A picture’s worth: Kim Hess climbed Mount Everest and came back with more than her photo
June 21, 2016
Steamboat Springs — It can be surprisingly difficult to take a picture at the summit of Mount Everest, and it's surprisingly important to do so.
Steamboat Springs mountain climber Kim Hess said she could feel her strength growing as she powered up Mount Everest last month, two years worth of training, saving and setbacks flowing through her as she pushed up. She breezed through the Khumbu Icefall at 19,000 feet, up to Camp 2, at 21,000, then surged beyond into terrain she didn't see on her last trip to the mountain, which stalled out at Camp 2 when a massive earthquake shook the region and killed thousands.
Hess had worried about that part of the climb, and not for the lingering, sentimental reasons. It had been inspiring the first time she pushed into the new terrain, during an acclimatizing trip earlier in the season, but what she remembered afterward was the difficulty of the stretch up to Camp 3, at 24,000 feet.
Climbers take on the Lhotse face, a double-black diamond steep pitch often covered with a thick layer of blue ice. The ascent is dangerous, thus tedious and certainly strenuous.
Headed for the summit, however, Hess said she felt empowered, not exhausted. Two days later, as the sun crept around the edge of the Earth, she took the final steps to the top, one of the day's first summiters.
She reached into her jacket, beneath all the layers, and grabbed her iPhone, kept there so it would remain warm enough to operate.
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She powered it on and she took exactly one photo before it died.
Back to the mountain
Everest marks the fifth peak Hess has climbed in her quest to tick off the Seven Summits, the tallest peak on each continent.
The tallest on that list, Mount Everest, has tried her patience unlike anything else.
It wasn't only the yearlong wait, though that was as mind-numbing as ever. Climbing the mountain proved a two-year endeavor, since last year's trek ended halfway up when all expeditions were called off following the devastating earthquake, which shook the region and killed nearly two dozen on the mountain.
Hess never wavered in her commitment to return, and in March, she found herself again in the Himalaya, hiking from the small airport in Lukla, Nepal, through villages — not as devastated, a year later, as she'd feared — and toward Everest Base Camp.
She packed more this go-around, a few extra jackets and seven boxes of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies, but struggled, in a sense, with the familiarity.
"It was actually a huge mental challenge, going back," Hess said. "I knew physically I was capable of doing it, but the mental side of going back and having to do the trip again was going to be the hardest part for me, so the excitement wasn't so much there like it was the previous year.”
This trip did have a difference. Last year was snowier in the region, and the change transformed familiar spots into foreign territory.
More significant than that, however, her brother, Steven Hess, made the trip this time. He was by her side for the first four of the Seven Summits, but wasn't able to make Everest in 2015. This time, he was in.
For Hess, heading up from Camp 2 was the biggest step of the trip, marking her first progress up the mountain since the earthquake. It also proved one of the most difficult steps.
Her first trip to Camp 3 came on the final acclimatization trip up the mountain, and Hess's team, guided by Washington's International Mountain Guides, made the trip without oxygen.
They climbed up the steep, icy Lhotse Face toward Camp 3, carved out of that slope with tents set up on terraced platforms.
"Every step is tough," she said. "It's a very steep, exposed slope that you have to get through to get to Camp 3. You make a mistake on the Lhotse Face, and that's it."
Making it worse, she had bronchitis on her first assent, and that, with the lack of oxygen, messed with her mind.
"Your mind plays tricks on you," she said. "Your body is just struggling even laying there. You're panting. Every time you sit up to drink water or eat, it's like you sprinted down the street."
She survived the night, however, and the climb back down, and with that, a waiting game started.
Hundreds of climbers sat in the base camp waiting for the weather to clear so their teams could start up the mountain.
"I felt like a caged animal," she said.
The opportunity to climb finally came 10 days later.
Hess said her initial emotions were of anxiety and almost fear, but soon, she was cruising with her guide, Mingma Sherpa, headed up Everest. They made it through Camp 3, then on to Camp 4 — an alien outlook Hess described as a "ghost camp" — at 26,000 feet.
Their summit push started at 9 p.m., about 9 hours after they'd arrived at Camp 4.
Eight hours later, after hustling past long lines of climbers and leaving even her brother behind, Hess took the final steps to the summit of Mount Everest.
"Cold, it's cold," she said, "but it's breathtaking, for more reasons than the fact there's no air up there. It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen."
Moments later, she tried to take a photo.
Pictures from the summit of Mount Everest are important for a handful of reasons.
First, they're actual proof a climber has been there, and actual proof is required to receive an official certificate from the Nepal Ministry of Tourism stating someone has reached the summit.
That "proof" is important to more than the record keepers, too.
Hess was on the summit as the sun rose, spending about 45 minutes there. She then spent the entire day climbing down, past the long line of climbers on their way up and past her brother, who summited about 7:30 a.m. She went through Camp 4 and even Camp 3, but grew increasingly confused as she followed Mingma.
The plan was for everyone to get as far down as possible by the end of the day, but her exhausted, oxygen-deprived mind couldn't make sense of that. She was convinced Mingma had forced her to ditch her brother and the rest of her team, and she even got angry as they descended, thinking she was being tricked and afraid no one knew where they were.
Simply put, she wasn't thinking clearly, and looking back, she said, the day was a bit of a blur.
"It's just a photo, and it sounds silly to say I stood around to take a photo," Hess said, "but I wanted to remember it. Your mind is so altered, you'll inevitably forget what it was like. I already forget what I felt like up there, but all I have to do is look at a picture, look at my own face and remember how excited and amazing it was to be there."
Upon reaching the summit, she pulled out her iPhone and got just one shot.
It was just one, but it was an awesome one, a photo of the shadow of Everest, cast across the terrain far below and against the horizon, a perfect triangle created by the world's tallest mountain and the rising sun.
Then, her phone, fully charged seconds before, died, frozen in the -40 degree temperatures.
She pulled out a GoPro she'd brought, and it, too, died immediately. A third, larger camera she had flashed "low battery" as soon as she turned it on.
She and several others tried whatever they could, shoving batteries deep inside their layers and against their bodies in attempts to warm them enough for a few photos.
Finally, as the sun rose and warmed the peak, the efforts began to pay off.
Still, the rushed shots and selfies yielded mixed results, including lots of shots of the sky or feet. Hess tried a photo with a logo from Manic Training, where she worked out ahead of the climb, but came away with a photo of herself from neck down.
She ended up with several acceptable choices. One is of her, arms wide, celebrating her achievement.
In the other, she’s holding a Broncos flag, a shot that went viral in the state after the Denver Broncos themselves shared it on social media.
It was a long way to go for a few photos, but for Hess, they said everything.
"It was the trip of a lifetime," she said. "At times, all I wanted to do was go home, and there are parts that are so challenging, mentally and physically, but for the rest of my life, I'll know it's one of the greatest adventures I'll ever take. I feel privileged to be among the very small group of people who know what standing on top of the world is actually like."