Drifting snows have compressed the sides of the tiny tent, robbing us of a third of our floor space. We are trying to sleep amid a chaos of equipment, clothing, oxygen apparatus, medicines, photographic supplies. Outside, a shrill wind lashes the crest of the ridge.
Disaster Threatens Summit Attempt
Tomorrow, May 22, is our big day, our try for the top. We both know that we will need every physical resource we can muster. And we both wonder if my illness will leave me too weak for the summit climb. We say nothing; consciously, we force the thought from our minds. At my urging, Lute takes a sleeping pill. Soon he rolls over in his cramped sector and drifts into uneasy slumber.
For me, braced in my awkward position, the hours pass like a slow nightmare. But the increased oxygen finally takes effect. Almost in command of myself once more, I too close my eyes and sleep.
At five o'clock I awake, feeling much better. Lute is already moving about the tent, melting snow on two butane stoves for some hot soup. Our extremely heavy breathing and the excessively low humidity at this high altitude sap the body of fluids at an alarming rate—sometimes almost a cup an hour.
Fifteen minutes later, Lute attaches a fresh gas cylinder to one of the stoves. A sudden whoosh, and a sheet of orange flame envelops the entire end of the tent. I smell Lute's burning beard. In one blinding second, the fire consumes my plastic mask. My eyebrows and part of my beard go with it. Dirty white smoke fills the tent.
Panic grips us. Lute struggles toward the zippered entrance. I try to smother the flames with a sleeping bag, but my legs are still inside and I can gain no leverage. The fire feeds greedily on the air in the tent, soon exhausting it. Our lungs ache.
I am groping desperately for a knife when Lute tears open the zipper and literally dives outside. His momentum is so great that he almost pitches down the steep slope toward the South Col. I am on his heels. We snatch the flaming stove from the tent, douse it in the snow. The fire soon dies in the thin air.
Choking and gasping, we sag on our hands and knees. Minutes pass before we can breathe with any semblance of normality. As we crawl back inside, we say nothing to each other. But we share the same thought. The omens are bad, all bad.