Chris W left a day later than the rest of us as he wanted a 2-3 day rotation, Matt was flexible and I wanted a 4-day rotation.
For Matt, Lakpa and me it went like this:
3rd May BC to Camp 1
4th May Camp 1 to Camp 2
5th May At Camp 2
6th May At Camp 2
7th May Camp 2 to Camp 3
8th May Descend to BC
So, it was all a lot longer than planned…
On 4th May, Matt, Lakpa and I left Camp 1 and headed to our new upper Camp 2 at 6,400m. We stopped there with Chris W. The weather was following its usual pattern: clear and warm mornings, light snow in the afternoons and jet stream winds overnight. We decided to stay a second night at Camp 2 as the weather forecast was a bit iffy. That night, climbers at Camp 3 got hammered by the jet stream winds. They descended the next morning as snow fell. Climbers at BC spent time trying to save tents threatening to blow away. We decided to stay put at Camp 2 for another night – if we descended to BC there were a lot of adverse consequences for us: a further rotation, burning more energy and possibly getting weaker rather than acclimatizing well and getting strong. One descending foreign climber warned us of heavy snowfall coming so he was heading down to BC. We decided to rely on our weather forecast, and bear the risk of staying put. Chris W felt he had acclimatized as per his plan so he descended to BC too.
Early on 5th, Tshering and the other 2 route setters from SST called Lakpa on the radio and asked if they could or should descend because of the high winds and abandon trying to complete the route to Camp 4. I knew and Lakpa would have known that if they descended the strategy in play would have fallen apart. I also knew that if Matt or I wanted to descend to BC because of the weather that such a move would trigger our remaining team to descend, and also the route setters – essentially, our decision was their weather forecast. Matt, Lakpa and I had waited out bad weather before. We decided to try one more night at Camp 2 to see if there was enough of a window in the morning for us to ascend to Camp 3 to sleep for one night, and for Tshering and the 2 other route setters to complete the route to Camp 4.
The jet stream winds stopped hitting us by around 11pm on 5th, and by early morning on 6th we awoke to clear skies and no wind! We decided to leave Camp 2 really early in order to get firm conditions under foot, but it was bone rattling cold. Tshering radioed to Lakpa that they were moving up from Camp 3 to fix the route to Camp 4. Perfect!
Matt battled cold toes and I battled cold fingers and toes. I was warned of a wide, deep, crevasse to jump over and added to the story was that one other (younger, athletic) woman climber had fallen in the crevasse 3 times. What hope did I have? I spent the whole of the climb to Camp 3 worrying about the crevasse. Turns out I had stepped over it without incident somewhere at the start of the climb, so I suspect minds were working over time with the story about the woman falling in…
As we ascended to Camp 3 starting about 7am, I begged for the sun to come up to unfreeze my fingers and toes. By about 9am the slope warmed up and we were sweltering for the last 2 hours to Camp 3. We arrived about 11am, Matt and Lakpa ahead of me, and within a further hour enough time had passed for Tshering and the 2 SST Sherpas to complete the route to Camp 4: huge work for only 3 people. As news spread via radio that the route was in to Camp 4, some climbers at BC were keen to start their summit push plans.
Lakpa continued to climb up halfway to Camp 4 to take up some extra rope and also to look at the route beyond Camp 4, up a couloir, and along the summit ridge. In the same section of the route one Sherpa from our team decided to take a look at the inside of a large crevasse and Pasang (another of Lakpa’s relatives), who was with the chap, was really pleased to get to use the crevasse rescue techniques that he had learnt in his training courses. Tshering would have been pleased to know his anchors held.
Some of the Sherpas from another team had also earlier queried why Tshering has a smaller pack weight than them. Lakpa and other more experienced Sherpas explained the role of the lead route setter. He climbs without a rope ahead of him, he ‘leads’ (and can fall a long way if he falls), and has to go up-down, left-right to find a route, he sets the route, with rope fed out from the Sherpa immediately behind. Then the Sherpas with heavier packs follow to see if they can get up the route. If they can’t, because of the gradient, Tshering has to dismantle the route and find an easier route for the others to pass. The Sherpas with packs that follow are used as a guide to what the foreign climbers might experience on the route.
Within 2 or so hours of us arriving at Camp 3, the weather started to pack in and steady snow arrived. We realized this could be the heavy snow a descending climber had warned us about a couple of days prior as it was definitely more determined to load up our tents than on other days. We could descend in fear of heavy snow or hold up at Camp 3. We decided we would wait out the heavy snow, if that is what this was. It lasted 3 hours and we had clear skies again. Whew!
Sleeping at Camp 3 was one of my worst nights on a mountain – a sloping tent, so we crashed into each other through the night, and I had ice blocks for legs, even with my hot drink bottle being moved around my legs. We estimate it was around minus 15 degrees Celsius, at best. In the middle of the night, I went searching for a thermos with hot water. Once desperate, I had to wake Lakpa to help me find it. I swapped out the water in my bottle with the hot water in the thermos, hoping I could warm up. Nup – my legs remained as ice blocks til morning, and I stayed awake wriggling to try and stay warm.
By the morning of 8th, we had achieved our goal of acclimatizing at Camp 3, 6,900m, and off we descended to BC after sunshine hit the slopes. Matt set off with cold toes and I had cold fingers. I had trouble using my hands. Descending on ropes and changing at anchors was tricky. As a result, I lost my footing in the fresh, deep snow on one occasion. Our packs were weighty, as we needed to take our sleeping bags and other gear back down to Camp 2 ready for our summit push.
We had only intended a 4 day rotation maximum, but managed 5 days, a delicate balance between acclimatizing enough but not staying up too long such that you get weak or you otherwise get sick. Matt, Lakpa and I felt good so it all worked well. Except, that by day 3 my brain started rejecting any food in the tent… except initially cheese and crackers, and then it was plain crackers only – a symptom of altitude. So, as we descended and got more oxygen into our systems with the thicker air, I just wanted food, food and food and kept reciting Dome’s name and the food I wanted first up at BC. Matt was still moving fast as we descended so I felt a bit neurotic that I just wanted food asap.
At Camp 1, we met the Italian team (including Pemba Geljen Sherpa) who were heading up. I managed only a hello before I walked over to where Matt and Lakpa were at our tent, dropped my pack, sat on it, and stared down at the snow lamenting my lot. I was exhausted, beat and done. I wanted to roll over and lie on the snow and just stay there, if it wasn’t so cold. But, my head knew the only way I was going to get food to solve my woes was to get to BC. Lakpa offered chocolate – I could manage a piece.
Matt and I arrived to BC to a meal we requested over our radio (and I was dreaming about): paneer chilli, Dome’s world’s best potato chips, Dome’s secret sauce and slices of cucumber.
We have lost some weight – pants are starting to need suspenders. Some of the weight will be due to exertion and some will be water weight, due to dehydration / water loss that occurs at altitude.
On the night of the 8th, with the extra acclimatization under our belts, I had the warmest sleep so far on this expedition.
Now we rest, relax, recharge and after a day or so we will request updated weather forecasting so that we can see when is a good time for us to go for the summit – we plan a 3-4 day summit push up and 1-2 days down. We hear that dates are starting to be set for summit pushes on Everest and Lhotse but we are in a different part of Nepal and our weather will likely be different. Not long now. But, first, we really need to rest up… will write again once we are making our move.