Sunday, March 27, 2016

Annapurna I, first rotation to camp 2

<draft: edit notes, I don't usually include the acclimatization, supply run and atmospheric info but since we have a broad audience, I've included it for context of rotations. Feel free to cut as much as you like. Also, using a different email client since Apple Mail attached in its own format. Picture captions are in alpha order of attached file names>

March 26th, 2016

We've just returned from a rotation to camp 2 on Annapurna's north face. For those not familiar with high altitude mountaineering; a series of camps are established on the mountain not just to cache fuel, food and safety gear for a multi-day summit push from base camp but also to acclimatize. As we increase altitude, the air becomes thinner. As little as half to one third of the air we get at sea level. Our bodies adapt by producing more red blood cells to absorb the limited O2 in our lungs so before one summits an 8000m peak, they must stress their bodies on several  climbing rotations. We climb parts of the mountain two or three times. Many of us check our O2 saturation with a pulse oximeter and register as low as 70%. This is normal but at sea level, you'd likely be hospitalized with O2 sats under 95%. On Everest and K2 we climbed as high as camp 3 on our first rotations before making a week long summit push. This also means that if we're successful on Annapurna, climbing Dhaulagiri may go much faster.

This particular trip, we spent two nights at camp 1 (approx 5000m) then moved up to camp 2 for 3 nights (5625m). Climbing the ice falls up to camp 1 took us about 8 hours this time. I expect we'll cut that time in half on our second trip thanks to the extra red blood cells. The ice falls on our route were a tricky mix of ice, snow and rock climbing, all of which changed considerably between our going up and coming down. A lot of it melted. Seracs collapsed, avalanches swept some of our fixed lines. We only intended to spend two nights at camp 2 but thanks to our trusty sat phone, we were able to get weather updates from a meteorologist back in Kathmandu and compare them with a swiss climber's (Guntis from Zermatt!) reports. A 3 day snow storm was predicted starting the evening of the 26th and worsening on the 27th. Better to stay high till the last minute and fix lines to our potential high camp 3 and descend as the clouds start to roll in. Camp 3 on this French/Polish modified route has sometimes been put in a very dangerous place up a steep wall of ice with hanging glaciers nearby. "Lower camp 3" was swept clean of its tents and supplies last year by an avalanche. Fortunately, no one was in camp when that happened. We're planning to make an upper camp 3, a half hour higher and above a towering block of ice that looks like it wants to succumb to gravity and heat pretty soon. This is the technical crux of the climb and can take about 9 hours to navigate. It is steep, blue ice, seracs, all near a beautiful, imposing hanging glacier that rains ice blocks in to a nearby chute every few hours. We don't dare cross this chute. Expeditions as recently as 2010 have lost climbers there in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lakpa, our expedition leader, is one of the most gifted ice climbers I've had the pleasure of watching climb. I recently learned that he was the first person to climb the 800m ice fall across the valley from Namche. Anyone that has trekked in the Everest area might recall what an imposing ribbon of ice that is. On the 24th, he and our "young Lakpa" hauled several hundred meters of rope to the base of the route and managed to fix half of a new route far to the right of routes in the past. It is steep, vertical at some points, but more direct. Chris and I hiked a few hundred meters above camp 2 to get a good vantage of their marvelous route finding and climbing skills. Check out her March, 26 blog for a shot of Lakpa on the blue ice. The next day, Norbu, another legendary Sherpa set the upper half of the route on a more historical line to lower camp 3. As difficult as it was getting to camp 2, watching them navigate this strange wall of moving ice makes me feel like a mountain tourist. The tongue-in-cheek difference between climbing and hiking is if you pull out a rope or an ice axe, you're climbing. I have two ice tools I use. I hope that counts. 

On our third night at camp 2, we grew from a meager 5 tents to 12 as the Korean team arrived along with a Chinese woman (Lowa Jin, we climbed K2 with), a Bulgarian, an Israeli, a Turkish climber (Tunç, an impressively strong climber whom I walked out on Baltoro glacier in Pakistan two years ago), a young German (Jost), a swiss climber (Guntis) and a Hungarian. Add Chris, an Aussie/Kiwi, some Sherpa and me, we're truly, an international crowd. Two Italians and Russians arrived by heli yesterday too. It is so much fun to put aside politics and other divisive topics and chat about adventures, motivations and loved ones as we build snow couches, toilets, steps and other futile sculptures that will be buried in the impending storm, like sandcastles ahead of a rising tide. 

With the thin air at this altitude, UV radiation is a bit more intense not just because there is less atmosphere to filter it but also because in some places, the light is reflected by the white snow on either side of a valley, an ascending glacier and the ground beneath us. I recall days at camp 1 on Everest where the temps could swing from the 90°s F (40°s C) to below freezing in a matter of minutes when the sun set. The health conscious among us tend to cover almost every square inch of skin with clothing. This can cause discomfort and danger at high temps. If you sweat, then stop climbing or have the clouds move in, you can become hypothermic quickly. We try to walk the line between being cold while stationary and just warm enough while moving. Fortunately, on our way up to camp 2, we had high winds cooling us and occasionally sending us cowering behind our packs because of blasting ice crystals. On our descent, the impending snow storm gave us some cloud cover as we crossed the worst parts of the glacier. The previous sunny days had melted out the route so much that new ice creeks had formed and lots of exposed rock had me wishing I had slender rock climbing shoes rather than my enormous, insulated, 8000m boots. It was fun mixing terrain though. Every facet of my climbing experience became useful from the big granite walls of Yosemite and Joshua Tree, to the ice falls of Colorado to the glacier travel and mountaineering in Alaska. Thanks to all of my friends who have patiently taught, learned or suffered each of these disciplines with me! 

That is the factual information of the first rotation. Emotionally, I am overwhelmed by the history of this mountain and the support of my co-workers, friends and family. I finished Ed Vestures, "The Will to Climb" while we were on the very same route he made his third and successful attempt on Annapurna to finish climbing all 14, 8000ers. His knowledge of the history of this mountain, style of climbing it and poetic insight of the greatest climbers in history left me feeling not worthy to be here. I must admit, getting a congratulatory email from him after being the 16th, 17th and 18th Americans to summit K2 was like an amateur painter getting a high five from Van Gough. Climbing this mountain as light, fast and cleanly as he did is an amazing feet. Also, I'm flooded with messages of love and support on my little satellite beacon. The 160 character limit is painful but getting a message from my brother on my nieces 1st birthday or my mom and dad and beautiful friends tucking me in at night makes me misty eyed. Also, my colleagues managed to not just ship a 360° camera to Kathmandu but managed to get it on to a supply heli to base camp yesterday. I'm already running it through its paces for our summit push on Annapurna I and, hopefully Dhaulagiri. Not just "Yay, Toys!" but more fun technology powered by the creative minds of my colleagues. And then there's this; right now, I'm sipping a lovely beer from the Sherpa Brewery while writing this novela after having my first "shower" in 13 days. Truly, this is luxury. Though we seem to have violated the climbing tenant, "Shower once a week, whether you need it or not." 

The incoming storm will be followed by another small one. If we get more than a meter of snow, we might be here as long as a week waiting for a good weather window. Another mountaineering quote, "You have to show to know." Some years on 8000m peaks, climbers will arrive at base camp and never get a weather window to climb higher but we're patient and our BC cook, Gomé, makes fantastic chili paneer, chili tofu, the best fries/chips I've ever had, and pancakes. Lakpa is life support for our live yoghurt culture as well. No small feet with the temperature swings. If we must stagnate, we will do it with full stomachs and full hearts. 

And again, Chris has posted to her blog. Each piece will focus on a different member of our expedition. Thank you all for your amazing support!


(Acclimatization hike up ridge opposite Annapurna north face with scope to view route)

(360° test shot taken from base camp, my phone is aware of geo sphere information encoded in this picture so when I view it with Google Photos, I can pan around with normal)

(Camp 2, Tunç, Guntis and Jost)

(Ice falls between Annapurna North Face Base Camp and Camp 1)

(Base Camp Puja Ceremony)

(Annapurna I, North Face from Camp 1 at sunset)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Life at Annapurna Base Camp


We managed to duck the clouds and wind and fly in from Jomsom to Annapurna's north base camp. Since a few people have asked, this isn't a camp that is trekked to anymore even though it isn't far from the famed Annapurna Circuit. My climbing partners, Chris and Lakpa, had to hike out last year because the earthquake in Nepal made for an unexpected shortage of helicopters. As their food began to run low, they elected to 'walk' to a nearby valley. It was obvious why, when porters attempted to ferry loads between Tato Pani and this base camp, quite a few gear bags were lost. The terrain is snowy and steep. If something is dropped, it does not come to rest until a few thousand feet below. We attempted to be conscious of the weight of the helicopter loads, especially in the thin air, but this is still the nicest base camp I've ever had the pleasure of settling in to for a month or so. We're not on a moving, melting glacier that will require constant tent platform maintenance like we were on K2 and Everest. And there is beer. We have a great dinning tent and personal tents we can stand up in, designed by Lakpa; what a luxury! As I write this, the sound system in our dinning tent is thumping away and Chris is setting up the satellite modem to check weather forecasts and send out her first blog.

Chris has her Australian and New Zealand flags flying. I have my ARM flag and solar panel is fixed to my tent, gear is sorted and ready for our first trip to camp 1 and 2 but first we acclimatize to BC. Base camp is about 14,000' and while the air is relatively thick here compared to Everest base camp (17,000') it still takes a while for our bodies to make enough red blood cells to feel strong. I've taken a few hikes around the area to get my heart racing and it doesn't take much. For Lakpa Timba and me, this is our first time here so we hiked up a high ridge to get a better vantage point on our route. We could see as high as where our camp 3 will go, just above a steep wall of blue ice. We've acquired a few colds and are recovering but expect not to make a carry up higher for at least another day or two. I'm optimistic a cool, new 360° camera arranged for by my amazing colleagues might arrive on a heli before we even make our first move. 

Besides our expedition leader, Lakpa, our other climbing Sherpa: Pemma, Lakpa Timba and Oong Dorji (I've probably butchered the spelling) have very accomplished climbing resumes. They are, as most Sherpa, incredibly humble, strong, smart, graceful and polite. The other teams at base camp are a veritable who's whom of the high altitude mountaineering world. Many I met in Pakistan two years ago on K2 or our trek out from their various peaks and other climbers I've heard of in books, gear sponsorships and mountaineering blogs. It is very humbling to be amongst them and yet, I have no sense of egocentrism as we make introductions around camp. We feel optimistic about our cooperation fixing lines and sharing camps up higher. Some days, I wonder why I'd ever put myself through this stress of leaving loved ones to live in a tent on an exposed, unforgiving hillside for a couple of months. Then, I look out of my tent in the morning I see the most beautiful, spectacular hanging glaciers and towering rock walls, thrust up from the ocean floors millions of years ago. I meet the brilliant people that are called to this alter to gain perspective and test their will and I think, why don't we do this as much as possible? It is a lovely break from the daily stresses and grooves we wear in to our lives. We all have our releases. This one makes me teary eyed often, feel greater exhaustion and greater sense of accomplishment than just about anything I've done. It is part engineering, part athleticism, part survival, part cooperation across many cultures and many, many hours left with our own thoughts as we proceed up, together, to touch the sky. I want to thank my lovely friends and family for their support. As distant as we all are in time and space, I feel connected to my loved ones. I can't imagine what early climbers and explorers felt as they left home for years on end with almost no contact. Today is my new, baby nieces first birthday. I'm sad not to be there but was blessed to be able to text my family and receive many kind notes back. 

Our ride to base camp.

The view from my tent door this morning. Annapurna I actual summit is just behind the the highest rocky point. This would not be a good summit day…

And since Chris is a more thoughtful writer than me, check in on her blog periodically:
And check in on us when we're making interesting moves on the mountain or message me from:

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Proposed route

Rain in Pohkara and snow and clouds in Jomsom kept us grounded today. While killing 4 hours at the airport this morning, I broke out Google Earth, Chris's route photos from last year and picked Lakpa's brain as we zoomed around the mountain virtually. We came up with a highly detailed route line I'll be loading on my phone and my watch. This is what happens when you take nerds and their toys camping. I'm including a photo of the route we drew but if you like playing along with Google Earth, here is the KMZ file.



My climbing partner, Chris, has written a lovely summary of our intended route, schedule and plans on Annapurna I:

I don't have much to add but my thanks to her and Lakpa for allowing me to join them. They've done a stellar job with the logistics of getting all of the fixed lines, O2, tents, food and supplies to the foot of our route, the permits and me this far. They've a massive accumulated wealth of knowledge I'm slowly beginning to comprehend as my brain adjusts to this time zone. I'm lucky they are sharing it and looking forward to learning more and, hopefully, contributing soon. Chris has informed me that the final summit push on our Annapurna route involves some guess work picking a line through undulating terrain. I've managed to cache terrain data and plot some waypoints for our summits on my watch in order to optimize our route and in case of low visibility conditions. We also have questionable taste in movies and shows so I'm making sure we have Zoolander 2 and The Expanse on a portable wifi disk station I'm taking to base camp. Also, the sat modem is up and running with a new SIM card so I'll be able to post updates and get weather regularly. That is no less than 4 satellite systems (Thuraya, Iridium, GPS, GLONASS) we're using with 4 different devices. I'm glad we have all of these satellites whizzing above our heads and gadgets to talk to them so I can focus on what I do best; putting one foot in front of the other and repeating. A lot. 

Today, as we flew in to Pokhara, we caught small glimpses of the Annapurna range through the clouds. I'm in awe of the explorers who came here a decade ago and even considered setting foot on the flanks of these giants and humbled by the fact that our plane was cruising around 20,000' and we were still looking up at the peaks.

After some successful provisioning in Pokhara (purchasing of all of the chocolate in town), we'll finally get some altitude tomorrow. If all goes well, we'll end our day in Mukanath and start to stress our bodies so they'll make more red blood cells. 

(Phewa Lake and the World Peace Pagoda)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Arrival, KTM

Arrival, KTM. Destination, jet lag. It is 4AM back home in California and 5:45PM here. Yes, there is an extra 15 minute offset of time from the Indian and Chinese time zones. I attribute all typos to that 15 minutes of extra jet lag. This is my third trip to Kathmandu. The third time seeing the pollution, litter, and traffic, hearing the chaos, commerce and commotion of it all. It is also my third time in 10 years seeing its resilience. Kathmandu's government has changed hands more times than I can keep track of. It changed hands while I was here trekking my first time in 2006 with the Mathys, Phelps and friend Ryan and again when I was climbing Everest in 2009 (shout out and love to the entire AAI 2009 Everest team). Maoist extremists changed peoples lives forever with their brutality and perseverance in the countryside. The population of this city swelled from 3 million to 6 million in a handful of years and did not rebound even after the political dialogue greatly improved. The infrastructure is crumbling but power is less intermittent now and life goes on, with a smile. The various incarnations of Shiva temples buzz with tourists and pilgrims. The cremation pyres burn non-stop. The busses and scooters flow in and out on barely navigable streets. Even in the 1000 year old squares that were decimated by the earthquake last year, sacrifices are made for good fortune, monkeys play, businesses pop up to serve the religious and the tourists and friends meet to socialize. They are rebuilding. Tibetan refugees continue to expand their villages in concentric circles draped with beautiful prayer flags around stupas. Buildings go up everywhere, not quite finished. People make a living and game the system wherever they go. If you don't finish your building here, you don't pay taxes on it. So, magnificent temples and shrines are surrounded with rebar and support columns to "add another floor someday".

What strikes me as beautiful and different about all of this madness; political upheaval, and natural disasters. The Buddhists don't just embrace the Hindu traditions, they incorporate and celebrate them. The Hindu, mostly Shiva worshippers around here, people are also just as likely to celebrate the upcoming birthday of the Buddha along with their Tibetan transplants. No one claims absolute understanding of the world around them, they simply listen, contemplate and incorporate. It is a beautiful quilt of philosophies and people; all trying to be happy. It is a lovely place to wander about and eat and drink and trade stories. I have friends here now; favorite places to shop and walk and take pictures. This isn't a home-coming but it is a comfy place to start and end a journey.

Our permits and supplies are gathered, and in two days, we will fly to Pokhara, Nepal's 2nd largest city, 200 miles to the west. It is also only miles from 3 of the highest 10 mountains in the world; Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu. If the weather, conditions, people and mountains grant us their grace, we will attempt to climb two of those starting with Annapurna I. 

Chris and Lakpa picked me up at the airport and have informed me there are at least two major expeditions on the same route as us as Annapurna and as many as five on Dhaulagiri! Fantastic news! Our base camp team also arrived by helicopter 3 days ago and were spared the arduous task of carrying thousands of meters fixed lines between base camp and the base of the route. The helicopters managed to drop all of the fixed lines for several expeditions right at the base of the route. Also, fantastic news! Tomorrow morning, we will receive blessings from a lama in Kathmandu, do our gear check and make sure I can activate my SIM with the sat modem that my lovely colleagues at ARM have been so kind to take care of for me. Of course, this is great for sending photos and blogs but even more importantly; it allows us to consult with weather forecasters and see pictures of my new, baby niece as she is about to turn 1! 

p.s. My brother, Todd, got me started on Ed Viesturs, The Will to Climb, in which describes his own experiences and interest in Annapurna. He gives a great history of the mountain.

update 12 mar 2016 photos of blessing and rebuilding of Boudhanath stupa, Kathmandu
Links to images of modified Polish Route

Polish Route Images (purple line and line 4)

Schedule update:
13th - fly to Pokhara
14th - fly Jomsom, drive Muktanath or surrounds, acclimatising
15th - day in Mukanath and surrounds, acclimatising
16th - drive early back to Jomson, catch helicopter to BC

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Thank you all for your wonderful support as we attempt Annapurna and Dalaguiri

My lovely co-workers are picking up my slack and even sponsoring some of my gadgetry and bandwidth to make this a safer journey