Saturday, May 27, 2017

Summit Recap

The summit attempt began with a long hard day going from Base Camp, through the icefall for the third time, past Camp 1 to Camp 2. I actually enjoy the icefall as it is interesting climbing; lots of ups and downs, ladders to cross and scale, arm wrapping (a technique of wrapping the rope around your arm to create friction and thereby stability while moving down steep sections), and simply seeing the beautiful jumbles of giant house sized ice blocks. At the same time I know it is one of the most dangerous sections as there are several points with overhanging ice that could give way at any point. In fact just as we were starting there was a very loud crack close the the team that made several of us jump (and say bad words).  

This is part of the icefall where we had a ladder. Or more accurately, four ladders roped together. 

After the icefall, it begins to level out a bit. We wound our way around large crevasses such as this one. 

It was a fairly long day, 7 hours I think, to get to Camp 2. I always have trouble eating and drinking while climbing. I know I should do more but usually only have about 1/2 a liter of water and part of an energy bar. Still, I felt strong and was one of the earlier ones to finish on this particular day. I was met by a Sherpa with a hot cup of Tang. It was fantastic. 

The following day we rested after our big effort. In Camp 2 we have a Sherpa team cook food for us. While I truly appreciate what they do, I never could get much food down in this camp. Often we were served Dalbat, a Nepalese staple of rice covered with greenish lentil sauce. It is just not for me. The smell. The taste. Can't do it. So I eat some of the rice knowing this lack of food will not help me the next day. 

Here's a shot of Camp 2 as seen from my perspective resting on a rock just above the camp. 

The next day we moved up to Camp 3. This time however, we begin to use oxygen for the first time. This is a bit of a steeper climb but the O's definitely helped. Instead of 10 breaths per step like last time it's down to 2-3 in the steeper parts. 

In these photos you get a sense of the grade and can also see Camp 2 in the distance.

Selfie showing the O2 setup. 

After about 5 hours of climbing we reached Camp 3 and settled in, two to a tent. Camp 3 is carved out of the snow in the side of the mountain. There is no place for a cook tent. My tent was on the bottom row, perched on a ice cliff overlooking the steep section we just climbed. We ate freeze dried dinners and settled in to sleep knowing the next day was an even tougher climb. 

We woke early and set out for Camp 4 the next morning. This section took about 7+ hours and included some famous landmarks.  After some normal fixed line, snow climbing we reached what is known as the Yellow Band. As the name implies it is a prominent band of yellow rock that requires a little mixed ice, rock, and snow climbing.

You can see a bit of the band in the top portion of this photo.

It's not really any more difficult other than you just need to make sure your footing is solid footing before pushing off.  More snow climbing and then we reach what is known as the Geneva Spur.  This is a steep, almost vertical part that does require a few more breathes per step.  Here is a picture of the people coming up behind me as they reached the top of the spur.  The vertical wall is not visible but is just to the left in this picture.

After that it was just a few hundred more yards to camp. Here is a shot of one of my team mates/tent mates, Drew, as he is about to cruise into Camp 4 just ahead of me.  

This is a shot Drew took of me right as you come into Camp 4 with Everest in the background. 

Camp 4 is located in a col, or sort of snow valley, between Everest and Lohtse. It is a larger space than Camp 3 but only contains sleeping tents. Again I settled into my tent, this time with the addition of guide Billy making it a "cozy" three person per tent. The big question then was when we would make our summit attempt. Based on the weather and condition of the team overall (somewhat tired), our expedition leader Garrett decided we would sleep in and rest most of the next day, then set out at 10:00 pm for our summit attempt. 

I slept little. Perhaps in anticipation. Perhaps due to being in a bulky snow suit crammed inside a tight -40 degree sleeping bag. (Somehow, in spite of that, my feet got very cold.) Perhaps I didn't sleep due to the altitude. I was now higher than I've ever been by far. Roughly 26,000 feet. Soon enough, alarms went off and we all shuffled to get on our boots and other gear. I was slow to get going. I tried to force down an energy bar and some hot water. I plugged in my boot warmers to use for the first time. And nothing. The batteries were dead. With very cold feet I got out of the tent and began to get my climbing harness on. It tangled. I took off my gloves to sort it out and immediately regretted doing so. My fingers quickly began to get so cold I couldn't make them do what I wanted. I put my hands under my arms for a few seconds and then tried to make more progress on the harness mess. Finally I got it on. Next were my crampons. Never easy, I struggled to get them on too. I wanted them on perfectly straight, tight to my boot (as always) but especially on this summit day. After much fighting with them and more horribly cold fingers I stood up, completely out of breath and looked around. I was one of the last in the group to finish and just in time to don my pack and catch up with the team who had already started up the mountain. I caught them, again out of breath. It was not the start I wanted. I told myself to relax. Settle in. It was going to be a long day. Approximately 12-15 hours of climbing. I slowed my breathing and got into a rhythm. It was of course pitch black, very cold and pretty windy. 

Here is a shot of climbers ahead of me and some of the spindrift illuminated by their headlamps. 

I noticed everyone else's headlamp was brighter than mine. I could see OK but realized my headlamp, like my boot warmers, was failing. I had charged both like everyone else at Base Camp just prior to leaving. No big deal. I just couldn't get separated from the group.

About this time we passed the first fallen climber. He died this season. His body was right next to the trail. You almost had to step over him. He lay on his back, head downhill. His clothes looked as new as mine and all of his gear was still attached. His mouth was open and face black. I heard he was part of a small group trying to climb without oxygen. It was a somber reminder that this mountain is serious business.

Then only an hour or so in I noticed my Sherpa climbing in front of me, Lakpa, slowing and creating a gap between us and the group. Many Sherpa have a habit of taking several quick steps, resting, and then repeating whereas most Westerners prefer robotic, non-stop, slow even steps. At first I thought he was doing his Sherpa thing but the gap kept getting larger.  When he rested he went down on one knee. This was a typical Sherpa rest stance but something seemed different in him. Lakpa was known as one of the strongest Sherpa out there. Then I saw him vomiting. This was not good. I rushed up to him and asked if he was OK. He was clearly not but said he was fine. He kept going but soon went down on one knee for a long time. He punched his leg in apparent frustration. I offered to take some of his gear and began to get some things out of his pack. But he stopped me and wouldn't let me take anything. He continued slowly and we got farther and farther from the group. The next time he stopped we talked a bit. I told him not to worry about going up. He needed to take care of himself. We agreed I would catch the group. My intention was to let our expedition leader know he was struggling so they could make a decision on what to do, which I was sure would result in Lakpa going down. I pushed hard, hit my max on climbing speed without passing out.  Many deep heavy breaths. With my nearly useless headlamp I caught the group as they were finishing up a break on a ledge. I informed the guides about Lakpa, got a new oxygen bottle, quickly drank a few sips of cold water, forced down a Gu energy gel, and pushed onward to once again catch the group which had set off again.

Once again I told myself to relax, and settle in for a very long day. But I had already expended a lot of energy with my get behind/catch up pattern. Guide Billy said he would climb with me the rest of the day (it was now obvious Lakpa was going down) and I climbed with him very close to the others. Finally, with a lack of drama I could again get to work on some good climbing. I got my rhythm back. 

I climbed upward and onward. It was tough going. I tried not to think of how far away I was or how long it would take. I told myself this was what I was going to do for quite a while and that was that. 

After some time, I began to see light on horizon. It was a very welcome change from the almost pitch black climbing. I remembered Garrrett saying we would likely summit about 2 hours after sunrise. I tried not to think about the time and just concentrate on one safe step at at time. The nice thing was the view was changing and I could begin to see some of my surroundings.

These are a few shots as the sun began to come up.

This one is particularly interesting. The pyramid you see is the shadow of Everest cast over the other mountains as the sun is rising. I had heard about this before and was grateful to witness it in person.

Time passed and we progressed up the "big hill". While I was hurting and cold, I was also able to enjoy the amazing beauty of this special place. I kept going and going. And eventually I could see the top in the distance. Actually it wasn't the true summit but I knew I was getting close. I scaled the famous Hillary Step. And as many of you may know, there is some controversy about whether or not the 2014 earthquake took out part of the step. I can tell you what I climbed was much easier than I expected. It was like a walk up snow steps vs. the 5.8 rock climb I had seen in pictures. Regardless, after a bit more progress, several false summits, I could see the true summit 25 yards in front of me. I slowed my pace to enjoy the last bit of the walk up. I could see a few of my team members celebrating and waving to me. Then, I was on top with them. Literally on top of the world! It was a great feeling. I forgot how cold and tired I was. I took in the beautiful sights. There were only about 5 of us up there including Sherpa so we were treated with some great access to the top. In spite of the strong winds, it was a very clear day. I was lucky to have such a great view. Here are a few pictures from the top.

I sat down on top and had a few pictures made of me, some with some messages to loved ones. There were prayer flags covering much of the very top of the summit. I peered over into Tibet on the North side. I soaked in the moment and thanked God that I was able to be there. I probably stayed up there 20 minutes before the guide said it was time to get down. We were all getting quite cold. And we all knew well that the day's journey was only half over. We also knew most accidents happen on the way down. It was time to focus again. 

Coming down, the winds began to increase. Some estimated 50-60mph gusts with fairly strong sustained winds in the 30-40mph range. We navigated the knife edge ridges in spite of the winds. Several times on particularly exposed parts I had to stop and hunch down low until the winds abated. I was knocked down to my knees three times by strong gusts. But each time I was comfortable with my position, also tied into the fixed lines and was not really in imminent danger.

It seemed the further we went the stronger the winds blew. I saw portions of ice the size of softballs and larger being torn of the mountain and hurled into oblivion. At one point Billy stopped and seemed to be calculating the risk of waiting it out vs. proceeding. He asked if I was OK to continue on. I said yes and we kept moving down. It was then I saw the second fallen climber, also from this year. I had not noticed him in the darkness while ascending earlier in the day. He too was laying on his back, one arm extended in the air. I could see his ungloved right hand seeming to be grasping at something. Even though the gusts made his arm move slightly, he was definitely gone. I think he was the partner of the other fallen climber. It was quite sad.

Eventually I could see Camp 4 far down in the distance. We came upon a few people huddled around a woman who apparently sat down still attached to the fixed line. It was obvious she was having some issue preventing her from descending. As Guide Billy attended to her I sat close by and rested. Just as we determined she had help coming and was fine for now, my goggles exploded on my head and I felt a sharp pain near my right eye. It took me a second to realize what happened. A piece of ice had been blown from above and hit me square in the head. The shield of my goggles and the battery pack on the right side (the goggles had a small fan to prevent fogging) had completely disappeared. I was left wearing the empty frames with an exploded case where the battery used to be seconds before. Billy asked if I was OK. Once again I said yes, and we continued on. I had to shield my eyes with my hands the rest of the way down from the high winds spitting hard snow in the howling wind.

Finally, I reached camp. But I couldn't immediately find my tent. I saw my tent mate Drew sitting near a tent that was not ours. It took me a moment but I realized eventually that our tent had been blown away in the high winds.  I walked with the wind a couple hundred yards but saw nothing salvageable. With effort, I made my way back against the wind to the camp area. One of the guides directed me to another tent and I dove in happy to have shelter.  Miraculously, one of the guides started shoving gear into the tent. Our gear! My sleeping bag and pads, and the same for my other two tent mates. They had found our tent rolled up with much of the contents some distance away and were retrieving what they could. I lost a good bit of clothing, some medicine, but mainly was just happy to have my sleeping bag. Soon after the three of us piled in and tried to get some rest. It was futile however with the relentless wind. I was positioned on the side that the wind was coming from, giving me the job of acting as an internal brace to prevent the tent from tearing apart. All night I pushed against the side of the tent and the winds whipped and beat against me. I didn't sleep at all. In addition, my feet were terribly cold having somewhat wet socks from the days work. I rubbed them all night long to keep them warm.  

In the morning we were all tired and a bit cranky. When I emerged from the tent the campsite looked like a wasteland.  Shredded tents were everywhere.  I estimate at least half of them were completely destroyed. Ours was ripped in several places but held up otherwise.  We set out still under moderately strong winds to make our way to Camp 2.  This part was relatively uneventful except for a couple of instances. Again we were greeted with death as I came across four Sherpa lowering a body wrapped in a sleeping bag inside a plastic gurney.  Another good reminder that the climb was not over until my feet were firmly planted in Base Camp.

Not long after witnessing that, I was down climbing and arm wrapping my way to Camp 2 when I looked up to see a Sherpa sliding towards me on the same rope at a good clip.  He had an awkward smile on his face and did not seem to be trying to stop his fall.  I braced myself for his impact and stuck my right hand out.  Fortunately my footing held and I was able to stop the flying Sherpa.  Two of his peers hustled down to the scene.  I then realized that he was having some issues and was being shepherded lower, albeit not very effectively.  They clipped around me and went on their haphazard way.  We all made it safely to Camp 2, ate a dinner of Dalbat, and had lively conversation excited with the prospect of our mission being nearly complete.

Finally, the next day we descended from Camp 2 to Base Camp.  This was my last time through the icefall.  I was scooting along at a good pace out front with Guide Conan and teammate Drew close behind.  I was still focused knowing the dangers of the icefall, carefully picking my footing, moving fast where required.  I crossed the same ladders as before and some new ones due to shifting ice.  I stepped over or hopped across smaller crevasses as usual.  On one occasion though I stepped across a crevasse and once over, did a double take.  Had I seen what I thought I saw?  Was I hallucinating?  I looked back and was not daydreaming.  There was a man standing about 10 feet down in a crevasse which was about 3-4 feet wide.  It had much deeper sections to either side of where he stood.  He appeared to be Nepalese and had the same smiling, confused look as the fella who earlier slid down the rope towards me though this was a different guy.  I asked if he was OK but he spoke no English and just raised his arms towards me. Thoughts of complicated rope and pulley systems came to mind.  But instead I simply lay down on the side of the crevasse with my chest to the edge and extended my hands towards him.  Our finger tips just touched.  We both stretched a bit further and were able to just get a good grip on each other's hands.  I pulled him upward as he assisted by digging in his crampons and pushing up.  Eventually we got him out and up onto the surface.  He appeared very relieved.  My teammates came up as this was happening and were as confused as I was as to how this guy got in the crevasse.  Anyhow, he appeared to be OK now so we brushed him of and all went along our merry way.  

The rest of the icefall was rather hot but uneventful.  We peeled off a couple layers as the sun came out but continued doggedly towards Base Camp.  The Goal.  The finish line. Just as we reached the end of the icefall we were greeted by several members of our Base Camp team.  They gave us a Coke (hadn't seen one in weeks) and a prayer ribbon (not sure is that is the technical name) and we know at last our job was done.  

Here is a pic of Drew and me at that moment.

Upon arriving in Base Camp, arrangements were finalized for me and another climber to helicopter to Kathmandu that same afternoon.  I would be the last person on our team to arrive and the first to go. In fact, it is possible that out of everyone on the mountain this season, I may have been the person on the mountain to summit in the shortest period of time given my tight schedule.  Several of the guides and Sherpa accompanied me and the other climber to the helipad to wish us well and send us off.  It was very nice.

The expedition leader Garrett is immediately to my right (your left).  Guide Conan is the second person to my right.  Lakpa is the fourth person to my right.

As I finish writing this, I have many thoughts running through my mind.  I will never forget the feeling of summitting and being able to see the world from that viewpoint. Pure beauty. It was also the culmination of not only weeks of hard climbing and acclimating in region but many months, even years of training prior.  I will not forget the great people I had the pleasure to meet and climb with including the terrific team at Madison Mountaineering.  Everyone on that crew was top notch.  I also am incredibly grateful for family, friends and co-workers who supported me, without which this would not have been possible.

I have already been asked "what's next" by a number of people. Next for me is a relaxing and warm Memorial Day weekend! Of course I will be in catch-up mode at work. Then planning a more "normal" family vacation for 2018. Beyond that, I will see. No big plans. Just taking it one day at a time.  

I hope this blog was interesting for you. Thanks again for all of your support!

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic blog post! Enjoyed reading your riveting account very much. I work with your sister-in-law Kim who told me about your grand adventure. So interesting to hear about the details and see the accompanying pics.
    (If you're ever looking for ideas where you could take your family on a mellow icy climb consider the glaciers in Alaska. My sister and I camped overnight on Lemon Glacier with a guided tour with much better food than rice & green lentils ;) and walked along crevasses to explore some ice caves. I wrote about it here: Congrats again on your outstanding accomplishment!! It's all downhill from here...