The month of May has arrived quickly. Time seems to warp in unusual ways — you may know the feeling. Like when you are shivering all night at a bivouac and time seems to stand still. Well altitude seems to morph the time continuum for me as well. Hours and days at high camps and while climbing seem to pass more quickly than at other places. Half of the day is spent in my sleeping bag insulating myself from the night’s sub-zero temperatures. I love alpine climbing, the small team and the lack of people. You may ask, “What the heck are you doing in the Everest zoo fest?”
Despite the hordes of “climbers,” guides and Sherpas, the mountains are still awe-inspiring. I have chosen a style of climbing that is so difficult for me that I have had much to learn from the mountain. I believe in the “old school” technique of the sequential learning curve. You take on the next biggest challenge after you have established the proper base experience. What I hope to learn from climbing Everest in a day without oxygen is: 1) How to adapt to the highest altitudes, 2) How to properly get nutrition 3) How to apply what I have learned to alpine-style ascents of more challenging and remote routes.
I know that the summit is not the end goal. A cliché in most instances, but traveling by the relative safety of the “normal” route allows me to experiment with my physical and mental boundaries and improve. The goal is to reach my potential in this “game” of climbing. That being said, everyone has an area that some would say is a “gift.” Some may be technical free climbers, some big wall aid technicians, still others are bouldering wonders. My favorite aspect of climbing is putting up new routes on unclimbed peaks. In this arena you have a canvas of the mountain with many potential options. Finding the route that speaks to the skill and experience of your team, the time of year and the weather conditions in that part of the world is the puzzle. Once the vision of the route is conceptualized you have to become the mental and physical solution to the problem. Physical and mental preparation are put into practice specifically with the vision of what you need to become for the next mission you are preparing toward.
Having said that, you now know in part why I am here for Everest. There are goals beyond the speed ascent of Everest without oxygen that I have in mind. This speed ascent is part of the groundwork that I need to have in place before I continue toward visions of other projects. This is why I can put up with crowds and chaos. There are many beautiful things about being on Everest if you have the proper “eyes.” The scale of the Western Cwm is immense, and the mountains are so stunning. I have read articles by people sarcastically making fun of what Everest has currently become. Yes, and I had a good laugh reading the articles. However, there is a reason that this place has such a draw. For myself, the opportunity to stand in the “throne room of the gods” and experience the majesty of nature leaves an imprint on my spirit. Nothing will take that away.
On Tuesday May 2nd, Rory and I carried a 40-pound load from Base Camp through the Khumbu Icefall past Camp 1 up 4,000 feet to Camp 2. I need to stock Camp 2 with carbohydrate powders and electrolyte powders for my summit bid, along with boots, crampons and down suit.
The program for the following day was to carry a load to Camp 3 at 23,300 feet. The winds had a different program in mind. Instead of forcing our itinerary and losing valuable energy fighting the wind and the cold we decided to sit tight and wait for the opportune moment. We ate and drank all day and when nothing else presented itself I took a three-hour siesta. When I awoke in the late afternoon the wind had begun to subside. I suggested to Rory that we make a night run. There were no teams on the Lhotse Face in the evening. Rory warmed to the idea and soon we were packing our packs with a load of essentials. The advantages of carrying a load to Camp 3 before moving and sleeping there are multiple. The most important reason is acclimatization. Your body can only acclimate 1,000 feet per day on average. If you carry a load up to your destination camp, say an average of 3,000 feet higher than the current camp you gain 1,000 feet of acclimatization. The next day you move to your camp and the following day you rest. Thus averaging your 1,000 feet per day.
Rory and I left for Camp 3 at 5 p.m. and arrived to Camp 3 at 7:30 p.m., 2,400 feet higher than Camp 2. We cached our gear in a waterproof duffel bag and secured the bag with a snow picket against the elements. Then we hustled down the fixed lines to the base of the Lhotse Face by headlamp. We retrieved our ski poles and cruised over the easy glacial terrain back to camp by 8:45 p.m. The cook had left out some dinner for us in the kitchen so we ate our fill and went to bed.
The next morning the winds were down and the crowds were present on the fixed lines. So Rory and I ate a leisurely breakfast and packed the second half of our load for Camp 3. We got on the trail about 11 a.m. and plodded out a sustainable pace. Each of our loads was about 35 pounds for each carry. Finding the rhythm between lungs and legs we covered the ground greeting friends and enjoying the warmth of the sun. We hopped on the “up” fixed line and were soon locating our tent site. I thought that we would be slower than the night before, but we made it in exactly the same time, 2 ½ hours despite tired legs from the third consecutive day of carrying loads.
I began the task of setting up our MSR Fury tent. This is a low profile double walled tent that can withstand the potential 100 mph winds that the jet stream can dish out. Soon we had our home in place and unpacked the internal essential comforts. On que the winds began to gust and we took shelter within for the next 16 hours. Many Sherpas have commented on how they dislike Camp 3. At 23-24,000 feet this camp is not the most hospitable. I found myself laying in my frost-covered sleeping bag breathing frost formations on the ceiling until late at night. Thankfully I brought my iShuffle and enjoyed the sounds of my favorite music for the first time on the trip.
Rory on the other side was having discomforts of his own, He had somehow gotten a hole in his sleeping pad and was forced to reflate the pad every two hours to keep his body off the ice. I managed to get about five hours of sleep and Rory even less. However, by 7 a.m., we were dressed and harnessed up. Our plan was to climb up to the Yellow Band and then descend back to Camp 3. We joined the throngs of Sherpas carrying loads up to the South Col (Camp 4) 26,000 feet. The going was slow as the upper face was steep and hard old glacial ice.
A few hundred meters below the Yellow Band we ran into an extensive human traffic jam. Instead of waiting in line on the steep ice with the blood forced from our toes, we found a small bench and took a seat for a half hour. As the traffic began to make the left hand turn we stood up to put on our packs. Just about that time my friend Denis Urubko made his way onto the bench. I said hello and he stopped to exchange greetings. The sun was now in full force, so as he changed into lighter layers I inquired as to where he was heading. He and his partner Alexander were going up to Lhotse Camp 4 to spend the night and acclimate. The two of them are going to attempt a new route on the SW Face of Everest “alpine style.” He headed up and Rory and I followed. Denis is an amazing high altitude climber and had completed all 14 8,000 meter peaks without oxygen. Denis has also put up new routes on 8,000-meter peaks and has climbed Gasherbrum II in winter. One feat we share in common is that we both have won the Khan Tengri Speed Challenge in Kazakhstan, his home country.
Rory and I continued on until we reached the base of the Yellow Band at 24,700 ft. Then we descended the fixed line back to Camp 3. When we arrived we noted a body wrapped up in a sked litter. I wondered who had been hurt, until someone informed me that a Sherpa had died. Apparently the Sherpa had woken up in the morning and was brewing up some tea when he suddenly fell over dead. Unsettled, I resumed my descent back to camp and began to pack up my belongings. I am not sure what it is, maybe having seen too many people pass in the mountains, but I just wanted to shy away from the scene.
As Rory and I packed our packs a helicopter flew up the valley, hovered next to our tent and flew down to carry off a climber affected by high altitude at Camp 2. The chopper made four flights up to Camp 2 and the base of the Lhotse Face. The pilot was none other than Simone Moro, the climber forced off of the mountain less than a week before.
As I feared, one of the people flown off was a Sherpa hit by a falling rock on the fixed lines at the base of the Lhotse face. This is precisely why Damian and I had tried to put up the fixed lines to the right side of the Face. Time will tell, but I hope not too many more people get injured by rockfall on the fixed lines.
We made our way back to the Benegas Brothers Camp 2 and settled in. A few hours later all of the Sherpas from our camp had made it back from the South Col. All four of them had carried 75 pounds each from Camp 2 — a superhuman feat that will tax them physically for the next week. We all ate dal bhat together in the kitchen tent and recounted the days events. Rinji had acquired a bad cough from the cold temperatures and high winds at Camp 4. Phurba Geljen had frostbit his cheeks. Lhakpa was the new 22-year-old who had made his first carry to Camp 4. Phu Chettar was too tired to eat and slept in his tent until late evening. The hard work and high altitude had left its mark on the team. However, with summit day two weeks away, the crew would have ample time to recover.
The next morning we all woke up early to beat the sun before it dawned on the Icefall and made things active. Rory, Lhakpa and I ran from Camp 2, through Camp 1 and into the Icefall. We ran into successive traffic jambs, but made it to Base Camp in just under two hours. This was my 62nd trip through the Icefall in my three trips to Everest. I prefer to use speed as safety to mitigate many of the unpredictable hazards.
I plan to make two more rotations on the upper mountain to acclimate extensively. Rory plans to make one more rotation with me up to the South Col. Then he will coordinate with Damian to synchronize his summit day with the Benegas Brothers team. I plan to go up to the Yellow Band on my fourth rotation to maintain my acclimatization. I plan on making my summit bid a few days later after the 20th of May when the temperatures begin to warm up before the monsoon. We will see what the weather and crowds permit. I will keep you posted after each rotation.