One of the first questions asked is how fit do you need to be to climb Mount Everest?
Then you reach the base of the Khumbu Icefall, you look up and think this is it, this is where I will learn if I am fit enough, if I can really climb this mountain.
But the Khumbu Icefall, besides a demand for some half decent crampon technique, isn’t as much about fitness as it is about fear.
Day one you go up the icefall a ways, marvel at the ice towers, teeter across a few ladders, and then come down. Not so bad.
Your next sojourn takes you much of the way through the ice and up towards Camp I. Here the ice towers loom like skyscrapers and the crevasses disappear into unseen depths of darkness. A few things will have changed since your last climb, a tower or two fallen over, a rope over a crevasse has now fallen into the hole as the abyss opens up.
It quickly becomes evident the icy trail you are following, is shifting and changing every minute. If you are unlucky enough to be atop or underneath something that moves, you will most likely just disappear. Your concerns about fitness fade and you have to decide if you want to climb this mountain bad enough to risk death for it. It won’t be bravery that gets you through, but acceptance of fear and climbing anyway.
As David Breashears commented to me once at Base Camp – ‘No climber would go through the Khumbu unless it got them to the top of Everest.’ It is a risk level that would be unacceptable anywhere but on the way to the top of the world.
So climbers get through the icefall, they sleep at Camp I, they hide or forget or bury their fear, and move onto the heights.
Most teams require an ascent to Camp III, or a climb up and overnight there. Even if you are now scampering through the icefall and sleeping decently at Camp II, inevitably it seems, the Lhotse Face will decide your fitness. Part of it is the start, which is over an immense bergschrund, with gaping icy holes and vertical hanging ropes strung up onto the ice of the Lhotse Face.
Once up on the Lhotse Face itself, depending on the weaving of the ropes over the ice, an occasional near vertical section with brick hard ice is underfoot. Until good steps are kicked in, anyone with less than good crampon technique and a close relationship to all 12 points on their crampons will struggle as you approach 7,000 meters.
It wears on your ankles, calves and thighs and bodies gym trained but not ice trained. Oxygen thins away and just as the slope lays back a bit and you can start moving, the morning cold is turned to blazing sunshine, shortly to be followed by a blizzard. Everest starts becoming more Everest like.
Camp III can seem an eternity away, the last 50 mètres take some an hour. Arrival is often not so much measured in hours as in breathes. At Camp III, tents are askew, sleeping platforms roll over the brick hard ice and you never want to step outside your tent without crampons on. The views, the heights, the clouds below you remain sublime, but the body is most likely very unhappy with what you have put it through.
The thought that the summit is another two days away, of even longer and harder days ahead, may creep in. Are you really fit enough? Was there any way to really train for this?
Finally, finally, it is time for the final assault. Though assault may not seem quite the right word, and just sneaking up the peak and tagging the top may be more the state-of-mind. Fear is conquered, fitness is verified, now it is simply back up one last time to the summit.
When you leave the South Col, in darkness, in wind, in cold, isolated inside your oxygen mask and bundled up like a spaceman, heading for the top of the world seems a very long ways away. The pace is slow, oxygen makes you sound like another creature. Fear is long forgotten. Fitness is reduced to putting one foot in front of the other; just not that hard despite the fact it is very painful.
With a line of people in front and behind, there is little you can do to change pace. All that is left is a mantra, of, ‘I can do this. I can do this.’
Faith in conquering your fears, proving your fitness and now just keeping moving: less about believing in a higher power than in a higher place.
High altitude emotions tend to ride a rocket, up, and feeling better than ever. And down, seriously questioning the dangerous and ludicrous position you have put yourself in.
Hopefully, with dawn, the day starting anew, the summit ridge, and the exciting climb over the Hillary Step is soon all yours.