Tuesday, May 22, 2012

To the Top of the World and Back

We just got back to base camp a few hours ago after a long and arduous third rotation.  Like we did on the second rotation, we ascended directly from base camp to camp 2.  Fortunately, this time we were all better acclimatized and found the ascent considerably easier.  We made it to camp 2 in 8 hours and 15 minutes, cutting more than 2 hours off of our time from last rotation.  Unfortunately, Michael wasn’t feeling well on this push and so he turned around at camp 1 and headed back to base camp.  We were very sorry to see him go, but we understood his decision.


The next day we took an easy rest day at camp 2 and prepared for the big push ahead.  The weather report was saying that it looked as though there was a possible summit window on May 19th and 20th, so we decided to head up to camp 3 the next day and await further news on the forecast.  We left early in the morning for camp 3, this time heading all the way up the Lhotse Face to upper camp 3 where our tents were.  The push was very taxing, but we all made it in good time.  Unfortunately, on our way up there was an ice avalanche near lower camp 3 that took out several tents and injured one of the Sherpas from another expedition.  Fortunately he should be okay, and given the magnitude of the damage to tents (several tents were completely leveled) it was lucky that there was only one person injured. 


Camp 3 is situated on a very steep slope at 23,600’, and so it is necessary to cut level platforms into the ice on which to pitch the tents.  Since it is so much work to get a tent up here, it was necessary to put three people in a tent so I shared with Jose and Jim, instead of my usual tent mate (my dad).  Once we got to camp 3, we started resting and breathing supplemental oxygen at a low flow rate.  It was a pretty cool novelty to try out the oxygen system, but we certainly got used to them over the next few days.  Amazing as it is given the altitude and the fact that we were surrounded by snow, our biggest issue at camp 3 was how hot it was.  It was truly sweltering in the tents, and because of the steep slope it was dangerous to spend much time outside.  Thankfully we only had to spend one night here though.


The forecast continued to look good for the 19th and the 20th so we continued heading up from camp 3 to high camp at the South Col.  We climbed on oxygen throughout the day which made the climbing relatively pleasant.  Unfortunately, it seemed as though everyone else on the mountain had the same ideas about the weather forecast and so as we climbed up our progress was severely slowed by around 200 other climbers using the fixed lines (and some moving incredibly slowly).  The climbing over the Yellow Band and Geneva Spur was fairly steep, but the biggest challenge was definitely the slow moving crowd.  Some of us even had to turn down our oxygen flow rate in order to make sure that we had enough gas to reach the South Col, which would not normally be a concern.


The forecast held, and predicted that although the 19th would be a better day, the 20th would still be suitable for a summit attempt.  As was our plan, we took a rest day at the South Col and decided to try for the summit on the 20th.  That night, we watched as everyone from the crowd of that day ascend up past the South Col to try for the summit.  With so many people trying for the summit at once (probably unprecedented numbers), we were worried that crowds could become a serious problem, but we hoped for the best for everyone.  Unfortunately, crowds did turn into a giant problem which eventually turned tragic.  Sometime in the middle of the night, my dad looked out of our tent and could see a huge line of headlamps forming around the South Summit (presumably held up by lines on the summit ridge leading to the Hillary Step).  Other teams who summitted on the 19th report having to wait multiple hours around the Hillary Step.  For some people, this situation turned into an emergency as they got held up for too long and ran out of oxygen (or ran into other problems) high on the mountain.  Tragically, several people got stranded high up where rescue is an impossibility and did not survive.  Our most sincere condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims of this tragedy. 


The next evening (when we were scheduled to leave for the summit), the news was still very unclear about what had happened the night before.  The weather forecast still looked fairly good (with high winds at the start and then subsiding early in the morning), so we decided to go for the summit.  We all paired up with our climbing Sherpa (mine is named Karma) and headed out from camp 4. The first part of the climb is a gradual ascent on hard blue ice leading up to the much steeper Triangle Face.  There were several groups leaving for the summit bid around the same time as us, but we passed most of them fairly early on.  My oxygen hose was crimped for this first part, so I was feeling pretty winded until I sorted that problem out.  Once we hit the Triangle Face (about 30 minutes in), the climb got much steeper, but we were all still feeling strong.  Everything was going pretty well until we saw the body of one of the climbers who had died the night before hanging from the fixed line.  It was an incredibly emotional and sobering moment for all of us, and I felt sick to my stomach.  Throughout the climb, we would have several moments like this, each one as difficult as the last.  Since there was nothing we could do though, we carried on climbing upwards.


As we got higher on the Triangle Face, the winds picked up and it got extremely cold (we estimate wind chill of around -50F at parts of the climb).  Snow was blowing in our faces, which was extremely uncomfortable.  I had brought a pair of clear goggles in case of a situation like this, but when I put them on they were almost immediately covered in rime ice and thus rendered useless.  We all tried to keep our hoods up, but some of us found that the hoods on our down suits didn’t stay up very well in the wind and so we had a difficult time with this.  I coped with the situation by trying to face away from the wind (while still seeing where I was climbing) as much as possible.  Unfortunately, after a few hours in these conditions my dad started having big problems with his eyes and so his progress slowed considerably and he fell back from the group (with his climbing Sherpa and a guide from our group).  The situation eventually got to the point for him that his eyes were starting to freeze and he experienced temporary blindness.  He made the safe call because he knew that trying to continue up without being able to see was probably suicidal and decided to turn back at about 27,200 ft.  I was disappointed for him because I know how hard he worked to train for this climb, but I was very glad that he made a safe decision.  Still, it was unimaginably difficult for him to climb down the steep Triangle Face blind and I am very glad that he got down fairly unscathed. 


At the top of the Triangle Face, we reached the Balcony which is at 27,300’.  Here it started to get even windier and colder as we continued up the very narrow and exposed Southeast Ridge.  I was extremely grateful for the fixed lines on this part of the climb, especially during the wind gusts.  About an hour up the Southeast Ridge, we took only our second break in close to 5 hours of climbing.  It was good to set my pack down for a minute, but unfortunately we couldn’t stay long because it was too cold and we had to keep moving.  By this point, all of the other teams trying for the summit on the 20th had turned back except us, but we were making great time and felt strong so we decided to keep on going.  From here it was another hour up the Southeast Ridge until we hit the approach to the South Summit.  For me, the next hour after this was by far the most difficult of the entire climb.  The route was very steep and almost exclusively rock which was tough to deal with in crampons.  To make matters worse, a couple times during this section the air intake valve on my oxygen mask iced up which made it nearly impossible to breathe.  I have to give a big thanks here to Marc and Garrett for helping me de-ice the valve.  After another hour we finally hit the South Summit and we could see the knife-edged Summit Ridge ahead of us.  We took a quick break, but this was the coldest part of the day as the sun was just barely starting to peek over the horizon, so we didn’t stop for long. 


As we moved along the Summit Ridge, we got even more covered in ice (my eyebrows and eyelashes were completely covered in ice) and at this point I started having some issues with my ascender.  When this happens, it can be very difficult to climb because the ascender slips on the fixed line.  I had to try to clear the ascender by bashing it against some rocks, but I only had limited success with this and so I had to be careful for the rest of the climb.  After around an hour of traversing the narrow rocky ridge, we hit the infamous Hillary Step, which was surprisingly not as difficult as I imagined it might be.  Once we were up and over the Step, I knew it was only another half hour of gentle (albeit extremely tiring) ascent up to the summit.  I was walking very slowly by this point, but eventually we made it to the summit.  I was overjoyed after so many years of dreaming of such a moment, and working towards pursuing it.  We all hugged on the summit, and took a few photos.  Unfortunately, it was too clouded in to get a nice view, and too windy and cold to stay long.  After a few minutes on top of the world, we turned around and headed down for the descent. 


We were all so tired at this point that we were moving extremely slowly on the descent.  It was so windy that we were getting knocked around (especially on the Southeast Ridge).  To make matters worse, Lhakpa Rita’s oxygen mask malfunctioned on the South Summit and so he had to climb the rest of the way down without any oxygen (a feat only possible because of his incredible strength). The visibility was terrible, and we all kept slipping and falling in the soft snow.  Eventually, exhausted, we made it back to the Balcony (where we were a bit sheltered from the wind) and took a long break to recover.  After that, the weather started to clear some and we were even rewarded with some amazing views on the way down the Triangle Face.  After a long and exhausting 13 hour round trip, we finally made it back to the South Col to get some much deserved rest.  Thankfully, despite the cold no one suffered any permanent damage.  Both Jim (who turned back just shy of the Hillary Step fearing frostbite) and my dad made the right call by not putting themselves and others in danger by pushing too far, and we are extremely proud of their unselfish decisions.  They should both be proud of their accomplishments on the expedition.



The next morning we woke up and descended to camp 2, and this morning we woke up early to descend to base camp.  We are all happy to be safe back in base camp, and tonight we will have a big party to celebrate a successful expedition.  Tomorrow we begin the trek out to Lukla and the start of the journey home.  Thank you all for following along with the expedition, and I mean it when I say that all of your support was invaluable in keeping us motivated throughout the journey.  I would love to hear from anyone who has enjoyed following along.  Please e-mail me at rob.sobecki@gmail.com if you have any questions or comments you would like to share.


For anyone who is interested and hasn’t had the chance to check it out yet, please look at our fundraiser page at www.climbingagainsthunger.org.  100% of proceeds go directly to Action Against Hunger, which is an incredible charity that we are passionate about.  Their work is directed towards fighting childhood malnutrition in the developing world.


P.S.  The photos today show me and my Sherpa climbing partner Karma standing on the summit (notice how iced up we are), the view of Lhotse (4th highest mountain in the world) and surrounding peaks from the Triangle Face, and the view of the Western Cwm from the top of the Geneva Spur with Cho Oyu and Shishapangma in the background.



Friday, May 18, 2012

Hello all. Been asked to post for Rob and Chris. Here is today's post from Alpine Ascents cybercast:

Summit!! Everest has just seen its first summits of the year by 7 Sherpa
who have fixed lines for all climbing teams to use. Alpine Ascents Guide
Lakpa Rita has been coordinating the fixing from high on the mountain and
Alpine Ascents' Sherpa Kami Rita is among today's summiteers. The fixing
Sherpa enjoyed perfectly calm, sunny weather for most of their fixing
effort. Our Team is currently moving to Camp 4 in the same beautiful
weather. They have passed the Yellow Band, a geological layer of marbled
yellow rock visible across many of the highest mountains in the Himalaya,
and will be approaching the Geneva Spur soon.

There are numerous other teams climbing to the South Col along side us at
the moment.Alpine Ascents schedules our team members to enjoy a full rest day in Camp 4 before making their summit bid. This provides our climbers with 24 extra hours of well deserved rest and allows us the flexibility to choose our summit date from the highest camp on the mountain.

The Prayer flags are hardly moving with the calm winds and we are enjoying
the sunny weather here in Base Camp :-)

 Spoke with Chris and Rob this morning. They are now at camp 4, enjoying the view and resting up for the summit which will occur either on Saturday or Sunday. Today was the first possible day to summit. It was attempted by 250 climbers so their team has opted to wait until it is slightly less crowded . Keep them in your thoughts and prayers. The next blog should be filled with news of their success!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Drop Back to Deboche

After getting down from the second rotation, we headed down valley to rest and recuperate for the final summit push.  At base camp elevation (17,600’), the air is still very thin and so it is difficult for the body to heal and recover.  Even minor cuts and scrapes will not heal at this altitude.  Thus, in order to be at full strength for the summit attempt, we headed down for a few days to Deboche at 12,500’ above sea level. 


We took two days to get down to Deboche, stopping in Pheriche along the way.  Every step we took led us to slightly thicker air, and soon we were moving quickly and feeling much stronger.  It was nice to get another glimpse of the beautiful views of Ama Dablam and many of the other peaks around (picture attached).  As we got closer to Deboche it was nice to see plants start to pop up and finally Rhododendron trees.  Our appetites also improved dramatically on the drop back.  Most people ordered two entrees at every meal, and I think we probably did about 10% of the business for the year at the tea house we stayed at in Deboche.  We also made sure to make plenty of trips to the Tenboche bakery for apple pie and coffee.  On the way back we took a nice leisurely pace and made it back in 3 days, stopping in Pheriche and Lobuche along the way.  All in all a successful drop back!


The big drama while we were gone concerned Russell Brice’s HimEx expedition which was made famous by the Discovery Channel reality show, Everest: Beyond the Limit.  HimEx was the biggest expedition on the mountain this year, with over 30 clients attempting either Everest or Lhotse.  However, about a week ago Russell decided to formally end the expedition for the season because he feels that the conditions on the mountain this year are too dangerous.  That being said, there are a lot of conflicting views among different expedition leaders as to the validity of his claims.  The argument that he posted on his website deals mainly with conditions in the Khumbu Icefall (although there is considerable speculation that his decision could have had to do with conditions above camp 3, or other issues entirely).  After talking to all of our guides in depth about the situation, here is my take on his argument.  I would agree that there is some truth to his claim that the Icefall is particularly dangerous this year in the section above the ‘football field’ and before camp 1.  The inherent danger of falling ice from the hanging glaciers on the West Shoulder in this section is undeniable.  However, the entire route throughout the Icefall tends to be more straightforward than most years, and thus this helps climbers move faster (and thus more safely) through the Icefall.  All in all, it seems that while exposure to the Icefall should certainly be limited (as always) it is still within the reasonable limits that any climber inherently accepts when choosing the climb Mt. Everest from the south side.  Moreover, I feel that Russell’s decision to end his expedition so early instead of waiting to see if conditions would change (particularly on the Lhotse Face which was also a concern earlier in the season) was premature.  At the end of the day, my personal decision to continue climbing is based on the experience of others.  Although Russell has a wealth of experience leading expeditions on Everest (probably more than any other westerner), the vast majority of his experience is from the North (Tibet) side and he has only led expeditions on the Nepal side since 2009.  Thus I would defer to the experience of the other expedition leaders and sirdars who have more experience on the South side, and are choosing to continue their own expeditions.  Our own sirdar, Lhakpa Rita Sherpa, has been on Everest for most climbing seasons since 1984, and thus I trust his wealth of experience to make the right decision.


Now we are waiting in base camp (see photo of our sleeping tents with Lingtren in the background) for the weather to improve and give us a good window for a summit opportunity.  Right now we are planning to rest at least another day, and then depending how the forecast shapes up we will head up to begin the summit attempt.  If all goes well, we can expect to attempt to summit sometime in the early May 20’s.  Check out the Alpine Ascents cybercast (link attached in the previous post) for continued up to date coverage and even live GPS tracking of our climb through the RainOn Applet (which should be especially useful on summit day).  I will post again when we are back down safely from the summit rotation!


Saturday, May 5, 2012

A New High

After five nights above base camp, the team returned safely this morning to base camp.  We left early the night of April 30th, and headed up into the Khumbu Icefall once again.  This time better acclimatized, we were able to move a bit more quickly through the Icefall and found fewer occasions when it was necessary to gasp for breath.  I played around a bit with my GoPro camera in the Icefall and got some decent footage, although I am disappointed with the battery life in cold conditions.

After about 6 hours, we made it to camp 1.  However, since there have been some big avalanches in the vicinity of camp 1 recently, we decided (beforehand) to go directly to camp 2 in one push.  We took a short rest at camp 1, and then continued onwards through the Western Cwm.  The climbing in the Cwm was straightforward, but we were all exhausted by the time we reached camp 2.  I got a bit dehydrated towards the end and found the last hour and a half particularly challenging as we approached camp.  Overall, the team took between 10 and 15 hours to reach camp, and everyone was in agreement that it was our toughest day yet. 

Our plan for the rotation was to spend a rest day at camp 2, and then head up to camp 3 for one night.  However, there has been an unusually small amount of snow this year and so the Lhotse Face is almost entire pure blue ice.  These conditions have left a lot of small rocks exposed, and several climbers have been injured by falling rocks on the face already.  Due to the dangerous conditions, we decided not to take this route until conditions improve. 

However, some of our guides as well as climbers from other teams managed to find and fix a new route to camp 3 that was much safer.  Yesterday we woke up early with the goal of reaching lower camp 3 (on the summit bid we will stay at upper camp 3), tagging it, and coming back down to camp 2 for the night.  By gaining this elevation it will ultimately help our bodies better acclimatize for the summit bid.  We left at 5 am and headed out towards the Lhotse Face.  Unfortunately, a couple hours into the climb Laurence from our team got serious frostbite on his fingers and had to head down quickly to base camp to get treated.  Although it turned out that he had first degree frostbite in all five fingers on his right hand, he is recovering well and it looks as though he still has a good chance of being able to try for the summit if he takes special precautions to avoid recurrence. 

Michael was not feeling great on the hike to camp 3, so he turned around with Laurence, but the rest of the team continued upwards.  Shortly after where Laurence turned around we encountered the Lhotse Face.  The new route involved a few very steep pitches (up to 70 degrees), and some sustained difficult climbing.  We were all very tired by the time we reached camp 3, but it was an encouraging milestone in the climb.  For all of us who made it to camp 3, it was a new high point in our climbing careers at over 23,000 feet. 

After resting at camp 3 for a few minutes, we headed back to camp 2 in time for a late lunch.  We rested for the remainder of the day, and then had a nice birthday dinner for Leanna.  Ueli Steck had been climbing up to camp 3 at the same time as us, and so he ended up joining us for dinner!  He was a very nice and humble man for someone who is such an amazing climber (look him up on Youtube if you don’t know who he is).  Afterwards, we all headed to bed and woke up early this morning to head down to base camp.  Climbing through the Icefall kept everyone on edge as normal, but we all made it down safely.  We are all currently enjoying the comforts of base camp, and we will drop back further down valley tomorrow in order to rest and recover in preparation for the summit bid. 

P.S. The pictures show Garrett and Marc climbing up through the middle section of the Icefall, Leanna climbing on the approach to camp 3 (camp 2 is on the rocky portion in the middle of the photo), and the team testing out our down suits at camp 2.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hi all,
Reporting in as a ghost writer for Chris and Rob. They have completed their second rotation to camp 2 yesterday. It was an extremely challenging and exhausting day. The original plan was to climb to camp 1 and then to camp 2 the next day,  but unfortunately mother nature had other plans and there were several avalanches at camp 1 the day before so the climb went from base camp to camp 2 in one shot. Both guys are tired and experiencing a cough but continue to feel strong and are looking forward to catching up on some rest before their journey continues. Thanks for your continued support and well wishes!!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Back at the Beach aka Base Camp

After a fairly taxing four and a half days above base camp, the team arrived back down in the (now seemingly) thick air of base camp yesterday morning.  Thus ended our first (out of three) rotation above base camp.  The goal of the rotation was to gain some elevation for a few days and allow our bodies to acclimatize.  It also allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the terrain above base camp (particularly with the Khumbu Icefall) so that we can be quicker and more efficient over these sections during the summit push.


On the first day, we woke up EARLY to have breakfast at 2 am and leave by 3 am.  It was very cold as we set out, but thankfully not as bad as we expected.  We passed by the Puja Altar on our way out to give an offering of rice, breathe a bit of the juniper smoke, and ask for safe passage on the rotation as is traditional in the Sherpa culture.  Afterwards, we set out into the Icefall.


We made pretty good time through the lower portion, reaching the high point that we had gotten on the day hike above 20 minutes faster than the previous day.  That’s when things started to get interesting and much more challenging.  The next section of the Icefall is called the ‘popcorn’ section because the ice moves like popcorn and every time through is different.  The major hope is that the ice doesn’t move too drastically while you’re in the section since many of these chunks are as big as refrigerators and even houses.  Although the movement of the ice is somewhat random, we move through in the middle of the night when the temperature is colder and thus the ice is less likely to move.  The push through the ‘popcorn’ consisted of a lot of scrambling up, down, and around big chunks of ice in the steepest part of the Icefall.  It wasn’t exactly comforting to see a few sections where the rope was covered by a giant block of ice, but we all made it through safely.  The push lasted about an hour and 45 minutes, and left us all feeling pretty winded. 


Next came the most dangerous section of the Icefall, where ice falling from the glaciers on the West Shoulder of Everest was a risk.  Here we really needed to hurry, and were constantly encouraged to move as quickly as possible.  The ground throughout the whole section was littered with chunks of ice that had fallen from the West Shoulder, but I didn’t stop to take any pictures.  I just tried to follow Lhakpa Rita as quickly as possible and in about an hour we made it through.  Afterwards, it was fairly easy walking to camp 1, where we spent the rest of the day and the next day resting. 


After the rest day, we set out to move to camp 2 at 21,300’.  The walk took us through the Western Cwm (pronounced “coom”) which is the valley formed by Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse.  Based on the size of the mountains forming the valley, I expected the valley itself to be a bit bigger, but still the views were amazing.  The panorama shot shows the view looking down valley over camp 1, and the other picture shows Everest on the left, Lhotse in the middle, and part of Nuptse sticking up on the right.  As you can see, we were starting to get pretty close, but there was still a lot of uphill left to cover.  The climb throughout the day was fairly gradual uphill, with a few pretty big crevasses to cross.  In total, it took close to 6 hours to make it to camp 2, but it wasn’t nearly as stressful as the climb through the Icefall.  


We took a rest day at camp 2, during which we hiked briefly up a rock moraine towards the West Shoulder where we got some very nice views of the valley and the Lhotse face (the next section of the climb above camp 2) which looked very steep and imposing from that perspective (and I imagine any other).  The next day we woke up early and left at 5:00 am to descend to base camp.  We moved very quickly downhill and reached camp 1 in an hour and 15 minutes.  We took a short rest, and cached a few items at camp 1 and then descended through the Icefall.  In order to maximize our own safety, we practically ran through the entire Icefall, and reached base camp around 9:20 am.  I included a few photos that I took on the way down to give you a sense of the climbing through the Khumbu Icefall.  One shows a section where two ladders bridged some crevasses and it got a bit congested by traffic, and the other shows my dad descending through a portion of the ‘popcorn’ section.  When we got down, we all enjoyed a nice shower and changed clothes.  All in all, it was a successful first rotation, and we will all enjoy a few days of rest at base camp before heading up again for the second rotation.


Also, for anyone interested in e-mailing myself or my dad during our time at base camp, feel free to send an e-mail to aa1@explorersweb.com.  Make sure to include the appropriate name (Rob Sobecki or Chris Sobecki) in the subject line so that the e-mail gets sorted appropriately.  I hope everyone is enjoying the blog so far and we will continue to keep you updated as the climb progresses.


-Rob + Chris

Friday, April 20, 2012

First Ventures into the Khumbu Icefall

The last few days we have spent acclimatizing at base camp, and practicing for the Khumbu Icefall.  Today we took our first foray into the Icefall itself, walking about two hours up to the first ladder crossing over a crevasse.  Everyone did well on the hike, so it was a big confidence boost.  It was also nice to get a sense of the Icefall since the other times we head up through will be in the dark (and cold) in order to limit the exposure to objective hazards such as avalanches and shifting ice.  The two pictures are from our high point on the climb today.  One shows the view from where we took a break, including a big chunk of the Khumbu glacier, base camp (on the rocks in the middle ground), and a nice view of Pumori in the background.  It’s hard to tell at the resolution that I can send, but from that point we could see how huge base camp is covering most of the rocky section in view in the photo.  To give a frame of reference, it takes almost an hour to walk from one side of base camp (near where our camp is) to the far other side of camp (where Russell Bryce’s camp is). 


Tomorrow we start our first rotation above base camp, which will last around 5 days.  Our plan is to wake up around 1:15 am, and have breakfast at 2 am.  Then we will leave to head up into the Icefall at 3 am.  The climb should take around 8 hours to reach camp 1.  The next day we will take a rest day, and then the following day we will move up in the Western Cwm (the massive valley formed by Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse) to camp 2.  We will spend a day or two at Camp 2, and then head back down to base camp.  I will make sure to take lots of photos and will post an update once we get back to base camp!