At five miles (8 kilometers) above sea level, every movement is laborious and exhausting. Within the smoky, reeking tent, we struggle into layer upon layer of clothing, finally sheathing ourselves in nylon parkas. Slowly we pull on boots and overboots, lash steel crampons into place, and attach our climbing rope. Stuffing two bottles of oxygen into our packs, we attach our regulators, pull on helmets and masks, and begin inhaling oxygen at the rate of three liters a minute.
Four liters a minute is regarded as the best flow for activity above 27,000 feet (8,200 meters). But such a rate exhausts a cylinder in four hours. At three liters, a cylinder will last more than five hours; at two liters, eight.
Since each bottle weighs 13 pounds (six kilograms)—and since weight is critical—the summit teams restrict themselves to two per man. Throughout the expedition, seldom do we enjoy the luxury of four liters.
The bad night and disastrous morning have thrown us two hours behind schedule. Not until eight o'clock, still with no breakfast, do we slog upward at that monotonous, dreary pace mountaineers find necessary at such elevations. The weather is magnificent—windy but clear. Fluffy cumulus clouds cling to the sides of the surrounding mountains.
Heeding the advice of Big Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu, who had preceded us to the summit three weeks before, we traverse the southerly slope of the ridge. With Lute at the head of the rope that joins us, we pick our way for 500 yards (460 meters) across shattered, unstable rock flecked with snow and ice. Then we turn directly up a long snow slope. Our progress is slow, and I know that the night has taken a heavy toll. I am having an off day. And to have it now, of all times! Every climber has such days, but you always hope to be hot for the big ones.
Just before eleven o'clock, we attain the crest of the Southeast Ridge. From here we look down the 10,000-foot (3,000-meter) drop of the Kangshung face into Tibet. I take the lead from Lute and for another three or four hundred yards we follow a knife edge of hard snow.
The wind picks up and I feel like a novice tightrope walker as I fight to keep my balance. The fearful Kangshung face drops precipitously on my right; on my left, a steep half-mile below, lies the South Col.