We left the South Col at 8:20 p.m., the wind a low howl, the oxygen a constant whispering stream, the crampons twisting and scraping. We settled into our pace, wrapped in down, encased in our shells, aiming for the Balcony 500 metres above.
A roll of permanent South Col ice cap progressed to the gradually increasing slope leading up the Triangular Face. Underneath, crampons cut into the ice, ascenders slid along the rope that led straight up the snow. From the left the wind streamed across, a roar, then dropping to nothing, then rising again.
Overhead, the zillion stars we could see from Base Camp expanded and set themselves down upon our shoulders, sprinkling the snow with light. Soon the moon came up and headlamps were barely necessary. Dim moon shadows of climbers stretched up the slope. Behind us, a long line of headlamps snaked out all the way to the South Col.
Snow led to steeper rock steps, passing anchors – a single piton driven up into a thin crack, a snow stake pounded flat into a groove, then a more reassuring bolt in the black slate. We crawled upwards. It was my fourth time up these slopes so I knew the rhythm, the distance, the endless dark, the minutes of movement, that stretched and stretched.
There was the painful ongoing upward movement, the hands now numb on the ascender, the water freezing even in an inside pocket, ice clogging the mask. Streams of smoky breath frosted the down suit and zippers until nothing opened, closed or worked the way it should in the world below.
The start and stop as the group moved, paused, stepped over cliffs and wound around rock bands was both mesmerizing and frustratingly slow. On the right the ridge eventually curved closer and we entered the long snow slope leading up to the Balcony. A few headlamps flickered further away it seemed than the stars, and showed where we were meant to go so high above us.
We changed oxygen bottles at the Balcony and I stowed the extra tank in the snow that I’d carried up, just in case we became thirsty for more air later on. We twisted regulators onto reassuringly full tanks and set off up the narrow ridge of snow above. Our twinkling headlamp beams drifted across the ice off to expansive drops on either side, the light disappearing into the void.
It had been six long endless uphill hours to the Balcony. Now we faced an ever rising ridge, leading up to a series of rock steps, showing black against the sky above. Far away to the right across the Kangshung Face, two headlamps sparked seemingly in space – climbers ascending the North Ridge in Tibet.
With a few delicate steps, a lunge and a pull up on the rope we cleared a short overhanging rock step and scrambled up steep fractured black rock onto the final long slope to the South Summit. It was nearly dawn, nearly dawn, nearly dawn, as our bodies hovered between sleep, and consciousness.
Crampons cut into the brittle hard snow and an endless yellow striped blue rope snaked upwards. Then the horizon tinged the darkest of grey and the silhouettes of Kanchenjunga and Makalu, the third and fifth highest mountains in the world, broke the line of light to the east.
Ever so slowly the light line went from black grey, to grey to a tinge of warming orange. There was no heat, only the first register of colour that signaled the night wouldn’t really go on forever.
Then the sun finally broke through, illuminating the earth and all the land below, very much far below us.
An Everest dawn from the South Summit is singularly the best dawn ever. You are after all, looking down on the whole world.
Tibet is shaded brown, then the high peaks catch purple hues. The orange, then the red of the sun glows as we stand atop the earth and feel it turn towards the sun. To the West, Everest casts its shadow in the deep red-purple of the far horizon behind us.
At the South Summit we are perched atop a pinnacle of ice and the final ridge reveals itself. It is a sky-cutting line of jagged ice and rock cliffs, towering cornices leaning out over Tibet, black rock cliffs dropping off and then disappearing into space into Nepal.
We drop down into the notch below the South Summit and scrape across the cliffs, rising and then falling in a long traverse to the base of the Hillary Step. Bridging between the rock and the ice, we move up, then step left onto tiny sloping ledges. These lead up and around the corner left, space below our feet, a few kilometres of the South West Face dropping straight off under our heels to the tents of Camp 2.
We squeeze through a one-legged slot at the top of the step, clamber up some more loose rock held together with ice, put one crampon in Tibet, another in Nepal, then move back onto a long curving snow slope the snakes around a rocky promontory. Then fluttering above finally, the prayer flags, the five colored wind-horses waving in the snow above, let us know we are finally, almost, nearly there.
The summit is a meter wide and three long, covered in prayer flags. To the North, Tibet extends, white ice encrusted mountains, then brown mountains and hills and plains.
East lies Kanchenjunga in the far distance, Makalu looms a perfect pink granite pyramid just in front of us, then the long jagged ridge leads up to Lhotse to the South.
We are far above the whole-wide-world. There is no mistaking the dominance of Everest from its summit. It is not only geographically, but psychologically, a hugely dominant presence.
Standing atop it ones life is now divided into ‘before Everest’ and ‘after Everest,’ when the possibilities of what life offers, having looked down from the top of the world, seem so much more expansive and hold so much more potential.
We take a few photos, but the sense of the summit is greater than the need to do simple earthly tasks. We sit to simply enjoy the view, feel the wind, sense the world at our feet. After 45 minutes we turn and head down the hill.
Our water has frozen, our oxygen is ending, a tired stream of air leaks into the mask. It is down and down, how did we ever climb this far? Lhotse serves as a marker, we are so far above it, we are at the same height, we are lower than Lhotse, it can’t be far now. But the yellow of the South Col tents are minute, wavering dots through the wind and building clouds.
At the balcony a Sherpa who has climbed up from below shares a few sips of water, the first since the summit, everything else frozen. Then it is down and down the ropes, the anchors drooping in the snow, old ropes tangled with new. Every crampon point needs its home, every step needs to be perfect, every step and then another step, so simple and requiring so much concentration.
An orange oxygen bottle rockets past, looking like a bomb – dropped carelessly from above. To be hit would be the end.
Then the slope levels, we skitter across the South Col scree. The tent is close, the tent is right there and we sit taking crampons off, sliding out of the pack. Securing the ice ax has never felt quite so good.
Account from a climb guiding for Jagged-Globe in 2010. Should you want to go climb Everest yourself – the highly successful David Hamilton will be guiding for them in 2019 and you can go along with him as he attempts his 10th successful ascent of the peak.