Virtual Everest 2020: Trapped at the South Col

The entire virtual team made it to the South Col, but winds from the cyclone unexpectedly hit them. About 100 people were in their tents, trying to survive the Death Zone.

Virtual Everest 2020 – Support the Climbing Sherpas is a joint project of Alan Arnette and several global guide companies. Our objective is to entertain Everest fans during the Coronavirus spring closure and raise money to help the Climbing Sherpas who are not working this spring. While there will be accurate historical references, this series is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Please join us by making a donation using the links below plus by adding your Everest experiences in the comment section.

Trapped at the South Col

The Mount Everest Guides’ 2020 team steadily arrived at the South Col. The fastest was in three hours; slowest took over six from C3; however, they all made it. Speed was not on Dawa and Guide’s minds; it was the winds.

They left C3 in calm conditions, but by afternoon, the winds were gusting to over 50 mph trapping everyone in their tents. It seemed that the outer bands of Cyclone Amphan, the first super cyclone to form in the Bay of Bengal since 1999, made landfall this morning with 115 mph winds.

“Here we go again,” Buddy said to Bud in their tent. “Yeah, not sure what this does to our summit push,” Bud replied. The two men lay on their backs, watching the tent walls billowing like a raging bull, nostrils flaring. They had their oxygen mask on, flowing at a liter per minute. The Climbing Sherpas had melted snow, so their water bottles were full. They needed to stay hydrated.

Over 50 people had gone up last night, most were back down before the winds hit but a few were still on the mountain.

Everyone on the team was doing well, but the winds were a significant concern. And, it was out of their control. All they could do was wait. There were not enough days left in the season to return to C2 and wait out the storm, plus Guide had severe doubts that everyone had the strength to make another trip up the Lhotse Face.

Guide discussed the team with Dawa, speaking softly so as not to be heard. Their strongest climbers are She, Loner, Dutch, and Buddies. Girlfriend is also strong, but she is preoccupied with Boyfriend is struggling. Snorer is in good shape, but his tent mate, Old Man, has been very slow – even on four lpm of Os.

Guide checked his sat phone for the third time in half an hour looking for an updated weather forecast. He knew it would be windy from C2 to 3, and it was. The winds calmed, right on schedule, for the trip from 3 to the Col, but this wind event was unexpected. It appeared the cyclone had made a slight westward turn when it hit India and Bangladesh. Everest had escaped a direct hit along with the heavy snow, but the winds were dangerously high, and light snow was falling.

It was 3:00 in the afternoon, and they usually would leave at 10 pm for the summit. He wanted Old Man and Boyfriend to leave at 8, so they could go at a slower pace.

“Options?” Guide said to Dawa. “We’ve seen this before,” Dawa started. “There are only two real options. Hope the winds calm when the sun sets then go up tonight, or prepare to spend the night and go up tomorrow night. I’ve seen these cyclone winds before, like last year with Fani and in 2010 with Laila. They lasted for 24 hours then vanished, leaving pristine conditions. I bet that we will see the same this time.”

“I agree, Dawa,” Guide said, watching the tent walls heave in and out. “There’s another option. We could abandon the summit push altogether and go down. I don’t want to do that because I think we have strong enough climbers that most can make the top. But I worry about our slow ones, and if these winds pick back up as we crest the South Summit, they will get cold and potentially frostbiten. We will need to keep everyone moving as fast as possible. I can’t believe how cold it is. We might see windchills below -40.” The two experienced professionals sat quietly, considering their next move.

Guide left their tent and went over to one of his competitors. They competed back home but were companions in the mountains. “What’s your plan?” he asked the leader. “Probably the same as yours! It’d be suicide to go up tonight.” A couple of other leaders came over, and they discussed team size, pace, and departure times. Soon they had a plan, but not every team wanted to talk, preferring to keep their tactics private.

It would take most climbers 11 hours for the round trip and then another two or three to get back to Camp 2. A few would do it in nine or less and others in 14 or more. The key was to summit at dawn, around 5 am and not in the dark, so most teams planned to leave the Col between 8:00 and 10:00. Guide thought about Old Man and Boyfriend. He assumed it would take them 14 to 16 hours, so he changed their departure time to 6:00 pm, not wanting them to get caught up in the dawn summit rush. He’d wait until tomorrow to tell them.

“We aren’t going up tonight.” She told her husband over the sat phone. “Are you safe?” He replied. “Yes, I’m in the tent with Mingma. He’s always by my side, my guardian angel on the mountain.” Mingma smiled as he had no other choice but to hear her conversation.

Guide and Dawa had made the decision. They went tent to tent to share the news. Unzipping Couple’s tent door just enough so they could make eye contact, Dawa began, “There are many climbers still on the mountain, many have frostbite. Some of our Climbing Sherpas are going up now to help bring them down.” Guide took over, “So we will not be going up tonight. I got an updated forecast, and it calls for high winds tonight but lessening mid-day tomorrow.”

Boyfriend felt his stomach flip as he sucked harder on the oxygen. “Do we have enough oxygen to do this and still have him go at four lpm?” Girlfriend asked, edging closer to the door so she could hear over the sound of the flapping tent door. “More than enough. The Climbing Sherpas brought all we had from base camp here last week. So we’re good. We could stay all week if you want!” Guide joked. “I think two nights will be enough.” Dawa chimed in with a low chuckle. He had been working on understanding how foreigners joke and was getting pretty good at it.

Everyone took the news well, understanding there was little choice but also realizing that Guide could have pulled the plug on the entire expedition. Now they had one job – take care of their bodies. They needed to drink as much water as was available, eat as much as they could, and rest. It sounded easy, but as Dr. Edouard Wyss-Dunant described, in the Death Zone, you don’t want to do anything.

“Isn’t this dangerous?” Old Man asked Snorer. “I mean our bodies are dying even lying here in the tent. I don’t want to eat any more of that mush. I’ve already run out of gel packs.” Snorer opened his eyes and looked at his new friend, “I have plenty; you can have some of mine.” Old Man smiled slightly, “Thanks. This is turning out to be some trip.”

Dutch and Loner were both fast asleep in their tent. They didn’t seem to be bothered by the wind noise. When Guide and Dawa told them of the delay, they both nodded and laid back down on top of their sleeping bags, still wearing their goose down suits.

“So, we will spend tonight here on the Col, get through the day tomorrow and leave for the summit, hopefully around ten tomorrow night.” She continued the update. “Are there other teams up there?” Her husband asked. “Yes, and that’s a big concern. There are about 100 people on the Col, about ten teams. There could be a logjam at the choke points. Mingma and I are going to talk about this.” By now, Mingma was fast asleep. She noticed he slept on the bumpy flight to Lukla, now this. Nothing seemed to shake him.

She looked at her new angel and smiled. “Honey, I love you so much and miss you. I can’t wait to see you and the kids again. I’m going to go and turn the phone off to save batteries. I’ll SMS you with any updates and before I try to sleep tonight.” She pressed the red hang-up button and then the power switch. She looked at the phone as a tiny chime went off, and the display went dark.

A gap in the clouds, revealed a stunning sunset from the South Col.

With a lull in the wind She left the tent to stretch her legs. She walked around the South Col, a bit dismayed by so many tents. She walked over to the northeast side of the Col and stopped. She was looking at the area where climbers had perished in the 1996 tragedy. They were so close, yet with the storm raging and zero visibility, they could not be seen or heard.

She reached up to her neck and unzipped her down suit just enough to touch the red sungdi around her neck. It had been blessed by the Lama at the puja ceremony. She closed her eyes and turned around. The wind gusted strongly as snow began falling.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

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2 thoughts on “Virtual Everest 2020: Trapped at the South Col

  1. Hi Alan, I always follow your Everest coverage – it feels like I’m there, and this year is no exception. I’m enjoying this story so much! Great characters, heaps of suspense, and I love the photos, facts, interviews and reading more about the amazing Sherpa community.
    I will probably never climb Everest but would love to trek through the region. In the meantime, organising my donations to this great cause.

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