R&R in Pangboche – 5.10.2012

I headed down valley for 5+ hours yesterday through some late-day rain with Remza, Mike Moniz (www.climb7.com is his blog), Jef, and Bruce.  We could feel the strength returning to our depleted bodies as we descended from the heights of Camp III (23,300’) to the relatively thick and abundant air of Pangboche (13,500’).  It’s amazing how the body adapts, as Pangboche now feels like sea level and I practically can run straight up hills with 40+ lbs on my back without losing my breath.  If only it felt this way at 23,000+ feet…

The ravages of altitude are insidious though.  As I took a shower at our teahouse last night and got a glimpse in the mirror of what is left of my body… it’s shocking.  I’ve lost at least 15-20 lbs already, I would guess, and have nearly no fat and dramatically less muscle mass compared to 4-6 weeks ago.  I’ve had this happen on many climbing trips/expeditions before, but never to this level.   The summit push, which will burn ~30,000 calories cumulatively (over 5-7 days), will make this atrophy even more pronounced.  I had read, and therefore somewhat expected, that I could lose 20%+ of my body weight on Everest and that is playing out to be true. I could be back to my early high school playing weight (down to 135 lbs from 168 lbs) when I broke my knee at age 15, before it’s all said and done, which is a terrifying thought.  Although, the thought of putting all of that weight back on over the summer is pretty appealing, I must admit.

So, we’re eating a ton and trying to put some muscle back on over these next few days to get ready for the summit push.  I must have eaten 5,000 calories (if not more) at dinner last night alone and look forward to doing more of the same over the next few days before heading back up to base camp.

The good news is that as I write this post our incredibly strong team of Sherpa are heading up to the South Col to establish Camp IV and start fixing the route to the summit.  We certainly could not do this trip without their exceptional persistence and assistance.  The time to go for the summit is nearly here… we’ll arrive back in base camp on Sunday, 5/15, and possibly leave for the summit rotation as early as Tuesday, 5/17, if conditions/weather permit.  If that schedule were to hold, we could summit on 5/21, but there are many factors that will dictate that timing as we get closer to departing base camp for the upper mountain and the summit… stay tuned.

The 2012 Everest Season (thus far) – 5.10.2012

I realize that many of you are following the many blogs out there that cover the Everest climbing season.  As such, you are privy to the many rumors and posturing and debates taking place about this unique season.  A great source for some unbiased reporting of all of this “information” is Alan Arnette’s blog (www.alanarnette.com).

The reality is that Russell Brice, of Discovery Channel fame for his “Everest: Beyond the Limits” TV series a few years ago, has pulled his large and influential Himex (Himalayan Experience) expedition off the mountain for the season due to it being some sort of “death trap.”  However, the realities for many of us on the ground here are considerably different.

Yes, the mountain is posing some unique challenges this year.  Yes, the mountain is making this season more of a “climber’s season” than a “peak-bagger’s” or “trophy-chaser’s” season.  Mountaineering, which I’ve been doing seriously for 15+ years, always poses objective hazards and risks.  The challenge is to mitigate these risks as much as possible unless they prove too much to overcome.  In my own personal assessment, we have not approached that threshold as of yet.

In fact, over the past week or so, conditions have improved markedly with the increased snowfall, which makes the Lhotse Face safer (less rock fall) and improves the climbing through the Yellow Band, over the Geneva Spur, and up the Southeast Ridge to the summit.  In fact, during my climb to Camp III, I ran into climbing phenom, Damian Benegas (who I was supposed to climb Cerro Fitzroy in Patagonia with along with his twin brother Willie back in January before work issues got in the way) who was on his way to fix the lines through the Yellow Band and on up to the South Col, so there are still a large number of very experienced climbers that view this Everest season as very much within reach (including Conrad Anker, who graciously provided a viewing of his excellent “Everest: Wildest Dream” movie for us in the IMG communications tent the other day, Simone Moro, the Nat Geo/North Face team, Dave Hahn and the First Ascent team, the Alpine Ascents team, etc.).  In fact, IMG’s stellar Sherpa team is heading up now to establish Camp IV and fix the route to the summit.  If conditions continue to hold/improve and the weather cooperates, we could find ourselves summiting sometime around the 20th of May or so (fingers crossed).

Climbing, and the assessment of the risks associated with doing so, are and should be a very individual thing.  I would never criticize Brice’s decision to end his team’s expedition, especially since I know nothing about the strength or collective experience of his climbers, but I also wouldn’t put out pre-emptive positioning papers on the reasoning for doing so that imply that those of us that choose not to follow his lead are reckless or have some sort of a death wish.  To each his own, but part of the joy of climbing for me is assessing things for myself and making the best decisions possible based on the information available in that instant.  In fact, we’ve had several IMG team members depart our expedition for very individual reasons this season already (some health related, others found the risks too great, etc.), and I not only respect their decisions but I also commend them for having the courage to do so knowing that those decisions must have been extraordinarily difficult to reach.

Only time will tell what this season ultimately has in store for us/me, and at this point I am willing to wait to have that revealed to me in due time…

Camp III Rotation – 5.3-8.2012

My Camp III rotation was a bit of a mixed bag.  Another set of obstacles to overcome, but thus far I’ve been up to the task… thus far, at least.  Hopefully, that’s a trend that holds until I reach the summit and return safely to base camp by month’s end.  Time will tell…

I cruised up the Khumbu icefall and then up the Western Cwm to Camp II (nearly 4,000’ of vertical gain from base camp) in one push and in good time (about 5 hours and 45 minutes).  This gave me a lot of confidence in my strength and acclimatization.  Well, at least until I was struck down by yet another GI infection (4th since I left home on March 16th), which wiped me out for 2 days.  Recovering at Camp II (21,300’) is a unique challenge as well since the thin air doesn’t allow for much healing to occur.  As I regained my strength and, more importantly, control of my bowels, I headed for a “touch-n-go” of Camp III (23,300’) where we climb there and stay for an hour or so before returning to Camp II, which aids our acclimatization for the summit push.

I left with the majority of our team for this touch-n-go climb and made it about ½ way up in the early AM on May 6th before a teammate (Mike) noticed that the front-right half of my nose had frozen to a marble white due to the sub-zero temps and the breeze coming right at us off of Nuptse.  Fortunately, we caught it early, before it completely froze and frostbite set in.  I turned and headed down and thawed it out as quickly as possible and prevented any permanent damage from setting in thanks to Mike’s quick recognition of the problem.  Since it was already frozen, I couldn’t feel it, so I likely would have continued climbing oblivious to the problem until it was a real catastrophe and a potentially trip-ending injury for me.  All is fine now and you’d never know it happened by looking at me now (ugly as ever).  Thanks again, Mike!

So, I stayed over yet another night at Camp II and ventured back out the following morning again for Camp III.  Good buddy, Bob, had also stayed over an extra night due to a GI issue of his own and we headed to Camp III together with our Sherpa.  We made it in really good time (only 3 hours) and spent some time up there resting, eating, rehydrating as the sun emerged from behind Everest and Lhotse to warm us in the early AM.  Despite making it to Camp III in good time, it was an incredibly hard climb as well as a new altitude record for me.  I felt as though I had absolutely no power in my legs and spent the climb gasping for air.  Surely, the combination of recovering from the GI issue, sleeping at Camp II (21,300’) for five straight nights (where we sleep in our down suits with a 0 degree sleeping bag draped over us as a blanket to protect us from the very cold nights there) and the high altitude (23,300’) of Lower Camp III were complicit, but it was a bit confidence-rattling nonetheless.  Absolutely exhausting!  Overall, it was a good day though and nice to complete the touch-n-go, which is an essential component to our acclimatization as well as a litmus test for the summit push.  With that under our collective belts, we’re all looking good and strong for the summit attempt to follow.

The descent was uneventful and Pasang and I made it down to base camp in only 2 hours and 10 minutes, which seems to be blistering fast, so we’re making a strong climbing team.  The faster we descend the Khumbu icefall the better, as long as we’re still being safe, which is definitely the case.  The icefall is not a place to linger. In fact, we had a “heightened sense of awareness” moment in the icefall, on the way up to Camp II for this rotation, when a small avalanche occurred near us and certainly startled us all.  It fortunately diverted safely to our left down Everest’s west shoulder and we only incurred a bit of spindrift, but the sounds of it being so near and the feeling of absolute vulnerability were palpable for a few minutes.  Being in the Khumbu icefall made it that much more dramatic, but the reality is that it wasn’t any more significant than an avalanche we might witness while climbing in Alaska or while backcountry skiing/climbing in Colorado.  Sometimes geography and proximity add to the weight of things, but the reality is that everyone was fine and made it safely to Camp II without incident.

Also, I should state that the new route up the Lhotse Face to Camp III, which was used previously in 1990 and 1953, is tough but a lot safer than the more typical, direct route to Camp III.  There has been a lot written about this new route in the blogs, but I can tell you that it isn’t nearly as difficult as it’s being made to seem.  We’ve mitigated the rock fall issues of the Lhotse Face this season with this new route and although there are some near-vertical ice sections, they are easily negotiated (with great effort due to the lack of oxygen, I should add) and total roughly 20 meters of vertical climbing as opposed to the 100s of meters being reported elsewhere.  As humans, we are prone to exaggeration, I suppose.  However, Everest is such an undertaking that exaggeration only disrespects the difficulties that we actually face on this climb, so I hope to provide you my truest impressions and experiences on the mountain and cut through some of the hyperbole where possible.  So, yes, the route is tough and different than in years past, and the mountain is posing unique challenges this season, but in my assessment it is definitely below my personal threshold of acceptable risk.  More on this in the next blog post.