For this dispatch I am going to jump back to last season. I have had some questions about the experience and if we are going to have a discussion on risk, I really can’t think of a better way to start. What follows is an excerpt from a larger piece I wrote, for the most part, just after the earthquake and during the long journey home in various tea houses, hotel rooms and airports while the experience was still fresh but not, I think, fully digested or understood. Information at that time was scattered and came in chaotic bursts of both rumor and fact and it wasn’t until we had all been home some weeks that I really felt that I had a good picture and sense of scale for what the people of Nepal and our climbing team had been through. And so, this is not risk management particularly, it is process, my process. This will not be the usual format of the dispatches, but it does sit at the foundation of risk and life and the way we choose to live each day the way we do.
In late March 2015, twenty of us arrived in Katmandu. Most had strong climbing resumes, three had already summited the mountain and six had climbed above 8000 meters. One Japanese gentleman had climbed to over 600 summits, a literal lifetime of being in the mountains. Being part of the guide staff, it was more than I could have hoped for. My confidence only improved during the trek into basecamp and over the following week of training in the lower icefall. It was a fun and diverse group, most all were willing and eager learners, excited to refine their skills and pick up new techniques that would speed their safe passage up and down the mountain. By the time we started our first rotation, I felt that the team would move well through the Khumbu icefall as well as higher up on the mountain.
Only a few minutes above basecamp, the climbing route swings on a long right and then sharply up into the icefall; a labyrinth maze of leaning ice towers, ropes and ladder bridges that cross crevasses so deep they fade to black beneath your feet. After the 2014 climbing accident in that same icefall, and the deaths of 16 professional climbing Sherpa, I don’t believe that anyone coming to the south side of Everest that year arrived with the illusion that the mountain had been tamed and the route to the summit paved. I think there was a sense of lessons learned. The general consensus amongst the guide services was that the pendulum had swung back toward greater caution and a proper level of respect for the mountain; a belief that the edge between calculated risk and overconfidence had been recalibrated for the better and that most climbers were there with open eyes. I know that we prepared and trained like it.
Mt. Everest is simply too high to climb in a single push. Even with the use of supplemental oxygen, the body needs time both to acclimatize and then, returning to lower altitude, to rest and recover. Climbers usually will do several rotations on the mountain, each time climbing up to and then sleeping at higher and higher altitudes. This stress then rest cycle takes up the first month to six weeks of an Everest climb and if done properly, will prepare the body for a reasonably safe but long final summit push. The trouble with this, particularly on the south side of Mt. Everest, is that the lower part of the mountain is by far the most objectively hazardous section of the route and on every rotation up and down, the climber is exposed to it. This section of the route is where we placed our attention and energy. It was historically where many accidents had occurred and seemed to continue to be the main hazard on which to focus. It was a relief to the guides and team when we all crossed that last ladder and pulled into the relative safety of camp 1 on our first rotation.
After a full rest day at camp 1, we began moving up to camp 2. Our team was widely spread out and I was in the back. Although I was there to guide, it was my first trip to Mt. Everest which meant that I was more useful in back offering encouragement and climbing tips, making sure our group was moving well and safe. I didn’t mind. I have always enjoyed teaching and the slower pace made for a good chance to look around. The view is stunning, absolutely unique in the world. Between camp 1 and 2 is the Western Cwm, a deep canyon with Mt. Lhotse at its head, the west shoulder of Everest stands over the ascending climbers left and Mt. Nuptse flanks the right of the valley; three of the earths highest mountains. Beautiful but not reassuring, looking up this valley it does not take an avalanche expert’s calculations to understand the risk of slides falling from thousands of feet above and crossing the full span between the peaks.
The night before, Billy had joked that working at high altitude was like training to go to work every day with a massive hangover and I was laughing to myself about that as we slowly moved up the valley. It had just started snowing lightly, but enough so that white horizon merged almost completely into white glacier and somehow at 2100ft it was still hot enough to sweat with only a single layer on underneath my shell jacket. It felt like moving inside a wet warm cotton ball with a piercing headache and a blood oxygen saturation level that, at sea level, would immediately land you in an emergency room. The choice is either laugh or cry. I try to stay with laughing. The drop came with no warning. The glacier, the whole glacier, simply fell with a single cannon shot crack. I knew it was icefall, but it made no sense in the nearly flat terrain. It dropped again. The ice beneath falling away and then the valley started a slow nauseating wave, the ground was too high, then gone and too high again. The thought came at the exact moment Billy’s warning shout came over the radio – earthquake.
The valley begins to fill with sound as rock and ice begin to pour off the mountains, a distant tidal roar that compounds second on second. We run, of course, about five steps toward the center of the Cwm in knee-deep snow, the laughable futility calls immediately for a better plan. There is none. I throw my pack down toward the nearer west shoulder, kneel behind it, brace and wait. There is plenty of time to think. I am almost 100 percent certain that I, and everyone else on the mountain, am about to die. I realize that I am not afraid. I feel deeply sad for my family and friends that I am going to put them through this. The roar becomes deafening. Surprisingly the hit comes from straight up the valley, a glancing sideways blow from an avalanche crossing the glacier below us. The powder-blast knocks us flat in snow, packing pulverized ice grains into mouths and noses, every fold in our packs and clothes. Blown sideways onto the glacier, we curl up and wait for the larger debris to hit. Slowly, miraculously, the wind dies. The churning mass that was going to blow our bodies across the glacier never comes. Up and down the Western Cwm the roar subsides. The valley descends into an indescribable silence. I push myself to my knees, spit, choke, breath and get up, time to move. There are voices on the radio, calm, tight, professional. I can hear Garrett checking in, they are good. Then there is Conan’s voice as well. I can see Billy moving down glacier toward us. We gather ourselves and straggle into camp 2.
The aftershocks continue for the next two days. Eventually everybody high on the mountain is flown by helicopter down to basecamp. By that time the dead and wounded have been evacuated. Basecamp is mostly abandoned. From there we gather up what little remains of our personal belongings and begin to work our way down the lower Khumbu Valley to the airstrip at Lukla. We are fed and sheltered the whole way down.
Deciding to go back to the mountain, and now being back at Everest Basecamp, puts me straight up against questions that I have been trying to answer my entire adult life. What is the balance point between acceptable risk and carelessness? Walking down that valley many times, I would think that I should stay at home for the rest of my life, never let my loved ones out of my sight. But I have lived enough and asked enough questions to know what feeds my soul and makes me feel alive. My experiences in places like this have forged the best part of me, my perspective on life and beliefs, my confidence and patience. The inescapable irony of the experience is that we were supposed to be the ones in danger. Our friends in basecamp we left safe and secure while we climbed into what we imagined to be some of the most dangerous terrain on the planet. On the upper mountain there were no fatalities, at basecamp 18 people lost their lives. In Nepal the dead and missing numbered in the many thousands. People in their homes, commuting to work, tourists visiting the sights of an exotic foreign city, did any of them imagine that they were in such danger or that they were in their final hours?
In the end it all comes down to choice, what meaning we will give these experiences, what we decide is important and what is trivial, what we are going to do with the time that we have. The balance point is as individual as each being on earth and there is no wrong answer that I can see. I know this, that from the moment we are born we are in the game, you can’t hold still so you might as well run. The Pulitzer Prize winning author, Annie Dillard, wrote this about her work, but simply replace the word writing for anything that you may want to do, be or accomplish and it may be the best advice ever given. She says: “One thing I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place – give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from beneath, like well water. Similarly the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: “Draw Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”
It is 2016 and we are back on Mt. Everest. Very early tomorrow morning we will start our second rotation, climb through the icefall and try to touch camp 3 before returning back down the mountain. It should take four or five days if the weather holds. I wish I knew the future, but I don’t. I do know what makes me feel alive. So I will spend it, play it, and hope it rises from beneath like well water.
All the very best
Written at Everest Base Camp, Nepal 2016
Photos and updates also available at: Madisonmountaineering.com – Dispatches Everest 2016
Facebook: Fred P Alldredge