Monday, May 12, 2008

10 May: Acclimatized

At 5am, Indra came and woke us up, all cheery and prepared with breakfast of bacon and eggs. I wolfed down some extra rice, and then we were off at 06:00 on the nose for Camp III, halfway up the Lhotse Face. We set out at a relatively easy pace, and after 1 1/2 hours we were approaching the fixed lines when Francisco encountered some altitude problems that forced him to turn back. His shot would have to come tomorrow, but Lhakpa and I continued on. It's amazing how altitude can affect different people at different times. A wizened and highly experienced guide named Victor happened to be walking alongside when Francisco was hit and told him point-blank that despite years in the mountains and multiple Everest summits, even he is hit by altitude when he least expects it. Victor is a great guy and truly knows the personal side of guiding, so I know that his kind words worked wonders on Francisco, who headed down and felt better immediately.

Traversing on to the fixed lines of the Lhotse Face, it reminded me of the West Buttress Route on McKinley above the 14,200' camp: straight ice, blue and hard. Your jumar does most of the work as you extend, lock, take 2 or 3 breaths, step again, repeat. Since this section of the route was only roped yesterday, there are very few "steps" to assist- mainly just toe points that you kick in via crampon tips. This creates a cascade of ice chips and larger chunks that shower down the steep face along with the other chips of a hundreds of other kicks from somewhere above. It makes for a beautiful sheen of sparkles when you hazard a glance up when the super-hard ice reflects sunlight, but it's not so fun for climbers below and you have to always be on the lookout for larger chunks and the occasional rock that breaks free. More than once I heard a "thwack" of a large ice cube that struck my climbing helmet, making me happy that I was wearing it. Some zing by and you watch these bounce, bounce, bounce, pick up speed and then disappear off the ever increasing angle of the Face before shooting straight off the bergschrund at the bottom.

Despite the assistance of the jumar, (ok... mechanical ascender), your lungs still scream for air as you climb higher along the the steepest portion of the Face for several hundred feet before it gradually reduces from 70 degrees to closer to 45 degrees. The trail winds around and past a few snow domes, and then there it is: Camp III. Lhakpa gets on the radio and says "hey, we are now approaching Camp III," which brought cheers from our team back at Camp II. Willie, who stayed back to go up with Francisco tomorrow asked how far we were from touching Camp III. "Maybe 1 1/2 hours" Lhakpa replied. "No WAY" I said... it's right there! He was right though, the extreme altitude coupled with steep terrain and sheer size of the Lhotse Face put him right on the money.

1 1/2 hours later we crept into camp and I collapsed on a mini ledge to relax while Lhakpa went to go deposit some gear in tents we have perched right on the face itself. While there, I small talked with a Spanish climber who was more than happy to take a break for any reason and catch his breath. There at 23,000', I honestly can't remember much of our conversation other than that we were both happy to have made it. Looking out, we both agreed that the view is flat-out stunning.

The Lhotse Face is essentially a giant wall of super-hard ice that starts out extremely steep and gradually angles out as it approaches The Yellow Band- a unique band of yellow, rotten rock that swirls almost like ice cream from Nuptse, across Lhotse and into Everest. Our trail intersects The Yellow Band at the top of the Lhotse Face enroute to the South Col. From Camp III, you can peer straight down the Western Cwm to see the nest of mottled yellow, orange and red tents of Camp II and also Camp I. To the right, you can see straight past The Yellow Band and onto the South Col itself, exposing our route both to the South Col and upward onto the South Ridge of Everest, whose summit seems to be right there... so close yet so incredibly far.

But for now, our part of the Lhotse Face was definitely more of a psych job and once we gained Camp III, it became clear that every leg of this journey is do-able. Sure, it was an ass-kicker. And sure, when I returned to my tent I took a 2 hour nap of the dead. But 80% of the return down the Face was a rappel (fun!) and the route was straightforward.

I'm confident that once the mobs arrive from Base Camp and start their acclimatization, there will be well-defined footholds and it will be a quick trip to Camp III. Besides, once at Camp III we go on oxygen and the next time we arrive there, it will be for a summit push.

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