Story by Melissa Arnot and David Morton; photos by David Morton
It is sometime between 7 and 9 p.m. Today, May 20, we carried our camp up to our highest resting point, Camp 4 at 7,600 meters. This is as high as I have slept without oxygen, and I am feeling the effects. I can take about five breaths and then I feel the sudden need to gasp or open the tent door, as though it is the tent that is keeping me from breathing. My mind is racing about the climb ahead. I feel unsure about my own ability to climb above this camp without oxygen. I want to try though. That thought is tempered by knowing that if I try, David may have to turn around sooner then he otherwise would to climb down with me. I am completely torn, trying to decide whether or not I should even leave Camp 4. Those thoughts only last until I find myself gasping again and focused on the task of just breathing.
Before too long (but after what felt like forever) our alarms go off. 10 p.m. Time to get ready, time to go. By 11:30 p.m., we are outside of the tent with down suits on, roped up, and facing a very moderate wind that seems kind compared with what Makalu has shown us so far. The first hour of climbing is slow, breaking trail in the dark. It isn’t soon after that first hour, as we approach another team’s camp (About 100 meters higher than ours) that I know it is time for me to go back to camp. We are moving slow, and if David has any chance of summiting, or staying warm, he needs to move faster than I can right now. These decisions are never easy, especially when made it the moment. There is no time to second guess, at least not now.
Heading back to Camp 4 alone was hard, emotionally. It is hard to put so much into an expedition only to fall short of my goals, but it was the right decision. As David made his way into camp later that night, I knew I had pushed myself to the appropriate limit. Despite feeling disappointed in not making the summit, I understand my limits better now, and that is something I will take with me. Carlos Buhler wrote that you shouldn’t get too greedy climbing mountains; you have to take your time. It is true. I am so thankful for this experience on Makalu. It has humbled me and taught me so much.
Coming down from Camp 4 to Camp 3 was one of the most difficult experiences I have had in the mountains. Not the technical climbing, but mentally and physiologically. I know that I was at my absolute limit. Just taking two steps required five minutes of rest, and my body was telling me urgently that it needed more oxygen. From the safety of basecamp, having pushed through, I know myself better now, and once I get a few days rest, I will be stronger for it. There is tremendous gratitude in that.
As Melissa untied the climbing rope, put it in her pack and left to go back to Camp 4, I felt a wave of emotion about losing my partner … and then I knew I had to focus on the long slow process of moving higher at these elevations. I was still breaking trail and would be until two of the approximately half dozen other climbers overtook me a few hours later. It was a beautiful night with a waning moon still shedding some light on the tremendous upper reaches of Makalu. My body moved slowly as it does up high, but I felt alive and exhilarated in that intense environment. There was hardly any wind during the evening, and as light started to come on the horizon I hoped that the common early morning winds that accompany daybreak would not materialize. They did not. The sun’s redemptive warmth came without winds, and by 8 a.m. my down suit seemed to be warm, not just something keeping me from cold.
Long hours passed as I approached the French Couloir that leads to the summit ridge. Some of the seven other climbers had passed me and I climbed for times with two others. We all moved well though in general. Even the fastest climbers were somewhat slower today. There was trail breaking throughout the climb which certainly slowed each leader down. I also had realized by midday that I was certainly carrying too much weight with various camera gear as well as excess food and water. As I entered the French Couloir I knew it was going to be a late summit. It was 2 p.m., and it appeared that the first climbers had reached the summit. My body and mind were feeling great, though I knew that I was starting to get to a point where I was going to be out too many hours. I know, despite how good I may feel, that as the hours tick by without much food or water at extreme altitude. an exaggerated response from the body can occur later.
I climbed through the couloir’s rock steps and made my way to the summit ridge. It was between 3 and 4 p.m. The summit lay only about 150 meters from me, but it was likely two to three hours away. Perhaps less, perhaps even more. Either way, I would be descending in shadow then quickly darkness before arriving to Melissa in Camp 4.
I still felt strong, though I knew even on a nice-weather day like this that my body would be so depleted that descending without sun could put me into a hypothermic scenario. But, then again, I may likely be OK. What should I do? I sat down at approximately 8,300 meters and gave myself a few minutes. After a couple more than a few, I decided that it had been too long a day already just looking at the numbers. I descended in the shadow of Makalu’s summit and eventually arrived at Camp 4 at 8:30 p.m.
Melissa had hot water ready as I crawled into our cramped tent. We chatted for a few minutes. I dozed off. Later, I woke up and tossed and turned about my choice, as we all do.
We descended in extremely difficult conditions the next morning with significant winds and trail breaking, but we returned to base camp safely and were treated to a wonderful meal.
Tomorrow, we fly via helicopter to Everest base camp. We’ll see if there’s enough time to make an attempt on that picturesque massif.
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