The goal of our second acclimatization session on the mountain is to spend almost a week above 20,000 feet and to breathe the thin air at Camp III on the blue-ice slopes of the Lhotse Face.
Before III though comes I and II. The session begins with another pass over the hollow bridges of the Khumbu Icefall and we reach Camp I in our best time yet: 3 hours and 28 minutes. My knee, now adorned with a yellow and purple bruise resembling a rotten grapefruit, is sore after the effort, but I still feel like I have enough energy to continue up the Cwm. Instead, having the intention of dragging out our time at high altitude, we spend a night in pitch-black comforts, sipping hot chocolate, waiting for our food to rehydrate, and playing chess matches until my brain is throbbing. I don’t win a single game.
Early the next morning, we stuff our sleeping bags, deflate our pads, fill our backpacks full. As I shoulder my pack, strapping the waistbelt over my climbing harness, I realize that this is the heaviest load I’ve carried on Everest, by far. It weighs 45 pounds, conservatively. I know it doesn’t seem like much. I’ve carried bags almost twice as heavy before, but not at this altitude. The walk up the Cwm is significantly harder with the straps digging in, the pressure like laces being tightened on my lower back. Crossing ladders is awkward and the heat of the sun, when it does break the frozen valley walls, seems almost nuclear. Regardless of these natural inconveniences—discomfort is a part of climbing—we reach Camp II in less than three hours.
Advanced Base Camp (ABC) isn’t a perfect name. You might assume that the word “advanced” indicates a more advanced position on the mountain, and you might be right, but the word is deceiving because it also implies that ABC is superior to plain old base camp. In actuality, ABC is anything but superior. A better acronym would be MBC (Miniature Base Camp). Everything at MBC is half as big, half as luxurious, half as cool. Dave and I share a tent; there are only 25 condiments on the dining table; there is no shower. I mean, you’d think we were at 21,300 feet on Mount Everest or something. In other words, ABC is an amazingly comfortable place to spend a few nights. If it weren’t for the fact that every time I walk to the bathroom, I’m breathing like a speed skater who just won a gold medal, it would be downright civilized.
Our first night is a bit suffocating, and we spend the next day getting used to the cold, dry, empty air. We take a two-hour hike to the base of the Lhotse Face. Sherpa teams are visible pushing the route across the Yellow Band and onto the South Col. The summit of Everest is our neighbor, a windblown pile of sharp and uninviting rock that is veiled in a cotton-white plume, a sign of the fierce jet stream that buffets the mountain.
The Lhotse Face, tomorrow’s steep agenda, hangs above us like some enormous projector screen. And while the show, right now, is only white and blue, I can imagine myself as a tiny red dot, struggling upwards towards Camp III, to the highest altitude that I have ever been.
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