Friday, May 2, 2008

19-22 April: Foray Into Western Cwm

Here comes G-man with tea at 4am again. He's so damn jolly sometimes and when it's still pitch black out and your tent is sparkly with frost, he's definitely a welcome sight. Shake, shake, shake... "Good morning, Dough!" (they still think my name is spelled with an "H"). I'll just let them think that and say that it's a Silent H. At least it's not like other pronunciations, ranging from Duck to Dog.

We set off through the Icefall by 05:30 and made solid time. Soccer Field in 2:15, top of the ladders an hour after that. Then as we made new altitude and we hit these massive waves at the top of the glacier, our speed ground to a snail's pace. Some Swiss goofballs who pretended not to understand English made things difficult for the entire team; some ladders proved to be natural choke points where the Icefall Doctors need to add in extra lanes for up and down. But by continuing to press, we finally made Camp I after 6 hours. Wahoo!

Francisco and I, working together, waded on past the fixed ropes, and our lungs screaming at 19,600', looked desperately for our tents among dozens. True to team form, we were located at the farthest site, at the end of a painfully steep hill. Francisco and I must have looked at each other several times as we were "in" Camp I, but still had another 20 minutes of snail-paced trudging- and at least one rope and virtually vertical slope to scale before making our camp tents. When we saw Willie and asked him about this, he mentioned the possibility for avalanche in certain parts of the Camp- and how our particular tents were safe based on where he positioned them. Good enough reason for me, truth be told. I'll take the long walk for that insurance.

When we arrived, we found Tendi happily digging, preparing our cook tent. Tendi, of course, had left a few minutes before we had, yet had arrived a mere 2 1/2 hours later- a scorching time that he proudly told us about and made sure we also knew that when he had arrived at Camp I, the sun hadn't even touched camp yet. We were so proud of our time that morning, making the top of the Soccer Field prayer flags when the sun finally hit us, but little did we know that while we had another 3 1/2 hours of climbing in front of us, good 'ol Tendi had already reached his objective. So to keep busy, this superhuman decided "hey, maybe to avoid boredom I'll build a cook tent" and went about it with a massive smile on his face.

Joe and I threw our gear into one tent- a North Face VE-35, and Francisco & Willie took a North Face VE-25. Both four season tents are ruggedized for just about anything a storm high in the Himalaya could throw at them, but Joe and I noted that in addition, ours was firmly roped and staked down to the ground. Winds here, ripping off the Lhotse Face and roaring down the Western Cwm can hit these tents with such force that having the ropes in place definitely made us feel better about keeping in one place and not turning into a sail.

I can't begin to tell you how excited I was to open up my 8000m Down Climbing Suit and -60 Degree Sleeping Bag- both made by Feathered Friends in Seattle. When I pulled them out of their compression bags and Joe did the same, it looked like a down bomb had gone off in our tent. I think that the inside was easily a foot deep in down of different colors, fabrics, and shapes and the two of us were responsible for clearing out an entire duck factory's worth of feathers. Just by opening them, the temperature inside increased a few degrees.

There, in the corner of each tent was a clear reminder of where we were located, so high that evils like cerebral edema and pulmonary edema exist and lurk in the rarified air. Fortunately, nothing dealing with acclimatization has struck our team, but it's always better to be prepared in the event that oxygen is needed.

Over the next two days, we acclimatized to Camp I and made moves toward Camp II, located further up the trail and almost at the base of Mt Everest. The first day, Willie offered for us to "take a 20 minute walk." I don't think any one of us believed that we were going to put on all our gear for 20 minutes, but we played along and headed out. The glacial waves continue for some distance beyond Camp I, across now familiar aluminum ladders and up steep faces. After some time, the glacier flattens out as the trail leads toward Everest, providing stunning views of both our objective and where we still have to go- one foot in front of the other. Hidden crevasse and loose snow bridges riddle the trail. Some are clearly visible; some only rear their ugly head after stepping on them.

We were clearly ahead of the power curve in pushing up to Camp II, and that was plainly evident in our mode of travel- roped up as a rope team on a trail sometimes barely visible. We even pushed ahead of the Icefall Doctors, who we passed as they worked their magic. But as we moved up and up, the risk increased so we were constantly vigilant of every step as we moved. I have to say that in many ways, this was the first time on this trip that I felt like I was climbing- truly climbing- in a close-knit team expeditionary manner. We were only one of a few climbers to make it this high this soon, and it felt great- definitely ahead of the power curve and setting the course for others to navigate by.

I looked down at my altimeter at one point and it read just over 20,053'. Everest summit is 29,035' so we are getting to the point now where we are under 9,000' from the true goal. Ultimately, we made it as high as 20,330', which is higher than Mt. McKinley- the roof of North America. It felt good, despite having no energy and feeling like no matter how hard we breathed in, there just wasn't enough air. The air is too thin it's crazy.

Each night, the sun slowly sets with afterglow on Pumori as we prepare dinner in our cook tent. As we tell stories and joke around, the temperature drops like a rock and a full moon pops up, right over Lhotse and shining down into the Western Cwm. We crawl into our huge bags tightly gripping a hot water bottle designed to heat up the inside of our bags and drift off, having vivid altitude dreams.

On the 22nd, we returned to Base Camp to recover from our trip, and prepare for another trip up into the thin air a few days down the road. It's absolutely amazing... we can breathe better, our oxygen saturation has shot way up, and it's easy to forget that Base Camp is "way down" at 17,500'.

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