I stood outside the mess tent at 2:10 a.m., shifting my weight from one leg to the other. As each climber and guide pair departed base camp, they shook hands with several expedition crew members who lined up to see us off. Wishes of “Good luck” and “Namaste” were exchanged. As I worked my way down the reverse receiving line, Phunuru shook my hand and said, “I will go to Camp Two to support everyone, so see you there soon, bro’. ”
Kaji smiled wide and clasped my hand in both of his, “Good luck, Jim Dai.”
“Thank you, Kaji Bhai,” I replied. “Namaste.”
Towering above everyone, Greg anchored the end of the line. I grinned at him and stuck out my hand. He smiled back, shook my hand, and gripped my forearm with his left hand, “Have a great climb, Jim!”
“I will. Thanks for everything, Greg.”
I followed PK past the last tent, and we turned left toward the altar.
Alongside the many prayer flags, several new offerings appeared. Small plates of food, bowls of uncooked rice, and a photo of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama had been placed atop the altar.
For this important day, juniper branches had been carried a dozen miles up-valley and placed upon the altar stones. Juniper is known for its resilience and hardiness in tough conditions. The unburned branches released a sticky-sweet resin smell into the night air. Several small juniper piles had been set ablaze and left to smolder. Many Tibetans and Nepalis believe the aromatic smoke purifies and protects travelers.
We began our clockwise circumambulation around the altar, emulating the path of the sun. PK took some dry rice from a bowl and tossed it into the air as an offering. He chanted in a low, murmuring voice. It sounded like Sherpa or Tibetan rather than Nepali, but I wasn’t sure. Certain that his words were Buddhist prayers, I joined in as best I could by repeatedly saying, “Om mani padme hum.”
Following PK’s lead, I grabbed a small handful of rice and cast portions of it as we circled the altar. I tossed some toward the Khumbu Icefall and some toward Everest’s summit. Thinking of my family, I threw some toward Colorado, 8,000 miles away. Remembering to avoid ego and to express compassion toward others, I flipped rice forward to bless PK; the long pellets bounced off his pack and shoulders. Then I blindly tossed the last of it high over my shoulder so it would fall upon the team members behind me. From somewhere, airborne grains fell through the beam of my headlamp like tiny shooting stars released from the night sky. A few kissed my jacket sleeves and fell to the ground for the camp birds.
As we completed our circle, we walked into the acrid cloud of juniper smoke. Invisible ash made my eyes clamp shut, and the smell of burnt wood filled my nose. We walked through the cleansing plume and emerged into the clear air, hopefully purified enough to approach Chomolungma, the Goddess Mother of the World.
We moved in silence and angled across the rugged moraine toward the icefall. It was time to climb into the sky. In five days either my lifelong dream would come true, it would slip away unfulfilled, or I’d be dead.
The route had changed—the icefall had flowed and tumbled about a hundred feet downhill since we’d first entered the shifting block pile thirty-three days earlier. Solid acclimatization and practiced technique helped us move through efficiently. PK and I progressed well for the first two hours, but crowding slowed us at several ladder crossings. We were going all the way to Camp Two, so it would be a long day.
About halfway through the icefall, the fixed line led us down into a twenty-foot-deep crevasse. We clambered inside and stood on the snowy floor. The exit required a steep climb up the other side. PK and I were mixed in with IMG members as well as climbers from other teams; several guiding companies had chosen the same schedule as us. While we waited for the man in front of PK to ascend the cliff, eight other people backed up behind me, including Karim and Karma Rita.
PK ascended, cleared the top, and headed along the next section of fixed line, beyond my view. After attaching my ascender, I followed him.
I’d just reached the halfway point when the glacier beneath and behind me emitted a loud crack!
I snapped my head around to where the sound emanated from. The eight climbers behind me were glancing around the crevasse, trying to figure out where the noise had come from and if any blocks were shifting.
Whompf! In unison all eight of them looked at the crevasse floor under their feet. Then the front person stared up at me with wide eyes and bared teeth. “Go!” he yelled.
They all wanted out of here now. I turned to the ice face and raced up the remaining fixed line. I attached a leash above the anchor and tried to remove my ascender, but just as I did, someone below me yanked the rope down hard. The tight line pinched my ascending device against the ice face, making it impossible to remove. I was stuck tight, and they were all stuck behind me.
I pressed the release trigger and twisted the ascender, but I couldn’t loosen it. I looked down, intending to tell whoever was yanking the rope to let go so I could free myself and get out of their way. To my surprise, a Sherpa was climbing toward me fast by swarming up the fixed line hand over hand.
When his head reached my foot, he grabbed my pant leg and then pulled down on my harness as his next handhold. He crawled right over me as if I was part of an obstacle course. Without clipping in, he passed by and raced ahead to flatter ground. Getting his weight off the rope, and him off me, allowed me to finally detach my ascender. I bellowed, “Clear!” and zoomed ahead. Over the next few minutes, Karim and the other climbers emerged from the crevasse, scared but fine. We’d all heard the glacier settle, but no one saw anything move and nothing fell on us.
Safely atop the next block, I paused at an anchor and panted. PK looked back from five yards ahead, and I waved my hand twice to tell him I was okay. Once my heart rate settled toward normal, I proceeded, the glacier dragon’s snarl still echoing in my mind.
Excerpted with permission from The Next Everest: Surviving the Mountain’s Deadliest Day and Finding the Resilience to Climb Again, by Jim Davidson (St. Martin’s Press, 2021).
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