Everest Diary 9: Here we go again in summit quest
Wait brings challenges as we witness joy and despair on slopes ahead of our final attempt
There are reports coming back from the early summits that the Hillary Step has been reduced to rubble following the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Namche Bazaar is the largest village in the Khumbu. It is traditionally a trading post, hence the second part of the name.
It’s on. Again. Finally.
We’ll be heading up the icefall again at 3am on Sunday morning. We’re targeting a summit window of May 25th/26th but keeping a constant eye on the ever-changing forecasts. We’re well rested and the ropes are now in place so at least that won’t scupper our attempt this time.
We spent most of last week sitting in the Sherpa Barista cafe at the centre of Namche, slouching lazily in the comfortable sofas, watching repeats of old Premier League games and monitoring the first successful summits of the season on social media. We were certainly further away from the mountain than we’d have liked as the first climbers of the year reached the top, but we needed patience. We’d already been close, thwarted only by a series of rope fixing delays.
We took a helicopter to Namche after our aborted summit attempt. On the side of a hill in the Khumbu valley, at about 3,440m above sea level, Namche Bazaar is the largest village in the Khumbu. It is traditionally a trading post, hence the second part of the name. The locals barter yak cheese, and other similarly unappetising produce, for agricultural foods grown lower down the valley. With the growing popularity of climbing and trekking, Namche has become the main staging point for expeditions on the trekking route from Lukla to Everest Base Camp.
Our aim, among the collection of rudimentary tea houses and cafes, was to regain strength from our previous exertions while being distracted from the monotony of tent life, monitoring the weather and plotting our return. There is even an Irish bar, the highest in the world, although they’re out of Guinness. After eight weeks of expedition food, many of us need to find our appetites again. We also had hot showers, a bed (with an electric blanket), and welcome thick air to breathe.
As we walked around Namche we ran into climbers from Madison Mountaineering, the British Gurkha Expedition, and International Mountain Guides – all doing the same as us and waiting for the go ahead from their expedition leaders.
The weather has thrown us a few more curve balls this week. Firstly, after coming down from our summit attempt and discussing the next potential weather window, we concluded that we’d have at least a week before anyone would be able to give it a go. This was especially the case because the ropes were yet to be fixed and there was no apparent momentum to change that situation. We all agreed we would head to Namche for a few days, three of us decided to take a helicopter while Jon and Ronny opted for the two-day trek down the valley.
Then, less than five hours after arriving in Namche, Tim came through on Facebook Messenger to let us know there had been a major development. The rope fixing meeting scheduled for that day had broken down in disagreement and frustration. The upshot was the Gurkha expedition was going to take the lead on the ropes. The Gurkhas were looking for their advance team to head up through the icefall the next morning on May 12th.
Furthermore, their forecast showed a narrow weather window available and the plan was for the advance team to summit immediately behind the rope-fixing team on May 16th. To take advantage of this window we would need to get a chopper back first thing the next morning. We’d then be on a very tight schedule. We looked at the weather forecast – the window looked slim and some of the forecasts we were looking at showed high winds on these days. It was also clear from Tim that, if we went for it, we would not have the time, resources, or energy to mount a further attempt this season.
For the Gurkhas this would be their first attempt and they would still be able to try again. For us this would be it. Following a bit of debate, we all agreed to be patient and wait for a later window. The ropes were still not fixed and there was more snow forecast over the next few days. I also had a developing stomach condition so felt even more certain that trying to get it to clear and waiting for the next window was the way to go.
The main benefit of taking this early opportunity, just as per our initial attempt, is that this year is expected to be busy, with a record 373 permits issued. There is a risk of being caught in the crowds on a busy summit day. There are several bottlenecks where you risk being stuck in a queue. The best known of these is the Hillary Step – a 12m high near-vertical rock face, just below the summit at 8,790m. Inexperienced, fatigued climbers can take 20 minutes to get up it. If you arrive to find a line of people ahead of you, there is a real risk of getting frostbite as you stand still for hours waiting for those in front to clear the obstacle. Hanging around at -35 degrees and 8,800m is not recommended.
This is a tricky stage of the expedition. The rate of attrition is high. Missing the first window and watching others summit is difficult to take. Disappointment, the lure of home nearly two months in, disillusionment with the expedition, lousy mountain food, illness and injury have all to be contended with. By now we estimate more than 30 per cent of climbers have called it a day. A couple of IMG climbers told us earlier this week that their main group was down to eight out of the 15 who started, through a variety of injuries.
Our team lost Billy Hall to a respiratory problem that no one could quite get to the bottom of, just before we went on our first summit attempt. I shared a tent with Billy up at Camp II on our rotations. It concerned me how he struggled to get his breath back after even the smallest movements. We were sorry to see him go but wish him a great summer back home. We also lost Blake to a double ankle injury before he made his surprise return to the team, all the way from Barcelona where he had consulted specialists.
In one of my first articles, I mentioned two notable climbing events happening on the hill this year. Ueli Steck was planning a courageous Everest-Lhotse traverse via the Hornbein Couloir and Min Bahadur Sherchan was planning to become the oldest person to climb Everest – at a staggering 86-years-old. Regrettably both climbers passed away on the mountain over the past month. First, Ueli fell 1,000m down the Nuptse face to the Western Cwm. Then Min passed away at base camp last week. As a result of Min’s death, the Nepalese are again discussing an age limit for Everest.
The dreaded Khumbu cough is something every climber will know about. Nearly all climbers exerting themselves at extreme altitude, with its dry air and low temperatures, will experience some degree of the Khumbu cough. At the end of every long session on the mountain, such as the seven-hour trek up to Camp II, nearly all of us would be coughing for the next hour or so, as we recover and rehydrate.
For some though, it is much worse. Those severely afflicted are woken up at night by long coughing fits so intense they can break ribs. Regrettably, Dubliner Justin Condon (43) experienced just that. Despite breaking a rib from coughing through his second rotation up the mountain, he persevered and continued on to his third rotation. Whilst on his way up the Lhotse face to Camp III last week he broke another rib. Despite completing his rotation and sleeping at Camp III he had to call it a day when back at base camp. He is currently recovering in hospital in Kathmandu. To read more about his story and persevering with cracked ribs, check out justincondon.blog.
Gastrointestinal problems have also been rumoured to have knocked out a fair few climbers over the last weeks. I am just finishing a course of Ciprofloxacin Hydroxide, Tinidazole, and Bifilac, alongside rehydration salts as I try to quickly clear things up. I am praying that this is about to pass as a summit push is no place for such problems.
Back on the mountain, the first summits have been taking place. The Gurkhas successfully led the rope fixing and completed their aim of putting a serving Gurkha on top of the world. A group from Ascent Himalaya, including John Burke, also made the summit in the same window. John is the first man from Co Clare to reach the top of the world.
Cian O’Brolchain has also achieved his goal of being the first Irish man to summit Lhotse, at 8,516m the fourth highest peak in the world. Massive congratulations to both and I’m looking forward to sharing a beer with them later. There are also reports coming back from these early summits that the Hillary Step has been reduced to rubble following the 2015 earthquake. Last year no one could tell given significant snowfall. We look forward to finding out.
Back at base camp, we’ve been studying the weather and debating the optimal strategy. Our information is that lots of teams would be targeting a second window from May 20th-22nd. High crowds and a number of different forecasts for wind speeds in this window have led us to favour a later window opening around the 24th.
We are hoping patience will pay off but there are no guarantees on this mountain. It has already been an odd year. Normally the icefall doctors close the route through the Khumbu icefall around June 1st, as it becomes increasingly unstable. Occasionally the monsoon arrives even earlier, bringing vast quantities of snow and signalling the end of the season. And yet most summits happen between May 18th-25th. Patience, confidence, and endurance required.
Follow the daily updates on the way to summit on Twitter @realrorymchugh
Rory McHugh is climbing Everest in aid of Rory’s Nepal School Project with Child Rescue Nepal, to build schools in off-the-beaten-track villages not yet recovered from the 2015 earthquake.
We are close to funding a second school in Makwanpur so if you’re enjoying the journey please check out virginmoneygiving.com/letsbuildschools. Your support will make a difference.