5/5/11 - I’m as acclimatized as I can be to climb the highest mountain on earth! Unfortunately the Everest claimed its first victim while we were high on the mountain. I’m not sure what’s been released to the press so I’ll be vague. A man had some breathing issues and had a heart attack, dying immediately. We watched the helicopter recovery mission from the base of Lohtse Face. There were also several others evacuated down the mountain with oxygen and one client broke his wrists on the bergschrund. I’ve also heard rumors of one or two more, but nothing is confirmed. My thoughts and prayers go out to the victim’s families.
Higher on the mountain we have zero cell or 3G coverage so when the above accidents occurred I borrowed someone’s satellite phone to give JoAnna a quick call. I would hate for her to hear of this on the news and worry that it could be me.
One thing I have observed when climbing higher on the mountain is the lack of safety of some climbers. When climbing a life threatening ice wall at 23,000’ like Lohtse Face you don’t take chances. You should be connected to the fixed lines at all times, no exceptions! My personal configuration is an ascender (jumar device) and a safety line, consisting of a cord connected to my harness and a locking carabiner connected to the fixed line. When transitioning between pickets or ice screws I only disconnect one device at a time so that if I slip I won’t fall further than my other device. I’m not sure if its arrogance or laziness, but it’s just not worth it to put yourself at risk. On Lhotse Face, if you slip you aren’t stopping for thousands of feet. If it's ego, then check it before the climb, there’s no shame in surviving!
Let’s back up. On the 30th we headed up through the Khumbu Ice Fall to Camp I where we slept for the night. Early the next morning I set out for Camp II a little earlier than the others since my toes were getting cold standing around. I made it there in 2 hours and felt great! Lakpa Sherpa saw me come in and said, “You’re super strong, very fast. You’re a Sherpa with no client.” That’s about the best compliment you can get coming from the best and strongest climbers in the world. We spent 2 nights in Camp II (21,000’) and climbed to the base of Lhotse Face (22,000’) on the second day. One thing I should note is that our Camp II cook, Dawa, is awesome! Every meal is great and he never stops smiling.
The weather fluctuates from cold to colder to coldest. We get brief spurts of warmth that are insanely hot but by the time you strip down a layer its back to freezing. Dennis and I wore our full down suits at Camp II and then on the climb to Camp III (below). However once the sun hit the ice we overheated and dropped it down halfway, tying the arms around our waist. Overheating is NOT a good thing when climbing as it’ll drain your energy very quickly.
The following day we packed up and prepared our climb to Camp III (23,000’). We made the base of Lhotse Face pretty quickly. After a couple minutes of rest I connected to the fixed lines and headed up the ice wall. I was moving very efficiently and passed about everyone in my path. Note that passing people on a straight up ice wall at that altitude is a lot harder said than done. Many climbers get upset that they are being overtaken and will try not to let you pass. But when they are keeled over gasping for air I just moved to the side of them and clipped my 2 safety climbing devices around them. And before they know it I’m a 100 feet above them.
Now I’m not going to sugar coat this climb as easy by any means. It’s too easy to reflect on a climb after the fact with short-term memory and forget how extremely difficult it was. This was one of the hardest days of climbing I’ve had; the other one the comes to mind is moving to high camp on Mt. McKinley with 70 lbs. in my pack and 60 mph winds back in 2009. I may have been moving efficiently but I was also feeling the effects of the altitude. Plus my pack was way too heavy, but I was transporting supplies up higher. It should be a lot lighter for future climbs. The last 100 yards was very painful. As I moved into 23,000’ I could see the tent anchored to the side of the wall. At that point I was taking 5 second pauses between steps and using more of my upper body to jumar myself toward my goal. At this altitude each muscle in your body feels like it has 100 lbs. of pressure on it and you’re almost paralyzed as you force each step higher. I had also fueled out and was in desperate need of food. My metabolism is crazy where I burn through food like crazy. But it was too dangerous to find a spot to eat so I just powered through it.
Dennis and I finally made it to the tent in about 3 hours. We fell into our sleeping bags and worked on removing our boots and harnesses. At that altitude every minor task takes a tremendous amount of energy. Our plan was to eat and then sleep on oxygen. I was cooking dinner in our vestibule when our Pasang came in and said one of the regulators was broken. Since I felt the best, altitude-wise, I volunteered to go without oxygen for the night. I cooked our dinner of chicken soup and spicy noodle soup, plus a Bounty Bar (so good) and then our Pasang came in with a borrowed regulator and configured my mask. So it all worked out.
Oxygen is good! It’s awkward to sleep with something attached to your face. It reminded me of the movie Alien, when the people wake up with the aliens attached to their mouths. But the effects of oxygen are amazing as it warms you up, drops you down a 1,000+ feet and gives you energy. As I slept everything around me was frozen, covered in frost….except me. My face mask created condensation so I had water dropping on my face every other minute throughout the night, which was certainly exciting.
As I mentioned above, our tents were securely anchored to the side of the Lhotse Face wall. This and the South Col are very dangerous areas to camp. Our tents are positioned on a small cutout shelf and maneuvering around them must be done with great caution. Many climbers have been lost when going out to use the bathroom without crampons or some form of safety rope to catch their fall. If you slip you’re going for a 1000’+ ride.
Dennis and I woke about 5 am and started preparing for our descent. I had my Flip video mounted to my helmet to get some crazy descent footage but it froze immediately and still won’t function hours after thawing out. We rappelled (Aussie style (face first) and normal (backward)) down Lhotse Face in 30 minutes and then arrived at Camp II shortly after for breakfast. I then set out on my own all the way down to basecamp. I’m here now enjoying the thick 17,500’ air, which is helping complete my acclimatization process. The reason we stop our acclimatization rotation at Camp III (23,000’) is because the next option is the South Col (26,000’) otherwise known as the ‘death zone’. The body cannot acclimate to that altitude; it just withers away and dies. To give you a perspective of how our bodies are adjusted to the altitude: if, during our plane ride home, the cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling…..we won’t need to put them on.
Since our acclimatization process is complete, we will now rest at basecamp and wait for a weather window for a summit attempt. Some groups are trying to summit on the 7th, but we’ve had so much snow lately that the fixed lines above the South Col aren’t in place. The risk is the Sherpa may be hurried to set the lines and then have to change them later. On this mountain patience is necessary for a safe and successful climb.