Summiting Mount Everest

It’s Monday morning as I write this – the 28th May 2018.  Exactly one week ago I was resting in a tent at the South Col of Mount Everest having climbed to the summit that morning.  I arrived as dawn was breaking.

My steady progression from the Hillary Step up the summit ridge was in darkness; I watched sunrise from the top of the world with my summit Sherpa, Tenzing.  We were completely by ourselves.  We radioed base camp to update them.  When it was light we took photographs.  I took a snow sample that would later be sent to the Pyramid Research Station at Lobuche to be analysed for pollution levels.  Then, just as the first climbers from the North side were reaching the summit, and as a couple of my team-mates were coming across the final metres of the summit ridge, we began our descent.  It was almost 5:30am on 21st May and we had been at the summit nearly an hour.  Three hours later we were back at Camp 4 at the South Col (7900m) and, later that evening, back at Camp 2 (6350m).

Collecting snow samples

The summit push was the culmination of almost two months’ consistent effort – a lot of walking, a lot of waiting, a lot of physical degradation.  It’s a mental game.  You count down the days and tell yourself to hold on just one more month, one more week, one more day….  Just keep walking.

We left Base Camp for Camp 2 on 16th May.  It was a 2:30am start so that we could get through the icefall in the cool of darkness, but we still had a long, hot walk through the Western Cwm.  We spent two rest days at Camp 2 while we waited for the go-ahead from coordinators at Base (weather, movements of other climbers and Sherpa availability all come into the decision).  On the 19th May we moved to Camp 3.  We were wearing our down suits and carrying as little as possible, but it still seemed a lot – sleeping mat, food, fuel, oxygen mask, hats, gloves, mitts, socks, torches and batteries… it adds up.  It made for a long, hot climb up the steep Lhotse Face.

Camp 3 is in the middle of the Lhotse Face and is not a nice place to be for long.  Rows of tents are perched on the steep slope and climbers unclip from the fixed ropes tentatively to walk to or around tents.  I barely left the tent at Camp 3.  We got oxygen for the first time here and I slept the night with the mask on my face and condensation dripping.  But the oxygen definitely makes breathing easier and thus walking less arduous. It’s still hard and slow, but it doesn’t feel quite so uncomfortable.

We left at 5:30am on the morning of the 20th May for Camp 4.  The route continues steeply up the Lhotse Face, then turns right to cross a rocky strip called the Yellow Band and then on to a rock buttress called the Geneva Spur.  Once up and over, it is a gentle traverse to the South Col and Camp 4.  We were there just after midday, relieved to get into the tent after another very warm morning in the sunshine.

View down on Camp 4 at the South Col with Lhotse behind. Route down the mountain visible going to the right over the Geneva Spur

Here we had a rest and some food and drink before preparing to leave for the summit that evening.  We would walk through the night in order to reach the summit in the morning.  Since the descent is statistically the more dangerous part of the climb it is good to have plenty of daylight in which to act or coordinate rescues in case things go wrong.

Thankfully for us nothing went wrong.  We left Camp 4 between 8:30 and 9pm and began our slow trudge to the top.  As usual, it was long, steep and hard.  But one thing I learned is that time flies even when you’re not having fun!  It feels awful.  You’re just stepping, stepping, breathing, breathing – just wishing it would end.  But time passes, you get higher.  I recognised familiar markers as I got to them (the Balcony, the South Summit…) partly by their geography and partly by the stashes of oxygen cylinders there.  These were places I had read so much about and here I was!  I was ahead of others so I was experiencing these places pure and uncrowded, albeit in darkness.  The benefit of being a slight, light female is that the oxygen has a greater affect on us than on larger, heavier males, so often it is the women who are earlier to the top.

Then, without realising it, I climbed the Hillary Step and found myself looking along a snow ridge to the summit. It was still dark, but the horizon was just breaking into colour.  Sunrise at the summit was beautiful.  Suddenly we could see the whole landscape, not just the narrow beam ahead illuminated by the head torch.  Everything seemed so small!  Peaks that we had been looking up at from Base Camp, Camp 2 or 3 now looked inconsequential.  Even Lhotse, rising above Camp 4, looked tiny.  Everest is high, and it is truly extreme.  It is extremely hot or extremely cold.  It is steep almost everywhere, so you barely get a let-up anywhere beyond the Western Cwm.  But this is what makes it so impressive.

Me on the summit

Climbing Everest is tough – a long, constant attrition.  You need to be willing to put up with a bit of pain and hardship.  But for that you get to spend time in an extraordinary, majestic environment.  I’ve seen pictures of Everest, films, books… but nothing compares to being there.  I never fully understood the scale or the steepness until I stood there in the Western Cwm looking up.  I never considered the slow toll the altitude would have on my body and that I would be climbing the highest mountain in the world in less-than-perfect health.  I never appreciated how much the icefall would change between passes, subtly transforming itself on an almost daily basis.  I’m glad I experienced these things – the good and the bad.  I feel now that I understand that place better, and that is what I wanted.

Sherpas descending from camp 1

I also feel that I have a better appreciation of what the early ascensionists endured in their pursuit of Everest.  Of course we have it easier – we have more lightweight clothing and equipment, less cumbersome oxygen sets, easier communication with base camp and the outside world, improved medical understanding and facilities, and the possibility of helicopter rescue.  And we don’t have the uncertainty of the route or the obstacles on the way.  But I have an insight into what they went through.

Me and my summit sherpa, Tenzing, back down in base camp.

Sixty-five years ago Mount Everest was climbed for the first time.  Time and scientific development have made it possible for ordinary people like me to contemplate visiting the highest point on our planet.  This is exciting because to reach for our boundaries is natural and enriching, and I feel privileged to have been able to walk in those historical footsteps and experience such an extraordinary environment.

29th May is the 65th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest.

Coordinating the summit push

The last couple of weeks have been just waiting. We have been at base camp biding our time, spending our days walking, eating, napping, chatting and playing cards. It’s actually quite relaxing, provided you don’t allow yourself to get impatient about the next step – when will we be going up the mountain?

However, whilst the climbers have been resting there has been a lot of activity higher up the mountain. There is a lot to be organised; a lot to be moved into place, quite literally. Over the last couple of weeks Sherpas have been carrying loads up the mountain to supply higher camps. There are tents, sleeping mats, stoves, gas, food and oxygen that need to be carried to camps 3 and 4 ready for the climbers coming up.  As well as that, Sherpa teams have been fixing ropes to the summit.  These are safety lines that the climbers clip into in case of falls.

Waiting at base camp

This intricate dance is coordinated from base camp, often with cooperation between the major teams. Radio communications are imperative here for discussion between camps up the mountain. The Sherpas carry portable Icom radios so they can keep in touch with base camp.

Whilst all this is going on we are watching the weather. We are looking for a “window” of good weather – a stable period of about four days or so, particularly with low winds. When all the equipment is in place and the ropes are almost fixed then the teams start to move.  Early teams may move up to camp 2 and on to camp 3 to be in position for when the ropes are fixed and the winds drop.  Others will come later, due to personal choice or logistics.  For example, we have two groups, which will climb one after another with the same Sherpa support. Climbers can usually summit up until the end of May or into June before the monsoon comes, so there is time.

Helicopters fly in and out several times a day for logistics,  but are also important for rescue if anything goes wrong

An increased understanding of weather systems, and better computing and modelling capabilities have had a huge positive effect on weather forecasting over the last 30 years. This helps with planning on the mountain and contributes to improving safety, as does the improvement in reliability of communications. Being here on the mountain we can see the practical implications of these developments.

But perhaps the most noticeable difference in the field of communications is the connectivity at base camp that keeps us in touch with the outside world. There is NCell phone signal during daylight hours so that we can make phone calls home; camps have wifi powered by solar panels that keeps us connected via email, messengers or social media. Higher up the mountain we have satellite phones to keep in touch. This isn’t necessary to the safety of the expedition, but it is good for our morale and nice for family and friends.

So, whilst we are keen to get up the mountain and go for the summit, it has been interesting to get a glimpse of the logistics dance in action and to get an appreciation of how developments in science and technology improve the process.

The ‘Rotations’: Acclimatising for the Everest summit

In the two weeks since we arrived at base camp, we have been up the mountain twice on what are known as “rotations”.  These involve climbing successively higher up the mountain each time to get the body used to the altitude ahead of the final push for the summit.

Base camp. The view from near my tent.

Camp 1: Through the icefall

The first rotation was to Camp 1.  This was my first trip through the notorious Icefall, one of the more dangerous parts of the climb.  The Icefall is a tumble of ice blocks – a place where a river of ice drops over a cliff, splitting and breaking like a Snickers bar bent in half. There are crevasses opening like gashes. There are looming ice cliffs and tumbling blocks. The glacier is always moving imperceptibly. And through this subtly-changing landscape a narrow path weaves and climbs.

Aluminium ladders are lashed together and strung out over unskirtable crevasses. Going up is tiring, particularly the first time. The air is thin. Over-exertion – which may be as simple as hauling oneself up three icy steps – can lead to moments of unpleasant gasping and deep-breathing.

Climbers on the ice wall just beyond Camp 1

The first time I went up through the Icefall was hard.  I had not armed myself with snacks and water in accessible pockets and since we didn’t really stop at all – we want to get through the dangerous part as quickly as possible – I didn’t eat or drink for maybe six hours.

I was exhausted when we finally reached Camp 1. I had a rest day the following day while other team members made an excursion to Camp 2 and back in the morning. Since Camp 1 is a small camp with no cooking facilities, I spent most of the afternoon melting snow into water for drinks and food. It’s a slow process. We all descended back to Base the day after.

On my rest day, I was able to appreciate Camp 1’s surroundings.  After the Icefall, the glacier flattens out into the Western Cwm, a hanging valley at around 6,400m. There are still crevasses to watch out for, and some large undulations like huge waves in the snowy terrain around Camp 1, but the glacier is calmer.

Back at Base Camp we had welcome showers and washed clothes. I did some filming for my Everest video series. Otherwise we rested and ate and drank – very important here!

Sitting outside at Camp 1 with a view up the Western Cwm to Lhotse

Camp 2: Extreme weather walks

After a couple of rest days, we headed back up the mountain. I spent a night at Camp 1, then walked to Camp 2 the next day. The walk up the Western Cwm to Camp 2 is not too arduous – after climbing an ice wall and crossing a couple of ladders over crevasses it is a simple walk, and it is possible to get into a good rhythm. But it is incredibly hot!

The temperature variations in the Western Cwm are extreme. Before the sun hits, or when obscured by cloud, it is very cold (perhaps -10 to -20°C), but when walking in full sun in Gore-Tex it can be sweltering. The surrounding snow and ice reflects the sun’s rays so you are hit from all directions, almost as if the Cwm were a solar concentrator focussed on the weary climbers. Layers come off, thick gloves are changed for thin, sunhats and sun-cream are essential. But the air temperature doesn’t change with the sun up here. In the shade it is still freezing. Or if the clouds come in suddenly, it is as if the sun were never out at all. There is no happy medium.

Atmospheric optical phenomena, such as this 22 degree halo around the sun

We spent a few nights at Camp 2 with a couple of rest days to allow bodies to acclimatise. Camp 2 is also known as Advanced Base – it is much bigger than Camp 1 and teams have kitchen facilities and cooks, so at least food is not something we need to worry about.

One day we made a trip to the Lhotse face and up the first few of the steep pitches towards Camp 3.  I would have liked to go all the way to Camp 3 but it was not to be. Another rotation will be necessary. But it was good to get to the Lhotse Face and see what was involved, to feel that it is ok. It is a steep climb – not vertical ice but steep enough. There are fixed ropes that we haul ourselves up with jumars (devices that can be pushed one way but not the other, so they grip).  As we were climbing the clouds blew out and we saw the most beautiful rainbow halo around the sun.

 Jumar on the left and carabiner on the right

Back to base camp

Now we are back down to Base Camp.  It’s a relief.  It is hard work up there.  Even “rest days” aren’t really restful.  The extremes of temperature make it uncomfortable; the altitude means that it is easy to become out of breath when walking around camp, or even going to the loo! Everything takes more effort than it would do lower down.  However, we are able to experience an incredible environment that is open to so few.  The ice is beautiful – the way it twists and cracks and shines is lovely.  The clouds move in and out so quickly, they hug the slopes and create beautiful atmospheric effects. On the days that you don’t push your body to exhaustion you can appreciate the amazing nature of the place. It is magnificent.


Namche Bazaar (3440m): How we acclimatise to high altitudes

We are now in Namche Bazaar at 3440m.  We arrived yesterday lunchtime, after flying from Kathmandu to Lukla, and have spent a rest day here to aid acclimatisation.  This involved a walk up to the Everest View Hotel at 3880m then down to Khumjung village where Edmund Hillary established a school in 1961.

Tonight we stay here in Namche and then set off for Pengboche (3930m) tomorrow, where we will also spend two nights for acclimatisation.

The Hillary School at Khumjung

Progressing slowly up the mountain and giving the body time to acclimatise is really important when climbing at high altitude.  As we get higher the air gets thinner (the air pressure reduces) and in every lungful of air we breathe we get less oxygen than at sea level.

This means that the body has to adapt to use less oxygen for normal functioning.  If it can’t do this – or if you ascend too fast for the body to make the necessary adaptations, such as making more red blood cells – then you will get altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS.  It can be fatal, so if you suffer severe symptoms you should descend to a lower altitude where the air pressure is greater and your body gets more oxygen.  But the best thing to do is to ascend slowly enough that the body can adjust to the altitude and the climber experiences only mild symptoms, such as a slight headache, if anything.

My first glimpse of Everest through the trees on the path to Namche Bazaar

So, tomorrow we will take it slowly again, heading up past the monastery at Tengboche where the 1953 Everest expedition team were blessed by the lama.  So far we have been walking through cool pine forests but, judging by the terrain we covered today, as we walk out tomorrow it will be through short, dry grasses and dusty rocks.

Our team is good fun and we are enjoying ourselves as we wind our way up the trail to Everest Base Camp.

You can follow our journey with Live-Tracking, thanks to 3D Reality Maps and my SPOT GPS  Tracker.