Time to step up, the hard work is starts as we aim to reach the max height of our rotation climb today by ‘touching’ Camp 3 spending a hour or so at the high altitude and then returning to Camp 2.
Everyone prepares themselves for the day ahead, the summit suits come out albeit the sun seems to be coming out as well but the extreme altitude and very quickly changing weather means we all need to be in the right equipment to protect ourselves so summit suits it is. My suit is a three part suit from PHD in Harrogate, UK so I can actually wear a smaller suit and carry a top and bottom part to slip on as the weather/temp drops if needed, most others have a one piece suit but I’d be soaked in sweat if I wore one and the last thing you want to be when the temp drops below -20 degrees is wet inside a summit suit, temperature control is so important and so personal so you have to gauge what you need and hope you’ve got it right.
At breakfast I enjoy a brief coughing fit and mange to tweak something in my back (the joys of being nearly 50!), not a great start to the day but I tighten my climbing harness as tight as I can get it and do the same with my rucksack and hopefully that will provide enough support for me to make it through the day, I also manage to borrow one of the Sherpa’s trekking poles which should help.
My back aside we set off at a good pace, up the Western Cwm sliding past our turnaround point of the previous day without comment and barely noticing it, the first section is a long slow uphill slog towards the Lhotse face that we can see, ominously, in the distance (the very far distance!) and we power on, the previous days hike up and back down and sleep has restored a fair amount of energy in the team as we acclimatise and we make good progress, strong progress! We are team Elite and like some strange mountain tribe, empowered through being guided by some of the greatest Sherpa’s on the mountain in Nimsdai’s team we really do power up the hill.
We reach the base of the Lhotse face and look up at the 20m or so vertical wall we need to navigate to get onto it, barely breaking step our jumar devices are out and were climbing up the wall, zig zagging backwards and forwards hanging off the ropes and trying to find the footholds in the ice and snow to get us upwards, where no footholds exist we kick in our crampons with spikes at the front to get some leverage to pull ourselves up and then somehow grabbing at ropes, jumar, anything and everything we pull ourselves over the top and onto the Lhotse face and clip onto the first rope. I look up, the only direction we need to worry about and swallow hard realising the scale of what is still before me - it just looks to go on forever and its steep, really steep and blue ice - my new crampons are about to get the test of their life as I pull the safety strap on them connecting them to my feet as hard as I can to make sure they don't come off and go disappearing down the mountain, that wouldn’t be good.
It’s fairly busy on the mountain so I’ve little time too take a breather at this point otherwise I’ll be the source of the queuing so I’m clipped on and start up the face, Mingma David is right behind me breathing down my neck urging me onwards, the idea of a rest break to him is so alien I know to not even bother to ask.
The Elite team is spread along the rope, I’m not sure where I am in the running order and it doesn’t matter as I will my feet to move - one step, two steps, three steps……………rest…………..one step, two steps, three steps………..rest……….repeat, repeat, repeat, every 25 metres or so the rope comes to an ice screw fixing it into the face and I need to swap my safety rope and jumar onto the new rope to move forwards, its a huge effort, my fingers numb from the cold and my chest heaving from trying to suck down as much oxygen as the thin air will allow me. I try not to panic, am I holding people up, am I too slow, does my chest hurt, am I getting frostbite, why is Mingma David looking like he’s having a Sunday walk in the park and I’m looking like death, have I trained enough, what am I doing here - a million questions go through my head as I slowly, painfully slowly, continue upwards. I look behind me and see a long stream of people on the rope - where the hell did they all come from? A few Sherpas and porters pass me, a cheerful ‘Namaste’ as they do so as we make our progress upwards.
I regain my composure and mind and work on the task in front of me, I just have to keep my feet moving, there’s no other option, there’s no rest break and there’s nowhere to get off if I’ve changed my mind so I push on, breaking down the work into my three steps (sometimes I mix it up and do five for fun!) and the 25m lengths of rope and slowly, ever so slowly I make my way up the Lhotse face. Nothing else matters nothing else enters my mind as I move, I’ve one goal and one goal only - I have no idea of time passing, I couldn’t tell you if a rest break was a few seconds or several minutes or even longer as my body becomes an almost different vehicle to my mind, my mantra and focus carries me upwards, pain in my back, legs or chest is purely incidental now as I move almost autonomously up the rope, I kick my crampons into the ice, slip a few times and slightly scare the crap out of myself but eventually I reach a point where we slightly change direction and I can see what looks like a small flat area where perhaps we can get a rest for a few moments but that’s all it is ‘a few moments’ before we head up again, fortunately were slightly off the main face and now tackling a series of smaller rolling faces towards Camp 3, I come over the top of one to find a few members of the Elite team taking a break, perhaps calling it a day at that point as exhaustion overcomes them - in a rare moment of compassion Mingma David asks me what I want to do - go on or call it a day here, I point firmly upwards and shout ‘up’ to him and we continue, I’m pleased to look back as we traverse right to see each and every member of the Elite team raise themselves to their feet and follow and in another 50 to 60 minutes we crawl, claw and force our way into Camp 3 at 7, 160m, exhausted but beyond elated and proud - fist bumps, cheers, dancing and hugging all round as eventually the whole Elite team make it, its a huge milestone and fantastic effort by the team, many other teams haven’t made it this far on their rotation and as it turns our despite it feeling so slow we’ve done it in around 5 1/2 hours - a bloody good time, we’ve worked hard and its chocolates all round to celebrate!
The team stays at Camp 3 for maybe an hour, sitting on the snow trying to eat the pack up we’ve been given, I struggle top eat at altitude to be honest and the sandwich doesn’t look that appealing so I munch down the white chocolate kitkat and hope that will do, there’s no Elite tents or set up at Camp 3 as yet, only the rope fixers have made it thus far so after a team photo we gather our things and start to assemble to go down.
The weather quickly deteriorates and whilst its not exactly a panic situation there’s suddenly a lot of activity from the Sherpas to move us fast downwards, Mingma David is attaching additional ropes for us to abseil down two by two and grabbing climbers devices to get them connected and on their way as quickly as possible, whilst slightly easier going down only one person can abseil on one rope at once so suddenly we’ve got quite the queue and with temperatures dropping and energy levels dissipating we don't have time to hang around, it’s go go go down the ropes as quick as we can and I can feel the urgency in the air to get on with the operation, I’m pretty confident and fast down the ropes so as soon as I’m clipped on and ATC device checked I’m over the edge and rapidly descending backwards down the steep slopes, careful to watch the line of the rope and that I don’t accidentally rappel myself into a crevasse, the Sherpas work hard to make sure everyone is descending as quickly and safely as they can but it still takes a good hour or so before were down at the bottom of the Lhotse face and over the 20m vertical wall back onto the slightly easier slopes of the Western Cwm below to hike back into Camp 2. the snowfall has covered the tracks we followed on the way up so the lead Sherpa takes us down, carefully prodding in places with his trekking pole looking for crevasses that have now been hidden - just as a bonus finish, like walking through a minefield looking for the hazard and hoping you get it before it gets you.
Finally we roll back into camp, tired, hungry and thirsty but more than happy with the days work and achievement. Dinner and rest awaits us and then a good nights sleep before we head back to Basecamp in the morning, for many on the expedition today marked the highest altitude they have ever been so everyone is in fairly good spirits as the sun goes down and we know we just have one more long day to do before a few days well earned rest.