In a tent, all by yourself, in the dark, you could be anywhere.
Or maybe I just wished I could feel like I was anywhere, when where I was, was back on Everest’s North Face. And this time I was all alone.
Alone in the tent meant it was a small tent, a very small tent, sandwiched between two ice chunks peeled from the base of the bergschrund. The roof was so low that the ice crystals that formed on the inside from my breath soon after I entered, filled my hair when I sat up.
My sleeping bag billowed over and filled up half the space, while the other side was filled with boots befitting an astronaut, overstuffed down suit, a stove that roared at a rate unbefitting its pencil like nozzle, and a collection of thick and chewy Sherpa potato pancakes, candy bar wrappers, soup packets and fruity drink mixes.
Above the tent, an ice wall reared 20 meters into the air, hanging over the tent, protecting it from avalanches but also effectively shielding out any late afternoon sun rays – the only ones that reached the North Face. So the temperature was decidedly deep freezerish.
I had daylight, I had a big sky, so it was a long way from the ice cave we had endured on the West Ridge Direct. Though the view out the front, onto the 1,200 meter South Face of Changtze, with the glacier sweeping tight up around it’s base before curving back around into the basin below the North Face of Everest, was about as remote a corner as one could find on Everest.
The back door opened into a deep cleft extending down into the crevasse behind me. And on each side rose svelte, shimmering ice towers, with the tent wedged, chopped, leveled and secured between. Sandwiched, tightly, as if this would create a stronger bond to the earth, to reality, which at 6,500 meters all seemed a bit ephemeral.
The front door had a porch, a perch, before it dropped off 200 meters into an expansive basin cut with house swallowing crevasses and encapsulated by Everest’s North Face, the North Col, and Changtze, Everest’s North peak. There was no-one else in this expanse, it was all my playground. It was my Camp 1 and only.
It wasn’t the traditional side of Everest leading up the East Rongbuk to the North Ridge, but the head of the Central Rongbuk, where few if any went. Then it was around the corner where no one ever seemed to go, and right up against the base of the mountain, with the North Col off to the left above me. Certainly this year, I was all alone. But alone didn’t mean lonely. There was always something to do, to climb, to cook, to sleep, to think.
Best to avoid the thinking though because too much might open the mind to questions, to why’s, and to what ifs.
Introspection at altitude is best dispelled quickly. Remember the desire to be here, the desire to climb to the top of the world, to be alone and ascending Everest. Because the individual minutes, and the doubts fostered by the lack of oxygen, the cold, and the pre-dawn starts, are best to not be thought about too deeply. Best to just climb.
The route above swept elegantly and with little trouble or jumble or break over the bergschrund and up onto the steepness of the face. There was an S. bend snow bridge across the schrund, but it was well supported I assured myself, tripped lightly across, and carefully remembered just in case a late night return was needed. Just a foot off the bridge, icy, blue, then gray, then black depths showed, the entry into a Jules Vernesque journey to the center of the world.
Above the bergschrund the ankle deep friendly snow turned to hard crust and then, just as the face steepened, the North Faces shadowy positioning took control of the conditions. In the pre-monsoon, it wasn’t friendly hard snow, or snow over harder snow. It wasn’t even white. It was gray-black hard ice. Nothing really penetrated Everest this time of year.
Any slip was going to result in a long rocketing ride back down the slope. And while 2 a.m. starts were called for, there would be no sleeping or resting or time to complain.
Once onto the ice, it was 200 meters across and up, crabbing sideways, into a sweeping couloir. I called it the Anderson couloir (which Ed Webster would kindly add to his route guide in Alpinist some years later) because it needed a name and if I was going to go up and work so hard and scare myself so badly every morning to open this route up, I was going to do it with a little salve for my ego. So naming the couloir in my mind was important.
And it was a good route, sweeping up in an arc, steepening and winding up to hit the North Ridge at 7,500 meters, with a turny, twisty rocky mixed bit of climbing at the end. It steepened nicely at the top and with some imagination, reminded me of climbing in Eldorado Canyon, those routes like Tagger and Ant Hill Direct and the Bastille crack we would finish our days with a quick free solo romp up, that left plenty of room for air under the boots.
If the altitude didn’t help the breathing, looking straight down between the crampons at almost 1,000 meters of gray black ice running back into the head of the Central Rongbuk certainly would. On another peak it would have been a substantial route in itself, with lots of vertical, ice, rock and an exposed ridge leading to the exit point on the North Ridge. But on Everest it was a rather indistinct feature, dwarfed by the North Face to the right and leading to little more than a spot on the North Ridge – still a very, very long way from the top.
There was always a little triumph in climbing up out of the couloir and onto the North Ridge, because the view back down was now the full 360. It was like reaching a summit, as the view doubled and the sun hit in a blast from Eastern Tibet. The ice faded to wind blasted snow, and snow so much nicer than the ice, and the crampon points all went in softly like they were supposed to.
The mornings windy breezes would hit and the dawn cold would hang just a bit longer than I’d like, warming up visually but not in temperature. But it was morning. It was climbing Everest. It was glorious and still I was all-alone at this early point in the season.
Climbing alone on Everest, the outside influence of teammates was non-existant. It was very simple, but every single decision was my own. On Himalayan expeditions, with a group, the interaction with others is the dominant element. Cooking and eating together, sleeping in small tents, sharing decision making, tied together by ropes.
Climbing together overshadows the mountain itself and the mountain simply becomes a stage where the human drama plays out.
Soloing is a completely different experience – it is only the mountain and you; it dominated my world and my thinking. It was a direct relationship with Everest with nothing to get in the way. And I had to adapt myself to what the mountain required.
In two weeks, I’d probably become more tuned to the mountain than to humans. It dictated my waking and sleeping, what I wore, how I tried to fuel myself. If I made a right decision I was rewarded, if not, it cost me time, or comfort, or energy, or, as is often the case on Everest, all three in large doses all at the same time.
I would like to add a story of fear here. Of frightening circumstances and winning over in horrendous circumstances, but there really wasn’t any, until the end, and even that was really just a story about simply getting down alive.
Crevasses didn’t open up and engulf me, no Yeti’s appeared, rocks didn’t plummet down the face and almost hit me. I weaved up and over and down again and it all went smoothly. It was really only the nights in Camp One, trying to acclimatize, if that is possible, at 6,500 meters, that were the real challenge.
Finally I had been up and down and up and down and it was time to go, to solo Everest.
I stomped out of Base Camp at a respectable dawn like hour, knowing from all my trips up to Camp 1 it would be 7 hours. Even in the several weeks I had been making the journey, the glacier had been changing, pools opening up, rocks cascading down the sides to plunk in to the water as I passed, huge mud and rock slides coming down from the heights of Chantze. The rough track of footprints winding up through the rocks would appear and disappear at regular intervals. Like most mountains, the best plan was to just go up, always up, a simple strategy that eventually ensures the summit is reached.
My acclimatization allowed me to climb with only brief pauses for crackers, for cheese, for candy and a quick sip from the tea laden thermos. The senses were attuned to the dangers. Cracks and pops from the glacier were benign, just temperature changes in the ice that caused expansion and contraction, sounding like car doors slamming in the quiet of a late night.
Then there were the cracks, the distant muffled but loud thunks that signaled an avalanche cutting loose, followed by a growing rumble. Those were worth stopping for, worth looking high above for, whether they were coming down from the top slopes on Everest and spreading out for miles along the base, or generated by Changtze or the slopes leading up to the North Col. All were dangerous, could roll down, pick up speed and cover me up. Himalayan avalanches are often at a scale they are uncomprehendingly big and go uncomprehendingly far. On the Kangshung Face we were regularly blasted at Advanced Base Camp a couple kilometers from the bottom of the face.
The last 100 meters up to my Camp 1 was always the hardest. The tent was there, within sight. But the slope was so icy and steep the skis wouldn’t run straight up it and I had to traverse from side to side – it would of been easier to walk, but there were just too many strange spaghetti – like crevasses that it was safer with the skis on. So I’d crab along, over ice chunks from avalanches, sloping in and out of the ice troughs, picking a path that connected snow bowls with avalanche runnels with hard packed ridges, before sneaking up the final steep slope to the porch in front of the tent. I liked making sure my porch was flat and spacious to sit on, it was my touch of civilization in a rather harsh world.
Reaching the tent was always a relief coupled with a sense of urgency and expectancy, because this is where the real climbing started. And it would start in the pre-dawn hours of the next day, 6,500 meters isn’t a hang around kind of place.
Up, cook, eat, sleep and climb.
The stove stuttered nervously, oxygen and gas fighting to produce a flame, then chunks of ice in the pot were set to melt, a little water poured in to get them started, then fed religiously to keep the mix melting as fast as possible.
The first drink, hot lemon tea to sooth the throat, the second to make soup, the third to cook pasta, and the forth, fifth, and sixth to heat water for the all essential water bottles, one for the night and another to get ready for the morning. There was never a moment to think, to relax, just business; gathering ice, cutting, slicing and dicing ingredients, making the meal and preparing snacks for the next days climb.
The tent floor, which had been leveled when the tent was first pitched, now heaved and contorted under the thin pad. During the day the tent heated to a point where it melted the ice underneath – unless the sleep pad covered the floor.
Inevitably the pad got pushed around in the wind and the sleeping bag, though rolled up for safe keeping, was jostled about. The result was a mogul field, which by the time I was set to make the final ascent, had variations of up to 10 cm. as the floor heaved and crisscrossed beneath the tent floor. Attempts to chop it out helped little, more pads kept it marginally livable, an aspirin soothed the blood and marginally moved the headache to a different part of the brain.
Still the night was interminable, time expanding, the watch face glowing quietly with minute hands that walked around the face at a pace that made me question if it was even working. Below on the glacier, the freezing air made the ice pop as it contracted, the glue holding it all together shifted from the heat of the day, and towers rolled and collapsed.
The wind would be completely silent, then gust and whip through the space between the ice blocks where the tent sat. I knew the tent was secure, wedged the way it was and tucked into the bergschrund, it wouldn’t be going anywhere. But the blasts were fearsome and impossible to sleep through.
At 2:30 a.m. I’d had enough of trying to sleep, the agony of lying there exceeding the agony of sitting up, of ripping the skin on my thumb as a flipped the top of the lighter to elicit a flickering flame. The stove roared to life, then settled back to a low growl, the fuel was cold, the air minimal, all the elements for combustion at their limits. It was too early for the stove.
Even the low flame soon took the temperature up though, an incentive to let the hands come back out of the sleeping bag, to brew up coffee, to eat cold potato pancakes, to think about the shirt, then the fleece, then the down suit, sliding the feet out, into the extra socks and then curl into a tight ball, encumbered in down, to reach all the way down and tighten the inner boots, velcro on the outer boots and tighten the over boots into position, the result a mammoth foot platform that then needed a screamingly cold crampon snapped onto it.
In the pack went the stove, an insulated water bottle, a bivouac sac, a chocolate bar, some tea and coffee and against my back a square foam pad. It wasn’t a real pack, just an oversized, on my bum, pack. If one was into carrying the lightest load on Everest, this must have been it, for a 2 day attempted solo blast from 6,500 meters, up onto the North Ridge, a bivouac as high as I could get, then onto the top. It was May 2nd, the weather was good, perhaps a bit early in the season, but audacity, so far, had been my friend.
The first steps were weighted with meaning, with portent, with cold brick hard snow the crampons bit into, the ankles adjusting, the dull cold of the axe sensed more than felt. The face started immediately and the slope curved out for 20 meters, then over the crevasse of the bergschrund, treading lightly as the snow fell off into the hole below, into the bowels of Everest. Then it was the crablike 200 meters of an upward trending traverse, the ankles all at the same angle, then into the ice ripples, presenting the points to the ice just so, just ever so perfectly so, time and time and time again.
Headlamp flickering, over a short vertical shelf, then traversing into the base of the Couloir, a straight shot bordered on the left by a low ridge, gradually steepening and rising out of the ice to create a distinct ridge before it blended into the North Ridge above. Just 800 meters of no resting, no ledges, no stopping, just climbing. In the dark, the sky lightened as I neared the North Ridge.
The thin rock ridge, led right up to the North Ridge, slowly leveling off, sliding out into the wide expanse of snow. I was at 7,500 meters moving up in the footsteps of Mallory and Irving and it was so early in the year that above me there were no pitched tents, no teams, no sign of life.
Then it was 50 meters, 20 meters and 10 meters and the snow touched rock and the route led around the right side, scrabbling up over broken cliffs, along snowy terraces, across huge tilting boulders that led for another hour up to the old British Camp 5 at just over 7,600 meters. The violence of the winter wind was evident, aluminum poles bent like spaghetti, nylon shredded, unable to even flap it had been so severely decimated. Faded red, orange, yellow nylon. Frayed ropes flapping everywhere, it had the air of a climbers graveyard.
I sat and broke out the tiny thermos, a scalding cup of coffee a reminder of heat and life. It bounced in my stomach, there was no oxygen left for any sort of digestive process, drinking and eating were more a perfunctory act, a reason to sit, to rest, to view the world. That in itself was reason for being here.
The North Ridge rose over 1,000 meters to the top, and it was another 1,500 meters down to the Central Rongbuk glacier. Directly in front of where I sat, the South Ridge of Changtse shot out of the North Col and rose up to its long summit ridge. And on the left and right of its summit, the mountains, then the hills, then the plains of Tibet extending off blue-purple-pink into the horizon where the clouds and the earth met. It was a never tiring view when every step was an ever tiring exercise. Looking over the top of Chantse (7,543 meters) made me feel like I was really getting somewhere.
It was still mid-morning when I finished breakfast and left the camp. A curving path led up and right, an almost National Park like trail curving through the scree. How incongruous, a trail gently rising, curving, leading up into the heights of Everest. The wind was ripping itself senseless overhead and the internal breathe rasped in and out of the lungs, with air that still arrived so cold inside it was like swallowing icycles. Cliff bands led out and right onto the North Face, small ledges with tattered ropes.
Soloing leaves one with a disdain for ropes. They only clutter the route, they get in the way.
Above a terraced band, a broad snow slope led steeply up, then ended abruptly in a rock cliff and an overhang. It was 1 o’clock, early, but I really don’t want to go much higher or all the way to the traditional high camp, it seemed higher than necessary. Being over 8,000 meters seemed more than close enough for me.
I’d thought I’d arrive at four p.m., I was three hours early.
Clouds were milling, building, boiling up from the Central Rongbuk, but that was common in the afternoon. It’s the big cumulus building out of Tibet and floating across that caused concern, along with the wispy ‘mare tails’, the waving, streamers far out on the Plateau that herald a storm and would incite a rush back to Base Camp.
Just under the cliff and atop the snow was a cozy ledge, a meter wide, three long, sheltered from above by the overhang, with hard packed snow dished out to form a place to sit. It was a perfectly suited bivouac.
I had everything I needed in my small waist pack: the bivouac sac to snuggle into, tiny stove and single gas cylinder, some noodles, two potato pancakes, a candy bar, coffee and tea. It was all kind of cool, a little mini-camp all created out of a minimum of equipment and a minimum of fuss. A carefully planned and well thought through place to stop and rest and be off well before dawn to the summit.
There was just the little matter of a bit of cold, a bit of wind, a distinct lack of air to breathe. But in the sun, in the down suit, inside the bivouac sack, it was pretty cozy. The stove burned with a ferocity twice its size, melting snow and produced a steaming cup of tea. Bubbling noodles followed, a candy bar. Then it was about 2:30 in the afternoon.
Hmm, could be a while until I can climb. I am higher on the mountain than anyone has been this year, so they are no other tents, ropes or teams playing across the hill, all is quiet. Only the mountain and I are home tonight.
The sun takes as long to set as it takes to rise in the morning, slowly descending in loops through the clouds.
Can’t the day just be finished, so the night can start and then the climbing can start shortly after that? The sun burned off the earth from bottom to top, the valleys grew dark, the peaks shone in the refracted rays of sun cut by clouds, the rocks glowed black.
The view, oh the view, went on and on over mountains and glaciers and into valleys and rolled off into the far high hills of the Tibetan plateau, suffused in pinks and purples that shared their intensity with blood.
Finally it was dark, sitting in the dark, 700 meters below the top of the world. The wind died, silence. No lights on the plateau far below, just silence and darkness, the peaks lurking in the dark, miles below, lines of peaks extending out reflecting the stars, dark glaciers now invisible.
As the sun had slid around the earth, it had taken the last vestiges of warmth with it, even if it was just a visual. The temperature plummeted. Suddenly, a planned bivouac in only a bivouac sac at over 8,000 meters very early in May seemed a little less prudent.
People had to bivouac on Everest all the time, Hornbein and Unseold after their first traverse, Haston and Scott at the South Summit, Stephen Venables on his return from the summit without oxygen – true they bivouacked on the way down, but why not plan it, do it on the way up and get it over with?
Climbing Everest with little more than a waist pack and virtually no weight was fun right? I could climb 1,500 vertical meters the first day, just under a 1,000 the next, be on top, and be back down.
First the cold, hour by hour, and then minute by minute, creeping up through my toes. I took my boots off and rubbed my toes, they were numb. They go from numb to a bit of feeling. Now my fingers are cold. The cold is creeping in faster than I can fight it off. Soon I feel it creeping into joints, anywhere the down is compressed in my suit. My knees start to freeze, then my elbows.
I stand up and move around, stomping my feet on the ledge and stretching, like a member of a misplaced Aerobics class. At 10 p.m. I am fighting for warmth, at 1 a.m. I am wondering if I will make it. Should I just pack up and head down? I still want to go up, it is only the night, the dark. Just hang in there.
It is moonless, the cold is brutal, a force unto itself like I have not imagined. Boots on to hold heat, then off to massage and circulate. Hands in mittens, hands massaging toes, hands on my stomach to warm up. Keeping arms and legs loosely bent to create maximum insulation at the joints. Balaclava on, wooly hat on, down hood pulled around my face so only a tunnel of steam escapes. Still the frigid air creeps in and creates a tunnel of ice around my mouth.
Inside myself is a hint of warmth and life, outside is only dark and a steeliness, lifelessness. I feel my mind outside in the cold. Is this it? No. there are too many cold points. At four I think I may make it, at 5, a first hint of light.
I sit up on the tiny ledge, a foot wide of snow, a rock backrest. I stuff my pad back into the back of the tiny pack. Water’s all frozen. Getting the stove going doesn’t bear thinking about. My legs are disconnected, numb, frozen kneecaps. I need my ice axe to balance when I stand up. I don’t look up, I just start down, the first 100 meters of snow steep, not a place to slip.
The minute the crampons went on the last vestiges of feeling in my feet got sucked out the bottom with the application of steel to the rubber sole. It feels like I have strapped frozen steel to my bare feet. I feel the frostbite that has started during the night take hold and begin moving up my feet. I turn and face inward, the crab position more stable, and crawl downwards. Every placement of the crampons is like trying to hammer a nail into cement. The points jitter and poke, the coordination in my legs is gone. I’m shivering, not realizing when sitting how hypothermic I had become.
At the bottom of the snowfield, there are tattered ropes from previous years, but my fingers aren’t working well enough to clip them. I continue down the rock steps, ice axe clattering. The sun slides out of its hiding place, but doesn’t quite sneak around onto the face. But the light sheds some hope. And the crabbing down the hill is helping circulation.
I’ve been up and down and climbed so much I am a primal creature, Yeti-like, alone, just hanging on and climbing down, slowly, but with every foot where it should be now. An hour later I can stand up, the legs are working, not strongly, but they feel like legs again. The toes are still cold and bloodless, I know I have frostbite. Frostbite on top of frostbite from the Kangshung Face. Great. My New Zealand plastic surgeons joke about prophalyxis for my toes – just cutting them all off in advance, is making more sense.
I step off the final rock step and onto the North Ridge snow slope leading down to the North Col. It is like a huge ski jump, but it always looks shorter than it is, even the descent to my cut off into the Couloir leading down to the Central Rongbuk takes too long. I can’t eat, the cold has frozen me inside out, the thought of food makes me nauseous and the water is a brick in my water bottle. A second container inside my down suit is also frozen. How can that be? I leave it on a rock ledge for my return, as I drop off the ridge and down onto the face.
It is steep and the ice is much harder than the snow of the North Ridge. I must think, yet I have a headache, a leg ache, a body ache. I am wimpering a little. I stop. I know I can get down, I tell myself aloud. I talk to myself, I sit on the last rock that provides the last real perch before I get into the ice below, because while not steep, it is brick hard and a tiny misplaced step would see me rocket down into the glacier below. How may steps is it? A thousand, a 100,000, a million? And every one must be perfect.
Lower down the ice fades to hard snow, I reach the bergschrund, the curve across reminds me as I reach the end, that I should probably not die now, barring something stupid. I will try very hard not to be stupid. I’ve done enough of that. Or was it bold, thus cold?
Should I have waited, should I have gone up? As the day heats up I feel inadequate, but at the same time know the night came very close to taking me to the big mountain in the sky. I know how easy that is, how soloists Micheal Parmentier disappeared high on the North Face and Roger Marshall fell off the bottom of it. Both left their lives up here.
I lie in the tent, in the sleeping bag. The stove is going, hot lemon burns all the way down. I want out, I throw crackers in my pack, I escape, three long hours down, swooping down between the crevasses on the skis. The retreat to the glacier is back to life, to life giving heat, to the sun and to the comfort of real air.
I’m lying in my tent at Base Camp a few days later. My toes are a touch black but not as bad as I’d thought. My Sherpa Passang, maker of the worlds greatest pancake, translates the latest news from my Tibetan camp boy who has brought fresh food up for us from the Rongbuk Monastery.
Over on the East Rongbuk, a lone Austrian, Rudi Lang was also attempting a solo – also on a new route, but left of the North Ridge.
On the same night I had bivouacked he had also been up on Everest, at a slightly lower elevation, camped in a small tent. The next day, when I had gone down, someone had seem him out of the tent, moving around, but climbing no higher. And the next day he never appeared and no one has seen him surface since.
What made me know I had to come down? Maybe not having a tent was my saviour, I knew it was still far too cold, too early in the season and made my escape as soon as I could.
And soloing I’d discovered was the ultimate test of individual decision making, it was me or nothing. It was the ultimate ownership of my own life and its consequences. Had I learned my lesson?
I’d return to the heights, back up as high as 8,300 meters. But by then there were people on the route, my small cache had disappeared, I shared tents, I followed ropes – none of it solo like. It was time to go home.
But I wasn’t quite finished, I’d seen a better way, a variation that would go from my camp up and into the Great Couloir. It was elegant, it made sense, it just had to be done.
Nine Lives – Nine Expeditions to Everest
Chapter 1. Everest West Ridge Direct – Life is Intuition
Chapter 2. Everest Kangshung Face – Life is Now
Chapter 3. Everest North Face – Life is Dangerous