Tuesday, May 13, 2008

12 May: Return To Base Camp

"Doug... Doug... Doug..."

Gently, the tent shakes. "humph...” "It's six o' clock. Get up." I had sort of a crappy night sleep for God only knows why, so when I finally started drifting off at around 4am, the Sherpas were just starting to stir. I threw in ear plugs to try and get some sleep, which worked well until Indra started shaking the tent and all the snow crystals clinging to the roof of my tent- thanks to my breath- started falling on my face. "Ok, ok, I’m up." Francisco gave me a funny look when I finally did appear in our cook tent. Today's the day we return to Base Camp, after all. I remember how hot and unwelcoming the last part of our previous Camp II to Base Camp trek had taken, so I wasn't all that jazzed to get going- although the thought of Base Camp luxuries was definitely appealing. Equally appealing was the thought that once we made Base Camp, we were on final for our summit push. So, I wasn't all that grumpy truth be told.

The weather wasn't agreeing with us, though, and around six inches of snow had fallen during the night. Everything was covered and it made events like putting on crampons just a little bit more difficult than normal. Indra prepared breakfast for our shove-off, but my stomach was still churning from last night, so everyone waved off in favor of a pop-tart... which somehow managed to get burned too. Francisco and I managed to eat half of one pop tart and then I dropped one on the rocky tent floor. Man, it's time to get out of here.

As we traversed the Western Cwm, the weather was doing some bizarre and strange things. The snow stopped, then started. The clouds cleared, then rolled back in with whiteout conditions. When it was clear, you could see the tips of Nuptse loaded heavily with new snow- a definite concern given the closeness of the trail to where avalanche would be screaming in unannounced like freight trains. But talk about beautiful. The upper wisps of clouds, everything white or blue. The air frigid cold as we moved lower and lower.

Finally, the clouds socked in, snow picked back up and the trail vanished in a sea of white. Everything was literally a pure shade of white, off-white or grey. So white, that the only way I could find the route in the snow was to take off my sunglasses and squint to see the faint outline of a trail about two or three feet in front of me. While we were ok initially, this became hazardous quickly when traversing the crevasse fields above Camp I. We stepped slowly and searched for a familiar wand or a fixed line in the snow to clip into before the waiting maw of a black bottomed crevasse popped into view with surprising speed. As the trail rounded toward the face of Nuptse, we spread our team of three out in order to maximize interval and minimize risk to any rogue avalanche that could drop out of the clouds with no warning. I went first to find the damn trail, Francisco was in the middle and Willie took up the rear. While this picture shows some of the conditions, it doesn't show the best or worst of them- just one where three climbers have their fun-meter pegged as they try to get back home.

After some time, we reached the top of the Icefall and again noted the dramatic change in trail since last visiting this area. And man, has it changed. One portion of the trail that used to be at most five level steps along the top of an ice block is completely gone now- replaced by a zigzag, up-down path complete with a 50' descent down, across a ladder, three mini ice blocks that hang precariously over another hundred foot drop, then a side scramble up to another ladder. One portion then requires you to scramble up on hands and knees before topping out again, at the same elevation as the start. It makes you truly appreciate those level spots now, openly praying that they don't go anywhere anytime soon. I crawled up to the top, plopped down in the snow and stared at Francisco- maybe 30 horizontal feet across from me. He was about to go through this torture-fest when after catching my breath I went "yayy..." He just shook his head silently and began. I didn't see him again for ten minutes after that and when I did, he went "yayy..." and plopped right down in the snow where I did. I think Willie believes we are both suffering from HACE.

From there, we began our slow and methodical descent to Base Camp. Through the Soccer Field, into the Popcorn and across what I'll affectionately term Crazy Ladder #1. This thing is ridiculous. First of all, it's on an angle, so you slide all over the rungs. It hangs over one of those crevasses that you can't see the bottom of, just black- so you have that going for you. It's been stretched and twisted by the moving icefall so dramatically that its support ropes are as tight as piano wire. Best of all? It's four ladders tied together. Four. So, it bows even when no weight is on it. Put a person on it and it turns into Galloping Gertie, the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge shown in black & white footage swaying and bouncing before finally falling into Puget Sound. I'd try to get some video footage crossing it, if it didn't scare me to death so badly.

Toward the end of the Icefall path, the weather cleared, the temperature rose and it actually became pleasant. Francisco and Willie were about 100 meters behind me as I approached one of the last ladders- and one that historically had given me the most problems. So, I was interested in taking more time than usual as I dropped in behind a line of Alpine Ascents team members who were in the process of crossing one of the two that cross this particular crevasse. As I waited, I heard the familiar chatter of a radio behind me and just assumed it was Willie until I heard not Nepali or English, but something else. Glancing behind, I casually noticed a Swiss guide, complete with IFMGA patch on his sleeve, casually standing behind me- not taking the second open ladder. Whatever, I thought, knowing exactly who it was. Finally, it was my turn and as I was getting ready to cross, the Swiss guide says to me "would you like me to keep the ropes taught for you?" "No thanks," I said and tried to be as polite as I could. Once across the gulf, he crossed, and was gone, just like that.

After a few minutes, Willie came into view and I gave him a wide-eyed look and told him about my experience with the guide who had made himself famous with our team for his bullish tactics and comments just a few weeks earlier. That's when Willie told me all about how after the guide's team lead had heard about his member's behavior, he basically dragged this guy by his ear directly to our Base Camp on one day when we must have been climbing up the hill, but Willie was home. Demanding the guide apologize for his boorish actions, he also offered Willie a team lead opportunity for K2 in 2009... something akin to a Brass Ring for guides.

So here we are now, a few weeks later. The guide is being polite, offering assistance, and being courteous- all things a guide should be, and all things that a climber should be to other climbers. I have to admit. I even found him downright pleasant and appreciated his offer of assistance. And that is in a way, how justice is meted out in the mountains and things come full circle.

After some time, we made the welcoming embrace of Base Camp. G-Man gave us a big wave, the rest of the team came out to welcome us home, and Super Mila learned that in a few days, he'll be going up to Camp II to replace Indra. Despite his best efforts, Indra's going back to his farm down close to Kathmandu and Super Mila will take us across the finish line at Camp II with his good and well-cooked meals. We showered in a snowstorm and talked endlessly at dinner about how we have one last push to the top of the world.

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