Everest Base Camp to Balcony and Back
Four days ago, May 22, I left on a speed ascent at 4:30 pm. There was a crowd of people at the start to wish me well and see me off. I walked through the Khumbu Glacier quickly with a water pack, track spikes, and jacket in a stuff sack clipped to my harness. I ran across Denis Arubko from Kazahkstan. Just before the Icefall I stepped in an ice covered puddle and soaked my left running shoe. I quickly changed into my track spikes and left my shoes tied to the fixed lines. The afternoon was warm and there was about three inches of slush on the trail. I was getting little purchase in my track shoes and had to resort to pulling on the fixed lines using a lot of upper body strength early in the climb. I made it to the top of the Icefall in just over two hours which was slower than anticipated. I continued to weave through the large crevasses toward Camp 1. When I arrived to Camp 1 I had cached a ski pole in the rescue tent. The ski pole had been taken so I continued on, less able to harness my full upper body.
I made it to Camp 2 in 3 hours and 45 minutes which was an hour slower than expected! I wanted a quick turnover at Camp 2. I switched into compression tights and Batura ice climbing boots. I filled my water bladder again and put batteries into my hand warmers. Then I ate two eggs and some Dal Baht before heading out. The changeover took 45 minutes. It was dark and pretty cold at about 9:15 pm when I took off. I wore my Nathan pack under my jacket to keep the hose from freezing. I put on my crampons and headed up the Lhotse Face toward upper Camp 3. I arrived cold and hungry about 11:45 pm. The section from 2 to 3 had gone well.
Before hand I had arranged for two Sherpas Tenzin and Gelgin to prepare water in a thermos for me at Camp 3. Jamie Clarke had lent me his Champion tent at Camp 3 which helped logistics a bunch. Inside the tent I changed into my down suit and set up the batteries and footbeds for my electric foot warmers. Without oxygen, extremities are more subject to frostbite and it was cold outside at 24,000 ft. I set up my water pack with hot water and held the cup to warm my frozen fingers. I was ready to continue at 1 am. Suddenly, I remembered that I had forgotten to call Baburam at Base Camop to let him know I was alright. I placed the call with my SAT phone and then put on my Alti gloves and headed up toward the Yellow Band.
The sky was lit with over half a moon and provided a beautiful sight as I climbed through the thin air. Almost everyone uses oxygen between Camp 3 and 4 due to the thin air and to reduce exhaustion. I was expecting to make it to the South Col in around 4 hours. The hours sped by as I forced my legs to turn over, they were being fed by my hard working lungs in the cold air. I tried to cover my mouth and nose with a buff cloth, but it restricted my breathing a bit to much. I could see my friends above on Lhotse climbing the couloir towards their summit.
I rounded the Geneva Spur about the time I could see without a headlamp. Above, on Everest there was a line of climbers from the South Col to the South Summit. I walked purposefully into Camp 4 looking for the Patagonia Brothers Camp where I could get more water. I could not find the tents! I knocked on a random tent and my friend Lhakpa Gelu unzipped the door. We both recognized one another and I asked him if he knew where the tents were. Immediately Lhakpa escorted me toward the Alpine Ascents Intl. cook tent. He knew time was essential and got me a bowl of hot soup and filled my water pack with hot water. He even helped me get my pack on under my down suit. Vern Tajas was also there offering encouragement and heading me off in the correct direction. My brain was a bit hypoxic at 26,000 ft. I moved up the fixed lines aware that there were over 150 climbers above me. The going was slow as I picked my way through the snow covered rocks. Near the Triangle Face I began to encounter traffic coming down the fixed line. The upward progress was slowed down by all the climbers descending. I soon ran into some of the Argentinian climbers going down. They let me know that the wind and snow increased greatly once I got above the Balcony above the Triangle Face. I continued up slowly and encountered an old climber's body between the rocks. I decided maybe I should take a dexamethazone tablet to reduce the chances of HAPE and HACE. I made it just below the Balcony and decided that Wednesday the 23rd of May was not going to be the day for the speed ascent. I looked at my watch and realized it was 11 am. I had been going for nearly nineteen hours. I sat down on a rock at 27,000 ft and watched as dozens of climbers passed me on their way down to the South Col. The view was obscured by clouds and blowing snow to the North. The morning weather had been good, but the weather had deteriorated as predicted.
I reflected on the combination of problems at hand: wind, snow, traffic and fatigue. The ascent had a combination of issues that I could only learn from for the next ascent. The focus of the climb had not just been to get to the summit. If that were the case I would have just strapped on a bottle of oxygen and gone to the top. This climb was about meeting the mountain in the most difficult way I could imagine. No porters carrying loads, helping to fix lines, without oxygen from Base Camp to the Summit of the world in a continuous push. I had made it nearly 10,000 vertical feet from Base Camp to the Balcony at 27,000 ft. Although I was disappointed with not achieving the summit, the effort was notable.
I got up and joined the throng heading down. I encountered Lhakpa Gelu heading up to assist Willie with a rescue. He was carrying oxygen and injectable dexamethazone for the patient, hoping to reach him in time. Speed capabilities also cross over for rescue situations. He let me know that he thought well of my effort. I made it back to the South Col and met Seth, Casey, Dave Hahn, Michael Brown and other friends. Seth refilled my water pack and Michael gave me some hot drinks as well. I found the Argentinians at the Patagonia Brothers camp and radioed down that I was alright and was headed down to Camp 2. I congratulated the Argentine climbers on their successful climb and headed out. The winds were blowing hard and transporting snow into my face. I switched into goggles and pulled the balaclava up over my nose to prevent frostbite. As I rounded the Geneva Spur below Lhotse I saw three folks I knew get onto the trail ahead of me. I was Pemba, Tamara and Eva. They had summited Lhotse earlier that morning. We were all very tired as the sun broke out of the clouds. There was no way to conveniently get out of the down suit and reduce the sweat bath. Our tactic was to sit down and rest every few rappels. I made it to the base of the Lhotse Face at dusk and wound down through the glacier arriving to Camp 2 just after dark. Pemba joined us for dinner and Tamara and Eva continued down to Tamara's camp below.
The snow began to fall in earnest. I made the decision to stay at Camp 2 Sunday night. The forecast was for major amounts of snow to arrive by Thursday. I assessed that I would not be able to physically recover for another ascent by the time the Monsoon season arrived. In addition, Camp 2 was being disassembled on Tuesday and I would have to bring down 100 lbs of gear to Base Camp in the mean time. I had made my preparations over two months and had my shot at the speed ascent this year. It was time to head home. I had a good run and returned with all of my fingers, toes and life intact. I made good decisions and had put in 100% effort. Hopefully I will get another shot at an expedition for a speed ascent in the near future.