I’ve often felt an amplified sense of emotion in the high alpine. My experience this spring has been no different. While much of this trip has been filled with engaging research, enjoyable and relaxing times getting to know my teammates and our wonderful Sherpa staff, the last few days have been defined by a different character.
Things are getting serious and the mood around base camp has changed. Gone are the days of socializing without preoccupation. Everyone who’s still left here is consumed with their summit bids—sneakily asking around about weather reports, route conditions and the timing of everyone’s attempts. I also have to add that the recent death of Alexey Bolotov has really affected me. I’m not going to comment more on the fifth fatality of the season other than to say that I’m filled with sadness and thoughts for his friends and family.
We’re still eyeing weather forecasts daily, but things seem to be centering on a May 22nd or 23rd summit day. That means we’ll likely depart base camp tonight at around 2AM and climb straight to camp two. Then we’ll take a rest day before continuing to camps three and four in the following days. There has been much discussion about my use of oxygen and the accompanying risk and logistical challenges to make my summit bid as safe as possible. Safe, in this case, is a relative term. More on that later.
The biggest part of my safety net is my partner Nurbu, a 42-year-old Sherpa who is the most experienced member of our staff. Nurbu, originally from Nepal’s Rolwaling valley, now has a wife and seven year old daughter in Kathmandu. He describes his climbing history in broken English, the heavy smell of cigarettes apparent on his breath: “Fourteen times Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Shishapangma…” In a single year, he climbed five of the world’s highest mountains: Everest, Gasherbrum I and II, Broad Peak, and the North Ridge of Manaslu. Anyhow, despite his age and smoking, Nurbu is still strong as ever, and I trust his experience and judgment immensely. We’ve been hanging out a bit to get to know each other better, and I look forward to our partnership.
Oxygen does a lot of things. Fortunately, we usually don’t have to spend too much time wondering what they are. On the uppermost slopes of the world’s highest peaks—those few escarpments of rock and ice that jut well above 8000m—the effects of supplemental oxygen are enormous. Almost immediately after strapping on an oxygen mask and cranking their regulator to a liter or two per minute, climbers report feeling warmer and moving faster, not to mention improved mental function, appetite and ability to sleep. Going without this aid reveals these huge mountains to be the unforgiving and inhospitable places they truly are. It seems all too easy to forget these realities with the comforts of base camp and the support we all receive from Sherpas, experienced staff and modern technology.
I’m not sure what my motivations are or what my decision regarding oxygen will be. At the moment, I’ve committed to climbing to camp four before making any calls. If I feel mentally and physically capable of trying Lhotse without oxygen, that’s what I’ll do. It may be strange to put a priority on something so arbitrary as artificial oxygen over such tangibles: summit chances, comfort, fingers and toes, life itself. In this case, I place more value and ultimately derive more fulfillment in trying something that is genuinely challenging and uncertain for myself than to have it all figured out. I don’t always have these priorities—certainly not in climbing. Most of my climbs are well within my comfort zone and are more about experiencing cool places or sharing them with friends. In this case, the few times a year that I try something big, I’m exploring deeper things about myself that are harder to explain.
Around my junior year of high school, I started trying to win big races in cross country and track. By that point, I’d won a fair number of junior varsity races and had been around the block at the district and regional level. Winning states was the holy grail, but that demanded a different level of competitiveness. For one, you couldn’t just run away from the competition…you had to be extremely fit, outsmart the field, and get lucky. After high finishes in a few state championships, I started trying to make moves that defined the race instead of just letting things happen to me. After enough big cracks at a state championship, some filled with excruciating heartbreak, I was ready to execute. As a senior, I pounced with 400m to go in the indoor two mile. The race was fairly fast paced and had become a duel. My move was strong enough to suppress even the slightest response from my only remaining competitor. I crossed the line in 9:06, recording just 59 seconds over my last two laps.
It’s easy to get paralyzed by doubt, especially when the consequences for your actions are worse than embarrassing yourself at the state championship. This isn’t a contest, and I want to be clear that I don’t treat my climbs as athletic events, but I’m still ready to give myself a chance at something special and meaningful to me. That indoor season, I overcame shin problems, a concussion (!!) and during the state championship race itself, an agonizing stomach cramp that bothered me for a week after the race. My preparation during this expedition hasn’t been perfect, but I’ve been healthy this whole trip and I’m in a good overall state. I’m not ready to give up on a dream before I’ve given it a fair shot. I’m here to go into my personal unknown and make mature decisions. Steve House, perhaps the greatest alpinist of the modern era, described some of his routes not as death defying acts, but rather as relationships between himself and the world that were true, just yet to be revealed. Today, I have the tremendous opportunity and privilege to discover my relationship with the Himalaya, the greatest mountains in the world.