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Viesturs and Whittaker make camp on the Western Cwm

It seemed as though everybody was on the move today. When I looked out of my tent at 4:15 AM, there was a line of headlights strung out like a Christmas parade through the icefall. Some of those lights belonged to our gang. The “first team” of Peter Whittaker and Ed Viesturs, along with a couple of the camera crew, got out early and were making their way toward Camp I. They are bound for a “rotation” up the hill, sleeping at CI tonight and possibly at ABC (CII) tomorrow night. That ought to work pretty good for them, although it won’t necessarily feel so good. A first night at close to 20,000 ft. is usually good for a headache and some frustrating insomnia. Then a first night at 21,300 ft (ABC) will be good for… let’s see, a headache, some more insomnia, and more of everything that is uncomfortable and mean about new altitude. These rotations up high can’t be avoided though. Not if one is serious about eventually trying to spend nights at 26,000 ft above sea level, like we are. I’d hazard a guess that when they come down, Ed and Peter will be pretty happy to rest at basecamp again for a few days… which is also an important part of acclimating. It may be oversimplifying things to say that those bound for the summit just need to mix up intensely hard work and ample rest, time at extreme and less extreme altitudes, and endure terror and boredom for two months… but it does run something like that.

I was looking out of the tent at 4:15 AM because I was putting on my own boots for an important run up to the midpoint of the Khumbu Icefall. At 4:30 AM, I got together with Seth Waterfall, Erica Dohring, cameraman Kent Harvey and producer Cherie Silvera in the mess tent where we each slammed a few hot drinks and bowls of porridge before stepping out into the last shreds of starlight and moonshine. We were walking by 5 AM on what I’ve come to consider a fairly important mission. Let’s call it the Khumbu Dress Rehearsal. I’ve already explained plenty of the reasons why the Khumbu Icefall is not a smart place to dilly-dally… while also pointing out that the rapid gain in altitude and the difficult climbing make humankind very much prone to dilly-dallying there. When guiding, I want my climbers strong, acclimated and familiar with the weird skills needed for the Icefall… BEFORE they step into the Icefall for real. It is not a good place to have a client or partner stumbling around with exhaustion, obviously, since most footsteps in the Icefall have to be precise in order to avoid crevasses and cliffs. And the worst possible way to come into Camp I for a first night there would be on one’s hands and knees, begging for mercy, oxygen and water. That does happen from time to time, but being so spent can make one a prime candidate for fatal altitude illness.

As we chugged up the first ice hills and watched the light begin to hit the highest peaks, it was already gratifying to see how much stronger Erica was than during our initial forays up the glacier. This “dress rehearsal” was undertaken in the hopes of giving Erica the necessary confidence for climbing through to CI… but equally important for Seth and me was our need to watch Erica and gain our own confidence in her abilities. Before we risk our own lives in accompanying her toward her goals, we need to believe she is ready to reasonably go after them. It is a delicate balance. But Erica was doing a lot of good balancing herself as she stepped over bottomless crevasses and kicked up ice-walls on her spikes. Not to say that she had an easy time of it, just that her difficulties seemed no different than anybody else’s in the same awkward places. In our second hour of climbing, we moved up the “popcorn” section, which is just a bunch of SUV sized ice chunks heaped against one another like… popcorn… actually.

Erica and I reached the our goal for the day, the “Dum” which is the old Sherpa name for the dump… as in gear dump (in the old days when it took a lot longer to negotiate the Khumbu Icefall, the mid-point was a significant load-carrying goal and even an intermediate camp from time to time). Seth, Cherie and Kent were already there and welcomed us with gloved fist bumps and cheers. Since, at 7:40 in the morning, we were still without the heat of the sun in the Dum, we just took a quick food and water break before declaring the “up test” a success and beginning the “down test”.

We began to deal with a lot of traffic, both up and down and this was actually an important part of the test (although I definitely had not arranged with the Russians, Kazakhs, Croats, British, Koreans, Americans and assorted Sherpas to meet on these particular ladders at this particular time). Everybody stayed patient and pleasant and with some careful downclimbing we reached the lowest part of the Icefall and walked into the warm sunshine. Peter, Ed and the team already at CI had been listening out on the radios to make sure we were ok, and it was with great pride and relief that I told them to shut off and save their batteries… we were going to be fine.

Erica passed her exams. She is ready for CI and I’m fully confident that she’ll get there with adequate strength reserves. Toward that end, we’ll maybe go hiking one more time, rest another day and then come at Camp I ready for that all important first rotation. Oh yeah… that’s where they keep the headaches… can’t wait.

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