The Western Cwm: Best and Worst of Times

Sunset from Camp 2

“It was the of time, it was the worst of times” so started The Tale of Two Cities. The same might be said of my last 5 nights in the Western Cwm.

As I wrote in my last dispatch from Camp 1, I arrived in good time for me, felt great and was once again awed by the Khumbu Icefall. Well except for that dangling ladder which has since been fixed!

I had to smile upon seeing the big black furry mutt who followed several teams through the Icefall looking for a friendly handout or a kind pat on the head – both of which were strongly discouraged by team leaders for fear for disease. He was later forcibly carried back to BC by the Sherpas.

We spent our two nights at Camp 1 without surprise. The second day involved a few hours walk to the rising ridge line thus providing a view of Camp 2 near the base of the Lhotse Face. As I slowly walked, clipped into the fixed line, with Kami setting the pace; I looked around. Nuptse, a high mountain almost 8000m, served as the south wall of the Western Cwm. Normally covered in white snow, this year was a mix of rock and ice, revealing the lack of snowfall high in the Himalaya.

Opposite was the west shoulder of Everest. A similar snow pattern somewhat reduced the intense reflective heat when the sun poked through the clouds. And at the end of the Cwm, a Welsh word for Valley, stood mighty Lhotse. Often in the shadow of Everest, this is the 4th highest mountain in the world and the objective of several in our large team.

The Lhotse Face serves as one of many milestones for Everest climbers. I stood still and studied the route I knew so well. My mind was once again flooded with memories of my previous 6 climbs to Camp 3, perched at 23,500′ and onto the South Col at 8000m – the beginning of the Death Zone.

A tiny line of black objects served to remind everyone that the Face is not to be taken lightly. There was a team of Sherpas fixing the ropes to Camp 3. Two ropes actually, an up and a down line. Both secured through difficult work at extreme altitude. These Sherpas represented the from multiple teams  but even these of the returned worn out after a days labor in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

The lines, pickets, anchors had to be carried high and then the rock hard ice had to be chipped away or ice screws careful installed to hold the lines. Climbers are told never to put their full weight on the line since the anchors can melt out sending the unwary falling toward certain injury or even death. The lines are the difference between life and death. Staying clipped in is the key. I looked at the route and remembered the British climber who fell down the face, details unknown, in 2003. His body now rests in the Bergshrund at the base of the Face.

Returning my focus to the Western Cwm, another memory surfaced. The day I fell into a crevasse in a whiteout. A soft snow bridge gave way under my feet. Thankfully, I was traveling in the middle of two teammates. This conservative act of traveling roped together at the time, probably saved my life. I looked at each crevasse with a mixture of emotions but primarily with respect.

Funny how memories work. What they tell us in the future, How they change our perspective. The lessons. The simple truths when viewed objectively.

Another restless night at Camp 1 came and went. This year, the Cwm seemed fully comfortable hiding from the intense, unforgiving rays from the sun. A cloud layer reminiscent of a marine fog seemed to form around mid morning and never leave. But when it did, the heat was oppressive. No amount of re-layering could bring relief. A sufferfest in the truest meaning. Surrounded by frozen water, yet feeling the sun burn through 100 SPF. The only relief was to crawl into a tent with a sleeping bag on the top of the tent to provide shade. Then the temps would drop into the low 100F’s inside the tent.

Our trip from C1 to C2 was uneventful. The “marine layer” at 20,000′ with the nearest ocean thousands of miles away was welcome. We left just after sunrise to minimize the chance of the direct sun. The trek is less then two miles and gains about 1800′ so in theory is not difficult.  Kami and I made good progress with no sense of urgency arriving at the base of the Camp 2 rock gully in about 2:15 minutes. The IMG camp, however was at the top of the gully and provided a small obstacle before reaching the relative comfort of folding golf chairs around a dining table inside a heavy tent.

I found my tent; this rotation I was tenting with Simon whom I climbed Aconcagua with in January. We laid out the sleeping bags, put our necessities in the mesh packets and declared it home for the next two nights.

The snow started falling in mid afternoon, the same pattern back in Base Camp. Filed under the category of “Aren’t you ever happy?” , we groused about the heat of the sun and the bitter cold when it disappeared. Yet we were happy. The Best of Times.

Closer now to Lhotse than before, we could inspect the route, watch the Sherpas doing their work – on our behalf, view the Western Cwm from a new perspective, watch the sunset behind Pumori. It was a magical place, one few ever visit. A place, an experience, not to be taken for granted.

The next day was spent walking to the Bergshrund at the base of the Lhotse Face. About an hour and half walk with a gain of about 600′ Enough to get the blood flowing and once again to inspect the entire Cwm in one glance.

As the sunset that Monday night, I felt great. Most unusual for me was that my appetite was holding albeit I was very behind on getting fluids in me. That night was the coldest we had experienced thus far with clear skies. It reached -10F inside our tent. The condensation from our breath formed tiny droplets inside the tent walls in spite of having the door and other vents open to allow for moisture to escape.

Given how I felt, I made the decision to stay one more night at 21,500′. I felt that an extra night  at this altitude would accelerate my acclimatization and prepare me better for the next climb to spend at night at C3, 23,500, high on the Lhotse Face. In previous climbs, I always had a feeling I spent too little time above Base Camp. This time I was determined to try some new techniques. Also, we were ahead of schedule so the pressure of returning to Base Camp for rest and recovery was diminished.

The next day, Wednesday, Kami and I took a short walk towards the lower C2 area and enjoyed the views. We also discussed the future schedule, going slowly, not worrying about pace too much and staying healthy. He told me of some of his previous expeditions to Makalu, Norway, and of course, Everest. The bond grew.

Dinner that night was uneventful except for the protein in the form of some greasy canned vienna sausages. I ate a few of these and immediately felt it was a mistake. Others ate them with no issues. I know enough about my body at high altitude that there are some foods I can handle and other not; time would tell.

Bedtime came around sunset, around 7:00PM. Clouds had moved back in and the snow had begun. Three hours later I was on my hands and knees depositing my dinner, some still undigested, into the tent vestibule as the snow was falling harder now causing the inside of the tent to be pitch black.

Simon turned on his headlamp. He handed me some tissues. I fell back into the tent and simply said “That was fun.!” Actually I felt much better. Oddly enough, I had no other strong emotions other than relief and I crawled back into my sleeping bag and slept fitfully the rest of the night. One troubling item was my cough had returned as had my head congestion. The constant cough kept Simon and me awake all night as the snow continued.

I punched the tent roof to clear the snow as dawn broke in the upper Western Cwm. I was glad this night was over. As I sat up to put my boot liners on and prepare to return to Base Camp, a wave overcame came. This time, there was no dinner, just the natural juices that digest food. In the ambient temperature of 10F, sweat poured off my brow as I heard my name and the vestibule zipper open.

Kami took one look and once again, his expression took over for words. “I was sick last night also.” I said as the vestibule became an unsightly holding tank for my issues. “You did not tell me.”, was all Kami said with a look of disappointment, perhaps even betrayal. My heart sank lower as I knew then I had let my friend down by not including him even in my worst of times.

He went into action. I moved to the Sherpa cooking tent that while overlaided with the smell of propane, was warm. Kami frantically went through the medical kit looking for nausea medicine. Then he went on the radio to call Base Camp. Greg answered at 5:45AM. I told him what was going on in between coughs and we both agreed that descent without delay was the course. And with that, Kami and I packed, dressed in layers, roped up and headed down.

The evening snowfall had deposited about a foot of fresh powder in the Western Cwm. Several teams also evacuated the high camp. Breaking trail was left to the strongest Sherpa – once again on our behalf. Strangely, I still felt good. I simply blamed it on the wieners and my quirky stomach.  Denial is a wonderful thing!

However as we entered the Icefall, I knew something had occurred beyond a disagreement with my stomach. Three and half hours later, we reached Base Camp. I asked for two scrambled eggs, the only thing I could think of I could eat, and went to my tent. Three hours later I awoke with THAT cough. However, something had changed and my clear cough production was now chunky green and I don’t mean like that green pea soup.

Another trip to Everest ER and Doc Rachel was required. Once again, all vital signs were excellent including blood oxygen saturation. She put me on a three day med course and I returned to my tent to experience yet another fitful night. As I updated Kami, I apologized for not keeping him informed. He simply smiled as he touched my elbow with a “It’s OK”. As I write this, Thursday afternoon, I feel better, the meds are starting to work. And again, I don’t feel upset or pressured.

I don’t pretend to fully understand and I am certainly not a doctor but these illness come with the territory. Some people can climb a lifetime and never get sick, others get sick all the time. I am in the middle. I try to take it in stride. I don’t dwell on it, look for blame but try to understand the sequence of events prior to the event.

Obviously my head congestion I experienced back on Lobuche 10 days ago, never fully went away. When my system was hit during the night, my immune system was hit as well and perhaps the infection got an opportunity to gain hold. But then again, who really knows?

What I do know is that I feel better, I will not let this get me down or stop me. Far worse things happen to people all the time. I read a comment today from a follower who said over 20 donations were made to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund in her mom’s behalf after she recently passed away from Alzheimer’s. When I stop and consider what Ellen and her family and her mom experienced, my problems pale in comparison.

So a few days rest then the next rotation to Camp 3 is probably early to mid next week. The multiple expedition leaders are meeting today to organize the rope fixing to the summit. In spite of the delays from the heavy snows, there is no sense of panic here at Base Camp. Remember the traditional Everest summit window is around May 21 plus and minus a week. Of slight concern is the unsettled weather that never seems to let up.

Stay focused, stay positive, take care of myself. This is the advice I often give to caregivers and now need to take myself. And to fully appreciate the Best of Times.

Climb On!

Memories are Everything

Crossing THE fixed wobbly ladder in the Upper Icefall
Taking a break in the Khumbu Iceafall
The Western Cwm
Crevasse in the Cwm

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31 thoughts on “The Western Cwm: Best and Worst of Times

  1. Alan’s description of his s reminds me of the trials we all face as I face them myself.I can be just fine with a lot of things and other times I am down and out only to bounce back with a full recovery.Weird as it may seem these troubles only fuel my need to take care of myself even better.And so,Alan,you rock…climb on!!

  2. Alan!!!! Hang in there, man! You’re already on the mend and on your usual extraordinary journey. Don’t give up. You’ll get over this, you’re in great health in general. Otherwise you wouldn’t be there.

    No worries, mate, trust your body and your Sherpa.

    Get some rest, stay hydrated and KEEP CLIMBING!


  3. I’ve never been able to find a good picture of the bergshrund at the bottom of the Lhotse face. Would love to see it if you have one. Hope you continue to feel better!

  4. Wow!! Can’t imagin, but with your words and pictures I can come close. Keep it up, stay focus, you have a purpose. I’m a gear junkie any chance you can post what your wearing/using. Climb on and on and on!!!

  5. Good strategic move getting rid of that “excess weight” before going up high! : ) Saw your pic of THE LADDER.Must of been scary! Did you maybe get one of the dog? Find out if that dog plans to climb without O’s.Know that im pulling for ya man.Hope some of the “comedy relief” helps!

  6. This may sound a little mean but I think its great you are getting all these illnesses out of the way in April. It means by May you will have healed up, recovered, repaired and stronger. Climb on Alan.

  7. hi Allan, sorry to hear about your setback. at least you are feeling better. we are all thinking of you as you take on this massive challenge. yes memories are everything and this challenge will live with me for rest of my life. always thinking of you. safe climbing. jim from Hereford. UK

  8. Hang in there Alan, you’ll soon be on the mend. Plenty of time yet so take it easy and get in some good R&R. And keep up the great posts! All the best.

  9. Hi Alan,

    That was a great post!
    And I’m sorry for your “illnesses”, but you had me rolling on the floor reading some of it!
    Tho heat, the mini-dogs, THAT cough! Been-there-done-that!!!!!!!!!

    Can’t wait to heard how you like the Lhotse Face 🙂

  10. Alan, I had a nice talk with my grandpa on Saturday. He updated me on how my grandma’s Alzheimer’s is progressing, and mentioned a recent rebound she enjoyed. We cherish these. Yesterday, my mother sent an e-mail detailing a new challenge Grandma was facing. Your post is a good analog for the ups and downs this disease brings and a fitting example of life’s ability to cope with adversity. Thank you and good climbing.

  11. Take care, Alan! My family and I are following your journey post by post and wish you all the best. We all hope you recover quickly from this set-back.

  12. Alan

    It is so odd to read your blog in the comfort of a Starbucks in San Diego. Even after having been to EBC, it is so hard to reconcile the two realities. Know that you and the rest of the team remain in Bill’s and my hopes and prayers. Hope that you summit and prayers that you return home safely. Say Hi to everyone for us.


  13. Stay strong mentally Alan. When the mountain kicks your ass, you just have to kick back. Stubborn as a mule I always say. Hang in there. I hope you are well very soon. I am with you in spirit. -Lori

  14. That sounds even worse than my “premium chicken” experience. Rest, hydrate, fuel, and focus. Climb on!

  15. Keep fighting, Alan! You are ahead of schedule, well acclimatized and have lots of time to rest and recover. Also, it sounds like you are with the best team you have been with on Everest. Stay strong!
    Climb On, my friend!

  16. I am learning so much from your posts, Alan. But I do have some questions as I am a non-climber: What exactly is an icefall? Are the ladders used to cross crevasses? Thanks for that picture; it does show me why they are called ladders. I thought the might be used like normal ladders–to help get up a steep (i.e., vertical) stretch. What are the temperatures in the sun? You said in the shade of a tent it is 100F. WOW! What a swing of temperatures from 100+ to -10 in a day.

    Keep healthy and Journey on!

  17. Alan…I did the exact thing you did only it was the noddles and smal “hot-dogs” that did me in…all I wanted to eat at C2 was pancakes and eggs…”all the time.” Get on those Z-packs and get lots of rest…drink warmed-up power drinks (Nuun) and you will be even stronger. Lots of time to get ready. “One day at a time – one cough at a time”…day by day.


  18. Wonderful account, Alan. I feel like I am there with you. Thanks so much for sharing. Sending healthy thoughts your way!

  19. Wow, what a story. Sorry to hear it’s happening again, glad to hear you are calm, cool, collected.

  20. It’s refreshing to hear such an honest account. We often hear of reaching for the summit, traveling up and back to BC acclimatising so quickly and less about the Sherpas who truly make these trips up to high camps possible. Not only in fixing lines, taking equipt but watching out for health issues. Enjoying your updates and awareness of Alzheimers.

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