Camp 3 was dead silent that morning, as everyone slept in from the big move up through the Black Pyramid. At least that was the case for everyone except, Garrett, Geoff, Phurba, and me, who were in the routine of waking up for regular 6:30 AM radio call. While we weren’t eager to wake up, we were eager to hear whether Dawa’s Seven Summits team had been able to break through the heavy snow during the night and make an honest attempt on the summit. Calls went out to Mingma at Camp 4, who said he had yet to hear anything but that they had departed around 9:30 PM the night before. Then we called Dawa and waited for a response…
Moments later, Dawa voice crackled through the radio and said that the last report that he had received was that the leading members of his team were finishing up “The Traverse”, a precarious angled ice section above “The Bottleneck”. While they hadn’t yet reached the summit, we knew that the only thing standing in their way would be heavy snow on the summit ridge, which consists of 750 vertical feet of climbing on an exposed and very narrow 40-45 degree slope. Barring any extreme circumstances, they should be able to reach it in the next two hours.
Dawa included initial condition reports from his team, which could be summed up as: slow progress due to heavy powder snow but minimal avalanche conditions. With the impending success of the Seven Summits team and their reports over semi-favorable conditions, we were certain that we would be moving to Camp 4 today and making our summit bid this evening. As soon as we were off the radio, we began passing along the word to prepare for the move and packing our own gear.
Within an hour, everyone had finished their oatmeal breakfasts and were breaking down tents. By 9 AM, the first wave of Geoff, David, and me began the grueling slog up the snow slope to Camp 4. This section is unlike any other on the mountain because it is straightforward and lacks many of the obstacles that we had come to expect. The climb for the day would only be about 1,000 vertical feet but the snow was 1-2 feet deep and we were covered by a cloud, which kept out even a small breeze for ventilation. It made for an eerie and somewhat lonely setting because the sky almost blended into the terrain and you could only see about a hundred meters in any given direction. The clouds and the heavy snow muffled all noises, except for the sound of our breathing, which sounds like a more rapid version of a scuba diver or Darth Vader.
While communication was limited to hand motions, we all had the same concern on our minds, avalanche. Because it is a sustained 35-45 degree snow slope on top of a giant hanging glacier, it regularly “sheds” after heavy snow fall. When it does “shed”, it does so off the side of the mountain and anything in its path will end up on the glacier at the base of the mountain in just a few moments. This was the case in both 2015 and 2016, when heavy snow avalanched all of Camp 3 all the way to the Baltoro Glacier, ending all expeditions for both years.
We kept this in mind as we cautiously made our way to Camp 4, with Geoff stopping every couple hundred feet to perform quick stability tests on the snow. This would consist of him cutting a block into the snow about a foot deep and then putting pressure on the uphill side until it broke loose. If it breaks easily and the majority of it remains in a slab, we have problems, but fortunately, it had remained cool enough over the past couple of days to keep everything in powder form. We all hoped that this would remain the case as we moved up the mountain.
Geoff lead the charge the entire climb to Camp 4, reminding me of an arctic ice breaker ship as his legs plunged through the snow, breaking trail for the entire team. I followed with David a hundred feet behind me and we did our best to help stamp down the steps that Geoff had kicked in. About halfway up, we saw a climber descending from the cloud, looking quite haggard, and as he passed, he muttered “that could have gone better”. Based on the comment and the time of the day, we knew that he must have turned around on his summit bid. Not a good sign but at least he was alive…
We pushed upward, slogging our way through the snow and working up a sweat. I had every possible vent on my down suit unzipped but there was nothing I could do to cool down without a breeze, I knew that I would just have to sweat my way to camp. Finally, I saw a blurry orange glow through the clouds and knew that it must be Camp 4. The location for this year’s camp was about 500 vertical feet lower than normal due to avalanche danger at the higher site, which was a blessing today but would mean more work tomorrow.
Almost as soon as Geoff and I dropped our backpacks, a couple of climbers appeared from the cloud on the slope above. It was Nol, the lead climber on the Seven Summits team, and a couple other members! The way they were moving down the rope, we knew that they had made it to the top and we greeted them by hollering “Congrats!”. We spent the next hour sharing some team and snacks with them, as our both of our teams trickled into Camp 4, ours from below and theirs from above. We tried to glean as much information on the route conditions as we could and they were happy to provide detailed reports. The two main obstacles that we would face were some questionable conditions on “The Traverse” that might require some creativity and of course a lot of deep snow that would kick our butts the entire way up.
With this knowledge in hand, we began our preparations for the evening and settled in, 3 to a tent. For a change, it was Jesse, David, and me sharing a tent, even if it would only be for a few hours. At this point it was around 2 PM, and the plan was to prep our summit packs, then eat our freeze dried dinners around 5 PM, sleep for a few hours and then wake up at 8 PM in preparation for our 9 PM departure. The following hours were a blur to me, as I double, triple, and quadruple checked everything. I obsessed over the precise number of power bars and energy Gu’s to carry, and which pockets of my down suit they belonged in. Before I knew it, it was time to eat but my focus easily overwhelmed any appetite that I had and my prior excitement at saving a freeze dried pad thai meal for summit night was gone. Nevertheless, I overfilled it with water so that I could simply force it down by drinking it and quickly began my attempt at sleeping.
I never had the chance to sleep the night before my summit of Mount Everest and I always thought that I would have if I had been given the chance. Well, if it had been anything like tonight, I would have just been pretending to sleep because the best I could do were sporadic 10 minute naps, followed by an abrupt awakening because of something that I remembered that I needed to do. This would continue for the next couple of hours as the daylight faded and my anxiety level rose. Rather than allow myself to get stressed out by waiting for my alarm to go off, I got myself up about 15 minutes before it would go off and began my final preparations…