When I reached the summit of Manaslu, I matched the Belgian record of Ingrid Baeyens by adding a fourth 8000-er to my climbing track record. I was pretty motivated to add one more and move the national limit with about 8 kilometers. I picked Lhotse as my next target based on a number of good reasons.
First of all, it was an expedition that could be organized quickly. Setting up an expedition can be a logistical nightmare. But the last couple of years I’ve built an large network in the world of 8000 meter expeditions and through those contacts I could set up a trip to Lhotse quite quickly, mainly because Lhotse is right next to Mount Everest, meaning that a lot of the logistics are available anyway.
Secondly, Lhotse would also be a useful test. I still have aspirations to give K2 a second try. One of the reasons why my attempt in 2009 didn’t succeed was the weight of the oxygen bottles. Lhotse is 8516 meter high which makes it just a little lower than K2 (8611 m). And there is plenty of logistical support. That makes this giant a safe place to try a no-oxygen strategy with sherpa support. I could then potentially reapply what I learned from this approach on K2.
There was one problem though: when I returned from Manaslu, I didn’t just come home with a new record but also with a broken ankle. Fortunately, I recovered pretty fast from this injury and after a couple of weeks I could start training again. By the end of March, I was in top shape again and ready for a new adventure.
On my way
As always, I started this adventure with a trekking to basecamp. When I climbed Everest, I had already hiked the so called normal route so this time I opted for a different trail. I decided to walk via Gokyo Ri and Cho La. Gokyo Ri looks like a “hill”, but that’s all very relative. It is 5400 meters high which is still 500 meters more than Mont Blanc. The Cho La is a pass at the same altitude that takes you from one valley to the next. These two points made this route ideal for my acclimatization. Before I arrived in basecamp, I had already slept at 4800 meters four times and I had reached an altitude of 5400 meters twice. This, in combination with an average ascent of 300 meters per day, created a solid foundation for my climb.
During the trekking, I noticed three important differences compared to 2007. First of all, everything has gotten much more expensive. Secondly, the Nepalese have built a lot of new houses and lodges. And finally, ecological awareness in Nepal is clearly on the rise. Deforestation is a serious problem in Nepal, but the tide seems to be turning. During my lectures, I still use a photograph from 2007 that was taken from the viewpoint where you can see Everest and Lhotse for the first time. This time, I had to search between the trees to spot these mountains. Not a good thing for the viewpoint, but for the battle against deforestation this is obviously positive. Another new item are garbage containers that you can find along the route. Separating and collecting garbage has made its way to Nepal.
Mid April I arrived in basecamp after an 11 day hike with a few other members of the expedition. In the Everest/Lhotse basecamp, I had a three person tent at my disposal so I had enough place to install all my equipment. So the first couple of days, I used to unpack and rest.
Adapt to thin air
Soon, I started climbing higher again with Mel and Jan, two other team members. Because the weather wasn’t co-operating, we had to limit ourselves to short trips to 5700 meters. These short trips trigger your body to make more red blood cells so they allowed me to continue making progress despite the weather.
Your body also needs enough time to recover from your efforts and to acclimatize. Hence, rest days are essential for the success of an expedition. Often climbers have a hard time with this resting and they want to move up as quickly as possible. But that seldom pays off in the long run: climbing at extreme altitude is a sport for patient people.
We always use one of those rest days for a very special ceremony: the puja. A puja is a Buddhist ceremony. Prayers are chanted, rice is thrown, fires are lit and food and drinks are consumed. The sherpa’s hang prayers flags above basecamp and the Lama blesses climbing equipment. Because Lhotse is not the place to take any chances with your karma, I gladly participated in the puja.
About a week after we arrived in basecamp, we could finally go on a full acclimatization trip. The first obstacle I needed to cross was the Khumbu Icefall. An icefall is a glacier that glides of a steep hill, a bit like a waterfall but with ice instead. The ice still moves slowly, but it does move fast enough to make iceblocks the size of apartment buildings collapse once in a while. Therefore, it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open at all times in case you need to run for cover.
Soon, it turned out we were not alone. Everywhere in the icefall, we could see the lights of other climbers and sherpa’s. The first group had already left basecamp at 2am to beat the “traffic”. Because the weather had changed for the better, many climbers wanted to catch up and get going. The result was a very busy morning in the icefall.
At 5700 meters, we got stuck at a few steep icecliffs that needed to be climbed with ladders. Soon, there was a massive traffic jam of about 70 climbers. To make things worse, the icefall is pretty unstable at this point, so it was not a great place to stand still for a long time. If one of the ice blocks would collapse, there would be no escape for most climbers. But fortunately, everyone got through safe and sound.
The rest of the climb went smooth and after 4.5 hours, I arrived in camp 1. There, I spent the rest of the day with resting, eating and drinking. I felt great and the altitude didn’t bother me. The next morning I climbed higher up to camp 2 at 6400 meters before I returned all the way back to basecamp.
My second acclimatization trip went equally smooth. This time I skipped camp 1 and climbed in one go to camp 2. It can be pretty hot between camp 1 and 2 because of the reflection of the sun on the snow, but this time there was a cold wind so I had to put on an extra jacket. After an enjoyable climb, I arrived in time for lunch in camp 2. The rest of the day I rested and after good meal, I went to bed early.
When I woke up, I realized that I had slept around the clock. That was pretty good news because sleeping well is essential for acclimatization. The goal of the next day was modest but important. I wanted to climb 300 meters higher to the bottom of the Lhotse Face and then return to camp 2. The Lhotse Face is a huge wall of ice of about 1800 meters high that needs to be climbed to summit both Lhotse and Everest.
When I arrived at the Lhotse Face, I enjoyed the surroundings. I had a great view of the route all the way to the summit of Lhotse. About an hour later, I was back in camp 2 where I spent the rest of the day resting and reading.
In the evening, we got a pleasant surprise: a lovely pizza and mashed potatoes. Our expedition had set up an elaborate camp 2. There was a proper kitchen, cooks and a well equipped mess tent: gastronomy at a high level, but also perfect to provide our bodies very efficiently with the necessary energy.
My second night in camp 2 was not so succesfull. I barely slept which meant I started my descent to basecamp not well rested the next morning. But because of the danger of collapses in the Khumbu icefall, I tried to move fast nevertheless.
Once back in basecamp, I gave myself plenty of time to recover. After one day, the expedition leader suggested that I should go back up the next day to finish off the acclimatization. But I kindly declined. I wanted to grant myself at least two recovery days. Compared to my climb on Everest in 2007 I was a few days behind schedule but there was still plenty of time.
The next step in the process was a stay in camp 3 at 7200 meters and then climbing a little higher up to touch the bottom of the Yellow Rock band at 7500 meters. I wanted to achieve this goal in five days. A
s always, we left basecamp towards camp 2 (6400 meters) at 4.30 am with about ten other climbers. At some places in the icefall, ice cliffs had collapsed and new blocks were lying on the route: a clear warning to stay alert at all times. And a little later, it actually happened. At about 8am, an avalanche came down to the left of us. A few climbers dived away to hide behind big ice blocks but fortunately the avalanche missed the route completely. A few hours later we arrived safe and sound in camp 2.
During my rest day in camp 2 we got bad news from the weather front. A strong wind was potentially heading our way. Camp 3 is not really a good place to sit out a storm, so didn’t want to take any risks. I decided to climb up to camp 3 the next day, but instead of staying the night I would return to camp 2 the same day.
The next morning, I left camp 2 at 6.30 am to beat the heath and at 11 am I reached camp 3. There, I enjoyed the views for about an hour before I returned to camp 2. Later that day I received a new weather forecast and that merely confirmed the bad news from the previous day. I therefore decided to make most of this forced rest period and returned to basecamp.
A few of my team members in the mean time were sufficiently acclimatised for a summit push on Everest. So a few days later they left basecamp for the final push. I joined them part of the way to complete my acclimatization as well. The routes on Everest and Lhotse are exactly the same until about 100 meters below camp 4. I also made sure that I brought all the equipment I needed for my own summit push to Lhotse because I wasn’t sure whether I would return to basecamp in between this trip and the final push.
At 4.30 am, we left for the traditional climb through the Khumbu Icefall. Despite my heavy pack, I reached camp 1 in about 4 hours. After a short break, I continued to camp 2 where I arrived well in time for lunch. The rest of the day and the next day, I spend recovering and resting because I would need all my strength in the following days.
Friday, 10th May we left at 6.30 for the next target: camp 3 at 7200 meter. The first part of that climb is a straightforward hike in the snow of about 3 km through the Western Cwm. As of the Lhotse Face the terrain changes to ice and the slope is getting considerably steeper.
Despite these changes, I continued to make good progress and well before lunch time I reached camp 3 where I started melting snow immediately. The dry air combined with huge physical effort can cause dehydration. And to avoid that, a mountaineer should melt, boil and drink about 5 liters per day.
At 7pm I went to sleep. Or at least I tried because after 10 hours of twisting and turning in my sleeping bag, I hadn’t slept a second yet. The fact that I shared my tent with two others definitly didn’t make sleeping easier. But the most important problem was that I was trying to sleep at 7200 meter. I certainly hoped that the next time I was going to spend at this altitude, I would sleep considerably better.
My sleep deprivation weighed in my performance of the next day. Despite that, I reached 7500 meters by 10 am. There I took a break and enjoyed my surroundings before I returned to camp 2. Unfortunately, Cho Oyu was covered in clouds, but the view was still spectacular.
With this trip, my acclimatization was ready and I could start planning my summit push. After lunch time, I contacted basecamp but yet again, they came with bad news. The next couple of days were going to be too cold for a summit attempt without oxygen. The risk of frostbite is much larger without oxygen because it is much harder to warm your body. Hence, I wanted to wait for better and warmer conditions. And because it is more comfortable to wait in basecamp, I descended yet again.
The summit push
The next couple of days, I sat down in basecamp to plan my summit push with the expedition leadership. There were a number of criteria to take into account:
First of all, there was the wheather. I needed low winds and temperatures not much colder than – 20 degrees centigrade. Reaching the summit of Lhotse was important to me, but I didn’t want to lose a finger or toe over it.
Secondly, I didn’t want there to be too many other climbers because they could slow me down. That could mainly be a problem in case I needed to descend quickly. Other climbers could also knock down pieces of ice and rock on me. I would be wearing a helmet but still …
And thirdly, it would be handy if enough other climbers had gone to the summit before me so I wouldn’t have to break trail above 8000 meter.
After much consideration, I decided to make my way to camp 2 and to wait there until the circumstances were ideal. The climb to camp 2 had become routine in the mean time and went smooth this time as well.
After two days of resting, planning, checking equipment and more planning, I decided to make a final move on the 21st May. I climbed to camp 3 in the morning. The climb went pretty fast which was hopeful for the rest of the summit push. But at night, things didn’t go that well. I was hoping that I would sleep better this time in camp 3, but I kept staring at the top of my tent for hours.
Nevertheless, I left camp 3 the next day in good spirit. Up to 7500 meter the climb went very smooth. The “Yellow Rock Band”, a piece of rock at 7600 meter, I could still pass ok and when I did, I could already see the tents of camp 4. They seemed so close, but at that altitude, nothing is what it seems. My progress became slower and slower and I needed almost an hour for the last 75 vertical meters.
In camp 4, I checked the oxygen saturation of my blood. At sea level, that saturation is about 100 and an alarm goes off if you’re in hospital and your saturation drops below 90. My saturation in camp 4 was only 55. Not very encouraging although I didn’t have any symptoms of altitude sickness. I hoped that my saturation would improve in the course of the day and evening.
It did, but not enough. As a result, I didn’t sleep at all. Just before my departure to the summit, my oxygen saturation was only 60. That was clearly not enough for a safe summit attempt without oxygen. Hence I decided to use oxygen as of camp 4.
But even then, the final climb was brutal. The first 200 vertical meter are on a slow slope and relatively straightforward, but tiring. But then, you get into a couloir of about 500 vertical meters. A couloir is a sort of passage way between rocks.
Large parts of this couloir was not covered in snow, hence that meant rockclimbing on crampons. Crampons are meant to make climbing on snow and ice easier but they are not really an advantage on rock. Rock climbing with crampons is technically not impossible and it is definitely easier than taking your crampons off every time you bump into a piece of rock, but it’s pretty exhausting at that altitude.
It seemed there was no end to this couloir. The view was fantastic though. On top of that, there was only one other climber on mountaineer which made the entire experience even more unique. And I definitely picked the right day for the weather: an “enjoyable” temperature of about – 20 degrees centigrade and no wind at all.
After six hours, I finally got sight of the summit. But Lhotse had saved the best for last. The last 20 meters were a pretty steep rock climb. If it snows heavily in winter, this piece of rock is covered under snow but not so this year. Slowly and very concentrated, I worked my way up with hands and feet from one ridge to the next. Every 3 steps I had to take a short break to catch my breath. On my way, I passed the remains of an unfortunate climber that had not survived this last obstacle on the way to the summit last year.
Only half an hour later, I could touch down on the summit of Lhotse: no more that a smill edge of ice with a giant drop on the other side. My fifth 8000-er was a fact. The views were already a payback for my efforts: left of me was Everest, straight ahead Makalu, behind me Cho Oyu and in the distance more 8000-ers and the rest of the Himalaya.
I didn’t have lots of time to enjoy the view though. We needed to get back to camp 4 or even better camp 2. After a few minutes, we started our descent. I nearly went seriously wrong when I got hit by a rock twice, fortunately without any injury. An hour and a half later, I was taking a break in camp 4. And by the end of the afternoon, I had returned safe and sound in camp 2.
The next day, I returned to basecamp where I arranged a helicopter flight with a few other mountaineers that brought me back to Kathmandu the next day. Another 3 days later, I arrived in Belgium where there was another surprise waiting for me: a telegram of King Albert II and Queen Paola to congratulate me with my climb and general climbing achievements. A nice reward to top it all off.