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Cho Oyu



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1998 Cho Oyu

1999 Everest



Part 4

We got up a little late a c2 that morning because after the stormcleared, it got fiercely cold, so we waited for the sun to hit thetents before moving. At 20 below, every extra degree counts. We rose, got the stoves going and began preparations for our move to c3 and subsequent summit bid. As we began to warm up a bit, there was a bit of a commotion outside my tent in one of the other tents of a different team (there were members from 5 separate teams currently at c2 either staging summit bids or returning from the summit).  Eventually, I realized what was happening. The previous day, a young Swiss gentleman named Alex from another team had made a successful and very fast summit bid using o2, and had returned all the way to c2.   That morning he lay dead in his tent next to mine, having died during the night. It was a hell of a shock to say the least, and quite discomforting due to the fact that I was about to make my own summit bid, but unfortunately, not uncommon on the big peaks. No one was really sure exactly what killed him, but one of the other climbers was a doc and he narrowed it down to either suffocation during his sleep (he was in a goretex tent which didn't breath very well - not a good ad for goretex), or possibly a blood clot. Clots are very common at hi alt. Your body is working so unbelievably hard to generate more red blood cells to make up for the lack of o2 in the air that your blood becomes as thick as sludge. It is said that the blood at over 25000 ft can be as much as 70-80% thick (40-50% is normal). You tend to live on aspirin up there to help thin the blood, but regardless, it is still very tough on the system and clotting is very common. In fact,some climbers still risk clotting even upon returning to sea level for several days due to the fact that the sludge which is your blood is then situated in a highly saturated oxygen environment.

Regardless of what killed him, it was very sad and disturbing. No one should die like that, especially alone. No mtn is worth dying for….life is just too short. Alex was 34 years old. My 34th birthday was yesterday. I don't envy the person who had to make the call to his family.

There was no way we were going to be able to get him off the mountain, at least not without endangering the life of one of those who would try. The technical sections were just too difficult to get a body through. A decision was made the perform a hi mtn crevasse burial right there at c2. We wrapped the body in his sleeping bag, took any personal belongings for the family, said a few nice words and lowered him into his icy tomb. The movement of the glacier would eventually do the rest.

Then it was back to the matters at hand, trying, more difficult than you can imagine, to put the thoughts of Alex behind us and move on to trying to climb this thing. Unfortunately, climbers are big believers in karma, and many, including myself, worried that this was a bad sign. Regardless, we moved on.

Mid morning, we were heading off to c3. The plan was that after the first team summitted, they would bypass us and c3 and return to c2, while we took their place at c3 positioning ourselves for our summit bid that night. It would be a little more than a half day trip up to c3. It's one of the longest 1000+ foot trips you'll ever make, due to the thin air. Very slow moving. One step, then breath 3, 4 maybe 5 times before taking your next step. I couldn't imagine what the summit was going to be like. All morning long though, the weather was beginning to look quite ominous. The sun was out, but there were many hi layers of clouds at varying elevations above and below us. A day before, there was a very significant ring around the sun with hi wispy clouds in the upper atmosphere, and lenticulars beginning to form on some of the lower summits. Lenticulars are typically signs of bad weather and very high winds approaching. When I used to climb a lot in the Alaska Range, we used to call them Darth Vader clouds, because when ever you saw them, it meant impending doom. I am no meteorologist, but it really didn't look good. And neither c2 or c3, nor especially the summit, are places to be caught in a big storm.   The whole upper face and flanks of the mountain would become the biggest bowling alley you've ever seen, and c2 and c3 would be the pins.

We could see the first team moving above some of the more technical sections on their way to the summit - the sections called the rock bands, several 30-40 foot vertical rock pitches; but they were all moving very slowly. Apparently the snow conditions from the night before were making things really difficult and there was definitely a concern for avalanche. To us, they looked merely like a line of tiny black dots, but we could discern movement, barely, on the upper face.  All the technical pitches were now behind them and it was merely a race against time. A few of the climbing sherpas were out in front breaking trail through the fresh snow, and beginning to string a fixed line through a section that they feared might avalanche. Through out the morning we were maintaining limited radio contact with the summit party. By my, at 10:30am, they had radioed that they had just finished securing a fixed line through a questionable section on a steep loaded slope. By my estimate, it probably would have taken 2-3 minutes for all the summit team to clip in their jumars/ascenders -devices to secure a climber to a fixed line- and effectively tie themselves to the mountain, so that would make it about 10:33am. At 10:37am, watching the team through my field glasses for one last look before continuing on myself up to c3, the entire upper face let loose in one massive avalanche. Apparently, one of the climbers had stepped sideways out of the snow trench that was being formed by the line of summitters going through the fresh snow, and that was enough to generate a large horizontal fracture line or crack in the face and cause the whole thing to come crashing down. It was unbelievable....watching it, I thought there was no way any one could possibly survive it. Amazingly, as the snow show down the face, the team seemed to stay in place as if they were in a fast moving river holding on to a rope tied to a big rock in the middle. The two things that saved them were the fact that they were at the top of the slide - they set it off- and more importantly, the fact that they had just 5 minutes earlier fixed a line and were clipped in. Even being at the top of the slide though, if they hadn't been clipped in, they would have taken the 3000 foot ride of a lifetime - one that would not have ended very favorably and greatly increased the 1 in 25 statistic described earlier. A very long two minutes was followed by a radio call confirming that everyone was ok - a little shaken - and that they were continuing on towards the summit. In the meantime, we watched as the avalanche missed completely flattening c3 by no more than 20 yards -comparatively, it may have well as been inches on a face of this size. A pleasant thought though, since c3 was our destination. Oh well. You tend to become a big believer in fate on the mountains, and when your number is up, its up. At least that's how you rationalize going to c3 after watching it nearly get flattened. This was now the second bad omen of the morning and the weather was still getting worse.

One of the things you do when climbing a big mountain like this is to establish a mandatory turnaround time for summit bids. It is an essential policy prior to leaving. Summit days are so long and so physically and mentally exhausting, that it is vital to leave yourself a time window and enough strength to get back. If you use all your strength and or daylight to reach the summit, you're screwed. For those of you who read Into Thin Air, you know what happens when you let this rule slide. We chose a 12 noon turnaround time and no later….no exceptions. It didn't matter if you were 10 feet or 10minutes from the summit….at 12 noon, you turned around. Just before noon, the first team was on the final shoulder before the summitridge at an elevation of just at or under 8000 meters, but unfortunately still about 1-2 hours from the actual summit, and were forced to accept defeat and head down, much to their combined heartache. A lot of time, effort and pain went into this, and I knew exactly what they were feeling. It would now be up to us.

It was early afternoon when we pulled into c3. The summit team would still be 5-6 hours away from returning. The weather was really starting to look terrible, even worst than before, although there was still sun. I was really starting to get a little concerned about it, and was not looking forward to spending the night in the avalanche zone. I survived a close call in an avalanche on the Mooses Tooth in the AK range years ago, and the one we saw here this morning really gave me the willies. We had a quick pow-wow with the members of the second team, and although I think they were as nervous as I about the weather, I think they were a little blinded by summit visions. When you're this close, its pretty tough not to go. All you need from here is a 24 hour window and then you can get the hell off this icy rock for good. Its pretty easy to rationalize. I've spent enough time in the mtns though and I know and have seen bad decisions create serious regret....and worse. I felt they were making a poor judgement call and a bad choice. But again, we're all adults here. I had made my decision....I was heading down, and fast. I hoped that I wouldn't regret it. I hoped that it wasn't simple paranoia caused by the many strange circumstances of the day. It didn't make a difference though at this point, I was already on my way. Life is too short to end up here next to Alex. The mtn will always be there and can always be climbed, but you need to climb it on its terms. You can't force a decision on an 8000 meter peak or you'll end up a statistic. I've blown my chance for this year. In my life, I have probably backed off of more summits than I have stood on, but that's why I am still climbing and will continue to do so.

There was a member from another team who felt similar to myself and we hooked up for the descent. That would be good. In addition to the company, it would be a little safer through the technical sections.  We headed back towards c1. By about 4pm it was beginning to snow and by 5pm, we were in a complete white out, with the winds picking up quite strong, and we were having a hell of a time staying on route and negotiating some of the down climbing. Down climbing steep ice and steep rock, with 50+ lbs on your back in a storm and fogging glasses is not a lot of fun. I can think of better ways to spend an afternoon. But it was serving the purpose of getting us out of the bowling alley. By the time we actually hit c1, it was quite dark - we were under headlamp - and the storm was in full rage. We brewed up some fluids and decided that it would be prudent to get all the way off the mtn and back to abc, even though it meant continuing on in the storm. The section from c1 to abc is not too technical, just long and arduous. Though my summit chances were gone, I was now beginning to feel that I had made the right decision. Time would tell. We got back to abc very late, and I crawled into my bag and slept very soundly. The next morning,. There was quite a bit of snow on the ground at abc and the storm was still going on. It was complete white out. I could only imagine what was happening high on the mtn. At 7am, we had our planned radio call with the upper teams and found out that they had received 2-3ft of new snow and it was still coming down hard.   The summit bid was canceled although everyone from the first team had indeed made it safely back to c2. On the radio, however, you could hear the trepidation in their voices regarding the extreme avalanche danger that now surrounded them. They said that they could hear them coming down all around them, but could not see anything due to the storm. They needed to get off the  mtn......immediately , and that would become the plan for the day, even though that meant moving in the storm. I could only count my blessings that I was low on the mtn and fortunate that I had made the right decision. But that didn't help them right now, and unfortunately, there was not alot we could actually do for them as they were all scattered between camps c2 and c3. I did not envy them. To their credit, however, and with a supreme effort on the part of several of the hi mtn climbing sherpas, they did all manage to get back down to abc safely over the course of the next two days - some on o2 all the way down. The storm continued on and off for the next 5 days. Occasionally, we would get quick views of the upper flanks of the mtn, only to see massive amounts of snow being loaded on the upper slopes, and signs of many avalanches, some quite large, that had tumbled down the face. Not the place to be. It appeared that the entire mountain would be effectively shut down for the rest of the climbing season.

The Himalayan climbing seasons are quite unique. There are 2 main seasons, spring and fall, and both short. The spring starts just before the monsoon begins and the fall just after it ends. Both are sandwiched between this and a period when the jetstream subsides just long enough to allow climbers to reach the summits. Most of the year, the summits of the 8000 meter peaks actually sit within the jet stream which maintains consistent winds of 100-200 mph, making it impossible for climbing. But for a brief period , just before and after the monsoon, the jet stream, for some reason, rises and allows a brief window of - relatively - less windy conditions, when climbing is possible. This is the window we try to target. Its a very short window  though. This year as the weather began to clear, a massive lenticular,  one of the largest and most spectacular I have ever seen - remember Darth Vader - showed itself on the summit, indicating extremely high winds, and stayed there for several days. The season was most definitely over. We missed our opportunity by only a couple of days. Alex was probably the last one to summit the peak this year, and as it turns out, this was one of the worst summit years on recent record. We figured that successful summit attempts happened on only 5 separate days and that's it. Only the teams that got their earlier than us were in position to take advantage of the early window. We were shut down. We got no one to the top, although several in the first team were certainly close. As we were all leaving the mtn for the several day trek back to cbc, there was one German team of 10 climbers that had decided to wait out the weather and hope for another window. I fear they may have a long wait, but I do wish them very good luck.

For me personally, even though I did not stand on top, I was still quite pleased. Even in the face of a fairly devastating illness, I still managed to make it to 7500 meters and feel and move quite well.  From an acclimatization perspective, I felt very good operating at that altitude and in that regard the climb was very much a success for me. I reached very close to the point on Everest where you begin to use o2, so I now I can reach that point with no problem. I just need to keep my gut clean and stay healthy. But my genetics seem like they will work up there. The rest will be up to me.


End Part 4