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.
Climbing out of the bowels of the Khumbu Icefall, more fear than fitness. The physics of what is holding things up just don’t always add up.
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 ladder 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. Above you the West Ridge looms, perpetually building and shedding snow with every storm. The ice towers here are house or building sized, perched just overhead and totally unpredictable – except for the simple knowledge that at some point they will certainly fall down.
As you wander through the myriad maze of the icefall, your concerns about fitness fade and you have to decide if you want to climb this mountain bad enough to risk dying for it. It won’t be bravery that gets you through, but acceptance of fear and climbing anyway.
Topping out on the Khumbu Icefall and headed for Camp I.
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.
Deciding what your risk tolerance is, as Garrett Madison often describes it, is key to making a decision and climbing confidently or retreating back down the mountain. It is a decision ultimately made by everyone on just about any climb they do.
So climbers on Everest creep through the Khumbu icefall, they sleep at Camp I, they hide or forget or bury or accept their fear, and move onto the heights.
So first you must conquer your fears.
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 is what 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.
Base of the Lhotse Face, over the bergschrund and headed up the ice.
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 of their 12 points will struggle as you approach 7,000 meters.
The ice wears on your ankles, calves and thighs. – 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 100 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.
Waiting out a storm on the South Col, with a bit of faith it might all come together.
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?
So once you get over your fears, it does help if you are really fit, and climbing fit, to get up Everest.
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 incredibly 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.
The summit ridge on Everest as seen from the South Summit, only an hour or two to go.
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.
The final summit ridge on Everest seen from the South Summit.
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, the summit is soon all yours.
So what you really need is to deal with the fears, be fit enough and skilled enough to balance your way up the Lhotse Face. And then finally you must have the faith in yourself to climb through the night and touch the top of the world.
Headed over the Hillary Step and out onto the final summit ridge, myself and Sibusisu Vilane. Photo: David Hamilton