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May 222012
Everest South Col 2003

Everest South Col 2003

As we ease closer to the next and final wave of Everest summits, advice the recent events of deaths on both sides of Everest have to be on the minds of the climbers.

The South Experience

A first hand report by Leanna Shuttleworth who summited with Alpine Ascents on May 20th, reveals just what they experienced. It is without a doubt the Blog of the day complete with startling images:

Kami, my dad’s summit Sherpa, has now summitted Everest 18 times and said that it was the worst weather he’s ever been up in and that he didn’t think we were going to get up. My summit Sherpa, Mingma, who’s been up 15 times agreed, and Lakpa, who’s now been up 16 times has got frost nip/wind burn on his face for the first time ever. All in all, the weather was awful.

The Next Wave

IMG’s Eric Simonson reports in as they prepare for the next wave:

IMG guides Max Bunce, Eric Remza, 13 Classic climbers, and their sherpas are heading up the Khumbu Icefall in the cold early morning hours tonight, shooting for the summit of Mt. Everest on May 26 (Nepal time). We are hoping that the weather forecasters are correct: they have predicted a weather window coming in a few days.

It looks like Kenton Cool is the rabbit is this wave already at Camp 3.

The RMI team of Dave Hahn also checked in with the home team saying:

This really is the start of the Mt. Everest summit push in my eyes.  How the next two days go, can have real impact on the summit day. It is so hard to try and maintain strength at these higher camps that you better hope the internal battery is charged, you will be drawing off of your reserves for sure.  The team is focusing on eating and hydrating, keeping their bodies strong and ready.  Four of our climbing Sherpa left Base Camp today and joined the climbers at ABC.  Everyone is doing well and looking forward to the next few days.

I know there is a lot of interest in the remaining Indian climbers with Asian Trekking so this is a  list of who is climbing with Asian Trekking. Please understand this is all the information and I have no way of getting additional information now or over the next few days on these climbers. There are 18 Sherpas climbing with these teams and all are at Camp 2:

Eco Everest Expedition 2nd Summit group: Rajendra Singh Pa, Meghlal Mahato, Lovraj Dharmashaktu, Binita Soren, Nandini Cholaraj, Lovraj Dharmashaktu who would be the first Indian to climb Everest without using supplemental oxygen.

Lumbuni to Mt. Everest Youth Leaders Peace Expedition: Mr. Krishna Bahadur K.C., Mr. Sakar Dahal, Mr. Shiva Kumar Dangi, Ms. Beena  Magar, Ms. Iswari Bhatt, Mr. Shiva Bahadur Sapkota, Mr. Maheswor Phuyal, Mr. Saral Sahayatri Paudel, M.  Yubaraj Dulal, Mr. Madan Kumar Chudal

The Death Zone

As more information is made available on the weekend fatalities it appears that serious errors were made that contributed to the deaths. This was not a 1996 style disaster or a direct result of the 2012 weather. Yet, the risk of climbing where airplanes fly are real. There is a reason it is called the ‘Death Zone’.

Popularized by Jon Krakauer in the book Into Thin Air, the term Death Zone has come to symbolize the risk of climbing Everest. It was first coined by the Swiss Doctor Edouard Wyss-Dunant who almost reached the summit of Everest during the 1952 Swiss Everest Expedition. He portrayed the effects of altitude on human physiology and defined a number of acclimatization zones in his book The Mountain World.

The highest zone he called the Todeszone (German for Death Zone), defined as starting at 7,500 meter (24,606 feet)  At this altitude and above, Wyss-Dunant stated, not only could normal human functions not be maintained, but they rapidly deteriorated – even with the use of supplemental oxygen. The level was later revised to be 8000m or 26,246 feet.

Climbing in the Clouds

So it is with great trepidation that climbers enter the Death Zone. Much attention is paid to the Khumbu Icefall and Lhotse Face, rightfully so, but little is said in detail about those hours above the South Col. So let’s take a very close look at the route above the South Col. If you will allow me, I’ll use my own personal experience of last year climbing the South Col route as the basis.

The first few rotations to Camps 1 and 2 and especially Camp 3 feels devastating to most climbers. They struggle to breath, their legs cry out as muscles are deprived of red blood cells. They wonder why they are there and how they can ever go higher; but they do.

For many, there is light at the end of the Everest tunnel the day they start using supplemental oxygen. All of sudden, the energy is back as well as the belief they can do this. However, below 8000m, it is just a placebo.

The real test starts when you hear the wind drop on the South Col, the stars come out and the Sherpas hustling around your tent. You hear your name called out in that now so familiar Nepalese accent – it brings comfort in this strange place. You put your oxygen bottle or two into your pack along with a couple of liters of water, an energy bar, extra pair of gloves, sunglasses and not much more.

You clip on your 12 point crampons, zip up the down suit, pull on the mask and look up. A stream of headlamps show the way. You start walking.

Everest Southeast Ridge in 2011 as seen from Lhotse

Everest Southeast Ridge in 2011 as seen from Lhotse

South Col: 26,300?/8016m

Welcome to the moon. This was home for a few hours as you recovered from your climb from Camp 3. More than likely the wind is blowing so hard you think this is the end of your journey. But usually with sunset, the winds follow the sun.

From the South Col you can see Cho Oyu clearly in Tibet. Lhotse is to the South. You cannot see the true summit of Everest from the South Col but the South Summit of Everest looms to the North.

A vague path in the snow meanders up across a blue ice bulge marking the beginning of the Triangular Face. Leaving the South Col, you go too fast, everybody does. You begin to hyperventilate before you hear your Sherpa call out “Bistarai Bistarai”, slowly, slowly. Following directions you get into a groove.

The climb feels slow, plodding; almost boring. Step by step you gain altitude and get into a rhythm. Every few steps you must unclip your jumar and carabiner from the fixed rope – not both at the same time, and move them above the anchor. This is time consuming, awkward, annoying. You are tempted to skip this but know better.

But you begin to wonder if you are going too slow yet if you go faster you cannot. This is tough. The angle feels steep. It is dark, cold and now that damn wind has picked back up. All you can see are your boots in front of you, illuminated by your headlamp. All you hear is your breathing. How much further?

Balcony: 27,500?/8400m- 4 – 6 hours from South Col

After an eternity, you turn right and see headlamps still, no movement. It must be the Balcony – and rest. You slip off your pack, wanting to sit down heavily on it but it is time to swap out your oxygen bottle – your’s is finished. For almost all western climbers, the Sherpas handle this task – remove the bottle, unscrew the regulator, leave the empty at the Balcony for retrieval on the way down, put the regulator on the new bottle and back into your pack – test it; often the system is frozen with ice. Hot tea or a sharp blow normally fixes it but not always and sometimes ends the climb.

You eat, drink half a liter and begin to feel alive again and then you look up, to the West. It looks vertical even though it is not, but everything is now exaggerated. A mixture of doubt and excitement confuse your already fogged brain. It is time to leave.

South Summit : 28500?/8690m – 3 to 5 hours from Balcony

The climb begins with a gentle angle, this is not so bad, you tell yourself, but then everything changes as the pitch increases – along with your breathing. Higher and higher in the dark, this feels like nothing you have ever experienced. It is dark, cold, probably windy. You are starting to feel incredibly small – a speck on a huge rock. You take comfort from your teammates, the fixed line, the view of your boots, memories, anything to keep you human.

The terrain shifts from snow slope to rock outcroppings. Nobody talks about this, most don’t remember. Each outcropping requires more effort than you have. You clumsily search for a toe hold with your crampon’s front points, a mistake, use your entire foot but the angle is steep, the holds are small; this is hard. Your foot slips stealing precious energy.

It takes a long time for most, every few moments stopping, bending over, ice ax in hand- the 1000 yard stare. But you keep going. You find the 1 reason to keep going, not the 1000 to turn back.

The suns starts to rise as you crest a bump on the Southeast Ridge, you are near the South Summit. The angle relaxes but then picks back up – when will this end? And this is not the summit? The views of Lhotse and the sun rising to the east is indescribable at this point. The chatter on the radio has been silent during this section, climbers lose radio contact with EBC in this section.

The South Summit!, another oxygen bottle change, probably your last. And there it is – the true summit of Everest, softly lit in the morning dawn. Your heart misses a beat several in fact. You just might make it!

Hillary Step – 1 hour or less

After another food and water break, you get yourself together and go downhill. What, downhill? It is a short section of maybe 50 feet but enough to make you question if you are on the correct route. You are, follow the ropes, the climbers ahead. In the mental fog of the early morning, you cross the Cornice Traverse, a section only a few feet wide that drops off a mile on both sides. Amazingly, you stay focused on ahead, up; not down. There it is, the Hillary Step, no it is a false rock formation you need to overcome.

But then the real Step appears. It does not look that hard, you justify to yourself. If you are with a few climbers, it goes fast, if you are with a huge crowd, it is the longest time of your entire life.

Climbing blind you make your moves up the Step. Between your oxygen mask, goggles, down hood, down suit, it is almost impossible to see your toes. Feeling with your feet, holding on with your hands you move higher, each small step is progress to the top of the step. If this home you would scramble up, at 29,000′ you struggle.

Then you finish, but realize the rope goes to the left, around a huge boulder but there is no path? Follow the rope, you tenderly use a death grip high in the death zone as you maneuver around the rock, a bear hug works. And then relief.

Summit: 29,035?/8850m – 1 hour or less from the Hillary Step

You can see the snow slope ease now. Snow cornices mark the right side of the slope juxtaposed against the rising sun to the east. You want to stop and stare, take a picture, a movie, let it sink in; but you are not there. Now you are running on pure adrenaline. The wind burns your left cheek as it picks up, your eyes water; maybe from tears.

And then you are there.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

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