EVEREST & LHOTSE
If every climb was great, would any of them be great or would they just be normal? Without downs, can you have ups? I guess I’m a believer in the idea that you need to see the bad to appreciate the good, as was the case with Everest.
Everest was a beautiful mountain that presented a great physical challenge to climb but so much of that was diluted by the selfishness of the climbers on the mountain. I have never seen so many people so hellbent on summit success that they would not only put themselves at risk but also neglect to help those in need. It would be difficult to compartmentalize the events of the day and move on to our next objective, Lhotse, but that was the task that we faced…
The original plan had been to descend from Everest by late morning, rest for a few hours, then attempt Lhotse within a 24 hour period. As Anders, Geoff and I descended Everest much later than scheduled, we all knew that this would not be a reality. After the events of the day and the extra time needed for our summit day, we were emotionally and physically drained from a lack of sleep.
We arrived back to C4 at 2:50 PM on the afternoon of the 21st. The entire evening was spent resting and rehydrating, which took a while because I had consumed only slightly more than a liter of water the entire day. The 22nd was a groggy day, filled with naps and snacking. The Lhotse plan was to depart around 2 AM in the morning but Brent’s health had deteriorated and Anders was feeling apprehensive after our experience on Everest. That afternoon, Brent and Anders both decided that they would forego the attempt on Lhotse and descend to C2, followed by EBC the next day. This left Geoff, Siddhi and I as the climbers who would be climbing Lhotse on the 23rd.
The last daylight of the 22nd fades above the South Col.
With our plan in place, we did our best to get sleep but the howling winds made it quite the challenge. When our alarms went off at 1 AM, Geoff and I quickly agreed that another half hour of snoozing was absolutely necessary. The wind continued to howl and the thought of crawling out of my -40 sleeping bag to battle the elements was one of the last things that I wanted to do at the time. Running out of excuses to hit the snooze on our alarms, we hesitantly began to put our gear, while doing our best to avoid getting out of our bags. By the time we were ready, it was 3:15 AM and we knew it was time to move.
I opened the tent vestibule and was immediately greeted by a flurry of spindrift that bit at my cheeks and momentarily blinded me. As Geoff, Siddhi and I weaved our way through the tents at C4, we were nearly hit by several that had broken free of their anchors. It’s difficult to explain the chaos that was occurring at C4 but I’ll do my best… my headlamp only provided visibility for about five feet ahead of me because of the spindrift that was caught in the luminescence. A few tents were wildly thrashing about, holding on by just one anchor and they reminded me of a marlin that had been hooked on a fishing line. I could hardly make it through camp before I had to put goggles on to avoid being blinded by the spindrift.
After traversing the Geneva Spur, we came to the base of the route up the Lhotse Couloir. We picked up a couple of extra O2 canisters that had been cached in the snow and set out for our objective. I lead the group up the couloir, followed by Geoff and Siddhi, making great time as we cruised up the steep snowfield. I remained somewhat apprehensive of the climb as we made progress, most likely due to the experience that we had had on Everest. As the sun rose, my spirits did so as well. We passed the body of a fallen climber as we entered the base of the couloir but it didn’t rattle me, I kept on moving.
Geoff and Siddhi make their way up the Lhotse Face jut before sunrise.
When we reached the bottom of the couloir, we took our second break for water and a snack. Little did we know that this would be our last break of the climb because within minutes, we were being hammered by the wind. We knew that there was a potential for a strong jet stream to hit but it wasn’t supposed to be until late PM… well the experts were wrong. We fought our way up the couloir as the wind slammed at our backs, frequently knocking us to the ground. Words were immediately lost in the wind and we quickly resorted to hand signals. The skin on my cheeks that was not protected by my goggles or O2 mask was left to windburn. I couldn’t help but think that it was only a matter of time before we succumbed to the wind and turn in retreat.
A cold morning in the Lhotse Couloir with Everest in the distance.
That’s about the moment that the sun broke into the couloir and I vividly remember turning to Geoff, who was climbing behind me, and he gave me a big thumbs up. It put a big smile on my face, which was hidden by my mask, but I’m pretty sure that he knew it was there based on my enthusiastic thumbs up that I returned his way. I knew that we were going to make it. I knew that it was going to be a fight with the elements but I knew damn well that we were going to make it because I was a member of the best team on the range.
View from the side of Lhotse. Nuptse is the peak in the left foreground, while Cho Oyu is the peak near the center in the distance, and Everest stands on the right.
Over the next two hours, we fought 50-60 MPH winds that were howling through the couloir. Each one of us was knocked to our knees but each time that we did, we got back up and gave the others a thumbs up. About two hundred feet from the summit, the wind was so bad that Siddhi took a knee and we followed suit. For the next 10 minutes, we would patiently wait there, separated from each other by about 25 feet. Even if we screamed at the top of our lungs, we wouldn’t have been able to hear one another but that didn’t matter, we knew that we were good. We were a cohesive unit, moving in unison and trusting each other with our lives. I would liken it to the experience of the perfect football play, when everything is just clicking and the confidence in your team builds like cold fusion… except that this is occurring at 28,000′ and you are facing elements that are capable of killing you. This was how climbing was supposed to feel, raw yet pure.
Fighting our way through the Lhotse Couloir.
We soon hauled ourselves up the last rocky step of the summit, avoiding the dead Czech man who has protected an alternative route for a number of years. The summit was incredible, a small cone-shaped point that sat on a small mound, which was big enough for two people to sit on precariously. If you haven’t seen it, check out the 360 degree camera shot that is on my Facebook profile, you can see Everest behind me and the summit of Lhotse behind Geoff. Anyway, we spent about 15 minutes at the top because the winds had died to a tolerable level. It almost felt that the mountain was challenging us to put forth our best effort and once we did, she allowed us to sit on top in peace.
Finally, the summit.
Three days later, during a team dinner in Kathmandu, someone asked “What was your favorite moment of the expedition?” It was an easy question as far as I was concerned. My favorite moment of the entire expedition was when Siddhi, Geoff and I were hunkered down on the Lhotse couloir, unable to communicate beyond hand signals, but entirely confident in our team’s ability to conquer. It was a moment that helped me regain my confidence in the ability of humans to care for and protect one another. Whether it was fate or coincidence, Lhotse was a reminder of why I love to climb.
It’s been a couple days since my descent from the upper mountain and I have yet to provide an account of my summit of Mount Everest. I’m going to skip to the evening before our ascent of the world’s tallest peak. For those parents who are having their children follow along, you may want to read the content before allowing them to do so. It was a challenging day and one that I will never forget…
Our speedy ascent from C3 (23,000′) to C4 (25,800′) was in jeopardy as we looked up at the Geneva Spur. The Spur is the large rise of rocks in the saddle that connects the Lhotse Face and the South Col (the saddle between the two mountains) where C4 sits. We looked up at a long line of climbers that were moving at a snails pace. It was 2:30 PM at the time and it would take us two hours to cover a distance that should have taken us only 30 minutes. The climbers that were causing the delay was a Chinese team that was overmatched for the task at hand. As we slowly passed them on the precarious terrain, each one of them looked like they had been to hell and back.
When we finally walked onto the South Col at 4:30 PM, we found a camp that was windswept and looked up at the peak of Everest. We quickly took to searching for our tents, which had supposedly been set up by our Sherpas a day prior. Despite our best efforts, we could not find our tent, every single one was occupied. We continued to search but soon found ourselves cold and increasingly tired from the high altitude. After working with our basecamp team on the radio, we soon located a tent that was ours and found two Sherpas sleeping in it. They had sought refuge in it because they thought that it would not be needed since no one had claimed it so late in the afternoon. They were not with our team and we demanded that they move to another tent so that we could get some rest.
Brent, Geoff, Anders and I crawled into the tent as soon as they had moved out and quickly got back on the radio for weather reports. We spent the next 30 minutes getting the other tent set up and discussing our options for our summit attempt. At this point it was 5:30 and we were exhausted. The weather forecasts came in from EBC and it appeared that our best weather window would in fact be the following day, which meant that we would be climbing that evening. My morale was dwindling and I was very apprehensive about the prospect of making a summit attempt on zero sleep, after just climbing almost 3,000 vertical feet.
As a team, we finally decided that we would need to make our attempt that evening. Geoff and I settled into the second tent and I expressed my concerns over pushing through 6,000′ vertical feet in a 24 hour period. Deep down, I knew that it was the correct decision but the exhaustion manifested itself in a rather negative outlook. Geoff understood but we knew what had to be done.
We would begin our push at 11 PM, which left just enough time for us to eat some dehydrated food and melt snow for two liters of water each, which would be all that we had for our summit attempt. By the time that we had eaten and filled our Nalgene bottles it was 8:30 PM. We spent the next couple of hours preparing our packs, prepping our gear and closed our eyes for a brief moment. It was impossible to sleep as the wind beat our tent and the sound of the winds passing over the Col sounded like a freight train. It seemed like only a few minutes had passed when our alarms went off and we sprung into action.
Brent and Anders were ready first, so they set off up the mountain, ahead of Geoff and I. Once we were ready, we began our slow pace through the dark night. The wind burned my eyes and cheeks as we crawled up the hill just outside of C4. We were the last team to break camp for a summit attempt and I looked up at a line of headlamps that stretched across the Southeast Ridge of Mount Everest. It was all that I could see, outside of the few feet ahead of me that were illuminated by my headlamp. I felt as if I were an astronaut in space, alone.
After about a couple hours of climbing, I noticed something to my left, a frozen body. I had come prepared to see death on the mountain but despite this anticipation, it gave me chills. I soon crawled through a chute of rocks and I noticed that the rest of the team had stopped. I will never forget what I saw next… Geoff was knelt down next to a man who was laying on his back. As I drew closer, I saw his face, frozen from exposure and his right hand naked and contorted with his fingers twisted in an unnatural manner. Judging by the rips in his down suit, he had fallen and been unable to recover. His eyes and mouth were frozen open and he moaned in pain. Geoff was scrambling for meds that are used to revive altitude victims as Anders, Brent and I did what we could to support, while also trying to get the man to gain consciousness. It was not enough, the man had been in the cold too long and it was clear that he would soon be dead. We tried to tuck his bare hand into his suit but his body was rigid and he was unresponsive, despite his flailing and moaning. We did everything that we could but knew that it had been too little too late. I looked down and noticed an ice axe that was lying next to him with his name on it.
As we stood next to him, another climber came to us and told us of a disoriented man who was just 50 feet above. We turned our attention to this man, who lay on the steep snow bank and had similar shreds in his down suit. He lay there, pleading for help to get down the mountain. His blonde mustache was frozen into an icicle but he was far more responsive than the man that we had just tried to help. We administered meds to him and urged him to get to his feet but he was unable. As he lay there, we discussed his condition and we knew what had to be done. Anders, Brent, Geoff and I decided that we had to take him down to C4, knowing full well that we would forego our summit of Everest. Geoff and Anders rigged a rope off the main fixed line, while Brent and I began to drag the man down the mountain. It was exhausting as we pushed and pulled him down, while Geoff let rope out. Within minutes of beginning our descent, one of our Sherpa’s Tashi, had climbed back down from the Balcony, a couple hundred feet above us. Tashi said that he would take the climber down and Brent agreed to assist him. Despite our apprehension, Brent encouraged Anders, Geoff and I to continue on to the summit and we eventually agreed to do so, knowing that the two of them would be able to get him down to a tent.
Neither man had an oxygen mask or canister with him. It dawned on me that both men had probably climbed on the 20th and descended late in the day, becoming disoriented from lack of oxygen and exhaustion. Being the last team to depart that evening, I knew that teams had begun ascending Everest at around 7 PM and that every single one of them had passed these men, fixated on the opportunity to summit. I felt nauseous knowing that so many had passed these men and had been unwilling to help them. One was too far gone to help, while the other was hanging onto his life by a thread. Perhaps, if we had arrived a couple hours earlier, we would have been able to save both of them. This was a moment in my life when I lost a little faith in humanity…
As the three of us pushed upward, conversation was limited to occasionally checking on one another to make sure that we were doing OK. I felt sick to my stomach and could not get the image of the man writhing on the ground with his face frozen from exposure to the elements. The darkness of the night made for a lonely ascent and I eagerly awaited the sunrise. When we finally reached the balcony, the sun slowly peeked over the horizon and we scrambled for cached O2 canisters. As we changed out our O2, we didn’t speak much. We were all in shock and our minds remained with the man who was being carried down by Brent and Tashi. Geoff did his best to get us to regain our focus but he knew that it was a feeble attempt. With our O2 replenished, we pushed up the ridge. At this point, Siddhi and Anders were out front with Geoff and I following. The sun helped to warm us, after our bodies had cooled during the two hours that we had spent attempting to rescue these two men. I wish I could say that the sunlight on the face of Everest brought me some happiness but I was too exhausted from a lack of sleep and felt sickened by what we had just experienced. We pushed on, digging deep for energy…
Climbing towards the South Summit after switching out O2 canisters.
Taking a rest at an anchor just before reaching the South Summit.
After a few hours, we had ascended the ridge and reached the South Summit, which lies at 28,500′. Before us was the famous Hillary Step, congested from climbers trying to weave through one another, some descending and others who were still ascending. Anders and Siddhi had maneuvered through some of the traffic, leaving Geoff and I behind. Geoff and I briefly became separated due to some climbers who were descending, causing me to wait to pass.
Geoff was about 150 feet ahead of me when I began climbing through the section of rock before the Hillary Step. This was the point when I realized that something was wrong. My footwork on the rock was sloppy and I couldn’t seem to gain my footing, despite my best efforts. I felt drunk and seemed to be losing consciousness. I was scared and didn’t know what was happening to me. When I was able to gain enough composure, I braced myself on a rock and checked my O2 gage, which read zero. I had been climbing at 28,500′ without oxygen and hadn’t heard the noise of my canister running out because of the loud winds.
Geoff had been watching as I uncharacteristically struggled with my normally sound footwork. I waved him over and he rushed to my side. As soon as I told him that I had run out of O2, he quickly removed his own canister and attached it to my regulator. This was one of the most selfless acts that I had ever witnessed and I could hardly believe as I regained my composure. After a couple of minutes, I came to and was able to begin moving again. Geoff was now out of O2 and we had to find Siddhi, who was carrying the extra canister. When we had sent Tashi down, he had gone with an extra O2 canister, so the only person carrying extra was Siddhi, who was already near the summit with Anders.
The Summit Ridge of Mount Everest. Notice climbers nearing the top.
Geoff and I moved slowly across the extremely exposed summit ridge. I was still somewhat woozy from overexerting myself without supplemental oxygen, so Geoff moved forward to try to find Siddhi as quickly as possible. Soon he came into sight, as he had come back to check on us. We quickly placed a fresh canister in Geoff’s pack and we took a few moments to catch our breath, before pushing to the summit just ahead.
At 10:45 AM, Geoff and I, side by side, walked onto the summit of Mount Everest. I shed a few tears of happiness and relief as we looked at the prayer flags that adorned the highest point in the world. I thought of the struggles of the past 24 hours but soon found myself reflecting on the events in my life that had led up to this point. I thought of my Mom and her unwavering love and support throughout my life. I thought of my Dad and his influence in helping me discover my passion for climbing. I knew that they were with me in spirit and my soul was warmed knowing that they were there with me, as well as a true friend who would risk his own life for me.
After five minutes, we were in a hurry to descend.
Anders had already begun to descend but Geoff, Siddhi and I spent about five minutes on the summit, taking a few pictures before we decided it was time to descend. It was late in the day and we needed to move quickly before afternoon weather moved in. Still groggy from my incident on the South Summit, I focused on every step to move quickly and safely down the mountain. Unlike our ascent, the descent was smooth and without issue.
It took us four hours to make our descent to the South Col and throughout the entire time my mind wandered from thoughts of our accomplishment to the horrors that we had witnessed just hours earlier. I was exhausted from the effort and lack of sleep but found comfort in strength in my amazing team. As C4 came into view, we passed the body of the man that we had tried so hard to save. He lay on his back, frozen, while other descending climbers stopped to look. I couldn’t look at him but saw the ice axe with his name and I said a prayer for him and his family.
As we walked into C4 and the other members of our team surrounded us with hugs and congratulations, I once again found my mind wandering. While my summit of Mount Everest had included feelings of elation for accomplishing what I had worked so hard to do, I was disheartened. The man that Brent had carried down would die in a tent 24 hours later, after hours and hours of medical attention. I couldn’t help but wonder what had gone through the minds of all the people who had passed these two men on their way to the summit. What would posses someone to find more value in a summit of a pile of rocks than in helping to save the life of another human being? Why did it take the last team on the mountain to do something? I’m not sure that I will ever understand why but I do know that there is hope in the world, as long as there are people like Anders, Brent and Geoff. Life is far more valuable than a summit of Mount Everest and these brothers of mine are shining examples of the character that we should strive to uphold.
Descending to the South Col.
My summit of Mount Everest will forever be a bittersweet memory of one of the greatest accomplishments of my life but also the challenges that humanity faces. I hope that you will remember my story, always follow your dreams, and never turn a blind eye to those in need.
Geoff, Anders, and I successfully summited Mount Everest at 10:45 AM on May 21st. Less than 48 hours later, Geoff and I summited Lhotse, the 4th tallest peak in the world. It took a great deal of effort to get from EBC to the top of the world and despite an average of 3,000+ vertical feet per day, above 20,000′ and over the course of five days, it was well worth every ache and pain.
The summit of Mount Everest (29,029′) with Geoff (blue) on May 21st.
The summit of Lhotse (27,940′) on May 23rd.
It wasn’t without its challenges, many of which are to be expected when climbing a mountain like Everest but some of which will take me some time to process. There is no better word to describe my summit of the world’s tallest peak than “bittersweet”. While the climb of Lhotse was pure, the climb of Everest was challenging, more so mentally than physically. As I lay down in my tent, I am still trying to digest the events of the past few days. I’m sure that many of you have read tidbits of what has transpired on Everest over the past few days. It is true and it was raw, I witnessed it firsthand. I have done my best to be honest with you during the duration of my expedition and I promise to continue to do so but I will need some time to collect my thoughts.
Also, I want to thank Jordan Wells and my parents for helping to keep everyone posted on the events of the past few days. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I had limited satellite phone connectivity, which I was relying on to provide updates. Nevertheless, they did a great job keeping everyone informed.
I’m going to try to get some rest in the thick air at 17,000′ but first, I want to thank you for all of your love, support and encouragement over the past seven weeks. There have been many times when I have been down but your messages have lifted me up. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. While the peaks have been climbed, the journey is not over. There is a lot of story to tell and I promise to do so in the coming days…
PS – Click on the image below to view a 360 degree image from the summit of Lhotse (via the Madison Mountaineering Facebook Page).
According to GPS, at approximately 9:45 AM NPT on 5/23, John reached the summit of Lhotse. He has now begun his descent back to C2, then EBC.
John reached the Summit of Mount Everest!
According to GPS John and his team are on the move, hopefully bound for the summit in about 7-8 hours.
You can follow along here.
The lines are now fixed and the most recent weather forecasts continue to show decreasing wind speeds, so the time has come for us to make a move. Our team has made the decision to break camp tonight and start our summit push. The first group of Ghurkas returned to camp this afternoon and provided some much appreciated beta on the summit ridge. They were all smiles and it is my hope that I will have that same big smile on my face after a few tough days on the mountain.
Congratulating the Ghurkas (3rd and 5th from left)!
This will be the 2nd attempt for Anders, Brent, Geoff and I but the first for the rest of our team. As I type, everyone is busy packing their gear for the next few days. Luckily for the four of us, since we had previously moved up to attempt to summit, all of our gear is already cached at C2. All I had to pack were some extra insulating layers for a cold morning and food to get me through the day. This will be the lightest packs that we have carried the entire expedition!
Our team of four is planning on moving on an accelerated scheduled because of the extra time that we have spent at C2 and our speed. The weather looks most favorable on the 23rd and 24th but we are tentatively targeting the 21st (Everest) and 22nd (Lhotse) as our summit dates. The rationale behind not waiting is that we will be able to avoid slower climbers on the lines who are taking advantage of the optimal conditions. While we may have to fight higher wind speeds, will allow us to move at a faster pace and in the mountains, speed is safety. The remainder of our team will move at a more conservative pace and install a rest day at both C2 and C4.
Below is our tentative schedule for our team of four. Obviously, this is all dependent upon weather and will be pushed back if the weather forecasts worsen. In the case that the 21st does not look like a feasible summit window, we will take a rest day at C2 on the 19th and look to summit on the 22nd and 23rd.
- May 18th: Depart EBC @ 2 AM and climb to C2
- May 19th: Move to C3 early PM
- May 20th: Move to C4 early AM, rest, depart for summit around 11 PM
- May 21st: Everest Summit target of 6-8 AM, descend to C4 by Noon, nap, depart for Lhotse summit around 10-11 PM
- May 22nd: Lhotse Summit target of 6-8 AM, descend directly to C2 by midday
- May 23rd: Descend from C2 to EBC
- *Nepali time is 9:45 ahead of EST and 12:45 ahead of PST
I will be calling in via satellite phone to provide updates on our schedule, so be sure to check in often on our progress.
If all goes as planned, we will soon be standing on top of the world… and the 4th highest point on earth. Although I know that I am physically and mentally prepared for this effort, I can’t help but be anxious. It’s not a nervous anxious but rather a feeling of anticipation of the challenge ahead of me. I know that some readers probably question my sanity and wonder why I would expose myself to so much risk, so I wanted to share a quote that might help to explain “why”…
“Alpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence. Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action. You cannot stay on the summit forever. You have to come down again. So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully. There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.” – René Daumal
As we prepare to depart, I can’t help but feel incredibly blessed to have the support of the three strong men on my team and all those who have sent so many prayers our way over the past six weeks. Regardless of the outcome of our effort, I will forever be changed by this experience and hold it in my heart, always.
Thank you for all of your love and support. This opportunity stands before me because of your inspiration and for that, I will always be grateful.
Day 42: Monday, May 15th (Rest Day in Pangboche)
It’s been one month since Dad left EBC and it feels like it was just yesterday. I can hardly believe that I’ve considered a desolate campsite located on a glacier at 17,200′ home for over a month. A lot has occurred; three trips through the icefall, countless hours spent speculating about the weather, lots of ups, lots of downs, and a heck of a lot of fun too. I wish Dad was still here but I know that I will see him soon enough. Until then, we still have some work to do and it seems that the plan for the next few days is coming into focus.
Today was about as much of a rest day as a rest day can be. We woke up late, ate breakfast, joked around in the lodge of the Highland Sherpa teahouse and relaxed. Time crawled by as we waited for each weather report to show up. Early on, we received word that the lines had finally been fixed by a small group of Sherpas that was formed from the Ghurka team, another British team, and two from our very own Madison Mountaineering team. They were the first individuals to summit from the South Side (Nepal) of Mount Everest in 2017. I have to congratulate them not only for fixing the lines but for going above and beyond in fighting thigh deep snow up the summit ridge.
Rumor has it that 70-80 climbers had positioned themselves at C3 and C4 in anticipation of this small group fixing the lines, as well as a very small weather window on the 16th. While this frustrated us, we understand that the weather window was questionable and would be short, most likely eliminating the opportunity to climb Lhotse the day after Everest. Nevertheless, we knew that it was time for our mini-vacation in Pangboche to come to an end. We spent the rest of the afternoon debating on climbing schedules and checking on helicopter prices back up to EBC. The original plan was to hike back up a day or two before our departure from EBC but after much debate, we decided that it would be best for me to take a helicopter to avoid any additional injury to my ankle. Brent also opted for the helicopter ride, while Geoff and Ingvild decided that they would hike back up.
With plans for our return in place, we had an early dinner and retreated to our rooms to get some rest.
Day 43: Tuesday, May 16 (Move Up to EBC)
Breakfast was early because Geoff and Ingvild needed to hit the road. Brent and I had a helicopter scheduled to pick us up at the helipad in Pangboche at 8:30 but we had a strong suspicion that the helicopter would be running late because everything in Nepal tends to be late. We were correct and we spent most of the morning receiving updates that the helicopter would be 30 minutes late, which went on for some time. At 10 AM, we said goodbye to Yangzing Sherpa, the owner of the Highland Sherpa, and hiked up to the helipad. We had a bit of a wait there but the weather was good, so we didn’t mind.
Geoff was hesitant to get out of his sleeping bag this morning. I think he looks like some type of caterpillar or grubworm.
As we waited, we received word that the Ghurka team had been the first to summit and that the weather had turned out to be much milder than predicted by our weather experts. We couldn’t help but be disappointed that we had forgone the opportunity to climb. We had to remind ourselves that we made the decision based on a limited window and that we probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to summit Lhotse. Our time would come but we had to remain patient.
Soon, we heard the sound of a helicopter flying up-valley, so we took shelter behind a boulder because the helicopters have been known to “rock” when landing. Within moments of the helicopter touching down, we were rushing to hop in and as soon as we were seated with the doors closed, it was off the ground. The helicopter pilots in the Khumbu Valley are highly skilled and skim just off the surface of the rugged terrain. Brent and I enjoyed the 10 minute ride to EBC, which had taken us five hours to descend just days prior. A quick 90 degree turn into EBC, brought us to an abrupt landing on the helipad and we were home.
Big smiles for the guys who don’t have to hike back to EBC!
Landing approach at EBC.
Bhola, our Nepali Basecamp Manager, and Andrew, our Western Basecamp Manager, greeted us as we hopped out of the helicopter. A 10 minute hike brought us back home and we were soon hugging all of our teammates in the dining tent. The next couple hours consisted of lunch and planning for the next few days. Brent has decided that our team of four will break camp in the early morning of the 18th, which would put us at C2 before noon on the same day. The weather reports are showing winds that should begin to subside on the 20th, most likely offering great summit windows on the 22nd and 23rd. Due to delays of the lines getting fixed, it is very likely that the majority of the Everest climbers this year will try to climb on the 22nd or 23rd, weather permitting. Our tentative plan is to target the 21st and tangle with higher winds to avoid any delays caused by slower climbers on the summit ridge. Our team is strong and very capable, so we feel that this is a good trade off, allowing us to climb Lhotse in favorable weather, while Everest is busy with activity.
Chilly afternoon at EBC.
With an improving outlook, my attitude has improved and I focused on some pleasant napping for the afternoon. I think I took four separate naps over the course of three hours, it was glorious. The funny thing is that I don’t know that last time that I took a nap at home but when I get on big mountains it feels like second nature. Once my napping was out of the way, I dropped down to the dining tent. We had just received some new weather reports and I noticed a few smiles, always a good sign. The trends showed decreasing wind speeds over the next few days and an opportunity to make a move. It looks like we will be heading back up around 2 AM on the morning of the 18th. Stay tuned…
Day 40: Saturday, May 13th (Drop to Pangboche)
Last night was very frustrating, followed by an extremely demoralizing day. My pack had been loaded and we were on the verge of pushing up the mountain to attempt another summit push. For the past few days, there had been talk between teams about getting the summit ridge lines fixed and we were looking for an opportunity to get on the front end of all the teams. While weather did not look good, there was what appeared to be a 36 hour window that might have been big enough for us to sneak a trip to the top.
Yesterday, around 3 PM, we received two weather reports. Up to this point, we had been reviewing the reports from our own weather expert but also leveraging information from an additional two, Dutch and Swiss. One had consistently been bad, one OK and the last had been promising. When we received the Swiss and Dutch reports, both had worsened and we realized that our window might not be a reality.
After dinner, we sat down and after some debate, agreed that this was not the window for us. We went to bed knowing that our next opportunity would not be for another week and it was a horrible feeling. I woke up lacking motivation and feeling very downtrodden. It was hard to peel myself out of my sleeping bag, knowing that I would be doing the same thing for another week. In the back of my mind, I remained frustrated with the fact that we had missed our initial weather window on the 11th and 12th, due to the lines not being fixed.
As we downed our coffee and pancakes, Brent mentioned that he wanted to drop down to Pangboche to recover from a cough, similar to mine, and get out of the monotony of EBC. Geoff and I both agreed but Anders said that he didn’t want to drop down unless it was via helicopter to Namche. Pangboche is a village that sits at 12,800′, about 12 miles from EBC, while Namche is a much larger town that sits at 11,500′, about 22 miles from EBC. After some back and forth debate, Brent, Geoff and I decided that we would go to Pangboche and Anders would stay at EBC. I was definitely disappointed that Anders wouldn’t be joining us but I realized that it would be good for my health to drop to a lower altitude and try to kick this throat issue that had been plaguing me. One of our other members, Ingavald, decided that she also wanted to drop down and of course we agreed to let her join.
The four of us quickly loaded our packs and set off for Pangboche at 11:15, knowing that our next weather window would not occur until the 21st or 22nd. Now for the demoralizing part… I decided to wear my trail running shoes, rather than my approach shoes that have a high top, because I wanted to move fast. Within 30 minutes of leaving camp, I rolled my right ankle on a rock. This is the same ankle that has been causing me grief for the past nine months because of constantly spraining it and a bout of tendinitis. We covered ground very quickly but the nature of this ongoing injury caused me to roll my ankle an additional four times on the descent. For those that have never experienced an injury like this, imagine that your foot is bolted to your leg but you lose one of those bolts, causing it to become very loose. The terrain, combined with the weakness in my ankle, resulted in a very unsteady hike and one that left me constantly gritting my teeth. My frustration was evident but my team offered continued support throughout the five hour jaunt. (Don’t worry, as painful as this sounds, my mountaineering boots provide a lot of support and will allow me to climb efficiently, despite the inevitable pain.)
We arrived in Pangboche around 4:15 PM and grabbed beers as soon as we sat down at the Highland Sherpa teahouse. The teahouse is owned by Aang Temba Sherpa and his wife, Yangzing Sherpa, whom Brent has know for many years. In fact, Temba was Brent’s Sardar Sherpa on many previous expeditions and they remained friends over the years. Here, we were treated like members of the house, which makes for a very comfortable setting. After a few beers, ibuprofen and dinner, my ankle began to feel much better and my mood lightened. This is an injury that I’ve battled for a while, one that I’m very familiar with but one that I will be able to overcome. Being in a friendly setting, outside of the monotony of EBC, allowed me to relax and take my mind off of the frustrations of climbing. I’m looking forward to the next few days on our mini “vacation”.
For all the mothers following along, here is an early Mother’s Day gift from Nepal… baby yaks.
Day 41: Sunday, May 14th (Rest Day in Pangboche)
It’s amazing what a few beers, some scotch and a bed can do for morale. I slept like a rock, which was obvious when I woke up with one earbud still in my ear and the cord wrapped around my neck. I had fallen asleep listening to music and slept in until 9 PM. It was a good feeling, until I crawled out of bed to go to the restroom and was greeted by an aching ankle. Oh well, a couple of days of laying low in a new setting will more than offset the ankle issue.
Geoff and I eventually convinced each other that we needed to drag ourselves upstairs for coffee. Brent and Ingavald were just finishing up their meals when we arrived. Our food was delicious but there just wasn’t enough coffee and we all agreed that our next activity for the day would have to include finding the nearest coffee shop. That was easily accomplished with a 10 minute walk up the hill.
Coffee and relaxing in Pangboche.
We spent a couple of hours hanging out in the sun of the bakery courtyard and enjoying the company of locals. It was nice to watch let time slip by as we watched yaks and trekkers shuffle through town. Despite our comfortable position, we eventually made our way back to the Highland Sherpa teahouse, where we purchased a sack of beers and proceeded to consume them in the courtyard. It wasn’t long before my mind had drifted from Everest and I found myself completely relaxed in the company of friends.
For the next three hours, we sat in the courtyard, drinking beer and talking about life. It was the first time in weeks that I had been able to detach my mind from our objective and just relax… it was much needed. While we were sitting there, some local puppies took notice of us snacking and made their way into the courtyard. We were soon surrounded by a group of five Nepali puppies and we desperately struggled to give them all enough attention. Geoff was the puppy ringleader and would have brought them all back to the States if we weren’t heading back up the mountain in a couple of days. Honestly, does it get any better than puppies, sun and beer? Needless to say, it was a good day of R&R in Pangboche.
One of the many puppies that Geoff will attempt to bring home.
Just before dinner, we received some updated weather reports, so we spent most of our time reviewing them as we ate. At this point, we will continue to be in a holding pattern because the reports continue to call for high winds from the 16th through the 20th. There is a chance that the winds may drop briefly during the 19th but nothing that appears to be long enough for a summit window. We will continue to hope for a turn in the weather and exercise patience because that’s about all that we can do. Luckily, I have a great support group here and back at home, who help keep my head screwed on straight as we wait.
PS – Happy Mother’s Day to all the Mom’s out there, especially my incredibly tolerant Mother, who gave me my passion for adventure! I love you, Mom!