Valerio Massimo Everest Expedition 2009

Me on the summit of Cho Oyu with Everest in the background

South Col and the Upcoming Summit Bid

May 20th, 2009 by Alix

As you have heard, this is a season with only a few possible summit days and a lot of waiting, which has meant that the last two days have been almost non-stop news and events as the first summits are achieved. The mountain has been busy, with many extraordinary stories and rescues already – I am reminded how very hard and how very dangerous this is for each individual climber. There has been one climber fatality so far, on the North side.
I’m sorry to sound trite but it’s been an amazing privilege to be here and watch firsthand the amazing amount of work and coordination that goes into this climb. Russell snatched the last few hours of sleep he’ll be getting for the next three or four days last night. He has two or three radios constantly going on different channels , and I sat mouth agape at dinner as he and the doctor, Monica, coordinated some rescue attempts with other teams. One man was found unconscious at 8500m and carried down; it looks like he will make it after several shots of Dex and a night on oxygen, saved by the efforts of at least three team leaders and their Sherpas and guides on the mountain. Russell’s Camp 3 is the highest as Valerio mentioned on his last trip there, so it is the first for climbers coming down, and throughout the afternoon and evening the radio would bark into life with a report from one of the Team 1 guides that another person had stumbled in, apparently near death, and demanded oxygen. The problem of course is that everyone is (and certainly looks) ‘near death’ by this point and usually their tents are only a few metres further down. Despite this, Himex guides played host and nurse to several returning summitters last night.
Valerio reached Camp 4 on the South Col at 7960 metres after 6 hours of climbing, so is just forty metres shy of the famous ‘Death Zone’ of 8000 metres where the body begins immediately to deteriorate and no one has been able to stay alive more than a couple of days. The whole team has now gone onto a low flow of oxygen to preserve their strength and some warmth, which will be hiked up to a higher flow when they leave tonight.

This is where it becomes really real. To a mountaineer or anyone interested in Everest, the South Col is littered with legends. To Valerio, this is what he’s been dreaming of and where he truly starts to follow in the footsteps of history. .. although I just spoke to him for the last time before he goes up and I have to admit it was quite harrowing. I think he’s thinking just of his own tired body rather than the footsteps of glory. Although his voice sounded strong, he said he was utterly exhausted and admitted, for the first time, that today had been very hard. At that altitude every step gained would be more difficult than the last. For the first time, I think he’s feeling unsure if he could do it… he described the South Col as hell on earth and said the summit looked very far away. I know he’s strong enough but it must be difficult to feel strong when you’re in such a bleak place.

So… a little picture (it’s not pretty) of Valerio on the South Col. He is higher than almost anywhere else in the world, more than a mile and a half above where I am, where he was just a couple of days ago. The tents are tied to the steep ice and balanced precariously on shallow carved-out shelves- this is the camp where people have famously stepped out of their tents without crampons and slipped immediately to their death. He now shares his tent with Chinese-born ZQ, so they are bundled into their too-small sleeping bags trying to preserve warmth and taking turns to boil snow into water- the body constantly dehydrates in the thin air (but too much means you have to pee, which can be a pretty horrific prospect in the biting cold). He’s wearing his oxygen mask, mitts, boots, and full down suit. He will try to eat (the famous tortellini and pana he brought all the way from Luigi’s on Fulham Rd are finished and it’s basic ramen now) but it is very unlikely – appetite and even digestion were left by the wayside. Batteries for his headtorch, camera, and bootwarmers are duct-taped to his body as anything outside will freeze, as will any water that is not actually boiling. It’s here that he has to decide how much water to carry up- difficult as it is likely to freeze and thus be nothing more than dead weight, but he needs fluid. I think he plans to take two half-litres in all, for the minimum 18 hour climb ahead. Weight is obviously an issue; the much repeated axiom here is that 10 grams feels like two kilos up there. Before he attempts to ‘sleep’ (almost certainly impossible at this altitude) he will make sure that he is wearing everything for the summit bid, including his boots, crampons, harness, and oxygen mask. Then when the time comes all he has to do is sit up and set off in the pitch darkness (it’s a new moon so there won’t be any helpful moonlight) with only a patch of light from his headlamp to see the steep ice in front of him. Currently it is around -20 Celsius up there, but when he is climbing tomorrow in the wee hours it will probably drop to around -25 or -30, before the temperature rises again after around 8am, when he could well be on or near the summit.

Lovely!! After the miserable details in this post you may want to read what Valerio wrote on ‘Why Everest?’ at left as it may seem a bit unfathomable! I’m heading to a sleepless night by the radio and will be posting if I get any news… he should reach the Balcony around 4am.

X from EBC

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