In late March, Tenjing “Tenji” Sherpa wrote on his Facebook page “Happy 4th months Birthday to my little princess, Chhenzum. Sometimes when I need a miracle, I look into my daughter’s eyes and I realize I’ve already created one.” The Sherpa wished for a miracle one year ago, almost to the day, when he was told that Ueli Steck had fallen to his death. He and Ueli Steck had formed an unlikely alliance that grew into a deep friendship based on mutual respect. The world-class, almost superhuman, Steck wanted to make his mark on Everest by climbing the West Ridge, to the summit then traversing to the world’s fourth highest peak, Lhotse at 27,940 feet in one long push.
Since 2012 when Steck climbed in the Himalayan, he had used Tenji’s brother’s company Royal Orchard Treks for logistics. The young Sherpa caught a break of a lifetime when Steck invited him to join an Everest summit attempt. Steck soon became a mentor that climbers could only dream of. The next year, along with Italian climber Simone Moro and British photographer Jonathan Griffith, the team wanted to attempt the Everest-Lhotse traverse but an argument at 22,000 feet with a team of Sherpa who were installing the safety line for commercial members ended that project and generated global headlines with a brawl at Camp 2. At one point Steck feared for his life as Sherpas threw rocks at his tent and punched his face.
Steck stayed away from Everest for the next few years, but the lure of the traverse challenge was consistently in the back of his mind. He lived for doing what others only dreamed of and this was a big dream. Steck’s last post on his blog read “Just spend two Nights in Camp two. Beautiful Weather and warm. I was taking the chance to go and have a look towards the West Shoulder. Conditions are great so far. But you never know it can change until in one month! So far we having a good time! Hopefully Tenjing Sherpa frostbite getting better soon so we can be together on the mountain again. Right now it looks we have to save again camp two again. Expedition weather forecast again very strong Winds for the next days. After we keep going getting climatized, I stick to the route to move on the mountain and not spending too many nights in camps. Like this we stay in shape and get used to the altitude!”
Five days later, Steck fell 3,000 feet down the North Face of Nuptse Peak, only a mile away from the summit of Everest. Why he fell remains a mystery to this day. Perhaps it was rockfall, he misplaced a step or made a simple mistake, no matter the reason, Steck’s death shook the climbing world but also his friends, especially Tenji and Griffith, to their core.
Climbing for Honor
Now, Tenji and Griffith, are back on Everest hoping to honor their friend with a modified version of his dream. They will climb to the summit of Everest by the normal, Southeast Ridge route, then return to the South Col and on to Lhotse. Griffith told me today from Everest Base Camp on the Nepal side that he and Tenji were doing great on the acclimatization phase and were ahead of schedule. “We arrived quite late in the season (21st April) so we’ve only done one rotation up high. We spent 4 nights up at Camp 2 and I went up to Camp 3 whilst Tenji did a round to Camp 3 and then a climb up to 8000m two days later. I’m using bottled oxygen so its a completely different game for him of course – but I’ll be heading up on his next acclimatisation round for a night at South Col next week with him. To be honest we’re both doing great and feeling strong in the thin air, especially Tenji who’s proving to be a bit of a monster up there. Like I said I’m using O2 so the real focus here is on Tenji.”
On April 29, 2018, the anniversary of Uli’s death, Tenji was returning from an acclimatization climb to 8,000 meters. He is not using supplemental oxygen so he must spend more time helping his body adjust to the hardship of high-altitude mountaineering by climbing to the South Col and spending the night. Griffith walked down to Lobuche and met up with Ueli’s brothers to lay a plaque on a rock chorten, a Buddhist shrine. Griffith added “I’ve been having very mixed feelings during this trip to be honest. This production was such a huge part of my life for the last two years that in an odd way it kept me in ’touch’ with Ueli over the last year after his death. Part of me is really excited to finish off this project and close this chapter on my life, but the other part is sad as I think it will be my final goodbye to him. Spending the morning with his bothers was very special as it’s something to close a close friend, but another thing entirely to lose a brother and all those childhood memories.“
For Griffith, this is a dream project as much as it is a dream climb for Tenji. “I cant think of anything that will challenge me more as a cameraman and producer than this project in the future. We’re shooting VR, video, photos, and Live Stream of a no O2 ascent traverse that has never been done before and with a very small team. Whatever happens it’ll be an incredible story and project, and one that I’ll be really proud of having done.”
Griffith will be climbing with supplemental oxygen and live streaming Tenji’s no O’s climb. Griffith says it’s a complicated setup which is why it took two years to get to this point. The live streaming involves capturing the ascent in Virtual Reality which will use a pretty massive ’17 camera’ camera. He says that shooting in VR requires everyone to clear the surrounding area to avoid being in the shot. They will set the camera on a tripod, then the 360 audio up, hit record, and run out of the way! Tenji will then pass by and the camera team will run back to the rig and pack it away only to then catch up with Tenji and move ahead of him to set up the next shot. He says its like interval training at altitude. Since Tenji is not using bottled O2 they will have to work around his speed. If he goes too slowly or stops, he’ll risk frostbite.
What should be a major mountaineering event is the Live Streaming aspect where viewers around the globe can watch Tenji climb to both summits without O’s back to back, something that has never been accomplished. Griffith says the Live Stream technology is simpler on the front end but more complicated on the backend. He told me that “in laymen terms we just beam the signal directly down to Base Camp where we have an engineer who does all the complicated hardware and power intensive Live uplink. All we have to do is hit record on my camera and the video goes via a LiveU box on the mountain, that helps with the buffering issues of such long distances, and then on to a mesh node network to base camp. It’s actually pretty complicated from there to your Facebook Feed but thankfully thats not something our hypoxic minds have to deal with.”
There will be several Sherpas with them for support and carrying a lot of the gear but their loads will be less than what they would carry for a commercial member. Griffith says the VR camera is the heaviest single piece of equipment at about 14 pounds. He says there will be one Sherpa in charge of the Live Streaming, one in charge of the VR equipment, and one carrying O2. They will do a practice run at night at 8000m the week of May 6th. He adds “Logistically it’s a total nightmare but I kind of relish that challenge. I know its possible and we’re all pretty excited to give it our best shot. Like everything complicated it just requires plenty of preparation, practice and experience.”
The Sherpa Machine
Griffith says Tenji is “a bit of a machine doing laps on the Lhotse Face” so I asked Tenji about his motivation for his project and how he is feeling now. “I am feeling very well. I was already in Camp 4 of Lhotse the day before yesterday and physically and mentally I am fit so it means I am motivated for the project because nobody has done this project before without using o2. So if we complete this project for the young generation of Nepalese climbers it will help a lot and motivate them too….”
For Griffith, this project invokes a series of complicated mixed emotions as he said it took over his life for the last two years and given that it is still so “Ueli focused” that he feels like he is in touch with him every day. He says he still talks about Ueli often with members in relation to this project.
Griffith wrapped up our conversation with an introspective look inside: “Emotions are an odd thing and ultimately not something you can really control so whilst objectively I do think it’s a bit odd that I feel this close attachment to him via this project I also don’t let it worry me! Like I said when it’s all over I think that will be a very cathartic moment for me, I am pretty sure it will be a very emotional personal moment for me on the summit of Lhotse. Who knows? I think he’ll be proud of us, and especially of Tenji, if we manage to pull it all off. It seems like this Spring people have become a little too obsessed in the idea that the only way to give tribute to Ueli is to do the hardest possible traverse or the Horseshoe, but I think that’s just armchair ego and bravado speaking through- I started off this filming project and climbing route choice with Ueli and thats how I mean to finish it off. It’s a personal tribute, I don’t think that means it needs to be anything but that.”
They expect to begin the summit climb around May 20th. The Live Stream will be on Griffith’s social media channels, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and on the National Geographic Channels. Also on Tenji’s Facebook. These are a few of the images Jon has taken during the first two weeks of the expedition.
Memories are Everything