Ah, now we’re talking

November 4th 2017

I was thrilled when morning came at Camp 1. Despite 18 hours in a tent, and absolutely nothing to do, I managed less than three hours sleep. I wanted to get up and get out even though I was exhausted.

When you try to sleep at 20,000 feet a strange thing happens. On occasion, only when I exhaled, I had this sudden wave of panic, which, as you might imagine, makes it very hard to sleep. I assume that the panic is triggered because my brain knows I just inhaled, I didn’t get enough oxygen into my bloodstream, and now I’m exhaling. It’s as though my brain is saying ‘you need more oxygen, don’t exhale!’ But there is no more oxygen to be had. Time to breathe in again.

I found an article on the US National Institutes of Health website that sums up what can happen when you sleep at high altitude:

“People exposed to high altitudes often experience somatic symptoms triggered by hypoxia, such as breathlessness, palpitations, dizziness, headache, and insomnia. Most of the symptoms are identical to those reported in panic attacks or severe anxiety.”

I have no idea why I looked it up. I experienced it. I could have been a subject for the research. Wait, maybe I was. How would I know. I had hypoxia.

Our plan today was to get from Camp 1 to Camp 2. The entire route is a technical climb (roped up) that follows a rising ridge. It is essentially a series of traverses and vertical sections as you move closer toward the summit face. Across, then up. Across, then up.

Rinji and I left early to avoid any bottlenecks with other climbers moving in either direction along the route. Because it had snowed the night before, and the sun was not yet directly on the face, the climbing conditions were slippery with snow covering every surface. The route is fairly exposed; the view looking into the cirque below is a constant backdrop. If you want to quicken your breathing, look down.

Sherpas put fixed lines in place at the start of the season. The technique for climbing Ama Dablam is to use an ascender (jumar) and a safety (cowstail.) A jumar is a device that is attached by a sling and a locking carabiner to your harness. The fixed line runs through the jumar. As you pull the jumar forward it runs smoothly along the line. The jumar has a breaking system that prevents it from running back down the fixed line. Think of it as a movable anchor point as you climb. The cowstail is essentially a safety attached to the climbing line(s) so that if you fall and the jumar fails, you come to a screeching halt when you reach the first anchor point below you.

I was horrified at the condition of the fixed lines and anchor points. Climbers yank the ropes between rocks, fraying the sheath and weakening the core. At one anchor point I saw a line where the sheath had been completely ripped away and someone had simply tied a knot joining the sections where the sheath remained intact. The anchors have no backup (single point of failure) and the they use open gate carabiners to attach the lines to the anchors. One of the anchor points I saw had been bashed in with a rock, splaying the metal end like a banana. As climbing safety is premised entirely on the reliability of the fixed lines and anchors, I wasn’t happy. As a former climbing instructor I would have lost my license if I had put any of these lines in place and declared them safe.

Short of asking someone to lead the climb and belay from the top of each pitch, there is no other option. It is what it is. No one seems to complain, or notice. My guess is that climbers simply bake the condition of the fixed lines into their assessment of the overall risk.

Each step up along this route leaves you gasping. It’s the reason that acclimatization is so critical to any high altitude expedition. You need to spend time at progressively higher altitudes to get your body producing more red blood cells to compensate for the lower oxygen saturation. I can remember looking at the videos of other climbers on this portion of the climb, moving slowing and breathing heavily. I thought they were all out of shape, until I watched my own video of the climb between Camp 1 and Camp 2.

It was an incredible day of climbing, and ended up with a return trip all the way down to Basecamp. I’m not sure how I managed on so little sleep.

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