Mark’s 2022 Everest-Spring Testimonial
I decided to turn back on my Everest summit attempt due to a suspected intestinal parasite that I could never fully recover from earlier in the expedition. I struggled with reoccurring gastrointestinal problems, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance. My expedition leaders and I were trying everything in hopes that some amount of success may be achieved. Antibiotics seemed to help initially, but whatever I was dealing with would always come back.
In addition to fitness and skill, it helps if you have luck on these long expeditions, and Everest was supplying it this season. There was a significant drop-off in climbing permits compared to the previous years, which meant less crowding. It was unseasonably warm, and stable summit weather windows were aplenty. The stars were aligning, but I couldn’t be more unlucky.
My gastrointestinal problems all started after spending a few nights in Kathmandu and continued throughout the trek to base camp. There were periods of relief until our acclimatization rotation, where I shit myself in the Khumbu Icefall 6 times. A less than ideal place to empty your bowels considering the constantly-falling ice from the head of the Khumbu glacier. My illness continued at Camp 1, where I frequently woke up with shit in my pants. After a few miserable nights, it was time to cross the Western Cwm, a literal ice and snow desert where temperatures can reach up to 95°F / 35°C. I was pretty weak but managed to reach Camp 2 in mostly good spirits. Unfortunately, I was tent-ridden most of the time and missed any acclimatization activities. I was given Metronidazole because Giardia was suspected. I found this out later, but the Nepalese Metronidazole is cut with an additional drug that Westerners have a hard time tolerating. After 24 hours, I was a walking corpse and my expedition was in doubt. My stomach was swollen, and I threw up several times to relieve myself. I immediately stopped taking Metronidazole, downed some rehydration powder, and started a course of Azithromycin per suggestion from basecamp. The following day I felt like a new person. Color returned to my face, and I was back from the dead. I had spent close to 7 days at Camp 2 (21,300 ft. / 6,400 m). The rest of the team was on their way back down to basecamp finishing off their acclimatization rotation, but I still had to touch Camp 3 (23,950 ft. / 7300 m) to complete mine.
I felt well enough to move again and had a ton of pent-up climbing energy. My climbing Sherpa and I flashed Camp 3 in just under 4 hours, and I felt like a superhero. For the time being, Azithromycin had saved my expedition. After that, I went back down to base camp, finishing my acclimatization rotation and preparing for the summit push. There is a lot of downtime before the summit push because you are waiting for a stable weather window. Climbers tend to go down to the lower villages so they can reset physically and mentally. Still, I opted to stay at base camp instead of going down because I wanted to keep my attention on what I was trying to achieve. There was a good window in just a few days, and I wanted to be a part of that first summit team. In the end, I was a part of a small three-person team going for the summit on May 15th. At this point, I was feeling very good with newfound confidence. It was the first time on all expedition that I thought I could do this. My health was finally on my side, and I could perform the way I wanted to. Our small team ascended the Khumbu Icefall with a short break at Camp 1 before heading straight to Camp 2. We were making good time. After a rest day at Camp 2 and healthy bowel movements for me, we made our way up the Lhotse Face to Camp 3. Here we slept on oxygen, getting ready for the long slog up to Camp 4 also referred to as the South Col or Death Zone. C3 to C4 is uncharted territory since it is not a part of the acclimatization rotation. Nevertheless, I was excited for the challenge ahead and once again performed very well reaching Camp 4 in 6-7 hours. My climbing Sherpa and I were a few hours ahead of the rest of the team and had more time to rest.
I had a massive appetite which is impressive considering the elevation of Camp 4 sits just under 26,300 ft. ( 7,906 m). I relaxed, ate some dehydrated granola and blueberries, hydrated, and sipped on my oxygen, waiting for the summit attempt. I was in good spirits, especially after reading a card from my parents, and was very confident about how I would perform. The plan was to start climbing around 7:30 PM. I consumed one last dehydrated meal and then brushed my teeth. Next, I spit my toothpaste into the dehydrated meal bag, which still had some liquid. Unfortunately, when I set it aside, it slipped out of my hands and spilled all over my down suit. For whatever reason, I let this small issue get to me and I became frustrated with myself. The frustration only deepened when my stomach started cramping and rumbling. I couldn’t believe it; my GI problems had returned, and after all of this time, they decided to come back NOW. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
Despite everything, I started to get ready. I slowly put on my climbing harness and crampons and was prepared to climb. My climbing Sherpa and I set off into the night, clipping into the fixed rope. As soon as we started moving, there was movement in my bowels, and I had to shit. I unclipped from the rope and made my way to a plateau, and I went. I grabbed my toilet paper, only to fumble it and watch it fly down the face of the mountain. I grabbed an extra Buff I had and used that to wipe my ass. I stumbled back to the fixed rope, my legs were wobbly, and I was exhausted. I continue up at a snail’s pace, causing a queue behind me.
My stomach was wrecked, and I was in a ton of pain. I didn’t even care if I shit in my down suit at this point; I just wanted to relieve myself of the pain. My mind was racing as I was trying to decide what to do. I planned to reassess the situation at The Balcony which is a relatively flat platform, but I knew I was done; mentally and physically, I was pushed to my limits. Even if I was able to continue somehow, I wasn’t going to be able to get back down safely, especially under my own power. I decided to turn back just under The Balcony (27,700 ft. / 8500 m). Deciding to turn back is often harder than pushing on, but it was the right one from a safety standpoint. There was another stable weather window the following day, and I thought I could go back down to Camp 4, rest, and give it another shot. The next day I woke up, expecting to make a full recovery, but instead, I felt much of the same, if not worse. It was still early, though, and I foolishly thought things would eventually turn in my favor if I just kept resting. False hope, forgetting I was in the Death Zone on Everest and on borrowed time. You just can’t recuperate up there. It was hard for me to drink fluids or eat anything, and I was weak. All I wanted to do was sleep. My eyes started to cross, and I felt like I was dreaming. At this point, I knew the second attempt wasn’t going to happen, and I was in trouble. There is no rescue in the Death Zone. I needed to get down to Camp 3 and fast. It was a massive effort to sit up. I needed help from my climbing Sherpa to get ready. My stomach started to cramp again, and I had to go.
I stumbled out of the tent with my oxygen bottle, pulled down the ass flap on my down suit, made sure my dick was out (so I didn’t piss myself), and went, barely making it. I was finishing up, and then someone in the tent behind me yelled out that there was “shit everywhere.” I turned around and asked my climbing Sherpa what he said, and he told me that I had shit myself. The South Col wind decided to pick up at the worst possible moment, blowing all my shit back onto me. I was so fucked at this point, but I couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief. My oxygen was cranked up, and with wobbly legs, I started the long journey back down to Camp 3. I was sick several more times before finally making it down. At this point, it was pure survival mode. I was losing fluids because of diarrhea, and I wasn’t drinking to balance that out; on top of not eating for 24 hours, my electrolytes were utterly fucked. I went to take a piss, and it was dark brown.
Speaking of dark brown, it was an unpleasant surprise to find dried-up shit caked on my dick. It must have somehow gotten there when the wind blew it back on me, but I’m not entirely sure; it seems to defy the laws of physics. Anyway, I asked for some warm water to clean myself off so I could feel somewhat human again. In the fucked state that I was, I didn’t check the temperature of the water, which must have just gotten done boiling, and proceeded to pour it all over my dick. Again, I couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief. After all of that, I finally managed to make it down to the relative safety and lower elevation of Camp 2, and I started to feel a little better. The rest of the team, a part of the second summit wave, began to enter the camp, and my spirits lifted slightly.
Basecamp wanted me to come back down, so I could recover and go for a later weather window, but I knew I would be mentally checked out if I had to start from square 1, especially after all I had been through. I wanted to stay at Camp 2 and try to recover to make another attempt with the rest of the team, but that wasn’t an option; the ONLY option was to go back down. I was frustrated that my body let me down again, and I felt defeated and pissed off by the decision from base camp.
I made it safely back down and started my recovery. I only had a few days to decide whether or not I would go back up again. I struggled with a decision and flip-flopped several times even after seeking advice from others. There were just too many factors involved to make it work, and mentally, and physically, I wasn’t going to be able to do it safely. I was given more medication and talked with the basecamp doctor, but I knew it wouldn’t make a difference. Ultimately, I decided not to go for the second attempt. I found out a few days later that the attempt was called because of bad weather. It’s always lovely when the mountains reaffirm your decisions for you.
It’s funny what being in the comfort of your home will do for your psyche because after all I went through, I want to go back. It’s always going to feel incomplete to me. No matter how much I say, I am at peace with my decision, which was the correct one; I can’t reiterate that enough. The summit is the summit and nothing else will do.