Saturday, July 13, 2024

After Everest Summit, Bailey Reflects – And Plans for the Next

Courtesy photo: Richard Bailey

Richard Bailey was on the southeast ridge of Mount Everest, vomiting, fighting both lung and stomach infections.

“Go down without me,” he told his Sherpa, who was running low on oxygen. “I’ll get down myself.”

He radioed his expedition lead.

“Hey Richard,” the lead said, “You’re moving so slowly, you’re going to run out of oxygen.”

This was the kick he needed, he said. At twelve years old, he had set a goal of summitting Everest, and he had done it. It was a grueling, laborious slog; both the hardest thing he’d done and his greatest triumph. But the summit was the halfway point: Now he had to get home.

Coronado’s mayor summited Everest on May 20, after spending the last three years training to acquire the requisite technical skills. Last year, he attempted a summit but turned back due to lung infection. This year, he did it – but there were several times where he thought he might not.

As he tells the story, two factors stick out as representative of Bailey’s personality. First, as he made his way down the mountain, near death, he attempted to radio into a meeting of the Coronado City Council. His satellite phone couldn’t pierce the storm clouds, and it marked the first meeting he’s ever missed.

Second, he’s already selected his next summit: Mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica. After climbers summit, they can ski the last longitudinal degree to the South Pole. There’s always going to be another mountain.

“There is something about being able to go away and have this amazing adventure,” Bailey said. “It reminds you of everything that is great at home: your relationships, your community. It gave me a renewed appreciation for the special people in my life.”

A race against the clock

It took about 35 days for Bailey to reach the summit. First, he hiked for eight days to reach base camp. Some days were climb days to acclimatize, others were rest days, some were to hunker against ferocious weather.

Simply existing at base camp is grueling, Bailey said. You’re living on a glacier, eating and drinking less than you normally would.

“Your body becomes susceptible to different types of infections, and it also becomes susceptible to atrophy,” he said. “It’s a race against the clock to maintain the physical ability to reach the summit while your body is wasting away.”

All climbers complete a series of rotations – hikes made not with the intent to summit, but to allow their bodies to adjust to the altitude. Bailey left for his first at 2 a.m., after a Puja Ceremony, a Nepalese cultural practice in which a Lama pays respect to the mountain, blesses the climbers and their gear, and prays for safe passage.

Courtesy photo: Richard Bailey

Then, they set off for the Khumbu Icefall, an icy labyrinth of seracs, crevasses, and pinnacles that sits at the head of a glacier by the same name. The glacier is in constant motion, moving three to four feet daily, causing pinnacles to fall, house-sized seracs to crumble, and avalanches to plunge. It’s considered one of the most treacherous passages along the journey to Everest’s summit.

Even the most skilled mountaineers are making a gamble as they cross: The ice features will fall eventually, and you just hope it’s not while you’re beneath them.

“If it weren’t for the always impending fear of death, it would be an incredible experience I would recommend to anyone,” Bailey said. It was beautiful, a physical challenge and, in his words – “exhilarating.”

That risk never passes. About 18 hours after Bailey summitted, the summit’s cornice traverse collapsed. Four people were able to self-rescue by pulling themselves up from their safety ropes, but two were not.

It took about seven hours for Bailey to get through the icefall to camp one. He ate a bowl of soup and hunkered down for 28 hours as a storm whipped 40- to 50-mile-per-hour winds around his tent.

Next, he pushed to camp two, then on to camp three, where the slope steepens to 45-degrees of solid ice. Then, he and his party made their way to base camp for two days, took a helicopter to Kathmandu for two nights in a hotel, then back to base camp to prepare for the summit push.

“This is where things started going wrong for me,” Bailey said.

‘I’m either summiting or I’m not coming off this mountain’

The summit push began with another labyrinthine trek through the Khumbu Icefall. About two hours in, Bailey, who had contracted a stomach bug, started vomiting.

He kept vomiting the rest of the way, becoming increasingly dehydrated and weak as the hours slogged on. He was drained when he got to camp one, but since he was acclimatized, he didn’t need to stay. He rested briefly, then kept going to camp two.

“I felt like I was on another planet, I was so weak, so sick,” Bailey said.

Still, he was able to choke down some fluid and nutrition, and he thought the bug had passed. He continued to camp three, which is cut into the side of the Lhotse Ice Face. It’s so steep that when climbers leave their tents, they must be clamped into a safety rope. He stayed the night there on oxygen, then began a 12-hour climb the next morning.

“That was one of the most physically challenging days of my life,” Bailey said. “It is a lot of effort: You’re pretty much going up a sheer face with no breaks. The whole way, I was vomiting and couldn’t keep any fluid down.”

At camp four, he guzzled two liters of hydration, ate a package of white rice, took a four-hour nap. At 10 p.m., they began pulling climbers – the slowest first, so they had the most time – from their tents to begin their final ascent to the summit.

Bailey was summoned around midnight, in white-out conditions. The climb felt nearly vertical. After five or six hours, he made to The Balcony – a ledge at the start of Everest’s Southeast Ridge. At 27,700 feet, it’s one of the few places where climbers can safely unclip and sit down.

Bailey rested, hydrated, had a snack, and watched the sun rise.

Courtesy photo: Richard Bailey

“It was the most vibrant color I’ve ever seen,” Bailey said. ‘It was so beautiful. It was one of my favorite moments on the mountain.”

Then he pushed on along the southeast ridge, a stretch that narrows to sidewalk-width arête in some places. On one side, 10,000-foot drop to Tibet. On the other, an 8,000-foot drop to Nepal.

Climbers have a joke: If you’re going to fall, fall to China, so you live longer.

That’s when Bailey started vomiting again.

This whole time, Bailey was aware of his proximity to death. He was aware of his failure to summit last year – a public failure, considering his line of work. He was aware of how sick he was, how exhausted, how treacherous the climb.

At one point, on an impossibly steep ice slope in white-out conditions with his goggles frozen over, he couldn’t see a thing.

“Hey man,” he said to his Sherpa. “I can’t see. I think we should turn around and wait for better conditions.”

“If we turn around now, you’re probably not coming back,” his Sherpa replied.

That’s when Bailey decided: “I’m either summiting or I’m not coming off this mountain.”

‘The summit will come’

Bailey made it, vomiting, to the South Summit, at 28,704 feet above sea level. He traversed the summit ridge, a 1.5 to 2-foot-wide passage with steep drops on either side.

At one point, Bailey saw a climber, thought he was resting in an awkward position. And then he realized: It was a body, still in a summit suit. Nepal didn’t pass a body recovery policy until this year, and while some had been recently removed during Bailey’s climb, a couple were still there.

Bailey said he didn’t fully comprehend what he was seeing – the humanity of the bodies – until he was off the mountain. He was so weak, so dehydrated, so oxygen-deprived. He pushed forward.

This time, his push forward brought him to the summit. After passing the ridge, it was a gradual slope to the top.

“It felt like an out-of-body experience,” Bailey said. “It’s something I’d thought about my whole life, and once you get there, you realize: Not only am I going to make it, but I’m here. This is it.”

He spent some time taking in the view, taking in the accomplishment, taking pictures. But the catch with this particular accomplishment? Reaching the summit is only the halfway point. Bailey still needed to get down.

“I was so satisfied, I felt like a journey had been completed,” Bailey said. “And I was excited to get back to my place at home.”

Bailey said there were three points during his journey where he thought he might die. Two of those were on the way down. He was physically spent, battling infections, and moving at an agonizing pace. He felt he was giving it his all, but he was still moving too slowly. He was going to run out of oxygen.

At this point, his depth perception was severely impaired. Between camps four and three, he misstepped and fell, sliding rapidly down the mountain. He wouldn’t have been able to stop himself. His safety rope did.

Last year, when Bailey failed to summit, his mindset was different. His thoughts were consumed by one thing: Summit. Summit. Summit.

This year, he focused on the journey.

“It sounds corny,” he said, “but I tried to remind myself to focus on the adventure, to enjoy the journey, and the summit will come.”

He also made a list of affirmations to remind himself to dig in and push ahead. Some were inspired by lessons learned last year.

“You never want to feel like you felt last year. Do this for yourself, a year ago. If you do accomplish it, it makes last year okay – you’ve redeemed yourself.”

Others were informed by his love of mountaineering and adventure. Others, his desire to push himself, to prove that he could do it. One even was to disprove the few who relished in his failure last year.

“I think I’m wired to want to take on certain challenges that other people might shy away from, just to prove to myself that I could do it,” Bailey said. The risk was part of the appeal, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make him nervous.

“The ice fall and the ridge especially kept me up at night going into the trip,” Bailey said. “But I also knew that going through those things and confronting those feelings would change me as a person. I have a greater depth for taking on challenges, and I have a greater capability of seeing things through, even if they’re difficult.”

Megan Kitt
Megan Kitt
Megan has worked as a reporter for more than 10 years, and her work in both print and digital journalism has been published in more than 25 publications worldwide. She is also an award-winning photographer. She holds BA degrees in journalism, English literature and creative writing and an MA degree in creative writing and literature. She believes a quality news publication's purpose is to strengthen a community through informative and connective reporting.Megan is also a mother of three and a Navy spouse. After living around the world both as a journalist and as a military spouse, she immediately fell in love with San Diego and Coronado for her family's long-term home.Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]

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