NEWSLETTERS - Everest Expedition 2001

Newsletter 281 May 2001

Final Notes

Another Everest season has come and gone. It was busy, successful and had it’s fair share of drama.

Many reports on other sites have had a good old say about us, some saying a few positive things, and others saying a lot of negative things. So be it, but at least I should let you know how our trip went as far as I am concerned.

This year saw the strongest team I have ever had the chance to assemble. Clients, guides and Sherpas all mixed and worked very well together. The team was strong, motivated and all had a keen will to reach the summit.

This year saw some of the most advanced communication equipment in situation. Combined with the ISDN satellite phone we used Sony notebook computers that were capable of sending video and photo images. Although I am not a big fan of spending time sitting in an office at 6,400m, this is fast becoming an important part of our expeditions. This all sounds like easy task, but takes a considerable amount of pre-expedition planning, and requires extensive time and effort during the expedition. The ISDN satellite phone and two backup analogue sat phones, plus three laptop computers were configured for use by Chamonix Networks before departure. Although we have several solar panels for charging batteries, we still need a generator for charging at peak periods. Of course like humans, generators do not like to be cold or to breath in this atmosphere, so these are always a problem. However all this combined with the Icom radios and Panasonic batteries we were able to have the best communications on the mountain.

The Sherpas continued to work well past my expectations. This group of young men are all part of the team that is so essential to getting my clients to the summit. Many teams bring very few Sherpas, which in turn puts a lot of pressure on the few that are employed. I have always preferred to hire many Sherpas so as we can train younger men and some of the pressure off the more experienced men. This year was no exception. Yet again, Loppsang and Phurba proved how strong they are at altitude. As usual Loppsang did a great job, as did Sirdar, organising the other Sherpas and staying calm under the increased pressure of an emergency.

The weather forecasting was even better than we have had before. We received not so accurate forecasts from a new Swedish web site, the ever accurate Bracknell forecasts which, although they cost a lot, are always accurate, so long as you have the experience to read them. We also had access to some very informative Swiss forecasts. By analysing all these sources with precision we were able to find a very good window for a summit attempt. There are many expeditions around us that do not make any investment towards acquiring this information. They just listen to our calls on the radio. To those people, I trust that you feel happy that we made the right decision earlier enough for you to get yourselves into position and go to the summit.

Again it was a pleasure to work along side the only other IGO8000 expedition on the North side of the mountain. Eric Simonson was at BC very early this year, so was well advanced on the route before we arrived. Although many of the teams provided Eric with rope, equipment and a little money, no other team helped our two teams to actually put the route in. We provided the labour to carry rope to 8,300m.

As you know, 15 of the 16 people that set out from ABC for the summit reached the top during the day of 23 May. Never before have I attempted to put so many people on the summit, on the same day, and I am not sure that I would do this again. This year was exceptional to have so many strong and like-minded people together. With 4 x Sherpas, 3 x Western guides, 2 x unguided clients (both of whom are guides in their native land), 4 x guided clients and 1 x yak man, the ratios were still much higher than most commercial expeditions.

Although we had a very successful summit day, we also almost had a disaster. I know that so long as I continue to operate expeditions to 8,000m peaks, and especially Everest, one day I will have an accident. The statistics state that 8.3% of all Everest summiteers die on the way back down. I do not want this to happen, which is why I spend so much time and money on safety during my expeditions. The back up resources I put in place paid off this year.

You all know that I was conducting the operation of my expedition from camp 1 at 7,000m on the North Col. This is an ideal place to be as there is a superb view of the entire upper route, and very good communications with all parts of the mountain, BC – to the summit. (From other positions there is limited radio communication between ABC and C4).

On summit day, I was in radio contact with each camp, the 3 western guides, the 4 Sherpas, one of the unguided members and Marco, who was later to snow board down the Great Couloir. Communications started at 01.00am with reports about the weather conditions and the condition of each team member. Also, I was able to see all the camps and the entire route above, through a very powerful telescope. In fact I could recognise each of our members by what they were wearing that day. At 01.30am there was a great fairy light show as about 45 people left the top camp at 8,300m.

Progress appeared to be good for most members, with Marco reaching the summit just after 06.00, others getting to the top closer to 10.30. All in all, a very good effort. Marco had already snow boarded down the top snowfield by the time that many of the others were reaching the bottom of the field. This gave them remarkable views of this first snow board descent. For some reason Marco had a problem with his binding, but with some good handy work from Loppsang they were able to repair this so as he could continue.

Andy and Jaime were moving slowly, Asmus was doing as he was asked, and was moving up the mountain as “tail man Charlie” hence he was with both of them. At about 11.30 I spoke to Andy and suggested that they were moving too slow for a reasonable summit time. Andy also talked to Chris who told him that it would take 3 hours to return to this position. Andy and Jaime decided that they could make the summit, which they did by 14.30. Although this was late considering the available oxygen supplies, it was not too late in the day as the sun stays at the top camp until 19.00. So there would be enough day-light left and it would remain relatively warm till dusk.

Problems started shortly after beginning their descent, when Jaime complained that he was unable to see. This became a big problem for the small group who, by this time, were well behind all the other team members. Andy did a very good job of getting Jaime down the summit snow slope, but by now I suspected that this was difficult for both of them. Asmus was just a short distance ahead of them and had reached the bottom of the third step. I asked Asmus to do a very hard task. There were still 3 half full bottles of oxygen stored at the top of the second step, a distance of about 100m horizontally and 20m vertically. I asked Asmus to go down and collect these and take them back to Andy and Jaime. Asmus being the great guide that he is, fulfilled this task with no complaint and no fuss, meeting Andy and Jaime at the bottom of the third step. At this stage, I asked Asmus to leave them as it had become apparent that neither man could move any further that night. With all credit Asmus did as I asked, which in turn enabled him to get back to the top camp at 11.30pm. Thanks Asmus, with out you the final out come would not have been so pleasant.

Marco descended on his snowboard the by way of the entire Great Couloir to a point 100m below the North Col. I had watched him the whole way and given directions, by radio, on routes through various passages, which linked snow slopes. On arrival at the Col, I went to collect his board and made a trail back up the 100 or so meters to the col. Marco was very tired, but happy to be back on the Col. After a short while here he descended to ABC. Evelyne was not all that far behind him and she passed by Camp 1, also returning to ABC that day. Owen, who had decided to turn around earlier in the day had already returned to ABC, and later in the day, Robert also passed by on the way back to ABC.

By night fall I had arranged for 5 of the RAF expedition Sherpas to come up to North Col from ABC and for 4 of Eric’s Sherpas, who were going empty to Camp4 the next day, to carry extra oxygen up for us. Chris, who stayed at C4, had already been in contact with Dave Hahn and had asked for help the following day. My Sherpas stayed at C3 where there were still supplies of full oxygen. They left C3 early the next day carrying the oxygen to the top camp. I asked more of my Sherpas to come down from C3 to the North Col during the night to collect even more. They climbed back up to C3 early the next morning. So, by mid morning the following day, we had another 12 bottles of oxygen delivered to the 8,300m camp. There are very few expeditions that even have this quantity of oxygen available, let alone get it to top camp in a matter of hours of an emergency. I must point out that this did mean a lot of favours from many of my Sherpa friends from other teams. I appreciate all of this help, and have since paid all fees requested. Thank you to all the teams that offered assistance without hesitation.

So although many were sleeping soundly from their summit exertions, I was working for most of the night making brews for Sherpas and trying to work out what else to do. Others talk of having to stay by their radios all night long, but few did the unenviable work that I asked Owen to do. First he made contact with Andy’s girlfriend and then Jaime’s wife to keep them informed of the situation.

The following morning dawned fine with very little wind, much as we were expecting from the weather forecast. I was pleased to see, through the telescope that both Andy and Jaime were at least alive, but were making no efforts to come down. I was not expecting them to move until some time after the sun had reached them, so this was not a surprising.

I was in contact with Eric Simonson using his radio frequency which was different from mine. We had begun to discuss the logistics that were becoming apparent for his members to help with a rescue. Dave Hahn, Jason Tanvay, Tap Richards and two Sherpas made very fast progress up to the first step and then the “mushroom rock”. Here, very unexpectedly, they came across 3 other climbers who had also spent the night out. They took time to help them and asked one of the Sherpas to leave his oxygen and go down the mountain with no chance to reach the summit. Knowing that Andy and Jaime were alive, the American team moved on very quickly to the top of the second step and then onto reach my two expedition members.

I have known Dave, Jason and Tap for many years, we have climbed together, drunk beer together and have been involved with making rescues for our own teams, and others. It is always a shock to have to do this at all, but even more so when it involves your own team members. I will never be able to thank these incredibly strong men for what they did to help Andy and Jaime stay alive, and to keep them alive. They gave up their summit chance when they were just a few 100m below it on a perfect day. Having done the same myself, I know how that feels, but because of the strength of their character, they were able to do this. I also want to thank Andy Politz, another good friend from previous expeditions, for leaving top camp where he was going to stay during the day, and climbing up to the second step just to help my members. To all of you, and Eric who put all of his efforts into helping my team, I say, thank you. Dave sent another Sherpa down. He lost his chance to reach the summit so my members could use his oxygen. Again I agreed with Eric to pay for both Sherpas summit bonus’s.

After a tremendous amount of work, Dave, Jason and Andy, managed to get Andy and Jaime onto their feet and to start moving down, just a few metres at a time, until they eventually reached the top of the second step. This must have felt like an impossible task at the time, and incredibly frustrating. They knew their own oxygen was going to run out before they would reach the top camp.

By the time this rescue team reached the bottom of the ladder on the second step, the first of my Sherpas, Phurba arrived to help. This was just at the right time to be of real assistance. Loppsang was not far behind. Along with the extra assistance from Andy and my Sherpas the team was able to make good progress along the ridge and back to the top camp. Remember that the Americans also helped the other teams members who were still making their way down the mountain as well. Eventually Andy and Jaime made it back to top camp where they met with Asmus, Chris and Chuldim. After some re-hydration they continued on down to C3 at 7,900m. Amazing that the American rescuers went all the way back to ABC, arriving very late that night. The following day everyone else made it back to ABC.

We will always learn many lessons from such an episode, and it is always easy to be wise after the event. We were lucky this year, but without the resources of Himalayan Experience, the outcome could have been very different.

Jaime received minor frost nip, and Andy frostbite to his nose, thumbs and toes. He is currently convalescing at home, but it is too early for a prognosis of the final out come as yet.

During the course of the expedition we planned on using 94 cylinders of oxygen. Due to the rescue we used 105 cylinders. All of the cylinders are painted and numbered in Himex colours and are very noticeable on the mountain. Due to the circumstances that we evacuated the mountain, it was necessary to leave 6 of our cylinders behind on the route. This is something that I would never do under normal circumstances. However, as it turns out, the Sherpas had already brought down 9 empty cylinders from other previous expeditions who had left them behind. Over the years, I have always paid the Sherpas $10 per cylinder to bring old empty cylinders off the hill when they have been returning empty from load carries. This year was no exception. So, despite the emergency I was still able to clear the equivalent of all of my equipment off the hill. Of course next year I will make a big effort to recover the six remaining cylinders, plus others as the situation may allow.

During this expedition there were many great personal achievements that can go almost unnoticed because of the other drama. For me personally, I am very pleased that Karsang the Tibetan yak man who lives in the local valley system, and who has worked for me as a camp support man for the last 4 years, reached the summit. During the time that he has worked for me, he has always shown an interest to learn new skills. Several years ago he asked if he could attempt the summit of Everest as he can see this from his house. Last year we took him to the North Col as part of his initial training. Then last season he went to the summit of Cho Oyo on the same day as Marco and Ellen. So he had ample experience to summit Everest this year.

Marco made the first snow board descent from the summit, a great feat. Evelyne became the first Swiss woman to summit Everest. Ellen became the first American woman to summit and return on the North Ridge. Jaime became the first Guatemalan to reach the summit, and the first to finish the 7 summits. Naoki became the youngest person to finish the 7 summits and also the two poles. Andy reached the summit for the 3rd time, Asmus for the second.

We also had two groups who joined the expedition to the North Col. Both groups were quite successful in reaching the Col. Different people have different goals, and to these people this was their Everest, well done!

I am now back in Chamonix settling the nerves and getting ready for our next Cho Oyo expedition in 2 months time.

I trust that you have enjoyed reading about the Everest trip, and hope that you will stay for future expeditions. To everyone that helped me this year, a big THANK YOU, and you know that I will always do the same for you if required.

Russell Brice