Brian Dickinson – Reader Blog 16
Solo summit, blind descent
5/17/11 – First off, I’d like to apologize to JoAnna and my family for putting them through this two month worrisome adventure. You’ve been very supportive, which I appreciate, but it was very risky, and I apologize for any pain I may have caused. What started as a major goal ended in a fight for survival, with pure determination to live and a miracle from God helping me get through an almost impossible scenario on Mt. Everest.
The day before we were heading up for our summit attempt an 82-year-old Nepalese man died in the ice fall. He was trying to become the oldest man to summit Everest. Also a Japanese man died on the South Summit as we were heading up to Camp III. Thoughts and prayers go out to their families.
On May 11, we decided to push from basecamp to Camp II. It was a long day for sure. I got ahead and melted some snow for drinking water at Camp I and then continued up to Camp II. It was scorching hot out so I stripped down a few layers in the western cwm and put some sun screen on. A minute later it was a whiteout blizzard. Luckily, the route was marked with wands so I could find my way. And even though the snow was coming down I was still hot so I just hiked in a short sleeve shirt. I was pretty exhausted when I arrived but had a snack and was able to rally. We spent 2 nights there.
On May 13, I climbed up to Camp III by myself since Dennis was having some stomach issues. He decided to stay back a day to get better. I made it up there pretty quickly and waited on a steep ledge for Pasang to arrive. When he did we built our tent. At 23,000’ building a tent takes a lot of energy. Just putting the poles together requires pressure breathing. We cooked dinner and then went to sleep.
On May 14, we headed up to the South Col (26,000’), which is the highest camp in the world otherwise known as the death zone. To get there you climb straight up Lhotse Face for about a mile and then cut over at the yellow band and traverse around the Geneva Spur. At about 24,000’ I stopped to get some water. I anchored myself to an ice screw and then slipped. I had my goggles looped through my arm but as a reaction to stop my fall I accidently dropped them. I watched as they slid down the steep face. Luckily a group of Sherpa stopped them 500’ below me and tied them to the rope. They weren’t coming up, but stopping at a higher Camp III location. I secured my pack and came off oxygen and rappelled down the face to retrieve them. Unfortunately they were cracked and fogged up immediately when combined with my oxygen mask. The rest of the way to the South Col they were fogged and iced and I could only see through a dime size circle through the left eye. To top it off we had constant 70mph winds pushing us back as we climbed. At one point I had a minor avalanche kick off on top of me over the yellow band (layer of rock). And coming around the Geneva Spur a 100+mph mini tornado whipped right over my head. I’d never seen anything like it as it picked up big rocks with its hurricane force. Due to the wind and snow conditions, plus the major climb from 23,000’ to 26,000’ getting to the South Col was one of the hardest days of climbing I’ve had. 5 hours later we’d be attempting the summit!
At the South Col Pasang and I rested in our tent with oxygen. The wind was so strong that it felt like the tent would be shredded at any moment. There were plenty of ripped tents and almost all groups had already headed down. Some climbers had high altitude or snow blindness (very common high on mountains). We called down to see what the weather forecast was so we could make our decision on our summit attempt. They read back a Swedish and Seattle forecast, which were similar. 20 to 50mph winds on the summit. Pasang asked me what I thought and I said, sounds like no traffic jams (common term when climbers get congested on certain areas of climbing). He confirmed my thoughts and radioed that we were going at 7pm.
May 14, 7 p.m.: We didn’t sleep (nobody does prior to the summit) but we had some soup and noodles. We were geared up and checking our oxygen. The sun had set and the moon was almost full, which is great for climbing at night in conjunction with our headlamps. We radioed in that we were heading up the hill and our summit attempt was on! The whole thing was surreal and I was actually pretty tired (sleepy) from our already big day. But we pressed on slowly. To start we crossed the quarter mile of South Col before we hit the steep mile up to the Balcony (27,500’). Pretty early I let Pasang know that I had a headache and he suggested we might want to head back. But I drank some water and it passed. That’s when my second wind kicked in and I was gone up the mountain. As I distanced myself I noticed the moon reflecting my image on the snow. It was with me the entire time and kept me company. It’s hard to explain but it’s been researched as the “third man factor”.
I made it to the Balcony pretty quickly and could barely see Pasang’s headlamp down below. However, I waited there since it’s a pivotal place in our journey toward the summit. Later Pasang told me, “I like the way you climb. You are steady but fast. I tried to catch up a few times but couldn’t.” I think he was just being humble plus he was carrying 3 bottles of oxygen and I found out he was vomiting on the way up. We rested for a bit on the Balcony but when you stop that high on Everest you freeze so we had to keep moving. In fact since my goggles kept freezing I didn’t wear them and my eyes continually froze shut if I blinked for too long. Not too much further Pasang informed me that he was too sick to continue and needed to go back. It was sad to hear since he has 3 summits and is a super strong climber, but he made the smart move in his condition. We were 2-3 hours from the summit so I let him know that I was feeling strong and going to continue. I could tell he was a little worried but he knew that I was capable. He left one full oxygen bottle there at his turnaround point and handed me his radio. He then descended back to the South Col and I continued up on my own.
At about 4:30am light began to shine in the horizon indicating the sun was coming up. I had already traversed one ridge and climbed some mid fifth class rock formations fixed with rope. It actually takes a lot of effort to rock climb above 28,000’ so I took breaks to ensure my breathing and heart rate was good. As the sun rose, Everest cast its famous pyramid shadow on the mountains and valley below. It was a spectacular sight. I then climbed up the South Summit with renewed energy from the sunrise. I saw the Japanese man’s (passed away 2 days prior) gear, but they must have placed his body somewhere more discrete. It was a little eerie being the only one on highest point in the world, thinking of all that passed away trying to reach where I was. The wind was picking up as I became more exposed on Hillary Step and then up to the true summit. Right before the true summit there’s a corniced area (overhanging snow / ice) that has a 2 mile drop on the Nepal side and a 2 mile drop on the Tibet side.
The true summit is a small point that can only fit a few people and is covered in prayer flags. As I took my final steps to the top, tears of joy streamed down my face as the entire journey flashed through my mind (physical, mental and emotional preparation, saying goodbye to my kids, JoAnna running through the airport to give me one last kiss, visiting the Kathmandu orphanage, my early headaches / forehead swelling, my successful climb of Island Peak, the many trips up and down the mountain and through the Khumbu Ice Fall and all the emotional times of isolation being away from the family). And then I was there; I was on top of the world. At that very moment I was physically higher than any person on earth. I sat down and made the following radio call: Calling all Mountain Guru camps, this is Brian checking in from the summit of Mount Everest! A roar of excitement and congratulations came across from all camps.
I stayed on the summit for over an hour exploring around since I knew I’d probably never be back. Since I was the only one on the mountain I had to take self-portraits and couldn’t take any sponsor banner pictures. And it was so cold and windy that my camera kept freezing up so I couldn’t try to build a modified tripod. It’s almost anticlimactic to summit such a beast and to have nobody to share the moment with. Then as the sun rose higher I started realizing that everything was getting really blurry, like I was staring directly into the sun. I have light blue eyes, which are very sensitive to light anyway but this was worse than I had experienced. Within a few minutes I was completely snow blind!
It was about 7:30am and I was ready to head back down but I was blind. All I could see was bright white and if I squinted enough I could see blurry objects up close. My left eye was worse, probably from the dime size viewing through my goggles the previous day climbing to the South Col. So I’m at the highest point on earth with nobody else on the mountain and I’m faced with descending without vision. And there are no chances of being rescued at that altitude so it was all on me. I know from my USN experience that panic kills, so rather than panic I just began down climbing via the fixed ropes. I got close and squinted my eyes to ensure I was doing the right thing but for the most part I relied on touch. I was able to climb down Hillary Step pretty easily since it was rock and easier to see than snow.
After I got down the South Summit I came upon the rock climbing area. I was so tired by this point and every time I stopped to rest I could have easily fallen asleep. I had been awake and climbing for 30+ hours. But I knew if I slept, I died! I rappelled down the rock area and then tried to side traverse on a 60 degree slope that went down forever. Then one of my crampons popped off and I saw the blurry object slide down about 20 feet. I’m so lucky it didn’t keep going. I carefully stepped in the now warming snow to reach my crampon. Then my non-cramponed foot slipped and I tumbled head over heels down the slope until my safety rope shock loaded, saving my life. I lay there breathing hard and trying to slow down my body from the shock of falling. It reminded me of USN Air Rescue Swimmer School when they’d have us swim underwater until we almost passed out and if you surfaced early the instructors would yell, “Control your breathing!” I was able to calm myself and climb up and get my crampon back on. A few hundred feet later the snow fell out from under me in a small avalanche. I rode it out glissade style and stopped my descent by tightening my right glove. I was moving so fast that the rope immediately burned a line in my thick leather glove, but luckily I was able to stop my fall.
I then checked my regulator on my oxygen and it indicated about 5 percent left. I remembered the tank that Pasang left, which wasn’t too far. I was able to rappel the rest of the rock wall with success and then down to a snowy ridge. Again I’m so lucky to not have broken a leg or twist and ankle while rappelling these rocky cliffs blind. I wanted to sleep so badly by this point and was completely drained of energy. I think not being able to see took a lot more energy than I realized, but I kept forcing myself down the mountain. I reached the extra oxygen tank and switched out the regulator, but it didn’t work! Don’t panic. I put it in my pack and continued my downward progress.
I reached the Balcony and took a quick break. I closed my eyes and felt myself falling asleep, so I quickly stood up and prepared for the descent down more than a mile of 20+ pitches of rappelling. My pack was heavier now with an extra unusable full bottle of oxygen. I considered leaving it at the Balcony. I had to keep going though, no matter what. I was determined to live. At one point I actually yelled, “I will not die on this mountain!”
Then right below the Balcony I began to suffocate. I checked my oxygen indicator and it was flat line! I had reached the point closest to death but I wasn’t about to give up yet. I anchored myself to an ice screw, got on my knees, wept and prayed to God, “Please help me God. I can’t do this alone.” I then experienced a miracle. I calmly switched the regulators and my oxygen indicator went to the middle, indicating supplemental air to breathe. And I stood up with unexplainable energy and I could even see a little better. I rappelled quickly down multiple pitches. I wasn’t really sure what was going on and I even pinched myself to ensure I wasn’t dreaming. It felt like I had slept for a few hours and had a ton of drive and strength, but I checked my watch and no time had passed.
I kept rappelling down the massive face of Everest until I was about 500’ from the South Col. I looked out with my blurry vision and nothing seemed familiar. I wasn’t sure where I was and honestly thought I rappelled down the wrong face. But I checked my watch altimeter and it was 26,500’ and there’s no other camp that high in the world. Plus it looked like Lhotse Face in front of me, which was accurate but I couldn’t see behind me since the clouds were now covering Everest. It was night time when we left so I never really got a good visual of the South Col. I rappelled down to the bottom thinking I was too tired and would just ask to sleep in someone’s tent and sort things out later. As I was walking across the quarter mile ice field I was staggering and hallucinating. I thought the rocks were people and walking toward me then I’d get closer and realized they were rocks. Then for a moment I thought, “Did I die up there? Is this heaven? If it is then it kind of sucks since I’m still wearing all this heavy gear and walking on an ice field.”
Then out of nowhere Pasang came walking up with his pack on and oxygen. He thought that I was dead up there and was considering going up to find me. He was so happy to see me and we walked back to the tent together. Soon after I got my gear off, Dennis (owner of Mountain Gurus) showed up and dove through the tent to give me a hug. He and the other Sherpa group also thought I was dead. I just wanted to sleep but they all wanted to hear what happened. In short, I soloed Mount Everest and then descended blind!
Dennis attempted the summit that night but had to turn back just shy of 28,000’ due to high winds. He got back to the tent at 2am and his headlamp was like fire to my eyes. My eyes were actually glued shut from the blindness. I was pretty freaked out to wake up blind and on oxygen. I overheard Dennis telling Pasang that he wasn’t worried about turning back on his summit attempt; the only thing that mattered now was getting Brian down safely. That was the nicest and most selfless thing anyone has ever said behind my back.
The next day both Dennis and Pasang were the heroes as they helped get me down from the death zone to Camp II (21,000’) as my eyes were useless (both swollen almost shut). We rappelled miles down Lhotse Face and they were there the whole way assisting me through some of the most dangerous terrain on earth. I stumbled across a ladder over a crevasse at the bottom of Lhotse Face. I’m sure groups heading up thought I was an idiot, not knowing how close to death I was and by pure determination to live and a miracle from God I lived to tell the story.
I had cached my trekking poles at the bottom of Lhotse Face for the hiking section down to Camp II. Someone had stolen one of them; really? Who steals a blind man’s trekking poles? As I entered Camp II, Dennis and Veronica were helping me find the correct path. I came in using my one pole as a blind guiding pole, tapping it from side to side on the snow. The Sherpa laughed and said, “at least you still have your sense of humor”. I borrowed Veronica’s satellite phone to call JoAnna. It was late back home, but I was able to unintentionally freak her out with, “Successful solo summit, blind descent, ran out of oxygen and lucky to be alive”. I called her the following day from basecamp to fill in the gaps. Sorry about that honey….
Today Dennis, Pasang and I woke up early to avoid the sun to make our way down to basecamp. My left eye is still blurry but seems to be healing. I definitely had some vertigo going over the ladders in the Khumbu Ice Fall but I made it safely down. Along the way many climbers and Sherpa congratulated me on my summit. Today is Dennis’ 40th birthday so the Sherpa team made him a cake and a summit cake for me. We said goodbye to our Sherpa family and we are now heading out 35 miles to Lukla where we’ll take our series of flights back home to our families!
To summarize, most people don’t understand what goes into a major climbing expedition. They only care about the end result; did you summit? Summit or no summit, it doesn’t matter. Just like any goal in life, you get more out of the knowledge and experience along the way. If some asks me if I summited Mount Everest my response will be, “I survived”.
I want to thank all of my sponsors (INX, Cisco Systems, Finaqhtys, and Digital Lifeboat) for your support in making this dream come true. Thanks to Mountain Gurus and our awesome Sherpa crew! Also big thanks to one of my best friends, Joe Sutherland. Prior to leaving for the expedition I hid 2 months’ worth of toys, gifts and notes and sent Joe a list of daily clues. Each day he texts JoAnna the clues and she and the kids get to go find their surprises. Also I have a lot of friends and family following me on Facebook and Twitter. I truly appreciate your prayers and support; you really help keep me driven. And of course God, whom with anything is possible.
Please continue to follow me on further adventures through sponsor7summits.com