Death on the Lhotse Face

Death on the Lhotse Face : 6th May 2011

It was a timely reminder of the dangers of this adventure. On Sunday 1st May, an American climber on another team dropped dead suddenly whilst climbing the Lhotse face. Our team was at camp 2 (21000ft) waiting to do the same climb the next day. We watched from below as the drama unfolded; all the teams working together to perform a rescue if possible. Guides and Sherpas all quickly responded to bring oxygen, adrenalin etc but in this case, there was no pulse after he dropped to the ground probably from a heart attack.

Our dinner that evening was a little subdued as we all came to terms with what happened and thinking about how we would handle the same risk the next day.

The Lhotse face is one the hardest technical parts of the climb up Everest. It is 5-8 hours of unrelenting steep snow and blue ice. For ‘blue ice’, imagine the black ice we get on the roads in winter, a slippery, treacherous, unforgiving surface…and then put it on a steep slope, sometimes almost vertical, call it ‘blue’…and then try to climb it. The technique is to kick your front crampon points into the ice and hope that those two little pointy bits hold your weight. If they do then great, you thank the good diet you’ve been on recently and step up, but the ice can often shatter and you have to kick again. You’ll be glad to know that we all successfully climbed the face and reached camp 3 (24000ft) after 5-6 hours of panting.

At this height, reaching the camp is only half the battle as the oxygen levels are only 40% of sea level. Many of the team were pretty exhausted from the climb and had trouble breathing. We started melting snow on our single stoves and focused on rehydrating. We had our oxygen levels and pulse rates tested. In normal situations our oxygen saturation levels (sats) should be 97%+. At home, if they drop
below 90% you would be hospitalised and put straight on oxygen. Our ‘sats’ at base camp are usually 80-85% and pulse rates above 80/min as our bodies work hard to cope there. At camp 3 which is 5,000ft higher, the teams sats ranged from 65%-76% with some pulse rates over 100/min as our hearts worked hard to deal with the limited air available. Many had headaches and couldn’t eat (digestion needs extra oxygen). My sats were the highest at 76% with a good pulse of 75/min. I enjoyed my boil in the bag Chilli con Carne, and I was the only one not to take some form of headache pill or diamox. This bodes really well for when I get higher. To keep me grounded though, I have suffered from cold fingers. They are often painful and feel like blocks of ice as I’m climbing and working with the ropes. I often have to stop and shove them under my armpits before continuing. The fear of frostbite is always lurking at the back of my mind.

Camp 3 was a test. It is the highest we will go without oxygen masks and tanks. This test is needed as supplemental oxygen is not a panacea. There is only limited oxygen available so it has to be saved primarily for the summit day when it is most needed. On the way down, we had some more drama with people losing their footing and sliding down on the ice. This is not just dangerous for them but as they are clipped onto the same rope as other climbers, they fall down the rope onto those below. Usually feet first with sharp crampons. Our guides are full of stories about crampons landing on other climber’s faces or puncturing bodies.

So, a successful six day climb half way up Everest from Base Camp (and 80% up from sea level).

We have proven ourselves. We are ready. We have celebrated with whisky.

Now, back at Base Camp it is time to rest…and wait for good weather.