Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hospital in Leh

After landing in Leh, a small ambulance took me to the hospital.  Teresa Richey (Mark's wife) and her friend Lisa were there to meet me.  Teresa was very helpful in ushering me around as I was pretty sick and needed help.
In the hospital in Leh

By American standards the hospital was pretty grim.  The ER where I was first admitted was a room packed with eight beds full of patients and barely enough room in between to accommodate the staff and all their family members.  They put me in one of the beds, took my vital signs, and the doctor listened to my chest.  I had the doctor talk to Dr. Brownie Schoene in the US and they came up with a treatment plan for me that included four injections of an antibiotic.  I was a bit concerned about the hygiene of the injections, but I watched them use a syringe and needle that were from sterile packages.  The small bottle used for my injection had the name of the antibiotic on it that I was supposed to get and the nurse who administered it was skilled at finding a good vein.

Getting examined by the doctor

Teresa is originally from Peru where they have a tradition to stay with a hospitalized friend or family member 24 hours a day.  So Teresa wouldn't leave me and brought a sleeping bag and pad to spend the night on the floor next to my bed.  Just as she was bedding down, a rat scurried across the floor next to her head.  She jumped up and into my bed facing the opposite direction as me and spent the night there.  I coughed most of the night so neither one of us slept much.

Teresa in my bed after a rat scared her away from her bed on the floor

I was able to convince the hospital staff to let me go in the afternoon on the 27th so I could recuperate in my hotel room.  The hotel was a lot more comfortable than the hospital and I just had to go back to the hospital a couple of times for my last antibiotic injections.

Motip's office for RIMO expeditions was next door to the hotel so I stopped by to thank him and Teresa for all the work they did along with Global Rescue to get me off the glacier.  It was a great team effort!
The rescue team in Leh - Teresa and Motup!

I spent four days in Leh waiting for Mark, Freddie, and the rest of our team to show up.  They brought down everything from the Advanced Base Camp on the 27th, evacuated base camp on the 28th, spent the day on the 29th in the Nubra Valley, and on the 30th they drove to Leh and we were reunited .

We flew to Delhi on the 31st and after more R&R there we flew back to the US on September 2nd. 

Many thanks to those who have expressed concern for my health.  Since being home I've made a full recovery.  My lungs are nearly clear so my cough is mostly gone and I'm slowly getting back into running, bicycling, and rock climbing. 

This concludes my stories about our expedition to India.  Stay tuned for some stories from the northwest before I head to Canmore for the winter later this fall.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Could I Choke to Death?

At 3AM on August 26th I woke up in the tent at Advanced Base Camp coughing.  That in itself was not unusual - I had been suffering from a bad cough for over a month now.  What was unusual was my cough produced a thick mucus that I couldn't get all the way up - it was sticking in my airway and I was choking on it.  After a couple of episodes of this I woke Mark and Freddie to get some help.  He witnessed me gasping for air after each one of my coughing episodes where I could only clear part of my airway.  We decided to call my friend Dr. Brownie Schoene in Bozeman on the satellite phone to see what suggestions he might have.  Brownie specializes in high altitude respiratory medicine and I had been communicating with him the past month on how to treat and recover from my sinus problems.  Mark and Brownie were discussing my situation as I wasn't able to talk, but I did write a note for Mark to ask Brownie, "Could I choke to death on this thick mucus that is getting lodged in my airway"?  Mark listened to Brownie's response and then turned to me and said, "Brownie says that yes you could".  That wasn't what I wanted to hear and now I was pretty frightened.  Sometimes the coughing would leave me with a completely obstructed airway and I couldn't breathe at all until more coughing and hacking created a passageway to let in just enough air to allow some restricted breathing.

We decided that I needed to get out of here so calls were made to initiate a helicopter rescue.  While we waited I moved outside and sat in a nice snow chair working hard to keep up my breathing.  I decided that the best thing I could do was to not cough and drinking warm tea seemed to work best to suppress that urge.  By around 11 AM I had been sipping tea for about three hours which helped me rehydrate and during another coughing episode I was able to clear my airway and cough everything up onto the snow.  It was a tremendous relief to not be choking any longer and I felt that I was now out of danger - but still pretty sick .

After some bureaucratic wrangling, two Indian Air Force helicopters showed up around 4PM.  They made a circle around our camp on the glacier and then one landed on the helipad that Freddie had laid out in the snow.  Freddie and two of our Sherpas pulled me out of the tent where I was resting and we hurried to the helicopter where I climbed into an empty seat in the back of the small bubble cockpit.  The two pilots sitting in front of me got us off the ground and we immediately headed down-glacier.

From inside the cockpit
 The views on the flight to Leh were pretty spectacular and I tried to snap a few pictures along the way while breathing through the oxygen mask the pilots gave me.

South Shukpa Kungchang Glacier

Confluence of Nubra River on right flowing into the Shyok River on left which flows west into Pakistan

When we landed in Leh we had about a 30 minute photo shoot with the pilots, wing commander, army doctor and district commissioner.  They were all involved in helping in some way and I was grateful to them.

Landing at Leh

After the formalities on the tarmac they drove me to the hospital in Leh.  It was a pretty grim place, but more on that tomorrow.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Descent

After I had a sleepless night of hacking and coughing, we packed up the bivy and started rappelling down the wall.  Unfortunately on our first rappel yesterday we dislodged a loose rock that fell down the wall and chopped one of our ropes about 40 feet from one end.  Fortunately Mark, who went first, noticed it and didn't rappel off the end of the one rope where it was cut.  To enable us to do full length double rope rappels down the wall, we tied a knot in the one rope to attach the 40 foot piece that was cut off.  This meant that everyone had to pass this knot around their rappel device each time.

Rappelling down the Ramp

Halfway down the wall we rappelled through the rock band

It took over 30 rappels to get from our high camp to the glacier at the bottom.  In spite of all my coughing and  hacking, I was able to get myself down OK.  Mark and Freddie traded setting anchors that we almost entirely V-threads in the ice, and I went last pulling the backup ice screw and any other gear left at the rappel station.

Rappelling into the Great Couloir

We were all exhausted

The final rappels to the glacier below

We arrived at our skis a couple of hours after dark around 10:00 PM.  I was exhausted and had a hard time keeping my balance skiing back to ABC.  I fell several times, which was something I hadn't done before and I was nervous about skiing over the several crevasses along the way.  Unfortunately Thinless and Tashi did not keep a light on at ABC and we had a hard time finding the tents in the darkness on such a big glacier.  We eventually found the camp and had some tea and a bit to eat.  It was after midnight that we went to bed - I didn't realize at the time that in just I few hours I would wake up with a serious breathing problem.

Our route

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sasser Kangri II Day 4 - The Summit

August 24.  We only had four pitches of technical climbing from our third bivouac to get to the summit ridge, and from there we knew that it would be easy snow walking to the summit.

Just below the summit ridge

It was a beautiful summit day - windless and relatively warm temperatures for being at almost 25,000 feet.

On the easy summit ridge

Last bit below the top

Mark, Freddie and I could see the entire Karakoram range - not a cloud in the sky!

Mark Richey, me, and Freddie Wilkinson

A Japanese expedition had attempted Sasser Kangri II in 1985 and claimed to have reached what they called the "West Summit".  But when we reached the top of the true summit we could look to the north along the ridge from that side and see that the "West Summit" was clearly below us and is not really a summit at all.   The place the Japanese expedition reached was just a point on the shoulder of the mountain and not a separate lower summit of the peak.  Because many climbers thought Sasser Kangri II had been climbed, the mountain probably did not receive the attention it might have gotten if no one had claimed the summit.  This misinformation worked in our favor though because it was only after carefully researching this issue before our attempt in 2009 that Mark and I came to the conclusion the Japanese "West Summit" was probably not the top and the peak was still unclimbed.  When we arrived on top we could clearly see that our theory was correct and that we just made the first ascent.

The "West Summit" to the north is clearly below us

In the distance are the Gasherbrums, Broad Peak, and K2 across the border in Pakistan

After spending maybe an hour on top we headed down.  After some down climbing to the summit ridge we made several rappels to our high camp where we spend a second night.

Beginning the descent

Our plan was to rappel the wall all the way to the glacier tomorrow.  It would be over 30 rappels which would take all day.  That evening the sinus infection that I had been fighting for a month seemed to move down into my chest and I had a very difficult night sitting up in the tent dozing and coughing up phlegm into the snow outside the door.  I felt like tomorrow might be a long exhausting day to get myself down.

Making several rappels back to our last bivouac

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sasser Kangri II Day 3

On the morning of day 3 we were already established on the major ramp system that angled up to the right side of the wall above. 

Climbing up the "Ramp"

Tsok Kangri - the peak we climbed about a month ago is below us now

We made quick progress up the ramp to where it steepened in a headwall.  At this point we needed to cut left through a feature we called the "Escape Hatch" onto some easier snow slopes and lower angled mixed climbing to the summit ridge.

Near the top of the ramp where we cut left through the "Escape Hatch"

The Escape Hatch was probably the most technical pitch of the route.

Freddie leading up through the "Escape Hatch"

Above the Escape Hatch we looked for our final bivy from where we could climb to the summit tomorrow.  Since we could leave everything except water, food, and some clothing behind in our high camp, we would be able to move faster on summit day.  At around 7000 meters we carved a tent platform out of some snow and ice under an overhang and settled into a bivy that was a bit roomier than last night.  I was not feeling that healthy and still weak from the sinus infection I couldn't seem to get rid of.  While Mark and Freddie built the tent platform I busied myself with the hanging stove to melt snow to fill water bottles and dry out all my clothing that had gotten soaked from a leaking water bottle in my pack.

In the tent at high camp

The weather was still perfect and we didn't see any signs of that changing.  We were only 500 meters from the top so things were looking good for tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sasser Kangri II Day 2

We knew that achieving our goals on our second day on the route would be the key to success.  In 2009 this day was where things fell apart for us - the system we used was too slow and we waited too long to try and make a place to bivy and exhausted ourselves too early on the climb.  This time we needed to reach or exceed our high point of 2009 and make a good tent platform to rest and cook early enough in the day so we would have enough strength to continue.

We woke up at 1:30 AM and were underway by 3:30 by rappelling off the Launch Pad onto the ice slope below.  I was my block to lead and I traversed left around a large rock island and headed up.  I found great conditions with 2-8 inches of firm snow over the ice that was much quicker and easier to climb than the bare hard water ice we had in 2009.  The climbing was easy enough for all three of us to "simulclimb" which means we all climbed together at the same time clipping our ropes to ice screws as we moved along rather than leading and belaying every rope length.  We gained altitude a lot faster this way and were high on the wall before the sun came up.

Simulclimbing up the lower ice face

Mark took over leading as we got into some of the mixed climbing near our high point of 2009.  We were very happy with our progress so far - we arrived at the base of a pitch we called the "ice chimney" at around 10AM that took until late afternoon in 2009. 

Approaching the Ice Chimney pitch

In the Ice Chimney pitch

Here, based on a strong opinion from Freddie, we didn't start wandering all over the wall in search of a bivouac place for the night.  We made a good decision to keep climbing and search for a potential bivy spot along the way. 
Climbing through the rock band above the 2009 high point

This allowed us to keep moving up and not waste time traversing away from our line of ascent.  Before we knew it we had moved through a mixed rock and ice section that we thought would be the crux of the route.

More climbing though the rock band

We eventually found a flatish area on a rib that was going to be our best opportunity for a bivy site.  But this time we had a new piece of gear that enabled us to build a flat bivy site that would have been impossible without it.  It was Mark's invention that he calls the "Ice Hammock".  The Ice Hammock is a 2 ounce piece of fabric with webbing loops on each end that you fill with snow to make a ledge.  The pictures below show how it is used.

Filling the Ice Hammock with snow to build up a bivy ledge
I was still feeling weak from all my previous health problems so I let Freddie and Mark build the tent platform while I hung our MSR Reactor stove from the wall and melted snow for tea and to fill all our water bottles.

Bivy ledge created with two Ice Hammocks on top of each other

Although the tent hung a bit off the ledge on one corner, all three of us were able to fit inside fairly comfortably.  We achieved our main goals for the day which were to get above our 2009 high point and establish a good bivy early in the day so we could cook, and drink, and get some sleep.  With this work behind us and continuing good weather we were excited about our summit chances, which at this point were starting to look good.

Our second bivy which positioned us to climb the upper wall

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sasser Kangri II Day 1

I was uncertain still about my health, but on August 18th I called Jim @ Mountain Weather for a forecast and I had to make a decision whether to go or not because we were going to get the weather we needed in a couple of days.  By the 20th I felt good enough to move up to ABC that day with Mark and Freddie.  It was a nice ski with some new snow on the glacier.  But there was a seriousness to this trip though that hasn't been there before - we know this is going to be our one big try on Sasser Kangri II and it makes everyone just a bit more anxious. 

Saying goodbye at base camp

Skiing up to the pass towards ABC

Crossing the pass into the Sakang Lungpa Glacier
After we crossed the pass we skied down into the South Shukpa Kunchang Glacier to ABC to spend the afternoon packing food and hardware for the climb the next day.

Skiing up to the base of the route on August 21st

Re-climbing the pitches to the Launch Pad
We re-climbed the pitches to the launch pad where we had been on July 24th, almost a month previous.  The temperatures had cooled considerably since then and we didn't feel so vulnerable now to falling rock and ice.  We relaxed all afternoon in the tent - eating and drinking.  Tomorrow we would start at 2AM to get the big ice slope out of the way before the sun came up.  We wanted to make sure and get high enough the next day to be above the heat and have enough time to build a good bivouac ledge for the tent.  We knew from our 2009 trip that finding a good place for the night would be a challenge.

Back at the Launch Pad

Monday, September 5, 2011

I Have One Week to Get Well

After rappelling to the glacier in the dark from the top of Tso Kangri,  I was obviously sick from sinus infection that is pretty typical for me to get at high altitude,  but this was worse than anything I had experienced before.  I was unusually tired for the amount of work that we had done and I was short of breath and coughing up phlegm while skiing back to ABC.  It was still too warm to head up on Sasser Kangri II yet,  but things would start to cool off as we were getting into late August and I needed to get healthy quickly if I wanted to have a chance to climb SKII.  The best way to do that was to descend as low as I could for the next week and get myself on a good antibiotic.  I left ABC on August 1st and skied to base camp for a rest.  But base camp is still at 17,000 feet which is pretty high for a speedy recovery so I decided to walk all the way down to the road in the Nubra valley which is at 10,000 feet and spend some time recovering there at the Rimo Hotel.  After a rest day at base camp I walked with Tinless on the 3rd to the Nubra Valley hoping that I could slowly bring myself back to the health and strength I would need to climb to nearly 25,000 feet in relatively short order.  I spent the first few days resting, but on August 9th I awoke feeling dizzy and decided that I would go visit the hospital to see a doctor in Diskit - about a 90 minute drive from the hotel.

Services at the Hospital in Diskit

Doctor listening to my chest

The doctor there together with a phone conversation with my friend in Bozeman, Dr Brownie Schoene diagnosed me with a sinus infection that was also blocking my Eustachian tube from my ear which was causing me the dizziness.  They put me on a different antibiotic and so all I needed to do now was wait.  Sasser Kangri II seemed like a long ways away right now.  After another couple days I started to walk around the neighborhood.  Behind the hotel was a working monastery and school so I would visit with the monks and have some tree ripe apricots from their trees.

Monks at the Samtanling Monastery

The Ladakhi villagers were friendly as well.

Ladakhi mother

By August 12th Kirsten, Emily, and Janet came down with Mark and Freddie to the Nubra Valley.  The group had a great week climbing three new peaks while I was convalescing and now it was time for women to head home. 

Kirsten Kremer, Emily Drinkwater, and Janet Bergman

The weather was stormy so Freddie and Mark decided to rest in Nubra a few more days, but I was anxious to get back to base camp and readjust to the altitude and be ready for our next attempt on Sasser Kangri II.  I was feeling better and hopeful that as I moved back up I would stay healthy.

Heading back to base camp
If I can stay healthy and we get some weather then just maybe...........

Friday, September 2, 2011


Before climbing a mountain as high as Sasser Kangri II, a period of acclimatization to the altitude must occur first.  In 2009 we spent time on adjacent peaks to acclimatize.  But when we made our attempt on Sasser Kangri II we discovered that finding bivouac sites was our biggest problem.  We felt that it would have been worthwhile to acclimate by make a reconaissance high on SKII to chop a tent platform out of the ice ahead of time.  This year we decided to adopt this strategy - so on July 24th we left ABC for our first bivuoac on the wall at a good ledge not too far up that we called the Launch Pad.  Little did we know that this would be the only good ledge on the entire 6,000 foot high face.  Getting to the Launch Pad is about 8 rope lengths up the wall and is mostly easy lower angle ice climbing.  We found and improved our belay/rappel anchors in the rock alonside the ice from 2009.  We would save time reusing these on the several forays we would be making in the future.

Freddie Wilkinson leading his block to the Launch Pad

Mark Richey following up to the Launch Pad
After reachin the Launch Pad in good weather we improved the gravel ledge from the work we had done two years previous.  To be safe from rockfall and falling ice we had climbed to the ledge early in the morning before the sun hit the slopes.  By late morning we had set up our small two person tent that the three of us planned to squeeze into.  Although this made for cramped living conditions, we knew that it would have to suffice since we would never be able to build or find a platform or ledge for a larger tent.

The Launch Pad
We soon discovered the problem with our acclimatization strategy though - it was too hot!  By late morning we had to take shelter from the sun in the tent while we watched the rockfall and avalanches go by on either side of our ledge as the mountain come apart in the heat.  Our promitory protruded just enough from the wall to afford us a some comfort that these missles would fly by well to either side of us.  There was nothing for us to do but wait till it cooled off and then head down in the morning after the wall froze up again at night.  There was no thought of going higher on the wall to acclimatize on this trip.  We would need to go climb other colder north facing mountains until things cooled off later in August when we could return to the Southwest face of Sasser Kangri II.

The next day we quickly rappelled off the wall and skied back to ABC.  We rested for a few hours in the heat of the day and later went looking for objectives that could keep us busy till things colled off.  Based on Freddie's hunch we skied up a pocket glacier off the South Shukpa that we called the "Baby Ruth Glacier" because it reminded us of one of our favorite places in Alaska.  As we came around a steep granite buttress in the wall on the peak on our right we found one of the most compelling ice lines I've ever seen in the Karakoram.

Can you spot the line?

The weather was changing so with the knowledge that we had an exciting objective to come back to we skied back to ABC and then to base camp on the 26th.  After some snowy days we returned to ABC and started up this climb on July 30th.  Never that hard, but always enjoyable we climbed 14 rope lengths up this beautiful ice route.  Later on we would name this peak Tso Kangri (6580 meters).

Freddie led the first block

Mark took the second block of leading
Emerging onto the summit ice slopes

Wrapping around the backside to get to the top

Traversing the backside high above the glaciers

Rappelling off the summit as the sun goes down

 During the day we watched Sasser Kangri II come in and out of the clouds.  The view from our climb gave us a new perspective on the summit area of SKII.  This has always been a mystery to us when staring at it directly from below.  But from here we could see that the top of the Southwest Face had a flat area that led to a nice snow ridge angling up to the summit. 
Upper Southwest face of Sasser Kangri II taken from Tso Kangri

As we rappelled off Tso Kangri a sinus infection that I had been  fight for over a week started to kick in and I started feeling unusually weak.  By the time we reached the glacier I was short of breath and coughing incessantly.  I pledged that I would head back to base camp and possibly the Nubra Valley to try and cure myself of this before it was time to head back to Sasser Kangri II.  There was no way for me to know at the time that, in spite of all my efforts to recover, this ailment would rear its head again in ways that would be quite terrifying.