Following in the Footsteps of Legends: Experiencing Climate Change on Mt. Everest
Article first published online: 12 FEB 2013
Copyright © 2013 by The American Geographical Society of New York
Focus on Geography
Volume 56, Issue 1, pages 8–22, March 2013
How to Cite
All, J. (2013), Following in the Footsteps of Legends: Experiencing Climate Change on Mt. Everest. Focus on Geography, 56: 8–22. doi: 10.1111/foge.12007
- Issue published online: 12 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 12 FEB 2013
Beginning in 2009, I spent a year in the Himalayas on a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship. As part of this effort, I taught at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu and took Nepali graduate students into the mountains to gather data on biodiversity. I have been a mountain climber for many years and have climbed all over the world and wanted to work in Nepal to gather data to help protect the mountains that I love. Over the course of the year, my students and I walked over 750 miles and climbed over 50 vertical miles in elevation throughout Nepal to collect information on the impacts of fire, grazing, and climate change on mountain ecology. Human activity and climate change are the hammer and anvil that are crushing Nepal's biodiversity, but that is another story.
This narrative describes my climb and observations of the North Col/Northeast Ridge Route on Mt. Everest based on selections from my journal during the climb. This route is accessed through Tibet and is the one attempted by the legendary George Mallory and various British teams in the 1920s. It was closed to climbing after the Chinese invasion of Tibet and reopened in the late 1970s. It is one of the two main climbing routes used today, the other being the southern route that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used for the first ascent of the mountain in 1953. The Hillary route begins in Nepal and is by far the easier and safer of the two. Currently, if you summit from the north side, there is an average five percent chance you will not survive the descent. On the other hand, very few people die when descending from the Nepal side. Thus, permits on the Nepal route are much more expensive. But, in this case especially, you truly get what you pay for.
During my year in Nepal, I worked closely with a trekking company owned by several Sherpa brothers to provide logistical support for my students in the field. One day when I was in their office, they asked if I would be interested in joining them on Mount Everest - both to help the expedition and as an honor because they felt that I had helped so many Nepalis during my teaching and conservation research. I was flattered by their offer and immediately agreed. I had collected a great deal of environmental data from Nepal and I was interested in whether I would encounter similar environmental conditions in Tibet. This seemed like the perfect opportunity so, a few months later, I found myself at Everest Base Camp at 5,400 meters (~17,700 feet).
Climbing Mt. Everest is not a trivial endeavor. Beyond the massive expense and time required, it is a grueling test of your ability to endure suffering and cold. As such, it is also subject to the ameliorating influences of money. With enough money, you could join “gold-plated expeditions” to the summit with one hundred foot long tents at base camp stocked with chairs, couches, carpets, and even a plasma TV (Figure 1). Members of such expeditions had hot cocoa at the end of every day's activity and wonderful meals like pizza and steak. For our bare-bones Nepali-led group, we shared tiny tents on the edge of the glacier with survival-type rations, but it built camaraderie and helped us get more physically ready for the climb as we had to do chores like gathering ice for melting. And since we had few comforts, it encouraged us to move around and get used to the elevation in our free time (Figure 2).
If you or any other human being were suddenly deposited on the summit of Mt. Everest, you would be unconscious from lack of oxygen within a few minutes and dead within an hour. There just isn't sufficient oxygen to allow someone coming from sea level to survive without acclamation. So, a great deal of the climb is spent slowly building your body's capacity to survive with less oxygen by living at various camps at increasing elevation. My need to gather data helped me immensely because it forced me to hike and climb daily - my goal was to climb at least 1,000 vertical meters a day gathering environmental data along the way. While the altitude was not a problem for me, the severe, unending cold was grueling and it caused the suffering that drove over half of the climbers away before they had even reached 7,000 meters (22,967 feet). While the expensive expeditions had gas stoves and toasty-warm group tents at their camps, they still had to walk and move and sleep in the cold and it ate into their resolve slowly over time. Our group, on the other hand, huddled around a single gas burner and went to our sleeping bags quite early in the evening. But this suffering helped inure us to the cold as we climbed higher.
The weather is a critical variable for climbing Mt. Everest and dictates when it can be climbed. Because the mountain reaches up into the Stratopause, the summit is normally assailed by 100-plus mph winds. These hurricane-force winds will literally pick up a climber and hurl him or her into the void. There is a week-long window at the beginning of the monsoon in May or early June when the regional winds die down and the summit is relatively calm. There is a similar window at the end of the monsoon, but since a massive amount of snow has been deposited during that time, climbing is far more difficult during that later period.
Because of this short seven-to-ten day summit window, all climbers must move on the mountain at almost the same time. And just because the regional monsoon-scale winds are calm, does not mean that local snow storms are not raging. Some years have had no clear days for the entire monsoonal window and few or no people summit through the storms during those years. During my visit in 2010, there was only one perfect, clear day to summit. While people managed to make it to the top during other, poorer weather days, they were not always treated to pleasant views or any view at all.
Recent climate changes have affected the route dramatically. Reading the histories of the early British expeditions in the 1920s and ‘30s is very informative because the landscape they describe no longer exists. These early explorers moved up the Rongbuk Valley on top of its glacier through deep snow storms; where many feet of snow would be deposited and temperatures would fall to -50 deg F and lower. Now the Rongbuk glacier barely exists along the route from Base Camp-located at the historic terminal moraine of the glacier-through the Intermediate Camp to the Advanced Base Camp (ABC) (Figure 3). Early expeditions had to hack their routes through the deep ice and crevasses. Today it has all melted away and yaks can haul climbing gear and luxuries all the way up the Rongbuk and East Rongbuk valleys to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) - at 6,400 meters (~21,000 ft.). ABC is now the highest place on earth that can be reached without technical mountain climbing, courtesy of global climate change (Figure 4). The weather is far more pleasant as well - storms are frequent but they only dump a few inches to maybe a foot of snow at a time. The higher temperatures and high elevation solar radiation are enough to melt snow quickly off of the black rock. So while early expeditions had to wade through thigh-deep snow, we walk on dark, loose rock and scree.
But it isn't all easier. The high melting means that we spent much of our time at ABC building drainage canals so that the water coming off of the glacier doesn't drown our tents. The year 2010 saw the first ice avalanche ever recorded on the northern route and two people were swept away while climbing. There have been many snow avalanches in the past because steep snow is inherently unstable. But this avalanche was the actual ice itself breaking apart at an always frigid 7,000 meters (~23,000 feet) in elevation, which would have been impossible until present times. Similar patterns are being reported on mountain climbs from Alaska to the Alps and Andes, but never before at this high altitude.
Documenting these changes by collecting ground control point (GCP) data was the main part of my research in Nepal and Tibet. GCP data entail going to a location and marking it with a GPS and also measuring variables such as slope, aspect, vegetation species and biomass, human impacts, and fire impacts. While collecting such data is very difficult and time consuming in thick forests, it is relatively easier on Mt. Everest because all I was measuring was exposed ice, snow, or bare rock on the higher slopes. I took GCPs all the way up to the summit and even over into Nepal in order to measure glacier retreat because GCPs can be linked to satellite images. NASA has a satellite image library going back to the 1970s and these ground observations can be correlated to satellite images in order to examine surface changes over time.
The lack of snow and ice on the route enabled me to stand on the summit of Mt. Everest without crampons - perhaps the first person to have done so unless Mallory succeeded in doing it in 1924. I wore crampons on the initial climb on the North Col and to Camp 1, but then took them off because I thought it was possible to climb without them and I wanted to see if Mallory could have succeeded without them. Of course my climb was trivial compared to his efforts, but it shows that the climate change has altered the route and generally made it a bit simpler than it was in the past.
The first three days of the route are spent ascending the East Rongbuk glacier, but I will not talk about that long slog through loose rock and seracs (ice towers) or the time spent at Base Camp (5,200 meters/17,000 feet) and ABC (6,400 meters / 21,000 feet) acclimatizing other than to say as I entered into my log:
It feels like you have a lead suit on your body every minute. Even getting into your sleeping bag leaves you gasping for breath like you are so close to dying. Most of the day you just lay in the tent staring at the ceiling. Small tasks to do begin to fill your mind but you just can't move and after hours of thinking about doing something like putting on lip balm, you slap yourself and get up and do your chores on your way to eat and drink and then immediately go back to bed. I was lying in the tent reading a Newsweek in which they were talking about all of ‘torture’ techniques that Bush allowed during his presidency. Unfortunately most of them also sound like climbing here - drowning, cold exposure, lack of sleep, hunger, etc. This is a beautiful bleak place that does its best to break you every minute, every day. Laughing here leads to a coughing fit that lasts five minutes. Pretty much everything leads to a coughing fit; which leads to the feeling that you are drowning and makes you think ‘can I just catch my breath and please breathe easily or else I will die’. I can barely stand sleeping with myself because I smell so badly of salt and every other odor you can imagine from heavy sweating while climbing and going weeks without a shower.
After several weeks of that slow wasting, mixed with carrying loads to higher camps, your lungs have adapted to 6,400 meters (~21,000 ft.) and you are ready to climb. I was not climbing with a big commercial expedition. I climbed with a British chap named Ed Laughton, whose wife had been volunteering with the Himalayan Rescue Association while he climbed here for a few months. Anil was one of the men I had been working with during my research in Nepal and he handled the permits and logistics. Two Sherpa brothers named NaTenji and Lhakpa helped carry tents and oxygen up to the higher camps. Ed and I climbed at different speeds – because I moved quickly and then stopped a lot to sample data and take measurements. With my uneven pace, it was usually me alone on the mountain until we reached camp.
Again, here are some excerpts from my log:
May 20, 2010. North Col, Mt Everest. 7050 m / 23,130 ft.
I had trouble sleeping again last night because of too much rest and nervous anticipation of the climb the next day. Also, we got hit by a heck of a wind/snow storm. It shook the tent like crazy all night and it forced snow into every vent and tiny opening. I stuffed my shoes into a crack in the floor of the vestibule that was blasting me with snow. Finally it let up and I fell asleep. I didn't read or anything because I wanted to give my mind free rein to think and plan the climb. I had forgotten how ungainly my overboots are and difficult to walk in, but they kept me from getting too badly frostbitten so far and are worth the trouble.
The climb began on scree and we ended up slipping and trying not to twist an ankle on the loose rock. I took some ground control points (GCPs) to use when analyzing the snow, rock, and ice locations in the past from historical photos and satellite images (Figure 5). We were at the glacier margin, so any climate changes would be noticeable along the rock/ice edge. The line of scree slowly pinched out between the glacier and a cliff and people put on crampons where the cliff rained a thin veneer of rock into the grooves of the glacier. After that, it was a pleasant, relatively flat walk on the translucent East Rongbuk glacier that extended for miles around us to the North Col headwall. There are small, twelve-inch wide crevasses every once in a while, but nothing too difficult to jump – even though some of them extend for 30 or more feet down into the darkness below (Figure 6).
As one walks towards the North Col headwall, it appears it will be an easy climb from a distance but it gets steeper and trickier as you get closer (Figure 7). Overall, the North Col headwall is a very pleasant climb. We wandered through snow ramps and up a lot more steep ice than I expected (Figure 8). The views were incredible and we had left early enough in the day so that we could move at our own pace. There were two ladders across crevasses we had to cross on the route and the second one was a decent size with a long fall just at the edge of a cliff. This huge amount of air beneath your feet gave the feeling of stepping into a void as you move onto the ladder. I rushed across the ladder because it was a major bottleneck but Ed was polite and got caught behind four people descending and five climbing.
Looking south, Everest suddenly looks so incredibly close. Climb a long snow ramp, and then move up a rock ramp that didn't appear too difficult to reach the Northeast Ridge (Figure 9). From there, it looked like some tough rock climbing through ‘the Steps’ to a snow pyramid and the summit. The ‘Steps’ are sheer cliffs located along the Northeast ridge that can be clearly seen from the ground (Figure 10). The Steps are what stopped early climbers until a climbing ladder was installed; but they are still by far the hardest part of the climb. This route is so deadly because you expend most of your energy getting near the summit and then, just when you are nearing your limit of endurance, you are faced with the toughest climbing. Many climbers' bodies have broken down at this point. But the overall view of the route made it seem no more than a couple of hours walk and some easy rock climbing on a good day – if, that is, it were thousands of meters lower in elevation!
Even if it were lower, I personally think it would still be a major attraction because it is such a beautiful and aesthetically pleasing route. The fact that it is the highest place in the world only makes it that much more enticing. While I was not looking forward to sleeping up there in the cold, I was incredibly excited about the route and climbing Chomolungma (the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest).
We got to the North Col around 3:00pm and found that the tent that we had left a couple of weeks ago had been beaten into a new shape by the repeated storms (Figure 11). At least it was still there. Ed was talking to an English guide and they both watched as the wind launched the guide's tent and its contents - sleeping bag, pad, clothes, etc - over the 6,000-plus foot cliff. The guide's climb was ended before it began. It is a harsh mountain and there is no room for error. Once the guide's sleeping bag and pack were gone, no one could really help him and he had to retreat down to his lower camp. All of his equipment had been brought up several weeks earlier and going back and getting new gear and coming back to this point would have been literally enough to kill him as he moved higher. With only a short seven-to-ten day window to climb Mt. Everest, everything has to go perfectly for success because there are no second chances. The adventure continues:
I dug our fuel canisters out of the ice while Ed prepared to cook. He made some of the cheap pre-packaged Indian food while I rested. It tasted great, but now my stomach hurts and I fear it will require a bathroom break into a crevasse on the glacier later tonight. Ed also melted a lot of glacier ice, so now I have two hot water bottles at my feet for tomorrow. The tent keeps getting hit by rare but incredibly strong winds. The whole tent shivers and shakes and presses onto us. I hope we don't get blown off the ridge tomorrow!
May 21, 2010. Camp Two, Mt. Everest, 7800 m / 25,600 ft.
Last night was a tough one; I was in gastrointestinal agony most of the night and an extremely windy snow storm pounded the tent and would constantly cover my face with little particles of snow. With the lack of sleep, we neither wanted to get up nor even move. But I really feared getting too late of a start and finishing in the darkness. The ‘climb’ itself was just hours and hours of walking up a snow slope – almost the same steepness as a black diamond ski slope, but it is only 40 feet wide with thousands of feet of drop off on either side. Once up, I felt better but just took it slowly in order to conserve my energy for the climb higher up. Taking GCPs as I moved upward helped with moving slowly and definitely showed how much rock there was on the route versus the ice and snow of the past. The lack of oxygen here nearing 8,000 meters (˜26,250 ft.) is a killer and I felt it slowly destroying my vitality.
Our camp was near the top of the steeply sloped Camp Two, and so I had to stagger through steep scree and wind-destroyed tents as the lack of oxygen became more and more problematic. Even the people using oxygen were not going a lot faster than me, but they were the only ones that passed me. We were all moving SO slowly. Finally I staggered into the tent. But of course then my job isn't done. I had to spread out my sleeping pad, my sleeping bag, unpack my pack and spread everything out, then drink some water and eat a powerbar before I collapsed. Ed cleverly took the side of the tent away from the cooking vestibule, so I spent hours boiling water from glacier ice for drinking and cooking and then drinking for the next day. It was the last thing keeping me awake that night. The view up here towards arid Tibet and incredibly mountainous Nepal is stunning. Every step opens more of the world to our eyes. It makes every bit of pain worth it (Figure 12).
On May 22, 2010, were were at Camp 3, at an elevation of 8,300 meters (27,250 feet). It was actually an easy day and we had time for a long rest. Waking up this morning was disheartening because the entire interior of the tent (roof, walls, and floor) was covered with an inch of hoarfrost. The slightest movement (or wind) made it snow inside the tent and everything was quickly covered. Fortunately we didn't plan to leave until 9:00am and the sun hit us early so things dried quickly in the bone-dry air, even though it was frigidly cold. Getting moving was a matter of jumping over packs, ropes, rocks, and piles of gear on the tiny platform set in the steep scree.
I decided to stop using crampons at this point. Other members of the party were aghast that I was climbing without crampons, but I felt more comfortable without them because of the lack of snow and ice. Also, last night while I was lying in the tent, I reasoned that if George Mallory had summitted Mt. Everest in 1924, he wouldn't have had crampons and I wanted to see if it could be done. Conditions have changed dramatically on Mt. Everest since then as massive amounts of ice have just disappeared. Climbing without crampons would be the ultimate test of climate change and potentially allow me to do something that no one else had ever done before—stand on the summit without crampons.
We began using oxygen at 8,000m (~26,250 ft.) both to increase our speed as well as to avoid brain damage. I felt incredibly revitalized using oxygen. I used only 1.5 L per minute because I couldn't afford many bottles of it; as each bottle cost hundreds of dollars and I didn't want to waste any of it. I was using far less than the 5-6 L per minute that most people, including Hillary, used. My log entry for the day reflects the challenges we faced with the rock and snow surfaces:
The climb itself today consisted of two steep sections of cliff, with a couple of traverses around the steepest headwalls. There were little channels of snow that linked up between the rock and ledges. Most of the rock was tiny marble-sized scree and very loose. It wasn't fun or very aesthetic climbing, but seeing Everest growing larger and larger was priceless and the excitement built as we moved closer.
It was a painfully slow day as there were so many people who were just barely moving. Many of them hadn't done enough high altitude climbing to prepare for this climb and were now paying the price, even with generous supplies of oxygen. I tried to take ten steps at a time and then rest for ten breaths to deal with the altitude and lack of oxygen.
When we got up to Camp 3, I was surprised to find that we hadn't yet arrived at the North Ridge – even after two full days of climbing! We were at the bottom of the Yellow Band (the major cliff feature at the top of Mt. Everest) and so we would have to climb it first thing after we left camp in our bid to make the summit. There were still a couple of hundred meters of elevation to climb in order to reach the Ridge and the weather was improving.
I wish we could have just climbed it today since I felt so good and the weather was perfect. But from a rational point of view I knew how dangerous that ridge could be during a storm and that is why Camp 3 was located down on this protected slope. There was no wind and it had been sunny all day - I even had to unzip the legs of my down suit and I took off the upper part for a while. I must have looked like a freak; wearing almost no protective clothing at 8000 meters (26,250 ft.). Still, we couldn't have asked for a better day.
Once things got sorted out, Ed, the two Sherpa brothers, and I all crammed ourselves into the three-man tent and rested/slept laying on top of each other from 2 – 6 PM. There were shattered tents all around us and we were precariously balanced on a small pile of rocks on a steep slope (Figure 13).
After resting, we spent several hours boiling water and eating and drinking. All of the slower groups left for their summit attempt between 7:30 and 8:30pm. We were going to give them a one-hour head start to get out of our way. It was getting a bit windy and very cold (somewhere below -30 Celsius; our thermometer couldn't measure any lower) but I felt confident and strong and ready to go.
Our plan worked well. When we left at 9:30pm, we were well behind the first three teams and ahead of a big, slow group. I climbed slowly and steadily to avoid catching the groups in front. Ed and NaTenji left while I was putting my boots on and had about a five minute lead between us until they got stuck behind a pathetically slow-moving group. I was also moving a bit slower because I had, once again, decided to not wear crampons. There were times that I wished I had followed the conventional wisdom and had worn them as it made the climb a lot harder overall. Most of the climb is a mix of loose scree and small scree with an occasional section of steeper, broken and crumbly rock.
Leaving from Camp 3, you start climbing straight up a very steep rock section (the Yellow Band) where you climb steeply and then traverse to another section where you can continue moving upward. It is all loose and slippery sandstone that slopes that wrong way (outward) and constantly makes you slip, so that the less experienced climbers had an extremely difficult time and seemingly took forever to traverse this section. Then we reached a steep section of snow that required fancy footwork and was tricky with no crampons. But suddenly, like a miracle, we were finally on the North East Ridge that I had been staring at for weeks. I was sort of stunned to see it because even though it is several thousand meters tall, it is only 10 meters wide and feels cozy. It is the truest knife-edge ridge anyone could imagine and it is higher than all but five or six peaks on earth! It was a wonderful place and probably the happiest and most exciting part of the entire climb (Figure 14).
While still in the moment, I walked along the section of the ridge that was flat and easy for about one hundred meters when I saw a small overhanging cave with some oxygen bottles and two sleeping bags. I thought to myself, “That is smart–someone put these here for an emergency.” But there are no small emergencies on Everest that can be solved with sleeping bags. In reality, it was not sleeping bag but rather the body of a deceased climber and the ‘bags’ were the remains of his down-filled clothing. As with most of the human bodies seen above 8,000 m (~26, 250 ft.), he was in the fetal position, but he had fallen over and so his head was lower than his boots. He was still wearing crampons but no pack or anything else that could be easily removed. NaTenji later told us most used equipment in Thamel (Kathmandu) comes from such unfortunate souls. Under this body was another body buried in some snow. The lower body was an Indian man referred to as ‘Green Boots’ who died during the disastrous 1996 climbing season. I don't know why they were stacked in the cave. Since it was near the descent, maybe someone, someday, will come and retrieve them.
My euphoria at reaching the awesome North East Ridge was crushed by this blast of reality about our mortality. After that, I sort of stumbled along lost in thought. On the North East, there are a series of smallish cliff called ‘Steps’ that lead to the summit. The First Step looms impressively, but is actually pretty easy to pass on the right with only moderate climbing and no major voids beneath your feet. In the United States, rock climbs are rated from 5.1 (easy) to 5.15 (extremely dangerous, not for mere mortals) and this section was maybe 5.3. The degree of difficulty would be akin to climbing a ladder missing an occasional rung. But the absolute difficulty is deceiving because the rock is extremely brittle and friable in your hand. On top of everything else, it slopes outward about 30 degrees and is snow-polished. So, you might think you have a good hold, and then you slip right off without knowing what happened. But overall the First Step was fun. It was nice to be climbing Mt. Everest completely alone on the hardest section. It was these rock climbing sections where my decision not to wear crampons was the smartest idea I ever had.
After another easy stretch, I hit the Second Step. This was a totally different climbing matter (Figure 15). There is a short, but tricky, boulder move (5.7) that now has a ladder for climbers so it is easier than in the past. But, the slope of the rock getting to the ladder still makes it a bit intimidating. You find yourself in a small alcove with a crack above your head and a slope up to a flat boulder with big exposure on your right. You wedge your boots about halfway up the boulder in a crack and pull yourself around the roof onto the flat boulder surface. At this point you feel very precarious and are being pushed out into the void by the roof/wall and are standing balanced on the boulder. When you look right, down the cliff, you see a dead man about ten meters below you – he is still tied into a rope, but at night all you see are the highly reflective strips on his boots and clothes. Then you really feel precarious and move around the roof/wall/bulge and pull yourself onto a ledge/snow channel. That section is only 5.4 but is the most intense of the whole Step because of the void beneath your feet (and the dead body).
At the top of a snow chute was the section of the Second Step that killed George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. One must make a choice between a slightly overhung cliff corner with a wide crack or a five-meter face with two meters of steep loose rock. If one opts for the second choice he or she must then attempt to scramble above the loose rock. There are several dead bodies here because of the difficulty of this maneuver. Thanks, however, to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and bringing the torch to the summit, there is now a much-welcomed ladder that is well-anchored and extremely easy to use. Getting onto the ladder from above when you are descending is the only tricky part. So now the feared Second Step that has taken so many lives is almost toothless.
After the Second Step, you meander along the ridge a bit more until you come to another snow slope. I can't be more specific about the geography of that slope because one's mind just doesn't work right at these altitudes. There was a broken rock face directly in from of me and the ridge became very narrow. Where the trail goes is difficult to tell as you walk up the snow but there was a climber sitting in front of the rock face whom I thought I could ask. It slowly entered my altitude-addled mind that sitting alone in the dark was very unusual. As I got closer I saw that he was laying sideways in the snow in the fetal position. Unfortunately, the easiest way to continue would have been to basically step over the dead body but surprisingly, there were a large number of footprints that went up and circled the body but none that went past. I found out later from a Sherpa who had climbed with him a few years before that the dead man's girlfriend was waiting for him in Base Camp while he climbed. He had summitted successfully and had radioed her of his good news. Then he sat down to rest ‘for 10 minutes’ on the descent and they never saw him again, until they climbed the route again the following year. I can't imagine what that did emotionally to his girlfriend as she kept waiting for him to return to camp. And still he sits there today, just as he fell - undignified and deserted.
Not being sure where to go, I decided to follow a frayed-looking rope and head up the broken rock face. The climb was only 5.6, but everything looked extremely loose and I was terrified it would break apart in my hands or under my feet. Looking down at my feet to select footholds and seeing the dead body didn't help, especially when the footholds were fractured and it was only ice holding them in place. But it was the right path and once I climbed this Third Step, I was on the summit pyramid. So many climbers throughout history would have given all they had to have reached this point.
It was here, when I looked east, that the sun was just beginning to turn the horizon orange. From now on, with each step, the snow or rock would begin to change color and lighten in front of me. I kept looking back and waiting for the sun to light up some part of Tibet, until I realized that absolutely nothing that I could see for the hundreds of miles between me and the sun, was high enough to receive sunlight before Everest itself. I have been on many high peaks, but this one was so dominant that it spoke the language of the very Earth itself. I could see many of the world's highest peaks and they appeared as marbles lying on a rumpled table cloth down below. The sun, that only I could see, was still too high above to light up even these massive peaks. It was like looking at the Earth from a space station as the sun struggled to fill all of the mountains and valleys (Figure 16).
As we walked up a rocky snow field, I saw another climber sitting on some rocks in the growing light. But I wasn't tricked this time, especially when I saw that he was sprawled upside down. It looked like he had been sitting facing away from the trail, looking at the view toward Makalu, when he fell backwards down the slope almost onto the trail. This body was the worst because it was sprawled with his arms outraised and his now upside-down face looking directly at the trail from a few feet away. It is the only face you can see while climbing and his face is bleached and dried and his eyes pecked out by birds. It is not a sight that you would wish to examine closely.
I have only described the four bodies I saw within a few feet of the trail. There are nine that are within five meters of the trail. However, you can avoid seeing them if you try not to look at strange colors or shapes. There are many, many others who have fallen further away from the trail—350 all told according to common estimates. It costs many, many thousands of dollars to have a body brought down from the mountain - and it is probably only even possible from Camp 3 or below. I found it so incredibly sad that all of these dead climbers don't even have friends or anyone who will cover their faces or put them in a dignified position. They all lay as they fell. Surely they weren't climbing alone. It would have only taken ten minutes to turn them over or move them out of sight and prepare them for what comes next, so that dozens of people a year don't see them in such an undignified and pitiful position.
The summit pyramid itself is not straightforward, but it is not difficult either. Like a lot of mountains, you just have to wander around, linking the weaknesses and ramps and ledge to find the route allowing you to ascend. But I should mention that with every step climbing the summit pyramid, you feel yourself slowly dying and that feeling accelerates with every step. There is no specific organ or body part that is dying but somehow you can imagine that every cell, one by one, is being extinguished. It is like you are a snowman walking into brighter and brighter sun. You don't die all at once, but slowly disappear. The oxygen mask puts the process at bay to some extent, but you know you have such a limited time here and that you are doing your body harm that may be irreparable. All it would take would be to run out of oxygen or to lay down for a few minutes, and you would die. Simple, seductive, quick, and probably painless.
Wandering up the maze near the summit has a bit of a desperate feel. Fortunately, it is just a quick z-shaped reverse along a ledge to a broken rock ramp that leads to the final snow ramps. On the lower part of the Z, people above were kicking rocks on me. I met them at the lower joint of the Z at a place where a broken rope was anchored. I was going to yell at them to be more considerate of climbers below them, but one person in their group was clearly dying and the others were trying to carry him down the mountain as quickly as possible.
The hardest part of the climb without crampons was the very steep snow field that now greeted me. It was icy hard and there were no steps beaten into the ice. But I could “cheat” because there was a nice new fixed line in place, so I could “Batman” my way up by pulling on the rope and digging the front of my boots into the ice. Not fun and a huge amount of work at that elevation, but it was probably only 75 meters before the angle eased off. I refused to put on my crampons even at this point because it would be quite an accomplishment to climb Mt. Everest without crampons, even if I did have to use the fixed line. I am sure some purists would argue with my interpretation, but oxygen, crampons, fixed lines, and even down sleeping bags are all products of human ingenuity attempting to overcome natural obstacles. We all choose which technology we use and which ones we don't, but at the end of the day, survival and our own consciences are all that are important. Just as no one can climb a mountain for you, no one can judge your ascent because they are free to do it a different way if they chose.
Once things eased off, it was just an undulating series of small snow ridges and valleys to the summit (Figure 17). The sun had hit the snow and was changing it through every reddish color imaginable. I could see a couple of people and a bunch of Buddhist prayer flags on the high point above and it was just such an easy stroll to get there—if your lungs weren't already exploding from the exertion that is.
At around 6:00am Nepali time on May 23, 2010, just two days shy of my birthday—I summitted the highest mountain in the world. I wish I could say it was a beautiful summit. The views were stunning. But the summit itself is just a small high point on the ridge, perhaps one-meter by three-meters in size and then it heads south down one ridge and north down the other with a less obvious ridge heading west (Figure 18). If you weren't paying attention, you could easily walk right past it. To the west it is not too steep for a while but it drops off far more quickly that the north/south ridge that is normally climbed. To the east is one of the largest cliffs on Earth, and the snow is undercut there and if you go within a meter of the edge of the snow, it will break off underneath you and you will fall 5,000-plus meters. There are obviously no guardrails and everyone just tries to step around each other carefully without getting too close to the edge. That eastern cliff side is beautiful –fluted snow that looks like it has been sculpted as far down as your eye can see. It is by far the prettiest part of the entire mountain (Figure 19). I found it ironic that I have seen Everest so many times in photographs and from a distance, but never from its most beautiful side.
The weather was stunningly perfect –not a cloud anywhere on Earth that I could see for thousands of square miles. Of all of Mt. Everest summit photos I have even seen, none of looked as perfect as the view that day. Peering down on the many familiar places in Nepal and at Base Camp felt almost god-like (Figure 20). I took lots of pictures and a movie but I had to hurry because each of the four batteries I brought up fully charged only worked for about 90 seconds before they froze.
I began my descent and walked down the snow to the first rocky area just below the summit. My brother had asked me for a rock from the summit and I thank him for that, because without that reminder, I would have forgotten. So I stopped and stuffed my pockets with as many rocks as I could carry. I walked further down the snow fields until I remembered my GPS! I had forgotten to get points on the summit even though I had marked GCPs all the way to less than 100 m from it. So I re-summitted Mt. Everest! It was nice because now I was alone again as Ed and the Sherpa brothers were descending and I could move at my own pace. I took GCPs on the top and then went down on the Nepal south side for a couple hundred meters as well. I walked down the south ridge for ten minutes to get pictures of the South Col and Lhotse (Figure 21).
Overall, my high-altitude preparations had paid off perfectly and the climb was remarkably easy. I had climbed at my own pace quite comfortably and happily while collecting data along the way. Decades of climbing and mountaineering and nearly a year of backpacking from 3, 000 to 6,000 meters in Nepal was a prelude to this moment. It felt great to be on top of the world and I wasn't really that tired at all even though I had been climbing for hours already. I thought that I could feel my individual cells disintegrating, but overall, I felt fine.
After I had done everything possible on the summit and taken every picture three times and attempted to fathom exactly where I was and how perfect the day was (i.e., once I was as truly satisfied as you can be on a summit), I headed down after probably 45 total minutes on top of the world. Descending the snow slopes was very difficult and energy-consuming without crampons - harder than the ascent. It was at this point - with the sun up and getting hotter - that I started feeling dehydrated. But the descent is straightforward, and, along the ridge at least, doesn't present many problems for an experienced climber. Trying to avoid seeing dead bodies was the biggest hazard and daylight was not kind to them.
I took dozens of pictures of every aspect of the descent, but by this point, it was getting harder to turn my neck and head from thirst, so the pictures are mainly focused downward. I also began to get very tired as I passed the Steps in order, but the descent gave me a fresh perspective on the route. From a distance, the vast scale of the landscape makes the Second Step look so small. But when you are upon it you see that it is just big enough to be impossible. The First Step was just the opposite, it looks very difficult until you are there and then it is easy to link the features together. I passed a couple of climbers on the descent, but most of them had disappeared below me since I had spent so long on the summit.
Once I reached the end of the North-East Ridge and started descending into the Yellow Band, I started having trouble. I was very dehydrated at this point after twelve or so hours of constant motion at one of the driest places on earth. At Camp Three, someone had told me that just one liter of water for the summit climb would be fine and in my altitude-addled state, I didn't think to question him more closely. After 12 hours, my throat was almost swollen shut and I had trouble breathing. Apparently it is one liter per hour that you need to consume—although no one could realistically carry that much water.
The other problem I had is that without snow, a lot of Mt. Everest is covered by loose rock and scree. While there are a few cliffs that could kill you, the frost-thaw cycle has broken most of them into rocks that vary from the size of baseballs to watermelons. So while descending you are sliding down loose rock on a steep slope and only partially in control of your movements. Keeping my balance, especially without crampons, was extremely difficult. But of course, losing control for even a second might result in becoming one of the bodies that litter the route, so I staggered down like a drunkard and grew more desperate for water. Fortunately, it is a steep but basically straight descent to Camp Three, with only two small traverses along the way. Most people can make it that far—just in time to die.
I came stumbling into the spartan Camp croaking for water. Ed hadn't waited for me to finish with my GPS and pictures on the summit and had already headed down. He ended up in Advanced Base Camp by blasting down the mountain without stopping for pictures or to gather up his gear. The Sherpa brothers were still at Camp 3, but NaTenji was passed out from exhaustion and Lhakpa just sat staring blindly into space when I arrived. I asked if they had water or where the stove was and they told me that they has used all of the gas and there was no water or any way to melt snow. I knew we would die if we stayed here at 8,300 meters for more than a few hours. It was cooling off and the perfect day was rapidly coming to an end. So I put my pack on and headed down into increasing wind and light snow - the beginning of a multi-day blizzard that would end the 2010 climbing season (Figure 22). Camp 2 was located at 7,800 meters (~25,600 ft) and while that is higher than 99% of the mountains on Earth, it is lower than Camp 3 and, more importantly, I knew I had part of a gas canister left in my tent down there. So I stumbled down the scree and made it there by late afternoon.
Sleeping at 7,800 meters with no oxygen, food, and only one-half liter of water (after sharing it with the two Sherpa brothers), was not a pleasant experience. I could still feel my cells and body dying, only more slowly now. I knew we had to get down quickly tomorrow or things would get desperate. Now I really understood the difficulty of Mt. Everest and why so many have died on it. A few days ago I was very healthy, fit, and ready to go and the weather had been great. In spite of everything being nearly perfect, we were seriously near death after only a few days on the mountain. Even the slightest storm could kill so easily. And, as we tried fitfully to sleep, it started snowing harder. The following entry from my log details our precarious situation.
May 24, 2010. Advanced Base Camp. Tibet 6400 m / ~21,000 ft
The light snow that started yesterday turned it to a storm/blizzard that lasted for four days and dumped nearly two meters (six feet) of snow on the route. I ‘woke’ after a hard night, starving and with my throat swollen shut from dehydration. I struggled to move but part of me desperately wanted the lethargy to win and to just lay there. My mind was in shambles from the lack of oxygen for so long and I only dreamed of water. And the snow just kept pounding down. At some point I said to myself ‘John, are you going to lay here until you die?” I decided I didn't like that option, and rolled over and exhaustedly packed my pack while lying on my side trying not to expend too much energy. I was coughing badly and it was ripping my dry throat to shreds. I put my harness on, grabbed my ice ax and left – descending utterly alone because the Sherpa brothers wanted to rest longer.
The first part of the descent from Camp 2 was the worst part of the whole mountain: nothing but piles of baseball-sized scree. Everything was covered in a thin layer of snow so I couldn't see the loose rock, so I chose my steps carefully. Also, it was snowing so hard, I could barely see five feet in front of me. When I would blindly fall with my heavy pack on, I found out the hard way that the rocks I carried from the summit are not light. Sometimes I would flip completely head over heels on the steep slope and just lay there on my back groaning. Other times one leg would slide and the other stay put and I would do a split and then fall onto my back. It was a couple of hours of pure hell. I started eating snow in thirsty desperation at this point and ate it the entire rest of the trip down even though I knew the danger – the cold snow requires huge amounts of food to melt and when you are near your limit already, that lost energy could tip the balance towards death if you stop moving. I would stop to catch my breath and shove in snow until it melted and move on - the cold snow did even more damage to my throat but probably saved me because that small amount of water helped me keep moving.
Finally the loose rock and scree ended and I reach the snow slope. Above the North Col is a 500 meter snow slope (just like a ski slope) that looked so easy from below. And it would have been if there had been more oxygen there. When I was in Base Camp reading about Mt. Everest climbing history, one of the British climbers in the 1930s said he glissaded (sat on his posterior and slid, using an ice ax for control and safety) from the top of the snow ramp to the North Col in fifteen minutes. I was desperate for something easy like that and decided to give it a try. I was hoping the snow storm would mean there enough snow and less ice so I would slide well. And thank goodness that turned out to be the case! I sat down, turned to my right, with my ice ax in my right hand, and pushed off. Sometime when the angle would get too steep and I would getting going really fast and start bouncing or rolling, I would dig the ice ax in and eventually dig deep enough to find ice and slow myself down and stop. I was covered head to foot in snow, but my down suit handled it fine and so I wasn't cold. The blizzard was so strong I couldn't really see where I was going and I was happy I didn't hit anyone.
Overall the 1,500-foot snow slide was one of the most ‘fun’ parts of the trip. I knew the snow was so soft that I couldn't get hurt, unless of course I had slid 15 meters sideways and fallen off of the cliff! But to be honest, at that altitude and deprived of oxygen, that thought didn't even occur to me. The slightest mistake at the speeds at which I was sliding and I could have gone off either side and fallen thousands of meters. Several times the slope angles changed unexpectedly and I veered towards one side of the cliff or the other. But in my altitude-addled state, I didn't notice any danger. I was mildly irritated at myself that I had gone off-course and was completely oblivious to the monumental risk. I guess that is one of the reasons why five-percent of Everest summiteers from the Tibet side die on the descent.
Down at the North Col, I was devastated to have lost my free ride. Walking again was hard, but even harder after one hundred meters, when I fell into a crevasse! I knew there were crevasses at either side of the Col, but this one was a small one and I didn't expect it. However, in the blizzard I could not even see my feet and snow covered everything. So I had stepped into the hole and flipped completely over. Thank goodness it wasn't a big crevasse or I would have just disappeared and no one would have ever known what happened to me. I got up and thought, ‘well, at least that's over’ and within two steps hit another part of the crevasse and did another full body flip because it was sloped so steeply downward. Thankfully it was small as well and then it really was over and I could just stumble through the deep snow. A few other people had come this way today and so even with the deep snow and the blizzard blowing, there was still a faint trail to follow through the flat Col. Finally I reached the far side and dragged myself up the wall and hill beyond to Camp 1.
I had planned on stopping there for an hour or so to boil water, because I knew I had a stove there, but I found that the camp had been crushed by the blizzard. Our tent was smashed flat. It was now about six-inches tall and buried deeply in the snow. All of the other tents had their poles broken and looked even worse. I knew where I could dig out a snow shovel next to the tent and it was only a few feet down, but there was no possible way for me to find that kind of energy. A lot of other people were trying to dig out their tents to rescue gear, but I abandoned my stove, Gore-Tex jacket, Capilene clothes, and down gloves buried in the tent and just kept moving. I decided to return in a few days and rescue the gear after I had recovered from the summit climb.
I was eating more and more snow at this point because while the blizzard still raged, the cloud cover itself wasn't that thick so it was bright, hazy and pretty warm. A classic hot and humid greenhouse effect was occuring during the snow storm! Thanks to the high solar radiation and cold combining at this elevation, the worst possible conditions were created. But at least when descending the steep ice wall of the North Col, I felt that I shouldn't trip any more since I could see the ice clearly. The first part of the descent was down a vertical ice wall to a crevasse, which you cross balanced on a long ladder that doesn't shift too much. I didn't realize how icy the ropes would be and I started to slip and almost plunged out of control down the wall either onto the ladder or past it into the crevasse. But I got things under control: and it was three steps, rest, eat snow, and repeat - down the wall until I reached the glacier. Once I was on flat ground, and I have never been happier to walk on flat ground in my entire life, I stumbled along and kept telling myself, “John, you have been a walker all of your life, don't stop, keeping moving forward.” Thankfully, my self-lectures worked. The crevasses were all covered in snow and at this point I doubt I would have cared if I had fallen into one, but thankfully I didn't.
The first time we descended from the North Col - while carrying a load several weeks before - a cook from one of the “rich teams” was there with tea at the place where you leave the glacier and take off your crampons. The Sherpa brothers knew the cook and so we had gotten some free tea. For several hours I had been dreaming of such a person being there today and saving me from my thirst with tea, or better still, giving me a Coke. The first thing I wanted once I reached ABC was going to be a Coke. It is amazing how thoughts of drinking Coca-Cola are great sources of inspiration when you have nothing left in the tank. There were some Sherpas there at the crampon point and I was very excited thanks to my daydreams! But they had been climbing too and ignored me and were not waiting with tea. Because my fantasy had taken on a life of its own, and I was so tired, I was literally crying as they ignored me (Figure 23).
In spite of my self-inflicted disappointment, I managed to start down the last scree slope toward camp, when Chombe, our Tibetan kitchen ‘boy’ (called that even though he was probably 40 years old) stepped into view. NaTenji had radioed and said we were coming down and he came to meet us with Cokes! The Sherpas were still quite a bit behind me and I had just gotten lucky that he had come early. I gave him a huge hug. The wonderful ordeal was over. With a Coke in my hand, I floated back to Advanced Base Camp and triumph (Figure 24).