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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Recap Day 5 and onward: The day the expedition ended and things I learned along the way

Transitioning back to normal life takes time and yesterday was one of those days that I just needed the time to recover.  My stomach is not faring well so I slept and worked on my house.  Today, I am back to new so I continue on with my expedition recaps.

We were on Lobuche getting ready to climb further when we all decided we needed more information about Everest.  The information would help us plan the next few weeks.  Bear in mind, we had no idea what was taking place at EBC.  Since we were removed from the insanity, our information pipeline was via phone.  Dan made several calls to the expedition leaders he knew and heard definitive news from several that Everest was effectively closed.  Sherpa were being threatened if they climbed and our Sherpa - even though most wanted to climb - were not safe from these threats.  We all agreed that putting our guys at risk above and beyond the risks of mountaineering was not acceptable.  Dan kept pressing forward trying to figure out more about the remaining expeditions.  The news broke on 4/25 that our expedition was over.  Our last hope that the large Seven Summits expedition group - an expedition with over 100 Sherpa - would remain on the hill was ruled out by one call to the leader.  We needed these other Sherpa to help fix ropes above Camp 2.  The leader of Seven Summits said the icefall was too dangerous and his Sherpa were being threatened.  Our reliance on other teams meant that their decision was our decision.  It hit me there that our climb was over.  My climb on Everest would end before I had the opportunity to step onto the mountain.

When the news finally sunk in, I was totally deflated and even angered by the events.  How could so few affect so many?  I am not talking about the Sherpa who lost their lives but rather the militant group who threatened our peaceful Sherpa pals.  Why did these few men get to dictate the climb this year?  Many of you may not appreciate the gravity of that day and decision but I feel it today.  I am in no way rich.  Yes, I have more money than most people in the US but I work very hard - almost all weekends - and save so I can do these adventures.  The money loss stings.  I was able to do exactly what trekkers to EBC were allowed to do but I paid 10 times the rate for a trek.  The government and expedition leaders got paid their full share and I felt the situation required a different, more equitable share in the loss.  We paid for oxygen bottles at $500/bottle, food that would be stored for next year, Sherpa who stood in camp with us, and leaders who went home early.  Why were we left to foot the bill for all those goods and services?  The whole deal just stunk and I was angered just thinking about how much money I wasted.

Those feelings subsided over time but only because I was in the same boat with others.  Misery - at least my misery - loves company.  I was surrounded by good people who had prepared for the climb just like I prepared for it.  We all felt the sting.  For some, this year would be their last year due to funding.  I knew I could work some extra hours, avoid eating out much, and limit my discretionary spending.  Those steps might help me afford another permit and expedition fee next year or the year after.  Others may not be so fortunate.  I also have some research funding so that will help me get back on the hill.  

The loss forced us all to seek out other options.  Some in our expedition tried to get permits to climb from Tibet while others considered climbing without Sherpa support.  The latter was not really an option.   We knew that the icefall doctors would eventually take down the route - effectively stranding any climber above the icefall and forcing them to find a safe route through a maze of seracs and crevasses.  I knew both were non-options for me.  The Chinese government already denied my visa request earlier this year; they had no reason to grant one now that I was desperate.  Plus, I would need to pony up a huge sum of cash to get a visa, a climbing permit, transportation to Tibet, and then catch up with the rest of the SummitClimb group.  My friends Alex and Sam were pursuing the Tibet option but eventually they and all the rest of the Everest climbers were denied.  In fact, the Chinese government stopped issuing visas for all climbs in Tibet.   It was a strange move and just as unpredictable as they had proven to be over the past few months.  I was resigned to the fact that my climbing in Nepal ended with my summit on Lobuche.  It was a bittersweet moment where my emotions really came out.  While the rest of our team celebrated, I looked out at Everest and the surrounding peaks and wondered what if we could continue.  Those thoughts would drive me mad so I decided to celebrate with the rest and put my anger aside for more productive thoughts.

Another thing that kept me sane was the simple realization that I did everything I could do to control the outcome.  The climb ended not because I was unprepared but rather for circumstances that were beyond my control.  I took stock of my preparation and felt really good about both my fitness and acclimatization.  This year, I figured, would be a test run of my preparation and I felt I passed the test without question.  I was fit.  I was strong.  I was healthy.  All of these aspects were under my control and I was ready to climb.  Things could not have been better from that perspective.  I also learned some things that will help me better prepare for next year.  Here they are in no particular order:

  1. Plan my own meals:  I like to prepare my own meals and plan out menus.  Doing this over the years taught me that I have tastes that change as I go higher on a mountain.  Eating by someone else's plan/menu did not sit well with me.  I guess I like to control everything and a guided expedition takes away some of that control.  Next year, I intend to plan my own expedition meals.  Nutrition on a mountain is essential to staying strong and ready for the hard climbing ahead.  The longer I ate the expedition food, the less I felt like eating.  I had a good appetite so that wasn't the problem; I just could not tolerate the same flavors/foods.  My tastes change and I know how they change as I acclimatize.  Sweets become less appealing to me and I prefer salty foods with varying spices.  I knew this going into the expedition and figured my tastes would change out of necessity.  Well, I was wrong.  My tastes are predictable to me and I intend to meet them with my own menu.
  2. Climb with like-minded, well-prepared climbers:  I prefer to climb with strong(er) climbers and Everest ought to demand that only the strong show up to climb.  The popular media like to talk about the weak climbers - and there are some - but the reality is that most people I met at EBC and before were well-seasoned climbers.  Some climbers had really impressive resumes while even the weakest climbers had incredible athletic backgrounds.  Most were rugged and ready for the challenge.  Still, when I signed up for an expedition, I figured my expedition mates would all be equally fit and ready to climb independently.  In fact, I quietly hoped that I would not stand out much from the others.  My expectations were not exactly met and, in retrospect, they might have been unrealistic.  Next year, I plan to climb with people I know who are strong and well-prepared.  Sam and Alex fit the bill from this year.  They are young and experienced climbers and we immediately hit it off while trekking into EBC.  I look forward to climbing with them next year.  They have a great attitude about climbing and neither show any signs of fatigue...ever.
  3. Bring all my snacks from Kathmandu:  Everything costs money on Everest and those costs escalate as you ascend the Khumbu valley.  Sam Chappatte and I wanted to collect some data on the cost of simple items such as Coke, toilet paper, and water but we ran out of time and opportunities.  We figured that for each 100 meters gained, you could expect a significant price increase for all three items.  In some cases, the prices rose to usury levels.  Consider one case where my friend Neal Kushwaha and I enjoyed (in total) two bowls of noodle soup, two small bottles of Coke, and a can of sour cream and onion Pringles.  How much do you think we paid for this tantalizing spread in Gorak Shep (the last bit of civilization before EBC)?  $24.  Yep, we paid a mint for a small snack.  Next year, I intend to hire a porter to bring up these snacks.  The porter plus the original price would add up to peanuts.  Heck, we might even sell some in EBC to those who failed to prepare for the price gouging.
  4. Focus on acclimatization and lower-body strength:  If I find my workout time constrained by work or fatigue, I intend to focus more on acclimatization and lower-body strength.  Cardiovascular fitness is a given for me but if I had anything I would change it would be bulking up my legs a bit so when I do lose weight - an inevitable situation on the mountain - I will have some muscle mass to spare in my legs.  My upper body can be twigs for the purposes of climbing.  I rarely use my hands in mountaineering but I do use my upper body in skiing.  Everest has no skiing or at least none I could see unless you wanted a really good rock ski workout session.  Thus, I plan to decrease my time doing upper body strength and focus on my core and lower-body strength.  Also, when pressed, I will forgo any cardio training for straight hypoxic training or even mix in the intermittent hypoxic maximum intensity (IHMI) sessions to build cardio fitness at altitude.  Like I said above, I was very happy with my performance on the mountain; I just want to prepare for the future by learning from the past.
  5. Get healthy before leaving:  I left for Nepal with a nagging sinus infection.  Typically, I avoid antibiotics for these things and eventually they go away.  The hypoxic training probably reduced my body's ability to fight off the infection so I left with it and climbed with it throughout the entire time I was away.  I finally resorted to antibiotics after failing to kill it with my own immune system the preceding 8 weeks.  Yeah, I was stubborn.  Next year, I load up on anything that kills these beasties before I take off.  I want to start healthy.  There are plenty of opportunities to get sick on the hill.
So I end with these points and I intend to carry forward with the positives.  No sense dwelling on the past.  From this day forward, you will read what I am doing to prepare for next year.  Tomorrow, I intend to thank many of you for all your support.  If you are in the area, come by for a pint on Friday afternoons.  I should be at the Auld Shebeen from about 4pm until 7pm most Fridays.  If not, I will be floating around at our local pool.  Come by for drinks there too.  I bring a cooler with wine, beer, and snacks to share.  Thanks for reading and see you tomorrow with more positive news.