This morning the baby wipes were frozen solid, a hypoallergenic brick of
sweet smell. Two pens had already exploded, leaking blue ink onto my
climbing harness, and the water bottle near my head was pure ice. Minor
mishaps, considering where we are. Rock falls could be heard all night,
fueling brief dreams of avalanches.
People often ask what life is like at altitude: Imagine not bathing for 10
days, wearing a hat to bed to keep the warmth in, eating out of necessity,
not hunger. This is life at 21,300 feet, where a plate of warm food
becomes cold within seconds. Even liquids are difficult to swallow, as a gag
reflex is common after the tenth cup of hot Tang.
The whole team gathered in the sun outside our dining tent at 8:00 a.m. to
work out the game plan for the upcoming days. Eric Simonson and our
sirdar, Dawa Nuru, determined the number of tents, sleeping bags, pads,
radios, fuel and stoves that need to be carried up to Camp VI, the last camp
before the summit. "In five days we could be on our way home," said Eric.
After seven weeks of being together, the first words hinting at our
departure seemed as distant as the plume cloud above us on Everest's summit.
The team looks tired, most have high-altitude coughs, and more days spent at
altitude will only take their toll. Today will be the climbers' last trip up
to the North Col.
"Don't waste your batteries," Andy Politz
reminded everyone about their
radios. "Sleep with them, keep them warm. We need them to work even after a
summit attempt, if things go wrong." Just five days ago, the Ukrainians lost
radio contact with their climbers who had disappeared above Camp VI.
Conrad Anker cooks a meal at altitude.
At noon we waited for the climbers with the 16mm camera by the crampon dump
at the top of the moraine just
below the base of the North Col. This is where climbers cache their
crampons—about 40 minutes above Advance Base Camp—the spot where they
have to sit for a moment and put on their harnesses, crampons and get out
their ice axes. It's the point where hiking stops and climbing begins, where
every step beyond is on the mountain itself, on the glacial ice and snow
that moves slowly off Everest, down to lower ground.
Simonson's strategy is to put our strength in the summit team. Conrad
Anker will attempt to climb the Second Step
as if it has never been
climbed before, as Mallory and Irvine
would have tackled it in 1924. By analyzing the rock
face as a rock climber would, Anker's climb will help us piece together
Mallory and Irvine's final hours. Could Mallory and Irvine have surmounted
this technically challenging part of the route? Anker will not use the
ladder that is there today, carried up by a Chinese expedition in 1975 and
used by every climber since. We want to determine the amount of time it will
take Conrad to "free" the Second Step, a clue to the puzzle of whether
Mallory and Irvine could have made it to the summit before nightfall. Jake
Norton, Tap Richards, and Andy Politz will also be climbing with Anker. And
all but Politz will be climbing Everest for the first time.
Check back in the days ahead as the team moves up the mountain.