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  American Autumn Shishapangma Expedition 2005: Surviving more than the summit


It was the hardest day of my life, and I had decided that on the way *up* to the summit. Then came the long night of survival outside at 7460 meters.

On one day (headed up to C3 for the first time) I was feeling great: strong, confident, acclimatized, and happy. The climbing was getting more exciting the higher we went. Arriving at C3 there were three standing tents and one flattened tent showing the potential of the site. That night I was bracing my feet against the tent wall to hold it up against the incredible winds (and to calm Monty’s at-the-time-seemingly-over-exaggerated fear that ‘if we lose this tent, we’re dead’), and checking my oxygen saturation, fearing it was too low.

Next day: resting in the tent, luckily sleeping almost all day, rolling from side to side trying to find the optimal snow configuration below my body (knowing there is none), not being much of a conversation backboard for Monty, eating some and trying to eat more (but a shared ramen with jerky for an early dinner was about what we could handle).

Middle of the night (3am): the alarm goes off, ready to send us on our way to the summit, but the wicked winds are still there. We sleep in, waiting for the sun, happy for our shelter.

Morning: I finally emerge from the tent, wrapped in down, and the ridge to the summit calls me up. The winds have died down just enough, we have put in our time; it is time to go for it. First I get Monty on board--we have enough sunlight left to climb to the summit and descend to either C3 (comfortably) or C2 (optimistically). I stuff my pockets with the essentials: snacks, hard candies, mocha cliff shots, sunblock, three emergency hand warmers, a tiny one-ounce emergency LED headlamp, a lighter. I finish packing up my backpack for the way down, and leave it inside the tent. My harness goes on with minimal hardware (one ascender, one ATC, and a few carabineers); one liter of water comes up with me attached to my harness. With crampons on, I grab my ice axe, and I am ready to go!

The climb: step by step, this is slower than I had expected, or anticipated, or certainly wanted. But little by little, section by section, and breath by breath, we climb. Monty is about ten minutes ahead of me, and occasionally we meet up to eat some, drink some, and push on. We indeed push our bodies and minds. There will be one section where snow has covered the fixed lines and Monty bends to yank the line up (oh good, I get to catch up just a bit). One section will be flat, one will be incredibly steep snow, one will cross rock bands, one will go around a corner. The route follows the ridge, and the Himalaya open up around (and fall below) us. The temperature is quite nice (for us two draped in down and technical clothing). The hardest part of the climb for me is near the top where the angle steepens (yet again) to perhaps sixty degrees, then turns through a little mixed rock band (which is hard work up so high). I keep telling myself if it is just up that section, then I can make it. Never give up, never give up, never give up. My mind pushes my body on. I mostly focus on my footsteps, but during rest breaths, the remoteness and power of the sky and the Himalaya and Shishapangma and the ridges and the snow show their beauty to me. And then there is more up, up, and up. And then there is Monty again and we can go down. We did it!

The descent: this is so much easier than going up, well only for now--the descent always gets harder some how. I double-check every harness attachment (sometimes cumbersome underneath the big down coat) as I rappel down a section, or walk straight down the hill. Somewhere on the way down my water bottle fell off of my harness, but I planned on re-hydrating at C3. Using lovely friction with my body and gloves and lessons from past years, I quickly descend the fixed roped sections often catching Monty as he gets into or out of a rappel. But then about 75% back to C3, it happened--the descent (and everything) got harder mentally as we finally got to see the C3 tents. Or what was left of them. No tents were left standing. Our tent, which contained essentials to our survival, was flapping viciously in the wind. What did that mean? Were any of our things left? What would we do? After being the most physically tired I have been in my life, now I have to deal with this? What even does dealing with this mean? These questions swirled through my mind as the sun was setting over the Himalaya, slowly tipping the highest peaks in the world. Near sunset I looked east to see a colorful sky and a shadow of Shishapangma extending kilometers and kilometers to the east. But this was no time for pictures; the last few hundred meters into ‘camp’ were telling as we were blown to the ground by the severe gusts several times.

Down at C3: Like a magic trick, the inner tent had been pulled from the table of snow, sloppily taking with it my entire pack, but magically leaving Monty’s backpack and compressed sleeping bag lying peacefully on the snow. Cautiously I explored a few steps leeward of the tent, but found only a fuel bottle or two, a stove, a small ditty bag of Monty’s; I found nothing of mine. My backpack, my sleeping bag, my extra food, my insulating ground pads, my contact solution, even Moosey and some prayer flags from home--these were all gone. All I had from here on out was what was on my body and I was ready to get out of there.

Shelter at C3 (try #1): Those same violent winds that kept us from descending in the dark to C2 were still eating away at the fly from our destroyed tent. We had formulated a quick plan to create a snow shelter using our available gear. Shovel: Monty will dig a snow trench. Rope: we will line the bottom of the shelter with it. Tent fly: let’s put it above us in the trench. One plan rolled quickly into the next: okay, the fly isn’t easy to anchor above us, so we’ll use it as more ground padding. One of my tasks was to free the tent fly from its flapping location, but not to lose it thousands of meters down the mountain. For perhaps a half of an hour I sat on three quarters of the fly to keep it from billowing into the darkness with the wind, and with a bamboo stick attempted to dig in the hard snow to free one of the corners. I was afraid to move to go for help, for fear of losing the fly and part of our meager survival equipment, but Monty was digging out of ear shot. So I sat there and dug with the stick, feeling almost useless. Monty later came over and helped me free the fly, ripping one section out of the snow and together we used a picket to free the final corner. The rest of our Try#1 included modifying our snow trench into a very small partial snow cave, trying to stuff my feet into Monty’s small backpack with limited success, lying on the snow next to Monty with half of a sleeping bag on top of me and a snow roof six inches above my face, and the feeling that my toes were just too cold--this inactivity just wasn’t going to work: we had to try to go down (again).

Descent attempt (#2): The winds were still there, of course. They were there to whip tiny snow particles into our faces, there to knock us down to the snow, there to impede our verbal communications, there to obscure our visual path, there to chill us. But it was Monty’s cerebral edema that truly turned us back. Hearing your climbing partner say ‘I’m going to die’ as they fall into the snow at 7400 meters is not something I’d ever like to repeat. Now it was my turn. My turn to assure life and safety, to guide, to help. I felt an instant change in myself.

Shelter at C3 (try #2): The long night was filled with endless tasks I gave myself, designed to address our survival needs. I could not get Monty (and myself) down immediately and all of our high altitude drugs had blown away with my backpack, so the best thing I could do was work on the basics: shelter, warmth, and hydration. I first got Monty in his sleeping bag in the shelter as it stood, then I worked on the rest. My efforts were not all successful, but every partial success helped.

There was the first try to light the stove with lighter#1: inside the snow trench, with no pot, the shovel as a base: no luck. There were the second and third tries with the same lighter. Sparks but no nice flame. A search for another lighter in the backpack led nowhere. I dug out a protected area from the wind: was the stove getting too much or too little air? The fourth and fifth tries in the protected area still didn’t light. Six, seven, eight. Back and forth between shelter and hydration, I dragged a mylar blanket from one of the tents. I both sat on this sometimes and sometimes isolated the stove from the snow with it. Nine, ten, eleven. In the flotsam of one of the tents I found a pot (yay!). Twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Scrounging the remains of the other tent I found a wood block: good, some more insulation from the snow. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. My thumb stuck in the bent position. Monty found his lighter (#2) in a pocket. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. A 1/4 inch flame appeared for a few seconds, but then it was gone. And it went on for hours. I was so thirsty that the hard snow wall four inches in front of my face looked so good, I couldn’t help but help myself (even knowing it wouldn’t cure my dehydration and would chill me some). I just leaned forward and ate some snow, seeing some blood from my lips remain on the snow. It tasted wonderful. I never got the stove to stay lit. And shelter and warmth were similar, if slightly more successful.

Nautical dawn: Finally. The stars were disappearing, and I could see the horizon. Soon the sun (both light and warmth) would help us get down from C3. Monty was doing much better, and we would soon be away from our cold shelter. With the light, however, I discovered that my eyesight was clouded--I had worn my contacts through the cold night, and now was having trouble. Now it would be Monty’s turn to guide me down the mountain, Monty’s turn to find our path. However, communications on the mountain sometimes get muddled.

Getting down: After ten minutes (on our second try) heading down to C2, I found myself alone on a 40 degree snow slope, ice axe in hand, wind still whipping around me, able to see the range of about three footsteps below me. I yelled to the wind “Monty! Stop! Where are you? I can’t see!” No response--he couldn’t hear me in the 60+mph winds. I slowly downclimbed a few minutes, trying to follow the footsteps I could see, then repeated my yells, searching visually for any rock shape that might be moving or yellow and red (like Monty). And then I would do this again. “Monty! Stop! Where are you? I can’t see!”  Finally, I determined I needed to speed up and get down this slope on my own. I needed to catch up with Monty on my own. And so I did. Monty had downclimbed much too fast for my limited-sight climbing speed, not realizing that even twenty feet of distance was enough to isolate me in my blindness. He would downclimb a ways and thought he was waiting for me, while I thought I was on my own. We were in completely different worlds.

Reunion, rehydration, and rewarming: After about half an hour I finally caught up with Monty, the extent of my sight was clarified, and we headed down to the sunshine. We were rehydrated extremely well at the first tent (almost the last on the mountain) we found (part of the Marmot team, and their team members were awesome in helping us out). After one more day we were warmed with hot soup from Dorji, a hug from Bemba, and heat packs on our toes. Rewarming can sometimes hurt, but we will recover. 

There are no certain items you need to survive. Even if I am stuck at one of the highest, coldest places on earth, I do not need a tent or sleeping bag, ground pad or stove and pot. The will to live and protect myself and my partner is in the heart and in the mind.

-Val

Updates

 

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