Dry-run into the icefall

One of the unique challenges of Everest and one of the things keeping me up at night in the run-up to this expedition was the Khumbu Icefall. So it was with some trepidation that I ventured into the icefall for our team dry-run early Friday AM – a 6 hour round trip, stopping short of camp 1 – in order to familiarize ourselves with the terrain.

My chest cough has been lingering (no better, no worse) and I have also been dealing with mild stomach issues – so needless to say, I wasn’t overly excited when 2AM rolled around and I had to get up. With my backpack ready from the night before, I only had to get out of my sleeping bag, put on my boots and make my way to the dining tent and try to force down some breakfast before we hit the road at 3. Sounds simple – but at 17,300 feet – not always!

Of course – as always, a huge thank you has to go to our Sherpa guides – who even at this time of the morning were cheery and funny – their good nature is infectious.

That said, my stomach was rolling in concert with the trail out of EBC and about 30 mins later we arrived at crampon point, where – no surprise – we donned crampons and made our way into the icefall proper. This was like walking on to the set of a sci-fi movie, with each step taking me further into a living, moving, groaning jumble of ice blocks, each bigger than a building – one of the most surreal places I have ever been. Thankfully, just about all the groaning was done during the day, while we were not in the icefall, as that usually accompanies an avalanche. Happy to report not the slightest movement during our time within. 

We started off in darkness, only able to see the small area illuminated by our headlamps – the immediate slope in front of me, the rope, the steps kicked into the ice – literally following my Sherpa Sonam in front of me, step by step through a tunnel of darkness. Gradually, over time, the darkness lifted and I could make out more of the incredible surrounding landscape, beyond the immediate focus of my next few steps.

The icefall doctors (expert Sherpa that set the route each year) had already threaded their way through this 3D maze of ice and set the fixed ropes up & down, left & right, back & forth through the ice, employing ladders where necessary to bridge various horizontal and vertical spans. Relatively speaking, all we had to do was to play join-the-dots and just follow the ropes – but on our first trip into the icefall – still no small accomplishment.

After about 3 hours in we arrived at the end of our upward motion for the day – a location called the “football field” – approx 1,500 feet above EBC – a large and relatively stable section of ice. Here we took our bearings, enjoyed the view – as it was now daylight – and eventually turned around and headed back down to EBC.

My Sherpa for the day – Sonam (Jangbu) was just as good as Mingma was on Lobuche. He motored up the icefall, all the while paying attention to my every move, providing advice on each section and offering encouragement at every turn. Seriously – these guys have the patience of saints! He set a pace just on the edge of comfort that had my thought process fluctuate from “ok I can do this” to “shit, I am not sure how long I can keep this up” and then back to “thank god, caught my breath – ok to go for another bit”!! Sonam tells me that I was strong for my first time in the icefall – I know these guys aren’t much for BS – but I still don’t know whether to believe him! I didn’t feel very strong. Let’s see how next time goes.

By this point however, I was quite excited – all the weeks of trekking, our summit of Lobuche – all behind us now and we were actually, finally climbing the foothills of Everest. Add to that we were in one of the most unique landscapes on the planet. Between the excitement and probably a reduction in anxiety, having now made our way over half way through the icefall, my guts started relaxing too – and for the first time that day I didn’t feel nauseous. Result all round!

Make no mistake, I was working hard the whole way – between the terrain, contemplating the unknown and my nausea. I have no doubt that proceeding above the football field to camp 1 will be an exhausting effort. I am also informed that on previous years at least, the truly monster crevasses and cliffs requiring 3-5 ladders to bridge, came after the football field – so it remains to be seen if there are some jaw-clenching crossings still in store for us. 

So, first impressions of the icefall – definitely as unique an experience as I was led to believe from friends who have been here before. Thankfully, not quite as daunting as I expected – although given my imagination, reality is rarely worse than my imagined worst case scenario! We did have some spans utilizing ladders – several horizontal (1 ladder wide) and one vertical (2 ladders high) – but none particularly hair-raising. We traveled through the icefall during the night as with the cold temperatures, the frozen bonds keeping the icefall together are more intact than during the day, hence there is less chance of an avalanche. Happy to report this proved the case for us, but there were definitely more than a few spots where the Sherpa advised us to traverse quickly due to increased exposure to potential objective hazard.

The good news however – until now an unknown quantity, the icefall is no longer so. I am confident in returning through it the three remaining times we have on the expedition – and hopefully my speed will increase as I continue to acclimate.

Tomorrow (early Sunday AM) we will once again head into the icefall, this time making our way to camp 1 (somewhere close to 20,000 feet) where we will stay Sun/Mon and then move up through what is known as the “western cwm” to camp 2 (above 22.000 feet), staying there Tues/Weds and finally returning back to EBC Thurs, completing our next rotation. As before, I will be off the grid during this time, so next update will be toward the end of next week upon my return- at that point, hitting the notable milestone of being one full month into the expedition.

Before I go – one more reminder to anyone wanting to donate to the American Kidney Fund (the reason for this whole expedition), please click here. We are north of $23k – so every little helps in reaching the final goal of $25k.

Cheers, Justin

First rotation done – Lobuche

Firstly, I want to wish everyone reading a belated happy Easter and also to thank you for your very generous donations so far – as collectively, we have just broken $23k raised for the American Kidney Fund! Still very much hoping to hit the final target of $25k before this climb is all over, so if anyone is reading this and still thinking of donating please click here.

My last update was from our first arrival to EBC. Since then, all the trekkers have returned home, including Stef – and while I loved having her here, and it was great she saw where I am climbing and who I am climbing with, thereby removing some doubts for her (I think!) – I have to admit our parting proved far harder than I expected and left me quite lonely and introspective for a few days.

That said, we climbers had a specific job to do – i.e. complete our first acclimatization rotation and summit Lobuche peak @ ~20,000 feet. With that in mind, we said farewell to the trekkers at Lobuche village and returned back to Lobuche BC as they headed back down the valley to Pheriche and closer to home. 

We got settled into BC @ ~15,500 feet Thursday eve and Friday we moved up to high camp @ ~17,000 feet with a view to heading up very early Saturday AM and summit. 3AM Saturday came and as my alarm went off, I felt all the usual urges in the dark of the tent to stay in my sleeping bag and not go anywhere – but resisted and was happy enough once we got out of our bags and pulled on our boots. As with many things, that first motion to break the inertia is critical.

We headed out in light snow and made our way up about 500 feet before having to turn around due to what would have been treacherous conditions coming back down due to very slippy rock slabs covered with fresh powder and a lack of fixed ropes to prevent a bad slip and fall for someone. We decided to turn around and try again on Sunday with the Sherpas putting in some additional fixed lines in the mean time to support our revised plan.

The rest of Saturday (i.e. from about 8am on) was spent lounging in our tents (in my case reading and sleeping) as it was too cold to sit outside and we had no actual work to do. This is where (I believe) mountaineering is often won or lost – as it can be where you gain much needed rest – or – where your mind can wander to places it best not. Thankfully at this early stage of the expedition it was more the former – but was also a good first taste of the waiting game that is inevitable on an expedition of this length.

3AM Sunday arrived and we repeated the same preparation and departure process. This time, the weather was a little windy but overall fine for our ascent. As I looked below on a rest break I could see a few lights following us up the mountainside. We made the summit around 9AM in more difficult conditions than expected but a welcome relief from sitting in our tents, and a good first test of our skills with fixed ropes and crampons. And the view that rewarded us at the top was worth the effort. You could see the whole Khumbu valley and a veritable who’s who of Himalayan peaks – with Everest looming a whole 9,000 feet higher still – and the inevitable question… given the effort to top out on Lobuche, how the hell am I going to make it all the way to the top of Everest? One day at a time, as my guides remind me. I did what I had to do today.

As an aside – and to comment not just on this summit but Everest also – none of this would be possible without our Sherpa companions – I think a better term might be “babysitters”. These guys are strong as bulls and so incredibly humble – it is simply an honor to climb with them. On this day, my Sherpa was Mingma Tenzing, who powered his way to the summit and I merely followed in his wake. This guy is only 30 years old, has summited Everest 9 times, and his first summit was when he was 16! In the US, this guy would have his own line of sneakers – in the Khumbu valley, he is nothing unusual. When not guiding me, Mingma was also part of the crew feeding us before and after our climbs! You never met a more humble super-hero in your life. Even in my brief time with him, I learned a lot from this man.

Summit made, we all returned to high camp and shortly after, back down to base camp to get some rest, where I noticed I’m already getting the first signs of a good set of raccoon eyes! Yesterday (Monday) we made the return trek to EBC, which will be our base going forward until the expedition is over. There is a welcome finality to this – it has taken three full weeks since the expedition started to today – and we are finally facing the mountain – and our first real challenge – the Khumbu Icefall.

A minor health note – I have a small chest cough which is a result from the cold air during our summit morning on Lobuche, but seems to be receding and is a far cry from the possible GI issues that all too frequently ravage climbers en route to EBC.

Today was our first real rest day in some time and has so far comprised of breakfast, shower, shave (both well needed!!), moving into my “home” tent for the next 5+ weeks, a little laundry and now some blogging. Again, I have to admit that I found the last few days hard emotionally and even at this early stage, feel somewhat daunted at the length and magnitude of the task ahead – so this rest day to recharge came just at the right time. 

I am also reminded from my comments at the top as to why I am here. Yes – to pursue a dream and climb a mountain. But also to honor Dad, and indeed the many folks suffering presently from kidney disease – brave folks like Steve Winfree and his wife Heather that I met in D.C. while advocating for the AKF. I am going through some discomfort and apprehension right now – but I brought all this on myself, and it is part and parcel of trying to climb this mountain. Through no fault of their own, Steve & Heather have had a daily mountain to climb coping with his kidney disease – for years. I take strength from their strength and remind myself to “buck up” as Dad would say. I also need to remember to enjoy this adventure for the incredible journey it is… while sitting at the puja ceremony a few days back when we were last at EBC I was left thinking how incredibly lucky we all were to share in this  adventure of a lifetime… I need to constantly remind myself of that – and, at the risk of being corny, hopefully this blog gives you some small insight into that also.

Anyway, nap-time calling so I am going to check out for now. We practice on ladders tomorrow – where hopefully my time spent in NH practicing with CJ should hold me in good stead – and a day or two later we hit the icefall for the first time, after which I will report back.

All the best,


Everest Base Camp

Lots been going on since I last posted and wanted to catch you up before we move on again. The trekkers, including Stef, leave tomorrow – which will be hard. It has been so nice to have her here until now and will be a difficult goodbye for both of us. We climbers also leave EBC tomorrow and head back to Lobuche base camp, location of my last post – and we will conduct our first acclimatzation climb to the summit of Lobuche over the weekend.

It’s been a whirlwind since arriving here – between Paul Oakenfold concert, exploring basecamp itself (bearing in mind when I was last here in 2010 it wasn’t climbing season and hence no one was here), getting first up close look at the Khumbu icefall, having our puja ceremony to ask for safe passage during our expedition, getting some practice in on the fixed ropes, along with just getting used to life at 17,300 feet including the not infrequent booms of avalanches (mostly small, quite normal, and far away from the strategically placed IMG camp). EBC is a strikingly beautiful place but also hard and unforgiving.

As you can see, the further up the valley we go, the more it looks like another planet… with base camp barely visible in the distance. It took hours navigating the rocks and boulders of the glacial moraine to finally get to base camp itself, nestled in a bowl with the Khumbu icefall and the path to Everest proper to the right.

The entry point into base camp itself and a shot from the most unexpected Paul Oakenfold concert…

Spectacular views from our tent this AM, first good look at the Khumbu icefall yesterday, and some practice on the fixed ropes earlier today…

The puja ceremony from earlier today where our team made offerings, had our equipment blessed and asked for safe passage for our expedition… and the IMG 2017 Hybrid team & guides

Still not quite hit home the reality of all of this and just taking it day by day for now – as the enormity of the whole thing still a bit overwhelming – but – I am here, I am feeling good, and looking forward to getting into the real work over the coming days and weeks. I’ll be off the grid for the next few days as we try to summit Lobuche but will be in touch when I get back to EBC for a few days rest after. Speak then.

Made it to Lobuche base camp

We left Pheriche and pulled into Lobuche base camp yesterday where we will remain for the next 3 days before moving up the valley to our final destination – EBC.

Our climbing team will accompany the trekkers back down a few days later and will say farewell as they return to Lukla while we do our first acclimatization rotation to the summit of Lobuche (20,075 feet).

On our way up the valley we ran into DJ Paul Oakenfold who is also winding his way to EBC to perform a concert there on the 11th… we are all looking forward to that unexpected entertainment.

Speaking of celebrities, I have encountered 5 great guys from Mexico on our trekking team – and they agreed to give me a “Menudo” snapshot en route… hope to see them all again in Mexico to defrost once this is all over!

We plan to head up to Lobuche high camp tomorrow and then move on to EBC the following day. Next update from there!

Moving up the valley and a special blessing

We spent the last three days moving further up the valley, through Tengboche, Pangboche and ending up in Pheriche at 14,340 feet. We will rest here tonight and tomorrow, using the time to further acclimate before winding our way further up the hill and ever closer to EBC.

On the way we stopped at a Buddhist monastery in Tengboche and had the privilege of witnessing a Buddhist ceremony led by 8 local monks.

We also visted with Lama Geshe in Pangboche, the highest ranking Buddhist lama in the region, who gave us all individual blessings for good luck and safe passage on our climb. He was warm and welcoming and clearly had a good sense of humor, entertaining a bunch of westerners for the afternoon. A truly special experience.

Judging from the number of pictures of folks on the summit, thanking the lama for his blessing – it seems like he has a good track record and given he apparently has the direct line to upstairs, am only too happy to have him on-side for the remainder of the journey!

Leaving Pangboche we wound our way along trails etched into the mountainside and got our first glimpse of Everest – even at over 20 miles away, still dominant and majestic with its traditional plume. It looks deceptively close and clear today.

Further along the trail we passed another mountain giant – Ama Dablam, at 22,349 feet, a truly beautiful peak.

And finally making our way to Periche. Happy to report am feeling fine and *still* eating like a horse… in the interests of fitting into my climbing pants, the sooner we get to the climbing part the better!

Just a reminder for anyone interested in tracking the team as we move up the valley, you can go to the links page and follow our progress on GPS.

And lastly, if anyone still thinking of donating to the American Kidney Fund, you can also find the link on the same page.

Next update from Lobuche Base Camp!

We finally hit the trail

Been a busy second half of the week, ending with a few days at Namche Bazaar – and wanted to check in before we move on tomorrow.

Firstly – a few stats, since I know folks are curious. Met the team Wednesday and we have a total of 5 climbers and 17 trekkers accompanying us to EBC. Am personally thrilled at the small team of climbers and even more so by the fact that our western guide is the same one who I was just on Aconcagua with this past Christmas – a great guide and great guy that I trust implicitly. Two seemingly small – but in fact pretty huge points. A very good start!

The rest of Wednesday was spent catching up with my old pal Yagya, who had guided me on my original trek to EBC back in 2010, and later that day we got out and about in Kathmandu to see some of the many world heritage site temples. The city is far dustier and smoggier than I remember, but understandable after the earthquake and resulting repair efforts, not to mention the new water system mega-construction project and the ever increasing traffic volumes in a city with absolutely no traffic lights or stop signs!

We started early on Thursday AM and were lucky with the weather in that we could fly out of Kathmandu without any significant delay to Lukla, the start of the Everest basecamp trek.  Weather wasn’t great on the flight in so we were denied what is a glorious view of Everest and surrounding peaks in the distance – but otherwise was smooth sailing into the infamous mountain airport, where the short runway is at an incline so as to help pilots slow upon landing and/or speed up for take-off. Once there, the team assembled over morning tea (a local staple) and then started the trek with a modest hike to Phakding. The hike itself is like stepping into your own personal National Geographic show… with stunning views along the valley, dotted with cable bridges, quaint villages and Buddhist prayer wheels, stupas and prayer flags everywhere.

Day 2 (Friday) was spent trekking further up the valley to the local commercial hub, the town of Namche Bazaar. This involved crisscrossing the Dudh Kosi (milky) river, crossing several cable bridges – which anyone who has seen the movie “Everest” will recognize.

The town of Namche is a remarkable spot, at approx. 11,200 feet, built into a hillside like an amphitheater, with a huge drop off into the valley and a mountain buttress where the stage would be. This town is aptly named as it is renowned for its market or Bazaar, where traders from the locale and across the border in Tibet journey to sell their wares. And, as it turns out – home to the highest altitude Irish pub in the world… we Irish are everywhere!

This town would be our base for the next 2 days, giving the team a chance to acclimate to the new altitude, and so Saturday was spent on an acclimatization hike above 12,000 feet, returning later to Namche. One stop along the way included a monastery that claimed to have a scalp of a yeti on display… skeptical or not, we had to take a look!

Today (Sunday) was a rest day where we literally did just that – rest, eat, repeat – ending the day with a box of Girl Scout cookies thanks to Dan Maltby back at CS in NY!! Everyone feeling great and in good spirits – but – happy to move on tomorrow. I fear I need more exercise and less calories – but I suspect that will be sorted out all too soon.

We trek to Tengboche tomorrow, at 12,664 feet – home of the Tengboche Buddhist Monastery – where we hope to seek a blessing for climbers and trekkers alike from the local Lama before continuing our way up the valley. 

Hard to believe it has only been a week since we left NY – seems a world away already, and with each passing day I am relaxing that bit more. I didn’t realize quite how stressed I had become trying to wrap everything up in order to put regular life on hold for two months and just get to this point. Trying now to take the time to decompress and enjoy each day of the trek to EBC before the real work begins.

An old friend in Kathmandu

Happy to report Stef & I made it to Kathmandu, bags too – result! Arrived at the Tibet Hotel, our base until tomorrow when we depart for Lukla, at the start of the EBC trek.

I first did this trek back in January 2010 when on a hiatus from work – and my guide at the time was a kind and generous local called Yagya Karki. I had the pleasure of reconnecting with him after all this time… his hair still hair still jet black, unlike mine… all that more grey for our time apart 🙂