It was Friday 5th May and we were sitting in our mess tent having arrived back from a bit of “civilisation” at Gorak Shep. Tim Mosedale came in and told us, “The summit bid is on, we’ll be leaving at 3am tonight, get your gear together”. It was 3pm and only minutes earlier we thought we had at least another day of rest.
Tim had been monitoring weather reports for days, in the hopes we could make the early window work. Our Sherpa team had been working incredibly hard to establish our high camps and ensure the required oxygen was in place. But there was one other variable we had to contend with: rope fixing.
In the Khumbu Icefall, the Icefall doctors are responsible for fixing and maintaining the route. A route which has changed immeasurably since our first trip through. The Icefall doctors are employees of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, an NGO which is also responsible for cleaning up the mountain.
It doesn’t really make a lot of sense but higher up the mountain, the fixing of ropes is down to the climbing operators and this won’t be the first year it comes under scrutiny. For every climber on the mountain, $400 is paid to a central fund for fixing ropes. This year Russell Brice, New Zealand mountaineer and owner of the HIMEX team, has been responsible for coordinating the spending of those funds and the fixing process. Seven of the bigger teams on the mountain have put forward one or more Sherpa for the fixing with rope purchased and choppered directly to Camp II before they move forward. These Sherpa however are still employees of their respective teams and therefore aren’t fully accountable to Russell. Teams are also not motivated to volunteer their best staff for the job. Nonetheless, by the end of April the rope had been fixed as far as the South Col (the final campsite we’ll be at before making for the summit). This was considered good progress and we were hoping to hear news of completed ropes to the summit.
As May was progressing we’d certainly had decent weather for completing the rope fixing, but there were always reasons for delay, such as rest days for the fixing team, icefall collapses preventing them moving up and one of the fixing team suffering a fall on the Lhotse face.
So here we were, ropes hadn’t yet been fixed all the way to the summit, due in part to some of these unforeseen issues but mostly due to the lack of properly motivated, centrally managed resources. Our logistics were in place, we were acclimatised and feeling strong. With decent weather expected there was also no reason to suspect a further delay in the rope fixing. We made the call to go for it.
Going for an early summit window has the big advantage of sharing the mountain with a smaller number of high quality climbers. Please refer to the last article, and any number of Everest disaster books and movies, to understand just how big an advantage that is!
We made good time through the icefall, never wanting to stop under any of the towering seracs. The ladders seem to be getting longer and higher all the time. The creaking and moaning from the ice never fails to speed up our movement. Higher up, a recent collapse with fresh debris required a scramble up the ice, before finding the ropes again.
Passing camp I and back on the Western Cwm with the sun out it was tough work again but you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I was only a half hour from Camp II when a helicopter flew overhead. About five minutes later it was back and a Sherpa, who was 20 metres ahead of me, took off his jacket and started twirling it around his head. Incredibly, the chopper circled quickly and landed right next to me, the guy jumped in and it flew off.
I made Camp II less than seven hours after leaving base camp and was happy knowing we’d have a rest day before moving up to Camp III. The plan from there was to spend the day melting ice and rehydrating, before moving to South Col, our final rest place before the summit push.
Tim was working hard during the afternoon to stay in touch with weather and rope fixing updates. It turned out the chopper that landed next to me had flown up to pick up a Sherpa who had fallen down the Lhotse face. It had then stopped again to pick up the guy’s father, who had heard of the accident on his radio and happened to be coming up the Cwm just ahead of me.
We then heard that the rope fixing team were descending to base camp and taking a day off. This was frustrating – we didn’t want to risk being higher up the mountain sucking on a limited supply of oxygen. We therefore decided we’d spend an extra night at Camp II to allow the ropes to be back on schedule. The weather forecasts predicted a sustained period of low winds on the summit with some potential for precipitation. We remained confident that the summit attempt was on as long as the rope fixers got their job done.
Up at Camp II we met up with Australian Blake Penson. As I mentioned in part five of my diary, Blake had announced the end of his trip and flown out a couple of weeks ago with two damaged ankles. Back in Barcelona, where he lives with his Spanish wife, he was stewing over his decision. His ankles initially ballooning out further, but then quickly repairing. After undergoing an MRI and consulting a specialist, he made a bold decision to return. By the time he got back, with special ankle supports and a special acclimatisation programme organised by Tim, he headed up the mountain. He spent two nights at Camp I and, feeling well at that level, had made the move up the Cwm to Camp II.
We also had to tell Ronny and Steve, who were back down at base camp, to delay their move up the mountain. They are both attempting to climb Lhotse, which traditionally gets fixed after Everest, and the plan had been for them to be a day behind us. We had difficulties reaching base camp by radio but eventually a text from a satellite phone to our base camp cook Bhim’s phone managed to get the message through.
The morning of our first full day at Camp II was spent building a large Frisbee dartboard and playing a few games (Jon 2, Blake 1, Rory 0). Even with such minor activity we were constantly out of breath – through digging out the dartboard or even when just walking around slowly, playing the game. The afternoon was spent reading and snoozing. I’ve just started on Anatoli Boukrev’s The Climb. A great read, but won’t finish it quickly at the rate I keep nodding off! The afternoon atmosphere in the tent varied as the warming sun gave way to heavy snowfall.
On the second day at Camp II we were a bit more focused on our summit push. The following day we’d be waking at 4am, having breakfast at 4.30am and leaving for Camp III at 5am. It was critical we packed as light as possible. We needed three days’ worth of food and snacks for the summit push, any electronics we wanted to bring (for me this meant Kindle, camera, satellite communicator, battery pack, cables), all the glove options we felt we needed for the summit attempt (high altitude mitts, heavy working gloves, light working gloves, powerstretch gloves), all the headgear required (balaclava, buffs, hat), goggles, glacier glasses, oxygen mask, extra thermal tops and bottoms for summit day, and a Jetboil stove. We’d also be wearing our huge downsuits in anger for the first time. It all adds up – every extra kilo makes a difference on these long days at altitude.
The next morning, we left as planned. Being at the bottom of Camp II, it took the best part of half an hour to make our way to the top of the camp and then move back out onto the glacier towards the bottom of the Lhotse face. Two and a half hours after leaving, Tim came through the radio. He had just received news that the rope-fixing team had abandoned the fixing at the balcony. They had encountered waist deep snow and were returning to base camp. This was crushing news as it came with an additional forecast for more snow over the next two days.
Tim gave us the option to continue up to Camp III and leave some of our load, especially the food for our summit climb, or just turn around and return to Camp II. Jon and Scott had already crossed the bergschrund and were on the Lhotse face while Blake and I were a little behind. Very disappointed with the outcome, Blake and I decided to just turn around and get back to Camp II.
That afternoon, back at Camp II and lying in my tent looking out onto the Western Cwm, I could see a flow of climbers descending. That night over dinner we discussed the events and could see no option other than to abort the climb and get back to base camp to plot our next attempt.
The weather forecast for the next couple of days included more snow high up on the mountain which would continue to thwart the rope fixers and this was followed by forecast higher winds (50km/hr+) where no teams would be taking the risk even if ropes were in place.
Returning to base camp, we were all feeling a little deflated. Only two days ago we excitedly planned our post summit celebrations back in Kathmandu: Fire and Ice pizza followed by beers in Sam’s bar in Thamel. Now we were in base camp, crawling back into our tents, no idea how long we would be here.
There was also quite a bit of anger back in base camp from those seasoned climbers who had been looking to take advantage of the opportunity. The ropes should have been fixed and in a season as busy as this one with a record 373 permits issued, missing a good weather window like this was seen as inexcusable. Five-time summiteer David Taite and celebrity mountaineer and 12-time summiteer Kenton Cool, and his private client have all publicly called it quits and gone home.
We’re not going anywhere but R&R is what we need. Blake, Scott and I grabbed a chopper yesterday to Namche Bazar. Jon and Ronny decided to make the two-day walk, with a view to getting the chopper back. The chopper costs $400 each way, certainly pricey for a short break in a fairly basic village, but for us this is essential. I’ve been feeling pretty run down following return to base camp and at 3450m this really feels like sea level, the air is full again, we can see trees and walk on cobblestones. We’ll spend the next few days hanging out in the bakeries and cafes here and keep an eye on the forecast. We’ll eat as much as we can and regain our strength. When the next window arrives, we’ll be ready! When we move you’ll know first on twitter @realrorymchugh where I’ll be posting through my satellite communicator.
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’re close to funding a second school in Makwanpur so if you’re enjoying the journey please check out virginmoneygiving.com/letsbuildschools and follow daily progress to the summit on twitter @realrorymchugh or blog rorymchugh.com. Your support will make a difference!
The photos in this article are by Instagram.com/scottincham, check him out for awesome mountain shots.