Choosing the right objective is always a huge part of climbing. The bigger the peak, the bigger those considerations. Just on a practical level, if you’re going to commit a lot of effort and a couple months towards something, you should be happy about the idea. I’m climbing what many people would call an unusual mountain this spring—there’s not a lot of attention for Everest’s slightly shorter neighbor, so I’d like to let you in on what gets me excited about Lhotse.
A crash course on the world’s highest mountains
There are fourteen 8000m (26,200ish ft) peaks in the world. Obviously, just as with Colorado’s 14ers, it’s an arbitrary cutoff. Here’s the way the elevation and difficulty breakdown of the normal (commercialized in some cases) 8000er routes looks to me:
big gap of nearly 1000 ft from Everest to K2
big gap of nearly 1000 ft
Cho Oyu through Shishapangma 8000ers #6-14 are between 8200m and 8000m and vary greatly in their difficulty, remoteness, and danger.
I’m pointing this out because these really is an enormous physiological difference between 8000 and 8500m. When you add in the architectural differences of these peaks, this becomes even more obvious. For example, on Everest, you need to camp at nearly 8000m on the south side and most people “camp” at 8300m, higher than the world’s 6th highest mountain, on the north side.
I’m interested in exploring a type of direct interaction with the mountains. Extremely high altitude certainly isn’t my only focus, far from it, but it is pretty wild up there. Just overcoming the apathy, staying calm, plugging away and just taking care of yourself (for potentially 7-8 weeks!) sounds like it could be up my alley. So this will be my first try.
Why Lhotse? Well, first off, I wouldn’t be on this trip without the Extreme Environments – Everyday Decisions research project and some huge supporters, so thanks! I’m still just a grad student, and this is the first time I’ve taken a couple months of unpaid leave to make something happen. I definitely wouldn’t be on a peak this expensive with such a quality operation without a tremendous amount of help. If you want to see some of the organizations that have helped made this possible, check out the Partners page.
So, in choosing a first 8000m peak, there are some patterns that you can see. A few 8000ers have been somewhat designated as good choices…Cho Oyu, the world’s 6th highest peak being a great example. Cho Oyu has become somewhat of a primer for Everest, and a lot of commercial clients are now getting guided up Cho in the fall before an Everest summit bid the next spring. Manaslu and Shishapangma have also seen a lot of commercial attention. All of these peaks are in that 8000-8200m bracket of elevation, and something like Cho Oyu is a very straightforward technical climb. As I’ve had a “good” time on some of my previous 7000m peaks and I’m going with a great deal of commercial support, I’m feeling confident enough to try a peak that’s a bit higher. This wouldn’t matter if I were using oxygen, but we’ll get to that. I also am really drawn to slightly steeper peaks for aesthetics and enjoyment of the movement. Even though I have fairly limited technical ability, I still want this to be more than a pure snow slog.
Ok, the world’s five highest peaks:
Everest…In a category of its own in a lot of ways. Without oxygen though, it’s a completely different beast, even compared to Lhotse. Honestly, climbing both Lhotse and Everest was on the table (at least in my head), but after talking with my expedition leader, Lhotse became the clear choice.
K2 and Kangchenjunga…Not in play for first 8000m peaks for me. We all make our own rules in climbing, but those weren’t even a consideration. This was just an honest personal assessment about my experience and willingness to take risk. I realized that I don’t even know enough to break down how I would climb those two, even though its probably possible. The more important question is if it’s right, and I know it’s not. Both are too big, too hard, too remote and have a bunch of objective dangers that I don’t know enough about at this point.
Lhotse…This was the obvious decision given that our project is to study commercial operations on Everest. This allows me to be in the same base camp, climb almost the entire normal route on Everest before deviating off to Lhotse on summit day. Also, given my limited resources, Everest would have been a huge financial commitment, and I just want to go climbing for two months.
Makalu…Ok, I really really would have liked to try Makalu. If I enjoy myself this spring and have a good team I’d stay open the idea. Compared with Lhotse though, it would definitely be more remote and more difficult, so I’m probably doing this in a more controlled way as it is.
I’m probably not going to do a bunch more commercial trips…certainly not big, pricey, full-service guided trips. If I do, I’ll probably take some degree of commercial logistical and base camp support like I did last summer in the Pamir, but choose to climb with peers. I think commercial mountaineering serves some great purposes for me though. I was told by a friend not to increase more than one variable at a time in climbing. I’m trying my best to stick to that, and the bottom line is that doing Lhotse with this degree of support in place makes it a much safer and more controlled experiment. I have a lot to learn, and it’ll be great to be mentored for a while.
Usually, I find that the more that my partners and I handle as teammates and peers, the more rewarding the experience. In this case, I guess I have enough respect for true modern alpinism that I’m dipping my toe in the waters before jumping in. When I do what I consider real alpinism, it’s usually on peaks that are much more firmly within what I see as my capabilities. I’ve only teased it in the big mountains. If it turns out I like it, hey, I’m young and the mountains will still be there.
So, I’m adding just one variable back in. Look, it’s 2013…there’s 3G cell service up there! I’m not forgoing amazing boots, refusing to get any route information, or plugging my ears when someone is reading off the latest custom weather forecast off the internet. And we will have oxygen available…I’ll be climbing with a sherpa on oxygen, who will have an extra for me in the event that I need it. I’m not saying going without, umm, air is a good idea, but we’re definitely making compromises.
Not using oxygen is an enormous difference though. Check out the graph above from Tom Hornbein, an American Everest legend. Even if these numbers aren’t exactly right, it should give us some idea. These days, it’s pretty common for people to sleep on 0.5L/min starting over 7000m and on summit day, 2L/min is a common flow rate. Some climbers will even pay for extra bottles and use 4L/min. If these curves are in the ballpark, it basically could turn the summit of Everest into a 7000m peak, perhaps lower. So for me, even though using oxygen certainly would not be easy or a guaranteed summit, I’d like the opportunity to try something I genuinely don’t know if I can do.
I’m not sure I have a very crystallized opinion of oxygen use in general, and it’d be pretty pointless for me to mouth off about it since I haven’t yet been on a peak high enough to warrant its use. With regards to my own personal use of supplementary oxygen, I feel that as long as the defining attribute of the route on Lhotse is that it’s very high, I should experience the mountain for what it is. That’s my feeling with all of my other climbs, from gazing up at Longs Peak as a child and wondering just how high it was and what it was like up there to now. I don’t want to sanitize the experience. I want direct interaction with the mountains, the naked vulnerable feeling of being out there more than I want to summit.
A devil’s advocate argument typically follows. Something along the lines of, “Well, you’re wearing down, isn’t that an artificial advantage? Why not go with the clothes Mallory wore? Why not climb the Kangshung Face of Everest naked?” Well, I guess because I’m not arguing anything. One of the things I like most about the mountains is the sense of true freedom, and that all possibilities are open. There are of course, certain limitations. We must not harm the environment and our wild places. We must be fair to local peoples. But those answers are beyond the scope of this discussion. Be a good person. Do what you want to do. This is me.