Back In BC

I have spent the last three nights at Camp I and Camp II after making my first foray through the ice fall. This is always one of the hardest parts of the climb. Your body has not really had time to acclimatize to BC yet at 17,500. C1 is at about 19,500 and C2 is at about 22,000 if I remember correctly. So every night is filled with altitude headaches, nausea and cold waiting for the first glimmer of dawn.

The reward for this is to experience one the wonder of the world – the Khumbu Ice Fall. The ice fall is a spectacular formation of broken ice structures that have been sculpted by the wind and the sun into these fantastic shapes. Some of the taller ones called seracs are easily 20 stories tall. Unfortunately they do not call it the ice “stand up”. The ice fall is a glacier and as such is moving in places 3 feet a day so twenty story tall structures tend to fall over. Near the top the two neighboring mountain formations constrict it into a funnel. These sheer rock walls extend several thousand additional feet almost vertically. In perhaps one of the most amazing things in nature snow will accumulate on the top of these ridges sometimes over decades. At first these formations are called cornices. As they grow and extend down the face of the ridge vastly exceeding the size of ocean liners they become know as hanging glaciers. They may hang there for decades attached by nothing more than ice and their own mass. Then suddenly one extra snow flake or a zephyr of wind and the stress releases in a cataclysmic collapse of millions of tons of ice.

Winston Churchill once famous quipped that there was nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at and missed. He obviously had not spent much time in the mountains or challenging gravity. By the time you hear a supersonic bullet the outcome has been decided. Gravity is much slower and more deliberate giving you all the benefits of time to think about your fate. My first experience with gravity started with a tremendous blast of air and noise and I was looking up at a plane thinking when was the last time some one washed the bottom of that thing. The plane’s last gift to me was to start a sequence that should ultimately deploy my parachute. “One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three” began the count. I don’t remember the “one thousand your screwed” number because before that happen there was this tremendous jerk. This was an old style military chute, built by the lowest bidder and with no consideration of whether you would ever have that low manly voice again. I looked up to see my “silk savior” was all there – just like advertised. I distinctly remember saying “thank you Jesus” starling myself in the now cathedral quiet. I always wondered what atheist say? Well in any case I was floating in a cloudless azure sky with a beautiful wide field below me feeling one of those real “hero” moments. That was when I noticed it wasn’t one big field but two smaller ones with a barbed wire fence running through the middle. I could not have hit that fence if I had wanted to but at the moment all I could think of was “I am going to straddle that fence. I’ll be maimed for life, never get married, never have kids”. I immediately began maneuvering the chute away from the fence. Those old chutes had two panels missing out the back which gave you some forward momentum. Of course I forgot all my years of pilot training (and parachute training) about landing into the wind. In the movies the real paratroopers land sort of calf, thigh, hip, shoulder rolling to dispersing the impact. I sort of landed boot tips, knees, chest, top of helmet. It jarred me to my soul and I am two inches shorter today (well at least that is my story). Of course I was young, and dumb and jumped right up so it wouldn’t look like it had hurt me.

I had another one of those near gravity experiences on our first day in the ice fall. We were within minutes of the top when near the West Rib a very small hanging glacier (maybe barge size) let lose. The process generally starts with a crack that grows into a rumble. You immediately think “was that above or below, right or left” so you can acquire it visually. In our case it was above and headed our direction but we had the advantage in that between this 10,000 tons on ice and us was a 100,000 tons of serac. We confirmed our attachment to the fixed line and hunkered down. Once all had stopped moving we had a coating of avalanche dust but nothing more. Maybe a slight adrenaline shortage, but it could have been much worse since I had only brought one pair of pants.

Two days later in the avalanche protected area of C2 I saw one of the biggest and potentially most deadly avalanches I have ever seen. One of the the giant hanging glaciers on Nuptse let lose. It was so massive I had time to climb out of my tent and watch it accelerate thousands of feet down the face. There was a long line of climbers and porters, though just black dots from my vantage point, snaking their way up the valley and I watched the avalanche over take them. I really worried I had witnessed an epic tragedy.

As the dust settled we could still see many of the small dots, lives and dreams and loves really, appear one by one from the gloom. In a remarkable coincidence the death of the Sherpa a few days before who had tried to cross a ladder unclipped had reminded people about the need to always clip in. We had plenty of injuries and a number of people blown in crevasses but not a single fatality. Everest will never be a safe place but as is frequently the case, in all areas of our lives, a little discipline can make all the difference in the outcome.

Yesterday as we came down through C1, where we had spent the night a couple of nights before, 6 of our 7 tents had been destroyed. This was not the avalanche itself but the wind it pushes ahead which can easily exceed 100 MPH. Those forces do not tend to blow the tents away just destroy them in place and leave the occupants with interesting stories to tell.

Probably for me that will be the last trip through the ice fall until summit push. I came down in record time for me and other than a cough I have developed feel strong. If all goes to plan we will make for the summit in the next two weeks going straight to C2. The next morning I’ll turn on the O2 and climb to C3. Sleep there and move to C4 at 26,000 the next morning. We will lay up that afternoon then go for the summit that night. If the Lord let’s me summit this thing I will come all the way back to C2 the next day and use up the last of my O2. The following morning I will make one last descent through the ice fall to BC and my big mountain climbing career will be over.

There is a tradition in the mountains that after a successful summit the cooks and base camp staff will meet the returning climber with the pounding of pots and pans. The ultimate “hero” moment. As seems my lot in life I will probably trip and fall. Of course I will jump right up and act like it didn’t hurt.

Post Script. If I don’t summit I will probably not come back to climb Everest again. Mostly for reasons that have more to do with what the mountain is becoming and not so much with me. I am not sure I will ever feel the need to share that publicly. Either way I am going to take my bride to Australia in the fall, their spring, rent a car and drive to the little town of Thredbo. We plan to brave the treacherous tourist ski lift and hike the arduous mile and half or so of wooden elevated walkway built to protect the mountain flowers (that should be in full bloom then) to the top of Kosciesko, my last continent. We’ll pop a Diet Coke and I will be content to be one of only about 400 people in the world to have climbed the highest point on six of the seven continents instead on one of a couple hundred to climb all seven. I can live with that. Of course I will probably get a splinter but rest assured I will never let anyone know how much it hurt.

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