Friday, May 24, 2013

Launching the Summit bids

Classic Climbers in their dining tent

A plan took shape that would see three successive waves of IMG climbers make summit attempts. The first of these would be the Hybrid Group of eight climbers, plus 4 of the strongest Classic climbers. This team was dispatched to the higher camps, arriving at the South Col on May 16 with plans to make a summit push that night. The second wave consisting entirely of Classic climbers, inclusive of myself and Ty, would arrive at high camp the evening of May 18 to attempt the summit that night. And the third wave, finishing out the Classic climbers,  would arrive the evening of May 19 for their summit bid. 

Having made the long hard climb directly from EBC to Camp 2 in the course of rotation three, we all knew and dreaded the first leg of our summit positioning. But this time was for real. It was not training or conditioning. This was part of putting ourselves in a place where the many years of dreaming and preparation could be tested. The excitement was palpable. Though the dread of passing through the ice fall weighed heavy, we could find comfort in the realization this would be the last time we would climb it. Mingma and I visited the Punja Altar before leaving EBC, as has been our custom prior to previous trips into the ice fall. I leave the chanting to Mingma. It is my job to toss rice on cue. The air was thick with the scent of smoldering juniper, a fire that will not be allowed to extinguish until all Climbers and Sherpa have vacated the mountain at season's end. Daily temperatures had warmed enough in the time since arriving at EBC to meaningfully increase movement within the fall. Ladders used in the second rotation were crushed miserably between fallen seracs. Parts of the route had been completely redirected to avoid the fields of refrigerator size ice blocks now piled on the path we had once trod. Open sky directed our attention to the now missing “ice cream cone” serac that had dominated one section as a landmark. Where had it fallen? There was no sign of it. Probably it had tipped over and been consumed by the crevasses working their jaws tirelessly at its base. 

As the trek continued from the ice fall, past the area that had been camp 1, direct sunlight filled the Western Cwm. The walls of Nuptse, Everest, and Lhotse reflected this heat down upon us, quickly raising the temperature from the low 20’s of the ice fall to 90 degrees fahrenheit. Even after stripping away layers of clothing, the inescapable heat sapped our strength and slowed our progress up the long valley to a halting infantry march. Our only comfort was the knowledge that we would have a full rest day the following day, May 16. Wave 1 advanced to high camp (South Col) as we moved to camp 2. 

Wave 1 left high camp that night in very windy conditions. The forecast suggested these winds would abate as the night went on, but they did not. All climbers were turned back short of The Balcony, a small flat notch almost 2,000 feet above the South Col.  Several of them returned with frost bite injuries. Two of the Classic climbers descended to camp 2 as they no longer had enough bottled oxygen to attempt the summit. One of these climbers, acknowledging the mountain had won this time, continued down Everest the next day, bound for home. The other climber, Dan, made arrangements to obtain a new supply of oxygen and make a second attempt several days later with Wave 3. The two Classic climbers who remained at the South Col had each purchased an extra bottle of oxygen in advance and so had the means to make a second attempt the evening of May 17. Both prevailed, scoring the first summits for our IMG team this season. To make room for this second attempt, Wave 2 and 3 were each pushed back a day

Hybrid climbers each have their own Sherpa, not unlike Classic climbers. But in addition they have a Western Guide climbing with them at a ratio of 4:1. They enjoy their own separate dining tent and what appeared to many Classic climbers to be preferential treatment when it came to certain equipment and priority for summit windows. For this they pay an additional $20,000 above what a Classic climber pays. Not surprisingly, a blue collar versus white collar tension emerged between the two groups. While the Classic climbers would like to have seen the Hybrid group succeed, the fact that none did seemed to validate a general sense that the enhanced pampering they required did nothing to improve their mountaineering.