Saturday, April 26, 2008


Mila (Super Mila)
Naranyasthan, Nepal (Kabre Polangchock, near Kathmandu)

Mila is the first member of his caste and Region to summit Everest, which he did with Willie last year.

He is our lead cook down at Everest Base Camp and has been working in the mountains since 1992. He started as a porter, and then worked his way up to trekking cook with Malla Trek, where he traveled with them on various expeditions. His favorite treks were to Annapurna, Everest Base Camp and Manasalu. In 1999, he joined Mountain Madness as a cook, eventually working his way up to where he is now- Head Cook.

Mila first saw work in the mountains as a hobby, and after a while, he liked to cook, so he wanted to change his specialty to cooking. In order to change professions, he took special classes at the National Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management in Soltimod, Nepal. From there, he began working in the kitchen of trekking companies as they traveled through the countryside. Some of his favorite meals to cook are Italian, sometimes Dalbat, Chinese, Indian, and fusion foods.

When Mila reached the summit of Mt. Everest, he was very excited and thought that it was fairly easy, thanks to being in great shape. After he summited Everest, he was invited to join the 16 Social Societies of Nepal and there was a large ceremony in Kathmandu with lots of medals and certificates- a very special honor where Mila was the first of his caste and Region again to be invited into this special Fraternity.

Before he summited Mt. Everest, he summited Co Oyu with Chris Boskoff in 2006.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Danubu Sherpa

Danubu Sherpa
Kharikhola, Nepal (Everest Region)

Danubu has summited Mt. Everest seven times- once from the Tibet side, and six times via Nepal.

As the second youngest of five brothers, all are, or were Climbing Sherpas. Danubu's oldest brother was killed by Avalanche on Annapurna I along with his entire climbing team. Lama Jambu is also his brother, who was forced to call off his climb with us when he fell ill. Another brother, Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa, holds the World Record for Base Camp -> Summit on Mt. Everest of 10 hours, 56 minutes. Presently, Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa lives in the United States with his immediate family. His younger brother is also a Climbing Sherpa and summited once last year.

Before he became a climber, Danubu was a shepherd, looking after animals for the family. Danubu's neighbors were guiding a Mirror Peak British Team and asked him if he would like to go along for the experience. Danubu supported the other guide and summited Mirror Peak in 1996. From this point forward, he was very interested in climbing and decided that he wanted to change careers to be a full-time Climbing Sherpa.

Danubu's first Everest climb was in 1997 from the Nepal side and then summited in 2000 via the South Col with another British team. Over the next several years, he continued to climb via Nepal with the exception of last year, when he summited from the North side with a French team. His opinion, shared with Tendi, is that the North side is an easier route of climb but definitely like the Nepal route better because it's in their home country.

Danubu is highly trained in mountaineering skills and experience, and 2001 was his first time working with the Mountain Madness team. In 2007, Danubu went to the English Language Institute in Kathmandu to learn formally. As a result he is excited to practice English more with our team and learn some American ways of speaking.

He climbs because he wants to support his family, and this season he was supposed to climb via the North route, but because of the Torch Relay was rescheduled to climb with our team when his brother fell ill.

Altitude vs. Hard Drives

If you look on the side of computers like your standard ThinkPad or Dell, you'll see a spec outlining a maximum altitude of 10,000'. This includes iPods and anything not running Flash Memory. The reason is simple physics: a disc runs in between two readers- an electronic charge passes between the disc and *presto* memory. The altitude challenge comes in thanks to limited oxygen molecules, which aid the disc in "floating" between the readers on a bed of oxygen molecules, passing the charge. Looking very much like record needles, with limited O2 to provide a buffer and allow the disc to float in a stable manner, the disc wobbles, scratches on the readers, and loses memory. Enough of this and your hard drive is rendered useless.

Still, here's a list of our electronics, what is working and what has encountered problems:

- iPod: Works in Base Camp, although from time to time strangely turns itself on. Damn ghosts... higher than Base Camp, it's toast.

- iPod Shuffle: Works like a charm, even up high. Computer connector for charging this little lightweight toy is at Base Camp, solar charger is for use up high. Man, is this thing popular with the Sherpas. G-Man and Tendi barely let me keep it long enough to charge it when not in my pocket. Lhakpa has laid claim to it after this trip is over. Might as well scratch "Lhakpa" into the back. Mom won this in some Safeway drawing, believe it or not.

- Dell 600: For use solely at Base Camp, running basic Windows XP and an older version of IE. Trucks along reliably, charges using our Base Camp electrical setup. There's some rhyme or reason to this solar/battery/generator wiring harness that we are keeping our fingers crossed will make sense by the time we leave here.

- Dell XPS: Same as the 600 model, Windows XP and straight out of the box enroute to here. Works in Base Camp, hasn't gone higher.

- Itronix Duo-Touch: Works great at all altitudes, has a Flash hard drive as set up by the General Dynamics guys. Touch screen cracked in the cold, rendering the stylus useless. So we have to attach a keypad & mouse to continue operating. Other than that, no problems whatsoever, probably going to Camp II & III if this dispatch blackout ever ends.

- BGAN: Need a PhD to operate initially; User Guide is about 700 pages thick. Works well once you figure it out.

Four Season Tent Review

Some tents have pockets, some don't. For the life of me, I can't understand why on earth they wouldn't have pockets. I mean, where are you supposed to put all of the stuff you need to grab in the middle of the night when you only want to stick one arm out of your bag?

The North Face VE-35 is a perfect example of a tent with sparse pockets- comical in a way given that I now share a VE-35. Looking inside, it may appear as if a down bomb went off, but if in-fact you can look beyond that, you will notice two teeny and inconvenient pockets, way off at the top of the tent ceiling. So most of the things you want in arm's reach- aren't. Narrow in the center and given that Joe's a bit bigger than me and has more stuff, this means that we end up snuggling all night and he gets 2/3 of the tent anyway. VE-35? Booo!

At Base Camp, we all have Mountain Hardware Trango 3.1s. These, we have as singles to spread out in. They have oodles of pockets and these are located on walls, ceilings and entryways. You can put tons & tons of stuff literally everywhere. It would make the tent sharing experience much more tolerable for sure. Trango 3.1? Thumbs up.

The North Face VE-25 is a much more modern and expeditionary tent than the VE-35. Wider in the center, containing a much more solid vestibule than the VE-35, the VE-25 also has more floor space in the inside and actually has pockets that you can shove in Blistex, head lamps, pee bottles, you name it. All of these items being within immediate reach when it's all frosty inside the tent because you forgot to unzip an air vent and your breath now clings to the roof, conveniently snowing down onto you when you accidentally bump the tent side. And, the hot water bottle jammed down into the bottom of your bag has lost all of its heat- this tent is awesome! VE-25? Thumbs up.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Joe Bonner

Joe Bonner
Tacoma, Washington

Early in his career, Joe spent many years working in Saudi Arabia and Ghana, enjoying the challenges of working in third world countries and the chance to meet and live with different cultures. Years later, living in Washington State, Joe took several climbing courses with the Tacoma Mountaineers, a local organization promoting outdoor activities. With several friends, he soon expanded his climbing activities outside Washington into Alaska and Africa. After reading Dick Bass's book "The Seven Summits" in which two friends attempt to climb the highest mountain in every continent, Joe decided the seven summit goal was an excellent way to combine seeing remote parts of the world with climbing. To date, Joe as climbed six of the "seven" summits, with only Everest and Carstensz Pyramid remaining. (There is still debate as to which mountain is the highest in Oceania, Kosciusko in Australia or Carstensz in New Guinea, so most people climb both!)

Time To Fix Cuts

The lack of oxygen up here is amazing. We were reading a Mountaineering Medicine book and it referenced close to 1/2 the amount of oxygen here, relative to Sea Level.

Given that lack of oxygen, its amazing what happens, and what doesn't happen. One example of what doesn't happen is that cuts don't heal quickly.

On Day One at Base Camp, I was moving rocks, getting Lhakpa's tent platform together. While grabbing one particular rock, I knocked my index finger onto an adjacent one, pulling off a few layers of skin and drawing blood in the process. That was on April 7th.

Slapping on Neosporin day after day, this is what the cut still looks like:

Finally subsiding, I was all happy to have that cut behind me. Reason being that no one wants to have to deal with cuts and bruises in their daily hygiene. So then this morning, while dealing with the rapidly expanding Lake District by my tent, G-Man and I were moving rocks again, creating a channel to drain water. -Poof- rapped another knuckle on a rock. Start the Neosporin process all over again.


I was told that several questions revolved around our interaction with other teams while here. Truth be told, the interaction is definitely limited- in Base Camp. The terrain is so rocky, the gravel so frustrating that it's like walking on a Slip-n-Slide. Base Camp resides on a glacier, so essentially all you need to do is dig down through all the sloppy rock and you have ice.
Frequently, especially through the nicer hours of the day when the sun is out, people can travel between camps. But one misplaced step and you quickly find yourself on your ass when you put your foot down on a spot where there wasn’t a few inches of gravel- there wasn't any and -whoop- you reenact that famous Charlie Chaplin skit of slipping on a banana for the amusement of all Sherpas within viewing distance.

Yesterday Willie wanted to go on a "shortcut." I swear I'm never falling for this again. While Joe sagely declined and made it back to our cook tent 20 minutes before we did, Francisco and I were led deep into the moraine field where I actually found myself surfing 10' down a steep face on a rock surfboard. Slipping, sliding, and cursing the whole way back, Francisco and I vowed that the scramble back into Base is one of the most tiring and frustrating parts of any evolution we have embarked on.

Yet, Base Camp is a necessary part of this expedition, and it's literally a village out here. Tent camps pop up every day as the population here ebbs and flows.

And fortunately, as the camp grows in size, mini-paths are also popping up as frustrated climbers get tired of people walking through their backyards. These trails have little rock walls, some even have rock entryways, complete with flat rocks where someone has written expedition names with a Sharpie pen.

These tend to make the 40 minute slog through Base Camp a little more tolerable, but even then the dramatic change in temperatures at the drop of a hat and way that the winding trails go up and down across the glacier make it more likely for interaction within your camp and less likely for cross-contact at this stage. Except for Willie, who knows everyone. This makes for a great opportunity to meet other guides, who are stopping by to say hello and see what his thoughts are if he isn't heading to their camps. It's amazing how small the guide community for a trip like this can be.

However, there is a great degree of contact on the trail, where I have met more climbers. Here, as you travel the ropes and have the chance to cross paths with people, I have met Jordanians, Saudis, Italians, Spaniards, Canadians, and Americans. Almost all are fantastic, some are asses. But you get that no matter where you go, so it shouldn't come as any surprise.

Mustafa is a great guy and lives adjacent to our camp. We first met at the Hotel Yak & Yeti, which seems like a millennium ago while preparing to depart for Everest. This is his 3rd attempt at Everest and if he succeeds, will be the first Jordanian in history to summit. King Fahd is very interested in his efforts, and Mustafa's constantly updating him, which I personally think is really cool. We see him every day, trade DVDs and keep each other posted on our collective progress.

If Farouk succeeds, he will also be a first. Studying and living in the US for the last seven years, he is climbing under the Saudi flag and I met him while on one of those crazy vertical ladders that are actually four aluminum ladders tied together. He was going up, I was going down. I looked, and saw a Saudi flag on his cap, so we stopped, midway through and chatted for a minute while about 20 other climbers were wondering what on earth we could possibly be talking about in that position.

The other day, Willie bumped into two famous Italian climbers whose faces we saw smeared all over posters at those hotels we stayed in on our way up here, and who Willie goes way back with. These guys- Angelo and Roberto have been climbing on the same mountains as Willie for years and are here at Everest, unsupported and planning to climb without Oxygen. Anyone considering this, I highly recommend they take a good look at the statistics- those on actually making the top, and those reflecting the accident rate. They are truly staggering. Yet here are two guys, very humble and down to earth, and extremely capable- sitting among us, concerned that they accidentally got snow on my sleeping pad. They willingly and with great excitement brought over enough Prosciutto to feed an Army and we chowed down as a group, talking and chatting.

And then there's the other, darker and unfortunate side of the coin.

One day, there was a huge backlog at one of the ladder groups. This ladder set was no joke, either. After ascending one ladder (which is actually three tied together), you traverse a 40-degree ledge that leads you up to a 20' nearly vertical slope. This slope in-turn leads to yet another ladder, which doesn’t top out at the ridge, but actually requires you to climb a 6' vertical wall of ice to the top. All of this sits 50' above a massive crevasse, inviting an accidental mistake. There is a safety rope that you can clip into, but thanks to the technical merits of this move it is definitely one you want to take your time on.

As we were picking our way along the ridge, before our eyes this Swiss IFMGA Guide (anyone wondering what IFMGA stands for, it's a high-brow guide certification which in a nutshell means you know what you are doing. Putting the IFMGA patch on your jacket like this jack-ass means you have a big head about it) completely bypasses a 10 person queue waiting to get down, doesn't clip into a safety line, and AS two other people are up-climbing the ladder, basically stapled to the snow with some pickets- starts climbing down the side of the ladder. The SIDE OF THE LADDER. Willie goes bat-shit, yelling at him, telling him how stupid he is.

The guy, complete with Cheshire Cat Grin, ignores Willie and walks right by him, not clipping in again. I’m sitting there w/ my lung in my hand, so I can't participate, but the guy walks right by me, cuts the 2nd queue, and skids down that ladder- not clipped in. He pops out at the bottom, and then, complete with a "look-how-awesome-I-am-guys" smile, looks up at his clients and teammates- all of whom are still way up above the first ladder and now sans guide to help them get down safely.

People often ask me about the jack-assery that happens in the mountains and what I see both climbing and with SMR. Unfortunately when on TV you hear "5 climbers fell into a crevasse on Mt. Rainier today" they almost always neglect to mention the series of bad decisions that get people into trouble. If this guy had slipped, I doubt the news would have reported how stupid he acted... instead that Everest had claimed a victim, and... gosh, it was an IFMGA Guide! How tragic. Whatever. Just keep that guy as far away from me as possible.

And here, so everyone can see- a future Darwin Award Winner:

Movie Quotes

I can't tell you how happy I am that we have movie quoters on the team. While on Mt. McKinley, I tried and tried, but the Norwegian, Brit, and other American guys I was climbing with would just stare at me blankly when I'd throw out a great one from "Tommy Boy," itself a fantastic gold mine of quotable quotes: "What's your favorite Little Rascal? Is it Alfalfa? Or Spanky? Sinner..." Just didn't work, they just thought I was weird, which truth be told, I probably am.

In the Marines, quotes are a way of life. They just happen, over and over. Any time the going gets tough, the quotes get going. 17-mile conditioning hikes result in countless "Superbad," "Old School" and "Anchorman" quotes. While Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn may have taken over quote point from guys like Mike Meyers and Chris Farley, the intent is there nonetheless.

Here, even the Sherpas are quoting. Get them watching "Blades of Glory” and the quotes pop up on the trail the next day. Willie and Francisco think that "Talladega Nights" has some good ones: "Magic Man and El Diablo... what's El Diablo? I don't know... some sort of chicken with horns" is great.

I think it's awesome. Talk about a great way to suffer while laughing.

"I am McLovin..."

Lemon Tea

All along the trek, we stopped at hotel after hotel. The days were sometimes long, the treks definitely exhausting. When we'd stop, the rest houses were rarely heated and as we climbed higher, our lack of acclimatization made it chilly.

So, we'd always be reaching for hot drinks. Mmmmm. Hot drinks. So warm. What would our options be? Tea, coffee, and... tea. So we'd really spice it up. Let's live on the edge and go for the Lemon Tea, shall we?

Options: Lemon Tea in cup, small pot, medium pot, and large pot. The large pot is typically so large that you can swim in it, truth be told. Yet we'd always grab that because we were so limited in choices and because to acclimatize faster we'd always be hydrating.

Lemon Tea. At least there's Vitamin C in it, basically the secret ingredients are: Water (hot), tea bags (2), Lemon Tang. That's it. If I never have Lemon Tea again it'll be too long. This stuff was seeping out of our pores by the time we hit Base Camp. Here we come, staggering in one step slowly after another. We hit that last infernal hill that completely winds you and makes you cry right before our site. We come in, close to 1/4 mph gasping for air. We plop down into chairs, ready to try and get our heart rate back down to 140 beats-per-minute from what it currently is, closer to a Hummingbird.

Here comes G-Man, with a now-familiar pot and cups for us weary travelers as the Sherpas look on with amusement. Oh... no... not... Lemon Tea. G-Man pops the top cork. And pours... Grape! Hot Grape Tang! He's now our hero. I wonder if he knows that.

Funky Altitude Dreams

It's funny what sort of things you dream as you go higher and higher in elevation. Altitude Dreams, they are called. In many ways, I typically enjoy altitude dreams. Some are great, some are weird. Sometimes you wake up absolutely laughing, your tent-mate looking at you with a dazed and confused look.

Everyone knows the dream where they are trying to run and run, but can't. At altitude, this Sisyphus-like dream involves you trying and trying to climb... endlessly trekking but just not making any progress to where you want to get. Then because it can't be that simple, throw in someone in a clown suit.

I had a great one the other night. In this one, a wormlike co-worker named Bob Combs is standing in a bathing suit- in itself a really funny dream given his Mister Universe physique. He's standing halfway up the Lhotse Face minding his own biz when a giant dragonfly with a Buddha head buzzes overhead. The dragonfly offers to give Bob a pedicure and when he agrees, the dragonfly drop-kicks him through two giant upright fingers- just like the game you play in High School with folded paper. The giant fingers convert back to Nuptse and Lhotse once he disappears into the horizon.

Oh, and a word of warning... it's much easier to have funny dreams after watching and quoting "Blades of Glory" than it is after a movie like "1408". Yikes... many are based on things you experienced that day, or maybe even watched in a movie. As a result, none of us want to watch a horror movie before going to bed for fear of re-living that movie a short while later. Only this time while hyperventilating and waking up in a cold sweat. Because then, you shiver endlessly thanks to 20-degree weather. And that doesn't make the dreams worthwhile at all.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Willie Benegas

Willie Benegas
Home: Any Mountain on the Planet

Willie is our expedition Team Lead. If everything goes according to plan, he will summit Mount Everest for the eighth time on this trip. Last year, he summited Everest twice in one week. Thanks to six expeditions to Everest and neighboring Nuptse, Willie is highly experienced in the route of climb, what to bring, what to wear, and how to be safe in the process.

Willie grew up in Patagonia in an area where there were no mountains, similar to Baja, California. His entire family shares his adventuring spirit and has centered their lives around the outdoors. Several of his five brothers and sisters are active in the outdoor industry -- from diving and sea kayaking to mountaineering.

Willie became hooked on mountaineering as a little boy when his father showed him a climbing photo. Soon after, Willie stole the rope anchoring his father’s boat to teach himself how to rappel. The boat drifted out to sea, but Willie became grounded in what has now become a storied career climbing the world’s tallest mountains.

Willie's hallmark is safety and like everyone on the team, he follows the golden rule of climbing: summiting is optional, returning safely is mandatory. In 2005, Explorersweb nominated Willie as the best guide on Everest South Side thanks to his attention to detail, interest in climber/Sherpa welfare, and active role in rescues on the mountain when called.

Willie is an active member of The North Face Climbing Team and has been since the late 1990s. Some of his accomplishments include the Crystal Snake on Nuptse, new routes in Bolivia, and the first sub-24 hour ascent on Aconcagua. This fall he will be climbing Batura II, which is the highest unclimbed peak in Pakistan.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Meet The Sherpa Team

Sherpa Team (l to r): Lama Jambu Sherpa, Lhakpa Sherpa, Tendi Sherpa

Meet The Climbing Team

Climbing Team (l to r): Doug Pierson, Joe Bonner, Willie Benegas, Francisco Arredondo

Pasang Tendi Sherpa

Pasang Tendi Sherpa
Sankhuwasabha, Nepal (Makalu Region)

Tendi has summited Mt Everest five times-twice last season in one week- and has been climbing in the Himalayas since he was a little boy.

Tendi is a retired Buddhist student, who left a dedicated life of religion to climb and support his family. He respects Buddhism deeply as he comes from a long line of Buddhist teachers. His Great-Grandfather and Grandfather were both Lamas in a remote area of the Solu Khumbu and Makalu Regions.

In the first trip in his life, Tendi accompanied his father, who was a guide for three American trekkers around the Annapurna Circuit in 1998. Tendi was a porter on that trip, carrying 32 Kilo (74 lbs) worth of equipment as a 14 year old. It was here that Tendi began to explore and develop interest in a life outside his village and in trekking. It was also here that Tendi first met foreigners and began to learn English. This trip made Tendi very interested in learning English, and as a result, he went to Kathmandu to learn formally.

Tendi's influence on Mt. Everest came from seeing many expeditions travel through his village enroute to mountains further up the trail. It was seeing these groups and knowing about their expeditions that made Tendi desire to climb mountains one day when he grew up.

Tendi's first Everest climb was in 2003 from the Nepal side at the age of 19, climbing to the South Col with a Japanese team. This was a great success for Tendi, because it showed him that he had the skills and great strength to make it high on the mountain and until that point, he had no climbing experience of high mountains. As a result, the next year (2004) he went to the North Side and summited for the first time on 19 May with a Bulgarian team. In 2005, he summited from the Nepal side on 31 May and in 2006 again from the North on 17 May. 2007 was his first time to work with Willie and the Mountain Madness team. 2007 was a unique year for Tendi because he was able to summit twice in one week- an incredible achievement.

Tendi is looking forward to other experiences and peaks in the Himalayas and has a bright, shining career in the mountains ahead of him.

When Tendi first reached the summit of Everest, he was extremely happy because it represented a golden chance to develop his mountaineering career. Now, he climbs because he likes it; he likes to meet other people, develop new friendships and to support his family. He speaks Nepali, English, Japanese and French and has begun traveling to Japan, Switzerland and other countries.

Francisco Arredondo

Francisco Arredondo
Guatemala City, Guatemala

Francisco graduated from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut and received an MBA from SHU Luxemburg. After that, he returned to Guatemala where he has been the CEO of Carnes Processadas S.A. since 2001- a food production and distribution company that has operations in Central America. Most of his adventure days have been on a motorcycle, which is a sport that he has competed in his entire life. Some examples of his All-Terrain Rally Endurance Motorcycle Racing are: Paris to Dakkar Race (four times, completing twice), Baja 1000 (four times), and The World Championship for several years- held in places like Dubai, Argentina, and other deserts of the world. Francisco is the only Central American to complete any of these races.

In 2006, Francisco’s sister and brother-in-law trekked to Everest Base Camp. When they returned, they relayed their stories to Francisco and sparked an interest in the mountain. One day, thinking that Mt. Everest is one of the world's greatest adventures and a great challenge as well, Francisco set out to tackle this newest goal. From that point forward, Francisco has climbed in Central and South America as well as Utah to prepare for the Himalayas. With the help of the team, Francisco looks to accomplish his goal and continue with new adventures.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Blog Update

You probably have noticed that there has not been an update to the blog since April 13. There are reports that communication restrictions have been implemented by the Nepali Army in preparation for the Chinese summiting Mt. Everest with the Olympic Torch at the end of April or beginning of May.

As such, we don't expect to receive regular or frequent dispatches from the climbing team until after the torch relay. As soon as we do receive updates they will be posted immediately for your reading pleasure. Thanks.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Olympic Torch

The whole China thing was frustrating as hell but I have to admit that I liked the down days for sure. From the get-go, no one had any ideas on what would happen with regard to the torch when it related to climbers on the Nepal side of Everest.

Even in Kathmandu, our team flew for Lukla without anything more than a tacit green light from the Nepali Government, so it wasn’t until we reached EBC that we even received a climbing permit for Everest 2008. Throughout this season of uncertainty, we walked the high wire on climbing as Nepal went back and forth on playing favorites to the community assembling on the Khumbu Glacier and then to China, it’s neighbors to the north.

Several times, the Nepalis announced changes to it’s plan of what would / would not be allowed of climbers. These changes were usually met with grumbling and quiet agreement.. what else was there to do? China itself had shut off climbing on their side of the mountain to all but a small number of torch bearers this year, and it was no secret that they were heavily pressuring the Nepalis to do the same thing. $180 million in soft loans has a way of making governments agree to things that they might not normally do, and we were well aware of China’s strong influence over it’s little, poor neighbor to the south. Imagine the United States imposing it’s will on Haiti over something for comparison.

What China cannot control though, is Nepal’s thirst for money and understanding that any decisions not allowing climbers to continue in the Himalaya would have long-term effects, and not all of them positive. While China couldn’t care less about whether climbers are on it’s side of the mountain for the next ten years, Nepal does- it needs the money.

So climb on was the decision coming out of Kathmandu, albeit in a monitored and cautious fashion. The Chinese went along with this so long as the Nepalis kept a short leash on us climbers- traditionally a headache for the Chinese in that mountaineers in the Himalaya had a way of exposing some of China’s dirty little secrets- and as we all know, the Chinese hate things that are outside of their firm control.

A few weeks into our climb, we were told that Nepal Army climbing soldiers would be stationed in Base Camp and at Camp II. There were rumors about them going as high as the South Col, but we all knew this could not be a sustained event, and even being positioned at Camp II wouldn’t be healthy for soldiers long-term. And so it began.

On an acclimatization trip to Kala Patthar one day, I passed the Nepal Army unit enroute to EBC. They were led by a Major, there were two Captains and several communication specialists. Some carried rifles, and from what I saw, not one had ammunition. This was a relief given that in my experience ammo and rifles in the hands of individuals thrown into an already explosive scenario can lead to unfortunate outcomes.

The Nepali Army Major immediately exposed himself as a Kathmandu flunky, and those in-turn exposed themselves as Beijing flunkies. Timelines began to be imposed: Icefall Doctors began dragging their feet in roping the Icefall. We were delayed in being allowed to Camp II. No “western” climbers were allowed to assist in roping to Camp III outside of Willie, who had a proven track record and wasn’t considered a threat to Chinese interests.

Rumors abounded as to Chinese progress on their side of the mountain. From Pumori Base Camp, the north side of Everest is clearly visible and it was from here that stories started to trickle in to our Base Camp about how slowly the Chinese were progressing. This had a predictable result in our little microcosm.

Nothing changed in regards to Nepal’s "official policy" surrounding dispatches (the policy, as was made clear, is that none are allowed). No sat comms or sat phones were allowed either, but many existed in Base Camp and were actively used (ours included). But enforcement all of a sudden did pick up. The Government sent in Liaison Officers- one to each camp and/or team. Fortunately, many of these officers- not mountaineers, but political appointees- had zero interest in being parked at EBC. Several became deathly ill with HAPE, and were sent home. Several more then saw this, and feigned illness to be sent home. Which worked.

The Chinese Ambassador to Nepal and his cronies made several grand appearances into EBC, swooping in on Nepal HIND helos that struggled for air but somehow managed to fly in and out. The Army Major did a fantastic job of butt snorkeling these folks as they behaved like people clearly out of touch with the climbing community. For example, reports we receive from some westerners who were involved in these visits told us fascinating tales of diplomats concerned about guards being responsible for monitoring thousand foot tall cliff faces.

Because of this, and mainly because some people were under the belief that we were actually monitoring ourselves more than the Nepali Government, etc were monitoring ourselves, the dispatches began again. Heck, the Nepali Army were actually using Morse Code to communicate daily with Kathmandu, so how much monitoring could actually be happening.

In a collective approach, several teams decide to resume dispatches on the same day. Keep them from being political and focus more on the climb or human nature of the climb and team itself, it would then be seen as completely benign.

Finally the Chinese get close. And it shows. Nepali Army soldiers begin monitoring the Icefall and search packs. For what is beyond me, but there is a team stationed at the trailhead 24/7, we pass through this checkpoint at 4am and it’s fully manned. Five soldiers rotate in and out of Camp II, right next to a sign that clearly instructs climbers not to attempt move higher. For aesthetics, soldiers armed with scoped SKS rifles will appear whenever anyone even walks up to the sign.

On several mornings, a plane appears around the summit. Circling for an hour, it is so close to the summit that it is clearly there for the Chinese. But what is taking this team so long to get up there with their blessed torch? They have over a billion people to get up there, the weather has been fantastic, and the north side is technically easier than our side. On two occasions we hear that they actually did summit, only to hear that it’s a rumor.

The Nepal Army instructs us of a climbing freeze. Teams parked at Camp II will have to stay, teams at Base Camp will face the same. No movement through the Icefall, no one beyond Camp II. The Icefall turns into one giant ant trail with everyone racing to become acclimatized before the hammer drops. The blackout takes on new meaning as dispatches are frozen again, and we head to Camp II for one last altitude gain.

Finally, on the morning of May 8th, we hear the plane again. The summit looks cloudy, but winds aren’t extreme. The plane circles and circles. On and on. Word reaches us that the Chinese have summited, and within 30 minutes the Nepal Army detachment has pulled stakes from it’s tent and were on their way down to EBC. Two days later, they left Base Camp and were trekking out to Lukla. Finally, our mountain opened up for us and the race for the summit was on.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Gyalgen Sherpa

Gyalgen Sherpa
Chaurikharka, Nepal (Nearby Lukla)

Gyalgen has been working hard in the mountains since he was five years old. He is currently working with the Mountain Madness team as Assistant Cook, and is interested in learning more about mountaineering in the future. This is his first trip with Mountain Madness, although he has been working with other teams for the past several years as cook, assistant and trekking guide. These teams included Japanese (which he speaks), German, Spanish, and American. Gyalgen plans on becoming a mountaineer so he can go higher in the mountains and wants to summit Mt Everest as a personal goal.

13 April: Soccer Field 18,680'

Over the last two days, the team decided that this was a wonderful opportunity to take a nature walk through the Khumbu Icefall, going as high as the "Soccer Field"- a flat area almost at the top of the Icefall at 18,680'. While the Icefall Doctors have not yet successfully blazed a trail through to Camp I, the purpose of these climbs for us is simply and purely acclimatization. The first time we moved through the Icefall, it took us 1 1/2 hours to make that days' destination- a large ice boulder roughly 300 vertical feet from camp. Today, it took us 45 minutes to pass that as we continue to become accustomed to the altitude a little at a time. 300 vertical feet sounds deceiving because it's not just a 300' climb- it's more like 1,300' thanks to the wavy, up and down movement of the trail through the Lake District of the Icefall. Even afterward as you move up and up, this trail continues to meander as it puts on- and takes off- altitude moving toward Camp I.

Along the way, we walked ladders that cross crevasses easily 150' deep. Some are so wide that the Icefall Doctors have tied two sets of aluminum ladders together in order to span the gaps. The key to these ladder crossings is to lean forward and apply positive pressure to the ropes behind you. While this is happening, you move forward and place your crampons in a manner where you can establish a base- toe points down on the front rung, rear points down on the rear rung. Move forward slowly, holding the ropes fast. Try not to look down too deeply as snow clumps fall off your boots into the blackness below.

At some points, the trail ascends vertically up and over serac. When we arrive at these points twice in our journey upward, we use mechanical ascenders combined with arm strength and crampon kick points to move up and over. As the trail becomes more established, these kick points will eventually become boot holes that we can use and where we may not even need ascenders- acclimatization dependent. An extremely bored Lhakpa looks off to the horizon in this pic as an extremely exhausted Doug finds an excuse to stop for a sec for a pic... and to catch his breath.

After an ass kicking 2 1/2 hours, we finally arrived at the top of the "Popcorn Field," a hazardous area of smaller ice pieces in a typically steeper section breaking up faster than others and one that is more or less a no stop zone thanks to the frequency of movement. We boogied through this as quickly as we could given the lack of air and our bodies fighting every foot taken... but it was definitely slow going.

It was here that I was reminded of my 29 Palms days. A group of us- Tony, Nick, Jim, Jason, John. me- were all in our early 20s, stuck in a far corner of the Mojave Desert as Active Duty Marines. In between long nights talking about how awesome it was to be stuck here for three years when all of our Marine buddies were forced to live down in San Diego or Camp Pendleton- both on the coast- we would still wish for girlfriends and as normal a life as we could find. The closest town to 29 Palms (anyone not familiar with 29 Palms needs to look it up on a map- it's truly in the middle of nowhere) is Palm Springs and a standard haunt for Marines when the weekend hit. When we would meet a girl on vacation there from somewhere like Los Angeles and she'd ask us where we lived, we'd tell her "five minutes down the road"- knowing full well that it was close to an hour. Sometimes it worked, most of the time it didn't. But it was our standard line and we used it liberally.

So here's Lhakpa on the top of the Popcorn Field. "How much further, Lhakpa?" "Five minutes" was the standard reply, no matter when or how many times asked. After the third time of this I relayed my 29 Palms story and Lhakpa knowingly laughed. So I knew we were nowhere near 5 minutes away from the Soccer Field, but we pressed on and at one point decided to make light of it and took a pic of him pointing to our destination "five minutes away" as he explained away our so-closeness to two Sour Patch Kids.

Finally, thirty minutes later we arrived at the Soccer Field. It was truly beautiful. The flatness of this site so close to the top of the Icefall can only be explained by mountain contours underneath the ice where a flat surface and air pockets allow for an area about the size of a soccer field to exist year after year. We drank some water, relaxed for a few minutes and then got out of there as quickly as we could. Late afternoon in the Icefall isn't a good place to be thanks to softer ice and collapsing snow bridges so we made haste to get out of there. At one point a snow bridge gave way right under my feet and I was left dangling for a few seconds before pulling myself out. Good way to get your pulse going for sure.

As with every day here, temperature and weather extremes play a part in what you wear. I started out in a soft shell with high mists, was in a T-shirt an hour later under bright sun, threw the soft shell back on when it started to snow, and then was in a down jacket when afternoon snow, clouds and temp. drops called for it. It was slow, slow, slow going by the time we made it home. The last little scramble to our campsite was one of the hardest parts of the climb for us and as we parked ourselves on a rock halfway up this little 40' scramble, Gyalgen- one of the kitchen help- ran down to BS with us and give us a Sprite. Ahhh... home again.

Thanks to being thoroughly wiped and perhaps a little dehydrated, we had some of the most amazing high altitude dreams of the trip to date. Crazy dreams... especially when we'd hear rock fall or avalanches, which were more active than normal last night.

Friday, April 11, 2008

11 April: Ropes Course & Base Camp Layout

I think I'm falling in love with our space heater. I'm sitting right next to the thing right now as I type this and am trying to hatch a plan for hiding this contraption in my backpack unnoticed and getting it to high camp. I wonder if anyone will notice...

Today we spent the morning playing around on the ropes course that Willie pulled together. This of course only after we woke again to beautiful and warm skies. And what do warm skies bring? Melting snow. And what does melting snow bring? Avalanches. Check out this nice sized one calving off the Lola Col:

The three of us moved gingerly through the ropes course while Willie familiarized us with types of challenges and obstacles we will be facing within days. After moving directly up and across aluminum ladders with mechanical ascenders, we traversed along narrow ledges and relied on ropes to rappel back to the beginning. With time, our confidence grew and we picked up on little tips and pointers Willie taught us in order to make our time in the Icefall more comfortable.

I have been asked by several people what exactly our Base Camp life is like. So since we have another slow day (it's snowing outside right now), I thought it might be good to take the chance to describe our camp layout and the earthier side of camp life. All things considered, our camp is fairly cush compared to some other camps which are very expeditionary in nature (read: one tent, one cook pot). Here's a quick strip map of our camp perimeter:

With each day, we try to improve just a little more. For example, two days ago we put in the camp shower- a plastic canvas tent that has a propane heater installed on the outside where water is injected into heat coils when our generator is running. The water then is pumped into a shower head and with the use of an on/off switch you can take a -quick- shower. It is important to zip the door closed all the way or an errant wisp of wind will leave you shaking uncontrollably... the water isn't that hot but this is truly a luxury item. I took a shower for the first time yesterday since Namche Bazaar... so mebbe like 10 days? I'll probably take one in a day or two again but only after the sun comes out and it isn't windy. Everyone's stinky here and you can't really smell anyway so it's not that bad.

Our tents are located in several areas across the camp site. Joe, Francisco and I are located in one area. Lama Jambu and Tendi are located in another. Lhakpa moved his tent from next to Willie's because the generator was too loud, and the cook staff and other support team members crash in their respective tents- there's plenty of room in there for them and they are truly happy with this arrangement.

Each tent is home for the next several weeks. We try to keep ours clean and well organized in order to feel like you have more space inside. The tent models we use are Mountain Hardware Trangos and North Face VE-25s- 4 season hardened models that can withstand just about anything thrown at them. Except as it turns out, UV Rays. These rays are so intense here that one tent has only about a 2 or 3 season service life before the rays structurally weaken the fabric beyond serviceability. Each tent has a little garden solar light out front and is anchored down with heavy glacier rocks should stronger wind gusts come along. There is a front window to see out of and through the rain fly, we also have three foam and air mattresses to keep comfortable from the rocks below and insulated from ground freeze. Last night while trying to sleep I could hear the glacier creak, groan and snap underneath us.

There are two toilets, both covered in blue tarp- one western (a.k.a. there's a toilet seat) and one of the Middle Eastern/ Nepali model which is more a hole in the rocks. There's an unwritten rule to not pee in the barrel- human waste is transported out and weighed for charges. Peeing in the barrel will increase weight dramatically and therefore, we have designated sites for that. There is an actual rule in Everest Base Camp that if you were to lose your mind and drop a bomb outside of your cans- and are caught... congratulations! You are now the proud owner of a $5,000 fine. Like many other items in camp, we have solar lights to illuminate the inside once darkness descends across camp.

We do our own laundry by asking the cook staff for a "washing pot" and then scrubbing dirty clothes like crazy in water that turns brown quickly. Once these items are clean, we lay them on a rock to dry- you have to do that b/c if you try to line dry them they'll just flash freeze- even when it's fairly warm thanks to the UV rays. The air is still below freezing.

The camp is powered by a 16 year old Honda generator and this accomplishes two things: it powers the lights that illuminate the community shelter and cook tent. It also recharges two automobile dry-cell batteries that power items when the generator is off.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

10 April: Everest Base Camp

The tent camp next to ours decided that their Puja Ceremony was to go at 07:00 this morning. Seriously, why? I only say that because I thought that these ceremonies were supposed to be scheduled as something written in the scripts and interpreted by Buddhist Monks. Fortunately, our Monks determined 09:30 as a more appropriate time two days ago, because when I woke up at seven to the sounds of their ceremony it was still wicked cold and I was way too happy to be eyeball deep in my sleeping bag. Speaking with Joe and Francisco, I'm not alone in thinking that way.

After breakfast, the day warmed up and we followed Willie over to a site at the edge of the Khumbu Icefall where he proceeded to set up a ropes course consisting of ropes, ladders and up/down obstacles. He does this every year in conjunction with other teams, and leaves it up for ten days as a familiarization course to perfect rope skills and prepare climbers for challenges to come.

While observing Willie on the course, we happened across an overboot from what must have been the 60's, if not earlier. This boot had emerged from the ice and was just sitting there, in plain view. It’s amazing to see artifacts like this and wonder what sort of protection it must have offered its owner at the time. We did a side-by-side comparison in terms of then vs. now cutting edge footwear technology. No wonder so many people lost toes back then.

Toward lunch, we moved back to our site and happened upon several of the Mtn. Madness trekking group enroute. They arrived in from Gorak Shep today and stayed for another great meal that our cooking staff pulled together for the combined group. It was very interesting to meet with them and to hear the stories on what brought them to take on their trek to base camp. Some were doing it for fun, some for birthday presents, and some as a family bonding moment. We caught up, hung some prayer flags, and then they were off again, back down the trail to Gorak Shep and home.

It was here that we also learned that the Icefall Doctors haven't quite made it through to the Western Cwm yet- apparently the top 300 vertical meters are still sketchy and a course hasn't been navigated completely. This appears to have thrown a temporary wrench into our initial plans of pushing a "super-squad" team of Sherpas up to stake out Camp I and Camp II areas. Given the crush of teams on the south side this year, gaining territory will be critical in the higher camps. Willie remains unfazed about this, knowing exactly what plan we have to maintain our initiative. But we do have a set of equipment sidelined for when the team of Lama Jambu and Tendi can launch up through the Icefall. I heard Willie and Lhakpa talking about the plan over lunch, and said "I wanna go!" The look I received back was priceless. Both had one of those "ahh, little grasshopper. Your day will come" expressions and didn't respond other than a simple "no."

So I went and grabbed a football, tossed it a little bit as the temperatures dipped. This in turn meant that all that warmed up water re-froze, causing avalanches all over the valley. In a span of three hours we must have either seen or heard five larger slides in the now-standard locations on Lhola, Nuptse and Pumori. Lama Jambu has a good arm as it turns out.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Initial Icefall Foray

Today started slow enough, with another beautiful morning cresting over Base Camp. The team spent several hours relaxing and talking about what the day holds. Then a little after noon, Willie told us to go grab our gear, and we were off into the Khumbu Icefall.

The intent of today wasn’t to complete this leg of the climb; it was to gain some elevation and familiarization with the Icefall itself. Over the next few hours the group moved through undulating glacial towers and across frozen lakes, further and further from Base Camp.

After some time, the route became steeper and we began to ascend fixed lines, passing tons and tons of gear from previous expeditions along the way. We were able to identify some items; some were barely recognizable thanks to years on and in the glacier. It was staggering to see all of these items though, knowing full well that this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Rumor has it that there are only another 600m of lines to be fixed to reach Camp 1 by the Icefall Doctors (a group of Sherpas employed by the National Park who fix all of the ropes and ladders in the Icefall) and that they may make their objective tomorrow. With any luck we should be making our way to the top of the Icefall in the next couple of days, but today still proved to be a challenging and physical effort for us. Interestingly, we were told that despite how tired we were upon return that in a few weeks, once properly acclimatized the Icefall would take us no more than two to three hours to navigate from start to finish. Man, I can't wait for that day.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Puja Ceremony

I learned a few things today: I learned that Guatemalans think Francisco is largely crazy for going someplace so cold, I learned that Sherpas take the Puja Ceremony very seriously, and I learned that two beers at 17,500' do the same thing to me as a seven month deployment to Iraq.

This morning, we woke to absolutely beautiful weather- not a breath of wind, no clouds, mild temperatures. Last night, Willie told us, the low was -6 Celsius- or roughly 20 degrees... mild given the track record of the last few days. I woke sweating; Joe mentioned he did the same. Francisco told us that he was freezing all night. I asked Francisco what his friends back home said when he told them he was coming here, and he responded that most said "what, where!?" From what he told us, it reminded me of how Hawaiians respond to cold when they are in a perceived arctic environment like San Diego. We all laughed as Francisco told us about how he continued to bundle last night to the point where he had so many layers on that he thought he'd suffocate- and then had to start taking them off. In Spanish, Willie told Francisco something that would roughly translate into "this is just the beginning", to which Francisco said "yes, I know" and mentioned that he was going to start bringing his sleeping bag to dinner.

I had my own issues to deal with this morning. On a Mt Olympus speed climb last summer, Sgt Brent H had us all entertained with his suffering due to severe chafing. At one point, he stumbled into a stop nine miles from the trailhead and said "screw IED's, man! If those Insurgents invent a Chafing Gun, I'm surrendering!" Somewhere on the trail from Gorak Shep to Base Camp yesterday, an Insurgent shot me in the crotch with a Chafing Gun. So I was dealing with that fun stuff and thanking my lucky stars that we don't have to move for the next few days.

Fortunately, most of the activity was happening in the Mess Tent instead- Tendi and most of the cook staff were deep at work preparing for today's Puja Ceremony, a Buddhist tradition that Sherpas enact each and every time they conduct a climb. There isn't just one Puja Ceremony, there are several- each group conducting an expedition has to do it. Sherpas won't go through the Icefall without it, they take it that seriously.

At 09:30, the climb team pulled together miscellaneous pieces of gear that they wanted blessed in the ceremony. This could include one or two pieces of gear like an Ice Axe, Crampons, or a Harness. Tendi and Lama Jambu, both retired priests and now climbing Sherpa on our team, were the Puja Ceremony leaders along with an actively practicing priest who came just for the ceremony. As an outsider looking in, I have to say that this was quite a ceremony filled with tradition, and deeply devout followers. There were chants, rice throwing, and group participation events that everyone was involved in with great fanfare. But there were also some comical moments for me as well, such as when one bowl was passed around and there, placed ornately and precisely on top: Sour Patch Kids.

Before I left the States, I tried to contact Cadbury Schweppes about the popularity of Sour Patch Kids on the trail and elsewhere. Scott S, my SMR teammate and good friend relayed a story to me about one rescue where the rescuee was wishing Scott had Sour Patch Kids instead of Gummy Bears despite starving for close to three days in the wilderness. They are popular here too- I have handed out at least 4 lbs of them so far and knew that as soon as the Sherpas tried a few? -Poof- Gone. So it's moments like this where a Puja Ceremony central fixture happens to be Sour Patch Kids that make me think it's funny that Cadbury Schweppes decided to gaff off my email. Oh well.

The rest of the ceremony involved erecting prayer flags to cover our camp area, passing around of baked goods, candy, beer, and sodas. Great fanfare goes into setting the prayer flags and everyone participates, some lines extending for great distances.

After the beer is passed along, a platter of a flour-like substance is also handed out. At first, we Westerners were like "what's this for?" till Willie mentioned with a huge grin that this was for good luck, and then most of it ended up on our cheeks. Everyone went around smearing cheeks, throwing flour into the air and having a great time.

It was here at some point that I realized that two beers at altitude after not drinking for almost three weeks has the same effect on me as not drinking for seven months while on deployment. When I returned from Iraq after not drinking for seven months, it took two beers to make me smashed and sleep for eight hours. During the Puja Ceremony I had two beers and about the same thing happened only without the eight hour nap because I had rocks to move. Rocks.
Anyone looking for a comical scene, please watch a really buzzed, extremely winded and very sleepy guy throw around rocks on top of a slippery glacier. I'm sure the Sherpas were as entertained with this scene as I was with Sour Patch Kids being involved in a climbing ceremony.