Everest Northside Expedition – Spring 2016
Gosh, where to start on such a long journey! I’d bore myself and likely you as well if I went blow by blow through the entire trip. So I’ll jump ahead to the interesting parts…
May 29th was the day I first arrived to camp one at 23,000ft/7000m. This is significant because it marks the beginning of my acclimatization rotations on the mountain. I spent one night there and then descended back to Advanced Base Camp at 21,000ft/6400m.
The Seven Summits expedition team I had bought onto included 2 Indian and 2 Belgian climbers. They arrived at ABC with me but would descend a few days after spending one night at Camp 1 to Base Camp at 17,000ft/5200m, which is 12 miles back downhill. They would end up staying there until their summit push on the 21st of May, 3 weeks later! The amount that summit teams leverage oxygen on Everest totally blows my mind! The Northside, though, really lends itself to this sort of acclimatization because everything is so high. While they’re strategy was surprising, it does match the south side it’s just that to achieve the same altitude on the south side requires more days climbing. Something about it still seems wrong, to spend so many weeks sitting in the dusty basin of Base Camp and not using the time to explore the mountain.
In any case, their leaving ABC so soon into the expedition is noteworthy because it left me without a cook. Cooking for myself and/or eating with the Sherpa for dinner was an issue because I couldn’t keep up the caloric intake I needed. It was especially problematic when I would return from a rotation on the mountain, as I was usually too tired to cook. In the end, when I left the mountain, I had lost 25 pounds and looked quite emaciated. For me, weighing 160 pounds is totally crazy, my normal weight is 185.
On the 9th and 10th I pushed to camp 2 at 25,100ft. I spent two nights there and felt great. I slept well, and ate well. On the 10th I climbed to 26,300ft/8000m, touched it, and descended back to camp 2, sleeping the night of the 10th there. After this I went back to ABC, and then all the way down to BC on the 13th of May for the first time since leaving on the 21st of April. So I spent 20 days total at or above 21,000ft, which is sorta crazy. I certainly felt like I was very well acclimatized and ready for the summit – and boy would that go sideways!
I spent two days at Base Camp. Unfortunately, the team I bought onto was going up to ABC the very day I was headed down. So at Base Camp again I wouldn’t have a cook! They did leave the Tibetan cooking assistant down there for me, which is almost always a bad idea having a Tibetan cook for you – think food poisoning. Tibetans rarely shower, like maybe once or twice in their entire lives. Combine that sort of hygiene and my weak western stomach and it never ends well. The day I was to hike the 12 miles back to ABC, the 16th, I started vomiting while eating breakfast. That day hiking to ABC I was feeling super weak from whatever food borne thing I’d caught. Thankfully, after arriving into ABC I had a few days to rest.
I planned to make my summit push on the 23rd of May, the weather forecast showed it as the best day. The forecast called for clear skies and calm winds – it would be colder, but clear and calm. On the 20th I headed to camp 1, feeling strong and making good time. The following day I went to camp 2, moving quickly and passing many teams – nearly all were on oxygen. I didn’t clock myself, but it was likely something slightly under 3 hours. This is significant because the following day my speed would be the first shoe dropping.
The 22nd around 3am bad weather slammed into the camp – high winds and snow. This was unusual because most poor weather arrives in the afternoon – being a product of normal convection cycles in the Himalaya. Poor weather arriving at 3am is always worrisome, especially since it was coming out of Tibet, whereas normally the weather comes out of Nepal.
So I knew this could change the plan. I also knew I shouldn’t try to move in this weather. Rather, I should push back until the 23rd for camp 3 and go for the summit on the 24th. A lull in the weather at around 11am convinced me to make the move to camp 3. But soon after leaving camp 2 the weather came back in. Pushing too fast with a heavy load, I went to camp 3 at 27,000ft/8300m in 4hrs. Breathing in the very cold air at a high aerobic rate without covering my airway with a buff caused my normal altitude cough to get pretty bad. It also caused some light asthma. Arriving in camp 3, I jumped into a tent with 3 friends, Topo, Carla and Pemba – a team from Ecuador.
The first time I really started to notice something was off was shortly after arriving at camp 3. I recall asking Topo to feel my forehead – as I felt like I had a temperature. Neither he, nor Carla, felt like my forehead was hot, so I discounted the feeling. We all took turns using the stoves for water and food and tried to rest. I fell asleep a few times but with 4 people in a 3 person tent and with a large portion of the tent hanging off the edge of the platform it wasn’t extremely comfortable. But camp 3 is only meant to be used as a short stop over, so it was fine.
That night I told Topo that I was starting to have doubts about going on to the summit. He was surprised, like what the hell are you talking about! We’d all worked so hard to get to this moment. But I still felt feverish and overall just crappy. Topo and Carla left for the summit around 9pm, Pemba stayed behind, opting to rest more, and then catch them later in the night. Pemba and I fell deep asleep, I was planning to wake at midnight and reassess how I felt and hopefully try for the summit. When I woke at midnight I still didn’t feel well, so I decided to call it. Pemba took off to catch Topo and Carla and I went back to sleep. I slept great, slept like the dead… too soon?
The next morning I woke up still feeling off. It wasn’t until I got up to go piss that I realized how bad I was. I felt extremely weak just standing up. It was then that I realized I needed to get outta there. As I started to descend I quickly felt weaker and weaker and my breathing became difficult… And then It slammed into me within an hour of leaving camp, I could barely make 30 feet of downward progress before having to rest on my haunches. It was then I realized I was in trouble – and that descending as far as I could became my priority. But as everything quickly continued worsening I started to realize that just getting to my tent at camp 2 would maybe would be as far as I could go. My voice had now disappeared into a whisper. I was alone and only passed a couple people on the descent.
The above video was taken at around 8250m, so a few hundred feet or so below camp 3 (27,000ft/8300m).
They would ask if I was ok, I would lie and say yes. I suppose out of ego, I really didn’t want help down. I wanted to handle the situation myself; it was a dangerous game I was playing! Because what hadn’t dawned on me yet in my hypoxic state was the realization of how much worse I would become and how quickly it would overtake me. Luckily Adrian Ballinger wasn’t buying it, I chatted with him and Cory Richards for a few minutes telling them I would be ok, that I just needed to descend because I was feeling weak. Really though, I was dying, though I was just starting to realize it. I was still quite confused by the speed of my physical decline and the seriousness of my, at the time, unknown affliction.
Adrian likely took one look at me and saw that I was in pretty serious shape. Being buddies from the time we had spent together in ABC, he unknown to me, got in communication with Monica his expedition doctor in BC. I look back and see moments – with certain people and their actions –that almost certainly changed the outcome for me. This is one of those moments. Monica, also a friend from time spent in ABC together, immediately got in communication with a Chilean team descending past me at camp 2 with a teammate suffering from frost bitten hands. They stopped while passing by me, asking how I was. Again I lied saying that I was fine and that I was near my tent where I would rest. Monica coming on over the radio advised me to continue descending to camp 1. Camp 1, I thought? That seemed like someone saying: “Hey, let’s trek the length of fucking China”! It felt that much out of reach. While I was chatting with Monica on their radio, they slipped a Sp02 counter on me; it read 43. That was when I really realized how out of control this was getting! It certainly surprised the Chileans. I recalled a rescue a few years ago on Aconcagua in which I was the main care provider for two HAPE affected climbers. One passed away in the night. He died with a Sp02 in the mid 50’s. Trusting Monica and her advice, I decided I simply had to make Camp 1 happen.
This video was taken at 7900m the very top of camp 2, my tent is 200m lower at 7700m. At the very end of the video you can see the Chilean team descending behind me.
So obviously, why the hell was I still taking video? No clue, guess it’s sorta become my Wilson… y’know the volleyball from that Tom Hank’s movie…
The Chileans stayed with me; which I much appreciated, as they were also helping their teammate down. I had a hard time keeping up with them, the oxygen mask, and likely the super dry air from the oxygen bottle they gave me, started giving me mild asthma attacks. I’d never used oxygen before and in my current state of barely being able to pull in a full breath combined with the asthma made it all feel so claustrophobic; which just complicated matters and slowed me down even more. But at such a low Sp02, I knew it was essential to keep the oxygen mask on. Eventually we made it into camp 1. The Chileans asked me to stay in an empty tent near them instead of my personal tent a ways away. That way their doctor, who was at camp 1, could keep an eye on me. I hadn’t drank any water since the previous evening and I wasn’t in shape to make water, so I went without fluids for quite some time. The Chileans really didn’t have water to spare as they were making tons of hot water to reheat their teammate’s hands.
That night at camp 1 the oxygen they gave me ran out and there wasn’t any more. Basically, they only had enough for their team; which was fine as I didn’t really have a right to even ask for oxygen as I hadn’t brought any myself. But when the bottle ran empty in the evening I knew it was going to be a long torturous night. Their doctor, Sabastian, came into my tent and told me to survive the night I’d need to sit bolt upright and breath actively and meditatively for the remainder of the night. It was good advice, but sitting up all night trying to consciously control my breathing – breathing that wanted to run out of control, wasn’t easy. Pulling in every breath, while struggling against the weight of fluid in my lungs, was pretty awful. As the hours went by it become harder and harder to breath, and soon a deep breath wasn’t even possible and I just tried not to fall into panicked panting.
My voice was still just a whisper and the radio the doctor gave me wasn’t working – so I sat alone and I now fully understood the serious state I was in. The understanding that I could die kept me pretty focused on what I needed to do, I suppose from necessity. When the morning finally came, I knew I would need oxygen to make the descent to ABC. I tried to get out of the tent and head to a large team nearby who I knew would have plenty of half used bottles. But as I exited the tent I fell down, as I got back up a Sherpa friend of mine who I’d been supplying with chewing tobacco for weeks, was walking past. He instantly came to see what was up, his worry obviously pronounced in his eyes. He was able to go to the team for me and get a half used bottle, I told him I’d be fine and to continue his climb to camp 2. I knew this was my chance to escape C1 to ABC, I went back into the tent and was about to start packing up when the Chileans came by to tell me a friend from Alpenglow was on his way from ABC. I knew it had to be Zeb Blais who I’d worked with at RMI for the last 4 years, we’d run an Aconcagua trip together and were close friends. I was pretty elated to hear this news. Within just 30 or so minutes he popped his head into my vestibule – and it was like a fucking angel appeared. He instantly went guide-rescue mode making water and packing up my stuff in his bag. Within a few minutes he’d made me two liters of water and we were headed down hill, he’d also brought me a full bottle of oxygen.
The water was crucial because to my surprise and worry that morning I’d pissed straight black. No joke, my urine was black as coffee… I knew this was sub-optimal but at the time I just didn’t have the energy to do much about it. I had even bigger issues, like breathing. We made the descent from camp 1 to ABC in around 3 hours.
My expedition team had packed up and already left the mountain, leaving me behind. They had already told me prior to my summit push that they wouldn’t wait the extra two days for me, and that my exit from Nepal would have to be with another team. So arriving to ABC was an issue. Luckily Adrian, owner of Alpenglow expeditions, offered to have me stay at their ABC tents instead of me being alone in my tent. I had become good friends with the team during the weeks at ABC, especially since we were trying for the same goal – an ascent without supplemental oxygen, and my buddy Zeb was guiding for them. Monica Piris, their doctor, had also become a good friend. Her care and compassion for me is something I’ll never forget. She is probably one of the most knowledgeable high altitude doctors out there. I will undoubtedly forever feel indebted to her, I really can’t put into words what her care meant to me during some tough days. Also Adrian made his extra oxygen available to me which was a huge component to my recovery.
The first night at ABC on the 24th was rough; I wasn’t getting much better, even though I’d now dropped 6,000ft. I recall before I went to bed and I told Monica I was nervous and I remember her words to me, “I am too” with worry in her voice but those words were comforting for some reason. She asked Zeb to sleep in the dome tent with me to watch over me and to get her if things got worse. She warned me that from the hypoxic state I was in that if I did fall asleep I might wake up confused. At this point I hadn’t slept much for nearly two days, so I would nod off for maybe 30 minutes to an hour – it’s hard to say. When I would wake, I was sort of outta my mind. I recall one time waking in the night and I was totally lost. I had no idea where I was or what was happening to me and I remember thinking the government was after me or something… I started yelling at Zeb like a crazy person, Zeb was pretty startled. Now, looking back, it’s pretty funny. I think I was about to start throwing pillows at Zeb and then it all started coming back to me and I calmed down. It was crazy but throughout the night I would wake and have to fight the hypoxic urge to lose it. I could still remember remembering where I was from the last time. But my mind was telling me all these crazy things! And in this fog of crazy thoughts, I had the faint memory of the reality of my situation – but it was hard to hold onto. Anyway, by the next morning I was a little better but I was still very weak and could barely make it the 20 feet to the bathroom.
By the morning of the 25th I was feeling a small amount better but I had the next big hurdle looming in front of me, the 12 miles of moraine to Base Camp at 17,000ft. That was the next big goal! To get myself down to Base Camp. I wasn’t really healing very well at ABC at 21,000ft, so the 4000ft drop was where Monica wanted me to get to as fast as possible. I insisted that I needed the 25th as a rest day at ABC and I’d move to Base Camp on the 26th. Even though I knew she was right… I’d had to fight so hard to get to ABC that I just needed a day to rest – mentally – more than anything. On the 26th the Aplenglow team left Base Camp in the early morning and I walked over to TAG Nepal Tendi Sherpa’s company. This was the team which Seven Summits had switched my permit to for exiting Nepal. Monica had arranged for 6 Tibetans to come to ABC to help me down. Though difficult, walking was possible for me on flat ground, but my resting heart rate had been pretty steady at 130 for the last couple of days, so walking uphill just wasn’t possible. And there was a danger in bringing my heart rate any higher, the danger of after days of a 130 resting heart rate that it could maybe just give out…
So Tendi decided – to my great shame – that the best option was for me to ride a yak for legs of the journey down to BC!
Yes, a fucking yak… My head is now in my hands as I write this, the great shame of my life!
How is it possible to ride a yak you ask? Not easily. They picked the calmest yak and used a sling to make stirrups. Calmest was key; as yaks have a habit of bucking until their loads go flying off. My friends Topo and Carla joined me for the slow ride / walk out which was super comforting to have them nearby. I really didn’t want be left with 6 Tibetans and a yak in the middle of nowhere in my current state. The Tibetan’s were too kindheartedly concerned, when I’d walk they’d always be grabbing and trying to hold me upright, which didn’t help. While we were crossing some ice, I went across this one fin of ice and all of a sudden out of nowhere the Tibetan’s started jumping at me flying by trying to grab my arms to steady me but as they slipped and slide on the ice they were pulling me in 2 or 3 directions. I finally had to ask them to just stop “helping”!
As I walked the last mile or so into Base Camp I was finally feeling an improvement in my condition, the 4000ft drop was helping a ton. Soon a car from the CTMA (Chinese Tibetan Mountaineering Association) showed up, they said they were there to take me to the hospital which later I’d find out was just the airport… As in they were taking me to the hospital which was anywhere but there in Tibet.
Then I was in Kathmandu, it was the 28th of May, and the ordeal was pretty much over, I still had a bad cough but the fluid was nearly gone from my lungs. At 4000ft Kathmandu was where I started making big strides in my condition. On the 3rd of June I flew back to California.
After speaking with a specialist stateside the consensus is that I had a virus in my system during the summit push that combined with some light asthma on the 22nd may have been the perfect shit storm of circumstances to cause a pretty fierce case of HAPE. Though obviously it could have just been brought on by sleeping at 27,000ft and being there for nearly 20 hours. I suppose I won’t know until I retry Everest. I feel the need to go back, but it also worries me. I don’t ever want to experience that again. I don’t ever want to have to fight to survive like that again…
If/When I do go back I will have to make changes to my program, solo / nO’s is only “cool” if you pull it off. What happened to me up there was very much un-fucking-cool. These changes are also out of respect for the efforts of everyone who assisted me. Emergency oxygen cache is an obvious change. It’ll require double carries, which is why I haven’t done it before. A cache at Camp 2 along with carrying a bottle on the summit push. I likely won’t take this precaution on lower 8000m peaks – but Everest isn’t at all like other 8000m peaks. Everest without O’s and without personal Sherpa carrying your things and making camps is sorta crazy. It’s like summiting a normal 8000m peak but carrying a full load to the top, making camp, and then summiting another 8000m after just a few hours of rest… it’s a crazy endurance feat combined with the most insidiously dangerous place in the world.
And now that I’m back in California, I’ve been told to lay low until the end of the month. After which I look forward to a summer spent in my home range of the Sierra Nevada, I’ll be guiding with Sierra Mountaineering International and focusing on getting back into fighting shape. I’ve also been given the green light to return to the Himalaya – and while it makes me nervous because I don’t really want to ever experience HAPE’ing out again – you know what they say, when a horse bucks you off the thing to do is get back on. After being turned back by the earthquake on Annapurna last spring and then this incident on Everest, I would be lying if I said I don’t feel the need for some redemption.
Thank you all for the kind words and encouragement posted to this blog during the expedition and I really appreciate that folks follow along!
Shisha Pangma Expedition Write-Up
This report captures April 29th – 1st May 2014 on Shisha Pangma spring 2014.
Azim started off into the deep fog of a worsening storm. The mist was so heavy we could barely make each other out. The horizon and the ground were indistinguishable. We were descending from 24,000ft and we were both on edge after he’d nearly walked off an ice cliff. After finding the bamboo wand I’d left marking the correct path down to Camp 1 I shouted over to him. He started down off the ledge but before I could do the same I heard an unnerving sound above the wind. Azim started quickly back stepping toward me, concern clearly on his face. “I STEP AND CUT!” he said repeatedly trying to convey that the snow slope had just released below him. I knelt in the snow, reflecting on my decision to race a storm to the summit of Shisha Pangma.
72 hours earlier
I had bought onto an Arab team’s permit for Shisha Pangma. Among them was Azim, an experienced Iranian climber with 12 peaks over 8000 meters under his belt, and a team of two inexperienced climbers from Azerbaijan. I had met Azim on other Himalayan climbs, and I had confidence in his mountaineering skills. Azim entered the cook tent with a sense of urgency about him, “Alex I go up”, he said. He’d just talked to the Slovenian team’s cook and learned that their forecaster was predicting a two day weather window – ending in a storm. They’d left earlier that morning which put his planned ascent a day late. “Alex, you come?” Azim asked. The Azerbaijanis were going, but I wasn’t so sure. We’d arrived at Base Camp only a few days earlier, and we had only one night at Camp 1 for acclimatization. “Azim I no go up, ok?” I said. Both Azim and I came to Shisha Pangma solo but had teamed up to open the route to Camp 1 after it had been declared too dangerous.
I couldn’t justify racing a storm to the summit and it was never my style to do so. But the next morning I could hear Indra giving out boiled eggs and Chappati to Azim and the team from Azerbaijan. I jumped up, having changed my mind, and quickly packed. They all left an hour before me but I quickly passed the team from Azerbaijan, Azim I wouldn’t see until Camp 1. The route to Camp 1 was riddled with crevasses thinly re-bridged by the continual afternoon storms. “Safe” passage through these crevassed areas required probing ahead with one’s ski pole, slowing progress.
To beat the storm to the summit required a push from Base Camp to Camp 2, and then the following day a climb to Camp 3. Then, after that push, waking early the following night for a push to the summit via the Inaki route. Meanwhile accepting that the descent would likely be in the early stages of a major storm. Azim and I decided to share a tent at Camp 3, but continue climbing independently.
The ascent to Camp 1 was into worsening weather, winds 30 with light snow. This first camp was ringed by large crevasses. The cost of entry into Camp 1 required an intimidating jump. A jump I’d missed on the first try, plunging into the Northeast glacier of Shisha Pangma. Luckily then I was roped. Finding a different passage this time I gingerly stepped across the narrow crevasse bridging I’d found. It worked, and I safely arrived at Camp 1. I took shelter and made some hot tang, reloading calories for the move to Camp 2. The Azerbaijanis were a ways behind and didn’t appear to be doing well. I departed for Camp 2 as the weather seemed to be clearing a bit – or possibly just luring me higher? The long slope to Camp 2 seemed endless, limited acclimatization and a doubt filled mind enhanced my sense of the interminability of my ascent. As I got high onto the headwall the weather started to deteriorate into a violent afternoon storm. I knew that this environment was threatening my safety. Because I wasn’t familiar with where Camp 2 was, and the poor visibility was making it difficult to suss out. I was quickly losing feeling in my hands. If I lost my hands I wouldn’t be able to change into my down suit and I’d be in the worst kind of trouble. With numb hands I rushed into my down suit, cutting the legs in places with my crampons. I didn’t pay this mishap any mind though, as duct tape would be an easy fix later on. In a brief moment of increased visibility I made out Camp 2 about 300 yards in my direction of travel. Greatly relieved, I arrived and quickly made camp.
In the fading evening light the Azerbaijanis pulled into C2. They looked trashed.
The next day they descend back to Depot camp, one of them having a bad case of HAPE. I’ll run into the HAPE affected Azerbaijani on the moraine outside of Base Camp two days from now. He’ll be laying on the rocks dying as his partner races for help. I’ll give him a ridiculous amount of Dexamethasone and put him on oxygen back in Base Camp. An older man with a family, he’ll leave Shisha Pangma alive with plans to return to the Himalaya.
Later that day, Azim and I leave Camp 2, it’s a long walk across a large corridor to the slopes leading up to Camp 3. We make a lower Camp 3 right below this rocky mixed terrain leading to the Northeast ridge.
Peering outside the vestibule at 1am on my summit morning it was as if my eyes were shut. The night was the most pitch black I’ve ever experienced. A high cloud deck at 30,000ft and a moonless night was the culprit. The complicated maze of rocky mixed terrain between I and the Northeast ridge would be too difficult to navigate in this inky night. It wasn’t until 5:30am at first light that I was able to depart for the summit. Losing precious time before the weather was predicted to overtake Shisha Pangma.
Azim had left earlier that morning in his usual unstoppable manner.
As I put my crampons on I got a bad feeling in my gut. It was an eerie morning, still and relatively warm with a high and low cloud deck. The lower deck had large thunder heads in the distant Himalaya. It was the kind of day that lures you into the sometimes inescapable heights of 8000 meters. I departed, and making good progress, climbed higher and higher.
As I climbed the weather below rose steadily. Thunder boomed in the not so far distance. The clouds surrounded Shisha Pangma but held off at the edges of the mountain. Coaxing me higher. But soon the thunder was rattling me to my bones, clouds overtook me and snow started falling heavily. Doubt clawed at me. I reckoned I was 4 hours from the summit, somewhere on the Inaki. My mind was filled with reasons to turn, reasons to continue. My steps forward slowed as my mind raced. Azim and I the only people on the mountain, each alone, somewhere on the Inaki. Overtaken by the predicted storm. I stopped, I turned around. This decision would become my biggest regret. The milk was already spilled, the price already paid, I may have well collected my prize.
I got back to the tent Azim and I were sharing. Windows of visibility opened and closed as the storm built. This was my moment to escape. But the realization hit me that Azim still summit bound wouldn’t be able to descend without a GPS. We weren’t a team though; did I have an obligation to risk my life further for him? For me, he was pushing past a reasonable level of risk. But was he doing what I should have – pushed through the doubt. I shouldered my pack and took a few steps, leaving Azim….but I couldn’t do it. I put my pack back into the vestibule and sat in the tent. My anxiety built as time went by and the storm continued building.
Late that evening Azim arrived back at camp. He’d left it all on the table, and made the summit. I made him tea and the last of our combined food. It was too late to leave camp. We started out the next morning into the teeth of the storm. GPS in one hand, ski pole in the other; probing ahead. Visibility nil, progress slow, occasionally punching into holes, tripping over rolls of new snow and sastrugi.
Take-away from Shisha Pangma
Climbing 8000 meter peaks solo and without O’s is an absurdly hazardous undertaking. In order to succeed with any consistency in the Himalaya, one must accept a degree of personal risk that, by every day standards, is patently unacceptable. I realized on Shisha Pangma that I had previously viewed risk acceptance on the 8000 meter peaks in terms of the everyday as opposed to the extraordinary risk acceptance necessary for success in the given style of my expeditions. The amount of risk I would have accepted by continuing on to the summit, while extraordinary compared to the everyday, would paled in comparison to the amount of risk I had already undertaken in mounting the expedition. Shisha Pangma taught me that I need a paradigm shift in the way I think about risk when pursuing my goals in the high Himalaya.
Cho Oyu Expedition Write-Up
This past Autumn I left the surf and sand of Southern California to attempt my first 8000 meter peak, solo, without supplemental oxygen or Sherpa support. I don’t quite remember when the idea came about, but climbing a Himalayan giant is something I’ve dreamt of since an early age. This project always struck me as a rematch of sorts, as my first foray into mountaineering as a teen was a botched solo attempt on Mt. Whitney in January. That first climb put me through the ringer and I departed for this expedition fully expecting the same.
With expeditions like this, the unknowns are bound to be many; I heard differing opinions on just about everything. “Kathmandu is modern and you can buy all your supplies there,” one person would say, and then the next day I would hear the opposite. For the record, Kathmandu is definitely not modern – but all this can be fun. I found adventure in the 21st century and that seems to be rare. So I planned for what I could and insulated myself from what I couldn’t. It was exhilarating to know that I had no conception of everything I’d face.
Near midnight on the 1st of September, I hit the tarmac of Kathmandu International Airport. The city of Kathmandu sits within a large valley at the foot of the Himalaya. Its streets are crowded and its buildings somewhat dilapidated, but the people are kind and the food is fantastic. Surely much has changed since the first westerners arrived, but there is still a sense of lore about the place. Hindu temples, large and small are strewn about, filled with worshipers and Buddhist monks’ roaming the streets. The entirety of this cast against the gear shops and bustle of everyday city life in an area steeped in climbing history.
September 10th I arrived at Chinese base camp, the “end of the road”. Over the previous week I’d driven through the alpine rainforests of Nepal and into the moonscape of the Tibetan Plateau. At the Tibetan border it is necessary to leave your Nepali ride and walk across the “friendship bridge” flanked on either side by the Nepalese and Chinese military. Once across, I met my Chinese Liaison and Tibetan driver. We quickly departed and speedily wove through the streets of Zangmu, a border town perpetually stuck in a dense fog of clouds as they collide with the rising Tibetan Plateau. At Chinese base camp (BC) (16,300ft) I still was 2,400’ vertical feet and an unknown distance from advanced base camp (ABC). I spent 3 days at BC waiting for yaks (pack animals that would move my supplies to ABC). While waiting, I developed a terribly bothersome head cold; unfortunately this was not the only time I got sick during this expedition. Days later and sick as a dog, I trekked the last distance into ABC, low visibility, snowing hard with a frigid wind in my face.
We erected ABC (18,700ft) and soon I fell into the rhythm of establishing higher camps mixed with days of leisure. Everything seemed to slowly come together, as I prepared my body and my supplies for a possible summit window in the beginning of October. I think what kept me most sane during the expedition was my focus on the immediate. An undertaking such as this can be daunting if you try to grasp the sum of the next 20 day span all at once, including the challenges yet to be overcome. So I’d only Spool out as much time as was immediately necessary in my mind, and kept my thoughts off the many days ahead of me to reach the summit.
Throughout the climbing period of the expedition I kept a brisk pace between camps, taking care not to push myself so hard that I couldn’t construct camp and take care of myself adequately afterwards. It’s a fine line up there; it’s far too easy to push yourself past the limit. I saw this countless times with other climbers but they had the safety net of Sherpa’s, guides, and team mates to assist them when they took on too much. I had no such safeguard and this was something I had to always take into account. I wouldn’t want to put a negative connotation on climbing solo though, because it was gratifying in its simplicity.
On September 30th I pulled into C3 at 24,500’. I recall constructing camp atop a small ridge of snow perched beneath the notorious yellow band… Here I definitely felt the altitude, beneath me two Sherpa friends were digging in a platform for their team’s arrival. I’d look over at them as I was catching my breath and they’d be doing the same, smiling and laughing with each other at the ridiculousness of it all.
Climbing without supplemental oxygen and solo (or as solo as it gets on Cho Oyu) has dangers that are heightened, namely the two forms of edema HAPE and HACE. These affect the lungs and/or brain and are deadly if they persist for too long without descending to lower altitudes. These conditions mainly strike during the night as your breathing naturally decreases. Being on your own when this happens can be mortally dangerous. I took measures to lower my risk by staying hydrated, well feed, comfortable, stress free, and I always kept a wary eye on my breathing and short term memory. The year prior I’d seen firsthand the grim realities of high altitude mountaineering on Argentina’s Aconcagua, after a rescue of another team turned tragic. Cerro Aconcagua was my previous high point at 22,841ft. Everything beyond was unknown and I was well above that now and pushing higher. In hindsight, perhaps maybe I should have been more nervous at these altitudes, but I suppose I never felt threatened by them. As was the case in all my previous expeditions, the altitude only seemed to leave me breathless and nothing worse, not even a headache. And so I hydrated, ate and went to bed excited for my summit attempt only hours away.
I awoke at 12 midnight; outside I could hear guides addressing their climbers, the hiss of oxygen bottles as the regulators were spun on and the crunch of crampons engaging the firm snow as the first teams departed. My tent was faintly lit by climbers’ torches as they passed and the walls were lined with ice that rained down with the slightest nudge. I gave myself a once over, everything felt good and I was ready. I roused and started my stove, opened a few vents to ensure proper ventilation and stuck my head out the top of the tent. I had spoken to the leaders of the other expeditions and they were leaving quite early, at 12 midnight which meant they had woken up hours earlier. My plan was to leave as late as 2 am for two reasons: firstly I wanted to meet sunrise sooner as I would be running colder without O’s, and secondly to give the other teams a large enough head start to ensure I could keep warm by continually climbing. But this night would be jinxed from the moment I spilled my hot water all over the tent.
As the other teams passed, and in a moment of carelessness, I fumbled a liter of water in my tent. Luckily, everything required for the summit push was outside in my pack. But with the threat of getting my boots or down suit wet I decided to depart for the summit immediately. The time was 1 am, an hour earlier than I had planned, and as soon as I left my tent I saw a traffic jam forming at the yellow band – a formation of rock above C3. Hoping that their supplemental oxygen would see them through with some speed I continued on, but as I ascended it became apparent that they would not climb as hastily as I had hoped. As I sat in line below this technical rock step my extremities lost feeling. My hands were easily reinvigorated by swinging them in circles – something we call “windmills”. But climbing through the chilly night, I wasn’t able to completely regain feeling in my toes, this was a constant concern. However, I had not lost the ability to wiggle them as I took each step so I continued climbing into the night.
After the yellow band, I threaded my way through a steeper section comprised of rock and snow, unclipping from the fixed lines and passing other teams as often as I was able too. The process of passing other teams at that altitude is quite tiring as I abandoned my efficient rhythm for a faster pace outside of the beaten in route, at times breaking into the snow up to my knees. Luckily I only had to do this 3 or 4 times since as the majority of the climbers were moving faster than I was, with their bottled oxygen giving them more stamina. I recall one moment at 25,800ft when I became exceedingly nauseous. But it quickly passed and I continued on. This was the only moment I felt the altitude affect me.
At C3, when I left, it was warm and still with high clouds touching the summit, but now, at 26,000ft, a light wind had picked up and the last of the high clouds were blowing over me. My suit was covered in ice and I had to stop periodically to rewarm my face by burying it in the cowl of my hood. As I reached striking distance of the summit (or so I thought) the horizon became faintly lit. And god was I encouraged by what it signified!
As I came over the top onto the summit plateau I saw a high point off to my left but Liz Hawley, an elderly woman who keeps the records of the Himalaya, warned me against this. I met Liz in Kathmandu, and discussed my plan for the expedition. She instructed me, “When you enter the plateau you’ll see a high point off to your left that seems to be the obvious summit, but go forward and slightly to your right and continue until you see Everest. This will be the true summit.” I recalled her words and continued on straight. Those last 45 minutes plodding along at 26,900ft for what seemed an eternity, a quarter of a mile, the summit not even visible (or so I thought) was the hardest for me. I had nothing to hold onto. The plateau seemly stretches beyond the visible horizon. Despair mounted at the thought of having to start grid searching for the damnable thing, I scanned the plateau again. It was then that I noticed a single string of prayer flags off in the distance to my right, on a mound no higher than 3 feet from the point I was standing. It was the summit, maybe one of the least climactic summits I’ve experienced, but I was deeply relieved when I got there and found myself standing at the summit of Cho Oyu!
I was on top for about 15 minutes. Most of the time seated on my pack eating peanut M&M’s and washing them down with warm Tang from my thermos. I made a speedy descent to C3, quickly packed and made the entire descent to ABC, arriving soon after dusk. Dawa, one of my cooks waited outside of ABC for me with hot tea and a huge smile, after a celebratory embrace we descended the last 15 minutes together into ABC. I felt relieved to be finished. The day was October 1st, I had summited at 8:20 am that morning Nepali time.
You know, I’ve been asked what it felt like for everything to culminate and be on top. That feeling of accomplishment or exhilaration – what was it like? But I think what draws me isn’t that singular moment at the top or any feeling of exhilaration from being there. Instead it’s the quieter and constant sense of contentment that comes from the simplicity of mountaineering, the journey along the way and being surrounded by extraordinary beauty that challenges you to conquer – not the mountain – but yourself. For me the journey is the destination.
Andes Expedition Write-Up
December 12th, 2012 the team set off for the Andes Expedition in South America to climb both Cerro Aconcagua (elev. 22,841ft), the highest peak outside of the Himalaya, and Ojos del Salado (elev. 22,615ft), the highest Volcano in the world. This account of the expedition will be a brief synopsis, a testament to the best laid plans and the unpredictability of the highest mountains in the world. Our original goal was to attempt the summits of both mountains in a 25-day window, which was an ambitious but feasible goal as long as neither mountain threw too many delays.
The team landed in Mendoza, Argentina on December 13th, 2012. After a few days of logistics, organizing gear, and loading our mule at the Vacas Valley entrance to the national park of Cerro Aconcagua, the team began our 2-day trek to Base Camp (elev. 13,940ft). The expedition of Aconcagua took a total of 18 days and we summitted on the 16th day. Our first summit attempt was via the Polish Glacier but it was unsuccessful as we were blown off by high winds that reached 135mph on the summit. We experienced winds in excess of 70mph at Camp 2 before retreating to Base Camp to wait out the wind storm. Because of our retreat to Base Camp, the team was able to enjoy a lively Christmas Eve with the porters and local guides, which included many luxuries we had been without for a while. These luxuries consisted of delicious food, drinks, and people to talk to other than each other. We had stashed much of our gear at Camp 2 before our descent, so our ascent back to Camp 2 was made easier. While at Camp 1 (elev. 16,400ft) the decision was made to abandon the Polish Glacier route for another route called the Polish Traverse, which provoked lively tent debate, as did our previous decision to turn around on our first summit attempt. Ultimately, the decision was made because the Traverse was more easily down-climbable then the true Polish and we had two health concerns to consider. David had been suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness above 16,000ft, and Carter had mildly sprained his ankle. As climbers, it was a disappointment to leave a technical and rarely climbed route for the traverse up Aconcagua, but the decision came down to the safety of the entire team. We reached the summit of Cerro Aconcagua (elev. 22,841ft) on December 28th at 1:13pm (total ascent time of 8 hours and 43 mins). It was a beautiful day, being windless and sunny on top of the western hemisphere. On the descent, it quickly turned cloudy and began to snow steadily.
The multiple snow and wind storms that left us tent-bound for around 10 days were the main delays to our expedition, but through the many setbacks weather gave us the team stoke stayed high. The entire expedition went smoothly for us even with the delays because the team functioned well as a unit. An important part of that is being able to openly debate crucial decisions and handling tent life well. The only incident in the expedition came when we arrived back at Camp 2 after summiting when Alex (expeditionary leader and medic) responded to a medical emergency regarding a climber suffering from severe High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). A team of three Americans had attempted the Polish Glacier Direct but got stuck high on the route at 21,000ft, suffering from HAPE and exposure. Only two of three made it back to high camp alive. That night one of the two climbers (who were twin brothers) passed away from HAPE despite the best efforts to preserve his life. It broke the team’s heart to watch a fellow climber pass away in the mountains, a place that is special to all of us. Options and supplies are limited at 20,000ft and terrain dictates how far and fast someone can be moved after they can no longer self-rescue. Fortunately, resources arrived in the form of Argentinean Park Rangers who were radioed in to evacuate the final climber, who was also suffering from a less severe case of HAPE. He was the only survivor of the three-man team. The rest of the descent went by quickly and without further incident.
Unfortunately, the expedition didn’t have enough time to attempt the summit of Oso del Salado, but we were able to complete our main objective, Cerro Aconcagua (elev. 22,841ft), the highest peak outside of the Himalaya. This expedition to Aconcagua was a challenge and tested our limits, but ultimately the mountain allowed us to touch its perilous summit.