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Chris Burke: Kanchenjunga Expedition update & rescue – 5 May 2018

The following article is written by Chris Burke who is currently resting in Kanchenjunga base camp ready for a summit push. Kanchenjunga is extremely remote and never seems to be a boring, straight forward mountain when climbers come back with their stories. The following story highlights the skill and dedication of Chhiring Sherpa. Chhiring has been a friend of some of the staff at Mountain Equipment for nearly 7 years now and it is amazing to see his progression from a ultra keen junior guide to a full fledged UIAGM/IFMGA guide with an amazing sense of responsibility in the mountains. Even for climbers not part of his team. - Matt Eaton 

Chris Burke Kanchenjunga update and rescue 5th may 2018

No-one wants to have to use the mountain rescue skills they learn – one hopes they never have to. But, that is exactly what happened for Chhiring Sherpa from Expedition Base yesterday…

Sorry for the delayed blog post but we were without internet and then we did a long rotation up the mountain. While I remember, Expedition Base will be posting some awesome photos on Facebook: do check them out as they will help illuminate some of the things I say below.

From 30th April – 4 May, we slept 2 nights at Camp 2 (approx. 6,300m) and 2 nights at Camp 3 (approx. 6,900m) and then we came down from our high camps yesterday.

On the way up, we had great conditions underfoot. I didn’t want to count my chickens on the underfoot conditions because they can change daily – but we were grateful for what we had at the time, for sure.
After arriving at Camp 2 on 30th April (we skipped Camp 1) Lakpa and Chhiring roped up to walk down into a crevasse field to collect a disused ladder that was on a section of route that was used to bypass the risky rockfall section that I mentioned in my last post – the seracs and snow sections on the redirected trail had collapsed and climbers had opened the old route from last year – that is the one we are all using now. The rockfall has been problematic for many climbers this year with misses, near misses, and some hits - one I’ll mention below resulting in a rescue by Expedition Base team members yesterday.
Lakpa and Chhiring returned safely with the ladder and they then erected it over a crevasse just before Camp 2. One less crevasse to leap over.

On 2nd May, we moved up to Camp 3. Many other climbers had already slept at Camp 3 before us and it was great to chat to them as they came down to get feedback on the route and their experience.
A number of climbers from the large Indian team here also moved up with the intention of touching Camp 3 (and descending again) as part of their acclimatisation process. It was nice to chat to some of them as we moved up the mountain – our team mixed in with theirs on the route.

Ahead of Chris Warner as we left Camp 2, I saw a climber appear to suddenly fall to the ground. I knew he had actually fallen into a crevasse – a crevasse that I remember having to leap over last year. By the time I got closer, his 2 climbing buddies had pulled him out and he was resting on the side of the trail – by yesterday, Lakpa had dug out the edges of the crevasse to the side a metre or two, finding a better place for us all to pass, making a big step necessary, rather than a leap, plus the edges were firmer and you can now see where you need to aim for (well, for now, pending the conditions warming up and changing).

There is another interesting crevasse en-route to Camp 3 where going up is not so difficult – provided you have a good stride - but when coming down you can only leap so far before potentially leaping over another ledge – so a graceful stride is required... though, it may soon be too wide… Coming down yesterday, I felt confident to simply stride it, and then I looked down into it with one leg either side of it – it was seriously deep. Since I could see Lakpa doing that, I decided I would too and it was a good to take a look. I’m feeling quite strong and I am pleased I trained so much before coming here.

Camp 3 was super hot on 3rd May as we acclimatised by resting at the camp. As it was hot and snowing at the same time, it was not possible to put our sleeping bags on our tents to keep things cool. Lakpa and some of his Expedition Base Sherpa team broke trail above Camp 3 in thigh deep snow half way to Camp 4 before dropping loads for when we next go up. As at yesterday, other teams were yet to drop loads to or near Camp 4. But, that is their next step.

Yesterday, 4th May, was a mixed day for our team. It started early, at about 5am as we packed up camp, and then around 7am Lakpa broke trail in thigh deep snow down from Camp 3 – extremely soft conditions on steep terrain. All the while, we were fighting strong winds that we knew would lessen once we got lower. We were also conscious of how loaded the slopes had become with daily layers of fresh snowfall, increasing the avalanche risk where we were. We kept on moving to get out of potential harm’s way.

Essentially, on our descent, every team member had to fight through the thigh deep snow for more than 1.5 hours of descent. After that, the conditions underfoot started to firm up and the winds dropped. By Camp 2, we were peeling off layers due to the (now) heat. Next, we had to prepare for the rockfall section below Camp 2, where you stop and catch your breath, then ‘run’ for it (which at altitude means a fast breathless walk). It is a traverse of about 30-50m of objective danger.

(By the way, our Camp 2 this year is close to the lower Camp 2 of last year. We consider the avalanche risk across the glacier and higher up, where we put our camp last year, is too risky for a camp this year.)
Our team members all got through the risky rockfall section between Camp 1 and Camp 2 ok but a climber from another team was not so lucky and got hit on the hand with an injury bad enough that she was not able to abseil (rappel). Chhiring and another team member came upon the couple first, and then me. Chhiring is one of Expedition Base’s UIAGM/IFMGA qualified guides and he recently returned to Nepal from New Zealand where he guided the big peaks over the New Zealand summer. Here he was, the most obvious person to lead the mission to help to get the stricken climber down.

Over the next several hours, on any descending section, Chhiring used his well-honed rescue techniques to lower her down the mountain.

On the descent into Camp 1, the couple proposed a heli from Camp 1 but one of our team members rightly pointed out that the weather would likely prevent one coming in as we were all quickly being enveloped by thick cloud and mist. I explained to the climbers we could help but it would be a case that we would do our best to help get her down. In the mountains, there are no guarantees.

Once Lakpa caught up with us all (he left Camp 2 after most of us), I explained the situation and he stayed with Chhiring and the 2 climbers, and I went ahead far enough to be out of the way but close enough to monitor that things were progressing ok.

Watching Chhiring lower her down the near vertical ice wall below Camp 1, was stressful for me (!) and my heart was in my mouth. But, at the same time, it was awe inspiring to watch things unfold on this, one of the tallest, toughest, dangerous, mountains in the world.

Just below the ice wall are steep slopes that would cause them to take the ‘fast way down’ if something went wrong. Nothing did. Then, Chhiring guided the woman climber along a steep descending traverse, and then managed her descent on the remaining steep slopes down from Camp 1. On the flatter sections where hands were not required, she was able to walk.

Chhiring’s actions were something western climbers get huge accolades for. For Chhiring and many other Sherpas in the Himalaya, it is all in a day’s work.

The 2 climbers’ have heli-ed out of Kanch base camp today (approx. 12.30pm local time) – after the heli reccied the camp and the landing pad numerous times before landing, nervously it appeared, which indicated to many that the pilot had not been to this camp before. Apparently, he dropped ours and others re-supplies on his way here. Oh well, guess that will have to be sorted out later.

The 2 climbers were very grateful for the assistance they received from Chhiring and the rest of our team and we are hopeful that the injury is not too severe.

Today, base camp conditions are calm but the winds on the mountain are very high – the mountain is smoking! After 4 days of mountain food, we are pleased to be at base camp eating a breakfast of avocado, pancakes, toast, omelettes, probably the best live yoghurt available in Nepal (and many other places) that Lakpa made yesterday, and more. I don’t want to give away all of Lakpa’s and Expedition Base’s secrets but it would be fair to say that we are not doing it tough in the food stakes. Team members have been more than pleasantly surprised by what Lakpa has managed to get to this very remote location and that we are still managing to eat so well.

We expect to be at Kanch base camp for nearly a week, or more, watching the weather and planning our summit push timing and strategy. If we have to wait too long, then we may go up again to Camp 2 for acclimatisation. We have to be patient. We also have to look after our lungs, managing the effects of the high altitude dry air and physical impacts of climbing at these altitudes for long periods. I seem to have come down the mountain with wickedly bad sunburn on my face so I need to manage that. I’m gonna wear bandages on my face for the summit push!

Credit has to be given where due, and the ‘Asian Trekking’ team’s crew of dedicated route setters have done a great job working on the mountain thus far. Most teams / climbers have contributed to the ropes, and our Sherpa team have also been carrying up ropes high on the mountain for the AT route setters, and for the next phase discussions will be had to see who does what to prepare the mountain for the summit push, hoping a weather window is in our future.

So, at the moment, all of the Expedition Base team are at base camp, cleaning themselves up, cleaning clothes eating, resting, checking internet, connecting with families and friends and preparing for the next phase of our mission.

Bye for now, Chris


Chris Burke Mountaineer and Sponsored athlete