I went to see Steve Bell in England, one of the founders of Jagged Globe. After a morning of expedition talk about the upcoming 50th anniversary climb I was leading for them, we spent the afternoon on the gritstone cliffs outside of Sheffield. Then, naturally, onto a pub dinner.
“There is before Everest and after Everest you should know, said Steve. “And it is different.”
Obviously he meant once you really summit, as my track record getting to the actual tip-top was then pretty mediocre, if not downright abyssmal. A mix of overzealous hard routes (2), no oxygen or support (most), attempted solos (2), winter solos (1), and at least one better left forgotten, were all in the mix.
Steve Bell had more confidence in me than I may have had in myself at the time, putting me in to lead a high profile team on the 50th anniversary of the first ascent, complete with a host of trekkers and a BBC film crew in tow.
Bringing up the “After Everest” part certainly meant he felt I would join that crowd one day.
I had always wanted the experience of climbing Everest. And then one day I could look back up, standing by myself, and know the route, the mountain, in its entirety, from the bottom to the top. Like fully comprehending a painting, a song, or writing a book end to end. And standing on the top of the world, for a climber – what could be better than that?
Saying I had climbed Everest would always be fun, but far less important. I’d essentially been a climber since birth, I liked to go to the top of things. First trees, then rocks, then mountains.
This year on Everest the headlines are of rubbish, from the many tons, to the hands of the dead poking out of the glacier. Just a bit macabre.
And always the money. Yes, Everest costs money, but life costs money.
And of course all the people on Everest, too many people.
The rubbish is about the best and worst in people. The money is about having or not having. The people, they are there, but still, there will hopefully be moments surrounded by a bit of solitude if you choose.
Yet the experience, the experience of climbing Everest’s is still very singular, unmatched and unique to us all, that once in a lifetime opportunity to touch the top of the world.
However you decide to climb Everest, be it an old route, a new route, or just any route, it is still an incredible experience. And it is a rare absolute in our ever changing world.
I’ve yet to have anyone come down from Everest and moan about the route, the sunrise, or how perhaps, technical difficulty aside, it just wasn’t that hard. Because it is hard, even after one, or two, or ten times. And I think it is more dangerous than ever up there. So you really have to want it.
Ed Webster returned from our Kangshung Face climb with a photo that he lost quite a few fingers for, now for sale as the Frostbite Sunrise. That does say something about the experience. Hard, life changing. But also, as Peter Hillary pointed out on our recent In Hillary’s Footsteps, a good way to judge an experience, is being able to answer the question, “was it memorable.’
Because so much of life isn’t, or is just passing time. Everest, good or bad, is certainly never indifferent.
On the Kangshung Face it was an intensity, day after day, right up until the final day, of loving the climbing and our route and our team. While also wondering, perhaps a bit too often, would we get out alive.
On the North side of Everest it is about those ever fading brown to pink to purple to orange sunsets you will never experience anywhere else in the world. While the wind incessantly sweeps off the plateau with indescribable volume.
On the South, it is that step out of the Icefall and into the Western Cwm, into the valley of silence – except for those rather loud avalanches, with the tallest mountain in the world hovering far above your left shoulder. You can look up and see people popping over the South Summit and heading for the top from there. It is a good place to be.
So while the stories are of rubbish, and the naysayers are of money, the climbing experience can still at times be pure, simple and fun. A good day on Everest can be the best climbing you may ever have.
If you tire of the lines, just try something new, there is still plenty of that. It will cost less money and you will be lucky to see any trash at all. If you meet someone, you will be happy to see them. You certainly won’t be standing in line.
Because it is good to be “Before Everest.”
But it is even better being, still in this life and, “After Everest.”