Climbers Buoyed by Candy-bar Lunch
Lute resumes the lead. Dead ahead we spy our first goal, the South Summit. It towers some 500 vertical feet (150 meters) above us. In an exhausting two and a half hours, we gain only 200 (60 meters) of those forbidding feet. At a rocky outcrop, we pause for the only food we take that day—a quarter of a candy bar apiece.
Ten minutes later we continue the aching upward plod. We inch along the line of contact between steep snow on our right and rock outcrops on our left. The slope tilts at a dangerous 40 to 45 degrees. We generally keep to the snow, but when it becomes difficult, we gingerly tread upon the bare rock, enjoying the best of two very tricky worlds.
At 28,500 feet (8,700 meters) my first cylinder of oxygen runs dry. Lute checks his and finds it almost empty. So we halt on a small sloping ledge to change bottles. Discarding the old cylinders, we lean back against the mountain.
Suddenly I trip over one of the empty bottles at my feet and fly out into space. Instinctively, I twist in mid-air. Hitting the slope face-down, I claw at the snow with hands and feet. I manage to stop.
I glance to my left and see Lute beside me, holding me with his right hand. He has jumped out after me, flipped on his belly, and grabbed. We crawl back up to the ledge, and lie there for a long moment.
"That could have been serious," Lute says.
I nod. Both of us have narrowly missed falling all the way into Tibet.
We continue, our packs lighter because of the discarded oxygen bottles. I feel spent, dull. One step ... six long breaths ... another step ... again six breaths. Each pace requires almost half a minute. My entire body aches.
We cross hard, steep snow. Lute, in the lead, chops steps. We mount toward the South Summit, slowly, slowly.
An hour passes ... another 30 minutes. I wonder if we will ever reach the summit.