“The Mystery of Life Intrigued Me”By Chad Gaston Photos courtesy: Chad Gaston
When I was 12 years old, I saw the movie “K2” and from that moment on was fascinated with the mountains and the sense of adventure they bring, especially since I was born and raised in the Midwest, surrounded by flat lands and corn fields. Unfortunately, at the age of 19 I was told by doctors I would never reach these heights. I had been diagnosed with a rare disease called Achalasia, a nerve disease affecting the esophagus and stomach. They claimed large changes in barometric pressure would be dangerous if not deadly, so high-altitude mountaineering and scuba diving were out. I was crushed!
In 2014, I met a doctor on vacation in Tamarindo who happened to be an upper GI Specialist. When I told him about my earlier prognosis, he laughed at the idea saying it was ridiculous and they have a much better understanding of the disease now. He explained how I could climb and scuba by being careful to monitor what I eat. In 2015, when the opportunity presented itself to climb Kilimanjaro in Africa, I jumped at it.
The experience changed my life and I was hooked. I quickly learned of the Seven Summits Challenge and started researching the best path forward. Climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents seemed like an amazing adventure and there are less than 500 people in the world who have accomplished it. Of course, Mt Everest caught my eye right away. The highest mountain in the world at 29,035 feet was going to be one heck of a feat to conquer and I loved the idea. The challenge, danger, and adventure, of standing on the top of the world, would be a childhood dream come true.
After completing a 10-day mountaineering course and summiting Mt Rainier, I set an aggressive agenda to climb 2-3 mountains a year. I climbed over 10 major peaks in three years and then set my sights on Everest. I read everything I could about the mountain and started a 6-day a week, 4-5 hour a day training program. When the day came, I was in the best shape of my life and as prepared as I could be. Even with all the training and prep, the mountain was about to show me just how difficult she could be.
I arrived in Kathmandu on April 2, 2019 and met up with my expedition team. We did a two-day gear and food inventory to double check we had all the supplies we would need for the 8-week journey. We flew into Lukla, the world’s most dangerous airport, then loaded the gear in a small 12-person plane and headed out. It took 10 days of hiking to cover 40 kilometers in the Khumbu Valley and go from 9,000 feet in Lukla to Everest Base Camp (EBC) at 17,500 feet. Once there, we started our acclimatization schedule, comprised of several trips up and down the mountain, carrying gear and establishing 4 camps before eventually going for the summit. In order to survive at these heights, your body has to slowly adjust to the lack of oxygen at higher elevations. After 6 weeks training, climbing, and waiting on weather, we set out to climb to the top of the world. The route from EBC takes you through the Khumbu Ice fall, the base of a huge glacier, which is constantly shifting and breaking apart. After 4-6 hours of climbing through this labyrinth of shifting ice you have a 6-mile hike to the bottom of the Lhotse face, 4,000 vertical feet of very steep ice. One slip on this face and you might not stop till you reach Lukla.
The South Cal is at the top of the Lhotse face and is the location of the high camp, at 26,000 feet. Once above 25,000 feet, you are in the “Death Zone,” the oxygen is 70% less than at sea level and without the assistance of supplemental oxygen the average acclimatized human cannot survive more than 24 hours.
When we arrived at the South Cal, although exhausted, spirits were high! According to the “weather experts” we had clear skies for the next 48 hours, with temperatures hovering around negative 30, which at that altitude is not too bad. So, we set our alarms to wake at 8 p.m. the night of May 22 and crawled into our sleeping bags. Although I never really slept, I jumped out of my tent, ready to tackle the world. Unfortunately, that excitement was quickly diminished when I saw the endless line of climber’s headlamps ascending into the night and heavy cloud cover.
By 9:30 p.m., my Sherpa and I started for the summit. We hadn’t gone more than 20 minutes before we ran into the queue. I quickly realized I would have to unclip from the safety lines and start passing the climbers if I was going to make the summit and back before my oxygen ran out.
Unfortunately, the line had formed from sick or exhausted climbers collapsing on the trail making it very difficult to pass. I passed several who were just not responsive and, or worse, dead. As a climber, you know that death is a possibility and you except the risks, but no matter how much you think you are prepared, it is not an easy thing to process. During my summit day, I found myself crawling or stepping over several deceased climbers, both on the way up and down. You are overcome with all kinds of emotions, sadness, grief, and disbelief, but you have to box them up and focus on the task at hand or you could be next.
For most of the climb, I had to unclip and take large risks to pass groups. The snow started falling about 45 minutes into the hike, visibility dropped and the mountain became a dark and disparaging place. Finally, at about 5 a.m., as we were reaching the south summit, dawn began to break. The snow and clouds lifted and I witnessed the most spectacular view I had ever seen. After traversing the summit ridge and passing a lot more climbers I reached the top of the world, just shy of 6:30 a.m. May 23.
I was overcome with emotion! All the hard work and sacrifice of the last 4 years had paid off. I just stood there, 29,035 feet high, for several minutes in disbelief! My teammates greeted me and we all congratulated each other. We took out our cameras and got our summit shots and made videos to send back to friends and family. In the distance, we realized the weather was changing and we needed to get down quickly. We all took our last look and set our sights on EBC.
To those who don’t climb, the summit is the goal, the end of the trip, but a true climber knows you don’t really get to celebrate until you get off the mountain. More than 90% of all deaths happen on the way down. You’re exhausted, mentally fatigued and that is when you can make simple mistakes that can cost you your life. I had promised my family a round trip ticket to the top and I planned to make good on my word.
I was about to learn just how dangerous going down could be. All the climbers I had passed on the way up were now in front of me as I was trying to climb down. The summit ridge and the Hillary step were so packed I had to unclip from the safety line for more than half of it, as I passed climbers. The ledge was no more than 10 inches wide with a 10,000- foot drop on my right side. I managed to get back to the south summit before I collapsed with exhaustion. It took me 25 minutes, food, drinks, a new oxygen bottle, and every bit of mental strength I had to get back to my feet and continue down the mountain. A climber’s mental strength is their true super power and at that moment I can honestly say mine bent, but thankfully never broke.
I eventually made it back to Camp 4 and waited for my team to arrive. When the storm cleared the next morning, all 8 climbers on my team had summited and safely returned, but another 11 climbers had died. This information weighed heavily on all of us and it was a quiet two-day march back down the mountain. Only after the last teammate stumbled into EBC, could we all relax and let the emotions flow. There were hugs and tears, laughs and high fives after two months of surviving in the most inhospitable place on the planet… and we had lived to tell about it!
Since I have been home, people have asked all kinds of questions, like was it worth it or now that you have climbed Everest, will you continue to climb? My answer is always “Hell Yeah!” I have always worked hard to play hard, and I feel so alive when I am climbing. Every mountain is its own adventure, with new challenges, just like no two surf breaks are the same. It has been just over a month since I summited and I am already gathering a team for June 2020, to climb Mt Denali in Alaska. So, I have one question for all of you, “Who’s with me?”
“The Mystery of Life Intrigued Me”By Chad Gaston Photos courtesy: Chad Gaston
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