And so it ends. After two years of planning and two months of hazard and hardship on the mountain, we’re all going home. This is what matters most: We lived.
Death on a mountain is not heroic. Death is the ultimate failure. What’s more, we’re going home with all the fingers and toes we started with. Mountains aren’t worth mutilation. What have been permanently altered are our minds. Yes, we summited, but we also created friendships, forged in moments of suffering and smiling, that will last a lifetime. It was a team effort. No one did anything alone. From the start of the trek to the top of the world, we helped each other every step of the way.
The last night we were all in Base Camp, our cook made us a cake and we gathered in the mess tent together—climbers, Sherpas, and staff. There was beer and whiskey and Coke. Conrad cut the cake in thin slices making certain that every person got a piece. We toasted the Sherpas first, naturally. Without their extraordinary efforts, from fixing lines to humping loads, none of us would have reached the summit. Then we toasted our Base Camp staff, who did all they could to keep meat on our bones. Then we toasted “Rad,” who had the dream and put together the team.
Later that night, we shared our most moving moments. For Phil, it was finding himself all alone in the Icefall, fascinated by the singular juxtaposition of stunning beauty and deadly treachery. For Kris it was stepping on the sharp, exposed peak of Lhotse with his longtime climbing partner Hilaree. For Emily, our pixie, it was reveling in the fact that she, a world-class sport climber who had never been above 13,000 feet, could actually climb Everest. We all had our magical moments. Later we shared our worst times, most of which, inevitably, had to do with body fluids exploding out of one orifice or another. As the night grew long, the conversations grew more philosophical, of course. Would we ever come back? Was it really worth it? Did it mean anything, really?
Climbing Everest is not curing cancer. It is a narcissistic pursuit, not a noble one. But, there is grandeur in the endeavor. A common goal of magnificent difficulty, with everyone sharing in the brief moments of pleasure and extended periods of pain, binds heart to heart more strongly than the rope itself. Because Everest is so high and so indifferent, it calls upon every mountaineer, at some point during the climb, to rise to his or her better self—that person inside us all who has unquestioned courage, who will sacrifice without doubt, who will commit without complaint, who will put life on the line. This is the answer to the inevitable question: Why? Because: The highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, expects of you, demands of you, to reach for the highest qualities inside yourself.