Newsletter 620 May 2000
On four of the five last days, climbers have reached the summit of Everest via the North Ridge. We're guessing that nearly 60 people have summited, so many more than any season before. It is really amazing to watch, as a stream of people top out on the ridge and cut across the prominent summit snow field. At times its like a catepillar, stretching then contracting, as the climbers inch upward towards the top.
As you can imagine, everybody is getting excited. Between 8 a.m. and noon, as base camp radios crackle with calls from the top, different groups let loose with cheers. It is contagious: a group of Japanese, then an even louder cheer from the Ukranians, followed an hour later by a rolling cheer for a Sherpani who summits via the North Ridge.
Today, though, is a bit different. A lenticular cloud is hanging over the summit and everything above 8,000 meters looks nasty. We know that the winds are high and rumor has it that most of today's hopeful summiters are climbing without oxygen. The radios are crackling, but there are no cheers. Instead, Everest is being Everest, chasing climbers from the ridge and back to the safety of the tents.
Thousands of feet below, we're getting caught up in our own excitement. Kieron, Tony, Daniel and Jean are organizing their backpacks, while the video cameras are rolling. It is sunny one minute, light snow falls the next. By 10 a.m. they are on their way to Camp 1. The long process of climbing to the summit has begun. Things are happening quickly. An hour and a half later, and Jean Clemenson has returned from his summit bid. He is our 62 year old climber, and his body isn't cranking like it should be. He's removed himself from the summit team. We are all feeling a bit depressed by this, but respect Jean and his decision making skills. Afterall, he is one of the more experienced mountaineers on the mountain. (A 62 year old Japanese man has summited via the North Ridge a few days ago.)
Jean's departure opens a spot in the team and Ivan moves into place. He packs and heads for Camp 1 later in the afternoon. We now have four clients (of the original 7) that are capable of making a summit bid. Russell, Mark, Andy and I spend the afternoon shuffling things around. There will be one summit team. Ivan, Tony, Kieron and Daniel, with all five Sherpas and Andy and I as guides. Quite a ratio (7:4) and a really powerful team.
The strongest of the climbers who were caught up high today are making their way back to ABC. No one climbed much above the second step because of the winds and sub zero temps. Normally powerful climbers are limping through the camp site. Several are being lead by friends or Sherpas. They are exhausted. Some have minor frost bite.
Despite all the climbers who have summited, or have attempted to, there is still very little fixed rope above high camp. They've been pulling on tattered old ropes and traversing knife edge ridges without any form of protection. The risks people are willing to accept seems too high to me. It would be so simple for each of these climbers to carry 5 pounds of rope and anchor it where needed. By now, the route would be so much safer and the risks of fatalities dramatically reduced.
In my opinion, the narrow focus of the summiters is short sighted. Any single one of those folks could develop snow blindness, cerebral edema or simply push too hard and suffer from exhaustion. A few more fixed lines on the ridge would save their lives. If you're strong enough to go for the summit, you're strong enough to carry the rope. And if you're smart enough to raise the cash, you're wise enough to value the fixed lines. Afterall, the North Ridge or South Col routes on Everest are the trade routes, the paths of least resistance. They are not intended to be the battle grounds of technical extremism. The community of climbers on these routes should be banding together to make the routes safer.
Maybe, the shear numbers of climbers (300 or so) has given people a false sense of security? Climbing Everest is just a chapter in my book, exciting sure, but not worth dying for. I'm really glad I'm part of a team that is willing too work a bit harder to improve our margin of safety. Weather forecasts, properly stocked camps, a smart acclimatization schedule and fixing lines are all part of the formula.
We received a new weather forecast at 6 p.m. Originally, the 24th of May was supposed to be the magic day, with clear skies and light winds. Now, a small trough of low pressure is pushing towards us. The 25th is now the day. Russell calls the guys at Camp 1 and tells them to sleep in.
May 21, 2000
As I sip my coffee, a band of wind is scouring the summit and everything down to 7400 meters. A small, powdery avalanche streams down the north east face.
I'm glad we've decided to stay put. Otherwise the four climbers at Camp 1 and I would be battling our way up to Camp 2. While we would have made it, it would have been exhausting.
At least two climbers were spotted on the summit snow slopes this morning. I imagine that the wind speeds must be exceeding 35 knots. Good luck to them. I'm glad I'll be rolled up in my sleeping bag, reading a book, instead of crawling to the summit in these conditions.
Despite the bad weather, our team is really fired up. We've been having so much fun. Each of us has pulled all sorts of flags, photos, and other memorabalia from our duffels and shoved them in our packs. It's going to be "show and tell" on the summit.
While no one's trinket is better than the next, I've got to tell you about a special one I've been given. The year 2000 is really important to the Catholic Church. 2000 years ago, Christ was born. This year has been named the Jubuliam and so many special events have been planned. Now, being a retired altar boy, having a mother creatively placed in the Archdiocese of Newark, and a grandmother who was a saint on earth, it has become my duty to place a Crucifix on the summit. Sister Sandy chose this particular Crucifix and is hard at work praying for our success.
The source of our enthusiasm and confidence is pretty solid.
OK...in the early morning I'm heading off to Camp 2. While we are on the hill, we've made arrangements for a guest writer to fill you folks in on our adventures.
May your beds be warm and your showers hot.