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24 Apr: The South Col Route

Camp 1, with the Lhotse face in the distance,  Photo by Phunura Sherpa, IMG.

Camp 1, with the Lhotse face in the distance, Photo by Phunura Sherpa, IMG. (Click to enlarge)

No word from the team today, but weather permitting they should be working their way up to Camp 1. Meanwhile. we’ll give you an overview of their route.

As we mentioned in an earlier post, the USAF 7 Summits Team will be climbing the Southeast Ridge of Mount Everest via the South Col, the route that was pioneered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Today’s climbers rely on four camps established on the mountain by advance teams of Sherpas. Camp 1, at about 19,500, sits at the top of the Khumbu Icefall, and is used mostly for early acclimatization. In subsequent forays onto the mountain, climbers often bypass Camp 1 and ascend in one day from EBC to Camp 2 at 21,300’. The area between Camps 1 and 2 is called the Western Cwm (a Welsh word, pronounced “coom”, meaning a bowl-shaped valley). Despite the high elevation, this sheltered bowl can become very hot on sunny days, and climbers may find themselves ascending in just a thin base layer and worrying about sunburn and dehydration instead of frostbite.

Camp 2 sits at the base of the imposing Lhotse Face. A 3,700’ wall of glacial ice with an average pitch of 40 to 50 degrees, the Lhotse Face gives climbers lots of opportunity to practice ascending fixed ropes. On a small ledge near the top of the face, lies Camp 3 at 24,500’. The team’s first visit to Camp 3 will be just to tag the camp before descending, but they will return around 4 May for an overnight stay, at an altitude higher than any of the team has climbed previously.

After the Camp 3 overnight for acclimatization, the climbers will descend to Camp 2 and then to EBC for several days of rest. On or about 11 May, they will begin the final summit push, with overnights at Camps 2, 3, and 4. Camp 4 sits at 26,000’ on the South Col, the saddle between the summit of Mt Everest and neighboring Lhotse, the fourth highest peak in the world. It is unquestionably one of the most remote and desolate locations that humans regularly visit, where tents are frequently buffeted by howling winds, and the thin air and freezing temperatures make sleeping all but impossible. Climbers try to minimize their time at Camp 4, and on summit day will get up at about 10 pm after just a short nap to begin climbing the final 3000’ vertical feet to the summit. The goal for summit day it to reach the summit and return to Camp 4 before dark, which requires climbers to track their progress closely, and adhere to a strict turn-around time if they fall behind schedule. This is one of the most important risk management tools for high-altitude mountaineers, and the history of Everest climbing is filled with the names of people who paid a high price for ignoring this simple rule.

If high winds or poor weather force climbers to remain at Camp 4, it can jeopardize the entire climb, as the human body simply cannot cope with more than a few nights at that altitude. Climbers examine weather forecasts very carefully before moving above Camp 2, to ensure that there is a weather window for a summit attempt.

We will be bringing you more reports in the days ahead as the team moves up the mountain. The schedule is bound to change, but our climbers are masters of flexibility, and understand the need to manage risks constantly. The schedule is built to allow changes, with extra days to wait for storms to clear or winds to die down. We’re counting on prayers and positive karma from all of you to bring clear skies and calm winds in mid-May, to help us fly the Air Force flag at the top of the world!

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