My eyes lock onto my heavy boots and sharp crampons as I take another step up the steep snow slope towards camp 2 on Shisha Pangma. Then another and another. The pattern continues. My breathing is controlled yet sounds like a steam engine. My stare is unbroken. Then something changes, the snow underfoot becomes less steep, the angle lessens, I feel the relief of the mountain on my gait. I look up.
The tents look tiny yet they are very close. Out tents sit in a small depression on a blanket of snow. The valley is defined by a 7000m mountain on my left and Shisha Pangma on my right. But this is not what catches my eye. It is nothing specific, nothing stands out. It is everything in total. The scene is complete alpine serenity.
A small single track of footprints reveal the depth of the snow cover. Climbers follow one another not willing to step off into the unknown. My boot and crampon stare is now replaced by a constant scan left to right, down to up. I cannot take it all in. My eyes simply scan. My brain processes as fast as it can.
I walk a calculated pace, designed to maintain my breathing, maintain my strength. Even at my pedantic pace, I make steady progress. Soon I arrive at the single tent already erected. I help set the other five up and soon have snow melting. Once again, I allow myself to look around.
Shisha is behind me. I hesitate to look too closely. Instead I choose to look out over the Tibetan plains. The brown tundra is a sharp contrast to the deep snow in my foreground. I can see a lake hundreds of miles away. It must be huge to appear so big this far away. Natural, I assume, no dams. Fed by glacier melt and rains? Perhaps one day the snow I am sitting on will be there. Or perhaps it will feed the growing clouds I watch build in front of me. I feel like I have been transported back thousands of years and am witnessing the Earth as it once was. Unchanged by humans. A natural process of natural forces.
A Raven flys by and calls out. Is he talking to me? No, another follows closely. What are they doing at 23,000 feet? They enjoy the updrafts. I enjoy watching them.
This is what I remember today, stuck at ABC for day five. Memories are a relief given that hope fluctuates for our summit bid.
The weather forecasts moves more than the Ravens. The team energy moves in proportion with the daily weather. Day one was nice, day two it snowed, day three it snowed more and became extremely cold, day four warmer but more snow, day five bright and sunny, that night however it was brutally cold.
Hot water bucket showers were popular on the sunny days, cocooning in the sleeping bags the popular options on cold ones. The ever-present dining tent serves a meeting place three times a day. Some arrive early for a seat by the heater, other arrive late in order to finish a chapter. The conversation ranges from mind-numbing to challenging. The different nationalities bring a texture to the conversation and a unique personality to the team.
I sit at the table this evening not all there. I am at low ebb tonight. Not sure why. Perhaps lethargy due to inactivity. But with the cold days, deep snow and my technical gear at higher camps, I have no choice. I listen to the conversation with half attention. Someone calls my name. I respond as needed nothing more. They understand. Each of us goes through this. It is not personal.
I think about the fund raising efforts for Alzheimer’s. I am disappointed. Only $110 since I left in late August. What else can I do? Is anyone reading these dispatches? Does it matter? I go through the emotions. I try to think it through. How do I get across the urgency of the need for research without alienating people or worse – pissing them off.
I know the two people who made the donations – Larry and Pam. Both have gone through hells of their own recently. They are not rich but yet they gave. I think about my friendship with them and what it means for them to give. If only I had 10,000 friends like them…
Finally I let the conundrum go since I cannot do a lot about it up here. I can only do my best to my commitment.
The sun is out today. Smiles are on faces. The Sherpas work like there is no tomorrow. The kitchen crew seems to be on 7 by 24 duty. Yet they always smile. Serke, the main cook, personally stands by watching us eat each meal. He cares. If a plate is not finished he looks hurt. He pushes fluids and deserts. He knows what is important.
Pizza, pasta and broccoli were on the main menu last night. Serke smiled a quiet grin as we wolfed it downed. He barked an order for more thermoses of hot water. The conversation ran the gauntlet once again. Nothing resolved, easy jousting and friendly shots – all go to bed with a light smile but an unknown of what tomorrow will bring.
Time to go back up, I think as I toss in my sleeping bag. The sun hits the tent at 5:30 AM. But as I crawl out like a wet puppy of out a rushing stream, I look at the Hill and see it covered with clouds. An artistic scene but not what I want to see. The winds were strong last night. Were they also strong on the loaded slopes to Camp 3? Blowing away the deep loft that could avalanche on us as we make our way towards the summit?
Other teams have come down, some have left for good. One of our team has gone up to camp 1 but not sure what to expect. We listen anxiously each time the radio crackles. Luckily the Internet connection is back alive. We look forward to email the same way we look forward to a good nights sleep. A link to home. A reason to stay safe. A memory.
This technology brings the latest weather forecast. After this last storm, a calm period is due. Over the Hills in Nepal it is raining, snowing and seriously bad. The high mountains of the continental uplift stop it from hitting us with such brutality - for now. The depression in the Bay of Bengal grows feeding the monsoons. Will it hit us before we can try? We study the weather maps, read the ciphering from Michael Fagen back in the states. Can the weather be predicted? We see over on Cho Oyu that only one team has summitted – poor results for such a popular climb. Better than the zero results for our goal. The mountain and weather always has the last word.
It is lunch on Friday. Some return from brief hike, others escape their tents with wide-eyed looks on their eyes. Serke brings us a lunch of spam, beans and Tibetan bread – very good actually. But the real agenda is the plan for the rest of the expedition. Small talk takes over once again and then Jamie finally reveals the plan.
First, the weather continues to be unsettled and unpredictable. The next several days look decent for low snow and low winds but after that it is unknown. The British Army is making their move for a summit bid. It is suggested that we make another acclimization climb to Camp 1 and spend one or two nights, return to ABC and hope the window appears. I have my reservations.
After much discussion, about half the team agrees to leave tomorrow for depot camp and then camp 1. I decide to go with three of my teammates the next day, Sunday, directly to Camp 1. In my mind this is the summit push. The days are running out and we don’t have a lot of time for two major trips up the Hill.
So the plan is set. I feel good about it. It feels right for me. Now it is up to the Mountain.
Remember: Memories are Everything