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Everest South Summit push debrief: "S**t I thought, this is why they call it the death zone!"
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May 22, 2005 13: 08 EST
It's a dark season in Himalaya. Mountain after mountain has announced aborted climbs, Everest had the latest first spring summit in 45 years and we might have already lost 3 climbers to the mountain. The South side has not been summited at all yet, and climbers wonder if it ever will this year. There are still no signs of a weather window, and the Everest ice fall will close June 4th.

Many climbers are now heading home. One is Keith Woodhouse who made a summit push with Asian Trekking on Everest South side 2 days back. Here's his harrowing debrief of a very scary night:

Keith Woodall
Summit Update
22 May, 05 - 12:03

"At 3am on Saturday 21st May my attempt to climb Mt Everest came to a final close. At just short of 8500m above the South Col and near the Balcony and with increasing wind speeds and falling temperatures we had no option but to turn around. As it stands we are the group to get to the highest point this year. Apart from being physically exhausted the bad weather is due to continue at least until the 29th and the authorities will close the Ice Fall no later than 4th June due to the danger to Sherpas."

7 hours to Camp 4, Summit Oxygen equipment was playing up

"As we decided to turn around I became acutely aware of my own predicament! Since 9pm when we set off I had been fighting for breath! My Summit Oxygen equipment was playing up and my cough and overall condition was not good."

"We had arrived on the South Col at about 3pm after a debilitating 7 hour climb from C3. Tired and exhausted we arrived on this bleak moon like landscape littered with discarded Oxygen bottles and in gale force winds."

"The first danger signs - I knew what to do I just couldn't do it!"

"I climbed into a tent with Pasang and Lakpa, my personal Sherpa, relieved to have got there and to be out of the wind. Until about 8pm we ate and drank as much liquid as was humanly possible. We changed our socks for a new dry pair and adjusted our harnesses over our down suits. Then came the first danger signs!! I couldn't get my crampons on. I knew what to do I just couldn't do it!!"

"Eventually we set off. The night was perfect and moon lit, the wind had decreased but I was still having breathing problems with the Summit mask and regulator. I had to swap the mask for the Canular, partly because of my coughing and partly because it wasn't responding for my demand for Oxygen. The unit pulsed small doses automatically - and on the top setting at least I got some Oxygen into me!"

A massive lightning storm over Makalu

"Hour after hour we climbed steeply up the triangular face toward the ridge, sometimes on deep new snow - great avalanche conditions, I thought - and sometimes on ice more like metal in texture, hard and very difficult to get the crampons to bite!"

"However I was struggling and no account of mind games would remove the urge to turn around. I just kept repeating to myself 'this will be over in 12 hours Just hang in'. Lakpa must have know this as for the first time, he turned into my shadow and guided every dangerous move, as this section was all unprotected."

Suicidal to go on

"As we got higher fixed ropes provided protection but clipping in and out with huge mittens on is not an easy trick. By now the wind was picking up and there was a massive and spectacular lightning storm raging over Makalu, lighting up the night sky every few seconds. Within minutes the moon went down, my headlamp failed, and my anxiety increased. Eventually just before the Balcony I'd had enough. At the same, time the rest of the team also came to the same conclusion. It was suicidal to go on!"

"Shit I thought, this why they call it the death zone"

"I don't really know happened next but I became very conscious of how frightened I was! I was struggling to breath, coughing uncontrollably and all my power had gone!! Shit I thought, this why they call it the death zone. Lakpa was having none of this! He took control and started issuing commands from under his Poisk Oxygen mask. We stopped every rope length for him to swap my decender and he went ahead in case I fell."

"Eventually we arrived back on the South Col at 5pm. I was in a state of collapse! Lakpa removed my harness and crampons, and then man handled me into the tent boots and all, and covered me with my sleeping bag. I woke in a coughing fit about 2 hours later with diarrhea. The next 10 minutes felt literally like I was dying."

"I can't find the words to describe how I felt. Finally exhausted back in my tent I began to understand the reality of the situation. My breathing was getting worse, I was completely exhausted and my legs wouldn't work, yet staying here in the gales force winds was not an option! Somehow I had to find the mental and physical strength to at least get down to C3."

Luda was exhausted and weeping, her oxygen had run out

"By now I was also aware that Klaus, Luda and two Sherpa were also in a very debilitated state. Lakpa issued commands and promised to follow me down just as soon as he could take the tent down. It was about 8am when I set off alone. The rest of the team had gone and I just had to follow. Taking rests every few minutes I traversed around the South Col toward the near vertical drop down toward C3. At this point I came across Luda. She was exhausted and weeping."

"Her oxygen had run out and she was stuck at the top of a vertical section. I talked with her and tried to coax her down but she was adamant she couldn't do it. We agreed that the Sherpa's would be along shortly and we knew they would have a spare bottle of oxygen. If she sat tight and waited for them she would be ok. I could do nothing I was very ill myself, I had to go down."

I'm alive

"I pressed on relieved that at least some power was returning to my legs and my breathing and wheezing was getting marginally better. I passed Klaus above C3 moving slowly like a robot and at 5pm some 32 hours after I'd last slept I staggered into the relative safety of ABC and collapsed."

"I'm now back in Base Camp after a great nights sleep and with the Ice Fall behind me I can finally look forward to coming home. A second attempt is out of the question. The weather is forecast to be bad until the end of the month and this may be one of few years since 1953 when there is no summit from the South side."

"So how do I feel!!! Pretty good on reflection. I'm alive, I've achieved one of my personal objectives which was to get as far as C4 the South Col. I've blown away my high altitude record at nearly 8500m and I've had the biggest adventure of my life!"

"We can't always have what we want and you can't buy this with money"

"And so finally a message to the kids at Bolton Brow. There is a saying that it better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all. Getting to the top of this great mountain is what I set out to do. We can't always have what we want and you can't buy this with money."

"I have tried with all my all my heart and power but the mountain beat me! That's life and I'm a much stronger person as a result. I've met some incredible people especially amongst the Sherpa. I've learned tolerance and humility are not two of my strong points, I've learned where my limits are both physically and mentally and finally I've remembered how much I love home!"


Top image, ExWeb files, bottom Live image over Contact 3.0, courtesy of Keith.

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