Base Camp to the South Col (Camp 4)

Sorry for the delay. It has been an eventful two weeks!

We finally decided that the 26th or 27th would be the time to move up the mountain. Despite all the other teams moving up earlier and the weather turning out to be either perfect or a little windy on those days, Tim insisted that the 26th or 27th would be the best days to summit. We couldn’t help feeling this was partially true as the long term weather forecast mentioned a lull in the wind on those dates but also due to the fact that Tim was still recovering from his personal summit on the 16th in which he went up with none of his clients, just his assistant guide (which we were not too happy about).

After Tim summited on the 16th he came back down and quickly did his social media updates to announce his success and also post pictures of the now changed Hillary Step. It turns out this ruffled some feathers in the Ministry of Tourism for Nepal, maybe because he – a foreigner – was reporting changes to their sacred mountain rather than a local. Either way they had it in for him and when realising that he was headed back up the mountain – with his clients this time – they were keeping an eye out for him as he only had one $11,000 permit to climb to the summit and if he went up again without a second permit, he would have been fined $22,000!

On the morning of the 22nd of May, Jon, Rory and myself got ready in the early hours for this final summit rotation and made the move up the Khumbu Icefall. Tim once again did not accompany us and we were going up alone. We did have a Sherpa – who was headed up to Camp 2 –  escort us to the Icefall from Base Camp as the route in had changed so much but once we got to the Icefall he was gone like a flash. Just the three of us, we were quite comfortable as Tim did not really guide us any point of the Everest climb anyway so we were used to going it alone. There was one day where Tim escorted me from Base Camp to Camp 1, this was my first time up the Icefall on this expedition.

Jon, Rory and myself made good progress. There was one issue when we were ascending that morning though. There was a vertical section on the right side of the Icefall which required the work of careful foot placements and the use of a Jumar. The other boys had already gone up and when it was my turn, I worked my way up with no problems. As I approached the top, the rope which was hooked around a piece of ice broke free and the slack from that piece of ice to the actual anchor was released and it resulted in me falling about 1.5 metres back down the vertical 4m wall before the slacked picked up and I jolted to a stop with my elbow smashing into the ice. You forget how hard ice is until you hit it with force, this solidified,  petrified blue ice feels harder than rock or metal! I hung there on the rope for a while howling in pain with no-one to hear apart from the ancient ice giants all around me who seemed impartial. I thought I may have broken my elbow but after a few minutes of breathing through the pain I realised that nothing was broken and it was just a solid knock to an already flexed and bent elbow. I waited a few more minutes for the pain to subside and got back to jumarring up the rope. When I got to the top, I quickly worked my way along the route and caught up with the boys.

We got into Camp 1 after 4 hours of climbing through the icefall. After the Namche break we were all a little exhausted after this effort so spent a good 45 minutes chilling out at Camp 1, drinking and eating.

The sun was definitely on us by now and the Western CWM was heating up. We decided that although lying around felt great, the warming CWM would soon be unbearable so we should get moving.

As we were getting to the end of the crevasse climbs after Camp 1 just before the CWM started proper, we bumped into Ronny, a member from our team who went up to climb Lhotse on the 21st. He was successful in getting to the top but had issues on the way down. Namely running out of our supposed endless oxygen supply as the bottles were stolen from the Lhotse high camp before Ronny arrived, not having a Sherpa for the descent and ultimately running into strife due to this combination. He did not have a working radio (our radios never seemed to work between camps or from climbers to camps) so he had to take things into his own hands. Ronny had high altitude medication and opted to take some Dexamethasone to assist him in getting down. With no comms, oxygen or Sherpa nearby he did not have any other options. Ronny says the Dex helped him get down. No doubt a placebo effect as the drug is not meant to be an energy booster, more of an emergency relief for a cerebral edema. He eventually did make it down so based on the circumstances and his resources at hand, I’m sure he did the right thing. After about 30 minutes of chatting we said our goodbyes to Ronny and pressed on.

After 2.5 hours we finally pulled into Camp 2. We stopped a few times to chat to other climbers who were coming down from the top. Some were successful, others had to turn back on their summit days due to high winds and frostbite.

We spent the next two nights at Camp 2 and after a good day of rest with Tim meandering up on the second day, we all headed off at 4am the next morning for the beginning of our summit rotation. This would be the first time we moved up onto the Lhotse face headed for Camp 3.

We were all excited and made it up to the Lhotse face in good time. When we got to the end of the CWM we were confronted with the Bergscrhund – a massive crevasse which forms when a vertical glacier (Lhotse Face) hits flat terrain (CWM). There were ropes and a ladder in place and although time consuming getting up over the ‘Schrund’, we figured it out and made our way up onto the Lhotse Face.

Tim was nearby when we moved from Camp 2 to the Bergscrhund. As I was putting on my crampons and preparing to get onto the Lhotse Face for the first time, Tim hooked himself up and says ‘See you later’. I thought to myself “What a great guide – never actually guiding any part of the mountain!”. Tim was gone in a flash. I got up over the Bergscrhund to the bottom of the Lhotse face and was presented with a web of ropes. Not sure which one I was supposed to be taking I took an educated guess from what I had heard during conversation in the mess tents and made my way over to the left side and started the long gruelling vertical climb to Camp 3.

Although it is great climbing the entire mountain alone (apart from summit day where a Sherpa is present), I feel that as I paid for a ‘guide’ I should have had someone nearby to double check my rope work here and there as one mistake in these places will cost you your life. As you will read later on, one of these mistakes did happen and only a freak occurrence stopped me from falling to my death!

It was good to finally be on the Lhotse Face. I had spent years thinking about this vertical wall of ice and there was a decent amount of trepidation. The winds were not too bad when we were on the face with a constant breeze and some strong gusts coming down from the Yellow Band and Geneva Spur but nothing too disconcerting. It was actually quite nice when a gust came along as we were in direct sunlight now and starting to heat up quickly in our full down suits.

After about an hour on the Lhotse face I saw a bit of commotion up ahead. There were about 6 Sherpas having a lot of trouble descending the line next to us. They seemed to be slowly and carefully lowering a pile of equipment on a small sled. We kept climbing up in the gusting icy wind and as the group of Sherpas got closer I realised it was not equipment but the body of a climber. This was the first of three bodies we would see that day. Over the next few days we saw countless bodies scattered along the trail and being lowered down. Some were climbers who had died the year before and others were from much more recent events in the days prior.

The method used to get bodies down the mountain is to strap them up tight in a thin plastic sled and clip them to the same fixed lines everybody uses for ascending and descending. This creates huge delays when a body comes past as the team lowering the body consists of at least 5 people, all moving very slowly and having to carefully clip around each climber coming up.

We pulled into Camp 3, got into our warped tents and tried to rest in the massive twisted holes of ice where our sleeping mats would fold into. I shared a tent with Tim, where Tim took the giant hole and I took the giant bump. Comfortable, it was not! Sleeping was near impossible. Rory and John got the perfectly flat lover’s suite next door. We spent the afternoon boiling ice with our Jetboil stoves to rehydrate and ate as many of our snacks we could handle. When resting, we put on our oxygen masks for the first time and it definitely helped the body rest and recuperate. We spent the whole afternoon there with the sun beaming down on the tents with its full force. Luckily there was a slight breeze which helped alleviate the soaring temperatures inside the tents. As we sat there we had plenty to keep us entertained. There was a long stream of climbers coming up the Lhotse Face into Camp 3. Some were stopping at this lower camp, others were devastated to realise their Camp 3 was in fact another hour at least higher up the Lhotse Face. There was an injured climber in a tent below ours howling in pain for most the afternoon. I assumed it was some sort of leg injury as opposed to anything more sinister as they coudln’t walk yet had enough energy to keep screaming out and were dragging them self around their campsite. After about an hour of this a helicopter camp thumping up the CWM. I was surprised to see it fly straight past Camp 2 and continue up to where we were and stop to a hover right next to us. It is not possible to land anywhere on the Lhotse Face or Camp 3 due to the steep gradient. At this altitude of 7100m, it was impressive to watch. All the doors had been taken off the machine and all seats apart from the pilot’s had been removed. They were performing a ‘long line rescue’ which involves dangling 20 metres of rope below the chopper with a carabiner attached. The injured climber was the passenger for the afternoon, still in his down suit and climbing harness, they clipped him to the long line, the chopper lifted off from its hover and dropped back down the Lhotse Face towards the Western CWM. I watched thee helicopter fly all the way down towards Camp 1 until it was out of sight. Normally a long line rescue will involve the collection from Camp 3 and then a landing in the CWM either at Camp 2 or Camp 1 where they put the patient/body into the cabin for the rest of the flight down to Base Camp. Flying straight to Base Camp with this person attached below was out of the ordinary.

Finally that afternoon as the sky was losing its brightness, another body team came through camp right past our tents. This was a climber from 2016 judging from the state of the skin on his jutting out hand as it had turned to the familiar look of solid porcelain. They moved down through camp without incident and we spent the rest of the afternoon boiling up the remainder of our chopped out ice, eating more and supping our Os.

The next morning we got up around 5am and started the familiar routine of once again boiling up more water, first to replenish ourselves after a night of dehydrating and then to top up our water bottles for the day ahead. By around 7am we had packed up, geared up, clipped into the line and started to move up above our Camp 3. This was our first time climbing with oxygen and although there was a small but noticeable difference in performance, it was also a little difficult getting used to having the mask on my face. Although providing fresh oxygen, it felt suffocating. The first hour or so I kept taking the mask off now and then to gasp for air only there was none, it seemed my respiratory system got used to the Os quickly and then taking the mask off to breathe, I couldn’t get enough air in. After a while I got used to the mask and got into a good rhythm. Straight out of Camp 3 we had some big rollers of ice to climb up before peeling left back out onto the Lhotse Face to continue the climb all the way up to the Yellow Band – an iconic and distinctive point on the route which is a long band of yellow rock. I believe the altitude of the Yellow Band is around 7600m.

The day was slow but steady. We had another huge delay just before the Yellow Band when another body team came down the ropes. This was a particularly steep part of the route so slowed everybody down quite significantly. I was ahead of a group of climbers and opted to stop at one of the anchors to let the body team above come down their next length of rope unhindered. There was a queue of about 10 people behind me by the time the body came past but it gave them a good chance to get around us quickly as we were all bunched up together at an anchor.

Jon was lucky enough to be just far enough ahead not to get caught in this jam and took off up over the Yellow Band, along the traverse and up over the Geneva Spur much quicker than us. We did not see him for the rest of the day.

Negotiating the rocks of the Yellow Band was nothing too difficult. On the way up we were passing climbers who had summited that morning. A lot of them were IMG climbers, all coming down in an orderly fashion with their climbing Sherpa attached to their sides. I bumped into one friend from my 2015 IMG expedition – Andrew. He told me the winds were ripping that morning while he was summiting but the views were clear and he was feeling well, he was on his way down to Camp 2, the preferred option after summiting.

Rory and I seemed to group together as we were climbing at the same speed. We crossed the traverse above the Yellow Band and arrived at the base of the Geneva Spur in a similar time. I noticed Rory was lagging quite a lot just before the Geneva spur. I waited for him to catchup and we did a quick gear check of each other where we make sure everything is in order and in particular, tell each other how much oxygen we have left as we cannot see the gauge ourselves without taking our packs off. I had a pressure reading of 70 left on my bottle which seeing we were moving at 2L per minute meant I had just enough to get to the South Col (Camp 4). Rory’s however was reading 0! This explained why he was having trouble breathing and couldn’t keep up with me. I radioed to Tim who was up and over the Geneva Spur sitting in our tent at Camp 4. Tim didn’t seem too fazed and said he would send Dorjee – our strongest climbing Sherpa down to assist. I was a little more concerned as Dorjee would be at least 30 minutes away and was concerned that Rory could start to get Altitude Sickness and possibly Cerebral or Pulmonary Edema. I double checked his kit, played around with the bottle and gauge and noticed that his regulator was spinning on top of the bottle. The regulator had come loose! It had not been tightened properly and I suppose it slowly loosened throughout the day. I disconnected his hose, tightened the regulator, the gauge shot up to 100, reattached the hose, Rory breathed in and the cold oxygen started flowing. I radioed back to Tim and told him to cancel the Sherpa support.

Rory and I decided that we would max out our Os for the intimidating steepness of the Geneva Spur and bumped our bottles up to 4L per minute. We pretty much ran up the Geneva Spur and within 15 minutes, we were at the top of it and could see the flat and benign trail which winded its way over to the South Col where Camp 4 is located and where we would start our push early the next morning to the summit of Mount Everest.

It took a further 30 minutes from the top of the Geneva Spur to Camp 4 and when we arrived we were shocked to see the state it was in. It looked like a tornado had ripped through with destroyed tents and gear strewn everywhere. It was reminiscent of the carnage I witnessed in Base Camp after the 2015 earthquake and avalanche which decimated Base Camp.

We located our tents, threw off our gear and piled into our 4-person tent where we proceeded to continue the routine of boiling up water and trying to eat as much as possible.

 

Upon arrival Tim informed us that he would not be coming with us the next day to the summit as the eyes of the Ministry of Tourism for Nepal were everywhere and he did not want to get caught up there a second time without a permit. He would sit this one out. He mentioned that he was disappointed because he would not get a chance to take his 360 panorama photo from the summit and he could not achieve his double. I was waiting for him to say he was disappointed because he was not going to guide his paying clients up the hill but it seems that was not a concern of his at the time. Oh well, we would be yet again climbing this hill without a guide and it would just be us and our individual Sherpas.

Whenever we were at rest here at the South Col we made a point of keeping the oxygen masks on as up at this altitude (7950m) the body cannot survive for long without them. Up here at the South Col it is easy to drift off to sleep due to exhaustion and never wake up due to the lack of oxygen.

Just a day before two climbers and two Sherpa died in their tent as they were cooking with their Jetboil stoves with all the tent flaps zipped up. They died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their sleep. A stupid error which could and should have been easily avoided.

This is it! We made it to the South Col, the next challenge is the summit of Everest!

Well that is it for this post. I think Summit Day should get its own post so that will be coming next.

5 thoughts on “Base Camp to the South Col (Camp 4)

  1. Cheryl Penson says:

    A great read Blake, thank you so much for sharing your incredible treacherous journey with your readers. I feel honoured to be reading in such detail your step by step guide over this hellish mountain. It deserves to become a block buster! Well done and so much admiration for you; my son Blake Penson. Always in my thoughts!!!

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