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May 7: Camp III (24,000 feet)
"The sheer pain of the altitude is enough to make you double over. It is nearly impossible to eat or sleep. The body starts to deteriorate above 19,000 feet." —Group e-mail

"You hear the avalanches—three or four a day. It's kind of a roar." —Lynn Prebble, 49, physical therapist at Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo

"I feel like my body is just eating itself." —Kimberly Clark, 35, nursing student at the University of Colorado in Denver

May 9: Back at base camp (17,600 feet), resting up for the final summit climb
"There's a little anxiety among the troops here. We were all very discouraged at Camp III because we felt as if we had already pushed ourselves beyond our limit. You think, God, can I go back up there again—and then go higher? But you know that you have to. Well, you don't have to, but you're going to. Because that's what we came here to do—abuse our bodies!" —Group e-mail

"I have Type I diabetes, and I'm having trouble with my insulin pens. They've acquired air bubbles and don't always give me the right amount. I anticipate problems as we go higher—getting accurate insulin doses, eating foods that don't spike my blood sugar (most of our snacks are very sugary), and injecting in the cold and dark." —Midge

"Other than getting a job in an igloo factory, this is about the worst thing I could do for my Raynaud's [a condition where your fingers and toes can go numb at the slightest chill]. The pain I can deal with, but the inability to move my fingers is a problem because I can't grip an ax, or clip in and out of the fixed lines. Once we get up high, if I can't feel my hands, the trip's over for me. This mound of ice is not worth losing my fingers for. Not even one. A fingernail maybe...but not a finger." —Alison Levine, 35, investment advisor for Goldman Sachs in San Francisco

"It's harder than I expected. It's physically very taxing, and we're climbing at a level that none of us are...were...really quite prepared at first to tackle. So I'm having to dig deep, both physically and emotionally." —Midge

May 17: The summit bid
The team set out for the earth's icy apex. After three days of by now familiar terrain, they strapped on oxygen tanks at Camp III. Midge decided to turn back, feeling strong but worrying after an exercise-induced asthma attack that she'd be a liability to the team later on. The other four women embarked in the middle of the night on the last part of the trail, steeling themselves against the minus-40-degree darkness, inching higher and higher into the scratchy air.

"I'm cramping a little bit. Oh no, I got my period—five days early! Suddenly, I realize we're about to get to South Col. This is the Death Zone. You don't stay up here for long. There's something eerie about this camp. It's always windy, never calm. We arrive in the afternoon and only rest for seven hours before setting out again. That evening I get bad diarrhea. I ask the guides where the bathroom is. They say, 'No, not up here.' You kidding me? They say, 'Go to the side where the wind will blow it off the mountain.' So I have cramps and diarrhea the night of the summit bid. Thank God for zip-crotch down suits." —Jody

"After hiking through the dark, I'll never forget the sunrise. It's 6 A.M. and I'm like, Oh my God, we're going to summit! We three up at the front—Jody, Lynn, and myself—are all moving, slow but steady. I'm oblivious to what's going on with Alison, who has stopped behind us." —Kim

"I feel dizzy, my vision starts to get hazy, and my hands and feet go really, really cold. Dave [Hahn], the head guide, says, 'Keep going. In about 40 feet there's a flat area where you can take off your pack.' I am literally only able to take one more step. I sit down on the rocks. He's shoving candy under my mask, but I just spit it out. And then after a while I hear him say, 'No, no, no, this isn't possible!' All of a sudden I perk up and say, 'I feel great.' He says, 'Alison, that's because I just turned your oxygen back on.' [Someone else had accidentally switched it off.] I'm ready to go, but he doesn't think it's wise to continue because there are storm clouds." —Alison

"I am up ahead, right behind Ben [Marshall], another guide, and I hear Dave on the radio saying, 'If you think those girls can make it up and down before the clouds come in, then go for it.' Ben says, 'I think we'll start out.'" —Jody

"I'm not really feeling superstrong, but you have a sort of lassitude when you're up that high. So I'm like, 'Yeah, ready to go.'" —Kim

"I know the summit is a good two or three hours from where we are. And at that point, I have this gut feeling in my stomach that says I personally should not be doing this. I look down at those clouds and think, I have a 13-month-old son to go home to." —Jody

Next: Will they make it home again?

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