On one of my Everest climbs, I was told outright – “If you can’t get to camp 3 in under 5 hours, case you are out.” After a discussion with my grim reaper on people skills, no the logic of the statement made sense. Speed is your friend on any mountain, much less the highest in the world.
Right now, climbers are positioning themselves for the trip to camp 3 and their ticket to the top. But first, they have to climb the Lhotse Face. You hear and read a lot about the dangerous Khumbu Icefall and the horribly hot Western Cwm but when it comes to the real climbing, I believe the Lhotse Face deserves a place in this Hall of Horrors.
The Face is the eastern side of the world’s 4th highest mountain Lhotse, 8516m or 27,939 feet. Many climbers attempt Lhotse itself in pursuit of all 14 8000m mountains or as a difficult 8000 meter mountain. The route is identical to climbing to the South Col but takes a hard right, upwards, just above the Yellow Band to the technical and rocky summit.
But the Lhotse Face is the gatekeeper to all of this.
The face itself is known for being icy and hard packed. Tim Rippel of Peak Freaks recently reported on the condition this year:
The Lhotse face is very dry, nothing but ice, no snow. If we get some precipitation in the form of snow we may have to adjust things to allow time for it shed snow before we move up. All is carefully being considered.
Dave Hahn posted this morning that :
We reached 22,000 feet in our acclimatization effort. I was stunned to see such dry conditions on the upper section of the Western Cwm. The weather continues the normal pattern of clear in the morning and snow showers in the afternoon.
Sherpas spend a tremendous amount of energy placing anchors for the fixed ropes between camp 2 and the South Col. The Face starts about 21,000′ just above camp 2 and ends with the summit of Lhotse or at the South Col around 26,000′. In other words, about a mile of hard blue ice where a simple misstep can easily mean death.
In 2002, a British climber did just that. The details remain unclear but he was descending in a fierce storm and slipped midway between camps 3 and 2. He slid to his death into the bergshrund at the base of the face. A Sherpa had a similar fate in 1997.
Once on the Face, the goal is camp 3. Of note, Sherpas generally refuse to sleep at camp 3 preferring to return to camp 2. Camp 3 is on a 30 degree angle so tent platforms must be chipped out of the ice – even then, the tent is rarely flat. The low oxygen density (40% of the available Os than at sea level) inhibits the simplest movements, you loose your appetite and sleeping is almost impossible. Have I said it enough times, how smart the Sherpa are?
Of course for the rest of us, extra acclimatization is part of the deal. The general philosophy is to put the body in an oxygen deprived state thus forcing the creation of oxygen carrying red blood cells. Sleeping at camp 3, 23,500′, does the trick.
But in recent years, not everyone agrees. This year multiple teams are simply climbing to C3, resting and making a quick return to the relative comforts of C2. This approach is designed to avoid the wear on the body of sleeping at high altitude. A kind of ROI calculation for mountaineering. However, it is the wear itself that stimulates the body to adapt.
The traditional approach was the longer you can stay, the better but not so long as to damage your body. The body begins to react to less oxygen in a matter of hours but it takes much longer to start generating incremental red blood cells and days at that altitude to fully acclimatize. So time will tell if this climb and tag strategy will work.
Another approach now used by Himex is a slow and steady acclimatization process on safer peaks such as Lobuche (6119m or 20,075′) before going into the Icefall. IMG also does early climbs on Lobuche but still sends climbers on rotations to camps 1 and 2. Both companies still ask climbers to spend a night at C3 prior to a summit bid.
And finally, there are some commercial teams that offer an extra oxygen program meaning climbers start using supplemental oxygen once they leave C2. The risk with this approach is that the climber is very, very dependent on the Os and if an equipment failure occurs higher on the mountain, it is difficult to recover.
Even the climbers in the world struggle with acclimatization. Last year, Ed Viesturs wanted to climb without supplemental O’s but at the last minute used it due to a concern of going too slow with the crowds and not enough acclimatization for a no Os attempt.
Climbers trying without supplemental Os will try to spend a few nights as high as possible, even the South Col, before their attempt to the summit. Simone Moro, the elite Italian climber, is both guiding Everest and trying to create a new route on Lhotse this year – both without oxygen. But a high fever prevented his climb to C3 thus changed his plans:
For that reason I and Denis will use O2 (we should need more time and steps to be fully acclimatized to climb without O2) to guide Aldo on the summit. Together with our 3 sherpas we decided o fix ropes to south col till summit while we will do the summit attempt. The other expedition planned the summit push 2 weeks later than us and this is the reason why the fix ropes will be not ready for our attempt. I and Denis also planned another climb without O2 within the end of May when our power will be recovered from the actual guiding work.
In a bit of role controversy, as Moro said, he will fix the ropes to the summit and not count on the combined commercial forces to fix the line because he wants to summit in early May, not mid month.
So the Lhotse Face is up. Peak Freak’s Lucille documented her climb and tag this way:
We had a fantastic day today! What we did was we went all the way up to Camp 3 and came all the way back down. The weather was fabulous! We got some really good shots, you know the summit doesn’t look all that impossible anymore, not like it has been looking impossible for the past couple of weeks, so that’s kind of a big bonus.
The Lhotse face that we went up, of course it’s all roped, down at the bottom the big bergschrund that was a bit of a challenge today to get up and over, but I was able, and then parts of it, parts of the Lhotse face are just solid ice, solid, solid ice so it’s really nice to have the jumar there to have a little bit of backup there when you are crampons slip off the ice. We got up there and had a bite to eat, stayed up there for about 45 minutes or so and then we came back down. Got back down and it was starting to snow and clouding over and stuff and cooling off. So we had some food, our sherpa boys up here have some nice warm food for us and some hot liquids.
However not everyone will comment on their experience so casually as we will see over the next few days..
The headwall below the North Col is a miniature version of the Lhotse Face. Activity is a bit quiet on the north right now. look for it to pick back up today or tomorrow. Jordan Romero is looking to spend the night at the North Col and tag 8000m soon, this will be a huge milestone for the young climber. His highest ever was about 7000m on Aconcagua.
The search for Hungarian climber, Laszlo Varkonyi has ended according to a statement released on their expedition website. In other sad news from the Himalaya, a Spanish alpinist has died on nearby Annapurna. Tolo Calafat became ill and was stranded around 7600m. Helicopters failed to reach him due to adverse conditions.
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