Michael Kobold, Robinson watchmaker to the stars, reaches the summit
May 4, 2009 4:00 AM
Courtesy of Michael Kobold
Kenton Cool, Namgel and Michael Kobold raise the Navy SEAL flag on the summit of Mt. Everest.
Courtesy of Michael Kobold
Michael Kobold, of Kobold Watch Company, climbs through the ice fall from Base Camp to Camp 1 as he begins his attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
A view of Base Camp (lower left-hand corner, the Khumbu ice fall (immediately to the right of Base Camp) and Mount Everest. The air is not as clean as might be suggested by pictures of crisp mountain scenes. High concentrations of the air pollutant ozone have been measured at Base Camp.
Courtesy of Michael Kobold
Michael Kobold wears a 1950s helmet,courtesy of expedition member Ran Fiennes and his lifelong collection of expedition gear.
A rescue helicopter lands just outside the author's tent the morning after an avalanche killed one Sherpa and critically injured two climbers. Helicopter evacuations from Everest Base Camp are only possible in the morning because cloud coverage later in the day pose great danger to flights.
Courtesy of Michael Kobold
Totally exhausted in tent at Camp 3.
Michael Kobold of Robinson writes that this photo was taken just after he was given a blessing by the Buddhist Lama Geishi -- every Mt. Everest climber gets blessed by him before the expedition can proceed
Sir Ranulph Fiennes, whose loud nocturnal use of oxygen keeps his tent mate awake at night, serves breakfast to the sleep-deprived author at Camp 2.
Courtesy of Michael Kobold
Hershey's has provided 50 pounds of chocolate to boost the climbers' energy and spirits.
Sherpa carrying heavy packs are acclimated to high altitudes and don't have the trouble breathing suffered by some members of the expedition.
View of the Lhotse Face of Mt. Everest from Camp 2.
Courtesy of Michael Kobold
Michael Kobold near the Geneva Spur at 7,600 meters (25,000 feet) on his way to the summit of Mount Everest.
At Camp 2, Sir Ranulph Fiennes lists, by way of frost-bitten fingers, the beneficial properties of chocolate on expeditions.
Michael Kobold is chronicling his second attempt to climb Mount Everest. The Robinson entrepreneur who made his name in luxury watches cut his hand at base camp last time around and never made it to the summit. This time, he set out with more preparation and a cause, raising money for the nonprofit Navy SEAL Warrior Fund. He climbed with Pittsburgher Will Cross and internationally renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Also along in their group was British mountain guide Kenton Cool.
His diary entries and images about the attempt, the descent and return home are being posted here on post-gazette.com.
May 30: A Big Thank You
When I first decided to lead an expedition of this kind, I was doubtful that anyone would take me seriously. After all, who would want to join such an undertaking?
Still, I believed there was a relevance to what people back home would be facing: uncertain times and hardship. The economy would be as tough - or tougher - on many people as the conditions on the mountain would be on us. And in some sense, I thought that people following our progress would be able to take their minds off the economic woes.
My first call was to Ranulph Fiennes. We had a long and good history of pursuing adventure together, and so naturally I wanted him on my team. Ran was enthusiastic as a little schoolboy and immediately said he would be on board so long as I promised him that we would keep his own ambitions for the summit under wraps. "In case I don't reach the summit for the third time, I don't want any publicity," he said.
Ran was the first and the major professional explorer to join the expedition; with his support, getting others on board would be easy. This would also be Ran's first "secret" expedition, during which he would pose as a mere television program host producing a segment for the BBC.
Next, we needed the media on our side. A team from the BBC would be embedded with us at Base Camp, but the expedition's main goal was to raise money and awareness for the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund. An American media outlet needed to come on board. My first call in this regard was to Virginia Linn, an editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Did she think someone from the paper could come to Nepal and cover the expedition, much like a reporter for the Times of London had on Ran's previous Everest attempts? With the recession unfolding, it was decided that a blog, written by me, would be more economical.
With the Post-Gazette on board, it was easy to persuade Jay Fielden, editor of Men's Vogue magazine, to get me a stint as contributor to either GQ or Vanity Fair magazines (part of the same publishing group) once the expedition would finish. Two other friends, Sally Wiggin of WTAE in Pittsburgh and FOX News' Glenn Beck helped put our message of "Support the SEALs" on television and radio.
James Gandolfini happily offered to help us get product sponsorship from big, national corporations and subsequently my eager fingers were all over his Rolodex during a visit to New York. Thereafter, it was relatively easy to persuade other sponsors, such as Hershey's and Continental Airlines, to help us out.
All in the name of wounded and lost Navy SEALs. By the time we descended on Kathmandu, the expedition looked utterly professional.
This did nothing in the way of lowering the pressure we felt to perform well once we were on the mountain. We took all measures to ensure that our mission would be successful. Our Base Camp manager, Henry Todd, strictly forbade us to entertain strangers in our camp, or to be entertained outside of it.
"No contact with strangers, keep them at bay!" he growled at us on the first day; Ran and I carefully stuck to our chocolate rations to avoid contracting some incurable stomach bug courtesy of the hygienic conditions at Base Camp; I wore extra layers at all times just to make sure I didn't get a cold.
"All these precautions ended up being helpful when the weather window arrived for our summit push. Seemingly in no time, we were up in the high camps, preparing to conquer Mt. Everest. Which is why we were all stunned when I came down with a bad case of the stomach flu (from which I am still recovering even as I write these lines). Still, Navy SEALs don't stop killing bad guys because of a case of the stomach bug, and so we carried on, as a team, all the way to the summit. Now that we're off the mountain safely, it has finally sunk in: we did it!
Not as individuals, but as a team - supported by a much larger team that ensured that the execution of our mission would be possible. Thank you to all who have made this expedition possible.
May 29: The adventure continues
After drinking half of an Indian Army platoon's water supply, a case of mistaken identity pertaining to the Sherpa who carried said water, I felt refreshed enough to bypass Camp 2 and head straight to Camp 1 and on to Base Camp. This was a mistake, as it turned out, because the rest of my group thought I was headed to Camp 2 for some breakfast.
When Kenton and the rest of the crew arrived at Camp 2 and didn't find me there, they worried that I might have gotten lost and didn't find Camp 2. At the time, a thick fog had descended on the Western Cwm and heavy snowfall set in, so their fears weren't entirely unreasonable.
Still, I thought that my team would assume that I carried on and I furthermore assumed that they, being stronger and faster than I, would catch up with me by the time I reached the ice fall. I didn't think much of it when I had traversed half the length of the ice fall and still nobody had caught up with me.
When I reached Base Camp a few hours later, the manager there, Henry Todd, showed considerable relief and gave me a big welcome hug. "Kenton will be happy to learn that you're here, safe and sound," Henry said.
I expressed surprise at this but Henry insisted that Kenton was most worried about me. As it turns out, by the time I entered the ice fall five hours earlier, Kenton and Henry had set in motion a full-scale search and rescue operation comprising several expeditions and their Sherpa. The radio airwaves were full of chatter about my possible whereabouts as Sherpa, mountain guides and other expedition members searched up and down the Western Cwm and ice fall for me. The fact that they did not find me, even in the ice fall itself, is a tribute to the new route through part of the ice fall that I discovered when I came across a stretch that did not have any rope due to an avalanche.
The next day, on our trek down to the helicopter landing site - a full five-hour-long march below Base Camp - several lodge proprietors and other locals greeted me with "Oh, you're the guy they were looking for yesterday afternoon." This was the last of several episodes that ended on a positive note but that could have spelled disaster.
Seven climbers and Sherpa did not fare so well on their trip to Mt. Everest this year. They will be part of a rather somber statistic of deaths on the mountain. This year alone, some three dozen climbers and Sherpa had to be evacuated due to brutal injuries, including broken backs and limbs. Tomorrow I will submit the last of my dispatches from Nepal.
May 26: Wind chill factor
On approach of the summit, I noticed how strong the wind blew. Henry, our Base Camp manager who was in charge of making sense of the weather reports, mentioned that the expected wind speed would be 0-5 knots.
But once we reached the summit, we felt the wind at about 20 knots, perhaps more. This brought with it a very cold wind chill, with temperatures down to -35 degrees Celsius (-95 F.), and we began to feel very cold, indeed. Before long, the saliva that was being collected by our oxygen masks only to then dribble down our thermal face masks, froze said masks to our chins. This was a rather painful circumstance but what really caught us by surprise was the fact that all of our cameras, six altogether, were frozen solid or had drained batteries due to the extreme cold. In light of all this, we decided to spend no more than ten minutes on the summit - we had planned for 30 minutes in order to call loved ones.
On our way down, I noticed that the outer corners on the inside of my goggles had frosted up, which impaired my vision. As a result, the decent was a lot more challenging but it also meant that I wasn't distracted by the sight of steep drops off to our sides, or by the sight of the multiple dead bodies that line the path up and down the mountain. We reached Camp 4 by noon, six hours after reaching the summit. One camp down, three to go 'til Base Camp, I thought to myself. I knew that despite the sheer feeling of exhaustion that overcame me at Camp 4, that I could not let my guard down until we safely reached Base Camp. It turns out that this vigilant approach saved my life.
I will write about that tomorrow, but now I am going to enjoy a movie about Ed Hillary that I purchased here, in Kathmandu. I ordered room service in order to enjoy the movie over dinner. Placing the order was quite comical: the operator on the other line read back the order three times and protested that this was a meal for five people. When the trolley arrived, I noticed that it had five sets of cutlery and drinks on it, even though I would be enjoying the meal all by myself. After all, I lost 28 pounds in seven weeks and need to regain some energy.
May 25: The notorious Hillary Step
Courtesy of Michael Kobold
Michael Kobold and Kenton Cool, both wearing made-in-Pittsburgh watches, near the summit of Mt. Everest.
Last week, our expedition reached the summit of Mount Everest. It was my first time climbing a mountain (last year I merely went through the Khumbu icefall but never actually climbed the mountain itself) and I was naturally very scared. In fact, I've never been so scared in my life, especially on the way down the mountain.
By comparison, most of the climb up to the summit from Camp 4 was more challenging than scary, but negotiating one feature in particular -- the notorious Hillary Step -- almost cost me my life.
It was about 5:20 in the morning and the sun was beginning to rise in the distance. The moon was still high in the sky and to the west we marveled at the amazing shadow that the mountain cast in the form of a pyramid. I was mesmerized and incredulous to have come so far and seen so much natural beauty. Then, without forewarning, I came across a large rock with a very flat surface which was angled quite steeply towards a 6,000-foot drop.
"OK, I've had enough, let's go back down to Camp 4," I quickly told Kenton before he could clip himself onto the rope spanning the rock's surface.
"Mike, it's only the Hillary Step", Kenton said.
"I don't care, I'm not stepping onto that thing. Let's go home."
To me, having reached the South Summit and gone beyond it was far more of an accomplishment than I had ever dreamed of. In fact, secretly, I had only set my sights on Camp 3 after the Navy SEALs told me that even after my training I was still not as strong as I could be. Camp 4 was a bonus, the proverbial whipped cream, and the South Summit was a cherry to top it all. No, the Hillary Step was definitely not for me.
"Mike, clip onto the rope! Now!" Kenton yelled.
I refused. Especially so after Kenton had traversed the Hillary Step and I had watched his crampons fight the slippery rock's surface and slide violently towards the abyss.
Panic set in and all my Navy SEAL mental toughness training came into play in order for me not to have a mental breakdown.
A long line of climbers were waiting, rather impatiently, behind us and I was blocking their way. Finally, I clipped myself in and very gingerly began negotiating the frightening obstacle.
Just as I had feared, I almost instantly began to slide off the rock, toward the deadly drop.
"Hold onto the rope, Mike!" Kenton yelled at the top of his lungs.
Quite by accident, I had clipped myself into an old rope from a past season. My hand reached for a third rope, which arrested the slide of death, and with considerable acrobatic improvisation, I managed to whip across the cold boulder.
Kenton was visibly relieved while I was quite shaken, but not long thereafter, we reached the summit. It was on the way down that tragedy almost cast itself over the expedition.
May 24: Back in Kathmandu!
Ran, Thundu (one of our Sherpa who requires some medical attention) and I boarded a Nepal Air Force helicopter this morning and landed in Kathmandu at 10 AM today.
Our original helicopter plans were dashed when a airplane and a civilian helicopter crashed at Kathmandu airport yesterday. Hence, we improvised late last night and through a local contact persuaded the Nepali military to airlift us out of a small village, located five hours' hike below Base camp.
The flight itself couldn't have been more spectacular as the two courteous pilots tried hard to impress us. We flew at breathtaking proximity past cliffs, over treetops, fields, and ancient monasteries as we headed towards the Kathmandu Valley.
Now that we're here, it feels great to breathe thicker air again, even if its somewhat polluted. Our Khumbu coughs are already much better than they were up in the Himalaya, and we received a hero's welcome by the staff of the Hyatt Regency and about a dozen reporters from the local and international press.
After a most relaxing visit to the hotel's spa and a shave and hair cut, it feels like we're humans again, not Taliban.
It is a fortunate coincidence that we would arrive here on a Sunday, as the brunch buffet, packed with delicacies we have only dreamt of for the past six weeks, couldn't have been a more welcome sight at lunchtime. We are, however, feeling extremely tired and exhausted - it's as though we've hit a wall. Even Ran, who is famous for going on and on indefinitely, fell asleep at the lunch table.
Ran departs for London tonight; I will remain here to deal with some post-expedition logistics and give a few presentations to the local community.
Tomorrow, I will post the first of a small collection of stories detailing how several members of the expedition and I got into some hairy situations on our final descent from Camp 4 to Base Camp.
In the meantime, above is the much sought-after summit picture. It shows Kenton Cool (our guide), Namgel (my Sherpa assistant) and I raising the Navy SEAL flag on the summit of Mt. Everest.
May 23: A mental daze
What a night! After returning to Base Camp at 5 PM local time, after an incredibly hard 11-hour-long climb from Camp 4, we went to bed feeling utterly exhausted. Because we all caught bad cases of the Khumbu cough, our camp sounded like a hospital ward for patients with lung problems. I hardly slept at all, despite being exhausted -- that's how strong the cough is.
As a result, I am still very much in a state of mental daze and the fact that we summitted has not sunk in yet. No special, happy, or excited feeling ... just pain and suffering, much like before.
However, I am very excited about our upcoming helicopter flight back to Kathmamdu. The management of the Hyatt Regency there have kindly offered us the use of their helipad, and the thought of landing there already gave me the giggles because our helicopter is gigantic (vintage Russian-made MI-17) and landing it there would definitely give the pool-going guests there a good dusting (the helipad is in relatively close proximity to the large, serene pool area).
It's a little strange to admit this, but I am more excited about taking a shower and getting my ridiculously long hair and beard trimmed in the Hyatt's spa than about the fact that we all summitted -- and safely returned from -- Mt. Everest. I am sure in the coming days that will all change as the magnitude of the achievement becomes more clear.
However, at the moment, Ran, Kenton and I are just giddy about our helo flight and about eating a good, rich meal at lower altitude.
Tomorrow, when we retrieve all our camera gear (our stuff is strewn all over the mountain and the Sherpa are collecting it for us), I will post the most important picture of all -- of us hoisting the Navy SEAL's trident flag on the summit.
I will also, over the coming week, write in more detail about the rather eventful climb, during which I literally almost died no fewer than three times. However, I was too exhausted at the time to appreciate the perilous situations. To quote Kenton Cool at Base Camp last night talk about one such incident "and then I watched Mike slide down the Hillary Step and I thought to myself, oh no, he's going to fall to his death!"
A report of Michael Kobold reaching the summit of Everest came in from his assistant, Josh Vandergrift, just before 11 p.m. May 20. At 12:44 a.m., Vandergrift sent this update:
The expedition's other team members include Sir Ranulph Fiennes, whom the Guinness Book of World Records describes as the world's greatest living explorer, Kenton Cool, the British mountain guide who has summitted Everest a record seven times, and Will Cross, the first diabetic American to reach the summit. Will Cross did not reach the summit but instead abandoned his bid to stand atop the world's highest mountain.
May 20: Reaching the summit
for immediate release:
Kathmandu -- The watchmaker Michael Kobold reached the summit of Mt. Everest here early this morning. Mr. Kobold placed a telephone call from the summit in which he said "this has been the hardest thing I've ever done, and without the SEALs' help I sure would not have made it to the top."
Mr. Kobold and his team raised a flag depicting the Navy SEAL trident atop the summit in honor of wounded and fallen SEALs. Kobold, who is leading the 2009 Everest Challenge Expedition in support of fallen and injured U.S. Navy SEALs, was trained for approximately two months on the SEAL base in Coronado, California ahead of his adventure in Nepal.
The expedition's other team members include Sir Ranulph Fiennes, whom the Guinness Book of World Records describes as the world's greatest living explorer, Kenton Cool, the British mountain guide who has summitted Everest a record seven times, and Will Cross, the first diabetic American to reach the summit.
Michael Kobold asked his teammates to join him in support of his mission to raise $250,000 for the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund, a 501c3 charitable organization that provides financial aid for the families of SEALs who are wounded or have fallen in action.
The U.S. Navy SEALs are arguably the most well-trained fighting force in the U.S. Armed Forces. Each Navy SEAL must complete a grueling 7-month-long program that tests his mental and physical toughness and endurance. A group of Navy SEALs volunteered to train Mr. Kobold when they learned of his ambition to raise money for the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund.
May 20: A few hours away
It is 7:30pm local time. In a half hour we will go toward the summit which we hope to reach in 9 to 11 hours. Last night I began to suffer from a severe stomach bug. As a result I'm feeling weak but with Kenton's help made it to Camp 4 in good time. If that serves as any indication in tonight's performance, everything should be alright.
May 19: Onward and upward
Today was difficult and challenging. We left Camp 2 at 7:00am and arrived at Camp 3 five hours and 15 minutes later, my legs feeling like jello. Half way up the Lhotse Face a fist-sized piece of ice came flying down from up above and hit my right knee. This meant that both of my knees were hurting when ever I took a step up. Tomorrow morning at 5:00, we will set out for camp 4, which is located at 7,900 meters. We hope to reach Camp 4 at approximately 1 p.m. local time. After an 8 hour rest, we will set out in the night for the summit.
May 18: On to the summit
We've left for Camp 2. That will be followed by a rest day, after which we intend to climb to Camp 3. The next day, we hope to climb up to Camp 4 and on reaching this last remnant of civilization -- there are tents with oxygen bottles and sleeping bags there -- we will rest for three or four hours before leaving for the summit at approximately 9 p.m. local time (11:45 a.m. in Pittsburgh; yes, Nepal is off by 15 minutes).
With luck and mental toughness on our side, we should reach the summit of Mt. Everest 10-11 hours later on Thursday morning and seven to eight hours after that should be back in Camp 4.
I can say with great certainty that I have never before done any physical exercise for more than a few hours, so being on the move for up to 19, perhaps 20 hours will be quite a novelty. I know that I sleep for 18 hours, I am quite good at that, but climbing for such a long period of time requires considerably more effort and discipline.
My knee has gotten a lot better, thanks to a small team of Navy SEAL medical specialists out on Coronado Island, Calif., who got their heads together to come up with a quick fix for my not overly dramatic injury. It still hurts to bend it 90 degrees, but I have decided to make use of my other, good, knee when necessary.
Of course, it is due to the excellent training and even better camaraderie of the SEALs that I am even able to participate in this adventure in the first place. No fewer of eight of their number volunteered to train me on their base and over two months turned me from a "puny little watchmaker" -- their words, not mine -- into a pretty strong novice-mountaineer (mountaineering training was part of the package the SEALs put together for me).
I consider all of this a great honor, especially because my friends volunteered their time and weren't ordered to help me out. Which is one reason why I feel that failure is not an option; I don't want to let those guys down. Nor do I want to disappoint the sponsors who, despite the terrible recession, came forward to support the expedition.
These and other thoughts raced through my mind as I was packing my rucksack today, when suddenly Ran (Sir Ranulph Fiennes) gave me a flurry of instructions in the unlikely event that he won't return from the mountain. The thought of losing one of your best friends is never a happy one. Then, for the first time in a long time, probably since facing the terrifying cargo net on the SEAL obstacle course, thoughts of my own mortality came into my mind.
I decided to do my best to ignore those negative thoughts and am thus trying to maintain a positive outlook. I am hopeful of reaching the summit on Thursday morning (local time) and returning to Base Camp in one piece two days later, with our entire team.
One decidedly happy thought will help to keep me going: returning to Pittsburgh and enjoying a meal with friends and family at downtown's India Palace restaurant is a vision that will serve as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
May 15: What we can learn from the simple, happy Sherpa
Last year, after I returned from Nepal following my first Everest trip, I was quick to sing the praises of the Nepali people, especially the Sherpa (literally: People of the North). Their friendliness, hospitality and genuine kindness baffled me.
Here are a people who, on average, earn only 75 cents per day, and still manage to be happy and fulfilled. They live without proper sanitation (toilets here are holes in the ground), don't have TV, and receive mail only rarely. The Nepalese in general also don't have cars, whereas we in North America typically own at least car one each.
Instead of cars (there are none around here within a week's walk because there are no roads), the locals proudly wear baseball caps depicting logos of Ferrari and other European makes. You won't rise in the Sherpa's esteem if you mention that you have driven in a BMW and the Sherpa will only laugh happily if you state that you've seen a Ferrari on the open road.
Best of all, they won't be jealous if you tell them that you are the owner of a Porsche, even if it's 18 years old. Similarly, the Sherpa wouldn't look down on you if you were to reveal that you once drove a beat-up Saturn.
Either way, they are just happy people and don't care much about materialism. By contrast, many of us very much judge one another based on our worldly possessions. I remember well the days when, in my early 20s, I purchased my first car. It was a Saturn ION, not exactly a status symbol. But I didn't care, I was just happy to have escaped my parents' control and to be driving a fun little car (which the Saturn most certainly was).
To me, the Saturn meant freedom. To the couple of girls I tried to date while owning that particular vehicle, it meant horror. One young lady actually told me that unless I picked her up in a "decent" car, I wouldn't see much of her.
The Sherpa giggled, presumably at the absurdity of such an exchange when I mentioned all this to them during a discussion about cars. In the end, I kept driving the Saturn until the lease ran out and then got an 18-year-old Porsche.
Cliche? Maybe, but the car was a bargain, despite possessing much character: among other things, its air conditioning won't work, which in summer can be a useful way of detecting shallowness on the part of your female passengers.
What does all this have to do with climbing Mt. Everest? Well, I have spent the better part of the last six weeks trying to figure out why the Sherpa are genuinely happy with a fraction of the worldly possessions we consider essential items. There is, of course, a connection to be made here with current world affairs. In a time when an almost unprecedented amount of people are losing their jobs and incomes, when entire families are reconsidering their spending patterns, it may a good idea to also reconsider how we measure our success in life. Are we truly successful because we upgraded our car or home?
And, likewise, are we really in such bad shape if we have to downsize our lives? The Sherpa live happily in houses we wouldn't even consider worthy as sheds for our garden tools. But they spend much of their free time with their families and they typically don't work in jobs that they don't enjoy.
We can learn some lessons from these simple, yet happy people: follow your dreams and get your priorities straight.
May 14: A stumble, an injury and now the climb may be doomed
After several consecutive days of almost non-stop snowfall, we finally had good weather today. With this happy development, I decide that it's the perfect time to go for a run on the boulder-strewn Khumbu glacier to the nearest settlement, an hour south of here. On the way down, I was picking up considerable speed despite the unwieldy trail when suddenly I slipped on a mud-covered rock and skidded in the direction of a van-sized boulder. Within a fraction of a second, my knee slammed against the boulder.
I couldn't believe it! I had survived the 10-day-long trek into base camp, a rock slide, an avalanche, two weeks of the worst case of the stomach flu I can remember (resulting in even more rapid weight and strength loss), and now this!
After limping back to Base Camp, I settled down in my tent and assessed the damage. Unfortunately, with our trusted and talented physician, Dr. Simon Piper, no longer part of the team, no expert medical advice was near.
A large bruise has developed and movement of the knee has become increasingly difficult. To express anger at yourself for bringing about such a foolish event (I didn't have to go on a power walk) is counterproductive; no crying over spilled milk!
Yet I cannot help but feel decidedly defeated in light of this injury.
To make matters worse, the weather reports show that we can make an attempt at the summit in two days. That will hardly be adequate to heal my knee. I have decided to wait until the morning of our planned ascent -- on Sunday -- to decide if I will go up.
At the moment, it's questionable that I will be strong enough to safely make the ascent.
May 13: The dreaded Khumbu cough
The crisp, clear air of the Himalaya is as deceptive in terms of its healthfulness, as the heights of its fabled mountain ranges. Visitors to Everest Base Camp commonly arrive coughing and gasping for air, while the Sherpa seem to exhibit no obvious respiratory ailments.
The locals are often seen wearing face masks and cloths of one variation or another, while most foreigners concentrate mainly on more or less uniform methods to cover their heads to avoid the sun. Of course, in this part of the world, one is a lot closer to the sun than anywhere else. It is, therefore, prudent to protect yourself against UV radiation by wearing baseball caps and other headwear, especially in combination with liberal and frequent applications of SPF-50 sunblock.
But I digress; back to the so-called Khumbu cough.
Dust and other particles must be carefully kept at bay (by way of a face-covering cloth or other device) to avoid this painful affliction. But there is another element at Base Camp that few climbers and fewer locals, even, are aware of: the risks posed by an elevated concentration of ozone.
In normal areas of the world, say Pittsburgh, it is considered hazardous when the ozone level rises above 0.85 parts per million (ppm). On a typical day, in a typical American city, ozone concentrations are between 0.15 and 0.51 ppm.
Here, on many days, we live with ozone levels of 1.80 ppm. How can this be? The answer lies in the jet stream and its so-called streamers, or off-shoots of the main jet stream. The streamers quite literally suck ozone out of the atmosphere down into lower elevations.
In normal locations, say at 2,500 feet elevation, the effects of these streamers cannot be noticed by the general public.
But up here, at 18,000 to 28,000 feet, things are vastly different.
The result is a nasty and prolonged, "dry" cough, which, in combination with a rather elevated heart rate (resting heart rates of climbers around here are not infrequently in the low 100s), makes breathing at times difficult.
May 12: All dressed up, no place to go
Inclement weather has put the expedition on hold, and one day is running into the next without much change to the routine here at Base Camp. So I'll write a little bit about the equipment and services that we're using.
First, this is, above all, an expedition to support the Navy SEALs and their families. Hence, the SEALs took great delight in helping us out with some of their own equipment. Cargo boxes of all shapes and sizes - indestructible, dust and waterproof - have been donated to the expedition to safely transport our electronic gadgets (more on those later) into the high Himalayas.
Incredibly bright but efficient combat flashlights that operate on regular AA batteries instead of specialty batteries make it easy for us to navigate at night between our tents and the tiny tent used to cover an oil drum we're using as a toilet.
These flashlights also have a strobe function, activated by the simple push of a button, which is designed to disorientate assailants at night. Since the Sherpa are a peaceful people, Ran and I experimented with this feature using local wildlife. An unsuspecting yak was least impressed by the SEAL's illumination device and kept on sleeping.
One of the SEALs who helped train me, Joe, couldn't bear to see me squinting in the California sun and generously gave me his sunglasses, which I have been using here every day. Maui Jim also sent us a pair, which was nice of them.
Next, we have a tremendous amount of communications equipment with us, including a satellite device; six laptops (Acer became a generous sponsor when they learned that we required machines that were outfitted with solid-state hard drives to operate at high altitude); a video editing machine (we are documenting our work on the mountain using a digital video camera); a satellite phone (donated by a personal friend who wishes to remain anonymous); a generator modified especially to function at above 18,000 feet, courtesy of Honda America; as well as countless garments, provided by The North Face.
On special occasions, we feast on such delicacies as Heinz baked beans and Heinz ketchup, Hershey's milk chocolate bars, Reese's Pieces candy, Snyder's (of Hanover, PA) pretzel sticks, shelled walnuts, crispy bacon and dried slices of mango.
In order to spare the reader an upset stomach, I will avoid listing the types of food we eat on a more regular basis but only grudgingly so. Yaks and porters carried our 900+ pounds of gear up through the Khumbu Valley to Base Camp, while Continental Air Lines flew Will to Delhi from Pittsburgh, and British Airways flew me (in business class!) to London while Thai Airways whisked me off to Kathmandu via Bangkok.
Ran flew from London using Qatar Airways, which kindly put him up in its business class upon learning of his royal heritage, and it was only poor Kenton for whom we had to actually purchase a ticket - in coach. Interestingly, we received financial sponsorship (to pay for various climbing, filming, and satellite communications permits) not only from companies such as Pittsburgh-based Black Knight Security and Virginia-based Fuisz Technologies, but also from individuals from all around the country.
In all, the expedition would not be possible without the support of our sponsors and supporters, many of whom we could not list because of space.
Tomorrow, I intend to write about the poor air quality up here. Anyone who thinks that we're breathing fresh, clean mountain air will be surprised by the revelation of the next entry.
May 11: Lost in translation
Everest Base Camp is not only home to some 150-200 climbers and their support staff (Sherpa, kitchen staff, porters, etc.) but also the highlight destination of hundreds if not thousands of tourists, so-called trekkers. These tourists vary from a group of UN-affiliated women from Denmark wishing to see first-hand the suffering of people living in third-world conditions, to Hollywood celebs seeking some escape from the plasticity of their world.
These visitors are often amazed at the way we climbers look. You have to understand that within a few weeks of arriving at Base Camp, clothes are stained, beards untrimmed, hairs and fingernails uncut. Will Cross, however, is the exception; he is always well-groomed and looks rather civil. I look more like a federal felon and most of the other climbers have turned into a most piratical-looking cast of characters.
Which is why I found it amusing when our base camp manager, Henry Todd, informed us recently that we had a visitor who played a role in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy of films. All my hopes of meeting Keira Knightly were thoroughly dashed when a short old man, magnificently piratical in appearance, arrived in the mess tent, shook our hands and joined us for lunch.
Later, I tried to explain to one of our Sherpa what the films were all about and somehow ended up telling him that in Pittsburgh, we, too, have pirates of a different sort. This bewildered the Sherpa, for he had previously learned that Heinz ketchup (of which we have a pirate ship load in our storage tent and which is a brand the Sherpa know quite well ) originates in Pittsburgh.
I could not be certain that we didn't part ways with the Sherpa thinking that Pittsburgh is a city inhabited by pirates who make ketchup.
May 8: Perils of climbing on melting ice
While the effects of global warming continue to fuel controversy in both camps - there continues to be a strong lobby that insists it's all just temporary and "normal" - here on Everest it's quite obvious that something has been going on with the weather for the past decade or so.
I spoke with one veteran mountaineer who did not want to be named, and he insists that of the 17 years in which he's been coming to Everest, the last five or six have seen the most noticeable change in both weather patterns and average temperatures. Although scientists will dismiss such anecdotal evidence, it's hard to argue with a half dozen climbers who insist that there isn't enough snow on the upper part of the mountain this year.
The Sherpa, who call this area home, also say that this year's climate is unusual. The ice fall, they are quick to point out, is full of small and larger lakes, formed by melting glacial waters. Near the summit, there are spots that have no snow at all and therefore require one to walk on gravel - not particularly enjoyable or easy when wearing sharp steel crampons.
I have not yet ventured near the summit, but I almost got severely injured when an ice screw that was supposed to have been firmly implanted in the ice came flying past my head as I was about to descend down a steep slope of ice.
Why did one of the otherwise famously secure ice screws come undone? Because of the unseasonally warm sun that caused it to heat up (keep in mind that ice screws are typically made from titanium and that titanium is far less heat conductive than stainless steel) and melt the ice around its thread.
Everyone agrees that there's been an increase in the number and sizes of avalanches in recent years. And they're getting bigger.
Perhaps global warming is to blame for yesterday's death of a Sherpa heading up the Khumbu ice fall, perhaps not.
This is a place where everyone has to be willing to take calculated risks. But in a world of ice and snow, a small change in ambient temperatures can very quickly lead to disaster.
May 7: Avalanche, death, sadness
Base Camp lay under the bright light of a full moon tonight, after a day that was scheduled to be as routine as any other. On the agenda were the usual amount of sleep and food breaks, some reading and some e-mailing. Yet by around 10 a.m., things turned out decidedly different.
A relatively small avalanche went off right above the route up the Khumbu ice fall. We stood in our camp, watching as the white mass came down over some very fast-moving climbers. No harm was done as most of the several tons of ice had pulverized by the time it hit the climbers.
But only an hour later, another avalanche, this one the biggest of the season, blanketed the entire lower half of the large ice fall. The fallout from the great wave of ice and snow reached base camp only a minute later and it was obvious to everyone watching that those climbers who were in the lower half of the ice fall must have been in pretty bad shape. Even if you can hide from the oncoming debris by hiding behind a large iceberg or by jumping into a crevasse, the pulverized ice poses a great danger to the respiratory system as it causes water to form in the lungs.
After the white cloud cleared and the ice and snow settled all over the ice fall, our Sherpa watched carefully, using binoculars, as rescue teams entered the ice fall to look for causalities. By lunchtime, we learned that one Sherpa was missing and another climber injured. This, we determined, was the worst news yet this season.
By the end of the day, we learned that the missing Sherpa had very sadly died of his injuries. The accident played a role in the decision of our expedition's medical doctor, Simon Piper, a seasoned and most helpful climber from England, to cancel his plans to reach the summit. This came as yet another surprise, as Simon is generally quite strong and, of course, very experienced.
Simon departs Base Camp tomorrow morning. We will miss him greatly, especially his dry sense of humor, and proceed with even more caution, now that our only professional medical staff has quit the expedition.
Entry: May 6
We left Base Camp on Monday, headed for Camp 3. Since we're fully acclimatized to higher altitudes, we are able to bypass Camp 1, which sits above the treacherous Khumbu ice fall, and head directly to Camp 2. There, we spent a night resting before tackling Camp 3, situated high on the Lhotse Face.
The Lhotse Face is a feature of the mountain that neighbors Mount Everest. It is from here that expeditions make a run for the summit, first by hitting Camp 4 (the final of the five camps), and then, after a few hours' rest, by going further up the mountain.
We arrived at Camp 2 after seven hours' travel. Not bad for an aging explorer and a watchmaker turned novice mountaineer. Of course, the Sherpa bearing considerably heavier loads make the run in half that time, but they are native to these heights, after all. Likewise, the Sherpa don't suffer from deep, heavy coughs that produce all manner of unsightly matter.
On arriving at Camp 2, we dispersed into our respective tents and a massive cough concert ensued. Later, over dinner, Kenton -- our guide -- informed us of a change in the weather pattern as reported by two independent weather reports.
"We must get down to Base Camp as soon as possible in order to recover at lower altitude before heading back up here to charge up the summit," he declared with an unmistakable sense of urgency in his voice. This left us with no alternative than to alter our plans for the following days.
The next day, Tuesday, we left Camp 2 early in the morning and headed for Camp 3 at 7,200 meters (approximately 24,000 feet). Outfitted with a ridiculously poor-fitting, 1950s helmet -- courtesy of Ran Fiennes' lifelong collection of expedition gear -- I felt extremely weak as soon as we departed the camp and wasn't sure if I could even make it to the bottom of the Lhotse Face, located almost two hours from our camp. Every step was excruciatingly difficult to take and I felt a strong sensation of not getting enough air. Of course, an oxygen cylinder would have helped in that situation, but the point of the undertaking was to acclimatize at even higher altitudes, without the use of supplemental oxygen.
Meanwhile, Ran, who is permanently hooked up to an oxygen bottle owing to his lung capacity being reduced by 20 percent, was happily strolling along the ice field. Kenton, who in his capacity of professional mountain guide has the physique of a snow leopard, also didn't exhibit any problems. Gasping for air, I arrived at the bottom of the Lhotse Face, not at all ready to climb up the 1,600 feet of vertical gain. Yet there's no complaining when you've been trained by SEALs, so I attached myself to the rope leading up the mountain and gingerly proceeded in an upward direction. A few hours later, we reached the bottom of Camp 3.
Until that point, I had concentrated on my crampons adequately hitting the ice beneath my feet in an effort not to fall back down the mountain. Of course, that little uni-directional device called a juma, which is attached to one's harness, would prevent that from happening. But after an ice screw came flying out of the ice a few days before, I learned not to rely on technology too much.
Once we reached our destination, we waited 30 minutes before heading back down the Lhotse Face and back to Camp 2. But instead of staying at Camp 2 as originally planned, we raced down the valley to Camp 1 and from there hurdled down the ice fall at record speed to Base Camp. The whole journey through the ice fall took fewer than 21???2 hours, impressive time even for the Sherpa, given the exertion of the day. We are here now, at Base Camp, resting and recovering from our foray into jetliner territory. If the weather predictions hold, we should be back up the mountain in a matter of a week, possibly two.
Our gigantic supply of Hershey's is, incredibly, dwindling, but we are high on morale.
Entries: May 2-3
After a cold spell and a brief snow storm, we are now on our way to reach Camp 3. Camp 2, from where we will start our ascent, offers far fewer comforts than Base Camp. It is a cold, isolated place where we must produce our own drinking water using an ice axe to collect snow, which we melt using portable gas burners. This all requires physical energy, which we don't have in spades because the air is already so thin at Camp 2.
At this altitude, Ran (Sir Ranulph Fiennes ) uses oxygen while sleeping, which produces a sound wave. In conjunction with his constant snoring, that makes it very difficult for anyone laying next to him to sleep. There are, however, other, more threatening noises to be heard when the sun sets over Camp 2.
Loud cracks in the ice (we are, after all, sleeping on a glacier) announce that a new crevasse will soon appear in the otherwise perfectly beautiful landscape. The proximity of these fledgling crevasses to the tent in which one is resting can not be determined by the volume of the cracks, however, so its best to ignore them. Happy dreams can, therefore, be elusive and the veteran mountaineer will make use of his iPod to overcome the noises made by glacier and Fiennes.
The low quality and lack of variety of the food on Mt. Everest is something I lamented when I first arrived at Base Camp last year.
Which is why shortly after the decision was made to launch another expedition this year, our team was delighted to welcome Hershey's as one of our sponsors. Having good chocolate to eat while on an expedition into the high Himalaya is not an extravagance but an essential dietary complement. Up here, in the 8,000 m peak range, the body uses far more calories per day than at sea level.
At Mt. Everest, elevated breathing and heart rates, not to mention the immense physical exertion while moving up and down the mountain in an effort to acclimatize to the high altitude, all place a considerable tax on the body and the mind. Chocolate is, in many ways, a source of replenishment for energy expended. Firstly, its high calorie count is ideal to restore some balance in the dietary plan. Second, chocolate is, contrary to public opinion, full of "good" fats and has made cold weather explorers and expedition leaders feel warmer since the days of Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic (his expedition, however, was sponsored by Cadbury's of England). Chocolate is also light and easy to transport - a major benefit on expeditions to remote places, our veteran explorer, Ranulph Fiennes, hastens to add as I write these lines.
Finally, and this is the trait all chocolate lovers revere most about it, chocolate tastes delicious. Not like the twice-fried-and-then-peppered yak steak, or the strange-smelling hard-boiled eggs, served with kerosene-scented chapatti. Last year, I found out too late what amazing powers chocolate has up here. Hence, I flew in 50 lbs. of chocolate from Pennsylvania via Kathmandu. When the helicopter bearing this costly load landed at Base Camp, climbers from other expeditions sought to barter for the treasured sweets. This year, we came better prepared.
Since an army marches on its stomach, we, the members of the 2009 Everest Challenge Expedition, were more than grateful when Hershey's sent 2,000 bars of their milk chocolate, and a crate-load of Reese's Pieces. Since this expedition is for charity, in support of the families of wounded and fallen Navy SEALs, we spared the expense of air-lifting our chocolate supply and instead transported it to Base Camp by yak.
The climb from Camp 2 to Camp 3 is nothing for beginners. I found this out as I was standing at the bottom of the Lhotse Face, halfway between the two camps, staring up what is at times an ice-covered slope of 75 degrees.
My knees began to feel very weak, as did my arms, and as I progressed gingerly up the steep angle using a so-called juma -- a uni-directional device that hitches onto a rope and prevents its user from falling into the abyss below -- I felt my mouth getting dry. My crampons barely scratch the blue ice beneath them and if it weren't for a series of steps in the ice left in the wake of a few dozen climbers who had come before us, progress would have been made even more dangerous.
Experienced climbers will tell you that while a little challenging, technically speaking, the Lhotse Face is quite safe. These same climbers also will tell you that ice screws don't come out of the ice except in rare circumstances. Well, just as I was going on my practice climb, an ice screw came flying out of its recess, thereby almost dropping me down the ledge. This accident was blamed on global warming.
Global warming did not, however, play a role in the death of a climber who fell over 1,000 feet down the Lhotse Face while trying to urinate. I myself almost peed my pants as I skidded across the frozen world of Lhotse. A few hours later, back in the relative safety at Camp 2 (a few years ago it was overrun by a massive avalanche), I reflected on the fact that I need a lot more practice before I can make an attempt at the summit.
Entry: May 1
We reached base camp two and a half weeks ago and pretty much immediately begun the slow and drawn-out acclimatization process. The expedition team consists of Sir Ranulph Fiennes (the world's greatest living explorer, according to the Guinness Book of Records), Will Cross (from Pittsburgh) and Kenton Cool (six-times Everest summitter and mountain guide) and myself.
As the least experienced member of the team, I am having to work extra hard to fill some of the vast knowledge gaps in terms of mountaineering.
Mount Everest seems a strange place to break into the world of mountaineering, but its environment offers one hell of an opportunity to learn the ropes, so to speak. Last week, we climbed up to Camp 2, which is located at 21,100 feet. After a rest day, we attempted to reach Camp 3 (23,750 feet) but turned back at around 1,000 feet below the camp due to exhaustion. We'll try to push up to Camp 3 again next week and if successful, we're only two weeks or so away from making an attempt at the summit. The critical phase of the expedition is about to begin and I will do my best to sum up the daily events where possible (provided we have a good satellite connection).
Some general things I've learned already:
A mountaineering expedition, especially one to an 8,000 meter peak, can be categorized as 80 percent inactivity and 20 percent action.
The action part mainly revolves around acclimatizing to higher altitudes and, at last, attempting to reach the summit. During the 80 percent inactivity, one is usually stuck reading books, playing Scrabble, eating horrible food and sleeping. Browsing the Internet or writing e-mails is often not an option. First, most expeditions do not have Internet access because its costly and complicated (one needs a satellite unit, a power source, a computer, and of course one must transport and import all this equipment). Second, those fortunate outfits that do possess access to the virtual world generally can't afford to browse the Web, since browsing is a lot more costly than sending and receiving e-mails.
Human interaction outside one's expedition is also kept to a minimum in order to avoid illnesses that might jeopardize the whole undertaking. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to dream up a rather boring environment. Which makes it all the more challenging for the seriously dedicated blogger with unlimited Internet access to continuously report interesting news from base camp -- albeit Everest base camp.