VMAG maps the journey that Everest summiteers make on their way to the top of the world

7 min read
06 Oct 2017
7 min read
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Every year, roughly three to four hundred climbers seek to make the formidable task of climbing Everest

In May 2016, at Camp 3 (7,158m), roughly 1,600m below Mount Everest, Kuntal Joisher was just about to sleep when Mingma Tenji, his climbing group’s sirdar, visited his tent and informed him that the team would leave early next morning for Camp 4 (7,906m)—weather permitting. Camp 4, also known as the South Col, is the last camp before teams make the summit push for Everest, and from there, climbers enter the dreaded Death Zone. Although the Death Zone is the most arduous portion of the Everest climb, the journey right from Base Camp itself is exceedingly daunting, to say the least. 

Joisher, an Indian national, was one of the members of the Everest expedition organised by Satori Adventures (SA), a Kathmandu-based mountaineering agency. This was Joisher’s third attempt at summiting the mountain. His first was in 2014. That year, an avalanche killed 16 Sherpa guides in the Khumbu Icefall, and all expeditions for the season were cancelled. The following year, when Joisher was in Everest Base Camp for his second Everest expedition, a huge earthquake struck Nepal, and at the base camp, an earthquake-induced avalanche killed more than 20 people. In 2016, Joisher attempted to summit Everest again—and succeeded. He had fulfilled a dream that he had harboured for eight years. 

Every year, roughly three to four hundred dreamers such as Joisher seek to climb Everest. They pay the USD 11,000 climbing fee and set out on a journey that spans anywhere from 45 to 70 days. Climbers spend most of the expedition high up in the mountains, sleeping in tents in sub-zero temperatures, crossing ladders that serve as bridges across the many deep crevasses on the mountain, walking narrow trails barely wide enough to fit a single person. And during the climb, they are highly likely to suffer from altitude sickness, altitude-induced coughs, pounding headaches, frostbite, and in the worst cases, cerebral oedema—a condition in which the brain swells up while fighting exhaustion. They also have to battle nature’s fury in its many forms: avalanches and falling ice seracs, all of which make the several-week-long expedition a physically and mentally challenging ordeal.

And to make sure that the climbers are well-fed and well-sheltered while up in the mountains, expedition companies like SA have to start working months in advance to arrange the logistics and the manpower—which includes a contingent of climbing guides, cooks, porters. Once everything is in place for the climb begins the formidable task of tackling Everest.  

Base Camp

For many climbers, the sheer audacity of climbing Everest begins to sink in when they reach Everest Base Camp—a village whose landscape is dotted with tents of various colours, with Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse dominating the background. “In the three years that I attempted to summit Everest, I was always camped right in front of the Khumbu Icefall,” says Joisher. “I would wake up to a frozen sea of snow and ice. The sight can send shivers down the spines of the best mountain climbers on the planet. My first night at Everest Base Camp was an experience of its own. You sleep tossing and turning to the sound of the moving glacier beneath you. And then the sound of avalanches on nearby mountains haunts you throughout the night, driving away any desire to sleep.” 

Climbers spend the initial days at Base Camp acclimatising to the altitude. The level of oxygen at the camp (at 5,380 metres) is half of that at sea level, and that’s when climbers get the first taste of what the next six to seven weeks on the expedition are going to be like. At Base Camp, climbers are given training on how to tighten their harnesses safely, use carabiners, walk with crampons, use ice axes, clip on to ropes securely, walk the rickety ladders on the many crevasses they’ll encounter, and use oxygen masks and regulators properly. “This training is an essential part of the expedition. Not all who come to climb Everest are experienced climbers or have used the climbing equipment before,” says Pasang Rinzee Sherpa, a climbing guide who works for Sherpa Khangri Outdoor, a Kathmandu-based adventure travel company. “When you are up in the mountains, where even a minor lapse on the climber’s part could lead to disaster, it helps to be familiar with all the required equipment.”

It’s not just the Sherpas in the expedition groups who work on behalf of the climbers. Before the start of the season, the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) will have sent icefall doctors to fix ropes and ladders from Base Camp to Camp 2. And between Camp 2 to the summit, an organisation called Expedition Operator’s Association Nepal fixes the ropes and the ladders.

And while the climbers are acclimatising at Base Camp, Sherpas of various expedition companies head up to the mountain, crossing the dreaded Khumbu Icefall, carrying on their backs tents, food, fuel for cooking, oxygen cylinders and climbing gear to set up Camp 1, Camp 2 and Camp 3. “In a single expedition, a Sherpa crosses the Khumbu Icefall, one of the deadliest sections en route to Everest, at least eight to nine times,” says Pasang. “In one expedition, a friend of mine crossed the Khumbu Icefall 29 times.” 

Camps en route

Once the high camps are set up, climbers make a number of acclimatisation stops at Camp 1, Camp 2 and Camp 3. (Most people assume that climbers summit Everest at one go, but that’s not how it works. Climbers, after reaching Camp 3 for the first time, have to return to Base Camp and wait for the summit window. The ‘summit window’ is the most favourable time, weather-wise, for summiting Everest). Most expeditions make at least one to two night-stops at each camp, during which time climbers acclimatise to the altitude and get used to walking on ladders with the aid of crampons. “When you reach the Crampon Point at the edge of the Base Camp, just before the Khumbu Icefall, you have to put on your crampons; that’s when the real climbing begins,” says Pasang. The Khumbu Icefall is an expanse riddled with crevasses, some of which are several metres wide and many metres deep. The icefall is also home to towering seracs the height of several-storey buildings. “The icefall is one of the most unnerving sections on the route to the top. Climbers will have to cross crevasses that are roughly 10 metres wide by walking over four horizontally placed ladders connected end to end,” says Pasang. It takes seven to eight hours on average to reach Camp 1 from Base Camp. Camp 1 sits at the top of the Khumbu Icefall, on a wide flat area at an altitude of 6,050m.

“Unlike the route from Base Camp to Camp 1, the route from Camp 1 to Camp 2 is relatively safer. There are stretches of gentle slopes, and even though there are crevasses and sections where climbers will have to climb ladders fixed on icy walls, it isn’t as scary as crossing the Icefall,” says Pasang. Getting from Camp 1 to Camp 2 can take anywhere between five to six hours. Camp 2 sits on the foot of the Lhotse Wall.

Between Camp 2 to Camp 3 lies one of the most difficult and technical sections of the climb—the Lhotse Wall, a near-vertical wall of blue ice towering almost 900 metres. “The trail is a gradual uphill walk to the base of the Lhotse Wall, where there’s a huge bergschrund, [a crevasse at the junction of a glacier].  In 2016, we had to make it to the extreme right bottom of the bergschrund before climbing up the wall,” says Joisher. Climbing the wall, which has an incline that ranges from 50 to 55 degrees, takes an average of four hours. “The climb is extremely taxing, and it feels like it’ll never end,” says Joisher. “I remember getting hit by winds of about 100 km/hour on the wall, and for me, it was the hardest day of my entire climb. I was always worried about falling off the wall.”

It can take anywhere from seven to eight hours to reach Camp 3. The camp is set on a narrow ledge at a height of 7,150 metres. Most expedition companies let their climbers spend a night acclimatising at Camp 3 before heading back to Camp 2 and then to Base Camp. 

Readying for the final push

The next time climbers climb the Lhotse Wall is when they are pushing for the summit. “Reaching Camp 3 and retreating to Base Camp mark the end of the acclimatisation rotation. The climbers and Sherpas now get the much-needed rest and wait for the summit window and prepare for the summit push,” says Pasang. “It is believed that there are four summit windows during spring, spanning across the month of May. During the first window, the ropes and ladders on the way to the summit are fixed,” says Rishi Bhandari, managing director of SA.

When Joisher summited Everest in 2016, his team had set a target of reaching the summit on May 19. On May 17, his team reached Camp 3. “I was super relieved. But the winds had destroyed a significant part of Camp 3. Our Sherpa team was able to re-pitch a couple of tents just as we were reaching the camp, and we were lucky to be inside the tents for the next few hours. The winds were really strong,” says Joisher. 

Camp 3 is the scariest campsite he has ever stayed at during his entire mountaineering career, explains Joisher. “We were camped right at the edge of the Camp 3. If you peeked out the tent door, you could actually see the bottom of the Lhotse Wall. Can't make any mistakes at Camp 3. Even when we went to urinate or defecate, we had to put on our crampons and clip ourselves to the safety lines.”

Pasang Rinzee Sherpa

The terrain ahead (Camp 3 to Camp 4) is initially fairly easy to traverse, and at a point along the route to Camp 4, climbers take a diversion from the Lhotse Wall and start climbing towards Camp 4, which is situated at a height of 7,906 metres. On this section, climbers near the dreaded 8,000-metre altitude for the first time in the expedition. The thin oxygen here can prove fatal for some climbers. “A few hours after leaving Camp 3, climbers reach Yellow Band, a steep stretch of rock and ice. The climb is physically and mentally exhausting,” says Pasang. 

Between Yellow Band and Geneva Spur, the final obstacle before reaching Camp 4, the terrain again becomes easy to traverse. “Geneva Spur is again a mix of rock and ice, and is very steep, with an average inclination of around 60 degrees, and at 26,000 feet, it takes the life out of a climber,” says Joisher. “When I reached Camp 4, I was completely knackered, ‘How am I going to muster enough energy to climb the summit in four hours’ time?’ I thought to myself.”

Rishi Bhandari

The final push

Camp 4, at 7,900m, sits on a large flat stretch between Everest and Lhotse. From the camp, climbers—for the first time in the expedition—get to see the Tibetan side of Everest. The same night, climbers make the summit push. “At the camp, Sherpas prepare hot water and food for their clients and also keep an eye out on how they are reacting to the altitude, and how they are eating, resting, sleeping, and whether they are showing any signs of altitude sickness,” says Pasang. “How early one can make the summit push depends on one’s physical state. The journey from Camp 4 to the summit is usually a climb of eight to 10 hours. The summit push usually starts at anytime from around 9 pm and lasts till midnight. Before clients leave the camp for the final push, the mountain guides check their climbing gear, and ensure that their oxygen regulator is set to the ideal level. 

Joisher and Mingma Tenji, the expedition sirdar, started their summit push at 8 pm. After a few hours, Joisher reached a steep section of the mountain, and found himself behind a long line of climbers heading to the summit. For the next few hours, the human traffic on the mountain had him stopping time and again. “Every time I stood still, my toes and fingers started to freeze,” says Joisher. Getting stuck in traffic and being stationary for too long can result in frostbite. “At a section called the Balcony (8,400m), Tenji and I replaced our oxygen bottles, and even managed to overtake climbers who had stopped for a breather. From the Balcony, I could see the climbers’ headlamps shining all the way up to South Summit (8,749m), the false summit that comes before the actual summit of Everest,” says Joisher. The Balcony is where climbers usually stop to replace their oxygen tanks, eat some food, drink water and get some rest. From the Balcony to the summit, the route is barely wide enough to accommodate one-way traffic. 

After a couple of hours, Tenji and Joisher reached the South Summit—which is less than a hundred metres from the summit. But between them and the summit lay the Cornice Traverse and the Hillary Step, two very technical sections. Cornice Traverse is a horizontal ridge, and Hillary Step, a 12-metre rock face with steep drops of several thousand feet on both sides. 

Kuntal Joisher

The number of climbers on Everest can be extremely high during peak climbing times. During their summit push, Tenji and Joisher ran into a traffic of more than 70 climbers wanting to return to Camp 4 after summiting Everest, and around 20 people wanting to get to the summit. After a bit of discussion between the Sherpas, it was decided that the descending climbers would be allowed to proceed first. Just as the last climber went by, Mingma turned up Joisher’s oxygen to pressure 4, the highest possible, and asked him to go as fast as possible until they reached the summit. After navigating the Hillary step and three snow humps, Joisher was at the top of Everest. He had reached the top of the world. 

On the way back, most climbers either spend a night at Camp 4, just like Joisher did, or some even opt to head to Camp 2, stay a night there and then head to Base Camp. “Some clients opt to stay few nights at Base Camp, to celebrate with their teammates and Sherpas, while some charter a helicopter and fly to Kathmandu,” says Pasang. Only once climbers leave Kathmandu for their respective countries does the mammoth undertaking that is an Everest expedition ends. For most expedition agencies, the mad rush of organising an Everest expedition begins all over again the next season. “A climb such as Everest is impossible to pull off without the support and guidance of Sherpa guides,” says Joisher. “Right from fixing the route from the Base Camp to the summit, setting up the entire base camp, all high camps (Camp 1, Camp 2, Camp 3, Camp 4), ferrying food, gear and oxygen to all camps, to guiding us through the entire mountain, I cannot stress enough the important role that these folks play. Without the support of Sherpa guides, Everest cannot be scaled.”

(Photos by Kuntal Joisher, Tag Nepal, Sherpa Khangri Outdoor)