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Mount Everest South Side Expedition
Sean Burch: Dispatch 15


Dispatch 15: May 17, 2003, Camp 2. Elevation 21,210 feet: The rush up the mountain has begun! Over the last few days, the overwhelming top topic of conversation has been the weather and when the mountaintop winds will abate. Many expeditions have their own forecasting service or have access to one. The predictions are all over the map, but most of them say that over the next few days, conditions should be more favorable. Everybody feels that it's now or never. So, this morning I joined the summit rush. I'm very excited but also anxious about having so many perhaps over eager climbers on the upper mountain at once.

Although I made an early start, there were long lines at the crevasse crossing bridges in the Khumbu Icefall. I felt strong, but the only reliable way of gauging my fitness level was to compare my climbing pace to other climbers. I tried to maintain a comfortable easy pace without rushing. In other words, I tried hard not to be competitive so that I could get a fair assessment of my condition. I passed about 20 or 30 other climbers and got from Base Camp to Camp 2 in about five hours, even with the delays at the ladder bridges. So I'm very encouraged.

A number of climbers have abandoned the summit effort over the last couple of weeks for various reasons. Still, by this afternoon, there were close to 400 climbers and Sherpas here at Camp 2. Mind boggling.

I'm determined to make a serious summit bid this trip up. I'm going to be sensible. The mountain is bigger and stronger than any man. If she doesn't smile on my attempt, then I won't succeed. Nevertheless, I am determined to not descend back to Base Camp without giving the summit bid everything I have.

I eating as much food and drinking as much water as my body can absorb.

Tomorrow, Camp 3.

May 18, 2003, Camp 3. Elevation 24,500 feet.
Today dawned bright and clear, but a look up at the summit revealed a huge plume of snow coming off the top in the high wind. Looked like about at least 80 mph. Nevertheless, I headed out across the Western Cwm toward the Lhotse Face. At the base of the Lhotse Face, the wind was strong, varying between what I estimate as 30 to 50 mph. There was snow being blown across the ice, sometimes hiding it and sometimes revealing it.

It was a long hard climb, but now I'm here, hunkered down in my tent. Whenever I got out to chop ice to melt for water, the wind almost blows me over.

Tomorrow, I'm planning to head up to the South Col (Camp 4). It's over 26,000 feet in what climbers generally refer to as the Death Zone. Doctors say that the human body can only stand to be up that high for about 48 hours before extreme altitude sickness symptoms like HACE set in. And it's not just the lack of oxygen but the lowered atmospheric pressure that will literally kill you if you stay too long. Since I'm climbing without oxygen, I have to be very careful to monitor my condition. Of course, one of the side effects of extreme altitude sickness is a loss of judgment or reasoning power. So I have to be dispassionate and judge how bad my condition is getting before it gets too bad for me to do something about it (which, of course, is going down the mountain to denser air).

So I'm really gambling that I'll be able to get to the South Col, have the summit winds die down immediately, spend a half night trying to rest, and then heading straight for the summit the next morning. Otherwise, I'll have to come down to Camp 3 or maybe to Camp 2 to rest. I'm definitely feeling the altitude here, but I'm raring to go higher. Pray for me.

In the meantime, I'm continuing to stuff down as much food and water as I can.

May 19, 2003, Camp 3. Elevation 24,500 feet.
Well, I'm still at Camp 3. The winds have died down here, but there is still a plume coming off Everest's summit. It was tough for me to stay put, but I have to keep my head in charge and not my gut. I can feel my body deteriorating in this altitude, so it is a gamble staying here that I'll get too weak to make it to the summit. However, I have no choice. I'm comforted by the knowledge that during my acclimatization climbs, I spent two nights up here with no detrimental effects.

I can periodically feel my toes tingling in areas where I've gotten frostbite on previous expeditions. Another effect of altitude is that circulation in the extremities decreases as the body concentrates oxygen-rich blood in the body's core to preserve organs and to keep warm. I've paid as much attention to wearing light weight/high insulating clothes as I have to my conditioning. But it's still difficult to stay warm all over.

I'm in a small one-man tent so that my body and stove have to heat as little air as possible. But it's definitely cozy. In here with me is all my gear, water, stove, and fuel.

I try to exert as little physical effort as possible to conserve energy and warmth. High altitude climbers get very philosophical waiting around in tents with no one to talk to. I periodically pull the cover back from my tent-top clear plastic window to watch the clouds go by, inventing fantasy shapes. I also watch other climbers coming up the Lhotse Face to the camp here. They all look the same from a distance. A few slow climbing steps and a pause to rest with heaving chests trying to draw in the thin air.

I know that higher up it will be much worse. There may be many climbers moving in a train, but we'll all be in our own private hells battling the pain determined to push higher, drawing on our mental reserves to keep slowly going ever higher.

I'm hoping to climb up to the South Col tomorrow afternoon.

Dispatches

 





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