Our co-founder Tim Macartney-Snape has been kind enough to share with us an account of his Sea to Summit expedition. At this time 25 years ago, Tim was enroute to the summit of Mt. Everest on foot from the Bay of Bengal! Enjoy part two of his narrative on this fabled expedition and be sure to Follow the Adventure on our Facebook page for opportunities to win some great gear packages.
Arriving at base camp is always a sobering experience because the air is already thin enough to make you wonder how you can possibly start climbing anything technical with all the cold weather gear, food and hardware necessary. However experience tells you that given time and a bit of a nudge by going high in prudently progressive steps, the body does acclimatise to make going high a little easier. My plan to acclimatise was to climb the 640 m (2000foot) wall of fractured rock leading to the base of the West Ridge. Doing it alone was going to involve some risk and that risk would be even greater given I would probably have to go up and down a couple of times to take gear up and get acclimatized. To minimise this risk I decided to first climb quickly up easier but more dangerous ground and then descend steeper, more compact parts of the wall and fix a line there.
This plan was modified when I discovered that there was a small Swiss expedition led by Beda Fuster attempting the West Ridge as well so we agreed to join forces in fixing the way to the Lho La and that worked perfectly. The army also allowed me to use their route up in the Western Cwm where I went to familiarize myself with the descent and also put in a tent with supplies at camp two. I also took my skinny cross-country skis up and used them to good effect skiing around on the glacier below camp two for some acclimatisation exercise – not that that was the main purpose, I just wanted to say that I had skied in the western Cwm! I did ski down to icefall on my way down which was much quicker than walking.
The final phase of my acclimatisation was to climb to 7500m on the west ridge over a few days. This was my first multi-day solo foray at high altitude and proved to be a very interesting experience. On the second morning I climbed up from the Lho La to where the angle of the west shoulder lessens and found the climbing to be surprisingly hard, even using the rope just put in place by the Swiss as protection on the difficult pitches, it was extremely strenuous mixed climbing on iron-hard ice and mixed ground. On the third morning I plodded up the final snowy slope to the top of the west shoulder and then started along it for a way where I was surprised to see four people off to the side of the ridge. I recognized the two closest to me as Sherpas and greeted them in Nepali. They asked me where I had come from and I said ‘all the way from the sea!’ But I don’t think they really took that in because they then said ‘but which way to here?’ I told them from the Lho La. They told me they had come up from the Rongbuk – the Tibetan side from which there is an easier angled spur. The other two were Europeans and I said hello to them in the distance but as they were heading down and I up, we had no further conversation. About twenty years later I met the Austrian alpinist Peter Habeler and we worked out that we had briefly met up there on the West ridge that windy morning.
I found a place to camp, dug myself a tent platform and put up my tent.Well it was a tent without a fly because in preparation for the trip, I had left getting a very lightweight tent too late and since there were none available in Australia and there was no time to make one, I had decided to take a reasonably light tunnel tent without the fly rationalizing that I would only let myself be up high in fine weather and therefore a tent with just an inner would be sufficient to shelter me from the wind enough to use a stove. Even though that night was windy, inside the flapping tent, my basic gas stove did a fine job in melting snow.
I had a fitful sleep, a classic symptom of being at altitude early on in the acclimatisation process but luckily no major headache. I found that being alone induced an annoyingly incessant silent dialogue with myself and I had to concentrate to try to shut it down as I quickly got sick of it! The morning dawned fine but windy again and I had decided to descend into the Western Cwm for something different and to reconnoiter that route which had been pioneered by the Americans on their traverse in 1963 and famously recorded in Tom Hornbein’s classic account The West Ridge. If snow conditions changed on my summit attempt, I may have to bypass the Lho La by using that alternate access to the upper West Ridge.
The descent was very straightforward if not taxing on my calf muscles as it was a long way down using the ‘French technique’, where you place your cramponed boot flat against the slope so as to get all points penetrating the hard snow and therefore providing maximum hold. Once I reached the bergshrund, the crevasse that demarcates the glacier in the valley (which is dynamic and moves continually down as it gets replenished from snow falling down off the slopes above) from the mountain, I found a snow bridge and crawled across it and from there my progress slowed considerably as I now was in terrain that was likely to hold crevasses concealed by a thin covering on windblown snow. In such terrain one normally ropes up to your climbing partner, instead I used my ice axe to continuously probe in front of me for that hidden menace. Breaking though the snow crust and falling into a crevasse and getting wedged between its glass-smooth walls is the nightmare scenario for mountaineers. I probed hard and diligently until my arms ached and slowly I made my way down to Camp Two – which even back then in 1990 was like a small village of tents, there being four expeditions on the normal route.
One of them was a large American expedition that seemed to consist mainly of water rights lawyers from the mountain states of the west. They had with them a handful of more experienced mountaineers one of whom was Everest veteran Pete Athens. He invited me into their salubrious and spacious communal dome tent for some hot soup. To this hospitality I had no objection and thoroughly enjoyed the soup and the conversation. On a previous expedition Pete had been high on the West Ridge so I quizzed him extensively about the route. He cautioned that snowy conditions would certainly make the upper rocky section tedious and more difficult.
Back in Base Camp the following day I felt confident that after a few days of rest I would be ready for my climb. All I needed was a fine window of weather but a front came through and dumped so much snow that I could ski around base camp and to while away the time and stay fit I would head off into the labyrinth of ice penitents and play at my newly invented sport of ‘ski- glacierneering’.
Eventually the weather came good but after so much snow I was starting to have doubts about the conditions. Avalanche danger lower down, deep wind-crusted snow to plough through on the West Shoulder and snow covered rocks up higher would take a couple of weeks to settle down and that meant I might miss out altogether as the weather grew increasingly unstable with the build-up to the monsoon.
Stay tuned for part three…