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Prayer flags above Dingboche. Lhotse and Island Peak in the background.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Unorthodox second Everest rotation

Everest and Nuptse from Kala Patthar. Everest is on the left.

Our team is trying an unorthodox second rotation method in our preparations for a summit attempt in a week or two. Historically - say 5 to 30 years ago - teams have climbed from base camp to camp 1 (about 20,000'). They tend to spend one or two nights there, maybe walking part of the way to camp 2 (about 21,500'), and then return to base camp to recover. They will next make a climb to camp 2 for one to five nights with possibly a partial climb up the Lhotse face, sometimes as far as camp 3 (about 23,500' to 24,000'). Some groups will spend a miserable night at camp 3. Some groups are using exactly this method this season. There is also a much smaller history of people never leaving base camp until it's time for the summit push. Six weeks at 17,500' will definitely raise your acclimatization levels. In other words, there is not "one way" to do this.

Our team made one rotation, spending a night in camp 1 and then three nights in camp 2. These are never fun trips. Your body is starving for oxygen and the side effects are many. I experienced bad headaches, a huge loss of appetite and almost no sleep for the three of the four nights. It's cold, unpleasant and not much fun. On the plus side, we made huge advances in our acclimatization and enjoyed some incredible scenery. 

I also lost about 10 pounds in the five days/four nights I was up there and felt noticeably weaker. And I was not alone in this.

This year things tend to be different for many of the teams on Everest for two reasons. The biggest difference this year is the very warm temperatures and the secondary issue is that the past winter saw very little snow. This is causing the ordinarily dangerous Khumbu icefall (the first obstacle out of base camp) to be far more dangerous than normal. As a result nobody wants to make any unneeded trips through the icefall. The expedition operators were even successful in lobbying the Nepali government into allowing helicopters to bring the ropes for above C1, a first in Everest history. This saved an estimated 87 Sherpa trips through the icefall, potentially saving lives. I and many others would prefer to see helicopters used to ferry virtually all needed supplies and equipment past this section. I realize the "purists" at home who can't even find Nepal on a map will frown upon this but I couldn't care less about their opinions; I care about Sherpa safety and climber safety. 

With all this in mind, the question is what do we do now that our first rotation is over with? Well, our team decided to go down to Kathmandu for 2-3 nights vs up to C2 again. Does this make any sense at all? First, consider life at base camp. It tends to be chilly by day and really cold at night. This can wear you down after a while. You also don't eat as well as you would like at these high altitudes so you are slowly growing weaker. Kathmandu is warm and low. You eat and sleep very well; small cuts, bruises and minor health issues all heal very quickly. In other words you are getting stronger very quickly. I know, we are a bunch of spoiled Western sissies. Sorry. We aren't here saving lives; this is for fun and after a while it ceases to be fun! We decided to trade a little acclimatization for a lot of regained weight and strength. 

Variations on this "drop back" theme have been used successfully over the years. Many groups have gone down to one of the villages at about 12,000' to 13,000'. The problem is the walk back up to base camp at 17,500' uses a lot of the energy you just regained. The tea houses also have lots of strangers in them, all spreading germs around. People can get sick here and with a summit bid just around the corner, you might not have time to fully heal up.

In the past few years with the introduction of very powerful helicopters, some people have returned to Kathmandu for a short break and this has proven very beneficial to them. Doctors tell us that you gain and lose acclimatization at about the same rate. This means 2-3 nights down low is not a deal breaker for us. Think of it this way: we don't know if our summit bid will start the 5th, 10th, 15th or even 20th of May. With a window of perhaps one to three weeks for the start of our summit bid, three days in Kathmandu becomes relatively insignificant. The slight loss of acclimatization is more than made up for with the regained physical strength and mental rejuvenation.

Our trusty Manang Air helicopter, flown by Laurence, a Swill pilot who I really enjoyed.

Out little team enjoying three nights of R&R at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kathmandu.

It certainly seems to be working for our crew. One look at their faces today vs three days ago will quickly reveal how positive this experience has been. Haggard and tired countenances are now glowing and full of life. You truly feel like a new man. 

Ok, so I know it helps today and I am pretty certain it will help in the upcoming summit push. But what about the naysayers? First of all, screw the naysayers! This is my life, not yours. I don't mind if you sit around and do whatever it is that you do; show us the same courtesy. Much of the criticism circles back to that tired old argument that we are a bunch of rich, bucket listing Westerners exploiting the noble Sherpa for our own selfish objectives. I've addressed this nonsense in the past but allow me to repeat myself. 

No one forces anyone to do anything on Everest. It simply wouldn't work. I 100% acknowledge the critical role the Sherpa perform. I would be lucky to get myself and my gear to base camp without their strength, intelligence and abilities that far exceed mine. No argument here at all. Compared to me, they are like a race of supermen. No Sherpa = no summit. Period, full stop! I admire them, consider them as my betters, go out of my way to not take advantage of them and will (and have) abandoned my own summit dreams if I felt that continuing would in any way put them at too much risk. I only climb with groups like Altitude Junkies who pay them proper wages, provide them with proper equipment including adequate oxygen and don't allow them to carry large loads. This costs me more money; I don't care. These guys are my friends and I don't abuse my friends. Given the chance, I might abuse some of the naysayers. ;)

But I'm in Kathmandu and they are carrying loads for me up to C3 and C4. Is that abusive? No, and here's why. If I were in base camp they would still be doing this for me. I don't possess the strength to perform that task, and neither does virtually any other Westerner. They are well paid to perform certain tasks and whether I am at base camp, Kathmandu or on the moon, that is their responsibility and my physical location plays no role in this. In fact, by being here, the workload is actually lessened for them. The kitchen staff is able to sleep in and take things easy for a few days. I'm not around to bother the climbing Sherpa while they do their jobs. We are a burden and not a help to the Sherpa. Our absence eases that burden. 

Some say we are in some way cheating. Seriously? How is it possible to cheat in something that isn't a competition, means nothing to anyone but the participant and that has no rules? Let me cite one example. When climbing Elbrus, the highest point in Europe, most climbers will make one or more hikes up to a particular set of rocks to help their acclimatization. When it's actually go-time, they will then ride in a snow cat up to that point and climb from there. The rationale is that they've already done that work and now they only need to climb the rest of the way. This is the accepted way to climb Elbrus. By extension, this means I should be able to take a helicopter back up to C2 and climb from there. But simply suggesting this in jest brings out the smug "you're an idiot, I know better" looks and comments from people. With that in mind, I fail to see how three days and nights of good food and sleep is in any way "cheating".

To the naysayers: you do things your way and I will do them mine. I am climbing Everest for simple reasons; to enjoy myself in the mountains, to reach a PERSONAL goal and to come home safely to my family. I am making no grandiose claims of my skills, strengths or the importance of what I'm doing. I just want to climb to the top and have a good time on the way.


  1. Robert,
    You've done more for Nepal than anyone that I know. Seriously, you go climb that mountain however you like. You have more than earned it.
    Everest 2010.

  2. Very well-written, Robert! I'm pulling for you and am excited for your summit attempt! Take care and thanks for the updates!

  3. Go Robert!

    Channel that energy into the climb and have a great time while you do it.
    Your travels and adventures are an inspiration to me.
    It's been a privilege to know you for all these years and I'm glad you went out of your way to reconnect.

    Neil from Perth, Western Australia