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Last night before the summit

In the shadow of Mount Everest, the summit has never felt farther away to Leif Whittaker

Story by Leif Whittaker ('07)

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Leif Whittaker, WWU's 2007 Outstanding Graduate in English, spent the spring of 2010 on Mount Everest with a climbing expedition sponsored by Eddie Bauer First Ascent. | Photo by Eddie Bauer First Ascent/Michael Brown

Will I ever see the mountain? It has been veiled in windswept snow for days. An eerie and impenetrable barrier roars. Frozen splinters barrage the tent, stretching nylon drum-tight between aluminum poles. I’ve only gone outside to empty my pee bottle; I wish I had a bigger pee bottle. We cook inside, melting snow for hot chocolate and broth—anything interesting enough to persuade consumption. Boiling water is lukewarm. It takes great effort to eat and drink here at 26,000-feet on the South Col of Mount Everest.

Our team is running out of food, fuel and oxygen, not to mention strength. Each moment we spend at this altitude makes us weaker. This is our second evening at the South Col; we’ve been climbing Everest for almost two months now. If this storm doesn’t dissipate within the next few hours we will be forced to descend and our journey will be over without a single clear chance at the summit.

I can hardly imagine how my father, Jim Whittaker, felt here 47 years ago. It would have been colder because he was climbing earlier in the season and the winds were reported at 70 mph on the day that he became the first American to reach the highest point on Earth. It was horrible weather, yet after spending months on the mountain and many years planning the expedition there was no way he was turning around. He was determined. And bold.

I’m determined also, but this weather is dangerously bad. The thought that we might not summit weighs down on me. I don’t want to believe it. In my head, I ask the mountain to give us one chance, one clear shot. I fall asleep with this wish in my head.

Silence awakens me. The tent flaps gently. No snow is falling. I peer outside. There, illuminated by a nearly perfect moon, is the terribly elegant spike of Mount Everest, and it is breathtakingly clear. I step outside and begin to lace up my boots.

Leif Whittaker of Port Townsend spent the spring of 2010 on Mount Everest with a climbing expedition sponsored by Eddie Bauer First Ascent. He was joined by Dave Hahn, who has now summited Everest 12 times, more than any non-Sherpa.