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. 

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