Summit Push Recap

[update 5/24: There are a number of summit pictures on: https://picasaweb.google.com/wolpin]

I’m not sure how to start this. What a trip! I’m in my tent at base
camp, on hold with my travel agency in Seattle and stuck in a message
loop encouraging me to ‘look for a little adventure’ It’s 2:30am and
my sleep cycle is completely messed up. This has turned into a pretty
long, meandering, unedited write-up. Good luck!

Damai and I made it back at about 4:30 pm yesterday afternoon. Not the
best time to cross the ice fall. The attached pic, if it comes through,
is from Pasang met us at the edge of the glacier yesterday, prayer
scarfs and beers in hand. Everything was melting and tottering. Common
sense would have had us stay at Camp II but I think the desire to get
back to base camp overcame both of us. My laptop battery is about to run
out as well, this may have to be something that I finish in the morning…

A huge thanks especially to Kelly and Damai. It sounds like a cliche,
but I know I would not have made it up without their help. Kelly has
dealt (and gracefully supported) the decision to climb and all my
accompanying neurosis, planning, packing, absence, climbing questions
(“No Seth, duct tape is not an acceptable back-up knot”), and phone
calls. Not to mention the blog updates and face book hacking. And my
sister Robin and friend James Oliphant also served as phone therapists.
And I knew Mom wished me well from Cuba, and later from Camp High Skies
in NY. I hope all four can meet Damai Sherpa someday, a real life
superman who I first met when I landed in Kathmandu on March 17th. Domai
has taught me a ton and has literally held my life in his hands,
sometimes with a rope, and ice screw, or an oxygen bottle. Kami and
Pasang Sherpa were also instrumental, Kami kept us well fed and also
guided me on the mountain on more than one occasion. He should be back
at base camp this morning after his first successful summit. Pasang did
an amazing job managing things at base camp. And then there is Dorjee,
owner of Himalayan Windhorse Adventures who helped me with the UW class
trek to Annapurna Base Camp last fall. I knew he would assemble and
outstanding crew that would get me up the mountain, and he did. And
thanks for all the emails, blog comments, and texts from friends and
family. It was also great to get back in touch with old friends! I still
have a bunch of email to catch up on, but it may have to wait till
Namche or even Kathmandu as I am almost out of sat phone credit.

Next day/Sunday: My laptop battery did end up blinking out last night.
Today has been a mixture of packing and farewells. Kami came down after
a successful summit on his own (his regulator broke when he was on his
way up with us). Another day of packing awaits tomorrow and then we’ll
all head ‘down’ with overnights in Pheriche, Namche, and two nights at
Dorjee’s lodge in Phakding before flying to Kathmandu and home on the
26th. I have a terrible case of the Khumbu cough that started developing
up on the mountain.

A huge congratulations to Robin and Christine who are heading down
tomorrow. May their Khumbu coughs also go away. Robin became the
youngest Swede to summit. Someone closely resembling him reported peeing
1/3rd in China, 1/3rd in Nepal, and 1/3rd on himself (blame high winds).
And Christine was the 7th Canadian female to summit and probably the
nicest Canadian female to summit. I’m sure she didn’t try to pee on the
summit. I climbed a bit with Robin up the South Col before he blew by
me. Christine started out from the South Col ahead of both of us and we
bumped into each other a few minutes from the summit as she was heading
down. And congrats to Damai on his 6th summit (!) and Kami on his
first! I think 30 people summitted all together on the 13th – hurray.

The summit push was a mixture of cold, terror, and beauty. On Tuesday,
around 6am, we went straight up and then over the yellow band on the
Lhotse face. I had a tank of oxygen (Poisk, 4l) in my pack and a ‘Top
Out’ mask which is supposed to be lighter and more efficient leaving
Camp III. I felt a lot stronger but it turned out to be a long day of
high winds (guessing 40 mph+ gusts) on the Lhotse face that caused a
bunch of other teams to change their summit plans. After 6 odd hours of
rest-stepping, kicking steps, turning our backs to the wind, and
slogging/climbing near some members of the IMG team led by Mike Hammond
(West Seattle!) we finally scrambled up the Geneva Spur and ended up on
an almost level trail that led to the South Col. The winds were even
stronger here and I saw Robin sitting on a rock, we yelled at each other
about maybe visiting a little later to coordinate a common departure
time but I think we also knew that it wouldn’t be that easy to just pop
by and we didn’t have compatible radios. Kelly’s description of trying
to help Damai get the tent setup was correct. It was crazy. The nice
thing was the sun actually came out once we got it out and the winds
died down a little. We had our down suits on, oxygen masks, and some
ramon noodles. I could see climbers descending on the South Col and the
steepness freaked me out. Kami showed up at 6pm, having left Camp II
twelve hours earlier – not leaving himself a lot of rest time. At 7pm it
was dark and we could see the first headlamps (actually Christine and
Pemba I think) heading up the Col. By 8:15pm we joined a good line of
climbers. I felt like we were all astronauts on the moon with our huge
suits, boots, masks, and headlams.

It took about 4hrs to get to the balcony which was barely 10 feet
square. Maybe an hour into the climb we realized Kami wasn’t with us,
Damai waited for him for a while and then finally gave up and caught up
with me. It would have been a lot more convenient if we all had radios
but the terrain was pretty easy and we assumed Kami had either returned
to Camp IV or had somehow gotten ahead and was waiting for us… I found
myself frustrated by climbers who were depending on their Sherpas to
move their jumars and safety lines around every anchor point. It took
almost twice as long and there is a point where you should do something
for yourself. Or climbers that were going too slow. But sometimes I
found I was the slow climber too and felt pressure to go faster. I
finally took a good rest, attached to an anchor, and let a bunch of
people pass me. I wasn’t expecting to get to the balcony for ~5hrs, so
it was nice to come up around a rock mound and suddenly arrive. There
were maybe 10-12 people on this little flat area, most stashing their
oxygen bottles and the hiss of Sherpas attaching regulators to new
bottles was everywhere. People seemed to be peeing everywhere too.

I could see headlamps going up the ridge to the South summit and we soon
followed. At one point I thought I could see stars below me and
rationalized it might be the earth’s curvature. I’m still not sure on
that one. One section of the ridge had no fixed rope because a climber
had died the day before – pulling the rope off the ridge with the weight
of his body. I’ll hold off on the details out of respect. His tent is
also a stone’s throw from mine here at base camp and I went to his Puja
ceremony. I’m extremely sorry for him but also was very freaked out to
be on the ridge with that much exposure and no protection. His body is
supposed to be brought back down in a few days. I won’t get into
discussing the other bodies on the mountain except to say that I seem to
have a natural ability not to see them which I count as a defense
mechanism.

It took a lot longer than I expected to reach the South Summit, maybe 4
hours from the balcony. Steep, mixed rock, wind, extreme cold. I got to
the top and after Damai arrived we did an arm rappel off a really shaky
snow picket down to the ridge. If you’ve seen people standing on a
narrow ridge, waiting for their turn to go up the Hillary Step – that’s
the one. I imagine it has a name but I don’t know it, so I hereby give
it my own name: The ‘Scare Seth to Death Ridge’. While Damai
stashed/anchored our extra oxygen, I found myself in a complete crouch,
freezing and overcome with a sense of impending doom. I didn’t feel like
I had the strength to go back and going forward didn’t seem like and
option. The ridge had no fixed line and thousands of feet of exposure on
each side. Someone made a joke today about that section, how if you were
going to fall you should choose side X because it was a couple thousand
feet more (down to China?) and you would ‘live a little longer’ Across
the ridge we could see some people going up the step and it just looked
like a crazy vertical climb at the top of the world. I remembered Robin
(not Sister Robin) saying if you made it past the step ‘you were there’
and inched out…following the footsteps in the snow, creeping along
with one foot in front of the other, not looking down and hugging the
top of the ridge with my right hand. I don’t think Damai even paused in
crossing the ridge. From there, it was a few easy moves on some rock
that I mistakenly thought was the Hillary Step. But that was actually a
minute or two away and didn’t turn out to be as difficult as I thought.
I think the key point is not looking down. One move found me completely
straddling a rock in a pretty awkward, non-PG way. I wonder if Hillary
and Tenzeng had to do the same? From there it was up a long summit ridge
and I think that is where I started realizing that it was going to
finally happen, especially when the actual summit with prayer flags came
into sight.

Some people were coming in the opposite direction, sharing a fixed line
usually means that someone has to unclip their safety line to get around
the other (if there is ever a next time, I will use two long safety
lines). During one of these encounters, I realized both myself and the
other person had unclipped and said something to the effect of how
uneccesary that was – only to realize I was talking to Christine. We
both laughed when we realized we knew each other and I said congrats and
we went our separate ways (after re-clipping).

The summit was incredible, there were 4-5 other people who got there
just before us. In retrospect, I didn’t spend enough time taking it all
in, I never really identified the north ridge climbers from Tibet would
ascend. I just took in a blur of huge mountains, vistas, and freezing
cold wind. I had my satellite phone and camera inside my down suit but
the zipper was completely frozen over and I couldn’t really see what I
was doing with my oxygen mask and tubing. With my over-mitts off but
glove liners on, I finally got the phone out and managed to talk to
Kelly for all of 10 seconds before losing almost all feelings in my
hands. It was too windy to hear too. I gave up plans to call Mom and
Robin. Damai came over and hugged me and congratulated us and I felt
like an ass for being so focused on getting the phone to work. I dug out
my camera and found it completely non-functional. Damai took out his and
(seemed) to be able to take a bunch of pictures, we even asked another
Sherpa to take a shot of us and I posed with a little banner that an
Australian health system asked me to take up. After a total of 5-10
minutes we were freezing and decided to head down. I noticed the other
group take some steps away from the summit and I seized my opportunity
to be the tallest person in the world by taking a few steps back to the
true summit. It was brief but at stretching to reach 5’10 well worth it…

Suffice to say it took a long time to get back down to Camp IV. There
was a bit of a jam on the step this time, with Mike Hammond and his IMG
group coming up, but they gracefully gave us a chance to get down. The
views were incredible. Where we jumared before, now we mostly
arm/shoulder/back rapelled and occasionally got out our figure eight
devices for steeper sections. We always attached a safety line and ended
up taking a lot of brief sit-down breaks. When we finally got to the
balcony there were no other people, just lots of yellow snow. I found a
clean patch and stretched out for 5 minutes. I had my second drink of
water. The last thing I had to eat had been a candy bar earlier that
night at the balcony, I saw a chunk that looked familiar on the snow but
decided to stick to a sub 8 hour rule. About 2/3rds of the way down the
South Col we spotted Kami’s backpack tied to an anchor, Damai opened it
up and took out a regulator and a small bag I had asked Kami to carry
which had some medications and a disposable camera. We got back to our
windy tent at the South Col around 10am and found Kami there, his
regulator had stopped working about a 1/3rd of the way up the South Col,
causing him to turn back. Damai and I rested and debated trying to spend
the night there – I didn’t know if I had the strength to make it another
~3hrs down to Camp III. But I was starting to cough like crazy and
swallowing felt like I had razor blades in my throat. After encouraging
Kami to go for his own summit push (with a repaired regulator), Damai
hooked me up to a full tank at 4l per minute and I staggered away,
certain that I would crawl back to the tent within a few minutes. But
the oxygen kicked in and I ended up mostly rappelling down 3,000+ feet
of the Lhotse face. About half of the rappels were simple arm, shoulder,
back rappels. I took the oxygen off about half way down because I was
feeling better and also started connecting the oxygen use to the feeling
of razor blades in my throat every time I had to swallow. Later, I found
Robin and Christine had the same problem and we all laughed about how
much pee tainted snow we probably ate on the way down. When you can’t
leave a fixed line without falling to your death, the options are really
limited… I was happy to crawl into a very battered and half buried
tent at Camp III and happier when Damai showed up an hour or so later.

In some respects everything worked great. The three of us summitted and
are back safe and sound in base camp. But we also had 3 out of 4 oxygen
regulators fail which could have been deadly. I’m sorry about the GPS
SPOT tracker not working, the short version is Damai realized he had no
headlamp at Camp III. I had an extra but old batteries. We used the
lithium batteries from the SPOT tracker to light his way through the
night. The only GPS mark I have is from the satellite phone call to
Kelly. And my camera turned into a brick of ice leaving me with no
summit pictures. Not super uncommon above 8,000m. But Damai’s camera
seemed to be working fine so we didn’t dig for the disposable camera in
the backpack (seems dumb but the wind and cold were out of this world).
Of course, Murphy’s Law of not making back-ups meant back at Camp IV we
only ended up with file error messages. I’ve spent a good part of the
day trying to find the other (shorter) team that was on the summit with
us because they were camera happy and I’m pretty sure we are in some of
their pics. The memory card from Domai’s camera is on its way to
Kathmandu for some forensics but I’m not holding my breath. I just
looked at some of Robin’s pictures and they are fantastic, I’ll
eventually post mine but they’re pretty much limited to Camp III and
Camp IV and the return through the ice fall.

That’s enough. Maybe more from Namche or Kathmandu. It’s been fun!

See https://picasaweb.google.com/wolpin for more pics.

5 Responses to “Summit Push Recap

  • tears in my eyes; so happy to be reading this
    Donna

  • very happy for you,Seth. what a journey & accomplishment! Kathleen

  • Congratulations Seth! It was really exciting keeping up with your expedition. I’m glad I thought about contacting you again and found your website. I’m going to dig up some of the old photos from Korea and send them to you.

    Stan

  • Seth!!!!
    Way impressed, Bro! That’s awesome. Not something that’s ever going to be in my future, and that just makes it more impressive to me.

    Safe travels back.
    Shawn

  • Seth,

    Congratulations..! I know this experience will be one you will cherish for the rest of your life and I am soo happy for you. My eight year old son is watching me write this and is in awe of your summit. My best wishes for a safe journey home and I am looking forward to hearing your adventures over a beer! I just hope I am not too far down the queue…

    -David Hughes

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