By Angela Hawse
Imagine the effort it takes to climb Mt. Everest. Weeks of acclimatizing in ever thinning air above Base Camp at 18,000’. Going up and down. Deteriorating physically from too many days at altitude and mentally taxed from the hazardous Khumbu Icefall and covering the same terrain again and again. Wondering all the time if you’ll get the weather for a shot at the summit or have the stamina to hold out. Unique to Everest, much of the time you travel by yourself, in your own bubble… your mind racing between hope and doubt.
Now, take away your right foot, add a prosthetic and strap a crampon to it. Envision how different that effort might be. More than you can probably conjure up, unless you’ve witnessed what happens at altitude to a stump that oscillates from a swollen mass to a shrinking twig and doesn’t fit it’s prosthetic from one day to the next. Not a pretty picture and not a recipe for success on the highest mountain in the world.
Add steadfast determination, fitness, sweat and tears, and you’ve got the First Disabled Ascent of Mt. Everest. In 1998, I had the opportunity to be on the A Team to help friend and amputee Tom Whittaker turn his dream into reality. Weeks on the mountain with Tom were either blissful or burdened with the excruciating pain he bared. The extra effort and energy he put out maintaining his stump made my personal woes pale in comparison.
The highest I’d yet climbed was 22,841’. to the summit of Aconcagua and five expeditions on Denali. I had no idea how I would do at extreme altitude. All went well acclimatizing with the team up to Camp 2 at 21,000’ until a wicked cough consumed me and I was flat on my back in BC for 6 days. With the weather perfect, my team pushed ahead to sleep at Camp 3 on the Lhotse face, to acclimatize for a summit bid. I was crushed being left behind, but kept hope alive, and Tom’s effort inspired mine.
The reality of the situation meant going up, by myself, through the Khumbu Icefall and spending a night at Camp 2 with our Sherpa cook. The following day I’d have to continue up the Lhotse face, to spend a night at Camp 3, where our tent was stocked with all I’d need for a night out, alone at 23,600’. I was motivated and dug deep to find courage I’d never tapped into. It was the most formidable mountain experience I’d had, alone on Everest, sleeping higher than I’d ever climbed. There were many times I wanted to turn around. There were ample excuses in my mind that would have justified it, but I pressed on and each step gave me more confidence that I could do it.
My solo push paid off. When the weather was good enough for the first summit bid, I was on the team. Unfortunately, Tom’s health had deteriorated and he held back knowing he’d need everything he had to make it. My partner, Gareth Richards and I went for it with a couple of Sherpa, and Tom’s blessings.
Three nights out from BC, we reached the South Col at 26,085’. The weather was dubious, with high clouds heralding a change and constant wind hammering the tent. Anxiety was at an all time high as we packed for our summit bid. No one had yet ventured above the South Col yet that season and we expected deep snow and slow going.
A call on the radio from Whittaker informed us that the weather forecast looked dismal with a huge cyclone forming off the Bay of Bengal. Tom thought he might only have one shot and was on his way up. His arrival would force Gareth and I to continue down to C3 or C2 instead of spending another night at the South Col. A longer day was in store.
The alarm wasn’t necessary. Neither of us slept a wink in the thin air and heavy anticipation. We groped in the cold and darkness to put on harness, crampons, headlamp and oxygen masks and stepped out into what was to be the wildest mountain day of my life. Hours went by post holing up to our waists in unconsolidated snow and it wasn’t until dawn that we reached the Balcony at 27,600’.
By the time we reached the South Summit at 28,750’, a massive flag cloud shrouded the summit ridge. We weighed the consequences of going for it. Teams were piling up behind us. A Sherpa looked at me and said, “it is better to live than to die. Let’s go down”. We bolted out of there and later learned that no one summited that day.
On the South Col we brewed up and had a quick exchange with Whittaker before continuing down. If we made it to C2 where our Sherpa cook was waiting, we’d have to descend another 5000’.
Shortly into the descent, Gareth was a small figure in the distance. I could not keep up. His effort became inspired and mine became weaker. By the time I reached C3 on the Lhotse face, Gareth was nowhere in sight and I realized I was about to spend a second night alone at C3 as darkness fell upon me. Gareth would be handed a cup of tea and a meal. I’d melt ice for water and feed myself whatever was left in the tent. Grim. My effort lacked and his was outstanding. After a sleepless night, I drug myself out of the tent and down the Lhotse Face to C2. The entire way down I cussed and beat myself up for not being as fit as Gareth and swore I’d never undertake any endeavor without being in the best shape I could be. It was a hard earned lesson.
Whittaker didn’t summit, but two weeks later, when the weather broke again we pooled together all our resources and those of other teams to give him one last bid for the summit with our strongest Sherpa. He made it and to this day, his effort was the proudest I’ve ever known and one that will inspire me forever.