In an ode to the litany of factors at play during a major ski-mountaineering expedition, Jamie Laidlaw and Kris Erickson's attempted first descent of Lhotse Peak this spring did not yield the history they hoped it would.
On May 25, during their summit push up the massive Nepalese face shared by Mount Everest and Lhotse -- the world's fourth tallest mountain at 28,102 feet -- the Americans were pulled into a controversial and draining rescue of a Spanish climbing team. Then, while they rested at Camp 4 (roughly 25,250 feet) before starting up the pencil couloir that plunges from Lhotse's summit, Laidlaw began to hear gurgling in his lungs. He quickly realized a torrential cough had morphed into high-altitude pulmonary edema, or H.A.P.E., a potentially fatal condition that forced him to descend almost immediately.
Erickson, who was still healthy enough to attempt the summit, honored the unspoken laws of their partnership and descended alongside Laidlaw in the dark, arriving at base camp after nine and a half hours and 8,000 vertical feet of precarious downclimbing. Their urgency may have saved Laidlaw's life.
"It wasn't until the last hour that I realized my coordination and physical abilities were starting to diminish," Laidlaw said a day after returning to his home in Idaho. "Like, I dropped my belay device and watched it disappear down the face. I still had four rappels left."
Theirs was one of the last high attempts of the season. Two days after their descent, the Nepali "Icefall Doctors" took down the ladders-and-rope route through the glacier in advance of the summer monsoon season.
As it stood, during their third acclimatization rotation up the mountain, Laidlaw and Erickson skied almost the entire Lhotse Face, starting from higher than 24,000 feet, a rare achievement in this mythical corner of the Himalayan Range. But to have gotten so close to their ultimate objective then been forced to turn around, still stung Laidlaw weeks later. Especially since he had overcome a case of H.A.P.E. in 2007 on his first attempt to ski Lhotse, when a malfunction with his oxygen system left him no choice but to abandon his summit climb just shy of the top and ski the couloir alone.
"The decision to turn around wasn't hard," Laidlaw said of the most recent attempt. "But the realization was difficult. Because I really, really want to ski that mountain and I've put a lot of time and effort into skiing it -- more than anyone. What killed me most was Kris was still healthy, and I knew that my condition was ending his hopes of skiing it too. But he never once mentioned climbing, he never once mentioned the summit. I know he doesn't hold me responsible at all."
Erickson flew to Morocco immediately after the two-month expedition to meet his family; attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
In retrospect, Laidlaw said he still would participate in the rescue of the Spanish climbers. "We both knew it might have a serious impact on our trip, but we had to do it," he said. After summiting Lhotse that day, the Spaniards, climbing without oxygen, had wilted on the descent and left one member for dead; another would end up losing all his toes and fingers, as well as his ears and nose to frostbite. Famed Patagonian guides Willie and Damian Benegas helped collect the Spanish members from high on the mountain, then Laidlaw and Erickson made two trips to meet and transport the men -- including one in a litter -- down to Camp 2, an effort that didn't end until 1 a.m.
"We were cooked the next day," Laidlaw said. "That rescue just wore out the body." But still they plodded higher, at one point slowing to a rate of 300 vertical feet per hour under the burden of 50-pound packs.
Had they made their summit attempt earlier in the expedition -- which was marked by unusually slim weather windows -- they may have had a second opportunity to go for the top. But the trip had been sold to sponsors with a certain number of guaranteed video dispatches to be produced from base camp, and securing enough footage became a challenge. "We pretty much waited until the end of the season to go for the summit, and the main reason was due to our obligation to document the trip," Laidlaw said. "We knew if it didn't work out, there would be no second chances."
Unsure of whether he'll return for a third attempt, Laidlaw assessed this spring's expedition with candor. "I kind of feel like I made it to the big poker match," he said, "and never got to play my last hand."