After The Wind: Tragedy on Everest One Survivor's Story317
After The Wind: Tragedy on Everest One Survivor's Story317
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|Publisher:||Good Hart Publishing LC|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.75(h) x 1.40(d)|
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DILEMMA AT NOON
ON MAY 10, close to noon near the summit of Mount Everest, I gasped for breath.
Four or five breaths for every step. Over and over. And over.
Four or five breaths. Shift my weight. Then step. Over and over. The frigid dry air burned inside me like cold fire. Four or five ragged breaths. Shift my weight and step. My fingers were white and stiff. Frostbite.
I wanted water. More than anything, water. But my water bottles were frozen blocks of ice. Frostbite. No water. Temperature at 30 below zero. High winds. Dehydration. Malnutrition. Little air to breathe.
But none of that mattered. Sheer will kept me going. Breathe, breathe, breathe, gasp, shift my weight. Then step. It was getting steeper.
I was far above the clouds. Almost six miles high. On a narrow ridge just 400 vertical feet from the top of the highest mountain in the world. Snow spindrift whipped around me. The wind sounded like low-flying jets. An ugly storm slowly boiled up from below.
After several weeks of enduring the savage cold and thin air, of climbing rock, snow, and ice, I knew I was close to the top. Thirteen hours of physically and mentally grueling climbing this day was behind me, just to get to this point. The top was minutes away. Four or five breaths. Shift my weight. Then step. I was 400 vertical feet from achieving my goal. The top of Mount Everest. Four or five breaths. Then step. Sheer will.
Nothing could stop me.
Step by step by step. With each step, as a weaker force, I was overcoming a greater one — Everest. I didn't care about anything except reaching the summit. And I was almost there.
I sensed that the climbers above me had slowed down. But at first I did not equate that with a problem. I checked my watch. It was close to noon.
Noon? How could it be that late? Rob Hall, our expedition leader, had hoped to be on the way down from the top at noon. Trouble?
I tried to be calm, but my mind raced to grasp the implications of the time. I felt alone. Isolated. I couldn't talk with anyone. All I could hear was the wind and my own breathing. I looked up at the top. I looked at the climbers above me. I realized things had gone wrong. Very wrong. Climbers were still climbing up, but it was late.
I decided I didn't care. Being late didn't matter much at that moment. This was Everest. Climbing past the safety turnaround time I promised to follow didn't matter at all at that moment. Knowing I would be climbing down in the dark didn't matter. What mattered was the top. And I was almost there. Others were still going. Me too. If they could, I could. Nothing could stop me.
The already high risk of being there just rocketed far beyond recklessness. This, too, I knew. But I was close. I could get to the top. I wanted to keep going. I had to keep going. But it was too late. We were out of time.
The frostbitten fingers? I didn't care about those, either. Go. Keep going. Others are still going. Me too. I can do this. In climbing, there is only one thing worse than not reaching the summit. And that is when others do, and you don't.
I chipped away ice that had caked over my face so I could breathe what little oxygen there is six miles above sea level. With my head down and gasping for air, I continued to climb. Four or five breaths. Then step. Step by step. That first and only voice I heard within me said — I can do this.
Then it happened.
A veiled force overpowered me. I jammed my ice axe into the snow directly in front of me. I held tight, as my knees buckled. My heart pounded in my ears. Everything else went quiet. Stone silent.
I didn't know what I would hear — after the wind — when I listened to the sound of sheer silence. But I was about to find out.
MERE moments later, physical toughness and sheer will to climb a mountain of rock, snow, and ice meant nothing. What meant everything was what it would take to overcome a mountain of ambition and pressure to succeed, and to make a hard choice. Was I prepared for that challenge?
Hours later, I would be fighting for my life. Hours later, others would be dying on the mountain.
Years later, I would be fighting to understand. Years later, I wanted to forget. Years later, I could never forget.
Today, I give thanks.CHAPTER 2
MY WIFE, Sandy, claims she was always the last to know what mountain I would climb next. That was not true. My mother was always last. But for sure, Dee, my assistant at work, was the first. Dee typed the letters, overheard the phone calls with my climbing friends, and faxed messages to strange places around the world, helping to make logistical arrangements. I purposefully did all my climbing planning at work. This was so Sandy didn't know my plans until the right moment. After all, climbing plans quickly changed or were cancelled because of a partner's schedule conflicts or logistical problems. I saw no point in starting the ritual about a climb with Sandy before plans advanced to the stage where most elements were in place. After decades of climbing, I had learned the importance of this strategy.
By 1995, I had been a climber for many years. I'd climbed many of the classic mountains around the world, including the highest on six continents. I was always thinking about or planning my next challenge. One June afternoon, I asked Dee to fax a message to Rob Hall, a professional mountain climber and Mount Everest expedition leader from New Zealand. When Dee read the message, she didn't say a word. But I got a look and a slight nod of the head that spoke louder than words. Dee knew it would be a big deal at home.
My message was simply an inquiry. If Rob was organizing a climbing team and getting a permit from Nepal to climb Everest in 1996, I wanted to be considered as a team member. It was just an inquiry, I said silently as I returned Dee's look and nod with my own shoulder shrug and grin.
Rob was regarded in the mountaineering community as the best in leading professional Everest expeditions. I had known him for a few years. We had climbed in Antarctica at the same time. We had mutual climbing partners, and I closely followed his Everest expeditions in 1993 and 1994.
But my fax message was just an inquiry. Who knew, Rob might not be going back again. As for me, thoughts about climbing Everest would probably fade away. That would have been okay. There were many other mountains I wanted to climb. Climbing Everest was not a passion I needed to fulfill. It seemed like a special thing to do if it worked out with Rob, but no big deal if it didn't.
Over the next few months of letters and calls, Rob confirmed he was organizing a team and securing a permit. We talked at length about leadership aspects of the climb and the specific leadership team. This was critical to my thinking and any commitment by me.
On recent expeditions, Ed Viesturs of the United States and Guy Cotter of New Zealand assisted Rob. These were two people with exceptionally strong credentials and reputations as veteran Himalayan climbers and expedition leaders. In combination with Rob in prior years, they had the best record for safety on Everest. These were climbers for whom safety, not risk taking, was paramount. They were my kind of leaders. In the end, a specific condition of my participation (which became part of a written agreement) was the leadership team consisting of Hall, Viesturs, and Cotter.
After all the calls and correspondence, Dee knew that matters were serious. Several times she gave me the look that said, "I can't wait to see what happens at home when this one comes out." But until that time not a word was said to anyone, especially Sandy. No point in engaging Sandy too quickly. That required strategy. Timing was critical. I told Rob I had some work to do on the home front — the ritual.
MOST OF my friends understand the athletic challenge of being a climber. They know I love mountains and all mountain sports — skiing, ski mountaineering, and climbing. They know my history as an endurance athlete. They recognize the physical and mental challenges involved. They can see the beauty and imagine what a thrill it must be to stand on top and look around, as clouds go floating by underneath you. But they also know the dangers, the cold, the harsh environment, the hardships, the suffering — and they frequently ask "why." They point out that mountain climbing is irrational and conflicts with the innate sense of survival. To that point, I agree. And I agree that, perhaps, from just a rational perspective, climbing is only for people of unsound mind. But from an emotional perspective, climbing makes perfect sense and is an obvious choice. I also point out to them that climbing is about the richness of living a story. A whole story. Standing on top of the mountain is only part of the story. And frequently not even the most important part. The climbing story I live is not one single moment. In the story of getting to the top, many moments are more meaningful and more worthy of memory.
The main actors in the climbing stories are sometimes the place, the mountain, the history, the rigors of the climb, the obstacles overcome, the beauty, the wonder, and the feeling of deep satisfaction from the accomplishment. Sometimes the main actors are the people: what happened to each of us, and why we did what we did. Sometimes it's the mistakes we made, how we responded, and what we learned. Sometimes it's the Third World places and cultures. Always it's about the accumulation of very specific special moments for remembrance, such as crossing a raging river without a bridge, traveling by public bus across the plains of Africa or the highlands of Peru with people sitting on top and hanging over the sides and chickens, pigs and goats as fellow passengers. And, of course, sometimes it's about bad experiences I want to forget. The ones I don't tell Sandy.
Still, I admit that my journal later goes into a file cabinet, the summit is forgotten, and the photos collect dust on the wall or table, or never make it out of the file cabinet. It is a great story I lived. But the earth did not stop turning, no one else really cared, and it was just a big rock covered with snow. Still, the story I live is my keepsake. It lives within me. And the quest to live whatever the next story will be is a major motivating force for the next climb.
ON MY end and Rob's, Everest was a go. But one more thing was needed. Just as Rob needed to secure a permit from Nepal, and just as Everest can only be climbed with expedition team support, I needed the support of Sandy. I love Sandy very much. She needed to be thinking the right way on this. After all, we were talking about Everest — not just another climb.
I couldn't climb Everest or any mountain without Sandy. And I wouldn't want to. I could never draw the rewards from climbing I sought if it came at the price of an erosion of our marriage. I knew of too many cases where climbers wrecked their marriages over climbing. That would not happen to me. And it was not a matter of just getting Sandy's approval. That would not be enough. I needed more. Sandy might have been the next to last to learn about my next climb, but her support was at the top of the list of what I needed to climb any mountain, or accomplish any of my goals in life.
Sandy was a first grade school teacher when we met. It was on a blind date at a party, with music and dancing. For me, it was love at first sight. I was on my best behavior. But Sandy barely noticed, even my best dance moves. It took awhile for her to fall in love with me. We were married in 1967 by my father, a Lutheran minister. We had two sons, Doug and Gregg, in short order.
We worked hard and did the things typical families did. In almost all respects, we are very much alike. In one big respect, however, we are very different. I tend to be self centered (I didn't always understand this about myself), but Sandy gives everything of herself to others, especially to me.
After we were married, Sandy continued to work as a first grade teacher for many years. She worked and took care of our children pretty much single handed, while I worked full-time and went to night school. She never complained. She always gave of herself and supported my goals, whatever they were. One exception developed over time: my climbing. Gathering her support for my climbing goals took a special process — the ritual.
For decades, a step-by-step ritual evolved between us. I would mention a new climb. Then came the questions. I knew them all. And Sandy knew how to deliver them. "How can you leave the boys and me for weeks and months at a time? How can you take the time away from work?" More questions always followed, separated by a few days. "How would you like it if I were gone for weeks with no communication? Are you being fair to me?" She wanted answers. She would stand in front of me, stare into my eyes, and wait for an answer. One of Sandy's favorites was this: "Tell me again how you can train so long, leave the comforts of our home and the love of your sons and me, enter such a cold and hostile environment, try so hard and suffer so much, to accomplish something absolutely useless?" I never admitted to Sandy that while climbing, with all the suffering and discomfort, there were frequently times I said to myself, "I will never ever do this again," and all I wanted to do was go home. And then, when I got back home, after about a week or so, I wanted to go climbing again.
The ritual usually dragged on for four to six weeks. All the while, Sandy saw how the tempo of my training activities increased. But the questions kept coming. Sometimes I would get one question. Sometimes a few of the questions at once. Sometimes questions would be written in a note left on my desk. "What are we supposed to do if you don't come back?"
Sandy said it was easier for her to block out the possibility of my dying than deal with the loneliness from my absence. Absence and loneliness, during the endless training and the climb itself, were the hardest parts, she said.
EVEREST! The ritual. This was my biggest challenge with Sandy yet. Dee knew that too, as I could tell from the looks I got during the planning stage with Rob. How could I ever get Sandy to go for this one? Sandy had never heard of or knew little about most of the other mountains. But Everest was different. She knew about the Everest Death Zone. My strategy was to go slow, be patient, and look for the right moment to start the ritual.
One morning in the kitchen at breakfast I was reading the newspaper. The mood seemed right. The sun was shining in the windows. One of our favorite morning talk shows was on the radio. So I made my move. "Hey, remember me telling you about Rob Hall when I was in Antarctica? I read about him climbing Mount Everest. He was leading an expedition and turned around close to the top for safety reasons. What a strong leader." Clumsy. Obvious.
Sandy said, "That's nice." That's all. But Sandy doesn't miss a thing. She knew Everest was on deck. The ritual evolved. Day to day. Week after week. "What responsibility do you have to those who depend on you in the decisions you make about what you do? You have a mother with Alzheimer's, a brother with special needs, a wife, and two sons. And you go off risking your life to climb some stupid mountain."
The ritual never involved strong negative tension. We both knew that if Sandy said no, that was it. I can't think of anything I have ever done that Sandy didn't support. She knows in her heart that I love her more than anything and always have. And I know the same about her. Neither one of us would risk losing the other over climbing, if it ever came to that.
Finally one day Sandy said something like, "You know I don't like the idea, but I don't want to be left out of this or any part of your life. I love you and want to back your goals. If you are going to do this, we are going to be in this together. I will support you, but on one condition." She then asked for a promise: that 1996 would be my one and only attempt on Everest. She knew that it takes most climbers two or three, or sometimes even more, attempts to summit Everest. Rob summited on his third attempt. Sandy said she didn't want to live through this more than once.
I thought that was a fair request. I promised. The odds of me summiting in one attempt were long. I knew that. But reaching the summit wasn't the main reason for going. It struck me at the time that this was the first time I could remember Sandy asking for anything.
AS USUAL, once the ritual was completed, Sandy's attitude changed dramatically. Knowing how important it was for me to train and prepare for a climb, she supported and helped my training practices and activities. I could never have done the hard training, mentally or physically, without Sandy's help.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "After the Wind"
Copyright © 2014 Lou Kasischke.
Excerpted by permission of Good Hart Publishing LC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Note to Reader,
1 Dilemma at Noon,
2 The Ritual,
3 A Story I Can Tell,
4 The Last Supper,
5 Katmandu and 1995,
6 Into the Khumbu,
7 Base Camp — 17,500 Feet,
8 The Leadership Team,
9 The Big Picture,
10 Khumbu Icefall,
11 The "Same Day" Decision,
12 Sandy Back Home — May 4,
13 Before First Light,
14 The Lhotse Face,
16 A Slow Death,
17 The South Col,
18 Decisions at High Camp,
19 Above the South Col,
20 The Balcony,
21 Up the Ridge,
22 I Can Do This,
23 After the Wind,
24 Burning Daylight,
25 Out of Time,
26 One Hour Later,
27 Crossing Paths and Into the Clouds,
28 Sandy Back Home — May 10,
29 Blinded by Light,
30 Down into Darkness,
31 Some are Dead. Most are Missing.,
32 End of Day — May 11,
33 My Deepest Darkness,
34 The Roar of Rage,
35 The Dead Guy is Still Alive,
36 Blinded by Tears,
37 Sandy Back Home — May 13,
38 The Evening and the Mourning,
39 The Hedge,
40 On My Way Back Home,
41 Back Home — May 18,
42 The Last Climb,
About the Author,
What People are Saying About This
A thorough analysis of the 1996 Everest disaster...and the best preparation for my Everest assent. --Jean Pavillard, IFMGA Swiss Mountain Guide