Practice Run No.4: Lhotse Summit Day and a Painful Trek Out

In Practice Run No.4by Steve

Done! Now I can start training, planning and preparing for “7in4”!!

A week ago with rope fixing stalled on both Everest (South side) and Lhotse, it looked like I could be sitting around and waiting in Base Camp for some time, waiting for another opportunity to attempt the summit. A week later and I’ve been up, been down and now home sleeping in my own bed. Relieved more than anything else. It’s all a little surreal.

Pivotal to this story is the Gurkha Everest Expedition Team. In 2015, to celebrate 200 years of service to The British Crown, a team of serving Gurkha soldiers was assembled to attempt the highest point on earth. That year the tragic Nepalese earthquake hit and the entire climbing season was shut down. This year they returned to finish what they started. The team comprised more than a dozen serving Gurkha Soldiers of various rank, and was bolstered with a few active British SAS guys. They were there to get a job done.

The Ghurka team had acclimatised early, like we had, and were also set back due to the rope fixing debacle. Following one of the base camp meetings between expedition leaders which disintegrated in to finger pointing, the Gurkhas/SAS decided to put the politics aside and assemble their own rope fixing team. They needed some support, so our team and another small team on the hill were invited to join the mutiny. It meant another shot at an early summit and a chance to get up before the crowds. I was in.

Breaking rank and bypassing the traditional rope fixing team was likely to put a few noses out of joint. Also, if other teams knew we were going up, there was a high chance they’d send climbers up with potential for congestion and confusion, so it was decided to try and keep our plans under wraps.

That all unfolded on the 12th. Early morning 13th, Tim (our expedition leader), Scott (our assistant leader) and myself, together with some of our Sherpas, headed back up through the Icefall for Camp 2. It was a massive turnaround from the day before when it looked like we could be waiting at least a week for another summit attempt. The other four clients in my group had gone down to Namche to rest and decided it was too rushed to try and get back in time. Scott had also gone to Namche but got the first chopper back to Base Camp when he heard it was back on. It made me thankful for my decision to wait in Base Camp ready to jump at any opportunity that may arise. After all, I was here to climb, not to sit in Namche eating apple pie.

We had an uneventful trip up through the Icefall. A bit of congestion and delays down low with other climbers still going up on acclimatisation rotations, but overall I made good time and got to Camp 2 in 3hrs 50min, aided by a light pack since all my gear and food was already up there. At Camp 2 the Gurkha’s camp was directly next to ours so we sat down and discussed plans and logistics for the coming days. It was great to see some drive and enthusiasm to make this happen. The only downside was, the Gurkha’s focus was Everest, and Tim and Scott were also heading to Everest, so Lhotse was left as a bit of an afterthought. But a small, albeit less coordinated team of Sherpas was assembled to try and fix ropes up Lhotse and I had the opportunity to tag along.

That afternoon in Camp 2 was brutal. It was a still afternoon and the sun was beating down, radiating within the Western Cwm like a cauldron. The tent was the only place to escape the direct sun, but it heated up like an oven. It was worse than a +40degC summer day back home. I just lay there, tent doors open front and back to try and get some air flow. I did get a few interesting looks from other climbers walking past on the main trail, glancing in to my tent and seeing me lying there in nothing but my jocks. Then as soon as the sun disappeared, it was straight back on with the down jackets and pants. The temperature variations were extreme.

On the 14th we pushed up to Camp 3. From there on up I was climbing in my down suit, a highly fashionable, bright orange, onesie. Not that I needed it just yet, but with all my other gear I was carrying, there was no room to fit the suit in my bag so had to wear it. To avoid overheating, we left early to do most of the climb before the sun hit. But there really is no happy middle ground. Instead of scorching heat, it was about negative 18degC.

The route from Camp 2 starts off relatively flat as you weave up the Western Cwm, then you cross the bergschrund and from there on its straight up the steep Lhotse face. Conditions were much nicer than the first time I came up. The winds were light and with more traffic having been up and down, the face was no longer sheer blue ice, but started to develop divots making foot placement easier.

Camp 3 was cut in to the slope part way up the Lhotse Face at about 7200m. Tim, Scott and I spent the afternoon in the tent playing cards, snacking, melting snow for water, and rehydrating as much as possible. It’s surprising how much water you need at altitude. The tent heated up in the sun, not as bad as down at Camp 2, but still enough to make it hot and stuffy. With three blokes in a small tent, body odour from days of exertion and not showering, smelly socks and boots airing, and all of us suffering HAFE (high altitude flatus expulsion, yes it’s a real medical condition, google it), and then the whole concoction gently warmed, you can only imagine the smell. That night for the first time we slept with supplemental oxygen, or O’s. I was breathing ok and didn’t really feel I needed it, but it was meant to help with altitude induced sleep apnoea. Unfortunately it didn’t help with the smell. It was a strange sensation at first, trying to breath and sleep with what was effectively a gas mask on.

Video from Lhotse Camp 3, 14th May 2017

On the 15th we made our way up to Camp 4 at approximately 7800m. The route traversed left across the Lhotse Face then up and across the Yellow Band, a distinctive yellow rock stratum running through the mountain. After the Yellow Band the Everest route continued left over the Geneva Spur and up to the South Col, while I turned right and headed straight up just to the side of a rock formation known as Mushroom Rock, where Lhotse Camp 4 is pitched. By this stage, I’d bid farewell to Tim and Scott who took the Everest route and I was just climbing with Pemba, one of our Sherpas. We cut our tent site into the steep snow face, but it wasn’t quite wide enough so the tent was on a lean with the downhill side falling off the edge of the snow pad we’d established. We slept with our upper bodies on the more stable uphill cut out section, and legs on the downhill softer filled up section. This was ok for Pemba who was shorter than me. But for me it meant sleeping crawled up as the tent wasn’t wide enough. Once more, we spent the afternoon in the now familiar ritual of snacking, melting snow, and rehydrating.

Video from Lhotse Camp 4, 15th May 2017

We heard news that afternoon that members of the Gurkha Team, together with a group of Sherpas, had been successful in fixing ropes and summiting Everest. First summit for the season from the South side and first ever summit for any serving Gurkha member. A wonderful achievement for them. The ropes on Lhotse however still hadn’t progressed much past Camp 4.

That evening, Pemba and I tried radioing in to Base Camp and to Tim at the South Col, but surprise surprise, radios didn’t work. The radio system our team had had proven notoriously unreliable. This was not the first time it had failed. What do they say, “Only a fool makes the same mistake twice”. Maybe I should have done something to try and fix the issue, however I was told it would be fine. So without radio comms I’d be heading up without a latest status update, without latest weather forecast and with no means of calling in support should something go pear shaped. It wasn’t a great situation. Pemba enquired amongst some other Sherpas for latest information, but his English was very limited so trying to get anything translated back to me was near on impossible. Supposedly, the Sherpa team assembled to fix ropes, mates of the Gurkhas, would be setting off during the night, so we’d give them a bit of a head start and set off early morning.

Amongst a mass of confusion and miscommunication, the Sherpas heading up to fix ropes didn’t set off until about 07:00, with clients in tow (which we were trying to avoid). Pemba and I decided to give them a bit of a head start and set off at 08:30. It was very late to be setting off on a summit push, especially on an 8000m peak, but I purposely delayed to minimise time standing around waiting in the cold, risking frostbite. It was far more comfortable in my sleeping bag. Even still, we caught up to the lead group in just over an hour, forming a group of about 12, half Sherpas and half clients. From then on progress was incredibly slow. One person would lead climb dragging the rope out while being belayed from below, then set a top anchor and secure the rope, then wave everyone else up, then repeat the process over and over. It was a constant stop-start exercise. More time spent waiting than climbing. I offered to try and help to speed things up, but a couple of guys at the front wanted to maintain control, plus language barriers were an issue. Had it just been the Sherpas fixing rope, like we’d planned, it would have been ok. But with some ill prepared clients tagging along, it brought things to a crawl, and I mean literally to a crawl.

One client who was paired with the lead rope fixing Sherpa was on his hands and knees trying to crawl up this steep snow filled couloir. So the Sherpa was not only trying to break trail and fix rope, but also help this guy. I had a chat with the client and checked on him. He was barely able to put sentences together, couldn’t regain his breath even while stationary and was really struggling. I suggested he should start descending but he wasn’t having a bar of it.

In one of my previous posts I commented on the level of competence, or more correctly incompetence, of some of the climbers on the hill. An issue brought about by the commercialisation of climbing and companies trying to maximise client numbers. It’s a business, I get it. It’s a huge industry for Nepal. Also I am probably in no position to comment as I too am just a paying client and am relatively inexperienced. However, some of what you see is pretty disconcerting. What the answer is I don’t know, but currently some of what’s going on is not safe. And as I write this, reports are just starting to come in of yet another death on the mountain, an American climber, circumstances unknown. And an Indian climber missing for over 24hrs high up, presumed dead. Unnecessary and avoidable.

Anyway, it was past 15:00 and we were still going up at snail’s pace. The weather, which had been sunny and still all day, was starting to cloud in, temperatures dropped and snow fell. I knew we should have been on our way down long ago. However, personally I still felt comfortable. Physically I felt good, I had more warm clothing in my bag I could still put on if needed, and importantly, I was still on my first bottle of oxygen with a full spare bottle in my back pack. I knew I was operating within my capability. If push came to shove, I still had more to give. I still had a safety net. So I was happy pushing on.

As we edged up, I was doing maths in my head to work out when I’d need to swap to my second oxygen bottle. Each bottle was 4L, charged to 250bar. When we left camp, I’d asked Pemba to turn the regulator up to 2L/min. (Most people will climb with a flow rate between 2 and 4L/min). So theoretically that should have given me 8hrs 20min on one bottle. That would put me at 16:50 when the first bottle would run out.

16:50 came and went and I was still breathing. Always a good thing. I ask Pemba to check my pressure gauge. I still had over 100bar. Was altitude affecting my cognitive ability? Somehow, with language barriers, 2L/min had been interpreted as 1L/min. either that or Pemba had purposely been trying to slow me down. But either way, I’d been running on only 1L/min all day. I can’t complain, it was a good test to see how I was handling the altitude and even with low O’s I felt fine.

Slowly but surely we kept making our way up. I eventually summited with the lead rope fixers around 17:20, Tuesday 16th May, 2017. The first Lhotse summits for the season. The feeling was hard to explain. On previous climbs, most notably Mt Aspiring, Chopicalqui, and Ama Dablam, summiting brought a real sense of joy, a real euphoric high, and even quite emotional. We’d had those climbs predominately to ourselves and they’d been physically draining days climbing fast. But this was different. It was more just pure relief and a release of frustration after a painstakingly slow climb and days of delays in the lead up. I guess this ultra-high expedition style climbing is just a different beast. I can remember the last few steps to the top, rather than exhilaration all I was thinking was, “ok, get up, get a photo, and get the fuck down”. Excuse my French.

And that I did. We spent less than 10min on the top. I congratulated and thanked Pemba (it was his first Lhotse summit as well), got a few quick happy snaps, a few shots for the pool room, even managed a quick video, then commenced a hasty descent. We quickly passed the few people who had summited ahead of us as we made our way for Camp 4. The terrain was tricky, a little too steep and unstable to just arm wrap and walk down comfortably, but not quite steep enough to warrant abseiling. I opted to abseil most of it as it was safer, quicker for me, and less pressure on my aging knees.

Video from Lhotse Summit, 16th May 2017

We got back to Camp 4 at about 19:00, just in time for a brilliant sunset over the Western Cwm. We chucked on a brew then packed up our gear, pulled out the head torches and continued the rest of the way down to Camp 2 in the dark. I think the others who summited that day stayed up at either Camp 4 or 3 as I never saw them again.

Descending the steep Lhotse Face alone in the dark, just Pemba and I, with the moon glistening off the icy face, was probably the highlight of the entire trip. For once I felt the solitude and freedom which I search for in the hills. It seemed a world away from the Everest mayhem, yet we were still right in the middle of it. It was a magic way to end a tumultuous trip.

We eventually reached Camp 2 just after 22:00. Keeping true to form, I downed a hot chocolate, Natural Confectionery Co. packet of dinosaurs (planned to eat them at the top but didn’t have time), and large packet of choc coated sultanas. Eating copious amounts of crap reminded me why I do this. I then suggested to Pemba that we continue down to Base Camp but he wasn’t having a bar of it. So we crashed in the tents for the night and continued the rest of the descent the following morning. Tim and Scott, who had summited Everest the same day I headed up Lhotse, were sound asleep back at Camp 2 by the time I arrived, but we descended to Base Camp the following morning together.

Summit day, being so long and slow, left me feeling a little underwhelmed. I hadn’t been able to push myself to my physical limits. So with that, combined with an urge to get home, I set off first thing the following morning, attempting to walk from Everest Base Camp to Lukla in a day. I managed to send one of my kit bags ahead on a chopper the night before, but had to carry the rest of my gear out. Porters weren’t an option as they take 3 to 4 days to cover the distance. I initially thought it was only 10kg or so in my backpack, but after weighing it back in Lukla it was actually 18kg. Not super heavy, but enough to weigh you down over the course of a day.

After a sleepless night at Base Camp, I had an early breakfast and set off at 06:00 with my 18kg backpack. Strolling the first 15 min through camp felt ok, but the first hill out of camp I realised I was in for a very long day. My legs had nothing, just jelly. While the previous days hadn’t felt exhausting, I guess scaling an 8000m peak does take its toll. I just set my sights on one village at a time. Reached Gorek Shep in an hour. Quick rest. Lobuche in another hour. Then Thukla half an hour after that. The sun was out by this stage and I was starting to warm up, starting to feel alive again. It was spring time in Nepal and green grass and purple flowers were a welcome relief from the hard, cold rock and ice I’d lived on for the past month or so. Periche, Pangboche, Tangboche, Namche… I slowly ticked them off one by one and was making good time. But on the descent out of Namche, my knees blew up and I was brought to a grinding holt. The pain was excruciating.

I’ve been battling sore knees for a couple of years now, always plaguing my training. I just put it down to old-man-itis, but two months out from this trip I thought I should get it check out properly. Saw a Doc and got some MRI scans. Apparently there was significant wear and tear with partially torn tendons. Doctor’s solution, typical medico response – six weeks rest followed by gradual strength building program. My solution, sign up for Lhotse and keep training. I’d been careful to nurse my knees the best I could and was happy they held out as long as they did, but I guess they were now telling me enough was enough. I hobbled the rest of the 62km in to Lukla, eventually arriving at 18:00. A very long and painful 12hr day, but still a pretty good time all things considering. Although I swear that 62km number is measured on a flat piece of paper. Taking into account all the small twists and turns on the path, and the many ups and downs, it has to be a good deal longer than that.

Anyway, the steak I had at the teahouse that night in Lukla was probably the toughest, driest, most overdone piece of meat I’ve ever eaten and yet it tasted so so good. Following morning I was on a flight back to Kathmandu. Quick shower and re-pack and that same day I was on my international flight, first stop Hong Kong, 9hr transit, and then Perth. Home. Four days after standing on the summit of Lhotse, four very long days and sleepless nights, I am now back in my own bed. As I said at the beginning, it’s all still a little surreal.

Looking back over the last 2 months I’ve achieved:

  • 1x Mera Peak summit (6476m).
  • 1x Lobuche East Peak summit (6119m).
  • 9x Everest Base Camp to Kala Patthar (5545m) and return.
  • 2x Everest Base Camp to Pumori Camp 1 (~5800m) and return.
  • 3x Acclimatisation rotations on the Everest / Lhotse route, twice to Camp 2 (~6400m), and once to Camp 3 (~7200m).
  • 1x Lhotse Summit (8516m).
  • 1x Everest Base Camp to Lukla (62km) in a single 12hr push.

It’s been a massive two months. A big thank you to Tim Mosedale Everest Expeditions and to Matthew Eakin Hike Himalaya Adventure for organising such an amazing trip!

So that’s concludes the story of my first 8000m peak and my fourth and final practice run for Project 7in4. I was pleasantly surprised at how my body handled the altitude and workload. Although I did lose 5kg which I now have to try and put back on.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far.

I now have 7 months to train, plan and prepare for Project 7in4.

For my customary sign off…. “Go with the decision that will make for a great story”. And I’ll just add a little footnote to that, “Come home alive to tell the story”.

Until next time,