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.

Back to Base Camp – 5/8/2012

I safely returned to base camp earlier today after spending 5 nights at Camp II and completing a touch-n-go of Lower Camp III (23,300′), which set a new personal altitude record for me.  The touch-n-go of Camp III was an important and necessary litmus test for the summit push, which is the next step.  I will rest for several days in ba(a week+ likely) while Camp III and Camp IV get established and the route from the South Col to the summit gets fixed.  So, I’m likely to head down valley to Pangboche (13,000′ or so) as early as tomorrow to recover in the even thicker air down there and rebuild some strength for the summit push to come… More details of the Camp III rotation to follow in the next several days.  Hope all is well with all of you.  It’s great to be back in base camp on this end and feeling strong.  Can’t wait for the summit rotation at some point over the next few weeks…

Waiting Game Continues – 5.1.2012

The Lhotse Face is proving to be a major challenge this season.  The initial route has proven to be too dangerous due to extensive rock and ice fall down the climbing line.  Therefore, a team led primarily by IMG’s resources is looking for a new way up the steep face.  We hope to shift to the climber’s right (or to the South) of the current line to one that was used in 1990 and also by the 1953 team.  If successful, we will be able to continue up the mountain to Camps III and IV as planned.  Again, please keep your fingers crossed for us.  Hopefully, the new route can be identified and set over the next couple of days.  No guarantees but we’re hopeful.

The plan for my climbing team is to head back up for rotation II on Thursday, May 3rd.  I’ll push straight to Camp II (21,200′) in one big push from base camp (17,500′), rest on May 4th, climb up the Lhotse Face to Camp III (24,500′) on the 5th, descend to Camp II on the 6th and then to base camp on the 7th.  Hopefully, the fixed lines to Camp III will be in place and we’ll proceed as planned.  This rotation is really the trial run for us for the summit push in a couple of weeks.  If all goes well and conditions/weather allow, we could be on our way for our summit bid around May 15th.  Time will tell.  Thanks for all your well wishes!  Rest assured we’re doing all we can on this end to give the summit a good run soon…

Kids of the Khumbu III

I found out today that all of the donated goods (200+ lbs of children’s clothes, school supplies, etc.) finally reached their destination in Phortse (which is the village from which most of our Sherpas come from, including my climbing partner Pasang) and were distributed to the villages’ families over the past week. All materials were very enthusiastically received and I was asked to forward on their thanks to all who participated and made it possible. My thank you, as well as Carla’s, who was the catalyst for making this happen, to all of you as well. Those items will go a long way here and will be put to great use for some time to come. Thank you! Phanuru, one of our climbing Sherpa/climbing partners who is also from Phortse, had his wife take some pictures of the enthusiastic distribution of the goods which he’ll forward to me and I’ll post later when bandwidth isn’t such a major issue.

Otherwise, the strange/unique 2012 season on Everest continues…

The upper mountain continues to get hammered by high winds hampering our efforts to move higher/establish Camp III/fix the lines to Camp IV and the summit, while we’re experiencing “warmer” conditions in base camp than usual this early in the season. Overnight lows are only -10 to -15, where we’d prefer overnight lows of -20 or colder. As a result, the Khumbu icefall is seeing dramatic changes on a daily basis as it melts out and avalanches, which requires constant changes to the climbing route and can be hard to keep up with if the changes are too much/too fast. Therefore, the waiting game continues and we keep an eagle eye on all of the changes and hope for improved conditions. Keep your fingers crossed for us. Hoping to head-up for rotation II to Camp III in the next several days (depart maybe May 3rd or 4th) and we’ll be up there for 5-6 days in total between all the camps and then back to Everest base camp. More to share when I return from that rotation and start prepping for the summit push (mid-late May). So, ironically, please send us colder temps, more snow (the Lhotse face is wind-scrubbed and currently bullet-proof ice) and reduced winds if possible. Much appreciated.

Finally, I understand that Cory Richards’ (of the Nat Geo/North Face team) diagnosis was confirmed as a Pulmonary Embolysm in Kathmandu, which is absolutely life-threatening if left untreated, and confirmed the diagnosis that my climbing teammates Jef and Ramin came to at Camp II a few days ago and led to Cory’s immediate evacuation. Nice going guys! Glad to have you on my team and to share a rope with you. Glad to have you here but I hope I never need your exceptional diagnostic skills…

1st Rotation – 4.29.2012

I made my safe return to base camp early this morning Everest time. My first rotation on the mountain went well and I’m safely back in the warmer climes and thicker air of base camp at 17,500′. The GI issue was just a minor setback and I had my power back in my legs for the moves up to Camps I and II. I was able to move quickly through the icefall, always a good idea, and made it to Camp I (19,600′) last Wednesday in 3 1/2 hours, which is a fast time for an ascent up that jumbled mass. The hanging seracs, fallen ice blocks, and ominous groans and creaks provide all the incentive necessary to keep moving.

I spent 2 uneventful nights at Camp I acclimatizing, although we did experience 100+ degree swings in our tents at that camp, as the sun reflects off the glaciers on Nuptse, Lhotse and Everest to form a veritable convection oven. I noted 113 degrees in my tent one blazing afternoon and then a low in the single digits that night. Tough place to hang out.

The move to Camp II (21,200′) up the Western Cwm only took 2 hours from Camp I. We left early in the AM for both moves to climb when things were good and frozen/solid. We left at 3:30am for the move up the icefall and at 6am for the move to Camp II. Apparently, as soon as we arrived Camp II at 8am there was an enormous avalanche that ripped off the face of Nuptse that swept a Sherpa into a huge crevasse just behind us above Camp I and decimated our path. Miraculously, he was pulled out and stabilized at IMG’s Camp I and evacuated to Kathmandu for further evaluation. That was to be followed the next day, while we were in Camp II, where Cory Richards of the North Face/National Geographic team was having some health issues. 2 of my teammates, who are both doctors, provided the initial assessment and the IMG Sherpas played a big role in evacuating him to Camp I via a sled and then helping him down to base camp on oxygen where he was then flown to Kathmandu for further assessment. A crazy couple of days up in the Western Cwm and good reminders of just how serious an endeavor this is. Wishing good health to those that have been evacuated recently and for my team moving forward. Check out the National Geographic and/or North Face blogs for more details on Cory’s condition.

Otherwise, I’m doing well and feeling strong after a good first rotation on the mountain. The fixed lines up the Lhotse Face are in up to the yellow band with additional fixing to the South Col/Camp IV to occur soon. Camp III is being dug into the Lhotse Face today, so I’m looking forward to a little R&R here in base camp the next few days and then heading up for rotation number two where we sleep at Camp III (24,500′) without supplemental oxygen. Ought to be rough and essential to our success on the third and final summit rotation.

The rest of the team seems to be doing well. It was great to catch-up with Bob, Craig, David and the rest of the crew back in base camp this AM after my quick descent from 21,200′ to 17,500′ in less than 3 hours. Also, I returned to a generous care package sent to Bob and me from his lovely wife Di and my incredible girlfriend Carla. Thanks ladies! Very much appreciated. The group already destroyed the Oreos, but I’m hoarding the Via Coffee. Shhh!

Lobuche Summit & Jim Update #1

I met up with Jim and Dave Markwell in Pheriche after a successful summit day on Lobuche (20,161′) It was a bittersweet reunion, it was great to see both Jim and Dave recovering quickly; however I was disappointed I was not able to climb and summit with either of them.

Our summit day was picture perfect, our group gathered for a quick headlamp lit breakfast around 3:15 AM and was on the trail before 4. It was a very cold morning, light wind, clear skies – perferct day for a climb. The route ascended quickly in a mix of snow and rock, our progress was steady up to the glaicer. With crampons on and the sun rising, temps were increasing quickly and our group spread out as we hit the fixed lines. A cloudless bluebird day opened up for the IMG group, providing excellent climing conditions. It was a very successful climning day, everyone in our group made the summit and returned safely to Lobuche base camp.

I was able to speak with Jim this week from EBC. He and Dave made it back to base camp without any issues and were able to sneak in a climb to a high camp on Pumori to continue their acclimitization. Back at camp and rested, they joined the rest of the climbing team and prepared to start the rotations up through the Khumbu. He and his sherpa made their first climb through the icefall and back to base camp without any issues. It sounds like Jim and his sherpa are a great climbing team. Jim mentioned they were back in camp by 7am, taking full advantage of the safest time to climb in the Khumbu.

Unfortunately the return to camp was met with another small set back. A second round of Gi issues attacked and set Jim back a few days. After a quick round of Cipro and some tent time, Jim was planning his first rotation to Camps I and II with guide Eric Remza and climbers Jon (Colorado) and Jeff (California) and their sherpas. Jim will spend 2 nights at Camp I, push higher to Camp II for an additional 2 nights, then decend back to basecamp to rest and recover.

I anticipate hearing from Jim again early next week and will provide updates from his first rotation. More to follow.
– Ben

Return to Pheriche – 4.16.2012

I descended from Lobuche base camp (15,800′) to Pheriche (14,000′) on Monday due to finally succumbing to an upper respiratory infection that has been working its way through our camp. I immediately started a Z-Pack and descended to the thicker air, a soft bed and warmer climes of Pheriche to nip this in the bud. It seems to have paid off as I already feel better and the real purpose of my trip remains ahead of me.

The downside is that I didn’t get to climb Lobuche with my team, especially Ben and Clay, who came to climb only Lobuche before returning to their family and work responsibilities. That’s a real disappointment for me, but we’ll have other climbs and summits in our future! I will get to see them both tonight, however, in Pheriche, as they descend toward home and their loved ones, and we’ll celebrate what I expect was their successful climb earlier today. Based on early morning radio traffic it sounded like they were both well on their way to summiting. Psyched for you both.

I will return to Lobuche base camp on Wednesday and then Everest base camp soon thereafter. Assuming, this minor distraction is just that, I will not have lost any ground on my main goal and should get my first rotation on Everest (camps I and II) next week. Much better to get this early in the trip than later and be able to tend to it and get past it quickly and back on track, which seems to be working.

While here in Pheriche on sick leave, I was able to upload some recent photos so please click the link below to view those:

Pictures from Pheriche

Also, Ben has generously provided me with his Nepali phone, since he is on his way home, and volunteered to update the blog for me since we only have voice and not data access at Everest base camp this season for some reason. So, apologies in advance for the lack of photos and any drop-off in literary quality.  😉  Only joking. I’m sure he’ll be able to convey my hypoxic ramblings better than I can. Seriously, much thanks to Ben for stepping-up to keep everyone informed! And lots of pictures will be posted once I’m back online officially at some point down the road.

In the meantime, I thought I would provide a brief synopsis of the weather we experience/endure at Everest base camp (17,500′). It gets down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit overnight, a bit chilly, and we awaken to frost lining the insides of our tents as our respiration freezes to our tents while we sleep. It warms considerably when the sun finally hits our tents at 7:45am. At this point, a few long-sleeved layers are all that are required to stay warm as the sun’s intensity at this altitude defies the actual air temps. Snow showers arrive daily around 1-2pm and the temperature plummets as these blot out the sun. The temperature really drops around 6:30pm though as the sun sets behind Pumori to our immediate west. Therefore, after dinner and the occasional card game, we all retreat to our tents to warm up and get some rest around 7:30-8pm. This is when books and music are consumed with vigor. So, those early morning hours are crucial to completing the days’ chores/tasks before the weather and temps work against us. Once we start climbing on Everest, we’ll employ alpine starts (3-4am or earlier) to climb when things are nice and solid/frozen as well as safer. Layers and movement will keep us warm (enough) on these early/cold mornings.

That’s about it for now. Working on feeling healthy/strong again and I will be heading up to Lobuche base camp tomorrow and on to Everest base camp soon thereafter. Great friend and literary giant, Ben, will provide updates upon his return home next week and as I approach/complete my first rotation on Everest!

Everest Base Camp – 4.14.2012

Life at Everest Base Camp (EBC), where spam is considered gourmet cuisine and we’re living on an active/moving glacier at 17,500′, is a little harder for all of life’s activities, but it is great to be here.  The team arrived several days ago and is doing well and feeling strong.  Unfortunately, connectivity has proven to be a major issue, so my updates may be infrequent (if at all).  I’m borrowing bandwidth from a fellow team member (thanks Mike!) who has a satellite uplink to get this update out, so we’ll see how things go over the coming weeks/months.  His blog, which will be updated more reliably is www.climb7.com and the IMG blog, provided in previous posts below, may be the best source of information for now.

So, over the past week, we moved to Lobuche base camp (15,800′) from Pheriche, where we had incredible views of Cholatse and other peaks.  We spent several days acclimatizing there with some side trips to Lobuche high camp (17,000′) and a town at the base of Cholatse.  We moved up to EBC on 4/11 on a cloudy, windy day, but it was still amazing to finally make it here.  We have incredible views of Everest’s west shoulder and Nuptse’s west ridge to our east, Pumori to our west, Lobuche to the south and others to the north.  It is an incredible cirque and more amazing than I imagined.  We have a terrific set-up here in base camp with “on demand” showers, big dining tents, and individual sleeping tents, which allows us to spread out, stay healthy and strong.  We’re settling in nicely thus far.

We rested upon our arrival in EBC and focused on acclimatizing.  On 4/12, we met our personal climbing Sherpas, who are our life lines and vice versa for the next 5-6 weeks.  My Sherpa is Pasang Rinja (picture of us above before our puja ceremony).  He is highly competent and achieved with 6 Everest summits to his credit already and hopefully number 7 coming in about five weeks!  The puja ceremony was terrific, where we asked Chomolongma, Mother Goddess of the Earth (aka Everest), for permission to climb on her flanks and for safe passage to/from the summit as well.  After the puja, we did some training in the Khumbu icefall where we practiced ascending, descending and rappelling on the fixed lines as well as some ladder crossings in preparation for what is to follow soon for us.

This morning, 4/14, we said goodbye to the trekking members of our team.  It was a great group who added a lot of levity to the first portion of our trip.  They will be missed.  Tomorrow, 4/15, we (the climbing team) head back down to Lobuche base camp (15,800′).  The following day, 4/16, we will move to Lobuche high camp (17,000′) and then leave about 4am on 4/17 for the summit of Lobuche (20,161′).  On 4/18, we will return to EBC and rest for a few days before we finally get to head into the Khumbu icefall and do our first rotation on the mountain (Camps I & II).  Hopefully, connectivity will improve and I can keep everyone informed, but until then please check the other blogs provided above.  As of now, I’m feeling healthy and strong and eager to climb Lobuche and then head up the Khumbu icefall, the Western Cwm and get a view of the Lhotse face, South Col and the summit.  Soon…

Pheriche – 4.7.2012

We are in Pheriche (~14,000′) and enjoying more incredible views in every direction and each step takes us closer to our objective(s) of Lobuche and then Everest.  The team is doing well and our health remains strong with a few (very minor) hiccups along the way.  I had a tough night our last night in Namche before hitting the trail for Deboche and didn’t get any sleep due to a minor GI issue.  Fortunately, I felt better by the time we started on the trail and felt somewhat back to normal by the time we arrived at the Rivendell Lodge in Deboche.  Upon checking in, we discovered that the room I was sharing with Bob had its own bathroom, complete with its own shower, so I chalked that up to some “colon karma” and it certainly accelerated my recovery.  By the next morning, I was back to full strength.

On our rest day in Deboche we trekked back up the hill to Tengboche, visited the famous monastery and enjoyed a chanting session from the resident monks.  We went to bed that night to a Himalayan thunderstorm and significant rain, which was a peaceful way to fall asleep.  The next morning we awakened to 4-6″ of fresh snow on the ground and a winter wonderland.  We started up the trail to Pheriche in the snow, which was terrific as it kept the dust (carrying yak dung particles, etc.) to a minimum.  It made for some beautiful vistas as well.  On the way, we stopped at Pangboche and received a blessing from Lama Geshi as well as khatas (scarves) that will protect us on our climb of Everest and that we’re supposed to take to the summit with us.

Today was a rest day in Pheriche before we move up to Lobuche base camp tomorrow.  We did a day trek over to the village of Dengboche where we visited the tea house owned by one of our Sherpas, Phutashi, for lunch.  The views of Lhotse, Baruntse, Makalu, Island Peak, Ama Dablam, Kang Tenga, Lobuche, etc. were stunning (the picture above is of me with Kang Tenga behind taken by master-photographer-Ben — more pictures available by clicking the picture above).  Makalu and Ama Dablam remain very high on my future climbing objectives list and seeing them in person only reinforces those urges.  Others seem to have the same fever, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to assemble a climbing team for these somewhere down the road (Ben, Clay, you know I’m speaking about you!).  Someday… one major objective at a time though!

Tomorrow we move to Lobuche base camp (~17,000’+) and leave the comforts of the tea houses (cots, common rooms, showers, toilets, etc.) behind and finally move into tents.  We’ll spend several days there before moving up to Everest base camp (17,500′).  At that point, our trekking friends on this trip will turn and head for home while we head to climb Lobuche (20,161′) for further acclimatization.  Good friends, Ben & Clay, will join us for this awesome-looking climb before heading home.  The climbing team then will move back to Everest base camp to get on with what we came here to do…