What am I doing here? That's a question I've asked myself a lot over the past few days. This expedition is expensive, time-consuming, dangerous, and uncomfortable (to say the least). Instead of coming here, I could have (i) made a down-payment on a house, (ii) continued to advance in my profession, (iii) pushed myself athletically in trail running, orienteering, martial arts, or ballroom dancing, and (iv) slept easily and happily in fully-oxygenated air in a climate-controlled room for 8+ weeks.
There were so many times that I asked myself this question in the last 5 days. I wondered what I was doing here on Monday at 5am, as we ascended the Khumbu Icefall for the 3rd time and I noticed fresh boulders of ice fallen across a route that the Ice Doctors had installed less than 24 hours earlier. I wondered what I was doing here on Tuesday at 10am, when the sun beat down on us at 21,000' and the snow and ice surrounding us on five sides created a reflection oven of what felt like 110 degree-heat. It was all we could do to wear our thinnest long-sleeves for sun-protection, lather any uncovered cracks in our armor with sunblock, and lay in the snow with the Sherpa hoping to catch any slight breeze that might elude us in our tents. I wondered what I was doing here on Wednesday, as we attempted to sleep at 24,000' (the highest I've ever been) and my body forced me awake—gasping for air—every 20-30 minutes, just as my pulse and respiratory rate fell to the point that my body would not be able to get enough oxygen to survive1. I wondered what I was doing here on Thursday at 7am, as I almost lost my footing descending the ~4,000' ice wall that is the Lhotse Face. I caught myself with the arm I had wrapped in the fixed lines up the Face (and any fall likely would have been stopped at the next anchor point in the fixed line, about every 150 feet), but it was still an adrenaline-triggering slip that reminded me of how hairy the edge between life and death is up here. I again wondered what I was doing here twenty minutes later when I dropped my belay device (a quarter-pound piece of metal for rappelling) and saw it careen down the icy face about 200 feet, coming within about 2 feet of hitting another climber. And I wondered what I was doing here this morning, as I considered the dozens of ways in which I was so incredibly lucky so far on this trip. I do not have the "Khumbu Cough" from the dry, cold air (and I certainly haven't fractured any ribs from coughing); I haven't had any cold or flu or GI issues made more likely by my weakness; I haven't broken or cut any part of my body; and I haven't really had any adverse effects from the altitude. Aside from a minor headache at Camp III (which I was able to cure by breathing harder), I have avoided pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, and all of their symptoms.
As I ask myself what the heck I'm doing here, I immediately think about the fun of it all. But losing your appetite at high altitude, constantly battling temperature extremes, struggling to sleep, and worrying for your teammates' (and your own) well-being is not exactly a North Dakotan wedding dance. Sure, the rush of hugging a teammate after you both climb half way up the Lhotse Face, and the silent pleasure of watching the sun rise over the grandest mountains in the world, are terrific, but I'm not sure that they justify the experience on their own.
Instead, when I ask myself what I'm doing here, three things come to mind. First is the meditative state I find more in mountaineering than in a lot of other activities. I alluded to part of this in my last dispatch, when I described the state of flow I get when I'm walking through the mountains. The combination of physical activity, the focus I need to have on technical terrain, and the natural beauty/remoteness of the mountains, puts me in my happy place—where I am present in myself, amidst my surroundings. Even on a mountain like Everest, in terrain like the Lhotse Face, I easily lose track of time as I focus only on my feelings and the environment. This state of flow is comparable to what I used to experience in my best days with the Yale Crew—when 8 of us rowed together with such power and in such harmony that it felt like we were gliding effortlessly across the water. In running, the closest I've come is at my peak, in racing situations, when I feel like I know exactly what my body can deliver and I am able to walk the line between under- and over-achievement in such a way that I am the master of my own destiny. These moments are more common for me in mountaineering, I think, because my pace is a function of my surroundings, much more than it is a function of my training. In other words, I only feel the incredible flow in running and rowing when I am in peak condition. But in mountaineering, I feel it on just about every hike.
The second thing that comes to mind when I ask myself what I'm doing here is a speech I gave during my senior year in college, in which I explained that "I row because it feels so good when I stop". In that speech, I described how much I disliked the pain, sacrifice and competitive nature of varsity crew, and how I kept at it because of the satisfaction I derived from slaying the daily demons that tempted me to quit. By not quitting the team, and by never caving to the urge to slow down during a race, I proved to myself over and over again that I can do anything I set my mind to. And the profound satisfaction and confidence I got from confronting (and triumphing over) those daily demons made me crave facing and overcoming temptation in as many situations as I could find. Julius Erving once said: "being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don't feel like doing them." I like that quote. And while I enjoy overcoming temptation in many areas of life ("will I go to the gym today," "will I finish my most critical work assignment before I get distracted by less important tasks," etc), mountaineering on a mountain like Everest gives me infinitely more demons to confront: "will I climb another 2,000' of icy slope in cold, gusting wind?" "will I force myself to eat and hydrate, even when I'm exhausted and have completely lost my thirst and appetite due to altitude?" I like taking on challenges because they make normal life seem so much more incredible. I've been here for ~6 weeks, and I can't imagine the rapture I will experience when I get to sleep again at sea-level or eat fresh Italian pasta with frozen custard for dessert.
The third thing that comes to mind when I ask myself what I'm doing here is the fact that I like making lists for myself and checking things off of them. I have been this way for as long as I can remember; I got my first pocket calendar when I was a junior in high school, and I loved writing down everything I had to do and then making a note when I had done them. As I got older, and I became friends with Olympic gold medalists and the mild-mannered guy who would go on to found Pinterest, I began to make lists that went farther out on the calendar and included loftier goals. "Make the varsity boat" was easy to write in my calendar for my Junior year, but hard to execute—it included a ton of subsidiary goals aimed at giving me the strength and form to win that spot. "Win a national rowing championship" was a goal I was barely capable of expressing as a Senior, but my coach and teammates helped me find the words to dream that dream. And once a goal was set, finding the daily discipline to pursue it became almost as satisfying as achieving it after all of that hard work. I climbed my first of the "7 Summits" in 2002, but it was not until after Denali in 2012 that I could find the words to add "climb all of the 7 Summits" to my list of goals. But after 5 years of spending almost all of my free time and resources in the mountains, that dream may come to fruition in the next three weeks. It may involve a lot of near-term suffering, but if I am able to pull it off, it will affirm over 5 years of sacrifice and preparation. And that accomplishment will more than make it all worthwhile.
I want to close this letter by thanking you for your interest in this dream. You may have supported YFU via this climb because its mission speaks to you as it speaks to me. You may have supported YFU because of our friendship. Or you may have supported YFU because you were curious to hear how things were going on the mountain. But regardless, the fact that you have even read this far into this letter means that you care. And that means the world to me. Thank you.
1) Cheyne-stokes breathing is actually a pretty remarkable way that your body keeps itself alive, even if it does lead to very disjointed and uncomfortable "sleep" at high altitude. I've experienced this phenomenon on a few different mountains, but never to the extent of waking up gasping every 30 minutes. Thank goodness the next time we sleep at Camp III, we will be using supplemental oxygen :)
A) As of now, our original schedule (targeting May 23rd for the summit) looks reasonable. I will try to send an update before we begin our final push up the mountain, but you can also get more timely updates by looking for Everest "Team Three" on this website: https://www.mountainguides.com/everest-south17.shtml
B) I don't want you to think our time on the mountain is all uncomfortable. For example, today at basecamp was collage-making day (thank goodness for my teammate who brought the glue stick, magazines and cardboard!), and we have had many good laughs at the thought of a climber trying to escape the advances of an overly-friendly yak with this marvelous invention: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/20/world/asia/20japan.html