Upward. Always upward. Foot by painful foot. Gradually, I become convinced that we will indeed go all the way. And at two o'clock, beneath a piercingly blue sky, we stand at 28,750 feet (8,760 meters) on the South Summit of Everest—our first way station. We lean into the heavy wind that buffets us with gusts of 60 to 70 miles (100-110 kilometers) per hour.
To the southwest my eye can trace our route up Everest from the Dudh Kosi valley. The midafternoon sun reflects off the metal roof of the shrine at Thyangboche, 15 miles (25 kilometers) away. Already we stand at a point 500 feet (150 meters) higher than any other mountain in the world.
Our oxygen situation becomes more critical by the minute. We know we must conserve as much as possible. Therefore we turn our regulators back to a flow of two liters a minute. The new deprivation is not immediately apparent. Our discomfort is so great, the going so hellish, that we perceive no difference.
Hillary Photograph Aids Climbers
Atop the South Summit, Lute and I peer at the awesome route to the true peak. It rises above us in craggy, snow-scarred grandeur. Long ago we memorized this view from a photograph taken by Sir Edmund Hillary. We know it as well as we know the streets we live on. But somehow it looms steeper, closer, more forbidding than in the picture.
While on the mountain all of us in the summit teams think of ourselves as intelligent and lucid. Only afterwards, in reconstructing our actions, do we discover how irrational we really were.
So it is, that Lute looks down with dismay at a 30-foot (nine-meter) vertical wall of rotten snow—our jumping-off-point for the North Summit. Unaccountably, he starts walking due west, down a small slope.
Later Lute explains: "I was a little bit spooked by this 30-foot (9-meter) vertical pitch. I thought that this couldn't possibly be the way. And I don't know whatever possessed me, but I suddenly took off down to the left.
"I walked 75 feet (20 meters) down the South Summit and saw some rocks, and I apparently thought I saw some footprints down there, and Barry all this time thought I was completely crazy. He just looked at me and shook his head and threw up his hands and didn't know where on Earth I was going. I think he thought I was going to end it all right there."