By Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson
920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.
May 20th: It’s game time, and we are finally at the South Col ready to head for the summit. The weather says winds less than 15 mph, and I feel good. I try to rest and gather gear to make my pack even lighter since we have a large O2 cylinder to carry up with us…like a lifeline. It’s to the point where, even moving things around in your tent, leaves you gasping for air if you don’t have your mask up at the time.
My start time for my summit is around 7:30 p.m. This was decided to help us avoid the slow moving climbers, often from a specific country to remain unnamed, that can impede your progress up the mountain by moving in large numbers with few options to pass. As soon as I step out of the tent, I notice that we aren’t the only camp stirring. Multiple languages echo through the cold night, and I am concerned that everyone is leaving at the same time. I am the first of the Air Force team to leave and my suspicions are confirmed as I begin my climb up the Triangle Face.
Soon, I come upon a line of climbers moving extremely slowly. My climbing Sherpa, Mingma Tenzing, broke off to the right of the line of what has been referred to as the “zombies” and began passing on another parallel rope. I followed and we jetted past many climbers lined up back to back. The terrain we passed upon was difficult and exhausting and by the time I reached the front of the line of 30-40 climbers, I was destroyed from the effort.
After hours of climbing, we reached the Balcony (27,500 ft) and took a break. This is where Mingma switched one of the new bottles in his pack for the one in my pack. So I got a new bottle to ascend on and dropped the used one in my backpack for alter use as I descend. My hands had gone numb, so as I warmed them, I also ate and drank to replenish what I had spent on my passing of the “zombies”. I realized that I was much more tired than I had expected. As I rested, the “zombie” group reached the Balcony as well. By the time I got some food and water and warmed my fingers, the group had begun climbing again and I was stuck behind them. My Sherpa wanted to pass again, and normally I would have had the energy, but not this time. We were too high and I was beginning to feel more tired than usual. I was exhausted.
We climbed behind them for a while and I felt my toes going numb. After an hour of climbing on numb toes with no return of feeling, I told my Sherpa we may be done. I felt trapped between my body and the elements and I knew who should win. This is the place where I think people roll the dice. Not me. Not with an entire medical career and all my family waiting for my return as a whole man. I called over the radio and explained to Greg, the Base Camp manager, that I didn’t have the energy to pass twice, and I didn’t have the heat to safety behind them. He agreed it was the right decision. Once the call was in, my Sherpa says to me, “I’m sorry, Nick.” We both knew. We turned around and sat down next to each other at 28,200 feet and just stared off into the cold night. Emotions were raw for us both. After a few minutes I said, “C’mon, let’s go home.”
As we climbed down the Triangle Face, the sun made its appearance, as it did to those up higher than us. I heard the calls come through on the radio from my friends as they stood on top of the world, elated with life. My joy for them was mixed with sorrow. I stopped Mingma for a while as the sun showed me the beauty of a window seat in the death zone. I told him I wanted to sit and look for a minute because I would never see this again. It was the only moment I afforded myself since time in the death zone does more for giving it it’s name than anything.
Once back to Camp 4 at 26,000 feet, I got an hour to get my stuff together and rest. They often help people as you are wasted tired. Then they force you up and on your way to Camp 2. Guys sometimes lie in their tent and complain about how they’ve only been there an hour when in actuality they have been there four or five hours. It is a death trap to stay long. I asked if I could get another shot the next night to summit before I go down, but my request was denied. Not enough oxygen resources, and in truth, once you step above the balcony, it takes your body weeks to recover. When I finally arrived at Camp 2 that morning, it was evident to me that something was wrong with me. I was audibly wheezing and was too tired to even stand up and walk to my tent. When I finally got there, I tried to lie down, and I went into fits of coughing with a drowning feeling. It was obvious pretty quickly that I had HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema).
Colin Merrin called to Base Camp on the radio and told them what was going on with me. I took medication to help treat my condition and slept on oxygen that night, and the subsequent descent to Base Camp the next day. I felt my condition improve quickly with descent. I also felt certain that it had played a role in my fatigue on summit day. This helped me feel somewhat more reassured about my decision to turn around. As an Air Force pararescueman, when you are used to working in the rescue profession and caring for others, you must be aware of the circumstances that entail you rescuing yourself. I once cared for a fellow SCUBA diver while on a dive who was panicking and threatening to dart for the surface from 140 ft. I made sure nothing happened to him, but I was so focused on him that I myself ran out of air ten feet below the surface. I got lucky that time, but forgot the cardinal rule that you never let yourself become a second victim. Now my summit attempt was over and I had to find a way to deal with the emotional ripple effects of that.
While Staff Sgt. Gibson was shy of summiting Mt. Everest by 829 feet, the USAF 7 Summits Challenge Team as a whole “…unfurled the stars and stripes and the Air Force flag on the summit right after 5 a.m. in Nepal,” according to retired Col. Rob Suminsby, co-founder of the Seven Summits project. USAF 7 Summits Challenge team climbers consisted of: Maj. Rob Marshall, Capt. Andrew Ackles, Capt. Marshall Klitzke, Capt. Colin Merrin and Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson. To put it in perspective: If you took a running track and ran one lap, that is ½ a mile, therefore 829 feet is less than 1/6 of a mile and would take the average person 2 minutes to run. Making it just shy of 829 feet below the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, is still an amazing feat by most standards.
Along with Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, Capt. Colin Merrin also had to turn back from the summit due to illness. “The Air Force Safety Center has been a strong supporter of this effort,” said Suminsby. “These guys (Gibson and Merrin) deserve a huge amount of credit, as they made one of the toughest decisions a climber can make, turning around short of the summit. Both made a good decision to turn back. The team was committed to safety throughout the process, and their actions are shining examples of how to do the right thing even when it’s disappointing and not easy. A lot of people have been willing to sacrifice fingers or toes to reach the summit, but this team defined success from the outset as bringing everyone back in one piece.
” As a reserve pararescueman and a physician assistant medical student at Emory University, Gibson, the only enlisted climber, acted as the USAF 7 Summit Team’s medic during the two month-long climb, and according to the USAF 7 Summit Team leader, Maj. Rob Marshal, he, “quickly earned a reputation as the go-to medic for everybody within earshot, especially at the higher camps where medical support is much harder to come by. In addition to treating cuts and abrasions, ‘Gibby’ has administered potentially life-saving treatments to climbers suffering symptoms of HAPE and HACE. This no doubt establishes some kind of record for the highest altitude work ever done by a USAF PJ. We are super proud to have him on the team!”
PHOTO: Maj. Rob Marshall and Capt. Drew Ackles proudly display the USAF flag on the summit of Mt. Everest.
Information courtesy of USAF Seven Summits Challenge blog. For more information, see the Seven Summits website, Seven Summits blog and Facebook page. You can also visit the 920th Rescue Wing Facebook page. The USAF 7 Summits Challenge is not officially sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Air Force. It is a team of military members acting unofficially, and with no DOD financial assistance, to spread goodwill about the U.S. Air Force.