We’re back in Lhasa now and it’s
time for the full story of our summit!
Eric had to get to Kathmandu
for a planned visit with his father, and Val and I decided to make another
summit push, eating into some of our Cho Oyo climb. One of the larger
outfitter/guides offered us the use of their tents, eliminating the need for
Val and me to carry tent and stove.
So off we went. The trek to
C1, C2, then C3 (24,500ft) over three days was all pretty straightforward.
There was supposed to be a North Face VE25 and Salewa tent at C3; we expected
the guide to be using the larger Salewa and we’d use the VE25. Fortunately
the guide wasn’t at C3 as expected, as the VE25 was just a heap of tattered
nylon, shredded by the winds. So we jumped into the more spacious Salewa
tent, awaiting our summit push early (2-4am) the next morn.
When 2am came around, we
weren’t going anywhere. The winds were horrendous, and the tent wasn’t tied
down well at all. It was getting knocked around worse than any tent I’ve ever
seen. As a precaution, Val and I turned sideways in the tent and braced the
windward side of the tent with our feet, counteracting the force of the wind.
Together we estimate we were pushing with about 75lbs force on the tent wall,
just to hold it against the wind. We lay like this until sunup, when I went
outside to re-attach guy lines.
Well, ‘re’-attach is a
misnomer, as the tent was barely guyed down in the first place and it was a
miracle it was still standing. Using whatever was available, I tied it down
in about twelve places. The wind was probably 40mph with gusts of 60mph,
often knocking me off my feet, while the winds coming up the descent couloir
were much stronger. The only choice for the day was to wait for the winds to
So we lazed about in the
tent, Val mostly sleeping. That night at 2am (summit wake-up time) it was a
repeat of the previous night, so we remained in bed, awaiting a chance to go
down. We awoke about 7am and started packing. By 7:30 all was calm and Val
asked "What do you think about the summit?" and I didn’t answer. By 8am it
was still calm and I answered "You know we have to go for it…"
When we left for the summit
at 8:30 it was relatively calm, clear and warm. The only others at C3 were
two Italians who were packing their tent and retreating. Other than that,
there was the destroyed VE25, another destroyed tent, and our Salewa left at
Our summit day was PERFECT.
Light winds, clouds far below us, clear skies, and perfect climbing
conditions. The route and fixed lines were straightforward. There were some
easy, fun mixed sections, mostly exposed rock covered with soft powder. The
last mixed section at the top was long and grueling only because we were now
at 8000m and climbing without oxygen.
At last – the summit! I
walked along an exposed catwalk to the Central Summit and took as many shots
as my frozen batteries allowed. Standing at the top of the Himalaya was
astounding. Everest, Cho Oyo, the Tibetan Plateau… everything right there in
view! But it was getting late so we needed to descend.
The descent was by-the-book.
Rappel, downclimb, rappel, repeat, etc. It took us about an hour to get back
to C3. The last few hundred feet back to camp were HARD. The wind was
knocking us about without mercy. We’d hunker down with our ice axes buried
when we heard a gust coming, but once in a while one would catch us off guard
and just slam us to the snow.
The real surprise came when
we saw Camp3. There was no tent. There was a tent-fly, still anchored in one
corner, flapping like a flag in the wind, but the body of the tent was gone,
and with it we feared all our gear that was inside it had gone, too. We
worked our way to the tentsite and found that my sleeping bag and backpack
hadn’t blown away, but 100% of Val’s stuff was gone.
We gathered what there was of
mine and started heading down the couloir, but it was too windy. Val
suggested we build a snow shelter, so we headed back up, found the least windy
spot and started digging. At first I dug a trench, thinking we could cover it
with tent stakes and material. That wasn’t feasible so I dug a small
overhanging snow cave, almost body length. We lined the bottom with a
climbing rope and the tent fly and crawled in.
Soon Val was complaining of
hypothermia and after some discussion, we decided to try going down again. I
was leading the descent, trying to find the fixed lines that we’d ascended,
but with no success. Val thought they were more to the left and headed that
way. In the darkness, all I could see was that Val was gone – I thought she’d
fallen! So here I am, halfway down this slope, thinking I need to descend
into the darkness after my fallen partner. I shouted her name a few times and
finally heard a response – Great! She hasn’t fallen – so I worked my way
toward her voice.
As I climbed, I noticed my
vision get blurry. I pulled off my glasses to clean them of ice, but they
were clean. I checked again; still blurry. Uh oh… sounds like cerebral
edema. After focused effort I could see a blurred vision of what I was
directly staring at, but anything outside of that was a loss. Other than that
I was clear-headed and exhibited no other signs of edema. It had been hours
since we’d drank anything and although I didn’t realize it yet, my lung
capacity was reduced due to the onset of bronchitis. Reduced breathing and
dehydration were undoubtedly contributing to the cerebral edema.
I called Val’s name and got a
response, but with the wind couldn’t tell from where. I yelled "Help!" and on
the second shout felt her hand on my shoulder. I told her I couldn’t see;
that I had cerebral edema. She quietly and patiently explained that she’d
guide us back to the snow cave.
Once the edema hit, I kept
thinking about a coma - 'Once cerebral edema victims go into a coma, they
die…' On the way up the slope, I collapsed right in front of Val, with a
CLEAR hallucination of breaths. Breaths that I’d fallen behind on, and if I
didn’t get caught up soon I’d lapse into a coma. I lay on the snow
hyperventilating as hard and fast as I could, trying to get caught up on my
breathing hallucination. After about thirty seconds I got caught up, then
rose off the snow and followed Val’s lead.
We quickly made it back to
the snow cave, where I crawled in, Val covered me with my sleeping bag, and I
focused on breathing. I recalled how at ABC I could raise my oxygen sats by
ten points or more by hyperventilating, so for the next few hours I forced
hyperventilation in the belief I could overcome the cerebral edema that way.
After maybe thirty minutes of forced hyperventilation I could calm my
breathing down, but every move; every cough would cause me to restart my
forced breathing anew. Of course, high-altitude drugs were out of the
question, as they had all blown away with our gear.
Every so often I’d open my
eyes and look at Val to see if she was still blurry. In the middle of the
night she became clear again. But I thought I’d heard rales (the crackling,
gurgling sound of lungs congested with pulmonary edema). I confidently and
half-jokingly announced to Val "Cerebral’s gone! Just have to deal with
pulmonary edema now!" Fortunately for me I was mistaken. What I took for
rales was in actuality the sound of mucous-congested lungs coming down with
bronchitis (Gee, in my edema-addled condition, how could I have missed
that!!!). Eric had had bronchitis at base camp, which I was now exhibiting
early symptoms, albeit outside at 25,000 feet.
During all this time Val was
so patient and caring. She took care of me while trying to light a stove –
but I’ll leave this to her narrative.
Finally – daybreak! After
packing, attaching crampons, etc, we started down again about 6:30am. And
again, we were hit by the same winds. The previous day, they’d died by about
7:30am, so I suggested we return and wait another hour. So for the third
time, we retreated back to the ridge. After only a few minutes in the
shelter, we were both getting too cold, so agreed it was now or never. Val’s
contacts had clouded up overnight and now it was her turn to not be able to
see, although I didn’t understand the magnitude of the problem until later.
We descended the windy
couloir for the fourth time. Our best guess is that there were steady winds
coming up at about 60mph, with gusts into the 80+ range. This time there was
no turning back. I’d descend a ways, turn and wait for Val, descend, etc.
But at one point Val was about twenty feet above me and not moving. Little
did I know, she couldn’t see me – I’d descended beyond her range of sight! I
thought she was searching for the fixed rope (which I’d long given up on) and
when I saw her cut laterally into the rock band, figured she’d found the rope
and was following her own route down. (She has a VERY different and much
scarier tale, which is best left for her telling).
So I continued down, turning
to the left toward the main ascent route that leads to Camp3, until I finally
found the fixed line, indicating that I was indeed on the correct
ascent/descent route. At that same time, Val appeared directly above me some
fifty feet. I again assumed she’d found the fixed line and was descending
it. I waited for her to reach me and we finished descending the face into the
sunshine at the bottom. After Val and I had some discussion on why I’d left
her (again, see HER version of the story) we continued down the canyon toward
the waiting tents.
The tents. The ones with
shelter, stove and fuel. Our lifeblood. We descended toward Camp2 in order
to reach the tents, melt water, and re-hydrate.
But the tents were gone. The
guide/outfitter had taken then away from Camp2. We had no choice but to
continue descending, hoping to find another team’s tent and to melt water
During all this time, I knew
my fingers were freezing. They were fine (thawed and warm) when we left
Camp3, but my gloves were wet and soon froze. I tried to keep them in my
overmitts, but it’s surprising how quickly they freeze when quickly pulled out
for say a GPS check. It was mostly my pinky/ring fingers, with slight
freezing of all the other digits, too. I figured my toes were probably
frostbitten also. Other than taking all due precautionary care, I didn’t
really worry about it – after all, what can you do once your fingers are
frozen? Protect them – that’s about it… worrying about them isn’t going to
thaw them – we needed to worry about water, hydration, and getting down.
About an hour below where we
expected Camp2 to be, we found a lone Marmot tent. By now my bronchitis was
hitting pretty hard and I was not only coughing badly, but my breathing
capacity, and hence pace, were severely diminished. I could walk about 10-20
paces before kneeling down to rest. Val reached the tent first and crawled
inside. While I was outside, Mark Newcomb, the team leader of the Marmot team
He saw me outside the tent
trying to remove my crampons, coughing when attempting to speak, perpetually
out of breath, and icicles hanging on all sides of my mouth/beard. Somehow,
he reached the conclusion that I was in BAD shape! He took my crampons off,
got me in the tent, then crawled in with Val and me and took over.
Immediately melting water and stuffing GU into us, he also addressed our
warmth needs with additional gloves and coats. Soon Kent McBride and Miles
Smart arrived; they’d all come up to tear down the tent. They told us one
more hour and there would have been no tent!
After about a half hour of
re-hydration, we set off down the glacier while the Marmot guys tore down
their camp (along with carrying some of our gear for us). They skied with us
to the bergschrund, then helped us over, and were waiting for us at Camp1 – at
the only remaining tent at that camp. By now it was late in the day, so we
agreed to sleep there. They left an extra sleeping bag, pads, stove, food,
drugs, etc for us. We slept in this VERY small Russian tent. It was plenty
warm, but we found out later the tent, and the bag in which I slept, belonged
to a Russian who’d by then been missing for ten days. We slept in a dead
man’s tent and sleeping bag!!
Mark and company alerted
Bemba and Dorji, our porter and cook, of our condition at Camp1. Well, they
may have exaggerated a tad bit – we were actually quite rested, and even
chipper, the next morning. But Bemba and Dorji heard about two climbers who
were barely able to walk! As we descended the glacier below C1, we saw Bemba
coming toward us to rescue us! We met, exchanged hugs and assurances that we
were all right, and Bemba pointed to where Dorji was waiting on the glacier
with hot food and drink. Dorji, our cook, who’d never set foot out of ABC,
had hiked most of the way to Camp1 - up the moraine, across the penitentes,
and over the ice field, to bring us hot food and beverage!
We met up with Dorji and had
quite a nice picnic on the ice. Then the four of us retreated back across the
penitentes, where Bemba had arranged porters to carry our loads back to ABC.
That’s mostly the end of the
story; the only remaining tidbits are how we dealt with frostbite on the hike
out, getting jeeps, visiting Bemba’s mom in the village where he grew up…
you’ll have to wait for the slideshow for those details!
(PS – I hope you enjoy this.
I typed these five pages with frostbitten fingers that really, really hurt!
Eight of my fingers will be OK; just some blistering. But two have fingertips
that are black and hard as wood. It’s unknown how much flesh I’ll lose.)
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