Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Everybody Goes Home...

I don't even know where to begin. The last four days have been a blur. Multiple 4:30am wake ups for all day missions. Guess I'll start at the last calm evening. 
The final week of the Everest season typically provides a fair bit of high mountain drama and this year has been no different. 
Hundreds of people all move up into position to summit around the same time. This is due to the weather window being fairly narrow and if you miss it, you're either stuck in screaming winds and cold or you call it and come home with no summit. Many teams feel this pressure and all line up at the same time to hit that precious week of low winds. 
A number of folks get in trouble and many of them don't have the moxie or the assistance of a world class guide to get down alive. Crowding, wind, cold and inexperience all play a big part in creating a total shitshow. This what we encountered the last few days. 
The weather forecast for the night of the 17th showed very high winds so we assumed that all the teams would see the same thing we did and delay arriving on the exposed South Col (Camp 4 @ 26,000ft) till the next day. Turns out, several teams went anyway. 
And this is when the wheels started falling off. 
The next day we began receiving reports of 24+ hr summit attempts, frostbite, exposure and severe altitude illness. We were hearing that clients and a few Sherpa guides were scattered and stranded above high camp and in big trouble. Many of those that did get down to the relative safety of Camp 4 began tearing through other teams' supplemental oxygen cylinders. Obviously this is a shitty thing to do and in my opinion, is not only worthy of an ass whooping, it's grounds for criminal charges. Stealing supplemental oxygen from climbers that are expecting it to be in place for their upcoming ascent or for use in emergencies is about as low as one can go in the world of mountain karma. It has happened before and sadly will happen again. 
We were hearing that Chinese, Indian and UAE teams were reporting several of their members were either broke off completely and requiring assistance or, in a few cases, unaccounted for. Anticipating such a setting, we had arranged for our stud Sherpa team to be in place at Camp 4 the next day to help clean up the mess and help evac climbers in need. Once the rescue request was made, our guys activated quickly. We got confirmation that an Indian woman and her Sherpa guide were "stuck" just below the south summit (28,500ft). At the same time that call came in, Lakpa and Nima Dorje were tending to a sick American climber that was the client of a fairly large operator on the mountain. They worked alongside the guide to nurse this fellow back to health and ultimately helped in lowering him all the way down to Camp 2. 
So that left Mingma and Nima Ninja to head up from Camp 4 to locate the Indian woman and her guide. For all intents and purposes they were essentially on the moon... and our guys would be their only chance of survival. 
It was 8pm and -20F. 
The next morning we woke to hear that our guys had found the 2 stranded climbers at just above 28,000ft. They were out of oxygen and water. Our guys provided them hot drinks and then, because of the disparity of extra oxygen cylinders, provided them their own personal oxygen masks. 
Talk about selfless. 
The woman was barely able to bear weight and required over five hours of labor intensive "short roping" down to Camp 4. Essentially they lowered her 2,000 ft down a snow slope with the occasional rock feature. 
At the same time these events were unfolding, we were getting word that a young Dutch male had died at Camp 4 after returning from the summit. There are plenty of news outlets reporting extensively on his plight so I'll just add that his sudden deterioration was another source of confusion and tension in the flow of communication between the players at Camp 4, Basecamp and Lukla. 
That morning I hopped in Andrews stripped down Dynasty bird and we headed to EBC knowing that we were about to have a massive day of evacs and full blown rescues. One by one, Andrew landed at Camp 2, loaded up a single patient and dropped them with me at EBC. Twelve round trips later we had evac'd a ruptured Achilles' tendon, 4 deep tissue frostbite cases, 2 altitude illnesses and our 4 bad ass Sherpas. 
At that point it was noon and the weather was starting to deteriorate so we flew back down the valley to Lukla with the most critical of our lot. The remaining evacs were ferried down by other helos and the most in need of acute frostbite care were ultimately flown down to Kathmandu.
That evening as we are eating supper, discussing the day's events as well as what the next day might look like, we begin hearing the storyline of an Australian female climber who was in the middle of a full blown epic above Camp 4 with multiple Sherpas attempting to bring her down. I received a call from Gordo at Basecamp around 8pm requesting medical advice to pass along to the team that was trying to stabilize this woman. It sounded like she was quite ill but had a solid support staff tending to her. We discussed a plan that was to be passed on to Camp 4 and agreed to communicate throughout the night should her condition worsen. 
Around 5am the next morning I got an update that she had made it through the night, was speaking and the rescue team was very shortly going to begin assisting her down the mountain. 
We had several more evacs to clear from EBC that day so Chris and I stripped the seats from Kilo Bravo and headed up towards EBC. As we turned up above Pheriche, we ran into a wall of wind and snow that bounced us around enough to where Chris called it and we headed back to Lukla to wait it out. The weather in this valley is unquestionably the most fickle and unpredictable as anywhere in the world. We hoped to wait out the weather and go rescue this woman either later that day or perhaps the next morning once the Sherpa team delivered her to Camp 2. 
As we sat in the teahouse waiting for the clouds to clear, we got word that the female climber had died during the descent to Camp 3. The effort to get her down that terrain was superhuman. I'm confident that everyone involved did everything they could to save her life.
I had never met this woman, but her survival meant a great deal to me. I wanted so badly to help load her on the chopper and take her down to Kathmandu. I visualized it the night before. But it just wouldn't be the case. Once again, countless media sources have provided commentary about the death of this young woman. I've got nothing more to add. 
The next day we heard that our Sherpa team had just arrived into Camp 2 with the Indian woman they had rescued from just below the south summit. It was time to go pick her up. An hour later, Chris and I had Kilo Bravo stripped down and ready for the trip to Camp 2. As this was Chris' first landing at C2, we decided to drop me at EBC so he could navigate the tricky terrain with the absolute lightest helo possible. I watched as he crested over the icefall out of sight into the western cwm in very shitty conditions. Five minutes later he came over the radio telling me he was on his way down with a fairly critical patient.
I hopped in the bird with Chris and finally laid eyes on the Indian woman. She was not well. Shallow respirations, thready pulse, sluggish pupils and lower extremity cold injuries. Sick.
We lifted off from EBC weighted down and booked it straight to the Lukla hospital. We stabilized her and ultimately shipped her down to KTM to address her frostbite therapy. She'll live to fight another day. 
I didn't know it at the time, but that would be the final rescue of the season for us. The few remaining climbers descended without issue and we went straight into beer drinking mode. 
It's gonna take me awhile to process this two month experience. I'll have to reflect on it and I'm sure I'll write a bit more. 
For now... I turn my attention to putting a bow on it. It's time to go home. To my family.