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.

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.