The Descent & Some Closing Thoughts

I’ll try not to belabor this last post too much, but I would like to start with a sincere and heartfelt thank you to everyone that’s been following along over the past 2 months (which according to WordPress, is more than 2,800 of you!). It really does mean the world to me. More than you probably know.

Ok, here goes… where we last left off: Camp 4…

Sleeping at Camp 4 (after getting back from the summit push) was not the most pleasant experience. First off, almost everything I owned was covered in ice so I had had to strip down to my base layers just to get into my down sleeping bag. Then because we were still on oxygen, I had to deal with one of the very unpleasant side effects of being on O2: moisture. As you exhale into your mask, moisture from your breath collects in the mask, and at a certain tipping point, it all comes pouring out. When you’re hiking/climbing, it’s no big deal because it just falls to the ground. But when you’re sleeping… well, it all comes pouring out onto your neck/chest like one massive/giant drool, and then subsequently freezes to your clothes/skin. And this happens over and over throughout the night, so that when you wake up, you have a sheet of ‘drool ice’ coating your entire neck like some sort of medieval brace. It’s as awesome as it sounds.

Eventually morning came though, and after chipping away at the ice around my neck, I was able to dump the last pool of exhaled drool onto the tent floor as I packed my gear in the frigid pre-dawn air and prepared to get the F out of dodge. It was close to 8am by the time we finally started leaving camp – the wind was still blowing, but at least the sun was out so it wasn’t that bad. Now my biggest issue was my legs…

As we stood to leave camp, I felt like a baby deer learning how to walk. My legs simply didn’t want to work. What added a further degree of difficulty was that the terrain leaving Camp 4 (until you rounded the Geneva Spur) was both rocky and highly exposed – making it rather tricky to navigate in crampons with rubber legs. At one point I even slipped and fell, once again being saved from a 5,000ft fall by my safety line.

The first hour was a struggle – there’s no other way to put it. But after an hour, we reached Lhotse’s Camp 4, where I told Lhakpa I needed a break just to sit and collect myself. I drank some water, ate a bit of food, and took in the immense scenery around me.

Looking back at Everest with its typical snow plume blowing from the summit (due to the jet stream)

I also noticed that the body that had previously been hanging below this camp was now gone (I’m not sure if it was carried down, or simply cut loose and left to tumble its way down the Lhotse Face). After this break, I felt like a new man. We could now proceed down the 5,000ft face with a renewed sense of speed – that is, until we caught up to the first group of descending climbers, which didn’t take long.

Other than sitting behind throngs of other people, the climb down to Camp 2 was relatively uneventful. One thing I did notice though was how wrecked everyone seemed to be – even the Sherpas. As we descended over the Yellow Band, both climbers and Sherpas just seemed to keep falling out of sheer exhaustion.

By early afternoon, we finally made it to Camp 2, and I breathed the first (of many) sighs of relief. We’d survived summit day, and now we’d survived the Lhotse Face – all that was left was the Western Cwm and the Icefall. I also still had a ¾ full bottle of Blue Label – which I had zero interest in carrying down the Icefall – so after dinner, Andries and I walked into the dining tent and divvied it up amongst the Sherpas as a thank you for everything. These guys truly were rockstars.

Though I have to be honest… I don’t think they truly appreciated what they had in their hands as most of them coughed/spat while they were drinking it (or mixed it with something), which sort of made me cringe given how nice/expensive Blue Label is. But hey… it was their gift, so I suppose they can do whatever they want with it…

The next morning we got up, and Andries, myself, Lhakpa and Galjin started the descent down to EBC. The trek through the Western Cwm was easy and uneventful, so it wasn’t until we got to the Icefall that we realized how much had changed in the previous 9 days. The entire landscape seemed to be melting away.

For 4hrs we descended thru this rapidly deteriorating environment, with the sounds of nearby ice towers toppling over, and us praying that the next tower to fall wouldn’t be the one that was overhead. Even the route that had been established thru the icefall was deteriorating with pickets and snow anchors lying strewn across the ice (meaning that if you took a fall into one of the crevasses, your chances of being saved by your safety line was 50/50 at best). The ladders spanning the crevasses were also hanging on by a thread, and in some cases would just fall straight into these bottomless icy pits when you stepped on them.

An example of a “good” ladder in the Icefall

All in all, it was an exhausting and stressful effort. It felt as if Everest was putting up one last monumental fight to keep us from leaving her safely. But thankfully, we eventually did emerge unscathed. And then the sigh of relief could really occur. We’d made it out.

Back in Base Camp our afternoon/evening was relatively uneventful. Sadly there wasn’t any beer, so Andries and I had to settle with celebrating over a Coke.

Later the next morning we set about packing our gear, and after lunch we hit the trail back to Lukla. Unlike Katie/Kristyn though, we decided to take 3 days for the hike out (figured there was no rush, and that it’d take the porters/yaks at least that long to make the journey with our bags; also, we’re just not that tough… ;)). Perhaps the only striking thing about the journey back was just how empty the trail was – Andries/I might have literally been the only westerners to make the hike back from EBC (we’d later learn that most other operators offered helicopter rides back to Lukla to spare their clients from the trudge – not SummitClimb though, i.e., the K-Mart of expedition outfitters…).

A last look back at EBC on our way out

So after 3 days, and a lot of quality “reflecting” time, we finally made it back to Lukla – and eventually Kathmandu. I’m now writing this final update from a microbrewery near my home in Austin, TX, and am happy to report this chapter of my life as closed.

Now where is that waiter – I need another beer… 🙂

Some Closing Thoughts

There are a few questions that I’ve received a lot, so figured I’d take the time to answer them here… (that said, next time I see you, you’re more than welcome to ask these same questions – I just figured I’d give you a preview of what you might hear…)

Was the experience worth it? Climbing Everest was an itch I had to scratch. I’ve been dreaming about it my whole life, and I think if I’d never tried, then I would have looked back on life with a massive regret. So in that sense, yes, it was worth it. It was almost a necessity. But the experience didn’t end up being like I imagined it would be. I don’t feel different or more accomplished; in fact even my descent from the summit feels like a distant memory.

Mostly I’m just thankful. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I’m so grateful to everyone that’s followed along. In some ways documenting everything was therapeutic, but in the end, it was knowing that so many of you cared enough to read and follow-along that got me through some of the hardest parts. So for that, a very sincere thank you.

What was the hardest part? The descent from the summit, hands down. It was such a physical and mental struggle. It’s honestly not hard to understand how people simply sit down and die up there – your body is just wrecked from fatigue. But luckily for me, I had an ace in the hole… my wife.

For those that didn’t know, Katie wrote me a card for every camp on my way up and down the mountain. Within each card was a picture of us, and a message from Katie. One comment that was common in each: “keep your wits about you, and come home to me safely”. It’s a mantra I repeated the whole way down from the summit – even when I thought I was truly losing it.

What was the best part? It’s hard to single out an individual experience, but there were countless times over the past 2 months where I just looked around in awe/wonder, thinking to myself, “man, I’ve been dreaming about this for nearly 30yrs, and I’m finally here… I can’t believe I’m really living this.” It was such a cool feeling, and I’m so thankful to everyone in my life that’s made this experience possible.

How hard was it really? Could I do it? Honestly, if you have enough money, maybe… There were so many people out there that were literally being dragged to the summit and/or were hopped-up on 4-6L/min of oxygen starting from Base Camp. Even with that kind of support though, it’s still certainly not easy; but if you’ve got a high tolerance for misery and boredom, then it’s not out of the realm of possibility… 🙂 (but please, don’t actually sign-up unless you have a decent amount of mountaineering experience – the last thing Everest needs is more inexperience… :)).

That CNN interview tho… First, how it got setup: my freshman roommate from college (Brandon Miller) works for CNN in their meteorology department and saw that I was on Everest as the international media was going crazy with it. A couple texts later, and he’d hooked me up with one of CNN’s Senior Correspondents that was working on the story. In case you haven’t seen it (and are interested), here’s the link: https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2019/05/30/exp-american-everest-climber-ian-stewart.cnn

Second, the interview itself… The full interview lasted about 70min, and was far less emotional than what aired on tv. We spent most of the time talking about the total circus that summit day was, what’s entailed in an Everest expedition, etc. The emotional stuff didn’t come until the end. Also, many of the pics they showed in the interview clip (and then in the subsequent article that came out) were taken from my iPhone. In hindsight, I probably should’ve screened those pics a little more closely before I allowed this to show up on CNN’s homepage…

Buzz, your boyfriend – woof…

What’s Next? Welp, for now, nothing. At some point I’ll head down to Antarctica to climb Vinson Massif and complete the Seven Summits, but I don’t have any set plans for that just yet (unless of course Johnnie Walker wants to step-in and help finance that trip…). Also, I need to make sure Charlie and Nick (and Neil???) have time to clear it with their respective wives so that they can join me as well… 🙂

Would you have done Vinson even if you hadn’t summited Everest? Probably… Climbing the Seven Summits has always been just as much about seeing different parts of the world as it has been about climbing. And come on, how cool is it going to be to go to Antarctica?? (see what I did there???)

Aside from Katie, what were you most looking forward to coming home to? Simple: family/friends and (good) beer. It’s good to be back 🙂

THANK YOU AGAIN to everyone that’s followed along on this journey. Like I said, your love, support and good vibes are appreciated more than you know. Until next time!!

The Top of the World

Apologies for the delay in posting this – the last week has been a bit of a whirlwind, to say the least. So let me start with what I think most of you already know…

1. At 10am, on May 23, 2019 – I was fortunate enough to stand at the top of the world on Mt. Everest

2. The lines to get to the summit were absolutely horrendous (as I’m sure many of you have seen reported in the news). Andries and I had deliberately decided to wait an extra 2 days (i.e., to go on “Team 2”) because we thought not only would the weather be better, but that the lines would be significantly shorter. Sweet god, how wrong we were… If you haven’t seen the images or read any of the articles, just search “Everest” on CNN, the BBC, or wherever you get your unbiased news… Also as a shameless plug (and if you’re interested), you can check out an interview I did on CNN after I got back to Kathmandu…

3. If you remove the outlier events of the serac falling in 2014 and the earthquake in 2015, this spring was tied for the deadliest climbing season on Everest since it was first climbed in 1953 (i.e., tied with the 1996 ‘Into Thin Air’ season with 12 people losing their lives). In my opinion, there were a variety of reasons behind why this year was so bad, but ultimately, I believe it was the confluence of longer-term / systemic problems (such as increasing the number of permits and still not requiring climbers to have minimum pre-requisite qualifications to be on the mountain) with the season’s unusually short weather window, that led to the lines and ultimately to so many climbers losing their lives. Unfortunately, one of those casualties was one of our expedition’s own team members: Robin Fisher (pictured 3rd from right – in the black – below).

So let me start filling in the gaps with what you probably don’t know – starting with a bit more about Robin… Robin, and his extremely nice/wonderful Sig-O, Kristyn, were counterparts to Katie/I on this whole endeavor. Like Katie, Kristyn was along for the trek to EBC – not only to see the sweeping sights of the Khumbu, but also to remind her male companion of important things like safety, showering and of everything that’s waiting back home. Robin and Kristyn were also avid runners, having completed the London, Berlin, New York and Chicago marathons together (meaning they and Katie had much to talk about when it came to running…). And Robin was also just a genuinely nice guy. He had that dry sense of humor you might expect from a Brit, but was always there as a friend and an easy person to talk to (and his Netflix collection when we were tent-mates at Camp 1 wasn’t too shabby either… 🙂 ).

What happened to Robin on Everest is still a bit of a mystery, but what we do know is that he collapsed about 150m below the summit, after having summited – a goal he was fiercely committed to completing. At that altitude (~8,700m / 28,700ft), the cause of the collapse could’ve been any number of things. Sadly we may never know what truly caused it, but I do take some solace in knowing Robin is at least among the mountain he was so passionate about climbing.

You can also read more about Robin on either CNN or the BBC – both of which ran front page stories on his pursuit of climbing Everest. Not that making CNN or the BBC in any way minimizes the tragedy, but it is at least a testament to what Robin was trying to accomplish – and that’s something I think he’d be proud of. We’ll miss you, bud.

Team 2’s Summit Push

Ok, tough transition…

Andries and I left Camp 2 on the morning of May 21st. It was a windy morning, but what was particularly strange, is that people started filing past our tents at 4a in their own bids to move up the mountain (in fact, over the past 3 days, there had been a constant stream of people moving up to the higher camps to put themselves in a position to take advantage of the May 21st – May 23rd weather window). Since Camp 3 is only typically a ~6-7hr move from Camp 2, it seemed strange that people would leave so early, but we didn’t think too much of it. We left at ~8:30a, got in line, and made it to Camp 3 about 3.5hrs later after having sat behind folks on the fixed lines for a while.

Of all the camps on Everest, Camp 3 is easily the most precarious. It stretches ~1,000 vertical feet along the Lhotse Face, with each expedition finding a spot to dig a “flat” tent platform into the side of the nearly vertical icewall. Our camp was around the midpoint of the broader Camp 3, and was perched on a narrow snow ledge that barely fit 3 tents. If you left the tent to go to the bathroom, you had about a ~1ft walkway to do your business, anything beyond that and you’d go flying down 2,000ft to the bottom of the face if you weren’t clipped-in. The other danger of this camp is that you’d constantly have snow/ice kicked down on you from above. So if you were sitting in your tent, you’d constantly be getting bombarded by these pellets – all the while hoping that someone above didn’t trigger an avalanche, or drop an oxygen bottle…

It’s also worth noting that our (i.e., mine and Andries’) tent platform was comically uneven – it was like trying to sleep on a blanket covering a bunch of knocked over chairs. As a result, I think I slept maybe an hour that night – and that hour was basically on top of Andries as we both tried to wedge ourselves between the mounds of snow lumps.

Before we went to sleep though, we were greeted by Iman who was on his way down from the summit! Iman was the first of our group to summit so we naturally had LOTS of questions for him… And when we saw him, the look on his face was priceless – it was as if he’d had some transcendental experience up there, and now could die a happy and fulfilled man (really though, I think that look of happiness had more to do with the fact that he now got to go home, rather than having summited….). As Iman regailed us with his stories of climbing to the top of the world, a few things stood out above the rest…

1. Summiting Everest was one of the most amazing things he’d ever done/seen – despite the fact that he only stayed at the summit for ~4-5min due to really high winds…

2. It was really windy/cold – in fact, he was having trouble feeling 3 of his toes, and was wondering if that might be a “problem” (turns out, it was… Iman would later be helicoptered from Base Camp to Kathmandu because of frostbite on 3 of his toes. While 2 of the toes are on their way to recovery, the status of the 3rd remains questionable as of writing this post)

3. Iman didn’t eat/drink hardly anything on the entire summit push (ascent or descent) – it was simply too hard with the oxygen system and the cold

The following morning, Andries, myself and our 2 Sherpas (Lhakpa and Galjin) left for Camp 4 around 7a. The move to Camp 4 (at the South Col at ~26,000ft) is a much longer move than the one to Camp 3. It’s also the first time we went on oxygen – both of us using ~1.5L/min for the ascent.

Leaving Camp 3, you’re immediately faced with some very steep icewalls to scale. Once you crest these though, it becomes a very steep slog up the Lhotse Face. And this is where we got our first true experience with the lines on Everest… Stretched out before us were probably 100 climbers, slowly making their way up the Lhotse Face. Once we caught up to them, the pace was essentially: take 2 steps, then rest for 30-45sec. At first I didn’t really mind it. While it meant we were inching our way up the mountain at a snail’s pace, it also felt like I wasn’t burning any calories, and gave me the opportunity to actually look around and soak in the incredible views. I mean here we were, in the middle of a 5,000ft ice face, with Lhotse looming directly overhead, Nuptse and the Western Cwm behind us, and the ever-imposing Everest at our 10 o’clock. Not a bad time to appreciate where you’re at…

After a couple hours of this sluggish pace, the route turned sharply left and traversed across the Face. You then scale a strip of sedimentary rocks known as the “Yellow Band” (which for the inexperienced climber, definitely poses some challenges and slows the group’s progress even further), and then eventually pass by Lhotse’s Camp 4. This is where we saw our first dead body. We assume it was one of the 2 climbers we’d heard about a couple days before; but at any rate, there he was – just clipped-in and hanging from some ropes about 50ft below Lhotse’s Camp 4. Again, a sobering and frightening reminder of the lethality of the world’s highest peaks.

About an hour past Lhotse Camp 4, and the trail turns sharply uphill in order to pass over the Geneva Spur: an enormous rock shoulder that marks the last real obstacle before you get to the South Col. Once over the Geneva Spur, and you could not only see Camp 4, but you got your first real up-close view of both Everest and the route to the summit. At the risk of sounding overly corny, it was exhilerating. The South Col (at ~7,950m) is also known as the “highest camp in the world” – in fact, there are only 14 mountain peaks on the entire planet that’re higher than this camp. And the route to the top of Everest… well, I have to admit it looked terrifying and steep; but at the same time it was incredible to see final stage of this month’s long journey, firsthand.

By the time we arrived at the South Col it was around 2p. While this was about ~2hrs later than we’d planned to arrive, I wasn’t too worried because I felt like I hadn’t had to really work that hard to get here (in fact, I took off my oxygen mask and walked around a bit – breathing in the rarefied air). What I was worried about was the wind… Damn the South Col is a windy and desolate place. Everywhere you looked was trash and abandoned tents from year’s past – it truly looked like a post-apocolyptic landscape.

In order to escape the wind, Andries and I dove into one of our tents. We knew we’d be leaving that evening, so we were excited to drink some water, eat a bit of a food, and then get 5-6hrs of rest/sleep before we had to get up in the middle of the night to make our summit push. But our Sherpas had other plans…

For whatever reason, they decided to use our tent for boiling water and cooking food, so for most of the afternoon there were 5 of us crammed into a 2-person tent.

In fact, it wasn’t until after 7p that the Sherpas finally wrapped up and left for their own tent – leaving Andries/I with ~1.5hrs to sleep (which really wasn’t even possible, given every other expedition was starting at 7:30-8p, and making TONS of noise as they amped themselves up for the journey ahead). So in the end, sleep wasn’t happening. Oh well, I’ve pulled all-nighters before… It just stunk that this was now 2 all-nighters in a row, leading up to what would be one of the most physically and mentally demanding challenges of my life…

Which actually reminds me – the departure time… There was some debate around this. When we asked Lhakpa and Galjin what time we should leave, they felt we should depart around 7:30p. Andries and I on the other hand, didn’t want to leave until ~9:30-10p. Our thinking was that we were going to get stuck in the lines no matter what, so we’d rather limit the amount of time we had to stand out there in the cold (we both had a very real fear of frostbite – and I particularly did since I think I was the only person on the entire mountain not wearing a full summit suit). We ultimately landed on 9:30p as our departure time – we figured that’d give us a couple hours of climbing without lines, and then we’d just try to pass people as we caught up to them.

At 8:45p, the alarm went off and we started getting ready in the dark. A few minutes later and Lhakpa arrived with some porridge, which would serve as our base fuel for beginning the summit push. In addition to that, I also had 5 Cliff Shots (energy gels), a couple candy bars, a Cliff Bar, and a couple peanut butter packets; along with a 1.5L of water to get me thru what I assumed would be an 8hr ascent & 4hr descent.

When we setoff around 10:15p, we could see the (very) long line of headlamps stretching up the mountain above us; but for now, we were all alone. It was me, Andries, Lhakpa, Galjin and Dani (our guide, who had decided to join us for the summit push).

At first our pace was brisk (to put it mildly). We tore off across the ice field and began up the very steep snow slope. There was also no wind. In fact, I got so warm at our pace that I almost stripped down to base layers.

After about an hour or two, we caught up with the lines. And from there, the going went much slower. Instead of moving steadily up the mountain, we fell into the line’s rhythm of: “take 3 steps, stop for 2-3 minutes… take 3 steps, stop for 2-3 minutes… etc.”. It was comical how slowly we moved. That said, I wasn’t all that mad about it at the time. Aside from starting to get a little chilly from the lack of movement, I figured this would just mean I’d conserve more energy on the way up – energy I could use to enjoy the summit more, and perhaps even use that surplus to indulge in a bit of Johnnie Walker…

For ~4’ish hours we continued at this pace on our way up to the Balcony – a relatively flat spot on Everest’s eastern flank (at ~8,500m / 27,500ft) that serves as both the halfway point on the summit push, and also as a storage location for each team’s oxygen tanks. For the vast majority of Everest climbers, people use 2 oxygen canisters on their summit push. The first half of the first bottle is used to get to the Balcony, where it’s then exchanged for a new one – which will get the climber from the Balcony, to the Summit, and back to the Balcony. Upon returning to the Balcony, the climber will pick up their original bottle (which is still half full), and use that to get back to Camp 4.

When we arrived at the Balcony, I also assumed we’d take a bit of a break to grab some food and water to prep ourselves for the 2nd half of our ascent (which is a fairly common practice). However because the lines were so bad, this was also our opportunity to jump ahead of a LOT of people – an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. So rather than eating/drinking, we continued upwards. Mistake #1 for Ian Stewart. Mistake #2 came when I accepted my 2nd oxygen bottle and realized it was only 2/3’s full (rather than having the standard 250 bar of oxygen, my bottle only had 180 bar). You might wonder why I didn’t ask for a different one. I’ll tell you why: hubris. I figured I’d be fine.

So upwards we continued. We were still in the lines, but at least now we weren’t at the tail-end of them (we were now just in the last 20%…). From the Balcony, the terrain becomes increasingly more technical. There’s still fixed lines leading up the entire mountain, but rather than walking up a steep snow slope, you now had to contend with numerous mixed rock/ice sections. Again, not that difficult if you have climbing experience, but as many of you’ve read in the news – many people on Everest did not… So the pace again slowed – significantly.

After another ~5hrs, we at last reached the South Summit at 28,700ft (only ~300ft below the true summit). While the South Summit isn’t that much lower than the true summit, the route to get between the two is extremely narrow and precarious as it follows a single-track knife-edge ridge (this is likely the picture that most of you have seen with the lines on Everest – this is on that ridge).

Fall to the left and you’ve got an 8,000ft fall down the Lhotse Face into Nepal; fall to the right and you’ve got an 11,000ft fall down the Kangshung Face into Tibet.

For nearly 2hrs we sat on this ridge trying to make our way to the summit. In addition to its narrowness (which created even more bottlenecks as descending climbers tried to get past), the other problem with this ridge is that there are a few tricky obstacles along the way – the most notable of which is “The Hillary Step”. And while The Hillary Step is only a mere shadow of what it once used to be before the 2015 earthquake, it still creates quite the bottleneck as climbers try to scramble across/over the rocks, and try to navigate the many ropes that’re there from both this year, and year’s past.

In fact, hanging from the Hillary Step is yet another dead climber – one that got tangled up in the wrong ropes; and after what I’m sure was a struggle to get himself untangled, gave up and just died hanging there.

Above the Hillary Step there are then a few small ice ledges you have to scale – each about 4ft tall. Again, nothing serious (as each has a rope you can pull yourself up by), but at one point I found myself behind an Asian lady just staring at one of the 4ft ledges while her Sherpas yelled at her to climb. For 15min she just stood there, until I finally had to get behind/under her and boost her up by her ass while her Sherpas pulled her up by her arms. I should note that this lady put forth zero effort (perhaps out of sheer exhaustion), so it was essentially 3 of us lifting/dragging a limp body over this lip. Once over the lip, I was then stuck behind this lady for the next ~30min up to the summit.

At 10:15am though, I finally stood atop the summit!

I wish I could tell you that I had the same transcendental experience that Iman had – or that I even had 10% of the time that I’ve had on other summits to soak in the view, the accomplishment, and the relief of not having to walk uphill anymore. But I didn’t. When I got to the summit it was a zoo. And within minutes, the realization that I didn’t have very much oxygen remaining left me scrambling to collect my stuff and get back in the queues to descend,

Honestly, it’s all a bit of a blur, but here’s what I remember…

1) Arrive at summit, take off goggles and oxygen equipment to have Dani take pictures of me for proof that I summited (the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism won’t accept your summit photos if your face isn’t clearly visible)

2) Start to take a few other pictures of the landscape, but because of all the people, it was hard to get a good shot. Also, it was really windy… We were supposed to have 15kph winds at the summit, but instead it was more like 40kph – which made taking pictures with my bare hands pretty painful

3) Dani and I realize we’re running very low on oxygen and need to descend ASAP. I had just started getting out my thermos and digging out some food, but we didn’t have time to eat/drink, so I resign myself to the fact that I’ll have to wait until we’re below the South Summit

4) As we suit up and start descending, I realize that I haven’t taken my “Johnnie Walker picture” yet, so I make Dani snap a few more photos of me (whew, that was a close one…)

When I left the summit, I had ~⅓ of a tank of oxygen left – which under normal circumstances, should’ve been enough to get me back to the Balcony (⅓ tank = ~2.5hrs of oxygen on 2L/min flow rate), however as we all know, this wasn’t a normal a summit day. Within ~10min of leaving the summit, I arrived back at the top of the Hillary Step, where an enormous queue had developed – both people trying to come up, but mostly people trying to go down. Somehow Dani worked his way thru the line, cutting in front of people, and ended up ~15 people ahead of me in line. I, on the other hand, just sat in my place in line and waited for it to move. Which it didn’t.

After ~40min, I’d probably moved forward by 5ft, and tensions were starting to flair. There was another Asian girl trying to make her way up the Hillary Step, but was having a bit of panic attack – either due to the vertical exposure that was beneath her (the Lhotse Face drops suddenly away here), the dead person hanging nearby, or perhaps just from sheer exhaustion. Either way, people started screaming at her, “hurry the fuck up” and “Everest isn’t the place to learn how to become a mountaineer”. All the while, I sat there silently watching my oxygen run lower and lower, and wondering to myself, “what’s the appropriate protocol here? Do I start yelling too? Do I just sit here and die silently while I watch my oxygen run out? Just sitting here and dying slowly seems weird, but really not sure what else to do…”.

At some point I realized Dani had made it down the Hillary Step and was cruising along the ridgeline far ahead of me. It also occurred to me that Dani (who had a radio) was my only lifeline to the rest of our team, and to our oxygen supply… So I just started screaming. While everyone else on the mountain seemed to hear me, Dani didn’t. So I kept on screaming. Finally he turned around. Through some erratic gesturing, we agreed to meet up at the South Summit. Whew, I now at least had someone on the mountain waiting for me – now I just needed to get down the Hillary Step.

I eventually did make it down the Hillary Step, but my troubles didn’t end there. My lack of eating/drinking for the past 13hrs seemed to hit me like a ton of bricks. For anyone that’s an endurance athlete, you’ll know the term “bonking”. I bonked in a major way, and at 28,000ft…

Panic started to well-up as I realized that not only was I on the ridgeline above the South Summit with ~1.5hrs of oxygen left, but that my legs were refusing to work. I tried to calm and reassure myself that as soon as I caught up to Dani, that I’d stop and force myself to eat/drink, but even doing that was a struggle.

In the midst of all this, I had yet one more obstacle to contend with… in mountaineering etiquette, it’s incumbent upon the descending climber to unclip from the rope to allow the ascending climber to pass in the event of a single-rope / single-person pathway (which we were on). Normally you have 2 safety lines so that you’re always clipped-in (one on either side of the ascending climber) – particularly since there’s an 8,000ft drop-off inches away from your feet – but because everyone is so ‘puffed-up’ with their downsuits and climbing packs, it became really difficult to clip-in around the ascending climbers. So each time a person passed, there were a few terrifying seconds where you were completely untethered from the mountain. And a split-second after one of those times, I fell. Thank god I’d just barely clipped-in, otherwise I’d have been going for a very long fall. And while there wasn’t anything that physically impacted me (as my harness / safety line caught me), psychologically I was terrified and on the verge of losing it.

Eventually though I made my way to the South Summit and Dani. By that point I had less than an hour of oxygen remaining. I told Dani I desperately needed to eat/drink, but again, there was no time, so we began the trip down towards the Balcony.

At this point I was utterly exhausted. I could barely hang on to the rope as we rappelled down. My legs seemed to work in 5-step increments, and then I’d have to sit down and take 10 deep breaths. Whenever we got to a section that wasn’t mixed rock/ice, I’d just sit down, wrap my arm around the rope a few times, and sled down on my ass until I got to the next anchor point (hoping that I wouldn’t hit an unforeseen rock along the way). I also reduced my oxygen flow rate down to 1-1.5L/min (which is what people typically sleep on).

This went on for seemingly ever. It all felt like a really bad dream that just wouldn’t end. And good god, where was the Balcony??? I kept searching for it, but all I could see was more rock/ice to rappel down… Also at some point (and I can’t remember when), a massive ice-storm moved in, bringing with it 50+ mph winds and blasting any exposed skin with stinging ice pellets. Super.

At the point where Dani/I both had about 20min of oxygen left, I saw Galjin in the distance walking up towards us. And with him were 2 fresh bottles of oxygen… Sweet Jesus, thank the lord. I knew Galjin had had to leave Andries in order to bring these up to us, but I also took solace in the fact that he wouldn’t have left Andries if he hadn’t been in good condition. But mostly, I was just happy to have oxygen… My chances of losing a fingers/toes just reduced dramatically.

After switching bottles we continued for another 45min until we reached the Balcony (with me continuing my mixed rappel / butt-sliding technique). Once at the Balcony, I refused to move any further until I had a chance to eat/drink, so we sat there in the snow with ice pelting us in the face, while I finally took a sip of water and ate a candy bar and had an energy gel. Dani also gave me some dextrose (i.e., sugar) tablets for an added boost, and then we were off again.

For another ~2.5hrs we made our way down from the Balcony. My exhaustion was still there, but at least at this point I wasn’t worried about dying anymore (though I did trip over a dead person’s outstretched arm on the way down, which – as you can imagine – was a bit unnerving…).

As the storm continued to rage around us, I looked around and saw LOTS of other climbers in very rough shape trying to make their way down. Many of them sitting down in the snow with their faces buried in their knees, trying to protect themselves from the ice and wind. I wondered how many of them would make it. I wondered if I could help them. But I was still so overcome with exhaustion that I knew the answer was, no. We continued down.

At the bottom of the steep snow slope, you come out onto this icy plateau above Camp 4. From there it’s maybe .25 miles to get to Camp 4 – and occasionally the clouds would part long enough for you to see the yellow & red tents that represented salvation. Yet littered all over the plateau were more climbers just sitting/laying on the ice – too tired to even make it the final 5-10min into the safety of their tents. I wondered about them too.

And then, out of nowhere, I started to cry (which, btw, is an odd thing to admit when I think about some of the people that’re reading this…). The crying wasn’t from relief, or for sadness for those I’d passed and assumed wouldn’t make it, but from shame. I felt like I’d broken a major promise to Katie, my family and my friends – a promise that I wouldn’t let climbing “a hill” jeopardize my life. Yes the summit lines were bad, but it was my mistake in not eating/drinking (a mistake I’d even made before with Charlie/Nick on Aconcagua); and it was my mistake in accepting a 2/3 full oxygen bottle. And I made both of these mistakes with the arrogance that I was above the rules of “surviving Everest.” I could’ve very well ended up being one of the folks that died that morning, and it would’ve been my own fault. And for some reason as I was walking the final few feet to my tent, that really hit home.

A Night at Camp 4

That evening, Andries and I laid in the tent, sucking on oxygen and listening to the wind tear through the South Col. It’s amazing how a thin piece of nylon can mean the difference between life and death. But there we were, covered in snow and ice, and nestled into our down sleeping bags – alive and safe from the storm.

The next morning brought sunshine and slightly lower winds, so it was time to begin packing for the descent back to Camp 2. We still had no idea what the full extent of the damage was (i.e., that 4 people had died the previous day), but we knew it was time to get the F out of dodge, so we crawled out of our tents, put our crampons on, and began the journey back down the mountain. God I’m done with this mountain.

As an FYI, I’ll do one final post on the descent from Camp 4 and include a few closing thoughts. If you’ve read this far, thank you. Climbing Everest has been an interesting experience, but I’m more than ready to come home. There’s a lot of sitting and beer-drinking that needs to be done in Austin, and someone’s gotta take up that challenge

Much love.

Eeking Out Life at Camp 2

I realize this isn’t the post most of you are expecting/wanting, but there are a couple factors at play here… 1) given the amount of time I spent at Camp 2 waiting on the weather, I felt it deserved its own post (plus I was bored and wrote it, so figured someone might want to read it…), and 2) my experiences of life above Camp 2 – and on the final summit push – have left me a bit raw. Some of you already know some of the details why, but either way, it’s going to take a couple more days to put all of that on paper, and do justice to both the entire experience – and to those who aren’t fortunate enough to be going home this May/June. I know most everyone already knows this, but Everest is no joke.

Until then though, the journey up to Camp 2…

At 3:30a on May 16th, Andries, Iman, myself, Lhakpa Sherpa, and Blake/Mark (2 Americans that are with our outfitter, but are trying to summit neighboring Lhotse without oxygen) set out from EBC for Camp 2 (note, Everest and Lhotse share the same route until a bit after Camp 3). Man, what a slog that was… After 5.5hrs, Iman, Andries, Lhakpa and myself emerged from the Icefall and reached Camp 1 right as the sun was hitting the glacier. We stopped for an hour to boil more water, and then continued into the dreaded Western Cwm – a never-ending boiling lava pit of ice and monster crevasses. 3hrs later though, we finally dragged ourselves into Camp 2 – utterly exhausted and dehydrated. Even Lhakpa Sherpa looked totally beat – and when a Sherpa looks tired, you know it wasn’t easy…

Unfortunately for me though, I couldn’t rest quite yet, because a chocolate energy gel had exploded in my pack, covering almost everything in there in the sticky brown substance. So I spent the better part of an hour trying to scrape gel off everything, and ultimately throwing away a lot of stuff out of frustration. One particularly unfortunate item to have been affected was the wool GT beanie I planned to wear on summit day – which as you can imagine, doesn’t separate easily from chocolate gel. Guess I’ll just be wearing a chocolate-flavored beanie on summit day…

Anyways, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, life at Camp 2 (at 21,500ft) is pretty boring. But not only that, it’s also a struggle just to exist. While you can still digest food here, you’re pretty much at the limit of where your body can function. Any little cough or cut, and it won’t heal until you’re back at EBC at best (and likely won’t heal until you’re quite a bit lower) – so you spend a lot of time liberally applying hand sanitizer and trying to avoid anyone that looks even remotely sick. There also isn’t much of a communal tent up here, so you spend most of your time lying in your own tent trying to hide from the sun during the day, and trying to keep warm at night. Another aspect of life at Camp 2 is that it really saps you of your motivation. You’re basically at the foot of the Lhotse Face, looking up nearly 8,000 vertical feet to the summit of Everest, and wondering how you could ever possibly make it up there when just walking to the toilet tent is an exhausting effort.

On one of the days at Camp 2, Iman, Andries and I decided to go for a hike up to the fixed lines just to move our legs and attempt to stave off the motivational lethargy. The start of the Lhotse Face fixed lines are a little less than a 1,000 vertical feet above Camp 2, so it took about an hour for us to get there. When we arrived though, it looked like a battle scene. We watched climbers being lowered and/or dragged down the face by their sherpas – utterly exhausted from their summit push and/or badly frost bitten and screaming to be left alone to rest (there had been a small weather window on the 15th and 16th, which a number of groups had tried to take advantage of). When we spoke to the sherpas who had the admirable, but unfortunate task, of dragging these people to their only hope of a medical evacuation, it sounded as though many of the expeditions had suffered severe frostbite on their summit attempts due to higher than forecasted winds. It was a disturbing sight to say the least.

Further compounding the scene at hand was the fact that we’d also learned 2 climbers had died the night before on their summit attempt – one had miscalculated how much oxygen he had left, and the other simply lost the path on his way down. Seeing and learning of these things certainly didn’t help with the motivation – in fact, it’s a stark reminder of how ridiculous this Everest endeavor can be…

On the morning of 5/19 (one day before Iman, Andries and I were supposed to start our summit attempt), we received an updated weather report showing that the morning of 5/22 was no longer the best day to summit due to rising winds. Now the best morning/day to summit was 5/23 (with ~15kph winds), followed by 5/21 (with ~25kph winds), then followed by 5/22 (with ~30kph winds). This was hard news to receive – especially for Iman, who has been miserably homesick for his wife/daughter for the better part of a month (but Katie, don’t take that as a sign that I’m not also homesick!). It also forced the group to make a tough decision… Iman quickly made up his mind that he wasn’t waiting around for 5/23, and instead would pack his summit gear and begin his push that morning (thus becoming SummitClimb Team 1). Andries and I on the other hand, while desperately wanting to get off this mountain, decided we weren’t willing to take the risk of 10kph higher winds on summit day – particularly since we were also literally watching ~90 people launch their summit bids from Camp 2 right before our eyes that day (meaning the risk of getting stuck in long lines higher up on the mountain were much higher – oh hindsight…). Thus we (along with Paul, another member of our SummitClimb team) became Team 2. A fifth member of our team, Robin, who was still battling a cold, wanted to hold off a few days further for a forecasted window around May 25th, becoming SummitClimb Team 3.

In the end, it was really sad to see Iman pack his gear and head up the mountain without us. For a solid month now, the three of us have done everything together – so much so that I can’t even type Andries’ name without “Iman” popping up in the predictive text. Still, based on the information we had at the time, I felt as though we were making the safest decision we could – even if that decision meant risking our sanity and potential health by staying in Camp 2 for another 2 days and waiting for a 5/23 summit window (logging 5 nights at an altitude where your body is slowly deteriorating each hour – all while watching people either eagerly head up the mountain, or come staggering down it…).

More to come soon on the final summit push. For now though, here’s a pic of Andries, myself, and the two sherpas that’d be coming with us to the South Col and beyond…

Back in the High Life Again

After 5 days of R&R’ing in lower villages, it was finally time to return to EBC and re-remind ourselves of why we’re here in the first place (or in other words, it was time to wean ourselves off of a lifestyle of warm beds and electric blankets and back onto a life of sleeping on a moving glacier and shivering thru the night).

The ~22mi hike back to EBC was as scenic as it was the first time around, but relatively uneventful. The only notable exception was that the rivers were clearly becoming fuller as the snow melt increased in the warmer temperatures – which also served as a reminder that the Icefall would be melting too, and would likely be a very different place than it was the last time we climbed through it.

Back in Base Camp, life moves as slowly as it always did. The day centers around the 3 main meals, and is then further broken up by reading, games of cards, and trips up to the WiFi tent. On one of the days at EBC I moved tents to a different part of camp. My original tent had become largely uninhabitable as the glacial ice beneath it melted, creating a small 2ft x 5ft plateau in the center of the tent that I slept on in the fetal position, while the rest of the tent (and my gear) sagged below me by a couple feet. Although I didn’t get a picture of my tent before I moved, here’s an example of what an EBC tent platform at our camp looks like…

One other update to EBC life is that Dan Mazur (the owner of SummitClimb – our expedition outfitter) heads a nonprofit called the ‘Everest Biogas Project’, and commissioned a videographer to create a 15min promotional video for the project that they’re hoping to debut at the Banff Film Festival. The project, which aims to collect human waste from EBC and then use that to power a nearby village (Gorakshep), sounds fairly intriguing, and apparently only needs $1.1M to become a reality. Though it also raises a lot of questions (that those of us with nothing but time on our hands) have started to ponder… 1) if it only costs $1.1M, why hasn’t there been any progress on the project given the technology isn’t new and that Dan’s NGO has been working on it for 8yrs? 2) does Gorakshep even want power, and would they be willing to pay for it (or would it be completely subsidized)? 3) how much would it cost to operate this biogas plant, and who would maintain it? 4) since EBC is really only occupied 2 months out of the year, where would the biogas feedstock come from for the other 10 months (or is there a way to store human waste so that it still emits methane months later)?

Anyways, that’s probably much more about human waste than you were expecting to read about on this blog. Though on a related side note, it is worth noting that EBC is MUCH cleaner than I was expecting it to be. Between news articles and stories from people that’ve been here in the past, I was expecting MUCH worse – but the reality is that it appears fairly clean (though I am told there are some monster pits of trash and human waste about an hour from here, so while they may be out of view, that doesn’t mean the environmental impact has been negated).

Ok, back on theme… climbing Everest. As you may imagine, we now check the weather reports very diligently. The latest forecasts – which are certainly subject to change – show a weather window possibly opening up around May 21st. So armed with that intel, here’s our latest plan of attack…

May 15th: Leave ~3a and make the 8-9hr slog up to Camp 2. I’m anticipating this to be utterly brutal – particularly since all we’ve been able to do for the past 10 days is sit around and wait for the weather to improve…

May 16th: Climb up to Camp 3 again, and spend a couple hours there re-acclimating. Return to Camp 2

May 17/18th: Rest/Weather Days at Camp 2 (the weather is supposed to turn pretty nasty again starting on the 17th for ~2-3 days)

May 19th: Move up to Camp 3 and go on oxygen (it’ll likely be a low amount – maybe 1L/min – but should help us sleep. We’ll also be on oxygen from here on out until we return back to Camp 2). For illustrative purposes, here’s a pic of me testing out my O2 equipment in my tent at base camp…

May 20th: Move up to Camp 4 at the South Col – i.e., the highest camp in the world at ~26,000ft. Try to sleep for 5-6hrs, and then get up around 9p to begin the summit push!

May 21st: hopefully somewhere between 6-8a, we’ll be standing on top of the world! After 20’ish minutes, we’ll descend down to Camp 4, and if feeling strong enough, down to Camp 3 or even Camp 2

Of course, if prior experience in the mountains has taught me anything, the reality will likely be far different from that plan (the weather window has already moved by 2 days in the last 48hrs…) – but hey, you have to start with something…

At any rate, we’re heading up tomorrow morning, so we’ll see what happens once we get up there. As with last time, I won’t have WiFi connectivity from the high camps, so I’ll be radio silent for the next week. You can get daily updates though at: http://www.summitclimb.com Otherwise, I’ll be sure to provide a very detailed update once I’m back down in a week or so!

Until then, take care!!

Himalayan R&R

Greetings from Namche! A place where the beer flows like wine and the women flock like the salmon of Capistrano… or really, just a place where the air is a bit easier to breathe @ 11,300ft.

Andreis, Iman and I are down here for 2-3 days of R&R before we head back up to EBC for the final summit push. When we left, the latest weather forecasts showed a potential summit window between May 16th – 22nd, but as of yesterday, we heard that high winds and snows would be hitting the upper mountain until at least the 16th (meaning that even if there was a weather window stating on the 16th, the high camps wouldn’t be setup to take advantage of it until several days later; in fact, we’ve been told that over 100 tents were destroyed at Camp 2 alone during that cyclone that tore through the region). Either way, we plan to be back in EBC around May 10th to put us in position to take advantage of any changes in the weather.

On a quasi side note, trying to plan a summit timeframe is an interesting art – if you go too early in the window, you risk getting stuck in long lines near the summit (and run the very real risk of frostbite as you wait for people to clear thru bottlenecks on the mountain); if you go too late, you may miss the only window of the season, rendering your 2 months up here rather useless.

Anyways, I’ll keep this post somewhat brief. Not only is there not a ton to update y’all on, but I also need to stay diligently focused on CBT’ing (that’s Chilling Big Time in the words of our Austin friend, Davis). A few highlights though from the journey back down to Namche, and of our time here…

First, it is NOT a short/easy walk between EBC and Namche. We spent 2 days making the journey (which I’d falsely remembered was almost entirely downhill); and the whole time I was thinking, “damn, Katie & Kristyn did this in one day!??” Hats off, ladies. Here’s a #latergram of Katie just outside of Namche on our way up.

Second, during our stopover in Dingboche, we ended up chatting with the owner of the tea house for a while. Turns out he’s summited Everest three times – his last being in 1996 as a Sherpa for Scott Fischer / Mountain Madness (and if that doesn’t ring any bells, check out ‘Into Thin Air’ from your local library…).

Third, being in Namche is awesome. I almost forgot what civilization felt like. Not that Namche is the peak of cosmopolitan living, but being able to buy a beer, take a shower, sit on an actual toilet, and look oneself in the mirror is good enough for me. Speaking of which, I caught my reflection in a mirror for the first time in nearly a month yesterday. To my horror, I looked like a cross between Abraham Lincoln, Anthony Davis and that chimney sweep from Mary Poppins. Picture intentionally not included.

Anyways, all is well over here! Hopefully we’ll learn more about the weather today (though not holding my breath), but either way, we’ll be beginning the long slog back to EBC tomorrow to rejoin our guide and Sherpas (speaking of which, the Sherpas……. major hats off to those guys for the absolute stellar job they do. If you ever want to feel inadequate about your capabilities as a human/athlete/whatever, just come watch these guys perform in the mountains).

Until next time, stay classy USA (and elsewhere)! And we’ll continue to make the most our rest time in a very pleasant Namche…

Living the High Life

Guess who’s back!???? It’s been awhile, so this’ll be a bit of a lengthier post, but here’s a recap of the highlights between leaving and returning to EBC on our first (and apparently only) acclimatization run…

On the morning of April 27th, I awoke at 3:30a to finish packing last minute things I’d need for our week in the high camps (e.g., the sleeping bag I’d slept in, down layers I’d surprisingly needed at base camp to keep warm, etc.). There had also been a change a plans from the night before – rather than leaving at 3a as we’d planned, our guide (Dani) wanted us to have a quick breakfast at 4a and then leave as a single group at 5a). This seemed a bit outrageous given it normally takes 8hrs to get thru the Icefall to Camp 1 (meaning we’d be arriving at ~1p – i.e., the hottest part of the day) – but hey, I don’t make the decisions around here…

At 5:15a, our group finally set off from EBC. Fairly quickly into the ascent, Andreis (Belgian climber), Iman (Iranian climber) and myself found ourselves separated from the group at the front. Wanting to minimize our time in the icefall, we kept pushing forward.

As I mentioned in a prior post, the Icefall is a bit of a mountaineer’s playground (albeit a dangerous one). For 4.5hrs we snaked our way through the tumbling blocks of ice. Climbing up some with only our ascenders, climbing up others with rickety ladders that’d been “tied” to the ice, and in some cases walking across ladders spanning seemingly bottomless crevasses. At one point about 2/3’s of the way thru the Icefall we came to an ice wall that had to be scaled by climbing up 3 ladders that’d been lashed together. Now this might not sound all that difficult, but it was unbelievably exhausting… The ladders seem to always want to rip from the ice (which would send you flying into yet another bottomless crevasse), you’re constantly getting chunks of ice kicked down on your head from above (thank god for helmets), and on top of it all, crampons don’t make for the easiest ladder-climbing shoes… By the time I reached the top and scaled the ridge, I thought I was going to have a heart attack.

In addition to the many natural obstacles you have to contend with in the Icefall, perhaps the most annoying and dangerous one is people… It can turn into a total clusterf*ck given there are very few places you can safely pass other climbers. In fact, while trying to get around 2 Japanese climbers, I very nearly stepped – unprotected – onto a precarious snowbridge that may or may not have held my weight (thankfully I noticed it right before I made that move). It also didn’t help that there is a 270-person Chinese/Korean team ahead of us (90 climbers with 180 Sherpa support). As you can imagine with that level of client-to-Sherpa support, a good chunk of these people appeared to have no clue what they were doing, which makes maneuvering around them in the Icefall quite the task.

After about 4.5hrs, Andreis, Iman and I crested the top of the Icefall as the sun was beginning to really heat the place up. Unfortunately it was still another 1.5hrs traversing across the Khumbu before we reached Camp 1 – which meant we had 90min of getting absolutely baked by the sun as we traversed up and across the crevasse-riddled glacier. What really sucked was that oftentimes in order to progress upwards, you had to rappel into a crevasse only to have to climb back out of it on the other side.

At some point during all of this, a group of Chinese/Korean climbers got in between Andreis and Iman/myself, so for the last hour or so Andreis traveled separately. By the time we reached the beginning of Camp 1, I was absolutely cooked. And unfortunately for me, it was still another 30min to get to our tents at the very end of camp – a 30min that required descending and ascending a series of 5 exhausting undulations in the glacier. I basically stumbled these last 30min like a dying man in the Sahara – getting into camp 10min behind Iman. Patrick McKnight, if you’re reading this, I was NOT ‘enjoying every step’ during this last stretch…

Fortunately for us, the sherpas had already setup our tents, so after laying out my sleeping pads and bag, I collapsed in the tent. It’d be 2hrs more before we could get ice melted for water.

As I recovered in my tent (essentially sitting in my boxers because the sun can heat the tents up to >100deg), I watched 4 other members of our team come staggering in 2.5hrs after us. And amazingly, the final member of our group came stumbling in 7hrs after we’d arrived. How those guys didn’t have a heat stroke is beyond me… But, the good news was that all 8 members that had set out from EBC had eventually made it to Camp 1 safely.

Because some of the group had gotten into Camp 1 so late, and so depleted, we decided to make the next day a rest day. In the interest of brevity, I won’t say too much about this day, because it was quite boring. We basically just sat in our tents – with our sleeping bags draped over them to provide some measure of shade – and avoided the sun all day. Occasionally we’d play cards or scrabble on someone’s phone, but for the most part, we just sat there.

One notable thing, however, is that we did lose another member of our group who decided he didn’t want to go up any further (i.e., one of the guys on the “Everest Training Climb”, which was basically a permit to go up to Camp 3). Of the 6 people originally signed-up to climb to Camp 3, only 2 now remained. I could probably write a book on the whole ridiculous notion of an “Everest Training Climb” (or at least the way it’s advertised), but I’ll spare anyone that’s still reading this blog from those opinions…

Anyways, back on topic… The next morning – in another curious twist of timing – we weren’t supposed to leave Camp 1 (for Camp 2) until 8am. While the move from C1 – C2 is generally regarded as the easiest on the mountain (as you only gain about 1,200ft), it can be a scorcher if you’re caught in the mid-day sun as the Western Cwm is essentially a giant glacial valley with ice on all sides (i.e., you get hit by the sun from all 4 directions).

Looking up at the Western Cwm from C1

Unsurprisingly, everyone in the group was moving slower than expected, so at 8:45a, Andreis, Iman and myself setoff by ourselves. Within seconds we regretted waiting so long as the sun beat down on us, forcing each of us into our base layers. Then about 15min into the move, we came to a 25ft vertical ice wall that we’d have to scale. Ordinarily this would be a fun obstacle to get over, but with a full pack and a relentless sun, it was a brutal challenge at the start of our day – and one that left me doubled-over like an asthmatic at the top of it.

Once over the obstacle, there was another series of crevasses to contend with – some you had to climb down into only to climb out the other side, and some you had to simply walk across a ladder to traverse (though I shouldn’t say “simply”, because walking across a rickety Nepalese ladder in crampons with a bottomless pit of ice beneath your feet does add some complexity…).

After we got through the main crevasse field, it was then a very long slog through the shadeless Western Cwm up to Camp 2. If you’ve ever run on the beach before and it felt like your destination never seemed to get closer, that’s what hiking through the Western Cwm is like – only with a “real feel” of 120 degrees… But that said, it was absolutely stunning. You’re flanked by the western shoulder of Everest on the left, a very dramatic Nuptse on the right, and the Lhotse Face straight ahead.

After about 2.5hrs of hiking, we reached the beginning of Camp 2 – a massive sprawl of a camp that somewhat resembles EBC. It’d be another 45min before the 3 of us (and Dani, our guide, who’d caught up with us) would reach our tents at 21,300ft. Similar to the move to Camp 1, we all felt like we were about to have a heat stroke and swore we’d stop following these insanely late departure times.

Also similar to the move to Camp 1, three other members of our group staggered in around 2.5hrs later, and the final member (who, btw, is also trying to summit Everest), came in 6hrs later… (it’ll be interesting to see how this member copes/adapts higher on the mountain given the very real turnaround times and colder temperatures to contend with. But, he’s certainly a stubborn/persistent climber, so I wish him all the best!).

Life at Camp 2 is slightly more hospitable than that at Camp 1. For one, I get my own tent, and there’s also a sort of makeshift cook tent where you can hang out during the day – in fact, check out the pic below where you can see how hard we work to earn our A+ food safety & cleanliness rating. It’s also worth noting that we “hand wash” our dishes here. And no, I don’t mean we do dishes in the absence of a dishwasher, I mean we literally hand-wash them because we don’t have a sponge… Yumm.

But many aspects of C2 life are similar to EBC: it’s super hot during the day, bone-chillingly cold at night, and you spend most of your time reading, playing cards, or just sort of milling about waiting for the opportunity to move further up the mountain (where the sun is more intense and the nights are even colder). On some of the rest days you do go for a short 1-2hr hike to stay active, but it’s always a balance between keeping yourself active and protecting yourself from the sun (kind of like when your alarm goes off early in the morning to exercise and you debate whether the additional sleep would actually be better for you…).

Paying Tribute to a “Sponsor” at C2

In total I’d spend 4 delightful nights at C2 on this rotation. Existing at 21,300ft does take its toll though. Our team is beginning to sound like a TB-ward with people coughing nonstop. 3 out of the 7 people on our team at C2 have had to be put on oxygen and face serious questions of medical evacuation (which, btw, is basically as high as medi-evacs can occur; fortunately none have had to occur as O2 and rest have given people enough strength to retreat down the mountain under their own power). Sadly, Robin – one of the 5 people aspiring to summit Everest in our group – had to head back down in order to seek medical treatment and to just let his body recover (because unfortunately, nothing heals / gets better at this altitude). Wishing him all the best, and I’m sure with a little low-altitude R&R, he’ll be back with us in no-time!

Oh, and did I mention – my pee bottle broke!! Now this may be a bit TMI for the work folks, but the pee bottle is probably the 3rd most important piece of mountaineering equipment (behind the harness and your boots). No mountaineer would survive long if he/she had to venture out into the frigid night air 2-3x per night (which is common given the amount of fluids you have to consume up here to cope with the altitude) – thus the pee bottle is what we’d call, “critical to survival”. At any rate, when I was tossing mine outside my tent one morning, it must have hit a sharp rock and tore a hole in the side. Fortunately I had some duct tape which seems to have somewhat done the trick, but needless to say, we’re on high alert every evening in the Stewart tent…

Aside from those factors though, there have been a few bright spots since getting to C2. On May 1st, Colin and Nimish (the 2 remaining people on the Everest Training Climb – out of the 6 that originally started), made it to Camp 3 at 23,500ft – their summit for the trip. CONGRATS guys!! Making it thru the Icefall and 1/2 way up the Lhotse Face is no small feat…

Which is a natural segue to… May 2nd, when Andreis, Iman and myself made it to Camp 3. It was a bit touch & go for us… There’s apparently some really bad weather coming in within the next couple days – in fact it’s so bad, that we’re planning to almost completely abandon C2 because we think the winds will destroy all of our tents here (let alone the few that we’ve already setup at C3). As such, today was our only chance to attempt reaching C3 – which we actually didn’t even think was going to be possible because the winds had picked up so much already down at C2. Nevertheless, we decided to go for “a walk” in the direction of C3 just to see what would happen…

5min into our walk, a massive avalanche ripped down the Lhotse Face, just to the right of where the fixed lines were. Fortunately no one was in the path. About an hour later, Dani, Andreis, Iman and I reached the fixed lines with the wind whipping all around us. My hands were completely frozen, and given the strength of the wind, I’d assumed/hoped we’d just turn back (because once you get over the bergschrund and onto the Lhotse face, the wind wasn’t going to get any calmer…). But, we decided to go for it. Thankfully I had my summit mittens with me, so after putting those on and allowing my hands to regain some warmth, it was straight up the near vertical face.

For 90min we hauled ourselves up the ice face, our crampons digging into the blue ice while we battled against the wind and pieces of ice being kicked down on us from above. After 90min of continuous climbing though (i.e., no stops for food/water/rest), we crested the final serac and found ourselves at C3 (at 23,500ft – a new altitude PR!). A feat that wasn’t too shabby given it had only taken us 2hr 45min from C2 (for reference purposes, it takes most people 6-8hrs, and Bear Grylls cited a 7hr benchmark in his book about climbing Everest).

Once at C3 we sat around for 30min soaking in the views and ingesting much needed water and food. Then it was time for the long rappel back to the start of the fixed lines (there’d be about 10 different anchor points you’d have to maneuver around on the way down), and a relatively easy walk back down the final 1,000ft vertical back to C2. Job done. For now.

Because the weather was only going to worsen over the next few days, our plan was to head back to EBC the next day. Turns out the weather didn’t feel like waiting a couple days though, so at around midnight, I awoke to what felt like the yeti violently shaking my tent. For the next 8hrs, the wind didn’t relent, with constant 60+ mph winds battering our camp. Because of the conditions, I’d assumed we were just going to hunker down and ride it out, but at 8a, Jangbo (our head Sherpa) stuck his head in my tent (which had come half undone in the storm), and told me we were abandoning ship and had to get out of dodge. So with no water or food, we hurriedly crammed what we needed for the 4-5hr descent back to EBC into our packs, and watched as Jangbo and Dani collapsed all the tents and stacked stones on top of them in hopes that they (and the summit gear we’d leave behind) would be there when we returned in 10 days or so.

The hike back to EBC was tougher than anticipated with no food/water. The Icefall had changed a ton in the past week, making most of the route unrecognizable (a testament to how much things change in a river of ice that moves at 3m per day), but at around noon on May 3rd, we finally emerged from it. Parched and half-starved, but otherwise in good condition.

Rappelling Down a Section of the Icefall

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! I clearly had a lot of time huddled in my sleeping bag for sideways phone typing… also, if you’re wondering how I got all these pictures to upload, it’s because I paid a visit to the ‘Wizard of WiFi’ at EBC, and begged him to let me on his personal network for a few minutes (which he seems to use for YouTubing all day long…).

Anyways, I’m back at EBC now and will likely be heading further down the mountain either tomorrow or the next day to sleep in a ‘sort of real bed’ for a few days (if you can consider a wooden plank with a thin / heavily-used foam mattress a “real bed”). Will likely be heading back up the mountain for our summit push in 10 days or so, but will send out another post before then.

Talk again soon!

Movin’ On Up!

After ten days of hanging around base camp (roasting in the mornings and freezing in the afternoons/evenings), we’re finally heading up the mountain later tonight. Our rough schedule is…

1) Leave EBC around 2a tonight, and hopefully make it to Camp 1 (at the top of the Icefall) by ~10a – before the sun starts hitting the glacier / surrounding seracs in earnest

2) Spend 2 days at Camp 1 acclimatizing (latest estimate has Camp 1 at ~20,000ft). Camp 1 isn’t supposed to be very comfortable/large, so this will be purely for acclimatization purposes. In the absence of a kindle, I plan to get heavily involved in the two audiobooks I bought: i.e., the first two Harry Potters (that’s right, I’m one of those rare people that’s never read nor watched a Harry Potter book/movie)

3) On the 3rd day, move to Camp 2 in the Western Cwm at 21,000ft. Camp 2 is supposed to be the nicest of the high camps, and many groups actually use it as an Advanced Base Camp (ABC) with a full mess tent, etc. Plan is to stay there for 2 nights.

4) Pending how we’re feeling, the 5 of us that’re attempting to summit Everest will climb halfway up the Lhotse Face to Camp 3 (at 24,500ft) and spend one night there before coming back to Camp 2 for a night

5) Then on the 6th or 7th day, we’ll come back to EBC to rest, recover and regain some weight…

Unfortunately there’s no WiFi (or cell service) above EBC, so I’ll be signing-off for a while, but if you’re interested, our lead guide will be posting updates via a Sat phone to the expedition outfitter’s website (www.summitclimb.com). You’ll have to click on a few other links to get to the status updates page (it should be somewhere under Everest > Nepal), but hopefully it’s fairly intuitive to find. Otherwise, rest assured – I shall use my oxygen-deprived time at these high camps to craft an enthralling recap of our time in the Western Cwm and on the Lhotse Face once I return back to Base Camp. That is, assuming my phone doesn’t freeze and break…

Until then, take care everyone!

(Oh, and sorry for the lack of pictures in this post – I’ll make make amends once we’re back from higher up the mountain…)