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Horizon on Everest

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Home at last

  • Rob
  • 21 Sep 07, 05:41 PM

Well I know it has been ages since the last blog but I am sure you will all be relieved that the Horizon team finally managed to escape Everest and are now back home safe and sound.

Getting out of Base Camp was a complex logistical challenge and we were separated from our computer which is why the blogs dried up. In that time Ben and I took the opportunity to explore the surrounding valleys and even attempt a climb of our own. We are now the proud summiteers of Island Peak, 6200m.

Coming down was an extraordinary experience, every step we took brought thicker and thicker air. Unlike on the way up you could really feel the difference the oxygen levels brought. That was helped by the stunning return of greenery. Until I saw our first bush I hadn’t realised it had been 2 full months since I’d seen even a leaf.

We arrived in Lukla airport to catch our plane out of the mountains to Kathmandu just as the monsoon hit. Tragically this airport in the clouds was stuck in the clouds for 4 days. Every morning we’d go down to the airport in the hope of getting out only to be let down. Unfortunately Lukla isn’t the nicest place at the best of times and now in off season it had pretty much shut down. With not banks or shops all we could do was sit and stare at the rain preying for it to stop.

Having said that we were lucky. Logistics manager Mac MacKenny was stuck on the mountain for a full two weeks after we left, I didn’t see him again until we returned to London.

So we are back now and all I can say is it did turn out to be one of the most extraordinary experiences I could have had. It was a stunning environment to live in, often challenging but always rewarding and Ben, Graham, Dave and all the Xtreme Everest team where the best companions you could hope to spend two months in a tent with.

I shall miss it all.

Recent entries

Evacuation

  • Graham
  • 31 May 07, 04:48 AM

This expedition has been a huge success. Nearly everyone on the summit team got to the top, and the vital arterial blood samples were taken at around 8500 metres.

I had an interesting interlude. I'd got a bit of a cold at base camp and when we heard of a rescue going on I foolishly headed UP the mountain instead of DOWN . I plodded up to Camp 2 through the wonderful silence of the Western Cwm and promptly keeled over on arriving mid-afternoon.

Next morning I was able to film the arrival of Usha Bista, the 22 year-old Nepali girl climber who had been found unconscious and alone at the Balcony. An old friend from my Mallory expedition, Dave Hahn of IMG had discovered her after returning from his own successful summit attempt. Despite his weariness he gave her Dextamethazone and oxygen and organised her rescue. Members of our own expedition took over her medical care and looked after her evacuation. When I saw her she had some frostbite to fingers and toes but what was upsetting was her rage at having been left to die by her team-mates. We are very used to hearing stories about Western climbers walking past dying colleagues, but this was an all-Nepali expedition. What was worse was the fact that her expedition leader had been with us the day before and had promised faithfully to send up Sherpas and oxygen to her aid. Then he just disappeared. I have no doubt that she would have died without the help she did receive.
After we'd filmed the overnight radio traffic from the successful summit attempt I filmed Pasang arriving with the precious blood samples, just two hours from the Balcony to Camp 2- surely a record. The blood was duly tested and filmed.

Next morning, feeling rather feeble, I decided to head back down the hill. Usha was bundled up and brought down too. As we approached the top of the Icefall one of my companions clipped into the fixed ropes. At that moment a huge block of ice fell off with a roar and a cloud of white ice-smoke. It was no more than two metres from us, it took out a section of ropes and my heart sank: of all days to have to start abseilling down the bloody Icefall! Ten seconds later and it would have killed us.

Anyway, we got down eventually and we started to get proper attention: thank God for the doctors on this expedition and particularly Mark Wilson the medical officer. I'm not going on any more trips like this in the future without at least 40 doctors.

Mark organised a helicopter rescue, paid for by the BBC. Usha was going to come along for free. Her alternative was a horse.

Next day we were loaded into a huge Russian helicopter which was piloted by an interesting character named Sergei. Both he and his chopper look like veterans of the 1980s Russian war in Afghanistan. He dresses in polyester slacks and shirt as if he's ready for a spot of gardening, but he controls a monster of amazing power and violence: the down-draft is enough to send stones spinning in all directions. We took off and in minutes followed the path that had taken us weeks to follow. Ousha slept throughout until we arrived at Jiri, where we were offloaded to wait for an Army helicopter. This pilot was under instruction, so we were treated to aerial versions of a three-point turn and an emergency stop. But the most scary part of the day was being in a siren-waving ambulance in the Kathmandu rush-hour: far riskier than the Icefall.

Lying safely in hospital I contemplated the future: altitude is clearly bad for you, Graham. Maybe you should take up sailing?

On Top of the World

  • Rob
  • 31 May 07, 04:15 AM

Dave continues...


Day six was summit day. In the afternoon we pack for the summit, rest, eat and drink (and drink and drink some more) and breathe from our oxygen bottles. To spend the day at the Col you do not need to be on oxygen. Everything you do up there makes you breathless, but you do just fine during the day without supplemental oxygen. Before you try to summit however, it is good to "suck O's".

By 8:00 PM we are all gathered outside our tents. The wind is howling and we are putting on crampons, filling water bottles with hot water, zipping up our down suits, putting on mittens and adjusting our oxygen regulators to between two and two and one half liters per minute flow. By 9:00 we start walking away from our tents. This is for real now: we will try to climb to the top of the world.

There is a bench to climb right out of Camp Four. Once on that bench, the angle steepens and you climb at a fairly high angle up a snow chute with the goal of reaching the "balcony". The balcony is nearly halfway from Camp Four to the summit and is a good workout. Interestingly, the South Col is often very windy, but once up on the climb the wind dies down. I was very careful to dress properly to avoid frostbite, which take the toes and fingers of so many climbers. I was very warm throughout the climb! I lead our climbing party to the balcony, climbing in front and comfortable with my own pace. There are six team members and 10 Sherpas, five of whom were first time summiteers. There are fixed ropes that you use to assist you in climbing. It is dark and we are climbing by the light of our headlamps, but I never had to route-find because I simply followed the ropes.

At the balcony we take a short rest. I have over half a bottle of oxygen left but had been told we would change here. I wait for the Sherpa carrying my oxygen and change cylinders. In the meantime others do not change oxygen and move out ahead of me. My desire was to stay out front for filming purposes. Now I find myself in the middle of a long line of climbers and for the next four hours I can take two to six steps and wait....wait....wait with my face twelve inches away from the backpack of the guy in front of me! This was very frustrating because I climb in a different way. I pick a pace that is just slow enough that I rarely stop. Others go a little too fast and have to stop and rest all the time. It is very difficult to pass. If something holds someone up toward the front of the line, everyone has to stop and wait. Not long after we had left the balcony we were on a narrow ridge when someone at the front of the line discovered they had a problem of some kind. They stopped. We all stopped. They had difficulty resolving the problem and we all stood motionless, in the wind, on a steep ridge for 25 minutes! The Sherpas were beginning to yell and I can only imagine what they were saying!

I kept watching for the first signs of the rising sun on the eastern horizon. Light would help break the monotony of seeing only my feet in the small pool of light from my headlamp. The first light I did see was at 4:09. (I checked my watch.) There may have been some before that but the east was over my right shoulder and my vision was obscured by the narrow tunnel of the hood of my down suit. To see anything other than the small spot directly in front of me took an unusual amount of craning the neck.

The second feature to reach after the balcony is the South Summit. The climbing is similar: steep snow with occasional rock following the fixed ropes. By the time we got to the South Summit we could see by the early morning light, and the world -- now all below us -- is too incredibly beautiful to describe. Seriously! One encouraging thing is that we can now look directly at the summit ridge and the Hillary Step and it is close. We can see now that it will not be long before we stand on the summit. We can see now that we can do it! This put an "encouragement" in our blood! (Perhaps it put air in our lungs!)

At the South Summit I got a chance to move to the front of the line. I want to go just behind the expedition leader so I can film him going to the summit, since after all, he is the focus of my filming. At this point I also begin to experience difficulty with my oxygen mask. I could not quite figure it out at the time and as our expedition leader left for the summit, and others began to follow him, I jumped up and started moving. The going got tough. I could not quite figure out why all of a sudden I was so tired, I was, as I think we all were, tired just from climbing. But now I felt MORE tired. As it turns out I was getting very little, if any, oxygen. I staggered to the top, arriving about in the middle of our group and mustered what energy I could to do a little filming.

I need to back up a little to the subject of the fixed ropes. Each year a group of Sherpas, usually supported by the bigger expeditions, fix ropes along the route to the top of the mountain. These ropes provide both a climbing aid and protection for all who climb. The problem is that the old ropes from years past are never removed. New ropes are simply added to the route each year. There has become a huge tangle of old fixed ropes. Many times you do not know which rope to clip into. You may be depending on a rope, hanging on it with your life totally committed to it, only to find near the top of that rope that it is old and nearly frayed in two. There are places where many old ropes come together: new ropes tied into old ones, broken ropes tied together to make a continuous line, ropes looped in a such way as to inevitably get caught in your crampons. It is a mess. The Hillary Step is the worst of all. The hazard there is not the climb but the ropes that impede the climb.

Unfortunately the top is similar. There are prayer flags strung everywhere. They create a terrible trip hazard, and climbers had to be careful not to get them caught in their crampons. For some reason, people have a habit of carrying some memento to the top of Everest and leaving it there. Do they really think that when I get there I want to see a picture of their wife or baby? There is all kinds of junk up there, and when one person leaves a picture (yes, in an 8x10 frame with glass) it becomes a broken bit of trash that litters the summit. From this perspective, the summit was a real disappointment. Nothing pristine and beautiful about it. Something so beautiful and special tarnished by inconsiderate man in a way that is no different than industry polluting a stream or lake or ocean. Think about the climbers 25 years ago who reached the summit of Everest to find nothing but a snowy top! (Well, and the Chinese tripod.)

But there is the bright side. The beauty I mentioned that I cannot describe. I will not try except to say that when in Nepal you spend all your time looking up at the mountains. When at Everest Base Camp you spend all your time looking up at the mountains that surround you. When in the Western Cwm, from Camp One to Camp Two, you spend all your time looking up at the mountains that are closing in all around you. Even at Camp Four you look up at the mountain you desire to climb. UP, UP, UP, and they are soooo high! But now, on the top of Everest, you look down, way far away down. And all those big towering mountains are but small bumps and hills and ridges that creep and flow and poke way down below you and that is what is so incredible about being on top of Mount Everest.

I think I will leave it at that for now. We got to the top and we had to get down. We did. Rather than to talk about going back down I would like to leave you with the thought of being on the top with the world stretching out far in every direction, with everything down below. It was wonderful.

The Summit Attempt

  • Rob
  • 31 May 07, 04:13 AM

Dave Rasmussen our high altitude cameraman managed to summit Mount Everest a few days ago, he has written an account of the climb:


Hello from Everest Base Camp,

There is something special about the greeting above. When I was at K2 Base Camp in 1999, I interviewed a very experienced mountaineer from Poland. He told me the mountaineers in Poland have a saying, "The summit is in base camp," meaning of course that a climber shouldn't be overly excited on reaching the summit. There's still a descent to make. Many mountaineers have reached the top of a mountain only to die on the way down. Once back in base camp, the summit can be celebrated. Now that I am back in base camp, I can share with you that I have summitted Everest.

To summit Everest from the South side, in Nepal, you launch off from Camp Four at the South Col, the highest pass in the world at 26,000 feet. To get to Camp Four takes weeks of climbing and acclimatizing but once that is done, the basic program is to leave Base Camp, climb throught the Khumbu Icefall, pass by Camp One and go directly to Camp Two. This is day one. Camp Two is located at the base of the massive rock pyramid that forms Everest. Camp Two is also at the base of the Lhotse Face. Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world, rises up to the southeast of Everest and forms the right hand ridge of the South Col.

So, on the first day of our summit trip, we arrive at Camp Two. Day two is a rest and filming day. On day three we climb the steep ice/snow Lhotse face for several thousand feet to Camp Three, located on some snow and ice "bulges" on the steep face. At Camp Three there is nothing to do but sit in your tent and get used to the thin air. The tents are cut into the slope so that the only space you have to "walk around" is a very narrow space behind your tent and about three feet on either end. You are literally confined to an area about as big as a midsized car. With clear skies and no wind the temperature in our tent rose to 108 degrees (44C?). Nobody thinks about it being that hot at nearly 24,000 feet, but it does happen and it is not comfortable. I slept on oxygen at Camp Three. We left early the next morning.

On day four we climb higher up the steep Lhotse Face until we cut to the left and traverse across the face to a rock feature called the Yellow Band. We climb up over the Yellow Band and continue an upward traverse to the base of a large rock outcropping called the Geneva Spur. I always thought the route went up behind the Geneva Spur, but found out that the climb goes up the back side of the Spur and then cuts across the front top. From here it is a fairly easy quarter mile walk that puts you into the South Col, home of Camp Four.

Many people carry on to the summit on the evening of the day they reach the Col. But we have science to do. Our day five is a rest/filming/science day. I have told people in the past that I had no real desire to climb Mount Everest but I that I would really like to go to the South Col. In mountaineering history it is a unique place. I always thought it would be cool to go there (literally!). So now I am finally there, 26,000 feet with a lot of wind, blowing snow (it is not snowing but the snow is always driven like sand in the desert), rocks and spent oxygen bottles. The South Col is not really a special place in any way other than it leads to the top of the world. The climb from here is laid out right before our eyes. We can see quite clearly what we have to do to get to the top. We can see it, but as of yet we cannot perceive what it will mean to our bodies to actually do it.

We do science at the South Col on days five and six. Science that has never before been done at this altitude. Science that will hopefully someday help sick people at low elevations.

The Final Push

  • Graham
  • 15 May 07, 09:26 AM

Well, we start heading up the mountain for the last time tomorrow. We have a good weather report so we have to grasp the moment.

There is the usual sick feeling of knowing what is in store for us: the scary climb through the collapsing Icefall, the exhausting plod up the Western Cwm to Camp 2, the long steep icy slopes of the Lhotse Face where the Sherpa was killed a few days ago. Then the uncertainty of summit day: how will it go? In 1993 I had a good day of weather- can we hope for this again?

Unfortunately I have a throat infection after weeks of good health so I may go up a day later. The good thing is that we have filmed some really ground-breaking science and if we can just get those vital last shots I think we have a cracking story to tell.

Wish us luck, any of you out there who read this.

Vanity Publishing

  • Graham
  • 13 May 07, 09:22 AM

Dave Rasmussen-the-cameraman and I went down to the valley to build up our strength for the summit attempt by eating Yak steaks for a week. We stayed in Sonam’s Friendship Lodge in Dingboche, and it was indeed friendly. We got to know all the family and were even allowed to take their Lhasa terrier out for walks.

Sonam himself is a fascinating man: he remembers the day big bearded Western men came through his home village of Namche Bazaar. He was eight years old and hid in a bush to watch these strange beings. This was the British expedition of 1953, the one on which Hillary and Tenzing first climbed Everest, and the event which changed the Sherpas’ world for ever.

The floodgates of tourism opened and the Khumbu valley is now filled with lodges (guest houses) and shops as a result. Don’t get the idea of luxury, though: Sonam’s lavatory wore a virulent green fleecy fabric on its seat, a fabric which also featured suspicious brown stains. Anyone with any sense hovered a few inches above while performing. And the cooking, while filling, is done in a kitchen that looks like a medieval forge.

These lodges have large communal rooms where trekkers and climbers eye each other with suspicion at first. If you get talking, though, you’ll find a cosmopolitan bunch of walkers who usually have good stories to tell. And on the walls you’ll find something which I’ve never seen elsewhere: the vanity posters.

These posters are quite simply boasts from the climbers who pass through. They don’t appear to advertise anything except the egos of those who have commissioned them back in their hometowns. For example: the Canadian climber who lists his accomplishments as: “International Adventurer. Tour Guide. Speaker. Filmmaker. Writer. Humanitarian.” We all liked that last one. No surprise he is now a politician.

Then there’s the funny ones: an 81 year-old Japanese man whose photograph features him swimming in an ice-encrusted glacier pool- two years running! Then the mysteries: a photograph of a Russian nuclear submarine. Presumably the crew all came climbing for a spot of fresh air.

The Battle of Wounded Knee

  • Ben
  • 5 May 07, 07:51 AM

It's a strange thing, how your own memory can mislead you into doing some fairly stupid things. This happened to me over the last few days, as I have come down from Everest Base Camp to Lukla, with the intention of joining a trek on the way back up.

The plan was to get from Base Camp to Lukla in two days. It's a walk of about 30 miles, up and down hills on quite rough paths, so I suppose I should have known I was asking for trouble.

Setting off from Base Camp, though, I felt a degree of invincibility. I'd been acclimatising for a month and felt good; and after all, the journey was mostly downhill. My pack was also fairly light, because my camera and much of the other gear was being carried by Pasang, one of our Sherpas.

We reached Pheriche for lunch, a journey on which we had taken three days on the way up. Already, I was noticing my legs were beginning to hurt, my knees and thighs in particular, from the incessant stomping down steep slopes.

By 4.30 we had stopped for the night at Deboche; we were both tired and didn't think it sensible to go any further that day. My invincibility was slipping away rather, but I was confident we wouldn't have any problems getting to Lukla the next day. Hmmm.

The following day we set off at 8.30 and, three hours later, made it to Namche Bazaar. Although it was only 11.30 we stopped there for lunch, not least to chat to the Namche lab team, whom I hadn't seen for a few weeks. Also, the remaining distance to Lukla had been a mere two days' trek on the way in. In my super-acclimatised form I was sure it was only a hop and a skip that afternoon, and we would be in Lukla by early evening. That was where my memory sadly let me down.

I completely misjudged how far we still had to go, and how hard it would be. My knees were really giving me trouble, and even Pasang's leg was hurting. We had to stop periodically to sit down.

By about 6pm we had still only reached the bottom of Lukla hill. Coming down it on the very first trekking day it had seemed simple enough. Now Pasang estimated we were still two hours from our destination.

Climbing the hill I began to notice that my left knee didn't really hurt any more, but my right knee was really playing up. I reasoned it was unlikely my left leg had suddenly got better, and more likely that my right had got worse and was hogging all the attention. That didn't seem good.

It also got darker as we climbed, until we had to put on head torches. The distance to Lukla began to seem unfeasibly long to me. I couldn't believe it had been this far on the way out. I even began to wonder whether Pasang had mistakenly gone the wrong way, and were were fruitlessly climbing some unknown Himalayan peak in the darkness.

Of course, I should have had more faith, and we ultimately arrived in Lukla just before 8pm. We found a nice guest house and ordered beers.

The next morning I was to meet the trekkers, arriving from Kathmandu at about 7am. I got up and got the camera ready, but walking the short distance from the guest house to the airstrip proved excruciating. My right knee stabbed with pain whenever I walked down hill. It was fairly obvious I wouldn't be able to walk that day.

So now, three days later, I'm still in Lukla, waiting for the next trek and hoping my knee recovers in time. I think that, although I was well acclimatised to low oxygen, my time at Base Camp also wasted some of my muscles, so I wasn't as invincible as I'd thought.

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