Two days before, Brent, Charley, David, and I were in just this place, saddled with 45 pound loads at nearly 24,000 feet, turned around by rockfall and difficult conditions below the West Shoulder. It was hugely disappointing: many days of effort spent on the mountain, trying to follow a route we had all dreamed of for years, and having to fight for every single inch.
Now, David Morton and I were here again, this time carrying only clothing, food, hardware, and our camera gear. Our hope was to finally reach the West Shoulder, gaze out across the dramatic sweep of the great North Face, and hopefully recreate the iconic, seminal image shot by Brent’s dad, Barry Bishop, some 49 years before. All that stood between us and the shoulder was a seemingly benign couloir leading upward to the ridge crest.
I led up one pitch, set up a belay, and Dave climbed up to join me. From there, we checked the route conditions. Once more, the mountain would not make anything easy: Instead of the cruiser neve we had anticipated, we found the couloir to be 4-6 inches of unconsolidated snow sitting atop asphalt-hard, blue ice. We had only a handful of ice screws and our 60 meter climbing rope. We could climb up easily enough, but to descend we’d either need to downclimb – a slow proposition – or rappel 30 meters at a time, which would also be prohibitively slow. Above us, in the towering gendarmes of the West Shoulder, we heard the freight train sound of wind whipping through the rocks – a predicted spike in the wind patterns. And, the afternoon clouds were already rising from the valleys far below, engulfing us on the face and spitting snow.
Sadly, we knew it was time to descend. We were thwarted by the mountain and the route once again.
A few hours later, safely back at Camp 2 with Brent, Charley, and our Camp 2 cook, Phinjo, we watched the weather worsen quickly high above. Some 8,000 feet below the summit, we could hear the wind roaring and see clouds whipping through the high rockbands and outcrops. Radio crackles and Camp 2 chatter told us there were many people still coming off the summit on the standard, Southeast Ridge route. Some were still at the Hillary Step, others at the South Summit, many in great danger. Throughout the night, people struggled to the South Col through wind and snow and thin air and cold. Some never made then journey, more lives lost in the pursuit of Everest’s summit.
A couple of days’ hence, the details are still murky. The simple reality is one of tragedy: lives were lost, and Everest proved once more that, despite numbers and modernity and communications and helicopter rescues, it can still be a deadly place.
By any standard, Western definition, Brent, Charley, David, and I failed on Everest this year. Hard work, passion, and a lot of effort aside, we barely made it within 5,000 feet of the tippy top of
Everest. We didn’t even make it to the West Shoulder. But, we smiled a heck of a lot. We laughed together, we got scared together, we motivated each other, we supported each other, we believed in each other and our dedication to embracing the opportunity to fail.
And, for me, this climb was never about the summit (nor do I think it was for any of our team). Rather, this climb was about a celebration – a celebration of the efforts, vision, and audacity of Hornbein, Unsoeld, Bishop, Emerson, and the West Ridgers of 1963. It was a celebration of stepping a bit off the beaten track, and touching something of the unknown, the uncertain, the non-guaranteed.
We didn’t reach the summit; there’s no question about that. And if our expedition is thus considered a failure, I’ll take failure any day of the week.