Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Summit Push (part 4)

Photo #1 - The steep and treacherous upper Lhotse Face.
Photo #2 - Climbing toward the Yellow Band.

I woke up at Camp 3 on the morning of May 22nd and one thought immediately came to my mind. Tonight I would be climbing to the summit of Mount Everest! I could hardly believe it. All I had to do was safely climb to the South Col at 26,000'. That would be my final staging ground for the assault upon the summit.
I started the laborious task of melting enough ice to fill my water bottles. This took around an hour and while the stove was humming away I started the equally laborious task of putting on my many layers of clothes. I also screwed the regulator onto my oxygen bottle because from this point forward I would be breathing supplemental, bottled oxygen. All said and done, 2 hours had passed and I was ready to begin the ascent of the upper Lhotse Face. I clipped into the fixed rope and made the traverse over to the main route which went straight up. I swung my ice ax with great force and I jabbed my cramp-ons into the icy sheet beneath me. I quickly came to a slope that was close to vertical. I thought it would be realtively easy but not this time. I felt as if I were sufficating. I was not used to climbing with a mask on my face and I felt as if it was sucking the life out of me instead of delivering the necessary oxygen needed to climb skyward. I ripped the mask off and began climbing without it. I began to think that I must get used to this mask. I had no choice if I stood any chance of making the summit of Everest. In 2005, I had safely climbed to 27,000' without any supplemental oxygen. I felt strong enough to do that again but above that was a complete unknown. I talked myself back in to wearing the mask and continued climbing toward the first obstacle of the day - the Yellow Band. I quickly passed the remnants of other team's Camp III tents that had not survived the furocious wind that almost constantly rakes across the cold slopes of the Lhotse Face. I thought I could continue at a quick, steady pace and much to my chagrin so did about 100 other people. The face is so steep and there were so many people, all with varying degrees of fitness, that we all came to a bottleneck. Little did I know that it would be stop and go like this for the rest of the entire summit push.
A few hours later found me at 24,500', the place where a climber begins traversing upward to the Yellow Band. The Yellow Band is a 200' series of yellow, limestone cliffs. It presents the first real challenge on the climb to Camp IV. It was vertical or near vertical for the entire pitch and I was glad when that part was over. I could now see the rest of the route to the Geneva Spur. That would be my final obstacle for this move to Camp IV - I hoped. I eventually made it to the cut off where people climbing Lhotse head up to pitch their Camp IV. I was certainly glad I was not going there. It just did not look fun at all. It was just as steep as the Lhotse Face and full of avalanche danger. I finished the upward traverse and stood at the base of the Geneva Spur. More vertical rock. I was getting tired and so I rested for the first time on the way to Camp IV. I was very pleased that despite all of the delays from the many people I was able to maintain a positive attitude and I knew that all I needed to do was put one foot in front of the other and I would soon be at the safety and relative comfort of Camp IV. Climbing the Geneva Spur was tiring and yet amazing all at the same time. After a couple of hundred feet of doing this I topped out on the Spur and could see the final traverse into Camp IV. I had imagined this traverse to be flat from all the book knowledge that I had of this mountain. Alas, it was not. It was up and down and rarely flat. I passed a climber being assisted down with ropes and I made sure to leave plenty of room so as not to kink up my rope. Eventually, after 5 hours of effort I strolled in to Camp IV on the South Col. I was absolutely in awe. Here I was standing in the exact place of so much mountaineering history. I could see from Tibet on one side of me to Nepal and India on the other. I could see the famous, still never climbed, traverse between Lhotse and Everest. I could see the upper, triangular face of Everest. I could see climbers coming down from the Balcony, a "flat" spot at 27,500'. Most importantly I could see my tent. My safe haven from the now increasing gusts of wind. Even though I was amazed to be here I knew that I would have no chance of continuing my summit push if these winds did not abate. I silently wondered if this was the end of the road. My high point for this journey. Clouds began to move in and it started snowing. The wind was gaining strength and my hope for standing on the roof of the world was in doubt. "Please God, allow me this chance. You framed the world with your hands. You made this mountain I am now standing on. I acknowlege You as the Mighty Creator. The heavens and earth declare Your glory and I recognize that all I have is from you. Please grant me this opportunity" I prayed. As the wind continued to howl the other members of our team began to trickle in to camp. It was not long before the talk around camp was focused upon whether this inconvenient storm that made its home right with ours would remain with us or move on. I layed down in the tent trying to get a little rest before the biggest night of my life was to begin. However, the wind was not abating but, thankfully, neither was my optimism. I just had a good feeling that this time tomorrow I would be in awe from seeing the view from the top of the world.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Summit Push (part 3)

Photo 1 - Yours truly at Camp 3 - 23,500'
Photo 2 - The view from Camp 3. Notice the climber behind on the Lhotse Face. Triangular Face of upper Everest in the far distance.
Photo 3 - The beautiful view down the Western Cwm.
Photo 4 - Vertical ice climbing just above the bergschrund on the Lhotse Face - 21,800'.

During the early morning hours of Friday, May 21st I easily woke up to a calm, peaceful and quiet Camp II. This was the day to move on up to Camp III and the weather was taking a turn for the better. An incredible thought entered my mind. Tomorrow night I would be trying for the summit of Everest. How cool was that? After so many years of dreaming, this was it.  Now I just had to make it up to Camp III today and Camp IV tomorrow. I left Camp II around 8:00 a.m. and the first thing I noticed was the incredibly long line of climbers already up on the Lhotse Face. I figured that I was in no hurry and I would take my time; saving my strength for what lay ahead. Depending upon the location of Camp II the first 10-20 minutes outside of camp follow loose rock on top of ice. This is always cumbersome for me because it is difficult to maintain good footing. Nontheless, I quickly made it onto the glacier proper, tied in to the rope and began my winding ascent to the bergschrund at the base of the Lhotse Face. I felt lethargic and was surprised when I started easily passing many climbers heading for the same place I was. My excitement bagan to build even further and I knew that today was going to be a great day. The Lhotse Face is pitched at an average angle of 40-45 degrees. There are a few vertical sections and a few slightly less than the average. All said and done this is not a place where a climber would want to slip. Any fall from this famous landmark would certain prove fatal. However, there were many guided groups in front of me and they were moving extremely slow. I had two choices. Continue going at a turtle speed or unclip from the safety rope and free climb short sections until I passed the other climbers and then quickly tie back in to the rope. I chose the later. I tried to maintain safety at all times on my climb of Everest. This was not one of those times. I knew I could easily climb unroped and get around these people and I felt a little confident. Not cocky or proud, just confident in my climbing abilities.
It was a little over three hours since I left Camp II and I was the first from our team to make it to Camp III. On my mind most of the previous evening and certainly this morning was what was missing from our tents. I just knew that something would not be how we left it. Upon my arrival I immediately saw what was different. There were quite a few pale yellow and brown spots surrounding our tents. The sides of our tents and the inner vestibules on two of them had been used as a toilet. Can you believe that? Really? No courtesy from this other group that had very poor organizational and logistical support. Now I had to look inside the tents and see if any of our supplies were missing.
It turns out that even though we sent sherpas up to dig out our Camp III tents the previous day, the tents had partially been buried by the wind driven snow overnight. Therefore, I was unable to enter any of the tents upon my arrival, so even though I was tired I set out to try and begin excavating the tents. By this time Phil had arrived at Camp III and joined me in chopping out the bullet proof snow with our ice axes. After clearing the snow from one of the tents I was able to get inside and grab the shovel our sherpas had left up there a few days prior. I also took a quick inventory of our oxygen bottles. Thankfully, none were missing. So other than a few "poopie" marks surrounding our tents, nothing else was out of place.
Over the next 4 hours the rest of the team arrived and settled in for the evening. Eating what little we could force down and masking the retched taste with water melted from the surrounding "clean" ice, we tucked in to our sleeping bags for a fitful night of sleep. The plan was to get up in the freezing cold hours of the early morning and begin the long, slow, arduous climb to Camp IV. I easily fell asleep and began dreaming of a beautiful Everest summit day. This is the life. The stuff dreams are made of.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Summit Push (part 2)

Photo #1 - Self portrait on the Lhotse Face on the way to Camp IV.
Photo #2 - Approaching the Yellow Band. Could there be any more people?
Photo #3 - Above the Yellow Band. Approaching the Geneva Spur.
Photo #4 - On the Geneva Spur. Looking toward Camp IV.
Photo #5 - The final traverse into Camp IV.
Photo #6 - Yours truly upon reaching Camp IV - 26,100'.

Thursday, May 20th dawned very cold, clear, and extremely windy at Camp II. Our team decided this would be our second rest day because the forecast called for continued high winds on Everest through the 22nd. A few other less equiped teams decided to push their summit attempt one day early. Therefore, by the time I woke up many other climbers were on their way to Camp III. One team already had climbers reaching Camp III as I continued gazing upward. It was at that time I noticed something odd. Even considering the distance between Camps II & III I could still make out the long line of climbers slowly ascending. One cluster of climbers in particular seemed to be all congregating altogether - directly next to our tents! I immediately knew what was going on. "No! Not now! Not after all this time and effort. Please don't do this!" Camp III on the Lhotse Face is constantly battered by extreme wind. Consequently, if tents are left erected for any period of time they get completely buried by snow and the poles break. Whereas, the previous day we sent 2 sherpas up to Camp III to pitch our tents and clear away any lingering snow and ice, this other independent team did not. As a result when their climbers reached Camp III they could not find their tents. They were completely buried by the recent snow and incessant wind.
With the wind raging and the temperature well below zero, they needed immediate shelter and our tents looked so inviting. Inside our tents were stoves, fuel, food, and most importantly, life sustaining oxygen. Just enough for our summit attempt. If they were to use our supplies our summit push would be over. All the previous month's work would be in vain. Unfortunately, a huge reality on Everest is that people come to the mountain ill-prepared. They sign up with the cheapest organizer they can find. Consequently, many seemingly small details are overlooked. It would have been so easy for this team to send up a few sherpas to unbury their tents. Instead they considered just using our tents. After all, they were vacant.
Upon seeing what was going on our Sirdar, or head sherpa, went over to this other group's Camp II headquarters and demanded that they vacate our tents and use their own. He loudly exclaimed that our team was not going to suffer because of the incompetence of their leadership. They needed to send up their own sherpas with new tents, oxygen, fuel, and food. Of course they denied our accusations until we provided them with a little proof. One of our team members had a very powerful camera lense. One that, when focused upon Camp III, made it appear as if it were 10 feet away. We took a series of pictures of their team entering our tents, standing outside of our tents, and holding what looked like our oxygen bottles. Their two-way radios magically seemed to work and their climbers were given orders to immediately start vacating our tents - our personal property! Needless to say, after all was said and done, this stress filled event coupled with the lingering thoughts of a pesky cyclone in the Bay of Bengal added a few more gray hairs to my current collection.
The remainder of the day should have been spent relaxing and resting. However, we all took turns monitoring the current state of our Camp III tents. In between rotations I filled my time with eating and socializing with other climbers. That evening, I decided to turn in early because I wanted to get an early start for Camp III the following morning.
 Even though we saw the mystery team's climbers vacating our tents, I just could not help but thinking that something was missing from our tents and our camp. Something had been stolen. It wasn't until the next day, upon reaching Camp III, that I would find out just exactly what it was. Really?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Summit Push (part 1)

Photo #1 - Nima Nuru Sherpa and I hanging out at Camp 2 during the summit push.
Photo #2 - The last vertical section (about 55 feet) before exiting the Khumbu Icefall and entering the Western Cwm.
Photo #3 - The continuous line of people above Camp 3 just before the Yellow Band (24,500').
Photo #4 - Topping out on the Geneva Spur (26,000') looking at the Triangular Face of upper Everest.

After 22 days of "patiently" waiting, I began my assault upon the highest snowpatch on Earth. After many consultations with our weather forecasts, various maps, and other data we decided that May 18th was to be the day. I could not believe it. The day was almost here. It was showtime! I spent May 17th going over my final summit clothing and packing my backpack with the final necessities. In the past I had climbed to the summit of Everest many times in my dreams. However, today was the day to make those dreams reality. So I went to bed early on May 17th knowing that tomorrow would begin some of the most physically demanding days of my life. I was so excited I hardly slept a wink. In fact, I was already awake when my alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. Quickly shuffling to put my clothes, harness, boots, and crampons (ice spikes on the bottom of my boots) on, I decided to shove down a hard boiled egg and some toast. I really wasn't hungry but I knew I would need all the calories I could consume. Five o'clock saw me entering the Khumbu Icefall for what I had hoped was the second to last time. I rapidly made great progress through the Icefall and I was utterly amazed at how much the route had changed in the last 3 weeks. The end of the season was near. The weather was much warmer and the Icefall was splitting open everywhere. There were so many more ladders to span the great depths of the endless crevasses and I silently wondered if I would be able to return on my way down. I was also concerned that my 3 week stay at basecamp would negatively affect my hard won acclimitization but it turns out my concern was not necessary. What took me 5 hours the first time through the Icefall I was now able to do in 3. It turns out my extended rest period was proving beneficial in terms of added strength and acclimitization.
I topped out of the Icefall and worked my way through several more ladders and crevasses all the way to Camp 1. It was now 8:00 a.m. and the sun would soon shine directly on me. The next bit of hiking/climbing was to be one of the hottest portions of the climbing route so I decided to shed a few clothing layers. I ate a quick snack, drank some water and soon started the 2 hour journey into the solar oven known as the Western Cwm. Normally this portion of the route is just a gradual, smooth, uphill hike but this year was different. There were large crevasses that needed to be crossed by several ladders lashed together and a lot of uneven, up and down type hiking. Oh well, not to be concerned. I easily made the final journey into Camp 2 just 5 1/2 hours after I had left basecamp. Our wonderful Camp 2 cook, Pasang Disco Sherpa, warmly greeted me with a cup of cold mango juice. I had several cups of this delightful beverage and then settled in to my tent. This was to be my home for at least 2 nights and possibly a few more. I was a little disconcerted to hear that an approaching cyclone could put a bit of a damper on our summit plans. Rumors of another cyclone and subsequent snowstorm like the one in 2009 that dumped 6 feet of fresh snow on Everest was beginning to float through Camp 2. My dream of a safe summit of Everest began to slightly fade. Immediately I "cast all my cares" up to God and began to pray. A calming assurance overcame me and I no longer was worried. I knew that whatever was to happen regarding the cyclone would still happen no matter how much worrying I did. After receiving our nightly weather forecast, it turns out that the cyclone was heading away from us but there was still a possibility of a few stray clouds and possibly a little snow. Whew!
We decided that the 23rd was still the best day for a possible summit attempt and hopefully was to be accompanied by beautiful weather. That meant that the next 2 days were to be rest days. I would be going nowhere and that was just fine with me. I really wanted to summit Everest but I wanted to do it with strength and in good health. The next 2 days (May 19th & 20th) were spent eating, drinking, and looking up. From Camp 2 there is an awesome view of Everest's south summit and the Hillary Step. These would be a few of the final obstacles I would have to overcome if I was to eventually stand on the top of the world. As it turns out I would have an even greater obstacle and it was staring me right in the face. This couldn't be happening. "No! Not now! Not after all this time and effort. Please don't do this!"

Friday, June 4, 2010

Home safe

Well, this great journey has come to an end. I safely reached the loving arms of my family last night. Today it's off to the park, riding in my truck, juice, tickle fights, and Target. These are the things my son wants to do so we shall do them.
I promised more details on the summit push and I intend to do it. More pictures as well. Stay tuned. Thank you to everyone who looked after, cared for, and prayed for my family and I. We are deeply grateful.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Safely in Hong Kong

Leaving the Kathmandu airport has always been a bit cumbersome. Nepal has only been open to foreigners for close to 60 years so, therefore, they are still far behind the rest of the world. Their technology is antiquated at best. This usually leads to considerable delays when minor problems arise. The delay last night was the fast approaching monsoon. Not that a 'little' rain and a few clouds are a problem. The airport is so small there is no place for passengers to wait when flights are backed up. There are no concessions, no restrooms, and no proper tarmac.
Oh well, no worries now. I have safely arrived in Hong Kong, one of my favorite international airports. I only have 7 hours left and then it is off to the good 'ol U.S. of A.

The long flight home

 My great Everest adventure is coming to a close. My bags are packed and my balances settled. My taxi is due to pick me up in 1 hour. After immigration formalities I begin the long journey home. I fly from Kathmandu to Hong Kong where I only have an 8 hour layover this time. Then it is off to Los Angeles where because of the magic of the International Date Line I arrive 2 hours before I leave Hong Kong. More immigration formalities and then another 5 hour layover. I look for a flight to Denver and will arrive around 9:30p.m. I am so excited to see my family. I have now been away for 71 days. What a long time.