Hundreds are hopefully summiting Everest today and tomorrow, surrounded by other climbers.
But cocooned in your down suit, alternatively smothered and saved by the oxygen in your mask, your vision tunneled into your headlamps beam, you are also very much alone.
As you set out from the South Col, your life is reduced to a point of light and the sound of your very loud breathing, accentuated by the hissing of the oxygen as it flows into your mask.
You must take every step on your own, and no one is really going to help you or even be able to help you. You may be making a marathon effort, but it is not one you can suddenly drop out of, you must go up as far as you can. And far more importantly, you must go down.
The first time you climb Everest is completely unique, you are focused on the summit. Everything is new and you are busy adapting and climbing. There is no real room for thinking.
The second and perhaps subsequent times you climb Everest should you choose, you can actually think, and maybe even enjoy it a bit. You know the way, how to pace yourself, that it is probable you will actually get hot as soon as you leave the South Col and start moving, that eating and drinking low will keep you moving up high when it is virtually impossible.
And you know that somewhere up there, in the dark, is the summit. And that despite the darkness and what feels like an eternal night, the sun will rise and with any luck the Everest dawn from higher up than most anybody else in the world is, will be glorious.
In 2010 I was on my fourth climb up from the South Col. I knew the way, we had a very strong team and the weather was good. I got to enjoy it, I remembered to take photos when the time was right, I hung out on top and smiled.
This is what it was like:
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 in a single thin strand 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 very much longer 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. 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 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. A quick final sip of water and it was already freezing cold, the water an the wind cutting through the suit. Even a few minutes off of oxygen and the cold set in. We set off up the narrow ridge of snow above. Our twinkling headlamp beams drifted across the ice and off into expansive drops on either side, light disappearing into the void.
It had been four 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 a thin, 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 sunlit 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. It was so far below the connection back to earth faded and our world had was now a part of the sky.
An Everest dawn from the South Summit is singularly the best dawn ever. You are after all, looking down on the whole world.
Tibet was shaded brown, then the high peaks caught purple hues. The orange, then the red of the sun glowed as we stood atop the earth and felt it turn towards the sun. To the West, Everest cast its shadow in the deep red-purple of the far horizon behind us.
At the South Summit we perched atop a pinnacle of ice and the final ridge revealed itself. It was a sky-cutting line of jagged ice and rock cliffs, towering cornices leaned out over Tibet, black rock cliffs dropping off and then disappearing into space into Nepal.
We dropped down into the notch below the South Summit and scraped 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 moved up, then stepped left onto tiny sloping ledges. These led up and around the corner left, space below our feet, a few kilometres of the South West Face dropped straight off under our heels to the tents of Camp 2.
We squeezed through a one-legged slot at the top of the step, clambered up over more loose rock held together with ice, put one crampon in Tibet, another in Nepal, then moved back onto a long curving snow slope that snaked around a rocky promontory. Then fluttering above finally, the prayer flags, the five colored wind-horses waving in the snow above, letting us know we were finally, almost, nearly there.
The summit was a meter wide and three long, covered in prayer flags. To the North, Tibet extended, white ice-encrusted mountains, then brown mountains, and hills and plains.
East lay Kanchenjunga in the far distance, Makalu loomed a perfect pink granite pyramid just in front of us, then the long jagged ridge led up to Lhotse in 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, and emotionally, 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 took 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 an hour 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 to help another team mate 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.