Everest '99 Trek
Ouray Ice Festival
Hill and Feagin
Letters to the Editor
1998 California Ordinary Guys Expedition
Climbing Gasherbrum II
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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