I awoke at 01:30 am on the morning of the 22nd and reached for my headlamp. The powerful mini beam reflected off the ice encrusted tent interior. Only one part of my body had been exposed to the elements during the freezing night - my mouth. The condensation from my breath had formed clumps of ice a quarter of an inch thick at the head of the sleeping bag.
In preparation for this early departure to Camp 2, traversing the Icefall and passing Camp 1, I had gone to bed fully clothed. This precautionary measure prevents a blind panic rush to dress when the alarm goes off and also prevents the cold invading too dramatically when you violently wrench yourself from the dreamy, down sleeping bag.
All I had to do was slide my hips into the Chinese puzzle of a harness and slip into my boots. High altitude boots are intricate affairs, being composed of an outer hard shell and inner soft boot. The soft boots are cunningly wired for heat but irrespective of this, I still chose to keep them inside the sleeping bag. It always worries me starting a jaunt with super cold extremities. Start warm, keep warm - hopefully!
Fully clothed and with my backpack now fully loaded, I unzipped the front of the tent only to be rewarded with a blizzard of ice crystals falling from the tent roof. I heaved my pack out into the darkness, followed if out and struggled to my feet, cautious not to slip on the new snow. Finally upright I gazed into the distance marveling at the flashes of distant lightening. I turned, heaved the pack onto my shoulder and headed towards the lights of the Dome tent.
The team gathered in piecemeal fashion, each individual choosing their own "breakfast" from a selection of cereal, toast or pancake kindly prepared by the kitchen staff at this ungodly hour. I bolted a couple of Weetabix buried in an inch of sugar, gulped a cup of steaming coffee and exited the Dome to check my pack.
My pack carried a Down Suit, a hugely warm one piece garment that to be worn from Camp 2 to summit, a pee bottle (no way do I leave my tent at night), a Thermarest inflatable sleeping mat, a water bottle, my crampons, my helmet (still showing the 2013 avalanche scars), my down jacket cut-off, my emergency high altitude down gloves, my ice axe, pinned to the pack exterior, a tiny selection of toiletries, painkillers, strapping and plasters, scissors, avalanche transceiver, radio, Gorilla battery pack, Kindle, iPhone (music), sun cream, lip cream, chewing gum, toilet paper and finally (I think) my trusty poo-bag. (I will expand on poo-bags later and I hope at least one person may be interested in this extra detail).
At 02:30 we set off, leaving our Himex Base camp, passing an alter holding a burning offering to the Gods and receiving a blessing from Phurba Tashi, who is both Sirdar (head Sherpa) and also resident Holy Man. I walked though the clouds of Juniper smoke, inhaling the unique smell, the odour triggering a DNA style response from my body that makes me believe that at least one very small part of me is genuine Nepali.
I happily followed both Bruce and Ritchie, two of our three official Himex guides along the vague rocky and snowy path from the Himex BC through downtown Everest Base Camp and to the "entrance" of the Khumbu Icefall. By way of explanation, Russell Brice has positioned the Himex Camp at the furthest point possible from downtown EBC, not only for hygiene reasons (separation from the germs of other teams) but also to avoid the track of the 2016 avalanche that killed so many. BC, when viewed from above on my original approach, now has a dark scar running through its midst, a visible and permanent reminder of that horrific day. No one on that fateful day saw the threat coming from behind - the vast ice seracs and overhang on Pumori were little more than stunning photo opportunities before the force of the earthquake ripped them free to plunge a thousand vertical meters before smashing into the ground, fragmenting and finally cascading like an ice and rock steam train through the heart of Base Camp.
Life ended or continued depending on where one stood, sat or slept. Russ himself survived by pure chance - a lightning trip to Kathmandu to sort out recent comms problems had left his personal/comms/office tent unoccupied. The avalanche carried it away - not a trace of this huge tent was found. The Himex team lost not a soul, but others teams, notably Adventure Consultants, lost many.
Leaving BC behind we meandered into the lower Icefall, a section of ice blades and mini hills known as the Penitents. The feet of previous Sherpas and climbers had hewn a visible path which we dutifully followed until the gradient began to increase and we paused to fix our Crampons.
There was no wind and despite being surrounded by a sea of ice I was predictably hot. I stripped to just my favorite old hoody, strapped on my helmet and headlamp, took a gulp of water and set off, once again following in the easy footfalls of Bruce, our lead.
Fifteen minutes later and having paused once or twice to let the remainder of the team catch up, we finally reached the bottom of the "fixed ropes", ropes strung by the "Icefall Doctors", a group of sherpas dedicated to forging an ever changing route through this vast and threatening ice waterfall.
The pace, albeit comfortable, was a little slow for me and rather than get cold, I struck out ahead of the team. I felt good and soon settled into a comfortable rhythm that neither burnt my lungs or crucially made me sweat - sweat eventually freezes, so it's best avoided!
To my surprise I kept pace and even overtook many Sherpas, despite carrying, what I considered, a heavy-ish pack. However, I was soon put to shame by three Himex Sherpas who, despite carrying vast backpacks soon caught and overhauled me, politely smiling and saying "Hi David Di - you are very strong" as they virtually galloped past. I just stood for a brief moment, smiling at their kind, almost paternal words as the hurtled into the icy distance.
The hours passed beneath my feet, as I kept taking that extra step, passing through, under and over this vast, creaking, cracking and crumbling ice waterfall. I could look up at precarious ice towers and down at ugly, gaping ice chasms, each as threatening as the other, each seeming to stare, grin and invite my end.
As the sky began to lighten I reached a spot incongruously named the popcorn field, an area so named because of regular avalanche. Huge sections of ice have previously fallen and been dashed into much smaller pieces hence giving the vague appearance of popcorn. This was the precise location of the 2013 avalanche that almost claimed me and the 2014 avalanche that sadly claimed 14 Sherpas. I had been lucky - they had not.
I am still sickened by the sheer terror I felt the moment I first realised I was not going to escape the torrent of snow and ice descending from where it had broken free some 200m above. One doesn't understand fear until you have been truly scared - and I was. I remember thinking, in the moments as the ice and snow swept over me, that this was beyond doubt "a bloody stupid was to die" - but here I am again. The Nspcc has a lot to answer for!
The icefall is considered relatively straightforward this year and I agree. There are far fewer crevasse straddling ladders to negotiate - something for which I give thanks. I make no secret of my deep loathing of these horizontal ladder bridges, roped together in what often seems a haphazard and rudimentary manner.
My ascent forced the negotiation of perhaps six "double" horizontal ladders, roped together to bridge the crevasse gap. There were many more vertical and single ladders but it’s the long horizontal versions that get my attention.
One clips onto one of the two banister/guide ropes that run parallel to the ladder before stepping onto the first rung. One tries to not look beyond your feet into the bottomless crevasse beneath, instead trying to force, from somewhere deep within, that crucial next step. Twice the crampon teeth of my left foot jammed into the gap between rungs, almost choking me with panic before I wrenched my foot free. Talking out loud to myself I repeated "take another step" before the distance to the safety of the other side was close enough to rush or jump. Coupling this panic holding of breath with such low oxygen density is a quick way to unconsciousness, but a few stabilizing deep breaths later I was on my way.
I finally fell upon the somewhat inhospitable Camp 1, a random collection of team tents perched precariously on the early part of the gargantuan glacier where it appears to fall off a cliff. The glacier, in glacial slow motion, splits as gravity takes hold revealing enormous crevasses, most too huge to span with ladders. A few years ago I crossed one such crevasse relying on five ladders roped together. That’s my record to date and something I don't want to repeat.
After a brief radio call to Russ in BC advising him of my location and intention not to stop at C1, I faced the second half of the days challenge - the seemingly endless trudge through the Western Cym to the barren and inhospitable Camp 2 sitting close to the foot of the Lhotse Face.
The trudge through the Cwm is unpleasant. For some peculiar reason the extremely constant, but unremitting gradient is a killer. My intention had been to be at C2 well in advance of the suns appearance, owing to the fact that the ambient temperature swings from a notable negative degree, to a Sahara like positive degree in perhaps thirty minutes as the sun climbs.
As the sun hit me I stopped, stripped off my remaining layers and now, wearing only underwear (on top) carried on trudging. I rubbed in more factor 50 to all exposed skin as I walked, lamenting that my lip protection was only factor 15. I would pay a price for this oversight.
Cresting yet another icy ridge I finally caught sight of the distant collection of coloured tents that constitutes C2 - but they simply refused to get closer! The hours passed and the temperature rose remorselessly until finally I gratefully stepped off the glacier and onto the moraine, which is home to all Everest teams.
However, the bottom of the moraine, or the bottom of C2 is some 100 vertical meters lower than the top of C2, where (you've guessed it) Himex, and the other top teams choose to place their camps. To say this last 30-40 minute struggle up the moraine, searching out the longed for evidence of the Himex camp is painful, is the greatest of understatements.
Himex are on the mountain early this year, this fact brought home acutely as I passed roped off areas chosen by other teams who had yet to arrive.
I finally walked into the Himex camp some 8 hours after departing BC - its a workout, believe me. This time will, I hope resemble 5 hours on the next and final summit push.
I found my tent, the inside temperature of which must have exceeded 100 degrees, stripped and immediately hung up all damp clothing to dry out - this took just minutes. As I waited, I sat on my tent doorstep and surveyed the breathtaking scene of the vast Lhotse face to my left, which harbours a distant C3 at 7500m, and the numerous tents of the many teams vying for summit success this year.
I donned my newly dried but increasingly stinky clothes and relaxed in the mess tent, drinking as much as I could, one cup after another until I was once again certain that I was "peeing clear" - somewhat crucial at altitude – if you pee “coffee” you’re not going to last long. As I sat in the comfort of the tent I felt for the rest of the team, who somewhat slower than me, would feel the sun's wrath. I had seen this before and warned others of this danger the previous evening, urging some to adjust their departure time accordingly. That was now the past and they were caught in the open in full glare - I winced.
The last of the team staggered into camp at 4-5pm, some 13-14 hours after having departed BC, totally drained.
The 23rd was, as you might imagine, a total rest day. Motionless and largely inert is the order of the day, for everyone. However, and somewhat ironically, the sun struggled to break through high cloud and it snowed regularly - almost taunting the guys who were almost fried the previous day. We sat, talked, sat, talked, ate, drank and then crawled into the welcoming sanctuary of our sleeping bags - another day of purgatory consigned to history in my quest for a 6th summit.
The rope fixing on the mountain has proceeded at an unprecedented pace which somewhat unusually, left the stocking of the camps (food, gas, oxygen) behind. I sit at a somewhat rudimentary C2 and will do so for a total of three nights, before climbing to C3 early tomorrow morning to spend one further night before descending to BC for a rest - I would prefer to stay at C2 rather than renegotiate the Icefall yet again in anticipation of a summit weather window but as I mentioned the requisite equipment is not yet in place so the wait could be long and fruitless.
Anyway, that’s all for now. C3 awaits tomorrow – it’s a painful climb but you just have to detach brain and take another step.
The Icefall - mmm
Western Cym - cold to hot in seconds
Don't fall down this..
C2/Advance BC - 6400m