Top of the World

Kim Clark says Everest's air is thinner than Denver's. She should know -- she's up there right now.

Kim Clark is one of five American women on the first all-women climbing team to attempt Mount Everest. A former Keystone ski bum who is now a junior at the University of Colorado's school of nursing, the 35-year-old Clark is the youngest woman on the expedition, which first arrived at Everest's base camp (17,600 feet) on April 10.

The group acclimatized there for a week, celebrating New Year's Day in Nepal on April 14, the first day of the year 2059 on the Nepalese calendar, with a Puja ceremony, a ritual that celebrates life and seeks to appease the mountain gods. The climbers and their male sherpas burned juniper incense on a stone altar and made offerings of tea, yak butter and chang,a powerful rice beer the celebrants also consumed in copious amounts. They began climbing on April 17.

Since then, the climbers have survived six crossings of the Khumbu Icefall, the most unpredictable and treacherous section of the mountain. They have also safely ascended and descended the Lhotse Face, a 2,000-foot sheer wall of unstable snow and ice that claimed the life of British climber Peter Legate on April 30, making him Everest's first fatality of 2002. Climbing conservatively, Clark's expedition spent most of early May pinned down by bad weather at Camp 1 and Camp 2, situated at 19,500 and 21,300 feet, respectively.

Westword contacted Clark on May 10, during a "resting rotation" following the team's perilous descent from high on the mountain during a narrow window of decent weather. The group had hoped to begin its next bid for Everest's 29,035-foot summit the next day, but it's currently pinned down by high winds at base camp. The following questions and replies were communicated via an Internet relay set up by the Discovery Channel, one of the expedition's sponsors. Daily updates on the status of the expedition are available online at www.discoverychannel.com.

Westword:Greetings from 5,280 feet. How's base camp this morning?

Kim Clark:Base camp is quite pleasant. I woke up to clear blue skies and short-sleeve weather. Our "tent city" is all on the Khumbu glacier moraine, so it's built on top of rock and ice. The ice is constantly "popping" and melting out, requiring us to rearrange our (far from flat) tent platforms. Base camp sits at the base of the 2,000-foot Khumbu Icefall, which is a massive tumbling jungle gym of ice blocks the size of apartment buildings. On one side of camp is the Lohla (a pass that leads to the Rongbuk glacier in Tibet). The Lohla sends off avalanches daily that echo throughout camp. Sometimes camp is even dusted by them. Prayer flags branch out from every camp site, reminding us of the sherpa culture that is steeped in Buddhist tradition.

WW:Could you describe your first ascent of the Lhotse Face?

Clark:My team and I took six hours to ascend 2,600 feet to Camp 3, which is two-thirds of the way up the Lhotse, at 24,400 feet. It is definitely the steepest terrain we have covered so far (except for short, steep ice sections in the Khumbu Icefall). It has a fixed line of rope that we clip an "ascender" into as we go up. It is angled around 55 degrees and is mostly snow lower down and then turns into hard blue alpine ice. The ice is hard to get purchased on with our crampons. Not many people had been up before us, so there were not really any footsteps made to speak of. It was somewhat intimidating for us to ascend because Peter Legate had tumbled to his death down the face the day before. The altitude made for a whole lot of "panting" on the way up, especially on the steeper ice sections that required short bursts of power. I even sunburned my tongue as I "sucked wind." Descending the face made me nervous, as you had to be really careful to make sure you don't miss a safety clip or lose your footing as there is no self-arresting on this ice.

WW:What was it like to be trapped by high winds at Camp 2 for nearly a week? How did you maintain sanity?

Clark:Sixty-five-mile-per-hour winds sound like your tent is going to rip apart at any second. It doesn't make for good sleeping. I maintained sanity by hanging out in our community dining tent and playing non-stop Hearts while keeping an ear to the radio for guide reports of weather from camp to camp.

WW: At the Puja ceremony, what did you pray for?

Clark: I prayed that each member of my team (including sherpas) would return safely from the mountain. The sherpas will not even climb without a Puja (blessing), which makes one not take safety for granted. We not only sought blessings at our Puja, but also received one from a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Pang Boche [a sherpa village one day's hike from base camp]. We visited his house. I pray daily, as I want to give thanks to this mountain and pray for our safe return. I've realized very clearly that I don't want to die here.

WW:What's been your closest call so far?

Clark:It happened during the first time we were crossing the Khumbu Icefall. You have to cross all these crevasses on ladders, and the ladders caused me a lot of anxiety at first, because you have to get the hang of looking where you are placing your feet, not at the bottom of the crevasse. If you look to the bottom, you are more likely to "bobble." Anyway, our first day in the icefall, we were all on edge about the terrain, and I had just crossed a three-ladder crossing when a huge avalanche ripped loose from a headwall above us. It was so loud, and at first we did not know if it was close enough that we needed to run for our lives or what. Eventually, we realized we were not at risk, but the whole event really scared me and sent home the message that climbing Everest is really dangerous and that we are at the mercy of the mountain.

WW:What's been the most positive moment of the expedition up to now?

Clark:Sitting at Camp 1 on a rest day enjoying a clear blue sky, pure quiet, looking out on the tremendous views of the Himalayas -- Pumori, Nuptse, Khumbutse and Lindtgren -- from my tent. As incredible as this experience is, though, I think of Denver every day. I miss my fiancée [Michael McGranahan] terribly, and I'm missing my favorite season, spring! I can't wait to come home.

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