- Melissa Arnot
- Alex Barber
- Gabriel Barral
- Jake Beren
- Zeb Blais
- Katrina Bloemsma
- Katie Bono
- Anne Gilbert Chase
- Sean Collon
- Leon Davis
- Elias de Andres Martos
- Cody Doolan
- Paul Edgren
- Mark Falender
- Leah Fisher
- Eric Frank
- Steve Gately
- Josh Gautreau
- Thomas Greene
- Casey Grom
- Dave Hahn
- Walter Hailes
- Tim Hardin
- Mike Haugen
- Bryan Hendrick
- Andy Hildebrand
- Mike Hinckley
- Joe Horiskey
- Nick Hunt
- Tyler Jones
- J.J. Justman
- Levi Kepsel
- Mike King
- Adam Knoff
- Katy Laveck
- Ben Liken
- Josh Maggard
- Paul Maier
- Linden Mallory
- Lindsay Mann
- Andres Marin
- Jeff Martin
- Robert Montague
- Erik Nelson
- Chase Nelson
- Billy Nugent
- Brent Okita
- Logan Randolph
- Tyler Reid
- Dave Reynolds
- Kel Rossiter
- Geoff Schellens
- Shaun Sears
- Garrett Stevens
- Jason Thompson
- Mike Tomlinson
- Mark Tucker
- Mike Uchal
- Pete Van Deventer
- Alex Van Steen
- Ed Viesturs
- Maile Wade
- Mike Walter
- Seth Waterfall
- Solveig Waterfall
- Peter Whittaker
- Win Whittaker
- Bryson Williams
- Dan Windham
- Robby Young
Posts from 04/2009
It sounds pretty romantic, and lots of people envy my job. And, I must admit, I’m pretty happy with what I do for a living, and count my blessings every day. But working as an expedition photographer is not always a piece of cake. This goes for me shooting stills, as well as Gerry Moffatt, Kent Harvey, and John Griber shooting our video footage. While I cannot speak exactly for them, I can give an idea of what my days on the hill are like.
Being a photographer on an expedition does not really put you into a special category. There are no chairlifts or trams waiting for us; we must climb the mountain just like anyone else, acclimating, moving up and down, and capturing images along the way.
Along with the standard equipment all of us - Ed, Peter, Melissa, Dave, Seth - carry on the hill, I also have my photo equipment. I’ve always been a Nikon shooter, and this is my 6th Everest expedition using Nikon gear. So in my pack is a Nikon D300 camera, chosen for its superior image quality complemented by reasonable size and weight. In addition to the D300 body, I have a handful of lenses: a Nikon 18-200mm, Nikon 50mm, Sigma 10-20mm, and a Nikon 80-200. This selection gives me a fantastic range while keeping the weight reasonable. I also bring along my Nikon SB-800 flash unit and an SC-28 remote cord for filling in faces and dark areas in this contrasty environment. Oh, and of course, extra batteries, cleaning supplies, a variety of filters, and a tripod.
My personal M.O. on all expeditions has always been to disrupt the flow of climbing as little as possible while shooting. Certainly there are times when the environment and risk enable me to set up shots and choreograph the scene. But, more often than not, my style is to catch what I can by moving ahead of the climbers and capturing them in real time, in real situations. (You can imagine trying to ask climbers in the Khumbu Icefall to stop for a few minutes under tons of tilting seracs while I compose a shot - not even nice to contemplate!) This style, while my preference, creates some challenges, as I am in a constant game of leapfrog, setting up a shot, shooting, repacking my gear, and shuffling ahead as fast as possible to get ahead of the climbers and find the next spot for a good image. Not easy, but it is an added challenge I strangely relish.
The other challenge with expedition photography is the need to be constantly thinking, looking around at the terrain with a creative angle, trying to find a new perspective on the environment at hand. While this terrain is so spectacular that pointing and shooting often works, the nut for me to crack is how to find a new perspective, how to tell a different story in a single frame and show what perhaps has not been shown before. This requires constant attention to the task at hand, for moments missed may never come again. But, again, this is a cerebral game which adds depth and enjoyment to the climbing at hand.
When looking at the end of the day, I must admit I long a bit for the days of film. Way back then, in the late 1990s, we’d shoot film during the day, pack it away after sunset, and the day was done- but, no longer. Digital, despite its great benefits, has caused quite a bit more work for us photographers. When the day is done, I now take my compact flash cards into our production tent, fire up my solid-state Asus laptop, download my images onto a hard drive, make a backup copy on another drive, and then edit the day’s work. Select images are spotted for dust and blemishes, captioned, resized, saved to a thumb drive, and handed over to our field producer, Cherie Silvera, for transfer via satellite phone with the day’s text and video dispatch.
It all makes for a long day, to say the least, but, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I love the honor of capturing the amazing people on our team and the stunning environment, and the chance to share those images and moments with a greater audience. It was, many years ago, images by Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, Barry Bishop, and other greats of mountain photography that first inspired me to tread in the mountain realm. Their images shared with me a place I could scarcely imagine, bringing a new world to my doorstep in Topsfield, Massachusetts. It was through their lenses that a passion was discovered and ignited within me, and my one hope as I photograph our team and our climb is that I may share that same sense of wonder and enjoyment that hit me long ago.
Enjoy the images, and climb on, wherever your trail may lead…
We dragged out an oxygen bottle to practice with, just after breakfast. It does take a little practice, by the way, to get good with the systems we rely on up high. Today we were just familiarizing ourselves with how the regulators attach to the bottles, how the hoses attach to the regulators, and how the masks attach to the face. I like doing this sort of run-through down in the thick air on a rest day in the sunshine so that when we have to get up in the middle of the night at a bajillion feet above sea level with cold hands and dim brains, we can maybe muddle through and get our hook-ups and flow-rates right. It all seemed reasonably simple this morning, and each of my little team put the gas bottle carefully in their pack, the mask on their face and some goggles or glasses on their eyeballs, and then took the rig for a test drive around camp.
Over the radio, we could hear the gang with Peter Whittaker up above as they were taking another stroll on the Lhotse Face. It all sounded like it was going well as they checked in with one another and pointed out interesting features along the route. We heard that Jake Norton was coming down to BC to deal with a chest cold and, like most news, we immediately sorted it into its good and bad components. The bad news: Jake would need to slow down long enough to get well. The good news: Jake is a smart, strong guy who knows how to shake a typical, run-of-the-mill expedition illness out of his system, and we won’t mind having him around in BC.
Erica Dohring and I went for a glacier walk after lunch. I do want her following the slacker example that Seth and I set for getting quality rest during our BC downtime. She is a voracious reader, which ought to qualify her for a fine life of expeditioning. I’m impressed with the way she orders her time, alternating between books for fun, books for school, and the odd movie on a borrowed iPod Touch. That is good resting, and it is important, but I also wanted to mix in a little exercise clambering around in the glacier today. I’m a big believer in keeping the legs stretched and the reflexes tuned for making awkward steps. We went out for about two hours, finding our way to a medial moraine and then hiking down-glacier with an occasional semi-frozen stream crossing to negotiate. I’m trying to teach Erica to violently knock over every fragile pinnacle of ice and balancing rock that she encounters…for no particular reason…and she is rapidly gaining skill in this department.
The late afternoon is gray and overcast with a hint of snow flurries. We’ve gotten so used to the thunder of avalanches now at BC that it takes a particularly loud and violent one to get us out of the tents for a look. At the moment, though, it is quiet and cold enough that the team is starting to find their way to the dining tent for hot drinks, gossip magazines, and card games. Tomorrow, we’ll be a little busy preparing for the mountain again, and my guess is that we will be torn between lazy thoughts of staying indefinitely in BC and antsy thoughts of getting up where the action is again.
The first day and night down after an Everest climbing rotation are great for enjoying the novelty of comfort and easy living again. But it isn’t really until the second night back down that I normally get full and renewing sleep. And looking at Kent, Seth and Erica over coffee this morning, I’m guessing it was similar for them. We all seemed back to our normal selves again today, ready to make plans and preparations for climbing again.
Toward that end, during breakfast out in the sun, we began sketching a big calendar of the next four weeks. There are plenty of blanks on it still, naturally… and of course a big question mark or two at the end, but I was pleased to at least be building a framework out into the all-important second half of May. I consider it a great luxury to be down merely resting rather than recovering (which can be a much less predictable process). I’m crediting that distinction to my strong, fit and patient partners… but also to my experience and past mistakes in this arena. I’m guessing that we did just enough up high this last time around… not too much, not too little. It is all too easy for me to remember the many trips that formed my learning curve on which I wasn’t satisfied to come down the hill until my throat was bleeding, my head was pounding, and my muscles were pulled.
This is better. And I find I can illustrate the elusive “big picture” with the help of a calendar and some colorful marker pens. Pacing is everything in a two-month-long “race.” My partners didn’t fight me on any of this stuff (making me worry that my own slow learning curve could possibly have been avoided by employing a bigger brain). Erica settled in for a morning of schoolwork. Kent went to fiddle with his cameras and Seth had reading to do. We’d already made good use of yesterday in showering, shaving and leveling our tent platforms, so today was just plain old good rest. That is what they were doing up at C2 today as well. And perhaps it was the plan all over the mountain, as I didn’t see very much traffic in the Icefall this morning. Our Sherpa team didn’t rest today, but then they were up early enough and moving fast enough that by my morning survey, they were well out of sight and on their way to C2 already.
By afternoon, I was in the mood for struggle and conquest, and so I sought out renowned Scrabble player Justin Merle in the IMG camp. We tussled for a bit (alas, no bingos) before the better man prevailed. And then it was nice to just share afternoon tea with my longtime friends Mark Tucker and Eric Simonson. HimEx leader Russell Brice and Monica, his team doctor, showed as well for an unplanned and relaxing chat. Linden Mallory completed the party when he came to make sure that the “Sirdar” meeting was taking place as scheduled. Far more important than our tea party, this was a meeting of the Sherpa team leaders and dealt with figuring a plan to fix rope -and soon- on the summit terrain. While I may seem smug about taking the longer road and viewing the bigger picture, and all that, in order to get to the summit in the easiest and safest way -three weeks down the road- I’m anxious to have others start pounding away urgently at the door to the top… NOW!
There are plenty of strong and ambitious people here, and I don’t want them all going to the top when I want to go to the top. It benefits everybody to have the door to the summit open for a longer period… and it will benefit my team to have that route pounded in and well-tested. Those who desire more challenge and more bragging rights back home can go early when it is colder and meaner. I wish them luck. Kick big footsteps, please.
Now if the first night down low was novel and the second was restful, I wonder what the third will be like… Will I soon be able to brag about having achieved the perfect basecamp rest day? Ambition takes many forms.
Dave, Erica and I are enjoying a day of rest after spending the last four days acclimatizing at Camp 1 and Advance Base Camp. We had an excellent rotation and are feeling healthy. It’s nice to come down and get to actually rest our healthy bodies as opposed to needing to recover from an illness or injury picked up while climbing. I know I had the best night of sleep since Namche last night.
On our last day at ABC, Dave, Erica and I climbed to the base of the Lhotse Face for acclimatization purposes. We’d headed out early, made good time up and back, and were left with most of the day as free time. Well, mostly free. Dave and I spent a fair bit of time repositioning the solar panels that power the radio and LED lights at ABC, and I re-tethered our radio antenna. After those chores, we had some true free time. My tent was calling, but Kent, the cinematographer climbing with us, wanted to do some filming out on the glacier. Somewhat reluctantly, I grabbed my crampons and met up with Dave and Kent. As soon as we’d walked a few hundred feet though, I was amazed at Dave pointing out two oxygen bottles partially buried in the ice. I’d just assumed that the camps had been so cleaned up and combed over that you’d never be able to find stuff like this anymore. Not so. As I began carefully chopping away at the ice around one bottle, Dave grabbed the other one, a leftover from an expedition from the early seventies. As we freed the second bottle, we were both impressed at what great shape both were in. In fact it appeared that both could still be holding oxygen. Good thing we didn’t just hack away around them with our ice axes! The second bottle appeared to be from an American expedition and was stenciled with the phrase “AVIATORS ON OXYGEN” and was stamped with what looked like a date from 1970. I can’t wait to do more research on this once I get home. All in all, we found four bottles that afternoon dating from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. Not bad for an afternoon of “Goraking”. Check out today’s video feed, which was shot by Kent while Dave and I were scavenging the glacier like little kids.
Now we’re resting at Base Camp and the other part of the team is starting their second acclimatization rotation. Yesterday Ed and Peter moved up to ABC, bypassing Camp 1. Today they have climbed to Camp 3 at just over 23,000 ft. They are returning to ABC to spend the night. Melissa spent one extra day here at Base Camp. She left here early this morning and will meet up with the guys at ABC. All told, the team is doing great. For me, I can’t wait to start back up the mountain again, but I could probably use the rest and it does feel good to sleep in a little.
Somehow we kept busy all afternoon at ABC yesterday. Seth Waterfall figured out and fixed problems with the solar panels that the radio “base station” was dependent on. Then he figured out how to make the antenna and base station talk to each other a little better so that ABC could dependably have radio communication with anywhere else on the mountain. Kent Harvey then suggested a little foray out on to the ice just west of camp, which Seth and I found quite interesting. As I’ve said many times, there is little or no snow from the past winter on Mount Everest. The glacier surfaces are down to old snow and ice; everything is melting out and exposed. Within just a few minutes of poking around, we were finding old and intact oxygen bottles from the 1960’s and 70’s. Treasure. I have to catch myself every now and then…remembering that not everybody has an oxygen bottle collection…but I do. I love finding old bottles and then matching them to legendary expeditions and climbers of the past. Some of the bottles I’ve found over the years will eventually be in museums, none will ever be on eBay…they mean too much to me (although they severely challenge my living room decor). As Kent and Seth and I continued to crunch around the glacial surface with our crampons and heavy boots. I came upon a cardboard box, looking… a lot like a damp heap of trash on a 21,000 ft glacier. But when I folded over this particular trash, it said in big black letters “1975 British Everest Expedition”. While this wasn’t the kind of treasure I could reasonably burden my living room with, it was none-the-less very special to me…in a trash-picking sort of way. I’d already been thinking of the 1975 British Everest Expedition…all day, in fact, as we’d gone for our hike under the great Southwest Face that the ‘75 BEE famously climbed. All morning I’d been straining to understand again how Chris Bonnington’s boys had managed to get up something so steep and foreboding. And out there next to that soggy box I began blathering on about Doug Scott and Dougal Haston and Peter Boardman and Pertemba and that post-monsoon hardman climb, until I could see Kent and Seth’s eyeballs rolling back in their heads.
We trudged back over the ice-rolls to our ABC and an afternoon of minor chores in camp. Word came via radio that Nga Tenji had reached the South Col with the rope fixing team and was figuring out a place for our highest camp. He reported strong winds up there, and that certainly seemed to be the case by the time Erica, Seth, Kent and I gathered for dinner in our big dome tent. The strong winds were finding their way down into the Western Cwm. We each went to bed knowing that it would be a noisy night.
And it was. There was the noise of great waves of air periodically rolling down a mountainside…then the frantic flapping as a wave would crash on the 50 tents just uphill from us, and finally the noise of the wind blowing on our own tents and trying to flatten or remove them. But while we couldn’t exactly sleep through it all, we could at least relax in the knowledge that we’d diligently done our chores in anchoring and properly securing our strong tents. Poking our heads out into the gusty morning at 5:45 AM, we could see many surrounding tents that were radically different in shape from the previous evening, but our camp had been largely spared. I told Erica not to worry too much about the sleep she’d missed out on in the night. We were going to basecamp…land of good naps. We geared up and crammed a little breakfast and coffee. The wind still whipped around us as we climbed into our crampons. I was interested to see high cloud covering the sky at just about the level of Everest’s summit. We’ve had so many days begin with nothing but pure blue skies that it seemed eerie and frightening to have a sudden change in the pattern. As we thanked our chef and walked out of camp, I could see a silver lining to the cloud cover. I knew that it would make our time down in the Icefall a little more comfortable by blocking out the morning sun…perhaps it would even make things safer.
Ang Kaji, Kent, Seth and Erica let me lead on down the Western Cwm. We passed plenty of the usual “Sherpa Army” moving loads all the way from BC to ABC and then running back down empty. And we began to pass our own gang as they made their way up from BC to take our places up high. Ed Viesturs, Jake Norton, Peter Whittaker and John Griber each seemed to be making fine progress after their 4AM start down low. We moved through Camp I and then down into the chaos of the Icefall itself. I knew it hadn’t been just the wind keeping me awake in the night -there were also plenty of wayward thoughts of things that could possibly go wrong with our descent. It would be another big test for Erica’s skill and stamina. I didn’t let her take the test alone, of course. I pestered her to clip this rope and unclip that one, step fast on that ice chunk before it collapses, step over here to let the Sherpas pass, do this and don’t do that…QUICK! And Seth watched and pestered her from behind. She was probably wishing we’d just let her plug in her iPod to drown out all the excess coaching. But she passed another test with flying colors. We radioed Linden Mallory at basecamp just after 10AM to let him know our team of five was out of danger and headed for food, friendship, thick sleeping pads and the low, fat air of 17,500 ft.
Advanced Basecamp sits along a rocky moraine overlaying dense glacial ice.
The rock comes from Everest’ immense and steep Southwest Face and a few million avalanches. Once at the base of the Face it is plowed into a neat ridge by the motion of the Khumbu Glacier. I suppose though, that the ridge is only neat in geological terms. Yesterday as we walked the 30 minutes from the tent at its lower end, to our tents near the moraine’s upper end, we were treated to views of old sneakers, pots, pans, shredded tents and crushed stoves mixed in with the rock and ice. Fifty seven years worth of Advanced Basecamps in the same slow moving place have made this spot one of the worst on the mountain in terms of ecological damage. A number of those decades of mountaineering were before any ethics existed governing which items should and shouldn’t be left in the hills.
Our camp was already up and running and deluxe by Camp I standards. There we were cooking in our tents - here we have Maila, the Camp II Chef, in a comfortable dome dining tent with chairs. We rested through much of yesterday afternoon when it was hot enough to fry eggs on the tents. When the sun ducked behind Nuptse, we each came out in our down suits to watch the light fade on Lhotse and Everest.
It would be normal, after a first night spent at this altitude to do some damage control. Somebody would, quite reasonably, have had a terrible night of headaches and insomnia and would be packing their gear at first light for a fast escape. Not so with our gang. In the cold 6 am shadows this morning, Seth, Kent and Erica emerged looking well rested and comfortable. Along with Ang Kaji, we ate a quick breakfast and then got out for a hike to the foot of the Lhotse Face. I wanted the team to wear their down suits - since that is what we’ll wear on the next rotation when we actually tackle the Lhotse Face. We could see several dozen climbers on the new ropes on the Face - and way up high - between Camp III and the Yellow Band at 25,000 feet - we could see dots representing today’s fixing team. One of those dots was our own Nga Tenji, pitching in to further the route. Nga Tenji made it all the way to the South Col, at 26,000 feet, staking out a site for our High Camp before heading back to ABC.
My small team climbed perhaps a 1,000 ft above ABC, to 22,000 ft and were treated to new views of Cho Oyu, the worlds 6th highest mountain, 20 miles distant. Nobody felt like doing cartwheels or jumping jacks at the new altitude - but such tricks weren’t required. We were perfecting our one and only most important trick: walking higher when walking lower is easier. And we did fine with it. We didn’t concern ourselves too much with the next big hurdle - we’ll get on the Face next time, after a Basecamp rest.
For today the morning hike was enough. We spent the afternoon tinkering with the solar charging and radio systems at ABC, while drinking liter after liter of water -always trying to counteract the dehydrating effects of high dry air. Tomorrow it will be back to the comforts of Basecamp - provided we watch every single important and awkward step down through the Khumbu Icefall.
A couple of days ago we hit an important benchmark, and had a successful day for the team. It was just as we did the previous morning we set out, only this time we actually left Basecamp. Everybody else did too…I’ve never seen quite so many in the Khumbu Icefall. Since it was effectively “closed” yesterday, the traffic of two days was wedged into one.
I was very excited for the great job that Erica was doing - but I’ll admit that the crowding and congestion in dangerous places was something I was continually uncomfortable with. I suppose it was business as usual in the busy season - but as I said - I hadn’t seen things quite so bad before. From small teams that seemed unacclimatized and unskilled blocking the route, to massive Sherpa teams of 30 and 40 coming down all at once.
Sure, there were plenty of the usual encounters with friends. I was happy to see Apa Sherpa gunning for his world record 19th Everest summit. There were Peter Whittaker, Ed Viesturs, Jake Norton and John Griber, who we hadn’t seen for the better part of a week. And as usual it was fun to run into Vern Tejas, Scott Woolums and a sampling of the great cast of characters that Everest attracts every spring.
Mostly though, I kept my concentration on my small tight team of Erica, Seth, Kent and Ang Kaji. Our training and patience paid off. Even with the numerous hold-ups, we pulled into Camp 1 at 10 a.m., having spent a respectable and reasonable 4 hours and 45 minutes in the big jumble. I was especially proud to find that we had enough reserve energy to blast quickly through the dangerous avalanche zone near the top of the Icefall and the start of the Western Cwm. It was a great feeling to be in the Cwm itself - back on the glacier surface instead of continually being under large, heavy and unstable things. By that point, we’d found the sunshine and warmth and it was clear that we had passed our first big test on the road to the summit. And how!
At Camp 1 we climbed into the tents to escape the big reflector oven heat of the Cwm at midday. It took a few hours of running stoves to melt enough snow for the water we badly needed - but then we had not much else to do - just rest, relax, acclimate!
The following day our Sherpa team had the real acclimatization of the day. Lam Babu and Tendi were part of a cooperative team of Sherpas from different expeditions that set out for the arduous and important task of setting fixed ropes on the Lhotse face. They succeeded in a big way, fixing not one but two parallel lines to 24,000 ft. This will allow safer flow of traffic on the steep blue ice of the Lhotse face. Lam Babu and Tendi also sited the First Ascent Camp 3 location - an important milestone where flat spaces big enough for a tent are few and far between. The alternative - hours of chopping with an ice axe on a 40 degree slope - is best avoided.
We saw the tiny dots inching up the Lhotse face from Camp 1 at the other end of the Western Cwm. Our day was easy-and a relief after a windy and mean night. We were hit repeatedly with cannon blasts of wind rocketing down the 3,000 ft. face of Everest’s west shoulder. The wind was noisy - and a strain - threatening to flatten our tents and uproot us from our moorings. Kent Harvey came out of his tent, smiling about the good sleep he’d gotten - but Seth and Ang Kaji didn’t get a wink, Erica was somewhere in the middle, as was I. Even so, we took advantage when the wind quit in the morning-brewing up coffee and then stretching our legs with an hour-long walk up the Cwm. We knew we wanted to be back in camp before the sun made work in the Cwm unbearable.
It was good to see Gerry Moffatt and Melissa Arnot getting an early start down from ABC. They were bound for Basecamp and showers and comforts that our team isn’t really missing yet. We kept in radio contact with Peter Whittaker and Linden Mallory down in Basecamp throughout the day.
Today we fired the stoves at 5 a.m. and left Camp 1 by 7:30 a.m., bound for ABC (Camp II). The route from C1 goes seemingly right under the summit of Nuptse. I know that isn’t actually possible, but it is physically difficult to bend one’s neck back far enough to take in the 5,000 ft. of vertical relief straight up to the summit.
We crossed a half dozen easy ladders over crevasses, and then got on “easy” terrain, clomping up the glacier in our crampons. Our biggest challenge seemed to be getting out of the way of the many friendly Sherpa on the route. The guys going up had come all the way from Basecamp under heavy loads, the guys going down had already emptied their loads at ABC, and so were moving fast down to Basecamp and smiling a lot.
Erica moved along as if she’d been to ABC a number of times. At such points I have a tough time reminding myself that she is seventeen - and an even tougher time remembering what I was capable of when I was seventeen (not this - but sometimes waking up on time and perhaps dressing correctly).
Erica is not the only 17-year-old on Everest this year. In fact, two “Johnnys” were both camped within 100 meters of us last night -one with Damian Benegas and one who is working with Scott Woolums. And they both appear to be doing great. But I’m pretty sure that Erica is the first 17-year-old that I walked into ABC with.
Erica, Seth, Kent, Ang Kaji, and I hit camp at 10:30 a.m., and celebrated with round after round of Tang toasts. We’re here for 2 nights and I’ll tell you all about the place tomorrow.
It always amazes me how much of a temperature extreme you can experience in the mountains. The last few days have been really good for me, as I left Basecamp and made my way to Camp 2. At 5 a.m. this morning, I woke up at 21,000 ft. to the sound of wind whipping at the tent door and a light frost coating the inside of the tent from my nighttime breath. As I sluggishly pulled my boots on and fidgeted with the frozen ends of my crampon straps, I shivered a little and squinted out to the first morning light, hitting the glacier well below me. A cup of spiced cider, and a small internal battle about whether or not to leave my Igniter Jacket on (I shed it), and I was out the door, crampons communing with the ice in a way that makes me smile to hear. The crunching is like a secret language that the crampons speak to the ice in, and though I don’t always understand it, it is something familiar and comfortable for me, a feeling of moving and being stable at the same time.
This morning ended my first rotation to Camp 2, and I am finally feeling that the climbing is starting now. My preparations for this trip started so long ago, when Camp 2 was only a small glimmer in the future, and a memory from last season. Now it is fully upon us, and this season is forming its own voice each day. I am here this year with a different eye and a different attitude than what I had last year. I enjoy thinking back to my trip and all of the joys and learning that it provided me…but this year is shaping up to be quite different.
About two weeks ago, on the first few days of our trek in, I twisted my ankle. Frustrated, I tried to remember that this expedition will last for months, and certainly there is time in there to heal. As the weeks have snuck up on us, I have been reminded that things don’t heal so fast at 17,500 ft. My first morning walk out into the Icefall I turned back, the pain in my ankle causing me to wonder if I was doing more harm than what was needed at this early point in the trip. A few days rest were followed by another failed attempt to get to Camp 1, and a whole new round of frustration. I came down to Basecamp and went to the Himalayan Rescue Association Clinic for a professional opinion. I know I am stubborn, but as far as I can tell, there is no need to hurt myself to climb this mountain. The kind and professional doctors at the clinic did an exam, while I held my breath, and they hypothesized about the injuries…sprain, bone chip in my foot, and most surprisingly, a possible crack in my fibula. Fortunately, none of those injuries warrants a complete stop in activity. Little can be done up here, and as long as the pain is tolerable, I received the go-ahead to keep climbing. The boots that I am using are actually providing good support and, interestingly, the climbing downhill is the least painful and most stable.
With this news, and a new humbled attitude, I finally made my way to Camp 1, a little slower than I would have liked, but without further harm to the ankle. Once I was in the tent at Camp 1, I took a deep breath and a grateful glance at the mountain surrounding me. A small smile captured my mind, as I looked at the ramen packages littering the tent. It is easy to forget about the ankle as I start to melt snow for my first of many packages of dehydrated, salted noodles. The tent is so hot in the midday, even at 19,800 ft., that I have to sit in the snow to keep cool. I laugh a little to myself as I think of what climbing means to me, and how silly this must look to anyone who hasn’t been here. My day at camp is made up of eating noodles, sitting in the snow, and reading candy bar wrappers to see which ones are gluten-free (so maybe I can share with Dave Hahn, who is gluten-intolerant). I go to bed at 6 p.m. and then wake up twelve hours later to get to Camp 2. Peter, Ed and Jake are already at Camp 2, a few days ahead of me due to my change in plans. We spend a day there together, before they head down to Basecamp. I need one more day to acclimatize before rejoining them. My day spent alone at Camp 2 was a lot like the day at Camp 1, making piles of food that I have read the wrappers for and ones that still need to be investigated. The wind picked up in the afternoon, forcing the hot daytime temperatures to merge into a cold evening. I close my eyes in the tent, and wait for the alarm at 5 a.m.
On my way down to Basecamp this morning, I passed by Dave, Seth and Erica, poking their heads out at Camp 1. The morning light is still well below them, but they are getting ready to go for a little walk. I poke my head into the tent and see the ramen packages, this time smiling because I don’t have to eat them today. I continue my way to Basecamp, mostly in the shade of the mountains around me. The last 30 minutes, the sun wins the battle, and the temperature suddenly becomes unbearably warm. I stop to put on some sunscreen and take off a layer, happy to have only a few minutes left until I reach Basecamp and glad to have finished my first rotation.
When trekking into Everest Base Camp (BC) two weeks ago, it felt high, rugged, and hostile. Man, what a different perspective this morning, as Viesturs and I returned to BC after 5 days at Camp 1 (19,000’) and Camp 2 (21,200’). What fun to enjoy the creature comforts that we did without for the last few days…thick air (yes, 17,500’ feels thick compared to 21,000’), a shower, a shave, and a Coke. It never ceases to amaze me how much I appreciate the little things that we typically take for granted. A bit of suffering and “doing without” gives great contrast to our relative comforts of BC, where living on a pile of rocks and ice can seem quite luxurious.
Our 5 days on the mountain went well and we accomplished all we set out to do on this rotation. Our night at Camp 1 was uneventful though light on sleep, as we listened to icefall and rockfall crash down from Everest’s west shoulder and Nuptse. Camp 1 is in a good place but you never know “if” or “when” the big one might decide to come down. At daybreak the next day, fueled by high-octane caffeine, we blasted out of there and 2 1/2 hours later arrived at Camp 2.
Camp 2 is in a much nicer place on the lateral moraine of the Khumbu glacier and is free from objective dangers…icefall, rockfall, etc. We still slept poorly, though not from worrying about things falling from above, but from the significant altitude jump we had made from BC to here…about a 3,500’ increase over the last 36 hours. Altitude symptoms affect everyone, even Ed Viesturs, and I was happy to know I had a partner to share my mild discomfort with. The next two days we made forays up to 22,000’ on the southwest face of Everest and to the base of the Lhotse face. These two morning climbs were not only great for acclimatization, but let us soak in the amazing beauty of the world’s highest peaks. We would start walking by 8 a.m. before the sun crested Lhotse, when the entire Khumbu is arctic blue and silent…and COLD. Then, within the hour, the brilliant sunlight would ignite the snow, rock, and ice around us and our world not only brightened but warmed up considerably. Up here there are two sources of heat…what your body generates and the sun, and you quickly learn how to maximize both. At the end of our stay at Camp 2, we were feeling pretty good. Our bodies had adjusted to the altitude and we were falling into the pace and cadence of high-mountain living.
Ed and I are now back here at BC for 2-3 days of rest. Melissa stayed at Camp 2 for another day of acclimatization, and Dave Hahn and his team just headed up to Camp 1 for their first rotation on the mountain. I’m really pleased that all team members are on track and making steady progress.
Next we will head up for another rotation up high, which will include spending a night at Camp 3 (23,500’), climbing above to about 25,000’ and then descending all the way to BC for more rest prior to our final push. We are one month into this expedition and so far, so good. Each day is its own challenge. My mantra is “short-term focus on a long-term goal.” One step at a time, literally. But hey, I’m down here at BC resting my body and my mind, so I’m going for another Coke.
The juniper and incense were lit; the smoke was going up to the gods, the prayer flags were waving. I buckled the chinstrap on my helmet, stuffed my big down parka and threw my pack on my back. It was just light enough, at 5 a.m. on the button- that I could turn off my headlight to look around at my partners. Erica was ready, her harness was done up correctly and her pack looked nice and neat. Kent had his gear good to go as well; Seth was coming up from his tent, looking loaded for bear. We were about 12 seconds from walking toward the Khumbu Icefall and Camp I. But then I saw Tendi talking urgently into his radio as he walked toward me. He paused, looked up and told me -with that classic slashing motion of the finger across the throat- “Icefall is finished.”
There’d been a collapse somewhere up high on the route. My gut tightened as I then asked Tendi if anybody was trapped or injured. He talked into the radio a bit more in the Nepali which I surely should understand after so many years spent in Nepal… but sadly do not. Tendi finished and translated, “Nobody was in the collapse as far as we know… all of our team is safe, but the Sherpas have all turned around. They can’t get through.” I then looked up at the dots spread out along the route in the dim pre-dawn light. Sure enough, most of the dots were now moving the wrong way… or at least the dots with radios.
We took off our packs and loosened our helmets. It was an odd moment, emotionally. We were keyed up to go climbing; to take on some risk and discomfort… and now it was clear that the morning wouldn’t involve either, so there was relief. But there was also disappointment. We each wanted to get an important mission accomplished. I felt like laughing at the situation as I undid my harness. I’d spent the last half hour wolfing down sugary porridge and strong coffee… I was wide-awake and jacked up. And now all there was to do with all that energy was gaze out at another spectacularly beautiful morning coming on. Kent Harvey didn’t waste a second; he started shooting sunrise shots and counting himself lucky to be up to see it all. In fact, thirty minutes later I looked at Kent next to his tripod and he still had his helmet on. He was capturing everything and fully captivated himself.
I told Erica not to worry about the last minute change to our schedule. She has been on some big mountains; she does know that these things happen. I just wanted her to see it all the way I do, in a positive light. A day’s delay doesn’t hurt us in any way… unless of course we should spend that day fretting. There is no sense fretting. A collapse in the Icefall is beyond our control, like a lot of things that might happen on a big mountain. I always figure that if some feature in the Khumbu needs to come crashing down, then by all means it should come crashing down -when nobody is under or on it. Get it over with. And the Icefall Doctors are great at cobbling together alternative routes. They’ll just need a day, most likely. And we really can rest on this day, now that we are all prepared, packed and ready. We’ll be stronger and more ready tomorrow.
At 8 a.m., Linden Mallory got through to ABC on the radio, informing Peter Whittaker and his team of the “closed” route below them. As expected, this information did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm for their own plans well above the trouble zone. Peter and Ed Viesturs were setting out to help pioneer the route to the base of the Lhotse Face. There are usually some crevasses to be probed out, marked and avoided in this uppermost part of the Khumbu Glacier. If they are successful at getting a safe set of tracks up to the “Bergschrund” (the giant crevasse separating the live ice of the moderately angled glacier from the static ice of the steep Lhotse Face) then it will be a big help to the teams of Sherpas intent on fixing rope on the Face in the coming days. Melissa Arnot had gotten an early start out of Camp I and had reached ABC without any apparent difficulty shortly after the 8 a.m. call.
The trip goes on. Take #2 for us tomorrow… the alarm is already set for 4 a.m.