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.



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