Expedition report – Shisha Pangma

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.

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Base camp

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.

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Below Camp 1

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.

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Near Depot camp

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.

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Yak man

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.

Summit Day

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.

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Descending from Camp 3

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.

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