The 22 minutes I spent on top of the highest mountain on Earth in 2009 will forever be etched in my mind for hopefully as long as I live. It was the realisation of 15 years of dreaming, 3 years of sacrificing friendships, relationships, work promotions, 13 weeks living in a tent, eating out of plastic bags and shitting in a barrel (don't ever get those two mixed up)...all in the name of a goal that meant more to me than anything.
On the 24th May 2009, I began another journey. Starting from the tent in Camp 4, pitched in a gravel valley at 8000 metres above sea level.
The Nepalese have a saying. "Sagarmartha (Everest) is so big, you can never see wait awaits on the other side." And boy are they right. Below is a chapter from my book Left Foot Right Foot: A journey of falling down and getting up.
Chapter: THE WAY DOWN
The first light of morning came, giving rise to one of the clearest and calmest days we had experienced during the trip. The wind was still moving bad weather our way, but for now the deep blue sky stretched over us in every direction as far as the eye could see, which, considering where we stood, was far. But the brilliant conditions of daybreak went unnoticed. We had made it through a second night at 8 000 metres above sea level, but Chris was unresponsive. His fleeting conscious moments were garbled and incoherent so I alerted the guides to the problem that was unravelling fast.
Narli arrived in the tent entrance and began to scope out the severity of the situation. He and I had become quite familiar - it was bound to happen. Dave ‘Narli’ McKinley, being the sweeper guide, the shepherd, and I the last sheep. Today his light-hearted optimism was nowhere to be seen. The radio crackled to life as we got the expedition doctor, Monica Piris, on the line. On the other end Mon and Russell were scratching their heads, powerless to do anything more than dose Chris with as much Codeine and Imodium as we could muster. Despite my intention to stay with Chris, I was sent packing and in no uncertain terms. Before I left, I grabbed Chris’ hand in mine as he lay near the door of the tent and held it to my forehead and said “Chris, you gotta get up and move now, OK?!” I slapped his thigh hoping to evoke some kind of response. He muttered something about seeing him later in Camp 2. Woody and Narli knew I was slow on my feet and sent me off without any further delay, back down to reverse the path I had limped up less than two days before. The phrase “useless like tits on a bull” was used when I suggested helping to get the upright corpse out of camp.
So I walked off to find the start of the fixed lines. I looked back to see Chris being harassed to his feet. The New Zealanders are known for many things, diplomacy is not one of them. As subtle as blunt axes, Narli and Woody strong-armed Chris into some resemblance of a mountaineer and their journey home started…three steps at a time. In the Death Zone, on a long enough timeline, everybody’s chances of survival diminishes to zero. Get up there, tag the top and get the hell out. No rehearsals, no long tracking dramatic shot, no theme music.
The way back home traversed around a bulge of shattered slate which was quite difficult to move over safely in my crampons. Their shiny new coating was now a road map of scratches from the abuse of moving steadily up the hill. Just like the days before, the time between starting to walk and my ankles loosening up was an agonising affair made worse by my lack of balance and the jarring path that would lead the way home. In the back of my mind I was surprised Chris had made it through the night but he was not in the clear just yet, and the question whether he would be able to make it down off the mountain was still unanswered. Saying farewell to him back at the tent, I found myself swallowing the lump in my throat as part of me was resigned to the fact that this would be the last of Christopher Macklin. I peered over my shoulder one last time and saw Chris lying on his side a few paces from where he had started. I muttered something resembling a prayer, which probably came across as more of a command than a request. They gotta get him down off this hill. They just have to keep pushing him down.
After about half-an-hour I was over the Geneva Spur approaching the Yellow Band with the massive void of the Western Cwm opening up to my right. The camber of the path was now reversed so my right foot was no longer at an awkward angle but it was taking the majority of my weight being down-slope and I was in a lot of pain. Still. Feeling the lethargic exhaustion of the previous day’s adventure, I stopped often to rest along the path. Still attached to the safety lines I sat down and pulled off my right glove to begin the unshouldering process to remove my bag. Without thinking I placed the glove carelessly on the ice and began to dig in my bag. Out the corner of my eye, I noticed something move and watched in horror as the glove started to slide into the abyss. But as gently as it began, the glove came to halt about one-and-a-half metres in front of me and I felt the blood drain from my face. I quickly got redressed and carefully shimmied down the slope to the glove and pounced on it like I was stalking a rabbit. That was a polite reminder that I was still in the Death Zone, a reminder that I was still far from home and that this was not the time to let my guard down. I was still a trespasser in Madame Everest’s kingdom and my welcome had come to an end.
For the next few hours I stepped prudently from one fixed rope to the next, going through the motions, talking aloud to myself through each transfer from one anchor point to the next. Unclip Safety one. Clipped. Unclip Safety two, and clipped. Wrap arm and go. It would force me to pay full attention to the process and it also punctuated the never-ending descent down the glistening ice wall of Lhotse. Every so often a sharp pain would jolt from beneath my ankle bone causing my leg to buckle and ultimately leave me hanging on the fixed lines, having tumbled a metre or two down the face. My frustration turned to a mixture of anger and a flood of tears, but I was not home yet, so I would stand up, rub my knees, throbbing from being bashing into the ice, curse my life and carry on until the next fall. There will come a time in your life when all you want is to give up, but you can’t, there are no other options. So just keep going.
Over the last few hours, the weather had started to deteriorate and banks of clouds began building up over the skyline of Nuptse - this was the motivation I needed to get back onto my feet and continue my slow journey home. I limped into Camp 2, in worse shape than I had been on the way up. Eight long hours of arm wrapping, getting weaker with each change-over as one rope length gave rise to another in an unending trance. Arm wrapping is a technique used to cross steep ground by wrapping the fixed lines in a spiral around your forearm and through your hands in order to provide friction and control your speed downward. It is faster than abseiling or rappelling but is more risky and tiring. The fixed lines had burned lines in my gloves and sleeves as I became more dependent on the rope and less stable on my feet. Nearing the last few pitches of the fixed lines, it became incredibly difficult to differentiate between the white of the ice face and the white nylon ropes that protect the steep face. I found myself squinting at the anchor points in an effort to find the blue strands woven into the safety line, completely exhausted but still aware that a mistake would make the last days, weeks and months of hard work and effort for naught. After the bergschrund, the gradient eases off and I welcomed the end of the Lhotse Face. About 300 metres from the Pearly Gates of Camp 2, I slumped onto the side of the path to catch my breath, my axe digging into my side. I remember lying there feeling the throbbing in my legs, all the way down to an indescribable cluster-fuck that were now my feet. As I lay there motionless, I remember feeling grateful for the sharp spike in my ribs. It was my only incentive to get up and carry on. To my surprise, just metres behind me were New Zealand’s finest and Lazarus, the walking dead. How slow was I if the dead guy managed to catch me up? As Chris descended with the guides, he immediately started to recover and feel stronger as the air got thicker and his body was under considerably less stress. Once in Camp 2, Chris managed to change into his other clothes, clean himself up and to his extreme gratitude, sit on a proper toilet, even if it was a barrel with a toilet seat attached.
As I write this I hope I am not embarrassing Chris. It is my intention to tell the story in a way that explains the events that took place and to illustrate the savage nature of an attempt to summit Everest. Chris Macklin proved himself in the most relentless of environments where all factors and risks are increased by a factor of ten. This man was, and still is, a good friend who I respect and admire for his strength, courage and tenacity. The fact that he supports the English rugby team is a discussion for another time. _
LEFT FOOT RIGHT FOOT has recently become the 1st South African book to be considered for the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. To get your copy contact Exclusive Books or as an eBook.
Robby Kojetin is one of South Africa's most inspiring and impactful speakers on stage today. Having addressed over 35 000 people across the globe with his riveting story, Robby's keynotes are a necessity for your next event.
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