Like racehorses that need blinders, we didn’t want to think too seriously about climbing the ‘tallest mountain in the world.’ It was just too big, too overwhelming, to think about directly.
We were trying to focus our eyes elsewhere, while the peak loomed, always loomed, so much above us.
And at the same time, on Everest, the finish line, the summit, consumes you like no other mountain. It dominates, it overshadows, it scares you and the higher you go the more ethereal it gets.
Not the team you might expect
Tim had done the other six of the seven summits. ‘No, not Everest,’ he thought, ‘I don’t need that.’
So he had gone to Ama Dablam instead. And when he reached the top of that technically more difficult peak, he looked out over that jagged ridge of Nuptse, across that framing, sweeping curve of the blackness of the Lhotse ridge and there sat Everest. And he realized, ‘Yes, I need to go try Everest.’
Angus was climbing with him, and in Angus fashion, he said, ‘maybe I will go with you too.’ So he did. He worked on people’s hearts, he knew about blood and oxygen and about not having enough heart. Angus had plenty of heart.
Bunter had just been up Manaslu. Bunter was so understated you wouldn’t expect to find him on Everest. There are a lot of egos on 8,000-meter peaks, but Bunter was happy to just climb, to enjoy, to mix a late night laugh with an early morning Lhotse Face. On Everest, the ability to smile at 2 a.m., when the moon is bright and the ice is sharp, is probably one of the best qualifiers for success.
And there were of course the brothers grim. Not really, though one was more serious about the climb, Ruairidh. And his brother, the not at all concerned, ‘I admit to not really training for this’, Foo.
They were not possessed of brotherly love down low, but up high; they were as close as brothers can be. And not to foreshadow, they did know how to climb.
With a natural, ‘this is a pain, this is dangerous, I’m having a good time anyway,’ sensibility that is so important to getting to the ‘top of the world.’
‘Where are your crampons?’
And Michael, ‘where are your crampons’, Michael? Long before an expedition starts, a Guide gets medical forms, climbing forms, what I want to be when I grow up forms, from all the team. And then there is the rental section. Do you want a sleeping bag, an ice axe, – maybe some crampons?
When you climb Everest, you normally have crampons, probably 5 pairs or more and you pick two and bring them both, just to be sure. The 12 points a foot, connect you to the mountain for good and you wear them from Base Camp to the Summit. Not having them is like racing Formula 1 in a cheap rental car, it is a world cup downhill in rental skis; it is not a consideration. Yet Michael had rental crampons, it was a worry.
‘I don’t want to take this too seriously,’ he said. ‘These mountains are high and dangerous; I don’t want to get too committed.’ He had rental crampons that he had stomped up Manaslu in, so why buy them?
And Tore had been up the North Side, and thought maybe the South Side of Everest would be good to do too. Why not, after all, no Norwegian had done that.
That was our team. If you look for homogeneity, for a puzzle piece of humanity climbing Everest, you wouldn’t find it here. That is, more than anything else, what makes Guiding Everest the most interesting profession on Earth; taking people from all climbs of life and seeing if you can assist them along the way to ‘the top of the world.’
Their was one constant, we were all Dreamers. And probably dangerous – as T.E. Lawrence said:
‘All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.’
Our tents, our home for two months, were pitched amongst the ice pinnacles of Base Camp on the Khumbu Icefall. Soon the shadow of the tent, melting the ice slowly, and the ice around, melting in the days blazing sun, would have us all on pedestals; living in our personal castles surrounded by moats of glacial silt.
At 2 a.m. we arose. We ate eggs, pancakes, blOatmeal, drank coffee. Ice cracked in the cold underneath, snapping at us. A wander though a sleepy camp to the base of the icefall – then crampons, harnesses and fixed ropes, armored up, knights on a mission.
Smiling at Ice Falling Down
The first time through the icefall is part of the dream, the danger, the climbing, the million shades of white cut by the moon. But (hopefully) it doesn’t fall down. So you reassure yourself it won’t. Then the next time you climb through it, the route is changed, the five story building of ice that looked so surreal yet beautiful in the ability to suspend itself over your head is now gone. And the route is different, going under something even bigger and more precarious.
As much as you would not like to think it, the ropes of your last trip, disappearing under a billion tons of ice, let you know, even with your high altitude brain struggling for thought patterns, that if you were under that and it fell over you would be well and truly dead.
The last thing you would have to worry about is being buried because that will have all been done for you, courtesy of the Khumbu Icefall. You have to realize that. And climb on.
Guiding, I want people to one day come out of the top of the icefall smiling – for the climbing, for the beauty, to know life isn’t all about them. Climbing is about the mountain, and the friends you brave this with. And about doing something where risk is rewarded and makes you feel good in your soul. You can go into the icefall without soul, but you don’t come out of it without one.
Then we camp out at Camp 2. The a bit too high, way too dry, black rock festered, under the Southwest-Face of Bonington fame tucked, Camp 2.
We practice sleeping then go up the Lhotse Face.
Laps on the Lhotse
People always ask, ‘Oh, you must be fit to climb Everest?’ Or, ‘How do you train to climb Everest?’ And the Lhotse Face answers that question. There is the rare moment of sunshine and light breeze. But the ropes going steeply up and over the ice, crampons skating, ascenders sliding on the icy ropes, slope rolling interminably upward, air thinner, blood slow, water deep in the pack, energy depleting exercise will let you know if you are fit enough.
Then a blizzard inevitably starts, with wind, and fingers icing as they have no acclimatization and are needed to clip the carbineers, and try and zip up the now iced-over zippers. Then the glasses fog, mini avalanches start rolling over your boots and your teammates disappear in the cloud and wind. Fitness fades and you have to dig in and find some mental torque that shifts a few gears down and keeps on going. Or you turn and flee. The Lhotse sorts any confusion about your true desires.
The Everest Smile
And finally, six or so weeks in, we get to think about the summit. We have been up at 2 a.m. more mornings than we can count. We advance to Camp 2; it is now go up until we can go no further. At Camp 2, four feel good, three feel bad. Oh well, a short weather window lures the fit forward, and Tore, Angus, Ruairidh and Foo charge onward.
Up and up and up they go. We see them again on the way down. They are wearing the Everest Smile. It shines through fatigue and grime and sunburn and no sleep in days and reflects reaching the top of the world. It is their happy hearts smiling and we take their picture and off they romp down the mountain. Now it is our turn.
Up to Camp 3, then out pre-dawn to beat the crowds, Tim, Bunter, Michael and I following the ropes up and out over the ice, over the yellow band, across more snow, ‘oh this mountain is so big, it is so hard, oh it is Everest, just keep climbing.’ At the South Col our tents have been taken by the wind, but we have friends, and Sherpas, so we soon have a home, and settle into brews and food with oz. as a snack to keep our spirits up.
The longest, coldest night
The South Col is well known as the worst camping place on Earth. It is. Windy, airless, always below freezing. And a few hours after arrival, you have an early dinner, get dressed (long underwear, fleece, down suit, inner boots, medium boots, outer gaiters, crampons, big gloves, pack on, oxygen on, mask on, eyes blurred – oh woe to having to go to the bathroom), 8:30 p.m. – lets go climbing.
I always feel drunk climbing off the South Col. Cold then hot, staggering, rhythm less. And that usually lasts about 4 hours, until I reach the balcony. Then I get into gear, I’m up over 8,000 meters, there is a hope of sunrise, I can go to work up here.
Michael is up in front, tagging along with his ever enthusiastic Sherpa Pema. Tim and I climb along behind them; Mingma my Sherpa has ‘pains in his chest’ in the night. Not a great thing at 8,300 meters. We climb slower, we are both carrying an extra bottle of oz. for the team and I don’t want to have him go down. Oxygen is the only insurance you have up high.
Mingma rests, he wanders along behind me, then he smiles and I know he feels better. Talk is superfluous above 8,000 meters. Bunter is right behind me, but not well. After a few stops he turns and descends, being sick up high is no fun, and not safe and he is more than wise enough to know that and head down the hill. Everest is not patient with decision making. Lest I repeat it too often, Peter Athans words on our first climb together on Everest always echo back: ‘There are two types of Himalayan climbers, the quick, and the dead.’
Tim is climbing along confidently, we get hung up behind people who can’t get over an overhanging step, a gasping, heaving, glass-fogging black rock bulge you have to stem and muscle over. If you grew up climbing rocks it isn’t a problem, otherwise it is nothing less than desperate.
Then we are on a steep snow rib, the extreme Southeast ridge, the rib to the sky. And the sun, the oh where can it be sun, finally shimmers far out, black against Kanchenjunga, then illuminating the dark shadow of Makalu. The South Summit appears, a cornice to kill all cornices, hanging out over the Kangshung Face like a cloud. We switch out oz. bottles. Michael is here waiting. Hmm, the crampons, but he fixes them and we motor onwards.
The summit ridge is clichéd glorious. How disappointing if the Summit Ridge to the top of the world was pedestrian. No, it is knife edged, tiptoeing on steel points between Nepal and Tibet, touching heaven and earth.
The Hillary step is gray and dark rock to the left, hardened snow to the right, brick hard. Just don’t push too hard or the snow could crack off and you will all end up 4,000 meters lower and lost in Tibet.
We are over the step and the ridge rolls up. It is plain climbing fun, this getting to the top of the world. We dance along, around a final gray shattered buttress, then up and up, are we there, a last 5 steps, a swivel round and we are sitting atop the top of the world.
The top of the world
Sky above bigger than the earth below, more connected to heaven, whether you believe in it or not, than the earth below. The air, the oz. is forgotten. The importance of photos fades. The relief of reaching this singular place, the flood of being there, of attaining a rare absolute, is overwhelming.
There are hugs and back slaps, there are men and women in tears. And for Guides there is the sense we are in the most dangerous, the most close to death place on earth and it will be nice to be down.
So down and down we go. The summit is in our legs, our toes warm, our water is gone, down and down; did we really come up all this way?
Back to earth
Two days later we take off the crampons at the base of the Khumbu Icefall, we shed the armor, the shells, the ego and ropes, and walk light-hearted into Base Camp.
We have proved ourselves happy under deathly ice towers, we have persevered up the endless Lhotse and we showed faith in the darkness that led us to the top of the world.
We dreamed by night and by day and stepped into heaven at dawn. And best of all, it was very nice to get back to earth.
From my leaders report for Jagged-Globe, Everest 2010 with:
Robert Anderson, Expedition Leader
Tore Sunde-Rasmussen, Leader
Angus, Tim, Ruairidh, Foo, Bunter, Tim, Michael