- Melissa Arnot
- Alex Barber
- Gabriel Barral
- Jake Beren
- Zeb Blais
- 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
- 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
- Erik 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
The clouds blew in the right direction today. In fact, everything lined up just right in most ways today. It was an auspicious day… so judged by our Sherpa team after a careful reading of the Tibetan calendar. Auspicious enough that our Puja ceremony was held today. Doubly Auspicious because it was Easter Sunday. Thrice Auspicious because it was the nicest day we’ve had in a week.
Peter Whittaker revealed that he’d stayed up last night with a few of the Sherpa team in the kitchen to decorate Easter eggs. Not so surprisingly, the Sherpas had not gone through that particular ritual before and Peter said they fully got into the task, coloring boiled eggs and attaching bright stickers. They were excited at the convergence of Easter, the planned Puja and a Sunday to boot. Peter kept all of this to himself and arose at 5 AM to hop down the bunny trail to his partners’ tents and quietly salt the area with Easter eggs. He said he was surprised to run into another rabbit out there secretly doing the same thing. Linden Mallory had his own egg planting plans for the morning and was busily hiding colored plastic eggs with prizes within.
After breakfast and before the Puja began, the team (those who had not been bunnies) chased around searching for eggs. Jeff Martin and Linden made things interesting by mentioning that two of the eggs held special prizes. Ed Viesturs quickly tracked down the one that granted its discoverer the free drink of his choice from Gorak Shep. It took Seth Waterfall a bit longer to hone in on the bright blue egg that held the $20 cash prize.
And then it was Puja time. The Puja is a ceremony quite important to our Sherpa team, and thus to us as well. In it, we ask the blessing of the mountain gods before setting foot on this sacred -and dangerous- mountain. A lama came up from Pangboche in order to read the correct prayers and chants. Our Sherpa team had worked throughout the morning to prepare a stone chorten as a sort of alter for the ceremony. Incense and juniper were lit as a way of sending fragrant smoke upward in offering. Partway through the three hour observance, a prayer mast was erected and flags unfurled in all directions. Our First Ascent team sat drinking tea and taking pictures of the colorful scene… but also contemplating the seriousness of an undertaking that requires so much blessing. The latter stages of the Puja involve a good deal of celebrating and toasting and tossing of rice. Finally, everybody grabs a big handful of Tsampa (barley flour) and tosses half of it in the air while saving half to smear on the faces of ones climbing partners. As you’d expect, this gets out of hand… and into hair, cameras, eyes, ears and everything as one and all laugh, shake hands and fist bump.
Our Sherpa team then invited us to join them in linking arms for a last half hour of carefree dancing and singing. We sang along and nobody seemed to mind that we didn’t know either the words or the dance steps.
The word is that the last 200 meters or so of the route to Camp I are giving the Icefall Doctors a special challenge. We are hoping each day now to hear that they’ve forged some sort of passage. Tomorrow we resume our training at the foot of the Icefall. We’ll be rested, blessed and ready.
The clouds were blowing the wrong way today. From East to West is somewhat uncommon during the normal pre-monsoon climbing season. But oh well, it was an enjoyable day in any case. The morning chill didn’t last long at all, it was nearly t-shirt weather by the time we’d finished breakfast and the several inches of snow which had fallen in recent days began to melt fast.
Tents are going up all around us now as more and more teams show up on the scene. Our nearest neighbors are Korean and Danish. The Koreans have a neat tradition of conducting group calisthenics each morning just before the sun hits the camp. Today I felt quite lazy and antisocial, sipping my morning coffee and listening to the BBC in a big down coat while watching the Koreans bond and stretch. Our First Ascent team did a little bonding and stretching today as well, but at a much more civilized hour. At ten in the morning we all marched for 10 minutes over to a little obstacle course of ladders and ice towers for some practice at rigging up and staying safe. We’ve got our sights set on the Khumbu Icefall now as the next big goal - the Icefall Doctors are close to having the route complete as far as Camp I and it won’t be long before we are moving along and up through their maze of ladders and ropes. But we’ll ease into that. The route through the Khumbu is unlike any other climbing route in the world. Great technical climbers and glacier travel experts from elsewhere will not have seen anything like this before. And such is the case within our team. Practice in walking ladders with crampons and protecting ourselves by properly clipping into fixed ropes is a good thing. When one gets to a real passage through the Icefall, one must be fast and efficient at all of this, so today we repeatedly crossed a ladder just a few feet off the ground. And then we tilted it up and crossed at forty-five degrees. Finally we tried a little vertical stretch with the ladder, all the time enabling to protect ourselves against a fall (or a collapse of the ladder) by smartly attaching ourselves to safety lines. As expected, it was a blast to finally be walking on snow with an axe in hand. Everybody seemed a little excited to kick crampon points into ice or to pull on a rope or two. It felt like climbing.
After lunch, Erica and I suited up again for an afternoon glacier tour. Just for an hour, since we didn’t want to overdo the exercise at this still new altitude, we tramped around on the glacier away from tents and people (and well below the icefall). We stomped up and down little walls and explored corridors within the folds of the glacier. I took Erica to a few of the places I’d marked in my GPS over the years where I’d found oddball souvenirs like busted wooden ice-axes and oxygen bottles marking the basecamps used for the original attempts on this side of Mount Everest. I was startled by the changes in the glacial surface over the course of just one year. My first trip to this side of the mountain was in the year 2000 and over the past nine years I’d gotten familiar with a number of landmarks… boulders, ice ridges and towers that stayed more or less the same, streams of water on and within the ice that tended to form up each season and follow roughly the same course, that sort of thing. But this time, Erica saw me shaking my head a lot and turning my GPS this way and that (which doesn’t actually help much with a GPS, by the way) because everything seemed radically different. Large, flat, frozen ponds sit where ice ridges had thrust up sixty and seventy feet previously. New stream courses seem to be everywhere and the formerly orderly flank of the medial moraine we all camped on for years is unrecognizable. I can only assume that a massive volume of ice has disappeared from the glacier due to melt in the past year.
Erica and I came back into camp. She headed for the afternoon round of “Dirty Clubs” a mysterious card game that Gerry Moffatt inflicted on the team during the trek. No money changes hands, but the daily losers have to perform all manner of humiliating public stunts. I made the rounds, admiring the organizational work that basecamp managers Jeff Martin and Linden Mallory have been accomplishing while we played on the glacier. The Eddie Bauer, First Ascent/Rainier Mountaineering Inc. Basecamp is shaping up. The word is that the hot shower may be operational by tomorrow.
Now there is still enough time for a quick nap before dinner… except the light is just getting good and small avalanches keep crashing down off of the West Shoulder, Lho La and Nuptse, forcing me to keep scrambling out of my tent to watch. So much to do…
We survived the first night without a roof over our heads. Quite comfortably, by all accounts. There were no dogs barking in the night, no heavy boots clunking down wooden hallways to latrines, none of the endless coughing fits coming through the thin walls of trekking houses. Instead, we had easy breezes, the quiet rustle of comfy down sleeping bags and moonlight coming through our tent ceilings. Oh yeah, and occasionally the violent thunder of avalanches… but that didn’t truly bother us. We know we’ve picked a safe place for basecamp far enough from the vertical walls of this enclosed valley.
The day has been spent sorting gear, talking over plans, napping, reading, eating and getting to know our Sherpa teammates. We’ve got great strength and experience in our Sherpa team, and we’ll depend mightily on them during this trip. I’m not aware of any team attempting the mountain this season that won’t be reliant on Sherpa help. Some may claim to be going with minimal support, but they will still be heavily dependent on the Sherpas who fix the route through the Khumbu Icefall, to say nothing of the route above. This is not to say that, of the many talented non-Nepalese climbers assembled here at the foot of the hill, none would be capable of climbing the mountain without Sherpa aid, but the simple fact is that such climbs are not attempted in this day and age on this route on this mountain.
There is often confusion among those not versed in Himalayan climbing as to who Sherpas are and what their various jobs may be. I’m often unnerved back home to hear people say, while hiking or working hard, that they’d sure like to have a Sherpa along to carry their pack or to do their digging. Such comments are usually made in jest and are probably for my benefit when folks know that I have spent time in Nepal and Tibet. Nevertheless, they tend to sell the real Sherpa people short.
Referring to someone as “Sherpa” is to say that they are from a tribe of mountain people in a specific region of Nepal. It is not a job designation. It doesn’t simply mean “porter” and it definitely doesn’t mean “servant.” Early on, when the pioneering Himalayan expeditions were discovering the amazing work ethic common to the Sherpa culture, these men were trained as high-altitude load carriers. But almost from the start, there were plenty of individuals -notably Tenzing Norgay who excelled at the art of climbing, who eagerly grasped its strategies, and who exhibited just as much ambition to reach summits as any Westerner.
By this 2009 Everest season, one cannot correctly make more than a few broad generalizations about who the Sherpas are on this mountain. Many may still be farmers the rest of the year… many may still fulfill the simple yet essential role of high-altitude porter… but then there will also be a fair number of excellent mountain climbers with superior strength and skill on rock and ice who are being counted on to guide individuals and lead expeditions. Some will struggle with English, but will then surprise the heck out of you when they turn out to speak French, Korean and Japanese just fine. Some will never have been out of these valleys, but increasingly others will turn out to have traveled the world; to be putting their kids through college in Canada, India or the U.S., to be web-savvy, literate and politically astute.
Away from the Himalaya, the assertion is often made (by people who, I feel sure, mean to honor this group of climbers) that Sherpas are universally strong and across-the-board gifted with a physiology that makes high-altitude climbing a snap. True, many Sherpas have less trouble acclimatizing than those who visit these mountains from elsewhere, but it probably does Sherpas more honor to recognize their limitations than any perceived inherent advantages. They don’t live on Mount Everest. The highest commonly inhabited villages are usually only around 12,000 ft to 14,000 ft in elevation. They don’t have three lungs and two hearts… or any other crazy adaptation that makes climbing easy. The really humbling thing for me is to realize that my Sherpa partners are working just as hard as I am when we are clawing our way up some slope in difficult conditions with heavy packs. That climbing is difficult for them -not easy- and that they go out to do it anyway, day after day without whining, indeed while smiling and laughing. It isn’t just what we see on the mountain either. For a bunch of days we walked through rough farmland where every single rock was neatly in place, where fields were endlessly being tended to, where houses were simple but always in good repair. The work ethic was obvious, uncommon and admirable.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying that the First Ascent team will be on holiday here. When the Sherpas we’re partnering with cook and carry water and hack out tent platforms from the Lhotse Face and fix rope and get hard work done in dangerous conditions, sometimes we’ll be right alongside them. And sometimes they’ll be doing it while we rest or get other jobs done. And obviously the Sherpas won’t be doing it for free. Money is a huge motivator in this part of the world, and expedition work turns out to produce some of the best opportunities in all of Nepal. But money doesn’t adequately explain the smiles and the warmth and the friendship that our Sherpa partners will share with us on this trip. We’ll try to be worthy of that friendship.
Here’s a little look behind the scenes at how these dispatches are shot, edited and transmitted.
Coming into the teahouse dining room this morning under low, cloudy skies with a trace of new snow on the ground, it was obvious that we were each ready to be finished with trekking. Enough of the team was battling sniffles or tummy troubles that we were all getting borderline paranoid about sharing germs with so many others in these common spaces. We were ready to make it to our own basecamp and our own dining tent… we were anxious to meet our Sherpa climbing team and get started on a big climbing project.
But for all of our restlessness, Gorak Shep hadn’t been that bad a place for our team. A number of us hiked up Kalapathar yesterday evening in order to catch the sunset. In contrast to the ample daytime traffic for this sought-after destination, by 5 PM there was only a handful of folk left on the hill and these were hurrying down while we strolled up. The afternoon had been cloudy with periodic snow showers, but the higher we got, the more the clouds fell away from Everest and Nuptse and Pumori. We took picture after picture as the light changed and then trotted down in the dark when it had all been expended.
We joined the flow of traffic around 8:30 this morning for what we knew would be a relatively short and easy climb into basecamp. The low cloud seemed to muffle sound and it was almost a relief to have our field of vision minimized so that we could concentrate on walking instead of gawking at the great peaks. Our path was, at first, along the rock and dirt of the lateral moraine and then finally we dropped down onto the glacial surface itself for the last half hour into camp. We passed plenty of fully dedicated trekkers, bent over and gasping for breath and I was reminded of how much importance is placed, by so many, in simply getting to Everest Basecamp, with no thought whatsoever of climbing the mountains above. I felt a little sympathy over the diminished views for these folks, but then the clouds began to break and lift as we reached the first tents. By the time we marched into our own camp, we could see plenty, including the rough and intimidating Khumbu Icefall stretching up toward the Western Cwm.
We could also see that our Sherpa team had been hard at work in preparing our camp. We greeted them, as well as Ed Viesturs, Jeff Martin and Linden Mallory who’d come ahead yesterday to help get things in order. We wrestled with duffle bags for a time and moved into neat and new First Ascent tents. I made a quick exploration of a few of the surrounding camps to say hello to old friends but then I hurried back to my own camp for a lunch with my team. We strategized a bit and laid out a few of the normal ground rules that make living so closely for so long, not only possible but enjoyable. Then we gathered outside with the entire team, including basecamp personnel and climbing Sherpas and then each person introduced themselves and said a few words. Some of us chuckled to hear the casual delivery the older veteran climbers gave to their extensive resumes. It is funny to realize that we are in a place where someone might just forget to mention that time they climbed K2 or Ama Dablam or Kangchenjunga. Peter Whittaker reminded one and all that our top priority on this trip would be safety- for which he got plenty of agreeing and understanding nods in return.
Then it got cloudy and a bit snowy again as most took the opportunity for a quick nap. I enjoyed scattering my junk in my own tent and plopping down in the middle of it all, drifting off to the thunder of avalanches as the glaciers around BC pushed one railroad-car-sized chunk after another over great drop-offs. We are in the midst of a crazy tapestry of tents and boulders. At any given time, one can hear cooks chopping veggies, shovels scraping gravel, rocks being moved from place to place, a few tinny FM radios playing Nepali music and an occasional live voice breaking into song. As peculiar as it may sound, this already feels like home and I have to make myself remember that I was anywhere else for the past ten months.
No sooner had I proclaimed a “season of no snow” than it got busy snowing. About three or four inches our first night at Lobuche and then another two inches yesterday afternoon. Both days were sunny to start and then gave way to big dark cumulus clouds with thunder and lightning to finish. The snow hasn’t made the walking any more difficult for those of us with ski poles, boots and gaiters. The ultra-bright new snow surface, combined with intense high-altitude sunshine, can be hard on uncovered skin or eyeballs, but all of us are taking great care in those departments.
New snow down in these parts doesn’t necessarily mean that the upper reaches of the big peaks are getting it, but one can hope. There isn’t much question in my mind that the normal Nepalese route to the top of Mount Everest is easier and safer with ample snow cover. Particularly if it will be a busy and “crowded” season as this one shows every sign of being, then it will be best to have the loose rock covered with snow and frozen firmly in place. We can worry about such things more in a month or so. For now though, I won’t mind if it snows each afternoon.
These last days on the trail have been extremely busy and congested, not quite like Interstate 5 through Seattle, but busy as heck with foot traffic nonetheless. Much of the Khumbu Valley is focused -in these weeks- on the Everest business, and as we come within a day or two of the mountain, all of that “traffic” becomes concentrated on a single segment of trail. Our expedition is one of perhaps thirty trying to move tons of gear by porter and yak-train to the head of the valley right now. Additionally, numerous and large trekking groups along with Everest climbing teams are all on the same trail and in the same few teahouses now. That isn’t all a bad thing. Last night, the dining room of our Lobuche teahouse felt something like a school reunion for me, what with Scottish David Hamilton -the leader of the Adventure Consultants team- showing up. I’d last seen him in December in Antarctica. Ang Dorje, who has been living with his family in Eastern Washington and building wind turbine towers since I last saw him on Everest, was in the room. So was Austrian Walter Laserer, who was skiing around the upper reaches of Alaska’s Kahiltna Glacier when I bumped into him in July. There was Lobsang, who’d led a trek I was on in the year 2000. Passang, who’d led the Hillary Step and been key to my tagging the top in October of 2006, was over standing by the stove.
Yesterday, I accompanied Ed Dohring on a round-trip hike from Lobuche to Basecamp. His GPS calculated that we moved over 11 miles in the process, and we did it in pretty good time, considering that we stopped nearly every 200 feet for me to say hi to another friend or acquaintance from the mountains. It can be a lot of fun, but at times it can be overwhelming to meet casually and between yak horns and tails for a moment with a climber or Sherpa that I’ve shared life-shaping expeditions with. Ed Dohring is now on his way home, as was planned all along. We finished his trip with that exploration of Basecamp, which is already quite impressive with tents popping up in every direction. While there, we sat outside eating plates of rice (our Sherpa team already has things up and running and ready for the team’s arrival tomorrow) and gazing up at the jumble of the Khumbu Icefall. We could see the Icefall Doctors pushing the route of ladders and rope in the upper “popcorn” section, perhaps a third of the way through the Icefall. We dropped back down to Lobuche in the swirling snows and rejoined the team for a last night together. Ed and Erica said goodbye to each other this morning, as he left for Namche and we left for Gorak Shep.
A gorak is a big black bird that lives up high, a lot like a raven. Gorak Shep then translates to “dead raven,” which doesn’t truly do the place justice. Or maybe it does. Not much of a “town” up here in this large, sandy, dusty flat spot on the lateral moraines of the Khumbu. The place is important to trekkers, as it is the jumping off point for the short hike up Kalapathar. KP -at around 18,500 ft- is the lowest part of a ridge which merges into steep and sharp Pumori, and when one finishes hiking all of that ridge that can be hiked without specialized tools, one can get a big and famous view of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. Or… one can go to an internet cafe… at 17,000 feet and 25 rupees per minute… the web is in the Shep.
Our team is spending a final night on the trek. Tomorrow we’ll go into Everest Basecamp and begin focusing more on the climb.
Woke this morning to four inches of new snow. It was full on snowing when we went to bed last night and Viesturs and I, like expectant little kids, peered out the window to see how much had fallen. Lobuche had turned into a winter wonderland overnight. Nonetheless, at 16,200’ the sun is quite powerful, and by late morning the temperatures were balmy, with some of the porters staging snowball fights!
After breakfast, we received a bit of disheartening news that 22 of our expedition loads are still in Katmandu. We were under the assumption that just four were there and that the rest were on their way to Base Camp. After a morning powwow, we decided to send Linden Mallory (Base Camp manager) up to Base to get a physical count of bags and inventory what was there. Our agenda does not have us occupying Base Camp for two more days, but we must have adequate gear and equipment to make our move up. We should be OK but we’ll know more tomorrow.
The team is firing on all cylinders. It is an honor to be a part of such an accomplished group of climbers. We have a wealth of mountain experience and knowledge starting with Viesturs and Hahn, with 16 Everest summits between them. Our climbing team will function the same way we do on Rainier when we are stacked heavy with experienced guides. Though there is an expedition leader and climbing leaders, all team members share in the decision-making process. Our production team rocks as well, as Gerry Moffatt and Jake Norton have both stood on top of the “Big E.” This is a talented team, deep on experience.
Now, with a little luck our Katmandu bags will find their way up the Khumbu to Base Camp and we can put our team’s mountain experience to work.
Uh-oh, it is beginning to snow again outside…
We are in a routine… hitting our stride and finding a groove. It felt perfectly normal to wake up at 14,000 ft., pack the bags, guzzle the hot drinks, look each other in the eye for signs of a rough night due to tummy or altitude trouble, fight over who-ordered-what, eat breakfast and hit the trail in the midst of gargantuan mountains and outrageous vistas.
The trek to Lobuche began as an easy stroll up the broad valley that Pheriche sits in. Tawoche and Cholatse seemed to grow bigger and steeper, forming an impenetrable wall to our left. Pocalde and its many rock summits formed a corresponding barrier on our right. We merged into the flow of yak and trekker traffic for a time until the route steepened and narrowed. At that point, we began to pass numerous teams and individuals stopping to catch their breath. Rather than giving in to the temptation to pause every few steps, I urged Erica to treat the hills we were climbing as prep for the Khumbu Icefall. We certainly won’t have the option there to pause in dangerous places just because our legs and lungs get tired. Erica has climbed a few good mountains and she understood the challenge I was putting to her. It was time for us to distinguish ourselves from trekkers and walkers and hikers, and to operate more like mountain climbers. Mountain climbers who actually would not have too many more practice stretches before things get serious above basecamp.
The rest of our own team was on about the same game plan. We gathered to check on one another at Thukla… or Dhukla, as you may prefer. In fact, the sign there says “Thukla+Dhukla.” At any rate, there are just two teahouses at Dhukla and we sat outside one, sipping hot lemon drinks and chatting with some of the folks we’ve shared the trail with for several days. There are gigantic hills of rough rock piled near Dhukla, which are actually the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier. After our break, as we climbed up a long and steady hill to 16,000 ft., we were finding our way to the lateral moraines of the Khumbu… the glacier that will essentially be our home for the next seven weeks. We came out onto level ground at Thok La, a pass of some significance and reverence for climbers. There are dozens of stone monuments, or chortens, at Thok La for dead climbing partners… fathers… brothers… sons, teammates and friends. Some of the chortens are elaborate, with engraved and polished brass. Others have chiseled stone tablets eroded and difficult to read after decades in the wind and driven snow. Some are for famous Western climbers, some are for anonymous Sherpas. It always seems appropriate to pause at Thok La in order to walk among the chortens and to appreciate the dangers we will subject ourselves to. And for some of us, it is an important chance to remember friends who didn’t make it home.
Thok La is also a natural boundary between the inhabited valleys below and the vast and marginally hospitable world of rock and ice above. It took our team no more than an hour to cover the easy ground into Lobuche from the pass. The trail followed a stream which, I explained to those around me, would normally be a sizable frozen flow at this time of year. I was struck by how little water was in the stream. There was virtually no ice and no snow on the hills forming the moraine. Just as many Sherpas had already explained, the winter was strangely devoid of precipitation and we were seeing confirmation of that. We’d lost our view of several of the familiar peaks of the past week, but we’d gained unimpeded vistas of new and important ones. Pumori, Lingtren and Khumbutse, which tower over Everest Basecamp, only two short days’ walk away. And Changtse, Everest’s north peak, was visible over in Tibet. The Lobuche Peaks (East and West) crowd the immediate view to the west now and Nuptse’s crazy spiderweb wall of dikes fills the east.
We are in yet another comfy teahouse, the “Eco Lodge,” unpacking a few bags and getting settled for two nights and some more of that good old-fashioned acclimatization. The afternoon clouds have come over and it seems a good time for a nap.
A half dozen of us managed to rally before the sun this morning -aided by flasks of milk tea and milk coffee- in order to get out for hikes and first-light photos. As usual, yesterday had finished cloudy and mysterious- making the morning’s clear sky and unlimited visibility seem special. Already at 5:45 AM, Cho Oyu was in full sun, while the ten neighbors which had earlier seemed equal to it remained in shadow. The world’s sixth highest peak was perhaps twenty miles to the North and reminding us just how lofty 8200 meters really is. Walking onto the ridge separating Pheriche from its sister city Dingboche we could see Makalu, the fifth highest mountain, some distance to the East. And of course, Lhotse, the fourth highest in the world was pretty close at hand and appeared brutally difficult from the side we were looking at. Being too close to the 25,000 ft. Nuptse wall, we couldn’t see Mount Everest behind it, but we will get around that in a few days. Ama Dablam and Tawoche caught the sun in their time, along with Kangtega and Thamserku. And finally, the sun was on our little hiking team and we stripped off a few layers to enjoy the warmth.
The ridges around Pheriche offer great hiking and we were happy to stretch our legs and work our lungs in the thin air. We each strive to hit that delicate balance between rest and exercise which is crucial to proper acclimatization. Some of our team got up to 16,000 ft and even 17,000 ft today, while others just took it easy around “town”. Pheriche is a collection of maybe eight tea houses, a few farms, some yak pasturing lands and the Himalayan Rescue Association’s clinic. Thirty minutes away, over in Dingboche, they have a few more teahouses and yes, you guessed it, one more last, last, last chance at internet. It is basically the same system that we tapped into in Thyangboche and Namche, utilizing a series of reflector dishes to bring the web into some otherwise remote places. Of course, the farther one goes up the valley, the higher the price. Word was that it cost about 1200 Rupees per hour this morning in Dingboche, which with the exchange rate around 76 Rupees to the dollar makes it… oh I don’t know… we are too high for math now. Let’s say that it probably makes the web in Dingboche about the same price as in the less user-friendly American airports. The key difference might be that they grow a fair number of potatoes in Dingboche.
Cokes and Snickers bars cost more up at this higher end of the valley… really the end of the normal settlements… but that is only to be expected since we are getting a daily look at how tough it is to porter such loads to Pheriche and beyond. Most of us are still happy to indulge in some expensive snacks and drinks though. It isn’t so strange to observe that the longer we are out , the more we crave familiar junk food -while craving money slightly less. Back from the hikes, we mostly spent time mingling with other climbers and trekkers, strategizing, book reading and napping through chunks of the afternoon. Erica, Ed Dohring and I attended a fine talk on altitude illness given by one of the docs at the HRA clinic next door. We like to think we know a fair bit about such things, but it never hurts to hear a good overview again, and to meet the good people (in this case Tracy and Madeline) who volunteer their doctoring skills for weeks on end at the HRA clinic.
All are feeling reasonably well and with any luck, we’ll all be loping along to Lobuche tomorrow.
Today is a beautiful and sunny day in Pheriche, at 14,200 feet. So many of the tea houses look and feel the same along the trek, it is easy to forget exactly where we are, but as I walked down the narrow dirt path after breakfast, I could feel exactly where I was. My lungs started moving a little faster and I could feel my heart rate increase, even with my slow steps on the relatively flat trail. As my nostrils expanded to take in the available oxygen I remembered that I am now at high altitude. I know, some of you that live just above sea-level are thinking that we have been at high altitude all along, but it is here that my physiology now agrees with that. Between 8,000 and 14,000 feet our bodies are undergoing some major changes to compensate for the increasingly more obvious loss of atmospheric pressure. Today, my lungs have to work a little harder, and my heart is pumping a little faster to get all of the new red blood cells around my body. I am thankful for all of the things that my body is doing to adjust to living in a world with less atmospheric pressure to keep all of the oxygen molecules within my breaths grasp, but mostly I am thankful to the red blood cells. They are the porters of my blood, carrying around all of the oxygen my lungs will grab onto. If all things go well, my blood pH will alter, and that will increase my respiratory rate telling my lungs that they need to expand and contract more times to achieve the same effect that they had at my house in Idaho. My blood will produce more of those invaluable little porters (the red blood cells) so that every time my ventilation is effective (the simple mechanical act of air rushing into my lungs) respiration will be effective (the actual exchange of gases deep inside my lungs) and then perfusion can happen (the red blood cells delivering the oxygen to all of my tissues). It makes me feel a little tired just to write that, I can only imagine how my body is feeling repeating this cycle over multiple thousands of times per day. When put this way, it is easy to see why we need so many rest days. Our bodies need to get used to this exhaustive act at this elevation before being challenged by the next increase in elevation.
Today, the team feels good. As I look around at Dave doing crosswords, Seth reading Rolling Stone and Erica sipping tea I can tell that they are all acclimatizing well. There are a variety of reasons that one might not acclimatize so well, and surprisingly, the reasons are not so easy to predict. Some people have a physiological make up that slows the adjustments inside of their body as they get higher in elevation. It is hard to find a correlation between this response and much of anything- especially fitness. There are of course some more obvious factors that will prevent your body from getting all that work done. If someone is sick already, maybe even just a head cold, the body is already working overtime and it decreases the resources that can be used for altitude acclimatization. The same is true if someone is dehydrated or under extreme physical exertion. That is certainly part of the reason that we take a nice even pace on our move days, we don’t want our hearts and lungs fighting to keep up, because eventually they will not be able to catch up with us, and will let us know. Likely in the form of acute mountain sickness.
Acute mountain sickness is usually the first sign from your body that you need to slow down and stay at the elevation you are currently acclimatized to. Basically, your physiology is saying ‘hey, wait for me!’. Consider this a warning, because your body will be persistent if you do not listen, and give you a louder reminder, one that you cannot ignore. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) can start with a variety of symptoms, the most common being a headache. It can be hard to know if it is from dehydration or sun or actually the altitude. If I am at a new elevation and I do experience a headache, I will start by drinking 1/2 a liter of water and consciously taking a few extra deep breaths as I rest. That first altitude headache often sets in after a day of moving and then coming to rest. While moving, we are naturally breathing a bit harder than when at rest. Once that movement stops and our respirations drop the whole process slows, making your brain a little hungry for some more oxygen. I don’t mind taking little Ibuprofen or Excedrin for this headache, but I am very aware that the medication is what is making the headache go away, not the fact that the problem is gone…I will keep alert for other signs of AMS. My dinner might look horrible (lack of appetite), I might feel a little more tired than normal (lassitude), the room may spin as I toss my cookies (nausea and vomiting). If I stand to walk and feel uncoordinated or dizzy (ataxia) I know that it is time to act. Actually, I might not know that it is time to act if my mental status is decreasing, that really is one of the great dangers of AMS. Fortunately, I am traveling with an amazing team and we are all looking out for the signs that someone isn’t acclimatizing well. So, what to do if these symptoms appear? Well, the best thing would be to descend 2000-3000 feet. As you go down in elevation, the positive effects are almost instant. At just a few thousand feet lower, I can start to feel better. The key now is to rest at this elevation and let my body catch up before going higher again. It also helps to hike a few thousand feet during the day, but sleep at the same altitude for a few nights. That gives my body a chance to taste a higher altitude while still recovering at a lower one (you will notice this once we embark on our climbing schedule at ‘extreme altitude’).
High altitude illness will not likely go away without some action from you (DESCENT)! Conversely it often progresses and gets worse. You can get swelling and fluid accumulation in your brain that will cause further changes in your level of consciousness, possibly even causing you to go unconscious or stop breathing. That is called cerebral edema, a brain injury caused by increased intracranial pressure secondary to swelling in the brain. It can even look a lot like a stroke or traumatic brain injury, just with a different cause. This is a serious and life threatening emergency, and this person needs descent (which can be complicated if they aren’t conscious), oxygen and steroids to decrease the swelling in the brain. Bad news bears.
The other life threatening altitude emergency is pulmonary edema, which is fluid build up in the lungs. As the pressure outside decreases, the pressure inside of our pulmonary vessels increases and sometimes the leak into the spaces in our lungs that are vital for gas exchange. This is basically a pneumonia and will cause difficulty breathing, and difficulty absorbing the oxygen (which could precipitate cerebral edema). This is another one where we need immediate descent and oxygen as well as some medications that can reduce the causes of the fluid build up.
Here in Pheriche there is a medical clinic staffed and run by the Himalayan Rescue Association. There are western trained doctors working there (often volunteering time away from their own medical practices). This clinic is open to climbers, trekkers and porters. They do an altitude talk each afternoon and they do an amazing job educating people on the above mentioned dangers and the importance of listening to your body and being conservative. As a medical professional, I am thankful that the clinic is here. So many people feel sick and assume they just needed to do more training when realistically, their bodies aren’t adjusting to the altitude. The clinic helps to educate people and reduce the trepidation about descending if you aren’t feeling well.
Our group is experienced, yet that doesn’t guarantee that we are safe from altitude illness. What it does do is ensure that we are paying attention, and we have created a schedule that will allow our bodies to physiologically adjust to the rigors we are presenting. So today, as I watch Dave complete crosswords with impressive speed, Seth is reading Rolling Stone and Erica excitedly orders and eats her second helping of food for the day, I can say we are looking pretty good physiologically, and it is a beautiful day at 14,200 feet in Pheriche.
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