Since the first woman summated Everest in 1975, many more have been up. I might’ve been number 16 but it’s difficult to count when one in 10 who makes it won’t come back. Near the summit there are 100 bodies mummified by desert-dry wind and ice. I made it once but I’ll never go again.
I’ve been climbing with my brother since I was a child-monkey, scampering over escarpments with not so much as a pair of sneakers on, nevermind ropes ‘n tethers. You ever think back on the things you did as a kid and get the chills? The feeling never really went away for me.
Why do people jump out of planes or swim with sharks or buy supercars? You know some of us just refuse to sit by the fire with a dram when there’s rivers and forests and particularly mountains out there in the world, waiting for us, and I am one of those people.
They say places have spirits and there’s no purer spirit than the wild one. You can hear it’s drum beating even when you touch the leaf of a tree in the middle of a crowded city. It’s just the smallest tick tock, time is running out, under the rhythm of us. It’s just the same as your heart.
I climbed Everest with two men and a tiger, an elite Sherpa mountaineer. We went up with oxygen tanks, though some choose not to. This I suppose is the crux. At more than twice the height people sky dive from, Everest is high. You can’t spend long near the summit because your body will use the oxygen faster than mere breathing can put it back.
It felt like the mountain dragged me down into its core. And with every step I clawed my way back up into the sky, wheezing for oxygen with my whole being. Some have said staying in the Death Zone feels like being slowly choked alive.
The snow: squeak rubber squid under my teeth, living creatures squirming and slouching over me, oh snow. Cold in the crevices of my heart, like a burning finger in the eye. We climbed in silence and in awe, waiting for dawn to chip away the night.
When we went up in May the temperature was about 30 degrees under, winds nearly 30kph. It was when we rested before attempting the summit that I met Hannelore. Leaving Camp IV at midnight it would take us ‘til dawn to get through the Final Push. She was leaning on her backpack waiting for the sunrise to peek over the Kangshung face.
Our tents were small to conserve heat, waterproof and tear proof – a lot better than what Mallory and Irvine had in the 20s. We’d been on the mountain for six weeks acclimatising, slogging up and down, readying ourselves for the week we’d spend going up the southern route, making a bid for the summit.
I’d been trying to get some sleep when the sides of my tent billowed in and coloured lights appeared like stained glass in a church. I’m not a religious person, but those lights were the strangest things I’d ever seen. I stumbled out of my tent and up towards the face, fumbling with my gloves.
Hannelore was sitting on a snow bank about 100 metres above the camp. She had goggles on her head and her long blonde hair blew in the wind. I remember her hair was loose because in my torchlight the icicles in it looked like gems in straw.
I walked up to her and knelt down, but I didn’t shine the flashlight in her face, I shone it on her hands. She’d lost one of her gloves and I could see her nails were very small like a child’s. This made me think about the hands of a dead baboon I’d seen when climbing as a child. I’d gone up very close to it and touched its leathery palm.
Hannelore told me she’d summated successfully with her husband in 1975 but died of exhaustion just steps above Camp IV. Later she’d watched a party of sherpas plunge to their deaths trying to fetch her body. Rescue operations were suicidal. She’d waited through the mountain’s seasons.
But what is this beating sound? Hannelore wanted to know, her eyes open, pieces of sky lodged inside. She didn’t recognise the sound because her heart had frozen and stopped. It was the sound of the mountain. It was the sound we all know: thump thump, wild heart.
The pounding slopes of Everest wouldn’t let us forget we might not make it down. At midnight we left Camp IV. Up the Southeast Ridge sunrise covered us in yellow chintz. Through snow waist-deep we snatched precious minutes, 8 848 metres pressing through the Stratosphere of the Earth, and then down again, gasping.
My farewell to Everest was thus: thump thump, good-bye. And although the newspapers said strong winds blew Hannelore’s remains over the Kangshung face and down into a snowy tomb, I heard her whisper, I heard her say, thank you.
Writer: Caitlin Smythe