Project 314 Blog #10 – God Save the King… and send some good weather

May 16, 2023

Jake Meyer

Client Accounts' Director
Starting the traverse from C1 to C2

Day 27 – 29: Basecamp to Camp 2

Editor’s Note: Eagle-eyed readers will note that we have skipped a few days from the previous blog. As Jake details in the blog below, he has been experiencing issues with mobile internet: either not having it, or it being very unreliable. Consequently, a few days worth of blogs are missing, a period which Jake spent mostly stuck in basecamp due to bad weather (snowstorms). They finally managed to push back up the mountain on Thursday 4th May, but were hindered at 6000m by a snow storm, which forced them back to base camp. We pick up the story on the next day.

 

 

Friday 5th May – Day 27 – BC-C2 (6200m) via C1 (6300m)

Time to have another go, and see if we can get further than we’d managed the previous day. Fortunately the weather was looking much better this morning. In fact, it was glorious blue skies and hardly a breath of wind – amazing what a difference 24 hours can make. Having left our bags in the cache at picnic ridge (6000m), we were travelling very light – which made the first part of the climb even easier and more enjoyable.

By the time we got up to picnic ridge, Galen (Sherpa) and Michael, who’d stayed the night there had already packed up the tent and headed on up – and our rucksacks and equipment were carefully piled up waiting or us. Stopping only briefly for a quick drink and a suck on an energy gel sachet, I grabbed my bag and continued up. There were three Sherpas from the fixing team ahead of me, making their way up to C2 to start the fixing to C3, and I easily maintained their pace. Their packs weren’t particularly big at this stage, and as we reached C1, they picked up rope and kit which had been previously stashed there.

The rather bizarre thing about the first and second camps on Kanchenjunga is that C2 is about 100m lower than C1. Yes – you heard me right – the first camp is higher than the second. That’s because this year’s C1 is slightly higher than it has previously been, and because you need to cross over a ridgeline and then drop down onto the glacial plateau underneath the summit. Whilst it’s not the first mountain where I’ve had to climb ‘over’ something significant as part of the route (Khan Tengri is a good example), it is the first time I’ve been so aware that the altitude of the camps appears to be in the wrong order. This is the main reason why, other than some people sleeping in C1 as part of their initial rotation on the mountain, we now push straight from BC to C2 each time we come up.

Conveniently, the route from C1 to C2 is remarkably short as well – about 30-40 minutes. Once you crest over the ridgeline at C1, you then handrail a steep sided slope which drops down into the tumbling, churning mass of the Upper Yalung Glacier – not something that you’d really want to find yourself trying to navigate. The trail (and fixed ropes) trended slightly downwards, as it sought the path of least resistance towards the plateau. The moment of coming over the initial crest was an incredible one – suddenly a portal opens and a whole new mountain vista unfolds in front of you.

Whilst we can see the main summit (and our target) of Kanchenjunga from basecamp – it’s not until you reach this point where you can actually trace the course for the majority of the route. With such clear and calm conditions, it looks like you can practically reach out and touch the top of the mountain… and then you appreciate that it’s nearly 2500m above you, not to mention probably 4km horizontally away from you.

Photo looking up at Camp 1 on Kanchenjunga at 6300m altitude

Photo looking up at Camp 1 on Kanchenjunga at 6300m altitude

Distances are always a rather bizarre concept in mountaineering. To most people, the idea of something being only 4kms away surely means that you could walk that easily in less than an hour. Of course, the reality of the walking speed we’d actually be moving, not to mention the altitude gain, means that this kind of distance takes significantly longer.

I’m currently reading a book about the Falklands War, and there is a section in it where it talks about an infantry battalion proudly planning to tab (walk) the 60km from San Carlos landing site to Stanley, but they then realise that they’re moving at 1km an hour (and this was on vehicle navigable tracks)… so they rapidly turn back to await for a speedier means of transport. I have some sympathy for that sudden realisation of how slowly people move in reality, especially when you add weight and/or altitude into the equation. The distances may not be big, but it is slow and hard work.

As I rounded a slight corner on the face of the ridge, I soon could make out the site of C2 – presently a few people (some of our Sherpas) and some piles of kit in the centre of the white expanse of the glacial plateau. It didn’t take me long to reach them, and before long, the tents started going up, secured onto the snow with pieces of bamboo – much better than standard tent pegs in these conditions. Using a snow shovel, I dug out a pit in the vestibule of my tent. This means that you can sit comfortably in the front of your tent to remove/put on big mountaineering boots – and makes life a lot easier when getting in and out of the tent.

My tent buddy Semba soon arrived – it was rather exciting to be back sharing ‘a room’ with him – a throwback to the happy, heady bunking up that we’d shared in the tea lodges during the trek into basecamp. Our Sherpas ‘CP’ and ‘TP’ were in the next-door tent, and they had the stoves on almost constantly – melting snow so that we could make tea, fill water bottles, and later on have some food.

Our surroundings were absolutely magical – wild and beautiful – a million miles away from the banality of basecamp to which we’d grown so accustomed. The only problem was that due to the glacial plateau being hemmed in by steep-sided rocky cliffs (especially to the east) – the sun disappeared at around 5pm, and whilst it was still light for another couple of hours – the temperature dropped rapidly. Our earlier basking in the sun soon changed to shivering, tightly grasping mugs of steaming tea, cocooned in our sleeping bags in the safety of our tents…. Brrrr!

 

Saturday 6th May – Day 28 – C2 (6200m) – 6550m

Not a great night – although with such a significant elevation gain to sleep at, it was no great surprise. Nothing too miserable, but the familiar altitude-induced headache and pressure behind the eyes made sleeping uncomfortable, and so I tossed and turned for most of the night. Thankfully in the morning, a couple of ibruprofen, half a Diamox and half a litre of water seemed to do the trick, and by the time the sun hit the tents at 0700, I was feeling better. The effects of the altitude is an expected side effect – and a cross that we bear – especially when you know that you’re having to make altitude gains which are more rapid than text-book acclimatisation advice might recommend.

Today is the day of the Coronation back in the UK. I went outside, faced west and sung the National Anthem. Of course, I’m sure that everyone back in the UK, including the King, was still tucked up comfortably in bed. I later found out that it was a relatively wet and overcast day – but I’m sure that it didn’t do anything to dampen the spirits of all of those taking part and celebrating such an important day in our history.

There is a certain amount of mountaineering-related serendipity to the coronations of both Queen Elizabeth II and Charles III – it was on the day of the Queen’s coronation back in June 1953 that the news of the first ascent of Everest made it back to the UK – giving a particularly exciting double headline. Of course – 70 years later, our most recent coronation as well the Platinum anniversary on Everest.

 

Photo of Jake Meyer marking King Charles III coronation at Kanchenjunga base camp

Jake marking King Charles III coronation at base camp

Naturally, the speed of communication has changed significantly – in 1953 it took nearly a week for the news to reach the world – having been run down from Basecamp to a telegraph station so that it could be transmitted (in secret) back to the UK. Nowadays, with satellite comms, mountaineers can phone direct from the summit, and friends and family at home can track their loved one’s progress in real time online. In fact, in one of the other teams, there have been more arguments in BC about internet connectivity (and bandwidth speed) than anything else!

The convenience of global communication is of course an expectation these days, and whilst it takes away some of the mystic and adventure of big expeditions, it is nice to be able to keep in touch with people back at home (for their sakes as well as yours). Due to a logistical oversight, our BGAN (mobile internet machine) got left behind in Kathmandu – and only arrived in basecamp two days ago. Whilst it’s been nice to not have to worry too much about the outside world for a couple of weeks – I think that we were all rather pleased when it did eventually arrive – not least for me so that I could finally start to transmit these blogs… the thought of having to reduced them to a series of 160 character chunks via my sat tracker was not something that I was relishing having to do (even Twitter gives you more characters!).

The plan for today was a gentle leg stretch up towards C3. The rope fixing team were still in the process of preparing the route so we were never actually going to try and touch C3 (7100m), but it would be a good opportunity to continue adding to the acclimatisation and starting to familiarise ourselves with the route.

Looking up from C2 plateau, above us was a glacial headwall nearly 900m high – at the top of which would be C3, and access to the upper reaches of the mountain, where we will place C4 (anything between 7400-7700m) and then the push to the summit. When I do my talk about climbing Everest, I show a picture looking up at the North Col (7000m), up to which you climb a glacial headwall which is around 300m high. This one in front of us is three times that height…. Ooff!

The snow on the ground was around 30-40cm deep as I started across the plateau towards the headwall. Even though there were about five Sherpas in front of me, so I wasn’t trudging through virgin powder, it was still tiring and I was thankful for having brought one of my trekking poles to help give me some stability (and something to lean on to catch my breath).

We crossed over several large crevasses. Whilst they were deep, fortunately they weren’t particular wide, and so we could make use of the natural snow bridges, rather than having to use ladders like drawbridges – which was lucky, as we didn’t have any ladders with us. As a result, the trail took a winding approach, trying to find the path of least resistance through the maze of crevasses – some obvious, others unseen, lurking ominously below the surface. For this reason, even when on the relatively flat ground, it was important to stay clipped onto the rope – just in case. There were certainly a couple of times when, whilst innocently following the track, my foot plunged through the thin veneer of snow covering a crevasse underneath. Nothing major, and quickly recovered, but it’s enough to make you appreciate what lies beneath, and not become complacent about your footing or clipping onto the rope!

After several hours of tedious trudging uphill, I decided that enough was enough and that I would turn back. My GPS told me that I’d reached around 6560m – nothing particularly impressive, but enough for the ‘leg-stretch’ that we’d been aiming for. I could also see below me that several of the other members had already turned back, and given that the wind was starting to pick up – bringing a chilly bite to the air, it was a perfectly acceptable turn around point.

Back down in our tent in C2, Semba and I spent the rest of the day dosing in the tent – fortunately providing its own green-house effect and staying relatively warm whist the sun was out. We snacked – sharing food from Japan and the UK, watched a crap movie on my phone, and of course drank lots of cups of tea. 5pm on the dot the sun disappeared, and we rapidly went into warmth survival mode. I battled my way through a re-hydrated bag of freeze-dried Kung Pow Chicken and Rice, whilst Semba had rice with some sort of boil in the bag hamburger (which looked like more sauce and less meat). Michelin Star it wasn’t for either of us, but at least with full tummies we were ready for what would hopefully be a slightly better night than the previous one.

 

Sunday 7th May – Day 29 – C2 (6200m) – 6700m – Basecamp (5500m)

I can’t claim that it was a beautifully undisturbed comfortable night, Fortunately, the acclimatisation is working and last night was much better… no headaches this time. Whilst it was really cold (I’d estimate between -25 and -30), I was snug in my bag – helped by my two small ‘hot bottles’ which at least meant that I started the night nice and toasty.

I’ve got a brilliantly warm sleeping bag (rated to -40), which has been all over the world with me, from Everest and K2 to the Antarctic. The only problem that can’t be addressed by your sleeping bag is the build up of frozen moisture from exhaled breath during the night. The whole inside of the tent gets a thin veneer of haw frost, but the most uncomfortable bit is the inevitable build up of frost around which ever part of the mouth of the sleeping bag is closest to your face. It’ll be fine for a bit, and then you’ll shift sightly and wipe your face through the frozen morass of your exhaled breath. Horrible. Of course, whilst it’s nice and warm to you bury your head inside your bag, this soon becomes untenable with the CO2 build up, and you are forced to emerge, gasping for air.

The other ‘fun’ experience at altitude is that as you sleep and start to enter a period of shallower breathing, your body ‘forgets’ that there isn’t as much oxygen in the air, and it feels like you are suffocating, as you suddenly wake up gasping for air. Whilst it’s disconcerting to be sleeping next to someone to whom this is happening – as it sounds like they stop breathing, and then followed by this huge intake of breath and panting – at least the experience is shared as you inevitably do exactly the same.

The plan for today was to retrace our steps from yesterday, and try and touch C3 if we can. The Sherpas were going to be working hard moving oxygen, ropes and equipment further up the mountain. We had light packs, so should be able to keep up with them. The trail from yesterday was much better – well trodden now, and solid underfoot, meaning that we could travel a little faster and it wasn’t quite as tiring.

What started out as a lovely day with clear blue skies soon started to turn, bringing with it sudden gusts of wind with sharp biting snow flurries. To cut an uncomfortable story short, we ended up getting to 6700m (around 150m higher than the previous day) before we decided that it wasn’t much fun battling through these conditions, and we were starting to get cold. The Sherpas were in their down suits – so much warmer than us in our thinner ‘wind-proof’ layers – so they continued up a little further – eventually calling it a day at 6900m and caching their kit safely there.

Amazingly, as we got back down onto the glacial plateau, the wind abated and the sun came out again – and whilst we could see it gusting on the headwall, it was rather pleasant again. It was a shame not to have reached C3, or even the magic 7000m line, but given the condition further up the mountain, none of us were complaining. We just hoped that our two brief forays above C2 would hold us in good stead for our acclimatisation in preparation for our next time on push up the mountain, which would hopefully be our summit push.

In an ideal world, I would have preferred to have spent at least one night at/above 7000m before a summit push – but for those of us using supplementary oxygen, that will make a big difference, so I’m not overly concerned. For the independent climbers (who aren’t using Sherpas or oxygen), they’ll most likely need to come back up the mountain in the next week to try and spend a night at C3, as it’s so much more important for them to be better acclimatised.

After a short break to have something to eat and drink, Semba and I continued back ‘down’ the mountain towards basecamp. I say ‘down’ in inverted commas, as we had to climb back up over the ridgeline towards C1 before we could start dropping steeply down. The uphill section, whilst only 100m in elevation gain was tiring and so we were thankful as we crested C1 and knew it would be downhill from then on. A couple of hours later we made it back into basecamp. Whilst we’d only had two nights on the hill on this rotation, it was still a treat to come back to the relative comfort of individual tents and food served on a plate, not out of a bag!

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