When I prepare for any big climb, ambulance I like to break it into parts and visualize each section. I try to consider what kind of weather I will experience – and worst case. I think about my mental state and what I will experience – and worst case. I consider things out of my control and how I will will deal with them.
I believe climbing the big mountains demands three key principles: flexibility, patience and respect.
For Everest, I look at it in four phases: the trek in, base camp life, acclimatization climbs and the summit bid. By now everyone knows how to eat an elephant; well climbing Everest requires the same approach. Let’s break it down and see what to expect.
The first time I saw Everest it was on a Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek in 1997. This two week long experience changed my life forever. I saw the world as I never had, experienced the Sherpa culture and became exposed to a different way of viewing life. Yes, it changed me forever.
Thanks to the tea houses, often run by a climbing Sherpa’s wife and family; my gear list is simple: good shoes, some durable clothes, a couple of layers, a day pack with snacks and water plus trekking poles. And my camera! I always use my Digital SLR on the trek and save my smaller point and shoot when weight becomes a consideration on the actual climbs. I also use my SLR at base Camp.
I take my time, no need to rush. I talk to the kids as they walk the dirt trails going or coming from school. I used to give them candy or a rupee or two but now I pass out ink pens for their homework – and they appreciate it! I smile at everyone – actually it is easy since the smile never disappears. Regardless of my result on Everest, these 11 days to get to EBC are always a cherished memory. I have an FAQ page if you are interested in reading more about the trek to BC.
Base Camp Life
OK, if someone told me that I had to spend five weeks in 30 square feet with no heat on a moving glacier at 17,500’ – well actually, I would sign up! But then again I actually like sleeping on the ground in a stinky sleeping bag 🙂
Home away from home, it is critical to make your tent your home. I bring pictures of my family, a shortwave radio to listen to the BBC, my iPod, the latest Economist magazine (yes) and a pillow. This last item is non-negotiable! I simply stuff my down coat into a pillow case and it goes with me everywhere. Combined with a nice thick air mattress filled with down, I seep well in a sub zero sleeping bag. This is critical to surviving Everest.
Of course my tent has electronics and communication that would rival the early space missions but that is for another blog. Even though there are group dining tents and about 999 other climbers, Sherpas, porters and trekkers milling around, the time in your tent to rest and reflect is important so it must be comfortable. All told, I will spend over 15 nights sleeping at Base Camp.
This is the time for patience. With weather changes, avalanches, health issues and other unforeseen delays, your ability to stay focused is continuously tested.
Time to get serious. These climbs take the majority of time on Everest. It is required to force my body to adjust to the altitude. IMG uses Lobuche Peak, a nearby 20,000’ “Trekking Peak” (don’t you just love a 20K trek!) to get some time up high without going through the Khumbu Icefall.
But eventually, if I want to climb Everest from Nepal, I must journey through the Icefall. Dangerous, but probably not as much as riding in a Kathmandu taxi, it leads you to the brutal hot and cold of the Western Cwm.
Next up is the climb to camp 3 at 23,500’ on the Lhotse Face. All this time I am now in technical climbing land. This simply means crampons, ice axe, harness, carabiners, ascenders and fixed ropes.
Clothing has become a veritable strip show of layers. On with layers as the sun sets or goes behind the clouds and off as it comes back out. Maintaining some semblance of temperature consistency is the goal. My system starts with merino wool base layers, then perhaps a heavier polar fleece mid layer and finishing with shells depending on the conditions – soft,hard or down.
I factor in how hard the winds can blow at this extreme altitude when visualizing my hand, eye and head protection. This is not the time to see your favorite baseball team’s ball cap blow down the glacier!
You may prepare for a 3:00AM start only find the plans halted by an avalanche or unexpected storm. Flexibility is the word of the day during this period as I will spend about 20 nights above Base Camp throughout the expedition.
The Summit Bid
The moment of truth. After all the work to get your body prepared, time to put it all to the test. At this point I must have taken care of myself – health, nutrition, hydration and most importantly – attitude. Do I believe I can do this or are the doubts creeping in?
Health is key. The Khumbu cough can be debilitating as can any minor aliment. This is the time to see if those little things you ignored lower down will come back to haunt you up high. That blister which healed at home, stands zero chance now.
I think about my training regime? That day I turned back on the training climb because I was tired or hurting or when I got up at 1:00 AM for a nighttime climb in brutal winds and pushed through? Now is the time to really understand being tired – and the time to push like I never have. The summit push will take about 7 days from Base Camp to the summit and back.
Visualize, prepare, consider the and worst case.
Yes, preparing for any big climb is as much mental as physical.
And the last point, respect. One of the lessons I took away from my first trek in the Khumbu was the respect the Sherpa people had for the mountains. The Nepalese call Everest, Chomolungma and is translated as “Mother Goddess of the Earth”. I think that says it all.
There is a fine line between climbing a mountain and declaring it “conquered”. The British newspapers lead with this line “Hillary and Tenzing conquer Everest” I bet neither felt that Everest was “conquered”.
Before I step foot above Everest Base Camp, I will participate in a ceremony lead by a local Lama and the climbing Sherpa. This “Puja” ceremony is designed to ask the mountains Gods for permission to climb and forgiveness for the damage done to the mountain with our sharp crampons, ice screws and axes. Regardless of your beliefs, this is a moving ceremony where you see first hand the respect the Sherpas feel for the task ahead.
Climbing Everest is a process. One laden with complicated logistics, uncertain schedules and measurable risks. But the rewards are immeasurable.