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


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