Thanks to everyone who followed the trip. We appreciate your thoughts and encouragement. Often the support from home is the fuel that gets you through to where you need to go (home safely).
Altitude has a number of remarkable effects on the body, most of which are poorly understood. The high altitude environment is so foreign from the one for which our bodies were designed that we have an extremely difficult time coping and/or compensating even for just a short period of time. The process of oxygenating the blood becomes exceedingly difficult. Basic motor functions are compromised and eventually the lack of perfusion of oxygen to the body’s cells makes maintaining healthy tissue impossible. Those looking to sensationalize love to refer to the “Death Zone,” the altitude above which the human body can no longer acclimatize and thus begins to starve itself of oxygen and tissue death occurs. Generally this elevation is agreed to be 8,000 meters, but there is no magical threshold and this process begins at different elevations for each of us.
Despite popular belief, lack of oxygen is not the culprit of these debilitating symptoms. As high as 70,000’ the amount of oxygen in the air remains constant at 21%. Rather, a decrease in atmospheric pressure is the real villain. Less densely packed molecules reduce the available oxygen as well as impair respiration efficiency.
Under ideal conditions (sea level: 1013 millibars) the diaphragm and intercostals muscles contract, opening up the chest cavity and creating a low pressure in the lungs. Surrounding air rushes in trough the mouth and nose to equalize the pressure differential. This process is known as Negative Pressure Breathing. Once filled, air in the lungs travels through progressively narrowing passages called bronchioles until it reaches the alveoli. This system is often referred to as the “respiratory tree”, and like the leaves of a tree, the alveoli is where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place.
At 8,000 meters, however, the average atmospheric pressure is 350 millibars, roughly 1/3 of that at sea level. When the diaphragm contracts creating a negative pressure, the gradient with the ambient air pressure is much less pronounced resulting in far less air rushing into the lungs. Moreover, the air molecules are less densely packed so the available oxygen is further reduced. The physics around which our bodies were designed are altered at altitude, and as a result our ability to nurture our cells with oxygen through the process of respiration suffers.
Though one could not live at these elevations, climbers have long been darting in and out of these inhospitable high altitude environments in search of the summit. The idea is to enter and exit upper elevations before the negative effects of altitude are able to take hold of the body. Beyond minimizing ones exposure with light and fast assaults on high peaks, bottled oxygen is often used to increase the length of time the body can spend at these elevations as well as increase respiration efficiency.
Our intention was always to climb and ski with oxygen. Climbing an 8,000 meter peak is difficult, skiing an 8,000 meter peak is extremely difficult, while skiing and documenting the descent of an 8,000 meter peak is an exceptional pain in the ass. This is especially so on a mountain like Lhotse that has never been skied and extends well into the so-called “Death Zone” at 8,516 meters. Kris and I agreed to do everything in our power to increase our chances of success as the odds were stacked heavily against us. We would carry all of our own loads, which would include the precious gas that would hopefully help us reach the summit.
The days leading to our summit push were extremely difficult. Our rest day at Camp II was spent on a rescue of some climbers who did not know when to say when. The rescue extended late into the night with Kris and I suiting up in our down suits and heading onto the mountain twice that night. At 1:00 am we crawled into our tent exhausted. Miraculously all parties were still alive.
The next day we woke and continued to Camp III. We were cooked from the night before and the loads were heavy, but we still managed good time. The views were spectacular that evening with clouds dancing around Pumo Ri and Cho Oyo in the setting sun. We were tired but felt good.
The trip to Camp IV was brutal. We added two bottles of oxygen, a stove and fuel to our already heavy loads. Our bodies strained under the additional weight as we slowly continued up the Lhotse Face. Progress was slow. I felt almost lethargic as I forced myself to ascend the fixed lines. My coughing fits were becoming more pronounced and frequent. At around 7,300 meters I decided I had enough. If I were going to have enough energy for a summit push and ski descent I was going to have to ease the pain a bit. I broke out the oxygen and turned it to a low flow, just enough to get me to Camp IV. The effects were immediately noticeable and Kris soon joined in. The loads remained heavy but now felt manageable and our pace quickened.
Camp IV sits high atop the Lhotse Face just a couple hundred meters below the mouth of the couloir, which carves a direct path to the summit. Kris and I gladly shed our packs and began settling in. We chopped ice for brewing water and took our positions in the cramped tent. We hoped a few hours rest would give us the energy needed for the remaining 800 meters to the summit.
Resting at 7,700 meters (25,250’) is a bit of a misnomer. The body expends and immense amount of energy just to maintain itself. Every breath taxes the body. Despite this, excitement in the tent was high. Months of preparation and weeks of climbing, carrying loads and acclimatizing were about to be put to the test. We joked about my increasing coughing fits and bouts of dry heaving and vomiting. After a few hundred more meters of climbing it would all be down hill. The thought was almost incomprehensible to me. Once again I was so close to reaching of one of my greatest dreams.
We were to start climbing at 1:00 am. Sharing a sleeping bag, we tried to sleep. I couldn’t. More than excitement kept me from nodding off, however. Every time I lay down breathing became difficult and intense coughing fits would erupt. After a particularly violent episode Kris asked, “Are you all right, man.”
I thought for a few seconds and then replied, “No, I’m pretty sure I have pulmonary edema.” In fact, I was sure I had pulmonary edema, a build up of fluids in the lungs. By now a low gurgling could be heard with my every breath. There was no choice. Our midnight stroll would no longer take us towards the summit; we had to descend while I still had the strength to do so under my own power. It was an extremely daunting task but both Kris and I knew time was of the essence. We knew the entire mountain was listening to our radio transmissions, waiting to respond. Kris and I have relied on each other many times in the past and I was now relying on him to escort me through the night to safety. A rescue was the last possible option.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is one of the bodies less understood reactions to altitude. There are two primary causes for the accumulation of fluid in the lungs. The first is a build-up of pressure in the pulmonary vessels called pulmonary hypertension. Second is a spontaneous increase in the permeability of the vascular walls. The combined increase in vascular pressure as well as permeability of vessel walls allows plasma, the fluid portion of blood, to seep through vessel walls and into the lungs. It is not completely understood why these reactions occur, but the outcome can be fatal. Beyond medications and oxygen, which can help stabilize a patient, descending is the only cure for HAPE.
The decision to descend was easy, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t emotional. It had taken a lot of time, effort and luck to get us to where we were and our goal was within sight. Until this point the expedition had gone according to plan and both Kris and I, aside from a few hard days, had felt strong and confident throughout the trip. It was all unraveling in the 11th hour. I had to go down, that was clear. What killed me, though, was that Kris was healthy and my condition was shattering his hopes of success as well.
Partnerships are what enrich your experiences in the mountains. You see each other at your highest highs and your lowest lows. You carry each other when your down and you allow each other to achieve things that normally wouldn’t be attainable alone. The flip side is sometimes you are forced to make sacrifices. Sometimes you have to put your ambitions aside for the sake of your partner. I knew there would be no discussion. Kris and I have had a long and very strong partnership. Once my condition became apparent Kris never once mentioned the summit. We had a new objective, to get me down safely.
Kris, Hennie and I would all agree, this was an amazing expedition. The amount of laughter and smiles shared along the way more than make up for the disappointing outcome. If you’ve played in the mountains long enough you know that things can change in an instant, and they did. I know Kris will never hold the outcome of this trip against me. It’s just how things shook out. There will be other expeditions. For this I will always be grateful. The Selfless nature of our partnership is why Kris and I will continue to venture into the mountains together for many years to come. I hope Hennie is there to tag along as well.
Thank You Kris.
Almost there. I stop, hunch over, and breathe deeply. The dry air agitates the bronchioles and leaves a searing sensation in my lungs. The coughing starts and slowly builds into a fit. Soon the spasms trigger my gag reflex and I start dry heaving. Luckily I haven’t had anything to eat or drink in hours so all I can produce is a bit of spit. My eyes are blurry and filled with tears from the episode but I can make out Kris with his camera carefully trained on me capturing everything.
“So, how do you feel?”
“I actually feel really good.”
After the recent events most people would consider this a blatant lie, an attempt to maintain my hardened mountain man appearance. Maybe so, but in all honesty I do feel great. At 7,400 meters coughing fits and the occasional dry heaving spell are to be expected. My legs and head, however, feel good. Progress is slow, but steady. I look out from the Yellow Band and the entire Western CWM and much of the Lhotse Face falls away beneath me. The scale is hard to comprehend.
It’s been four years since I have taken in this view, and quite honestly it is a sight I never expected to see again. In 2007 I traded my services guiding climbers on the lower mountain in exchange for a chance to climb and ski Lhotse. It was a “pie in the sky” dream, but the opportunity was there so I decided to go for it, no matter how small my chances of success. As a very wise man once said, “You have to show up if you want to go skiing.” I was showing up, but beyond that I wasn’t too hopeful.
I was given my chance. While the rest of my team was summitting Everest I quietly set off alone on my own conquest. As I climbed I periodically checked the progress of the long line of headlamps, which resembled traffic on an early morning commute to the summit of the worlds highest mountain. At 8,300 meters my oxygen system failed. Through the dark I could make out what I thought was the top of the couloir less than 200 meters above me. Alone and with zero margin for error there was little I could do but take my skis off my pack and start down. The descent was a slow, painstaking process: one turn at a time.
Many people ask me if my I was disappointed by my misfortune. Some people would consider it a failure. In all honesty, it is one of the ski descents I am most proud of. A lot of hard work and a lot of luck allowed me to reach the heights I did. A little bad luck kept me from the summit.
Once again I step into my skis for an acclimatization ski on the Lhotse Face. The next time Kris and I make our way to this elevation it will be on our summit push. It’s not often that you are given the opportunity to achieve your dreams and it’s even rarer that you’re given a second chance.
It’s safe to say I feel damn good.
I’ve grown accustom to waiting in the tent for the weather to improve, it’s a part of every major mountain I climb. This trip is no different, except this time the wait has the anticipation of months of planning and years of desire all wrapped up into these last few days, hours, and minutes of not knowing the final outcome. When the desire to achieve something great takes control of your life it isn’t always healthy and yet the growth I feel I attain from stripping myself from most creature comforts and pushing my body and mind to the maximum provides enlightenment that truly is a great achievement. In retrospect, somehow the lens of life looks differently and my values shift with a new focus, I somehow appreciate the simpler things in life. My family has greater importance, food, smells, my own home, the way my sheets feel lying next to my wife, everything takes on new meaning. These are the simple things that make me appreciate how good life is and yet here I am stripped of all those pleasures pushing to my limit.
Five days ago Jamie and I skied from 7400 meters near the top on the Lhotse face, each turn a mixed bag of elation and suffering. It’s been a dream for years to make turns down the Lhotse face, one of the largest continuous faces for skiing in the world, spanning nearly 2000m of skiing potential on one slope plus 500m tucked in the couloir leading to the summit. Without the atmospheric pressure present at lower elevations to force oxygen into my lungs I could only make ten turns before the lack of it would lay me on my side. Smiling and laughing at the exhaustion of skiing in such a preposterous place I couldn’t help but love the feeling. Each segment of the face linked by a first turn and followed by another, and then another, my legs were strong but eventually my lungs would provide the reality check pulling the emergency brake on the process. My brain fogged with emotion from the position.
We’re back in base camp waiting for the current storm to deposit all the snow it can muster into the Lhotse couloir. We can only hope it leaves us with a fresh canvas to carve our skis down. The conditions were good last week and we felt strong, we’re being very picky about how good we want the conditions to be before our summit push. Those first turns of the trip were the kind you remember for a lifetime just because of where they were. At this point I could go home and be content, well maybe not completely content but I would be damn happy just to have made the turns we did from the lofty heights of the yellow band. Most never get the opportunity to ski from that altitude on such a beautiful face but for us it was a strong reminder that half of our total objective still hung above us. Skiing only the lower third of the Lhotse face from camp 3 would be fun and worthy of a shout out but instead we want more. We want our dream of being the first people to ski off the summit of this elusive mountain.
As I sit here and work on editing videos with Hennie or plan the last details with Jamie, I can’t help but think about all my dreams that haven’t come true. There are so many in my life that I’ve pushed for only to fall short. That’s not to say those dreams are bad or a failure, dreaming is what makes us human with desire to achieve beyond our day-to-day life. Its’ rare to hear the stories of the trips that never work out, those that involve months of planning and suffering only to end up forgotten. I can only hope for a few great turns on a patch of snow that marks a note in the history books worthy of being passed on. That’s for you to decide.
In a few days we will climb back up the mountain in our last effort to dream the wildest dream and hopefully make those first tracks off the summit of Lhotse. While we’ve joined the short list of people that have made a descent of the Lhotse face the true prize is waiting to be attained. Wish us the best of luck!
Up? Again? Already? It feels like yesterday we returned from our last rotation on the mountain and we’re already preparing to head up again. The past three days in Base Camp have been a blur of eating, sleeping, and working on the video dispatches that are supposed to be flowing from our satellite modem on a regular basis. We’re over a month into this expedition and for the first time in all of my travels I have yet to open a book. Normally the ample amount of tent time on trips like these offer the perfect opportunity to catch up on all of the reading I have set aside over the previous months. This time, for some reason, there always seems to be something that needs to be done- immediately.
During our last rotation Kris and I punched up to Camp III at just over 7,000 meters. Maybe a more accurate description is that we slowly, labored our way up the Lhotse Face to Camp III in stifling heat and under heavy loads. It sounds dramatic, but the Western CWM/Lhotse Face is one of the hottest places I have ever been. At one point the thermometer on my watch read 1080. Combined with the elevation the heat becomes almost unbearable, and once the sun is out, inescapable. The high altitude environment is one of extremes- bitter cold, searing heat, howling winds, and heavy snow.
Despite this Kris and I were able to make good time and deliver a valuable load of equipment to Camp III. We sat for several hours on our future tent platform light headed, slightly delirious and took in the view. For the first time we sat at eye level with many of the mountains around us. Pumo Ri loomed over Base Camp, Cho Oyu and Gyachung Kang stood proud in the distance, and Nuptse, just to our south, almost looked within reach. Mt. Everest and Lhotse, however, still rose impressively above us with their summits nowhere in sight.
Tomorrow we head up the mountain for our third and final rotation before our summit push. It will be the first time we take our skis above Base Camp and it will be Hennie’s first foray into the Ice Fall. It’s safe to say there’s some nervous anticipation in camp.
There is no question this next rotation is going to be a painful one. The game plan is to spend a night at Camp III, carry a load to Camp IV at 7,800 meters and ski the Lhotse Face back down. It will be our first time on skis in over a month but conditions appear to be ripe for a ski descent. Chris Davenport’s and Neil Beidleman’s ski from Camp III was inspirational and leaves us hungry and motivated to ski the face in its entirety. Hennie hopes to perform his magic and capture our descent from Camp II.
The entire team is wondering how they will do with the new elevation gains. As a good friend of mine would say, “We’ll all be experts in a bit.”