Everest Diary 7: We didn’t like where we were – it felt like a bad disaster movie
Part seven: Rory McHugh and co could get the nod for their summit bid any day now
Ireland on Everest: At base camp with Khumbu icefall in the background are, left to right: Cian O’Brolchain, Terry Kelleher, Rory McHugh, John Burke
It’s been an eventful week, and as I sit here in Gorak Shep, with ample internet and a bed for the night as my luxury, we are entering the final stage of this expedition.
For six weeks now we have been preparing our bodies for higher altitudes, familiarising ourselves with the terrain and refreshing the skills required. Most recently we’ve been testing out our oxygen bottles and masks and our medical kits. Every member of our expedition is now trained to administer a shot of dexamethasone into the thigh of a hypoxic climber suffering from cerebral oedema. We prepared in our mess tent with syringes and oranges as our victims. For the oxygen masks, getting used to them sooner rather than later is preferred – there have been reports of climbers having claustrophobic attacks when sleeping on Os for the first time. The more familiar you are with the kit and terrain, the better when it comes to the big test.
We headed up the icefall as part of our second rotation at 3.30am last Saturday. We made good time – it was a bit like going on a rollercoaster for the second time, you know what’s coming, but it’s still adrenaline-pumping action. We have to remain attentive, this is killer terrain. No place to be listening to an iPod or zoning out, things I usually love to do on long days out.
Reaching the top of the icefall just before 8am, we then passed through Camp I and proceeded directly to Camp II. Given this is our second and last rotation before our summit push, it was also an important opportunity to bring up key gear for our push, including down mitts rated for the coldest arctic environments and all our food and snacks for three days above Camp II. With the heavy pack and the sun beating down, we found the trek up through the Western Cwm to be tough. Jonathan Guidry and I, moving together, took a number of rehydration breaks stretched out on the snow, breathing heavily. We reached Camp II eight and a half hours after leaving EBC, tired and happy to be served a lunch of chips, sausages and beans by our excellent Camp II cook Ganesh.
Ueli Steck had fallen 1,000 metres down the Nuptse face and died
Sunday was a rest day and we woke in our tents to the usual shower of ice crystals. My pee bottle had frozen. We spent the morning after breakfast chilling in the mess tent, playing Monopoly Deal. Some of the team had taken up to 15 hours to complete the previous day’s exercise so a rest day really meant a rest day. In the afternoon, everyone retired to their tents for a nice snooze and read inside their sleeping bags.
When we met up again in the mess tent, Scott had received some bad news through the radio from EBC. Ueli Steck, the Swiss mountaineer who I previously mentioned was aiming to complete an epic Everest-Lhotse traverse, had fallen 1,000 metres down the Nuptse face and died. He fell onto the Western Cwm, right next to where we were camping – we had heard the helicopters close to our camp but had just thought it was an emergency evacuation of some kind. With only a few hundred climbing permits for Everest, many of us had seen or spoken to Ueli over the previous days as he politely, efficiently, and speedily did rings around us in the Icefall or up the Cwm. Terribly sad news, a true mountain legend. RIP.
We had now spent four nights at Camp II (6,400m) and the next day was to be our last acclimatisation hike before returning to EBC to prepare for our summit attempt. After about an hour’s walk from Camp II we would reach the Lhotse face, and a steep rope-supported ice climb would take us to Camp III at 7,200m. Unfortunately, as we approached the Bergschrund, at the bottom of the face, we were hampered by high winds and retreating climbers from other groups. We wanted to continue but repeated calls by climbers moving in the opposite direction meant we called it a day. We initially planned to repeat the exercise the next day but a heavy dump of afternoon snow meant that we weighed up the benefits and chose to head back down.
Leaving Camp II the following morning to come back to EBC was a real eye opener and a true Everest education. Less than a minute after leaving our camp, I passed an American gentleman who was happily having his crampons put on for him by his Sherpa. Instead of looking away in embarrassment, he greeted us cheerily. Jonathan, Ronny, and I all made good progress strolling down the Western Cwm, eventually reaching Camp I, where we were stopped by three Sherpa from another team. The icefall was unstable, there had been a collapse and it wasn’t currently passable. We radioed Scott Mac, who was leading our team that morning, and we stayed put while he radioed EBC for information. Kami at EBC confirmed there had been collapses that morning but that the route had been re-fixed.
Continuing from Camp I toward the icefall, we went through a series of steep ups and downs, each supported by a rope fixed into the top of a section using an ice screw. Then we approached the top of the icefall, an area dwarfed by the western flank to the right with its series of overhanging ice blocks which threatened to break off at any moment. Gravity will eventually have its say. Around 10 sherpa had gathered and there was a lot of commotion. As we got closer we realised this was another part of the icefall route which needed repair from the morning’s collapses. From what we could understand there were 50 Sherpa and climbers on the other side of the obstacle, who were waiting for it to be fixed in order to make their way up.
Every climber knows that they shouldn’t congregate in areas beset with objective dangers
On their side the obstacle was a 20m cliff they needed to get over. On our side it was a series of crevasses which needed to be breached with new ladders in order to get to the point where we could abseil down. It was expected to take 10 minutes to fix the route and then it was clear that those coming up felt they should have priority, having already spent five hours or more in the icefall and enduring the two collapses.
We didn’t like where we were. In fact, it felt like a bad disaster movie. Every climber knows that they shouldn’t congregate in areas beset with objective dangers, such as overhanging seracs, especially as the sun hits them. Soon there were 20 of us standing on a couple of ice blocks, each with a surface area no bigger than a couple of cars, with deep crevasses all around and the western flank above. The sun was giving comfort to the more inexperienced and making others, including John, Ronny and I, nervous. Aware there were up to 50 people on the other side of the obstacle and that this was going to take some time, we started to make our way back up towards Camp I. Then we realised we were blocked. The ice doctors had removed a ladder higher up and were using it to fix the other blockage. All this confusion meant we were effectively locked into a relatively small and dangerous area – for well over an hour.
As the route was fixed, some Sherpa emerged up the cliff on the other side, crossing the two ladders with some difficulty, with the ladders moving quite a bit from left to right. A number of climbers followed. Many of these climbers were moving with personal Sherpa, who were carrying their gear and in some cases clipping and unclipping their clients into the ropes. We even saw one situation where a climber was “short roped” to his Sherpa.
This “climber” shouldn’t be on the mountain and shame on his expedition company
Short roping is a term used when a climber is so incapable of making his or her way through the terrain that there is a rope of a couple of feet connecting them with their Sherpa or climbing partner/assistant. I only ever expected to see this used when an incapacitated climber was being helped down the hill. Seeing it used to help a climber up to Camp I was quite distressing. This “climber” shouldn’t be on the mountain and shame on his expedition company.
By the time the backlog of ascending climbers cleared and our turn arrived, the ice doctors were back on the scene and felt the route again needed some tweaking. Then a sick climber, who was sucking on Os and being taken down by a Sherpa, pushed to the front of the queue. This was of course reasonable, given the climber’s condition, but another six Sherpa took advantage and pretended to be part of the emergency decent.
We stayed calm but it is in these moments where you can see how arguments can break out. Ronny, Jon, and I moved relatively quickly through the obstacle, moving across the ladders to a slim tower of ice and gnarly abseil down halfway to a vertical ladder. We then clambered down from there. Behind us Scott, Steve, and Billy, had to witness a number of climbers needing help putting on their figure-8s as if they hadn’t abseiled before. As we looked back we could see one of the climbers from the Polish expedition getting stuck under the ladder on his abseil. It was a bit of a s**t show and a useful high-altitude demonstration of the dangers of queues with inexperienced mountaineers higher up the mountain.
Moving on through the icefall much later in the day was intense. We were travelling across flowing rivers of ice with towers the size of 10-story buildings, in the knowledge it had been quite unstable earlier in the day and now the sun was blasting down. We all moved as efficiently as possible while clipping into the ropes as much we could. The route higher up was unrecognisable from our three previous trips. The sun beat down, the loud creaks and groans from the ice ensured the adrenaline levels never fell.
It’s clearly going to take some re-adjusting to society when we get off this hill
A couple of hours later we were through and making our final way back to our corner of EBC. It’s clearly going to take some re-adjusting to society when we get off this hill – the rush for showers was not what it was earlier in the trip! Wearing the same clothes for four or five days on the trot is now considered comfortable and routine. Nonetheless – and my girlfriend Jo will be happy to know – I did shower and felt great after.
Shortly after getting back to EBC, John Burke (39), from Co Clare, and Dubliner Cian O’Brolchain (37) turned up at our camp. They had seen my Satellite Tracker message that I was back (you too can follow our every step on twitter @realrorymchugh) and were looking to catch up. John is climbing Everest and looking to raise support for the Elevate charity – raising the banner for youth wellness in Clare. Cian is both the operations director of Himalayan Ascents and looking to be the first Irishman to summit Lhotse, after climbing Everest back in 2013.
We also met up with Dubliner Terry Kelleher who is here with Mountain Trip and at 56 is on the cusp on completing his seven summits, an awesome achievement. I’ll be hanging out with the guys over the coming weeks at base camp and reporting on their progress higher up the mountain.
Everything we’ve done has been leading up to this moment. Our bodies are ready for the summit push. It’s now a question of the weather, the logistics and the ropes above the South Col. We expect the ropes to be in place for the summit push in the next few days. High winds over the past week forced delays. Our team is also busily putting in place our logistics above Camp II. We need to establish camps at Camp III and South Col and ensure the right number of oxygen bottles are in the right places higher up.
When we do go for it, we’ll be leaving around 3am to go through the Icefall straight up to Camp II. We’ll then have a rest day and second night at Camp II, before progressing in the early hours up the Lhotse face to Camp III, where we will spend the night on a light flow of Os (0.5ltr per minute). We’ll then move from Camp III to the South Col. Depending on the weather and how we’re feeling, we will either rest our heads for a few hours and head off on our final summit attempt that evening or spend an entire day at South Col preparing.
We had a chat about the summit plans last night. Our team will be split into two waves. I’ve been given the opportunity to be in the first group to give the summit a go. Tim will be going through the weather forecasts and speaking with friendly teams on the mountain to validate our summit plan. We may still be waiting around for weeks, in some years the first acceptable window hasn’t arrived until well into the second half of May, or we could get the nod any day now.
Rory McHugh is climbing Everest in aid of Rory’s Nepal School Project with Child Rescue Nepal, to build schools in remote villages not yet recovered from the 2015 earthquake. We’re close to funding a second school in Makwanpurso if you’re enjoying the journey please check out virginmoneygiving.com/letsbuildschools and follow daily progress to the summit on twitter @realrorymchugh or blog rorymchugh.com. Your support will make a difference!