Part 7: Lhakpa La and Lhakpa Ri
Advanced Base Camp and Lhakpa Ri
So, in the past few entries I’ve talked about the problems that come from inexperience at high altitude but this has been more of an academic discussion. Now we get to the part where I can describe exactly the real life experience that shows how I came to the realization that this was not complete bullshit. I’ve read a number of articles about the commercialization of Everest summiting – how clients come to Nepal and learn how to put crampons on for the first time while they are at base camp, getting ready to go through the Khumbu icefall. It is not that I don’t believe that this actually happens, it is just that I am, well, flabbergasted that there are others out there who came there as unprepared as I was and arguably showed even poorer judgment since their plan involved doing far more dangerous things, like attempting to summit Everest itself.
Anyway, on our first full day at ABC we hiked up to Rabu La, a pass that adjoins Everest’s Northeast Ridge. Our head guide, who had previously summited Everest itself, advertised this as our taste of actually climbing on Everest itself. I guess the hike up to ABC didn’t count for actually being on Everest but hiking up Rabu La did. We are in full mountaineering mode for this hike – wearing crampons, carrying ice axes and roped up (newsbreak – I actually knew how to put crampons on before I left for Nepal). The hike was challenging for many reasons but no more so than the process of getting out of ABC. Between the glacier and the camp is a mini ice fall – the glacier breaks up from a continuous mass of ice into a series of blocks.
Truth in advertising – I did say this was a mini-ice fall and I want to assure the reader that there is no comparison at all between this and the Khumbu icefall which sits on the other side of the mountain in Nepal. Nevertheless, climbing up and down through the remains of the glacier was tiring, at least for me. With about 30 to 45 minutes of effort we got through this and were out on the relatively solid mass of the glacier. By the time we got back to camp in the afternoon, having climbed Rabu La and negotiated the ice fall twice, I was utterly done in. I had to rest for about an hour before I could think of eating or drinking. As I’ve mentioned previously, drinking water is a big deal at this point in the mountains. You need to drink a minimum of 6 liters a day to stay properly hydrated. But, it is amazingly tiring to drink even a little. It should come as no surprise but this, definitely, was the turning point for me, among all my other miscalculations. I was now getting seriously dehydrated but did not recognize that fact. At 21,000 ft your brain is sufficiently addled so that you can’t really appreciate that fact. The technical phrase is that your “executive functioning is compromised”. Reading is one thing, living it is completely different. I simply stopped thinking straight and my body started accumulating a debt that I couldn’t pay off.
Perhaps not shockingly, I had a really bad night after the Rabu La hike. I was nauseous and slept fitfully and had no interest in eating the following morning. Looking back, it is easy to identify this as the earliest stages of altitude sickness but despite the mandatory Kathmandu video, I didn’t consider this at the time, I just felt cruddy. For those interested, check out the Lake Louise AMS criteria and you can see exactly what stage I was at. The next day was a rest day and I took it easy but I didn’t do much better and had the chills most of the following night. I woke up the next morning feeling rotten and running a low-grade fever. I got the sense that I was actively being evaluated by my companions (i.e., “is this guy going to screw up my trip?”). Everyone else seemed pretty chipper which of course was really frustrating. They checked my blood oxygenation and pulse rate and I was doing okay (well, doing okay for being at 20,000 ft – if this was sea level, I’d be on my way to the intensive care ward). But clearly I had some sort of problem so I spent another day resting in camp and started a course of antibiotics. Of course there are physicians out there shuddering at this point – no evidence that I had a bacterial infection so why would I start antibiotics? Well, what else was I going to do?
The following day was the beginning of the final phase of the trip – the climb up to the Lhakpa La to establish a high camp, then the climb of Lhakpa Ri, followed by a hike out via the Kharta Valley. This would get us to the pivotal point of the 1921 Reconnaissance Expedition. I badly wanted to continue but was now pretty weak between a cough, a slight temperature and mild altitude sickness. Our lead guide presented me with several options. And for this, I can’t say enough for how much I appreciated his leadership and guidance. He could have just given up on me and sent me back down the hill with the Sherpas but he mapped out a plan to allow me to take a shot. I chose to attempt the climb with the rest of the group. The fall back plan was exactly that – for me to back out from ABC and return to Base Camp with the support time and then drive with them to Kharta where I could hike in and meet the rest of the team as they came out.
We get up early the next day and headed out. Lhakpa La sits at around 22,500ft. Once again we first scrambled through the ice fall then got out onto the glacier and proceeded up towards Lhakpa La. I quickly fell behind the rest of the group, roped only to one of our sherpas. Things started to degrade even further for me. My pace slowed and in the low temperatures my hydration system froze up (this is why kangaroo packs are anathema in mountaineering but I hadn’t gotten the memo on that – when I got home I vowed never to use a hydration pack again). Without a water source, I started to dehydrated even more. Remember, I hadn’t kept myself hydrated properly for the past 5 days and now I wasn’t “hydrating” at all because I had no water source.
I remember stopping to put on gloves but couldn’t find them in the pack – only a pair of thin liner gloves. At this altitude my cognitive skills were, well, abysmal, and of course I didn’t stop to consider any of the problems that follow as a consequence of these issues (news break: my mountaineering gloves, were, of course, in my pack the whole time). My pace was very slow, I was taking 2 or 3 breaths for every step. Finally, in the mid-afternoon, at around 6600m I consult with my sherpa, still a bit short of Lhakpa La. Do we go on or retreat to ABC? As we discussed this, a snow squall came up and visibility dropped to less than 10 feet. Perhaps shockingly, given the then-current level of my cognitive skills, I actually felt the gravity of the situation – even on a trek, the consequences of a poor decision, poorly executed, can be quite serious. The decision was left up to me by my sherpa. If we continued, the last hour into high camp on the pass would be done in the dark. If we turned back now, we could make it to ABC by dusk. I recalled my experience on Mt. Lyell the previous year and made the difficult choice to return to ABC. As we turned around, the snow squall lifted and I could see down the slopes to the ice fall, with the North Col in the background – I was not at the top of the pass but I was still looking down on what Mallory saw for the first time, back in August of 1921. It would have to do. We got back to ABC before dark. I was exhausted, dehydrated and truly didn’t give a shit. It was just another day in the mountains …
(To be continued)