This trip report is a letter I wrote to my parents from Kathmandu after my Everest expedition spring 2008. It mainly describes summit day and some of the events surrounding this season on Everest.
Mt. Everest Spring 2008
Well I’m back in Kathmandu after a wild and wacky year on Everest. The events surrounding this climb are like nothing we’ve seen before. The Chinese were trying to get the Olympic torch to the summit. In the process they closed off the north side of Everest to all other expeditions. They also asked Nepal to close their side of the mountain as well. Although Nepal didn’t close it they restricted access beyond Camp 2 at 21,300 feet until after May 10. Meanwhile many people who were planning on climbing Everest from the north applied for and were granted permits to climb Everest from the Nepalese side. With permits oversold Mt. Everest was more crowded than it has ever been before.
The Chinese reported reaching the summit on May 8. With their expedition being finished we were now allowed to push the south side route higher. It was late and a lot of work had to be done. The route ascends several thousand feet up the Lhotse Face to Camp 3 at 24,000 feet then angles left towards the Geneva Spur eventually arriving at the South Col at approximately 26,100 feet. Many expeditions rallied and in an amazing demonstration of cooperation they pooled together thousands of meters of fixed line, ice screws, snow pickets, and carabiners to start pushing the route above Camp 2. Given the large number of people it was decided to establish two lines, one for ascending and another for descending. With the route established tents, stoves, fuel, oxygen bottles, and food were carried to the camps. Our Sherpas did the bulk of this work.
The next obstacle was acclimatization. Ideally we would have established the route much earlier and had a chance to climb high then descend so we could acclimate before making our summit attempts. The problem now was time was short and the monsoons that normally come in early June were forecasted to arrive 7-10 days early. Our climbing window was short. I had visions of trying the climb without supplemental oxygen and hopefully taking a shot at climbing Lhotse after a few days rest from Everest. With so little time left I decided against the “no O2” idea and had an ambitious plan of resting for two days at Camp 2 before returning high for Lhotse. The weather would change before I could attempt this climb.
The route to the South Col was established amazingly within a week. With everyone feeling the pressure of time while the weather remained clear and calm ahead of the looming monsoons people starting pushing higher for their summit bids. I found myself sleeping at Camp 3 on May 20. I had been feeling strong and healthy up to this point even though my acclimatization was admittedly lacking. I know my body though and figured if I was unable to reach the summit from lack of acclimatization I’d turn around.
On May 21 I woke early and began climbing at 6 AM headed for the South Col. I started using oxygen from here. As I climbed I found myself getting increasingly tired. As I got over 25,000 feet my pace slowed considerably and I had trouble getting enough air to breath with my oxygen mask on. I would take it off to catch my breath then put it back on to walk. This was counterproductive to what should be happening. I shouldn’t have needed to take my mask off to breathe. When I reached the bottom of the Geneva Spur I took a break and called on the radio to Base Camp to let them know where I was. I told them I was dragging ass and was having trouble catching my breath with the oxygen system. A team member responded and said the new masks we were using by Top Out (http://www.topout.co.uk/) were fitted with an o-ring on the ventilator to help prevent icing and this was limiting the flow of air. I knew about this and for that reason had grabbed a mask from last year to avoid this problem. Another team member chimed in and said the older masks had been retrofitted with this o-ring. Yikes! I took off the mask and looked and sure enough there it was. They told me to take a knife and cut out that o-ring and I would probably be able to breathe better. I did as they instructed and voila I was able to breathe. With my new found free air flow I was able to move much better and reached the South Col 45 minutes later.
Another thing that happened on my way to the South Col is a young Sherpa named Kancha Nuru passed me. He was part of our staff and had been faithfully carrying loads our whole trip. He had never been to the summit of Everest before. Our Sirdar (head Sherpa) had decided to send him up to carry part of my oxygen on summit day. I wasn’t expecting this. I had planned on carrying two bottles on summit day, leaving one at the Balcony (about half way to the summit), and picking it up on the way down. Kancha was sent up to carry that second bottle for me. As I was dragging ass going to the South Col that idea grew on me. Kancha is from Phortse (pronounced fort-see) in the Khumbu Valley. This town has produced many strong climbing Sherpas and they are fiercely proud of their reputation. Many Sherpas on our team are from Phortse. On our trek in we had a chance to hike through Phortse and visit there but one team member wanted to go the traditional way through Tengboche so he could see the monastery there and pay for a blessing. Kancha was new to climbing and he was being given his first chance to do more than just carry loads.
As I talked with Kancha at the South Col it was obvious he was strong but also not very experienced. I knew I’d be teaching him a few things but I was looking forward to climbing with him. He said the other Sherpas were telling him there would be many many people climbing tomorrow and we should get an early start.
We left well before midnight and began climbing by headlamp. Ahead of us was a long string of headlamps. People had left as early as 8 PM! As we walked I noticed Kancha had a habit of climbing fast then stopping. I explained to him that this isn’t efficient and it would be better to slow down our pace so we could keep going for longer stretches without stopping. We got into a nice rhythm and eventually caught the long line of people. There must have been over 100 of them in front of us. Behind us at camp there were many more headlamps beginning to ascend towards us. Looking ahead they were all attached to the same fixed lines and all moving very slowly because of the high altitude. I decided to unclip from the lines and climb around people. The terrain was not difficult and besides a bunch of rock outcroppings none of it required using my hands. The problem was Kancha had more trouble following me. He was proving to be extremely strong at altitude but not fully comfortable on 3rd class terrain. I helped him up over a couple steps though and we did well.
We arrived at the Balcony feeling good and took a break. Kancha pulled out my oxygen bottle and laid it against my pack on the uphill side. He thought I had it but before he realized I hadn’t grabbed hold of the bottle it slipped and tumbled out of sight down the hillside. He felt horrible over the accident. I told him it’s OK. Accidents happen and we’re all human (even though he was proving to be “super human” when it came to high altitude climbing). I looked at my regulator and with 2000 psi left in my tank I thought I had enough to do the climb. He said he would grab one of three emergency bottles left here and continue climbing with that plus the one he was using. When he called our Sirdar on the radio to tell him what had happened though the screaming response in Sherpa language didn’t need to be translated. Kancha was getting ripped in to over the radio and was told to descend. I again told him it’s OK and to please not feel badly. I’ll talk to the Sirdar when I get down. We said goodbye and I took off.
This episode cost me ½ hour and unfortunately many people who we had passed earlier were now ahead and moving slow. The route above ascended a steep ridgeline that led to the South Summit. My left toes started getting cold mainly due to the delay plus the slow movement ahead of me. About half way up some exposed rock formed an impasse that many people found difficult to surmount. Worse yet it was impossible to get around them. I was forced to wait… and wait… and wait… for a total of 2 hours of delays. Yikes! When I finally got over this section and back on to steep snow I was trying hard to wiggle my toes to keep circulation going and climb steady and efficiently since my oxygen supply was limited.
Finally at 6:30 AM I reached the South Summit… one of the most famous false summits in the world. Ahead of me the route dropped slightly and traversed into a notch with steep drops on both sides before ascending the Hillary Step, which is about 30 feet of climbing over rock and snow. Although not super difficult falling here isn’t an option. Beyond the Hillary Step the terrain traverses over a series of ledges eventually gaining easier ground leading to the summit. In the Sierra it looked like all this would take about 20-30 minutes to climb. Here at well over 28,000 feet it looked like it would take at least one hour and possibly longer.
I called on my radio to Base Camp. I needed to find out more about the terrain ahead of me, if I was missing anything, and if they thought I had enough oxygen to get to the summit and back down. Expedition leaders Tuck and Jangbu did some calculations and asked a couple questions about how the route looked and how many people were around who could potentially slow my progress. 9 time Everest summitter Dave Hahn (he is now a 10-time summitter) chimed in and added that even if I’m feeling well I’ve been delayed a lot and that means I’ve been up high for a long time and I need to factor in that eventually I will feel the fatigue of being out at extreme altitude so I need to account for that in my thinking. He said I could probably get to the summit in an hour but if I was delayed and it took me two hours it might take me that long to get back to the South Summit. If that happened I would need enough oxygen for four hours plus the long descent. My regulator was dipping below 1600 psi at that point and the calculations from Base Camp were revealing that would be cutting things very close with no room for error, delays, or emergencies.
I was weighing everything out and it was looking like the smart thing for me to do would be to turn around. My toes were telling me I needed to move one way or the other soon if I wanted to have any hope of keeping circulation going to them. Right about the time I was deciding it was time to turn back Kancha pops up on top of the South Summit! He had climbed up to catch me and had done it on a low flow of oxygen. “Come, we go to the summit now”. He had extra oxygen because he wasn’t using very much. If I ran low on mine he would switch with me.
We took off for the summit. We had to fight our way through a traffic jam of people at the Hillary Step then we moved slow and steady over the next 1 ¼ hours. I was taking 4 breaths per step and I didn’t want to know what Kancha was doing. As we neared the summit I turned around and grabbed Kancha’s hand. Up until now he had stuck right behind me but now I told him he’s coming next to me and we’re going to stand on the summit of this mountain together. For that last 10 meters it was difficult to control the lump in my throat as I thought about how close I was to turning around and how fortunate I was to be here once again. Unlike my last trip in 1995 which was a solo effort this time I had help from an unlikely source in a young strong proud Sherpa trying to prove his worth who got a chance to redeem himself and climb to the summit of Everest.