Friday, February 6, 2009

The Grand Design

Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 52. Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 12,100 feet. Today's training: 60 high-intensity minutes on the elliptical machine, 60 high-intensity minutes on the step climber, and four sets of 10 leg presses @ 400 pounds.

My expedition leader is Alex Abramov, a well-known and well-regarded Russian climber who's had good success leading expeditions on the Tibet side of Everest. I need to be in Kathmandu, Nepal to meet with him and the other members of the expedition on April 1, which will necessitate leaving Arizona no later than March 30. We plan to fly to Lhasa, Tibet on April 4 and then take 10-12 days making our way to Everest Base Camp, visiting lamaseries along the way and taking our time to get used to the altitude. After arriving at base camp in mid-April, we'll begin the arduous task of moving literally tons of supplies up the mountain, establishing the higher camps and fixing safety ropes along the more dangerous parts of the route. Most of that work will be done by Sherpa, and I fully intend to give credit where credit is due for their tireless, uncomplaining work in the excruciating conditions of high altitude mountaineering. I had the good fortune to climb the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas, Aconcagua in Argentina, in the company of Lahkpa Rita Sherpa, who has reached the summit of Everest no less than 10 times! My chances of success on Everest are dramatically higher than they would be if I were to attempt the highest mountain in the world without the help of a personal high-altitude Sherpa.

High-altitutude mountaineering is all about acclimatization. Our plan involves several forays up the mountain. The first time we will go as high as Camp I on the North Col before retreating all the way back to Base Camp to rest and recover. The second time up the mountain we will attempt to reach Camp II and once again retreat back to Base Camp. The third time we will establish ourselves at Advanced Base Camp and wait for the weather forecast to predict a 72-hour window of decent climbing weather. We will then move higher up the mountain as the weather allows, ultimately positioning ourselves at Camp IV in anticipation of a summit bid. Timing is everything, because we'll be using supplemental oxygen at that point, with only a limited supply available, and we'll be in the so-called Death Zone. Even with supplemental oxygen, the human body, no matter how well acclimatized, just isn't meant to function or even survive at extreme altitudes. Once you are above 26,000 feet, your body is dying, growing weaker and weaker with every passing moment, so if you are to climb Everest you must do so as quickly as possible and then retreat to the relative safety of lower altitudes. There's a reason there are no permanent human settlements higher than 14,000 to 16,000 feet. Our summit bid will be launched from Camp IV, probably around midnight, with the expectation that we will reach the summit by mid-morning. The most challenging part of the route will be the notorious Second Step, a nearly vertical rock face about half-way along the summit ridge. In the 1970s a Chinese climbing team placed an aluminum ladder at the Second Step, significantly simplifying the ascent from a technical standpoint, but even with the ladder in place the Second Step is a huge obstacle to overcome. Imagine climbing a ladder with only a third of the oxygen available at sea level and the consequences of a fall being near certain death. Wait a minute! Why am I doing this?

No comments:

Post a Comment