Practice Run No.4: 2nd Acclimatisation Rotation and Video Tour of Camp 2

In Practice Run No.4by Steve

Another trip to Camp 2 now back in Base Camp ready for final summit push.

Last Saturday we headed back up through the Khumbu Icefall for our second acclimatisation rotation. We set off from Base Camp a touch earlier this time, at around 03:15, as we were aiming to go straight to Camp 2 in the day, skipping Camp 1. It was a clear, cold morning. I had no intent on dragging the climb out, instead put my head down and focused on Camp 2.

Despite a heavy pack, fully laden with all my high altitude gear and food I’ll need for my final summit push, I was feeling pretty good. I was through the Icefall and at Camp 1 by 06:15. After stopping for a quick sip from my water bottle which was already half frozen, I was at Camp 2 by 07:45, more than 1000m elevation gain above Base Camp. My time of 4.5hrs wasn’t setting any records, but it was still respectable, very respectable, especially considering I was carrying a full pack nudging 20kg (I probably took a bit too much food). I have heard of some people taking over 16hrs though. Credit to their perseverance but that’s a long day out.

Climbing is not a race. It’s a personal challenge. Everyone is aiming to achieve their own ambitions, their own goals and that’s great. But that being said, in the alpine environment, especially on these big hills, I believe it is important to be self-sufficient and capable of moving at a reasonable pace. Otherwise you’re not only a liability to yourself, but also to those who have to help you. There are inherent hazards in mountaineering; altitude related illnesses, objective dangers (i.e. avalanches, crevasses, ice/rock fall), weather, exposure, etc. However most of these can be partially mitigated by an ability to move competently at a solid pace. Not racing, not rushing, but at a steady, solid pace to minimise exposure time. The emphasise needs to be on safety.

From what I have observed, for some people here, while their goals may be admirable, they do not have the competence or skill set to back it up. They should probably be spending more time training and preparing on easier objectives before tackling the tallest mountain in the world. On the other hand, Expedition Operators should probably be more stringent on who they accept before just taking their money. But I guess that’s commercialisation on Everest. What is most tragic though is that amongst all this, some will pay the ultimate price. Anyway, I need to just focus on what I’m doing, on getting up and down safely.

Sunday we had a lazy day in Camp 2 giving our bodies time to acclimatise. It was a beautiful afternoon. While sitting out on a rock enjoying the view I observed a group of people gather further down on the Western Cwm. Shortly after, two helicopters came in, landed and took off again. It is very unusual for choppers to be up this high, however I just thought that a couple of people were getting evacuated with altitude sickness. It wasn’t until our evening radio call with Base Camp that I found out that Ueli Steck had had an accident training for his dual Everest/Lhotse attempt and had died. Ueli would have to have been one of the best modern day alpinists. A phenomenal athlete. An inspiration. We were all shocked and saddened to hear the news. Unfortunately, accidents do happen.

Monday we attempted to tag Camp 3 and return to Camp 2. I had already been up there with Scott on our previous rotation, but was heading up again, this time with the rest of our group. We set off at about 06:30. About an hour and a half in we were nearing the base of the Lhotse Face and the winds were starting to pick up. Nothing compared to what Scott and I had endured on our previous rotation, but still not entirely pleasant. Some others weren’t coping too well. The decision was made for the group to turn back. I had the option to go back with them, or continue on by myself. I was feeling good and wanted to go on, but climbing by yourself isn’t necessarily safest and my radio had died so I had no comms. Plus I had already done my acclimatisation rotation up there so there was little to be gained. I turned around and headed back to Camp 2 with the rest of our team. I know it was probably the right decision, but still I felt weak, like a quitter, for making excuses and turning back. Plus I felt like a fraud for not living up to my mantra, “Go with the decision that will make for a great story”. No good story involves quitting. Sorry, hopefully I’ll make up for it next time.

As I mentioned previously, Camp 2 is situated on rocky moraine down the side of the Western Cwm. Directly behind is the West ridge of Everest, a steep face, mainly rock but with patches of ice and snow. Partway through the night I woke suddenly to a loud thundering noise. There are avalanches and ice falls everyday, but this one was close, very close. I immediately sat bolt upright and Scott, my tent partner, did the same. We glanced at each other as the tumbling ice roared outside. In your tent, in your sleeping bag, what can you do? Brace and wait for impact… there’s no time to do anything else. Fortunately there was no impact, the main area of collapse was slightly downhill of us. Hmmm, that was close. Back to sleep.

I woke planning on a quick decent down to Base Camp, hoping to get in in time for a late breakfast. The Khumbu Icefalll had other ideas. Scott and I were walking together. We’d gone through Camp 1 and were at the top of the Icefall just as the sun started to hit us. There was a large group of people gathering about a hundred meters further down the crevassed slope. Another guy from our group who had set off ahead of us was in the group. We radioed to ask what was happening. There had been a collapse, route wiped out and no one was getting through. The Icefall Doctors were scrambling to get a temporary route in place. Off to the side, directly above where the group had gathered, there was a steep face coated in massive, unstable ice boulders. We decided to wait where we were rather than put ourselves in the firing line with the rest of the group. We warned others coming down behind us, some also stopped and waited with us in a safe zone, but most continued on and added to the growing group. I didn’t put a watch on it, but we must have been waiting there for the best part of two hours. More worrying, this growing group was standing in the firing line of these large unstable ice boulders for the best part of two hours as the temperature got hotter and hotter. It was incredibly dangerous. Stupid decision making leading to unnecessary risk. Although with my track record, that’s probably a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

Eventually a temporary route was established and people started moving again. The landscape had changed so much from the collapse I didn’t even recognise it. The new route required a horizontal double ladder crossing bridging to a narrow ice pillar, then an abseil off the ice pillar down to a vertical ladder, then eventually reaching stable ice below. Watching the queue of people trying to navigate this section would have been comical if it wasn’t so sad. The number of people who needed help with their rope work while transitioning from the horizontal ladder to the vertical abseil while balancing on this ice pillar was astonishing. It significantly added to the congestion and time required to clear the traffic. Again it highlighted some of the issues around commercialisation on Everest and the skill of some who sign up.

Anyway, once through this section I raced through the rest of the Icefall as quick as I could. It was late morning by this stage and the sun was beaming down. Not a time to be lingering in the unstable Icefall. I made good progress through the rest of the Icefall but with the delays, it was still 12:30 until I got in to Base Camp. Unfortunately missed my bacon and egg breakfast.

Well, that’s the end of our acclimatisation rotations. The next time I go up the hill I’ll be aiming to go all the way. But for now we’re now back in Base Camp playing the waiting game, waiting on weather.

“Go with the decision that will make for a great story”.