I’m back in Kathmandu and have had a tiny bit of time to reflect on what happened the last few days. Here’s a bit more on the summit attempt and my last week breathing warm, oxygen-rich air:
The Summit Bid
We left base camp for the summit around 3AM on the 18th. This was the first of a series of alpine starts. They’re designed to get us up through dangerous sections early and to keep us moving before the heat strikes. We went all the way up to camp two that morning. The icefall itself was much different than it had been early in the season, and much more convoluted. It’s clear how much the icefall changes as the spring progresses and temperatures warm up.
With my lighter summit pack, fully rested legs and complete acclimatization, I was faster than ever. Subtracting out time for mandatory breaks waiting to regoup, I could have made it to camp two in under four hours. In the dicey parts of the icefall, I literally ran from anchor to anchor and darted across the ladders.
We spent the rest of the day and all of the next day resting and hydrating at camp two. During this time, our thoughts were dominated not only by our own summit preparations, but on a Taiwanese climber high on Lhotse in desperate condition. The helicopter flew by many times in record-breaking high altitude attempts to pluck the man off, but without success. I was quite upset by the circumstances and tragic lack of organization that led to his death.
We set out early on the 21st for camp three. It was such a warm night. I was glad I had cached my down outerwear items up there and didn’t have to suffer in the excessive warmth of a down suit until later. I took a steady and pleasant pace to the bottom of the fixed lines, then motored up to camp three in just an hour. My pace exceeded that of our Sherpas, so that when I arrived, I immediately got to work on our camp, helping Lhakpa and Nima pitch a tent and get started brewing up some drinks for our team. Camp three was much more hospitable than last time. First, we were acclimatized. Second, we had only two to a tent as opposed to the claustrophobic nightmare I experienced earlier, with three climbers and all of our equipment crammed inside. During the afternoon, the rest of the team went on oxygen, while I hung out, read and wrote.
The day up to camp four is where things get interesting. I was awoken by Pemba Rita who had brewed up some black coffee at 2AM. The rest of the team, heading all the way to the South Col, Everest’s final camp, were going to get an earlier start, while I would wait to climb with Nurbu who was climbing directly from camp two. My morning preparation was botched as some miscommunications had me expecting Nurbu much earlier than he arrived. So I wound up fully dressed and ready to go, but just waiting in my tent without a sleeping bag. After a while I got cold, unfurled my bag and crawled in to rest. Being out for that long without moving had made my feet cold, so I cranked on my electric boot heaters to low. This worked like a charm, and when our Sherpas from camp two arrived, I again went into action. I quickly repacked, put my boots, harness and crampons on, and got ready to climb. After some warm greetings and brief conversation with the Sherpas, I clipped in and moved up the lines. Like the day before, I sprung upwards, quickly passing some sherpas and climbers, even those on oxygen. But I wasn’t able to climb fast enough to warm my frozen toes–in the sleeping bag, I’d imperceptibly sweat into my socks and now it were as if I had a set of thin wool icicles wrapped around my feet. After half an hour, I reached upper camp three and dove into an empty tent, ripping off my socks and swapping them out for a fresh pair. I rubbed my wooden feet until they stung again and set off with the heaters activated. The cold toes plagued me no more as I steadily ascended towards our team on the lines. Despite their oxygen use and 1.5-hour head start, I was soon within earshot of our team.
Above camp three, the lines ascend straight up the icy Lhotse Face for a few hundred meters, then traverse left towards a rib of marine rock called the Yellow Band. It was here that I began to feel dehydrated and anticipate an energy “bonk.” I begged Nurbu for a break, but he was intent on going to a safer location above the Yellow Band. Climbing through the Yellow Band was quite fun and interesting. It’s fairly steep, and the scratch marks of thousands of crampons show that you’re on a truly historic part of the route. Finally, as we exited the Yellow Band, I threw down my pack, clipped it to the lines, and had a rest. By this point, I could see the tents of Lhotse camp four and I knew that we had only an hour more of hard work at a slow pace. I ate some fruit chews, pounded some water and Nurbu graciously gave me some tea. After a few minutes we continued, my strength renewed. Shortly thereafter, we reached the junction in the fixed lines, picked up an oxygen bottle that had been cached there for us and ascended to camp.
As I approached camp, the first tent I encountered on the right was clearly the site of tragedy. Empty bottles and trash were scattered around a tattered tent. I sat, looked out hundreds of miles into Tibet and sipped some water as I contemplated the demise of the Taiwanese climber just a few days before. Looking back on it, I think that the fate of this climber may have affected my (perhaps overly) conservative decision to descend.
Unfortunately, it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to use an existing tent platform. That right there made my heart sink. If you’ve done any winter mountaineering or snow camping, you know that chopping a tent platform is can be the hardest part of the day. In this case, unlike Everest clients who arrive to a pitched tent and a Sherpa who’s been making tea all day, Nurbu and I arrived to a duffel bag, strapped to a rope at the top of a 5000 ft ice face. This is one of those things that made me want to try Lhotse–it’s definitely still a bit more off the map than its bigger neighbor, but in that moment, oh what I would have paid to crawl into a sleeping bag and grab something to drink!
It took us a bit more than five hours to climb from camp three to four, and it was another five hours of chopping, pitching a tent in the wind, and stove setup before we were in our tent and sipping juice. Just some highlights from that process–the chopping/shoveling…it wasn’t so much snow as it was ice and frozen urine and feces. Second, around noon, I started hearing chatter on our radios about how bad the weather was going to be. It sounded downright scary–over forty knot winds and peaking in the early morning, just when we would be highest on the mountain. And the winds did start to pick up that afternoon. When we were ready for the tent, we reached for our duffels which contained oxygen, fuel, stoves, tents and food. They ended up being padlocked, and Nurbu didn’t have a key. Nothing an ice axe couldn’t fix! Pitching the tent was harder than normal, as we discovered mismatched and broken poles for our tent, so it took more effort to figure out what was going on and how to fix it (all this at nearly 26,000 ft). By the time we were able to get into the tent, spindrift was slapping us pretty hard. Nurbu, who had carried a monster of a pack all the way from camp two without oxygen and chopped like a champion for a few hours, was absolutely exhausted. When he came in the tent, he just laid there. I felt like a bit of a jerk, but I kept applying a bit of pressure so that we could stay on top of our tasks…I knew that if we just went to sleep without making water that we would run a huge risk of developing a serious illness. After a couple hours of eating and drinking, Nurbu finally asked if he could go to bed. He put on his oxygen mask and conked out. During this time, I was in and out of radio conversations with the Everest team on the South Col and our team in base camp. It was appearing more and more likely that we needed to shift our focus from summiting to getting through the night safely, and in my opinion, escaping when we had the chance. I find that many people take too much comfort in these high campsites. They’re not really places to stay, even if you’re looking around and you have plenty of food, fuel and oxygen bottles. I’ve always had more of a speed is safety ethic, and if the mountain would give me a chance to get down, I was planning on taking it.
That night, the weather worsened. Around 9:30PM, I had another radio conversation with my expedition leader–they would not be climbing the next day and would be waiting a day on the South Col for better weather. We decided it’d be best if I slept on oxygen in case the weather worsened. That way, I’d be stronger and thinking clearer in the event I needed to get out in a hurry. Nonetheless, we agreed that I’d wake up, observe the weather and check in on the radio a few times throughout the night. At this point, I was all but certain I would descend in the morning. I had planned on climbing without oxygen, so going on Os to sleep seemed like a prelude to my departure. Oxygen was super annoying–learning to relax with a mask on is definitely an acquired skill, and having your own condensation drip down on your face isn’t the most pleasant sensation. Even on 0.5-1 liter/min, it’s still hard to breathe up there, so short coughing fits left me in a claustrophobic panic, ripping off the mask to gasp even thinner air.
At midnight, I woke up to uneasily calm weather and the muffled sounds of climbers getting ready in tents nearby. Despite the fact that other climbers were getting ready to go, I knew that the forecast was predicting particularly unstable weather just before dawn and I was worried about getting lured up the mountain…a trap if you will. After violently shaking Nurbu awake, we groggily discussed our options and went with sleep. Around 1:30, I awoke to cold feet, and took an hour to boil water (the hot water bottle in the bottom of my sleeping bag had become a cold water bottle!).
At 3:30, we repeated this process, this time, a couple more climbers were getting ready to set off. I again roused Nurbu, but he thought it was too late to go for the summit, and my gut was still to go down. At 4:45, I got up for good. Nurbu, who only needed to go to camp two was trying to convince me to wait and go down slowly, but I was intent on going all the way to base camp. I looked out of the tent and saw the glow as the day began to dawn. The outlines of peaks and the vastness of the Tibetan plateau were all before me. From these altitudes, it’s as if you’re viewing the Earth through a fisheye lens. The curvature of the Earth is apparent. I scrambled to get packed and dressed, but everything took longer than expected. By 6:15, I was descending rapidly without oxygen, zipping down the empty fixed lines towards the Yellow Band. I looked back to see the summit pyramid of Everest blasted by violent winds. It was then that I really felt good about my decision to go down. Sure it was calm down in camp, but the upper reaches of Lhotse would have faced the full force of the jetstream. Even in these ideal summit periods in late May, the jetstream waves around like a whip, and it had made a rapid move southward to hit the Himalaya–too fast to be picked up by even our high tech forecasts. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that even in this modern era, we can’t really turn climbing mountains this big into a formula.
I raced down towards camp three, stopping several times to meet with friends on their own summit bids. I made it down to our camp three in 45 minutes, stopping to pack up, change some clothes, eat and drink. I waited for Nurbu for a while before continuing my descent. I knew that I was racing the clock and needed to get through the Icefall before the temperature rose too much. In camp two I did a complete change out of my high altitude clothes into my “bake in the western cwm” clothes, and packed up all of my things into a monster sized load. I made quick work of an ice cold Coke that I’d left in my tent as a summit reward.
I started down with a group of Sherpas from a neighboring team. At this point, most westerners were off the mountain, leaving Sherpa groups to break down their high camps and return to base camp carrying absolutely absurd loads. This meant that I moved faster than most groups, but with some of their packs weighing in at over 130 lbs, I had a hard time maneuvering around several of these teams. As I entered the top of the icefall, things were warm, particularly unstable and the traffic became bad. I desperately tried to get around a weak Japanese climber and a group of Sherpas before taking some extreme shortcuts (staying clipped in whenever possible) and running whenever I had the chance. Fresh avalanche debris was evidence that this upper “gauntlet” was particularly bad, and whenever I had the chance I would race, taking breaks only when I encountered traffic. It took me only 10-15 minutes to get through what I consider the worst of the icefall, but there were still sections of overhanging ladders (as loose and rickety as ever), crevasse crossings (with awful, melted out “anchors”) and short stretches with ice blocks teetering overhead. After I made it down to the “Football Field” I radioed base camp that I was safe and dispatched Jacob to meet me at the base of the ropes. Half an hour later, I was greeted with a hug, a waffle and a Coke. Soon, I was back in warm and sunny base camp, stretching out and eating a hearty lunch.
Departure and Kathmandu
The last week has been a bit of a whirlwind. The day after I descended from Lhotse, our team went on successfully to climb Everest. They were pinned down for a day on the South Col weathering high winds before being granted a summit chance during the final weather window of the season. That day, our base camp researcher Susannah came down with a sickness and I spent the day taking care of her and arranging a helicopter for the next day.
The next morning, we made our way to the helipad and were met by Maurizio Folini, perhaps the world’s top mountain heli pilot. Maurizio, along with elite climber/pilot Simone Moro, have been performing daring and record-breaking rescues all season. So when we hopped into Simone’s stripped down (no seats even to save weight) Eurocopter B3+, I knew we were going to have a special ride. What I didn’t realize was just how incredible Maurizio is. In the same way that a virtuoso musician has complete command of his instrument, the heli became an extension of Maurizio’s body. After hovering sideways for a second, he turned and dove, the machine buzzing the tops of base camp tents, and playboating over crevasses down to Pheriche. There, giggling and looking over his shoulder as he swooped into town, Maurizio dropped us off as he fetched another load of passengers and duffels. Within another 15 minutes we were all the way in Lukla.
The monsoon was approaching, and flights to Kathmandu were completely booked. Faced at the prospect of being stranded in Lukla for up to a week, Susannah and I desperately asked around, and jumped at the chance when two seats on a charter flight opened up. Lukla is home to one of the most infamous airstrips in the world, and the number of planes in Nepal that can make the trip are dwindling. They’re down to just a handful at the moment. An hour later, we were in a luxury hotel in Kathmandu–eating a comical variety of delicious dishes (and desserts!) at the lunch buffet.
In our room, I stepped on the scale, revealing that I’d lost 25 lbs in my ordeal. Fortunately, things are going well here in Kathmandu. I’ve had a lot of research work to do, but I’ve been eating well and it’s amazing what instantly doubling the amount of oxygen you breathe can do for all of those little aches and pains. Cuts heal like magic down here.
The monsoon has hit in full force and it’s been pouring rain every day. Today, I set off into “tube-world”–the several days of flights and layovers back to the US. No Thailand beach–my schedule just wouldn’t fit it–but I can’t wait to get back to California, land of fresh guacamole!