Everest is irresistible to the media—and this year’s pre-monsoon season attracted particular attention. Photos of long, snaking lines of up to 150+ climbers were published on news websites and blogs, pre-empting comments from many corners on overcrowding issues and the alleged ‘circus’ that climbing Everest has become.
In a recent interview in The Guardian, German mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits—who turned back from his summit bid on 18 May—bemoaned the crowds and the large amount of inexperienced people attempting Everest: ‘I was at around 7,900m and saw in the distance on the Lhotse Face a human snake, people cheek by jowl making their way up. There were 39 expeditions on the mountain at the same time, amounting to more than 600 people. I had never seen Everest that crowded before
I was also filled with sadness [for] this mountain, for which I have immense respect together with the experienced Sherpas, that a great deal of that has been lost. People nowadays treat the mountain as if it was a piece of sporting apparatus, not a force of nature. It really makes my soul ache.’
Pat Deavoll offered her opinion on the mountain to The Press in June: ‘I don’t know of an actual climber who’s been up Everest in a long time.’ The article went on to proclaim: ‘What makes the news is the ridiculous queue of 300 amateurs—mockingly called “tourons” (tourist morons)—and their hapless guides, backed up on the Lhotse face “death zone” of Mt Everest in this year’s end-of-season scramble.’
People the world over have strong views on Mt Everest. The experts want to ration access to it, the locals earn their living from it, punters want to tick the bucket list and the rest are captivated by the whole Everest show. On 19 May I became one of the more than 500 people to summit Everest this year. My experience of the crowding tells a different story. There was a good spirit of cooperation amongst the climbers on my summit day. The crowds did not detract from my experience, in fact, in many ways they added to it.
Climbing Everest will always be a huge challenge. The mountain and environment is extreme. It’s busy with people and the risk of death and serious harm is ever-present.
We were on the South Col, our tent was flapping furiously as a violent storm tried to tear it apart. I was in my sleeping bag, shivering uncontrollably. I was breathing, but only just; gasping for air from my icy mask. My brain tried to compute. From the deepest, most pleasurable sleep imaginable, a needle of ice was thrust into my lungs. After an age, my brain switched on. I checked my breathing, it was slow. I tried to check the contents gauge on my oxygen cylinder. I couldn’t read it. Finally my brain registered what had happened. I’d run out of oxygen. It was 2am. We changed my bottle and sanity returned, warmth returned. I drifted back to my dreams.
I have dreamt of Everest since I began climbing at the the age of 14. My inspiration came from Ed Hillary. In between scrambles at Mt Cook, I absorbed his story through his book, Nothing Venture, Nothing Win. Later I visited Kala Pattar. Under a clear, full moon, Everest’s summit pyramid, though dark and brooding, captivated me. I had a chance in 1994, but pulled out for family reasons. But over the years, my dream has remained and the stories of adventure became vividly locked in my consciousness.
Serendipity played its part this year. While reading Into the Silence by Wade Davis, the final quote about Mallory gripped and galvanised my resolve to go: ‘He would have walked on, even to his end, because for him, as for all of his generation, death was but a “frail barrier” that men crossed, “smiling and gallant every day”. They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.’
The fuse had been lit. I climbed with Roddy—who had summited in 1994—in the Darrans in early February. There we met Caroline, who would become our base camp manager. Then Guy Cotter convinced me by phone. With my questions and concerns addressed, I booked the trip.
We met our team in Kathmandu. Mike Roberts, our guide, warned me about the ‘Everest show,’ as he introduced me to the Sherpas and climbing team.
The Everest show, or some might say, circus, starts in Kathmandu in late March. Over ten days, the teams fly to Lukla and walk slowly to base camp, at 5300m. They stay in lodges which have all the trappings of home—hot water, internet, mobile coverage and great food. Base camp is just like the lodges, but under canvas.
There were about 300 climbers at the Khumbu base camp and over 1000 Sherpa and support staff. It takes 50 minutes to cross base camp city. The ranks soon thinned as climbers struggled with the environment and their health. By summit time, only 150 climbers remained. The rest had gone home empty handed.
This expedition was different from any other I had been on. On offer was relative luxury, consumerism and technology, as well as real mountaineering—with those moments of magic, beauty, culture and the extremes of altitude and risk.
My seven companions were a marvelous group, for which climbing was, for the most part, a pursuit they had taken up in the past few years. They had all been higher than me (over 7000m) but few were what I would call regular climbers. The guides however, gave me confidence. They were two Kiwis, ( Mike Roberts and Dean Staples, both NZAC members), and a Brit ( Victor Saunders). I wanted to go with friends on a climbing trip and come home with all of my fingers, toes, brain cells and my life. It worked.
As we walked to base camp and then went through the high altitude acclimatisation programme, fear and doubt were ever-present. How would I go? Would I acclimatise, get sick or have an accident? For the first six weeks we walked, climbed, perfected our gear choices and rested. As each new day unfolded, I banked small successes and learnt from disappointments. Focus was everything for me. I avoided distractions that would rob me of my summit chance.
On the flight to Kathmandu, I had formulated my plan and objectives, and I stuck to them.
On many expeditions, I have enjoyed the company of Sherpas. I was determined to hang out with them as much as possible and learn some of their language. The Sherpa have been the driving force behind almost every Everest expedition there has ever been. For nearly 100 years, Sherpas have been constant, reliable and loyal mountain companions to foreign mountaineers. My attempts at the language brought much laughter to the group, often at my expense.
The Sherpa have a close connection to Chomolungma. It is their Mother Goddess of the Earth. They respect and revere her. Buddhism provides them with a spiritual connection and compliments the physical. This relationship had a powerful effect on me and created a sense of harmony with the mountains.
Going onto Everest was a huge challenge. I had many questions that constantly played on my mind: acclimatisation, diet, cough, stomach upsets, compatibility with the team, mountain hazards, intermittent breathing, etc. I found that Guy’s advice helped me: ‘Take one day at a time. You will have good days and crappy days.’ I listened to my body and kept a meticulous health diary. I only needed to perform on one day and that was summit day. Yet I needed to stay healthy and gradually get fitter and stronger. That was easier said than done.
There was a lot going on in the Everest show. Our guides had a great time catching up with friends from all over the globe. The rest of us were just paying pawns in the great game. Our guides kept us fully informed and encouraged our contribution to mountain decisions.
On 15 May we received a promising weather forecast. The jetstream would abate on the 19th, return on 20th and abate again on 25th. It was the moment we had prepared for. Every fit climber wanted to summit. After considerable consultation between our guides, expeditions and even other climbers, we decided to try for the summit on the 19th. On a cold, snowy afternoon I received the news. We would leave the next day—the 16th.
We had been preparing for this moment for six weeks. We had endured many ups and downs, but now felt ready. We were acclimatised to 7300m and well rested after a week off further down-valley. I had really needed the rest week as I had been battling chest infections, Cheyne-Stokes breathing, an intermittent hacking cough and fatigue.
Conditions on the Lhotse Face had been very hazardous. Although we were in relative calm being under 7000m, the jetstream wind howled over us like a tumble dryer. Rocks rained down the Lhotse Face. The Himex expedition lead by Russell Brice abandoned their trip because he felt conditions were too dry and dangerous. Our guides waited for the snow that usually arrives in early May. They also minimised the rock-fall danger by selecting a different route and altering our acclimatisation plan.
At 1am we slowly moved out of base camp, past the Puja altar. Ang Tsering, our sirdar, was there. He whispered prayers and offered blessed rice which we scattered towards the altar, which was enveloped in sweet juniper smoke. Slowly our feet crunched over the squeaky ice and we entered the eerie icefall. Breathing and crunching were the only sounds. A chill wind tore at our exposed faces. My fingers and toes were wooden with cold. We carefully attached ourselves to the fixed line that snakes through the icefall. We wound our way upwards in the pre-dawn, crossing ladders and weaving around seemingly unsupported shark fin like ice structures. The great icefall was still and a faint glow from an interminable line of head-torches washed over the seracs.
With relief we moved past the Great Gash—a horseshoe like tower of ice, poised to release without warning. Slowly we climbed up, around and over recent debris, while suppressing thoughts of our frail mortality.
We arrived at Camp 2 before the sun turned the glacier into a baking cauldron.
Everest is an incredibly dangerous place. It’s easy to ignore this when clipped to a fat 10mm fixed rope.
Half-way up the Lhotse face is Camp 3. As we moved between lower and upper Camp 3 we came across avalanche debris from a serac collapse, and the detritus of 18 tents. The camp had been unoccupied, and stunned Sherpas searched for lost equipment in the mess as we climbed past.
Earlier we had witnessed continual ice avalanches breaking over the icefall route, causing snow clouds to billow towards our camp. On one occasion a huge cornice broke off Nuptse and the triggered avalanche took out Camp 1, hurling a Sherpa end over end into a crevasse.
The Lhotse face is steep and was broken by small ice cliffs that demanded careful footwork and great exertion. At lower Camp 3 we started using oxygen. The camp was a jumble of tents perched between seracs on the Lhotse Face. Our tents were pitched below a towering serac, no doubt similar to the one that obliterated the lower camp. Mike and I agreed that this was probably the greatest hazard of the whole Everest trip. We happily retreated to our tent. The serac, forgotten for now, was out of sight, out of mind. As I looked back towards Camp 2 and the icefall, I felt that at last we were climbing.
Early the next morning we hitched onto the fixed lines just ahead of a conger line of climbers. It was surreal, there were so many people on the fixed ropes. We moved quickly and overtook many climbers until we had a clear run and could climb at our own pace. It was incredible to be there. I was so excited and full of energy. Moving was a pleasure as the view in every direction was better than I had imagined. I was living my dream and walking in the footsteps of history. Past the Yellow Band and the Geneva Spur, the summit pyramid of Everest came into view. Menacing clouds and high winds raced across the summit, my stomach groaned with trepidation.
We were in our tents at the South Col by 11am. While resting, we ate, drank and busied ourselves. Our summit day began at 6pm for an 8pm departure. We were a team of eight: four Sherpas, Mike, our guide and three climbers.
When we set off, I whispered to myself, It’s just another summit. One step at a time.
We walked quickly out of camp. The evening was good. With a clear sky, no moon and little wind. It was stop-start all the way to the Balcony. At times we passed slower or resting climbers.
At the Balcony, I collapsed into the snow, exhausted. On the steepening slopes above we passed more climbers as we ascended into the dark sky and on to the South Summit. A continuous trail of lights flickered like a candle parade all the way back down to the South Col. We waited, stamping our feet and shaking our legs to keep warm while stuck in a major traffic jam below the South Summit rocks. Climbers ahead of us took an age as they struggled with the steeper terrain, while we struggled for warmth. My feet became wooden lifeless blocks.
Dawn arrived as an imperceptible glow, a faint line. Colours strengthened through blue, mauve, pink and into a golden day. The valleys of Tibet remained in gloom as the snowy summits around us embraced the sun. The surrounding peaks fell away like foothills. Lhotse, Makalu and Nuptse became bystanders to the main event.
On the South Summit we looked in awe down the precipitous south-west face and up the ridge to the Hillary Step. We joined a continuous queue of multi-coloured blobs and inched our way upwards.
Bridging between the snow and rock I climbed the Hillary Step. An awkward block and short traverse led to a steep rock and snow gully that met the final summit slopes. The lines thinned out as we forced ourselves on. Three breaths, one step. Twenty-five steps, then a rest. The fixed ropes finished 25 metres before the summit. We unclipped and carefully approached a huge pile of prayer flags on the summit. At 9am on the summit it was clear, cold and windy. All I could do was eat, drink, take a few photos and get down. So we stayed for what seemed like five minutes and left smartly when I saw a crowd of climbers coming towards us.
Above the Hillary Step we waited for over an hour. We sat and enjoyed the moment, with minimal concern because we had enough oxygen, plenty of daylight and a reasonable forecast. Climbers kept coming towards us. Even though our masks, goggles and bulky suits, made communication impossible, there was a good spirit of cooperation amongst us all as we took turns to descend. Pemba was a brilliant companion. We shared our food and drink, he managed my oxygen and we climbed well together, eventually retracing our steps from the day before back over the South Summit and on to the South Col. It was 2pm when we stumbled into camp. I was exhausted and elated, and flopped into my tent. It had been a long day.
My summit trip was an incredible experience. On my summit day, there were over 200 climbers on the upper mountain. Four climbers died and many suffered frostbite and cerebral hypoxic damage. Of the 200, over 100 were Sherpas, 20 or so were guides and the rest were punters, some of whom should not have been there. The four who died were only 1.5 hours away from Camp 4. The hazards that concerned me most were my oxygen supply, cold extremities, the fixed rope system and the people around me. My years of mountaineering and instruction meant that complex mountaineering tasks came easy, which freed my mind. I had a fantastic day. Although it was incredibly difficult for me, I was able to enjoy the views and the light and recall the stories I know so well. It was like being in a live museum and living in a history book. I remember the curvature of the earth, the distant summits and valleys of Nepal and Tibet and revering in the memories of those who had gone before me.
Our guides were very experienced and made great decisions throughout the trip, such as travelling through the icefall in the pre-dawn, avoiding walking in the heat of the day, minimising rock and icefall on the Lhotse Face, taking plenty of oxygen, hiring experienced Sherpas and taking good tents and food.
Adventure Consultants are extremely well organised and resourced. Caroline, our base camp manager, was amazing and the logistical support never failed us. Sherpas make all the difference, I could not have climbed Chomolungma without them.