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May 222012
Everest South Col 2003

Everest South Col 2003

As we ease closer to the next and final wave of Everest summits, advice the recent events of deaths on both sides of Everest have to be on the minds of the climbers.

The South Experience

A first hand report by Leanna Shuttleworth who summited with Alpine Ascents on May 20th, reveals just what they experienced. It is without a doubt the Blog of the day complete with startling images:

Kami, my dad’s summit Sherpa, has now summitted Everest 18 times and said that it was the worst weather he’s ever been up in and that he didn’t think we were going to get up. My summit Sherpa, Mingma, who’s been up 15 times agreed, and Lakpa, who’s now been up 16 times has got frost nip/wind burn on his face for the first time ever. All in all, the weather was awful.

The Next Wave

IMG’s Eric Simonson reports in as they prepare for the next wave:

IMG guides Max Bunce, Eric Remza, 13 Classic climbers, and their sherpas are heading up the Khumbu Icefall in the cold early morning hours tonight, shooting for the summit of Mt. Everest on May 26 (Nepal time). We are hoping that the weather forecasters are correct: they have predicted a weather window coming in a few days.

It looks like Kenton Cool is the rabbit is this wave already at Camp 3.

The RMI team of Dave Hahn also checked in with the home team saying:

This really is the start of the Mt. Everest summit push in my eyes.  How the next two days go, can have real impact on the summit day. It is so hard to try and maintain strength at these higher camps that you better hope the internal battery is charged, you will be drawing off of your reserves for sure.  The team is focusing on eating and hydrating, keeping their bodies strong and ready.  Four of our climbing Sherpa left Base Camp today and joined the climbers at ABC.  Everyone is doing well and looking forward to the next few days.

I know there is a lot of interest in the remaining Indian climbers with Asian Trekking so this is a  list of who is climbing with Asian Trekking. Please understand this is all the information and I have no way of getting additional information now or over the next few days on these climbers. There are 18 Sherpas climbing with these teams and all are at Camp 2:

Eco Everest Expedition 2nd Summit group: Rajendra Singh Pa, Meghlal Mahato, Lovraj Dharmashaktu, Binita Soren, Nandini Cholaraj, Lovraj Dharmashaktu who would be the first Indian to climb Everest without using supplemental oxygen.

Lumbuni to Mt. Everest Youth Leaders Peace Expedition: Mr. Krishna Bahadur K.C., Mr. Sakar Dahal, Mr. Shiva Kumar Dangi, Ms. Beena  Magar, Ms. Iswari Bhatt, Mr. Shiva Bahadur Sapkota, Mr. Maheswor Phuyal, Mr. Saral Sahayatri Paudel, M.  Yubaraj Dulal, Mr. Madan Kumar Chudal

The Death Zone

As more information is made available on the weekend fatalities it appears that serious errors were made that contributed to the deaths. This was not a 1996 style disaster or a direct result of the 2012 weather. Yet, the risk of climbing where airplanes fly are real. There is a reason it is called the ‘Death Zone’.

Popularized by Jon Krakauer in the book Into Thin Air, the term Death Zone has come to symbolize the risk of climbing Everest. It was first coined by the Swiss Doctor Edouard Wyss-Dunant who almost reached the summit of Everest during the 1952 Swiss Everest Expedition. He portrayed the effects of altitude on human physiology and defined a number of acclimatization zones in his book The Mountain World.

The highest zone he called the Todeszone (German for Death Zone), defined as starting at 7,500 meter (24,606 feet)  At this altitude and above, Wyss-Dunant stated, not only could normal human functions not be maintained, but they rapidly deteriorated – even with the use of supplemental oxygen. The level was later revised to be 8000m or 26,246 feet.

Climbing in the Clouds

So it is with great trepidation that climbers enter the Death Zone. Much attention is paid to the Khumbu Icefall and Lhotse Face, rightfully so, but little is said in detail about those hours above the South Col. So let’s take a very close look at the route above the South Col. If you will allow me, I’ll use my own personal experience of last year climbing the South Col route as the basis.

The first few rotations to Camps 1 and 2 and especially Camp 3 feels devastating to most climbers. They struggle to breath, their legs cry out as muscles are deprived of red blood cells. They wonder why they are there and how they can ever go higher; but they do.

For many, there is light at the end of the Everest tunnel the day they start using supplemental oxygen. All of sudden, the energy is back as well as the belief they can do this. However, below 8000m, it is just a placebo.

The real test starts when you hear the wind drop on the South Col, the stars come out and the Sherpas hustling around your tent. You hear your name called out in that now so familiar Nepalese accent – it brings comfort in this strange place. You put your oxygen bottle or two into your pack along with a couple of liters of water, an energy bar, extra pair of gloves, sunglasses and not much more.

You clip on your 12 point crampons, zip up the down suit, pull on the mask and look up. A stream of headlamps show the way. You start walking.

Everest Southeast Ridge in 2011 as seen from Lhotse

Everest Southeast Ridge in 2011 as seen from Lhotse

South Col: 26,300?/8016m

Welcome to the moon. This was home for a few hours as you recovered from your climb from Camp 3. More than likely the wind is blowing so hard you think this is the end of your journey. But usually with sunset, the winds follow the sun.

From the South Col you can see Cho Oyu clearly in Tibet. Lhotse is to the South. You cannot see the true summit of Everest from the South Col but the South Summit of Everest looms to the North.

A vague path in the snow meanders up across a blue ice bulge marking the beginning of the Triangular Face. Leaving the South Col, you go too fast, everybody does. You begin to hyperventilate before you hear your Sherpa call out “Bistarai Bistarai”, slowly, slowly. Following directions you get into a groove.

The climb feels slow, plodding; almost boring. Step by step you gain altitude and get into a rhythm. Every few steps you must unclip your jumar and carabiner from the fixed rope – not both at the same time, and move them above the anchor. This is time consuming, awkward, annoying. You are tempted to skip this but know better.

But you begin to wonder if you are going too slow yet if you go faster you cannot. This is tough. The angle feels steep. It is dark, cold and now that damn wind has picked back up. All you can see are your boots in front of you, illuminated by your headlamp. All you hear is your breathing. How much further?

Balcony: 27,500?/8400m- 4 – 6 hours from South Col

After an eternity, you turn right and see headlamps still, no movement. It must be the Balcony – and rest. You slip off your pack, wanting to sit down heavily on it but it is time to swap out your oxygen bottle – your’s is finished. For almost all western climbers, the Sherpas handle this task – remove the bottle, unscrew the regulator, leave the empty at the Balcony for retrieval on the way down, put the regulator on the new bottle and back into your pack – test it; often the system is frozen with ice. Hot tea or a sharp blow normally fixes it but not always and sometimes ends the climb.

You eat, drink half a liter and begin to feel alive again and then you look up, to the West. It looks vertical even though it is not, but everything is now exaggerated. A mixture of doubt and excitement confuse your already fogged brain. It is time to leave.

South Summit : 28500?/8690m – 3 to 5 hours from Balcony

The climb begins with a gentle angle, this is not so bad, you tell yourself, but then everything changes as the pitch increases – along with your breathing. Higher and higher in the dark, this feels like nothing you have ever experienced. It is dark, cold, probably windy. You are starting to feel incredibly small – a speck on a huge rock. You take comfort from your teammates, the fixed line, the view of your boots, memories, anything to keep you human.

The terrain shifts from snow slope to rock outcroppings. Nobody talks about this, most don’t remember. Each outcropping requires more effort than you have. You clumsily search for a toe hold with your crampon’s front points, a mistake, use your entire foot but the angle is steep, the holds are small; this is hard. Your foot slips stealing precious energy.

It takes a long time for most, every few moments stopping, bending over, ice ax in hand- the 1000 yard stare. But you keep going. You find the 1 reason to keep going, not the 1000 to turn back.

The suns starts to rise as you crest a bump on the Southeast Ridge, you are near the South Summit. The angle relaxes but then picks back up – when will this end? And this is not the summit? The views of Lhotse and the sun rising to the east is indescribable at this point. The chatter on the radio has been silent during this section, climbers lose radio contact with EBC in this section.

The South Summit!, another oxygen bottle change, probably your last. And there it is – the true summit of Everest, softly lit in the morning dawn. Your heart misses a beat several in fact. You just might make it!

Hillary Step – 1 hour or less

After another food and water break, you get yourself together and go downhill. What, downhill? It is a short section of maybe 50 feet but enough to make you question if you are on the correct route. You are, follow the ropes, the climbers ahead. In the mental fog of the early morning, you cross the Cornice Traverse, a section only a few feet wide that drops off a mile on both sides. Amazingly, you stay focused on ahead, up; not down. There it is, the Hillary Step, no it is a false rock formation you need to overcome.

But then the real Step appears. It does not look that hard, you justify to yourself. If you are with a few climbers, it goes fast, if you are with a huge crowd, it is the longest time of your entire life.

Climbing blind you make your moves up the Step. Between your oxygen mask, goggles, down hood, down suit, it is almost impossible to see your toes. Feeling with your feet, holding on with your hands you move higher, each small step is progress to the top of the step. If this home you would scramble up, at 29,000′ you struggle.

Then you finish, but realize the rope goes to the left, around a huge boulder but there is no path? Follow the rope, you tenderly use a death grip high in the death zone as you maneuver around the rock, a bear hug works. And then relief.

Summit: 29,035?/8850m – 1 hour or less from the Hillary Step

You can see the snow slope ease now. Snow cornices mark the right side of the slope juxtaposed against the rising sun to the east. You want to stop and stare, take a picture, a movie, let it sink in; but you are not there. Now you are running on pure adrenaline. The wind burns your left cheek as it picks up, your eyes water; maybe from tears.

And then you are there.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

Comments on/from Facebook

  36 Responses to “Everest 2012: Above the Death Zone”


    Avi. Check Outside Online. They have covered pretty much what you’ve mentioned.


    Hi Alan,
    Some real heroism! Israeli media was occupied yesterday with a young Israeli climber, Nadav Ben-Yehuda (24) who stopped in the beginning of this week his ascent at 8,500 when he saw a Turkish climber lying semi-unconscious and descending climbers not stopping to try and save him. He decided then and there to give up his summit attempt and carried him 800(!) meters down where other joined in and carried him another 500 meters. A helicopter evacuated both frost-bitten climbers. This is indeed extra-ordinary behavior, physical effort, and achievement worthy of the climbers’ community attention.
    Do you have any information on this story?


    Alan- thanks for all the coverage and for this great write-up. Your description is spot-on. Crossing the cornice traverse last year was the scariest experience of my life. Thanks again for the coverage. Cheers, Seth


    How horribly fascinating it all is to me. I will never understand the reasons to climb, but it seems to be of ultimate interest to me. I have read many books about the subject and still -?! No understanding. But this is what you choose to do with your one wild and precious life, so, go man, go!!


    Thank you Alan

    My daughter Mollie summitted on May 19th this year and reading you description of the death zone has helped me understand so much more of what she has just experienced. She had to wait at the Hilary Step on descent for 2 hours to get through, consequently suffering quite a bit of frost nip on her face and finger. Lucky she’s so tough and brave.


      Thank you Jane for the comment and glad to help you while your body was home but your mind and heart were with Mollie. Conflagrations to you both 🙂 on an incredible achievement.


    Vivid and very descriptive. Excellent Alan. And yes following my country folks is important too. So thanks for sharing the list of Indian climbers. Will keep a look out for them. Hope they summit. Terrible to know off the latest deaths on the North. Outside Online has more details on what transpired with Shriya Shah. Summit fever is a terrible thing to consume anyone.


    Amazing reading this post, the whole 2011 report is simply captivating, thank you so much x


    thank you alan , always Karen


    You are a truly gifted writer.. Very nice placement for this piece, in this overall story.


    Thanks everyone, you are so generous with your comments towards me. But remember this is about our 2012 climbers and my cause for Alzheimer’s. That said, I was not planning on describing the summit and return but now I feel I have to 🙂 Look for these over the next couple of days. You can always read my 2011 summit “report” by downloading this PDF from


    WOW! There are no other words to describe it!


    I am breathless reading your description. My dear friend, Bob Berger, is at Camp 2 with IMG classic right now and I can hardly stand th anticipation. Thanks so much for your stunning writing. Cheers, Dan


    Alan as you are aware I have followed every blog that you and a number of others have written.I am really running out of words to describe the pleasure I have received reading and absorbing your detailed writings. This last blog is up there with the others, so descriptive and very sensitive to the unfolding news. I have read all the other comments placed by your followers and they all say the same, brilliant descriptive reading. I have a pile of mountaineering books at my side and one half read. They have been pushed to one side as the thrill I receive reading your updates has made them obsolete for the time being. Thank you once again Kate S


    Hi Alan , great depiction of the climb up , can you please describe the climb back down , I think would be very interesting to read how the body is copeing at this stage , love your work . Nik


    Hi Alan ,

    Great post ,it only fair that you now talk about your Summit Experience,and your feelings during the second half of the journey.



    Amazing detail, Alan! I have never heard it described in such detail from the many Everest books I’ve read. Please write about your experience with the next half (and most important part of the journey). Getting back down!!


    Hands down my favourite first-hand account of summit night. Compelling reading! Great job Alan.


      Hi Alan ,

      Great post ,it only fair that you now talk about your Summit Experience,and your feelings during the second half of the journey.



    Great post. I have been following you site since my return from the trek to EBC couple years back. You are doing awesome job. Thank you so much.


    And then the old adage hits you: ‘The Summit is only half way…’

    Great piece and maybe I’m ruining what you plan to write next, but the sad stories of this year proove only that your piece is unfinished.

    So what happened next on your journey? What happens after you are on top of the world but realize you have to leave…quickly….


    Fantastic post keep safe all from downunder!


    Your blog is simply amazing! I have been following it, along with “Axe’s” blog (since being a Kiwi and ex Taranaki person as well)

    I feel like I have been on the mountain myself due to the effort you have put into describing the summit climb.

    Thanks so much.



    Wonderful! I’ve read nearly every book on the mountain and yet those few paragraphs and a few minutes reading take you right to the heart of the summit day and the climbers inner most feelings and emotions like some authors with 300 pages plus never could.


    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and taking the time to serve us with info and insight!

    My husband has just clarified that I have probably spent several hundres hours following the 2012 season, and that’s just reading your blog and others, soI can just imagine how much time and effort you put into it. My true appreciation!


    What a great description. I t was like reading a book and wondering what the ending brings. Even though I know you were successful on Everest last year. Thank you.


    Fantastic blog and website sir. I also have family experience with dementia which reinforces how important memories are. Well done and keep up the fascinating work.


    Alan, all I can say is WOW! that was a great piece… maybe someday


    Thanks Alan, A really informative blog. Let’s hope the weather improves for the next summit push. I have great admiration for all climber attempting the summit after the sad news of the fatalities this year. Keep safe


    Thanks Alan! You really make it easy for us to satisfy all of our passion for climbing/ Everest with your continued posts!


    Amazing! Thank you!



    Excellent coverage, as usual. I found this article really made me feel part of an Everest summit climb. You also mentioned that it appears that certain mistakes were made possibly contributing to the recent deaths. Is there any reporting on what these mistakes might have been (i.e. ran out of O’s; unclipped climbers; late turn-around times etc.). If it’s too early to get into the details, let us know when you can.

    Finally, as an aside, is McKinley in your future this summer?


    Alan, wonderful piece.


    Love your description of your experience, I can only imagine how I’d feel going through that. Thanks again for your thorough coverage and making it so easy to follow everything that’s happening this year.


    Wow.. what a step by step description. I felt like I was actually doing it myself !!!


    Probably the best description I’ve ever read concerning each section you’ve described above. Almost made me feel like I was in the dark, climbing upwards. Appreciate your time on covering the climbing teams this year.