Back to lower elevation
In tough situations, a popular Buddhist prayer in the higher regions of Nepal is “Om Mani Padme Hum.” It refers to the Lotus flower in a stagnant pool, and adheres to the notion that, in the midst of fear, anger or any negative emotion, something strong, beautiful and peaceful can emerge.
It was the chant of solace for a team of women attempting to summit Mount Everest.
Picture 18 hours of straight ice climbing to 28,750 feet in a down suit, oxygen mask and 25 pounds of gear … with diarrhea and menstrual cramps.
There was only 285 feet to go. But that would have been about three more hours. And into the eye of a storm.
When Frisco resident Jody Thompson and her best friend, former Summit County resident Kim Clark, returned to American soil from their nine-and-a-half weeks of climbing Everest, one of the first things they wanted was an ice cream cone. And after they narrowly missed being part of an “apartment building-sized” chunk of ice that collapsed as they were on their final descent, the first thing they wanted to do when they got down from base camp was call their loved ones. And get out of their smelly clothes.
“We wanted to get out of our stinky mountaineering clothes, our hiking boots, our polypros; we wanted to take a shower and go buy a nice, cute Kathmandu skirt,” Thompson said last week, sitting outside of Coffee Roasters in Frisco with Clark and her 16-month-old son, Hans. “And that’s what we did … before we even took a shower.”
The two women were part of the now-famous five women group – Team No Boundaries – sponsored by Ford as the first-ever all women’s group to attempt to summit the tallest peak in the world. Thompson and Clark were joined on the team by Lynn Prebble of Silverton, Alison Levine of San Francisco and Midge Cross of Washington.
Clark and Thompson, who arrived back in Colorado about two weeks ago, are disappointed they didn’t make it to the summit of the 29,035-foot peak. But, more importantly, they’re happy to be alive.
After weeks of waiting to make their summit bid, the team peaked out at 28,750 feet, when a series of events caused the remaining members to turn back. Cross, a 58-year-old diabetic and breast cancer survivor, was the first to opt out of the expedition at around 24,000 feet. Clark and Thompson said Cross thought she was holding up the team because she had to stop frequently to test her blood sugar. Around 28,700 feet, Levine began to have oxygen-deprivation issues and guide Lisa Rust turned back with a half-frozen cornea.
The three Colorado women – Clark, Thompson and Prebble – along with a couple male guides and Sherpas, were all that were left.
“We started about 10 the night before and we were at 27,500 (feet) at like 2:30 a.m.,” Clark said. “As the sun started coming up, I was like, “This is absolutely crazy, we’re going to summit Everest.’ Then, all of a sudden, we were at the South Summit, and it was like, “All right, it’s 300 feet from here.'”
Three hundred feet and about three hours. Clark said the going was extremely slow, that each member of the team would take one small step and have to count to five.
“What I remember at that point was, I turned around and didn’t see Kim for a minute, and I got worried,” Thompson said. “Then, there she was and I was like, good, the three of us (with Prebble) are all together. Then I looked and saw the clouds, and I heard on the radio from (guide) Dave that the storm was coming in fast, and we could do it if we thought we were strong enough to get up and down before the storm comes in. That’s when I thought to myself, “Wow. I’m kind of tired.'”
That’s when guides made the call to turn around. The group descended to Camp Four at 26,200 feet in a whiteout and insisted on spending the night there, as it had, at that point, been on the move for 18 hours.
“There were intense winds at Camp Four,” Thompson said. “We were still intimidated by the storm down there because it’s what they call “the death zone,’ because your body is doing nothing but deteriorate. If you stay more than three days up there, chances are, you’ll go into pulmonary edema and cerebral edema and die. It was scary. We were trying to talk in the tent and the winds were so high, I couldn’t even here Kim talking. I was like, “Gosh, I hope we get out of here.'”
Although visibility was better the next morning, winds were still high. The group was making a smooth descent until it reached the dreaded Khumbu Ice Fall for its last crossing.
From their first arrival at Base Camp (17,600 feet), the danger of the team’s expedition became clear with the daily sound of tons of ice and rocks rumbling down the peak from Khumbu Ice Fall, which is statistically the most dangerous area on the mountain, having claimed 19 of the 174 lives lost on Everest since 1922.
“I would guess there was six avalanches a day at least,” Clark said. “It’s right there, in your face. You see it every day, you wake up to it every day.”
“Sometimes it was like, “Do you want to get out of your tent and watch it, or do you want to just listen to it?'” Thompson added. “It was just this big boom, blocks of ice cracking and rock faces splitting – like the mountain’s crumbling around you. You just got used to it.”
The team had to climb the Khumbu Fall every time it ascended to Camp One and beyond and descended to base camp, and the precariousness of each crossing served as Thompson’s biggest fear throughout the trip, a fear that, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, became a reality on the group’s final descent to base camp.
After half the group had crossed a sheer section of the Fall, it suddenly collapsed beneath the feet of guide Ben Marshall and about four feet away from Thompson.
“I thought I was dead,” Thompson said. “Every time we’d get to the top of the ice fall, I was just thankful. I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we made it through another time. Chalk up another one.’ To me, it was a countdown. And I’d always know that every time we went up, we had to come back down.”
Thompson’s fear of the Fall was magnified by the fact that, on Jan. 5, she watched a friend die in Vail on an ice climbing trip. Despite her CPR attempts, Rod Willard died a few minutes after a large block of ice crushed him as he, Thompson and a group of friends were climbing near an area, referred to in climbing circles, as “The Thang.”
“When I got to him, he just said that everything hurt, and that was about the last thing he said,” Thompson said. “His wife gave me his ashes to spread on a climb. It was about three weeks later that I got the call (confirming) the trip to Everest.”
Thompson said Willard was on her mind throughout the expedition, and she released his ashes at about 27,500 feet. The memory of his fall leapt to mind as she saw Marshall, thankfully, making his way up the rope he was dangling from after the avalanche on Khumbu Fall.
“The blocks that slid were literally the size of apartment buildings,” Clark said. “It was scary.”
On the whole, the experience didn’t deter Clark and Thompson from ice climbing, or doing any of their other usual hardcore activities. They’re just not sure they’ll ever attempt Everest again.
“Initially, I was a little disappointed,” Thompson said. “I was certainly pleased we’d made it as far as we did. I would have loved to have summitted. When we descended though, it ended up being the whiteout. And I just focused on the task at hand.”
“I mostly wanted to get down,” Clark agreed. “My disappointment came later. I was just like, gosh darn, we were so close. But then again, there’s nothing higher on this Earth, and hey, we got above K2 – the second highest peak. It’s truly amazing. Our whole team made it to 24,000 feet without any major altitude sickness and another seven of us made it to 28,750. I felt it was still a success. You hear about how many people die. You can see how it would happen. Up there, you have a sort of lassitude about yourself. You forge on even though it’s really dangerous and you’re tired.”
The lassitude has continued, and Clark and Thompson claim they can feel the depletion of energy and brain cells they sustained on their trip. They said they’ve constantly indulged in all-you-can-eat buffets as their skyrocketed metabolisms demand.
Both are grateful to be back in their respective routines – Thompson as a full-time mom and a part-time emergency room nurse at Frisco Medical Center, and Clark as a student working 12 hours a day at University Hospital in Denver and pursuing her nursing degree.
“I am just grateful for the opportunity,” Clark said of their trip. “I’ve been feeling pretty spacey since we’ve been back, and not in as good of shape as you’d think. I definitely think we inspired a lot of women, though. I don’t know if I’d call it an epiphany, but that morning of the summit bid, just seeing the sun rise, was just tremendous. I realized too, that I have a new gratitude for family and friends and home.”
“A lot of women don’t have as much self-confidence as they should,” Thompson said. “It was so great climbing with a bunch of women, because we’d all communicate and support each other, and hug each other every time we got to a higher camp. It teaches you to not be afraid to take risks, and to believe in yourself.”
Shauna Farnell can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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