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  American Autumn Shishapangma Expedition 2005: Summit Update and Details

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 die down.

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 C3.

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 there. 

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 skied up.

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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