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April 24,1999


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Location:  Everest Base Camp (Back from Camp 3)
Day 23

Thursday,  4/24/99
Elevation:  17,800 ft
(Back from 23,500 ft)

Hi Again Everyone.

Well, once again, we're back in Base camp after pushing higher up the mountain and progressing the route further.  We have now established Camp 3 at about 23,500 ft and have also had some sherpa loads ferried as far as our final Camp 4 at the South Col, although that camp has not been established.  As of my last update, the plan was for six of us with Sherpa support were to head to C3, but as it turns out, the entire team had eventually made it to C3, although only about half of the team has actually slept there.

The trip back up through the icefall was nothing less than torturous.  The ice fall is moving much more than normal this year and avalanches and bridge collapses have been a daily occurrence.   We have been very lucky not to have any injuries to any of the teams, although there have been some very close calls with bridges collapsing under several sherpas.   In addition to that, I think that we have all, myself included, experienced punching through a crevasse or blown pieces of protection on more than one occasion, all of which are very sobering events when they happen.  Unfortunately, this is a fact of life up here.  The icefall is just a nasty part of the route and one that has to be dealt with on a daily basis.  The route changes virtually every day due to the movement, and each day presents its own new hazards.  Since most of us were bypassing C1 on the way to C2, it was a long day, 10-12 hours for most of us.  Technical climbing with a full load in the heat of the Everest midday sun made for an exhausting day.  Personally, I was trashed.  A couple of rest days, however, and we were ready to move on and attempt to establish C3 in the middle of the Lhotse Face. 

Now, one of the real mixed blessings that we have had this year has been the extremely good weather.  The days have been cloudless and warm and we haven't had so much as a flurry in the nearly three weeks on the mountain so far.  As wonderful as this sounds, this has been a real Catch-22.  This has, unfortunately, made for the worst  conditions on the Lhotse Face in years.  The face is 4000 feet and very steep.  Usually, teams will negotiate a route up the face through a series of seracs that dot the face and work their way to a section of rock called the Yellow Band and then to another section of rock called the Geneva Spur which will take them to the South Col.  During most years, much of this can be accomplished on snow, which means that your crampons and tools have something to dig into. This year, with the lack of snow, the route is nothing but the hardest blue ice I have ever seen in my life.  You literally cannot even get your crampons into it no matter how hard you try.  It's absolutely frightening.  Although the Sherpas did nothing less than a spectacular job fixing ropes not only to C3, but to the South Col and C4, everyone is concerned.  One slip or mistake, or missed clip in a fixed rope and its a 4000ft ride to the bottom.  The only thing waiting for you there is a huge bergshrund or crevasse.  All I can say is that when you are on the face, you are very focused.  Once at the location for C3, we literally had to hack out a ledge in the ice for a campsite.  Thank God for  the Sherpas once again, because most of the westerners on the team were too exhausted due to the altitude to even lift an axe.  The ice was so hard and the job was so demanding that were barely able to chop a section in the face big enough for three tents, with one literally hanging over the edge.  There is absolutely no room to move up there.  You literally stay clipped in to the rope on the face until you are inside a tent.  If you have to go to the bathroom, you tie back in, swing out on to the face, do your stuff and swing back in to the tent.  Can you say insecure.  It's not a very enjoyable part of the mountain.

The only real positive thing about being there at C3 is that it is a spectacular site.  Imagine, being at nearly 24,000 feet on one of the steeper flanks of Everest, looking down on peaks that only days before had towered above you.  You are above the clouds and you are staring at the summit on Mt Everest, now only two days climb away for the properly acclimatized.   For the first time, your goal is within reach and the reality of it seems almost overwhelming.  There is still a long way to go and much work to do, but the possibility of summiting the tallest mountain in the world finally seems with in your grasp.  No time to look around though and philosophize, its time to go back down.

Two days rest further acclimatizing at C2 and then back down to Base Camp where I am now.  A lot of you are probably asking by now, why don't we just climb this thing and get it over with.   Hell, we were right there, why keep going up and coming down.  The reason is acclimatization.  Up here, we are living and breathing in an environment that is very inhospitable to humans.  Not just the cold and the weather, but the lack of O2 and pressure.  The level of 02 at Base Camp is about half that at sea level and at the summit, it is less than a quarter.  Also,  at sea level, your body and brain are equalized to an outside pressure of   14 lbs. per sq. inch, which undergoes similar reductions at altitude.  So, once up here, there is literally no air to breath and the inside of your body and brain are screaming to get out due to the pressure difference.  It takes a long time for an individual to equalize to this or more accurately acclimatize to the new environment. 

There is an old adage in climbing, climb high, sleep low.  The best way to acclimatize is to literally, continue to push higher up the mountain in stages, while sleeping low, with occasional rest breaks at a very low altitude to allow the body to generate more blood cells and slowly get used to the lesser and lesser pressures as you move up the mountain.  The best speed at which to do all this depends upon your body which you need to listen to.   Accompanying this process with each individual are lovely things like nausea, severe headaches, lassitude, dizziness, lack of appetite, lack of sleep and susceptibility to infection due to the body being so run down.  These are normal symptoms that everyone must endure as the body goes through the process.  If one, however, pushes too fast, you can suffer pulmonary edema or worse, cerebral edema, where the body literally bleeds fluid into the lungs or brain.  These, as you can imagine, are not good things and typically are the end of a climb for an individual....or worse.  We have been lucky not to have any of these afflictions with our team high on the mountain, with the exception of Jamie early on in the trip here at Base Camp, and yes, it did end his climb. It's a difficult process to go through, but one that must be done.  That is why we will push high to a new elevation on the mountain, and then return low to Base Camp.  By the time we are done, we will have climbed the mountain several times just due to acclimatization.

To make this whole matter of acclimatization worse, we have the problem with this fantastic weather pattern we have been in.  During most years,  the weather at this time of year is typically still quite mixed, which, in addition to providing better snow conditions on the face, also keep people's minds off the summit, because the upper mountain is a whirl of wind and storms.   Not so this year.  For the last week and a half, although no one is fully acclimatized as of yet, everyday has been a potential summit day.  It is a very unique year indeed and it has many people squirming in their pants to get up there while the window is good.  Usually,  the window doesn't even open until early to mid-May, in fact there have, if I'm not mistaken, only been two summit in the month of April ever.  This has been a very strange year, however.  It has caused a major split in philosophy in our team, and hence, created, essentially, two bodies of movement on the mountain.  Let me explain.

Because of what looks like an early window year, some people are worried about missing the window by undergoing the normal process of acclimatization which involves typically 3-4 cycles of moving higher and higher up on the mountain, always returning to Base Camp for recovery. Since each cycle involves about a week, most individuals are not ready to summit until at least the end of the first week of May or later, regardless of how good the weather is.  As such, about half of our team has elected to undergo a fast acclimatization program, involving only two cycles higher on the mountain, hoping to put them in a position to start summiting around May 1st.  This is a very risky situation because you are really pushing the body to the extreme, and potentially attempting to summit before the body is ready to handle those types of altitudes.  We have had a lot of debate on the team, but as said, there are those who fear that the window may close early this year, and they have chosen to move at a faster pace.  I wish them luck.  I, as well as others, have chosen to move at the normal pace and commit the full acclimatization process.   If the window closes early, than it wasn't meant to be.  I do not believe in pushing the element of risk to the extreme, especially in light of the accidents up here in recent years.  My philosophy for life, work and climbing has always been that there are no shortcuts to success.  It has worked for me up to now and I see no reason to change it.  As for the others, there are no collective decisions in mountaineering.  You may be here as part of a team, but when it comes down to it, you are an individual in an individualistic sport.  You make your own decisions and you either live with them or you die with them.  As such, we are now on two separate strategies.  While I and others rest in Base Camp for two days and prepare for our final cycle pushing higher on the mountain, this time to the South Col and then down, the other half of our team has descended lower than Base Camp for a 4-5 day extended rest before returning to make the first summit attempts of the year.  This does mean more work for us, and one more trip up the mountain and the possible risk of burning out, but we will be healthier.  Also, if the window closes tomorrow, and does not open again until the middle of May, which is my personal estimate of what will most likely happen (this weather pattern cannot possibly last), then I will be in a much better position acclimatization wise when the window reopens.  Only fate will tell.

So, it is very nice to be sleeping back at Base Camp once again.  The air that was so thin and O2 lacking several weeks ago now seems thick and O2 rich due to the increased blood cells in my body and it will only get better with my next trip.  Getting used to the air is one thing however, getting used to the avalanches is another.  I really thought after nearly a month on the mountain, that you'd be used to them, but you never do.  I'm sure it's something like artillery in war.  The sound is deafening, and since we are in a mountain amphitheater, which echoes the sound, you almost never know where they are coming from, at least for the first 30 seconds  or so until someone yells "I've got it, there it is" and every one relaxes.  And for the ones at night.....well you just pray.   It's quite a place...... exciting and scary, exhilarating and humbling.  It's weird....part of me hopes the trip never ends, yet at the same time, I can't wait to get the hell out of here.  It's not a place for people.

Anyway, that's it for this edition.  I will be heading up for my last cycle to the South Col (one more trip through the ice fall......yuck!!!!) on the 27th before returning to Base Camp 7-8 days later to rest and prepare for my summit bid, hopefully starting around May 8th or so.   Who knows, we'll see.  So,  I'll send more when I return.  I am going to try to send one more update before I go with some digitized pictures that we have.  We are still messing with the file formats and attaching them to the email.   So, hopefully before I head back up, otherwise, they will be with the next update.

Take care for now, and keep us in your thoughts and prayers.

Peter

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