Lhotse…


Posted on Thursday 31st May, 2012

I am sitting back at my desk in my room in Blackheath, Australia and it certainly feels surreal looking out at the gum trees of the beautiful Blue Mountains National Park again. Our sandstone cliff faces pale in comparison to the mountains that have surrounded me the last two months however they are familiar and ruggedly awesome nonetheless. Its taking some time to ‘come down’ from my adventure and I am gradually processing it as my body and brain are recovering from exhaustion.

As Dawa and I had our final debrief about our climbs back in Kathmandu, I became quite emotional to be at the end of our journey. It had sometimes been hard, a struggle and desperately exhausting towards the end but it had been an amazing adventure thats for sure. I think I even heard a bit of sadness in Dawas voice that it was over even though he had some days of very hard work behind him. So our trip into Lhotse felt very long but in reality it was only a week….

After three nights in Kathmandu and only one real rest day where I wasn’t organising anything, Dawa, Domhnall and I headed off to Lukla on the plane very early on the morning of the 16th. We then waited at the helipad for our chopper into Everest Base Camp. We were all happy to see the same pilot again that flew us out from Sama Goan and I was pretty excited to get the ride of my life on such an awesome and clear day! We all squished into the backseat as there were two pilots. We jammed our gear in along side boxes of produce for Base Camp and cartons of eggs! As the air is thin at Base 5300m, we had to stop at Periche so the pilot could shuttle us to Base one at a time and the co pilot also waited there. The pilot had to be on oxygen from above Periche so he didn’t pass out while flying up high. They also took out loads of spare fuel to make the heli lighter. It was an amazing flight into Base and we landed on the top of a helipad of ice and rock jutting up out of the glacier. He did a good job of actually fitting the machine on it as it was quite small. After about 30 minutes we were all shuttled there along with our gear and the helicopter flew off down the valley again. I couldn’t believe it. It was 8:30am in the morning and we were at Everest Base Camp already! So what to do now? Get a weather report from Michael Fagin, go find our camp and then head off to chat to my friend Willie Benegas about the ropes and conditions on the mountain. After some research I found out quite a few things. Damian, Willie’s twin brother, was planning to lead a team to fix the ropes to the summit of Lhotse on 18th and Domhnall had decided to go with them and try follow behind as he was attempting Lhotse without oxygen. There was no way I could make it up the mountain that fast so we decided to try for the 19th. The ropes to the summit of Everest were being fixed that night so all of the Everest climbers were waiting and this was the first weather window this season. Apparently it had been a horrendous season for weather so far with high winds and not enough snowfall to fix ropes. There was a problem on the Lhotse face with rockfall so Damien led a team to fix a new route to Camp 3 which avoided the danger. Only recently had they managed to fix to the South Col, Camp 4 of Everest. Lots of people were planning to summit Everest on the 18th and 19th so we would try Lhotse in the same window. This would mean leaving that night all the way to Camp 2 then the next day to Camp 3 to be able to have an attempt from Camp 3 to the summit on the 19th. Dawa was really keen to go up the mountain because he had only had three nights in Kathmandu to see his wife and new baby.  He flies to Austria on the 1st of June for four months, so wanted to get home to spend more time with his family, understandably.

The usual afternoon snow at Mountain Tribes Base Camp

Babu Sherpa from Mountain Tribes, who organises my logistics, had a team from Quebec at the Base Camp so we stayed a night at their camp. It was so flash in comparison to our Manaslu Base Camp and the kitchen staff had practically built a house out of stone. The dining tent even had carpet on the ground and a heater! Gabriel, the expedition leader was at the camp while his clients were up on the mountain heading towards summiting Everest on the 19th with their climbing Sherpa.   Dawa and I packed our bags to be ready to head up through the icefall early in the morning. He already sent our oxygen bottles up to Camp 2 with a porter a few days beforehand so that made our loads lighter. We were up at 2:15am and left Base at 3:30am. We wound our way up through the icefall and I was feeling good. I felt like I was going at a pretty good pace and I also thought the actual route of the icefall seemed a lot easier than the previous year. It was just the right temperature that my hands didn’t get too cold in my gloves so I suppose it was slightly warmer than the year before. This time I had a GoPro camera attached to my helmet so I could film going over the ladders that span the crevasses.

Its best to climb the icefall in the dark or in the shade as it is safer from avalanche danger from the slopes above it.

Eating my packed lunch at Camp 1 before heading to Camp 2

I arrived to Camp 1 6000m at the start of the Western Cwm after 5 hours. My best time through the icefall in 2011 was 4 1/2 hours so I didn’t think that was too bad. This is where everything changed for me though because it became very hot on the glacier in the sun with no wind, infact boiling! I stopped and ate my packed lunch that the kitchen staff had made me at Base and Dawa headed off ahead to Camp 2. He is faster and had a bigger backpack so there was no sense in him walking with me. Actually he doesn’t climb with me that often unless he has to because its safer. Mostly just on summit day, so a lot of the time I am on my own. I headed off up the Cwm and soon began to realise I had to take even more layers of clothing off. I just had my thermal tights and a long sleeve glacier shirt on and I was still overheating. I was exhausted and not having fun but finally made it to the start of the camp. Our camp was at the end of the camp however, another 200m higher at 6500m. I could hardly carry my pack anymore and thank god Dawa came down to get it for me. I stumbled into camp absolutely spent and could hardly talk at 2:30pm, eleven hours after leaving Base.

The first very obvious thing I noticed when I entered the Cwm surrounded by Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse, was how different it was in comparison to the year before. There was a lot more bare rock and blue ice around and way less snow. Below is a photo of Lhotse and the Lhotse face in 2011 when we were on the way up to the summit of Everest. It looks like a completely different mountain compared to the one in the above and below pictures. Of course this had me quite worried…..

The Lhotse face from Camp 2 last May 2011

When I finally crawled into my tent, the place I had been fantasising about for the past 6 hours, I lay down and had a cry. Wow I had only had one cry my whole Everest expedition (because I was upset about how heavy Dawa’s bag was) but this trip I had had a few! I cried when my oxygen ran out coming down the fixed lines on my Manaslu summit day. I cried when I was hypoglycaemic when I finally got back to the tent and now I was crying again! What am I a big cry baby?? Well all these scenes have a common theme and that is, I was absolutely exhausted. I couldn’t even stop crying.

Dawa got news that Damian was back at Camp 2 and hadn’t managed to fix the ropes on Lhotse as he instead got involved in a rescue. Earlier that morning there had been an avalanche at Camp 3 when a serac fell down which wiped out a bunch of tents. Fortunately  no one was killed but one Sherpa was very badly injured so Damien helped co-ordinate his rescue. It was very sad to hear this news but in a way I was relieved as it meant I could have a rest day the next day while Damian went up again to fix the summit ropes. I was so exhausted I called my Mum crying and she told me I would be ok after a day of rest and to eat as much as I could. Wise words from someone who has never climbed a mountain! However she is my Mum.

The next morning Dawa headed up to lower Camp 3 to grab a friends tent and move it to higher Camp 3 which is about 7300m for us. I also hired a porter to carry our bottles up for us but he left them at the lower camp 7000m so Dawa took a few to the higher one as well then came back down to Camp 2 again. I radioed Gabriel for a weather update and he seemed to think the 20th would be alright to go for the summit at that point the reports had not showed a significant increase in the wind.   So I got on with my rest day. I slept in and Nema the Camp 2 cook brought food to my tent. It was very warm in the tent and at one point I measured 42 degrees! I put my sleeping bag on the roof to try cool it down a little. I got out to do some filming and chatted with Damian as he headed off up to Camp 3 to start fixing that night. Lots of things were going on around me but I was too tired to be social. For example I heard Gerlinde Keltenbrunner (has climbed all 14 8000+m mountains without oxygen) and her partner arrive back at camp after successfully summiting Nuptse, alpine style. What a bummer I was too tired to get out of my tent to congratulate her! I took this photo of the Lhotse face of all the climbers heading up to summit Everest on the 19th which turned out to be a very controversial day with 4 deaths and many more injured because of congestion on the fixed ropes on the summit ridge. I was having a laugh at the time about the ‘conga line’ to Camp 4 and thinking how lucky I was that it wasn’t so busy the year before when I went up there.

The Lhotse face on the 18th of May 2012 with the line of hundreds of climbers heading up to the South Col

Dawa and I pared down our equipment once again before heading up to Camp 3. We decided to just take one sleeping bag to share, one jetboil stove and just my small happy snap camera and the GoPro. We had just enough food for two nights and the bare essentials, I even left my toothbrush behind to save on weight. We left Camp 2 at 6:30am on the 19th and headed up the glacier to the start of the Lhotse face to the new line of fixed ropes. I immediately noted how much blue ice there was back over at the place where the ropes normally start and was worried that this new way would be hard. I was already finding it hard work just heading up the glacier and I was having a ‘lead boots’ day. I hate these kind of days in the mountains. Sometimes gravity works against you and it feels like your boots are made of lead because it so hard to walk and climb in them. Obviously its just how much energy you have. Some days are ‘zero gravity’ days where you feel like its so easy and you are light and can go forever…..I love those days. They don’t happen that often!

The new route to Camp 3 which avoided the rockfall

The Lhotse face in 2011 and the normal route up to Camp 3

I couldn’t believe it I was going to cry again! I stopped near the base of the Lhotse face as tears started streaming down my face as I looked up at it. I was so tired and still had a long way to go to camp. Dawa caught up to me and asked what was wrong. I said I was already tired and was not even half way there. He decided to head up before me and grab an oxygen bottle from lower Camp 3 that he had left there, then come down and give it to me to help. I agreed this was a great idea and would just go at my own pace up the ropes in the meanwhile. So off he went and I was on my own again. I turned around and someone was speeding up the glacier with trekking crampons on. He caught up to me and stopped to leave his poles and put climbing crampons on. It was Chad Kellogg who was making an attempt to break the speed record on Everest without oxygen. I had met him briefly at Willies Base Camp. I had a whinge about how much I was suffering that day and also a laugh about it. He reminded me that was one of the reasons we were there and also the view of course! Yes its true I suppose I must love suffering or why else would I do it?! Luckily the view was gorgeous but I could hardly enjoy it in my current state. He also tried to tell me about climbing technique and pacing in line with breathing and heart rhythm which was awesome advice. However when I was that exhausted it was hard to focus on technique. Sometimes in the mountains you meet some truly amazing people and sometimes you meet some crazy big disgusting egos. This time I was really happy to meet a genuine nice guy and I was super inspired to see him smash up the ropes and head out of sight so fast. Then come back down again shortly afterwards after touching Camp 2 and give me some encouraging words on his way past. Super cool.

Sucking back on the gas again!

Dawa eventually came back down the ropes on the face just as I was hitting a wall. I was very grateful to see him with an oxygen bottle so he hooked me up and I almost instantly felt much better. So we climbed together up to lower Camp 2 then stopped and had something to eat before heading up the final 300m to our tent at high Camp 3. I thought I would never get there as we kept passing more and more tents and Dawa kept shaking his head and pointing up. Where did he put our tent? It must be in the last safe place before the traverse across the face??

Climbing towards our Camp 3 with some old broken tents to the side of me and the yellow band above on the left.

Finally near our tent, the Mountain Hardware one next to my pack in the picture, with climbers coming down from the South Col.

Finally we arrived to the tent at 3pm and I had been using oxygen since 6900m but it still took me 8 1/2 hours to get there from Camp 2. Thinking back to the year before it took me 9 hours but I wasn’t using the gas. I very tired but very happy there was no more up for the day. We settled in and made some hot water and food. We decided we needed to find out how the rope fixing went so I radioed Damian. He was still on his way down and he gave me a bunch of information that I wasn’t necessarily that happy to hear. Apparently not all the Sherpa had turned up to help or some had turned around so they didn’t have enough rope to fix all the way to the summit. They used old rope on some sections and there was a lot of loose rock. He told us we needed to take two ice tools each to climb with and to be careful of rockfall especially if anyone were above us. The climb goes up a steep 50-55 degree gully that is normally filled with ice and easy to make anchors in. This season due to the lack of precipitation a third of the gully was bare rock. There is a narrow bottleneck in the gully where rockfall would be very dangerous. Great. We had one tool between us and hadn’t even thought to bring a rope naively as we had trusted the ropes would be fixed to the summit. We couldn’t even belay each other through sections where there was no rope or old rope and I was so tired I couldn’t possibly be fast enough to climb ahead of other parties or dodge rockfall. I basically only had enough energy to try the summit with the fixed rope in place but not enough to climb alpine style, not that we had the equipment to do this anyway. Crap, bugger and bum. Well thats the friendly version of my thoughts to Damien’s news. We then radioed Gabriel for an updated weather report. He told us that the report had changed and the forecast was for higher wind than before. He wanted his team that had just summited Everest to come down from the South Col but couldn’t contact them. Infact he hadn’t been able to contact them most of the summit day. Dawa finally managed to talk to one of the Sherpas at the South Col and they were all too exhausted to move down until the next morning.

Dawa and I had extensive discussions about our predicament. What would my friends and family do if they knew I had that news and decided to go up anyway, then got hit by rockfall or even worse I actually fall? We didn’t have a rope. We had one ice tool. The rope wasn’t fixed all the way to the summit making coming down very difficult. Why were we even taking so long to decide what to do?! The answer was staring us in the face and we had to admit it. The safest decision was to turn around. Even after we decided I still kept asking Dawa if we were making the right decision. Summit fever is the biggest killer in the mountains and even though I knew I had made the right decision, I still had the illness. What would people think of me? Would I walk away disappointed in myself? No I would simply walk away, with Dawa, with my health and all my fingers and toes because the mountain will always be there.   We continued to listen to the radio flicking channels through all the groups coming down from the summit of Everest. Dawa was translating all the horrible news of climbers missing, snow blind, frostbite and also dead. It was horrendous listening to all the action live in our tent on the mountain. There were also lots of happy stories as guided groups radioed their Base Camps letting them know they were all safe at the South Col and had summited. I talked to Mike Roberts who had successfully guided his Adventure Consultants team to the summit and congratulated him. He told me I had made a good decision about Lhotse and that he saw a third of the route was rock as he walked passed it the day beforehand. I felt slightly better after talking to someone with so much experience about my decision.

We eventually settled down under my sleeping bag in our down suits. Dawa was not using oxygen but decided if he got cold in the night he would use a bottle. I had my mask on which annoyed the hell out of me as I couldn’t roll over and had to be careful of the hose to the bottle. The wind picked up and got worse during the night, hammering the tent and I couldn’t sleep well at all. Snow had been blasted through all the zips and covered the sleeping bag. As it got lighter in the tent I just lay there with my eyes open wishing I was somewhere else. Somewhere safe and warm and not so noisy. Dawa woke up and apparently had had a great sleep! This man is certainly made for the mountain. I don’t know how he does it! I had a puffy face, red eyes and a splitting headache. We slowly started to get ready to head down. We decided to leave when the sun hit the tent but neither of us had even opened the tent door and bothered to look outside! I braved the blast of snow and looked out to see the sky was covered in cloud. So I guessed there would be no sun hitting the tent. We packed all our things in the tent and I was ready to head down. Dawa decided to finish packing the actual tent up as I headed off first. I still had half a bottle of oxygen left so left it on to head down seeing as I may as well use it all up. I stopped a few meters from the tent to take some photos looking up to the summit of Lhotse firstly, then over to Everest to show what the weather was like. Taking my glove off to do this was a bad move as instantly my hand started to freeze. As soon as I took the photos I quickly put it back on again and stood there for 5 minutes warming it up before I could feel it again. That was close, what was I thinking?!

Looking up the Lhotse face to the summit of Lhotse May 20

Everest on the morning of May 20

I headed down the ropes slowly and safely to lower Camp 3. By the time I got down the clouds were starting to disappear and I was getting lower out of the wind. It was a relief to feel the sun again and start to warm up. I was very keen to get down to the glacier and finish going down the ropes as it was exhausting work with a heavy pack and I had to keep my mind on the job as its easy to make a mistake when you are tired and the consequence can be fatal.

Looking down the Western Cwm to Camp 2

Dawa descending the ropes from low Camp 3

Heading towards the last rappel down to the glacier

Finally we made it down off the Lhotse face and I was very happy to be on the relative safety of the Cwm. We headed back to Camp 2 where Nema cooked us lunch and we rested for an hour. At 1pm we repacked our things and left to go through the icefall for the last time.

At the base of the Lhotse face

Dawas heavy load from Camp 2

Dawa was carrying 4 full oxygen bottles which made his pack incredibly heavy. He decided to leave them at Camp 1 and return in the night to pick them up again. He stayed with me all the way through the icefall and we arrived back at Base together at 6pm exhausted (actually I was the only exhausted one, Dawa said he was a ‘little bit tired but not too bad’). He could have gone in front and arrived ages before me but I suppose he knew this was the last climbing we would do together so he took loads of photos and I took lots of GoPro footage. It was awesome.

Happy to be through the icefall and almost back at Base Camp

Back at base I found out through the grapevine that Domhnall had gone up with Damian that day he fixed the ropes to attempt the summit. He had turned around because a party in front of him was dropping rocks down. He was staying in Base to try again the next weather window of the 24th and 25th of May. I thought about staying too but I would not have Dawa as he was most definitely heading home to his family. I would also have to pay and organise more tents on the mountain. I could have climbed with another Sherpa but this meant more money that I didn’t have. I thought hard about whether I would feel any better having just two days of rest at Base and then trying again when perhaps another team would finish fixing the ropes. The answer was no. Even if I had the money to stay I wouldn’t recover enough energy at 5300m, in that amount of time, to be able to make a serious attempt again. I was disappointed but I was also happy to know we had done our best and if conditions had been different we would have had a better opportunity to make the summit.

The next day Dawa managed to get a flight out of Base in a helicopter as he has loads of friends in the mountains. I wasn’t able to afford a flight so I was prepared to do the three day hike with a porter. I started off down the valley around lunchtime. I didn’t even have the energy to walk around Base and say goodbye to anyone or wish my friends there that were still waiting to head up good luck. I walked by myself for five hours down to Periche and in a way enjoyed the view but was also not looking forward to the next two days as I knew there was some big uphills in the trail. I decided to call Babu and see if he could get me a good price on a flight out as he is always doing deals for me and is supportive of my lack of funds! It turned out he could work his magic and I can’t say how much or I may get in trouble but I got a significant discount. So I put the flight on my credit card and felt like a rockstar once again as the heli landed and Italian climber Simone Moro picked me up the next morning. It was a full flight as there were already three passengers in the back but I squished myself in and my luggage was dumped on top of me. It was perfect weather again as we flew down the valley and I had a massive grin on my face. We landed in Lukla and I only had to wait an hour for my flight to Kathmandu. Dawa waited for me at the airport as he flew a couple of planes before me. We laughed that we both managed to be in Kathmandu so fast!

So back to the Courtyard to see my beautiful friends Michelle and Pujan. Of course Michelle had given me the biggest and most lush room in the Hotel. I can’t thank them enough for being so kind to me and making my expedition even more enjoyable because I always had such a beautiful place to stay before and after my time in the mountains. I spent a few days in Kathmandu eating and sleeping before flying home to continue the trend here.

I want to thank all my financial sponsors for helping to make this amazing adventure possible. Thanks to Northcote Pottery, Marcellin Football Club, Moore Stephens, Asian Pacific Group and Art Series Hotels. I would like to give the biggest thank you in the world to Andrew and Jenni McMahon for their support and belief in me. I would also like to thank Back Country Cuisine, Sea to Summit, Wild Aid, Mont, Goal Zero and Villawood Indoor Climbing Gym for their support of my expedition. Lastly thanks to all my family, friends and work colleagues for their faith and support.

Of course the question everyone has been asking me is what next? Well before I can even think of what next I need to try pay off the debts of my last two years of expeditions. I have some thoughts in my mind but we will just have to wait and see….

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