Camp III: Knocking on Heaven’s Door

One hundred feet, you can walk it in a minute or two on a beach at sea level. Heck you could crawl one hundred feet in five minutes across the hot sand in warm, moist, thick air. But one hundred feet over 24,000 feet is a very significant number, as it is only one hundred feet that Camp III is from the fabled death zone, perched on a ledge at 24,500. Camp III on April 30th was our destination for the night where we were to sleep without the aid of supplementary O2 .
Our day began as usual, cold (-24 Celsius) at 6:00 am. We shivered through a light breakfast and tried to warm up our hands so we could tie our boots and put on our climbing harnesses. Our Sherpa team left shortly after breakfast to establish camp ahead of us. We struck out just before 8:00 am. Our thought was to leave a little later in order to avoid crowds on the face, plus shorten the amount of time we would be staying at Camp III.
The climb for the day began simple enough, a gradual elevation gain across the glacier to the base of the Lhotse face. The Lhotse face; 5000 feet of 55 to 70 degree snow and ice, and we were going to sleep on a ledge hacked out in the side of it, half way up.
Yesterday sixteen Sherpas from eight different climbing teams had completed the fixed lines. My job was now simple, attach my jumar (mechanical ascender) to a line and pull myself up. For added fun there a two lines, supposedly an up and a down line but nobody seemed to know which was which. Thus both were used for up and down simultaneously creating a bit of confusion and chaos from time to time when passing needed to occur.
Initially after getting over the ‘shround, (the base of the ice wall that breaks off the mountain face at the bottom) the climbing was easy for the first 1000 feet, one might say even fun. The angle is low and there is snow for traction, but then you hit the blue ice and start front pointing your way up higher angle ice. Keep in mind I am carrying my -40 sleeping bag, sleeping pad, down suit, water bottle, thermos, sun screen, extra gloves, extra toque, balaclava, goggles, satellite phone and batteries, radio plus extra batteries, and emergency medicine. So my pack was full, plus stuff strapped to the outside and the air was getting more and more rarefied with each pull on the jumar and front kick into the ice.
We reached the lower part of Camp III; our nice day had turned mean with 50 mph winds lashing us with bits of snow and chunks of ice kicked off from climbers above. Where we were looked so inviting, but we still had 600 vertical feet to go over the steepest section of terrain for the day; 600 vertical feet until the shelter of a tent. It took us a little over an hour to get there and traverse 100 feet along a ledge to our tent.
Camp III; 24,500 feet above sea level, a platform just wide enough for the tent hacked into the face. On one side a 2,500 foot drop, on the other side a deep crevasse, but once all three of us were in the tent out of the wind, it felt like a five star resort, until we started sorting our gear and the cached gear and realizing how little room we had.
We melted water and cooked on a stove in the front vestibule. At that altitude it takes a long time to melt snow and then boil it for drinking water, so with nothing more to do we resigned ourselves to this for the next four hours. At about nine pm after some lively conversation we settled down to sleep. We had no room; Daniel in the middle was getting kneed and elbowed constantly, Todd would turn towards the tent wall and would suffer suffocation from the nylon of the tent, I thrashed and turned on top of gear including an emergency oxygen tank that kept trying to be my friend. On top of this comfortable setting our bodies were winding down, and we found ourselves gasping for air throughout the night. During the coldest part of the night the ice gets active, creaking and groaning beneath us, loud enough at one point to make me sit up in terror swearing, thinking that the ledge is going to break off and hurl us down the slope. After getting my heart rate under control and reminding myself that when ice is cold it cracks and groans (with three people in the tent it was still -25 Celsius) I settled down for a fitful rest.
At 5:00 am the light hit the tent, I humbly suggested to the team “let’s get out of this hell hole” We got up, made water and geared up. As it was so cold we put on our full one piece down suits. It had taken us seven hours to get to Camp III; it took us less than an hour and a half to rappel down. Back at Camp II after a meal of good old Kraft Dinner, I realized I had been awake over 38 hours. I called my wife letting her know I was ok and then I slept well knowing that the next day I was descending another 4000 feet to the comforts of base camp.

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6 Comments

  1. Willie Foehr
    May 6, 2013

    Amazing , I am using your journal in my classroom. Everyone is totally behind you and the team’s quest. Thanks for the updates. Willie Foehr , wpg. Mb

  2. Patrick Ross
    May 6, 2013

    Great dispatch Steve. I’ll never complain again about not being able to sleep in my bed!!

    I know you’ll be safe so I’ll just say “Breath in every moment. Take a ton of mental pictures”

    Your wife’s proud Dad

    • Steve Whittington
      May 9, 2013

      Thanks! I will, I have to admit I am really looking forward to getting back and spending some R & R at the ranch.

  3. Craig Hubick
    May 9, 2013

    Great to read and listen on how everything is going. Keep trecking.

  4. Judy Naylen
    May 11, 2013

    Hi Steve! Got your link from Gail Milne, Gary’s sister! My Gr. 3)4 Class from Arcola, Sask has been avidly reading your blog and are incredibly fascinated. I’ve already uploaded questions and comments they have had! We wish you a safe and blessed journey, our fellow Saskatchewan-Ian!

  5. Brayden
    May 17, 2013

    Our teacher booked the computers for 45 just so we could follow your progress, Steve. Congrats on summiting!!! (he made it the 16)

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