I spent a day resting at Camp 2 before heading further up the mountain for my summit bid. I was on the same schedule as the ‘Classic 1’ team, so at 4am the next morning our group started up the Western Cwm to the Lohtse face. I was climbing at a slower pace to conserve energy for the final push, giving me more time than usual to admire the scenery and appreciate both where I was and what I was actually doing. It was beautiful sunrise and I felt so lucky to have the opportunity to be there.
Sadly though the fun was short lived. A fierce wind was blowing from the summit right down the Lohtse face, so at the bergschrund the conditions changed from a mellow walk to a gritty battle against the spindrift and ice pellets. It raised the stakes and the determination needed, but wasn’t insurmountable. Seeing a glove tumble past in the wind gave me pause though; someone further up was having a bad day!
We eventually reached upper Camp 3 at 7,250m/23,800ft and settled in – it was 3 to a tent up there, which is not a favorite of mine. My last 3-in-a-tent experience at Camp 3 had been awful (and a prelude to my Camp 4 failure), so I was praying this was better, and that history would not repeat itself.
Fortunately this time things were better and I did get some sleep. However, to keep the trend of misfortune going there was a surprise waiting in the morning. Overnight the updated weather forecast had come in. While the forecast for the early morning on summit day (the 22nd May) was still good, the winds were now expected to rise to 60mph+ much earlier than before. On Everest that is certain frostbite territory, meaning my summit window had now shortened considerably.
I had a decision to make. I could leave earlier on summit night to give me more climbing time, but without Os that plan significantly raised my risk of getting frostbite before the (relative) warmth of the sun arrived. Or I could leave at the same time and accept the short window, but that raised the likelihood of being turned around through lack of time before reaching the summit. Or I could go back to Camp 2 and hope the next window, expected in a few days, was better. If that window didn’t materialize – and it was right on the forecast limit so we were guessing – I had no summit bid at all.
“Understand that if you come down you have one shot left, that’s it. We won’t have time for another.” was the advice on the radio from Greg, the leader of the expedition in base camp.
All my eggs in one basket. But the new window might be a good basket, rather than the current one which I knew was bad. Better a small chance of success with extra suffering, rather than climb knowing I’d be turned around before the summit.
I decided to go back down and wait.
My sherpa guide Thunang soon appeared at Camp 3 – several of the sherpa had returned to Camp 2 as there wasn’t enough tent space in Camp 3. When I told him the new plan he had the look of a man who had just climbed all the way to Camp 3 only to be told we were going back down! But down we went, with fingers and toes crossed that I’d made the right call. Only time would tell.
For several days I sat at Camp 2 with those fingers crossed. Each day at 5pm I got on the radio with Greg to discuss our updated plan, based on the latest weather analysis he received every afternoon. The remaining IMG climbers soon arrived from Base Camp, in preparation for their own bids, and we decided that my best shot was to join them on their planned summit day, the 25th. The forecast now showed it to be a carbon copy of the 22nd, the day I had forfeited, but with a longer window. If the forecast held we could make this work!