On May 24th, 2010, Lei Summited Mt Everest to become the first Asian Woman
to finish the challenge of Seven Summits and Two Poles.
Facts and Figures
Original Name: Mount Everest – also called Qomolangma Peak (Tibetan), Mount Sagarmāthā (Nepali), Chajamlungma (Limbu), Zhumulangma Peak (Chinese: Zhūmùlǎngmǎ Fēng) or Mount Chomolungma. In 1865, Everest was given its official English name by the Royal Geographical Society upon recommendation of Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India at the time.
Height: 8,848 metres (29,029 ft)
Location: 27°59’17″N 86°55’31”
My Everest Trek and Climb….
The last few weeks have been extremely busy! I’ve been rushing around trying to get my gear, my papers, and my supplies together. Finally, I got the medicine kit and my vaccinations out of the way! I know a lot of you have been asking me about the route and my itinerary, so I’ve posted some of the information here.
My rough itinerary is as follows:
3/20-4/2: Training trek to Gokyo
4/2-4/12: Trek to base camp with group
4/12-5/10: Training climb between base camp and camp 3
5/10: Wait for weather; summit push will be 5-6 days up, 2 days down
You can see the map of the trek to Everest Base Camp below (it should take about 13 days).
Packing for Everest
Packing gear for a trip to Everest is not a trivial matter. In fact, it is a huge undertaking and much more complicated than it has been for any of my previous trips. I first downloaded the gear list from the guiding company into a spreadsheet. Then slowly, the one-sheet list grew into a workbook, with separate lists for clothes, climbing gear, medicine, food, personal care, books & digital equipment.
Because of the extreme altitude and conditions, I had to acquire a lot of new gear. Some, such as boots and insulation suits, are quite expensive and hard to find for my small size. Luckily, Wild Things Gear generously sponsored most of my clothes with custom-designed PrimaLoft suits and custom-tailored shell/softshell layers.
It was a blessing to have the support of Marie Meunier, the owner of Wild Things Gear, who took care of me like a mom! She helped me organize my equipment, taught me how to coordinate my clothes layers with other accessories (such as gloves, boots, goggles, and a helmet), and worked with me in making the suits fit my specific needs. Trying the new suits reminded me of my childhood experience of putting on new clothes that Mom made for me on Chinese New Year, which was a special moment because we were too poor to afford buying new clothes. Donning homemade new clothes on Chinese New Year was our ritual.
To better protect my toes, I bought a pair of La Sportiva Olympus Mono boots. Very few brands make extreme altitude boots for women, so I had to get a men’s pair at the smallest size, 39. Unfortunately, the break in process was extremely painful and stressful.
Despite having a lot of room in the toes area, my ankles and lower calves were being crushed and badly bruised during the first few weeks. I got my friend Paul Cormier from IME and Stan and Dan Sports in North Conway to custom-adjust the boots a couple times, but I still wasn’t confident in how they would perform on the mountains. I couldn’t keep on trying to break in new boots here with my already well-bruised ankles. So I decided to pack in my old Kolflach Arctic Exped boots as well.
Another complicated project is medicine. Even a super healthy person who never needs to visit doctors in normal situations can run into many unexpected problems at extreme altitudes, such as severe cough, diarrhea from bad foods and infections, and even life- threatening pulmonary or cerebral edema. Being away from modern healthcare for two months, I have to be prepared for any situation. My friends, Dr. David Coleman and Dr. Steve West, helped me obtain enough medicine to supply a personal pharmacy and patiently educated me on how to use them. David even wrote me detailed step-by-step instructions that I can follow to treat myself under different conditions, and he taught me the efficient way to organize medicines for expeditions.
Though the guiding company is preparing all the meals, I decided to bring a lot of snacks to supplement my nutrition on the mountain. Based on my previous experience, meals on these expeditions are normally heavy on carbs and fat, but relatively low on protein and fiber. Because of my training regimen during the past few months, my body has got used to a diet that is high in protein. So I brought a lot of protein bars, powders, and nuts to provide extra protein for two months.
Packing for this trip was complicated. On the start of this trip, I will be trekking in relatively mild conditions for 14 days to base camp. This means different boots and clothes for trek. Once in base camp, I would be busy training to prepare for high altitude climbing. We would establish two base camps to reduce the amount of equipment we have to carry up and down the mountain.
The main base camp, which will be our main home, is located at 17,700 ft. The advanced base camp at Camp2 is located at 21300 ft. Each camp will have duplicate equipment and gear. I’ll be traveling between them several times in order to get used to the high altitude.
Now you start to get a picture of what I am putting into my three big duffel bags!
Everest Trip Intro
IMG, the guiding company, just published the list of climbers of the season. There are a total of fourteen members in the Sherpa-guided group (my group), one guided by western guides, two express climbers, and seven in hybrid team, plus two Lhotse and two camp 2/3 climbers, making a total of twenty-eight under IMG management.
The group is starting on March 28th, the date everyone leaves the U.S. by. I’m here one week ahead of the group to do some extra acclimatization on my own. I plan to head to Gokyo valley, which neighbors Khumbu Valley, where the Everest base camp is located. In addition to gaining extra acclimatization, trekking to Gokyo valley will be an extremely rewarding experience. When you are at base camp, you actually never see the mountain! But Gokyo offers the best view of the area, especially for Everest and Cho Oyu.
To gain access to the area, the most popular way is to fly to Lukla, the last point of modern transportation. From there, it’s a 2 days’ walk to Namche, the capital city of Sherpa— the gateway to Everest region. The trails to Everest base camp or Gokyo both start there. After trekking to Gokyo (7 days), I will return to Namche to meet up with the group, and walk another 10 days to arrive at Everest base camp on April 12.
In order to acclimatize to the altitude, I have to be very patient and gain altitude slowly, otherwise it’s very easy to develop severe altitude sickness. That’s why the trekking takes so long.
The most efficient strategy to acclimatize is called “climb high, sleep low” instead of continuously going up. At extreme altitudes, the body would start to cannibalize itself and one would quickly lose strength if they stay at high altitude for too long. So after getting used to the new altitude, we would retreat to base camp to recover for a few days before climbing back up again to the next higher altitude. Between April 12th and May 10th, we will do several rotations of this “climb high, sleep low” process, each taking about 7-10 days including rest days. From base camp, we will first do a training climb on Lobuje, a nearby mountain. After another few days’ rest, we will start the training climb on Everest by doing two rotations between base camp and camp 3.
Once we are fully acclimatized, we will rest in base camp while waiting for a summit window. Once we spot a break in weather, we will push for the summit by continuously ascending for 6 days. It would only take 2 days to descend back to base camp.
May is the best month to climb Everest, but you still need a lot of luck to catch a summit window. Saying it’s the best month to climb only means it’s less stormy than other months. But because of the extreme altitude, a minor storm condition is deadly for anyone. Sometimes it could take weeks to see a few days that are calm enough to summit, and in some years that may never happen. Who can predict the weather, especially in the mountains and 6 days away? It is a gamble!
Everest report – Travel and luggage issues!
I must have all the luck! Anytime I go on an international trip, I always have so many issues that I am expecting things to happen regardless…
Despite my barely being packed until the last minute before my departure time, I made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, thanks to the help of my friends! The plane took off, and less than half an hour later, just as I was dozing off, I heard the calm but unexpected announcement from the pilot:
“There is nothing to be concerned about. It’s only an act of being cautious.”
What does that mean?
The announcement continued, “One of our redundant hydraulic press switches is not functioning. It’s just a redundant one. We are in no danger. There is nothing to be concerned about. We are returning to Boston.”
Well, the quickest round trip I ever made on any flight.
Where’s my luggage?
Finally, the parts were replaced, and we were off again. We arrived at London Airport more than three hours behind schedule, and I thoroughly missed my connection to JetAirways. After being sent back and forth multiple times between terminals and counters, I was finally booked on the next Qatar Airline flight to Doha, Qatar, taking off 3 hours later. I would then arrive at KTM (Kathmandu) 2 hours behind my original schedule. Not too bad.
“What about my luggage??”
American Airlines (the airline for my first leg) replied, “We will send a message to JetAirways to send them to Qatar.”
I was not convinced and doubled checked with Qatar, who said, “We will send a message to JetAirways to send the luggage to us”.
A “message,” apparently the modern way of communication, is sent between computer systems without needing any human interaction.
Service on Qatar Airline was excellent, and the food was delicious. It was interesting to stop by Qatar, a country I never really knew. The airport was clean and modern, and I didn’t have to worry about spending a night in Mumbai airport anymore, my original route.
Doha is a very busy airport where flights from all over the world are taking off around the clock, so it was quite noisy throughout the night, with only a couple hours of quiet between 2:30 and 4 am. I stayed up all night working on my laptop, catching up on the writings I haven’t been able to do while busy packing and moving during the past few weeks.
While waiting for the luggage at KTM airport, I told myself that it would a nice surprise to see my luggage, because my luggage has never arrived with me when I missed the connection during my past trips. But I didn’t want to give up too early, and dutifully waited until the conveyer belt completely stopped, then filed the missing report.
Running in circles!
In the evening, my friend Lily Chou in Boston helped me to contact my travel insurance agent to help trace the luggage. But airline service in Nepal does not work around the clock, so there is no way to talk to anyone before the next day, and it’s very difficult to make international phone calls from here.
The next day, Jangbu Sherpa, who is leading our Sherpa service in Nepal, sent his staff back to the airport a few times, and we pestered Qatar airlines. By 4 in the afternoon, Qatar said they have sent three “messages” to the London office, but have no idea where the luggage is.
Now I begin to suspect that a “message” is just a message in the system, and does not really mean that anyone is reading it. Then I also remembered that when I filed for a missing report at the airport, there was no computer at the counter. All I got was a piece of paper with hard-to-read handwritten notes, no claim number. Now, I am not even confident that the “system” knows about the missing luggage.
There are three airlines involved: American Airlines, JetAirways (India), and Qatar Airlines. I started to bombard each airline office in Nepal with phone calls, and had Lily and my travel insurance agent inquire through their international offices.
Each of them tried to direct me to others, suggesting the other airlines should have the information in their systems. How can no one have information about my luggage in their system? It seems Qatar is the one ultimately responsible to trace down the luggage. So I called Qatar again,
“What do you mean you don’t know where my luggage is?”
“We can’t see it in our system. We have sent three messages to London, no reply.”
That is not acceptable! So I suggested they talk to a human on that side, not the automatic message in the system, where it seems that no one is reading the message. They finally made a phone call, but they still don’t know where it is! So I suggested they have a human look for the luggage!
Finally, a few more rounds of phone calls later, they confirmed that they found the luggage in London, in the hands of JetAirways. Apparently, no human really read those system messages until an actual person talked to someone else, and had another person looking for the luggage!
No matter how many ways we modernize our system, it still takes a human being to do the actual work. Modern technology can’t replace humans. Lessons learned— don’t assume anyone is looking for the luggage without being pushed really persistently, and I should have inquired through their international office directly when the local office would simply go home after 5pm.
Trip to Everest – My impression of Kathmandu, Nepal
Despite not having my luggage with me when I arrived at Kathmandu, I had a face mask handy. My friends, who have been here before, advised me to get one, as the air in the city is very dusty and polluted. I was nicely surprised— the air was not as dusty as I expected, compared to my experience with other cities in the world. But as we drove into the city, I still felt the need to protect my lungs from the car exhaust.
In Kathmandu, cars drive on the left side of the road like in Britain. Some main streets are divided in the center, but in general, there is no concept of driving lanes. Most “roads” on the map are just as wide as the lanes in old Beijing, barely allowing one car to pass, while sidewalks are crowded with street vendors.
Walking on the street is an adventure in itself!! The streets are unevenly paved, and not only do you have to watch where you step— avoiding all kinds of obstacles such as junk, fallen wires, trash, and stray dogs— you also have to keep an eye out for numerous cars and motor bikes that surprise you from all directions.
Taking in the sights
While I was in the car, traveling to the hotel, I told myself: don’t risk my climb with any sightseeing tours in the city. Traffic looked scary, and the air quality was poor. But the next morning, when I woke up early and took a walk before the city really woke up, I found the air bearable. With some care and courage, I even managed to walk down the streets and cross the roads! Soon, I found it comfortable to walk across the city to visit those popular sites. Though street signs are hard to find, it’s not so hard to navigate the maze of narrow roads that appeared so daunting before.
The tourist areas, such as Thamel and Durbar Square, are crowded with shops, street vendors, and pedestrians, both local and tourists. But in other areas such as Patan, I enjoyed walking down the almost empty street where only locals live. Peacefully performing their daily routines— collecting water from a fountain, washing clothes, or just worshipping.
Religion is an important part of life here. There are temples everywhere! What’s great is that different religions coexist harmoniously. You can see people worshipping or praying everywhere throughout the day, and many are waiting in line at temple with a plate of nice offerings such as bananas and flowers. Nepal is also ethnically more diverse than I thought. You can see different nationalities— Indians, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese— all mixing well together.
Another interesting thing about Kathmandu is electricity. Almost every hotel has its own power generator, because the government regulates electricity so that only the hotels get power during the evening/night. That’s why when you walk down the street, you often find shop owners using headlights during the day in their shops!
Everest climb – from Lukla to Monjo
We got up at 4:30am for 6:30am flight to Lukla. After having waited at the airport for 6 hours yesterday only to have the flight canceled, I was just reminded of my experience of waiting in Talkitna Alaska for my flight to Denali. So when the flight was delayed again this morning due to weather in Lukla, I was not even expecting to leave today. Foggy/low cloud condition had closed Lukla airport for almost 3 days. Past experience of the endless waiting game on Denali and in Antarctica has made me very mellow and patient about delays like this— though these experiences may be shockingly unpleasant to people who can’t even put up with delays in normal commercial flight service. Some trekkers eventually paid an extra $100 for a helicopter ride to get out of Lukla. The twin otter ride should be about $160-200 round trip.
Finally, around 8:30, a cheer broke out among the hordes of people waiting impatiently. I was not even expecting to fly today, but I was happy. With my memory of the Denali flight still fresh, I know taking off does not mean we can land. So I held my breath until we started to approach the Lukla airstrip.
The scenery along the flight was beautiful. I enjoyed the view, which was full of green ragged mountains in handsome shape. Crops fields lined up hillside, the road cut sharply along the steep hill. I imagine that a drive must be a thrilling experience! We could see some magnificent peaks in the distance. I was especially fascinated with one rocky peak with a small ice/snow top, which looked like Eiger in the Alps. I wish I could identify the names of those mountains, and I hope I will become more familiar with them by end of the trip— I know I will staring at those beautiful peaks a lot on my way to Gokyo. They took my breath away!
The landing strip in Lukla is on a 12 degree strip of land uphill,150 yards long. The uphill makes it possible for small planes like twin otter to land and take off quickly. Lukla is a beautiful village on the hillside. As we landed, other trekkers who had been waiting for days to get out Lukla were already lined up on the tarmac, ready to load and board. Within just 10 minutes, the unloading and loading process finished and the plane took off!
Himalaya is the mecca for mountain lovers!
Lunch at a Lukla restaurant was more nutritious and delicious than I expected. I loaded up on protein (beef) and carbs (potato), and was very delighted to have found fresh green leaves in vegetable soup. After loading up with water, we started the first day of hiking. My Sherpa for the trekking part is Dawa from Portse. He is 50 years old, and has worked as a Sherpa since 1977. He has summited Everest 7 times in the past few years.
The beginning location of the trekking, Lukla, and the end-of-day destination, Monjo, are at about the same altitude, around 2840 m (9300 ft). But the trail goes up and down about 1000 m (3000 ft) while following the valley from high up on the hillside. This provides a good exercise for the first day.
The area is just endless green mountains along a winding valley, under the background of blue sky and light clouds. Cabbage or other vegetable fields decorate the hillside. Down below in the valley, a beautiful turquoise river shows up from time to time. At every turn is the scenery that I can’t stop taking pictures of because I know when I return, I may not have much energy.
A few small Yak teams from either direction passed us sometimes. Since climbing teams won’t arrive here for another week, the trail is not filled with dust from numerous passing yak teams. Breathing in fresh mountain air is such a nice change from the polluted Kathmandu air. Within a few minutes into the hike, I know I would love to return to the Himalaya mountains again, trekking or climbing! Having seen a lot photos and caught a glimpse of those high peaks on the flight, I can’t stop imagining how breathtaking it would be to see those peaks so close around me in Gokyo. Thoughts like that make me feel my heart crying out for those serene places. I even start to wonder if I could gather the energy to go pay a visit to Annapurna at the end of this trip. Himalaya is the Mecca for mountain lovers!
We passed many beautiful hillside villages along the way. There are a lot of Buddha statues on the trail, and it’s very important to always pass by the statues from the left side with sincere respect. Villagers are all very friendly and peaceful. What an enjoyable place!
After 5 hours or so, we arrive at Monjo. The lodge is nice— it even has electricity and a clean western toilet! Meat is hard to find on the dinner menu, except for a tiny bit of tuna from the Tuna Vegetable Momo (dumpling). Other than rice or noodles, I was happy to have some healthy fresh cabbage and potatoes. I have to load up more protein in Namche tomorrow!
To prepare myself for the climb, I watched two episodes of Everest: Beyond the Limit on my laptop while having dinner. Season 3 follows the IMG team, the team I’m on this year. We could even see Jangbu Sherpa and Dawa Sherpa, who I have just met, in it. It’s important to climb within one’s limit!
Everest climb – my trek from Monjo to Namche
Didn’t sleep too well last night. Went to bed late because I stayed up to write my journal after I watched the movies, then woke up a few times. I woke up before dawn at the bell ring of passing yaks. Based on my past experience, I know I’m slow on the acclimatization process— that’s why I wanted to do the extra trekking before the group arrives. I must be a little bit nervous about the climb. I dreamt of strange oxygen saturation numbers a couple times, and woke up to feel my heart beating much faster than my normal pace at sea level. As the altitude goes higher, the heartbeat speeds up because of the extra work needed to pump more oxygen into the blood system (is that correct? I need to study more of the change of heart and red blood cells at altitude).
Had porridge and an omelet for breakfast, didn’t like the greasy feeling of the omelet afterward. At altitude, the stomach starts to behave differently, becoming more sensitive to greasy stuff and tending to be more gassy, which causes what we joke is HAFE: High Altitude Farting Edema.
Leaving Monjo, we officially entered Sagarmatha National Park, where Everest is located. Weather was chilling in the morning, but heated up pretty fast as we approached Namche. Winding along the valley followed by the pleasant sound of the glacier river (Bhote Koshi River) down below, we first descended about 450m before starting the rolling hill ascent of about 1000m to Namche.
Highlights of the day included the first glimpse of Everest, shrouded in high wind, which we can tell easily even from so far away because of the huge snow dust blowing from summit ridge, and the first glimpse of Ama Dablam, a uniquely shaped peak that has a special appeal to me because of the beauty of its technical climb.
I also ran into Mark Inglis, the first double amputee who climbed Everest from the north side in 2006; he is leading a New Zealander charity trekking group to Gokyo this time, and will be on the same schedule as me! We are staying at the same lodge in Namche, and I will expect to see his group every day for the next week! This is awesome!
It became more dusty as we approached Namche because the air got drier as we got higher, and I needed to start to cover up my mouth/nose more. Radiation from the sun also became stronger— more sun protection from now on!
Nothing comes cheap here. 15 rupees per minute for internet access— 1 USD for 5 minutes! Spent 300 rupees (4.5 USD) to take a shower, and had to struggle between burning hot and icy cold water. Checked with the Sherpa: good news is that shower in base camp is free and should be warm. Can’t wait to get to base camp!
Eating food is a bit difficult. I need to eat a lot of protein, but it is limited. I ordered “steak, roasted potato and veg” for both lunch and dinner. The steak is only a few pieces of buffo meat of about 30 grams. Lots of potatoes. And the vegetables consist of mainly fresh cabbage and carrots. Quite a healthy combination, but not filling. My stomach felt empty within just a couple hours after the meal. Trying to keep myself fed with my normal amount of calorie intake and nutrition structure on the trek is going to be challenging. I need to be more generous in allocating the almonds/nuts and protein bars I brought to the trekking part.
Spent the afternoon resting in the lodge, hanging out with friends, showering, sitting around for meals and more chatting with Sherpa and friends. Tomorrow will be some short hiking around Namche for acclimatization and visiting friends.
“…since you have demonstrated that you can’t make the right decision yourself, I have to make this decision for you– going down is the only option….” — Eric Simmonson
Today is the rest day in Namche. I got up early to take an easy walk up the hill of memorial park, and caught some nice pictures under soft morning light. After breakfast, we walked up 300m to the hilltop where Everest View Hotel is situated. Clouds covered Everest, but we got a good view of Ama Dablam. Good views of the mountain will be abundant on this trip. On the other side of the hill is Kunde village, where Pasang, Ted’s Sherpa, comes from. In the distance, we can see Portse, where Dawa, my Sherpa for the trekking part of the trip, comes from.
After lunch, I went over to my friend Tsedam’s shop. Internet service at his hotel only works in the night when he gets back there. So we just used the expensive internet service from Cyber Café across the street, slightly cheaper than our hotel. Can’t upload too many pictures though.
At the lodge, Mark Inglis was giving a lecture about past events on Everest. He talked about the balance between being persistent and having good judgment. He said, for each step, there are two questions one should ask him/herself: can you take the next step, and should you take the next step? He talked about turning around some climbers who clearly were in danger, and how he had to remind the climber of their family to make him/her accept the decision to turn around.
This reminded me of the episode on John Golden in Everest: Beyond the Limit Season 3. He had an injured knee and an broken rib. Eric Simmonson eventually made the decision for him:
“…since you have demonstrated that you can’t make the right decision yourself, I have to make this decision for you– going down is the only option….”
It was cruel to have that moment caught on film. But it is a sober reminder for anyone who is attempting Everest.
I’m very excited seeing those beautiful mountains so close, but I know I can’t let the excitement take over me, and I can’t let any setbacks (such as luggage problems, flight delays, and who knows what’s next) upset me. I just want to focus on each step in front of me and keep myself in a calm mood and healthy condition. I have a goal, but I don’t want to put myself under the pressure of any expectation. I know my limit, and I know I’m such a newbie to the Himalayas. It’s a privilege to be here in this beautiful land and it’s an experience of a lifetime no matter what the outcome might be. It’s important to respect the mountains and respect the limit. At the same time, it’s very warm in my heart knowing that there are so many friends cheering for me, a home team who is providing support while I’m out here.
For the trekking part of the trip, e.g. until we arrive at base camp, there are tea houses and lodges all the way at each village or town. We will have the comfort of a bed and restaurant, but nothing comes cheap. Shower 300 rupees, rent a towel 100 rupees, internet 10-15 rupees per minute, charge a battery 100 rupees. There’s barely any water from the tap at the tiny sink (one per floor), and it’s explicitly posted that you can’t wash clothes there, e.g. you need to pay to use their laundry service. To fill in boiled water here at our hotel in Namche is free at least (I was surprised at the charge of 80 rupees per bottle of boiled water at Monjo), but probably won’t be free in other smaller villages along the trail. (Note, 70 rupees = 1 USD).
Food at the lodge is healthy and tasty, especially any dish with a “sherpa” in its name, such as Sherpa tea (milk tea), Sherpa soup (potato + veg), and curries. There are plenty of potatoes and rice for carbs, some fresh vegetables like cabbage and carrots, and I can ask for things not fried, e.g., soup or steamed, but protein is not easy to find. So far, the protein comes from Lentil soup (very watery), eggs, small pieces of meat (buffalo), maybe a tiny bit of tuna if I order momo or spaghetti with tuna sauce. The portions are small too. I always have to order two or three entrees for each meal and often get the comment, “It’s too much you are ordering.”
In previous trips, I just ate whatever came my way, but after the past few months’ training, I became pickier about the structure of the food I take. I learned to look at food in terms of nutrition components and discriminate between the good kind and the bad kind of each component (e.g. good carbs, bad carbs) and got used to calculating the portion of each component as well. It takes effort to eat right when there is just so limited variety of food available here. Though there are yaks everywhere, it’s a taboo to slaughter them for food. So the meat supply comes from buffalo outside the area, and is carried here on porters’ shoulders from Lukla along the same trail we just hiked through.
Once at base camp, the tent will be our home, but food, shower (of course, can’t compare that to the showers from a real hotel or home in the west), and water will be more accessible without extra charge.
For the past few days, I was accompanied by two friends from Boston: Mike Coote, my climbing partner of several years, and Ted Mayer, who has studied the Himalaya map so well that he could tell me what peak is in front of my eyes at each turn. We shared the trek from Lukla to Namche. This morning, Mike took off to Gokyo, then he will cross Cho La pass to the Everest side. His goal is to climb Island Peak. Tomorrow, Ted and I would also split our ways. He is trekking to Everest Base Camp directly, while I will slowly trek to Gokyo before coming back toward Namche to meet up with the group.
Because of the delays caused by luggage problems and weather at Lukla, I’m three days behind schedule for my trekking part. Since the group will be acclimatizing at Namche for three days (Apr 2nd – Apr 4th), I now plan on joining the group in Namche on April 4th the earliest. Or I could meet the group in Tengboche, the next stop after Namche. I will make the decision with Dawa Sherpa later based on how I feel and the actual schedule of the group. If I don’t come back to Namche to meet up with the group on April 4th, that would also imply that I will not have internet and shower until base camp on April 12th! I would have to stretch each piece of my clothes/socks to its “dirty” limit.
Everest trip – Trek from Namche to Dole
Got up early this morning to get packed before 7am, and we set off around 8:30am. So far on this trip, every day has been blue sky or light clouds, pleasant temperature around 75F.
We took the lower trail that cuts across the hill we went up yesterday. The beginning part of the trail is shared by both EBC and Gokyo trek. Both Mt Thamserku (next to Namche) and Mt Ama Dablam are in clear view. Ted kept on helping me review the mountains that I will see in the next few days. He seemed more worried about me not recalling the names of the mountains in front of my eyes than the climb itself.
Almost an hour into the hike, just before the hairpin turn of the trail, came the little town Sanasa. Under the background of Mt Taboche and Peak 38 in the distance, we shared the last cup of tea, and split our ways a few minutes later. Ted took the lower pass toward EBC via Tengboche, and I headed up the hill towards Gokyo via Mong La pass.
“Be safe and take care of yourself” were our last words for each other.
I know many friends back home would have said the same thing. Yes, summit or not, safety is the most important thing. I have been chatting with Dawa Sherpa and other people a lot about all the details of the climb, and intimately understand how dangerous this climb is. Confidence is not something we talk about here. Mt Everest has been so commercialized in the past few years, and enough movies have made it just another fun reality show like Survivor, so the climb appeared to be less serious than it was. But when you are in it, you can fully appreciate the challenge and danger. It’s impossible not to get nervous. Excitement is for people who look from outside and far away.
After a steady ascent to Mong La at 3900m, the trail descended into Phortse Tenga. Phortse means “high up” and Tenga means “by the river.” This is a very low spot by the river at about 3500m. I had steak, potatoes, and boiled vegetables for lunch, but found it hard to take down and I could barely finish half of the steak and potatoes. Energy-wise, I felt good, so we pushed on according to original plan to Dole, which is another 2 hours uphill from 3500m to 4100m. It must be the meat— I started to have stomach cramps soon after we took off. I remembered that all the meat has been traveling for several days from Lukla on porters’ shoulders, no refrigerator— I need to be more careful about food now!
It was cloudier in the afternoon, so it was hard to see any mountains. We just followed the river from high up in the valley. One Australian man caught up with us. After we exchanged hellos, he asked, “You are not the Lei who climb Everest, are you?” The world is indeed small! This is Brad Jackson, who came to climb Everest with Alan Arnette in 2008. He already knew everything about me, and I got to poke his brain about more details of the climb. Brad is on his second attempt to Everest, and he is doing the same pre-climb training trek that I am doing.
By the time we reached Dole at 4110m, there was some light wind and heavy clouds, and the temperature dropped to 40ish. With still just one T-shirt on, I could not stop shivering and had to change into dry clothes and put on my belay jacket immediately.
To my surprise, my friend, Mike Coote, came out to greet us when we walked into the lodge! After he took off from Namche, he felt it necessary to rest in Phortse Tenga last night instead of pushing on all the way to Dole. Looks like we will get to share the hiking more!
I have been fighting stomach cramps during the afternoon hike, I only had Sherpa Stew (potato and cabbage soup with a little pasta) and boiled cabbage for dinner. This is the lightest meal I have had on this trip. My stomach calmed down. Later I learned that local people only eat meat during cold seasons when meat would not rot during the many days’ transportation from Lukla.
Everest trip – from Dole to Machhermo
Writing a daily journal definitely helps me to keep track of the date, even though I think it’s a total waste of time to calculate which day of the week it is.
Today, we walked about 2.5 hours from Dole (4110m) to Machhermo at 4465m, just in time for lunch. This is already higher than Aconcagua base camp, but I’m still feeling good about the altitude, not even feeling a headache. Staying with “Sherpa” items on the food menu also kept my stomach happy (I mean calm, though obviously it’s not as filling as I was used to). Sherpa tea and stew became my routine of every meal, and the rice dish “Dal, Bhath, Tarkari” (Lentil soup, rice, vegetable curry) is one of my favorite meals now! I want to be safe and stay away from meat.
The morning is clear, with Cho Oyu in front our eyes most of the time. Cho means “Lake,” and “Oyu” means Turquoise (jade). It’s a beautiful mountain. Similar to the view of Everest, a huge flume of snow dust is blowing off from the summit that covers half of the view of the mountain.
Shortly after lunch, snow flurries dropped from the sky and have been non-stop all afternoon. If the snow continues like this, there might be avalanche danger on the trails ahead, and we may need to stay in Machhermo to rest for tomorrow.
At Dole, we had the lodge all to ourselves. Here we were joined by a big group of college kids. There was a talk about altitude sickness at the health post office at 3pm, so I took the opportunity of the quiet moment to work on my laptop while everyone went to the talk. I’m happy to find that my laptop still works here. I heard that non-SSD computers would start to have problems around 4000m, so I was a little bit nervous when I pressed the power button. So far so good!
Obviously, altitude sickness became the topic of our chat when Brad and Mike came back. For most people who have had experience with altitude, their experience with altitude sickness is mostly related to headache, loss of appetite, or trouble falling asleep. But here at such an extreme altitude, altitude sickness means life threatening HACE or HAPE developed rapidly (in terms of hours, not days) without any warning. Not only are people who have been to such altitude not immune to it, even Sherpa who grew up here and have been climbing all their life here can develop it suddenly.
Minus 40 degrees may not sound so cold to people who have worked in Alberta or have done a lot of winter climbing on Mt Washington. The coldest continent, Antarctica, can easily beat Everest in terms of coldest temperature. But the extreme altitude makes it a totally different game. 8000m (26000 ft) is the death zone. What does that mean? Not only does our body cannibalize itself, it also shuts down a lot of basic functions, such as heat generation. That’s why, in the Himalayas, climbers wear much heavier layers than climbers on other mountains even though the temperature does not appear to be so extreme. Unable to generate heat, sense of body parts and judgment capability also deteriorate. That’s why it’s so easy to get serious frostbite on Everest. The death rate on Everest may not sound so extreme given all the commercial guiding making it more accessible to many non-professional climbers, but that does not make it less serious. The injury rate is way higher than people would expect. It’s too easy to sit on the couch and blame climbers making “stupid” mistakes high up on the mountain.
Note to readers:
I may mention people I met on this trip, but in no position I am serving as storyteller of their experience here. Only official announcements or reports from themselves directly should be relied on for news on any climbers on this trip. Premature news sharing would cause false expectation or unnecessary worry/ desperation to those who care about them.
Everest Trip – arriving in Gokyo
March 31, 2010 – Apr 2, 2010
Last night’s snow stopped by dinnertime, and the accumulation is only a few inches. I was feeling good about the altitude. So we decided to skip the rest day and made the easy ascent to Gokyo at 4750m.
There’s a big group of Japanese trekkers at the lodge. They are mostly in their 60s, and they brought some traditional Japanese dishes to the trip, such as miso soup. This reminded me of the Korean trekkers at Machhermo lodge last night, where they were eating their traditional dish plates of many small pickles (forgot what they call it). This seems to be consistent with my encounters with other Asian climbers in my previous trips– Asians tend to adhere to their culinary culture even on such expeditions.
Dawa shared his experience of how he and his clients narrowly escaped an avalanche in Kumbu icefall last season, and how their timely response to rescue made a difference. We have seen the drama captured in Everest: Beyond the Limit, but hearing it firsthand is different. Filmmakers and audiences like dramas, but such excitement is only for people from outside and far away. In Dawa’s eyes, it’s not the excitement, but the concern and worry. Death in Kumbu icefall is just a probability game. Having worked on Everest for so many years, for him, it’s just a matter of time that one of his colleagues/friends would die there. This is a serious business. For climbers, we come here for the climb; for Sherpa, they are putting their lives on the line for the success of climbers! When they come to rescue, rescuers actually face an even higher level of risks.
I hiked to fifth lake at 5000m to enjoy the panorama view of the valley. Gokyo area has a string of turquoise glacier lakes, and the fifth lake is the one closer to Cho Oyu. I was surrounded by magnificent mountains during the whole trek. Cho Oyu constantly to the north, Thamserku and Kangtega constantly to the south, then Cholatse and Taboche to the east. I spent a whole hour there to take pictures and videos of the mountains in various combinations, watching Cho Oyu in and out of clouds. It’s amazing that when you are standing at 5000m, those high peaks do not look so intimidating.
At 5000m, still feeling healthy and comfortable with the altitude, I am huffing and puffing as I make my steps up the hill. What would it feel like for another 4000m?
Life in Gokyo
When not hiking outside, I just sit here with a cup of Sherpa tea and watching the mountains surrounding me. Life can be so good if I can just sit here all day sipping tea and watching the mountains. This is such a contrast to the hectic life before the trip. Once the trip starts, my mind concentrates on the primitive needs— food and drink.
The price of food and drink sharply increases as the trail extends to more remote places. A bottle of boiled water is now 150 rupees. Hot tea is nice, but I have to calculate the budget to spend it on solid food. When we carry food on expeditions, we calculate calories per unit of weight, so we often take more fat in lieu of carbs or protein. Here under budget constraints, I am calculating the nutrition value per dollar. The new discovery is Tuna Mixed Pizza! It’s loaded with cheese, and has a thick layer of tuna and veg. Taste is not the first criteria for food here! It’s more important as to what food you can take in and what’s the best for your body!
One of the best things is that my laptop still works at near 5000m. I don’t know how I would write down all the details without this modern gadget. But I have to remember to warm up the battery inside my clothes first, and carefully plan what I will do once I turn it on. It’s important to make the best use of every minute of the battery power. It costs money to just charge the battery. Gokyo is the only place after Namche that can charge battery during this trek. Electricity and hot water come at a premium here.
Having been sleep-deprived at home, now the normal schedule is to sleep after 8pm, and wake up when light breaks around 5 or 6 am.
Air is much dryer here. There are traces of dry blood in my nose every day. I have to try to cover up my nose with buff when hiking to keep my airway moisturized, and prevent my throat from getting irritated by the cold dry air.
Am I having HACE? Last night, every time I woke up, the word that came to my mind is Thamserku! Those mountains are growing on me!
Got up early to climb up Gokyo Ri for another panorama view of the valley. Ri means peak. Gokyo Ri is the high point at Gokyo. It’s a windless clear day again. I can even see Lhotse Shar next to Lhotse, and Makalu in the distance. There was a lot of haze in the air, so the pictures came out like blue-hued postcards.
After resting for an hour after Gokyo Ri, we started our hiking back to Dole. It was a long day, a lot of descending! I was so lucky that the weather was so good during the whole day, and I couldn’t have enough of Kangtega and Thamserku in front of my eyes. Cho Oyu is like a loyal lover standing there behind me to send me off. The trail winds from one side of Cholaste and Taboche to the other side, and I was amazed at how different they looked as the day moved on. When I came to Gokyo a few days earlier, it was cloudier. So I now feel like having a fresh look at everything again. I just can’t stop enough times to take pictures again and again. Cholatse, Taboche, Kangtega, Thamserku! I kept on repeating those names every time I look up, and I used the word “insane” to describe the beautiful view all the way. I can’t get enough of them!
At Dole, I had my first taste of alcohol drinks on this trip. We were staying at the lodge run by Pasang Sherpa’s wife, Permba Sherpa. Pasang is going to work at Camp 2 (ABC) as the cook for the team. There are no other guests here, only me with my trekking Sherpa Dawa, porter Tsuri, Pasang, and his wife. So I joined their tradition of drinking at end of a trip. It was a kind of rice wine that looks like milk, but tastes like saki. Dawa and Pasang will soon pack up to head up to EBC to meet the team on Apr 12. Other than a glass of beer at Puja ceremony, there will be no alcohol until end of the trip. So this is one of few opportunities there are to relax and celebrate a good time.
Everest trip – Back to Namche
Apr 3rd – Apr 4th, 2010
Having hiked so many hours yesterday, and with no pressure of my schedule today, I slept until almost 8am before I leisurely enjoyed breakfast with Pasang and Dawa. My acclimatization went so well that we didn’t need to take those rest days. So I’m heading back to Namche today, one day ahead of schedule. But my legs were definitely tired when I had to make the 400m ascending from Phortse Tenga to Mong La again.
Had to wear a down parka whenever sitting around during the past few days, now the air is getting hotter as we are near Namche. It’s like getting back to summer again. Clearly, there was no precipitation here when we had snow near Gokyo; the air is dry and dusty, especially when wind swirls by.
My dirty socks are at their limit already— they almost can glue my feet to my boots. I kept on telling myself that this as far as I can bear with one pair of dirty socks! I kept on calculating how fast I would want to get ready for a shower once I arrive at Namche.
I took a long shower and did laundry. This was only a week. How am I going to bear the dirtiness when I arrive at Everest Base Camp (EBC)?
I met my other team members. Trip leader is Justin Merle, and he will be the private guide for one of the climbers. Our Sherpa guided group is lead by Greg Vernovage, who will serve as coach for the team while trying to make his own first summit on Everest. Legendary mountaineer Phil Ershler will oversee this season’s climb.
Among the 14 members of the Sherpa guided group, there’s another female climber besides me— Anastasia from Greece. She had reached North Col a few years ago with a Greek team. There are also two other Asian climbers— Davis from Taiwan and Lein from Singapore.
There is also a large group from California! At least one member (Al Hancock) had previously summited Everest, while several other climbers had reached very high up on Everest in previous attempts or have climbed Cho Oyu. A few of them are also on the quest for the 7 summits.
Over the first dinner with the group, we shared a lot of laughs. Atmosphere is different from the previous few days. More hopeful jokes about the climb than the serious advice from Sherpa. Though we are staying at the same lodge and being served by the same kitchen staff, we enjoyed a buffet dinner with three choices of main dishes, including two different veg curries, and one meat curry. Everyone loaded their plates full and many went for second rounds. This is so different from my experience of the past week, when I couldn’t order enough food when following local style. I couldn’t understand— how do those Sherpa get so much energy with just such a tiny portion of potato/carrots/cabbage/rice/lentils for each meal? Asking our IMG guides, they couldn’t understand either!
Group went for a training hike this morning, but I have the perfect excuse to rest. My legs were tired, and this is a needed rest day for me. A perfect day to catch up on all the writings and emails.
Tomorrow we will head out towards EBC via Tengboche.
Everest Trip: My spiritual journey
Apr 5th – 8th, 2010
With the ultimate goal in mind, our group hiked at a very conservative pace, with an extra rest day at each stop to allow for sufficient acclimatization. Apr 5th and 6th, we hiked to Deboche/Tengboche with a day of rest, then on Apr. 7th we hiked from Deboche (3700m) to Periche (4200m) in about 4 hours, with more than an hour’s stop at the Pangboche monastery to get blessed by the Lama and an hour’s lunch break at Syamore.
My spiritual journey
The most important thing during the past few days is getting the blessing from Lamas. Yesterday, Apr 6th, we got blessed at Tengboche, and on Apr 7th at Pangboche. During each blessing, we put on a Khaddar that was blessed by the Lama, and the Lama also tied a red string around our neck that we will keep on us during the whole trip. Everyone carefully retied the string afterwards to make sure it wouldn’t fall off by accident. Some Sherpa also brought some sacred items they would bring to Everest Base Camp and to get the blessing from the Pangboche Lama. Everyone takes it seriously.
We also did some questions and answers with the Lama. Nothing complicated, just simple philosophy about life. The most important lesson is positive thinking and peace. Not only peace from within, but doing good deeds to create peace in the surroundings. The whole journey to Everest is not just an adventure, but more of a spiritual journey for me and many others.
During the past few years, my life has been through several transforming stages. At each critical point, it is with the help of many kind friends that I overcame some of the most difficult moments of my life and grew out of it. The little sailboat finally broke through the stormy wave and arrived at this serene land surrounded by peace. The hectic past seems to be distant when you can look at the world with a peaceful heart, and life moves on to a different level of understanding. I’m grateful for the good wishes and kind help from all friends that allow me to embark on this trip with peace of mind.
Himalaya is truly a special destination, and I truly believe that the right attitude is the most important thing to enjoy this wonderful place. Khumbu valley, where most Sherpa come from, is a Buddhism valley. It’s not only manifested in the temples, various Buddhist symbols, and prayer flags, but also in the kindness of the people and peaceful spirit everywhere. In this spiritual journey, I’m glad to have the company of a like- spirited team. This is a very capable team. Some have previously summited Everest or reached high on the mountain; several climbed Cho-Oyu or other high peaks; some have been extreme athletes that went through some of the most rigorous training/competition in the world in their past lives. Everyone has a lot that’s worth bragging about, yet everyone is so humble and brings calm and kindness.
Though each of us is going to climb with our own Sherpa, we still take care of each other just like a traditional climbing team. Our guides are all so tall (6’5”), yet they deliberately set such a slow pace during hiking to keep the team at a very conservative pace because they are focusing on the big picture and the ultimate goal. We need to stay in the best shape we can, and this is not a race. Our guides look out for every detail like a dutiful guardian, from enforcing sanitizing practice to keeping track of everyone’s drinking/eating/ sleeping conditions. Our Sherpa works so diligently to take care of the drinking/eating logistics of such a big team at a high sanitary standard.
The whole climbing team is so focused on Everest that few people can name or care to know other lesser- known mountains along the way. I think I’m the most knowledgeable one thanks my trekking last week and the education from Ted and Dawa.
The trail between Namche and Deboche was very similar to the one I was familiar with— Ama Dablam to the southeast; Peak 38, Lhotse Shar, Lhotse, Everest to the east; Thamserku, Kantega to the south; Cholatse and Taboche to the north; Nuptse ridge so very distinguishable that it hides Everest behind it.
After Deboche, the scenery starts to change. We gradually walked to the east side of Taboche and Cholatse. We also went around Ama Dalbam until I couldn’t recognize it easily anymore; when we crossed the river near Periche, Island Peak started to show up, while Everest completely hid behind Nuptse ridge.
With spring comes the cold virus!
There’s some cold virus circulating among the team. Several members including our guide are catching colds. The sound of coughing is not rare anymore. I started to feel very dry at the upper part of my throat in the afternoon, and felt super sleepy while waiting for dinner. I suspect it is the early symptom of the cold, if not any virus worse than that. Altitude wise, I was feeling almost perfect.
Finally, I couldn’t wait to hit the sack after dessert while most people were still excited with the concert going on in the dining room. It was strange— despite the extremely noisy footsteps upstairs, I fell asleep like a dead log! I felt as if I was on a heavy anesthesia! Once I lay down, my dry throat became so unbearably irritable (itching) that I had to keep a cough drop in my throat through the night while sleeping. I got up once in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, but then fell back to sleep immediately with the help of another cough drop.
By breakfast, I still didn’t feel like getting up— not because of tiredness, but the gravity towards the pillow. I felt like I was still on a sleeping pill. I was concerned. I knew I was fighting a cold virus that was circulating among the team. I deliberately chose to sleep hot by closing my already very hot sleeping bag. I sweat quite a lot, and I think that helps to fight off the virus.
I got up with trepidation. It’s a weird feeling— my head still feels heavy, though no signs of headache. I felt like I had an alien inside me! Not sure if I was over the threat of cold or not, I decided to be conservative for today. So while most of the group went for a short hike up the hill to Dingboche, I only took a flat walk near Pheriche with some other members who also preferred to take it easy. From my previous experience, I know my body is sensitive to virus circulating around me and alerts me with those early irritations so my immune system will kick in immediately to fight off the invaders. So I know it’s important to take the opportunity of the rest day today to win the battle against the virus. Tomorrow will be a big day, as we will be moving up to nearly 4900m at Lobuche. Not only is it a day of significant altitude gain (700m), 4900m is also a serious altitude level.
After the flat walk, I felt more like myself again. I do have a little running nose, but not serious. My sore throat seems to have relieved a lot. I don’t feel wired anymore. I feel the frontier of the virus has passed and I’m already on my way to recovery. Hopefully, with another night’s warm sleep, the virus will pass through my system.
News from EBC
Icefall route has been finished well ahead of schedule. Route fixed all the way to camp 1 already.
Everest Trip – Remembering the fallen
We walked about 5 hours from Pheriche to Lobuche (4900m). It was a hot day! Still around 75F, but the strong radiation of sun at high altitude and dust from trails require us to fully cover every inch of our skin. Last night, I went to bed with my nose a little bit stuffy, woke up feeling ok. Once I start walking, it’s
hard to tell the difference between a stuffy nose from cold or from altitude anyway. Other than that, I don’t feel other effects of cold.
We had a tea break at Khola, where Khumbu Glacier terminates. From there, we went up the hill to a place marked by Scott Fisher’s memorial. I’m a little bit emotional to pay the visit to his memorial, and am sad to see memorials of other young souls nearby— some died so early! But at least they died doing what they loved, albeit too early.
This reminds me of the quote I read at my Pheriche Lodge:
Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well preserved body, but rather to ski in sideways, totally worn out, shouting “Holy shit, what a ride.”
Everywhere you go on this trip, you see many inspirational posters. Life is short, cherish every day, make the best of every day, doing things you love! I also remember the memorial at Pheriche, the beautiful broken shining pyramid-shaped memorial with all the fallen climbers’ names etched on it. It’s too beautiful for so sad a reminder. There are still many empty name plates pre-attached to it. It’s sad that eventually they will all be claimed, many by Sherpa, some by young souls…
I couldn’t take my thoughts away from those emotions, from those memorials, until suddenly some new peaks popped out of the ridge in front me. I was so excited that I raced up the ridge— those are the beautiful peaks I had been admiring from far away in Gokyo a week ago: Pumo Ri, Lintren, Khumbutse! And you can clearly see Nuptse ridge winding down into Kumbu Glacier. Those 7000m or 6000m peaks are right in front of my eyes, not intimidating at all— rather, they felt dear to my heart like those lovely hills in my home yard!
Last night when I went to bed, my nose still clearly demonstrated the symptom of cold. Luckily, it’s not bad enough to keep me from falling asleep. I kept a cough drop in my throat all night. On one side, it helps to relieve the dry throat irritation and prevent dry cough; on the other, the moisture in the throat helps breathing, so I don’t have to wake up in panic feeling suffocated. 5000m is so high that sometimes you could have that kind of panic feeling in sleep. I remembered that there was one night on Aconcagua high camp, as my breath slowed down when I was falling asleep. I would suddenly wake up in panic worried that my breath would stop if I fell asleep, and then immediately found myself suffocated because my dry throat prevented any swallowing actions. It was a scary feeling, and I don’t want to live like that for two months. The cough drop seems to be a nice solution to kill two birds with one stone.
This morning, we took a short hike to visit the Italian Pyramid research station, then hiked up the hill next to it that offered a great view of Khumbu Glacier. We can even see the base camp next to the icefall! When those 7000m peaks appear just like a small hill in front of you, almost reachable by hand, you know you are close! I can’t believe Everest Base Camp (EBC) is right in front of my eyes, though we will still patiently take two days to reach there in order to proper acclimatize.
To get over the cold as soon as possible, I spent the hours between lunch and dinner sleeping! It’s amazing how many hours we spent sleeping in the mountains. When the first person got the cold, we would try to keep a distance. Now that half of the team have the cold, it’s not a big deal anymore. Everyone is toughening up! So far, the cold hasn’t been holding back our progress. Compared to other more serious health threats, this is really just nothing.
To be safe, our meals have been boring, revolving around fried rice and pizza. The potato pizza is not bad at all although it’s just a plate of baked potato topped with cheese. Hopefully, we will have vegetable curries again once we arrive at base camp.
Tomorrow, we will hike to Groek Shep early, then go up Kala Pattar in the afternoon to have another Panorama view of Khumbu Glacier. The day after tomorrow (Apr 12th) we will arrive at EBC early to get ready for Puja, the prayer ceremony for the climb, on Apr 13th. We are getting busier with an agenda lined up every day! Ang Jangbu Sherpa, our base camp director, already took a shortcut to pass us and arrived at EBC yesterday! The climbing route is already completed in the icefall area, and all the way to camp 2 already! Well ahead of schedule! Things are happening fast!
Finally arrive at Everest Base Camp!
Apr 12, 2010
Arrive at EBC
The approach to base camp is certainly longer than I was prepared for, though everything is going just according to our plan. Almost 3 weeks after I left home in Boston, finally I’m in EBC! On one side, the
climber team took a more conservative pace to ensure best acclimatization; on the other side, located at 5300m (17700ft), EBC is higher than any mountains in the lower 48 states. The trek is not just a hike in your backyard! Impatient trekkers can easily run into altitude sickness problems.
We already saw EBC and Khumbu Glacier two days ago from Lobuche and yesterday from GorekShep. So today, the trek is basically a walk towards icefall! There is only one word to describe icefall: wow! The closer you get, the more you “wow!” I saw a similar glacier before in Alaska from high up in the air, or to a less degree, at the end of our Denali climb when the glacier became so corrupted from heat, but this time we have to navigate such a maze of icefalls ourselves! During the day, we could hear the thunder-loud noise of avalanche here and there from time to time, and we are getting used to it fast! To be safe, our campsite is located quite far away from the ice fall. The only group further away is Russell Brice’s team.
Another surprise is that there is no flat ground for base camp! The whole terrain is on a super ragged glacier moraine. It took a lot of work to pile up rocks just to build a little platform for each tent. Once step out of your tent, watch for “stairs”! The biggest challenge is to go to the bathroom. The bathroom itself is actually sheltered inside a tent and is as comfortable as you can expect on a mountain. But to safeguard our water source for cooking, the bathroom is located at the far end of our campsite. It takes 5-10 minutes of careful hiking (consider hiking poles and crampons if there’s snow) from our tents to the bathroom! Plan your emergency well in advance and good luck not getting lost in the night!
We arrived at EBC shortly after 10am, and 11am is the time for the Puja ceremony! The date for the Puja ceremony is determined by the Buddha calendar. We each brought our climbing hardware such as harness, ascenders, crampons, ice axe, etc. to lay by the center podium for blessing. It was a 1.5 hour long ceremony starting with prayer chanting led by Lama. Later, drink (milk tea, butter beer, regular beer, soda) and various service food were distributed while the prayer and chanting continued. Long strings of prayer flags were unwound from the center pole and sent across the camp side by Sherpa to be attached to remote high points across the glacier moraine in all directions, decorating the whole base camp with sacred and beautiful prayer flags. People put butter powder on each other’s faces for good luck, and my Sherpe Da Tenji put another yellow string on my neck. The ceremony ended with festive line dancing and singing. Everyone is so happy and excited about the beginning of a new season!
Apr 13, 2010
Once we are at EBC, life gets busy! There’s an agenda for every day.
Yesterday, after the Puja ceremony in the morning, we spent part of the afternoon going over our gear, making sure everyone is properly rigged up for ascending, rappelling, and self rescue in case of falling into crevasse. The rest of the day (the day is defined by sunrise and sunset, and portioned by three meals and other agenda) is spent organizing our own tent. While on the trek, we pack and unpack almost every day. Life is always on the move. Now finally at base camp, it took a while to reorganize our new home. It has been almost three weeks since I saw my big duffel bags! Remember how much care I took to pack each bag before the trip? Now it takes no less effort trying to dig out where I hid each little thing inside other bigger things. It is also serious internal design work to make my tent as comfy as possible while still being able to find every little item!
But just as I was barely unpacked, it’s time to pack again! We are leaving tomorrow for a training climb on Lobuche, a 6000m peak, for 4 or 5 days. Once we are back, we will get ready to tackle icefall!
Last night, we went to bed under a full sky of amazing stars. The evening was not too cold; the temperature inside my tent was about 20F. This morning, we woke up to find the whole EBC covered in fresh snow! What a beautiful day! We spent the morning practice climbing fixed rope.
I had been dreaming about showering and washing my clothes for several days before we arrived at EBC. But finding personal time is not easy with our busy agenda, and there is only a short window warm enough for showering and washing clothes— when the sun is shining on our campsite between 10am and 3pm. I finally managed to get a shower (don’t ask me if it’s comparable to the heavenly bath! But you would enjoy it if you have been wiping yourself with baby wipes for a week or more) after lunch, then the wind picked up, and I had to postpone washing clothes indefinitely.
Still a few hours of daylight left, time to get ready for Lobuche!
Lobuche Training Climb
Apr 14-16, 2010
Things are happening fast here. Only three days ago (Apr 14th), we left EBC after an epic stormy night (all night thunder, lightning, snow and wind; so many avalanches that morning following the wind and snow loading; woke up to a 20F cold morning). Now we have just climbed Lobuche, a 6000m-ish peak, and are getting ready to head home (EBC).
The climb schedule was definitely a fast-paced one. The first day (Apr 14th), we hiked 5 hours from EBC to arrive at base camp (~4800m); the next day (Apr 15th) we moved to high camp (~5100m) after lunch. After an early dinner and a few hours’ rest, we got up at 3am this morning and went for the summit! Then we are back to base camp this afternoon already!
Though 6000m peaks are everywhere in Himalaya, this climb is still a serious climb by any standard. For the
~1000m ascent on summit day, two-thirds of the climb requires ascending on fixed rope, with half of that on rock and the top half on snow and ice. If this was in any other region, this climb itself would call a trip already. But here, this is only our first training climb and just gives us a taste of how demanding the Everest climb will be. We are heading back to EBC tomorrow to rest a few days (yah, need to recover fast!) before we get ready for more training climbs on Mt Everest itself, and each of them will involve climbing through Khumbu Icefall.
Let it cough, let it cough!
I think the team is mostly clean of the cold virus by now, but almost everyone has started coughing with various severity. I’m still trying to figure out how to tell apart different kinds of cough, but I guess what most people have here is the so-called Khumbu cough, which results from long exposure to cold dry air at altitude. From what I overheard from the guide’s radio this morning, some other teams are already requesting help on medicine (z-pak) supply!
I’m sleeping with a cough drop in throat as my nightly routine now.
Everest – Every step is hard!
Apr 22: EBC – Camp 1, 6000m
Today is the start of our first rotation up on Mt Everest. To climb a mountain as high as Mt Everest, we need to gradually expose our body to higher altitude instead of going up in one shot, which a normal person would surely not survive. To achieve that purpose, we are planning several rotations, each time sleeping at a higher altitude, then returning to EBC to recover before going through the next rotation. A few days ago, we climbed Lobuche peak, which is as high as camp 1, so as to save us one rotation through the dangerous Khumbu icefall. The goal of this first rotation is to adapt our body to the altitude of 6500m, where camp 2 is.
(Note to readers: In Sherpa guided climb, each climber is on his/her own schedule. So when a “group” goes up the mountain, it does not mean everyone on the team is going on the same schedule. Actually, only half of my team is going on this rotation on this date; other members choose to go up on a later date because of health or strength reasons. So if you are trying to follow a specific climber, please do not assume/predict his/ her whereabouts based on general group progress.)
To avoid spending too much time during heated hours in the icefall, we started early, before 4am. A Sherpa started the Puja fire before our departure. Led by my Sherpa, we passed from the left, grabbed some rice and threw it into the air three times, bowed and made a prayer for our safe climb, then started our walk towards the icefall. Most of the camps along the trail are still sleeping, though from far away, we can see lines of headlights in the icefall already.
The beginning part of the ice fall was some up and down trekking through the maze of endless rising hills of ice of various shapes. Some parts are steep and it is safer to grab the fixed rope just in case. Most of the time I found it ok just to hand-belay myself up instead of bothering with the jumar. Soon, we hit the first ladder and then endless ladders over all sorts of monster icebergs. Daylight starts to break, and I can clearly see the crevasse below the ladders. I would say, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s joked that if you fell through those crevasses, you’d get a direct flight to America. But fortunately for me, I didn’t have a problem with the exposure, so I always looked into the crevasse to be aware of my environment. It’s an impressive mass of endless icebergs and it’s more impressive that ice doctors can find a safe path through this maze!
My cough just started picking up two days ago after that short exercise into the icefall and I coughed a lot last night. I must have coughed quite loudly, because several team members asked me, “Lei, are you sick?” when they passed me on the trail. “No, just a cough. No problem.” But my cough is getting worse, I can tell. Oftentimes I had to stop to gasp for air after a bout of bad cough, and it’s happening more frequently, which tired me out and slowed me down more and more.
Just as we finally topped out icefall near camp 1, we suddenly heard a loud noise above us. Looking up, rain of rocks and ice/snow is flying down from the west shoulder of Everest along the big wall next to us. Luckily, it was not a huge one and it was losing strength as it came down the mountain, and there is a little bit of distance between us and the wall. We were still clipped to the rope as we just crossed one crevasse.
Following my Sherpa, I got low to the ground and tucked my head to my knee. At the same time, our radio fired up with incoming inquiries from base camp and camp 1. We only got some dust from the avalanche and immediately replied a safe message to the radio.
Looking from far away, the camp 1 is built on a giant gentle snow slope. But look closely, and it’s laced with crevasse everywhere. We kept on making big zigzags for the safe pass, which made the trip much longer than the direct distance between us and the destination that appeared to be so close to our eyes. I can say I crossed my lifetime worth of crevasse today from the beginning of the icefall to the camp 1 and I know I will cross them several more times again on this trip! After climbing up the final steep hill, I finally arrived at camp 1 around midday, very tired needless to say. I find myself for the first time on this trip losing my appetite, and I know it’s not good. The first day at camp 1, I think the total I eat is less than what I would eat in one meal at EBC.
Everest- Camp 1 rest
My cough is clearly picking up at the same time while my appetite is subdued at 6000m, though I’m happy that I don’t have any altitude symptoms— not even a headache. From what I’m hearing from everyone, this is normal for Khumbu Cough, the cough triggered by the cold dry air at altitude. Woken up by cough many times last night, I decided take more rest today— I only went for a short walk near the camp.
Looking from a distance, the setting of camp 1 is one of the most beautiful places. The rock wall of Everest rises above it so close! Can’t believe it’s only less than 3000m from here, yet it’s still weeks away for us to reach! Far away, Pumori, Lingtren, and Khumbutse paint a beautiful background to the west, while Lhotse faces straight to the east.
Apr 24: Camp 1 to Camp 2, 6500m
The route to camp 2 appears to be very straightforward on that giant gentle snow slope, but it’s still a lot of zigzagging across the maze of crevasse. At one point, the top of the ladder barely touched the lip of the crevasse. It’s a game of gamble before the lip melts away one of the days. But sometimes you just have to take the chance and move on.
The most agonizing part is from the time you see the campsite of camp 2 to the point you finally arrive at your campsite. It’s still hours of uphill trip, and exhausting! I was surprised that camp 2 is almost as big as
EBC in a sense. Because this is ABC, the Advanced Base Camp, every team built a permanent (for the season) campsite here including sleeping tents, standing cooking, dining tents, and toilet tents.
IMG camp site is high up on the hill, yet you are not sure where. So you must keep climbing over one false summit after another; you can’t let yourself relax the moment you step into the general campsite. You have to keep on putting in extra effort to make another step up the hill till you really reach your own campsite.
This would be the highest point I would have slept at to date. AMS symptoms normally start after you wake up from your first nap. Under the advice of our guide, I spent the afternoon sat around chatting and drinking, being active to avoid AMS. I’m happy that I’m mostly headache-free at 6500m. But nothing is easy here. To walk up and down the small hill between tents is already a big challenge! First, it’s a “big” decision to put on the big boots and put on all the layers of clothes, especially when it’s windy and cold outside; second, it takes several deep breaths before you finally summon enough strength to crawl out the little hole of the tent on the creepy hill— then every step up and down the hill at 6500m is not trivial!
Yet, we haven’t started the hard part of the climb yet— Lhotse face! This is not an easy mountain, and every step is an achievement in itself. It’s not only just huffing and puffing to fight against the thin air, it’s also fighting against your own pain, from cough, from wind, from heat, and from your own doubt. Every step is a hard physical effort, but also an extremely hard mental effort! Everyone is tired reaching this point. You may not be the strongest one on the team, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. You have to keep faith in yourself all the time despite the external hardship and internal weakness. Fight against the physical weakness with your mental strength.
I was hungry at dinner, but we were only allocated one small slice of SPAM per person other than some spaghetti. It’s not easy to bring up enough nutritious food this high.
Apr 25: Camp 2 Rest
The first half of last night I practiced sleeping with my full suit on inside my sleeping bag, since that will be how we sleep once we move up Lhotse wall. It was so uncomfortable that I could not fall asleep. But the second half of the night, after I threw away the full suit, was only slightly better. My cough kept interrupting my sleep, and while not coughing, the extreme dry air irritated my throat. It can’t be quenched by a cough drop or hot drink. I probably got no more than a couple hours’ poor sleep in the end.
Apr 26: Camp 2 to EBC
The second night at camp 2 was one of the longest and the most torturing nights I have had in the mountains. Despite my effort to control my cough with medicine, every few minutes, my violent cough would throw my body into the air; oftentimes I had to cough till I nearly threw up to find a little relief. I don’t have any AMS headache, but each shake from cough causes a lot of pain to my head. In the short peaceful minutes between bouts of cough, the unbearable dry air irritates my throat to the level that I would rather bear the painful freezing night to get up to drink hot water. But neither hot water nor cough drop could provide even a short moment’s temporary relief. I was painfully aware of every minute passing by and never looked forward to the daylight break so much!
The first time I saw the mucus come out from my cough, I was horrified. I never expected such a thing to come out of a live human! It was so dense, like a piece of dead meat! The greenish color made it appear to come from an alien’s body. I had no idea if this is what people call Khumbu cough?
I guess the whole campsite heard my all-night cough. When we finally got up to pack up to head down the mountain, guide Greg asked me if I was sick. I still didn’t understand the difference between cough and sick, and replied “just cough.” Everyone is coughing. Until we started walking down the hill, I hadn’t realized how much I have been weakened by the two days at camp 2 or by my violent cough. When trying to get up the first fixed line, I was shocked to realize that I can’t trust my hand belay without a jumar anymore. I also felt loss of muscle strength in my legs too! I was feeling quite weak by the time we walked into camp 1. My body wanted to spend more time resting here, but I understand we’d better get down the icefall early in the morning, and getting lower will help my health/strength.
Walking up the hill to leave camp 1 was hard. Though it’s 500m below camp 2 already, I still haven’t found much benefit of the altitude drop yet. When further lowering into the icefall, I gained some strength back in climbing the fixed rope up and down the icebergs on hand belay. But my cough is not getting much better. I would burst into violent coughs almost after gaining each little hill. I could only do short, shallow, frequent breaths instead of well-rhythmic deep breaths, or I would end up coughing and stopping to gasp for air. After spending nights at 6500m, I should have flown up hills at lower altitude. I was sad to find that was not the case for me. Lower altitude didn’t relieve my violent coughing pattern. Shortly into the icefall, I also completely lost my voice.
After we finally reached EBC, I went straight to HRA. It took no guess for the doctor to tell me that it was not Khumbu cough that I’m having. Good news is that it’s not HAPE or Pneumonia neither, which I feared. It’s that remnant cold virus I had before I gained super power, when high altitude weakened the immune system. He gave me some strong antibiotics and suggested that I may benefit from further lower altitude. So after discussing with IMG guides, I decided to descend to Pheriche (4200m) the next morning.
Everest – Recovering in Pheriche (4200m)
We just finished the rotation up to camp 2 (6500m), and spent two nights there. The trip through Khumbu icefall is safe, the acclimatization went well. My cough got very bad at camp 2 and kept me from sleeping in the night. We came down to EBC two days ago. Doctor made me take strong antibiotics, and I decided to descend to Pheriche (4200m) to speed up my recovery. I got here yesterday, and had a good night’s sleep last night. My cough has already quieted down a lot. Hopefully I will fully recover in a couple of days and go back to EBC in the next few days.
Thank you with warm thoughts, Lei
Everest – Life is Beautiful..
Apr 27 – 30, 2010
Sitting here in the Himalaya Lodge dining room. Light music in the background, quiet and warm, despite cold and wind outside. Fog is rising in the valley, most of sky covered by clouds. I just sit here, enjoy my ginger tea, and just finished Sherpa stew, re-reading the description of the trekking route I have been through, trying to figure out the plan once I recover from the bad cough— hope the strong dose of antibiotics will do its magic. No worry of putting on an all-weather/all-temperature outfit to travel between tents or rush to pee in a bottle to save the 5-minute hike to the toilet.
Life is luxurious for me for the next few days. Just rest, eat, drink. My normal appetite is back, and I can order whatever I eat, according to my taste, not the general American group taste, and not limited by the stock in the high mountains. Food won’t get cold before I finish it. Instead, I can slowly savor it while reading or writing without worrying about it getting cold. It’s warm and windless inside here, with music in the background.
This won’t be forever. Hope I will get over the bad cough and get back to EBC soon. It’s windy outside. What’s the weather in EBC like? What are my teammates doing? Are they practicing using oxygen bottles? Oh, it’s lunch time. They are just exchanging stories in the dining tent. It’s interesting to have this peaceful time all alone here on such a trip, sitting here with only my own mind to feel.
Almost forgot this is in Nepal. Tourists from all over the world come and go, except the lodge owner and the diligent service boys. The stock in the bar is amazing. Maybe that’s why I almost forgot this is in the Khumbu valley…
It’s snowing so hard outside, like Xmas. Inside, dry flowers and long candles decorate each dining table, just like Xmas. Some people drink beer; one party is celebrating a birthday with a cake. A fireplace in the center of the dining room keeps the room so warm and cozy that the window is all covered with steam. No need to know if it’s cold or windy outside. Walking down the hallway to my room, there’s even lights along the ceiling every few yards. No need to worry about forgotten headlights, no need to worry if the trail is slippery because of the snow. Open the door to my room, it’s cold. But at least there’s a switch to turn on the light, and the toilet is down the hallway, also with a light inside. It’s five-star hotel life compared to that in EBC, but I need to go back soon.
What’s happening on the mountain?
While it is snowing here, weather is not great on Everest. The consortium of all teams just had a meeting and each team is contributing a few Sherpa to fix the route between camp 3 and camp 4, but it is going slow because of the weather.
Route between camp 2 and camp 3 (Lhotse face) is slowly kicking in. The first few teams (one with strong competitive mentality is eager to climb early before the route gets into better shape) on that route would have to kick the step much harder. It’s the steep face of hard ice!
IMG is still digging (literally! It’s hard ice slope!) camp platform for camp 3. Camp 2 to camp 3 is not only a hard climbing route, but also a hard camping site.
Everest – Why is it so tough?
Apr 29 1:30pm
It’s only a few hours since I sent away Tasia, sitting in the sun room writing. Kuran, the lodge service boy, came up: “Your friend is here.” I walked into the dining room and was shocked to see Jeff, one of my teammates, sitting there! “I’m going home.” Everyone had a tough time at camp 2. Other than going through the same physical pain, Jeff is also torn emotionally. With a sweet wife and two lovely kids at home, Jeff decided it’s more than he can bear. It felt like a joke to me that I’m just sitting here in Pheriche sending away one teammate after another. It’s sad to see another teammate leaving.
In a sense, the serious climb hasn’t even started yet (we haven’t even touched Lhotse face yet), but we (and every team) have been quickly losing climbers for various reasons. Some have said that going through Khumbu icefall is the ultimate Russian Roulette game for mountaineers. But here we see a different Russian Roulette game before we even start climbing. Everest has been so trivialized by various movies, but here I intimately feel it’s a survivor’s game on a daily basis. Everest tests us from all dimensions. We often say, “one step at a time.” Here, each step is hard. There’s a voice trying to tell you “quit” at each step. We need to be resilient in many dimensions, but it’s also a balance between many forces. Some of them you can’t fight against.
Why is Everest so hard?
There are many challenges other than the simple high altitude AMS threat:
- Physical Challenge: The approach to Everest is long, and the technique required is more complicated than other hiking mountains— climbing through Khumbu icefall, climbing Lhotse face, and climbing Hilary step at extreme high altitude are all very
- Physical Pain: There are so many health hazards along the way; every day you need to not only bear the pain of breathing the thin air and any possible AMS symptoms such as headache, but also fight against the pain of cough, nose stuffed with bloody secretions all the time (we constantly need to clean it, every few minutes, then it’s stuffed again in another minute), throat irritated by dry air all the time. Your immune system is weakened, so any little sickness at sea level is magnified 100 times at altitude. It’s painful to fight health problems at
- Tiredness: Each climbing day is long, and you are tired from climbing; the altitude and the uncomfortable camping conditions make it hard to sleep, and your own cough would interrupt rest. Tired and unable to sleep!
- Demanding schedule: Every climbing day is equivalent to a summit day on other mountains. Every climbing day is alpine start (get up in middle of night and start in dark). You have to make so many mini-summit days during the whole climb, it’s
- Uncomfortable climbing climate: The temperature on glaciers alternates between freezing cold and furnace-hot You can never dress perfectly. It’s painful to be tortured by bone-chilling wind one second, then cooked inside a 100F furnace the next second.
- Fear: The unknown risk from icefall or avalanche is there all the time, you just don’t know when it happens. The fearful feeling deters and weakens a lot of people. Not to mention Lhotse face and other hurdles high up on the
- Psychological pressure: Not just “what happens if I fail” kind of pressure from yourself or others, which most climbers have learned to deal with after having climbed so many mountains. Here, this is a very demanding mountain. You see other climbers stronger than you, faster than you, and the peer pressure from competition can make you doubt your own capability or potential, make you worry about yourself. Here everyone climbs on their own schedule: some choose to rest more days, and some choose to skip certain camps, so we will all end our summit on different dates. How do you feel when you are trying to focus on your summit push while others are celebrating and packing up to go?
- Option to quit: The approach to the mountain is long, and every step is hard. But it’s not so hard to quit! You can leave on a helicopter in a day, you can hike out in two or three days. You can be back in a nice hotel in KTM or your hometown in just a matter of days. Why suffer from the sickness, pain, fear, cold, risk of AMS and avalanche? You see people around you keep on leaving, and some are actually stronger than you. Should I suffer or should I go? Why should I suffer? The easiness to quit may contribute to more
- Emotional lure of home: Cozy home, warm family, loved ones are missing you. The expedition is so long. It has been a month already, yet we haven’t even started on Lhotse face yet! Summit is still weeks away and you never know the condition this It’s a torture to be torn emotionally.
- Every step is so hard: There are so many forces against you. You may arrive here with gear missing/forgotten or damaged in transportation. You easily fall sick. Nothing is comfortable here. You don’t sleep well, not enough nutritious food to compensate your big energy expense every Weather is never perfect. You feel you’re not trained enough, you never feel good/strong enough. It’s important to steer negative thoughts away; don’t be overly fixed on cause/condition or the so-called “sense.”
It’s important to focus on positive thinking. Yes, there are many forces against you. You need to be resilient! Climbing Everest is 90% mental. True, there are certain forces you can fight against, but don’t give up too easily! Make your best effort, consider all possible alternatives, think thoroughly of your decision. It’s a balance of all forces!
Everest – Rotation 2
May 4 – 8, 2010
My second rotation
May 4: EBC – C1 (6000m) May 5: C1 – C2 (6500m)
May 6: C2 – C3 (7200m), personal altitude record! May 7: C3 – C2 (6500m)
May 8: C2 – EBC (5300m)
This rotation is much more challenging than the first one but I’m feeling stronger and enjoyed it much more. Good health makes a big difference! Not only does it make me stronger and more energetic, but more importantly, it makes me focus on acclimatization instead of fighting the painful cough.
Though I was still very tired when I arrived at camp 1 and camp 2, I was not as exhausted as I had felt in the last rotation. My appetite was good during the whole rotation, and I often ate no less than the biggest guy on the team. Kitchen staff often took me being full as the indicator that everyone else had enough food. I realized how fast I could lose weight at high altitude and I know I can’t afford to keep losing muscle mass at such a rapid rate. Otherwise, I would have no strength left climbing the summit. So I kept on feeding myself protein-based food as much as I could throughout the day.
I slept well and I was surprised that at my personal best elevation— camp 3 (7200m, 24000ft), I was still able to eat and sleep relatively normally (compared to the lower camps). Until people started mentioning it, I totally forgot about panic breathing during sleep— feeling suffocated while sleeping and panicking while trying to catch your breath. Although, I had the bad habit of burying myself completely inside my sleeping bag at night…no wonder there didn’t seem to be enough air inside my sleeping bag!
Five days in a row, we got up in the middle of the night to start climbing before the sun heats up the glacier to an unbearable 100F by mid-morning. Though we finish our climb early in the day, that doesn’t mean you can go back to sleep for the rest of the day. Inside the tent, it’s too boiling to sleep during the day. You have to wait until the late afternoon, when the sun goes behind the mountain, which makes you instantly need to crawl back into your warm sleeping bag! Every day is a hard day, and the hardest day was the day when we climbed on Lhotse face, moving from camp 2 to camp 3.
Ideally, I would have liked to rest a day in camp 2 before tackling the demanding climb at Lhotse Face. But the weather forecast was predicting high winds moving in after tomorrow (May 6). We had to climb it tomorrow or we might have to give up. Another question was, what to wear to the climb on Lhotse Face? It will be very cold in the night, requiring us to be fully equipped in our summit suits. But once the sun comes up, you have to strip down to your T-shirt.
It’s a steep slope, which means there isn’t a safe spot to take off or put on a summit suit. It’s a long climb, and entirely under the hot sun. Every one of us decided to climb in our summit suit, and planned to strip it off at the top and tie it around our waist once the sun came up.
The night was warmer than I expected. Once I started walking, I immediately had to unzip my suit, just to cool down! The slope is steep all the way, and there are several long sections of hard ice bulges that make it a very demanding climb. To be safe, we kept the jumar on the fixed rope all the way.
Once we started climbing on the steep slope, I faced another dilemma. If I covered my face with buff or balaclava, I protected myself from Khumbu cough or sunburn, but I couldn’t get enough air to breathe when the climb demanded it. Air or comfort? A hard choice!
Luckily, the sun was not too cruel today. There was some cloud cover, which significantly reduced the sun’s heat. There’s actually two campsites. A lower camp 3 and a higher camp 3. Unfortunately, the IMG site is the furthest spot on the highest spot at the higher camp! While you’re on a steep slope, you can see very far. But looks can be deceiving! Anything that looks close is actually hours away! From lower camp 3, it’s an hour’s climb to get to the higher camp using a fixed line branching out to the right from the main climbing route.
And yes, you need a fixed line to go to the campsite! The whole campsite rests on a steep slope. There’s not much “flat” ground. Each tent platform has been dug with hard work! There’s not much room between tents even to the edge of the platform. So I had to be very careful in moving between tents! We don’t want to risk damaging our tents with crampons, so the advice is to take an ice axe if you want to walk to the “toilet” just in case you miss a step.
On the way down, I was really looking forward to being back at home, my sweet tent home in EBC, and the feeling I looked forward to most was touching my face with the warm wet towel that would be served at dinner or breakfast time. That’s the only time I clean my face with something other than the freezing cold baby wipe! Our Sherpa guides are also looking forward to being back at home too, but their real home. The moment we touched down at EBC, most of them took off immediately to spend a few days with their family in Portse (most of our climbing Sherpas came from Portse, a village between Namche and Pheriche). Only then did I realize that I have been on the road for more than 50 days already. Time flies by so fast! Yet, the game is still far from over!
Thoughts before the Everest summit
Waiting time was taxing. You are not sure how long the waiting time will be and how to plan your schedule. You worry if the summit window will come before Monsoon arrives. You worry if the icefall will still be safe to pass when we finish the climb. You are worried about getting weaker while waiting (don’t forget our base camp here is as high as high camp on most high mountains on other continents, if not higher than its summit). You worry about getting sick from any random factors, you worry about getting injured…
Now it finally is time to go up, and you can stop worrying about a lot of things that kept you awake. Yet, you know how reliable the weather forecast is for more than a week away in the city, not to mention on a mountain like Everest! One day, the forecast was “confident” about a summit window in mid May; the next day, it said the “forecast model is jumping around.” Everest is a big mountain, and the summit push takes
- You just can’t wait until you see a clear forecast to start going up, or you would risk missing that precious window. It’s a hard gambling game here!
Thinking of Ed Viester’s “No Shortcut to Summit.” It’s so true on Everest! Every step is so hard! No shortcut! I’m little nervous, so many things to finish, and I need to pack and rest!
Like a soldier training for war, I have gotten bored waiting for the big time. Now all of a sudden, we are moving and I am scrambling around and barely have time to finish off the list of to-dos. While waiting, we worried about getting weaker by sitting around, so we tried to do some exercise every day.
Now time to move, we worry about not resting enough, and realize that we have been so spoiled for so many days— sleeping till daybreak every day, no torture moving in midnight frigid temperature or baked under brutal sunshine at midday. Time to get used to not sleeping well in the night; time to get used to planning every visit to toilet, day or night; time to get used to going to sleep in the clothes that you would wake and walk in; time to nervously calculate when sun will cast its brutal heat on the glacier slope… More this time, need to learn to calculate how many hours I have left on that bottle of oxygen…
On top of the world!
Everest Summit – summary written on May 27, 2010
Since the summit day (May 24th), we have been on the move every day— descending from Camp 4 (C4) to Camp 2 (C2), then C2 to Everest Base Camp (EBC). Then packing and moving out of EBC, and now I’m on my way hiking out of Khumbu Valley. While busy walking or climbing every day, I have kept on thinking again and again of what happened during the past few days, but didn’t have much time to sit down writing. This is by no means a detailed report; rather, I just want to give everyone a general idea of what our summit day on Everest was like.
Thunder in the heavens
First of all, it’s very important to clarify the actual condition of the summit day, or more accurately, the summit night. The weather forecast was “less wind, but higher probability of precipitation.” There’s no way to know how much “higher” probability and how much precipitation. So we had to go with our guts and hope for the best. The snow and wind started in the afternoon and soon became blowing snow, heavy storm conditions by the time we were ready to ascend.
Camp 2 radioed down, “Hey, we are snowing at Camp 2 here. How are the conditions down there?” Justin humorously responded, “Yah, we see snow coming up from the ground here.”
We started the summit push around 8pm on May 23rd despite the blowing snow and limited visibility. Alpine Ascents also stuck to original summit plan, as we did, in the hopes of conditions improving later. But Rainier Mountaineering (RMI) postponed their summit push to the next day. I started out by fully covering my face with the combination of goggles, balaclava, buff, and oxygen mask.
Slowly, my goggles started to fog up, but I dared not take them off because I have heard several stories of frozen corneas on summit day, and that would be the end of it all! The few times I briefly removed my goggles to clean them, the wind and snow would blind me instantly. I could feel it was very cold out there, but I was keeping myself very warm with a good climbing rhythm until we hit Balcony.
For a short period, there was even thunder and lightning around us. I was a little concerned, but obviously, there was nowhere to escape to and there were not many objects higher than us. Since lightning strikes on Everest are rare and the thunderstorm did not look like a severe one, our guide decided we would continue.
Balcony – a brief panic
My first scary moment came at Balcony (8,400 m, 27,600 ft), where we would change to a new oxygen bottle. I had been climbing at a good pace and did a good job keeping myself warm. After taking me off from my current bottle, my Sherpa Da Tenji found my new bottle leaking. This is considered to be the textbook reason for accidents on Everest! Any problems with an oxygen bottle not only would cost the summit, but more importantly, could easily cost a life.
While he was busy fixing it, I started to get cold fast. There was blowing snow all around us, blinding from all directions. No matter how I turned, it was impossible to find a safe place to drink or eat. As this dragged on for several minutes, too long in my mind, I started to find myself struggling for air, maybe out of panic. It felt like a long time, though I think it might just be psychological, but it was scary! During those long minutes, my mind kept imagining the worst.
Things that could go wrong…
While we were fumbling around with the bottle, many climbers have passed us and moved on. When I finally got going again, I soon found myself joined at the end of a line of climbers that were going nowhere. A veritable traffic jam on Everest! Another classic situation for accidents! I couldn’t see what was going on ahead. It was dark and visibility was low; I could not make out was around us, left or right. It looked like a narrow ridge, which would be very dangerous trying to get around other people. I was wondering if to the right side of us was China.
My guide, Justin, came up from behind and jumped on the snowbank in order to bypass the line to see what was going on ahead. After quite a while, Justin returned with one of our team members and told the team to “move slowly, wait for the sun! Hopefully the weather will improve!” (Later I learned the implication of that instruction was that Justin was planning to turn the whole team back at South Summit if the weather did not improve by the time we reached there. Looking back, we were lucky that the line moved so slow! Otherwise, my summit would have been called off!)
The line started to move but still at a snail’s pace. I don’t know how long I spent standing still, it felt like hours. My body didn’t heat up much yet, and now my feet and hands were starting to feel frozen. The traffic jam could also waste oxygen, a limited amount in each bottle. We would have to give up on the summit if we wasted too much time going nowhere. I have felt pretty confident about my physical condition before the summit push, but I have no control of all these kinds of unknown situations. I told myself, I love rock climbing and I want to continue to climb after this, so I can’t lose one toe or one finger! I kept on dancing on my feet and wiggling all toes and fingers.
When I finally came close to the spot, it was a rock spur on the South Summit that had slowed down progress (there were also some slow or tired climbers causing the slowdown earlier, but that has been
solved by Justin). It was a long series of imposing rock steps that was very challenging for big boots and crampons. Also, if you stepped to the east into waist-deep snow, you could run into a serious avalanche hazard. As a rock climber, I’m really embarrassed at my clumsy move to struggle through the difficult spots. At that moment, I didn’t know the name of the section. I was wondering if this was Hillary Step, and how many steps did he take? If it was not, how was I going to handle any steps even more difficult than this?
Floating in the clouds
By the time I was near the top of the rock spur, I could see sun rising through the clouds. Yes, “some clouds,” but they were everywhere. We were completely wrapped in thick clouds! It was a relief to see the sun! I know I don’t need to worry about frostbite anymore. Wind had also calmed down and the South Summit was just ahead of me!
When I stepped onto the South Summit, my Sherpa Da Tenji checked my bottle. I was a little bit nervous. Was my bottle leaking? Did I waste too much air while standing in line? “Ok, you have enough left to go to summit.” What a relief! Then he pointed forward at the col below the south summit, “That’s the Hillary step.” Oh, those rock spurs I just struggled over were nothing?
Hillary step was a little bit awkward, but at least it was only a few steps! After that, just some snow slopes. Life is much easier from there on! Not too long, through the heavy fog/cloud, I saw piles of people hugging around at the end of the summit ridge.
The feeling of standing on top of the world is a little bit strange because we can’t see anything other than the little pole wrapped by numerous prayer flags. Nevertheless, everyone was very happy to finally stand at this spot even though we couldn’t take a panorama photograph of the world. Anyway, half of my seven summits had the same view (clouds), so I was almost getting used to it. (So, this explains the lack of photos I could share with you all. I guess I need to come back again one day to make up for those photos!)
After taking enough pictures (how many can you take in heavy clouds?), I know the more serious job is to descend safely. More accidents happened on descent in mountaineering, especially we have those ice/snow covered rock steps all over the mountain here. More challenging for Everest, descending to C4 does not mean that we have finished.
With each day working at full capacity to climb or descend, each day gets more challenging. From C4 to C2 was a relentless steep downhill. Then, after you felt like your leg muscles have been depleted, you needed to stay alert to navigate through the icefall. Only when you returned to EBC could you relax. The last descent through the icefall was what concerned me even more than the summit. It is like a stream of mini- summits that you have to focus your energy and work so hard on when you are already at the end of your rope.
It has been a few days since the summit, but I’m still trying to digest the fact that I just climbed Everest. Was it hard?
It depends. If you have read the previous blog of “Why Everest is hard” and after two month of suffering through pain, you are still healthy/strong, determined and positive, then maybe Everest is not that hard for you.
When I set the goal to climb Everest a few years ago, I saw it as a goal reachable by anyone. After training hard, I have finally achieved my goal! Now it feels surreal that I have just climbed Everest!
So, what does it takes to climb Everest? My thoughts…
- Positive Attitude
- High Pain Tolerance
- Strong will/desire
You should be well above average in all four, and be in the top 10% in at least two categories. When my life slows down, I shall start writing more about Everest and will also post more pictures! So stay tuned…