Flexibility…The name of the game…
Not many things in the mountains are certain. Altitudes are somewhat defined, the mountain does not move too quickly, and you are bound to feel pretty bad above 7500 meters. But, other than those few things, most of existence in the mountains is uncertain. Things change. Weather blows in. Camps get trashed. Glaciers move and seracs tumble. As a result, flexibility must always be built into one's thinking in the mountains.
Sure, we always have a plan – without a plan to begin with, nothing would ever be accomplished. But, that plan must be flexible, able to accommodate the inevitable changes thrown out by the mountains. You've gotta learn to go with the flow, to adapt and change and reevaluate.
Thus far on this expedition, we have had little change in our plans. A few delays here and there that were out of our control, but nothing significant. Yesterday, however, as we moved to Advanced Basecamp (ABC), we had our first big one. The journey was supposed to be 4 hours, and to take us to 17,400 feet at the base of the Changa'mlungha Glacier. To my surprise, however, I crested a small ridge at 16,500' and found all our yaks unloaded and the yak men preparing to descend. Pemba and Panuru had already argued with the yak men, insisting that ABC was 2 hours further uphill. I added to the argument by offering a generous financial bonus if they would continue. But, alas, it was to no avail; the men would not budge, the yaks would go no further, and thus our ABC is at 16,500 feet.
What this means for us is an additional 2 hours on each journey from ABC to Camp I, which sits on a col at 20,000 feet. Not exactly what we wanted, but, again, flexibility…Since the day was shorter than anticipated, we had time to build a nice chorten for our expedition puja, which we held yesterday afternoon. Mingma, one of our climbing Sherpa, was a monk at Thyangboche Monastery in Nepal for 6 years before beginning climbing with IMG in 2001 on Everest, and thus he conducted our puja. (Puja is a Sanskrit word meaning offerings, in this case offerings to the mountain deities.) It is always a marvelous ceremony, at once solemn and festive, somber and jubilant. We blessed our climbing gear, made offerings to the mountain gods, and then spread tsampa – or buckwheat flour – on each others right shoulder and face for good luck and a long life. Always a good time!
We awoke this morning to a snowstorm, our first noticeable precipitation of the expedition. By breakfast, about 3 inches had fallen, covering the tents and camp with a heavy white blanket. Not knowing if the storm would dissipate or worsen, we held back our departure for Camp I for an hour before moving uphill and seeing what the day would bring. Fortunately, the clouds lifted and the skies cleared…within an hour we were walking under a brilliant blue Himalayan sky. Our climbing Sherpa – Panuru, Mingma, and Karma Rita – had already moved uphill, carrying the first loads to Camp I. As always, they more than impressed us with their speed and skill in the high mountains, making the 3500 foot, 8 mile one-way trip in 4 hours!
We, too, carried heavy loads, carting our high altitude gear (clothing, down suits, climbing hardwear, etc.) up the mountain. Again, things are often uncertain. Sometimes you have good days, sometimes bad ones. We weren't moving as quickly as we had hoped today, grinding away under a blazing sun and heavy packs, and I made the decision about 1.5 hours from Camp I to cache our gear and finish the carry another day. Had we stuck stubbornly with our plan, we would have descended to ABC after dark, tired and miserable. Instead, our team is now resting in the quiet Tibetan night and getting ready for more climbing in the days to come. A slight change, but no loss.
To compensate for more tired members of the team, we'll take a rest day tomorrow, and move to Camp I on the 21st for our acclimatization round. With luck, we'll spend a night at Camp II before descending to ABC for a rest…and then, a shot at the summit!
So far, the least predictable, most transient element of the mountains – the weather – has treated us kindly. But, it is autumn in the Himalaya. The monsoon is making its journey south, which means the jet stream, lurking far north of us at the moment, will soon begin its southern journey as well, finding a winter home atop the high Himalaya. This is something we cannot control, but fortunately we have a friend who is giving us insight – Michael Fagin, of www.everestweather.com is sending us updates on the monsoon, jet stream, and detailed weather forecasts so we can add that to our plans…and continue to be flexible!
It is now 10:00 PM, and all is quiet at ABC. A slight breeze is ruffling the tent, and the massif of Gurla Mandhata rises ghostly some 9,000 feet above camp. Tomorrow we rest, and then move up again. All is indeed quite well.