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.