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David Morton and Melissa Arnot Turn Back From Everest Summit Attempt at Camp 4
Posted on May 31, 2011

Story and photos by David Morton

This isn’t easy. In fact, it’s pretty hard.

I’m in a role I’m no good at, a role I feel totally uncomfortable with. Yesterday, as Melissa and I made our way towards Camp 4, I made the decision to pull the plug. We were moving well. The conditions were difficult with loose snow, but nothing to turn us around. The weather was marginal with lots of new snow, yet we had a fairly good forecast for the following morning. Melissa and I have nine summits of Mt. Everest between us. This was totally familiar, almost straightforward. We were using oxygen, something that would logically temper the burn of our bodies still in recovery from Makalu. So what happened?

It’s kind of hard to answer, though there are some things that seem to have contributed. Basically, I wasn’t feeling right up there. It was such a rare position for me in the mountains—I can only remember a few times feeling that way in the past dozen years, and none in this environment, that it kind of threw me for a loop. “It wasn’t feeling right”…

Isn’t that just some phrase used when you’re in over your head or you can’t seem to bring yourself to say exactly what is wrong? I’m not sure, but it was where my head was at the time. More specifically, my thoughts had turned to imagining a scenario in which we had to deal with atypical adversity on summit day. A storm with a little more punch than normal, a minor or major injury up high, a difficult but manageable altitude issue … any of these were giving me pause. I typically feel totally ready to deal with whatever comes our way up high and know I’ll have the reserve strength to address the issue. I didn’t feel that way yesterday. I sensed I didn’t have the reserves I like to have mentally and physically.

This was a totally different scenario than on Makalu. There I felt 100 percent mentally engaged, and that gave me confidence and strength. It was a more simple decision based on time. Yesterday, it felt more ambiguous.

It’s hard to disappoint. I know Melissa was motivated to be back on Everest. It’s difficult to be the one who had the most influence in knocking down that opportunity. But if you climb with someone long enough, you end up in these positions. I just usually seem to be in the other role, and this one doesn’t feel good. I guess I’m getting some practice.

In looking back, I sense that a bit more rest and recovery was needed between our two major objectives. Melissa and I knew this would be the ideal plan going in, but when our weather and itinerary changed, we thought we could do a condensed rest at Everest base camp. I was still suffering from a bit of an upper respiratory issue. These are theories to try and make sense of it and learn something. Who knows what factors really contributed?

The season has been a bit of a heartbreaker for us in certain respects. In other respects, we put ourselves in a challenging position and excelled. There’s no question that our climbing partnership and friendship has been through more than last season on Everest, and that’s good. That may mean we’ll need some time for other endeavors, but in the future, I think we’ll be a stronger and wiser team on whatever the next objective may be, and there’s sure to be another out there.

Author: - Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

  1. Rob Rowley

    I feel for both of you. Good decisions are sometimes extra hard.

  2. Allen

    Good for you! As a cave diver as well as mountaineer…..Good judgement always is best and turning is never anything to be ashamed of especially when things “just don’t feel right”. In cave diving anyone can turn for any reason at any time. Those that do not “listen” usually do not return. The mountain will always be there.

  3. Harriett morton

    Every difficult decision has increased your wisdom. That wisdom is cherished.

  4. John Morton

    You are a decision maker and a good one.Your family
    rejoices in that fact.You made the right decision.

  5. Jeff Dossett

    I’ve climbed many times with this team before and I know how mentally and physically tough both David and Melissa are. I also know that they make each other better and safer as a climbing team. I have deep respect for their difficult decisions on both Makalu and Everest this season. The fact that sound judgement outweighed pride means that there will be many seasons and many successful summits in the years ahead.

    Bravo David & Melissa. You have taught us more this season that any other and I for one am very grateful.

  6. Karen

    years ago, while enroute to get a trauma patient in an air ambulance helicopter, I told the pilot to turn the helicopter around and go back to base as “I didn’t feel right” with a sense of foreboding I will never forget. Perhaps because of that decision…I’m still here. As all are saying….the mountain will always be here, now so will you….

  7. Gary Ambrosino

    As a real beginner who relies on Guides like Melissa and David a lot, it’s great to see this kind of “transparency” and learn about the thought process. To me, a most valuable guide is someone who does this sort of thinking for those of us that are less experienced at this sort of thing. I think it says a lot about the two of them as professional guides and leaders – – it’s very tough to make these kinds of decisions in the moment and it shows what the perspective of experience can provide.

  8. Jeff C

    As Ed V. always says, summiting is optional, coming back down is mandatory. Good choice if your not 100%, the mountain will be there next year!

  9. Tony King

    Well done Dave, good call. We will fortunately never know whether what you were picking up was a warning, but as a believer in intuition, I’m glad you and Melissa returned without any epic / tragedy high on an empty mountain. Best wishes on your next adventure.

  10. Oscar Fernandez

    Hi Melissa and David.
    Good luck in your attempt for Everest, know that we have arrived at home in Spain from Makalu we are following and suporting you by internet.
    Take care and best wishes for your climb.

  11. Mike Jaquet

    dude!!! Dave Morton. So I guess this answers my questions of what you’ve been up to lately. Long time no talk. Hope all is well, glad you are safe here and sounds like a good decision. Live to explore another day my old friend. I’m in Idaho for the 4th if you are treking around there. Would love to re-connect.

  12. Jennifer Bohn

    Nothing worth doing is ever easy.
    Good call & nice work out there.
    Keep the inspiration coming!

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