My experience climbing Everest (3/3): The Western Cwm, Camp 2 and the way back

[Comes from previous post] Around 9am, and after a minimal breakfast, the other climber, the remaining sherpa and I set out to Camp 2. I couldn’t fathom the idea of another long day, so I started at a decent pace, and soon found myself well ahead of them. I was on the Western Cwm, a massive ice valley, with possibly the most spectacular views in the world: Everest on the left, the Lhotse face in the middle, Nuptse very close to your right, and a whole range of beautiful mountains behind you, among other, Pumori and Cho Oyu.

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The terrain was much easier than the previous day, but that doesn’t mean it was easy, I still had to go down and up through many large crevasses. And above 20,000 ft (6,000 m), every step was a brutal effort. I was able to take this video in one of the parts that was not particularly hard; you must watch it with the sound up to understand what I’m talking about.

At least we got lucky with the weather. The Western Cwn is notoriously hot, due to the high altitude sun and the reflecting effect of the ice / snow. Walking through it in the middle of the day can be like walking through a gigantic frying pan. That’s why most expeditions set off for this leg, like for the crossing of the Khumbu Icefall, well before sunrise. The days we were there, the low temperatures and high winds played in our favor, allowing us to get a full night of rest in Camp 1, and take our time moving up.

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After about 4.5 hours, I reached Camp 2, set in a stretched, rocky area, seemingly right under Everest. I thought the work for the day was done, but boy was I mistaken! The Summit Climb tents were apparently all the way at the end again; and I say apparently, because no one had communicated it clearly, the other climber and our last sherpa were nowhere in sight, and none of the people around were able to give me a definitive answer. So for over 1.5 hours and with no food or energy left, I scrambled in the rocks and ice (I had taken my crampons off, like everyone else did), zig-zagging from a group of tents to another. Eventually I found our spot, all the way up at the end, and was delighted to see some sherpas attending to it. The game me water and more tasteless noodle soup, and I took refuge in my tent.

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When the rest of the group arrived a couple hours later, we discussed the plan forward. To attempt the climb to Camp 3, we needed to rest for two nights and acclimatize, potentially more if the weather didn’t cooperate. I wasn’t feeling it. The exhaustion from the last couple of days, the lack of sleep, the cold, and the multiple small health issues were getting to me (cough, raw nose, cold sores… nothing heals in altitude, I bit my tongue in Base Camp, and it didn’t start recovering until I was back in Lukla). I didn’t think I was going to feel much better after another day at nearly 22,000 ft (6,700 m), and I wanted to make sure I had enough energy to get back down safely.

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So I was responsible and told our sherpa that I was going down the next morning. Surprisingly, the other climber, who had struggled the previous two days, wanted to stay and keep going (he would eventually turn around half way to Camp 3 because of bad weather). And since this sherpa needed to remain with him, I asked him to radio down and had the other sherpa, who had gone down with the other guy that morning, to come back up and meet me at Camp 1 the next morning. In the morning, I reaffirmed my decision; the night had been even worse than at Camp 1, the wind hauling and me coughing nonstop. The way back through the Western Cwm was slow and painful, despite it being supposedly downhill. I felt drained and had to take a break in my Camp 1 tent, eat more noodles and drink some juice before being able to get on my feet again.

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But the worst was yet to come. Shortly after setting off from Camp 1 with the younger sherpa, who had thankfully shot up through the icefall to meet me, I started feeling an acute pain on the left side of my chest. I slowed down trying to catch my breath, but even when I stopped, the pain wouldn’t go away… it got worse and extended through my left arm. With all the knowledge acquired in hours of medical TV shows, I self-diagnosed that I was probably having a heart attack. I asked the sherpa to radio to Base Camp and tell our western guide (who had not come up the mountain with us… yeah, as I said, this outfitter is not best-in-class) to send help… but the radio didn’t work. By then we were already on the Khumbu Icefall, and according to the sherpa only had about 4 hours to get down, so I figure I was better off moving down.

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The sherpa nonchalantly took my backpack and attached it to the huge one he was already carrying. We slowly made it down, navigating the maze of ice which already felt different from two days ago. A few times, I needed to rappel down, or climb down a double ladder, and I don’t know if I would have been able to do it without his help. Eventually, Base Camp came in sight, though it still felt like it was unreachable. But after a couple hours of not dying, I changed my self-diagnostic to pulmonary edema, and I thought I would survive as long as I kept moving. It was rather anticlimactic when we suddenly made it to the end of the fixed rope, though it still took us an absurd amount of time to make it out to the camp after that. When we were approaching our dining tent, I saw our western guide, who immediately made a joke about the way I look… and he wasn’t wrong, I was walking like a drunk, holding my left arm tight, and tears of panic and relief were running through my cheeks. He also quickly assessed my physical condition, and broke the news that no, I wasn’t having a heart attack nor an edema, I “just” had an intercostal muscle strain derived from the Khumbu cough I had been suffering the last couple of days.

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I sat in the dining tent for a couple hours, trying to digest the events from the last three days, and enjoying the first decent meal in the same period. I decided I was ready to leave Everest, and I didn’t need to come back to attempt the summit. The experience absolutely amazing, and it had been enough for me. I packed my stuff that evening, gave the sherpas all the money I had left, and started the treacherous hike back early the next morning. I probably should have rested a bit, but I couldn’t wait to get to a decent bed, to shower, to be warm, to have my body heal. I powered through past Tengboche on my first day, about 10 hours of non-stop hiking. And then did a similar time to Lukla, arriving shortly before sunset, mainly because I took a remarkable 2-hour break in a bakery in Namche. After a short flight and a very long ride from the Ramechhap airport (the Kathmandu one was under construction), I arrived in Kathmandu. I looked terrible, my face was so sunburnt that I felt like I was wearing a mask (I didn’t reapply sunscreen on the way down from Camp 1, I had more pressing concerns), I was still coughing non-stop, both intercostal muscles were now strained, and my legs felt so tight I could barely move. And yet I couldn’t stop smiling.

One thought on “My experience climbing Everest (3/3): The Western Cwm, Camp 2 and the way back

  1. Pingback: My experience climbing Everest (2/3): The Khumbu Icefall and Camp 1 – Bona Travels

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