by Barbara Pierce
The National Federation of the Blind-Allegra 2001 Everest team holds up the expedition banner.
At 10:00 a.m. Nepal time on May 25, 2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the only blind man ever to stand on the summit of Mt. Everest. He was part of an incredibly strong, talented, and cohesive team, almost all of whom summited Everest that day and all of whom had worked hard for years to make the fulfillment of this dream possible. Their names are Eric Alexander, Luis Benitez, Brad Bull, Jeff Evans, Steve Gipe, Didrik Johnck, Chris Morris, Mike O'Donnell, Pasquale Scaturro, Erik Weihenmayer, and Dr. Sherman Bull, father of Brad, as well as videographers Michael Brown and Charlie Mace.
The actual climbers were not the only ones to share the victory. A large base camp support team, loved ones at home, members of the National Federation of the Blind, and the other corporate sponsors and individual supporters and thousands of watchers around the world rejoiced in the triumph and kept right on worrying and praying that the weather would hold and that all the climbers would return safely to camp 4 at the end of the day and to base camp in two more days.
Erik Weihenmayer climbs an ice face.
The base camp staff were an essential part of this amazingly cohesive team: Kevin Cherilla, base camp manager; Kim Johnson, film-crew base camp manager and photographer; and Maurice Peret, NFB communications manager. Special note must be made of Maurice's contribution. Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM) released Maurice from his usual duties to take this assignment, which was to represent the NFB onsite and generate dispatches for the Web site that reflected the NFB's perspective on the expedition. All of these members of the team exhibited the same professionalism as did the eleven members of the climbing team and the two men charged with recording the event on film as they climbed alongside the team.
Four Everest records were set by our climbers on May 25: Erik Weihenmayer was the first blind man to summit Mt. Everest. Sherman Bull, a sixty-four-year-old surgeon, was the oldest person ever to reach the top. He and his son Bradford were the first father-son team to summit in the same climb. And our team of eleven Americans and eight Sherpas was the largest team to reach the top on the same day.
Two years ago Erik Weihenmayer, his father and business manager Ed, team leader Pasquale Scaturro, and President Maurer agreed that the NFB would sponsor a training expedition to Ama Dablam in the spring of 2000 and the 2001 expedition to Mt. Everest. Erik's determination to achieve his dreams and his refusal to let blindness stand in his way provided a powerful vehicle for the Federation's message that blind people can compete and can be adventurers in everything we undertake. We decided that giving Erik the opportunity to climb Mt. Everest would provide important name recognition for the NFB and call public attention to our positive philosophy of blindness.
One of the first things we learned was that in the Himalayas weather controls the best laid plans and the most determined human endeavors. Less than 2,000 feet from the summit of Ama Dablam that training climb came to an abrupt halt in a howling blizzard lasting days.
In 2001 weather continued to control the efforts and plans of all the Everest expeditions. Our team arrived in base camp in late March and began preparing their four camps further up the mountain. This required both American and Sherpa climbers to carry equipment, food, and oxygen to the higher camps in preparation for the actual summit attempt, which would take place sometime during May. Then the waiting began.
Climbing permits from the government of Nepal for the spring season expire on May 31--the monsoon season officially begins in the area on June 1. After that the torrential rains at lower elevations fall as heavy snow on the mountain, and climbing is totally impossible. So May is the best time to try ascending Everest during the spring. But, when a mountain is 29,035 feet high, its head is actually at the level of the jet stream, so, when it is streaming across Mt. Everest, which it seemed to do most of May, any snow that fell--and much did--was blown by strong winds, often reaching a velocity of 100 miles an hour.
The result was that, having arrived in base camp before Easter, the team had no choice but to wait for the weather to clear. Of course they did what climbing they could, carrying loads to the higher camps and acclimatizing themselves to the thin air and staggering challenges of climbing Mt. Everest.
Undoubtedly the most difficult single climbing challenge for Erik was the Khumbu Icefall, which lies between base camp and camp 1. This is a constantly shifting area of rocks and ice. Crevasses open and grow constantly. If you have seen any of the movies about Everest, this is the area where climbers have to lay ladders or sets of ladders across the crevasses and walk across them, depending on balance and crampons fastened to their boots. Erik's first climb through this area took more than thirteen hours. This is the way filmmaker Michael Brown, who accompanied the team in order to record the expedition for a documentary, described the Khumbu Icefall in a dispatch that appears in full on the expedition Web site <2001everest.com>. Having just completed his fourteenth trip through the Icefall, Michael wrote the following:
Erik Weihenmayer crosses a crevasse using a ladder.
As a documentary filmmaker I appreciate a good story as much as I do a good storyteller. So being in my boots at the edge of the Khumbu Icefall was a choice spot when the NFB Everest Climbing Team returned from their first voyage up, through, over, and back down the Khumbu Icefall.
I must first set the scene for those who have never stood at the edge of the Khumbu Icefall. It is a massive, rushing river of ice that pours huge chunks of ice from a high mountain saddle. Although frozen, it is alive and has a gurgling, crackling voice that pops and snaps and sometimes shouts explosive blasts as avalanches fall onto it from the surrounding mountaintops. It doesn't look friendly. Big blocks of ice tower over the climbers' heads, and deep, dark crevasses dare climbers to try to cross, placing metal to metal with their crampons on steel ladders. The climbers face eighteen laddered crevasses throughout the route, some two and three ladders long. As I watch from our camp, the climbers look like tiny black specks of lint on a long, white, jumbled cascade.
Upon taking off their crampons and stepping onto the boulder field back to camp, the climbers tell tales of their Khumbu adventures. Mike O'Donnell, one of the most animated people I've ever met, described the ladder crossings with exclamations, "woo" and "whoa," and then asked the other climbers, "How did you like the one that's three ladders long and slants up and leans to one side?" There were deep chuckles and knowing glances. Mike encapsulated it all by calling it "a hunted feeling" that pervaded the day's experience.
Before entering the Icefall, Erik Weihenmayer thought that crossing the ladders was going to be the worst part of the Icefall. When he came down, he told me the ladders were a piece of cake. It's the rest of it that's a problem. There are steep walls of ice with footholds, like vertical stairways that you have to go up and down. And the Icefall is huge. Luckily, Erik is an accomplished rock and ice climber.
Other climbers describe the ladders with adjectives like "shaky," "scary," "sketchy," "airy," "swooping," and "what about those little ropes that tie them together?" Crampons sometimes get stuck between the rungs, but with all the daily practice the technique gets easier.
The other sections of the Khumbu Icefall attract further colorful descriptions. I heard Eric Alexander's voice on the radio calling in his location. He said, "I just got through the sugary-snow section that follows the popcorn field. I thought I was through all the ice blocks, but looks like I'm heading into and up some more."
After the Icefall experience, some of the climbers have found religion, and others want to hit the beaches in Thailand. Discussions about minimizing time in the Icefall abound, but the team can expect at least three more round-trips through the area as they attempt to summit Mt. Everest. . . . If it was on any other mountain, people just wouldn't do it.
That's the way Michael Brown described the Icefall; now read what Erik Weihenmayer himself had to say about his experience traveling through this area. On April 10 this is what he wrote:
"My first trip through the Icefall took me thirteen hours. It's all jumbly, bumbly ice boulders with holes and slots everywhere, tons of ladders to cross, and lots of vertical steps to climb. It took a lot of intense focus and a lot of intricate communication from my teammates. At first I was intimidated by the idea of crossing the ladders, but it turned out the ladders were the easiest part. They're the only part of the Icefall which has consistency, enabling me to get into a rhythm. Crossing, I lean forward against the ropes and try to click my crampon points precisely onto two rungs. I can feel when it's a good step. It's wild in the Icefall, listening to far-away avalanches coming off the Lo La pass.
I've been told that the Icefall moves almost three feet a day and the two times I've been in it teammates have told me it looks different. Seracs once standing are now gone, and fixed lines are buried under ice rubble. In some sections teammates will say, "Move fast through this section until we get above it," where we take a rest. I can hear the tension in their voices. The second time I went through, around noon it got so hot I felt like I was going to pass out. With the reflected heat from the snow it felt like being in Phoenix in the summer. Then it got cold and snowed as we came into camp 1. Happily, Charlie and Brad met us at the top of the Icefall with hot drinks and snacks.
I was psyched to make it through the Icefall, and then fifty yards out of camp 1, when I stepped over a small crevasse and my foot went right in, Luis tried to catch me but instead blasted me in the nose with his ski pole handle. So I came stumbling into camp 1 at six p.m. exhausted and with a fat, swollen nose and blood dripping down my face. The film crew was in heaven."
In all Erik made ten trips through the Icefall before the team left base camp for the last time. At the end he was making the trip in a little over five hours. I commented to Pasquale that taking eight hours off his original time just showed the value of experience. Pasquale agreed, but he added that the thing it really demonstrated was what an incredibly strong and able climber Erik is.
The Khumbu Icefall may be the single most difficult part of the climb, but the upper reaches of the mountain present their own problems. And above 25,000 feet is the death zone, where supplementary oxygen is absolutely necessary for all but the strongest Sherpas, and even these fully acclimatized local climbers use oxygen as much as possible. Here is Michael Brown again, describing the challenges of the entire Everest climb in a Web-site dispatch from the climber's point of view:
April 17, 2001
Less than a year ago I was here in this same place. The memory of the climb is still fresh in my mind. The only thing I have forgotten is the pain. If I had a better memory of the pain, I would not be here. The pain is lungs that feel like they are going to explode, legs that cannot take another step, fingers and toes stinging till they are numb, and then the feeling returning like a flood of scalding liquid through your veins.
Base camp to camp one (17,400 feet to 19,680 feet): the most talked-about part of the route is the Khumbu Icefall. It should be. We spend way too much time there, and it is dangerous. Human beings are tiny specks in this cascade of house-size and larger blocks of ice--ladders, fixed ropes, and places where you just want to go as fast as you can before something falls on you. The top is deceptively far away, and even after you reach the Western Cwm, it is still a long way to camp one.
Camp 1 to 2 (21,000 feet): the Western Cwm is a sloping u-shaped valley. If the sky is clear and there is little wind, the sides of the valley reflect the sun to create an oven. We try to be out of here before the heat of the day roasts us.
Camp 2 to camp 3 (23,500 feet): the Cwm continues for a thousand vertical feet in about a half mile above camp 2. Then the route changes abruptly to a steep ice ramp, the Lhotse Face. It is over a vertical mile high to the top of the world's fourth-highest peak, Lhotse. This year is dry. Our fear is rock fall. There is little snow to catch and hold rocks in place. They will be rolling and spinning down on us. By the time they reach us, they will be like bullets. Camp 3 sits halfway up the Lhotse Face at 23,500 feet. The Sherpas chip tent spaces out of a forty-five-degree ice slope and set our tents there for us. It is cramped and steep; we always stay clipped in when outside the tents. The view of sunset from here is one of the most spectacular on the planet.
Camp 3 to camp 4 (26,180 feet): This is the second-hardest day of the climb with a 2,500-foot gain, ending at over 26,000 feet of elevation. This is where altitude really affects climbers. There is simply not enough air to breathe, and moving up hill becomes torture. As the day wears on, it gets hot, and that makes it all the more difficult. We cross two rock features that require some technical scrambling. The first is the Yellow Band, a layer of crumbly sedimentary rock at 24,500 feet. The second is the Geneva Spur. From the top of the Geneva Spur the route follows exposed-rock shelves for about a half mile before arriving in the South Col and camp 4.
Camp 4 to Summit (29,035 feet and back): sometime in the evening, around 8:30 p.m., we will start getting ready--filling water bottles, harnessing up, and putting on crampons. By 9:30 we hope to be moving upward. The climb starts out easily enough, and it is refreshingly cool. In down suits and double boots "cool" is relative. Above the Col there is an ice bulge of hard blue ice followed by a long, gradual snow slope. Across a bergshrund there is a steep gully. We hope for snow here because loose rock or hard ice will be difficult to climb. This section goes on for a very long time with about 1,200 feet of gain. Eventually the slope changes slightly before a last steep pitch to the Balcony at 27,500 feet. Here we will watch a spectacular sunrise. By now everyone's packs, oxygen bottles, and down suits are covered in a thick layer of frost. The Balcony will also be the location of camp 5 if we choose to use it. From the Balcony we will be able to see the top of the Kang Shung Face and even the Summit of Mount Everest. Unfortunately that is still 1,500 feet higher.
The climbing above the Balcony starts out easily enough but gets steeper and steeper. Soon we are crossing crumbly rock bands with little snow clinging to them. It is also deceptive because it seems that you are about to reach the South Summit only to discover that there is another ridge beyond. The South Summit is at 28,700 feet, and from there one can see the knife-edge ridge that leads to the Hillary Step and the Summit Ridge. It is a short down climb to this ridge and then a wild walk along the highest exposure on the planet. To the left and 8,000 feet down, straight down, is camp 2. To the right is the 12,000-foot drop into Tibet.
The Hillary Step is one desperate and very ungraceful move. You stick the crampon point of your right foot tenuously into a tiny crack and the left foot behind you into a cornice of snow. Slide the ascender as high as it will go and then stand up and quickly plant your ice tool before you start sliding down again. An embarrassing belly flop on the top, and it is done. The rock bit goes for a while beyond there, but it is easy.
At last you are on the summit ridge, a half hour of slogging up hill to a small mound of snow. Beyond that the ridge drops away into Tibet. This is the top of the world, the Summit of Mount Everest. Hopefully for our sakes we will have lots of oxygen and most of the day left to get back down to camp 4--full of adrenaline and happiness, but never more tired than this.
That gives you a pretty graphic idea of what our climbers faced as they made their way up Mt. Everest. Through the first two thirds of May the team repeatedly made plans to begin the final ascent, only to have them postponed by bad weather. Although the National Federation of the Blind-Allegra 2001 Everest Expedition was the largest group waiting to summit from the south side, Pasquale was determined that the team would not be the first of the season to attempt the summit. Fixing ropes and breaking trail takes additional energy. Our team did that job last year on Ama Dablam. This time he wanted other teams to go first, leaving our team free to focus all its energy and attention on reaching the summit.
Twice the team climbed to camp 2, advanced base camp, with plans to go on to the summit if the weather allowed. The first time the weather became so bad above them that most of the team decided to return to the thicker air and more comfortable conditions of base camp while they waited for things to clear out.
But finally, on May 22, the team set off for camp 3 in the hope that the clear weather would hold for a summit attempt. On May 23 they went on to camp 4 in the death zone, where bottled oxygen is required for survival. Because of fatigue and a temporary shortage of food and oxygen the team decided to postpone the summit attempt for twenty-four hours. This allowed the Sherpas to bring up more supplies from camp 2 and enabled the team to rest well before tackling the final, demanding effort.
These were compelling advantages, but the team had no guarantee that the weather would hold for another day. Other expeditions were streaming to the summit, taking advantage of the only break in the bad weather of the spring season. Pasquale admitted that it was the most difficult decision he had ever made, because some members of the team were strong enough to make the climb beginning that evening, and if the weather window closed, none of them would have the chance to try. Yet the team agreed unanimously to wait and rest, hoping that they could try again the next evening.
At about 9:00 p.m. on May 24 they began their extraordinary twenty-hour push. Here are the brief reports they radioed to base camp. Kevin Cherilla, base camp manager, and Reba Bull, wife of climber Brad Bull, then dictated them over satellite phone to Brian Buhrow, who with his wife Marti had been serving during the climb as Webmaster for the 2001 Everest Web site. Brian then prepared the short dispatches and posted them on the Web site so that the waiting and watching world could keep track of what was happening at the top of the world. Here, in chronological order, are the messages:
May 24, 2001
8:45 p.m.: The climbers have all left camp 4 for the summit. We sent our thirteen climbers and eight Sherpas off with good wishes, music, and cheers. It's really happening! We will have hourly updates from this point through the summit. Keep following closely; everyone is feeling great; and the weather report is positive--clear skies and minimal winds.
10:00 p.m.: The team is on the move. We haven't heard anything from them since they left. We will update as soon as we hear from them. Here in base camp everyone is drinking coffee, playing games, and eagerly awaiting the next radio call.
May 25, 2001
12:30 a.m.: Shortly after 11:00 p.m. Brad reported that Michael Brown and Charlie were out front. Chris, Brad, Erik W., and Ang Passang Sherpa were at the base of the Balcony. The other team members are close behind. At 12:30 a.m. Kami Sherpa reported that Pasquale [P.V.] has turned around because he does not feel well. He is returning to camp 4 at the South Col.
2:00 a.m.: We heard from Erik Weihenmayer at the Balcony. He sounded unbelievably clear and great! The team has remained very close to one another. Steve Gipe and P.V. have both turned around and are now safely back at camp 4. They are directing and encouraging the rest of the team from their tents. We just heard Michael Brown on the radio calling from on top of the balcony; he too sounded excellent! The current weather conditions at approximately 27,000 feet are windy and snowy. The weather report shows wind but clear skies. Here in base camp it's a starry and clear night. While sending this update, we got word that Jeff and Luis just arrived on the Balcony.
3:00 a.m.: Michael Brown reported continued snow. However, Kami reports clearing skies and visible stars all around from camp 2. The bad weather seems to be above the team but moving out.
4:00 a.m.: It is cold and windy up high, but the climbers have made a group decision to press on through the storm to stay warm. Here in base camp we are seeing clear skies, and the sun is beginning to light up the peaks. This is great news for the climbers, both for warmth and natural light.
5:40 a.m.: The team checked in at 28,025 feet. They are on their way! The weather has greatly improved. The skies are perfectly clear with pink and orange tints from the glow of the sun. They said they had great views. Kami informed us that all of the climbers are above the Balcony, waiting for some lines to be fixed. Two Sherpas are currently fixing the ropes.
6:30 a.m.: The entire team is approaching the South Summit. Jeff had trouble with a leaking oxygen regulator, but it is now 100 percent resolved. The lines have been fixed, and our team is on the move to the summit. Kami anticipates it will be two to three hours before they reach the summit.
7:30 a.m.: Brad called in at 7:10 a.m. stating that he was alone at the South Summit. His father Sherman is ahead of him with a Sherpa in the middle of the Hillary Step, blazing a trail for the rest of the team. The rest of the team is about a half hour behind Brad, just below the South Summit. More updates as they come in!
8:54 a.m.: At 8:15 a.m. Sherman Bull became the oldest man to stand on the top of the world. What a thrilling moment! Sherman was accompanied by Lakpa Sherpa. Currently everyone is at the South Summit or above. This is the strongest team on the mountain. Stay tuned!
10:30 a.m.: Great Summit news! At 9:10 a.m. Luis, Erik W, Eric A, Jeff, and Brad were approaching the Summit. At 9:30 a.m. Brad and Chris Morris reached the Summit. At 9:40 a.m. Brad, Sherm, and Chris headed down from the Summit. At 9:55 a.m. P.V. radioed to report a weather change. Clouds are coming in, and he requested the climbers to go down. At 10:00 a.m. Luis, Erik W, Eric A, and Jeff reached the Summit. Michael Brown followed shortly thereafter. By 10:15 a.m. Kami reported that all eight Sherpas had summited. Didrik and Michael O'Donnell are above the Hillary Step and within sight of the Summit. All climbers who have summited are now headed down to the South Col. We'll post good news soon. This is history!
11:30 a.m.: At 10:45 a.m. Mike O'Donnell and Didrik made the summit. This makes eleven out of thirteen team members who've summited this morning. All members are on their way down at this moment. P.V. is also traveling from camp 3 to camp 2. He is feeling better, but he thinks he came down with the flu which has been going around camp. In addition to our friends and loved ones, all eight of our Sherpas have summited today as well. They are: Lhakpa Tshering Sherpa, Chhuldim Nuru Sherpa, Ang Passang Sherpa, Ang Kami Sherpa, Lhakpa Tshering Sherpa, Pemba Choti Sherpa, Purba Bote, and Ang Sona Sherpa. What an incredible day!
4:00 p.m.: The climbers are all coming into camp 4 at the South Col, where they will be spending the night. Chris arrived at 12:00 noon. Michael Brown and Jeff arrived at 3:15 p.m. Erik W, Brad, Sherm, Charlie, and Mike O just arrived at 3:30 p.m., Didrik, Eric A, and Luis at 4:00 p.m. We are all relieved that the team is safely in camp 4. They are eating; sleeping; and, we're sure, telling stories of their summit. The plan is for the team to move back to camp 2 tomorrow, then back to base camp the following day.
The team did return to advanced base camp on Saturday, May 26, and to base camp on Sunday. Everyone was relieved to have them out of the death zone and back down to thicker air, relatively speaking. The Sherpas retrieved the equipment and empty oxygen cylinders and other trash--this team always packs out what it brings in and cleans up as best it can after other, less conscientious expeditions. The next several days were filled with packing and preparing for the descent and trek back to Katmandu.
The team left base camp on May 30 and reached Lukla on May 31. Thanks to a small helicopter, seven members of the team who had for various reasons to get back to civilization quickly went on to Namche Bazaar that evening. June 1, Erik was able to take part in a number of media interviews, appearing by phone on the "Today," "CBS This Morning," and CNN morning programs.
Politics entered into the climb at this point while both sections of the team were trying to get back to Katmandu. The king and queen of Nepal, along with six other people, were assassinated by the prince, apparently for personal reasons. But the political confusion that resulted caused some delay in the team's getting to the city. Once they arrived in Katmandu on June 3, they had to reorganize their gear since some was to be stored there and the rest brought back to the U.S.
The team landed in Los Angeles on June 6 as ready as they could be for the onslaught of media attention. After two and a half months away, they were eager to be reunited with family members and friends. They had achieved a dream of a lifetime: they had climbed the tallest mountain in the world and had been part of the extraordinary adventure that Erik and Pasquale had put together, but they had also been very far from home and loved ones for a long time. They were exhausted and hungry for American food. The next days would be filled with celebrations and relaxation. The National Federation of the Blind-Allegra 2001 Everest Expedition had come to a wildly exciting and successful conclusion; now it was time for the recollections and anecdotes to begin.
In a letter to a contact at Time magazine, Ed Weihenmayer pulled the threads of this amazing adventure together. Here in significant part is what he wrote:
They wondered, "Could a blind man ever summit Everest, jumping over the many small crevasses by measuring the distance with his climbing poles and crossing the gaping ones using as many as seven ladders strung together? Could a blind man climb the super‑steep Lhotse Face or traverse the torturous Khumbu Icefall. Could a blind man ever be in the condition necessary to endure more than two months on the world's biggest mountain, and have the stamina to hang in there through fierce storms and frigid cold?" Never say never!
Erik Weihenmayer and his climbing team made quite a bit of history last Friday morning:
- Erik, the first blind person even to attempt Everest, became the first blind person to summit the mountain.
- Sherman Bull, age sixty-four, became the oldest person to stand on top of the world.
‑ Sherman and his son Brad became the first father‑son team to reach the summit together.
‑ The nineteen people who summited from this team, including eight Sherpas, is the largest number of climbers from one team ever to summit on the same day. The previous high was fifteen.
And this speaks to the main story: a team of great individual climbers, climbing together in an absolutely selfless way, bound by their common desire to play a role in helping a blind climber stand on top of the world. In a world dominated by "me" and "me-first," it is refreshing to see star athletes actually put the success of the team above their own. For any great climber Everest is the pinnacle achievement. Moreover, if you are a professional climber, a big-mountain guide, summiting Everest heightens your profile and benefits you commercially. On my jaunt up to base camp, though, it was absolutely clear that each climber put the success of the team above his own desire to summit. The mission was to be part of a team which included a blind climber who would summit Everest, thereby sending a message to the world about the capabilities of blind people. The climb itself was graciously sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), which is striving to change what it means to be blind.
One climber told me privately that he really didn't think he was strong enough to summit, but he was strong enough to help Erik get to the top, and that's why he was there. This statement is even more heartwarming because it was this climber who took a 150-foot fall last year during a team practice climb on Ama Dablam, landed perilously on a ledge, developed pulmonary edema, managed with the help of an unbelievable team effort to descend in a blizzard to base camp, was heli‑vaced to safety, and still had the courage and passion to want to be part of this historic effort.
This mindset was no accident. Erik assembled the team, handpicking each climber based on climbing experiences with Erik. Each was a conservative climber, one who put safety first. Each had learned to work closely with Erik and had become comfortable with his skills and special systems on a big mountain, and Erik had become comfortable with each of them. Remember, just as Erik puts his life in their hands, they put their lives in his. So mutual trust and confidence are essential.
But it is more than that. When Erik talks about teamwork in his presentations to business groups, he claims that many climbing teams do not reach the summit because strong climbers set out on individual missions, forgetting that they are part of a team. This is often the case on Everest because the prize is so important. Erik was determined to pick people who would bind themselves to the team and the team mission. In no single instance did one person's individual agenda emerge stronger than the team agenda. Amazing!
Erik Weihenmayer prepares to leap a crevasse by measuring the distance with his two climbing poles.
Here is a May 10 journal entry from one climber: "It was Erik who first taught me how to rock and ice climb and gave me my love of mountaineering. The first time I went rock climbing was the day Erik proposed to Ellen on the Praying Monk on Camelback Mountain. Erik and I planned out the logistics of the day for about a week: buying the champagne and candy ring, and getting Ellen to come along. Erik promised it would be completely safe, and I was definitely more worried about the rappel off than Ellen's answer. The day ended by being a life‑changing experience for all of us because Ellen said "yes," and I fell in love with climbing.
Since that day I have been in some form or another a part of Erik's quest of the seven continental summits. He has given me the opportunity to climb all over the world and throughout the United States with him and many other great people. Last year, while Erik was waiting out a storm on Ama Dablam at 21,000 feet, I received a phone call from him asking me to join him and his team on Mt. Everest as base camp manager. After several weeks I finally got up the nerve and talked with my wife Jenny about this incredible opportunity. We realized it would be a huge sacrifice but one well worth it."
That collective mindset was tested many times in small ways and in a few key instances. When the team crossed the dangerous Khumbu Icefall the first time enroute to camp 1, everyone arrived very tired. Erik was totally exhausted. The Icefall was the most difficult piece of the climb for him as a blind person. It took him thirteen hours and forty-two minutes of gut‑wrenching labor this first time--five hours and twenty-three minutes when he got the hang of it. When he finally arrived at camp 1, he was so used up he couldn't take off his own crampons. But an hour before, as he was emerging from the Icefall, tired teammates, who had arrived earlier at camp 1, slogged their way back down to greet him with a hot orange drink and hugs. This kind of encouragement was to repeat itself many times over the next five weeks on the high mountain and was instrumental in Erik's reaching the top.
In Erik's own words (April 30 journal entry): "Just to show what an amazing team I'm part of, every time I near camp, some faster climbers on the team will work their way back to meet us along the trail. As I got through the Icefall the first time, still an hour and a half from camp 1, Charley and Brad met us with hot Tang. On the way down the Icefall, a half hour from base camp, somebody is always there to meet us. We hear them calling up to us as we descend. The most amazing moment was coming from base camp down to Dingboche two nights ago. It was a long, rocky, and bouldery nine‑hour day for me, in which I kicked many rocks with my toes. Around six o'clock we came down below Tugla, across a long, rutted meadow. The clouds had risen up the valley and had engulfed us in mist. I felt it on my fingers like rain. At the top of the hill above Dingboche I should have known to expect it. There they were, Mike and Irie waiting with Sprite and candy bars. They had already reached the tea house and, before eating their own dinner, had hiked back up the hill to meet us."
And one more, from a climber with a humorous bent: "I am constantly impressed by Erik's strength, endurance, and inner resolve. He also demonstrates patience like no other climber on the team. As we guide him through obstacles and over narrow bridges, vocally telling him how best to navigate the terrain, we often make mistakes. "Hey Erik, this bridge is ten feet long and one foot wide-‑go left a bit, oops , no , I mean right, er no, left, left, left!" He scans with his poles and continues without getting mad, perhaps not knowing his life was put in jeopardy by an oversight of mine. It also makes me realize how independent Erik really is on this climb, relying on his senses and abilities more than anything else.
As he jokingly tells me, "You just ring the bell, boy. Your job is not to be funny or conversational. Your job is to perform one function‑‑ring boy, ring!"
So I asked Erik, "What if I have trouble high on the mountain and require your help?"
To which he replied: "Are you ringing the bell? If not, then it ain't my problem."
The team made perhaps its most crucial decision at camp 4, when thirty minutes before its scheduled departure on its final summit push, it decided to delay for 24 hours. The team had arrived at camp 4 over a wide range of time, some at 10:20 a.m. and others as late as 3:00 p.m. The earliest arrivals found the tents covered in ice; they needed to be dug out, a colossal effort at 26,000 feet. The later arrivals didn't have much time for rest before their planned 9:00 p.m. departure. And important tasks like boiling water and preparing some food did not get started on time. But the good-weather window was upon them. Storms had engulfed the high mountain for the whole season, and the first summit had been made only the day before. So how long was the good weather going to last?
For climbers who had already invested two months of their lives on this climb, they certainly had an urgent desire not to pass up this window. While some of the team was strong enough to push off, the team as a whole was not ready. If they had launched as planned, very likely some of the team would not have been able to complete the twenty‑hour climb to the summit and back. So the team, including those who could have made it anyway, made a unanimous decision to delay their departure until the next evening. It could have cost them the weather window-‑and it almost did-‑but it was one of the key selfless decisions which resulted in nineteen climbers standing on the summit one day later.
Maurice Peret, a blind man who trekked to base camp and worked there on communications, wrote a journal as follows: "After a night's sleep and upon long reflection, we concluded that the decision, which had been arrived at collectively, was courageous and prudent. It once again distinguished our expedition from many others on the mountain in its taking account of the condition of each of the thirteen members of this extraordinarily strong and cohesive team. The disappointment that we endured last night could not possibly compare to the anguish we might all have experienced had the team decided to move up the mountain laboring under such adverse factors. We remain confident and proud of our climbers, and we have internalized well the crucial lesson of patience. We vow never to forget or take for granted those uncontrollable factors--weather, wind, and the great mountain itself--which ultimately determine success on the highest peak on earth."
The Expedition Leader, a tremendously strong climber who had summited Everest in 1998, became very sick at the Balcony (27,500 feet), not from altitude but from some kind of flu. Fortunately he had the experience to know that he had to come down, that he could go no further safely. Then, in a decision some will question, he started back to camp 4, alone because he did not want to strip a single Sherpa from the climbing party continuing to the top: another selfless decision. Finally, hours later, he dragged himself into camp 4, very ill, almost unable to stand, and continued to lead and encourage his team by radio as they moved to the summit. Unbelievable leadership!
The team included more than the climbers. It also included base camp managers, cooks, and communications people--both on the mountain and back in the U.S. The base camp manager in fact played a crucial role in a team decision which led to the successful summit. The team passed the Balcony in a fierce snow storm, and it was cold. They had been climbing through these conditions for hours. The team huddled, knowing that, if they got caught in a storm high up, they were on their own. No rescue attempt would be possible. Tired after seven hours of climbing, worn down by the two months they had spent high on the mountain, they were seriously considering whether to continue upward. From base camp (and from camp 2), though, the sky looked as if it was beginning to clear above the climbers, where they could not see it. This news encouraged the climbers to push their way out of the storm and go for the summit, which they did in courageous fashion. Thanks, base camp manager!
This climb will become one of the great Everest stories. The team will be regarded as perhaps the greatest ever on Everest. And this achievement should rank as one of the greatest sporting achievements of 2001.