We just returned to Everest Base Camp (BC) after a very challenging 7 days above 21,000’. We left BC last Wednesday morning and hiked 6 hours covering approximately 7 miles to Interim Camp at approximately 18,000’. We awoke early Thursday morning and hiked for another 6 hours covering the final 5 miles to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) to 21,000’ (See Photo “Hike to Everest ABC”).
I felt strong throughout the hike, but arrived at ABC (like everyone else) with a raging altitude headache. As I sat in my tent shortly after arriving, I thought about all of the climbing photos in Patagonia or North Face catalogs. Photos are always of good looking, men and women smiling and shaking hands on the summit of mountains. Much more accurate would be photos of unwashed, exhausted, cold men and women sitting, bent over in full down pants and jacket with their heads being cradled in their hands trying to lessen the pain in their heads from too little oxygen…
We spent the next 5 days at ABC trying to acclimatize and taking day hikes in the surrounding area. At that altitude, everything takes 3- 5 times longer than what it would at sea level. As an example, just to go to the bathroom at night requires you to get fully dressed in down pants, down jacket, hats, gloves and boots. Then, on the way to the bathroom area (a designated rock), you will probably stop at least once or twice trying to catch your breath and give your brain and muscles enough oxygen to function. Going back to your tent requires the same functions to be performed in the opposite order. Further, at high altitudes, your appetite becomes non existent and you must force yourself to eat whatever you can just to give your body the energy it requires to survive and perform as effectively as possibly.
One of my teammates, Barry (South African, Diamond Merchant) was having a very challenging time acclimatizing and due to severe altitude headaches was sleeping only a few hours a night. After 4 nights, he decided to descend to BC for a few days to recover before returning to ABC. Fernando (Mexican, Doctor) was also struggling with acclimatizing and was limited in his ability to take hikes to higher altitudes. Fernando decided to stay at ABC, but not to climb higher. After 5 days at ABC, it was decided that I would move up higher alone with one climbing sherpa (Kaji- 27 years old) to the North Col/ Camp 1. Kaji and I would carry personal and team gear and equipment to the camp, acclimatize for two nights, return to ABC for a night and then hike all the way back to BC for a full recovery.
Monday was not a good day. I have spoken to some of you previously about climbing and the dangers of high altitude mountaineering. If we have had that conversation, there is a good possibility that you have heard me say that “mountains don’t kill people, bad decisions do… and I don’t make bad decisions.” I can’t say that any longer. I made one on Monday: Kaji and I awoke early, finished our packing and headed to the North Col. The North Col face begins approximately one hour climb above ABC. When we arrived, I looked at the face and thought to myself that it did not look good/safe. The route we would have to take up the face would bring us directly beneath not one, but numerous hanging seracs (a build up of overhanging snow). Further, Monday was the nicest day we had had at ABC and with no clouds in the sky the sun was already warming the snow on the route. There were climbers already on the face and Kaji and I decided to climb despite my uneasy feeling/ thoughts (to see what the North Col face looked like moments before our ascent of it, see attached photo “Everest North Col”).
Kaji and I decided that we could move quickly enough to get up and across the face fast enough that we would be ok. We ascended the face as temperatures continued to climb making the snow more unstable. Approximately 50 minutes into our ascent up the face, we heard a loud cracking sound above us and then the tell tale loud and thunderous rumbling sound of an avalanche. Kaji and I slammed our ice axes into the icy face and waited for the snow to rip us off the mountain. Thankfully, unbeknownst to both of us, there was a large crevasse (a long, big hole in the ice), that the avalanche fell into losing most of its power and resulting in Kaji and I being covered in only a harmless layer of snow. Unfortunately for two climbers just ahead of us (names and nationality intentionally left blank- at this time, I am not sure if the families have been notified), they were caught between the avalanche and the crevasse. The avalanche slammed into both climbers, sending them down the mountain and into the crevasse. One climber was hit by the full power of the avalanche. His climbing partner was hit, but not as violently. This climber, although injured, was able to ascend out of the crevasse after a short time. His partner who was in the middle of the avalanche when it hit them has still not been found.
Kaji and I rappelled down the face in case of further avalanches and waited at the foot of the face to see what, if anything, we could do. Jamie, our lead guide was following an hour behind us and saw the avalanche rip down the face and hit the two climbers. After making link- up at the foot of the face, the three of us waited for the injured climber to rappel down. We provided what little aid we could for him (i.e. gave him my down jacket and something to drink etc) as Jamie used our communication equipment to attempt to contact his climbing partner (to no avail). After an hour at the face, Kaji and I returned to ABC.
That night, the injured climber came to find us and had dinner with us. I believe he did so just to be surrounded by others who cared. Fernando looked over all of his injuries and provided great care and comfort. Despite the circumstances, watching someone do what they are passionate about at 21,000’ was impressive and made me realize yet again how fortunate I was to have Fernando as my teammate. After a very long night and bad weather blowing in, Fernando and I descended 12 miles in 7 hours into a stiff wind and snow back to BC to recover and prepare for our next assault on Everest (see attached photo “Return Hike to Base Camp”).
Stay tuned for more from Eric and Everest...