Lhotse Face Rescue & Rockfall

I ate some hot porridge and oatmeal with the Migma, Jangbu, Ctilly, and Tschong at 6am, and departed Camp 2 for Camp 3 shortly after 630.  It was a cold (about 0 degrees F) and windy morning, otherwise clear.  Jangbu and Ctilly were headed up to Camp 3 along with Jangbu’s Nephew Tschong, and all three Sherpas were carrying loads of food, oxygen, or tents.  They were heading up to further establish Camp 3 halfway up the Lhotse face at above 7200m/23,000-feet, and so they were happy to let me tag along and climb with them.  The rest of the team was sleeping in and still tired, and the sun was rising over Everest and leaving our first hour to the base of the Lhotse face in Shadow.  I was looking forward to the sun’s warmth and hopefully we’d have the sun before starting up the steep ice face.

We were all bundled up and Jangbu let me take the lead as we hiked out of camp and into the upper sources of the Western Cwm.  The winds stayed bitter cold, (L to R across us as we hiked up and sustained at 35 MPH) and we divided into two groups, Tschong and I first, and Ctilly and Jangbu about 20 minutes behind us. I carried a bit of food for the day, some water, and my large down jacket just in case.  I also carried a couple of glass cylinders to collect air samples from on the Lhotse face for one of my research studies. I was plenty warm, as the pace kept me warm.  Tschong stayed behind me, he liked my pace, and we both knew we’d really enjoy the climb that day. As we approached the face and the warmth of  the sun, the valley lowered and sank below us, the tents of Camp 2 became smaller and smaller (still like little candies out of a Piñata). The size of the Khumbu glacier really became apparent as we left the valley, and you could clearly see how it has carved out the Western CWM, the highest, and deepest glacial valley on earth.

At about 8am at the base of the Lhotse face, where the fixed ropes began, I paused to put on my helmet (for good reason) and attend to a call of nature. After crossing a bergschrund crevasse and up a short 10m vertical snow section, I attached my Jumar to the rope, pulled the rope tight, and drove my ice-axe into the snow and ice.  Suddenly I was like a bug on a wall, and it was time to climb up the lower reaches of 60-degree blue ice. Tschong steadied the rope behind me, and in a minute I was to the first anchor station on the wall.  150 yards below us and on the trail, Jangbu gave up a whistle of approval and I think was glad that we were climbing up the great wall together.  Tschong is 25, and this is his first time up Everest working as a climbing Sherpa.  He is somewhat of an apprentice to his Uncle Jangbu, who has climbed Everest 11 times. In getting to know Jangbu over the past month, and he told me later in the day, that he was honored to have is Nephew get his first taste of the Lhotse face with me that day.

The bottom of the face is the toughest.  5 pitches X 100m sustained on 50 to 60 degree blue ice. Then we had some gentler snow ramps of 2 pitches of about 75 meters each, then 2 more steep 60 degree ice pitches of 100m each.  By 830 and 4 or 5 pitches in, the sun warmed us….the only problem, it was right in our face and so we couldn’t see any rocks that could’ve been dislodged from above.  Fortunately this sun glare didn’t last for long.  Typically I would lead a pitch with my Jumar and safety anchor, climb in a good rhythm to an anchor or a stopping point, then Tschong would come up and join me.  Then process would repeat itself.  Tschong is a very strong kid, and I was glad we tagged teamed this face.  This was the highest moderately technical climbing I’d ever done at nearly 23,000’/7000m, and by the time we got to Easier ground where we could just walk up steep snow at 35-degrees, we were above 7000m. A few parties of climbers that spent the night in C3 in some tents to the right side of the face looking up descended some lines to our left and we continued toward our goal for the day after taking a short breather on an ice ledge.

Soon we saw the line of tents chopped into the face, the angle reduced to about 30-degrees, and we pushed past the tents up to a short 50m snow slope. The final 45 minutes became a long slog up a fixed rope to where we finally arrived at a tent dug into the steep snow slope at 7300m/24,000-feet. Pretty close to the highest I have ever been, and higher than any spot on the 6 other continents on earth, yet Everest loomed another mile (5000 feet) higher!  The time was 10am……a nice bit of work for sure!  We were slightly out of the wind and from this perch, the views of Everest, back towards Camp 2, and up towards the Yellow Band and the South Col were tremendous!
Everest still had a large plume over it indicating that the Jet Stream was still sitting over the peak.  By Mid- May this Jet will lift away and we should be able to go up to summit after the 15th or so! You could hear the subtle roar of the “Jet” itself, like a distant engine, or boiling furnace that also indicated the presence of the jet-stream sitting over the earth’s highest point. Also, my toes were a bit chilled, but not too bad now that the sun was out.

So far Camp 3 was only 1 tent set up into a minor bergschrund crevasse but there was room up here for at least 5 other tents. Will try to post pics and a video. We sat out of the wind for a moment, I shot some photos and video, collected an atmospheric sample and ate a granola bar.  In about 20 minutes Tschong bit be farewell as he was going to stay and assist Ctilly and Jangbu with further establishing Camp 3.

I descended alone in sunshine as the winds continued.  I got down to the valley and off a series of rappels on a down line down the face in only about an hour’s time.  Because this year is a drier year, there are lots of rock and loose debris embedded into the ice on the face, and this can become a hazard especially as the sun warms and the rock melt’s out, but also as more climbers get on the lines.  Once again, start early!

At one point I was still about six or seven 100m rappel pitches from the bottom and a rock the size of a saucer dinner plate whizzed by my head and brushed my helmet……whew that was close!  Moments earlier at 6900m I was transitioning off of a line and onto another line to descend and I glanced across about 15 feet to see that the “up” lines were being climbed by Sandra (34) from Canada and her personal Sherpa Lhakpa.  They were doing ok after leaving camp at about 730am.  It was almost noon and they still had about 1.5 hours to get to C3.  I chatted with them briefly and encouraged Sandra in telling her she was almost there, and then I continued down into the Valley.

What happened to Sandra and her Sherpa an hour later was simply bad luck.  IN less than an hour I was back to the safety of Camp 2 and a hot lunch.  Meanwhile, by almost 1pm the pair had nearly made it to Camp 3.  Then it Happened.
Sandra was walking ahead of Lhakpa, peered out over the expanse of the Valley to take in the view, and heard a “Thud”. She turned around and Lhakpa was hit.  Although he had a helmet on, he took the rock in the face and was knocked out.  He was tied into the fixed rope and so the rope stopped him from plunging down the Lhotse face.  Sandra tried to His jaw had been broken and he was unconscious, bleeding from the mouth and nose.  Fortunately, some Sherpas from nearby tents, including our Camp 3 came to Sandra and Lhakpa’s aid.  The diagnosis:  Broken Jaw, Concussion, he may had lost a few teeth, and once they got him upright and awake, 5 or 6 Sherpa teamed up to assist him down the Lhotse face.

By 230 pm, our Leader Arnold had recruited a couple of doctors from nearby teams (AAI and HiMex) to come with him to meet the Sherpas who had Lhakpa with them.  The rescue off the face and back to Camp 2 was successful.  Arnold got a Helicopter to come a pick Lhakpa up from 6500m above Camp 2 before dark, and today (Friday) He is safe in Kathmandu and having surgery to fix his teeth, jaw, and face from the incident.

Sandra was adopted by another one of our Sherpas (Ctilly), and so our expedition will continue on.  But once again a valuable lesson…..although rockfall on that Lhotse face can happen anytime, start early and most rockfall accidents can be avoided….less people, and colder conditions on those lines are much safer.  They have since placed a newer and slightly safer route further to the right of the current route, so we will see how that one plays out.

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