Everest 2012: The Summit Push, Part II

Sunset on Everest, view from BC

I’m sitting in the tent at 8300 meters, bent over my sleeping bag. Every time I lean back for a rest, angry cough immediately makes me sit up again. I drink as much water or tea as I can, and check my watch often – I am waiting for 10:30pm, when I plan to start getting ready to leave – for the summit of Everest. Meanwhile, I talk to my summit day climbing Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu, with whom I was previously climbing on Manaslu, Ama Dablam, Ganchenpo and Cholatse, about our ‘strategy’: times, oxygen etc… It is never mentioned in the conversation that, sick as I am already, I could get worse while we’re climbing, and helping me down would be desperately hard work. The very narrow traverses over vertiginous drop-offs of 3000 meters and steep rocky pitches, such as the notorious Second Step, make rescues in the death zone impossible: one has to reach the summit and return on their own two feet, or stay on the mountain; no one could ‘carry’ you to the summit or back down – it is ignorant and cruel of people, who have no mountaineering experience, to suggest otherwise. Pasang and I are both well aware of the risks that pushing for the summit entails for each of us, but, having climbed together before, we know that we can trust each other’s judgement: I would turn back if I felt I absolutely had to; I would turn back if he said I should. Yet, as the sun sets, and the icy evening descends upon the highest campsite in the world, turning back is not what’s on my mind. I choose to think only the most trivial thoughts, and sit, wait and hope that, when I start walking, I feel stronger and warmer than I’m feeling now.

It takes a small eternity to put my boots, harness and crampons on, but at 11:15 pm I am outside the tent, ready to leave at our team’s departure time 15 minutes later. The weather is cold, naturally, but not the coldest I’ve had to climb in, and the wind is not too strong. Headlamp beams of the climbers who have left Camp 3 before us dance along the route to the top of the world. I can’t see any features of the route – just this dance of scattered lights, some close to me, and some – too far away.

At 11:30 pm on the dot we take our first steps towards the summit. They are so unbearably hard on my drained body that I have to shut my mind down completely – all it can do now is tell me to please, please stop this torture and turn back, and I don’t want to hear that. The pace I’m walking at is, perhaps, a bit too fast (not in sea-level terms, of course) as I have to sit down and rest at almost every other rope anchor. Yet, I have to push myself, or the ‘reasonable Mila’ I’ve been trying to silence will start talking again: ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this…’ – she is such a whinge!

Soon we reach the famous Exit Cracks – the steep rocky pitch which leads climbers onto the North Ridge. I have been warm until then but, stuck in line behind slow, inexperienced climbers I begin to freeze: I am loosing feeling in my hands in spite of wearing two layers of gloves plus down mitts, and my toes are painfully cold; I massage my palms and move my toes non-stop. I cough and shiver for some 30-40 minutes, until it’s my turn to go. Pasang and I climb onto the Ridge, and continue up. On our way we pass a few climbers; most memorably, a young Chinese woman with her guide. She is slow and insecure on her legs, and he shouts at her angrily. I am sorry for her, and I wonder how she can carry on like that.

Another long traverse – crampons against cold, bare rock, a couple of cold rest stops, a mouthful of cold water against my cold, aching throat; cold, cold, cold – and we reach the First Step. It is a famous feature of the North Side geography – a steep rocky pitch, similar to the Exit Cracks but a bit longer and harder. I have no recollection whatsoever of climbing it on the way up – I must have been struggling too hard to remember…

‘The Second Step should be close now; perhaps, another hour,’ I tell myself. The Second Step is a long, difficult climb up vertical rock, rock with as much history as the mountain itself. Its technical difficulty is such that two ladders have been anchored to it: one small one at the foot of the Step and one tall one, which leads to the top. It is between them, where climbers tend to struggle as they get past a couple of large, protruding rocks, which requires some skill and, perhaps, a bit of courage. The problem is that the Second Step is very exposed – there’s a 3000-meter drop off all the way to the Rongbuk Glacier under your feet, and all that’s standing between you and a ‘speed descent’ is 8.5mm rope, an aging ladder and your strength. It’s an intimidating thought, so I chase it out of my mind, and start for the Step. It will be another 20-30 minutes before I reach the first ladder – the climbers ahead of me are moving up the Step very slowly. It is the coldest hour of the morning, right before sunrise, when the first pale, bloodless-pink strip of light cuts through the still-dark sky. I wish I had my camera, but I’d given it to Pasang to keep warm, so I simply stare at the white peaks, all far below, at the sky, shedding its night skin, and at the light, which will soon bring a little bit of warmth to the death zone’s unwelcome visitors… Climbing the first wobbly ladder is no problem. However, the rocks, hovering over the white abyss, require me to abandon all half-hearted attempts at graceful climbing: pulling hard on the rope, I straddle one of them, cough a piece of something up, get on my knees, and go for the second ladder – but not before I’ve looked around me. I’ve never seen anything more special: already higher than any mountain on Earth, I am standing at the edge of the sky, a part of this mellow dawn and of the great, harsh Chomolungma… ‘Will it be worth it?’, I remember asking myself on the way to Camp 3. ‘Of course, it’s worth it.’ The second ladder is no trouble to climb.

From the top of the Second Step I can see the Third Step – the last one on the way to the summit, now also in clear view; it looks so close… As Pasang and I approach the Third Step, I notice someone I know sitting in the snow to my left. Inside his red hood his face is black – I cannot make it out but I recognize the suit and the posture. He is one of the dead of Everest, one of the many bodies, which rest on the mountain; he is also the ‘visitor’, who woke me up on my first night at Base Camp. That night I was very cold, but his nights up here, how cold they must be! It hurts me to look at him. Suddenly, I am freezing, too; I can feel the pathetic remains of my strength and determination leave my body as I cry quietly into my dark goggles. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I whisper into my mask, ‘I am so infinitely sorry!’

Under the Third Step another body, dressed in a yellow down suit, lies in fetal position, very close to the rope leading up the Step. Having waited, as usual, I take my turn climbing up. When I’m almost at the top, I see a climber come to the edge of the Step, with his Sherpa behind him, and sit right on the rope. I try to get around him but the rope won’t let me do so without unclipping: there’s already one corpse at the foot of the Step, so I won’t do it. As the climber watches me struggle, he also directs my efforts to get past him – he simply won’t move. ‘Move back, please!’ I growl at him in my sick, gurgling voice, angered by his insolence. Immediately I have to giggle when the human obstacle almost jumps back and, effectively, out of the way. Never knew I could be quite so scary!

‘Now, up the snow ramp, and there it is, the summit,’ I tell myself at the top of the Third Step. Silly me! The way does lie up the ramp but that’s not the end of the way. After the snow ramp there’s still a very exposed, narrow traverse to negotiate, then, another small rocky ramp to climb, and then, the summit is just up the slope – and it feels like such a long slope to me. As we make our final steps towards the summit, we meet Pasang Nima, Grant and Phil, on their way down. We shake hands and chat briefly before going our separate ways. Several more steps, and I stand in the strong summit wind, which dances dementedly around me; I can see the whole of the sky.

Yours Truly and Pasang Wongchu Sherpa on the Summit of Everest (19.05.2012)

Here it is – the world’s most famous ‘mountain’ of prayer-flags and khatas, which marks the summit of Everest. I have seen it so many times before – in movies, in pictures – and now I can touch it, touch the very spot where Light first touches the Earth. It’s 8 am, and there are about 8-10 people on the summit, taking pictures, laughing. Pasang takes my camera out of his pocket and snaps a photo of me next to the prayer-flags. Then, I take my backpack off, and reach for a small bag of white cotton, where I’ve been keeping things to take to the summit: a khata from Pema Choling Monastery’s kids, a thread bracelet from a friend, who dreams of climbing Everest, and something from my mother – these three things I leave for Chomolungma to bless, and pray that She take care of the people whom they belong to. Then, Pasang and I take another summit photo with my camera (the battery in his is frozen), and agree to head down. We change our O2 bottles, look around one more time, and leave.

Although we’ve only spent about 20 minutes on the summit, it’s enough. Now, on the way down, I feel strangely calm – in spite of the cough, and the wind, and the utter absence of strength in my limbs, and the fact that I am hours away from the relative safety of camp… In fact, I feel so calm, I am almost falling asleep as I’m walking along the terribly narrow traverse on the side of the summit pyramid. I think, I’m as calm as someone dying in peace.

Everest 2012: Kathmandu to Qomolangma

CTMA Land Cruiser vs Nyalam Yak

It’s a stormy night, the night of the 10th of April, when our Altitude Junkies team leaves for the Chinese border in Kodari. After taking another pill of Amoxicillin, I toss and turn in bed until 3 in the morning, unable to fall asleep because of the fever, the less than optimistic thoughts on my mind and the thunder – I can’t remember a louder storm in Kathmandu in all the time I have spent here. I give up on trying to rest before the 5 a.m. departure, and get up. My two enormous black duffel bags are packed and ready to go on the truck, directly to base camp, while in my backpack I have a few things I will need during the four-day drive through Tibet. Everything is ready but I am not: I cannot climb the world’s highest mountain on antibiotics. Or can I? Driving through the dark, wet streets of Kathmandu, I find myself thinking about how bad a start I am making: I’d spent the day before trying to deal with the Tibet permit problems (a most nerve-wracking experience), I am ill, and I feel that after all the climbing I’d done in 2011-2012 I simply don’t have enough strength in me to scale another mountain, least of all Everest…

Nyalam

The border crossing in Kodari distracts me from these grim thoughts. Our team’s 250 porters, mixing with other travelers, cross the Friendship Bridge, and we follow the group tents, chairs and gear into China. The rigorous border checks take a while, but go smoothly enough, and early in the afternoon we find ourselves already in Zhangmu, having lunch before proceeding to Nyalam at 3800 meters. The scenery as we drive higher into the mountains is stunning: the still cold, bare hills rise above grey gorges, linking the dry earth to the heavy clouds in the sky. In about two hours we arrive in Nyalam and, following its main street, down which thick steam pours from pipes, sticking out of every window, we arrive at our CTMA-assigned accommodation. We will spend two nights in Nyalam – to acclimatize to high altitude. I will be in bed most of the time, shivering with fever, or cold, or anger at myself, I hardly know.

Thong La, on the way to Tingri

On the 12th of April we leave for Tingri at 4300 meters, where we spend two more nights. The scenic drive through the Tibetan high-altitude desert takes us across two high mountain passes of over 5000 meters in elevation. It is on the way to Tingri where we catch our first glimpse of Everest. Blurry in the distance, it rises above the valley, completely surreal: broad, black, tall, intimidating. Looking at the summit, battered by the powerful jet stream, I ask myself: ‘what was I thinking?’ Everest is just too big a dream!

First view of Everest

In Tingri the Wild-West-looking town’s dogs, famous for biting and sending home many a hopeful Everest climber, keep me and my team mates confined to the grounds of the hotel. Still sick, I watch movies and nibble on Chinese candy with the wonderful and inspiring Margaret Watroba, a well-known mountaineer/electrical engineer/Wonder Woman from Perth, Australia, who summited Everest from the South/Nepal Side in 2011. We go through liters and liters of ginger tea, trying to fend off the headaches caused by the rapid altitude gain of the past couple of days. I am excited to be climbing alongside Margaret: she was the one who made me believe I could do it – climb Everest – in the first place, and her presence on the team is a great joy and comfort to me.

Altitude Junkies’ Everest Base Camp

On the 14th of April we arrive at Everest Base Camp (BC) after a four-hour drive from Tingri. The base camp area is very spacious, with different teams’ headquarters located at a good distance from each other. As I later find out from a team mate, Grant Rawlinson (http://climbforhope.wordpress.com/), there are about 110 injis (westerners) on the North Side of the mountain – not too many at all compared to the infamously crowded South Side. While our leader, Phil Crampton, and the Sherpas get quickly to work on the group and individual tents and the dining and communications domes, we sip milk tea in the kitchen tent, popping our heads out occasionally to look at Chomolungma, who towers above the Rongbuk Glacier with her characteristic jet stream plume painting a thick white line against the cold sky. ‘What was I thinking?’ I ask myself again, looking at the enormous black mountain.

Soon the tents are ready for their inhabitants, and I jump into my temporary orange nylon home. I take the last Amoxicillin pill of the course, stretch out on my -40C sleeping-bag and feel at last like the expedition has really started. Due to my illness, I am much weaker than I expected to be upon arrival at the foot of Everest but that’s fine, as long as I can keep healthy for the next 50 days or so. My determination to give my all to the climb is returning as well, supported by the proximity and tangibility of my dream – Chomolungma.

Everest from BC

I am not looking forward to the first night at base camp, however, as I know I will be cold. I lie in my large, puffy sleeping bag, waiting and waiting for the down to warm up a little but the curse of my ‘eccentric’ bodily thermal regulation system is as powerful as ever, and the sleeping bag stays cold. I take an Ibuprofen to get rid of the altitude-induced headache, at least, and drift into half-sleep. When I wake up again I see someone sitting next to me in the tent, yet, I can’t make out their face, which is darker than the night around us. I wonder who my guest is, but I am more sleepy than curious, so I let my eyes close – I have a feeling I will meet my visitor again, and when I do, it won’t be in a dream but in a nightmare.

Everest: The Cold Side

The North Face of Everest, photo source – Wikipedia

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 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