November 11, 1999

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May 22, 1999

Latest Dispatch

May 22, 1999

The Corfield Summit Bid Blow-By-Blow

(Note: does not research or edit dispatches.)

Good Morning. Today is Saturday, May 22 at about 11:00 a.m. here at Base Camp. I understand people are interested in what summit day was like for me on the 18th. I suppose that if you were to ask a group of people, a knee-jerk reaction of “What’s summit day like?” They’d probably say, “Very cold.”

If you tuned into the dispatches last year, you’re aware that we start off in the night with a goal to summit the following morning. So by way of background, once we had arrived (the Sherpas and myself had arrived at the South Col at roughly mid-day), we set up a couple of tents and then settled in to eat, drink, relax, and wait for our summit time. We had picked 10 p.m. as being a good time.

We set off. It was a dark night—we were just a few days after the new moon so the only ambient light was that of stars, headlamps, and indeed the not infrequent flash of lightning from distant storms to the southeast. They are really quite beautiful because you are climbing on a snowy slope and then there’s this distant flash and it has just enough illumination that for a brief moment, the dark rocks and everything around you come to life. Then in another instant it’s all gone again and you’re back in the dark with just your headlamp and the crunching of the snow for company.

The most memorable aspect of this particular summit day was just the sheer amount of trailbreaking through snow. There was a lot of recent snow on the route, and it just went on and on and on. There never really seemed to be a break in it until right near the top when we got to the South Summit.

South Summit The flip side is, if you have loose, unconsolidated snow—well it’s murder going up, but at least coming down, it makes for much quicker descents because you can plunge-step down through unconsolidated snow and move much quicker and safer than you would otherwise.

We finally reached one of the big milestones, which is about 2,000 feet (610 meters) above the South Col, called the Balcony because that is what it’s like—standing on a balcony. It is a flattish spot on the Southeast Ridge.

Once the sun comes above the horizon, it heats things up pretty quickly. You’re standing edge-on to the sun. It’s quite noticeable on your boots and through your down suits, just the heating now and the sunshine in the early morning. And indeed within a couple of hours, to my bother, I had my sleeves and my down suit rolled up so I was not overheating.

And now I think this is the second element, the second most memorable element of summit day was the fact that not only was there a lot of trailbreaking to contend with, but with it being a fairly calm day, with very light winds up to the summit, and the sun shining on you, I started getting pretty warm. So it was a hot, dry, summit day and I think we were all getting pretty dehydrated as time went on.

Being over 2,000 feet (610 meters) into the climb, one of the nice things to realize was that the earlier problems I’d had with a cough and the breathing system not working as I would like, had settled down and I was climbing.

Still, as time went on we were realizing in our group that our progress up through the snow was slower, much slower than we wanted. Instead of—like I think two years ago—breezing up to the Balcony in about 3 hours flat, we were finding that we were ascending at a rate of less than three hundred feet (ninety meters) an hour, which is not good. That means you are running the risk that you will have spent too long out before you get to the summit. And indeed, mid-morning we eventually arrived on the South Summit. I have memories of it being the end of previous climbs—two previous expeditions to Everest I reached the South Summit only to realize that that was as far as the climbing was going to go.

However this year we were in good time, the winds were good, and the weather was good. I think [one of the] marvelous sights on Everest is when you look from the crest of the South Summit, you look at something called the Traverse, which is this almost surreal collection of slabs and cornices. It almost looks like a M.C. Escher distorted perspective drawing.

As you progress out on the Traverse, the snow was dry and sugary. There was very little purchase there at all, so you have to rely on something called balance. [The Traverse] goes up and then down and there are all these sinewy ins and outs. You really do have to pay attention to your footing as you go across.

And indeed towards the end, there is a slab which, for want of a better name, I’ll call Jeff’s Slab. Last year, when he was on one of his summits, Jeff Rhoads found himself stepping out on the slab, which looked pretty good, and then next thing he knew, he was hanging upside down from the fixed line. There are some treacherous pieces of footing there, which you want to work your way around.

Hillary Step But in any event, soon enough you come to the Hillary Step and it’s hard not to stand there and think about the events of 1953 as Hillary and Tenzing confronted the Step and basically stemmed their way up a gap between rock and snow and ice. But nowadays, of course, there’s usually a fixed line there that you can clip into. So for about two milliseconds you decide: well, am I going to stem this thing, or am I going to jug up it with these ascenders. And of course the answer is—everybody just goes in and jugs up on the ascenders.

It’s surprising, as Wally Berg put it, you concentrate so much on the climbing that you do not realize just how exposed parts of it are, but there really is not much beneath you but the thousand feet (three-hundred meters) down to the Western Cwm via the southwest face. Probably the most exposed part is where you have to hang around the rock and turn the corner.

The view was certainly quite spectacular. Because of the light winds, there was not much of a plume at that time. However, the various projects that were lined up for the summit—it had taken us so long and so much energy to get there—really nothing much was going to happen today. This was going to be one of those summit days where you tag the top and just get out, and that’s indeed what we did.

So, somewhat reluctantly or sadly, we turned ’round—our next objective being having got up there safely, we should all get down safely.

As I remarked earlier, what was hard on the way up, the unconsolidated snow, proved to be if not quite a friend, certainly quite useful on the way down. You can move down a snow slope pretty quickly with a technique called plunge stepping. And so we exploited the fixed lines, and moved down fairly quickly from the South Summit to the Balcony.

Corfield and Tashi There was where the day began to change: what had been a sunny, calm day was now becoming an increasingly windy day. Indeed, heading down from the Balcony, there were some quite sharp gusts coming up into our faces. As we got lower, the winds picked up more and more. By the time late afternoon came ’round, [the wind] was really quite strong on that triangular face. The snow was beginning to pick up, and indeed we could see that before very long, the clouds would move in and it would snow.

The geometry coming down the south around these triangular faces is called not hard—as long as you head more or less south, you’re pretty much guaranteed to hit camp. And indeed, since the clouds had come in, I couldn’t see the Sherpas who were, I suppose about 150 yards (140 meters) further down slope. [Editor’s note: through some mostly inaudible audio, Charles says they descended to High Camp on the South Col where his oxygen ran out and his headlamp failed...] the winds came up, and I found myself at late evening, with an empty bottle of oxygen, a headlamp, and a thermos, which just might as well have been on the moon for all the good it did me because I am not very good at dealing with thermoses using Braille.

Trying to shout to the tent next door was of no avail—the winds were too strong for my voice to carry. So there I was in my sleeping bag, biding my time, waiting for first light to come so I could finally do something about this unfortunate situation. So that was my night out on the bare mountain where I have spent now one more night than I really wanted to on the South Col without oxygen.

If you’ve been without supplemental oxygen for a time and then you plug it in—just watching what happens internally—there you are in your sleeping bag, and you know you’re feeling your feet warm up, and gradually your body warms up and deals with all the little items that you need to get taken care of: sorting socks out, down suits, and what have you.

But often as time has progressed on the “o” [oxygen], you then starting feeling like, “ope, now I have the energy to go and do that, check that item off my checklist, do that one, do that one.” And then within a couple of hours, you’re pretty much functioning normally again, and dressed and suited up and ready to go meet the world head on. Which that morning meant walking out into the winds, which were pretty strong, and heading off down to Camp II.

So the long and the short of it was, in the end a much longer kind of day than I had anticipated. I think we were out 20 plus hours actually outside the tent, and then I think if you throw in a night without oxygen inside a tent—net over a day, a long day out, and I guess, if you like, a long night out on bare mountain up at the South Col.

Group Photo However, it was a very successful summit day, and I think, pulling it all together here, the expedition as a whole has been a very successful one this spring. We accomplished a lot in terms of the scientific agenda. We’ve had a good safety record on the mountain.

I hope that we will soon be packed up in good order here to head down-valley and be recuperating at lower altitudes, higher oxygen, partial pressures. And thank you very much for staying tuned with the expedition, and also stay tuned in the coming months because I’m sure there will be interesting data and analysis which will come out of the expedition which you will enjoy reading or debating or perhaps even disagreeing with, eh?!

It’s been a great time on the expedition, and I look forward to staying in touch with all of you out there. So this is Charles Corfield at Everest Base Camp, signing off on Saturday morning, May 22.

—Charles Corfield

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