Post Mortem

Carina Räihä Mt.Everest summit

Exactly one month earlier, I had just arrived to Everest Camp 4 at approximately 8000 meters, where I spent a very uncomfortable and cold night ahead of the summit attempt next evening. I had started to climb together with Mingmar sherpa from base camp at approximately 5400 meters four days earlier in the early hours on 11/5 and climbed during the same day all the way to camp 2, where our climb was stopped by very high winds. We saw the strong hurricane wind blowing on top of Everest and as the weather forcast predicted a turn for the worse, we decided to stay put and wait for a day. Next day we sheltered inside our tent resting and watching the weather develop while the storm rattled our tent and snow fall made visibility poor. However, according to our weather forecast a potential weather window, albeit still cold and windy, would open up for 16­18/5 so we decided to continue up to camp 3 to wait for the weather to improve.

We left in the early hours of the morning on 13/5 towards camp 3 while all the other teams headed down. The first two hours to the foot of the Lhotse face were really cold and nasty windy, but with proper clothing still bearable. Arriving to the foot of the Lhotse face, the wind intensified becoming almost unbearable, standing upright was difficult and the cold started to bite especially into my fingers. After we managed to get to the face, however, the wind settled down a bit and we were able to continue. We met with a number of groups descending to lower camps due to bad weather.

The last pitches before camp 3 were extremely strenuous as the bad weather had taken all my strength and my backpack felt painfully heavy on my back. We finally arrived to camp 3 finding out to be the only ones in the whole camp, as everyone else had left down. In the evening, however, the weather improved and we spent a beautiful evening in sunshine with almost no wind.

We didn’t manage to get a decent radio contact down to other team members, and therefore couldn’t get an update on the weather forcast, but we saw that the hurricane wind was still blowing on the top.

Next morning we would have continued up, but in camp 4 there was no spare oxygen to cater for a potential waiting day and it was still too windy. So we ended up spending yet another night at camp 3. During the day the snow storm got worse again and covered the whole valley in white.

Our guide Hugo and a second climber, Peter from the USA, joined Mingmar and I during the day to climb together to camp 4 next morning. In the early hours on 15/5 the wind had subsided and we were able to leave for camp 4. Our intention was to continue up to the summit the same evening, but upon arrival to camp 4 we discovered our stoves didn’t work properly to melt enough water, and the weather turned bad again. Consequently, exactly one month ago I was in a situation where I spent the first of my three nights in the death zone.

The next day, 16/5, we rested and prepared for the summit attempt scheduled for 7 pm. During the day, the rest of our remaining expedition team members climbed up and joined us at camp 4, but they all decided to turn down due to insecure weather, exhaustion and lack of necessary supplies at our camp. The weather forecast for the evening predicted strong winds but subsiding on our summit morning. We got instructions to turn back no later than 09:00, as the winds were predicted to pick up again during the day.

I spent my second night in the death zone climbing to the summit. At 7 pm I left camp 4 together with sherpa Mingmar (Nepal), guide Hugo Searle (USA) and climber Peter (USA). After our team members said their goodbyes and the evening just turned pitch black we took our first steps into the icy slopes of the mountain aiming for the summit. Not too long after, it seemed that the lights from Pete’s and Hugo’s headlamps disappeared further and further in front of me. I looked behind me, and I could see a queue of dozens of other climbers’ headlights weaving up. The weather was cold but bearable; approximately ­30 to ­35C, and only gusts of wind. During the next almost ten hours that we climbed in the dark, I often looked back and admired at the thunderstorm that lit up the mountain peaks far far away down in the valley. Even the starry sky had never before seemed as bright and beautiful.

Our progress was stopped twice as climbers in front of us got in trouble. The first time, an American man panicked and cried he just wanted to go down incapable to continue. The second time there was a problem with another climber’s oxygen regulator which other members of the team tried to fix while some were panicking. At this point, it was not possible to bypass safely, so tens of climbers had to just stand in the queue and wait for the situation to clear. In total we had to stop and wait for over an hour, which got me scared of getting a frostbite in my toes. I told my guide about risking a frostbite in my toes and he ordered me to go down, which is a standard procedure for avoiding frostbite. Frustrated and cold, I already once clicked myself off the safety rope and tried to pass the queue in front of me, but our guide ordered me to return back in line.

However, I did not want to turn down, but instead insisted on doing all the tricks I knew to keep myself warm and as the line finally moved, I managed to continue up towards the summit.

I climbed nearly ten hours in the dark like in a dream, until suddenly the dawn of light woke me up and I knew I could not be far from the top. I was lucky to see the famous pyramid shaped shadow that Everest casts on top of the other gigantic Himalayan mountains, and I began to enjoy the unimaginably beautiful scenery around me. When I reached South summit, I knew I would make it to the top and I felt an urge to run the rest of the journey. However, in front of me climbed a few very tired and slow climbers so I had to slow down. The weather had been favourable, but just before the top my fingers almost froze when I stopped to change the oxygen bottle at a place where the wind was blowing extremely cold over the ridge. Hillary step, the steep rock face part of the climb that I was most nervous about beforehand, was still ahead of me. That part, too, went smoothly and the summit wasn’t far anymore.

At about 7:20 am I took the last steps to the highest point on Mt. Everest and I was on the summit of the highest mountain on earth feeling well and happy. Mingmar, Hugo, Pete and I hugged and congratulated each other with tears in our eyes. I called my father and my mother and I managed to wake up my mother, who had been up all night, waiting for my call. I heard her voice break, when she finally got to hear everything had gone well and that I was on the top. Next, I called my pr-office and shared the happy news, which immediately set off a press release to the media. The weather on top was so good that we had plenty of time to take photos and enjoy the spectacular scenery. We stayed on the top for about 45 minutes, after which we started the descent in weather that was quickly turning into a whiteout.

Descending from the mountain became the hardest part of my climb. I arrived at camp 4 about 2 pm after six gruelling hours. As soon as I started the descent from the top, the weather began to deteriorate, snow started to fall and visibility disappeared almost completely. The forcast predicted winds to pick up, so we tried to descend as quickly as possible. However, we came across a growing number of people who we couldn’t bypass. On top of Hillary Step, I had to wait hunkered down nearly an hour before I was able to continue and pass those still on their way up. Suddenly, I felt very tired and there was no power left in my muscles. As the weather worsened and my exhaustion grew, I had to focus on every step being near my limit. I slipped and fell, and I had to sit down to rest in between almost every rope.

When I arrived at camp 4, I just fell on the tent floor and closed my eyes instantly. But, Hugo forced me to stay awake by chatting and by making me sit up and eat and drink in fear of altitude sickness and complications. We, however, had very little food or water left. During my 19­ hour summit push I also had just a few chocolate bars and a partial energy gel, so we went to bed really exhausted. I no longer had any dry change of clothes, so I had to go to sleep in wet clothes in fear of hypothermia, but fortunately during the night my body temperature dried up the clothes somewhat and I was able to sleep the night.

The next morning, we began the descent towards camp 3 and 2. At start, I noticed that I had not recovered during the night at all, but on the contrary, I was even more tired. The first pitches were extremely tough, and my faith in my own ability to cope was diminishing. All I could do was take a few steps at a time and continue, even if at times I had to sit down every few meters. When I reached camp 3, I rested there a bit before heading to the steep Lhotse face and returning to camp 2 for the night. In camp 2, the rest of our remaining expedition members awaited with their congratulations and I managed to eat a little bit. At night I couldn’t sleep at all, as then began a strong diarrhea that still persists to this day. In the morning of 19/5 I started the final descent via camp 1 to base camp. Khumbu Icefall had changed form and melted in many places into scary dangerous. I was ever so weak and for the first time, I was really scared when crossing ladders over the crevasses. My balance was shaky and the ladders and anchors seemed uncertain to say the least. It took forever to cross the icefall and a couple of hours from base camp I felt that I no longer can take another step. Mingmar radioed to base camp and we got a sherpa to bring up a little bit of food and drink so I managed all the way to base camp. There awaited our worried expedition leader Tim, a few climber friends and my guide Hugo, who bursted into tears of relief.

To conclude my summit push: I spent 9 days above the base camp, 3 of which at camp 2 at 6400 meters, 2 nights in camp 3 at 7200 meters and 3 nights in death zone above 8000 meters. It is said that above 6000 meters, the human body can no longer recover and vital functions of the body start to suffer. I used a total of 4 bottles of oxygen above camp 3, but despite the supplemental oxygen my body fatigue after summiting was extreme. However, I managed to get safely and without injuries back to base camp and the journey home could begin.