The South Col Five—Kris, Hilaree, Emily, Sam, and I—returned this weekend from our third rotation up high on the mountain. We spent two nights at Camp 2 (21,200 feet, 6,462 meters), then a night at Camp 3 (23,000 feet, 7,010 meters), then back down to Camp 2 for another night. Our time up at Camp 3 was instructive.
The last time we went up to Camp 3, the fixed lines (one for going up and the other for rappelling down) were next to each other on the icy, stone-strewn face, and rockfall was a real hazard. Several people were hit by falling rocks; one Sherpa was seriously injured. Subsequently, a new route up the Lhotse Face, 300 yards to the right, was pioneered; plus it snowed for several days, cementing in the stones sitting on the surface. Now the up-line safely zigzags through lumpy seracs far to the right of the down-line, so the possibility of being nailed by a rock that someone has accidentally kicked off has been dramatically reduced.
We made it from Camp 2 to Camp 3 in less than four hours, despite Sam ripping a gaping hole in his down suit with his crampons (cursing, goose down flying everywhere). He patched the tear with athletic tape from Hil’s med kit. Arriving at our ledge of a campsite just below some craggy, hopefully benign seracs, we spent two hours shoveling out a platform big enough for two tents, then all crawled inside to get horizontal and just breathe.
At this altitude, 23,000 feet, the temperature can swing 100 degrees in one day. If the wind holds its breath, and there are no clouds to run interference, temps can top 100°F inside the tent in the early afternoon. But then at night, the temperature plummets below zero, and if the wind begins to howl, it can be -40°F with wind chill. All of which is exactly what happened in our 24 hours at Camp 3. However, in the evening, we did experience two hours of the most sublime, breathless, gorgeous weather anyone can ever hope for on a big mountain. Kris was cheerily bouncing around snapping pictures while the rest of us stood on our balcony and were awed by the fearful beauty and fabulous grandeur of the view down into the Western Cwm.
Sleeping at 23,000 feet turned out to be more difficult for some than for others (I personally felt like I was suffocating the entire night). The next morning the wind was cranking at over 50 miles an hour, but Kris, team leader and whip-cracker, got us out and heading up toward the Yellow Band by 6 a.m. With the wind periodically knocking us over, we didn’t make it far, but we got a fine taste of Everest in a bad mood.
As we were going up the lines, Sherpas were coming down off the South Col, one and all in freezing misery. In the last couple years, lines from the South Col to the summit have been fixed early in the season, around May 5. This year, due to high winds, cold temps and bad rockfall, the lines to the summit have yet to be put in. If the current weather report holds, the Sherpas plan to run ropes to the summit on May 17 and 18. Since the Icefall begins collapsing at the end of May, that only gives all the teams now stewing in Base Camp 12 days to summit. Certainly half of those days will be too windy for an attempt.
After climbing above Camp 3 for several hours, we descended back to Camp 2 for a night, then shot back down to Base Camp the following morning. Now acclimatized, we need a few days of R&R, then a weather window—several days of low winds, no precip, and high temps—to make our summit bid. This is the madness of high-altitude mountaineering: You spend weeks, even months, working your way up the mountain, getting your team in position for the summit—and then it all comes down to a few lucky days of mild weather. We’re keeping our fingers crossed!