May 29, 2013

The People You Meet: The Legends of Everest & 60th Anniversary Celebrations

Today marked one of the highlights of my personal journey as a 'modern day adventurer' and lover of mountain-adventure stories which have inspired me climb to the lofty peaks of the Himalayas and the Alps. Today marks the 60th anniversary of the 1st ascent of Mount Everest with celebrations here in Kathmandu to honour the 'diamond' anniversary of first mountaineers  - Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay - reaching the highest point on earth on 29 May ,1953.  We celebrated, in style, at the British Embassy and subsequently at the Royal Palace.... the wine was flowing, the sun was shining and the conversations inspiring...  It was an absolutely BRILLIANT day from start to finish and I couldn't imagine a more perfect place to celebrate this historic occasion.

Set in the beautiful gardens of the British Embassy and the Ambassadors residence (which had been recreated into a more 'comfortable' and significantly 'greener' version of Base Camp), under some blazing-hot pre-monsoon sunshine we shared tales of our recent high-altitude adventures on the slopes of Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and other 8000m peaks and mingled with Nepali dignitaries and members of the diplomatic community. Many climbers who attended the celebrations were just back from expeditions so it was great to re-connect with everyone and admire and compare our 'racoon' tans and summit day stories... It was great to see everyone in excellent spirits, dressed in their finest post-expedition wear and ready to celebrate into the early hours...

Guests included Kanchha Sherpa, the only surviving member of the 1953 team that made the first successful ascent, as well as both Sir Edmund Hillary’s granddaughter Amelia Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa’s grandson, Jamling Norgay. Also in attendance were Reinhold Messner  and Lydia Bradley, who were the first man and woman to summit Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen. They had the pleasure of cutting a giant 'Everest' sized cake..!

The British Ambassador, Andy Sparkes, read out a message from the Queen to the President of Nepal...

“On the 60th Anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest I wish to send my warmest regards to the Government of Nepal and to re-affirm the strong ties that exist between our two countries. The news of the successful ascent reached me at a particularly memorable time, the day before my Coronation. The Everest Expedition was an historic example of UK-Nepal co-operation and I hope that the special relationship between our two countries will continue to grow in the years to come. Elizabeth R.”

The evening ended with an award ceremony and dinner at the Royal Palace...

A perfect day and perfect way to end what has been a truly amazing two months.

With my invite to the British Embassy celebrations and Royal Palace dinner
Social sunny afternoon
Suze, Anna and Lydia - looking gorgeous after 2 months on the mountain
Anthony meeting his mountaineering hero Wolfgang Nairz
Prayer flag bunting..!
Gorgeous marquis that kept us well protected from the blazing sun
Reinhold Messner and Lydia Bradley cutting the Everest cake
With British Ambassador, Andy Sparkes and Serena Brocklebank
Miss Elizabeth Hawley with Suze Kelly and Billi Bierling  

Two inspirational climbers and wonderful women Everest summiteers Serena Brocklebank and Billi Bierling (who was part of the all-woman team to summit Nuptse this season!)
Kanchha Sherpa, his wife as well as Serena and Billi
With Nazir Sabir at the Royal Palace

Traditional Nepali dancing at the Royal Palace
Preparing for a delicious traditional Nepali dhal bhat dinner

May 24, 2013

The Lhotse Summit push and the 'Lucky' Number 3...!

For the non-Dutch speakers amongst you (and I suspect there may be many!) the word ‘geluk’ can be roughly translated from Dutch to mean, “luck and happiness”. Perhaps it was ‘good surname karma’, plain old-fashioned hard work and experience or a combination of both but we had the most perfect – “lucky and happy” – summit push which culminated in our successful summit of the 4th highest mountain in the world, Lhotse, at 8516m in the early hours of 22 May, 2013... making me the 3rd Canadian woman to do so..!

We left the relative comforts of our yellow tents already coated in a thick layer of frost, perched high up on the Lhotse Face at 2am and adjusted our head torches. It was a brilliantly clear night and the freshly fallen snow reflected the light cast by the nearly full-moon…. There was no wind. It was so quiet and the new layer of snow seemed to muffle our crampon-clad steps up the steep icy slope. Perhaps it was adrenaline or perhaps it was the fact that I’d slept in my -40 degree sleeping bag wearing my down suit and brand new ‘summit socks’ but I was actually warm… and happy…. And excited! Finally – after months of training and planning the day to stand on the Lhotse summit had arrived..!

 Whilst we hadn’t yet set out I knew that the conditions were perfect and the weather-gods seemed to be smiling upon us. A comfort given I was about to push both my mind and my body to their absolute limit into the infamous Death Zone, the altitudes above 8000m / 26,000 ft where the amount of oxygen is not high enough to sustain human life. 

Operation ‘Exit from Tent’ took about as much planning as D-Day. Harness – check, ice axe – check, water and food – check, head torch – check, pack with sponsor flags – check, camera under 2 layers of down – check, big-boots – check, crampons – check, bootwarmers – check, handwarmers – check, oxygen mask & cylinder - check… smile – check… went smoothly thanks to Anthony’s excellent forward planning and water-boiling expertise (and perhaps some fear about my OCDness about the organization of the tent!!).

Photo by Adrian Ballinger from Everest
When Guy and Suze indicated it was ‘Go Time’ we were both ready sat in our  well aerated tent (thanks to rock-missiles which rained down on our tent from the face) with our feet out the door ready to take the first steps from Camp 4 to the summit.

And so the long plod - my jumar meditation to the summit - began....

Lhotse differs from Everest in that it goes up – straight up between 50 – 60 degrees - from Camp 4 to the summit. With this in mind and combined with the perfect conditions it was easy to fall into a slow and steady rhythm. If I could keep up this pace I knew that I could make it…! Breathe, step, step, slide the jumar up the rope, breathe, step, step… repeat, repeat, repeat. 

I could see the tiny red lights from Suzes’ battery powered bootwarmers shining through the bright yellow gaiters of her boots. They seemed like beacons in the dark moving steadily forward and upward – always just a few steps ahead. I fell into the same rhythm as her steps and wriggled my own toes also comfy and snug in my boots.

I could only see one other set of lights far off in the distance – so faint that I was unsure if they were twinkling stars or climbers making their way up ahead on the face. Looking back over my shoulder at Everest to the north I could see tiny headlights, like tiny glowing stars, slowly winding their way up the summit pyramid of Everest. I wondered if any of my friends were amongst them and wished them safety and strength on their journeys.

The Lhotse Couloir

Entering and climbing through the infamous Lhotse couloir was surreal – it could literally have been anywhere in Chamonix or Scotland – as also indicated by the abundance of loose rock hiding under the light layer of snow and ice. Certain sections of the couloir were no more than about 6 feet wide. So different from the many wide-open Himalayan snow-slopes characteristic of the Himalayan giants.

About 2 hours into our ascent I began to crave a drink of water and knew that I’d soon have to stop and hydrate. My waterbottle encased in a thick protective covering was in my pack and given the steep angle of the snow slope I wasn’t in any position to stop without at least a bit of ‘faffing’. I pushed my jumar ahead and took a step trying to look up and see whether the icy-smooth slope would abate slightly to offer me enough of a perch for a quick rest stop.

Suddenly and without warning I felt a sudden ‘jolt’ and nearly lost my footing as the rope went slack and then sprung back in place like an elastic. Things felt like they were moving in slow motion as I slid two precarious steps down the slope and I heard a high pitched scream escape involuntarily from my lips – it was quickly muffled by my oxygen mask and I found myself gasping for breath. I heard Suze scream up ahead and felt the dynamic spring of the rope so knew that I wasn’t the only one who had sensed that something was wrong. Looking up ahead I could see the dark silhouette of an ice-screw swinging in the moonlight off of the rope about 3 feet in front of me. The anchor which had been fixed into the ice had sprung free under our weight… an ominous sign that made me nervous and I wondered how many more of these loose anchors there were.

 We quickly assessed that everyone was ok and continued to make our way up the slope as the sun began to peek over the mountains casting a magical blue-grey hue over the snow. It was almost bright enough to turn off my head torch and I looked forward to the warmth cast by the sun.

Dawn had unfortunately brought us some unstable weather in the form of 50kph wind gusts. The sky remained clear but the wind was whistling up the face and being channelled into the couloir. It came howling up behind us and then in front of us, bringing freezing temperatures and fountains of spindrift – had we not been well above 8000m it would have been a mesmerizing sight.  I wiggled my fingers and toes to keep them warm and watched as Lhotse’s summit vanished into the white swirling mist. I had no idea how high we were and no real sense of where we were relative to the summit. My only indication was that our Sherpa, Ang Phurba was still climbing steadily on up ahead… Suze turned around and shouted over the sound of the wind that we had about 45 minutes left to go… I was thankful for the protection offered by the couloir.

The steep angled snow slope soon turned to loose, broken rock which sloped downward and made for some challenging climbing. I often found myself with my full weight on the rope pulling myself up over the rock and trying to navigate to the more solid looking snow patches. In some areas the fresh snow had collected because of the wind – it was the finest, most powdery snow I’d ever seen and completely unstable.  It was a technical, steep climb which took a lot of concentration – ultimately keeping me warm and alert and time passed quickly….

Final Steps to the Summit

Suddenly we popped out of the protection of the couloir and onto an icy-narrow snowslope and a giant final hurdle loomed in the distance. A tall mound of rocky rubble marked by seemingly endless broken ledges and loose rocks – at the top of which was a steep final bright white snowy cornice juxtapositioned beautifully against the blue of the sky. The wind was howling and the snow whipped around my face… I knew we were nearly there.

The climb over the final rocky ledges was difficult, endless broken ledges sloping downwards, no solid edges for my gloved hands to grab. The frozen body of a climber who had died just below the summit last year sat on one of the ledges and our rope passed directly on his path. It’s strange but one of the ‘feelings’ that I remember most vividly from the climb was how I felt seeing the body of the climber. We knew before we set out for the climb that he was there so it wasn’t really a surprise. What did surprise me was how he sat perched on the rock, looking out over the spectacular Himalayan panorama… I suddenly felt very, very small and very ‘human’ and ‘vulnerable’ in this foreign, frozen and windy world. It was a surreal feeling and I re-set my focus on making my way the final 3 metres to the top.
And suddenly there I was! The Lhotse summit..! It was TINY – much tinier than I’d expected. It rose to a snowy corniced point in which we’d secured an icebar in the midst of a pile of prayer flags which were whipping in the wind. Ang Phurba gave me a hug which nearly sent me tumbling down the face. We both laughed. I looked out at the curvature of the earth below me and looked DOWN at the tiny mountains – whilst they are formidable 6000 and 7000m peaks they looked so small in Lhotse’s shadow…

People have asked me how I felt… It’s hard to put into words so pardon this section of ‘garble’ as I try and describe it…. I had so many emotions running through me – from euphoria to fear to vulnerability to feeling truly ‘human’ and truly alive in an environment that I didn’t physiologically belong in – if that makes any sense at all. I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. I couldn’t believe how close the sun felt and how far away the rest of the world seemed. I felt so incredibly fortunate and so lucky. I felt so truly ‘alive’ in the warm glow of the sun feeling the warm blood pulsing through my fingers and toes.  I felt very conscious about my vulnerability. I felt nostalgic. I thought of my parents and my family in Canada. I thought of my job at PwC and how lucky I was to have had this opportunity to take some time away to experience ‘life’. I thought of the charity, Hope for Tomorrow… I reflected on the journey I’d taken to get here – the experiences both on and off of the mountains I’ve climbed and how I’ve learned and developed myself through these experiences – the good and the bad..! The hours of training, the worries, but also all the pure joy, the happiness, and the truly inspiring, amazing people that I’d met along the way – those people who had and continue to inspire me and encouraged me to go on.
The spindrift shifted to provide glimpses of the slopes of Everest and of the myriad of peaks beyond. It had been a great ascent, with a fantastic team and all of us on top. Now other possibilities spread out tantalizing below me – so many mountains. But for the moment my eyes were focused on the distant valley far below and the comforts of camp, a square meal, a good night’s sleep and then the start of the long trail home….

It was time to get down...

The scramble down the loose rock was slow and precarious. The couloir seemed suddenly steeper as I descended, arm-wrapping facing outwards. I was horribly conscious that it was 2000 metres down to the western cwm, a long, long way to roll…

The loose rock presented its fair share of challenges and every few minutes the couloirs echoed with someone screaming ‘ROCK!!!’ as a stone-missile shot its way down the couloir. It was scary – being hit by a falling stone – even the size of a small pebble – could be fatal. And there were certainly no shortage of small pebbles and big rocks. I tried to take careful, firm steps and via snowy patches to avoid disturbing more rock. I took a quick break to change one of my oxygen cylinders with Ang Phurba and let the others go further down ahead of me. This also gave me the opportunity to abseil down some of the steeper, longer sections and be a bit more conscious of my foot placement.

As we neared Camp 4 and found ourselves on the firmer snowy-slopes Ang Phurba and I were actually laughing and having fun. I knew that we’d done it. We even started chatting about the next 8000m peak..!! The sun bounced off of the white, fresh snow and I felt warm and happy.

Guy, Suze and Anthony were just stepping into Camp 4 as we pulled up behind them. Huge hugs all around. I couldn’t believe it..! We’d done it! I think that was when I finally allowed myself to fully relax and gaze up at the Lhotse summit now towering high above us…
That afternoon we descended all the way back to the oxygen-rich(ish) air of Camp 2 at 6400m. I was exhausted but absolutely thrilled to have been met there by the Everest Team who had just descended from the South Col and their successful Everest summits..! Again, hugs all around a million laughs. A perfect day.

I was happy. I was exhausted. I did it and I loved it.....

(....but not quite enough to do it again... well, not this year anyway!!!)

Many thanks to to our fabulous guide, Guy Cotter for many of the Summit Day pics in this blog...!

Time out to enjoy the wiew from Camp 3 (7400m) on the way down....
With Everest team mate Cason Crane

3rd Canadian woman to summit Lhotse

May 22, 2013

The Triple Crown… Many Congratulations to fellow Sherpa Adventure Gear Athlete, Kenton Cool!

Just heard the news and am SO hugely psyched for my dear friend and fellow Sherpa Adventure Gear athlete Kenton Cool..! A tremendous achievement successfully scaling the three mountains of the Everest horseshoe – Everest (8,848m), Nuptse (7,861m) & Lhotse (8,516m) in one climb.

A massive, massive well done to Kenton…!

Kenton Cool, Britain’s most successful Everest mountaineer, the second-most successful Western Mountaineer of all-time on Everest, has summited the three mountains of the Everest horseshoe – Everest (8,848m), Nuptse (7,861m) & Lhotse (8,516m) in one climb – completing the ultimate ‘Three Peaks’ challenge.

Yesterday, the Briton and his climbing companion and friend Sherpa Dorje Gylgen successfully summited the final peak Lhotse in the Western Cwm. The two men are the first to achieve the feat of summiting Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse in one trip. Everest’s ‘Three Peaks’ have never been attempted before and had been thought impossible by many due to the extreme skill and physical exertion required. The climb also marks Kenton Cool’s eleventh summit of Mount Everest.

Prior to his attempt, Cool said: “It has always been a dream of mine to attempt the three mountains that form the Western Cwm; Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. The Western Cwm is one of the most magical places I have ever been to and has always been special for me, ever since I saw a picture taken by Chris Bonnington when I was young. The idea of climbing the mountains that form this amazing valley hit me then and it is time to finally make summiting them a reality.”

Cool doesn’t consider a climb to be over until he’s safely reached Base Camp; Kenton and Sherpa Dorje arrived there today at around 11:00. Speaking via sat phone Cool, who said he was looking forward to some proper sleep, commented: “It’s been a pretty full-on week. I’ve never been this tired. I’m totally 100% spent but it’s an absolutely fantastic feeling to have achieved this – a dream come true.”

The first Everest Three Peaks comes nine days before the 60th anniversary of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s first successful ascent of Everest in May 1953.

For the full story of Kenton’s climb, I highly recommend checking out the interview by Everest chronicler and climber, Alan Arnette published in Outside magazine:

May 15, 2013

The time has come to go UP!

The time has come to go UP...!

It’s been 5 days since we completed our last rotation up Lhotse, sleeping at an altitude of 7400m (Camp 3) before coming down to Base Camp to prepare for the final summit push – and wait for the weather!!  It’s been an exceptionally busy few days filled with birthday celebrations (THE party of the year at the AC Base Camp!), a surprise visit by the legendary Reinhold Messner and a friendly television crew, detailed briefings on Summit Day logistics (food, gear, timings) and finally, general catching up on both sleeping and eating – something I’ve become exceptionally good at..!

Looking at the forecasts (a company called Meteotest based out of Bern, Switzerland), the summit window this year is pretty clear which is excellent news and has allowed the bigger teams on the mountain to work together to coordinate timings in order to avoid long delays on the mountains upper slopes. The window of good weather looks like it will be between the 18th – 24th of May... a huge improvement over last years 2 day window which caused so many problems on summit day..!

Our current planned summit date will be the early morning of May 20th. This means that we will depart Base Camp in the early hours of the 16th to climb up through the Khumbu Icefall to Camp 2, spend the 17th resting and finishing final preparations at Camp 2, climbing the icy steep Lhotse Face to Camp 3 on the 18th,  continue up and traverse to Camp 4 on the 19th and to the 8516m summit on the early morning 20th! It’s a packed schedule but given the strength of the team, quality of the leadership, quality of the route and the resources available to us I cant imagine a better time..!

In terms of my personal reflection on the journey thus far – and the challenges which now lay ahead. I have thoroughly enjoyed the physical and emotional journey which this expedition has offered and delivered – both for the team and friendships made, the comradarie with the Sherpas, the quality of the services provided and the many laughs shared both during the expedition and the run up to it with family, friends and colleagues. I am confident that these past months have formed the foundation of the ‘crux’ which now lies ahead and can’t imagine having a more solid foundation. I feel both honored and blessed to have the opportunity to climb with this team on this absolutely spectacular mountain…!

Please keep our team in your thoughts and prayers over the coming week and think of us on the 20th as we stand on our perch gazing out at a spectacular Himalayan panorama looking out at the Roof of the World in the morning light. Full details of our progress can be found on the Adventure Consultants website under the ‘Lhotse Dispatches’ section…!

May 8, 2013

Haute Cuisine a la Beef Jerkey Where only Commercial Airlines Fly... and a lesson learned

We left the comforts of Camp 2 in the early hours of the 8th of May and began the cold, dark gradual uphill plod across the glacier to the base of the Lhotse face... it's a walk that always seems to take foreeeeever. This was the third time that I’d done the walk which certainly didn’t make it any easier… or more tropical..! Guy’s thermometer read -17 which was affirmed by my fingers which I was wriggling vigorously and frantically in the depths of my gloves in an valiant attempt to keep the blood flowing and warmth in their tips…! 

I must admit that that morning wasn’t one of my ‘finer days’ – I was tired and cold and nervous… again, one of the main reasons why I think that so many people underestimate the ‘mental’ side of 8000m peaks. Plodding along staring at your feet and moving so painfully slowly gives you heaps of time to think. Seeing the lifeless body of a Sherpa alongslide the trail who sadly lost his life the previous day really hit home the fragility of human life and the risks taken by so many on the slopes of these mountain giants.

Fortunately as soon as we reached the fixed lines of the Lhotse face and some of the warmth returned to my fingers things started to look up – literally. I managed to clear my mind and focus on the task at hand – step, step, and then slide the ‘jumar’ up the rope. Repeat. Step, step.. etc. etc – you get the picture!

Steps had formed since the last time we went up the ropes so it was a physical yet steady, even 4-hour climb up to Camp 3 perched high up on the face.  Whilst I felt relatively strong, I was soooo relieved to see the camp and relished the prospect of food.  

I’ve developed a bit of a food-craving for beef jerkey (very posh and particularly nutritious, I know - what can I say, I'm a woman of good taste!!) over the course of the past few weeks and began to salivate at the thought of diving into the warmth and comfort of my down suit and sleeping bag, propping myself up on a pillow with my kindle (final chapter of the Life of Pi) and eating my beef jerky and cheese snack while watching the sun set…. And cooking my boil-in-a-bag chicken chow-mein. 

Sadly, it didn’t quite happen this way…

All went according to plan with regards to ‘diving’ into the tent, ducking into my down suit and tucking into my snack however my stomach soon realized that things were amiss and there wasn’t the usual amount of oxygen to aid in the seamlessness of the oxygen abetted digestion process. I felt a sudden flush of heat rush to my cheeks and felt the tent start to spin as my stomach screamed, “Nooooooo!!!!’. Fortunately my tent mate Mark was on-call and I managed to rouse him from his peaceful slumber saying, 

‘Um. Mark..! I’m really not well..!!’.  

Looking at my pale colour and sticky complexion I think he quickly realized the consequences of ‘do nothing’ and the immediate ramifications it might have on both him and sanctity of the tent…! Fortunately this wasn’t Mark’s first expedition and looking at the pile of beef jerky and cheese wrappers next to my Thermarest he quickly put two and two together. I spent the next two hours sat up with my eyes closed, drinking heaps of boiled water, trying to get the world to stop spinning..! Fortunately the lack of oxygen did not affect my (or Marks!) sense of humor and we managed to laugh about the situation. 

I didn’t eat much else that night and the rest of the evening passed fairly uneventfully..! I slept surprisingly well encased in my sleeping bag, down suit and warm socks… dreaming of the chicken chow-mein which I will no doubt enjoy on our next visit to Camp 3 in a few days time..!!!