Monday, April 6, 2009

Plan B: Flying by helicopter to Namche Bazaar

Well, so much for Plan A.  We didn't make it out today either on account of bad weather in Lukla. The airport here in Kathmandu has become a purgatory of sorts for lost souls hoping for redemption in the form of a flight to Lukla.  It's not just the Everest climbing expeditions.  There are a bunch of trekkers too who hope to make their way to Everest base camp.

I'm impressed with the patience exhibited by my fellow expedition members and especially by our expedition leader Alex Abramov.  No one seems upset, even though objectively it's frustrating to be stuck in Kathmandu waiting for a break in the weather.  It's nice to be surrounded by people who understand that no amount of worrying about what can't be helped is going to make the situation better, so we're making the best of it.

Now our plan is to fly to Namche Bazaar tomorrow morning in a huge Russian-made heavy-lift transport helicopter that can carry all 11 of us and all of our gear in one trip.  I like that plan mostly because it gets us out of Kathmandu and on our way to Everest base camp, and the added bonus, assuming the weather is clear enough for us to land at Namche Bazaar, is that Namche Bazaar is closer to Everest base camp than Lukla, so this will enable us to skip the trek from Lukla to Namche Bazaar, which was on our route anyway.  The downside is that Namche Bazaar is considerably higher than Lukla.  I believe I've heard the elevation of Namche Bazaar is 3,400 meters, which would be just a little over 11,000 feet.  Kathmandu is a little shy of 4,500 feet, so we're looking at an elevation gain of 6,500 feet in a matter of 30 minutes or however long it will take us to fly to Namche Bazaar.  That's a lot of altitude to digest in terms of acclimatization, so it's likely that we'll stay put in Namche Bazaar for a least a day.

After spending the bulk of the day at the airport, I succumbed to the temptation to check out the extraordinary number of climbing gear shops in Kathmandu.  Most of these are very small mom & pop stores with a somewhat limited inventory, so it's not like you've got a bunch of REI stores to choose from, but if you know what you're looking for and are willing to keep searching, there are great bargains to be had.  I've really got everything I need, but what caught my eye this afternoon was an ultra-light weight headlamp from Black Diamond: the Ion.  My trusty older headlamp, state-of-the-art as of four years ago, feels like a brick compared to the Ion.  I got a great price on it too and picked up some spare batteries while I was at it.  I'll test it once we're at Everest base camp and decide whether to take it alone or as a backup for my older headlamp.  The loss or malfunction of a headlamp on summit day would make it impossible to proceed.  A typical push to the summit from the South Col/Camp IV begins before midnight.  You've got to be able to climb in the dark for at least six hours or so.

Our acclimatization plan is to make a total of four trips up the mountain from Everest base camp.  The first time we will climb through the treacherous Khumbu ice fall to Camp I at approximately 6,000 meters/19,700 feet, spend the night there, and return to base camp the next day.  The second time we will climb to Camp I, spend the night there, advance the next day through the Western Cwm to Camp II at approximately 6,200 meters/20,300 feet, spend the night there, and then descend the next day all the way back to base camp.  The third time up the mountain, perhaps the most critical in terms of acclimatization, we will bypass Camp I, ascend directly to Camp II, spend the night, climb half-way up the Lhotse face to Camp III at approximately 7,200 meters/23,600 feet, spend the night, and then push on to the Geneva Spur, which is not far from Camp IV on the South Col at 8,000 meters/26,200 feet.  (The objective is to reach the Geneva Spur without the use of supplemental oxygen.  If we can reach 26,000 feet without supplemental oxygen, weather permitting we should be able to reach the summit at 29,035 feet with supplemental oxygen.)  After reaching the Geneva Spur we will descend all the way back down the mountain to base camp and then continue descending for rest and recuperation at the much lower altitude of Tenboche.  We'll stay there for a week, ascend back up to base camp, and then wait for a good weather forecast.  When we can reasonably anticipate a 72 hour window of decent climbing weather, we'll move up the mountain in stages, taking a day to climb from base camp to Camp II and another day to move from Camp II to Camp III.  We'll start using supplemental oxygen at Camp III.  The next morning we'll climb to Camp IV on the South Col and prepare to leave Camp IV for the summit that same night a little before midnight.  That's the theory anyway.  The weather may have other ideas.

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