First summits & high altitude lifeWhilst the Nepali prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has resigned and swine fever is spreading across the world, we have just received the news that Phurba Tashi, Dorjee Sherpa, Nima Sherpa of Himex and one of our team members, David Tait, managed to become some of the first people to reach the summit of Chomolungma this season. Topping out as early as the 5th of May does not happen often on the south side of Mount Everest as the Sherpas normally need more time to fix the ropes from the South Col to the summit. However, this year Himex Sherpas and some other Sherpas from other expeditions managed to fix the ropes whilst taking one of Russell’s clients to the top of the world. The news reached us just as we were finding out that the weather was supposed to change and that we might have to wait for our summit push for about two weeks as high winds are expected to hit the roof of the world. Well, I suppose the real waiting game has now started!
After five days high up on the mountain we are finally back at the relatively low altitude of our base camp. I apologise that I haven’t been able to update my diary for about one week, however, spending time away from email and internet was actually quite good for me. Being at base camp in the vicinity of Gorak Shep, where I do my ‘internetverk’, sometimes leads me to forget that I am actuallyhere to climb the biggest mountain in the world.
I am sitting here in the sun looking at the Khumbu icefall and I still cannot believe how we got through it. First of all I take my hat off to the ‘Icefall Doctors’ as it is still unfathomable to me how they could possibly find their way through this myriad of ice pinnacles in the first place. On our way up we left our camp at 2.30am and once again, it was incredibly warm and by the time we got to the bottom of the icefall I had already had to shed one of my clothing layers. It took me about four hours to get through the icefall and I was pleasantly surprised how easy I found crossing the ladders that are being used as bridges to get over the deep and wide crevasses. Most of the ladders are horizontal, however, some of them are vertical and it gets a little bit tricky when there are two or three tied together. I don’t think anybody would ever cross such a heavily crevassed place in Europe or anywhere else in the world, however, without getting through the icefall nobody would ever climb Mount Everest from its southern side. The huge ice pinnacles we climbed through were out of this world and I think it was actually a good thing that it was dark as we were unable see the huge seracs towering above us just waiting to tumble down onto the glacier. However, as we moved quickly and there was not that much traffic in the icefall we managed to get through unscathed and in good time.
Most of our team reached Camp 1 at around 7am, however, only five of us plus one guide carried on to Camp 2, which forced us to walk through the Western Cwm pretty late in the morning. Now I finally understand what mountaineers mean when they talk about the heat in the bowl, which is called the Western Cwm and leads to Camp 2. It was excruciatingly hot and I struggled to get to our Camp 2, which lies at the very top of the moraine. I bumped into a few people (as usual) and most of them were quite impressed that we climbed from our base camp, which is a bit further away from the bottom of the icefall than the ‘normal’ base camp, straight to Camp 2 at 6,400m. However, I was a bit surprised how tiring I found the whole exercise – but then again I must not forget that we were at a relatively high altitude and actually ascended 1,000m that day.
Camp 2 lies on an icy moraine, which is covered in rocks and I was quite impressed by the luxury this camp offers as there is a mess tent, a proper kitchen tent and plenty of tents for the clients to sleep in a single tent without having to share. As we had split the groups into twos, only half of our expedition ended up at Camp 2 on that day. Kaila, our chef up there, did an amazing job as the food at 6,400m was as good as at base camp. As the jump from base camp to Camp 2 was pretty big, most of us felt pretty lethargic and rested in their tents on that afternoon. As most of you know, I am normally full of energy and the fact that I could just lie in my tent unable to take off my boots will probably surprise most of you. It is not only Everest that changes people; life at high altitude does the same thing. Any activity becomes a major chore and the fact that energetic people become ‘tent potatoes’ shows that altitude just slows lives down. Another interesting fact up there is the temperature fluctuation. Most of us were wearing down suits up there, however, as soon as you got into your tent you would have to strip off completely to bear the heat in there. Dinner was served as early as 5.30pm as all of us wanted to crawl straight back into our sleeping bags as the temperatures dropped significantly after sundown. However, it is amazing how warm you can keep inside your downsuit and your sleeping bag even though temperatures dropped as low as minus 15 degrees in the night. I was feeling warm and cozy, however, when I woke up in the morning my sleeping bag and downsuit were covered in ice and were almost frozen stiff!
We stayed at Camp 2 for another two nights in order to acclimatise and on the third day, the 3rd May, our group got up at 4am (oh, how I hate these early mornings in the cold) to tackle the steep looking Lhotse Face to get to our Camp 3, which lies at 7,400m. I had been observing dozens of people crawling up the Lhotse Face over the previous days, and the fact that I would have to tackle that icy wall worried me a little bit, however, I was also excited to finally get my hands and feet onto the ice. We started our climb at 5am and with the rope that had been fixed by the Sherpas, the technical difficulty of the face was less of a problem. For me personally, the main problem was the “oncoming traffic” as I am not used to be climbing on a fixed rope and having to clip my carabiner through other climbers. Climbing the face itself was fun, however, I found it strange that I was carrying my ice axe at the back of my rucksack without getting the opportunity to actually use it on the face. It is easy to trust the solid looking rope, however, the thought that one of the anchor could break out of the ice worried me a bit as sometimes around five or six climbers are hanging on to the same piece of rope. We reached our Camp 3 at around 10am and the site of that camp, which lies at an altitude of about 7,200m, is quite stunning. I still don’t know how the Sherpas do it, however, they managed to dig out platforms for about ten tents that were flat enough for us to sleep comfortably. Upon my arrival, I crawled into my tent, which I shared with Ellen, and all we could do is stretch out and light our stove with our last energy in order to boil some water to rehydrate. Well, and that was all the activities done for the rest of the day. Camp 3 lies on a steep slope and there is no way you could be moving around, however, I guess that even if there were the opportunity to go for a walk nobody would have been able to due to lethargy and fatigue. Ellen and I managed to drink some soup, however, that was all we could stomach as loss of appetite is another typical feature of life at high altitude. Had we done what we had just done at a lower altitude, we probably would have been ravenously hungry, however, the high altitude takes away all cravings for food and even though the lovely Swiss Ragusa chocolate I had been schlepping up to Camp 3 did not tickle our fancy.
Some of our members had a slight headache and most of them could not sleep at all at that high altitude, however, Ellen and I were very cozy in our tent and I think that ‘Team Didis’ tent was the only abode that actually saw some sleep that night. The temperatures dropped again and we were woken up by huge gusts of wind in the morning, and when I poked my head out of our tent all I was greeted with was a very grey sky and huge gusts of wind. Our guides decided that we would only leave at 8.30am to go back to Camp 2 in order to give the wind a chance to die down. It was hard to peel myself out of my frozen sleeping bag and light the stove with our dodgy Nepali matches, however, Ellen and I were ready to make our way back down the fixed ropes to reach the relative luxury of Camp 2 at 8.30 on the dot. The ropes were busy again and once again I felt out of my depth when I was met on the rope by grumpy climbers moving up towards Camp 3. Coming down the Lhotse Face was actually more of a challenge for me than moving up as parts of the face were completely icy and it felt a bit dodgy to just “arm rap” down the steep slope. However, despite the fact that many climbers did not have enough experience to actually move up and down the rope without any problems, nothing dramatic happened and we arrived in the safety of Camp 2 two hours after we had set off from below the Geneva Spur.
Camp 2 was busy that day as the other part of our team had arrived the previous day and they were getting ready to go up the following day. Once again, I have to emphasise that I was mightily impressed by Kaila as he had to work in shifts in order to feed all clients, guides and Sherpas! Sunday was a very busy day for Kaila as not only all the clients had descended to C 2 but also the Sherpas as they were enjoying a well-deserved rest day. Well, it was actually quite interesting to see how the climbing Sherpas, who had done a huge amount of work by fixing the ropes up to the South Col at 8,000m, spent their rest day! They were actually moving rocks around and rearranged the site of our Camp 2 whilst the clients were sitting around fighting their lethargy! However, having spent one night at 7,200m, Camp 2 actually felt a lot better and people started having an appetite again.
The next morning, the 4th of May, our group descended back to base camp and it took us three hours to get from the top of the Western Cwm down to the relatively ‘low altitude’ of the temporary city called Everest Base Camp. Getting through the icefall was a bit different this time as it was sunny and we could actually see what we were going through. Every once in a while I had to stop and look around and I could hardly believe the sheer size of the ice pinnacles surrounding me. However, one of our guides, Adrian, Ellen and I made it in good time and when we arrived at crampon point (the place where you take off or put on your crampons) Dawa Steven Sherpa walked up to me and told me that he had been hearing my voice for the past hour and that he had already been expecting me! You can imagine how embarrassed I felt about that!
Anyway, Dawa Steven Sherpa is running a so-called ‘Eco Everest Expedition’ and he told me that his Sherpas and Sherpas from other expeditions had brought down 5.5 tons of garbage from Camp 1 and 2 and that they were planning to get more rubbish down from the mountain. He said that most of the garbage is old and most of it was tins and helicopter parts from the crashes that happened in 1973 and 2003. He is planning to take the rubbish down to Kumjung, his father’s home village near Namche Bazaar, where they were going to put it into a landfill. I must say that I am very impressed with his actions and I hope that more and more people will take their own rubbish down in the future.
This has turned out to be a rather long dispatch, however, I thought I should tell you a bit more about my life at high altitude. As I said at the beginning of this dispatch, the real waiting game has now begun and we are all ready for our summit push – the only thing we are waiting for now is the notorious weather window and at the moment it does not seem to arrive before the middle of May. However, this means I will have lots of time to keep you updated on my progress here. For the time being I will rest and eat to get strong for my attempt to reach the top of the world!