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1998 California Ordinary Guys Expedition
Climbing Gasherbrum II

Camps on Mountain
I was toiling along on the traverse from Camp IV toward the final summit slope when I realized there was a distinct crackling in my lungs. I was far behind Bill, although I was able to wave to him as he looked back from the notch in the ridge leading to the final slopes.

Pretty clearly, my expedition was over, but I felt no particular concern. I took a break, had something to drink, tried, with little success, to eat an energy bar, and turned around to begin the descent. The weather suddenly changed from windy, with a few clouds streaming by, into a whiteout in clouds and blowing snow. How did I get into this?

"I drew a breath and felt and heard a distinct gurgling in my lungs. That was that. I knew immediately that I had HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema)..."

Base Camp was a real United Nations, with Brits, Japanese, Danish, Spanish, Germans, Austrians, and Americans already there — about a dozen expeditions going for either or both of GI and II. We, being the most recent to arrive, occupied the highest end of the camp, where snow was still fairly extensive on the glacial debris. Several of the groups had satellite phones and computer links to the Internet. We marveled at the wonders that sponsorship could bring. We also marveled at the benefits of experience; the American GI group had wonderful, sturdy chairs and a large, solid tent, all purchased in Islamabad.

We rested for a day after our arrival before beginning our load hauling. Many of the other expeditions made use of high altitude porters to move loads up beyond Base Camp. We did not (mostly). For several days, we shuttled loads to a spot just above the first icefall. We were quite grateful that others had found the intricate route through the seracs. Much to our amazement, many of the European climbers blitzed through the icefall unroped. Even though several of the spookier ice bridges had dubious looking fixed ropes strung across, we always traveled roped.

The routine was to get rolling as early as possible, before the sun turned the valley into a broiler oven - which made the going uncomfortable and draining, and it made the icefall a much unfriendlier place. There really wasn't much movement in the icefall until after we had been there for a couple weeks, and the sun had melted off most of the surface snow lingering from the previous winter.

We moved to Camp I, at 20,000 feet in the flat upper basin of the South Gasherbrum Glacier on July 14, with a boost from two high altitude porters that had a free day to trade for headlamp batteries and a few other modest things. We spent several days retrieving our loads from the lower icefall. This was a tedious trip down through the upper icefall, which took about an hour going down and two to three hours or so going back up. The weather was unpredictable, with bad weather days showing up at random. The most severe during this period dumped about a foot of snow on Camp I. Eventually we were ready to look at the hill.

"I had a deep, hacking cough now that would be my companion for the rest of the expedition..."
And what a hill it is! The normal route on GII is a gorgeous ridge with flat spots for camps thoughtfully spaced every 1500 to 2000 feet or so. I was surprised how steep it was, given GII's reputation for being the easiest of the 8000ers. The average angle seemed to be about 45%. The lower part of the ridge is the steepest part of the route, with some 60% ice bulges. Our task was made much easier by the early arrivals, who had fixed the route. The early work had been done by an American group from Colorado, with help from Brits and others up high. We made a haul to Camp II on July 18, joining the ant-like parade up the ropes. I had a deep, hacking cough now that would be my companion for the rest of the expedition. Everyone else was healthy and going strong.

A marginal weather day gave us an excuse to declare a rest. We moved to Camp II, 22,000 feet, on July 20. We were all in pretty good shape, in terms of adjustment to the altitude. The camp was crammed full, with about a dozen tents and a disgusting latrine with a spectacular view of the basin below the Gasherbrum group and Baltoro Kangri. We made a haul to windswept Camp III, at 23,000 feet, on the following day. There were only four tents here, with a German group being the most recent, having come up with us that day to begin their summit push. We had a comfortable night back down at Camp II, knowing that the hard work was behind us.

The next day, we dropped all the way to Base Camp. During our six days above Base Camp, several seracs had tumbled in the icefall and a number of easy crevasse crossings became adrenaline-pumping leaps. The snow had largely disappeared from the moraine around Base Camp.

We spent two days resting and eating - agreeing that it was good to have someone else worry about the cooking at Base Camp. On the other hand, John had noticed an alarming correlation between the behavior of his bowels and being in Base Camp.

"Camp IV...was an eerie place, with the skeletons of abandoned tents sticking out of the ice and shreds of nylon flapping in the wind..."
On July 25, we began our attempt by moving up to Camp I, then each day following, we moved up one camp at a time. Camp IV, at about 24,400 feet, was an eerie place, with the skeletons of abandoned tents sticking out of the ice and shreds of nylon flapping in the wind. There were stacks of abandoned food boxes and oxygen cylinders from the recently departed Japanese expedition. Large, black ravens hopped about, picking through the litter for goodies.

The morning of July 29 was cold and windy, with some clouds scudding across the sky. Bill Zachary and I decided that the weather was a bit iffy, and, in any event, a rest would give us a better shot, so we declined to accompany the other three when they finally reached a decision to go for it about 8 am.

The three of them traded off breaking trail where needed, and made decent time up the hard packed snow. They arrived on the summit at about 3 pm. Unfortunately, the clouds crowded in and all they could see was white. They began arriving back in camp one at a time, at about 5:00 pm. They were pumped, although Eric was rather wasted.

The next morning was even more marginal than the previous one. Nevertheless, the three summitters decided to pack up and get down. They wished us luck as Bill and I settled in with hopes for a better day tomorrow. Life was grim in our tiny, single-walled summit tent. It was extremely difficult to melt snow, even with a hanging stove. The wind howled around us and packed in snow around the tent, forcing us to excavate periodically, whenever it got too cramped from the walls pressing in.

The day of July 31 dawned clear, cold and windy, so off we went. I struggled from the start, and fell steadily behind Bill. The hard, wind-packed snow of two days ago had given way to softer stuff that was mostly calf-deep. Even with Bill breaking trail ahead of me, I made rather slow progress towards the notch in the ridge that marks the halfway point to the summit from Camp IV. Bill realized early on that I was struggling and not likely to make it, so he throttled back to conserve energy as he broke trail.

As morning led into afternoon, I realized I would not summit, and changed my goal to reach the ridge and look up the summit slopes. About the time Bill reached the notch, I drew a breath and felt and heard a distinct gurgling in my lungs. That was that. I knew immediately that I had HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema).

"I coughed almost constantly, although I felt no gurgling in my lungs. I now knew that I was in serious trouble..."
I made my way down the traverse in worsening conditions and soon it was a whiteout. Despite the fact the wind had already obliterated my footprints, the way was easy to find; I just had to keep the steep rock wall of the gigantic summit pyramid on my right. I was only able to move 10 or 20 steps between bouts of coughing and gasping for breath. Since the slope was relatively gentle, I made almost no use of fixed lines on the descent and, in any case, I could seldom see them. I walked out of a crampon and slipped down the slope 15 feet in my fatigue. The snow was relatively soft, so I stopped easily. I shuddered, recalling the 5000-foot slope below me. Finally, I reached the end of the rock, which is the landmark to turn left to the camp.

Arriving at the tent about 4:30 pm, I faced an exhausting struggle to shovel access to the tent, now nearly buried in the blowing snow. I tried to relax and brew water. As it grew dark, my concern for Bill increased. I kept a headlamp on as a beacon.

Bill arrived after 9 pm, having climbed all the way to the summit in a whiteout. On the ascent, he had gotten off route above the notch in the ridge, and had strayed onto steep ice to the left of the fixed ropes. He found the route, however, and wasted no time descending, in order to reach the traverse before dark.

I coughed a lot during the night, but otherwise felt no overt symptoms. The next morning, we made radio contact with the others. We told them we were getting ready to go down. However, we moved in slow motion trying to pack. In our extremely cramped tent, we found it almost impossible to do anything simultaneously or to stay dry. By the time we staggered out, it was mid-afternoon. I could barely manage the pack I had carried up a few days before.

After a few moments of thrashing around, we were chased back inside by the wind, clouds and blowing snow. That evening we tried, but did not make radio contact. We were nearly out of fuel and food, although I found virtually nothing to be palatable. Down below, the guys were getting extremely concerned — they could see that we had not moved down.

"It took over six hours to descend the 1500 feet to the camp..."
The next morning, I was much weaker. I coughed almost constantly, although I felt no gurgling in my lungs. I now knew that I was in serious trouble. We packed as quickly as the miserable tent would allow, editing out a lot of gear. Bill hefted my pack and ordered me to dump more. In the end, I took only my parka, sleeping bag and pad, and cameras. I found I could only go a few steps between fits of coughing. I had to be very careful descending through the camp, where there was no fixed rope, and breakable slab made for unsure footing. Because of the extensive amount of fixed rope, we had made the decision not to bring a climbing rope above Camp I. Finally, I reached the rope and began the long, long trip home.

I could only move a few steps downward at a time, even on rappel. I had to stay totally focused because I had to reset my descender every time I came to a knot or an anchor. It took over six hours to descend the 1500 feet to the camp. Bill went ahead as we neared the camp to alert the residents to my plight. It took me a half hour to cover the last 100 yards, even after Bill came and took my pack. The group located at Camp III turned out to be our French neighbors from Base Camp. Thankfully, they offered to make room for Bill and me, as we had abandoned our tent. I collapsed in the tent, totally spent and soon the airwaves were filled with discussion of how to deal with me.

"Miraculously, the French had a Gamov bag available, but it was at Camp I... I would have to make it through the night...."
The two doctors, the French doctor at Camp I and the Basque doctor at Camp II, urged that I should continue down immediately. I simply stared at Bill as he relayed this advice to me and responded that I could not. Miraculously, the French had a Gamov bag available, but it was at Camp I. The French graciously volunteered to send two of their high altitude porters up early the next morning with the bag. I would have to make it through the night.

The doctors ordered me to sit up all night. Bill built up a stack of gear behind me that I could lean back on and trained his headlamp on me so he could prod and cajole whenever I would start to slump. My coughing increased in severity, and I was now producing white sputum. The interval between spasms kept getting shorter, and I finally reached the point that, several times, I was unsure that I could draw another breath. Sometime during the night, the coughing eased up and I was able to relax slightly — even to the point of slumping over and burrowing into my bag. Finally, there was a shout, and the two porters arrived with the bag.

The guide with the French group, Christophe, gave me a dexamethazone injection (his first, and done splendidly) and helped me out of the tent and over to the Gamov bag. Christophe and the two porters zipped me into the bag and then the pumping began. The Gamov bag is simple: a hand pump similar to a bicycle pump is used to raise the pressure inside the bag to about the equivalent of sea level. Air is purged from the bag periodically to remove carbon dioxide, and more air is pumped in to maintain the pressure. Christophe and others kept checking on me every few minutes through the little window located above my face. It was comfortably warm inside the bag, as it soaked up sun on the chilly, breezy morning. Most everyone took a turn at the pump, as it was strenuous work. Finally, after about 90 minutes, they brought me out.

As I emerged, the overwhelming sensation was that of a rebirth. Dripping with sweat and the condensation inside the bag, I took a nearly normal gulp of the cold air. I sat for a few minutes, drinking hot water. I was able to walk to the tent and prepare to continue the descent. I thanked everyone, for I knew they had jeopardized their summit chances by delaying their departure to Camp IV that morning.

"I continued my rhythm — two to six steps, stop, cough and gasp, repeat..."
Christophe sent the two porters with Bill and I. He emphasized to them that they MUST make sure that I reached Camp I, nearly 3000 feet below, that day. We started off with me on short lines between the two porters, and with everyone clipped into the fixed rope. It soon became obvious to me that I was working harder being whipsawed between the two porters than I was on my own. It finally became clear to them as well, and they untied from me. I could rappel no faster than I had the previous day, but at least the 'bag treatment' allowed me to move at all.

The two porters shouted encouragement, cajoled, and badgered me for hours, as I continued my rhythm - two to six steps, stop, cough and gasp, repeat. After five or so hours of this, they went on ahead to Camp II. Bill stayed with me as I crept down the rope. I reached Camp II after six or seven hours at about 4 pm. I gratefully collapsed on my pack to drink some of the hot liquid prepared by the porters and try to eat something. For the past three to four days, I had been able to eat very little. I found nothing palatable, and by now, I reeked of ketones, as my body was digesting my muscle mass.

"I found nothing palatable, and by now, I reeked of ketones, as my body was digesting my muscle mass..."
The two porters headed down, not wanting to be caught out on the ropes in the dark. They urged me to follow right away, and I nodded that I would follow. It was perhaps another 45 minutes before I got up the energy to saddle up. This part I did not look forward to, as it involved a traverse on a steep side slope to a knife-edge that connected to the 'balcony' of snow on the ridge crest, from which the ropes descended the main ridge again. It was beginning to get dark as I headed down the lines toward Camp I.

Bill caught up to me shortly after I started down the final 1500 feet of rope. Exhausted, he had planned to spend the night at Camp II, but changed his mind. Thankfully, it was not windy, so I stayed relatively warm. My fingers were suffering from cold, however, what with alternately rappelling or down-climbing on a jumar, depending on the steepness of the slope. About halfway down, I met one of the French guides and a porter on their way up. We passed in the night with few words. I was now using my headlamp full-time, rather than just to reset my gear at knots and anchors. I felt satisfaction as I downclimbed steep bits that periodically appeared. Finally, the rope ended. But, that wasn't the end of the effort. We had the couple of miles of flat glacier to cross to reach Camp I.

It was an eerie evening with a fairly bright moon. This was a good thing, since my light had given up the ghost right at the bottom of the rope. When we finally reached Camp I, it was completely different than when we had left a week earlier. The huge Japanese camp was gone, as were the Brits and Americans who had been on GI. Our friendly porters helped us out by waving their lights, so we made our way to camp. It was after midnight when I collapsed into the tent.

"A contest seemed to be ongoing to paint the grimmest scene tied to the relentless staccato bursts of three deep coughs..."
That night, as I had for several previous nights, I experienced vivid dreams or hallucinations tied to the continuing coughing. There were visions of some nightmarish landscape, all in red and orange. I was there with two others and a contest seemed to be ongoing to paint the grimmest scene tied to the relentless staccato bursts of three deep coughs.

I was dragged from a groggy sleep early the next morning by a 'thwack!' on the tent and a shout. It was John, Eric and a porter, Ali. They had left Base Camp at 4 am and practically run to Camp I with a sled, borrowed from a Dutch expedition, and an oxygen bottle from a Swiss group. Time was of the essence, in order to avoid getting caught by the mid-day sun in the icefall. I was soon strapped into the sled and away we went, with Ali hooked to the harness in front and John and Eric on side ropes. Bill started out on a rope behind, but soon could not keep pace and he unroped. On one occasion, I clung to the rim while staring down into a deep crevasse while the lads struggled to extricate the sled.

Lower Ice Fall
We reached the top of the lower icefall in only an hour. We waited for Bill, who endured a solo walk down through the enormous crevasses of the upper icefall. We then roped up. I had to walk the heavily broken, upper part of the icefall, since maneuvering the sled would have been all but impossible. It was trying for everyone, since I could only move a few steps at a time. Below the steep section, we were met by Cpt. Amin and our cook, Fidah, with hot drinks and chappattis. After that refreshment, it was time to move again. Amazingly, Ali was able to carry me much of the way down the remaining steep bits. At the flats, I walked again. I dragged into Base Camp to a warm welcome from all who had heard of my plight.

"I had never had severe altitude symptoms in 25 years of mountaineering, including six previous jaunts to 20,000 feet or above..."
I was now out of danger, but it was very clear that I would not be able to do the roughly 60-mile hike back to the trailhead. Cpt. Amin was able to arrange a ride for me on the next available supply helicopter from the army base about two miles from Base Camp. Thus, I got the scenic tour of the Baltoro the very next morning as I was taken directly to the hospital in Skardu. I sat in a stupor waiting to see a doctor for some time. I was put on antibiotics, since my lungs were very irritated and susceptible to infection, a steroidal anti-inflammatory, a bronchial dilator, and a painkiller. With that, I retreated to the K2 Motel.

I expected to recover in a day or so, and planned to wait for the others to come out from Gasherbrum. However, I ended up leaving Skardu and returning home after five days. During that time, I was extremely weak and periodically wracked by debilitating spasms of chest pain, which continued for about a week after my return to the States.

Eric, John and Bill made the trek back along the Baltoro as soon as porters could be summoned. And the French group was successful in their summit bid, so their delay in helping me proved not to be critical.

What's the lesson here? In retrospect, I had struggled on the day we moved from Camp III to IV, but since I expected to feel like crap up there, it did not stand out at the time. I had had a deep, dry cough the entire expedition, so an increase in severity of the cough was not notable. I suppose the decision by Bill and I to defer going to the summit on the first day at Camp IV might be suspect. However, we did have the German group tell us they had waited four days in Camp IV, and I felt fine while lounging around.

The onset seems to have been one of those random events. I had never had severe altitude symptoms in 25 years of mountaineering, including six previous jaunts to 20,000 feet or above. Our lack of a sense of urgency to get moving on the day after the onset of HAPE was a critical, and nearly fatal mistake. After the fact, I can chalk that up to the general sense if muddle-headedness that pervades at altitude. Finally, in the haste to get me back to Base Camp, Bill was left to walk the upper ice fall unroped - a boneheaded oversight that, fortunately, did not add a tragedy to the near-miracle of my escape from the Death Zone.

By Karl Gerdes, Mountain Zone Correspondent
About the Author:
"I started climbing in 1972 when I fell in with bad company in graduate school at the University of California at Davis. Since then — Peru's Alpamayo(1973), Chinchey and several lesser peaks & attempted new route on E ridge of San Juan (1975); India's south summit of Bethartoli and attempted 1st ascent of north summit (1977); attempts on China's Amnyemachin (1986) and 1st ascent of Xin Ching Fung or Bokadaban in the Kun Lun(1986); Argentina's Aconcagua (1992); plus numerous climbs in California, Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, and many days sitting in the rain in the Canadian Rockies around Jasper. I would characterize my climbing skills as modest (I max out at about 5.8 rock) and none of the expedition routes attempted have been extreme."

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