THE CLIMB- Filling in the Gaps [8TH OCTOBER] Last day of climb

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Day 8, October 8

 

 

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We woke to the sun beating down on the tent, which was dangerously dehydrating us, but given our experience yesterday, no one felt the need to wake up early today. As we were packing our things to head back to Base Camp (BC) (5,050m), six Tibetans from the Qinghai Mountaineering Association Search & Rescue team met us on their way up to the official Camp 1 (C1) (5,600m) (we were camped at 5,300m). I knew the man wouldn’t have lasted the night, and it would be a recovery, not a rescue.

 

As we packed, I was aware that four of the fingers on my right hand and a couple on my left were becoming increasingly sensitive to touch, to the point that Julia and Sheena were kind enough to help me pack a lot of my gear for the next few days. This was later confirmed to be frostnip, the first stage of frostbite, which can happen in just 60 seconds. Once you’ve had it, your resistance to the cold is much less. I realised the onset was when my mind was in that “zone”, and I took my gloves off to make those calls for help at Camp 1. 

 

Amidst the obvious air of sadness that was over our camp, one thing I thought quite amusing was that our tent, which we thought on relatively flat ground, was actually at such an angle that Sheena, the smallest in our team woke with the three of us rolled on top of her, and a big space on the other side of the tent.

 

The girls’ tent (Sheena, Julia, Jiji) were extremely grateful to Carl for his care and attentiveness leading us up the mountain, and now also, coming down, when Sheena was especially grateful for his assistance.

There must have been a different, faster way down the mountain, because when we reached BC, the Search & Rescue team were already there with the police entourage and later, the coroner’s vehicle.

We found out that the man whom we discovered at C1 had a driver. Philip and I shook hands with him at Base Camp and chatted briefly while the rest of the team packed our gear. He told us the man had intended to camp with us the night  we camped at 5,300m, but of all the chances he had to communicate this to us, when he was climbing quite close to our team, he never tried to make contact. Frank said at one stage, they were so close, he could have hit him with a rock (if he threw one). 

News reports after the incident revealed that the driver waited anxiously at BC when the man failed to radio back to him, though unfortunately we didn’t see any lights.

We were later informed that he was the vice-president of a mountaineering association of Xinjiang, Qinghai’s neighbouring province. News reports confirmed that the man died of High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)(fluid build-up in the brain due to prolonged exposure to high altitude; the severest & most life-threatening form of altitude sickness).

 

This experience was surreal, and one that we didn’t expect to have to deal with, on a simple fundraising expedition, by a bunch of office-workers from Australia. I felt as if I had walked straight into one of the climbing novels that I loved reading so much. We feel terrible for the man, we now know to be Yang Ge, and for his family and friends, that he had to spend the last hours of his life alone. We had so many questions that we will never know the answers to.

 

We packed up our remaining things at BC and drove to Xidatan “Truckstop” (~4,000m) for our first proper meal in days.

One the photos shows us all with red weather-exposed noses, as we had to cover up every part of our faces on the mountain, but the tips of our noses would often get missed. It’s probably also from wiping them constantly, lest our nasal dribble turn into icicles, which they did!

It was not until we arrived at Golmud (Chinese:Ge’ermu) (2,800m) that evening that I felt we were well and truly back on safe ground, and the experience behind us.

After a hot shower, our second for the expedition, we shared some street food and a case of hot beer (people don’t really use fridges in Qinghai, with temperatures averaging -5 to 8 degrees). We drank with mixed emotions, but were ultimately and humbly thankful for the safety of our expedition.

 

ON BEHALF OF THE ADVENTURE4AID TEAM, WE’D REALLY LIKE TO SAY A BIG THANKYOU TO CARL AND PHILIP FOR COORDINATING THE EXPEDITION AND TAKING CARE OF US. I HOPE THE MONEY RAISED WILL GO INTO TWO SOLID MOBILE CLINICS WITH UP-TO-DATE EQUIPMENT & STAFF!

  

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THE CLIMB- Filling in the Gaps (7th October) Summit bid

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Day 7- October 7

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Although Sheena’s symptoms of altitude sickness were worsening last night, she woke up this morning feeling a bit better; but Julia, Sheena, and I all had stomach cramps, presumably from the water which boils at a lower temperature than at sea level, making it less effective at killing bacteria.

We were all rugged up, as you can see in the photos- Julia and I  “fell in love” with our down jackets- when they went on at Xidatan Truckstop (~4000m), those babies never came off! I will say, in hindsight, that I’m sooo glad we didn’t skimp on sleeping bags & down jackets!

Carl and Philip (our guides & Philip, director of LOVEQTRA) gave us a head-start (from where we made camp at 5,300m, our unofficial Camp 1). They would follow, carrying our climbing boots and crampons (spikes that fit under specialised climbing boots for gripping the ice and snow)….so we headed hopefully upward to the official Camp 1 (C1).

 

When we arrived, we found a man asleep in his sleeping bag (no tent). We assumed he had just attempted the summit and was resting before heading back down. I talked to him in as many languages as I could muster; he was Asian so that narrowed it down a lot. I asked him if he was going down soon, that he shouldn’t be sleeping here at altitude and exposed to the sun. He just waved me off, as if to say leave me alone. He never said anything but I just left him alone after that. Apparently Carl and Phillip tried to talk to him, and walked away with the same result.

I remember being annoyed that Carl and Phillip were taking so long to meet us at C1, as this was our big day, our bid for the summit. I quickly reprimanded myself when I realised they were having difficulty boiling snow for water for our summit bid.

This man had set himself up with rocks all around his sleeping bag. Some of the team thought it was like some sort of ritual, others including myself, thought it was like a wind-break or something.

 

When Carl and Phillip arrived with our climbing boots and crampons, we geared up and were on our way. Carl broke trail and we followed his footsteps, it saves us vital energy that way. Philip was the sweep (the person responsible for making sure no one gets left behind). At parts, the snow was knee-deep, and the view was one in a million. From the official C1 upwards, there’s no more scree [mentioned in Oct 6 update], it’s all snow, soft, powdery snow. I remember thinking it’d be fantastic skiing!

 

At about 4pm we decided that as a team we weren’t going to reach the summit and come back safely while it was light. The wind was also picking up- the weather was starting to turn. My gut sank; I realized my dream for the summit was gone. I was so sure we could do it, when we started out this morning.

We decided to go on to a group of rocks which was about 6,000m according to Philip’s altimeter, and then make the final decision. Carl said it was a shame that he couldn’t put at least one of us on the summit, and that it was safe to take one of us up. No one was jumping for the chance because we all knew our limits, I think.

I, (not the fastest walker by far) said to Carl, if he thought it would be safe, that I would like to try. I felt that I had the most emotional investment in this, and I wanted to give it a shot. When am I likely to have this chance again? The others were agreeable to separate; as we had discussed this back in Sydney.

At the rocks, it was decision time. I asked Frank if he would pray with me because I knew that I would feel a peace for the right decision after that. After the prayer, it became clear to me that turning around was the only option.

We had planned to show our thanks to all our supporters and sponsors by displaying our Supporters’ Banner (with all your signatures) at the summit. At this time, I carefully took it out from my pack. It was confirmation that we’d made the right decision, as by now, the wind was so strong that one slip of the fingers and the banner would have flown away.

We took some photos and headed back down. I think each of us were genuinely proud of what we had achieved. We knew the reason for climbing was to raise funds and the funds had been raised, so there was no reason to risk lives to reach the summit. This is one of the most difficult decisions climbers must make, some even being strong-willed enough to turn around 20 metres before the summit of Everest, the highest mountain in the world.

 

When we reached (the official) C1, we saw a sight which brought about up all different emotions in us. It made me feel sick in the stomach.The man was still lying there in his sleeping bag!  I thought that there was a purpose for our turning around at the precise time that we did. My mind went into a “zone”- we knew something was terribly wrong and went straight to do whatever we could to save this man’s life.

We gave him oxygen, water, hand-warmers, whatever we had.  We talked to him but he was unresponsive as though really drunk, unable to control his own body anymore. We knew that the only way we could save him was to get him to a lower altitude. After some oxygen, he rolled over and started snoring, which Carl said was a good sign; but that didn’t last long.

We tried to carry him down, but at that altitude, it was unbelievable that the four of us couldn’t even lift him onto Carl’s shoulders. 

I had heard someone say that there was mobile reception on the summit, so I had my mobile with me. It was a miracle, (a) that there was reception and (b) that my mobile had close to zero battery life, but I could make four distress calls. 

After trying several times to lift him, it became painfully obvious to us that there was nothing we could do for him. We were forced to make that decision that no-one should ever have to make. The team’s safety was at stake too; the sun was already setting, and with that, the sub-zero temperatures (we were told it gets to -20C).

I made one last distress call to confirm that the Qinghai Mountaineering Association (QMA) must send someone up ASAP., as we couldn’t get him down to Base Camp (BC), nor even our tents at 5,300m, as first hoped.

We then solemnly and cautiously headed down the ridge to our C1 in the dark. I remember thinking one slip or wrong footing could send any of us tumbling off the side of the mountain, not having a good chance of rescue till daylight. It took us about 4 hours 45 min to get from 5,600m to 6,000m and only 45 minutes to get down! 

 

The team literally crashed into our tents from exhaustion. All I remember was feeling so humbled and thankful for Frank, who still had the strength to boil water for us, while Carl napped in preparation for another hour down to BC in the dark, to meet any rescue team. We knew Frank was as tired as any of us, but didn’t even have the energy to help him. That night was the toughest night to get through, emotionally. I know I didn’t get much sleep.

When we were all settled and sleeping, I had a big sob in my sleeping bag, thinking about him on the mountain lying there, while I slept warm in a tent.                                                                              In the end, Carl didn’t go down to BC as he didn’t see any lights there.                    

 

In the early hours of the morning, two Tibetans woke us. They were part of the search and rescue team. We presumed they were the closest that could be mobilized at short notice. They had spent two hours with him and unfortunately, couldn’t do anything for him. When they left him, he was still alive.

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THE CLIMB- Filling in the Gaps (6th October) Camp 1

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Day 6- 6th October

 

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We headed up to Camp 1 (C1) (5,600m), this time with our packs. Frank and Lao Qiao led the way. We had a few opportunities to leave behind some of our belongings at Xining and Carl’s place (Qinghai Lake, west of Xining), along the way, but we now needed no motivation to purge our belongings even more rigorously, leaving unnecessary items at Base Camp (BC)- now that we had had a taste of what was to come. Even an extra pack of medicine, or bandaids was weight we didn’t want to carry!

 

We plodded along up the slopes of scree (accumulation of rock fragments at the base of mountains), having only the energy to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.

We crossed a winding, frozen river several times. For me, this brought up visions of those movies where people fall through the ice into freezing waters, as soon as they step onto it, and then get trapped under the ice. I’m sure the river wasn’t that deep & scary as my over-active imagination, but nevertheless, having wet feet and clothes opens the way for frostbite or hypothermia.

I always tested the ice to see if it was solid before committing, but once, on a deeper crossing, as soon as I committed my full body weight, the ice cracked. I was so scared that I ran across the river so fast I didn’t even see how deep the crack was. It could have been tiny! 

 

Our team had different walking styles, which I observed during our training back in Sydney. For some, they liked to pick up the pace for a while, and then stop for breaks, then continue at that pace. For me, I was like the tortoise instead of the hare. If I had to stop, then I was walking too fast. That was the rule for most of the time, the rest of the time, it was Julia’s (team member) suggestion- our prime minister’s favourite catch cry, “moving forward…moving forward…”!

 

I remember one time, Julia and I saw a figure in red, in the distance, climbing ahead of our team. I counted all of us, and remember asking Julia who that was. We didn’t know the significance of this then.

 

As a team we decided to make camp at 5,300m instead of the official Camp 1 (C1) (5,600m), as we were getting tired and may arrive at C1 too late in the day to comfortably set up camp.  

We set up our tents on what we remembered as relatively flat ground. Carl was very attentive to our needs and cooked some dinner (Norwegian cup-a-soup, Yak jerky, and apples) for our tent (Julia, Sheena, and I shared with Carl- 4 people in a 3-person tent- squishy, but we needed the warmth!). Frank shared a tent with Philip and Lao Qiao (Philip’s friend). He said that wasn’t terribly spacious either!

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THE CLIMB- Filling in the Gaps (5th October) Base Camp

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Day 5-  October 5

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We woke to the beautiful sight of snow-capped peaks all around. Sheena was so excited, as she’d never seen snow before. After a quick breakfast, we headed off to Base Camp (BC)!

We were so excited and hopeful as we arrived at Base Camp (BC) (5,050m). We arrived at a good hour when the sun was still strong, so we wasted no time in setting up our tents. At different times, some would have more difficulty than others adjusting to the altitude. Julia chilled out around BC while the rest of us went for a hike up to about 5,300m (without our packs). We then came back down to BC for some dinner. 

On our way up, we passed a group that had just attempted the summit, the second-last group of the (climbing) season- we were the last. I think one in their group reached the top. Later, we found out that in this season of about fifty people, only three managed to reach the summit, due to either bad weather or that it was too late in the day to summit and descend safely. They were our odds.

Going up I felt strong, but coming back, I felt progressively weaker and more tired, as the sun went down. Sheena said her symptoms of altitude sickness were becoming more severe, feeling like an endless hangover (Jiji’s paraphrasing).

That night was the worst for some of us, physically. I felt the coldest and weakest of all the nights on the mountain, oddly enough. Philip later quoted the Qinghai Mountaineering Association (QMA), saying that more people died at this base camp than at Everest Base Camp- something to do with the fact that it was in a valley and the low pressure of this location. Great, it’s comforting to know we survived Base Camp! 

The dog in one of the photos belonged to one of the other climbers, we were told, and started howling like a wolf, right next to our tent at some hour of the night, to what seemed like morning! This added to Sheena’s “misery” that night, she said!

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THE CLIMB- Filling in the Gaps (1st-4th October)

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Hi everybody thanks for reading. Sorry it’s taken so long to write about our actual climb. As I mentioned in the last update, I was figuring out what and how to document about it. I’ve written a summary for this blog (with help from Sheena).

I’ll be filling in the gaps for you each day of the climb until the end of our expedition- October 8. Look out for one roughly each day until Christmas!

First of all, thank you for all our sponsors, individuals and businesses- without your generosity, these TWO mobile clinics could not become a reality.

—         

In my opinion, and from the true climbing stories I’ve read (I am definitely no expert here), there are two of the most difficult decisions a mountaineer could be faced with. On this expedition, we had to make both of them.  

—         

Day 1-4, October 1 – 4

 

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 As per our previous dispatches (please have a read if you haven’t yet), we started our expedition from Xining (capital of Qinghai), on October 1st, headed west, spending two days at Carl’s place at the famous Qinghai Lake, China’s largest inland salt lake. (Carl is our crazy Norwegian guide who has lived in Qinghai for fifteen years & speaks fluent Tibetan). We did a couple of training climbs in the mountains behind his property. Julia & Carl got to the summit of this 4,400m mountain Woo hoo! (see photos) [There are also a few photos of Carl’s place when it was snowing after the climb.]

 

 I pick up from our last climb update- October 4 in the township of Dulan, when Mic, our team member from Queensland decided to turn back for a combination of reasons, not in the least being the altitude. We’d been on the road since 1st October- SIX people, 8 days worth of food, team cooking and climbing gear, individual backpacks, AND Carl’s Siberian husky, Kiro- all packed into one four-wheel drive.

We saw Mic off on the next bus to Xining, then went on to the next town. 

Golmud (Chinese name: Ge’ermu) (2,800m) is the last town before the mountain, and major stop on the train to Lhasa. Here we met Philip (Director of LOVEQTRA, who is administering this project), and his friend, Lao Qiao, who was also joining the team. This was also where we had our last shower and proper meal in a no-star hotel room, which can be booked by the hour. We didn’t stay overnight here, just bought some more supplies and headed off westward towards the next stop.

We stopped at Xidatan ~4,000m, “the Truckstop” as Carl called it, picked a spot on the side of the highway, and camped there for the night. The only reason this place exists is to provide a rest-stop for truckies. There is a little row of small restaurants which serve the usual- variations of lamb or yak (high-altitude cattle) noodles and hot tea.

To toughen us up I guess, we ate army food that I won’t comment on here! It comes in foil packets- either rice or noodles, you add water and shake it and the chemical reaction in the section surrounding the food is supposed to heat the food and keep it warm. I chose noodles because I was a bit doubtful about how hot my food was really going to be, since it was already snowing, and at least cold noodles taste better than cold rice…. suffice to say, though, that the army food was never brought out again (not in the girls’ tent anyway!)

There was one item I enjoyed- the compressed biscuit. It was like eating a yummy, peanut butter-flavoured brick.

It was pretty cold standing around, so after we ate, we jumped into our sleeping bags and dozed off.

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