How NOT to Train for Everest

Marcus Ruhl, bodybuilder

An Everest expedition lasts about two months with most of the time spent at over five thousand metres above sea level doing very strenuous exercise in thin, cold and dry air. Climbers burn about 6000 calories on an average day on the mountain, but during the long summit day this number increases to 15000 calories. Needless to say, you must train to give yourself a fighting chance to stay relatively healthy under the circumstances, not to mention get to the summit. I will not write about mountaineering training in this post – it is a given that one must learn how to climb, and practice their skills for a couple of years, before they come to Everest; in this post I will deal with training as a more general term.

Everest hopefuls begin to prepare for the ascent months and, sometimes, years in advance. They become more health conscious, learning to appreciate spinach and crowded gyms, so as to arrive at base camp feeling and looking like top athletes.

As the world’s highest mountain, Chomolungma demands a serious, respectful approach; it demands training. However, I believe each climber must address their particular weaknesses in their exercise regime and not just work out obsessively because that’s what their peers are doing. What I need to do to prepare for Everest may not be the same as what you need to do; you may not need to train as hard as I, or vice versa :); you and I may not have the same facilities to allow for quality training, etc. In short, the best way to prepare, I believe, is to make the most of what you are and have at your disposal. Don’t waste your time trying to become ‘An Everest Superman/woman, because in extreme mountain conditions tags and labels will not apply, and it will be your knowledge and understanding of yourself, which will help you survive.

How have I NOT been training, then? Let’s have a look. Unlike most Everest climbers, I don’t do running/jogging as it is boring to me as well as painful for my many broken and dislodged bones. I don’t cycle because I’d get killed before the climb if I were to attempt it in Kathmandu with its crazy traffic, and my clumsiness. I don’t do weights because my legs usually get excellent workouts trekking and climbing with a moderately heavy backpack, and I don’t expect to require bodybuilder arms on Everest. I haven’t been swimming, either, which would have been ideal for me, because there’s not a swimming pool in Kathmandu where I would risk doing that. I don’t even do yoga because I tend fall asleep in the middle of class.

So, have I actually been training at all? I’d like to think so. I believe, perhaps, naively, that the best training for climbing The Mountain is climbing mountains. That is exactly what I have been doing since August: I have climbed on five mountains of over 6000 metres in height, summiting three of them and getting good mind-and-body workouts on all. Each of the five mini-expeditions lasted about twenty days, which amounts in total to a hundred days at high altitude. Each of those days not only provided endless – inescapable – workout opportunities but also taught me something about the mountains and how I function in thin air. Those lessons, the sweet and the bitter, were, in my opinion, invaluable preparation for the climb of my life. When in April our expedition reaches the Old Chinese Base Camp, I hope that my body remembers what it must do to perform efficiently at high altitude; I hope, too, that, regardless of how my body adjusts, the weather, the environment etc, my mind stays calm and prepared for success or failure.

With just over a month to go before the expedition team meets in Kathmandu, I will be taking a break from the mountains. Again, unlike most Everest climbers, I intend to give my body some time to rest before pushing it to its absolute limit of endurance on The Mountain. While in St. Petersburg, I might, perhaps, indulge in my passion for swimming in both heated pools and icy lakes; I may try once more to make friends with the treadmill – although, our differences appear irreconcilable. When I return to Nepal, I intend to spend about two weeks in a mountain village teaching English at the local monastery, not only because I’m nice [because I’m not sure I am] but also because the way to the monastery is a steep climb uphill and, therefore, good training and acclimatization.

Should I have done more? Will it be enough? I don’t know, but I do feel comfortable with what I have done to prepare for the Chomolugma pilgrimage. I understand mountains a little better now and love them a great deal more than ever before. In my mind and in my heart I have always been climbing ‘an Everest’, and this time my body, ready or not, is just going to have to tag along.

Everest 2012

View of Everest from Renjo La

For a climber, especially a nonprofessional one, no mountain is just an enormous chunk of rock, ice and snow. Many of the ‘mountain people’ I know think of the peaks they climb almost as sentient beings, with unique faces and ‘personalities’. A ‘conquest’ of a mountain is often an overcoming of some inner obstacle to happiness or success for a mountaineer, a vanquishing of an enemy within, of whom the mountain is the embodiment. The mountain one chooses to climb must, therefore, bear certain resemblances to that inner enemy. Thus, climbers satisfied with proving themselves on a trekking peak of five-six thousand metres and those battling the many demons of Chogori or Chomolungma on long expeditions are, probably, rather different people.

The desire to climb Everest may not say much about the personality of a professional mountaineer, who is simply undergoing a sports ‘rite of passage’; an amateur’s choice to climb to the top of the world, however, is much more telling. Everest is the world’s highest climb in terms of altitude, price and prestige among non-mountaineers. During short ‘weather windows’ allowing climbers to reach Chomolungma’s summit, blasted almost year-round by the powerful jet stream, over two hundred people at a time may head into the ‘death zone’ above eight thousand metres in the first hours of the morning. For some, summit day on Everest ends in tragedy: the mountain is the last resting place for many climbers, suspended forever between reality and dream.

Although both the South/Nepal and the North/Tibet sides of the mountain are crowded, commercialized and still very dangerous to climb on, hundreds of people flock by the foot of Mother Goddess of the World every spring, along with their wounded egos and larger-than-life personal issues. This spring I will be among those people at the North Side base camp. How and why? By working day and night as well as selling my apartment; because my inner demons are, like the world’s tallest mountain, enormous.

I first ‘met with’ Everest three years ago, at its base camp in Nepal. It was a cloudy day in November, and I could feel rather than see the presence of something colossal and powerful close to me. It was like touching something you thought was just an idea, a concept, too grand to exist in the real world in solid form. I dared not imagine then that one day I would be planning to actually climb that half-real, half-dream mountain. However, last June I met a woman who made me believe that Chomolungma could and should be real for me; that it was something I needed to experience. ‘Just do it,’ she wrote on a photograph of her on the summit of Everest, and I decided that do it I would, no matter what it would cost me.

As frequent visitors to this blog will have observed, I have spent quite a long time in the mountains of Nepal between August and February: I climbed on Manaslu and Cholatse, and summited Chulu Far East, Ama Dablam and Ganchenpo. Although I tried to view each of the climbs as a meaningful experience in its own right, I was constantly mindful of the fact that each was a stepping stone towards Everest. Failures and successes of my expeditions have all contributed to the training process for a climb that can end in either. Whether I summit or not, whether or not I return, I have done my best to prepare for Everest, mentally and physically.

In the series of articles I will be posting in the course of the next couple of weeks, I will talk about how I trained for the expedition, the climb strategy and gear I will use, and, finally, my reasons for embarking on a pilgrimage to Chomolungma. Given that I’ll be posting from the moody St. Petersburg, which I am visiting before the climb, I will certainly be inspired to dilute the mountaineering broth with some whiny poetry.  Drop by if you’re curious.

Love,

Mila

Cold Water

Perfect Swimming Weather

The four men – Dorje, Pasang, the lodge owner and the cook – stare at me in disbelief. We are in the mountain village of Gokyo by the side of Lake Dudh Pokhari at four thousand seven hundred metres. Our boots are soaking wet from breaking trail in a blizzard and we are drying them and our damp clothing by the large metal stove in the dining hall.

‘You didn’t think I was joking, surely, about swimming in the lake?’ I ask my Sherpas. ‘I don’t have a sense of humour.’

‘But there’s no water,’ Dorje protests.

‘Of course, there is – under the ice.’

‘We’ve had very cold December and January this year,’ the lodge owner informs us with a grin, ‘The ice would be very thick.’

‘We have ice tools, right?’ I call to my boys for support, but they say nothing for a couple of minutes.

‘Maybe, it’s better to go tomorrow, when it’s not snowing quite so hard,’ Dorje tries to bargain.

‘Today or tomorrow, I’m still going to do it. Now, at least, we’re all wet and cold already.’

‘Ok,’ Dorje says at last, ‘what do you need?’

‘Two buckets of hot water in the shower for when I return, a blanket, and for the fire in this stove to keep burning.’ The lodge owner nods and instructs the cook to make the necessary arrangements. Dorje and Pasang quietly pick up their ice axes, two ropes, and we are ready to go. I can’t help smiling as I observe their tense, worried expressions.

‘It’s fine,’ I say cheerfully, ‘I know what I’m doing,’ but my tone fails to convince the brave mountain men.

We walk through the deep snow lying on the icy shore of the lake and stop when I think we’ve reached the point where I’d gone for a swim three years earlier in December. Granted, the weather was very different then, and there was a bit of water in the shallows. Moving some five or six metres away from the shore, we begin to hack at the ice with our axes, but I already know by the sound of the ice that it’s over a metre thick.

‘Right, stop; we need to find a place where there’s some movement of water, ice will be thinner there.’ We head back towards the lodge and soon realize that the only place where it would be possible to go for a dip is the crossing between the village and the lake. Using shovels, ice tools and boots we make a hole in the ice large enough for me to lie down.

‘The previous record was two minutes,’ the lodge owner tells me, as I take off my membrane pants and parka; I will be wearing long underwear in the water. ‘Is it true that your heart is supposed to stop after two or three minutes in zero-degree water?’

My Little Ice Pool

‘Not in my experience,’ I reply, and step off the ice and into the shallow water. My heart begins to race as my body becomes submerged, but it regains its calm rhythm in a few seconds. Cold crawls deeper and deeper under my skin, and I welcome it; I am at home in the water, never afraid of it.

‘Five minutes,’ Dorje announces, and I wake up from my cold dream. I know that my toes are frozen solid and my fingers are barely moving. I am dying, slowly.

‘Eight minutes,’ Dorje says, worried, and I know it’s time to go; reluctantly, I crawl out of the water. With my rigid fingers I try to change into dry clothes, and it takes forever. Dorje and Pasang carefully put boots on my unmoving feet and rush me back to the lodge, where two buckets of hot water are waiting in the shower. I stagger slowly behind them because I don’t want to get back to warmth – between the lake and the lodge I walk a fine line between the quiet of death and the violent, painful shivering of life which, I know, will soon invade my body. I am very tired.

In about an hour I stop stammering and can hold a cup of tea without spilling any on the blanket wrapped around me. The boys are playing cards, while I, warm by the stove, stare at Dudh Pokhari through the falling snow, already soaked in twilight. I miss home.

Leaving Gokyo

In the morning I wake up feeling incredibly strong. As the boys and I break out of the deep snows of Gokyo towards lower elevations, I feel no fatigue, no hunger or thirst: I believe I can walk forever. We reach our destination for the day all too early, so I suggest that we continue on to Namche Bazaar; in total, the trek that day takes us nine hours.

Then, we descend to Phakding, where we make some arrangements to support the monastery where we’d had our puja before the climb. After a night of rest, we hike to Lukla, which we will leave in glorious weather next morning.

Cholatse

Back in Kathmandu I will think of the Cholatse expedition as the most interesting and challenging of the season. Instead of helping me escape from February, it showed me that I could live through it, maintaining my integrity and strength. No successful ascent would have been better mind training for my next climb, the climb of my life – Everest this spring.

At the Foot of Cholatse

View Over Phortse

Our team, now complete, finally leaves Namche Bazaar on the tenth of February: we will stop in Phortse Thanga and Thore before establishing base camp at around four thousand seven hundred metres on the Cholatse Glacier. The weather is sunny during our trek, and the sky is cold and clear, comfortably distant. However, the destroyed roofs of the small houses we pass and the countless trees, lying, dead, down in the valley are vivid reminders of the Hurricane and the proximity of danger.

I walk slowly and somewhat aimlessly as I no longer have a summit to reach for. I have decided that we would not be climbing Cholatse but I know the mountain has something yet to show me, so I must get to its foot, at least.

After breaking trail through over-the-knee-deep snow towards the glacier, we finally see the Devil Mountain, and an almost extinguished flame begins again to flicker in my chest. Cholatse is glorious, and I want it more than any other before it. Its ridges curve at wonderful angles, and under the bold sun the ice encrusting the summit glows like an enormous sapphire. The slopes and the summit, however, are also covered in clouds of thick fresh snow; it would require rare luck rather than skill not to cause an avalanche in such conditions.

Cholatse

While the boys unload our yaks and put up tents, I sit on a large brown rock and stare at Cholatse, now temptingly close to me. I look, and listen, and feel for ‘a sign’, for something that would make me believe that my team can ascend to the summit and return safely, but the mountain is looking down on me in silence, its two sharp ridges like open arms reaching for the people I have brought with me to climb it. ‘You can’t have them,’ I whisper to Cholatse or to myself, I hardly know, ‘I won’t let you have them.’

Pasang and Chongba climbing the first section of the route to Camp One

‘We’ll go off to explore the route to Camp One tomorrow,’ Pasang and Chongba tell me in the dining tent in the evening, and I cringe at the thought.

‘Remember what I told you: the moment you feel uncomfortable, you turn back. I’ll happily go swimming instead.’

‘We have to try,’ Dorje interrupts me, ‘it’s our job.’

‘But it’s also just a mountain. I don’t care if we climb it or not. Training for Everest is what this expedition is about; we can’t afford to get hurt now, none of us.’ I’m lying, I do care. I don’t want to think about Everest yet because that’s in April, or never; what do I know? It is Cholatse I want now, and my team would climb it for me if I asked them to; it’s their job, they say, and they take it seriously. In all honesty, if my team were a group of less decent people, I would have insisted that we climb. These men, however, have proven to be my friends, and their safety is sacred to me.

Pasang and Chongba promise me that they will be careful, but when I see them moving steadily away from base camp towards the South West Ridge, my heart seems to shrink to the size of a small pearl. I remember why I prefer to walk alone: because this way I can afford to be fearless.

To distract ourselves, Dorje and I talk about the upcoming Everest expedition until at four pm Pasang and Chongba return, and Dorje and I can now both sigh, relieved. In my mind I thank Cholatse for granting the boys safe passage. While they are resting and having tea, we all look at the pictures of the route which Pasang had taken.

‘We can climb up to Camp One. There’s a lot of vertical rock-climbing involved, but we can manage. Beyond Camp One, however…’ he points at the gaping mouths of the wide crevasses lining the way to the summit.

‘No,’ I say, ‘enough. We’re going swimming.’

‘But we can tag Camp One, at least. Chongba and I have to go anyway because we left some rope and snow anchors up there.’ The Sherpas all nod in agreement.

‘Forget the stuff you left up there. I don’t want anyone on the mountain; I don’t want to go to Camp One. We’re done here.’ I almost choke on my words as I force my mouth to let go of them. ‘Let’s talk Everest instead…’

After a Dip In Gokyo in a Blizzard

The next day the winds return. At base camp we are waiting for the yaks which would take our gear back down to Lukla. I leave the boys to chat in the kitchen tent and climb up the moraine to get closer to Cholatse. Gusts of wind throw snow and sand in my face, and the Devil Mountain, dark-grey, stands proudly among low clouds. When I feel far enough from base camp, lost enough, I sit on the cold ground behind a large boulder, watching the storm dance over Himalayan peaks. Soon, I become part of the scenery – a rock among rocks. It is a strange and peaceful feeling – this of being Cholatse and not the greedy girl who craves to climb it; of being the strength the Hurricane had ‘told’ me to search for. As I get up to return to base camp, I am not the same person who’d left it just over an hour earlier: I am the storm, I am the mountain, and I am nothing.

Early next morning Dorje, Pasang and I say good-bye to Chongba and Jangbu, our cook, who will return to Lukla with the expedition gear. Our mini-team, travelling light, will cross the Ngozumba Glacier over to Gokyo in a blizzard so that I could go for a ‘swim’ in my favourite mountain lake in the world, Dudh Pokhari.

Talking Storms

On the sixth of February Dorje and I climb up to Phakding Monastery for a Buddhist prayer ceremony, a puja, to be performed by the monks to protect our team, separated by bad weather and other circumstances. One of the climbers, Pasang, is still in Kathmandu, another climbing Sherpa, Chongba, and the cook, Jangbu, are in Lukla, and I am planning to trek to Namche Bazaar early next morning to acclimatize to high altitude.

The day of the puja is beautifully sunny and the monastery, perched up on the hill overlooking the village of Phakding, is quiet and peaceful. During the long ceremony held in the cold prayer hall, I feel like I am in a dream. The sweetness and warmth of milk tea on my palate, the clear sound of the bell and the guttural chanting in the dim air as well as the icy numbness of my suddenly still body seem alien, far removed from whatever it is that I am. When the ceremony is over and we receive blessings from the lamas, I feel unassailably happy and prepared for what is coming. A Hurricane.

The day after I arrive in Namche, a storm hits the Everest Region with surprising force; it tumbles trees and moves rocks, howling and growling, while I, the only guest in a limbo like lodge, read The Wheel of Sharp Weapons stubbornly, over and over again; when I can’t hear my own thoughts because of the wind, I read aloud. The lights go out, and I turn my head lamp on to keep reading, to stay awake. The morning after brings little relief as the Hurricane takes a quiet breath before the next blow.

After the Storm

‘I will not stop until you understand,’ the Hurricane seems to whisper to me, ‘that I am not some external force, a storm you can sit out or hide from; I am your mind. I will tear, and break, and hurt everything you care about until you find the strength to tame me. ’

‘What am I to a Hurricane? I don’t have that strength.’

‘Then, make it out of something you have in excess.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘‘Dance and trample on the head of this betrayer, false conception;

Mortally strike at the heart of this butcher and enemy, Ego’’

 [‘The Wheel of Sharp Weapons’, translated by Thupten Jinpa]

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Of course not; that is exactly why I want you to think about it.’

At four p.m. my phone is working again, and I can finally call Dorje: I want to let him know that tomorrow I will start down, and that the expedition is over: I will not risk my team’s safety for something I want, no matter how badly. Before I have the chance to say a word to Dorje on the phone, however, his tired voice tells me that he is already on the way to Namche. When he and Jangbu arrive I learn that, after six days of waiting, Pasang was able to fly out of Kathmandu by helicopter and will be joining us next morning. Strangely, instead of joy, I am overcome with grim anxiety: I had given up on Cholatse, I had decided to forget my insatiable ambition, but the Hurricane, true to its promise, will not stop until I’ve learnt my lesson well.

Above Cholatse Base Camp

‘If you hadn’t come and Pasang had still been in Kathmandu, I would have simply walked back tomorrow morning, you know…’ I tell Dorje at dinner. It would have been easy, too easy.

‘That would have been hard, Milarepa,’ he smiles, ‘the trail is completely blocked by fallen trees after the hurricane. Our yaks couldn’t pass. It’s a mess.’

‘Oh…’ I am hardly surprised to hear that the way back to ‘before the storm’ is impassable. I must walk a full circle before returning home, and it is my fault, undeniably, that four good people have to join me on this eerie adventure. My desire to climb Cholatse will now have to turn into a quest to keep the team away from it.

‘Remember, Dorje,’ I ask after a moment’s pause, ‘how I told you I was an ice swimmer? Well, if we get to base camp and don’t like the look of the Devil Mountain, we’re gonna go swimming instead. In Gokyo. You can make me a hole is the ice and I’ll sit there and pretend I’m on the summit of Cholatse.’

Whatever you like it, take it,’ is Dorje’s response, his trademark, accompanied by laughter, ‘but,’ he adds, ‘we have to try.’

That night, for the first time ever since I began to live and to want, I pray that we fail.