The Challenge of the Lhotse Face
Dispatch—Day 40: May 5, 2009
Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'
Another early start had us walking toward the Lhotse Face at 7 a.m. That may not sound terribly early, but the Western Cwm is still deep in cold shadows at such an hour. Seth, Kent, Erica and I all wore down suits... Ang Kaji was dressed casually, in comparison, but that had more to do with making fashion statements to the many other Sherpas out for a day of hard work than with truly acknowledging the cold temps.
This was to be a major test for my little team. I know that I have gone on and on about the difficulties and dangers of the Khumbu Icefall, since that has been the test we’ve concerned ourselves with for weeks, but it is difficult to exaggerate the seriousness and significance of the Lhotse Face as a next major hurdle for Everest climbers.
We intended to go high... so high that success would shatter altitude records for Erica, Seth and Kent. We intended to go long... I conservatively predicted a 9-hour day to tag Camp 3 and return. And we meant to push back a whole mess of fears that might pop up from the great exposure and unnatural dependence on rope and equipment.
I thought I saw some of that fear dragging on Erica as we made the 1.5-hour uphill trudge to the base of the Face. Since she’d gotten a trifle quiet and seemed to be laboring awfully hard to keep my pace, I wondered what was going on. I guessed that this all fit into a pattern of slow starts we’ve made on otherwise great and productive days, but as I looked up the North Face of the fourth highest mountain in the world, I knew she had to be a bit intimidated. I was intimidated. In brand-new sunlight, one could trace the route for the day by watching tiny dots struggling upward. None of them was moving very fast, and all of them looked extremely vulnerable and precariously placed on the steep sheet of ice.
I sent Ang Kaji, Seth and Kent ahead, since it wouldn’t be particularly useful to have five climbers entering the awkward traffic flow together. This took a little of the pressure off Erica, but as we neared the base of the fixed ropes, she still seemed not quite up for the day. I had no alternative or lesser test to offer her and she knew that, but I wondered briefly if she might just quit the whole thing before we crossed the bergschrund and committed to the wall. I dealt with my own shaky nerves by wondering about hers. My life would get a lot easier and safer if she dropped her Everest ambitions, but that doesn’t mean that I wanted her to.
Within a few more minutes, we were clipping in to the first ropes and climbing a near-vertical ice wall to get on the face proper, and there wasn’t room in my brain for hypothetical questions. This was a place for some instruction and encouragement, but also for adrenaline kicking in and making a difference. Mine was flowing... I was excited to be using chest and shoulder muscles to haul myself up the ropes; I was amped to kick crampon points into hard blue ice and see them hold for another upward step. Obviously, Erica was coming alive as well. We made steady progress up some of the steep, unrelenting pitches at the base of the wall. Suddenly, I heard Seth calling out a warning on my radio. I couldn’t see him up above, but he let me know that a helmet had just passed him at a high rate of speed, heading my way. I shouted to the climbers around us and then, sure enough, we all watched as a helmet came clattering and bouncing about ten feet to one side of the ropes. It didn’t seem particularly lethal, but I considered it a good warning of the types of threats we needed to be on guard for on this day.
Erica was fully awake when we came over a steep roll and could finally see the tents of “Low Camp 3.” While still 45 minutes of hard climbing away, and then a full hour from our tents at “High Camp 3,” the vision acted to spur her on. It helped when I told her that she’d passed the altitude of Aconcagua and that she was now setting personal records with every step. Improbably and unexpectedly, we ended up in fun social setting on the first carved-out tent ledges of Low Camp 3. The seventeen-year-old So Cal Johnny, guided by Scott Woolums, was just ahead of us and the seventeen-year-old Snowbird Utah Johnny, guided by Damian Benegas, was just behind us. Both teams were doing the exact same thing for the day—tagging CIII—but when we all gathered on the ledge, they had already reached their goal, while Erica and I were taking a break on the way to ours.
The ledge had been great, a chance to take off the packs without worrying about them tumbling down should we let go. And the company had been great, but Erica and I needed to climb another hard hour of unknown ice walls and bulges. Via the radio, I knew that Seth, Ang Kaji and Kent were already up there and about to descend. We set out and eventually met Seth and Kent carefully picking their steps downward. We could have turned then, but I wanted to get the most out of this practice day, and to her credit, Erica was eager to see High Camp 3.
We finally pulled in to find Ang Kaji, Tendi and one of our Camp II cooks working away at Camp 3 to stabilize and secure the tents there. As we took our packs off, we were handed a couple of cups of hot grape Tang, fresh off a camp stove. This was most welcome, as our throats were good and parched by the 23,900-foot [7,280-meter] elevation. The Sherpas finished up their work and got moving downward as Erica and I finished our break. We geared up for the descent and I could tell that something was dragging at Erica again. I asked as we began carefully downclimbing and she told me that she wasn’t clear on how we were going to get down safely... she’d never been more terrified of anything in her life.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
As I looked out at the ridiculously vast expanse of air beneath us and the tiny tents of ABC far, far below, I came close to laughing. Of course, I assured her that we were going to get down safely... that I was going to watch every move she made and that we were going to be fine... but I was chuckling to think of what crazy things a 17-year-old Arizona girl could possibly have done in her life that would rival the stupidity of climbing halfway up Lhotse. Terror was justified and appropriate. But we found our way down anyway—slowly and carefully, since this was all new. The hours were getting long, but I was considering that to be a good thing too. We needed such challenges for the tests ahead—like the Yellow Band, the Geneva Spur, the Balcony, the South Summit and the Hillary Step—none of those would be tackled on short and easy days, so make this one long and arduous in preparation.
We were back to ABC by 5 p.m. and comparing notes with Kent and Seth. Each of us was tired and gulping down hot cups of tea to soothe our dry throats. But we were plenty satisfied with having passed our test, and excited at having seen a new world a long way up a mountainside. Seth mentioned how strange it had been to be so far above everything and to still look over at the untouched bulk of Everest soaring to impossible heights next door.
Enough for one foray though. We left ABC this morning for a well-deserved BC rest and a reunion with the rest of our team. The Icefall was blissfully uneventful and uncrowded this morning as we made our way down its rickety ladders and shifting blocks. I was stunned to see the avalanche debris from Everest’s West Shoulder covering the climbing route down just about where one might have assumed they’d escaped the clutches of the Icefall itself. Our team and several others had certainly gotten lucky three days ago.
Word comes that a few climbers may have touched Everest’s summit today. The intention had been for a number of Sherpas from various teams to pool their labor and fix the route, and the last word we had was that they were quite close to achieving that. That is a great thing and brings us all a little closer to success, but I’m still focused on my team’s victory yesterday. Everest can and will wait.