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Kanchenjunga - how could a summit push go so wrong?

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View from Kanch en-route to Camp 4 View from Kanch en-route to Camp 4
You think you have all bases covered.  Then everything falls apart.  You are left to question ‘how could a summit push go so wrong?’ 

I’ve struggled with how much to say, and after watching ‘Frozen’ only about 20 times how to ‘let it go’.  I’ve been encouraged to be frank as a lesson to other climbers (and myself)… so here goes…

Chris W and Matt, who along with Simone Moro, are the two most experienced, strongest foreign male climbers on Kanchenjunga in 2017.  They (the two former) flew out of BC this morning.  Chris W came down from our summit push with a chest infection – he knew the possible consequences of making another summit attempt.  Matt’s lingering high altitude cough was also enough for him to call time on the expedition.  As for me, I’m still at BC pondering my next move, with my facial sunburn, split lips, a bruised ego from falling through a softened snow bridge, a newly acquired high altitude cough and the knowledge that my teammates have flown home.

Which brings me to our summit push…

As background, Lakpa wanted teams to co-ordinate to have all the summit ropes fixed on this very big mountain before any summit push started.  He was not able to secure agreement of other teams to this proposal – mainly because it requires a big energy commitment before any summit push (and energy costs money as it means more Sherpa power).  Our small team has the highest number of Sherpas with prior experience on this mountain.  Pema has 3 prior summits here.  Lakpa knew what this mountain required for success.  Our team came here armed with the commitment and the resources to do what needed to be done beyond what could be reasonably expected of our small team.  Lakpa was advised by another expedition operator to bring 7,000m of rope.  He secured 9,000m and then organized another 1,000m after that amount was used to tie down tents at BC due to high winds. 

However, as a small team, we are but a cog in the wheel…

We started the summit push on 14th from BC to Camp 2 with a view to summiting on 17th.  It was not the ideal weather window but if you wait for a perfect one, you can wait forever.  Whilst at Camp 2 resting in the afternoon, I turned on the satellite phone to see if there was an on-mountain weather update, and there was.  It indicated that our proposed summit day of 17th was no more.  The winds were projected to be higher than previously anticipated by the majority of the available weather forecasts, and 18th and 19th looked potentially yukky too.  We called down to the Italian team at BC to see if they had a weather update and theirs was consistent with ours.  The Italians were now aborting a further rotation that they had planned for 17th. 

We discussed our options as a team.  Chris W was keen to give 16th summit day a go – he moves faster than most here.  Matt was reserved due to a high altitude cough, but open to options.  We discussed that this push need not be the only option.  We could abort, descend to BC and try again.  Despite his cough, Matt felt strong, is a fast mover and decided to go up.  As for me, I wanted to go up but I was concerned about a jump from Camp 2 to Camp 4 (in order to try summit on 16th) and how that could impact me physically.  So, I said if I felt bad at Camp 4 then I would abort there and hope for a window to open before the end of the month – never a guarantee.  So, the consensus was that we climb from Camp 2 to Camp 4 in a single push on 15th, rest at Camp 4 and leave that night to try to summit on 16th, as the other climbers already aiming for a 16th summit day (OCs) planned to do.  (On the original schedule, the OCs would try for the summit on 16th, and we would have been a day behind).  We decided to start on a low flow of O2 before Camp 4 to try and preserve our health and energy given the unplanned jump from Camp 2 to 4.  As it turned out, our health concerns were the least of our worries. 

The night of the 15th and the morning and early afternoon of the 16th were great summit day conditions, better than many I have experienced before.  This mighty mountain was prepared to co-operate – this is a rare thing.  But, we let the mountain down in a way I did not expect…

At 7.45pm, I noticed that Camp 4 was quieter than I expected, aside from our tents as two Sherpas in our team were getting ready to leave at 8pm to help with route setting to the summit.  I asked Lakpa why it was so quiet if Sherpas were getting ready to leave.  He noticed too.  He called out to the ‘leader’ of most OCs about their Sherpas also leaving at 8pm to help fix the route.  No, was the reply: their Sherpas were tired and, in any event, the Sherpas did not need to leave until 10pm as the route setting was nearly done, he said.  He also said that the OCs were leaving Camp 4 at the same time as the route setters – this told me more than he will appreciate.  Aaammmaaaammmaammm! (My new favourite Nepali expression that needs no translation – more about the tone than the word.  A common expression you hear when a Sherpa is losing at playing cards when beans or rupees are involved…).

Lakpa immediately went to other tents – I knew there was a problem and I was pretty sure I knew what it was: route setting issue. 

In his calm way, Lakpa tried to address the route setting issue: Sherpa power was required.  He added Pema to the team.  Lakpa asked the ‘leader’ of most OCs how much rope was required to complete the route.  Not much: about 200m.  Lakpa elected for the route setters to take all the remaining rope situated at Camp 4 – 600m, just to be sure.  How high was the route set to? 8,100m, Lakpa was told by the ‘leader’.  It had been fixed earlier on 15th, he said.  Both pieces of critical information from this chap - he who had actually been part of the crew performing the task - turned out to be critically incorrect.  But, we would not find this out until nearly 12 hours later, when it was too late.  This mis-information changed the whole summit outcome for everyone.   

I needed to eat before we left our tent to go up.  Oddly, I could not stomach any food other than noodle soup, which I don’t eat on a mountain or even at sea level, though it is a very good energy source on a mountain for most people.  I then lay down to doze and Lakpa woke me up at 10pm.  I had nausea.  I needed to be sick.  Perhaps the noodle soup, since I don’t normally eat it.  It would be another 8-10 hours before I discovered it was not the noodle soup but the wrong time of the month for me.  This is bad news for leg power and can be really risky at this altitude.  Aaammmaaaammmaammm!

Lakpa and I left Camp 4 after Matt and most OCs were ahead. I was concerned about leaving at a time close to the route setters.  Chris W and Tshering would leave an hour or so later.  Assuming the headlights furthest in the distance were the route setting team, Lakpa and I tried to maintain a steady pace not to catch them – otherwise you just stand around and freeze in the cold, waiting for ropes to be fixed.  In any event, I felt dodgy so a slow pace worked for me.

For hours through the night we watched headlights cluster as climbers lined up in the cold behind the route setting team.  As we closed on them we would stop, drink and jiggle to keep warm.  As daylight broke we watched the conga-line ahead that poor Matt and Chris W were now stuck in – it appeared not to move for well over an hour.  At about 10am, Lakpa and I reached the cluster of climbers to discover the rope supply had run out.  This was pretty unexpected given discussions with the ‘leader’ of most OCs at Camp 4.  I was so stunned I could hardly speak.  After a 60 second discussion on the situation with our team members, our team decided to descend asap.  (For a few brief seconds, I chastised myself for not bringing a few extra pieces of technical equipment on my harness which could possibly have got us out of the situation, but when I realized we were still around 6 hours from the summit, and in the circumstances the best decision was to go down).

In my mind, the folly of not having enough rope despite discussing this very crucial topic with the relevant people at Camp 4 didn’t warrant further discussion at 8,000m, where oxygen deprivation and fatigue can cloud judgment.  Been there, done that, know of people who have died in similar situations: game over, go down.  But, as I descended I spent a lot of time thinking ‘how could this be?’

We descended all the way to Camp 2 and slept overnight before descending to BC on the morning of 17th. 

At BC, the painful western post-mortem began in earnest.  Culturally, the Sherpa post-mortem is very different…  

One comment of an OC to me was that the ‘leader’ of most OCs acknowledged to that OC in the aftermath that before everyone left Camp 4 he knew there was insufficient rope to complete the route.  If our team had known that to be the case, we would have changed our strategy – without a doubt.  So, why were we given incorrect information?  I have to believe inexperience played a key part, and there must have been no appreciation by the chap of the consequences.

The same OC commented to me that the route setters were too slow and [to paraphrase] ‘if a route setter knows climbers are coming up behind them, they should move faster’.  This comment upset me, demonstrating a lack of understanding of expedition climbing, a lack of respect for the role of the Sherpas in the process and for their culture generally.  I could not respond.  The OC was particularly critical of how long it took the route setters to re-set the ropes across a HUGE crevasse, and why did they wait for another Sherpa to arrive before re-setting the ropes.  To me the reasons were clear.  I could not respond.  In the dark, I looked inside the crevasse with my head torch and the thin top lip hid a wide, deep cavern that was just waiting to gobble up unsuspecting climbers.  Aaammmaaaammmaammm!

Another OC, whom I have been on another mountain with where he demonstrated a great deal of common sense when we faced extreme conditions, is now reconsidering his future in 8,000m climbing, having not seen something like this happen on a mountain before.  Neither have I.

Lakpa and I spend a lot of time trying to anticipate what may or may not happen on a mountain where humans are involved.  This happening blindsided us both.

This is a short version of summit push events.  The longer version would serve as a great case for further study (!).

On the positive side, the SST Sherpa left at Camp 4 for around 24-36 hours after getting altitude sickness has been rescued with the assistance of some SST climbers who were still at Camp 4 resting before descending, and by Pemba Geljen Sherpa from the Italian team – Pemba climbed up from BC with an SST Sherpa yesterday at amazing speed to rescue the stricken Sherpa, who for much of the time was conscious but unable to walk.  When Lakpa and I became aware of the drama unfolding yesterday afternoon we let it be known that our medical kit was in our tent at Camp 3 and the OCs could get life saving medicine from that kit (which they used), pending Pemba climbing high enough with more of that medicine in injectable form (which has a faster effect).  Superb work by Simone Moro to co-ordinate and monitor the whole process throughout for the SST team.  The SST Sherpa was heli’ed out today.  (But for bad weather, he would have been heli’ed off the mountain immediately once his condition was known).

With the post-mortem done, time now to step back and look for a positive way to move forward.  I like the lessons I learn in mountains but this has been a very costly and time consuming one, with an unexpected outcome for an unexpected reason. 

Thank you to Chris W and Matt for being part of this expedition.  Lakpa and I, and all the team, wish you a safe trip back to your warm homes.  Awesome climbers and awesome people.  We miss you already.

I’ll post again once our remaining team have rested, recharged and considered whether we try to go up again or whether we take our leave…  Kanchenjunga will be the ultimate determiner as to what happens next.  

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