Arriving at Everest Base Camp at the bottom of the top of the world, and being all out of breath just doesn’t feel like the best way to start climbing Everest.
Whether trekking up as we just did In Hillary’s Footsteps, or settling into Base Camp for the longer stay and attempt on Everest, those final small hills up the glacier still leave most of us gasping for air for a few days.
Then having to make repeated trips under the avalanche prone ridges and through the toppling seracs of the Khumbu Icefall, doesn’t help your confidence much either.
Little wonder that many are trying alternatives, from acclimatizing on Lobuche or Pumori, to hiding out in a Hypoxia tent at home for a month or two in advance.
Or you could just sign up for a rapid or ‘flash’ ascent, take a month off your expedition time and hopefully sprint to the top with a combination of pre-acclimitazation and an extra dose of oxygen.
The idea of acclimitizing on another peak before Everest, certainly isn’t new and seemed to work very well in 1953 when the first ascent team went up the Imje valley and climbed the South Summit of Island Peak.
When Russell Brice at Himex, switched from leading expeditions on the North Side to the South Side of Everest, he popularized the ascent and sleeping atop Lobuche East at 6,119 meters (20,075 ft). With this approach, he cut out a trip through the icefall for his climbers, and perhaps even more importantly, cut down on the resources his Sherpas had to carry multiple times through the icefall.
This proved so popular that other expeditions soon followed, including most recently Mike Hammil’s rapidly growing new company, Climb the Seven Summits (CTSS). Now trekkers have taken up complaining that their fine trekking peak just isn’t quite the same when you climb at dawn to the summit, only to find a host of tents and climbers just waking up around you.
This year Russell Brice has switched over to acclimatizing on 7,161 (23,494ft) Pumori, as detailed in his latest newsletter. As the only team there, he avoids the crowds, is closer to Everest Base Camp – and perhaps best of all, his team can now climb to over 7,000 meters, while also ascending a beautiful Himalayan peak with incredible views of their upcoming route in the process. Nothing like starting up Everest having just summited Pumori.
Over on the North Side, Adrian Ballinger’s, Alpenglow and Lukas Furtenbach, Furtenbach Adventures, are extolling the virtues of their “Rapid Ascent,” “Lightening Ascent” and “Flash” expeditions. With pre-acclimitaztion in altitude tents, and oxygen turned on at the 7,000 meter North Col, it suddenly takes Everest a whole lot lower in terms of altitude.
With more oxygen and more resources to carry it, also comes a higher price tag. Alpenglow list Everest Rapid Ascent at US $85,000, with Furtenbach’s prices for the Flash listed at EURO 96,000. As his promotional copy leads the page with “Time is a valuable commodity,” it isn’t difficult to see who he is targeting.
While still in its early days, and benefitting from last years large weather window, the popularity of this rapid approach seems likely to only increase. However, it also relies on your oxygen system always working and having a good supply always at hand, as Mark Horrell points out in his well detailed post about rapid ascents.
Being up high for long should anything happen or if you are delayed for any reason, and you will succumb very quickly to the altitude. Long gone are the days when for extra assurance I’d encourage everyone to just carry their own oxygen to the top.
Undoubtably one of the finest ascents of Everest without oxygen, doing a pretty much non-stop, round trip 43-hour ascent of the North Face was done by Loretan and Troillet in 1986, after acclimatizing on a number of lower peaks in Tibet.
Teams on the north side have long skied up and done day climbs of the beautiful peaks of Lingtren, Khumbutse and Zhang Zheng Ling. This has the advantage of not only being a lot of fun, you are both acclimatized and fast when you set off up Everest. Few seem to have the time and inclination for this now.
Though once acclimatized, Cory Richardson and Topo Mena are going to have to move very quickly on the heights once they finish off their new route up to its confluence with the North-East Ridge. Climbing without oxygen doesn’t give you many choices.
There are still a host of expeditions on the South Side approaching Everest in the time honored up and down fashion, with their 3 rotations, including a trip to Camp 1, then to Camp 2 and finally a night in the heights of Camp 3. While these are billed as acclimatization, they also give you a very good feel for the mountain, and like doing laps on a rock climb or doing the same trail run repeatedly, your pacing improves.
When you go up and down a few times, you know when to push and when to relax and what the weather feels like and how it changes. You can hone your gear down and most importantly, be a lot more confident. And with every journey up you are hopefully better acclimitized and are feeling stronger every time you ascend.
On my first time to the summit with David Hamilton, we were stopped above the South Col at 8,300 meters in a blizzard. We retreated back to Camp 2. A few days later we were back at the South Col again, worried we might be tired out. However, the previous climb to the heights made the return much easier, the way was known, the steps were in place and we were high on the summit ridge before the sun even came up. It always helps to know the terrain and what you will be climbing through. Our acclimatization also ensured that when we needed to rescue a fellow climber, giving up our oxygen at the South summit, and spending 27 hours out above the South Col, we returned with them in tow, not left higher on the hill.
With every method of acclimatizing there are trade-offs. If you ‘Flash,’ best to understand that if you are not ‘Flashing’ up high, your end will also be ‘Flash,’ if conditions or oxygen doesn’t work to your advantage. And as proven last year when the oxygen regulators had problems, your “rapid ascent” will need to be followed by an even faster “rapid descent.”
If you go for the traditional up and down, and up and down again, you will be spending more time up high, potentially in dangerous areas. You’ll be quicker every time though, and get to enjoy the heights. As much as the icefall and Lhotse Face are dangerous, they are also incredibly beautiful places to climb. Wandering though the Western CWM is an unforgettable experience no matter how many times you may do it.
In the middle ground for acclimatization are the options to acclimatize on other peaks, experiencing another route, perhaps another peak and some beautiful sunrises and sunsets from the heights of the Himalayas. With the assistance and learnings you might find from high altitude researchers like Dr. Peter Hackett and his recommendations on Diamox, a slow and steady climb to the heights may be exactly what you wish for.
Your best acclimataztion choice may simply go back to your motivations.
Do you want to climb Everest, fully experiencing the heights, the people and the mountain itself? Perhaps with another Himalayan peak in the mix as well?
Or do you want to say you climbed Everest? And get it over with as fast as possible.
It just depends on your approach, your goals, and knowing what you may gain or lose in how you choose to acclimatize.