Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mount Everest Summit Push, South Col Route: Camp IV

Previous Post: Up the Lhotse Face & Camp III Overview

05:00. Camp III, 23,300'
Early, early! Our alarms started ringing while dawn was just beginning to strike. Crawling out of my Snowy Owl just didn't seem fun, so I lay there for a few minutes staring at the frosty rime remnants of my exhaled vapor that layered the inside of my tent. I slept extremely well last night- only the occasional altitude dream to entertain and make things unique. But all the stories I had read of heavy discomfort, coughs and sleepless nights didn't hit me, and hadn't appeared to hit anyone on our team.

The outside temperature appeared to be somewhere in the neighborhood of -10 degrees which in layman's terms means it was an incredibly mild night. Not a breath of wind, the tent had not even rippled once during the night and definitely contributed to the pleasant and heavy sleep.

Finally, after 30 minutes I decided to get going when I could make out the obvious rustling and chatting in tents around me. I was fortunate enough to have my own tent overnight while Willie and Francisco shared one, so making out the fluent Spanish coming from a tent five feet away was clearly my team.

"Doug, are you up?" Willie asks through his oxygen mask.

"Yeah yeah" comes the muffled reply.

"Let's have some breakfast and get out of here. Come on over."

"Yeah yeah"

Leaving the -60 bag I had hauled high onto the mountain and into my 8,000 meter down climbing suit proved to be an exercise in breathless gymnastics. As I attempted to keep as warm as I could, the challenge of not getting tangled in oxygen hoses proved almost as complex as not bumping tent walls and causing a rain of snow down my back. The difference is that getting twisted in hoses just left me short of breath. Causing a snow shower jump started the wake up process in a most unpleasant manner.

I unzipped the fly to my tent and was greeted to an absolutely amazing view. White, puffy clouds slowly rolled through the Khumbu Valley. A bright sun slowly warmed our surroundings while causing distant snowy peaks like Pumori to twinkle silently in the distance.

Taking in the view only momentarily, I never once forgot exactly where I was. Stories abound of climbers who became too relaxed here. Taking off climbing harnesses and walking freely among the tents of Camp III, they had lost their footing and fatally fallen 2,000 feet down the Lhotse Face. These sorts of accidents resonated with me and I had no intention of going anywhere outside of the relative safety of our tents.

Even here, moving the four feet between my tent to the other proved difficult. Each tent is anchored to the narrow ice platforms that dot Camp III with no fewer than 20 anchor lines. Some are strapped down with cargo nets- the same ones that I use to push cargo pallets out of the back of C-130s with. Feet tangle in anchor lines while slowly wiggling under others as ones my hands are death gripped on bow to and fro when I accidentally apply weight. All the while, I keep an eye on the sharp edge of our ice platform, only two feet away from where I am moving unprotected. Small snowballs and ice trickle over the edge, bouncing between tents below on a 60 degree slope that extends to the Khumbu Glacier, far below.

Over the next 30 minutes, the three of us crammed down cheese, salami and other high energy, fatty foods that didn't require much preparation. We also drank a liter of water and topped off our Nalgene before moving to pack up our meager supplies.

Picking my way back over to my tent I was able to experience firsthand how to top off an already used blue bag at 23,300' while not getting anything earthy onto a climbing suit, equipment- or tent for that matter. This would be the last #2 I would experience for four days as we moved higher and higher into the Death Zone and bodily functions begin to shut down. I wouldn't realize how much I appreciated having my own tent or funny this would be for another 20 minutes or so as I emerged and prepared to climb.

"Doug! Willie just took a crap into a plastic bag in our tent!"

"So did I. Want to see what's in my backpack?"

The three of us finished packing like mad, geared up and then staged to set off as we looked around us and noticed a wave of other climbers preparing to do just the same thing.

07:00. Camp III, 23,300'

Here we go. Camp III to Camp IV. Looking at each other, we agreed that it was time to kick off. Setting off for the South Col from Camp III is grueling and tiring. Unlike every other phase of this climb, there is no gentle ease-in before it is time to challenge hard parts of the route. With the first step, the Camp III to Camp IV leg involves steep angles, loose footing, close to 3,000 vertical feet of elevation gain and close to three miles of route. Portions of the route involve technical rock climbing and all of this while under a baking sun. It is truly an exhausting leg of the climb, but man.. what a view.

Still, not covering this while masked and with O2 to help keep your wits about you also makes for slow and hazardous going. While putting on masks yesterday and sleeping under a meager flow of Oxygen overnight seemed intuitive to us, one quick look around at climbers queuing up to climb a 20' ice cliff showed us that we were definitely in the minority. And why, is beyond me. For us, Oxygen proved a tremendous benefit and long term strategic advantage.

Jumping out of Camp III, we immediately found ourselves at the back of the queue we had been eyeing. Climbers continued to struggle with navigating the ice cliff. Unhappy with how slow things were going, we ended up moving to the front of the line and cleared the mini step quickly. Other exhausted climbers didn't protest at all- either because they were too tired or didn't mind the imposed rest break, all willingly moved aside as we blew by. I love this stuff! Why others refuse to wear Oxygen out of Camp III is beyond me, but our intent was to move as quickly to the South Col as possible, providing us with adequate time to rest up before the night's summit push. I have no argument with that, and if others want to struggle through this portion of the route, then more power to them.

Passing through the upper boundary of Camp III and moving beyond, we passed most remaining climbers on the smooth upper reaches of the Lhotse Face. Saying "excuse me, pardon me, excuse me, pardon me" every few minutes, we felt strong, fast and in great shape. I loved it. It was like we were breathing Nitrous Oxide- we easily and with almost zero effort zinged past almost every other climber. At times, we switched over from one fixed line to a second line- a bit tricky given the angle of the Lhotse Face, but became adept at it after a few tries.

09:00. Yellow Band, 24,700'
Camp III is only half way up the Face itself and slower climbers began to drift further and further behind as we approached the top of the Lhotse Face. There are still several hundred feet to ascend once past the camp boundary and after a short while, the slope begins to ease off as well- moving to close to 45 degrees. And then, the route angles sharp right-traversing the Face and moving via a slight rise to the Yellow Band.

The Yellow Band is a significant line of sedimentary sandstone rock that traverses the length of the horseshoe formed by Nuptse, Lhotse and Everest. A distinctive feature yellowish in color, the Yellow Band is a mix of 5.7 climbing coupled with Class IV scramble and requires about 100 meters of rope at fifteen focused minutes to traverse.

Short bursts of vertical coupled with rock that screech and slip underneath your crampons from time to time make the Yellow Band a challenge. A line of rotten and quite spongy rock that as I learned, isn't something that I enjoyed working my way through and over as I found myself out of breath easily three or four times as I focused to keep pinned to the rock, not find one of my crampons slipping and spearing the climber below me and likewise give the climber above me enough berth to not get speared myself.

Backlogs at trickier sections also weren't that easy to deal with. Five Sherpa tug on the rope behind you while the guy who has elected to not climb with oxygen moves at tortoise pace three in front of you groggily grapples with the magnitude of the choice he made. The rope shakes, wobbles and sways from side to side with tremendous tension as people put their full weight on it.

"Hurry up, dude. Get going, my crampon is slipping on a rock three feet under loose snow."

"Phlrghtt..." or something unintelligent spills forth from the climber not using O2.

Yee cats. I look left, and take in the almost 4,000' feet down to the Khumbu Glacier and majesty of the Himalaya while I wait. I feel tremendously exposed here on the Yellow Band, perched precariously on what I know is essentially a Point of No Return and already within the Death Zone. From here, there is no going back if not under your own power. If you need to be rescued and are still mobile, rescuers can get you out. If you aren't mobile, your chances of making it back- dead or alive- are extremely slim.

The route across the Yellow Band adjusts year-to year, although the volume of crampon scrape marks on rock and older, sun-faded and structurally weak ropes from past seasons that litter this portion of the route imply that at least ten years of climbing has gone through this same notch.

10:10. Geneva Spur, 25,500'
Once over the Yellow Band, the route evens out slightly before entering an angled snow bowl. To the left, the Lhotse Face drops off steeply. To the right, Lhotse rises at a sharp angle to scratch the sky at a height of 27,939' making it the fourth highest mountain in the world. A high camp for teams climbing Lhotse is clearly visible off and up to the right, a small number of tents chipped into the mountainside.

And directly ahead- a trail that slowly winds it's way around and over to a 500 foot rock wall known as the Geneva Spur. While taking a water/ food break, Willie tells us that in more common years the Spur is covered in snow and ice, making the trail much easier to navigate. For us though, the Spur is mostly devoid of snow and is almost pure rock. In the distance, Everest's summit pinnacle begins to show itself. I stood transfixed at this- for the last two months, we have only seen our elusive goal from miles off. Now, we are beginning to see up close what is so attainable and what route we will be on in just a few short hours.

This trail reminded me in some ways of some of the upper regions of Mt Whitney Main Trail in how rocky and gravely it was. Gentle and easy to navigate in the beginning, the very end has a vertical section that is essentially the crux of the trail leading up from the Yellow Band. After a five minute rest break at the base of the Geneva Spur, we began to pass climbers haphazardly propped along the trail. Here, we saw that most people were ditching their crampons at the base of the Spur to use boot soles for traction. This seemed like a good idea to us. But Willie, ever the perfectionist wanted us to be prepared for a rocky summit push and made us keep our crampons on. That screechy nails on a chalkboard noise was pretty common if you were climbing in the area around us, but in retrospect familiarization with what we would be facing on the South Rock Step was solid training.

Named by a Swiss expedition in 1952, the upper tip of the Geneva Spur is an anvil-shaped black rib of rock littered with fixed ropes from years past and sits at 26,000'. Slowly picking our way up and over the scramble, we take time to cut free some of the older, frayed ropes that had remained in place. Climbers continue to scramble up its steep snow-covered surface as we make our way up and over, and for the first time in the climb find myself completely out of breath, gasping for air. Stopping for a few seconds returns my heart rate down to a manageable 140 beats/minute and allows me to regain my breathing. But it's a clear reminder to me of exactly how high I am- oxygen masks or not.

"You just climbed the Geneva Spur, Doug!" Willie exclaimed happily.

No, I didn't like the end of the Geneva Spur at the time. But now, sitting at home as I recount the story of this climb, I find myself drawn back to my time on this portion of the route. In a way, it defined the difference between the snowy, glaciated lower portion of the route and the upper, more technical route leading to the summit. It is the last major hurdle before reaching the last camp on Everest. It has a cool name. It is essentially the crux of the Camp III to Camp IV leg of the climb. Once we passed over the Geneva Spur, we were transformed into what appeared to be an entirely new climb. And despite how winded I felt, thanks to Oxygen we did fairly whiz through this portion of the trail relative to our peers who had chosen to start on O2 beginning at the South Col.

11:45. Camp IV, 26,100'
Once we topped out on the Geneva Spur, the trail flattens out dramatically. We take another quick break, and then step off across the gravelly trail, crampons screeching. The summit pinnacle of Mount Everest looms large and within range. It's so close! To the left, the rocky extreme of the West Ridge- first climbed on 22 May, 1963 by Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein who made mountaineering history by climbing what to that day was considered unclimbable. Below the Triangle Face, the bulbous Ice Shelf shows just how deep and massive it is- extending out toward the South Col and upwards on to the flanks of Everest itself.

The trail winds right after disappearing around the corner and after a 15 minute traverse and no more than 400 meters, -poof- we arrive at Camp IV. With oxygen, our trip that began halfway up the 60 degree Lhotse Face and involved almost 3,000' of toe pointing on ice, scrambling over the rotten rock of the Yellow Band, moving up and over the Geneva Spur and finally ending up at Camp IV took us roughly 5 hours.

Pulling into Camp IV, it struck me as amazing that here, in this barren, rock-strewn wasteland nestled in between Everest and Lhotse, a mini-community could exist and thrive. Granted, it only happens for a few weeks in May each year. But you'd never know it based on the volume of crap strewn between the rocks. And man, is there stuff everywhere. Gas canisters. Spent O2 bottles, Food wrappers. Pieces of shredded tents. Even dex injectors.

It's almost as bad as Camp II. But while Camp II trash is food and a million other pieces of junk, this trash takes on the unmistakable form of climber trash.

As we wander through camp and plod toward our tents, we are fully aware that unlike other tents or campsites, this is only for the short term. And thank God for that. At 26,100', Camp IV sits well above The Death Zone. Our bodies have begun to break down and literally consume itself as we look to spend no more than 48 hours at this elevation. But the way the South Col camp is designed to work for us, we are only short timers here- the goal being to get here, suck it up, breathe Oxygen, eat as much as we can, drink like a fish, try to sleep and then step off on our summit climb in a few hours.

Francisco and Willie take a tent as usual. This time, I'm paired up with Danu and Tendi. This works out great and we have tons of fun passing the time. Lhakpa would normally have ended up with the Sherpas all sharing a tent, but a chest cold and cough acted up yesterday and he was forced to give up his climb. Bad news for him, and for us- we will miss him on this climb. He is an integral part of this team, but having HRA look at his chest was much more important.

As the day passed to afternoon, we tried to get some shuteye and eat some food, but Willie didn't have that luxury. He has agreed to take on the tough job of roping the fixed lines all the way from The Balcony- a prominent terrain feature on our summit push- to the summit. As a result, he has been scrambling around, talking with other team leads to get assistance. Not surprisingly, while many teams are more than happy to use the fixed lines that Willie sets up, not many are willing to help roger up Sherpas to help, or equipment to make his life easier. The one exception is a super Sherpa named Danuru from IMG that agrees to help out.

Day passes to night, and we prepare for our final push as a promising sign- a beautiful nightfall above the clouds passes. We lay back in our tents, continuing to hydrate and eat while conserving energy. Weary, exhausted climbers continue to trickle in from the Lhotse Face well into the late afternoon. I wonder aloud how they will do when setting off in such a short time, but our team is in high spirits and stores of energy. We are doing well.

Only a few hours now...

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