Everest 2016 is developing into a ‘normal’ season. As we enter the last week of April, climbers are working hard to get their acclimatization programs in before the traditional poor early May weather but based on this year current weather, that may or may not happen. I’m starting to sound like a professional meteorologists! 🙂
There are 32 teams at Everest Base Camp with 287 Everest permits issued and some number of Lhotse and Nuptse permits as well. The non-Everest permits are a bit misleading as anyone who wants to enter the Icefall or just go to Camp 2 needs a permit for that maximum altitude but may have no intention of trying to climb that mountain. Overall, the Everest numbers are down about 15% and trekking in the Khumbu, down 40%.
Numbers from Tibet are not available. For what’s it worth, I estimate about 200 foreigners on that side this year, up a bit from previous years.
A Welcome Change
I’ll get to my own experiences in a moment but this is starting to feel like a regular season. The last time we had one was arguably in 2011. Of course in 2014, there was the avalanche followed by the Sherpas strike to get improved conditions from the Nepal Government, then there was last year’s earthquake.
In 2012, Russell Brice made the unprecedented decision to cancel his entire season fearing a release of the hanging serac over the Khumbu Icefall and in 2013, there was the silly fight between a few Sherpas and Simone Moro over who had the right to be on the Lhotse Face while the Sherpas were fixing the route.
Climbing from the North side aka Tibet, while lacking some of the geophysical events has still had its share of issues re-enforcing that climbing from Tibet is never a sure thing. The Chinese seem to refuse permits at random with no explanation, they closed all of Tibet to climbing in 2015 after the earthquake thus stopping all Everest summits that year and this year, teams have had a frustrating time just getting into China with unexplained border closures.
In any event, 2013 was the last time we saw significant and legitimate summits on Everest from Nepal and 2014 from Tibet.
History aside, everyone I’ve spoken with this year from porters, Sherpas, climbers to operators are eager for a ‘no-drama’ year and thus far they have gotten their wishes.
A Warm Season
The most popular conversation around base camp are the warm temperatures. Of course this is not an Everest phenomena as 2016 is starting off as one of the hottest on record for the planet. This is my sixth time at EBC and I have never seen so much running water at base camp in April.
Of course the fear is that with the warm temps, the potential for hanging seracs to release, rock fall and avalanche danger is higher, but thus far that has not materialized. In speaking with Russell Brice, who has been climbing and guiding on Everest since 1987, he suggested the lack of snow this past winter combined with the warm temps are causing the seracs to ‘lay back’ or to have less of an overhanging profile thus releases are less likely to occur. Of course he adds the disclaimer that no one ever knows for certain what might happen.
There certainly has been a lot of activity off Nuptse, which overlooks the Icefall and base camp, but there seems to be only one small area that release many times a day. Everest Base Camp is in kind of an amphitheater at the end of a long valley and the beginning of the downhill turn for the Khumbu Glacier, thus any sound is greatly amplified. I can tell you that I am awoken several times a night by a small, insignificant release that sounds like the entire mountain is coming down!
There have been a few small releases onto the Khumbu Icefall but nothing that has put any climbers in danger … thus far. Every year since the Icefall has been climbed, serac releases have been reported so this is nothing new.
However, the temperatures have changed some teams climbing strategy with earlier start times and fewer rotations. Many teams will enter the Icefall at 1:00 am in order to climb in the night when the sun is not heating up the seracs or the ice pinnacles that decorate the Icefall become unstable. Once the suns hits the Icefall around 10:00 am, it heats up dramatically becoming very uncomfortable plus, in theory, increases the objective danger.
Where are the Ladders?
There are fewer ladders in the Khumbu Icefall this year, perhaps less than seven crossings as compared to 20 or more in previous years. While some cite the earthquake as changing the terrain, the Icefall Doctors have moved the route away from the hanging seracs off Everest’s West Shoulder and towards Nuptse to minimize the objective danger.
The route through the lower section of the Icefall is now more direct but requires some true climbing on a couple of steep sections. Some people have found this too difficult and have abandoned their climbs. When I was there a few days ago, a bottleneck occurred with 15 climbers, mostly Sherpas with loads, waiting ly in the dark for their turn to climb this short section. I suspect the Doctors will put a ladder in this area soon.
Towards the top of the Icefall there are the usual vertical ladders to lead to the Western Cwm proper.
The route from Camp 1 to Camp 2 is a zig-zag maze avoiding the usual crevasses crossing. It was taking over four hours to make the journey about an hour longer than usual. Reports now have it that the Docs have put in a few crossings to shorten the journey.
All this said, this section is on a moving glacier – from base camp to Camp 2 – the Khumbu Glacier that can move up to three feet a day. Thus the route is ever changing and the Icefall Doctors are reacting to feedback from the climbers on how to improve safety, reduce bottlenecks and shorten times.
Rotations in Full Bloom
At this writing, many teams have already completed their first rotation to Camps 1 and 2 in the Western Cwm. They have traversed thru the Icefall arriving at Camp 1 in the early morning then spend an amazingly uncomfortable day trying to stay cool at 19,500 feet!
Typical of late April weather the mornings are clear and the afternoons cloudy. At this altitude, the sun’s rays are searing hot and skin cannot be exposed otherwise one risks severe sunburn. Climbers will put sleeping bags on top of the tent to provide a bit of shade but temperatures can easily exceed 110F or 40C+ inside the tent. Outside it can be in the 90’s.
The rotation strategy is interesting in how it has evolved since the mid 1990’s. In the early era it was felt that if you wanted to summit, you had to spend a miserable night at Camp 3 or 23,500 feet on the Lhotse Face. The torture was designed to force the body to change its blood chemistry to adapt to the lower levels of available oxygen. Often this is short handed as creating more red bloods cells, but much more occurs in the body than this.
Prior to the night at Camp 3, teams would make a series of ever higher overnight stays at Camp 1 and Camp 2 before the Camp 3 night. They would then return to base camp waiting for a weather forecast of one week of low winds and light precipitation above 8000 meters.
These days, much of this has changed. Many teams now skip the overnight at Camp 3 feeling the small amount of time there combined with the exertion required to reach it is just not worth it. They will spend a couple of nights at Camp 1 then up to four or five nights at Camp 2 along with daily walks to higher altitudes before returning to base camp and watching for the elusive weather window.
In general the human body takes three weeks to acclimatize to an altitude so spending 24 hours at 23,500 feet just doesn’t seem worth the effort. However there is a huge psychological benefit for knowing how your body reacts to that extreme attitude so many teams continue with the traditional approach.
Early in the season, it was feared that the warm temps combined with a low snow winter would make the Lhotse Face a shooting gallery of flying rocks, similar to 2012. But after a close up look, the Sherpas who will be setting the fixed line from Camp 2 to the summit have determined it is similar to previous years and they are setting the route directly up the Face instead of going to the climber’s right and through the jumbled terrain to Camp 3. This will make that climb a bit shorter.
Helicopters, approved by the Nepal Government, for the first time shuttled the summit ropes, anchors and gear needed by the Sherpas to Camp 1 a few days ago. This eliminated 87 trips thru the Icefall for the Sherpas thus reducing their exposure to potential objective dangers. See my previous few posts for details on this and a discussion on ferrying climbers is the next step.
I will not be surprised to have the fixed line to the South Col by May 1, typical for a normal season. As I said this year is turning into a normal season – whatever that means!
As has become the norm at Everest Base Camp, the sky is full of helicopters. There are three rock landing pads with a fourth under construction. There must be 20 landings a day when the weather is good.
I’m told there are nine filming permits for 2016 and I have interacted with a few of them. While I understand the commercial desire to capture an unfolding event, many of these feel like ambulance chasers waiting for a disaster to be captured on film and sold to the highest bidder.
While in the Icefall last week, one helicopter with door open and cameraman slung in filmed Kami and I as we were climbing. I’m told It was for a French documentary. They flew about 300 feet above us, rotors wailing in the thin air, make several passes to get whatever camera angle they sought. It was annoying. I hope they got my side as I made sure to turn it towards them as they flew by. 🙂
Lower down, the same team had their ground crew with a camera set up directly on the trail forcing climbers to tip-toe by the camera on the narrow boot path, They seemed oblivious that their filming might actually get in the way of climbing.
I often reject the term ‘circus’ when used about Everest but this experience might suggest the term is appropriate.
Evacuations and More
Many of the flights are to fly climbers back to Lukla or even Kathmandu on the recommendation of the EverestEr Doctors or their own expedition Doc.
It is not my place to give details but it feels like almost every team this year has had one, two or more members evacuated for health issues, some from as high as Camp 2. You will rarely read on an expedition’s Facebook or website about these evacuations as they want to avoid any perception of bad publicity, or as they would say, to protect the privacy of the individual.
But climbing at these altitudes is dangerous and often the body simply reacts poorly. I think its in the interest of the climbing community to reveal these issues so as to help future climbers make better decisions as to how to train for Everest, for example getting experience on another 8000 meter mountain to understand how your body might react to the high altitudes before attempting Everest.
All this aside, I think there are several reasons for so many helicopters to be flying in and out of EBC:
- medical evacuation
- commercial film crews
- climbers ending their expedition and have strong desire and funds to fly out
- sightseeing (does not land)
Listening to the Body
So, given that I’m here to climb Lhotse, how is it going for me? Well, not great!
I have been at EBC for over two weeks and during that time have done day hikes to over 18,000 feet on Pumori, Kala Patar and into the Khumbu Icefall. I was supposed to be with my team (all are climbing Everest, none on Lhotse like me) today.
On Monday, April 25 I left base camp with the team at 1:00 am. Kami by my side, we made it the base of the Icefall where everyone puts on their crampons aka Crampon Point. I was amazed at how warm it was and was wearing only two mid weight layers on my upper torso, Patagonia’s Nano Air Hoody and the Ultralight Down Hoody with a merino wool base layer. I had a Gotrtex shell in my pack in case it got windy, which it never did.
We climbed steadily in the night, sometimes getting in line or letting a ‘Sherpa Train’ pass by. It was estimated there were 125 people going thru the Icefall that night. We reached the spot that required climbing, I overcame this obstacle with no real issues and kept going, but I began to cough.
I have had a low grade cough for a couple of weeks in Nepal, not unusual, but it seemed to be getting worse with exercise and altitude. As we approached the first set of ladders, the cough was strong and persistent. It suddenly became violent, out of control causing me to gag and eventually to throw up what little there was in my stomach.
I knew from the previous climb in the Icefall, about a week ago, that the vertical ladder in front of me had a tricky “mount” from above and if you didn’t have your wits about you, a mistake could be serious. If I kept going and needed to turn back, I wanted to have a clear head when down climbing that ladder.
I stood there in the dark for a moment, Kami just ahead of me. In an instance, I knew the right thing to do was to return to base camp. There was still about five weeks to go in the season so I had plenty of time to recover.
When I summited Everest in 2011, I got very sick right before the summit attempt. I learned that year to listen to my body, don’t get upset or frustrated with what was happening and give myself permission to be sick and time to heal.
We returned to base camp and I fell asleep in my tent. Later that day I visited the Docs at EverestER. Phil Crampton, of Altitude Junkies, had paid the $100 per climber fee so we had unlimited access to their services. We reviewed my medical and altitude history, what had happened that day, and how I felt. My blood oxygen saturation was 89% which meant I had acclimated to the 17,300 foot base camp altitude.
So, today, I’m taking it easy at EBC while my team is up on the mountain. I’m on a few meds to try to get rid of the upper respiratory infection and kill this cough. And I’m OK with everything.
Climbing any big mountain takes patience and a willingness to accept things beyond your control. Getting sick seems to be part of many people’s story up here – it certainly is mine.
I will revisit my acclimatization plan in a few days and continue to focus on why I’m here. I appreciate everyone following along and your support of my passion for climbing and my life purpose on behalf of Alzheimer’s.
So just would a normal season look like at this point? Well, based on history we will get a few days of bad weather – snow and wind – that will shut down the mountain. Everyone will hunker down in their tents and wait for it to pass.
The ropes will reach the summit around May 10th thus opening the flood gates for the aggressive teams to make their summit pushes. Most will have issues due to cold temps and high winds but we will see early summits. There may be a death.
By the time the summit attempts begin in earnest, the 287 people with Everest permits will have attrited by 20% making about 230 people on the mountain with an equal number of Sherpas.
The majority of the Everest summits will occur after the first push. The largest teams, IMG, Seven Summits Treks and the Indian Army will spread out their attempts. The smaller teams will weave into the mix.
If this warm weather and high pressure remains in place, there should be between 8 and 12 suitable summit days with low enough winds to summit. Spreading the remaining climbers out across these days will mean little if any crowding or bottlenecks at the usual suspects – Lhotse Face, Yellow Band, Southeast Ridge, Hillary Step, etc.
The season will wind down around May 25 on the south while going strong on the North into early June.
If all this happens, it will be a quiet season and one many have longed for.
I hope to be part of it in my small corner.
Memories are Everything