Over the last 18 months, whenever I’ve mentioned to someone that I was on a year-long escapade for the 7 Summits, the reaction was often the same. A pause, and then a double take as it was realized that it would involve Everest. No mountain has, or probably ever will have the household name value of Everest and for pretty good reason. The name is synonymous with a voluntary exposure to a horribly hostile environment that is known to take no prisoners. Sadly the name is now more recently associated with selfish wealthy folk that crowd the routes bringing very limited climbing experience in pursuit of a trophy. While I discovered that these people do exist, I didn’t find it had any impact on my own experience. Despite the commercial nature of Everest that would send shivers down the spine of legends such as Mallory, Hillary and Messner, the mountain is still the same mountain that it always was. Still the same cold, desolate and phenomenally high mountain that it always was.
Those who knew me during high school and university may remember that Everest occupied a large quadrant of my thoughts and I usually managed to wrangle it in to conversation, a strange response to reading Jon Krakauer’s fateful account of the 1996 Everest disaster – In to Thin Air. Although I appeared convinced that I would one day climb it, a part of me wondered if I’d actually find the correct point in life when time, fitness, motivation and money would all be sufficient. Fortunately the time did come and over the last year it brought a smile on every time I thought about the fact that Everest was no longer an ambitious dream.
As with most mountains there are several routes and ways in which to climb those routes. Having visited Everest Base Camp in Nepal many years ago and having read countless books of climbs on the south side, I felt the north side from Tibet would hold more of an adventure. The route on the Chinese side is considered steeper, more exposed to both altitude and falls and far colder, all appealing attributes. It was also the route that the first attempts to climb Everest were made in the 1920’s, featuring the infamous 2nd step at 8,600m above sea level. Then there was the question of what sort of guiding experience would I want. Today some guiding companies offer high quality meals cooked by foreign chefs, heated 2 room personal tents, steam rooms, well stocked bars, unlimited oxygen while climbing and a plethora of amenities that most would be proud to have at home. In my opinion this isn’t mountaineering and I could be pretty sure that climbing while surrounded by such luxury wouldn’t leave me satisfied; summit or no summit. I opted for a rather less resourced company and gathered fairly early on that there was not going to be a whole lot of hand holding; perfect!
As a team of nine climbers, we traced the spectacular road from Kathmandu to the Everest Base Camp in Tibet over the course of 5 days while our bodies slowly adapted to the diminishing air. I use the word ‘spectacular’ however the road in Nepal and China was spectacular for entirely different reasons. In Nepal the 120km to the border took 9 horribly bumpy hours in which remarkably, the bus’s entire undercarriage didn’t disintegrate, however in China a pristine bitumen highway complete with pesky speed cameras and lookout stations offered a luxuriously smooth approach. On arrival to base camp it was Tibetan bread and soup all round, one of many meals used on a rather limited rotating schedule that we would fear after 5 weeks of mountain cuisine.
Our plan over the next few weeks was laid out; two trips partially up the mountain to push the body to acclimatize, then a few days of good rest down in a Chinese village followed by a summit push when the weather looked to co-operate. The Sherpa’s would meanwhile deliver tents, oxygen bottles and fuel to various points on the mountain ahead of ‘game time’ which would likely fall sometime in late May.
Most likely the highest trekking route in the world, the two day trek from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp is highly underestimated by cocky climbers as it demanded a sustained level of effort that we were not quite ready to give well before even setting foot on the mountain. I imagine that moraine trails are rarely enjoyed anywhere in the world, and the Rongbuk glaciers moraine is no different. The 22km unstable rocky trail used only during the climbing season climbs and descends steep slopes almost constantly as it winds its way up to Advance base camp at 6,400m and the foot of the Beast.
Having climbed to Camp 1 (7,000m) and then a week later returning for a night, adequate red blood cells were now in place. Following this, a short trip to a Chinese town at lower altitude offered three solid nights sleep and over a dozen MSG rich Chinese meals. While working away on the mountain, often in poor weather for extended periods it can cause you to question if we will ever actually get to the interesting aspect of the climb. Day after day of rest in base camp or at advance base camp becomes not only boring but it weighs on your motivation as the perception of an action packed, exhausting two months is corrected. Each morning I’d watch Everest’s upper mountain being blasted with high winds that strip snow and ice from the flanks and wonder if we were ever going to get our window and if we did, would we even get a view should we summit in a white out. Our guide, David who is used to planning a summit bid based on a tricky 12 hour period of safe weather was amazed to receive a forecast with over a week of low winds expected; a massive window!
Aiming for a May 19th summit day we headed up the mountain for one last time. The oxygen masks went on at 7,000m delivering a tiny rate of 0.5L/min as we moved to Camp 2. Due to the constant flow rate, larger people benefit less from a particular rate than smaller people and as I discovered, breathing without the mask was much easier if I upped the intensity. Camp 2 was set at 7,700m and as such life felt substantially more oxygen deprived than Camp 1. The following day we moved to Camp 3 at 8,200m and settled in to the highest campsite in the world. Strangely our company had not provided any tents at this camp and a rather loose arrangement had been made between Sherpas to use some unoccupied tents from different companies. Knowing that we were only planning to spend a few hours here and that immediate rest was needed, it was not worth questioning. Unsure whether it was the tent floor slanted at 20 deg, the fact that there was less than 30% of the oxygen than sea level or the nervousness of knowing the summit was near but I wasn’t even close to getting any sleep. When 11:30pm rolled around it was more a relief than an onset of stress. We were off and there were no more stops to the top.