It was wonderful to be in Camp 2 as the first wave summited and descended to our Camp. Totally exhausted, they walked like contented zombies across the rocks to the dining tent to be greeted with congratulations and attentiveness. Everyone had summited and all eventually returned to camp without injury. It was inspiring, and I felt remorse to have missed the chance to summit with them. Bravo to all of them!
And yet their stories of triumph were tempered by tragedy. Several other, less prepared teams attempted to summit that day and several clients needlessly lost their lives. Many others suffered frostbite and other injuries. Members of our group has seen several new bodies along the route to the summit, and a couple of guys even watched as a delirious climber above fell over a cliff to his death. It was harrowing to hear and visualize these experiences, happening so near yet so far beyond my control. It made me start to dread the climb ahead, to potentially face such horror and the dilemma of how to act if the same happened to me. I’ve rescued a few people in the mountains before, but those were easy decisions where I had the capacity to help. Without oxygen near the summit things would be very different. It was a somber night of thought as we ate dinner and went to bed in preparation for the next morning’s climb to Camp 3.
By 4am the next morning we were walking toward the Lohtse Face, soon to be bathed in the clear glow of dawn. As before, my aim was to arrive at Camp 3 as the most rested climber, not as the first. The weather was a little better than before, but more importantly I felt stronger; the extra aborted trip to Camp 3 and extra rest seemed to have helped my acclimatization even further. 5 hours later I was in my tent and feeling good.
Towards the evening we were jolted by the sound of a helicopter flying past, a very rare occurance at this altitude. I peered out of the tent and saw a small group of climbers descending the fixed rope and located about 30 meters above us, all frantically waving at the chopper. It made many passes with the rescue line dangling below, but they were just a fraction too high and eventually it had to descend. I heard later it was a Korean climber who ended up losing most of his hands and feet to frostbite. Another reminder of the place I was about to go.
I slept well and the next morning we began the climb to the South Col at 8,000m. I was climbing slowly but steadily, but was eventually passed by our whole group. I had to remind myself that everyone who passed me was using oxygen to stop myself getting frustrated. I was in a different race entirely. In what seemed like an age we passed the Yellow Band, and I remember feeling that it was easier this time than last. In any case I was breathing less, an encouraging sign.
We crossed the tricky traverse and then began to climb the Geneva spur. The weather had turned us at this point the last time, so this was now new territory for me and my altitude record. At the top of the spur was a steep wall of snow; a challenge but I eventually crested the top. It was a moment of great excitement for me. You can’t see beyond this point from below and it is the gateway to the South Col. A moment of personal exploration was coming.
The result could have been better. Sticking my head above the crest it was almost taken off by the wind. A gale was raging through the South Col as it often does, and from near calm we were now climbing in 60 mph winds. Oxygen starved, cold and tired, this was a new experience alright. I staggered onward along the blessedly flat(ish) section to reach the South Col.
I was greeted with carnage. Pieces of shredded tent flapped violently in the wind as a few sherpa shout instructions to each other. I was ushered into one of the existing tents, and it was a blessing to be suddenly sheltered from the maelstrom. I’d made it!
To be honest, if things had been nice I would have been disappointed; the South Col is feared for its utter inhospitability, and I was luckily enough to get a good taste of that without it getting dangerous. And apart from the wind I felt super. I shared a tent with one of the IMG guides, and at one point he took out his pulse oximeter, a small device for measuring how much oxygen is in your blood.
“Can I have a go?” I asked after he’d taken his, while using oxygen I might add.
“Um, I don’t think you want to do that.” was his response, as he was expecting my stats to be shockingly low given where I was. However, he eventually relented and I took my reading.
“Huh. 71% with a pulse of 117.” I exclaimed in surprise. For context, my saturation level was higher than my last reading in Base Camp a few weeks before! It was a super good reading for 8,000m.
I was ready for my big day.