Monday, May 16, 2016


I've just descended to basecamp at 4600m from 5700m on Dhaulagiri. We went up on a summit push yesterday and I managed to keep up with some of the Sherpa all the way to camp 1 (of 3) but I pushed too hard in the heat. I could list losing half of my gear, blisters, significant muscle and weight loss, that 80% of the fixed lines from BC to C1 have been swept by avalanche, a persistent cough that rattles my ribs and back but those things are part of every summit push on an 8000m peak in some way or another. When I found a guide in Yosemite Valley to teach me how to climb big walls, he told me he takes most trad, rock climbers new to big-wall up the Washington Column because it has a huge ledge to sleep on and a positive angle all the way up but when he saw I'd climbed Everest, he offered up the Leaning Tower as my first overnighter on a big wall. A completely overhanging slab of granite with a very small bivy half way up. He said, "you know how to suffer;" a high complement from a big wall expert. High altitude mountaineering is many things at different times. It is cooperation, planning, strength, endurance, rehearsal, safety systems, technology but it almost always requires suffering. One doesn't get up high on a mountain and then decide they're too tired, sick, scared, cold or injured to quit. You just keep moving, carefully, no matter how much you want to stop, or you lose the game. Of the excuses I listed above, the simple reason I turned around was I had used up my willingness to suffer and still be able to make good decisions while on Annapurna. I'd hit my personal tolerance for risk. I'd never attempted back to back 8000m peaks but since Dhaulagiri was right across the valley from Annapurna, it seemed like a nice plan B or bonus peak that Chris and Lakpa were planning on anyway. Chris and Lakpa are truly bad-ass to continue up. Of the 21 people that made a summit push on the 15th, yesterday, all turned back. Lakpa had the same respiratory problems I had after getting sick at high altitude. The Spanish team, our friends, are now less than half their size after Annapurna took its toll and the remaining are burnt out after 75+ days of expedition so they aren't even going above base camp before flying out. Still Chris and Lakpa go up! I'll monitor the radios and forecasts from here and report their status on my sat beacon site.

And if I still have a job (I didn't expect Annapurna to take more than my sabbatical time), I look forward to dissecting some of the other cool technology I've seen up here. The British joint military expedition have heart rate/blood O2 sat chips implanted in their chests, an ARM powered quad-copter they've used to film the route above 7000m and more weather forecasting technology and tracking systems than I've ever seen on a mountain before. And be warned, we're past my 1 month absence threshold required before hugging co-workers and I miss you all. Even you Brits that hate hugs.

I have now summited Everest, K2 and Annapurna, 3 of the deadliest, most written about mountains in the world, each on my first try. I'm not sure that has been done. I owe so much to the teams that helped me climb each. I'm still an amateur here, a mountain tourist but I understand the wisdom, experience and morale those teams shared to contribute to all of our success. If you'll allow some chest-puffery; I'm the 17th American to summit K2 and the 5th (6th or 7th?) to summit Annapurna but I know I have a lot to learn and look forward to the chance to climb with friends and the greatest climbing masters of our time. So, thanks to my brilliant friends that taught me the best climbers have the wisdom to recognize when to turn around. The connections we form while climbing and traveling together makes us family. The support I get from all of you in 160 character chunks (and occasional photos of my niece learning to walk) fill me with more joy and gratitude than I could ever express. The months spent in tents, on glaciers without modern conveniences is a welcome reboot of perspective and privilege. Well, except for the riding around in helicopters part. I may not have a shower, microwave, full internet, clothes washer or even a toilet but I have 360° cameras and satellite beacons and GPS watches and a tiny solar panel to keep it all alive, record and share the journey. I look forward to sharing more when I get home in a week or two. Thank you for indulging this silliness and watching my "what I did for my summer vacation" videos. I miss and love you all.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Annapurna I summit!

I walked down from Camp1 and on to a helicopter to Pokhara two days ago. On May 1st, 2016, we stood on the summit of one of the most challenging (statistically deadliest) peaks in the world, Annapurna I (8091m). An accomplishment about 200 people can claim and, I think, fewer than 8 Americans can. As with K2, it hasn’t sunken in. I’m not sure that it will any time soon. I appreciate the outpouring of love and support from friends, colleagues and family. I’m not sure it is deserved since we voluntarily subject ourselves to this struggle and the rewards of perspective from traveling to this place, this culture, this physical challenge are wholly gratifying. It is lovely to hear from you all though; the climbers I look up to, my family and friends that lit this passion, my coworkers that are covering my butt while I’m out and designing the gadgets that make this journey both safe and share-able. I stand on the shoulders of your support.

On this summit push, we expected the winds and snow to be low on May 1st so we left base camp on April 27th and took a day to get to each camp on the way up. The first two camps, as you know, are pretty easy to get to and relatively safe though lots of folks had to excavate tents from over a meter of snow at C2. The journey to C3 was, again, full of blue, nearly vertical ice and quite strenuous. The serac above the gully was relatively quiet though we hear it nearly got two Russians on their way out. What I wasn’t aware of was how, equally, tough the trip up to C4 would be on April 30th. Some teams used a lower camp 4 that still had some overhanging ice climbing to get to but in order to shorten our summit day, we opted to use an upper camp 4 around 7200m. After about 6 hours of climbing above C3, I strolled in to our C4 fresh and ready to tackle the mountain. And by strolled, I mean, hobbled, gasping and wheezing about 4-5 breaths for every step I took until I finally got to our tent site. We spent about 8 hours there warming up, making water and resting. I think I drifted off for about an hour before we woke up at 9pm for a 10pm push.

Once fully suited, harnessed, and packed, we stepped out in to the frigid night air. In the 5 minutes I spent standing outside the tent with the conductive steel spikes of my crampons stuck in to the snow, I could start to feel my toes numb, even with chemical toe warmers clumsily stuck to my socks. When Pema motioned for us to take off as a pair, we rocketed up towards the headlamps bobbing slowly up the hill ahead of us and I started to feel my extremities again. The Spanish had left lower C4 at around 7pm and had made it just past our camp. We caught them in just over an hour. It is a strange feeling climbing at night; living in a small sphere of light cast by our tiny, brilliant, white LEDs on our foreheads. Before moonrise, the only reference of movement and progress is the twinkling headlamps above and below you and the dim, static stars above. They are comforting though. As long as there are stars, there aren’t clouds and high winds pushing snow around the mountain or in to you. You feel this delicate sense of comfort in the quiet, soft warmth of your down suite as you feel the biting cold of the outside air on your face and the long trail of steam as you exhale in to the impossibly cold, thin air. I peel back the gauntlet on my mittens every 20 minutes or so to gaze at the tiny route line on my GPS watch. The dim backlight seems blinding in the dark night. Part of modern 8000m peak ascent is this night start but without moonlight, people are left to follow contours on the mountain that they know by daylight. This has led expeditions to loose their way at night only to have to make up lost ground or retreat when the sun reveals their location. As I wrote before, Lakpa and I sat down with mapping software and drew and approximate route I could view from my Ambit 3 without carrying a clumsy handheld device and exposing skin. It worked brilliantly. When the sun started to peek up from the horizon around 5am, we were just a few hundred meters short of the couloir we needed to ascend to the peak. (360° photo attached, around 7700m) You can see ice frozen on my eyelashes in this photo. We were also out of fixed line at this point. Fortunately, Pema was carrying a thin lead line. He pulled it out and without a word spoken, I figure-8-ed in and we were off. Untethered from the long, poly-pro, umbilical back to C4. And again, I enlisted my watch to drop a breadcrumb trail should we find ourselves back at this point in white out conditions in need of navigational queues. Digital bread crumbs are marginally lighter than a satchel of bamboo wands. 

We traveled up the couloir as it appears on satellite images and as planned but at what seemed like the top, appearances were deceiving, the summit was still a long way off, up and to the left. The actual summit might have been more difficult to find had we not had two sherpa with us who had been there (Pema, twice) and my GPS fix to follow. It was around there I think I could tell something was happening to one of my lungs. This is typical though. Small colds turn in to respiratory infections up here often but it was slowing me down. The Spanish and Korean teams passed us by after Pema’s heroic, alpine style trail breaking ahead of me and soon we saw the Nepali flag one of their Sherpa had planted on the summit! After what seems like an eternity (an hour), we waited our turn in line and joined Lakpa and Chris on the tiny, tiny summit in gail force winds for quick pictures and an even faster retreat. In the attached/linked 360° photo, you can see the spindrift howling off the summit point. I gazed down the east ridge towards Rock Noir and west towards Dhaulagiri for a few seconds and we were off; down climbing the same route we came up. Axe and front points in to the snow and head bobbing up and down to peer between our legs below and the person above us. The whole ordeal to the summit taking 12 hours, 30 minutes from tent to summit. The return trip was fairly arduous but uneventful. My lung continued to slow me down until it was wheezing but never stopped working. I was quite proud that we’d climbed without fixed ropes above 7700m to the top. I was really glad I could send a short message from my smartphone and satellite beacon to my friends and family notifying them when we were safely back in our tent at C4. There were a couple of cases of frostbite and a heli rescue at C1 but in all 26 people topped out and made it back to base camp over the next couple of days. 

You can see our heli ride out was an adventure in itself. Our pilot did a power/weight check takeoff first, then circled around back to base camp and flew at a ridge blocking our escape at full speed and cleared us by a few meters before dropping in to the exit valley. The astute may also notice his navigation aid is also an ARM powered device. When he realized we had the 77 year old Carlos Sr. on board, he took a selfie of himself with Carlos all while flying. 

I have processed some of the 360° video I have in to interactive mode but uploading it over the limited bandwidth to the Facebook interactive viewer from Pokhara isn’t going well. What I can do this time is link to still photos in the Google Photo’s interactive viewer so you can pan around the stills like you would view them in a VR viewer. If anyone else wants to grab the videos and put them an interactive viewer, you have my permission to do so. The Ricoh Theta software also works on your local computer.

Tomorrow, we make a 5 hour drive with a full, new expedition’s worth of supplies and start to find our way to Dhaulagiri base camp. This should take us much less time to climb as we are fully acclimatized but again, we’ll wait on weather. Thank you all!

Sat Beacon (location and short posts):

Chris’s blog:

Summit platform of Annapurna I, May 1, 2016 (8091m)

Camp 1, goofing off

Headed up to C1