Although it was daylight, the descent was a challenge. Our progress down was delayed by the throng of climbers heading up towards the summit. From the top to the South Summit, we had to wait to let climbers pass who unclipped and clipped again to the single rope on the ridge. At the Hillary Step, we have to wait two hours just to wait for our turn on the one-way route.
We had our equipment with all the precious data that we had so painstakingly collected at the summit in our bag. The data does not weigh anything, but it weighed us down with responsibility to protect it during this treacherous descent.
In fact, I later found out that 22 May, 2019 had the highest number of climbers on the summit, and news about the ‘traffic jam’ on Mt Everest had gone viral around the world. A total 223 mountaineers summited on that day, and there were calls for restricting numbers. As luck would have it, not a single expedition has put climbers on the summit from the Nepal side of Sagarmatha in 2020 because of the Covid-19 restrictions.
Last spring, there was a very short weather window for summit planning. According to weather reports, less wind and good weather was forecast for 22 May compared to the days before and after. That is why there were so many climbers on the summit all at the same time.
While we were descending from the South Summit which is at about 8,600m Rabin Karki’s oxygen system started giving him trouble. This was dangerous, and his life was at risk. Our guide Tshiring Jangbu Sherpa borrowed an extra oxygen cylinder from another Sherpa colleague, and Rabin managed to continue his descent.
I myself was drained, and did not have much energy left by the time we got back down to the Balcony. My condition got worse, and on the slope down to the South Col at one point I actually lost consciousness at 8,200m. I must have lain there for two hours in the blue ice, until another climber kicked me to see if I was alive.
After I woke up, I found that the rest of the team had headed on down thinking that the South Col was close, and I would catch up with them. Tshiring must have thought that I could descend by myself. Those two hours gave me frostbite, and when I got back to Kathmandu I had to amputate a tip of my left toe.
Normally, if climbers fall unconscious at that altitude, and there is no one to help them down, it is likely that they will not wake up again. It was that kick, and a miracle, that woke me up so that I could stumble down the mountain that day, and bring down the precious cargo of data in my backpack.
This near-death experience reminded me of the importance of the summit observation and the responsibility that I had in bringing down the data. We took risk not only for the sake of successful completion of the historical mission, but also for the qualitative raw data so we could get the precise height of Mt Everest.