Into the Death Zone – Life and Death on Mt. Everest
Social Entrepreneur and Adventurer Elia Saikaly shares his experience climbing famed Mt. Everest and surviving in the “death zone”:
It’s 9pm on May 20th and we’ve been in the death zone, the world above 8000M, for just over five hours. Life is not meant to exist here. In the death zone, we are all transient beings. I lay in my sleeping bag with a new oxygen mask strapped to my head, devouring each artificial breath of life as though it were my last. Something is wrong. My heart is racing, my palms are sweating and I’m coughing up green phlegm uncontrollably. You see, last night my oxygen mask failed at camp 3 and while all others slept with the gift of artificial o’s, I froze and drifted in and out of consciousness. This is not the way to begin an attempt on the highest mountain on Earth! Certainly not when you are the only cameraman and are 100% responsible for a 1M dollar reality television series.
For the first time in my life, I am terrified to fall asleep. Why? Because I’m afraid I’m not going to wake up. Edema is the fatal high altitude illness where the brain or lungs fill with water, often followed by coma then death. The only way to treat pulmonary of cerebral edema is to descend and that is simply not an option for me. I know my body extremely well and I’ve spent numerous nights at 8000m and this is by far the worst I have ever felt. Weeks of operating at 100% while shooting video for the reality TV series on Mt. Everest has finally caught up to me. My body is exhausted from running ahead of the group trying to capture moments on video without interrupting the flow of the expedition. You see, it’s relatively easy to run ahead of a group trekking at sea level with a camera, but try wearing a space suit, moon boots, thick gloves and an oxygen mask then running ahead of a group while ascending the highest mountain on Earth. It’s debilitating. In a world where the rule is to never exceed 60% of your capacity, I’m reving at 120% continuously for 8-10hrs at a time.
When I close my eyes, I experience visions of crossing over to the other side. Magnetic waves seems to be pulsing and pulling me deeper into my mind. There is a bright light ahead of me and it seems to be seducing me and attempting to convince me to let myself be pulled into the land of the ever-dormant. “It’s beautiful”, I think to myself. I open my eyes, sit up immediately and cough uncontrollably. “This is not happening to me!”. I immediately begin to consume copious amounts of water in an attempt to recover and settle my system. I devour 5 energy gels, 3 packs of gummies, one and a half servings of high altitude chicken curry and three frozen Lance Armstrong energy cookies. (That part especially killed me!) Consuming of calories and liquid, combined with breathing oxygen at 4L per minute will be my saving grace. Atleast, that’s what I tell myself. I trust I have done all I can and permit myself to drift asleep. This is the most terrifying moment of my life. With the sound of oxygen flowing through an artificial mask, I surrender and drift away wondering whether or not I will ever wake up.
The sound of violent wind tearing away at the fine yellow walls of my North Face tent forces me awake. I’m alive! My super-hydration strategy seems to have worked and my choice not to alarm anyone with my condition seems to have paid off. The guides have enough to worry about with our 3-man team of Arab climbers. These boys are here living their dream and I’m here to document the realization of that dream. I will not be a liability. I’ve seen them to the summit of Mt. Elbrus, Mt. Aconcagua and now it’s time to see them to the summit of the tallest mountain on Earth. It’s game-time. Time to flip the switch.
Like a warrior preparing for battle, in the confines of my claustrophobic tent while breathing supplementary oxygen through my mask, I prepare dozens of batteries, clean all of my lenses and mentally walk through the next 24 hours in my mind. I envision the areas of the climb where I will use my tripod and my GoPro’s. I imagine the areas where I will switch my lenses and run ahead of the group to acquire the shots I’ve been dreaming of capturing for months. It’s all been pre-meditated at lower altitudes because there is always a chance that everything will go wrong, including the capacity for my brain to make rational and logical decisions. As a climber, I plan for every scenario, including failure. I mentally prepare for the most difficult day of my life, then I leave with nothing but an awareness for that pain and I focus on the incredible feat that I must undertake and the shots I want to capture along the way.
At 10pm, I’m standing in the death zone under the moonlit Himalayan sky. We’re just seconds away from departure. In one hand I hold my Canon T3i, a lighter choice for the evening portion of the climb, and in my left a portable LED light that illuminates the faces of my comrades. The frigid camera body instantly robs all the heat of my right hand. I attempt to compensate with four hand warmers, but the sub-zero temperatures of the world above 8000M prevail. My teammates headlamps flare in my viewfinder and the look of excitement in their eyes reminds me of why I came here in the first place. This is it! I make a deal with the guides that I will not interrupt the pace of the climb with my filming and in return they permit me to lead and be first in line. I also understand that if I do not honour my word I will be placed in the back of the line. This means that regardless of how tired I become, I cannot slow down. The spiritual warrior must now awaken.
The first 5 hours of the ascent are spent climbing the triangular face to the balcony. It’s -20 to -30c, the terrain is incredibly steep with mixed rock and ice and the air is incredibly thin. I easily lead the way, racing ahead with my climbing Sherpa Pasang (my trusted assistant) and once I’ve gained enough distance on the team, I pull a fresh battery out of my warm down suit, remove my gloves, expose my hands to the cold, pull the camera up from around my neck, crank the ISO to 3200 and film as much as I can. When the lead guide comes within five feet of where I am dangling, I quickly turn around, cover the lens, expose my hands and pull out the battery and carry on racing ahead. There is an incredible amount of thinking going on in my mind as I have to ensure my crampons are secured into the ice, my safety line is clipped, my ascender is locked so that I don’t slip and fall. In addition, I’m worrying about focus, exposure and composition. The exhale moisture of my oxygen mask continuously leaks onto my camera and freezes instantly creating an icy shell around the body. I continuously think to myself: this is only going to last so long before the camera malfunctions. And that’s why I have 4 cameras with me. Every opportunity I can create, I race ahead, pull out a warm battery, expose my hands to the cold, grab a shot, repeat, and continue racing ahead. This goes on for 5 hours under a bed of stars and partially moonlit sky. When the team breaks, I stop, clip in somewhere, quickly drop my pack, devour a few energy gels, consume 1/4 litre of water in the sub-zero temperatures, grab a few quick shots of the guys in the dead of the night, race ahead and carry on. Arduous, repetitive and hypnotic, but the adrenaline seems to make the time pass relatively quickly.
By 4:20am, we reach the balcony of Mt. Everest, a small area barely able to accommodate our small climbing team. I decide to quickly replace my oxygen bottle with one of three that my extra Sherpa has been carrying. I devour a few more energy gels, switch to my down mitts and crack 4 new chemical hand-warmers open before racing ahead of the team in anticipation of the rising sun in China. I gain a significant amount of distance during this time and slowly witness in awe as the sun rises through the clouds in China. The colors are surreal, like a beautifully painted portrait of the world’s most beautiful sunrise. I kick my crampons in deep to ensure I don’t fall and swap my now-frozen Canon t3i for my larger, heavier Canon 5D to capture the beautiful morning light. “This is absolutely incredible!”, I think to myself.
Michael, our lead guide sets a solid pace for the team and I do my best to continue capturing footage, climbing ahead, locking myself into the safety line, turning around, grabbing shots, racing ahead etc. The higher we climb, the more difficult this becomes. As a result my mind must compensate and carry on. This is ultimate test of will power, the moment where your body ceases to function and yet you must carry on stronger than you’ve ever climbed before. This is where my greatest strength resides, in my mind. Tirelessly, I climb with all of my heart. Within 30-minutes of experiencing the most beautiful sunrise of my adult life I notice a strange shape lying in the snow at the next anchor. I realize a slight moment later, after careful analysis that I was about to face one of my greatest nightmares. A dead climber. Never before had I laid eyes on a fallen climber and I quickly realize that not only am I going to see this person up close, but I am going to have to climb over the body! “I’m not going to look, I’m not going to look”, I kept telling myself.
The snow on the small thin path was impossibly loose forcing me back a half step with every attempted foot forward. At 27, 000ft this is an exhausting task. The man’s suit was blue and his body appeared to be hanging upside-down! “I’m not going to look, I’m not going to look”. The man lay upside-down, dark skinned with a slight beard. It appears as though he has been there no more than two days. Emotionally, I knew I had to move past him, but as I tried, I just collapsed right next to him. A part of me felt as though a small piece of me just died. Tears flow down my cheeks and I can feel my eyelids starting to freeze shut. “I’m sorry for your sister, I’m sorry for your mother, I’m sorry for your father, I’m sorry for your cousin.” On my knees next to a dead body and I feel as though I am absorbing the pain of so many who would soon learn of this man’s tragedy. “This could be me”, I thought to myself. This could be any of us. It was as though I felt my own mortality. More than ever, I wanted off this mountain. I pay my respects and carry on.
The climb from the fallen climber to the South Summit is the most difficult section for me. I feel dead inside, lifeless from having witnessed such a tragedy. I allow myself to live emotionally in the moment for about 30 minutes before cutting it all off and reminding myself that I too can end up like him if I don’t smarten up. So I continue climbing, struggling to pull my weight up the steep, jagged rocks beneath the south summit. Michael, our lead guide and I had agreed on a plan for me to stand on top of the Hillary Step, lock myself safely into position and film each climber ascending this famous 30ft section of rock pioneered 60 years ago. I sit exhausted on a rock waiting for Michael to catch up with the team and he advises me to climb ahead, descend the south summit, change my oxygen bottle and get myself into position. I gladly comply and turn my back on the devastating run-in with the deceased climber.
I can feel my body is slowly shutting down. The weight of my tripod, 2 cameras, all of my batteries, including my oxygen has taken its toll on me. I have been revving at 120% for the past 10 hours and I’m almost out of gas. I am the first to arrive and notice instantly that we have the mountain to ourselves. I gaze ahead and note the sheer beauty of the wind is howling and racing across the summit. The tallest peak on Earth is but a few hundred feet away. I realize that I am completely alone making my way towards the Hillary step. As I make my way towards the iconic obstacle I look to my left and note the 8000ft drop into the Western CWM. I can actually see camp 2 from where I am standing. I haul myself up the Hillary Step, camera around my neck, oxygen mask pumping oxygen at 4L per minute and I wait for the team to arrive. What a glorious moment to be the only person climbing the Hillary Step, not a single other human being is around to have to share this precious moment with. So often, dozens freeze and turn back and now I am just hanging out on top of the step waiting to capture this unique shot.
One by one the climbers make their way towards my lens. First it’s Mohammed, then Raed, then finally Masoud. It finally dawns on me that I am actually standing on the Hillary step with a Canon 5D in my hand filming these boys making history. I am completely exposed and my life is entrusted into a single safety line to brace my 8000ft potential fall into the Western CWM. It’s time to move to safety.
I straddle the rock above the step like a horse and realize that I must get ahead of the group in order to capture the team reaching the top. I remove my oxygen mask and ask the team to wait and let me pass at 29, 000ft. I carefully clip and unclip my safety line, each time exposing myself to the abyss below, over 14 times, passing every Sherpa and team member in order to get into position for the final shot. The last 35 feet end up becoming the most difficult 35 feet of my life. Breath, breath, breath, Step. Step. Step. Breath. Step. Step. Step. Step. My heart is racing and my breathing is out of control. It’s all mental at this point and the next thing I know, I’m alone on top of the world. I collapse on the absolute highest point, sit on the prayer flags, take out my camera and begin to roll.
Mohammed has just become the first Qatari man to summit Everest, Raed the first Palestinian , Raha who had summited a few days prior the first Saudi woman and youngest Arab and Masoud yet another Iranian to make it to the highest point on Earth. My hands freeze as I record their tears, their emotions and their triumph.
I spend 19 out of 20 minutes on the summit taking pictures of the guys, shooting video all the while hoping to get a moment to myself to absorb the moment and appreciate where I am once again. After all, it has been three years to the day that I reached the summit of Everest with my dear friend Dr. Sean Egan’s ashes. “Elia, you need to get going down too”, says Michael. “I need a few minutes”, I plead. Before I know it, the others are making their way down the mountain to safety. I pull out my iPhone, sync it to my Delorme InReach and tweet “Top of the world!”. I then send my girlfriend Amanda a message letting her know I am safe and have succeeded in reaching he highest point on Earth. I quickly take a picture of Michael and Pasang and Michael snaps a quick one of me. After all, I have to make sure I can prove I was actually here right? And then it dawned on me. I made a promise didn’t I? The students from the ePals Global Community made me promise to dance on top of the world. So of course, the very last thing I did before heading down was this… Forgive me.
There is a saying in mountaineering “Getting up is optional and getting down is mandatory.” I realize in my moment of elation that I am completely exhausted. We did it ePals, together we succeeded in reaching the highest point on Earth!
All I have to do now is climb all the way back down.