Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.
It was early in the afternoon of May 10th, 1996. I hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours. The only food I’d been able to force down over the preceding three days was a bowl of Ramen soup and a handful of peanut M&Ms. Weeks of violent coughing had left me with two separated ribs that made ordinary breathing an excruciating trial. Twenty-nine thousand twenty-eight feet up in the troposphere, there was so little oxygen reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child. Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.
I’d arrived on the summit a few minutes after Anatoli Boukreev—a Russian climbing guide working for an American commercial expedition—and just ahead of Andy Harris, a guide on the New Zealand-based team to which I belonged. Although I was only slightly acquainted with Boukreev, I’d come to know and like Harris well during the preceding six weeks. I snapped four quick p...