"Lute, I think I'm going mad." I speak through clenched teeth to Lute Jerstad, lying beside me in the two-man tent. For several hours I have been fighting a terrifying claustrophobia. We are alone at Camp VI, 27,450 feet (8,367 meters) up on the Southeast Ridge of Everest. I suppress a wild desire to break out of the cluttered tent.
As all climbers know, lack of oxygen produces weird mental effects. The thin air and the antibiotics I have been taking cause my claustrophobia—and a muddled sense of balance as well. Lying flat, I feel as if I am at an absurd and sickening angle. Nausea wrenches my stomach. Breathing is quick and shallow. By bracing myself semi-upright, I maintain some semblance of equilibrium.
Lute tries to make me comfortable, but without success. Finally, I turn the regulator and increase the flow of oxygen into my plastic sleeping mask from one to two liters per minute. The little extra helps. Oxygen is our most precious commodity and our lives depend upon how well we conserve it: I apologize to Lute.