Summit Attempt Aborted
On Thursday, we left Camp 2 in the early morning in good spirits to climb the Lhotse face up to Camp 3 on our summit attempt. We didn’t know it then but it was to be a long eventful 20 hour day that stretched our nerves and our commitment to the limit.
It started well with the dawn rising on a fairly clear day as we reached the bergschrund (the gap between the glacier and the Lhotse ice face), and put our crampons on ready to climb the face. I felt good climbing up and for the first time passed a few Sherpas from other teams. Yes, they did have bigger packs but it was a small victory for me, an older, sea-level living, office-based bloke. However, after 4 hours climbing, the weather started to deteriorate and we found ourselves going up the last section, a steeper, blue-ice part, in a blizzard. The snow was whipping horizontally into us, stinging our faces and blinding us as our glasses clogged up making it hard to find the best footing on the ice. My feet kept slipping and throwing me off balance but I carried on. It was too steep to stop and put goggles and protection on so we just had to keep climbing. An hour later, we reached the camp and ‘sod’s law’ the wind then decided to drop and the blizzard abated. In my tent, I lay exhausted for a while not moving even though rocks and lumps of snow were digging into my back. Sleeping immediately at altitude after a hard climb is not a good idea so I got on with melting snow ready to drink and cook a ‘boil in the bag’. My tent mate Matt soon arrived and we settled into our small tent ‘routine’.
An hour later, it was clear that the weather forecast had changed from our great summit window of ‘low winds and -20c’ to ‘high winds and -30c’. The wind is the killer, at 5-10 knots we were good to go, but once it gets to 20-40 knots that’s frostbite territory or worse. Our guide Adrian at Camp 3 discussed the situation on the radio with Russ (our expedition leader) at Base Camp. Russ contacted the weather station in Switzerland and got more reports from the USA which confirmed the deterioration of the forecast on our summit day. So we had to abort and go down. I was fairly philosophical. I had climbed well which improved my confidence generally, so we accepted it and packed up and made our way down. Some of our team had only just made it up to camp so I felt really sorry for them as they wearily just turned round and headed down. At least I’d had a boil in the bag ‘chicken casserole’.
Back at Camp 2, we considered our options. Either stay till tomorrow to go down, or have a quick drink and go down straight away. The slower climbers didn’t have time to recover so would stay but the rest of us were given the option. The key consideration was the Khumbu Ice fall which is more dangerous later in the day as the ice melts and is more likely to move. I was in reasonable shape and liked the idea of egg and chips at base camp so signed up with four other members and two guides to keep moving. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for…
Ice Fall Collapse in Darkness
Having decided to return straight to the comfort of base camp after aborting our summit bid, we were in high spirits and made good progress down the Western Cwm, moving well as a team hopping over the smaller crevasses and skipping across the ladders of the larger ones. Once in the ice fall, we started to split up. The faster guys pulling away whilst Naoki (Japanese), Renee (Dutch), and myself were climbing down with Adrian our lead guide at a slower pace. Half way down is the only safe resting place, it’s a flatter area called the football field where nothing is near enough to fall on you. We usually stop there for a quick drink and a snack.
As we approached this area the light was beginning to fail and a whiteout was forming. We heard the familiar thunder of an avalanche ahead. It’s hard to place where sound comes from as it echoes around the mountains and I assumed it was just in the surrounding slopes and focused on the climb down. That is, until Woody the guide with the faster group came on the radio to say that the ice fall had collapsed just past the football field. A few minutes later, the path that we were following just disappeared! It wasn’t there. It just stopped with a sheer drop beyond. Footsteps leading to nothing…it was surreal. Looking over the edge we could see that an area the size of a football field (another one!) had dropped about 50 feet vertically…in between our team! We found out later that the faster guys had luckily passed this area just before it happened but they had got caught in the after effects that rippled down. The ice that they were standing on moved about 10 to 15 feet up, down and sideways. They were ok but really spooked so they almost ran down the rest of the way until they were safe.
However, we were on the other side. Trapped. It was dark and cold and we were only dressed lightly for fast moving. Adrian climbed bravely down the sheer wall into the mess of ice below to try and find a way through but it was dark and there was still a good chance of stuff moving some more. He tried for over an hour but eventually gave up. By this time it was 9pm and we had been on the go since 4am, 17 hours… It slowly dawned on us. We had no choice. We had to turn around and climb back up the ice fall. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done. To head back up, away from the comfort and egg and chips of base camp when we were so so near and already knackered from a long day was a form of mental and physical torture. We put our heads down and started walking up. The first hour was ok, we were on automatic pilot but moving slowly. As time went on, the others started to really struggle. Adrian encouraged them and helped as best as he could and after two hours we eventually made it to the nearest tents at camp 1. We collapsed into them, Adrian and I shared a Twix for dinner and slept like the dead, very glad that we weren’t.
We’re Off – Take Two!
After the effort and drama of the last summit attempt, we thought that we would get at least 4 or 5 days rest at base camp. Not so. A weather window which looks very good is forecast for 19-21st May and as it takes us 4 days to get in position on the South Col, we are leaving tonight (Sunday) at 2am. We were all a bit shocked when we heard this yesterday as many of us are still feeling the effects of our last climb, but if that is what we have to do then we’re going to have to suck it up and get on with it.
I have rested well but still feel a bit drained but no real physical complaints though. I feel more confident about the challenge of the long 15 hour summit day climb, after our 20 hour epic three days ago but I wonder what energy I’ll have when we get going up the ice fall again? Also fate does seem to trying to push me a little more than necessary. As I was walking past the Sherpa tents this morning, I wasn’t concentrating too hard on balancing across the rocky terrain and I twisted my ankle. I fell over cursing and immediately worried what damage I had done. Monica, our doctor, was great she packed it in ice and gave me some anti-inflammatory drugs. I’ve sat all morning with it raised in the air and it looks like it’ll be ok. I can walk on it with only a little pain. What a bummer.
Some people and teams (c.20) have already summited, either in bad weather or at night (what’s the point in that? get to the top of the world and see what? nothing!) or in good weather windows that we missed. It’s great to see their joy and happiness and know that they are going home successful. No, I’m fibbing. It’s bloody hard knowing that they’ve done it and we haven’t. I’ll share a beer with them when we done it too, but not before. Until then, we’re busy.
My last ‘We’re Off’ blog was full of excitement and anticipation. This one is a bit more downbeat. Sorry. We’re up against it and know how hard we’ll have to work and we’re not sure what shape we’re in. This time feels very real as well and is probably our last chance as our bodies will not cope with another attempt.
This is it. (Really, it is this time!)
Wish us luck. We’ll need it.