"Well, we did it."
"All five of us ... summited Mount Everest" despite unrelenting winds and crowds of climbers, said Jenkins, a National Geographic contributing writer, in a satellite-phone message to the magazine's offices. (Get the entire message on the magazine's blog Field Test: On Everest.)
And in a surprise twist, a sixth member of the team—group leader and The North Face athlete Conrad Anker—summited Saturday despite pulling out of the Friday bid due to exhaustion.
Using supplemental oxygen—a near necessity in such thin air—the five climbers reached the top of the mountain via the relatively well-traveled Southeast Ridge route at approximately 8 a.m., local time, Friday.
"It was awesome," team member O'Neill said afterward. "There is a 360-degree view of the Himalaya, and you could see over into Tibet, all of Nepal and the mountains. It was amazing just being able to stand up there, and experiencing that made the whole thing worth it."
The summit attempt was only the most visible part of a wider expedition designed to answer scientific questions about Everest geology and human health.
At the summit, the team collected rock samples for a Montana State University project that aims, in part, to better understand the mineral composition of Everest and to get new measurements for the height of the mountain. The team also participated in Mayo Clinic research into the connection between high-altitude acclimatization and heart failure. (Both institutions are official expedition partners.)
As part of the expedition, MSU created an accompanying online science curriculum focused on topics such as geology, glaciology, and climate change.
Group leader Anker, who was climbing without an oxygen tank, pulled out of the Friday summit attempt after spending days helping Sherpa guides fix climbing ropes.
"I did a 5,000-foot [1,520-meter] day yesterday, and it was just too much," an exhausted Anker said in a phone message Thursday from Camp 4, the final stop before the top. "I tapped all my reserves."
Max Lowe, a National Geographic Society young explorer assisting at Everest Base Camp, said of Anker that, "If he had been able to move at his own pace and not wait behind the large lines of people, he would have been more apt to continue." (National Geographic News is a division of the Society.)
"Being at high altitude for prolonged periods of time is just too dangerous, and he recognized that," Lowe said in an email.
After the five climbers safely returned to Camp 4, Anker surprised everyone by deciding that he felt recovered enough to make a push for the summit himself.
Climbing without oxygen, Anker successfully summited on Saturday with a small group of climbers from the Washington State-based travel service International Mountain Guides, reaching Everest's peak at 10:10 a.m., local time.
The trek marks Anker's first Everest summit via the Southeast Ridge route.
As of Saturday afternoon, eastern time, all six team members were making their way down the rest of the mountain.
The team still needs to cross the Khumbu Icefall (picture), considered perhaps the most treacherous part of the climb, due largely to its avalanche potential and unstable ice towers. In April a Sherpa died after plunging 150 feet (46 meters) into a Khumbu ice crevasse.
The South Col Six, as the National Geographic/The North Face team had dubbed itself, was part of a throng of about 150 climbers expected to scale the mountain Friday and Saturday—the last summiting opportunity of the spring Everest climbing season. At the end of May, Sherpas begin removing ladders and ropes along key routes.
So far it's been a "sad, bad year" on Everest, said Jenkins, referring in part to perceived overcrowding, poor weather conditions, and recent fatalities.
Some tour companies, deciding the danger was too great, pulled their teams off Everest entirely, despite the risk of angering clients who'd paid up to U.S. $65,000 for a chance to summit.
Then, last weekend, four people died during a "traffic jam" caused by climbers trying to take advantage of a rare window of favorable weather. (See "In Wake of Everest Deaths, Another 'Traffic Jam' Possible.")
"Normally the summit bids might get spread out over a number of days," said Eric Simonson, Himalaya-program director at International Mountain Guides.
"But what happened this year is the weather was bad"—too little snow, for example, left too much slippery ice exposed—"so teams that might have normally climbed earlier didn't go."
"The Mountain Dictates the Terms"
In the wake of last weekend's Everest deaths, those who know Anker said they trusted him to make the right choice and to always put safety first.
"I just feel sure that if things are risky or sketchy, they're going to turn around," Sadie Quarrier, a National Geographic senior photo editor who'd spent time with Anker and his team at Base Camp earlier this month, said before the team's summit attempt.
Anker's caution was on display just a few weeks earlier, when he made the tough decision to cancel his own attempt to summit via Everest's rarely used West Ridge. He scrapped the plan after his partner, National Geographic photographer Cory Richards, had fallen ill and Anker had deemed conditions on the West Ridge too dangerous.
"Conrad always puts safety first and, just as important, he has enough experience to know when situations cross the line," National Geographic magazine senior editor Peter Miller said from his Washington, D.C., office.
"This is something veteran alpinists like Conrad live by: The mountain dictates the terms, and you need to listen carefully."
After rejoining the main team, Anker made another difficult call last weekend: to skip the first summiting window.
"Everyone in camp was struggling with letting this first weather window pass us by, but in the end I think it's the best decision we could have made," O'Neill wrote at the time on The North Face team blog.
Climbing veteran Ed Viesturs, speaking from Idaho, said the patience Anker demonstrated by waiting is a valuable and hard-earned skill on Everest.
"If it's your first trip, you feel like it's your only chance. You don't have the patience and the understanding," Viesturs said.
"But if you've been to the top five, six, ten times, you're willing to say, You know what, I need great conditions for me to go to the top ... [Anker] understands it's not all about getting to the top. It's about getting home as well."
The National Geographic/The North Face team's successful summit bid Friday began inauspiciously.
In addition to the unusually bad weather, the group had been plagued with various health problems in recent weeks. One member, Phil Henderson, had to drop out after getting sick at Camp 2; O'Neill sprained her ankle; Erickson got a sinus infection; and Anker got food poisoning.
"Not pretty," O'Neill blogged about the food poisoning. "I'll spare everyone the details on that."
But by Monday, May 20, most of the team had recovered enough to begin the climb from Base Camp to Camp 2, which is 21,000 feet (6,400 meters) above sea level.
By Wednesday the summit team had safely reached Camp 3, at 23,500 feet (7,163 meters). There they spent an uneasy night amid unpredictable towers of ice called seracs.
"We are just below a series of looming, ten-story-high seracs, which every afternoon get warm and begin to shift," Jenkins said by phone at the time. "Thank God we are only here for one night."
The next day the team began the long trudge to Camp 4, located at 26,000 feet (7,925 meters). Italian climber Simone Moro, who'd been accompanying the team without supplemental oxygen, turned back at this point.
"I was just too scared having to wait behind that many slow people without oxygen to continue," Moro explained in an iPad-only National Geographic blog post.
"If you climb without oxygen and you are stuck in that kind of line, you will get frostbite, at the least. Or as happened on the 19th, you are stuck there and you die."
"Today Is the Day"
At roughly 9:30 p.m. local time on Thursday, the team—now reduced to five members—began the final 3,000-foot (925-meter) push from Camp 4 to the summit, a trip that typically takes between 8 and 12 hours.
"Today is the day we have been waiting for, preparing for, speaking of, and believing in," team member Jenkins said in a voice message before setting out.
"Looking up the black mountain, we could see at least a hundred pinpricks of light, all in a vertical line going straight into the stars," Jenkins recalled later. "These were the headlamps of all the climbers who had started before us."
O'Neill was first to reach the peak, at around 8:15 a.m. Friday. The rest of the team followed shortly after.
"It was very cold and windy but rather beautiful at the same time," Erickson recalled afterward in a voice mail to The North Face colleagues.
The group lingered on the summit for about an hour to take photos—including a self-portrait by Harrington posted to Instagram from Camp 4—and to collect samples and data to meet their scientific goals.
By 4 p.m. the team was safely back at Camp 4, where they split up: Erickson and O'Neill stayed behind to prep for a late-night climb of neighboring Lhotse peak; Harrington and Jenkins set out for Base Camp; and Anker and Elias remained at Camp 4, where Anker decided he would attempt to summit after all.
"We are so grateful our team is back in one piece," National Geographic's Quarrier said from her office in Washington, D.C.
"That's the best news we could ask for. We're hoping the same for all the climbers on the mountain. I wish I was there in Base Camp to give them all a huge welcome-home party."
Reflecting on the achievement, an elated Jenkins admitted that "climbing Mount Everest makes absolutely no sense at all.
"Why do we do it? Well, we all need some deep sleep before we can answer that. Assuming we even can."