Thursday, November 9, 2017

Part II - Scott Fischer's Ice Axe Lives to Climb Again!

The rest of the story... As told from Hong Kong during a few days layover to visit Disneyland and to hike Tai Mo Shan (Hong Kong's underwhelming high point at 3,140 feet).

...back to Nepal at over 20,000 feet on our summit day Nov. 3rd.  Garrett Madison's dispatch referenced in our last post explained many of the details of our big day on Tharke Khang, so without repeating his excellent summary, here's what else happened from our perspective. 

The entire team had been pushing hard and ascending more rapidly than scheduled in the days leading up to our summit day. This was in part because we were feeling strong, and mostly due to the helicopter transporting us over the Ngozumba Glacier and icefall directly to ABC at 19,000 feet, gaining 2,500 feet in a matter of minutes. Nonetheless we had a good weather window to go for the summit so we all rallied and sucked it up, both figuratively and literally considering the limited oxygen in the air at this altitude. As an aside, this shorter than ideal acclimatization period makes the success of those who reached the summit even more impressive.

Denise was feeling much less energetic than usual when we left camp shortly after 2 AM.  But with some positive spousal encouragement and the help of only mild winds and illumination from the moon, we slowly and steadily climbed the steep wall up to the corniced ridgeline at just over 20,000 feet. It was at this point where Denise decided she didn't have enough gas in the tank to safely navigate up and down the rest of the treacherous ridgeline ahead. As much as I hated doing so, I gave her a kiss goodbye and watched her as she clipped her figure 8 onto the rope and began her rappel back down. Sid was waiting for me on top of the ridgeline and as soon as I climbed up over the lip, we both watched carefully to make sure she descended safely. We then continued on and quickly caught up to the others. It was at this point when Phil decided his risk meter was nearing its limits, so he turned back as well. Again Sid and I stopped and waited to watch from this last vantage point to make sure he also descended safely. Then it happened.  I believe my words were "HOLY SHIT!" Phil just slipped and fell! I wouldn't have predicted this event as Phil seemed to be a very skilled and experienced climber. Sid and I watched helplessly as he began sliding down the extremely steep and sustained headwall slope that we spent all morning climbing up (well over 1,000 vertical feet). The chances of surviving an unprotected fall from here were slim. Fortunately Phil was properly clipped into the safety line and it held his weight when the full force of his body tugged on the rope. Disaster averted.

Sid and I refocused our attention on the steep slopes above us and the vertical wall that would soon become my nemesis. I'll spare the technical discussion why a safety line should be rigged slightly longer than an ascender leash (something I should have paid more attention to earlier) suffice it to say I got hung up on the overhanging section of the wall as I tried to climb up. It required Sid's expert guiding skills to extract me from my predicament - thank you again Sid. Once the pressure was relieved from my carabiner I was ready to go! Unfortunately at that point so was Sid.  He made a comment about some adage in mountain guiding that you're allowed one "F-up" but not two. We already had our close call with Phil, so as far as Sid was concerned it was time to go back down and quit while we were still ahead. Despite my strong desire to continue on and achieve a first ascent with Garrett and the others, I respected Sid's professional call to turn around. After all that's why we hire experienced professional guides who can make difficult decisions like this and help keep us safe. Of course guides are human and capable of mistakes as we all know, but far better to be conservative when lives are at stake.

It was not lost on me that in my hand was Scott Fischer's ice axe, a constant reminder that things don't always go as we hope or plan in the mountains (or in life) but that's exactly what makes for a great adventure!!!
View from slopes of Tharke Khang at well over 20,000 feet.

Steep descent from where we watched Phil slip below.

Nemesis turnaround point ahead.

Visiting the Himalayan English Boarding School in Lukla, funded in small part by the donation
made for Scott Fischer's ice axe in the auction. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Scott Fischer's Ice Axe Lives to Climb Again!

We are thrilled to report that a successful first ascent of the unclimbed "Secret Mountain" Tharke Khang has been achieved! Sadly we were not among the three Westerners to stand on the top out of the total nine clients and guides on our team, but we are elated to be a part of the remarkable effort to reach the objective and climb where no humans have ever gone before. We hope Scott Fischer wouldn't be too disappointed that we were unable to get his ice axe to the summit, but I'm sure he would appreciate we all got down safely. A special thanks to our friends Aang Phurba Sherpa, Lakpa Dandi Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa, and Pasang Dawa Sherpa for your hard work and helping to keep all of us safe on a difficult, demanding and extremely treacherous peak. We knew very little about this mountain before setting foot on its flanks, and without your machine-like efforts, this pioneering feat could not be attained.  
South side (Nepal) view of Tharke Khang from our Puja stupa at Base Camp at 16,500 feet 
Extreme steep from high on the Tharke Khang ridgeline Nov. 3, 2017
Notice tiny dot (Dave Landman) below

We are proud of the decisions made high up on the mountain that lead all of us to safely return to tell the tales. Garrett Madison did an excellent job recounting the details of our summit day that began at 2:00 AM on Friday Nov. 3rd, coincidentally Garrett's birthday. I highly encourage you to read his Madison Mountaineering dispatch and see the photos to more fully appreciate what took place and what was accomplished:
Happy Birthday once again GM, we can't imagine a better gift for such a strong and selfless professional guide than your very own first, First Ascent on your birthday. You will not read this in Garrett's dispatch because of his humble nature, but Garrett previously decided when we were at base camp on Wednesday to defer leading the final stages of the climb to our two other Western guides, giving them the opportunity to claim the first ascent accolade. For a professional mountain guide the accomplishment is the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award or perhaps a Presidential Medal of Honor. When we heard of Garrett's decision to put all self-interest aside and defer the opportunity, we were stunned. After much debate among the team we were able to persuade Garrett to come along as previously planned. We're glad we spoke up and the decision was made, and I'm sure that now in retrospect the GM is pleased too.
Among many life lessons we have learned on this amazing adventure here in Nepal, the Buddhist doctrine of Karma is a powerful force. Thank you Garrett for demonstrating to all of us through your actions how good karma really works.
In my next blog post I'll elaborate a bit on difficult decisions made and why we turned around before reaching the summit. But for now we want all of you to know we are safely off the mountain and thanks to the miracle of helicopter transportation, we are already back in Kathmandu and once again enjoying the conveniences outside the expedition tent including fresh food, shower, bed, and an internet connection. ... not to mention the extra oxygen we have been missing out on above 20,000 feet! We also want you to know how much we appreciate all of you for following along on our adventure and for your support and friendship.
Thank you,
Paul and Denise Fejtek
North side (China/Tibet) view of headwall from ABC at 19,000 feet
Notice our Sherpa team (three tiny dots)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Himalayan Style

Happy Halloween from Tharke Khang Base Camp at 16,500 ft. We have some exciting and spooky things to report from our last 3 days here. Pioneering a route on a mountain that has never been climbed must truly be the definition of adventure in its purest form. With a clear view of Everest from our tent right now, we feel the same sense of exhilaration that Mallory and Hillary must have felt in the 20's and 50's respectively. However, we have modernized the approach with the use of a helicopter!

Our Sherpa team spent several days scouting a route by foot thru the massive Ngozumba Glacier but reported back by radio that it looked impassible. …and more scary than a haunted house :-) Sid, Phil and I flew by heli to see from above if there was a safe way thru, but the rockfall hazards and icefall looked too dangerous to put lives at risk.
So, we plan to fly our entire team and gear tomorrow AM (Wed. Nov. 1st) across the glacier to the foot of the mountain and weather permitting, begin the technical portion of the climb on Thurs. Nepal time. Only satellite texting is available so no pics or video to share until we get back down. We feel healthy and strong, and with Scott Fischer's ice axe on hand, we are up for this first ascent challenge! Wish us luck! 
Thx, Paul and Denise

Friday, October 27, 2017

Secret Mountain Revealed!

Greetings from Gokyo at 15,800 feet perched on the banks of the scenic turquoise Gokyo Lake. We've covered a significant amount of terrain and gained approx. 4,400 feet since our last post from Namche Bazaar on Tues. Oct. 24th. Our Garmin InReach tracking map shows exactly where we have been, stopping overnight in the villages of Khumjung and Machermo:

For those who have seen the Discovery Channel series "Everest - Beyond the Limits", you may find it of interest that we stayed with Phurba Tashi at his Tashi Friendship Lodge in Khumjung.  Seeing Phurba Tashi in his every day family life milking naks (female yaks) and running a small lodge, was in sharp contrast to his role as Russell Brice's lead Sherpa (sirdar) with the responsibility of making life and death decisions high up on Everest - all displayed in dramatic fashion on TV. 

Anyhow back to revealing the name of our "secret mountain".  Since we are now within days of hiking to reach the base of the mountain and it seems unlikely anybody else could catch up to us at this point, the name of the unclimbed peak is ...drum roll ...Tharke Khang!

Like nearby Burke Khang and Everest, Tharke Khang is also a border peak straddling both Nepal and China (Tibet).  We first set eyes on the mountain two years ago while climbing Burke Khang and it is both majestic, rugged-looking, and high at 6,710 meters or 22,143 feet.  It's also extremely remote and difficult to access in part due to the large glacier crossings.  

Last month while still at home we had a bit of a surprise when we learned that Reinhold Messner's son was at the base of Tarke Khang and was preparing to climb it.  The Himalayan Times reported the news and we quickly researched and confirmed that despite the similar but different spelling to Tharke Khang, it was in fact a different mountain altogether (also known as Glacier Dome) and is located in the Annapurna Region.  Our first ascent attempt was still a go!  

This little scare was yet another reason we felt it was best to keep the name a secret. So now you know the rest of the story and are in on our "secret" ...until of course we post this blog report on Facebook. :-)

Thanks again for following along.  Our next stop is base camp.  We will continue using the InReach Explorer for map tracking and satellite text messaging but we're not sure about the timing of the next post since all communication is via satellite from here on out.  

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

News from Namche

We have good news to report from the village of Namche Bazaar at 11,400 feet where we have now spent two nights acclimating to the altitude. We still have a long way higher up to go and this is just part of the process. 

As you may recall from our October 10th "...secret mountain adventure" blog post we knew there were other teams on the hunt to make a first ascent of one of Nepal's remaining unclimbed peaks. We just didn't know whether anybody was planning to climb "our" peak, or could possibly be ahead of us on the approach to the area.  Well our guide Garrett Madison made a visit to the government agency responsible for issuing climbing permits in Nepal, the Ministry of Tourism, and he learned that nobody else has yet applied for a permit for "our" mountain. After submitting the requisite forms and fees, our Madison Mountaineering expedition is the proud holder of the first and only climbing permit ever issued for our "Secret Mountain." I guess it's possible somebody could walk into the Ministry of Tourism office tomorrow and request a permit. However given that it's already late in the Fall climbing season, those chances are low.

Now it's simply up to us to make our way to the base of this peak and go climb it!

Scott Fisher's ice axe is securely in our possession and ready for the task, and we even have a way for you to track the ice axe (and us) as we approach the base of the mountain. Bill Burke was kind enough to loan us his Garman InReach Explorer satellite tracking device and it has some neat mapping features so you can see exactly where we are in the Himalayas and where we have been. (Assuming the display is functioning properly there should be a green line showing our path.)

Here's the link:

It's also located on the web version of our Summit for CAF blog on the right side of the page under "links to check out."

We may not make a new blog post for a few more days or so, but you can always visit this Garmin link to see where we are as we continue onward and upward.  Thanks for following us and Scott's ice axe on this adventure!

Paul & Denise

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Where is Scott Fischer's Ice Axe?

Is it lost? Some things just can't be replaced. These were some of the things that went through our heads as we filed the lost luggage forms after arriving at the Kathmandu International Airport late Friday night. All four of our expedition duffel bags went missing and without this gear the climb would be over before it even started. We were told that three of the bags were thought to be in Kuala Lumpur but they didn't know about the fourth.

Fast forward to Saturday night as I stood in front of the same baggage carousel watching with nervous anticipation as each and every bag emerged. Finally it happened, my first bag rolled out and I felt like I won the auction for Scott Fischer's ice axe all over again.  The other three bags followed shortly after and being reunited with all of our vital climbing equipment meant we were back on track to fly to Lukla early the next morning.

Although this is our fifth trip to Nepal and also our fifth time flying into Lukla (which is ranked #1 among the most extreme airports in the world) it is still just as exciting to land here as it was the first time. After touching down on this short 1,500-foot runway carved into the mountainside, we all cheered and said our own private prayers of gratitude.

After a team photo, Denise and I along with Scott's ice axe began making our way north to the village of Phakding where we are now. Tomorrow we will continue upward to Namche Bazaar. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Nepal Bound: With very special climbing gear

Greetings from Hong Kong as we connect to a flight bound for Kathmandu!  We are excited to finally be on our journey after a week of packing gear and making arrangements to be away from home and work for more than a month.  Although we've been through this routine a few times before, there was one very special item included as we packed our expedition duffel bags.

Two years ago on Burke Khang I had the misfortune of losing my ice axe that I used throughout the years climbing the Seven Summits and many other peaks. Last year we had the privilege to attend an event honoring the memory of renowned climber and guide Scott Fischer who passed away high up on Mt. Everest in the 1996 storm and ensuing disaster. Many know of the tragedy through Jon Krakauer's best-selling book "Into Thin Air" and more recently in Universal Pictures' big screen movie "Everest".  Legendary high-altitude climber Ed Viesturs recounted stories from his ascent of K2 with Scott and the entire evening served as a fundraiser to rebuild the Himalayan English Boarding School in the village of Lukla which was destroyed in the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquake.
Ed Viesturs and Paul Fejtek admiring each other's books!
The most iconic and coveted auction item at the event was Scott Fischer's ice axe. It immediately caught my attention and seemed to be calling my name. If only that ice axe could talk WOW the stories it could tell. I needed to replace my lost ice axe anyhow I rationalized, and ultimately I was lucky enough to be the winning bidder!
Scott's kids Katie Rose and Andy Fischer-Price with the winning bidders 

Scott's longtime friend and best man in his wedding approached me after the auction. He asked me what I was planning to do his friend's ice axe, hoping that it wasn't destined for a plexiglass display case to be hung on a wall and merely admired and never to be used again. I assured him I would put it to good use and told him about our plans for another attempt for a first ascent of an unclimbed Himalayan peak. The smile on his face told me Scott would be pleased.  I'll do my best to channel Scott's adventure-loving spirit and we are proudly taking him along vicariously on our "Secret Mountain" climb of a lifetime!  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Shhhh's a secret mountain adventure!

Two years ago we announced a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a first ascent of an unclimbed peak - the 22,775-foot Burke Khang on the border of Nepal and China. Many of you enthusiastically followed along as our team pioneered a route and we had the privilege to become the first humans ever to set foot on this majestic, untouched mountain. We now find ourselves with the good fortune to announce a "second" once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. ...but first the rest of the story on Burke Khang:

As a refresher here's a link to our blog posts from 2015 with the blow by blow account and photos from our turnaround point roughly 500 vertical feet from the treacherous summit. Since that time our good friend Bill Burke has returned to Nepal three more times in attempt to settle the score and reach the top of his namesake mountain. If you follow Bill's blog Eight Summits you know that his 2016 and Spring 2017 attempts failed to reach the top, but just last week success was finally achieved! Although Bill did not stand on the top himself (his high point was with me two years ago on the "Fejtek Face") Bill's teammate and professional mountain guide Noel Hanna claimed the first ascent honors along with Naga Dorje Sherpa, Pemba Tshering Sherpa and Sonam Bhote. Congratulations to all!
2015 Burke Khang Expedition - Bill & Paul on the "Fejtek Face"
And now for our news. Although we could not join Bill on any of his subsequent attempts on Burke Khang due primarily to my mountain biking and skiing injuries from last year and cancer treatment for Denise's mom, we are now successfully through both of those ordeals! So we are heading back to the Himalayas next Wednesday night! 
Last year we began studying 3D images on Google Earth and with the help of our guides from two years ago Garrett Madison and Sid Pattison, we have identified another unclimbed peak to attempt.
Unfortunately we cannot reveal the name or location of the mountain at this time. As a complete surprise to Bill, just as he was about to begin his expedition last month, Bill learned that several well known climbers from around the world were planning to attempt Burke Khang. Fortunately Bill and his team beat them to it but the others were poised and planning to take a shot if Bill and his team were unsuccessful in this fourth try. Since the Burke Khang summit has now been claimed, we strongly suspect these teams are on the hunt for another first ascent. Therefore we need to keep our plans quiet until we get closer to the mountain.
Please stay tuned for the next blog posts with more details about our adventure and eventually the name, location and photos of this stunning and formidable mountain as the journey gets underway starting next week. If you aren't already subscribed to our blog, you can get email updates whenever (and only when) a new post is made. Simply enter your email address in the box at the upper right of the Summit for CAF blog page, then confirm through the automated email you will receive immediately after subscribing.  Check your spam folder if you don't see it.
Thanks and Climb On!
Paul & Denise