Owen West

Everest north side Base Camp

Last night Suz and I were Yak Attacked just after midnight. With over 20 expeditions queuing up to take on the north side this year, there has been an ongoing yak rodeo around the tents at Base Camp. We heard the clanging bell just before the beast popped two of our tent strings, which gave Suz just enough warning to jump free of her bag and into mine. Let’s hope Chomolungma forgives the in extremis coupling; joining the three-mile-high club is frowned upon at the foot of the mountain, so I’ve been reliving my Marine Corps deployment days—sans the naked sailors, of course.

I learned that two private expeditions at camp, plus who knows how many others, had come armed with only 500 meters of rope each. For some perspective, my team, along with Simonson (a U.S. expedition) has 10,000 meters of rope each. Clearly, too many teams rely on the new ropes (meaning money, resources, effort) that the few generous people bring and set up, to say nothing of medical supplies, satellite transmissions, etc. I am not amazed at the generosity and good nature of Russell, but it makes me feel proud to be part of the team that is helping, not hurting.

This morning we took an acclimatization hike to about 20,000 feet, trailing behind Andy Lapkass (part Sherpa/part yak) and Ellen Miller (part mountain goat/part helium). I know Andy and Ellen from the Eco Challenge—they also do 100-mile marathons at altitude and other torturous events that could qualify them for committal—but after an hour it didn’t make any difference who they were. While they chatted amiably and tried to include me in the conversation it was all I could do to focus on my breathing and stare hopelessly at my lead feet. Every step I took was a new personal high point, and my lungs simply could not keep up with my legs.

I trained hard for Everest—long runs with packs, endless stair workouts, endless hikes that took up most of my weekends, even sleeping in an altitude tent for three weeks courtesy of New York City-based Hypoxico, which supplies altitude-simulation tents (I slept at 14,000 feet for my last week)—but nothing can simulate these conditions except the mountains and the altitude itself. My Colorado jaunts clearly didn’t prepare my body for the languid feeling that invaded my lungs after about an hour.

My legs wanted to go, go, go, but even a high step at 20,000 feet left me gasping. My instinct was to push through the head squeeze and the hyperventilation, but having learned my lesson early in this trip, I pulled up and watched them move steadily up to the summit. It’s pretty amazing to bag a 21,000-foot summit in sneakers right out of Base Camp—higher than any point in North America—but I made the right call.

The problem with redlining at altitude is that mountain sickness can incapacitate you for days, thus losing more than is gained. So, you really have to watch for symptoms and stretch your endurance just enough to stimulate red blood cell growth without blowing up. It sounds easy, but when you’re acclimatizing your mind is dulled; up there today, I was taking a full 10 minutes to convert meters to feet and had to start my pulse checks on the minute because I was losing track of the starting points so often. I’ve had to really concentrate on my fitness even as everyone around me seems to trot up into the clouds. We’ve got a month before the summit attempts, so there’s no rush except to crush that internal voice that says, “You’re wimping out again. Suck it up.”

Suz had turned back at 19,000 feet, so I returned by myself.

Soon the team will trek to Advanced Base Camp (ABC), with my wife going in the opposite direction to return to the States. I will not be alone, of course, but gone will be the one person who has been measuring my movements and thoughts with 100 percent accuracy. Trusting myself at this point and in this place is a dangerous thing to do. I will quickly find out at ABC.