Everest vs. the Willpower to Survive

Arin Bhandari '23
 The clock strikes 1 PM on the upper slopes of Mount Everest as my teammates on the Adventure Consultants expedition and I are methodically climbing the Hillary Step by carefully placing our crampons, which are spikes attached to our shoes to improve traction, on the ice while secured to the rope. When I ascend the final few meters, I see that the summit ridge is covered by an unstable snow formation, which is when denser snow is on lighter snow. This formation is difficult to climb through and is also a tell-tale sign for an avalanche. 

When the head guide of our expedition, Larry, assesses the conditions, he determines that it’s unsafe to climb further and orders all of us to descend. As I turn around one last time to see the summit before I rappel down the Step, I see Mount Everest blowing wind towards me, as if it was mocking me.

Six months after the expedition, I’ve settled back into my monotonous life: Waking up at 7 AM, brewing my cup of Starbucks coffee while reading the newspaper, going to the clinic at 9, eating lunch at 1, returning home at 6, cooking dinner for my family, and going to bed at 11 PM by listening to Don Lemon. One day, as I settle down to read the New York Times, I’m greeted with the headline, “OVERCOMING 6 REJECTIONS, MAN GRADUATES FROM YALE LAW SCHOOL AS VALEDICTORIAN.” Astonished by his character and his determination to achieve his goals, I’m determined that as long as I get another chance to go back to Everest, I’ll climb to the summit as long as I can keep breathing. 

One year later, the alarm on my watch set for 1 PM goes off. I have to be close to the summit by 2:00, or I have to turn around and descend. Minute by minute, I climb my way up dangerous cornices and successfully overcome the Step. 

As I finally reach the final summit ridge, I pass Larry, who pulls me to the side and yells over the howling wind. “Arin! Looks like it’s deja vu! We might have to change the turnaround time to 1:30 and make everyone come down!” This plan, although safer, delivers a jolt to me and my body, working hard to push me towards the summit. It’s as if my destiny is to always fall just short of my goal, despite putting in so much effort. After the agonizing turnaround last year, I powered through a cough and headache due to the dry air this year. Although I desperately want the summit, I can’t risk the lives of my fellow teammates to fulfill my dream, so I can’t convince Larry to let me push on towards the summit.

“ARIN!” Larry yells, “I hate to turn you around again this year. Tell you what, I know that you are a very strong climber. I’ll let you climb to the summit, take a quick photo, and quickly turn around.” 

With such a once in a lifetime offer, how can I refuse? Larry understands my predicament and is willing to let me conquer Mount Everest. After accepting Larry’s proposition, I doggedly run up the last 100 meters to the summit, seeing souvenirs of previous summiteers, such as flags, coins, and even a moon rock,  perched throughout the area. I’m 29,028 feet high, and the amount of oxygen is ? of that at sea level, but I hardly feel the effects in my state of euphoria. I feel compelled to stay upon the summit longer, to allow all of the hardships that I’ve faced to flow out of my body with each breath that I take. “Finally,” I yell, “I’m on top of the world!”

Before I begin my descent down the mountain, I exchange my oxygen canister and drink some water. Suddenly, I hear Larry paging me through the team radio, “Arin! Don’t tell me you’re still on the summit! I thought I could trust you!” Seeing as lying would get me nowhere, I admit that I haven’t begun my descent. “It’s already 3 PM, only 3-4 hours until darkness. You need to hurry up, because we’re going to be too tired to launch a rescue mission for you in the dark.” Assuring him that I’ll hurry back down, I quickly make my way down the summit ridge and rappel down the Hillary Step. When I reach the base of the Step, I’m immediately confronted with snow pellets whizzing through the air, a stark contrast to my ascent with clear skies without a hint of a brewing storm. 

Fearing the worst, I quickly radio Larry to assess the situation. He says, “Don’t worry. This is a fairly typical snow squall for Everest. Just use your headlamp for vision and you’ll be just fine.” Although Larry said that it was a typical snow squall, my brain goes into overdrive and I start panicking, fearing that this is the end of my life, alone, on the upper slopes of Everest, away from my family and friends. 

As I hurry down the mountain, I think to myself, “How did such a minor change in the plan snowball into chaos?” Indeed, the situation is chaotic since nobody on our team, not even the Sherpas, have reached Camp IV yet, despite it being past 6:00 PM. Right now, the situation is worsening like in 1996. If we are all going to survive, we need a miracle. 

In 1996, my dad was assigned to cover the Mount Everest disaster for the New York Times. After he came back home, he told me about the horrors he saw on the mountain. “Advance Base Camp was very chaotic as survivors came down the mountain to be treated for frostbite and other injuries for being stuck at Camp IV for 3 days. The worst part was that the survivors felt that they couldn’t do anything in the storm to save others.” After hearing this, I always prayed that I would never be in such a situation.

I reach the Balcony at an elevation of 27,500 ft. At this point, the minor snow squall has intensified into a full-fledged blizzard, with zero visibility and a windchill in excess of -50 degrees Fahrenheit. Larry radios me, and tells me to keep pushing on down, or else I won’t survive. He says that while some people have survived bivouacs, which is when a person sleeps out in the open, I’m more likely to die because I’m alone, with no one to check on my consciousness and vitals. After listening to Larry, I decide to disconnect my radio so that he can’t keep badgering me throughout the night. I know that I’m blatantly violating Larry’s orders, but I know that this is the best chance of survival for everyone. If I keep descending into the night, then I might get disoriented and trigger a rescue mission, putting more lives at risk.

I spot 2 oxygen bottles half-stuck in the ice. With a prayer, I check their pressures, and am elated to see that the bottles are half full. Along with my emergency kit, I begin the long arduous night. I have no choice but to stay awake but falling asleep here with the howling wind and excruciatingly cold temperature is a death sentence. I know that if my body is on its own without my brain helping it fight to keep functioning properly, it will only be a matter of time before I succumb to the elements. As the night wears on, I keep praying for the storm to calm down.

Miraculously, at 5 AM, the storm drops in intensity and I can finally see the sun rising above Lhotse in the east. I’m frostbitten and teetering on exhaustion because I’ve been awake for over 30 hours. My hands are numb, so when I reach the Lhotse Face for the last descent before the camps, I have to glissade down and hope that I don’t careen off. I successfully slide down, and turn towards the tents, when I hear a rumble above me and see an avalanche. The avalanche quickly barrels down the mountain, 200 yards to my left and takes all of the tents with it.

Fearing the worst, I switch my radio back on and page Base Camp. The on-site manager tells me that “the expedition was planning to descend, but Larry stopped them, saying that they can’t abandon you. They were resting in the tents because they were planning to launch a rescue mission.” Upon hearing these words, I break down and weep, for now I finally realize the true gravity of the situation. Larry had to worry about everyone’s safety, yet he still allowed me to fulfill my dream. As I climb down the mountain, each step that I take reminds me of not only my survival, but how my selfish choice led to the loss of my teammates. The mountain used to represent my failure, but now it represents my poor judgement. Although I achieved my goal, the sweetness turned bitter, so much that I wish to spit it out and disassociate myself from it. Unfortunately, the 2020 Mount Everest spring season’s legacy is the deaths of the majority of the Adventure Consultants expedition, for which I alone am to blame.

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