Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'
We are back down in the lap of luxury, aka Everest Base Camp. Our final round of preparation is finished. Next time up will be for all the summit marbles.
The last couple of days at Advanced Base Camp [ABC] were somewhat surreal. Yesterday morning, I came out of the tent at 6 a.m. fully expecting to still be in the middle of the storm we’d been enjoying for days. The forecasts had called for the same bit of jet stream to be snaking back and forth over the range, with continued potential for big snowfall. But as I looked up at the Lhotse Face, trying to decide whether we’d go for our planned sleepover at Camp 3, the storm was nowhere to be seen.
Certainly, the absence of this big snow and wind event was a good thing... but I was confused nonetheless. Was it a trap? Was it the well-known “sucker hole” phenomenon, wherein a break in the clouds lures climbers (also known as suckers) up to some place where they will be more vulnerable when the real storm rolls back in? I wanted my climbers—Seth, Erica and Kent—to get the exercise and confidence that would come with another attack on the Lhotse Face, and ideally I wanted them to have a night up there near 24,000 feet [7,300 meters]. But if we were merely in a lull in the storm, and we cranked on up to Camp 3... well, then I could all too easily envision a little too much experience being gained, holding on all night as a hurricane tried to separate us from the wall... and perhaps some good frostbite experience the following morning as we tried rapping down frozen ropes in a gale. So, to get back to the point, I stood there at ABC yesterday morning looking at exactly the calm conditions I’d been hoping for all night, and I chickened out.
Seth was poking his head out of his tent and watching me chew on all of this in the shadows. He seemed to understand and agree with my concerns... we hadn’t actually planned to do this Camp 3 sleeping rotation without support, and because no Sherpas had been able to get up from Base Camp through the storm of the past day, we would essentially be undertaking the push with just Ang Kaji’s help. Kaji is very capable, but the workload included an unknown (but most likely significant) amount of digging to get a storm-ravaged Camp 3 back in condition for our stay. “Sleeping” at Camp 3 is already an experience in misery—it is debatable as to whether humans actually acclimate to 24,000 feet [7,300 meters] (as opposed to just dying cell by cell and becoming accustomed to that)... but I’ve always felt that it was useful to get the first shock of such an uncomfortable night out of the way before any summit bid. But add a few other shocks to that practice night and people can get so badly worked that they are not in any way, shape or form ready for the summit push the following week.
So by the time that Kent stuck his head out of his tent, I’d firmly decided that we would not attempt Camp 3 on this calm and pretty morning. Over breakfast, I explained that we’d just go for another hike to the base of the Lhotse Face. Since I was prone to frustration over how nice the weather seemed and how little we were taking “advantage” of the day, I tried rationalizing for my partners so that they might avoid such glum and unproductive thoughts themselves. Perhaps it wasn’t a “lull” in a storm at all—perhaps it was the beginning of the big shift toward better weather that everybody had been waiting for. And without a run up the Lhotse Face, we had still managed to cobble together a pretty decent acclimatization round at ABC while nearly all other teams were sitting down valley, fretting over forecasts. Ang Kaji, Seth, Erica and I were all still healthy, we had all of ABC to ourselves (each team had basically left just one caretaker/cook per camp), and yesterday turned out to be nothing short of a stunningly nice, calm, warm day with an awesome sunset—not really the kind of stuff to get frustrated over.
This morning we came on down toward Base Camp—carefully, since there hadn’t been much traffic and the route through the Western Cwm was disguised by a few inches of new snow. Crevasses were lurking and just begging to be revealed by a misstep of my size 14.5 boots in the new powder. Then we came to the first Sherpas working up from Base Camp and they got the benefit of our tracks while we enjoyed theirs. Ed Viesturs and Peter Whittaker weren’t far behind with our first summit team. They’d come up through the Icefall and reported that a big chunk of the route had fallen out with a collapse near the glacier’s center. I wasn’t too concerned for our proposed descent since Peter’s team had alerted the Icefall Doctors to the problem.
We took a rest at old Camp 1 with summit-bound Melissa and Gerry, along with most of our Sherpa team. Looking around at the remaining tents belonging to other teams, I was amazed at how destructive the storm had been. Poles were broken, whole tents were uprooted and displaced, tents were half buried and squashed—Camp I was a widespread mess. So I was pleased to find our First Ascent tent intact and well anchored, apparently ready for the next storm.
We bid our teammates good luck, donned our climbing helmets and dove down into the Khumbu Icefall. Sure enough, when we reached the collapse in the middle, Icefall Doc Ang Nima from Dingboche was already swinging his trusty hammer and fixing new rope with a partner. They’d cobbled together a fine detour that we took full advantage of. As usual, it was sobering to see the expanse of glacier (two acres?) that had simply caved in, but I was satisfied with the timing of the event. The glacier is welcome to do whatever it wants in the dead of night... just settle down for morning, please. My gang settled into Base Camp by about 11 a.m., about the same time that our teammates were getting to their new home at ABC... we’d pulled a neat switch. I’m sure that Peter, Ed, Melissa, Gerry, Jake, and John Griber were anxious as anything to get up there and get on with their climb, while we were pleased as punch to head for the showers and thick camp mattresses of Base Camp again.