Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Final rotation complete!

May 3, 2013
EBC to Camp 2

Climbing days start early. This is necessitated by the heat that comes with daylight and the resultant instability it brings to the snow and ice surfaces we must climb in, on, and around. On this day we ate breakfast at 2:30 a.m. By now we are expected to show up at breakfast with climbing harness on and ready to go. There is a nervous energy about the team and we rush at our tasks to release it, though there typically is no cause to rush. Conversation is limited to requests for items spread out along the long table we sit down to, our persons ringing like wind chimes from the metallic climbing implements hanging at our waists. Each of us is studying the day ahead in our minds. 

On this day we would climb from EBC directly to Camp 2, omitting the overnight at Camp 1 we found so welcome on our last ascent. It would be a big day, launching our third and final acclimation rotation. Like most of my team mates, I had a plan. I would climb steady through the ice fall, but only at 70% of my pace. This would allow reserves to then carry me on to camp 2. But the ice fall had other plans. 

As Mingma and I entered mid ice fall the adjacent hillside released an avalanche of boulders and ice.  Quickening our pace, we entered an area of large roundish ice blocks called The Popcorn. A singular strand of prayer flags hang over this section signifying the heightened danger of same. I could hear Mingma chanting prayers in low tones just ahead of me as an ice avalanche broke loose next to us. There was a concise snap, followed by a roar not unlike a locamotive going by. The break of the fall line carried the debris beneath us. I wondered about the other climbers for a moment, but sensed Mingma’s urgency and put all I had into staying with him. We arrived at a safe zone called The Football Field just as one of the Air Force climbers was leaving to continue up the hill. 

Mingma listened on his radio to the chatter among Sherpa and Basecamp Leaders as I tried to eat and drink. No one had been caught up in either avalanche. Just then a third avalanche released above us in a notoriously active section known as “Lo La Pass.” By my estimate the Air Force climber who had just left would be square in the middle of it. We cut our rest stop short and hurried up to check on the Airman. Indeed Lo La Pass had been swept through by the ice fall, but the fresh foot prints of the climber and his Sherpa confirmed they had arrived after the release. We continued to press hard through the remainder of the ice fall, arriving at camp 1 just four hours after leaving EBC. This was much faster than the 6 hours normally consumed.  I was spent and nerve-wracked as I collapsed into a vacant tent to lay down for a moment.  One by one, other team members emerged likewise “knackered”.  We rested here for a bit, before then proceeding on to camp 2. 

The wind was blowing hard and the pre-dawn cold left us in single digits as we tried to consume the contents of our packed lunches; frozen juice box, frozen salmon spread, frozen cheese square, and frozen dessert pastry. After 20 minutes of futility, the frustration combined with a creeping cold to inspire the kind of vigorous movement that might generate some body heat. Myself and another team member set out with our Sherpas for camp 2. I could see direct sunlight slowly working its way down the side of Nuptse, staging a soft landing on the gaining valley floor. At some point I left the othe team member behind and it was just Mingma and I. I could see the tents of camp 2 an hour and a half up the valley, but now the over-exertion of the ice fall came to collect and I “bonked”. I stopped in the trail and breathed hard for twenty chest-fulls. Feeling marginally better, I motioned to Mingma that we should continue on. 100 steps later I had to stop and breath again. “I’m sorry, MIngma” I apologized. “I just can’t catch my breath.” “It’s OK,” he offered, “we go slow.” I continued to deteriorate, only able to go 80 steps, then 60, and so on before needing to rest and breath hard. We straggled into camp 2 six and a half hours after leaving EBC. I am unsure by what hidden strength I managed the last quarter mile. Remaining team members staggered into camp 2 over the next 4 hours. Our stories were very similar; the fear and adrenaline of the ice fall had over-taxed our resources and from there on the will to place one foot in front of the other had gotten us to camp 2. We slept until dinner, then logged another 12 hours to breakfast. 

May 4, 2013
Rest day at camp 2

I have written about the process a mountain climber goes through, a process that tears down his humanity until he has become that animal he must be to climb the highest mountains. I blew my nose, a moment ago, into a soiled frozen wool sock I know I must wear tomorrow. By this account I should think I am getting close to summit ready. 

The Lohtse Face
May 5, 2013
Camp 2 to Camp 3 (Touch and return)

Camp 3 sits at an elevation of 24,000 feet, carved into the side of the Lohtse face by the mean trade of ice axes. Ten tents cling there, an outpost of the most minimal accommodations for climbers in route to camp 4 (the South Col). Our original plan for this rotation was to have each team member spend a night (without supplemental oxygen) at camp three to establish the high threshold for his acclimation. “You probably won’t sleep. It will be a miserable night,” Big Boss Greg Venovage promised during our preparation talk. Our first team of three climbers spent the night of May 4 at camp 3 in accordance with this plan. 

By the next morning the weather forecasts had changed to then predict severe wind and cold up high, So the remainder of the team was instructed to climb to camp 3, spend a few hours acclimating, then return the same day to camp 2. This was a welcome change as an earlier climber had descended from camp 3 a few days earlier with a frostbitten finger and ear. 

Mingma and I left camp 2 at four a.m. in our down suits and warmest gloves. We arrived at the Lohtse face an hour later and began climbing the steep icy incline. So steep is the Lohtse face, that I could reach out and touch it while standing plumb vertical.  

We were only 20 minutes up the face when Mingma stopped to listen to his radio. “Sherpa sick,” he said to me with concern. He said one of the Sherpas above us at camp three had gotten up, dressed, eaten some breakfast, but then said he felt dizzy. The Sherpa vomited, then went to lay down in his tent.  A camp Physician was patched onto the line and I could hear her instructing the people at camp three to administer Niphedipine and place the Sherpa on bottled oxygen. We continued our climb upward. 

Mingma stopped again ten minutes later and turned to me. “Sherpa died,” he said pointing at his radio. He also told me this Sherpa was his brother in-law.  We would later learn that two team members had worked frantically to save the man’s life and would later descend, traumatized by what had happened. This Sherpa was a longtime veteran of IMG and had spent much time higher than camp 3 on Everest. Theories evolved, none of which could be conclusively proven, but the available symptoms suggested the victim had contracted High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) which then progressed quite quickly to High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). I told Mingma how sorry I was for his loss and suggested we should turn around and go back to camp 2, but he insisted we continue up. I believe this was because he felt an obligation to get to the body as soon as possible so he could make certain proper Buddhist traditions were observed. Our climb to camp 3 was called off 1,000 vertical feet short of the camp. Mingma continued up. I was assigned another Sherpa to lead me back down. A team of Sherpas lowered the body down the Lohtse face, where a helicopter picked up Mingma and his deceased brother in-law, transporting them to their home village of Phortse. IMG  located the man’s parents in another village and had a helicopter take them to Phortse as well. 

May 6, 2013
Camp 2 to EBC

Team Leaders were eager to get us all back down to EBC before the forecast storm hit. So a 3:30 a.m. breakfast was scheduled with plans to head down by 4:00 a.m. It was 7 degrees fahrenheit in our tent when my alarm woke Ty and I. Everything we touched was frozen. The roof of the tent shed ice crystals on us when we bumped it. Several times I had to stop and warm my hands against my abdomen. But we made it to breakfast then shouldered our packs. 

A well-known and highly accomplished Sherpa named Toshi was assigned to stand in for Mingma in leading me down to EBC. But when the time came to leave he instructed me to go drink coffee in the dining tent while he dealt with another sick Sherpa.  Very short of breath and registering an alarmingly low SpO2, this Sherpa was dosed with Niphedipine and placed on bottled oxygen.  An hour went by and the man’s SpO2 improved to the low 60’s. At this point he was be able to descend to the clinic at EBC with the help of other Sherpas and continued bottled oxygen. We descended together, at a slow a measured pace. The sick Sherpa was fine. 

May 7, 2013
Rest day at EBC

 Shower. Shave. Laundry. Call Mom. 

I called Lin. It was so good to hear her voice. As she has been throughout this whole strange journey, Lin was supportive, inspiring, and spoke from a place of love. We discussed the days ahead and my plans for the upcoming summit attempt, agreeing that focus on each step would be the key. It is easy to be swept up in the vast scenery or a complex pitch you know is coming. Staying present will be essential. 

The Climbers invited the Sherpas to join us for a movie in the group tent after dinner. The feature was “Anchorman” with Will Ferrell. The humor did not always translate well, but the Sherpas definitely thought the fight scene was funny. 

Liking the O2 system.

May 8, 2013
Rest day at EBC. Trek to Gorak Shep

Myself and the Australian member of the team are typically the first up on rest days. I bring a handfull of Starbucks instant coffee packets (decaf) down to the dinning tent and we enjoy a relaxed cup. By then the sun is touching camp so I drag a chair outside and have a second cup while the rest of the team files by for breakfast. 

This morning we learned the sad news of another Sherpa (not IMG) having passed. He was crossing the yellow band above camp 3 last night and stumbled. Though a fixed line was available, he had not clipped into it. He fell 3,000 feet down the Lhotse face. This set me to thinking about Mingma and his family with their own recent loss.  I took  a stick of incense up to the Puja Altar and left it there as an offering. 

Greg Venovage
After breakfast Big Boss held our instruction session on how to use the oxygen bottles and masks.  I did not expect to feel any different breathing the denser air, given the many weeks we have acclimated to Base camp and higher. But the instant clarity that came to my head left me wondering how I have managed to feed and cloth myself up to this point. In addition to allowing me to climb higher into extremely thin air, this supplemental oxygen should also keep me feeling warmer and lessen the risk of frostbite. 

Now we wait. The team has completed all phases of preparation for a summit bid of Everest. We expect the rope fixing to be done by May 10, and we will send our first group to the summit at the next weather window after that. Once a summit attempt is launched from EBC it takes 4 days to arrive at the top of Everest. So the most likely date for myself to summit is still May 18 ...depending on weather.  I hope to have one more opportunity to post to this blog before then. In any case, I promise to blog the details of the climb upon returning to EBC. But for those of you who would like a more timely update I encourage checking the IMG Trip Report                       which should post daily updates at

For those of you who have not already joined my Everest Team, please consider doing so! You can become a part of it all by making a tax-deductible donation to the Bellingham Boys & Girls Club Climbing for Kids program at