The second week of May 2012 will be recorded in Everest history as when a commercial expedition approaching 100 people told their climbers to get off the mountain, we are going home.
With disbelief, the other teams quickly learned that Everest legend Russell Brice’s canceled his entire spring expeditions on Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse including the high profile Walking with the Wounded team of disabled UK war veterans.
Brice’s first posted a sanitized announcement but quickly followed it with more details describing the true fear his Sherpas had about climbing through the Khumbu Icefall and potential rock fall on the Lhotse Face and higher. In Brice’s judgment, the benefits did not warrant the risks in the warm year on Everest.
With the largest commercial cancellation in Everest history, the second guessing began immediately. Some thought Brice showed uncommon courage in protecting his clients, guides and Sherpas; others thought he reacted too early and should have given the mountain more time to see if the early dangers continued as the summits push started.
Complicating the decision for Brice, one of his Sherpas had died in Kathmandu after suffering a stroke while on the mountain a few weeks earlier. Brice, true to form, was not going to force his Sherpas to climb and pulled them down, refusing to take even the smallest gamble with their lives.
The other expedition’s public reaction of the unprecedented move ranged from nothing to tacit acknowledgments of the danger. Some must have felt they were protecting those back home – a false assumption to be sure in this age of the Internet. But no other team took such drastic action feeling that conditions, while difficult, were similar to those seen a decade ago.
Dangers and Routes
The dangers Brice noted included the unstable Khumbu Icefall, especially near the top where it falls from the Western Cwm and having the route too close to the potential avalanche off Everest’s West Shoulder. Second, the rock fall from the Geneva Spur onto the Lhotse Face that had already injured multiple Sherpas. He said only a heavy snowfall would begin to resolve the situation but even then he was not willing to continue. The day after he made his announcement, the snow began to fall, and fall and fall.
Teams leaders with over 100 combined years of experience on the South put their heads together and developed a plan. A new route was established up the Lhotse Face leveraging maps documenting the 1953 British climbs and, according to one of the expedition owners I spoke with, was the same route they used in the late 1990′s.
It took a far right hand variation up the Lhotse Face using the uneven surfaces of the Face itself as cover from the falling rock. It worked. The Sherpas complained it was longer but they also said it was safer.
Soon team after team made what is a difficult climb in good conditions, their rotations up the Face to either spend a few hours or overnight at Camp 3, nearly 24,000′ on the Lhotse Face. They had paid their dues, completed their acclimatization program and had their ticket to go higher, when the time came.
Today climbers are positioned at their respective base camps on the North and South sides awaiting a good weather forecast. The North is looking good, even “normal”. As for the South, I see three scenarios over the next 19 days:
A “Normal” Year
First there is nothing normal about Everest, each year is unique. But there are standards and with the recent snowfall, the upper mountain (above the South Col) could have the rock covered with snow which makes rope placement easier and climbing less physical. That said, it will be the winds and the crowds that really create the issues. I addressed the crowds yesterday and the winds, well we will see. We know the North has been particularly windy this year but that can change, however it is unlikely.
Some South leaders, however, are concerned that given the route will most likely be fixed to the summit during the first wave of climbers, less experienced or understaffed teams may try to jump onto their effort creating a chaotic environment.
Unexpected Danger Up High
With the low snowfall combined with the high winds, even the recent snow could have been blown away. The climb to the Balcony is a test of stamina, concentration and commitment, regardless of the conditions. The angles feel steep but do not compare to the next section, the Southeast Ridge. If there is a lot of snow it is easier, if not, it is what it is.
The Southeast Ridge is over 1500′ of climbing at a 30 degree angle, oh and approaching 28,500′. In other words difficult in the best of times. This is the section I worry about for rock fall. Climbers loose radio contact with base camp because they are no longer in a direct line of sight. It is like an Apollo moon mission on the dark side of the moon. A lot of this depends on where the fixed line is placed. If on the rock slabs, it will be tough. If on the soft snow it will be easier, but still tough.
Based on the recent snowfall, my guess it the upper mountain will be “normal”.
A Treacherous Descent
The return from the summit is actually not that bad. I say this acknowledging that most accidents happen in the descent. This is due to fatigue, poor oxygen management i.e. running out of oxygen or very slow climb times. Once back to the South Col, the next section back to Camp 2 is hard, very hard. Climbers are exhausted and literally stumble down the Lhotse Face. Some choose to spend a night at the South Col but most leaders want their climbers as low as possible as fast as possible and push them to find the strength.
But my largest worry is that final climb through the Khumbu Icefall. This will be nearing the end of May when the temperatures are the warmest these climbers have experienced. The Icefall is now crumbling under their feet. The ladders are swaying, coming loose from their anchors and avalanches are common, even more so than in the early part of the season.
This is well known and every team will make their descent in the pre-dawn hours to take advantage of the coldest, most frozen conditions. But this will be the crux for 2012, I believe.
No Ticket to the Top
So, climbing Everest is not trivial, you don’t just buy a ticket, hitch onto a Sherpa and go for the ride. It is demanding and real. It is up to the individual climber to find the strength. But with good judgment, the right support and good weather, it has emerged as one of the safer high altitude climbs.
West Ridge climber, Conrad Anker posted this encourage thought yesterday:
Conditions are great. We’ve had periodic snowfall in the afternoon, which is great. It’s just keeping the snow… The snow is keeping the rocks, cementing them in. So we’re experiencing less rock fall, and we’re hoping that sometime in the next, ohh, 10 days or so, will have a summit window when the winds abate and we have clear whether.
Bandar climbing with IMG had a nice summary in his post today as he mentally prepares for his summit push:
It’s a very mixed feeling you get during this time. Anxiety, fear of failure, excitement, and curiosity all in one. Let’s hope the team is successful and none of us have to come back and go through this process again.
It will be quiet for the next few days as leaders review weather forecasts, climbers review gear and those back home listen for the phone and check email every few minutes. No news is good news, well no news is tough and this begins one of the toughest parts of an Everest climb.
The hard work of years of saving, training and dreaming have come to a poignant milestone. There is nothing left to do but climb the mountain.
I like to use these weekend updates to remind my readers that I am just one guy who loves climbing. With 30 serious climbing expeditions including four Everest trips under my belt and a summit last year, this site tries to share those experiences, demystify Everest each year and bring awareness to Alzheimer’s Disease. My mom died from this disease a few years ago as did two of my aunts. It was a heartbreaking experience that I never want anyone to go through thus my ask for donations to non-profits where 100% goes to them, and nothing to me.
Memories are Everything