Daily Dispatches
Satellite phone updates from the 1998 American Everest Expedition

The Summit Bid Blow By Blow
Thursday, May 21, 1998 — Base Camp (17,500')

Hear Charles Corfield's call from Base Camp
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Hello Mountain Zone, this is Charles Corfield. Today is Thursday, the 21st of May, and I am calling from base camp having come down this morning from Camp II. Many people out there must surely be wondering what summit day on Mount Everest is like. I should say that there are really two summit days. The people who climb from the north side have to go to much higher camps, and they have a long, long walk to the summit from the northern side. In contrast, on the southern side, the Nepalese side, the route is much steeper, and that means you gain altitude quicker, and you lose it faster.

The summit day can really be thought of having its roots back at Camp III. This is where most people first put on oxygen bottles and start breathing through masks. Some people find this a fairly claustrophobic experience, other people, well, they just welcome the extra O.

So when we set off from Camp III, we are continuing up the Lhotse Face before making a left turn across what is called the Yellow Band. The Yellow Band is an outcrop of a, I would say, sort of a poorly formed marble, complete with scratchings now from as many crampons as have come across it.

The route is fixed, that is to say that there is rope from there up to the South Col. So you are really thinking of it in several sections: Camp III, up to the Yellow Band, skittering across the rock of the Yellow Band, then the traverse across to the Geneva Spur. What you see in sight the whole time is, as the route curves around to meet the apex or ridge of the Geneva Spur, that's where you know that your climbing for that day is really finished. The Geneva Spur has a lot of rocky ledges — that's because the rock strata is at just the right angle to create these ledges you can walk on. Then you pretty much just walk on the level into the South Col.

Not surprisingly, tents at the South Col are very near where the route enters the South Col. The South Col is a very large place. As John Hunt said, something to the effect that, it is where ice and wind rule supreme. There is a constant windy blast across the South Col, usually in the direction of Tibet. This is because of all the air which wants to move through Tibet has to go through a gap somewhere, and the South Col is it.

We arrived at about 1pm at the South Col and set up tents in the wind. You may wonder, at 26,000 feet, how people function, and for light tasks, you can certainly do without supplemental oxygen. Your body is sufficiently well acclimatized to cope with the low air pressures there.

Once camp is set up, you really have a couple of tasks to do. A couple of Sherpas will work as cooks, really just making hot water and soups so people can re-hydrate. You do not eat a lot of food up at the South Col because you only have a few hours in which to prepare loads, get ropes in order, and think about what you're going to be doing later on that evening, and also try to get some rest. So there is not a lot of time to sit down and have a full meal, even if you wanted to.

As the afternoon wore on, we got our oxygen bottles sorted out, got our gear sorted out, the science loads to go to the summit, rope for fixing the route etc. We then finally, if you like, went to sleep about 7 with an idea of waking up about 9 or 9:30 which would give us enough time to set off at about 11pm.

A lot of people had come up to the South Col, so we were anticipating that it would be quite crowded on the route. The first two-thirds of the route to the summit is up something called the Triangular Face. This is not visible from most of the trekking route into Mount Everest, just out of sight behind the white skyline. The route is a series of, I would say, steep snow gullies, fairly wide, and you go up almost 2,000 feet straight ahead before finally curving down to the right to meet what I think you call the Balcony, which is where the southeast ridge, which is really the name of our climbing route, meets the Triangular Face.

Many people find the first notable feature on this route to be what is called the Ice Bulge. This is where snow and ice is gradually creeping down both from Everest and from Lhotse onto the South Col. As it gets lower, the blast of the wind uplifts the snow just leaving this bluish ice with the odd run-off, fissure or crevasse in it, which has some packed snow, which shields it from the wind. You'll also see the odd flake of rock; these are things breaking off from ledges higher up gradually making their way down to the Col and then from the Col ultimately down into the Western Cwm or the Kanchung Face.

We reached the Balcony when it was still dark, and it really is an appropriately named feature: it's very flat and a good place to toss a spent oxygen bottle, rest up a bit, cook some tea, fiddle with your mask or do whatever else occurs to you.

Then you are now on the southeast ridge which is a fairly gentle snow ridge and nothing alarming about it, although it would have good views were you climbing it in the day. This heads on up to the South Summit, and where the route becomes more interesting is where the southeast ridge hits a number of rocky ledges or outcrops beneath the South Summit. This is where, typically, you put in some fixed line so that people can shimmy up these rock outcrops with their crampons.

After that, the southeast ridge continues albeit rather more steeply until it hits the snow of South Summit itself. On our particular summit day, we were essentially doing the trail breaking for the route and also fixing line, and when we got to the South Summit, it turned out that we had fixed so much line, that we had 75 meters remaining whereas 200 meters were required to do the traverse and the Hilary Step. At that point on the climb, it was game over, too much line had been fixed. For us on the science side, we could not really venture across the traverse with loads of equipment because that would not have met our standards of safety. The crowd that had gathered there at the South Summit realized that today was not going to be the day and variously turned around.

However, we had put in a good trail and Wally Berg, leader of the expedition, took advantage of this the following day. Line was fixed along the traverse, and he got to the Bishop Rock where we wanted to install a survey point suitable for GPS receivers. The Bishop Rock is the highest piece of bedrock on this side of the mountain. It has been Brad Washburn's sight for years as a place to put a survey benchmark and to measure it as precisely as possible. This allows you in future years to re-measure it and then determine whether the rock there is moving up, down, sideways and by how much.

This is the single most important objective of our climbing expedition, and we had an unexpected bonus which was an Italian research team had GPS equipment at Lobuche, south of the mountain. We had installed GPS receivers at Kala Patter and the South Col, and so when Wally was able to drill and put in that benchmark, we finally completed the missing link in a chain which extended to the Rongbuk [glacier on the north side of Everest] where Jey Wy Chen, surveyor general of China, was also running a GPS unit. So, our hope is that out of this data, when it is all compiled, will come the first Trans-Himalayan survey, GPS survey that is, from Nepal through the summit of Mount Everest into the Rongbuk. So between this dispatch and that eventuality lies now the recovery of two GPS units from high on the mountain and also the coordination of data analysis between several countries.

I should add that the weather on the 19th was absolutely perfect. The views were glorious, and but for 125 meters of rope, that day we would have accomplished our scientific objectives. Now, one of the marks of good leadership is that Wally Berg had wondered about the eventuality of something going wrong on the 19th, although everything looked very good, had elected to stay one day behind and go for the 20th. That in itself allowed us to recover from what was otherwise an awkward position.

Switching gears here, three of us are now down in base camp, that is Eric, Greg and myself. Wally will join us tomorrow, and we now switch into a new phase which is how to pack up the expedition and generally move off the mountain. Thank you all for staying with the expedition and following us everyday; we do appreciate your support. The final thing now is to stay tuned to see how the analysis of the GPS data goes. That's it, Charles Corfield, Everest base camp.

Charles Corfield, Expedition Science Manager

[editor's note: stay tuned for dispatches from the other climbers with their experiences on the upper mountain. Eric Simonson and Greg Wilson plan to share their descriptions of the summit attempt, and Wally Berg will describe his successful summit climb and two hours on top installing the world's highest GPS receiver. While on top, Berg ran out of oxygen and had to descend to the South Summit without the aid of supplemental oxygen.]