual outcome is uncertain. But we weren't going to let cancer tell us no without giving it everything we had. So cancer thwarted us in '99, but we took our five pounds of luck and six pounds of determination and made it here in 2001. Take that, cancer! Life is short, but for the moment it's ours, and we're living our dreams.
* * *
How do you explain to someone why you want to climb Mt. Everest? When I summited from the north in 1984 it was because I wanted to get my ticket punched; I wanted to validate what I'd been doing for the last fifteen years of my life. When I got back, my business partner, Eric Simonson, said, "Most of us think we can climb Everest, but now you know." I guess that was a lot of it. I wanted to know.
Seventeen years later a lot of that was still operating. I was fifty years old, I'd survived cancer, I still wanted to know. But so far, this trip wasn't showing me what I wanted to see. I wasn't talking about it to the others, but things that had been relatively easy when I did this south-side route back in 1983-sleeping at altitude, scaling the steep ice of the Lhotse Face-were giving me trouble. And for all my admonitions-Dig deep, Phil, pull on your reserves-I knew the well wasn't very deep.
Fortunately, the hyper-safety-conscious side of me had anticipated this situation. I was practical enough to know that having just survived colon cancer I wasn't in top-notch condition, and for that reason I'd asked Greg Wilson, a longtime friend and climbing buddy, to join us as another guide. Greg and I were on Everest together in '84 and he'd summited himself in '91. Throughout this climb he'd been a strong, reliable partner. Now, as we headed out of camp, I let Greg take the lead. John accompanied him up front, followed by Sue and our Sherpa, Dorjee Lama. Behind them were Charlie, Ang Passang, and our other Sherpas, Phu Tashi, Dawa Zangbu, and Passang Yila. Underfoot, the snow was soft; traction was easy. From the spacing of the lights I could see that everyone was moving steadily. I was walking in a slow rest-step myself, gradually getting my rhythm, wondering whether the weather would clear as we got to higher elevation, when suddenly I felt my left foot stick in the snow. I pulled hard and the boot came up without its crampon. Damn! I'd noticed the crampon was loose when I'd put it on and hadn't taken the time to adjust it. A stupid rookie mistake. I called myself a few names, retrieved the crampon, and put it back on.
We were almost at the fixed rope when I saw Charlie's light fumble. I pulled up beside him.
"Lost my water bottle," he shouted over the wind. He motioned in the direction the bottle had gone, off the side of the mountain. "I'll give you one of mine," I yelled back.
He shook his head. "I'm outta here."
"You sure? We can slow up." Sometimes, if I can get someone to push just a little harder, the going gets better.
But he shook his head again. I knew he was thinking about his family. Charlie had been having a harder time than usual because of his cough, and I think he was feeling a little less aggressive than the rest of us because of his wife and two young children. Now he looked like he was in no mood for a discussion. So I clapped him on the back and he turned around. Ang Passang went with him.
I pushed myself to catch up to Sue. Sue had really impressed me on this climb. She'd been strong and steady right through the toughest sections, and never complained even when I knew she felt like garbage. That's the way she's always been about climbing. I thought about our decision to come here, on a path that led through six other summits as well as cancer. If climbing Everest in the 1980s was my way of validating my own life choices, climbing it now with Sue was a way of validating everything that she and I had built together.
At the rope, the snow gave way to slick, hard ice and the pitch rose to about 30 degrees. I clipped in and began to climb. The steps were high but easy to find, and after thirty hours of lying in the tent it felt good to be moving upward. Five steps up, I kicked into the ice, felt the crampon grab, then felt my foot give way beneath me. The crampon had come off again. I pulled off my glove. The cold cut like a razor. It took five tries to tighten the single screw because I could leave the glove off for only thirty seconds at a time. It annoyed me that I'd made such a careless mistake. The crampon itself was no biggie: I'd fixed it; it wouldn't be any more trouble. But at 26,000 feet, it's the simple mistakes that kill you. My good friend Marty Hoey's climbing harness opened while we were on Everest in '82. Closing it, she probably didn't loop the belt back through the buckle. Then she leaned back to get out of someone's way, and a second later she was gone.
With the crampon on, I continued up the slope. Charlie had been right to turn around. He knew he wasn't firing on all cylinders and that the only safe thing was to go back down. What I didn't appreciate, although I'd seen the evidence, was that I wasn't firing on all cylinders either.
Our route was taking us up the triangle face, the exposed pyramid of ice and rock that culminates in the summit. Higher than everything around, the triangle is scoured relentlessly by wind and snow. Above my oxygen mask, my face felt sandblasted.
We'd been climbing for about an hour when I realized that my eyelashes and eyebrows were covered in ice. I brushed them off but minutes later the ice formed again. That was odd. In a decade of climbing in the Himalayas I'd never experienced that before. I exhaled deeply, hoping my breath would somehow warm the air above my mask, but minutes later the ice re-formed. What was going on? The ice was merely an annoyance but it unnerved me. It was one more issue, and as a guide, I don't want to be the one with issues. It was one more reminder that I was letting myself and my teammates down.
I was also feeling growing concern about the weather. What had begun, back on the col, as wind-driven snow had deteriorated into a full-blown storm. The temperature had dropped significantly and the snow was now so thick I could barely see. I knew we were on the broad, featureless face of the triangle and that steep bands of rock occasionally punctuated the surface, but I knew these things by feel rather than sight. Occasionally, the ground beneath me would harden and I'd find myself feeling for a toehold in the rock; then I'd have to transfer my body weight to my arms and pull myself up on the rope. Ten or twenty steps later the angle would lessen and the snow would return. I was grateful for these occasions; they were the only landmarks that gave me any sense of progress. Occasionally I'd stop and scan the route ahead, hoping for some sign that we were closing in on the Balcony, the narrow ledge where we would rest, get fresh oxygen, and assess the situation. But looking for a visual clue was useless. All I saw was a snowy haze, as if I were looking at the world through wax paper.
Over the next half hour the visibility worsened-to the point where it was hard to get my footing. Half the time I'd kick my crampon into a step only to have it slip back out when I transferred my weight. Each step up meant a half step back. If I was having this much trouble, how was the rest of the team managing? Our Sherpas had stashed a fresh bottle of oxygen for each of us at the Balcony, enough to get us to the summit and back to the Balcony, where we'd trade back to our half-full bottles on the way down. But if it took longer than expected to reach the top of the Balcony, we would run out of gas. We were also racing time. Late-afternoon storms make it imperative to get off the summit by early afternoon, so regardless of where we were, as it got close to 1:00 we would have to think about heading down. I looked up for the umpteenth time to check the progress of the team. Their lights were faint pinpricks in the blizzard: Sue and Dawa Zangbu about 100 feet above me; John, Greg, Passang Yila, and Phu Tashi another 100 feet ahead of them. I had begun to fall behind.
Excerpted from Together on Top of the World by Phil Ershler Susan Ershler Copyright © 2007 by Phil Ershler and Susan Ershler. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 17, 2011
Posted March 16, 2007
I had a chance to read an advance copy of the book. It is a very well written and engaging story of Sue and Phil's lives, including their successful climbs of the seven summits including Mt Everest. Parts of the book are downright riveting and made me snap in my seat. At the same time, it is also an intimate account of what two soul mates can accomplish in life. An excellent read!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 17, 2013
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