NEWSLETTERS - Everest Expedition 2001

Newsletter 1111 May 2001

One man's "slow and painful" ascent of Everest :)

All activity on the mountain self-arrested today when a snowstorm plouged in, dumping knee-deep (well, for Ellen, that is) snow on ABC and several inches on Base Camp. Chris, Andy, Asmus, Ellen and Owen are thus spending their eleventh day 'resting' at BC--an Everest code word for 'inflating the jowls'--and plan to hike the 15 miles to ABC tomorrow. The other half of the crew found itself covered in snow at interim camp this morning but decided to plunge ahead to ABC when Jaime happened to see some text from Naoki's book: "All work and no play makes Naoki a bad boy" is apparently scrawled throughout the tome and when the others saw it, they fled. The capricious weather affects people differently.

Though we are hearing rumours (highly brittle but we have no other news source: last week we heard about our own deaths and the week before some of the older guys were crushed when we heard the false rumour--bastards!--that Brittany Spears was engaged) some expeditions are considering packing up and calling it a season, the snow might actually speed our summit attempt if the wild weather settles for a few days so a trail can be broken and packed down. Or so I'm told; the guides are consummately positive and I'm convinced that if I were caught in a slab avalanche with Warner he'd shout, "This isn't that bad! This thing could be about a foot thicker, then we'd be in REAL trouble!"

So in a few days the entire team should be poised at the foot of the gate (the awesome North Col) in full battle dress waiting for that elusive window to open--or, if we're already at 25,000 feet when it closes, armed with the professional decision-making capability and a fit enough team to smash it and pour through to high camp (27,250') if it looks like it may open again soon.

From ABC, we are four days of climbing from the summit attempt, moving hard from camp to camp in an inital climb that will take us from 21,000 feet to 27,250 feet (all the camps have been established by the Sherpas over the last few weeks in an incredible display of high altitude endurance and strength that has left the members totally awestruck). Most accounts of Everest summit attempts start at the high camp, but there is a huge volume of work to be done before then. As a novice to serious altitude I thought I'd write a tad about our acclimitization so far and my two cents on the experience with the thin air.

(NOTE--since I first started typing 30 minutes ago, the temperature has gone from 50f and bright sun to 35f and windy, nasty snow to 65f and thick haze)

Everest is difficult from the moment you arrive at Base Camp (17,000') and, as we have witnessed around us, any movement higher can be downright dangerous without proper acclimatization. It's quite ardous just to reach 25,500' for a solid training platform on which to base a summit attempt, so there are some rough climbs waiting for anyone who wishes to get the chance at the top. Fortunately, the HIMEX schedule allowed us a lengthy acclimatization and our problems were limited to the typical symptoms of climbing high: headaches, loss of appetite, lethargy, loss of personality (helpful in some cases), excess hair growth.

We spent three nights at 12,000', a night at 13,000', and two nights at 14,000' before arriving at BC. Most of the group took daily training hikes during this warm-up phase but a bout of bronchitis limited me to struggling up Tibetan hotel stairs so it's probably useful to skip the experience here.Then it was six days at 17,000' --and three tough training hikes--where the initial sensation was hyperventilation. I simply couldn't believe how heavily I was breathing compared to my snail's rate of movement during these hikes, lungs heaving, spittle flying, legs sagging. I stared at my feet and wondered where all the fuel--and the months of training--had gone. I followed Andy and Ellen to a personal high point of 20,500' on these hikes (they always went higher, these descendents of Yaks), each time learning a bit more about the level of oxygen at my disposal. For instance, just after a rest break I took a big step up onto a rock platform and found myself gasping for air, totally winded. It took me five minutes before I recovered enough to realize that:

  1.  you never, ever hold your breath up here while you're on the move (even drinking must be done in tiny sips) and
  2. you need to take many rapid breaths before any deep knee movement in an attempt at saturation, however small. Even before you stand up in the morning it helps to suck in some air in preparation.

We moved to 19,000' (interim camp) and 21,000' (ABC) during a two-day hike. The training worked: I felt good--able to keep up with this strong group--and just had tiny headaches each night. After five days at ABC, we climbed to 23,000' (North Col) and descended immediately. Hyperventilation wasn't an issue--my lungs were used to the rate--but rest breaks were. Whereas a training hike to 21,000' could be completed without many breaks, here, on the steep wall of snow, rest breaks were coming rapid-fire. I followed the guides' advice but even using straight-legged rest steps and upper body expansions (the tendency is to bend over the ski pole/ice axe and heave for air, cutting its flow and potential--the slopes are littered with exhausted climbers succumbing to this), I was soon taking a rest every ten meters, then five, and finally one as we crested the ridge. Still, our time was good (under four hours) and we were enthusiastic considering it was a fledgling attempt and would be our slowest. Three days later, we spent a night at the Col and descended the following morning. We felt much better, were much faster (3.25 hours), and had an easy night of rest. On Day Twelve at ABC, we climbed the Col, slept, and went to 25,000' the next morning to spend the night. The climb to what is our Camp 2 is deceiving: it looks like it should take two hours but for some it can take eight. Chris had warned us to just press on, no matter how much rest we needed to take between steps, or it could be a long day. A VERY long day. This route can be the windiest on the entire mountain--the wind rips over the ridge and can fold climbers to the ground--and the weather changes are so sudden here that we set off in full summit gear (sans oxygen). The way I can best describe this part of the climb is that a deep sense of exhaustion sets in immediately as you approach 24,000'...and the lethargy eats at your endurance and willpower as you get higher. It was as if I had just run a marathon and someone spun me around at the finish and said, "Do another." So, for 4 hours you slog higher, thighs burning, a step at a time, struggling to find a rythmn that will prove totally elusive. No matter what you try--continous baby steps with lots of breath, hyperventialtion and a few big steps, a step-a breath-a step--you find yourself thrown out of kilter, forced to just put your head down and keep driving into the wind. You need to believe the suffering will end. And it does. And you suddenly have more red blood cells and the confidence to give the top slice of the pyramid a shot. The following morning, we climbed a bit above 25,000', then descended (over 2 days) to BC for the rest we're experiencing. Now we're chomping at the bit to get up there again. Once we catch some more rays down here, that is.

Owen West