The Direct West Ridge on Everest was first attempted by a French team in 1974, when 6 died in an avalanche. Its first ascent was by a strong Yugoslavian climbing team in 1979.
Known for having its hardest climbing at the very top, the route has maintained its reputation as one of the longest and most difficult routes on Everest and hasn’t had an ascent in over 30 years.
The entrance to Camp 3 high on Everest’s remote Direct West Ridge in Tibet was a slot cut into the ice of the slope. The only way in was to twist sideways and squeeze through, kicking unseen crampon points into the thin icy ridge leading down into the subteranean darkness of the crevasse.
The crevasse had a thin ice roof; light snuck dimly through the doorway crack and then ran in splintered, snow covered lines that snaked across the ceiling twenty feet above. Nowhere was the snowy floor level, it pitched and heaved, then sloped off rapidly into a black hole behind two tents. The nylon of the tents alternatively flopped and stretched above the uneven floor.
The tents should have been a haven, a place to call home, if only for the night. But the crevasse was already “home,” we were inside. However, it was plainly evident there wasn’t a home gene anywhere in this crevasse. Outside the tents would have been warding off elements. Here, the only element was ice; it was like pitching a tent in a sealed icebox.
A cold draft blew in through the door, flowed over the tents, rustled the nylon, a noise of leaves dying in the fall, then swept off into the black hole behind them to nowhere. It was surreal, tents buried in a crevasse on a mountain. It was the darkest, shadowed corner part of a Dr. Seuss story of your youth.
The temperature was 18 degrees f (-8c), never more, never less. It didn’t seem so cold at first, but the dim light, the ice walls, the flow of air, soon chilled the soul. We were to make an attempt at life in the icebox.
Into this space, Randall Grandstaff and I stepped. Mid-afternoon, the haze of 24,000 (7,315 meters) plus feet of elevation, the wind rising, the sun falling, only enough day and energy left to get the stove going, inside the tent, inside the crevasse. The light, filtered by the crevasse, filtered by the tent, filtered by eyes seeing life through an altitude haze, created a fuzz of what should of been reality. When the stove boiled, the steam floated off it like smoke from a cremation, hazy, hanging, then catching in the wind flowing from the entrance and carrying itself off into the black hole behind us.
We had both been eating and sleeping on mountains for years; it was second nature, we needed no thought to know what we needed to do. Hanging off cliffs, sleeping in hammocks by night, balancing stoves and heating tea in the dark, we had done it all in wind and rain and snow until it was automatic. We had started young when it was all so exciting that difficulties were fun, mistakes were laughed at and we became very good at it without thinking about it.
That was good, because altitude added a whole litany of new challenges. Instant soup boiled steadily for 10 minutes left noodles still crunchy. The noodles got stuck in the teeth, they went sideways in the throat, they weren’t nutrition in any sense of the word. Hot lemon followed, that never seemed more than luke warm, packs of sugar and flavoring, biting at the throat.
Then it was time to go to sleep. Randall took out his contacts, I wondered why he was wearing contacts and he assured me they worked, they didn’t fog. He put them in their case and zipped them into a small pocket in the top of his sleeping bag. Maybe they doubled as a pillow.
Then we were in our sleeping bags, the light went out of the roof, the temperature still hovered at 18 degrees f (-8c). Not so cold really, but the air outside the crevasse was not the same as the air inside. Inside it was fetid and cloying and while not actually smelling was laden with ice crystals. It preyed on us and because it had no life it was a dead weight of air. We had Everest ice below us, around us, above us. At 24,000 feet (7,315 meters) there is no thought of sleep, not without oxygen, maybe later we hoped, but never the first night.
Being our first time on Everest, there was the thought that ‘oh, so this is Everest, this is what it is like.’
Yet in nine more expeditions spread over 18 years, I would never have a night anything like those two Randall and I spent at Camp 3 on Everest’s West Ridge Direct. Where we knew so little and had to act intuitively with so much, just to stay alive and ultimately to get down. But this time, we were Everest virgins, we knew no better, and soon our minds too began to be taken by the mountain.
The crevasse was our own coffin; it surrounded and covered us. We lay for 12 hours, drifting in and out of semi-consciousness. The cold air penetrated the down of our sleeping bags like they were threadbare cotton sheets. The ice underneath came up through the pads in jagged lumps that pushed and prodded our skinny high altitude bodies.
And the stars, the friendly stars and the connection to the heavens was gone. It was completely, absolutely pitch black. At least I thought so, until some time later, in the twisting and turning of the night, I looked out the tent door and spotted a hole in the crevasse roof through which a single star showed through, a single dim pinprick of light. But the earth turned and the star left and pitch-blackness was back.
The sun never really came up; the cave just went from pitch black to kind of black, then mostly black. Then long after time should have woken the morning up, a little grey crept into our lives. The stove was a tangled metal mass of freezing parts. The water was frozen. The lighters wouldn’t spark and the little wheels spun and tore skin from our thumbs that fell white and frozen into the ice crystal and became the same.
This was Everest, that was all it was. This was to be expected, it wasn’t supposed to be easy after all. We were climbing and suffering in the footsteps of our hero’s. We would persevere. Matches, plain old wooden matches soon torched the stove, overflowing with fuel and the fumes exploded and burst out across the tent then faded into a troubled low sputtering flame. It would take an hour to melt a small bowl of ice chunks. We were climbers, we were meant to be out climbing, but any type of movement was oh so hard.
Hardest of all was the boots, the first generation of plastic climbing boots, the oh so shiny and oh so new and oh so cool looking white plastic mountaineering boots. When we had pulled them out of their boxes in our packing warehouse we felt like we were stomping the last few steps to the top of Everest just looking at them. Now they were ice chunks, in our ice world, stuck onto our iced up toes. Why did they have to make them white?
Lower legs and toes were wooden inside the boots, then the crampons, the strap on crampons, the almost like Ed and Tenzing wore, old fashioned goofiness taking half an hour a side to loop around and around the foot and snug up, either so tight that an hour later they had to come off and circulation restored with a slow, tide coming in, wave of pain, or so loose the toes skidded sideways and the boot fell out and they had to be retightened, the fingers leaving skin in the buckles, turning red and producing the headache jarring, throbbing pain from the fingers to the hands to the wrists pain, when stuffed back in the mittens.
Slamming the crampons into the ice, and thus the toes into the front of the boots, led up the mini ridge and out of the slice in the ice. The head popped up, groundhog like. A blast of sunshine, of wind, of air, of life rushed across us. The first step out onto the slope induced vertigo, all the light, the shining snow slope, the prickly points of the crampons grabbing at the ice like 12 magnetic points.
The West Ridge on Everest extends miles out from the mountain. So while you are climbing Everest, you are also on this immense exposed ridge that forms the border between Nepal and Tibet. It catches the wind, but it rewards with the views. Looking out, there is Pumori and Cho Oyu and Gyachung Kang and so many peaks that the question “is there anything else left to climb?” is an absurdity. So on the rolling dinosaur tail of a ridge rolling down from the summit of Everest we climbed, brandishing axes and sticky, pointy boots and suits making us as big as snowmen.
We’d already put the ropes up this section, so advancing was simply a matter of putting the Jumar on the rope, step up, slide, another step. Not steep, like a black ski run only, but there was no rhythm, no real sense of movement, no glory. Only cold wooden feet, leaden thoughts, air, so little air and so much wind, rushing its madness over the ridge. No climbers below surfaced from Camp 2. On the Lho La at Camp 1, only distant black dots marked the tents. No movement could be seen. It was us and Everest. Last climbers on earth.
The ridge rolled off the right side into Nepal, down into the Khumbu Ice Fall 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) below. On the left, it rolled out and then curved over for another 4,000-foot drop into the head of the Central Rongbuk Glacier. Above, the ridge shot up for 800 feet (244 meters) into a long, corniced crest. And what we couldn’t see, but knew was there, was over a mile of ridge, leading to the final summit pyramid.
The final pyramid looked both touchable and unbearable, the plume streaming, the black rock sitting atop the snow. It was for dreamers and wasn’t connected to our reality. Yet some part of our brains was already there. With climbers it always is, otherwise you wouldn’t be there at all. There were 19 of us on this expedition, and every one of us was dreaming and hoping and swearing somewhere inside us that we were going to stand atop the top of the world. From Jim Bridwell to Bill Forrest, Jay Smith to Peter Athans, Andy Politz to Ed Webster, we had a mix of personalities that spanned the spectrum from big walls to big mountains. It must be said, none of us really knew what we were up for.
Only today, right now, we were going nowhere and doing it slowly. The dream of Everest and the reality of Everest were separated by a bodily pain that made progress impossibly slow and mentally painful. Our crampons crunched the ice and it crackled and broke underfoot in painful cracks. Heat and smells quickly rose inside the down suit, while the fingers on the axe burned where they touched the metal.
There had been a toothbrush at some point, but the bristles all fell out one night in the cold so it would be a long furry month of a mouth until a new brush could be called on from Base Camp. All this western induced wimpiness would be exorcized later in the expedition but now, the simple comforts were still assumed they were needed. When in reality little of it helped one get to the top.
The only thing that gets one to the top is climbing until you get there, and too much thought about even that just gets in the way.
It was already ten-thirty in the morning, the sun was blazing, the wind was rising, clouds were moving up from Nepal. It wasn’t really bad weather, but it never is really good weather on Everest. There is always an excuse. I guess Randall and I talked, I guess we both knew it was hopeless, but I also guess we didn’t really want to give up on reaching the next camp. We weren’t quitters. We were Everest climbers. So we weren’t really going to give up on climbing higher.
Climbing was in our thickened high altitude blood, the natural thing to do, to go up until we could go no further, and then go down. So we rationalized that we would just retreat for the day, we would hang at Camp 3, we would climb higher tomorrow. This had a sense of logic, avoided the defeatism floating around us. So back we went down to the crevasse, back into the hole, to “rest”, to plan, to scheme and to climb higher on Everest tomorrow.
The second coming was worst than the first. We knew what to expect. The crevasse had no romance; no lighthearted “we are sleeping in the bowels of Everest” comments passed our lips. We beat and coerced the stove into action. It sputtered and fumed and didn’t do a stove like job at all.
We gave up and dove deeper into our sleeping bags to face the night, a night blacker than the last. Blacker because I kept my eyes closed, blacker because there was no space in my head for thought, it was only black. Time was a lifetime of shivering, hard ice below, icy air above, us the ice cubes in the middle. And it went on forever until the gray of morning arrived. But even then we didn’t really move, we just muttered, we rolled over. Maybe we should just rest another day?
The gray was punctuated by Jay Smith’s arrival, having stomped up the hill from Camp 2, to climb to Camp 4 with us. He edged down into the crevasse, he tried to make light conversation, he quickly saw we weren’t really up to climbing higher on Everest that day. We were close to being zombies.
I put on my climbing suit, I put on my boots, I put on my pack. That took me an hour. Then Jay and I helped Randall put his boots on and lace them up. He was fun, he was joking, but he really wasn’t making sense. But I wasn’t that good a judge. Yes, I could dress myself, but only barely and it was a lot of work.
Jay was looking at us intently, he’d figured out we weren’t really well. I finally fitted my crampons and pointed them up and out of the hole. Surfacing, the air and the sun were twice as intense as the previous day, as if we had become cave dwellers. I looked up; I took a few steps in the upward direction. The lethargy was something I’d never experienced before, the inability to physically move forward, to control the mind and get the body moving.
A step, then a stand there, a look at the view, a look around some more. Maybe a story would start in the head. Then more breathing, then an “oh yeah, I’m climbing, should take a step.” Then some thought about what that step might take, the work it would entail. The mind fighting the mind. I was going nowhere. I certainly wasn’t going up to Camp 4.
I turned and started down the ropes. It was now a down day, even under intensely good weather. Clip the biner into the rope, careful but clown like steps, bringing the legs under control, feeling the ease and speed of down while still a fatigue, a muscle lethargy pervaded. Crampons give your feet no play; there is no slipping or sliding.
Those 12 points go into hard snow and that is where they stay. And movement, torquing or slide is all taken up by the foot in the boot, and in a hard plastic boot that isn’t much. So the movement ricochets up into your leg, twisting and turning until the muscles calm most of it down, but sometimes the twist goes right up into your spine and reaches up and gives your head a good shake, shaking it on its stem. With the inevitable high altitude headache already, that is an unfriendly sensation.
Randall came out of the cave and I looked back up at him, set against the sky and the ridge above. He took one normal step, then one very big step, then one wild, drunken swinging sideways spinning step and flew face first into the snow. Oh no. What to do.
Jay helped Randall up. He repeated his performance. Then again, but with a few extra steps in between. They came up to me.
‘We just need to get him down,’ said Jay. ‘Keep going.’
I went. I felt like a strange stick man, but my body was obeying commands. Randall’s was doing none of the sort. We kept going, myself in front, Randall in the middle, Jay bringing up the rear, clipping Randall though the anchors. We traversed across the moonscape of sliding ice slabs and sun cups, dished out ice pockets and snowy drifts, snow going ice to sugar to powder all in one foot. We moved, we stopped, we yelled, we moved again.
We stepped onto the ledge outside the snow cave that was Camp 2. I don’t remember either reaching it or passing it, but we did as it was on the way and that is what altitude does.
Then we dropped off into the steep snow gullies leading to the rock cliffs. This part of the wall I’d climbed with Randall a week previously, swapping leads as we led up through rock and ice bands, escaping the steep ground below and eventually breaking through into the upper slopes. I’d led one steep pitch up through the stacked blocks rocks set like shaky library book atop each other and then I’d belayed Randall as he led up a vertical rock band, stemming over an overhang of rock at 21,500 feet (6,553 meters) that would have been challenging at sea level.
Randall had gone up into the cliff and stemmed his legs out and climbed through it in a single 300 foot (91 meter) lead that took us up out of the cliffs and into the broad snow slopes above, opening the way to the upper ridge. Now we just had to rappel down through this, down the cliff and then into the 1,500 feet (457 meters) of gully and then the ice and we’d be back to the reassuring horizontal, air rich plateau of the Lho La, the pass we were camped on.
The ropes tightened up in the steep sections, making it hard to transition from anchor to anchor. And in some places we had up ropes and down ropes, secured by anchors all strung together and looped ladder like up the face. It was so steep the ropes swung free over the rock cliffs. At the anchors I could lean in and the ice was right in front of me, it was climbing a big wall on Everest with no horizontal relief.
It was hard to help Randall on the rappels, Jay just had to send him off and I would watch below, ready to pull the rope tight and slow his rappel and then catch him to make sure he didn’t unclip from the rope. Then I’d take off again and Jay would slide down to transition anchors for Randall and send him off to me. I wasn’t really being much help, it was more of a false crutch. Maybe if I went first at least the ropes would be straight to the next anchor. I reassured myself that was some help, when I knew Jay was doing the real work.
Steep ice gullies curved away and then spread out into broad swaths of ice once we descended over the largest of the rock cliffs. I reached the end of the first rappel over the cliffs into them and stepped sideways onto a footstep of ice that had been cut into the ice. It held a foot and a half of high altitude boot. The anchor above disappeared into the snow, no real way to tell what it was, but one advantage of being on Everest with a bunch of Yosemite big wall climbers is you could pretty much trust they all knew how to put anchors in. I looked up and saw Randall start down through the cliff bands above.
As we’d gotten lower, Randall’s feet had started to descend in a more mannerly fashion. They weren’t really under control, but moving downward, or maybe the vertical, direct nature of the rappels gave him little choice but to move straight down, one foot falling naturally below the other.
I hung on the anchor 300 feet below him as he started through the rock bands. His feet splayed wide high above me, then he suddenly pitched sideways, his feet crashing about on the cliff, crampons grating and tearing at the rock. First I was worried he was falling down the rope, then the rocks below him caved in and started falling away, rattling and cracking and crashing over the bottom of the cliff before falling free onto the ice and tumbling into the ice gully leading to my stance.
The rocks were part of an outcrop composed of blocks set upon blocks and when the lower ones were kicked the entire tower suddenly plummeted down. They didn’t start slowly; they didn’t topple or need time to gather speed. They just cut loose and went from being part of Everest to flying down, hailing out of the sky straight towards me
I leapt sideways, tugging the rope tight. There was just enough rope at the anchor for me to pull myself off to the right of a small ridge as the rocks flew towards me.
Rocks shooting overhead sound like missiles, hard edges catching and spinning and whistling in the air as they fall. They were big head sized and bowling ball rolling and sharp spiky shooting past. A few small ones hit my jacket, bigger ones crashed into my pack. It was a whole garden full of rocks cut loose and sprouting and tumbling down the ice, over me, around me, into me. Then they rushed off down the gully, following on their merry way before disappearing in puffs of rock and ice dust another quarter vertical mile below.
I hung twisted sideways and pushed out on the ropes, pulled as far off around the little ridge as I could, one foot in the foothold, the other stemmed out on the ice to the side as far from the direct path as I had been able to reach. Death had roared down, missed and carried on its merry way. No noise was left behind, no revelation, just simple knowledge that if I hadn’t lept to the far side of the ledge, the bigger rocks and main mass would have hit me, that would have been it. No drama, no fear, nothing to think about, just dying very quickly and simple and silently as that.
I eased myself back over onto the foot stand. Around me, grooves and minefields and furrows cut the ice where the swath of rocks had cut into the ledge where I had been standing before I’d leapt sideways. Everything had been hit except me. I was shaking, but only a bit, it was a still a long ways down. It wasn’t about fear, it was simply about getting through it, then carrying on. Randall rappelled down to the anchor.
We were out of the rock cliffs, the ice was unlikely to break free, just one long rappel after another with too tight ropes, tiny steps, endless clipping and unclippings of the rope, always the rope, the connection back to earth leading us down.
There really wasn’t much to think of, just the rope, the slide, the feet, fatigue, the deep breathing for no reason except there was no air.
We would get back to the base of the ice eventually, but for now it was just good not to have been taken out by the rocks. It was all that simple. We’d gotten up because we loved to climb, I’d gotten down because I didn’t pause to think, just act. It was Everest; it was all to be expected.
A month later, Jay Smith and I stuttered to a halt at 28,200 feet (8,595 meters) on the West Ridge Direct. Oxygen problems, cylinders hissing air uselessly, vertical climbing on frayed ropes had brought us to a point where going up may have gained us the summit, but getting down again wasn’t at all likely. Jay had more oxygen, he may have made it, but we decided to go down together. It would be five years before we would be back to climb together on Everest again.
I know that even with no Himalayan experience, what had seem me through was years of rock climbing experience, of free soloing cliffs where the mind takes over from the body.
Thinking would have been fatal, only my intuition had saved me when the rocks came down.
Read Chapter 2 of Nine Lives, Everest Kangshung Face