Thursday, August 9, 2012

Day 21: Move down to Camp III (14,200ft)

Well, this is it: we’re moving down. Joe came into our tent at around 10am and told us the news. Apparently the park rangers who had been stationed up here at High Camp had moved down earlier this morning and strongly recommended that we follow suit because a “Perfect Storm” is converging on the mountain. Four low pressure (bad weather) systems are coming in from all sides. Already the winds have started to howl and the snow almost horizontally directly into our faces.  We broke down camp in these conditions and then proceeded to rope up into our two rope teams to descend. The park rangers and another climbing expedition had already begun their descent when we made our way to the top of the ridge. 

Greg, my tent-mate, was leading our team (it is standard procedure for the guides to be at the back of the rope when descending). As he rounded the first narrow strip of the ridge, which involves stepping around a massive rock with only a couple inches of ground separating it from a very exposed drop, the a huge gust of wind picked him up and he slammed into the boulder. It was hard for me to see whether he had been injured, but we stayed there waiting for him to recover for several minutes. He stood pressed against the rock, gripping it tightly with his arms outstretched. A couple minutes later, Joe gave the call to retreat back to High Camp. We set up a tent and huddled inside together, still in all of our gear. Greg had bruised his knee pretty badly when he hit the rock, so he took some painkillers. About two hours later, we made a second attempt at descending. This time Travis, one of our guides, led at the front of the rope team. 

Luckily the weather had gotten significantly better and the wind had died down a bit. About half way down the ridge looms a massive rock feature called Washburn’s Thumb.  This is where the upper set of fixed lines are. We began descending this section, but communication was difficult because one’s voice isn’t always carried around the rock. With this in mind, we all proceeded slowly and cautiously. When I was several feet from the starting point of the lines—out of sight of those below me and only barely in the sight of those above—I felt a sudden, powerful yank on the rope and a split-second later I hit the ground. On impulse I grabbed the adze and shaft of my ice axe and self-arrested, which stopped me from being dragged any further down. I dug my feet into the ice and adjusted my grip, still in shock that someone had fallen. Joe yelled down to Greg, who had taken a fall halfway down the lines, when it is most exposed. He appeared fine, just shaken—a natural reaction. We waited there for several more minutes to recollect ourselves before continuing our descent.  We reached the top of the lower fixed lines without any more incidents. From there, it was smooth sailing into Camp III, where we all got some well-deserved recuperation time. Though it had not been the most physically strenuous of days, the disappointment of going down added to the mental drain of the weather and the fall made it the difficult day of the whole expedition to that point.  I think that’s all for now. (I need to get some sleep.)

Update: Good news, folks! I worked out a deal with my guides to join another Mountain Trip team that is currently at Camp III. We are planning to cache back up at 16,200ft tomorrow, so if all goes well, we have several potential summit days after that.

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