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May 242012
Climbing the Hillary Step

Climbing the Hillary Step by Brad Jackson

Well Everest 2012 is coming to an end. Teams are now positioned at high camps twitching with anxiety for summit pushes starting in a few hours,   Thursday night, check May 24 and again on Friday Night, May 25 Nepal time. Summits the following morning.

Eric Simonson, IMG,  provided this weather insight:

The jet stream is still running parallel to the Himalayas, but the forecast has it moving to the north over the next couple days, with a drop in the winds. At the same time, moisture is starting to form to the south of the Indian subcontinent. As the jet moves north, the moisture (which represents the beginning of the monsoon) starts to move north too. This is the classic spring good weather window: when the jet finally moves north, but before the moisture hits. We’ll keep you posted!


The weather forecast has changed slightly with higher winds but still calling for a good window of acceptable winds through this period but picking up sharply on Sunday. Climbers will want to be below the South Col by then.

Manageable Crowd for This Wave

Many teams are updating their blogs saying tonight, Thursday, is the night. On the north, this includes Adventure Peaks and the remaining independent teams plus Andrew Lock climbing without supplemental oxygen.

Kenton Cool, making a film,  was among the first on the South Col for this push. He reported high winds and said he was glad he had an extra day built in for weather. He is leaving in a few hours and hope to conduct a live interview with the BBC from the summit tomorrow (Friday Nepal time) morning.

Not forgetting that climbers share much of the same route for Lhotse, Jagged Globe provided this update for the 4th highest mountain in the world:

Adele Pennington made quick time to reach her camp 4 on Lhotse at 12 noon. She will be accompanied by about 40 other climbers hoping to reach the summit of Lhotse on 25 May.

On the South, Dave Hahn’s home team posted yesterday that they will leave the South Col late Thursday May 24:

The weather forecast is still looking good with winds decreasing over the next few days.  You have to love that! The Sherpa team will get out of Camp 2 early tomorrow morning and the climbing team will try and have a seamless hand off of some gear to them from Camp 3, check out time should be around 6:00 am.  Then the whole team should climb together up to high camp the South Col, getting there midday, that should allow enough time for rest and preparation for early departure toward the summit that night.

Peak Freaks updated their site with some good info on the size of the crowds. They are at the South Col and will also go for the summit on the evening of May 24. This wave looks to be a quarter to half of what went up last weekend. We should NOT see the same long lines at the bottlenecks:

While our team was climbing their way up today, Tashi sat at the Col counting climbers moving up to Camp 3. He counted around 40 people and he also did a head count at the Col and there are about 30 climbers there. On summit day (night of the 24th morning of the 25th) the maximum number we estimate is going to be around 70 people, half of what we saw on the 18th/19th and the forecasts looks really good. Climbers don’t like to climb in wind over 20k and 30k+ is pushing it but some still do. Our forecast is showing to be wavering around 5 to 10k on the 24th night, and the team is reporting that they feel it calming considerably tonight already.

There are some conflicting numbers of climbers expected ranging from 70 to 150. I attribute this to the climbers heading up for Lhotse (40) and Everest (70) plus the Sherpa traffic taking loads down for completed expeditions.

Jon Kedrowski, who has been on more television interviews than Oprah recently, is ready to make a swift summit push starting today. He was all the way to the South Col last weekend and turned back due to the dangerous conditions.

Also a update on the Indian Women’s team:

Two teams of climbers from the Indian Army women’s Everest expedition who were forced to delay their attempt at the summit of Everest due to unfavourable weather such as high winds are ready to renew their climb.The first team reaches Camp 3 on 23 May, the South Col on 24 May and a summit attempt early in the morning of Friday 25 May 2012. A second team will make their attempt the following day.


I have spoken over the last several days about “support systems on Everest”. The major operators like Alpine Ascents, Himex, Jagged Globe, Adventure Consultants and IMG demonstrate this every season, This post from IMG is an example:

Right now, we have 21 sherpas on the way to the South Col with additional oxygen and supplies for the next summit bid.

Often climbing is about managing distractions. Not to put deaths of climbers into the category of a distraction but the press surrounding them creates havoc back home, causes individuals to question their purpose and can certainly create a potential loss of focus. Thus far it appears the remaining teams are fully committed to making a safe attempt. My feeling is this final wave represents some of the more experienced climbing teams on whole. I will post another update later today as the teams report in.

Youngest Everest Female

A notable record was set over the weekend with Ngim Chhamji Sherpa, born 11/14/95, now 16 being the youngest female to summit Everest around noon on May 19th. She made it with her dad, Dendi Sherpa (3X summiter) at her side. The other climbers in their group included Nepalese Ganesh Thakuri, Pem Lakpa Sherpa, Wangchhu Sherpa, Temba vote, Chhemba Sherpa, and Dawa Dendi Sherpa. Congratulations to all!

The Descent – an Essay

Sometimes reading Everest stories is like that old joke: “How do you make a million dollars and not pay taxes? Well first get a million dollars, then …” Wait! Something has been left out.

Many reports simply state –  I stood on the summit and we returned to base camp. The End. It is not that simple.

My descent was one of the toughest days of my life. With the final climb from the South Col to Camp 2 taking me to my limits. So in the spirit of the other two essays on going to the summit and being on the summit, I respectfully submit my last one on getting back down. I hope you enjoy. You can also read my 2011 summit “report” by downloading this PDF.

Leaving the Summit

“Ready to go?” your Sherpa said confusing a question with a statement. It takes a moment for it to sink in but then you remember the famous Ed Viesturs statement, often repeated primarily by family members of Everest climbers: “getting to the summit is optional but getting down is mandatory.”

You put your pack back on, adjust your oxygen mask for the billionth time, take one more long, very long look around the summit of Everest, hoping to sear the image into your mind; like that of watching your child take their first bike ride and you are off.

The first few steps feel weightless, both mentally and physically and then your body jerks back to reality as the slightest use of energy drains your remaining strength.

The Last Step

It doesn’t take long to reach the top of the Hillary Step. The entire time you spent on the summit, others were climbing higher. If you are lucky, there is a gap in the line and you can quickly rappel down. It was hard climbing up not being able to see your feet due to the oxygen mask but going down is worse.

Most people wrap the line around their arm, an arm wrap, and do a controlled fall while other take an inordinate amount of time to use their rappel device ensuring safety but taking precious time and stalling everyone else. Either way you blindly reach the bottom, once again gasping for breath. It is so easy to stop breathing … The most valuable role a teammate can do is to remind you to breath.

Other climbers on your team are not so lucky at the Hillary Step. They arrive only to see tens of people standing in place, one behind the other, all clipped into the single fixed rope – down covered robots. If there are two ropes, some are going up while others are going down. But the Step itself is narrow and people jostle for position.

A Western Guide seeing the stau, screams to those coming up to stop. No one hears her over the winds and their own breathing. She unsuccessfully gestures widely to get their attention. Finally a Sherpa forces his way down into the melee bringing the climbing to a halt.

One by one the Western Guide gets her climbers down. Climbers stare at one another, some curse, some just disappear into their own world; most stand, shuffling feet, swinging arms, clapping hands yet getting colder by the moment. You are glad to get by this.

Another Summit?

With the sun shining, it is starting to feel hot, but the winds keep you cold. You are closer to the sun the ever before and against the pure white snow and ice it creates a glare. You can easily loose your vision to snow blindness if you take your glasses off, even for a few moments. Once gain, your full concentration is required; it is time to forget about the last 8 hours – you need to get down.

Crossing the narrow Cornice Traverse is more of an afterthought, but probably shouldn’t be. The fixed line keeps you on the straight and narrow and then the route goes uphill. Wait, you are going down so why now up? But then remember that down climb from the top of the South Summit, it is OK. You make good time getting up to the top of the South Summit but use more dwindling energy along the way.

Taking a moment on the South Summit, you turn around to see the true summit one more time from a vantage point you will probably never have again. Years later, this image will come to you in dreams, in the strangest moment, a memory that last forever. A good memory.

Down the Ridge

Cresting that small rise on the Southeast Ridge you now have a full view of the South Col, Lhotse, Makalu off in the distance; yet in spite of this your eyes focus on the ridge itself and the fixed line, and the people climbing higher. You remember the rock outcroppings and how difficult it was to climb them in the dark. How will they be down climbing in the light, with people all around?

You continue to stay clipped into the fixed rope but the people coming up make swapping your lifeline tedious. Each maneuver feels like driving through a city street with you in a sports car and other driving earth movers. The pace going down is light speed; up is a black hole.

Slowly you reach the outcroppings. They are as steep going down as going up. You arm wrap again but this time hold on with fear, a slip would be serious. Waiting for a gap in the climbers, you make your move and scurry down. You rip the seat of your down suit against the sharp rocks and curse under your breath as feathers fly out of your pants. You then have to laugh at yourself.

The angle eases as you approach the Balcony and a long needed break. It has taken a couple of hours to descend, maybe more for your teammates stuck in the crowds. Once again, you separate yourself from the anxiety, the turmoil, the pressure and let the moment ease into your consciousness, into your memory; into your essence. Yes you are changed forever.

Back Home, Almost

This break is long, the longest of your climb. You are enjoying the sunlight, the oxygen. The knowledge that the most difficult part of the climb is behind you. All that is left is the climb down to the South Col, your tent, your sleeping bag – wonderful motivation to continue.

Again, the fixed ropes serve as your compass. Clipped in you avoid any mistakes and take each step, one at a time, careful with your footwork, your breathing is more relaxed but you are beginning to feel the fatigue. Your legs are getting weaker, you are aware of your lower back, your arms, hands. Your eyes have a slight burn, your mouth is dry. You move steadily.

At the top of the blue ice bulge you are only a few minutes from your camp. A Sherpa from your team steps out of his tent and calls out your name. You stomach flips. Maybe he bangs two pots together, a traditional greeting for an Everest summiteer. The emotions began to return – combination of joy, exhaustion – relief. It is almost over. It is almost over. It is almost over.

Stumbling near your tent at the South Col, the Sherpas help you take off your crampons, pack and harness – you have no pride anymore and take any help willingly. You drink the tea they offer. You try to take off your boots but quickly understand you can’t be bothered. You fall back in a limp pile onto your sleeping bag and quickly enter a state somewhere between sleep and a coma.

However in what seems like an instant you hear your name. It has been an hour. It is time to get ready to climb down to Camp 2 – a storm is moving in as forecasted and the last place you want to be is on the South Col, 8000m, in a hurricane. Everything happens now in reverse: gather your gear and put in your pack, lace up boots, crampons, harness on, pack on the back. And you start walking.

Saving Face

The route back to the top of the Geneva Spur is on smooth shales plates, it is easy to slip, and you do. Your legs are watery, you left your strength somewhere higher, a lot higher. Where will the energy come from to get down safely, certainly not from you, you begin the lecture – a few minutes later you are looking down on the Geneva Spur and the route over the Yellow Band towards Camp 3.

No long lines now – they are all still up on Everest! You smile that you beat the masses, gather your wits, your determination, your willpower – that is all you have left.

With a grunt you begin the down climb and back onto the Lhotse Face. Again it is all about fundamentals – footwork, staying clipped in, sunglasses. Your steps are labored, Once again you feel yourself weakening but you continue – you have no choice. Approaching Camp 3 you think for a moment that this is far enough, I  can stay there. But that notion is quashed as the Sherpas tell you, there are no tents, no stoves, no fuel – you must go on.

The lower you go, the better you should feel according to theory. But this is harsh reality and the further you go, the less you have. You go on, now approaching the bottom of the Lhotse Face. You know a mistake here will cost you your life – it has others. When will this end? You push on. Your footwork stinks, you stumble, trip over your own feet – you act like a late night drunk; if only …

Then you take the final step onto the Western Cwm. But you still have an hour to Camp 2. This is impossible. You gave it your all to get here. They will have to move camp to you! You go on, taking small steps, baby steps, you occasionally let out a whimper.

This is it, it all over. But you go on. The cook boy runs out to meet you a few minutes from Camp with a thermos of cold lemon. Mother’s milk, you begin to see the end of the tunnel and then you finally arrive at camp 2.

Your Everest summit day is over – it was 60 hours ago you left this tent – now you are back; and an Everest Summiter.

Celebrating the Success

Finally, just a thought about perspective. This season has been dominated by bad news from almost the beginning. Well there have been literally hundreds of climbers who have achieved their dream from the 16 to 73 year olds proving that anything can be done, This picture of Phil Crampton, who ran a very successful expedition on the difficult North captures the essence of this season for many.

Phil Crampton, Altitude Junkies, at Everest North Base Camp

Phil Crampton, Altitude Junkies, at Everest North Base Camp


And a few of the summiters:

My to all the climbers on this final window of spring 2012.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

If you have received value from my work during this 2012 Everest season, please consider a donation to one of these Alzheimer’s nonprofits, 100% for Alzheimer’s, none for me. thank you:

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