I’m laying in the Mica 2 tent next to Emily. It’s four in the morning but I’m wide awake because I’m starving and my grumbling stomach won’t let me sleep. At least I am warm, finally. After what felt like an eternity of shivering, it feels good to be warm. Our team is in one piece, more or less. We each have varying degrees of frost nip on our feet and fingers, Renan has a broken left arm – the worst of our injuries by far. Mark is so skinny he almost looks like a different person from the one who started this trip some 6 weeks ago. As for myself, I’ve easily lost 15 pounds and lie here feeling my ribs and hips sticking out somewhat grotesquely through my thin skin.
The last week, in our attempt to climb Hkakabo Razi and put to rest the mystery of the mountain’s summit altitude, turned out to be a bigger challenge than any of us could have imagined:
November 4th began with the worst weather we had seen to date in the high country. I welcomed it as the day before had pretty much left me with an empty tank. We were all carrying excruciatingly heavy backpacks as we moved from camp 1 to Camp 2 up roughly 1500 ft of steep ice followed by a massive north face of unconsolidated snow and loose rock. I’d managed to neglect taking care of myself during the climb and hadn’t eaten or drank any water the entire day. I arrived at 17,200 ft, camp 2, nearly hypothermic. I had to be hustled into a tent and wrapped in coats and sleeping bags, nearly spoon fed some hot water, before I could regain my composure and breath, stop shivering.
Alas, for good reason, I welcomed the down day as being cold saps ones’ resources. In our effort to make it to Hkakabo Razi, we had had to cut our gear by more than half due to lack of porters. Some of the gear to be cut was extra clothing. I was beginning to fear that we had seriously underestimated the extreme cold of this mountain. From camp 2 we now were very close to the Tibetan border and could see not only to the north, the direction from which we had come, but also to the west and south. It was breathtaking. But we also saw the clashing of two distinct climates, dry to the north and wet to the south, as they hit Hkakabo Razi from their respective sides creating a humid type of mountain cold I had never experienced before. In addition, the collision seemed to be causing severe winds as we looked towards the ridges looming above us.
Our down day flew by and the next day the weather had improved. We packed up camp, debated our route for only a minute as it seemed obvious we needed to climb up to gain the ridge. We were wrong and quickly ran into a dead end of loose, unclimbable nastiness in the form of crumbling, impassable granite blocks. From our new vantage, we saw the only way around was actually to drop several hundred feet to the south, gaining a glacier that came up from the Tibetan side of the massif. This required some creative crevasse navigating and took us way around to another steep snow face that finally put us solidly on the west ridge. We gained another 1100 ft of elevation, but much like the jungle walk on our approach, it was a circuitous route with much up and down that left us fairly spent.
Camp 3, our high camp, at 18,200 feet was possibly the most dramatic alpine camp I’ve ever pitched a tent. Perched on a tiny ridge that ran perpendicular to the main west ridge, there was just enough room for our two single wall Assault tents. There was a tiny granite outcrop that provided a small amount of protection from the wind that seemed to be lashing at the mountain from the south.
It soon became apparent that the real climb was only just beginning and our team of five was too big. We took one more rest day on the 6th and hashed out the tea for three- myself, Renan and Mark. However the night of our summit attempt the wind picked up in ferocity and the temperature plummeted. We delayed our start hoping the wind would abate but, when it didn’t I quickly realized that I couldn’t withstand another bout with hypothermia and risk the success of our team. I withdrew and, in the wee hours of the morning Cory rallied to take my place. In the end we put our best foot forward.
Emily and I remained at high camp in hopes of offering whatever support we could. We expected to guys to be gone for two days with one bivy. On the morning of the 8th, we received a message via our sat sleeve (randomly from Taylor at BC through Nat Geo’s Sadie Quarrier in Washington DC) that the summit attempt was being aborted and the guys were turning around. Frankly, I was just happy to hear that they were alive. The night of their bivy Emily and I had been battered by high winds with gusts easily in the range of 60 mph. The temperature was absolutely frigid. I was terrified that, with their small supplies, the summit three might have frozen to death in the night. Instead, they arrived back at camp on the evening of the 8th, just as the sun was setting. They were completely battered but intact.
Our final night at high camp offered no reprieve from the elements. The wind was even fiercer than the previous night. Emily and I had given the boys our tent so they could rest straightaway. We slept in the 2-man further from the protective shield of the rock outcropping and suffered for it. The wind was so strong, our vestibule was ripped off and flew into Tibet. The majority of the night was spent leaning into the tent wall to keep the poles from snapping in the gusts. We didn’t sleep, we had no more food left and, when the sun rose the next morning, it was time to descend. We left the boys anything that was edible (very little), packed as much of camp as we could, and set off. By leaving first we hoped to speed the whole process of descending. We were able, as a team of two, to break trail and rig the half dozen or so anchors needed to rappel the descent route.
I ate a Clif shot around 10am– the only thing I ate until we found some granola and espresso beans tucked in a stashed sack at Camp 1. We landed in base camp around 3 pm, pretty ecstatic to be reunited with Taylor, our BC manager and the amazing staff that comprised our cooks, a few porters and our local guides.
That was yesterday. I’ve now had three square meals since our descent but am still feeling pretty starved. We are back in the jungle with nearly two weeks of walking ahead of us. I’m going to try to sleep a few more hours, eat breakfast and plug away for another day. I’m looking forward to digesting all that has happened over the last month and half and I am happy to know that every step I take is now bringing me closer to home.