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  April 17, 2001

From: Michael Brown

The climb above Mount Everest Base Camp?

Pasang cooks a tasty meal of potatoes with spices
Less than a year ago I was here in this same place, the memory of the climb is still fresh in my mind. The only thing I have forgotten is the pain. If I had a better memory of the pain I would not be here. The pain is lungs that feel like they are going to explode, legs that cannot take another step, fingers and toes stinging till they are numb and then feeling returning like a flood of scalding liquid through your veins.

Base Camp to Camp One (17,400 ft/5,300 m - 19,680 ft/6,000 m, the most talked about part of the route, is the Khumbu Ice Fall. It should be. We spend way too much time there and it is dangerous. Human beings are tiny specks in this cascade of house size and larger blocks of ice. Ladders, fixed ropes and places where you just want to go as fast as you can before something falls on you. The top is deceptively far away, and even after you reach the Western Cwm it is still a long ways to Camp One.

Camp One to Two (21,000 ft/6,400 m): The Western Cwm is a sloping u-shaped valley. If the sky is clear, and there is little wind, the sides of the valley reflect the sun to create an oven. We try to be out of here before the heat of the day roasts us.

Camp Two to Camp Three (23,500 ft/7160 m): The Cwm continues for a thousand feet of vertical in about a half mile above Camp Two, then the route changes abruptly to a steep ice ramp, The Lhotse Face. It is over a vertical mile high to the top of the world's fourth highest peak, Lhotse. This year is dry. Our fear is rock fall. There is little snow to catch and hold rocks in place. They will be rolling and spinning down on us. By the time they reach us they will be like bullets. Camp Three sits half way up the Lhotse face at 23,500 ft/7,160 m. The Sherpas chip tent spaces out of a 45-degree ice slope and set our tents there for us. It is cramped and steep, we always stay clipped in when outside the tents. The view of sunset from here is one of the most spectacular on the planet.

Camp Three to Camp Four (26,180-ft): This is the second hardest day of the climb with a 2,500-ft gain ending at over 26,000-ft of elevation. This is where altitude really effects climbers. There is simply not enough air to breathe and moving up hill becomes torture. As the day wears on it gets hot and that makes it all the more difficult. We cross two rock features that require some technical scrambling. The first is the Yellow Band, a layer of crumbly sedimentary rock at 24,500 ft/7,500 m. The second is the Geneva Spur. From the top of the Geneva Spur, the route follows exposed rock shelves for about a half-mile before arriving in the South Col and Camp Four.

Camp Four to Summit (29,035 ft/8,850 m and back): Sometime in the evening, around 8:30pm, we will start getting ready, filling water bottles, harnessing up, and putting on crampons. By 9:30 we will hopefully be moving upward. The climb starts out easily enough and it is refreshingly cool. In down suits and double boots `cool' is relative. Above the Col there is an ice bulge of hard blue ice followed by a long gradual snow slope. Across a bergshrund there is a steep gully. We hope for snow here as loose rock or hard ice will be difficult to climb. This section goes on for a very long time with about 1,200 ft/365 m of gain. Eventually the slope changes slightly before a last steep pitch to the Balcony at 27,500 ft/8,400 m. Here we will watch a most spectacular sunrise. By now everyone's packs, oxygen bottles and down suits are covered in a thick layer of frost. The Balcony will also be the location of Camp Five if we choose to use a Camp Five. From the Balcony we will be able to see the top of the Kang Shung Face and even the Summit of Mount Everest. Unfortunately it is still 1,500-ft higher.

The climbing above the Balcony starts out easily enough but gets steeper and steeper. Soon we are crossing crumbly rock bands with little snow clinging to them. It is also deceptive as it seems that you are about to reach the South Summit only to discover that there is another ridge beyond. The South Summit is at 28,700 ft/8,750 m and from there one can see the knife-edge ridge that leads to the Hillary Step and the Summit Ridge. It is a short down climb to this ridge and then a wild walk along the highest exposure on the planet. To the left and 8,000 ft/2,438 m down, straight down, is camp two. To the right is the 12,000 ft/3,660 m drop into Tibet.

The Hillary Step is one desperate and very ungraceful move. You stick the crampon point of the right foot tenuously in a tiny crack and the left foot behind you in a cornice of snow. Slide the ascender as high as it will go and then stand up and quickly plant your ice tool before you start sliding down again. An embarrassing belly flop on the top and it is done. The rock bit goes for a while beyond there but it is easy.

At last you are on the summit ridge, a half-hour of slogging up hill to a small mound of snow. Beyond that the ridge drops away into Tibet. This is the top of the world the summit of Mount Everest. Hopefully for our sakes we will have lots of oxygen and most of the day left to get back down to Camp Four. Full of adrenaline and happiness but never more tired than this.

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