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Whittaker’s First Rotation to Camp II Successful
Posted on April 27, 2010

By Leif Whittaker

From Camp I (19,800 ft) at the toe of the Western Cwm, Mount Everest appears terribly beautiful and incomprehensibly massive, but also, somehow, excitingly close. Four hours of careful climbing through the Khumbu Icefall has brought us to a grouping of three-person tents that are sandwiched between the dark crevasses and infinite peaks of the Himalaya. This is where we will spend the next three nights letting our bodies adjust to the altitude. I can’t imagine a more stunning spot, a more impressive view.

The Lhotse Face and South Col gleam in calm morning sunshine. Our future route seems eerily familiar, like some forgotten dream or déjà vu. I wonder what my father thought when he saw the mountain from this angle. Maybe, like me, he was inspired.

Ice runnels, hanging glaciers, powder-dusted stone entrancing; I have trouble yanking my eyes away and every time I step out of the tent I am struck again, a deer caught in the headlights of a vehicle that moves so slow it must be eternal. Moonshine reveals a different universe of perspectives and if it weren’t for the fact that it gets colder than a frostbitten finger, I’d probably sit outside all night. As it is, I retire to my sleeping bag early. Rest comes easily, regardless of the slight throbbing in my head.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, we begin our hike to Camp II. In the nomenclature of the mountains of Wales, the word cwm means “high valley” and Everest’s Western Cwm, as it was named by George Leigh Mallory in 1921, is the highest valley of all. Avalanche debris and ice blocks the size of shopping carts cover the path to Camp II (21,300 ft) and although it would be ideal to break here and remove some sweaty layers, we trudge on until we’ve reached a safer spot, a plateau of clean white powder between the squeezed-open crevasses that accentuate this glacier like squint lines on the face of an old sun-worn mountaineer.

We hike to Camp II twice during our three-day acclimatization session—Dave calls it a “rotation”— and return to Camp I each afternoon with empty lungs, sore thighs, and a strong desire for hot liquids. There is also the feeling that we are making excellent progress up the mountain, that the work we are doing now will pay dividends on summit day. And that summit is ever-present, beckoning from the jet stream, a goal that draws closer with the passing of each frosty sunrise, the crossing of each rickety ladder.

One morning a distressed voice comes onto the VHF radio. It’s Tendi, the leader of our Sherpa team. There has been a collapse in the H-Bomb section of the Icefall. Huge blocks have narrowly missed crushing some of our team members. They were literally minutes away from the destruction. And we were passing through that same section, beneath that same unstable tower, only days ago. Thankfully, no one is hurt, but the collapse is an alarming reminder of just how fragile the Icefall is.

Passing through the cluttered debris a few days later on our way to base camp, Dave and I are practically running. It’s obvious from the size and density of the blocks that nobody beneath that frozen Armageddon could possibly have survived. I think of Jake Breitenbach and the 1963 expedition and wonder what it must have been like to lose a teammate to the Icefall. The eroding pillars and hollow bridges can swallow you without warning and there would be no recovery from an icy grave like that. Even the best climbers and the strongest Sherpas can be caught. These collapses are not flukes. Unfortunately, they are the norm. That is why the Khumbu Icefall is one of the most dangerous and scariest parts of the climb. That is why Dave and I are moving so quickly through it.

As we’re nearing the edge of the danger area, something unexpected happens. I catch a crampon point in the ice and fall forward, banging my knee, hard, into a corner of the jagged blue glacier. Without skipping a beat, I rise and continue down, trying to ignore the pain. It’s not until half an hour later that I inspect the knee and discover that the damage is significant. There is an apple-sized bump, a swollen fist that adorns my kneecap. It’s alarming, to say the least, but I’m able to walk normally all the way to base camp.

I visit the tent with the large red cross and am relieved to learn that there is nothing broken, nothing severed, nothing too severe. The doctor drains some blood from the swollen area using a needle as big as a straw, tells me to ice, compress, and that I should be fine after a few days’ rest. “It’s one hell of a bruise,” he says, and sends me on my way.

The injury did not happen because we were going too fast, or because I was feeling fatigued. No. I was feeling very strong and very focused on our descent. It happened because injuries and illnesses happen here, because this is Mount Everest, because it is high, and it is dangerous. The only thing that is invincible on this mountain is the mountain itself. The best attribute a climber can have is the ability to weather the inevitable setbacks, to overcome illness and injury, to keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter how hard it gets. For certain, that’s an attribute I know I have.

After two stars-full-of-aces nights, I’m already feeling the urge to go back up. Our next rotation will be longer, higher, and harder than before, but I’m ready. I’m ready for the shaky columns of the Icefall. I’m ready for the gaping crevasses of the Western Cwm. I’m ready for the thin air at Camp II. But most of all, I’m ready and excited for the next obstacle to come: the steep ropes, the hard ice and the endless uphill of the Lhotse Face.


Author: - Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

  1. Mrs. Redington's seventh grade class

    We (all 140 of us:) have been watching your progress and wish you luck! Some of my students want to know about the food, how you have been feeling, and what you do for fun on Everest.

    Thank you!

    The Seventh Grade Students from Marion, Iowa

    P.S. We look forward to more updates!

  2. Blue Heron Middle School

    Watching your progress on the First Accent Blog with students here at your old middle school. (Blue Heron) Wishing your safe travels up the mountain. Good Luck

  3. Todd McDowell

    I just heard about your ascent yesterday in the Peninsula Daily News . I am pumped that someone from around here is doing this AND it’s on the internet to watch and experience. I am a teacher in Forks and am recording your ascent on my bullentin board in the hallway for kids in the whole school to see. It’s great to be able to have a local person for the kids to look up to. Way to go and can’t wait to see and hear more. I have told kids that I will post their questions or comments of encouragement, Best of luck!

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