April 29th: Wind, wind, wind…. why is there is so much wind?
The following is a day by day account of my recent acclimatisation cycle up to the North Col at 7000m. I am currently sitting in basecamp recovering and enjoying writing this blog in the sunshine, but ever present wind. I would like to thank David Lim for updating my blog from the Thuruya Sat phone messages I sent him from higher up the mountain. Also a huge thanks to my wife Stephanie for uploading the video to YOUTUBE.
(Please look at the 3D fly-through on my home page in YOUTUBE to identify area’s and camps on the mountain which I refer to below)
Wind, wind, wind…. why is there is so much wind?
Day 1 Basecamp to Interim basecamp
Finally after 7 days acclimatising at basecamp we are set to leave for our first acclimatisation cycle further up the mountain. It is exciting to wake up in the tent in the morning and know today will be a day of action. After breakfast and once the sun warms up the comm’s tent I post a quick last minute blog from my computer then set off with my backpack for Interim camp.
The walk to Interim camp follows the main Rongbuk Glacier then turns off up the East Rongbuk Glacier. It is around 9km horizontal distance and rises from 5200m at basecamp to 5700m at Interim camp. I enjoy this walk, having been up and down it 8 times last year. I know it well and enjoy the undulating nature of the terrain. There are 7 climbers in our team and people generally walk in pairs or by themselves. I walk with Margaret Watroba. Margaret comes from Western Australia and last year summited Everest from the South side. She is aiming to become the first Australian woman to summit Everest from both the South and the North Sides.
After 2 hrs walking we stop at a spot on the East Rongbuk called ‘Japanese basecamp’ for some lunch. We all have a packed lunch from our Sherpa kitchen comprising a boiled egg, some digestive biscuits, apple and a small bun. Its a nice walk. We continue on towards ABC, passing teams of Yaks and their herders, both listening to music through our headphones and enjoying the exercise.
Just before Interim camp the weather turns. The wind picks up and it starts snowing heavily. I know I am very close to Interim camp when I lose the trail. The snow comes in and covers the track. We stop for 5 minutes in the wind and snow and I try and find my bearings again. I make a quick call on the radio to Phil, our team leader at Interim camp. They tell me there is a yak team coming down, so after a few minutes I see them coming down through the snow which points me back to the trail. Ten minutes later we are in Interim camp. It is a good reminder that I am on a mountain and that even following a simple trail can be difficult when the weather turns.
I share a tent with Mark Horell, an English climber. This is Mark’s 4th 8000m expediton and 1st attempt on Everest. Quietly spoken and modest, Mark is a real outdoor’s man and runs an interesting website with information on his far flung adventures from around the world. (http://www.markhorrell.com) We lie in the tent and eat soup and a bread roll for dinner before drifting off for the typically interrupted sleep representative of moving to higher altitudes.
Day 2 Interim basecamp to Advanced basecamp (A.B.C)
After an OK sleep we wake to two bowls of steaming two-minute noodles thrust through the vestibule of the tent. Mark has a small altitude headache and does not want his, so I eat both of them. We pack and leave quickly for the walk to ABC.
Most teams spend two nights at Interim camp acclimatising to the altitude. Unfortunately because of the nature of the camp, it is difficult to get clean water. There is such limited space that all the Yaks must spend the nights here also. I refer to it as Yak Shit camp. Phil our team leader does not like Yak Shit camp, as a number of his previous team’s become sick here. Hence he decided we will spend only one night here to lesson the chance of becoming sick. Having spent a number of nights here last year I don’t mind the camp so much. Maybe growing up on a farm and being surrounded by animal shit all though my youth helps out.
We set off for ABC as soon as I finish the noodles and pack our bags. I wander along at the rear of the group. The first part of this journey follows the ‘miracle highway’. This was named named by George Mallory in the 1920’s and is a medial moraine ridge smack in the middle of the mighty East Rongbuk glacier. This moraine ridge gives a very easy path up an otherwise very difficult to negotiate glacier. Almost like a miracle, hence the name. I spend the first hour lost in thoughts about George Mallory and those early English expeditions attempting Everest. What sort of person would George have been like? What would it have been like in the 1920’s coming here to Everest? How much harder would it have been back then?
After 2 hours walking I catch up to Margaret and as I near the invisible 6000m barrier the altitude catches upto me. Any thoughts of George Mallory and the early expeditions fly away in the freezing wind as I near the Changste basecamp. Hitting 6000m feels like someone has injected a syringe into my body and sucked out every drop of energy. I plod along step by step, very slowly, almost in dis-belief at how hard putting one step in front of another is. My right hand holding my trekking pole starts to freeze in the cold wind. My left hand is warm enough as I leave it in my pocket. I feel hungry. I did not bring much food for the walk to ABC today. One digestive biscuit in total. I tell Margaret I need to stop. We huddle beside a large ice block which gives some protection from the wind. I take off my right glove and put my barehand inside my jacket and under my armpit to warm-up. It gets painful as the circulation returns. I eat my digestive biscuit. I am still hungry. I ask Margaret for some food. She kindly gives me some energy goo’s. I scoff them and have some water from my bottle then we continue.
For another brutal 2 hours we climb 400 more metres until we reach Advanced basecamp. It is impossible for me to explain how tiring it is climbing to new altitudes when you are acclimatising. I stumble into Advanced Basecamp a beaten man. Completely spent. The first of my altitude headaches is building up inside my head. I sit in the small dining tent dome and drink some milk tea with the rest of the team.
Milk tea the beautiful, hot sweet liquid that soothes my raging thirst in the freezing cold. At least I dont need to vomit I tell myself. After two cups of milk tea I make my excuse’s and stumble down into my tent. I am still insanely thirsty however I can feel the construction workers inside my brain starting to increase their activity. An altitude headache is the king of headaches. The feeling of the middle part of your brain being squeezed in a vice. Without medication a bad altitude headache has me on my knees holding my head in my hands rocking back and forth.
Not wanting to get to this stage I search in my tent for my new best friends Ibuprofen tablets. These amazing little tablets are pain relief and anti-inflammatories. I pop two tablets and lie on my sleeping bag listening to the wind rock the tent. I feel thirsty but to tired to get out of the tent and get a drink. After a few minutes my team mate Mila from Russia, comes to my tent with a flask of milk tea. I fill up my Nalgene with 1 litre of the beautiful milk tea. It is exactly what I need. She did it quietly without asking. I wont forget it.
After 20 minutes of lying still, the Ibuprofen kicks in. My headache subsides. As I slowly sip on my milk tea I can begin to think about other things. The thing I think of most is what happened last year when I first visited ABC and pushed my body too hard. I developed High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (H.A.P.E). Climbers call it the ‘death rattles’. H.A.P.E causes your lungs to fill with fluid until you drown. The noise your breathing makes is like a rattling or gurgling sound when you breath in and out. I know it well. I start to worry that I have pushed myself to hard to get to A.B.C too quickly. There is nothing I can do now except monitor my body closely.
Day 3 Rest day at A.B.C
I have a restless sleep, woken frequently to drink, pee into my pee bottle, pop more Ibuprofen and listen for the ‘death rattles’.
A doctor told me last year no amount of mental strength or human spirit can stop the physical deterioration of your body above 6000m. ABC being at 6400m is a miserable place to spend time in. Not that the actual area itself is dirty or disgusting (although there is a fair amount of trash around), but the altitude makes it hard to live. I have to be here to force my body to develop more red blood cells and acclimatise to the less oxygen in the environment. But the whole time I am here I am physically weakening. Muscle mass is wasting away. I have little appetite. Sleep is difficult even though I feel tired and lethargic. And the wind, forever bearing down. Beating on the tents. Beating and numbing exposed human flesh. There is no flat ground, you are either walking uphill or downhill.
I spend the day walking as quietly as possible around basecamp, between my tent and the dining tent. And drinking. Drinking, drinking, drinking. As my body acclimatises I need to drink so much liquid. I sit down at breakfast, and drink 5 cups of milk tea. I then fill my 1litre Nalgene and force myself to drink that. I am forever peeing. Either in my pee bottle in my tent or walking outside the camp and peeing onto the glacier. I can’t seem to drink enough to quench my thirst. It seems to run straight through me.
In the afternoon I walk for 10mins across the moraine. I start looking through the trash and high altitude rubbish which was been left here by previous expeditions. I find two pigs feet, an empty whisky bottle and a snow stake. I can use the snow stake for climbing in NZ. It has the words ‘Indian expedition’ written in black vivid marker pen on it.
Day 4 Another rest day at A.B.C
Everytime I wake up during the night and first thing in the morning I listen for the death rattles. Its always a relief to breath out and in strongly and not hear any gurgling.
I still pop Ibuprofen every 4 or so hours as the headaches return. I try and balance my rest days by ‘resting’ and letting my body adjust, but at the same time keeping up some basic movement to keep my blood moving without ‘over exercising’ which brings on worse headaches. This is the theory anyway. In practise I spend long periods lying in my tent, staring at the roof getting depressed. Long periods of inactivity do not bode well with my mental state. I am not designed for high altitude mountaineering. Out of 63 days, I count around 15 days only as active climbing days on an Everest expedition. I love climbing. I don’t love lying in my tent for days popping Ibuprofen listening for the death rattles
This year I bought a brand new super lightweight climbing harness. I spend the morning rigging the harness with my ascender and safety line, and fitting my new crampons to my boots.
Jamie McGuiness comes over in the afternoon for a chat. I climbed with Jamie last year on Everest. He is a nice guy but he likes telling me I smell. I retire to my tent to have a wet wipe bath. But my wet wipes are a frozen solid block. I lie in my sleeping bag and put the wet wipes in my sleeping bag to thaw. After 20 minutes I can scratch 3 wet wipes off the top of the block. I then undress completely in my sleeping bag as its too cold outside. I use the 3 wet wipes to clean myself. After that I change my thermal top and bottom and feel like a million dollars. Clean as a whistle. I even put some deodorant on. Come to think of it, I could have just used the deodorant and skipped the wet wipes entirely.
Day 5 Another rest day at A.B.C
I dont feel like a mountaineer. I feel like a tourist in the mountains, wandering around with no fixed objective. I need to keep reminding myself that while I am waiting here my body is acclimatising. I put on my climbing boots for the first time and go for a walk for 30 minutes up towards the North Col. Margaret comes with me. Margaret takes some photo’s with sponsors flags for me. I also take a photo with the picture of the school children from Room 5 at St Josephs School, Stratford. (See below). These kids are following my progress on Everest which is very cool. I look forward to visiting them in Stratford when I am back there after Everest.
I receive an SMS from David Lim on my Sat phone. He asks what my schedule for acclimatisation is so he can check it. It makes me think of what I am doing. Am I being responsible and making the correct decisions on my acclimatisation? Or am I am just following the the rest? After last years near disaster with H.A.P.E I know I need to be very careful.
I have pushed myself hard to get here to ABC. Tomorrow the wind speed looks low enough to attempt to get to the North Col. I decide right then I will spend two more nights here, make an attempt to get higher to the Col then whatever happens the following day I will retreat down to basecamp to recover, regardless. As soon as I make the decision I feel better. Back in ABC, I discuss with Phil my plans. Phil is a very good communicator and easy to talk with about things. He tells me he is fine with my idea.
Day 6 Day trip to North Col
Finally a day of action! The day is windy. The night was windy. I get out of the tent to the scene of other expedition tents having been destroyed by the wind in the night. The Sherpa team have done a great job of setting up our camp which is still standing strong.
I dress in climbing boots, pack my crampons and ice-axe, 2 litres of water and some snacks and head off first of the group up towards the North Col. I am determined to push hard today to get as high as possible as I know I am going down tomorrow. I walk slowly with my music in my ears and my buff pulled protectively over my ears and mouth to shield me from the wind. After one hour I reach crampon point, so named as the first point of the climb where you start to wear crampons as the nature of the terrain changes from rock to snow and ice.
Phil passes me going strongly and Ian soon after also passes me. I put on my new crampons, and am really impressed with how easy it is with the new strapping system. My old crampons which I used for the last 12 years caused me problems at 8300m last year with their cumbersome strapping system.
I plod for another one hour across the snowy plateau to the base of the North Col and the start of the fixed ropes. The North Col is around 400m vertical of snow and ice, leading to the North Ridge. At 3000m lower this climb would be a fun solo, or a pitched climb on a rope of two with a mate. Here at 6600m elevation, it is more of a grunt as you jumar up fixed rope, fighting for breath and energy after each movement.
I take a seat next to the base of the fixed rope next to a loan climber. We start to talk. As we talk I attempt to put on my new harness. Its windy and my hands are cold. My old harness which I used for over 10 years is a faithful friend. I can lie down in the dark in a tent with freezing hands and put it on without even looking. My new harness has got me all confused. Maybe its the altitude. It takes me several minutes of getting tangles up in my crampons, getting it around the wrong way before I finally admit defeat and sit there staring at the jumbled mess between my feet. Its impossible. It can’t go on. Its not designed correctly. Maybe this is a good excuse to give up and go back to ABC? Then I spot two small buckles which need to be undone to easily slip it on. I feel a little embarressed at this pathetic display.
The other climber introduces himself. His name is David from Hungary. I immediately know who he is. His basecamp manager emailed me a few months ago about their expedition. I did some research into them and found that David and his teammate were involved in an ice-fall on the North Col in 2010. David’s teammate was killed. David was injured. I wondered how David felt about preparing now to climb back up the North Col the route that killed his friend two years back.
David set-off first climbing. I decided to climb behind him. He is attempting Everest without oxygen this year. It felt great to be climbing something finally instead of walking around like a trekker. The first pitch had some blue ice. I soon got into a ryhthm, slide the jumar, pull myself up, step up each leg. Slide, pull, step, step. David was making a load carry to the Col, with a tent etc. I was carrying very little so I soon past him.
The wind became stronger as I climbed higher. As this was my first time to these altitudes and I was acclimatising it was brutally hard work. Slowly I climbed by myself, higher and higher up the fixed ropes. The higher I climbed the longer I rested between each step. After 4 hours from leaving basecamp I had almost reached the top of the snow ramp just under the North Col camp site. The wind was barrelling in and freezing my hands. Climbing at altitude is brutal enough to deal with the lack of oxygen alone. If you add in high force, freezing winds then it becomes much more of a struggle. Each gust freezes your extremities, makes breathing the raw cold air very painful and seems to suck the energy from your body.
Looking down between my legs I saw some of my team mates turning back and heading back down the Col. I later found out this was due to the cold. Reaching the snow ramp I was feeling very tired and my hands were freezing. I now had about a 50m low angled traverse to get to a ladder which leads steeply 20m upto the North Col itself. I took it 5 steps at a time. Stopping for 2 or 3 minutes after each 5 steps to pant, bend down and shelter my face from the wind, massage my freezing hands and recover enough energy to continue. It was not pretty, or fast but I finally made it to the base of the ladder to see my teammate Ian descending. He also looked beaten up. I used the last of energy getting up that thing he gasped to me. We sat there for a minute or two. would you mind taking a photo of me climbing the ladder I asked? sure but you will have to be quick, I am too cold and need to get down he replied. Fuck it I thought. I have photo’s from last year climbing this thing. We wished each other a safe trip back down the Col and he set off down.
As I sat there I wondered if I should climb the final 20 or 30m to the Col or try and warm my hands and make a Satellite phone update to my blog. The mountain made the decision for me, and the winds seems to suddenly drop off. I worked on my hands to get some warmth back into them then pulled out the satellite phone and made an audio post. Not sure if it worked or not I also called David Lim who seemed surprised to get a call from the North Col of Everest, then also called Stephanie to say hello. It seemed bizarre to speak to someone in a warm safe environment at sea-level while sitting at 7000m in freezing winds on the North Col.
The wind did not let up for long. After half a snickers bar and some mouthfuls of water I set-off back down the Col. Reminding myself to be careful on the descent. I abseiled the steeper sections and for some less steep parts in the centre I arm-wrapped the descent. Arm-wrap is where you face forward down hill and wrap the rope around your arm to act as a brake. This is a fast way of getting down but you need to be careful to stay in control.
It took me just under one hour to get down. I was very tired when I reached the bottom. The combination of the new altitude and the freezing winds had taken it out of me. I felt more tired after 6 7 hours of climbing the North Col here at 7000m than I did after a marathon 29 hour day climbing the West Ridge of Malte Brun in New Zealand in February at only 3000m elevation.
As I crossed the plateau back to crampon point the wind upped its intensity. Breathing hurt, the air felt so cold. I stopped and took a short video (see below). I tripped on my crampons twice and fell over forward. This only happens when I get tired. I was quite relieved to reach crampon point which offered a little shelter and take off the metal spikes from my feet.
From crampon point the trail is on mixed terrain down to ABC. Most of the trail is rocky moraine, with some icy and snowy patches. Coming across one icy patch I contemplated getting my axe off my pack. Bugger it I thought too tired. After two steps, bang, I slipped straight over on my back. I lay there for a minute feeling winded and tired and looked up at the clouds rolling past. How nice it would be to have a quick sleep here I thought. Struggling to my feet I took two more steps down and bang, I was flat on my back again. I am glad no one saw this I thought to myself. How to climb Mt Everest if I can’t even negotiate a small icy patch on the trail?
Hahaha Grant Rawlinson, we saw that, both times I heard a voice shout out. Jamie McGuiness came wandering around the trail and had witnessed the event. He came over and helped me up and untie my camera strap which had caught around my jacket in the falls. We had a quick chat.
20 minutes later I was down in Advanced basecamp, and was greeted by Phil with a mug of steaming milk tea. What heaven.
I was tired but very happy. I feel like a mountaineer again.
Day 7 A.B.C to Basecamp
Another windy night. I feel at times the wind is going to pick up the tent and blow it away. With me in it. Even though I am tired I don’t sleep well. The roar of the gusts of wind coming, the shaking of the tent. It sometimes feels like I am in a washing machine.
We all leave soon after breakfast. I walk with Margaret and her Sherpa named Cheddar. My legs feel a little tired on the walk down. I remind myself I just climbed a 7000m peak yesterday. It takes over 5 hours to get down to basecamp. We get hammered by the wind as we come down the miracle highway. At one point it almost blows me off my feet. Wind, wind, wind, why is there so much wind? cries Margaret. I am beginnnig to hate the miracle highway.
We reach basecamp around 3pm. Each 100m we descend the oxygen feels richer, my thoughts become clearer and more positive, the temperature seems warmer and breathing becomes a little easier. Coming back to basecamp is like re-entering Shangri-La. The ground is flat, we have a large spacious dining tent, nice food. We even have some beer and wine.
That night I get into my tent after dinner and the wind is still rattling the fabric. For some reason it really pisses me off. Why won’t the wind just ease up for awhile? I can hardly sleep at all that night.
The next day is a nice rest day at basecamp. Phil as usual, explains and discusses possible summit strategies amongst us. He has much experience on the North side of Everest. But he was not here last year when I was. Phil’s memories of Everest from the North side are of potentially long summit windows, and possible earlier summit’s that the South side. He sometimes makes the North side sound friendly.
My memories from last year of the North side are of a mountain that hated me. Of Pulmonary Edema and tooth abscesses. Of huddling into the exit cracks at 8350m at midnight on the 26th May, with my eyes closed against the huge wind gusts, screaming painful insults into my oxygen mask as my fingers froze.
I will post some more photo’s of the climbing route up the north col tomorrow.
Bye for now from a windy basecamp in Tibet.