Day 36 – 15 May – The waiting game
“Well, your chest sounds clear and based on my experience you should be ok to try and re-ascend very carefully. However you have to listen to your body and at the first sign of trouble get down as quickly as possible and go home. If you do get HAPE again, it will come on stronger and faster than last time and there is very little we can do to save someone with serious HAPE in a first rate hospital in the USA let alone on here on the side of Mt Everest.
And remember – no amount of mental fortitude or strength can stop the biologic decomposition of your body which occurs above 6000m”
The doctors words were magic to my ears. I had managed to find an english speaking doctor from another expedition who gave me a quick check over and gave me an all clear to have another go at getting higher again.
As I packed my bag in basecamp in preparation to re-ascend, discussions with other people came running through my head.
“If you choose to re-ascend this will be the most serious decision you can make in your life”
“Do you have life plans after Everest or is this the be-all and end-all of your life goals”
“If you were on my expedition I would be putting the brakes on you and sending you home”
“Gary Ball re-ascended after contacting H.A.P.E until it killed him”
I tried to block these negative thoughts out as I grabbed my packed lunch off Kami the cook, said goodbye to the team at basecamp and headed off alone up in the direction of interim basecamp. As I walked the emotions of the last few days started to overflow. Intense feelings of relief, fear and excitement. Relief at getting another opportunity to re-ascend and the end of the pain of the last few days. Excitement at what lay before me and finally moving upwards again. And fear at my body’s reaction to re-ascending and the return of the dreaded H.A.P.E.
For 4 hours I wandered slowly up the Rongbuk Glaciar, turning off onto the East Rongbuk Glaciar until I arrived at Interim basecamp. Walking by myself proved very therapeutic and I arrived feeling pleasantly tired, with no sign of any nausea or headache which I had experienced on my first visit to Interim Camp. I also only needed just over one litre of water to get up, as opposed to the 2.5 I had consumed on the first visit, and had still been desperately thirsty on arrival. All signs my body was much more acclimatised. After a pleasant nights sleep lying on 5 mattresses in the dining tent(the benefit of moving independently between camps away from the main group), I awoke the next day and wandered for another 4.5 hours upto Advanced basecamp at 6350m. The last hour was a grind (as anything above 6000m is) however I arrived again using only one litre of water and no headache.
There was a trekking group of ten people who were aiming to reach the North Col who were sharing our Advanced Base Camp facilities. Unfortunately they had all been hit hard by the altitude. Severe headaches, rampant stomach problems, nausea, complete lack of appetite and extreme lethargy lead to a very sorry site of 10 people staring quietly at their food and not touching a drop during the evening dinner.
After a rest day at ABC, only three of the trekkers felt strong enough to even attempt to make the North Col. The rest of the team had staggered weakly down to basecamp, some arriving well into the dark, dehydrated and miserable.
The trekkers were not the only ones getting sick. Nima Sherpa – my guardian angel who helped me down the mountain when I got hit with H.A.P.E also succumbed to Altitude sickness on the North Col and had to descend to A.B.C to rest and recover for some days.
The next day I tagged along behind the three trekkers as they attempted to head upto the North Col. Arriving at the fixed ropes the snow also started to come down and I soon left them behind as I started jumaring up the lines. Ascending the fixed ropes for 400 vertical metres to the North Col is one of the most exhausting things I have ever done. At an altitude approaching 7000m every step up is a fight. As the snow came down the ropes began to freeze and my jumar (or ascender) started clogging up with snow and stopped working. It slid down the rope more easily than it slid up the rope! As the climbing got steeper I would carefully balance on my crampons and unclip the jumar off the rope, clean out the ice built up around the teeth of the jumar with my pocket knife, then re-attach it again and continue up the rope until it lost traction again a few meters later when I had to repeat the process.
After 3 hours on the fixed ropes I had arrived at the last obstacle – 2 ladders tied together over a large crevasse and an ice wall to traverse up and around to reach the tent sites. Attached is a short 2 min video clip of myself ascending the ladder. It is quite unstable and definitely not a good place to fall off. Apologize for the background static noise, which is interference between the radio and the video camera.
By this time the three trekkers had decided to turn around halfway up towards the Col and were heading back down to ABC. 20 mins after my arrival at 7050m at the col, Luke turned up and we located our expedition tents and jumped in. Unfortunately the one we chose looked as if someone had lobbed a stick of dynamite inside and zipped the door shut. Half eaten bowls and packets of food, pools of water on the floor, half full pee bottles and sleeping bags and gear strewn wildly all over the place. 7000m is a place where people concentrate more on surviving than the niceties of life,including cleaning up after themselves.
Trying to sleep(and survive in general) at 7000m is a brutal experience. We spent the night melting snow and drinking brews then lying in our sleeping bags resting. I think I managed around 30 minutes sleep as the longest run. It’s just a terribly uncomfortable and difficult place to try to function as a human being.
The morning could not come quick enough and with our down suits on we moved 200m out onto the North Col proper. Here one is exposed to the full force of Everest winds (the tents on the North Col are partially sheltered by an ice wall). What a brutal experience. As I was not prepared on this acclimatisation cycle to climb higher than the Col, I was not dressed appropriately. The wind howled and froze my face almost instantly. I needed wind goggles. Wearing my down suit my body was too hot yet my head was freezing! It was an awe-inspiring experience that once again increased my level of respect for this mountain. Wind and cold which would literally freeze any exposed skin very quickly. After 30 minutes we slunk back with our tails between our legs to our tent, packed our gear and descended the fixed ropes back to ABC camp.
The next day I awoke at ABC feeling refreshed and decided to head all the way back down to Basecamp for 2 or 3 days of rest. It is possible to rest at ABC(6350m) however you do not get stronger, and as the doctor warned me – “no amount of mental fortitude or strength can stop the biologic decomposition of your body which occurs above 6000m”. Therefore even though it’s a tiring 17km descent all the way to Basecamp at 5150m, your body is better off in the long run as it can rest and re-cover slightly better at this level.
So in 5 hours I wandered all the way down to Basecamp, with my Ipod playing away in my ears. What a difference to a few days before when I had made the same journey with H.A.P.E in a marathon 11 hour effort. Every step down the mountain as I got lower and lower I felt my strength returning. To most people coming up to arrive at basecamp for the first time it would seem like an inhospitable, barren place with thin air. However after spending time at 7000m at the North Col, coming down to basecamp seemed like an oasis and I relished the thought of a hot shower and 2 or 3 days of rest in the thicker air. In the shower (i.e. a bag of hot water with a hose), it was a shock to see how skinny I had become.
At this stage most teams have finished their acclimatisation rounds and are all in the same position. Waiting for a weather window, where the winds will drop down to a level low enough to allow a 5 day push to the summit and back. This weather forecasting is not an exact science and takes some ‘interpretation’. At this stage it is still unclear when this window will be. The other factor is that the rope fixing teams on our side (the North side) have not yet managed to fix the rope’s on the upper sections of the climb due to strong winds. Naturally all teams are waiting for this very important job to be completed also before they can think of attempting a summit push.
There have been some Everest summits from the South Side(Nepalese side) of the mountain in the last few days. Yesterday apparently 30 climbers and sherpa’s managed to summit Everest from the south side. The south side is more sheltered from the wind and an entirely different proposition than climbing from the North side here in Tibet which is much more exposed to the wind.
It’s not only a weather window which allows you to get from the high camp to the summit and back which is important. It is a large enough weather window which allows you to climb to the high camps themselves. Just getting to camps 2 and 3 at 7600m and 8200m respectively is an enormous challenge in itself. An exhausting, brutal struggle which requires all things in your favor, especially wind speed lower than say 20 knots(ideally we are looking for only 5 – 10 knots).
It really is now a waiting game and a test of mental strength. The temperatures warm up towards the end of the month, so later summit push’s statistically have less chances of climbers getting frostbite. However the longer we wait at basecamp the more we lose acclimatisation, and the more our strength and fitness slowly ebbs away. Mentally by now after spending close to 40 days on the mountain, people are starting to feel mountain-tired. Tired of sleeping in tents, tired of not washing, tired of the freezing nights, tired of the food etc… It’s a time when climbers just want to get the job done and get out of here.
Thanks again for all the messages of support and its nice to hear so many positive responses from people and to read all the messages of support. The summit is a very long way away and every day I question if I have the strength to make it. This really is an enormous mountain and an enormous physical challenge to even make it to 7000m, to the North Col where I have been so far. All I can do is give it my best shot and take one step at a time. And if the opportunity presents itself then make a dash for the summit.
Until then its wait wait wait and look at the weather forecasts.
Over and out from Basecamp on Everest