Sunday, April 13, 2008

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.

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