We just returned from our first acclimatization rotation up Mt Everest, and everything is going well!!
Acclimatization rotations are how we expose our bodies gradually to thinner and thinner air. Our first rotation involved climbing Lobuche Peak (~19,500'). The second rotation that we just finished took us to the base of the Lhotse face (~21,500'), and our third rotation will take us halfway up the Lhotse face to Camp 3 (~24,000'). On our fourth rotation, we will attempt the summit. Between rotations, we take 3-4 rest days back at base camp (17,500'), so that we can sleep and eat.
This rotation began at 2am on Saturday morning. A couple of sections of the Khumbu icefall had collapsed since our 'dry run' the week before, but the Icefall Doctors had charted a new and solid route through the ice. I felt stronger than I did during our dry-run, thanks to the extra days at altitude, and my Sherpa climbing partner and I had no problems crossing the crevasses, dancing across the ice bridges, and climbing the hanging ladders. At the top of the icefall, our tents greeted us from between 2 crevasses. Camp 1 (~19,000') offered us our first view of the Lhotse face, which leads up to the South Col between Everest and Lhotse, and the base of which was a few miles up the Western Cwm east of Camp 1. Looking up at the Cwm and back over the icefall, I really got a sense for the glacier tumbling down like a waterfall. The Western Cwm glacier starts at the base of the Lhotse face. For a few miles, the glacier is smooth and flat, and doesn't have many visible crevasses (cracks). Then, as the glacier goes over the lip of the falls (near Camp 1), the top layer of the glacier has to cover a greater distance than the lower layers, which opens up massive crevasses. As the glacier cascades down, both the upper and lower layers of the glacier descend quickly, leaving a dynamic combination of crevasses and ice blocks. Most of the icefall feels like house-sized ice chunks are rolling downhill as quickly as their weight and the momentum of the glacier will allow. At the bottom of the falls near basecamp, as the ice collides with the Khumbu Glacier, there are fewer massive crevasses and more ice obstacles forced upward due to the merging ice flows.
We spent our first night at Camp 1, carbo-loading with oatmeal, ramen noodle soup, and military MREs. On Sunday, we crossed and zig-zagged between seemingly bottomless crevasses for a little more than a mile (gaining ~750') to the base of the Nuptse face, which was about half way to Camp 2.
On Monday, we moved up to Camp 2 (~21,000'), which meant sleeping at a higher elevation than the highest point on 5 continents. I managed to get 9 hours of fitful sleep on our first night there, which I took as a good sign of my acclimatization.
On Tuesday, we went for a short hike up to the base of the Lhotse face (~21,500'), and I got a close-up view of the 4,500' of 45-50 degree ice we would have to climb to reach the South Col between Everest and Lhotse. The route looked long, but this year the fixing teams have installed two ropes up the face to make it easier to pass folks who are dangerously slow. Despite the elevation, the upper Cwm and Lhotse face were hot, as sheets of ice on all sides reflected the sun on us. I couldn't believe the number of climbers I saw wearing their full down-suits (normally left for summit day). I was in a long sleeve and climbing pants, and I was still more worried about over heating than I was about falling or suffering altitude-related illness. Tuesday night I slept much better, which I took as a good sign that the rotation had served its purpose.
This morning, we descended quickly to basecamp. Another section of the icefall had toppled on Monday night, and the new route involved four ladders lashed together, suspended from a cliff. This new section was a bit spicier than what we had ascended, but we all made it through fine. Basecamp meant showers, laundry and an enormous lunch, and I'm already looking forward to the next couple of days of laying out and reading on the 'Sherpa beach'—the patch of ice on which our Sherpa lay out a large piece of foam for sunbathing and listening to Tibetan pop music. I've just started Drive by Daniel Pink, and his study on human motivation is fascinating!
A friend recently asked "what goes through your mind as you're climbing?" To which I guess I would answer, "not much, beyond the immediate focus on my body and the task at hand." When the terrain is mellow, I focus on my pace to make sure that I am going slowly enough to avoid overstraining myself or breathing so hard that I give myself the "Khumbu Cough" (which can result from lots of hard breathing in the cold, dry air). I think about pressure-breathing to keep my blood oxygenated, and I use a rest-step to force a slow pace. When the terrain is more technical (like in the icefall), I focus only on the immediate obstacle—be it safely rappelling down an ice cliff, or ensuring my crampon serrations don't get stuck on a ladder rung. There, I wait until the terrain is safer to stop and recalibrate things like pace, breathing, hydration, body heat, etc. I think one of the reasons mountaineering is so relaxing for me is precisely this absence of thought. I can hike/climb for hours without ever really thinking about anything but the trail, and I love that.
On Sunday, while we were walking along the base of the Nuptse face, world-famous Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck was climbing far above us and fell to his death. The New York Times reported that his was the first official death of the season on Mt Everest, and it was made that much more tragic due to Ueli's skill and passion for the sport. While Ueli was climbing and preparing for much riskier routes than we are, the tragedy still drove home the dangers of this place. I reaffirm my commitment to safety during this climb, even as I grieve the death of the man who was so full of life when we met him in Namche Bazaar just a couple of weeks ago.
Thank you all for supporting intercultural youth exchange; I will write again in about 7-10 days, after our rotation to Camp 3.