It is only natural that one should be nervous before any climb, not to mention an Everest expedition. And nervous I am; so much so that I have managed to make myself physically ill only a month before the team’s planned departure to base camp.
Having returned to Kathmandu from St. Petersburg yesterday, I must quickly make amends for letting my anxiety influence my readiness for the climb. As those of you who have been following my Everest posts know, I believe that the best training for a climb is another climb. Given that I am short on time, however, I do not want to risk undertaking another expedition before the Big One, so I will go trekking instead – for a bit of a last-minute workout and acclimatization. I will head back to my favorite Khumbu tomorrow to cross three famous mountain passes: Renjo La, Chola and Kongma La. This trek usually takes 17-20 days but my guide, Dorjee, and I will only have 13 days before he must return to Kathmandu, while I will stay on in Phakding to do a little bit of teaching. I expect it to be very challenging indeed, as I am not currently at my strongest.
If all goes to plan, I will be back to post my last pre-Everest article and – inevitably 🙂 – some poetry at the end of March. Before I leave, let me thank my readers for keeping track of my adventures and wish them peace, good health and good luck this spring!
Everest has been climbed over 5000 times between now and 1953, when it was first conquered by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The British expedition which they were members of approached the mountain from Nepal. Having found their way through the deadly maze of the Khumbu Icefall, stood the exhausting trial of Lhotse Face and, on summit day, having overcome the difficult rock step now named after Hillary, the New Zealander and the Sherpa reached the top of the world. In doing so they inaugurated the route to the summit of Everest which is now followed by hundreds of climbers, one which is only rivaled in popularity by the Northeast Ridge route on the Tibetan/Chinese side of the mountain – the one I intend to follow. In this post I will briefly relate the first chapters of its history. I will also write about what I consider the greatest personal challenge of the climb and the biggest advantage of undertaking it from the Cold Side.
Ever since the Great Trigonometric Survey (1856) determined the summit of Chomolungma to be the highest point on Earth, the Himalayan peak began to attract a lot of attention – and its first potential conquerors. The British, who’d conducted the survey and [re-]named the mountain Everest, wanted also to claim the first ascent. Given that Nepal was then a kingdom closed to foreign visitors, approaching Everest from Tibet was the only option. The expedition of 1921 had reconnaissance as its declared objective but, with Britain’s top climbers, including George Leigh Mallory, among its members, it may have hoped for more. The expedition’s main goal was achieved: the approach to Everest was found, as were many sections of the route to the summit, and some weather patterns, relevant for climbing, were noted. Thus, it was hoped that the climbing expedition to follow should reach the summit. Unfortunately, a set of inauspicious circumstances prevented George Mallory and the climbers of the 1922 expedition from doing so, and another attempt was imminent. It was launched in 1924, once again bringing Mallory and the top British mountaineers of the day to Tibet. A relative novice to climbing, Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine, was also on the team. Mallory and Irvine, along with Hillary and Tenzing, are four names that have become almost synonymous with Everest itself: the latter pair – because they were the first to climb the mountain and return safely, and the former – because, using the equipment available in 1924, after a long time high in the death zone, they may have climbed the mountain. But, they never returned. On their summit day, Mallory and Irvine disappeared out of sight in a cloud on one of the rock steps barring the way to the summit, and with this ‘vanishing’ a great mountaineering mystery was born. Did they conquer the summit and perish on the way down, or did they die retreating, having failed to overcome the very formidable obstacle of the Second Step? Is it possible that Mallory’s skill and Irvine’s commitment could have helped them to the top of the infamously difficult, exposed rock step, which many great climbers of today would struggle with, modern equipment and techniques notwithstanding? To put things into perspective, there is now a ladder where Mallory and Irvine had to have climbed wearing hobnailed boots, gabardine pants and cumbersome oxygen apparatuses. Regardless of whether or not they reached the summit, it is in the footsteps of these men that I would like to to follow. It may be that their path not merely leads to the top of the world but goes beyond, into a realm, where it is the mind – not the body or the external forces of nature – that determines what is possible. No living guide would take me to that place, so I must follow ghosts.
Now, that sounds romantic, non :)? It won’t be. The Northeat Ridge route up Everest is no lovely, meditative walk in the park. It is a route that is more difficult and, statistically, more dangerous than the climb from Nepal. After a dusty four-/five-day drive from Kathmandu to the Old Chinese Base Camp in the province of Tibet one arrives at the foot of Chomolungma. Having spent a few days acclimatizing at BC at 5200m, climbers then start for the mountain, where they must pass its many and varied tests before they can hope to reach the top. One of the main difficulties on all of Everest, but especially the North Side, is the cold, made worse by tireless winds. If you think it’s easy to manage with layers (and layers, and layers, and layers) of warm clothing, it’s not quite that simple. At high elevations blood does not carry nearly as much oxygen as at sea level; it is ‘thinner’, and the circulation – slower and less efficient. Thus, the body does not produce enough heat to warm up the clothing, no matter how many layers of it one may be wearing. Being well-acclimatized helps deal with altitude-related issues, including the cold: overtime one’s blood ‘learns’ to transport more O2 as it tries to make up for the lack of it in the air. However, the human body can only do so much to adapt to and fend off the detrimental effects of the cold, hypoxic environments of high mountains. When the cold becomes extreme, the body switches to ‘survival mode’: it ‘gives up’ parts of itself that are not crucial for survival – that is how fingers and toes (and extremities in general) are lost to frostbite. Therefore, the cold and ways of managing the risks it presents must be considered seriously before any extremely high climb. For me, the cold is a very real problem. It appears that the same ‘eccentric’ thermal regulation system that allows me to swim in ice-cold water safely, can harm me in cold air. Whereas it is beneficial for ice-swimming to allow a layer of one’s flesh to ‘freeze’ as quickly as possible (so as to slow down further loss of bodily warmth and protect the rest of the tissues from cold), it is dangerous for mountaineering, where one spends extended periods of time in arctic temperatures. The danger here is that my body may mistake a five-day summit push for a thirty-minute ice-swim: it may rashly surrender more tissues to cold than it will be able to re-heat before they die permanently. Of course, all this may be ignorant speculation but, having observed my body’s reactions to extreme cold on many occasions, in both water and air, this is the conclusion I’ve drawn. And so, perhaps, wrongly, I worry more about the cold than I do about the long, exhausting climbing days and the technical difficulties of the Mallory route.
Then, why have I chosen to climb from the Cold Side? Because, paradoxically, my choice could make for a warmer summit day – naturally, the longest and coldest of all the climbing days on Everest. How? Let me explain. The North side has always been somewhat less crowded than the Southeast Ridge route in Nepal, especially, in recent years. There’s a number of reasons for this, and one of them is that Tibet is not always open for expeditions. Many commercial companies no longer try to work there at all: to avoid the disappointments and losses associated with having to switch to the Nepal side if Tibet is closed without early warning, which has happened in the past. Given that permit prices are now exactly the same, there’s no longer any financial benefit – as there used to be – to climbing from the Cold Side. However, from my selfish perspective, there is a very positive aspect to this development: the Northeast Ridge route will not have half as many climbers pulling on that single fixed rope as the Southeast Ridge route will. Crowds may not be such a great hindrance to one’s progress lower on the mountain, but on summit day they may and they will. The The South side is notorious for ‘traffic jams’ high in the death zone, where the cold is bitter, the wind – wild, and the danger of suffering frostbite increases with every minute spent without moving. Although on the North Side, too, there is usually quite a few people under and above the Second Step on summit day, they are not as many, and so the wait in the cold ought to be shorter. That, at least, is what I think the case is.
Unfortunately, all too many things may yet happen to prevent me from joining a summit day traffic jam on Everest. I can only hope that the Cold Side proves more welcoming than the name by which I’ve been calling it suggests.
Everest is high: so high, there is not a higher point on Earth than its summit. Everest is vast: so vast, it takes a week on average to get to the top and back down. Everest is cold and windy: so cold and windy, that some climbers calculate beforehand how many digits they would be prepared to lose to frostbite for a chance to summit. Everest is unpredictable: so unpredictable that it is pointless and arrogant to make any such calculations. Everest is a captivating dream: so captivating that many remain asleep on its slopes forever. Thus, it is only too appropriate that an ascent of Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the World for Tibetans, should be taken seriously, and the climb strategy be thoroughly planned. I will write about how I plan to go about the climb in several consecutive posts, the first of which will deal with my choice of commercial expedition to join.
Tens of commercial adventure companies offer logistics and climbing support to the Everest hopefuls, capable of affording their services. Prices range widely, depending on the amount and quality of support the climber may expect to receive. A very insightful article about the costs involved in undertaking an Everest expedition, and the services available, can be found here: http://www.alanarnette.com/blog/2012/02/07/everest-2012-a-look-at-the-costs
What am I going to do, then? I will neither be hiking to Tibet, hiring my own yaks and climbing solo, nor will I be arriving at base camp by private helicopter and joining the most expensive expedition. Instead, I have signed up with the same expedition leader I was with on Manaslu – someone I know, respect and trust. No more than eight repeat offenders/returning customers are accepted on his Everest team, and all us must to be ‘climbers’, not ‘clients’. I like our leader’s expedition philosophy, which is all about maximum safety and professionalism on the mountain, and maximum comfort – and even luxury – at base camp.
Nine highly experienced climbing Sherpas, all multiple Everest summiteers, will be working on the route and assisting us, ‘westerners’, in getting to the top. Among them will be my Ama Dablam, Ganchenpo and Cholatse accomplices – Dorjee, who will be the sirdar, leader of the Sherpas, and Pasang, who will climb with me. The Sherpas will set up high camps and stock them with oxygen and other necessary equipment. On summit day each western climber will leave Camp Three with a Sherpa, who will carry their extra oxygen and walk by their side until they return to Camp Three. Even lower down on the mountain, no climber will be permitted to travel between camps alone, and each will be required to carry a radio and a personal emergency medical kit. I have once witnessed these safety precautions prove to be live-saving. On summit day on Manaslu last October my team mates and the Sherpas were able to coordinate a rescue and provide first aid to a climber from another expedition. Alone, he’d collapsed near the summit and would certainly have died if it wasn’t for my team’s courage and benevolence as well as the radios, medicine and oxygen they had readily available.
Between acclimatization rotations and then, hopefully, before the summit push, we will be spending a fair amount of time at base camp, where each climber will have her/his own three-person tent, a large heated dining dome, a communications/entertainment dome with access to Internet and satellite phone, gas heated showers, custom weather forecasts, movie nights and daily happy hour with wine – for all but me, who consistently prefers caffeine and aspartame to alcohol… This setup may sound excessively luxurious to those, who believe that part of the charm of mountaineering lies in its austerity. I am all about frugality and moderation myself – but moderation, too, in moderation. It may be fine to live in a tent with three other people for a week without showering, and subsist on instant soup and energy bars, but it is unhealthy – both physically and psychologically – to do so for two months. On Everest harshness and asceticism inevitably lurk at every corner, and to be able to escape from them at base camp is nothing less than wonderful and, perhaps, even necessary. My dear readers, do not underestimate the power of chocolate cake: it is the vision of a slice of it on your plate at base camp, which will motivate and speed you up on descent, luring you back to safety.
To sum up, then, let’s see what my choice of expedition company was based on. One word: experience. My climbs, successful and otherwise, have shown me what I need and what I must avoid to get to the summit. Having climbed with my Everest expedition leader on Manaslu, and some of his team of Sherpas – on several other mountains, I feel confident that they can provide for a safe, comfortable and interesting climbing experience on Everest. I know what to expect – and what not to expect – from them, while they know my strengths and are prepared to help me deal with my weaknesses. As it will be a long expedition, it is really very good that I like my team mates, most of whom I have met and even climbed with before. Most importantly, however, I simply adore the chocolate cake our cook makes ;).