I was on Mount
Everest for 50 days before I felt real fear. It came suddenly while climbing a
stretch I'd already been up and down eight times. Blood rushed through my head
as I looked between my legs down a white wall that dropped thousands of feet to
Looking down in
itself didn't bother me. Twenty-seven seasons of mountaineering has conditioned
me against freaking out simply because I am on the middle of a sheer wall. Just
under my skin, however, I have the instinctive fear that all humans share: not
a direct fear of heights as many of us wrongly suppose, but a more basic fear
of being out of control in any potentially dangerous place. Confidence in
technique and equipment assuages my fear on Everest, just as confidence in
pilot and craft calms most people's fears in a 747 at an altitude even higher
than the mountain's 29,028 feet.
What made me feel
out of control at this moment was a tiny piece of ice, no larger than a dime.
In all other ways I was surprisingly comfortable. Even at 22,000 feet, my
state-of-the-art insulated climbing suit kept me as warm as I would be in my
living room in Berkeley, Calif. I was carrying a heavy pack, but my breathing
had been normal at rest—until I realized what that ice chip could do to me.
I was following
7,000 feet of rope fixed securely to the mountain's west shoulder by long
screws in the ice. With the aid of a pair of mechanical ascenders, I held the
rope like a handrail as I moved upward one slow step at a time. The ascenders
were designed to slide up with ease, but under the slightest downward pressure
they would lock. Suddenly the upper ascender slipped, and I found myself
dangling from my waist harness a few feet lower than I had been. The lower
ascender had held me. Looking down to where I might have fallen, I resisted an
urge to panic.
Seeing that ice
had formed on the ascender's metal teeth, I took my hands out of my gloves and
scraped them clean with a ball-point pen and a toothbrush. Minutes later the
same ascender slipped again, and I toppled over backwards with a scream. Again,
the lower ascender held.
Ice was building
up on the ropes, something that hadn't been happening before. For almost two
months the snowfalls had come in the form of dry, cold powder that didn't stick
to anything, and the mountain had been in perfect climbing condition, with its
ribs of dark rock and blue ice always exposed. On May 8 it had changed
overnight. One storm iced Everest over like a wedding cake, and this time DO
amount of wind blew it clean. Ropes, camps, rock and ice were buried. The storm
was a forerunner of the monsoon, a seasonal wind that in the summer months
blows rain clouds from the warm Indian Ocean toward the Himalaya, where the
clouds freeze and drop heavy blankets of wet snow. When the monsoon hit with
full force Everest would be out of condition for climbing until September.
My fear increased
in direct proportion to the the ice buildup inside the ascenders. Each slip
stripped me of my peace and comfort. My heart would pound and I would gasp for
breath. My fingers would go numb trying to clean the devices. Warmth and
confidence would return as I began climbing again, only to instantly disappear
with another slip.
became attuned to a bizarre rhythm. After each cleaning, I set out into the
great silence of high altitude, a blue and white world so intensely beautiful
that just to glimpse it seemed to justify all privations. But as the ascenders
iced up, my apprehension let this pure beauty dissolve into a grotesquely
twisted landscape, unfit for human life.
I had come to
Everest with 16 other climbers in March, just when the peak was emerging from
the deep cold and high winds of winter. Today only four of us were left on the
upper mountain. Two men—Jack Tackle and Dr Robin Houston—were in Camp V at
25,000 feet, waiting to make a last-ditch effort to finish climbing the
mountain before the monsoon. Kim Schmitz and I were moving up to join them.
I was the climbing
leader of the 1983 American Everest West Expedition Our goal was a completely
self-contained ascent of the difficult Direct West Ridge. We had no native
porters, no motors of any kind, no bottled oxygen.