Friday, January 7

Morning ritual, when you are camped someplace cold: You've gotten out of your tent as soon as it got light, but the sun hasn't risen yet, because you're in the shadow of a mountain. So you sit there, watching the line between shadow and light slowly creep across the landscape until it reaches you. The water in the wash bowls has a frozen crust on it, there's a bit of ice in your drinking bottles, there's frost on the ground and on the tent.

Lava Tower from northwest. The easy way up is around the right side.
As soon as the sun hits you you will be warm and toasty. Meanwhile you sit there with all your layers of clothing on, huddling to conserve heat. It's not enough and you retreat to your sleeping bag. Andrew, meanwhile, does timelapse photography of the sunrise.

Around 11pm, I woke up with my first serious altitude headache, and took my first Diamox, as well as two Ibuprofens, safely away from the tent until sure that my stomach wouldn't reject them. The headache went away, and I slept well, other than the time spent lying awake because the night is simply longer than you can sleep.

While up for a pee break in the night, I looked up at the mountain, darkly silhouetted against the starlight, and saw a few specks of light low on the western breach, each a group of climbers starting their summit push with their headlamps. Later in the night, I looked up again, and the specks that remained were much higher, the missing one having presumably reached the rim and gone out of sight.

The sun rose at 6:30AM but it takes until 8AM for it to reach us over the summit, and until about 10AM for the clouds to start enveloping the mountain.

I get out of the tent when the sun hits it. Of breakfast, I manage to eat one slice of toast with margarine and honey, and a power gel given to me by Caroline. While we eat, we notice that Mike has climbed to the top of the lava tower by himself.

A group packs up and leaves. From Mike we know that they intend to camp in the crater itself, at about 18,700 feet. Chombo says you need to pay extra for that and get specially qualified and equipped porters. Our own porters will go no higher than Arrow Glacier Camp at 16,100 feet, then go back down and meet us after we've done the summit. I wonder whether it is even possible to sleep in such rarefied air. We will later hear that in the night of January 8-9, a man actually died while camped in the crater, as a result of diarrhea and altitude sickness.

Western Breach and summit, seen from the Lava Tower.
The Arrow Glacier Camp is on the ledge near bottom center.

After breakfast, we all climb the lava tower. There are only about 10m of hands-and-feet climbing involved, the rest is trivial. Going around to the front, you can look almost straight down at the campsite, and there is an excellent view of the upper mountain. Chombo and another guide have accompanied us.

The camp site is a natural fortress. On the east and west sides, there are dropoffs and you walk into the camp through gates in natural rock walls. On the south side, the lava tower rises, and on the north is another rock wall. Enclosed is a flat area with lots of good tent sites.

Camp site from the top of the Lava Tower
We say goodbye to Mike, who is not taking a rest day and is continuing up to Arrow Glacier Camp. All of us head up the same trail on an acclimatization hike, accompanied Shebe and another porter. We intend to go right to Arrow Glacier Camp, or at least to 16,000 feet, but the weather gets so bad, with little visibility, that we turn around at the first point where the trail goes downhill at about 15,800 feet. On the way up, I get Andrew to time me over 180 feet of elevation, steady steep trail. It takes 11 minutes at my absolute aerobic limit. This is faster than I expected.

Back at the camp, in the ice pellet shower, there is little to do other than snuggle in your sleeping bag and occasionally whack the roof to knock the accumulated ice pellets off. While we do this, there are construction sounds next to our tent. When the shower stops and we get out, a large house tent and another cone-shaped tent have gone up next to ours. The occupants of the house tent are two girls named Courtney and Julia. They are from British Columbia and have just finished med school, and came up via the Shira Plateau and intend on the same summit schedule as us from here on. We will see them off-and-on over the next six days.

In the night, I once again watch specks of light in the Western Breach. Another 24 hours and one of those specks will be us.

All pictures for this day

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