Sunday, May 11, 2008

4 May: Last Rest Day, Prep for Lhotse Face

So what did we do yesterday to continue our recovery session? Well... it snowed and snowed and snowed- to the point where sporadic snowball fights erupted from time to time. But other than that, we watched movies all day long. American Pie: Beta House, Casino Royale, No Country For Old Men, etc. Beta House was unquestionably the winner based on its cinematography and witty dialogue. Rrrriiggghhtt... but it was a long, slow day that helped out, all things considered. For example, my toenails, fresh from HRA (Himalayan Rescue Association) treatment yesterday are doing 100 times better since the snow forced me to stay off 'em. And today in the afternoon, snow again. Our movie line quote library is now stocked with many more witty examples for use on the trail. Francisco and I even managed to pull an oldie but goodie out yesterday afternoon thanks to idle time: "San Dimas High School Football Rules!"- Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Anyone remember that one?

The purpose for these down days at Base Camp is simply put as written in The Mountaineers guidebook "Medicine for Mountaineering":

"On top of Mount Everest, atmospheric pressure and the amount of oxygen available is one-third that at sea level." And "The great mountains of Asia, Africa, and South America attract experienced mountaineers who know to avoid illness by careful acclimatization. Those susceptible to mountain sickness infrequently go so high. These individuals do occasionally fall victim to severe altitude-related illness, but most of their difficulty comes from prolonged stays above 20,000 feet (6,100m) that cause loss of physical and mental fitness rather than acclimatization problems. Humans live permanently at altitudes up to 17,500' (5400m), where the pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere is about 80mm Hg, but above this do not thrive. Above 20,000', humans deteriorate rapidly."

"Spending as little time as possible at extreme altitude and periodically descending for recovery at lower altitude for several days can minimize high altitude deterioration."

As a result, we will be adequately acclimatized and recovered in two days (once the weather clears and -hopefully- the Chinese have summited. So, in two days we again don climbing gear and go up straight to Camp II... just whizz right by Camp I since we are now acclimatized to 21,000'. Actually, all of our Camp I tents and equipment have been removed anyway along with most teams, so that Camp I looks quite small compared to the way it looked just a few weeks ago. All that truly remains at Camp I are emergency tents in the event we get caught between Camp II and above the Icefall during a storm.

Since I have some time today, I thought that it might be interesting to note the route of travel so far. This might help to explain some of the technical merits of the South Col route and challenges faced by climbers as they travel onward and upward.

Khumbu Icefall Route:

Our route up the Icefall, as outlined in the above picture has changed moderately over the last several weeks as the Icefall has moved and flowed downhill. But the essential route remains the same: wander across the Khumbu Glacier moraine field that makes up Base Camp for ~20 minutes- meandering past tents, slipping and sliding until you make the actual ice. You become happy to finally make the ice and don crampons for a path that then wanders through those infernal waves in the Lake District at the leading edge that take forever and wipe you out quickly. I swear that as we have become more acclimatized, this part of the trail has become harder and steeper. Then past our mile post ice block, only 300 vertical feet above Base Camp, but where the elevation gains truly begin and where we start to encounter ladders stretched across crevasse. Fixed lines lead us directly into the "Popcorn Field," where smaller, jagged ice blocks look like popcorn for giants and where most of the collapses occur. It's in these ~500 vertical feet or so that you recognize the most movement of the Icefall and where ladder and rope traverses can be quite hairy.

At the top of the popcorn is the "Soccer Field"- a largish, flat area at 18,500' where the ice is flat and resides in incredibly deep and huge chunks that you think you might be able to play soccer on- except for hundreds of feet deep crevasse. Then come the vertical ladders. They look like they are right there from the Soccer Field, but they are actually 600 vertical feet above and take close to 45 minutes to reach. At one point, these ladders were only two aluminum jobbies tied together. Now they are four tied with rope and lead directly up to a straight ice section that fortunately has steps carved into the ice, making the final pitch somewhat easier. One set has a horizontal traverse followed by 10' ice climb leading to another two ladders tied and anchored to yet another vertical ascent and ice scramble up top. They are truly exhausting, but signify the final crux of the Icefall before being able to peer into the valley of the Western Cwm. It's another 45 minutes to go before making Camp I, but once you pass those ladders and three moderate waves up top, you have made it, looking at the welcome site of Camp I tents 2,100' above Base Camp.

Western Cwm Route:

Immediately past Camp I, glacial waves- much more extreme than those encountered at the base of the Icefall beckon you on. Fortunately, but only after we had traversed these waves twice when the trail to Camp II was first established- the trail was redirected to Camp II around these waves and along "The Nuptse Route." This variation allows Sherpas and climbers to avoid the waves altogether by hugging the edge of Nuptse as they move toward Camp II. A bit dangerous thanks to exposure to occasional rockfall and avalanche, expedited movement through this area is paramount. Once past the waves though at 19,800', the trail angles directly to the center of the glacier and crosses over four crevasses so large you could park a battleship and where you can't even begin to see the bottom- just black. From that point up to Camp II, it's just a plain old straight slog uphill to 20,600' and the welcoming sight of our yellow tents.

Camp II Layout:

Then in something like four days, we go up to the Lhotse Face, pressing up to Camp III. Once we make that one, we are considered "acclimatized" for a summit push and wait for our window. Willie may/ may not want us to take a 2nd trip up there to be sure, but if the weather clears, we are going for it. So strange that it's so close to our summit push. All that we have gone through up to this point... amazing. All of the money, quitting my job, spending so many bored hours in the gym. To me, this is just like a Marine Corps deployment so I'm looking more at the next 3 weeks as a "holy crap, we only have 3 weeks left??" Time is truly flying by.

Lhotse Face Route:

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