Everest and Lhotse Expedition: Fear and Love

International Mountain Guides (IMG) Everest Base Camp - 17,329 ft (5,283 m)

Ueli Steck died yesterday.  He fell below the summit of Nuptse (25,791 ft; 7,863 m) during a training climb for his planned transit of the ridge connecting Sagarmāthā, Lhotse, and Nuptse via the once-climbed Hornbein Couloir.  He was the best climber in the world, an idol for mountaineers worldwide, myself included.  His courageous ascents of peaks in the Alps and Himalayas were at the pinnacle of the alpine arts, expanding the possibilities of the sport of mountaineering.  He knew how to dream, and we are diminished without him.  Please keep his wife and two children in your thoughts.

Ueli Steck climbing above the bergschrund on Sagarmāthā's South Face - 23 April 2017

My trip through the Lower Popcorn Field of the Khumbu Ice Fall on my first rotation.  You can hear me praying in Tibetan under my breath.

The first time I saw the Khumbu Ice Fall, I looked right past it in my search for the route to the Western Cwm - “cwm” is a Welsh synonym for cirque, a rounded, glaciated valley.  The jumble of ice passes underneath hanging glaciers and crumbling rock precipices on Nuptse and the West Shoulder of Sagarmāthā.  The terrain seems impenetrable.  It is exactly what a mountaineer wisely avoids for fear of being crushed by an ice or rock fall, suffocated in an avalanche, or swallowed by a crevasse.  I realized that this maze of seracs and crevasses was our gateway to the top of the world only after orienting myself by Pumo Ri and Lingtren, the two mountains that sourced the avalanche that killed seventeen climbers in the 2015 earthquake.  As I absorbed this discovery, my mind was silenced and I steeled my resolve.  Three round trips through the Ice Fall is all I would need to complete the expedition.

Sagarmāthā kills:  Since the dawn of commercial expeditions in the early ‘90s, on average seven climbers have perished per year, setting the fatality rate at 1.2% (source:  The Himalayan Database).  Aside from the summit ridge above the South Col, the Ice Fall (17,500 ft to 19,500 ft; 5,340 m to 5,950 m) is the deadliest section of the mountain, and it is certainly the most worrisome because objective hazard - the uncontrollable risk presented by the terrain - is the source of most incidents.  Most mountaineering routes, no matter how dangerous, appeal to me because they are problems to solve.  Pre-expedition research, route finding during the climb, and the placement of protection for the rope team erode the risk until it reaches a threshold of palatability.  The Ice Fall is immune to such careful preparation and execution.  The area is simply a minefield, with each transit being a multi-hour game of Russian roulette.  Here your only defense is speed; since you can’t mitigate the risk by other means, you simply reduce your exposure to danger by moving more efficiently.  If you get unlucky, the ante is a cubic-meter block of ice, which weighs just over a ton (~1000 kg).  While this is certainly enough to kill or maim, the route often takes you under curtains of ice 50’ to 100’ (15 m to 30 m) tall that are delicately perched in a mass of other debris from the Khumbu Glacier.  Should those ice pillars fall, the results would be catastrophic.  I spend my time in the Ice Fall moving at 75% of my maximum speed, increasing my pace to a full sprint during sketchy traverses under unstable serac walls.  All the while I alternate between chanting Tibetan prayers - “Oh Mani Pad Me Hung Hri” - to bemoaning my current circumstance - “This is bullshit.”

Even facing such peril, my mind’s principal focus is not on the hazards that threaten me but on how to mitigate risk in order to stay alive.  However, since we are all climbing for essentially selfish reasons, I don’t delude myself to believe that this or any ascent is an indicator of valor.  Regardless, in his definition of courage Mark Twain captures the spirit of a mountaineer’s relationship with fear:  “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” In the mountains, the absence of fear can be deadly.  It suggests a lack of respect for the alpine terrain and its many dangers.  It suggests a profound naivety.  This is perhaps characterized by a puppy that followed us to the summit of Lobuche East (20,161 ft; 6,147 m) a few weeks ago.  On our ascent, she clambered up smooth granite slabs and hopped between sun scallops in the upper snow slopes, but upon reaching the summit she promptly passed out either due to hypoxia or exhaustion.  Here she would have died if a Canadian climber hadn’t carried her down to high camp in a jury-rigged satchel.  I helped her complete her descent to base camp after we discovered a cold injury on her rear paw.  That night she rewarded our efforts by waking the entire camp to warm us of an invasion of yaks, a benign occurrence.  (Who would have known that yaks are the Nepalese version of a vacuum cleaner?)  I shooed away the yaks and then open bivouacked next to her to prevent additional disturbances, reflecting on what would compel a puppy to confront an animal ten times her size.  Here a lack of knowledge induced a lack of fear, both of the mountain and of the yaks, which could have killed this dog.  She was a dog, so her ignorance is forgivable, but humans should know better, and yet unfounded audacity frequently kills people in the mountains.

Our expedition was blessed by a puja on 9 April 2017.  Prayers, chang, and San Miguel beer consecrated our climb.

This puts into focus the taxonomy of fear.  The first type is emotional fear, which paralyzes the ability to engage with the source of concern.  This is self-defeating, joint-seizing terror.  It cripples and consumes.  The second type is rational fear, which manifests itself as a low-grade worry.  This draws your attention to the task at hand, so you can identify and address the sources of your unease.  It is self-attenuating, motivates innovation, and abolishes self-imposed boundaries.  Alpinists savor this second type of fear, a fear that keeps us alive in the mountains. 

Yaks roam the sand pit in Gorak Shep.  Kala Patthar (18,530 ft; 5,649 m) rises just behind them with Chumbu (22,503 ft; 6,861 m) in the background.

That I am inclined towards the salutary, low-grade unease instead of outright terror is no accident.  My training as an engineer taught me how to confront seemingly intractable problems, breaking them into progressively smaller units until finally progress can be made. Since then I have rarely felt overwhelmed by any dilemma, no matter how complicated or critical, whether programming an algorithm or attempting to safely climb a route.  My experience as a pilot has extended this rational distillation to potentially life threatening situations that only I can eliminate.  In the air, if an engine dies or there is an electrical fire in the cockpit, the pilot runs the emergency checklists until the problem is resolved.  Of course, there is a possibility that the pilot’s best efforts are insufficient to maintain flight and the plane crashes, called an “off airport landing” in the cool-headed lingo of aviators, but even in this case you are attempting to mitigate the problem, i.e., the risk and concomitant distress, until you run out of altitude.  There is no time to indulge in the emotional blizzard of fear.  In his interview on Death, Sex, & Money, Dr. Jonathan Clark describes a plane crash he experienced with his wife Dr. Laurel Clark before her fatal ride on STS-107 on the Space Shuttle Columbia:  “You’re working the problem, you’re working the problem, and then it ends.  You crash, and either you live or you die” (source: “An Astronaut’s Husband, Left Behind").  Examples of this abound in mountaineering literature; notably Joe Simpson kept working the problem as he descended the Andean peak Silua Grande (20,813 ft; 6,344 m) with a broken leg, and for his efforts he lived, an ordeal which is chronicled in the book and movie Touching the Void.

For me, extreme care and rationality combat the risk and fear that permeate climbing, and at the core of this battle is love.   My cousin Noël sent me off to Nepal with a card that invokes the Greek myth of Merops, a bird that rose to the heavens flying backwards so its eyes were always fixed on home.  Every step from base camp takes me closer to the summit and into greater danger, and I feel heavier as my mind is filled with thoughts of family and friends and my heart is filled with their well-wishes and worries.  In his memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield reflects on the stunning lack of melancholy that accompanied his final departure from the International Space Station: “Earth is home to everyone I love.”   Nearly everyone I love isn’t on this mountain.  Those few exceptions are my fellow expedition members.  While our fraternity has been forged by the trials of the mountain, our relationships are not dependent on an alpine setting.  We will all be glad to leave here in good health.  We will all be glad to see our family and friends again.  I’m trying to summit for me; I’m trying to come back home for everyone else.

This shouldn’t suggest that climbing is an entirely sober endeavor.  Waking up at Camp II at the base of the 8,000 ft (2,500 m) South Face of Sagarmāthā induces a childlike joy.  I have been tempted to run out of my tent in the middle of the night whooping and hollering after contemplating the nearly 100 year history of climbing on Sagarmāthā and my small part in it.  The Cwm is a magical place.  We head back up there tonight.  Wish us luck.

28 April 2017

Everest and Lhotse Expedition: Contradiction

International Mountain Guides (IMG) Everest Base Camp - 17,329 ft (5,283 m)

Here we are at Everest Base Camp, our home for the next many weeks.  Our advance from Namche has taken us through Mongla, Phortse, Pangboche, Pheriche, Thokla, Lobuche, Gorak Shep, and finally onto the Khumbu Glacier.  Traveling along such an avenue of Nepali geography and heritage, it seems ridiculously incongruent to designate the massif at the terminus of our trek by its colonial moniker “Everest.”  For this reason, henceforth I will call the mountain by its local Nepali name: Sagarmāthā.  

Everest Base Camp at night with the West Shoulder of Sagarmāthā in the distance

As an atheist and a trained engineer, I am also a humanist.  From the poetry of Blake to the equations of Hawking, the achievements of civilization have imposed beauty upon a disordered natural canvas.  We have been blessed with the courage and cleverness to distill a mysterious patchwork of unknown features to its elemental threads.  Our intellectual and physical conquest have created a society in which dancers can induce an upwelling of emotion through the grace of a single movement, welders can construct towering steel monoliths through their bravery and workmanship, and researchers can wage war against primordial diseases through their indefatigable ingenuity.  I find great solace in humanity’s accomplishments because it promises so many yet unimagined advancements.

Among this list of our achievements is that humans have summitted Sagarmāthā.  My group’s expedition to the mountain is not a novel endeavor, but it is still a worthy one.  Rather than being commissioned to score a new masterpiece, we climbers are members of an ensemble improvising around the notes of an old jazz standard.  Conducted by our expedition leader, we start our concert with hope but no expectation. The fickle, Dadaistic nature of the mountain may end our performance in the middle of a refrain, but we quest to play our interpretation of every verse and to discover some yet uncommunicated, more personal nuance of the original song.  Even though we do not demand a specific resolution, our efforts are neither feeble nor aimless. Our band leader may direct us to descend into the aggression of a roiling drum fill or to change the key during a delicate and sparse piano solo.  Each of us will contribute to the arc of the melody.  We will play as a team.

This sets the stage for a series of unlikely contradictions:  Even after years of anticipation and with a regimented expedition schedule, we have no expectation to summit or even climb the mountain; we will do only what She permits us.  The extreme might required during the climb will be directed not at the external forces that conspire to keep us grounded but instead will buttress the internal impetus that propels us forward.  That I, a humanist, am impressed less with my predecessors’ achievements on this peak and more with the natural processes that created this alpine playground.

First Views of Sagarmāthā (top left of photo)

In the Khumbu Valley, these contradictions also take physical form.  Almost immediately upon leaving Namche Bazar, my expedition caught its first glimpse of Sagarmāthā and Lhotse.  Impressed with their majesty, we genuflected as any trekker might: with a volley of photos and selfies.  Though their visage of these mountains was striking, Ama Dablam (22,349 ft; 6,812 m) quickly monopolized our attention during our three day hike from Namche Bazar to Pheriche.  As we trekked along the western edge of the peak, the precipitous pitch of its razor thin ridges was revealed as they were thrown into relief against the blue bird sky.  Ama Dablam’s hanging glaciers evoke the image of jewels and give the mountain its name - Ama Dablam means “Mother’s necklace” in Nepali.  These frozen towers impressed us as they defied gravity, the azure plumage of their icy layers scintillating in the sun.  And so the monarchs of this range were temporarily usurped by their subordinate cousin.

The team overshadowed by Ama Dablam

As we climbed from the valley carved by the Dudh Koshi River to Phortse, we discarded the saturnine embrace of the lower valley.  In the upper valley life is harder and starker.  Phortse is a town of climbers; over 60 summitters of Sagarmāthā, including many of our sherpa, call the town home.  One might expect that such a prolific source of accomplished climbers to have adopted a latent haughtiness.  Instead, the humility and hospitality of Sherpa culture permeates every interaction.  Tea houses and terraces spread over the hillside, and a chorten lays in ruins, still evincing the damage from the earthquake in 2015.  

Leaving Phortse for Pangboche, the white pines festooned with sphagnum blended seamlessly into a smattering of waist high shrubs and then to hills balding but for patches of alpine grass.  Now our path was defined not by a foot trail trampled through the hardy mountain vegetation but by a string of yak dung occasionally punctuated by a cairn or chorten.  The primary purpose for our stop in Pangboche was to be blessed by Lama Geshe, whose dimly-lit monastic dwelling was permeated by the putrid aroma of yak butter candles.  Overwhelmed by the sensory bath, we were transported into the world of his devout supplication to the rigors of a peaceful life.  Lama Geshe anointed each trekker by draping a kata, a ivory-colored silk scarf, around the trekker’s neck while reciting a prayer and touching his forehead to the trekker’s.  As we drank tea, the lama spoke in Tibetan and espoused the tenets of his Enlightenment.  His monologue culminated in the recitation of a prayer of his authorship:  Om Ma Ni Pad Me Hung Hri, “Give up all intentions to harm others from your heart and do your best to benefit them all.  If each and everyone feels the universal responsibility to do so, we will all enjoy the feast of peace!”

From Pangboche, we traveled to Pheriche, a village with no discernible industry other than catering to trekkers and climbers passing through on their way to Island Peak, Gokyo, or Sagarmāthā.  After two nights we continued on to Lobuche Base Camp, where we adopted camp life:  sleeping in tents, defecating in bucket toilets, and constantly fighting each evening’s unrelenting cold.  Days since have been filled with brief acclimatization hikes in the morning and hours of relaxation and rest in the afternoon, the canonical strategy for adapting to the rarefied atmosphere.  At night you are treated to a martian landscape bathed in the low contrast illumination of the waxing moon.  The views are impressive, but the sounds of the mountainside are more enticing:  Grouse warble as they search for the food scraps left from yesterday’s dinner, a chef ignites a stove to prepare a new meal, wind whistles around gendarmes on the ridge.  This harmony serves as a paean to the comforts we’ve left behind.

Our path from Lobuche Base Camp descended to the valley floor.  Bergs of ice poked through the continuous sea of alluvial sediment, so we could never be certain if were walking on a glacier or a moraine.  We stopped briefly in Gorak Shep to avail ourselves of a tea house’s WiFi, and we continued towards Everest Base Camp which floats atop the Khumbu Glacier, a river of ice spilling from a cut between the West Shoulder of Sagarmāthā and Nuptse.  As our camp came into view, I was impressed and dumbstruck by the the Khumbu Icefall, the riskiest section of our upcoming climb.  The Icefall’s fractal beauty momentarily distracts you from its deadly nature, but undeterred, I began to study it to understand its nature.

The deadly Khumbu Glacier Ice Fall.  We have to climb through that pile of seracs six times.

Yesterday our expedition was blessed during a puja at base camp in anticipation of this week’s climb of Lobuche.  Om Ma Ni Pad Me Hung Hri.

Everest and Lhotse Expedition: Chaos

Namche Bazar, Nepal - 11,236' (3,426 m)

Chaos in the streets outside Thamel, Kathmandu

Since scientists discovered and codified the foundations of thermodynamics in the 19th century, the increase in entropy, i.e., the “chaos” in the universe, has been considered a statement of the irreversibility of time.  The universe tends towards disorder, and in measuring this monotonic march towards anarchy, one also measures the progress of time.  For the English majors reading this, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe paraphrases this concept well in the title of oft-heralded book Things Fall Apart, but scientists would have written two sequels: They Keep Disintegrating and You Can't Put Them Back Together.  This concept not only has withstood a continuous assault from advances in science but also has had its deepest nuances enhanced by these new discovers.  But science cannot describe all aspects of existence, and so by some strange, ancient Himalayan magic, as time has worn on during this expedition, entropy has decreased and my world has gotten simpler:

  • Ten days since movers put almost all of my possessions in storage: 1,700 sq ft (158 sq m) to three duffel bags and one backpack.
  • Eight days since I left New York City:  Now home is wherever I happen to sleep at night.
  • Four days since our flight from Kathmandu to Lukla:  My possessions have been whittled to the 44 pounds (20 kg) of baggage permitted for the flight.

But perhaps the lens of entropy is not the most convenient filter through which to view this journey.  As my bubble of comfort diminishes and eventually completely evaporates, mountain life seems to invert Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  There are no guarantees of safety on the mountain and addressing simple biological necessities such as food, water, and rest is incredibly complicated.  Even in this preamble to our laps up The Hill, life has already become more rugged.  Showers are available only every few days, water must be disinfected assiduously in order to avoid stomach illness, and the rarefied atmosphere makes walking laborious.  (On the plus side, as of writing this we still have seated toilets.)  But even on summit day as each climber struggles to maintain his or her vigor and vitality and the team effort of an expedition climb is reduced to an incredibly individual and personal toil, new enlightenment awaits.  With so many breathtaking inversions, it is fitting that this journey takes place in such an inimitable and magnificent setting.

A porter carries goods along the trekking route between Lukla and Namche Bazar

We’ve spent the last two days in Namche Bazar, an relatively bustling town of around 2,000 people and the last major outpost on our trek to Everest Base Camp.  The path from Lukla towards Everest is an ancient trade route between Tibet and Nepal, and Namche is the historic center of economic activity along this corridor.  For hundreds of years, merchants traded Himalayan sea salt for produce grown in Nepal’s fertile river valleys, carrying their cargo on foot over rugged terrain and high mountain passes.  That such a journey across the Himalaya was economically beneficial let alone physically viable is astounding, and yet the constant stream of porters up the valley testifies to the time-tested strength and determination of the Sherpa people and their Tibetan cousins.

Namche Bazar viewed from above the town's monestary

Namche is nestled into a cirque on the steep cliffs above the Bhote Koshi River and overlooks Kongde Ri, one of the Himalayas’ diminutive mountains at 20,299’ (6,187 m).  The lot size for the ubiquitous tea houses and shops has been determined by the dimensions of the crop terrace which these establishments have displaced.  Narrow alleys wind through town, paved unevenly with rocks harvested from the hillside.  Walking around you are tempted to let your gaze wander, but you are quickly shaken from your wonderment when you trip over an errantly laid cobblestone.

With little to inject chaos into the diurnal rhythm, life here follows a predictable script:  At daybreak women gather to wash clothes before the fog crests the pine forest underlying the town, making drying laundry impossible.  Also taking advantage of the clear skies, helicopters spend the morning running laps between Kathmandu and Namche, delivering building supplies for the villages and duffel bags for mountain expeditions to Everest, Lobuche, and Ama Dablam.  By early afternoon, porters that started their day in Lukla complete the 10 miles (16 km) and 4,000’ (1,220 m) climb to Namche.  In addition to their crippling loads, the porters seem to tow up the fog from the valley floor, and with the fog comes a permeating silence.

Kongde Ri (20,299’; 6,187 m) across the valley from Namche Bazar

Signaling the end of teatime, Kongde Ri roars to life in the late afternoon.  The sun finally has defeated the tenuous grasp of an enormous block of ice and snow perched high on the mountain, and a torrent careens down a steep couloir, releasing even more avalanches and rock slides in its wake.  At the first crack of this fury, life in the town grinds to a halt with locals and tourists alike trying to catch a glimpse of the carnage through the dense fog that bisects the valley.  The violence of the mountain’s outcry seems to be a transgression against the tranquility of this languid town, and the chime of a prayer wheel from the nearby monastery serves as a respsonsorial psalm, restoring order and peace.  

More discoveries await as we continue towards Everest.  Thirty-six days until Himalayas are in prime season for summits.  We continue up valley tomorrow.  Phortse, the hometown of a majority of our Sherpa guides, will be our next stop.