Paul Pottinger’s Adventures from the Top of the World

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Face the Face

Everest 2016  •  May 3

Circa 5 AM we started out towards the bergschrund in clear skies and cold, cold temperatures.  I began at the head of the pack, eager to make a good showing.  But, I knew better, because this would put me at risk of lung irritation.  Emily Johnston called me on it, as expected: “You need to slow down, doctor.”  And so I did, letting the faster team members pull away after we got the crampons on.  She was reassuring, as always: “This is not a speed trial.  This is about acclimatization, period.”

Summit of Lhotse crowned in plume of sunlit cloud. The proud, austere Lhotse Face falls away towards us. Our goal: Camp 3, in the rough-looking patch just right of midline, at a height just above the start of the dark nose of the Geneva Spur.
Summit of Lhotse crowned in plume of sunlit cloud. The proud, austere Lhotse Face falls away towards us. Our goal: Camp 3, in the rough-looking patch just right of midline, at a height just above the start of the dark nose of the Geneva Spur.
Pasang Kami gets his points on.
Pasang Kami gets his points on.
Kim Hess: Ball of Happiness.
Kim Hess: Ball of Happiness.
Glad I invested in this Feathered Friends suit. Holy schnikes it was cold.
Glad I invested in this Feathered Friends suit. Holy schnikes it was cold.

Our first break came at almost two hours, just below the ‘schrund.  I was surprised it took us that long to get to the base of the face, but there it is.  As usual, distances and scale are very deceiving up here.  The strategy is to drop down into the crevasse itself, then climb out on the other side after crossing a snow bridge.  We made this happen pretty smoothly; the overhanging wall served as a fine motivator for speed.

View of the Face from our first break. The ragged cliff running above us is called the Bergschrund. To cross it, we will drop down into it and then climb out via the diagonal snow ramp you see at center screen.
View of the Face from our first break. The ragged cliff running above us is called the Bergschrund. To cross it, we will drop down into it and then climb out via the diagonal snow ramp you see at center screen.
Closer view of the route, starting with snow ramp leading from the 'schrund, leading up into the blue ice of the right face. See the climbers above us, tiny black dots? Our Camp 3 is above all others... just on top of the circular shadow you see to the left of center, near the dark rock band.
Closer view of the route, starting with snow ramp leading from the ‘schrund, leading up into the blue ice of the right face. See the climbers above us, tiny black dots? Our Camp 3 is above all others… just on top of the circular shadow you see to the left of center, near the dark rock band.
Climbers from other expeditions begin to exit the 'schrund.
Climbers from other expeditions begin to exit the ‘schrund.
Looking back down the cwm from our break point. The view will begin to change dramatically from here, with a new POV from greater heights.
Looking back down the cwm from our break point. The view will begin to change dramatically from here, with a new POV from greater heights.
Heading towards the 'schrund, a notorious choke-point in the route, and just about the only section of the day with any true objective hazard (potential collapse of the top wall).
Heading towards the ‘schrund, a notorious choke-point in the route, and just about the only section of the day with any true objective hazard (potential collapse of the top wall).
Sunshine hits the floor of the cwm. The closer we get to the 'schrund, the more shadow we draw, which feels great.
Sunshine hits the floor of the cwm. The closer we get to the ‘schrund, the more shadow we draw, which feels great.
Pasang Kami's demeanor is all business. Emily Johnston's... not so much.
Pasang Kami’s demeanor is all business. Emily Johnston’s… not so much.
An auxiliary rap line can be seen at center screen... great for going down, but there's only one way up this sucker.
An auxiliary rap line can be seen at center screen… great for going down, but there’s only one way up this sucker.
We approach the 'schrund.
We approach the ‘schrund.
Bottom of the 'schrund, and we climb our way out the other side. Bob Lowry leads the way here with authority.
Bottom of the ‘schrund, and we climb our way out the other side. Bob Lowry leads the way here with authority.
Bob Lowry makes progress on his way out of the bergschrund. (Photo: Nicky Lowry)
Bob Lowry makes progress on his way out of the bergschrund. (Photo: Nicky Lowry)
Check out the climber third from the right. I believe he is a right leg amputee. That is amazing!
Check out the climber third from the right. I believe he is a right leg amputee. That is amazing!
IMG_20160503_113528216_HDR
Looking back at one of the ice bulges, down the cwm. (Photo: Nicky Lowry)
IMG_20160503_094859345-2
Nicky loves it up here. (Photo: Bob Lowry)
Bob rocks the break. (Photo: Nicky Lowry)
Bob rocks the break. (Photo: Nicky Lowry)

Above the schrund we emerged from shadow into the sunshine, and got down to the business of climbing the Lhotse Face.  Almost immediately the route doglegged right, away from the beautiful smooth left side, and up into a bulge of bulletproof blue ice.  This was tough going.  I paced myself at 8-10 breaths per step, but after a particularly tough move would surge to 20 breaths per step.  Bear in mind that on most any other slope, at most any other elevation, the breath : step ratio is about 1 : 1.  Up here, my goal ratio is three breaths per step.  So, this was very, very slow going for me.

At a break soon after the bergschrund.
At a break soon after the bergschrund.
Pemba Gyaltzen in his element.
Pemba Gyaltzen in his element.
Pasang Kami rocks.
Pasang Kami rocks.

The fixed lines here are true climbing rope, with a real kernmantle that the ascender teeth can dig into with authority, plus a nice dynamic action, and also a lovely hand.  In summary, these lines are far more fun to work with than the Korean twisted lines of lower on the mountain. There were plenty of times when I shoved the ascender up as high as I could reach, then leaned back and trusted it 100%, resting on the line while catching my breath.  These were fleeting moments, because any true rest would trigger an upwelling of sputum and reactive cough.

The face was not particularly steep; rather, it was so variable that it was just about impossible to develop a solid rhythm.  Rush, wait, start up again, slow down.  Exhausting work, and I suppose this was made worse by my lung issues.

In many cases, the thin dusting of snow from the prior couple of days made things substantially worse: the snow was just the depth of my crampon points, rendering them less reliable for biting into the blue ice beneath.  Knocking snow from the soles was yet another chore to attend to.

Looking back at Camp 2 from well above the bergschrund.
Looking back at Camp 2 from well above the bergschrund.
Looking up at the Face from one of many ice bulges. Camp 3 is obscured from view by terrain features.
Looking up at the Face from one of many ice bulges. Camp 3 is obscured from view by terrain features.
Same location, panning a bit to the left. The snow field is so very seductive from here....
Same location, panning a bit to the left. The snow field is so very seductive from here….
Selfie at a break.
Selfie at a break.
Siva rocks the fixed lines.
Siva rocks the fixed lines.
Emily sweeps with high style and authority.
Emily sweeps with high style and authority.

There were plenty of other teams on the lines that day, which is no surprise.  Some were headed to their version of Camp 3 to spend the night, others just wanted to reach camp and then head right back to sleep at Camp 2.  Managing traffic is part of mountaineering up here, and we are all trained to do it.  No miscommunications or close calls on the lines…. But, still, I saw plenty of technique that made me shudder.  I will not go into details etc, but I will say once again that I literally said out loud to myself on more than one occasion, “Thank god I am climbing with IMG.”

Looking down the cwm from a new elevation, with new POV.
Looking down the cwm from a new elevation, with new POV.

Camp 3 is really two totally different camps.  There’s the place where everyone else stays, just a short distance above the ‘schrund… and then there’s IMG, which is about 300 feet higher on the face.  The obstacles between the camps are small—or would seem small on any other face.  But, above 23,000 feet, every step is tough.  Eventually we made it within sight of the HimEx camp, but I had no idea how much farther our camp was beyond that.  In total exhaustion, I sat down in the snow and took a drink of lukewarm water.  Then I noticed a unique figure standing next to the HimEx tents: Justin Merle!  Turns out our camps are superimposed on each other, ours is just invisible from below due to the steepness of the slope.  Pasang Kami’s brother, Mingma, came down from camp and took my pack from me, which was a huge blessing, and we made our way up the last 50 meters to Camp 3.  I was totally gobsmacked by our elevation: This was much, much higher than I had envisioned.  The Yellow Band snaked along below us.  The nose of the Geneva Spur lay below us.  Getting to the South Col looked more like a traverse left than a climb (this is an illusion, but a good one).  Oh my god we are climbing Everest now.

Clouds move in. A short time later, stinging snow squalls rolled down the face.
Clouds move in. A short time later, stinging snow squalls rolled down the face.

Camp 3 sits on a narrow platform that has been chiseled from the snow and ice.  The tents are clustered together in a line, and a narrow catwalk runs in front of them.  Justin guided me along this catwalk to the last tent.  Inside: An insulating pad and an oxygen cylinder (just in case I got into trouble with HAPE in the night).  Off came the crampons, and in I went.  After a short time I was unpacked and settled.  Toughest part was inflating my Therm-a-Rest pad (three breaths for me, one for the pad).  I got into my -40 degree sleeping bag and tried to drink as much water as possible… I was able to down a liter within an hour, which is pretty good for those conditions.  My MRE was heated quickly and handed back to me: Beef stew with noodles & vegetables.  I’ve eaten lots of instant meals up high, but this one took the cake for being unpalatable and unpleasant.  Over the course of 20 minutes, I ate every scrap of it.  Eat or perish.  Do it.  I also forced down some sweet snack food, and more hot water.

My tent mate was my trusty climbing partner, Pasang Kami.  He climbed into the tent after me and was unpacked and ready to sleep in a flash.  His kit is very spartan compared with mine.  I had a hard time making out whether he was under-equipped or whether I was over-burdened.  Mostly the latter, I think.

The goal of this night is to have the toughest night of your life, breathing ambient air at 23,700 feet, in order to trigger a beneficial acclimatization reaction.  It is a time-honored tradition at IMG, and although few other outfits still go this way, I thought of it as a point of honor and pride.  The messages of support poured in via my InReach, and I cannot tell you how they boosted my spirits.  Let’s do this.  My goal was not to sleep, but rather to merely survive the night.

But, sleep I did.  I was just too knackered to stay awake.  In my deluded, hypoxic state of mind, I experienced a variety of hallucinations and fixed beliefs.  Some of these may have been referable to the wonderful book I am reading, One Summer:  America 1927 by Bill Bryson.  But who knows.  A more memorable thought process: For every time I executed a proper breath (in via the nostrils, out via the mouth, all under cover of the buff and in a humidity-cave built from my sleeping bag), a family overseas would receive a small amount of money.  In fact, the left nostril and right nostril went to different families; I forget about the left, but the right one went to support a middle class family of four in Australia, in the 1950’s.  They sat there on their burnt-sienna shag carpet, dad smoking a pipe, watching me breathe time and again.  If I stopped breathing temporarily (this happens all the time at altitude, even with acetazolamide on board), they became a bit cross.  You can do it, mate.  Go on.  BREATHE.

By far the most uncomfortable—shockingly uncomfortable—sensation was the dryness of my mouth and throat.  We’ve all had the experience of waking up in winter with a dry mouth or sore throat.  Now, multiply that sensation by 20.  I literally peeled my uvula from my palate with my tongue, and it took a bit of force and maneuvering, popping off with a sickly sound reminiscent of carving chicken on a cutting board.  Drinking water, or gargling or swishing, provided virtually no relief.  Cough drops made things worse, coating the mouth with an odd, slick residue.

Breath after breath, minute after minute, hour after hour it went.  I tried to read for a time, which was a welcome distraction (Warren G. Harding was an absolute monster, corrupt to the core… I had forgotten all about this).  But, time ticked by slowly indeed.

By the time light began to penetrate the tent walls, I was very happy.  I had no real breathing trouble, I had slept from time to time, and aside from the world’s driest mouth I felt pretty damn good.  You did it.

Now, all we had to do was get back to Camp 2.

Word of the day: Uvula.    

26 thoughts on “Face the Face

  1. I think your hallucination about the burnt-sienna shag carpet originated with our family room carpet in Danville. The one with “the urine spot.” Don’t know how you managed to sleep at that altitude. Amazing.

    1. Yes! I agree, that was indeed the look! Forgot the origin of the urine spot… let’s leave that one alone. Hope Paris is lovely!

      1. Paris is spectacular. Just got back from the military museum. You would have loved all the armor. Amazing stuff. Took a photo for you. We are thinking of you and look forward to each blog. Matt and I howled with laughter about your nostril hallucination, or whatever it was! Amazing to have been at that altitude without oxygen, especially with your lung issue. Hope you are recovering well. Xox

  2. Having had pneumonia three times, one time spending 12 days in Cedars in LA, I can relate to the breathing issues. Then add the fact that you are almost at the summit, unimaginable! Pictures and writing are keeping me going. Thrilled you have been able to get a break and rest. Prayers continue from so many. Love and blessings.

  3. It’s wonderful that you keep a sense of humor through it all! Love all the pictures…such an unforgiving terrain, so cruel and frightening, and yet at the same time, so beautiful! Hang in there! One foot in front of the other…you will soon be at the top of the world! ( Bob’s sister….)

      1. So I made the mistake of reading this extraordinary account last night as I went to bed. Not sure I will ever be able to breathe again without thinking about each breath. I had indigestion cured by an Alka-Seltzer. You have bloody sputum cured by nothing. The pics are amazing. So is the writing. So is the writer. Can hardly wait for the next episode. Love you, Doc.

        1. Love you Dad, thanks! Glad you are following along, that is super. Miss you. All fine here, I promise.

  4. What a nightmare experience! That you got through it is something to be proud of and tell your grandchildren about. You could have your uvula removed, as I did. What are they good for anyway?! Love you!

  5. Great job P2.

    3 more hard days. You can do 3 more hard days. It will be so worth it. And you don’t want to have to go back and do this again do you?

    I think there is a Chilly Mac and Cheese MRE that tastes better? Agreed the the beef is awful.

    Also agreed,,, Camp 3 to Camp 4 is more or less a traverse,,, I’m not counting it as a hard day.

    It’s a huge mental boost when you make it to the South Col. So you can look forward to that new confidence when you make it up there. I hope you are putting some thought into what you think you will be able to best eat in Camp 4?. Some seemed to do well with Ramen up there. I hadn’t properly planned my food at Camp 4.

  6. Stick to it P2, as you said you are doing it! One step at a time! As always, have fun and be safe. I wish you as minimal suffering as possible. Hugs from little Diego, Jason and me. Xo.

  7. Paul, I am hanging on every word and marveling at each photo. Keep kicking butt–breath by breath. You are a total inspiration. As Standad says, You can dooooeeeeeeetttt!! I think the origin of pee satin was Missy the daschund. Love you!

  8. Dear P2- Hope your lungs are recuperating! Wishing you lots of strength and stamina for a summit attempt and safe trip back.

  9. Paul,
    Teresa, Chris, Trish (my dear wife) and I had some beer in your honor at the Yard in Greenwood. We are so amazed at what you are doing. Especially since Teresa and I both came home from Nepal with the cough and muscle strain. Take care of your self. Give the whole hybrid team a big thumbs up. We are all pulling for you guys.

  10. Amazing particularly the images and descriptive narrative. Paul thoroughly enjoying every scrap like a tasty morsel – keep the stories coming. And keep yourself safe and your mucus at bay.

  11. I’m so impressed, Paul! I’m retaking my ID boards tomorrow but everything you’re going through is putting it in perspective…you’ve got this buddy! I look forward to watching you summit from afar!

    1. Thanks Marci, you will ROCK the boards!! No doubt, a curve-breaker. Don’t worry about me, I am on vacation. Mountain climbing is easy… Real life is tough.

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