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Archive for the ‘Everest Background’ Category

The Hillary Step

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

By now the first of our climbers should be approaching the Hillary Step. Although it is only about a 40’ rock outcropping, any type of technical rock climbing at such a high altitude, after an exhausting seven or eight hours of climbing, can be pretty daunting. Because many climbers struggle with ascending the fixed ropes at the Step, it is a notorious bottleneck. The picture below shows exactly what the team was been trying hard to avoid: a gaggle of climbers held up by overcrowding at this crux point.

Overcrowding on the Hillary Step in 2012.  Photo from OutsideOnline.

Overcrowding on the Hillary Step in 2012. Photo from OutsideOnline.

Because this has been such an issue as more climbers attempt Everest, the guide companies have done some good deliberate risk management, and this year they have invested the resources in setting a second set of fixed routes, to enable climbers to ascend and descend at the same time. This alleviates the risk of climbers being stuck at the top of the step, breathing precious oxygen and getting cold due to it moving, while they wait for a break in the ascending climbers to rappel down.

Hillary Step Alternate Route.  Photo by IMG guide Michael Hamill.

Throughout this climb, our team has emphasized the principles of risk management, and we applaud the excellent RM mindset applied by the International Mountain Guides team, and other teams on the mountain this year, to manage risks appropriately.

Stay tuned…we hope to hear word from the team in the next hour or two!

The Cornice Traverse

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Here’s a shot of the traverse that our climbers are facing right about now.  The sun rises in another hour or so, so they may actually have a glimpse of this scary section of the route.  Imagine how daunting this must have looked 60 years ago to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, when no one had done it before, and no fixed ropes were in place!


The Cornice Traverse, with the Hillary Step in the distance.

The Cornice Traverse, with the Hillary Step in the distance.

18 May: Preparing for Camp 4 and summit push

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

It’s late at night in Nepal, and the team members are crammed into their tents at Camp 3, breathing O2 at a low flow rate in the hopes they will get one last good night’s rest before the final push.

The flow of teams on the mountain has worked well so far this year. The many expeditions have communicated well and spaced out their climbers, taking heed of the lessons from previous years when overcrowding caused increased risks for everyone. Our team has been feeling strong and climbing well, making the ascent to Camp 3 in very good time. For that reason, they will want to avoid crowds that might slow them down. When they awake, they’ll head to Camp 4 on the South Col, crossing a rock outcropping know as the Yellow Band, and then along a rock buttress known as the Geneva Spur. It should take them about 3-5 hours to reach the tents at Camp 4 at 26,300’. They should arrive there by midday, and will rest and rehydrate, and eat what they can, although appetites are notoriously suppressed at such elevations. They will try to grab a few winks of sleep (on O2), and hope and pray for calm winds. The South Col is a desolate and windswept place, and just the flapping of tents in the wind can make sleep all but impossible.

View of the route from the South Col to the summit.  Photo by Greg Vernovage / IMG.

The team plans to depart from Camp 4 at about 7pm Nepal time, which will be Sunday morning here in the states. If the GPS tracker works as we hope, we should be able to follow their progress. They will climb up the Triangular Face to the plateau known at the Balcony, at 27,500’, where they will swap oxygen bottles. From there they will continue to the South Summit (28,700’). From there they will make a traverse of a narrow ridge until they reach perhaps the most famous pitch in all of mountaineering: the Hillary Step. Unlike Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay in 1953 (or American Jim Whittaker ten years later), our climbers will have the benefit of fixed ropes to ascend this near-vertical, 40 foot rock cliff. From the top of the step, it is less than 300 vertical feet to the summit, but at the extreme elevation, it can take the better part of an hour to cover that distance. The effort required for each step at this altitude is a reminder that humans are not equipped to live in this world…they may visit it only for a very short stay.

If the team climbs at a good pace, they may reach the summit before the sun rises at about 0445 local time. With a little luck, they may capture some sunrise photos from the summit.

For those who would like to learn more about the route, we highly recommend Alan Arnette’s excellent website, at:


Read what Alan has to say, and follow along with the GPS tracker, as our Airmen approach the top of the world! We’ll be making frequent updates tomorrow to keep you abreast of their progress. Go USAF!

15 May: Rest Day at Camp 2

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Just got word from Rob Marshall. The team is in place at Camp 2 and will be resting today and making final prep for tomorrow’s move to Camp 3. Meanwhile, some of the Sherpas are carrying loads to the South Col to position supplies for the summit push. Rob reports warn and sunny weather…it was windy yesterday up at Camp 3, but they were able to see a long line of climbers heading to Camp 4. That’s good news for our team, as it means less of a crowd when they make their push. And the number of climbers heading up reflects the favorable forecast for diminishing winds in the days ahead.

For those that are wondering about that final leg of the journey from Camp 4 on the South Col, we’ve included a photo courtesy of the good folks at IMG showing the highlights of the route. (Check out the IMG website at http://www.mountainguides.com/everest-south13.shtml for even more great pictures!)

By tomorrow evening (CONUS time) the team should be on the move to Camp 3. Stay tuned!

View of the route from the South Col to the summit.  Photo by Greg Vernovage / IMG.

Into Thin Air: What Went Wrong in 1996?

Monday, May 13th, 2013

We are still waiting for words on when the team will depart Base Camp for the summit push. There is a tropical cyclone in the Bay of Bengal that could push some moisture into the Himalaya, and fresh snow could cause a delay of a day or two. Meanwhile, in our ongoing effort to highlight the importance of risk management, we’d like to return to a touchy subject: just how risky is it to climb Everest?

For a lot of people, awareness of climbing on Mount Everest traces back to the 1996 climbing season, when 12 climbers died on the mountain. That disaster, which was so well chronicled by author/climber Jon Krakauer in his best-selling book “Into Thin Air” seared into the minds of many the idea that climbing at such high altitudes was a crapshoot at best. It’s worth looking back at those deaths, as well as last season’s death toll of 10 climbers, to see what lessons we should learn. (Keep in mind that Risk Management is a continuous, cyclical process.)

Everest’s surge in popularity over the past two decades has introduced new elements of risk that none of the early Everest climbers of 50 or 60 years ago could possibly have foreseen: overcrowding, and novice climbers on the highest mountain in the world.

The USAF 7 Summits team is certainly not a bunch of novices. Every member of the team has done serious climbing before. Rob Marshall and Colin Merrin have both climbed 22,840’ Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, Marshall Klitzke and Kyle Martin have both climbed 22,000’ Ama Dablan in Nepal, and Drew Ackles has summited 20,320’ Denali in Alaska, often considered the toughest climb of the seven summits. Nick Gibson is the only one of our six climbers who hadn’t previously climbed above 18,000’, but Nick has extensive experience with vertical rescue work in Alaska, and proved himself on the shakedown climb of 20,161’ Lobuche. More importantly, all of the team members have the maturity and judgment that comes from formal training in risk management, coupled with years of experience applying those skills both in their Air Force careers and in their outdoor adventures.

As Krakauer vividly portrayed in his book, Everest can be an obsession, even for climbers whose fitness or lack of experience should have prevented them from even attempting the climb. That obsession can indeed be fatal, as a grim statistic makes clear: the majority of deaths on Everest occur during descent from the summit. Climbers can expend every bit of energy in reaching their goal, only to run out of steam (and eventually, oxygen) during the descent.

Everest is no place for novice climbers, but even for experienced mountaineers, overcrowding on the mountain can elevate the risk for everyone. For an excellent explanation of how this has evolved, see the excellent article over at OutsideOnline (http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/climbing/mountaineering/everest-2012/Take-a-Number.html). In a nutshell, much like in 1996, in 2012 the increasing numbers of climbers on the same route (and thanks to much more accurate weather forecasting, on the same day) created traffic jams on the mountain, causing climbers to slip dangerously behind schedule. It also means that each climber today must contend with the possibility that the actions of others could put them at risk. In a way, it’s not unlike getting into your car on any given evening…you can do everything right and still be killed by a drunk driver. But an awareness of that risk at least gives you a better chance.

One key risk management decision climbers can make is what time to depart the South Col for the summit. The time is takes to reach the summit and return to the tents at Camp 4 varies greatly depending on the climber. A late departure can make it difficult for slower climbers to summit and return safely before dark, and even faster climbers can find themselves limited by slower climbers on sections of the route where overtaking a slower person is dangerous or impossible. An early departure means getting ahead of the crowds, but more of the ascent takes place in darkness and colder temperatures. Still, darkness is much more manageable on the ascent when climbers are fresh than on the descent when most climbers are near exhaustion. Climbers have about 18 hours of oxygen (three bottles) for the summit push, and they must closely manage their schedule to prevent running out of oxygen during descent, which causes impaired mental functioning and increased risk of frostbite.

One factor that caused significant delays in 1996 was that the fixed ropes on the summit ridge were not fixed until the day the first climbers attempted to summit, and confusion over responsibilities among the Sherpas left some climbers waiting for an hour or more. Fortunately, the fixed ropes for this season have already been fixed for the entire route, thanks to much improved cooperation among teams on the mountain…an excellent example of good deliberate risk management, based on applying the lessons of previous seasons.

One well-known bottleneck for Everest climbers is the famous Hillary Step, just 300 feet below the summit. Climbers ascend the 40 foot vertical rock outcropping on fixed ropes, which can only accommodate one person at a time. This year, the Step has been fixed with a second set of ropes, which will permit climbers to descend while others are ascending. Again, a great example of RM based on a cyclical process, applying the lessons of previous seasons.

Hillary Step Alternate Route.  Photo by IMG guide Michael Hamill.

In both 1996 and 2012, the most basic mistake that climbers made was not turning around when it became obvious they were well behind schedule. After months or years of training, and a huge financial commitment, it is very difficult to turn around short of the summit. But a climber must keep sight of the fact that reaching the summit is only the halfway point…getting down safely is just as difficult, if not more so. This is the ultimate RM decision: knowing when it’s time to turn back and try another year.

For the USAF 7 Summits climbers, their primary goal has already been met: to enhance morale in the Air Force, and honor the memory of their fallen comrades. Thanks to all of you and your efforts to spread this story, reaching the summit is just the icing on the cake. We are immensely grateful for all your thoughts and prayers in the days ahead!

5 May: HAPE and HACE

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Those of you who listened to Rob’s most recent voice update (see previous post) were probably jarred by the news of a fatality on the mountain. According to other news reports, the victim was a 37-year old Sherpa who died at Camp 3 of HACE, or High Altitude Cerebral Edema.

HACE and HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) are two of the insidious killers that Himalayan climbers must constantly guard against. Though the two conditions are very different, they are both often preceded by symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS. These symptoms, such as loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, lightheadedness and insomnia, are common ailments for almost everyone as they begin their acclimation to the higher elevations on Mount Everest. Such symptoms will normally abate as climbers progress though their acclimation rotations, but if they persist, they can be a sign of more serious trouble.

HAPE is an accumulation of fluid in the lungs, which causes shortness of breath and a persistent cough, fast, shallow breathing, and drowsiness. Other indicators are gurgling or rattling breaths, and blue or gray colored lips or fingertips. The most effective treatment is immediate descent to a lower elevation, followed by rest and rehydration, and supplemental oxygen if needed.

HACE, or swelling of the brain, can progress rapidly and can be fatal in a matter of hours unless the person retreats to a lower altitude. Common symptoms of HACE are mental confusion, changes in behavior, and loss of coordination. Recognizing these symptoms requires climbers to pay especially close attention to one another, in order to differentiate the onset of HACE from the normal fatigue and mild hypoxia that occurs when climbing at high elevation. The fact that the USAF 7 Summits climbers have bonded as a close-knit team is a definite advantage as they monitor one another’s health in the days ahead.

Sherpas, who have lived at high altitude for generations and often come from villages at elevations of about 13,000’, are considered the world’s strongest performers at altitude. They are not, however, immune to altitude sickness. In fact, their reputation as strong climbers at altitude can make it culturally difficult for a Sherpa to admit when he is suffering from symptoms of altitude sickness, and any delay in seeking treatment causes greatly increased risk.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the young man who perished yesterday. It is a sobering reminder that humans are merely visitors to these high mountain realms, and even then, only in the best of circumstances.

The USAF 7 Summits Challenge was created almost 8 years ago as a means of honoring the sacrifices of fallen USAF warriors, and we are also sadden by the most recent losses in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those families as well. Our team appreciates the support from all of you, and we are as dedicated as ever to honoring our comrades in arms, and bringing everyone home safely.

Khumbu Cough

Monday, April 29th, 2013

While the team rests at Base Camp before the next acclimatization rotation, the Sherpas have completed fixing ropes to Camp 3, and will begin supplying that camp tomorrow.

While back at EBC for a few days, one of their highest priorities will be staying healthy.  EBC is a small city this time of year, with hundreds of climbers and trekkers passing through.  That can mean a lot of germs floating around, so everyone will be taking precautions to reduce the risk of catching anything.  Fortunately, most everyone caught the “GI bug” during the trek into EBC, so they’ve developed some immunity by now.   Every cloud has a silver lining…

There’s one malady at EBC that afflicts almost everyone to some degree.  Here’s some words on that from Edie Marshall, one of our trekkers and Lobuche climbers:

Note the neck warmers.

EBC Instruction. Note the neck warmers


“I’m still trying to shake off my “Khumbu cough” that is a scourge of trekkers and climbers in and around EBC.  The cold, dry and sometimes dusty air, coupled with an increased respiratory rate to compensate for the low oxygen levels, is rough on the respiratory tract. Folks will try to ward it off by wearing Buffs/neck warmers and breathing through masks or the neck gaiters to try to warm and moisten the air they are breathing. You will see people in the photos wearing them sometimes. Unfortunately, this can enhance the feeling of difficulty breathing, and does slightly lower the level of inspired oxygen, so it can be challenging to maintain the fabric around one’s face through all activities and at night. The Khumbu cough can get so bad that it breaks ribs, so it is a real concern for staying healthy and ready to reach the summit of Everest. Our team seemed to be doing a pretty good job of taking care of themselves for most of the time I was with them. For the Lobuche climb, I threw caution to the wind and figured I needed any and all oxygen more than I needed warmed, moist, and slightly less oxygen, so I got to come home with the Khumbu cough. Let’s hope our guys are faring better!”


27 Apr: Everest in 3.8 billion pixels

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

The team spent yesterday at Camp 2 acclimatizing with a hike to the base of the Lhotse Face, while the Sherpas are hard at work fixing ropes to Camp 3.  Today they will return to EBC for a few days, and hopefully that will give them a chance to make the 2.5 hour hike down to Gorak Shep where they can email out some photos.  Meanwhile, if you want to get a REALLY high-resolution look at Everest, check out this link.  Famed filmmaker David Breashears (who spent a few hours talking to our Wounded Warriors during their trek) has assembled a number of ultra high-res images into a single zoomable image that will blow you away!


15 Apr: Puja- Spiritual Event for Good Luck

Monday, April 15th, 2013

We are trekking down from Everest Base Camp to Lobuche Base Camp. Passing through Gorak Shep, they have wifi. Stopping just long enough for photos. Mote coming from SSgt Gibson.