On May 10th, I ended my three days of rest and began another trip from Base Camp through the Khumbu Icefall. Rory, Lhakpa, Gopal and I arrived at Camp 2 after 4 ½ hours of travel. I carried 35 to 40 pounds of equipment and food for my one-day ascent two weeks from now. Each camp will be stocked with supplies for both the ascent and descent.
The following morning, Rory and I made our way up to the base of the Lhotse Face. The face from the base to the South Col is over 4,000 feet tall. There is 1,000 feet of gain from Camp 2 to the base of the face. From the base to Camp 3 is another 1,000 feet of gain. The entrance to the face is a bit treacherous. As we approached the bergschrund some people above yelled ’”ROCK!” Rory and I danced around like mice in a bucket as 6 rocks came hurling down at us. Blood surging with adrenaline we panted and scoured the face for more projectiles. Whew! We breathed hard, panting from the exertion of running back and forth at 22,000+ ft. We both immediately sought protection from above and put on our helmets.
Climbing out of the bergschrund, I sheepishly peered over the lip, half-expecting more rocks to be coming down. The coast was clear so I chose the right-hand fixed line as it was more protected from rockfall. Quickly we made our way up and past the debris funnel at the bottom of the route.
I arrived at Camp 3 and noticed that someone had moved our cache to another tent platform farther from the route. I set to work erecting our bombproof MSR Fury tent. As soon as I had the poles set up, Rory helped me put on the fly and stake out the perimeter of the tent. The wind began to pick up showering us with spindrift. Quickly, we emptied the contents of our packs and duffel bag into the interior. Soon we were out of the wind and snow, enjoying the dry quarters of our new home.
To our dismay the wind began to blow stronger and the snow began to fall steadily. The sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning ensured that we were not going to open the vestibule any time soon. We waited all night sleeplessly for an opportunity to light our stove. The chance never came as the wind blew snow underneath the tent fly and drifted in our boot hole, covering boots and pee bags.
We had carried and drank only two liters of water for the day. The water bottles and Ultra Spire bladders were long since emptied. The frost buildup on the inside of the tent spoke to how much water we were breathing off. Both of our mouths were dry as we felt the dehydration creeping on. By 3 a.m. the blowing snow and wind began to abate. It was our chance to fire up the stove.
I drew the shortest straw and began to clear the frost around the tent door opening with my hood. I dawned my sacrificial gloves for the wet and desire-less duty I knew lay ahead. Gingerly, I opened the snow covered interior door and was met with a shower of snow off of the interior roof. After clearing the spindrift buildup off of the door, I opened the exterior vestibule to create enough ventilation to light the stove without dying of CO2 poisoning.
By 5:30 a.m. I had brewed six liters of water. Rory and I had not eaten dinner or breakfast, but we had enough water to push up to the South Col. Camp 3 is nobody’s favorite place to stay, especially after a sleepless and nonsustaining night. The weather looked poor and the lenticular clouds over the summits of Everest and Lhotse did not look promising. However, we spent the next hour donning down suits and frozen boots to get ready for an ascent.
With water bottles and thermoses loaded with sport powder and pockets loaded with cameras and bars. Rory commented that today was not the day to climb to the South Col. Having spent three hours brewing up and over and hour getting dressed in our frost cover lair I was determined to “give it a go.” Sometimes despite appearances you have to take a closer look. The South Col was six to seven hours away with our loads. Many things could change in the meantime.
We were the first team to head up the fixed lines the morning of May 12th. I began the task of breaking trail and freeing the fixed lines buried under the snow. The job was laborious and the going was slow. This was my chance to test out all of my equipment for the future summit bid, so I took the opportunity at hand seriously. My electric boot warmers were working well and my feet were warm. The winds swept across the face blasting us with clouds of spindrift. I pulled my balaclava over my cheeks and nose to keep the frostbite at bay.
Up and up the fixed ropes I went, passing anchors every fifty meters. I passed familiar landmarks and shuffled up slowly. Feeling out the buried footsteps under the snow. After 1,500 vertical feet of breaking trail, I spotted a figure creeping up on me. The Sherpa in a yellow down suit soon caught up to me and took the lead. I was a bit relieved to see that he was wearing an oxygen mask and reading his oxygen gauge was running over a liter.
His pace slowed as he began to break trail, but he was strong and I struggled to keep pace as we climbed over the Yellow Band. I looked back and was pleased to see Rory still climbing on despite his earlier reservations. I caught up with the Sherpa and discovered that his team was going for the summit that night. He was going ahead to set up the tents and get the Camp 4 preparations in place.
Above the Yellow Band another Sherpa on oxygen caught up with me and passed me. He was heading to Lhotse to fix the final 800 feet to the summit the following day. I had now crossed above 25,000 feet and began the mental game of counting steps. It was good to gauge how many steps you can take before you are forced to stop and catch your breath. I could take about 28 steps at a time with a 25-pound pack, sometimes more and sometimes less depending on the pitch of the slope.
Just before the Geneva Spur the second Sherpa broke off to the right to go to the Lhotse Camp 4. We bid each other farewell and plodded up. The first Sherpa was now 500 feet ahead and began to tackle the steep rock and snow section of the Geneva Spur. The fixed lines were buried and he worked diligently to free the buried lines and pick his way through the snow-covered shale. The route goes almost vertical for a rope length to top out on the crest of the Spur. I was able to close the gap between us as The Sherpa in the Yellow suit clambered up the difficult fixed pitch. I too followed only able to go for ten steps before having to rest and gasp for the rarefied air. I topped out and took the perfect rest on a shale band seat. The view was amazing!
The cloud cap had lifted and I was basking in the sun in a 40 mph “breeze.” Ahead was a traverse across 1500 feet of broken shale layers. I arrived to the South Col 6 hours and 10 minutes after leaving Camp 3. The time was 12:40 p.m. May 12th was Mother’s Day back home so I put together my satellite phone and called my mom. The wind was blowing too strongly for a lengthy conversation, but I sent her my love from Nepal and told her that I was thinking of her at 26,000 feet.
By the time I had finished calling my mother and Mandy it was time to stash my cache and think about heading down. Rory was still not in sight so I rested and looked at the route going up the Triangle Face, the Balcony and the South Summit. I tried to imagine all of the pieces of the route from Base Camp, Camp 2, Camp 3 and the Lhotse Face up to the South Summit. I was tired from having put three-quarters of the route together in three days. Yet, there is a map of the route imprinted in my muscles and years of training that believes I can realize this dream. All of the pieces will come together at the right moment and on the right day!
I finally decided that Rory must have turned back, so I headed down the shale toward the Geneva Spur. Of course as soon as I turned the corner there was Rory headed towards me. I spun and walked the 600 feet back to the cache and Rory deposited his food and thermos as well. We took in the sights and then radioed to Base Camp that we were OK and were headed down to Camp 2.
Thousands of yards of fixed lines later we arrived to Camp 3. We were both very dehydrated. I had only taken one pee stop in the past 18 hours. We stuffed sleeping bags, down suits, tent and all matter of equipment. An hour later we shouldered our packs and began the next sequence of the descent. With additional care, due to our tired state we made our way down to the bergschrund at the base of the Lhotse Face. The sun had set behind the distant peaks and we strolled into Camp 2 at 6:30 p.m.
Lhakpa and Gopal greeted us with hot Strawberry Tang and we set about preparing our tent “home” anew. Dinner was a simple fare of fried rice and vegetables. This was the first real meal we had eaten in over 24 hours and I partook of it slowly. The empty stomach at 26,000 feet was nice as it allowed for more breathing room. Down below it means you just need to eat, and now.
Following a much-needed night’s sleep, I awoke and packed up the contents of the tent. Rory and I ate two eggs apiece and some more fried rice with cheese and vegetables. Full of good food the four of us made our way down to Camp 1. We passed many guided groups and some independent climbers heading up for the Summit push. I said hello to Melissa, Garret, Lhakpa, Brian, Ben and Justin. It is always better to have more friends on the mountain. Wishing them all good weather and a safe summit bid, Rory and I pushed on.
Traveling quickly across the 30+ ladders through the icefall and back to Base Camp is always paramount. This was the 64th time for me through the icefall in my three times to Everest and I am always alert to the ever-present hazards that lurk within and above. After negotiating the maze of broken and towering ice, Rory and I took off our packs in Base Camp. The snow began to fall and we took shelter in the dining tent and removed our climbing garb.We were back to the land of 17,000 feet, where showers, coffee, condiments and tennis shoes are the norm.
I got the weather forecast from Damian and it looks like the weather gods are smiling upon us. There seems to be good weather on May 14th, May 17th, and a huge window from May 20th through the 25th. This should allow the myriad guides, climbers and Sherpa staff to dissipate over many good weather days. I just hope that the weather forecast is accurate and that no major snow events arrive before the predicted monsoon at the end of the month.
I am writing this post on the 14th of May. The weather forecast is hard to predict definitively more than five days out in my opinion. That being said, Damian, Rory and the rest of the Benegas Brothers crew are looking at the 22nd for the summit bid. I will try to dovetail on the backside of their summit window and try for the 22nd to leave Base Camp with a summit day on the 23rd of May. The conundrum for me is that eight days in Base Camp is too long a time to be down low without losing some acclimatization. I think I will need to make a quick trip up to Camp 3 and back in the interim. The balance of rest days and acclimatization is the question. My friend Krissy always says that “rest is best” and I truly believe this in most instances. I think that a two-day rotation up to Camp 3 and back will strike the best solution with three days of rest before my summit push.
A shower every eight days or so allows me to inspect the atrophy that has taken place to my physique. At this time I have transformed into something that resembles a high altitude frog. I have kept my legs, but my upper body has shape shifted into only the absolutely necessary. Forearms, chest, back and triceps have been striped away. My best guess is that I weigh 152 pounds. My goal weight is 148 pounds by “go time.” One more rotation on the upper mountain should put me close to my optimal weight for minimal oxygen consumption at extreme altitudes.
In the past six-plus weeks I have climbed over 82,000 vertical feet. I believe that I have conditioned myself properly without overdoing it on any one day. We shall find out very soon if I have transformed into the physical and mental solution to the “problem” I am trying to solve, the speed record on Mt. Everest without oxygen. Thank you for staying tuned to the continuing adventures.