Climbers are beginning to pack their duffle bags in preparation to leave for Kathmandu. But its early March and most people summit around May 19th, so whats the hurry? Good question. Let’s take a look at how long it takes to get to the top of the world.
The new shiny penny in the world of climbing the big mountains are so-called “speed ascents”. Known by other adjectives, let’s just call them fast or speedy but not to be confused with what Uli Steck does, which is real speed climbing. Anyway, this is where climbers hope to cut the time required to summit an 8000 meter peak by a third or even a half.
Pre-Acclimatization: Real or Marketing for Everest Climbers?
There are huge mixed feelings about this as you will read when I post my interview with perhaps the most qualified Everest expedition leader out there, Russell Brice. In a recent Bloomberg (a business oriented publication) article about mountain guide and owner of Alpenglow, Adrian Ballinger’s use of this marketing tool, his competitors made these comments:
“Complete bloody hogwash,” says Simon Lowe, managing director of Jagged Globe, the British mountaineering company founded in 1987, and one of rapid-ascent climbing’s most vocal critics. “It’s snake oil.” Russell Brice, the 64-year-old New Zealander who runs Himalaya Expeditions, agrees, flatly discounting the tents’ safety. Guy Cotter, who runs Adventure Consultants, warned that the tents, which mimic the oxygen concentration at altitude instead of the change in air pressure, can interfere with sleep in the final weeks of training, when it’s most important.
Ballinger was mentioned in the article defending his approach:
Ballinger remains convinced that the tent works based on a trove of evidence that he has gathered on himself. He does his own blood work during training, and he has seen a spike in red blood cells for all 15 expeditions that he’s used Hypoxico.
And the CEO of Hypoxico, Brian Oestrike (and a friend) made this perplexing statement regarding the science of using the in-home altitude tents:
“You have to acclimatize, either at true altitude or in some simulated way, and we help with that,” Oestrike said. “Just because the science isn’t there yet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.”
By the way I did a deep look at the use of altitude tents and asked the well respected Dr. Peter Hackett on his views plus interviewed Brian Oestrike. You can read it at this link
To be clear, I have had many climbers who used these tents say their blood chemistry did react and they felt better upon arriving at base camp. So with this battle, either real or marketing in play, let’s move on.
With the caveat that every guide service will have their own schedule, techniques and habits, what I will describe is a broad generalization based on my six climbs on Everest and Lhotse (not all summits), two climbs in Tibet plus 15 years of following the Everest season on both sides.
OK, with that, most guides will advise their members to book 2 months 60 days, home to home, for an Everest attempt. The Himalayan Database shows that most expeditions spend about 40 days on average after they reach base camp in their attempt.
So, let’s break it down. There are six major components to climbing Everest:
- Travel to Kathmandu or Lhasa
- Travel to Base Camp
- Acclimatization Rotations
- Summit Attempt
- Travel back to Kathmandu
- Travel home
OK, here we go.
Travel from Home
The flight from home can take up to three calendar days when taking into account time zones and date lines. Not much you can do about that! Once in Kathmandu, most teams will take one to three days to finalize details, adjust to the new time zone and get their climbing permits. Those climbing from Nepal will fly to Lukla to begin their trek to base camp. Most team climbing from the north side will take a flight to Lhasa from Kathmandu.
Getting to Base Camp
Crossing into China
For those climbing on the Tibet side, this short period can easily turn into a week or two delay. The Chinese are well known for closing the border without notice and without giving a reason. Climbers are basically stranded until someone in Beijing changes their mind.
These closures are usually associated with fear of protests by foreigners about Tibet and often match up with anniversaries of riots, uprising or previous conflicts. This is the primary reason, I think climbing from the Nepal side reduces the risks, with all due respect to those who fear that side for other reasons.
The travel to Chinese Base Camp on the Tibet side is fairly standard, especially when leaving from Lhasa. Climbers are driven to base camp by a representative of the Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA). That usually takes about five days from Lhasa, assuming you can get there. Travel from Kathmandu is iffy as previously discussed but if possible will also take about five days with acclimatization stops along the way.
As I opened this article with, the “speed” operators will have their members sleep in altitude tents (at an extra cost or bundled into an artificially high price) and be acclimatized to 17,000’/5200m or about the altitude of base camp.
This eliminates the need to trek to base camp on the south, but on the north, you still have to be driven by the CMA to Chinese Base Camp (CBC) but would take two days, not the more standard five that allows for acclimatization along the way.
Trekking the Khumbu
Travel to Everest Base Camp (EBC) on the Nepal side is a totally different story. Most people cherish the opportunity to trek the Khumbu on their way to EBC. It takes between 7 to 10 days depending on how many acclimatization nights you take (more is better). Some people will go via Gokyo using an extra few days to see this beautiful part of Nepal.
But those in a hurry will take helicopters to reach base camp on the Nepal side. Advocates will tell members that this will keep them healthy by avoiding the teahouses in the Khumbu.
While it is true that almost everyone will get some kind of stomach bug at some point on an Everest climb, I think its best to get it out of the way early rather than at base camp a few days before your summit push. In my experience, 90% of ALL climbers, regardless of how they get to EBC, get sick. This is not a knock on hygiene, it is a fact of life when adjusting to a completely different type of food.
But more to the point, I think the trek to EBC is a highlight of any Everest climb and an opportunity to support the local economy thru porters, yak herders, teahouses and the families who grow and sell food. Plus the scenery is some of the best on the planet!
OK, in any event, you made it your respective base camp. Congratulations!
This is the area of great change in the world of climbing. Even if you pre-acclimatize, as Brian said earlier, you have to acclimatize to a higher altitude- full stop. By acclimatizing to 17,000′ , you still have another 12,000’/3600m to go!
The common wisdom for those climbing on supplemental oxygen, about 97% of all Everest summiteers historically, is that you need to touch or better yet spend a night at 23,000’/7,000m. This is Camp 3 on the South and the North Col on the North. If you are not using supplemental oxygen, then the rule of thumb is to reach 8000 meters before your summit attempt.
Nepal Side Rotations
In the “old” days ~ pre-2005~ the usual rotation looked like what I show in this animation I created:
Basically you make multiple trips to ever high camps like this:
- EBC to Camp 1 to EBC
- EBC to Camp 1 to Camp 2 to EBC
- EBC to Camp 2 to Camp 3 to Camp 2 to EBC
- summit push
However, today, 2017, many expeditions will modify this schedule to limit the number of trips thru the Khumbu Icefall not only for members but more importantly for the Sherpas who have to ferry gear, food and fuel to establish the high camps.
So some teams will use the fairly straightforward trekking peak Lobuche East, not the true summit, to adjust the body to about 20,000′ or Camp 1 on the South. This takes about a week and some teams will go to EBC then backtrack to Lobuche, others will go directly from Lukla to Lobuche.
But in the end, everyone is back at EBC and will need to spend several nights at Camp 2 or Camp 3. This is usually two rotations taking another seven days or more above EBC. If the weather turns bad, another rotation may be required before the summit push of an earlier one is cut short. Some teams will cut this down to only one rotation to Camp 2, hoping to tag Camp 3.
As you can see, there is no standard formula these days!
So, summarizing, once the team arrives at EBC, count on three to four weeks of rotations to get the body ready for the summit push. Even if you slept in an altitude tent at home for 6 months, this step cannot be skipped for the safest climb, in my opinion.
Tibet Side Rotations
The north side is a bit more straightforward given the absence of an Icefall to navigate. Again, in this animation, I show the typical schedule:
Most teams will seek to spend a night or two at the North Col. Some will strive to reach Camp 2 at 7500 meters and those not using supplemental Os will need to get to Camp 2 or above before their summit push.
So, summarizing, once the team arrives at CBC, count on three weeks of rotations, a bit shorter than the south, to get the body ready for the summit push. Even if you slept in an altitude tent at home for 6 months, like on the south, this step cannot be skipped for the safest climb, in my opinion.
Time to try to get to the top! Basically you retrace your previous steps but go higher and higher.
On the south, you get back to Camp 3 where you spend a night then move to the South Col where you spend hours before the summit push. Some teams will spend the night at the South Col before trying for the summit but this is more expensive as it requires using supplemental oxygen for almost three days, including the summit.
Those who advocate this approach swear by it but others try to limit the time above 8000 meters as your body is in a race to death. The body no longer metabolizes food at this altitude, you lose all desire to eat and want to sleep. It is a race against time. the only way to protect yourself is with supplemental oxygen.
Most climbers will take 9 to 18 hours for the round trip climb from the South Col. My total time in 2011 at age 54 using 4 lpm of supplemental oxygen was 11 hours as follows:
- South Col – Balcony: 3:40
- Balcony (with 20 minute break) – South Summit: 2:30 hours
- South Summit (with 20 minute break)- top of Hillary Step: 1:00 hour
- Hillary Step – Summit: 30 minutes
- Descent Summit – Balcony: 2 hours
- Balcony – South Col: 1 hour
Some teams will push to get back to Camp 2 after the summit, but I can tell you from experience, while it is absolutely safer to get lower, it is a death march towards the end. Others will stay at the South Col, but again these are the most expensive trips and usually climbers have paid several thousand dollars for more oxygen to support the time at 8000 meters.
If talk to 10 guides on which approach is better, you will get 15 answers. 🙂
On the north, you start higher than on the south giving you the advantage of a shorter summit night, but the winds and temperature can be brutal and cold. Usually the summit bid starts from Camp 3 as follows:
- Camp 3: 27,390′ – 8300m – 4 to 6 hours
- Yellow Band
- First Step: 27890′ – 8500m
- Mushroom Rock -28047′ / 8549m – 2 hours from C3
- Second Step: 28140′ – 8577m – 1 hour or less
- Third Step: 28500′ – 8690m – 1 to 2 hours
- Summit Pyramid – 2 hours
- Summit: 29,035′ / 8850m – 1 hour
- Return to Camp 3: 7 -8 hours
Most climbers will try to get back to ABC after their summit, spend the night and then return to CBC the next day.
Travel Back to Kathmandu
On both sides, you end up back at your respective base camp and will be shocked at how fast you are pushed to leave. Remember that time is money and that each meal, day and support costs the operator money, so they try to get their members out of camp as fast as possible on on the road home.
These days, many south side climbers pay $1,000 to $3,000 for a helicopter out of EBC to Lukla or even Kathmandu bypassing the trek out. A big mistake in my opinion as the trek out is the time to let your experience sink in, regardless of the result. It is a time to decompress and enjoy the Khumbu and consider your next step in climbing.
On the north, you jump in a Toyota 4Runner and get driven back to the nearest airport or border. Not very ceremonial but you have no choice.
Back in Kathmandu, most people spend a few days to visit the bars while rearranging flights. I promise you that the chances of flying on the reservation you made months ago is slim to none unless you are willing to stay in Kathmandu for days or over week, which is not a bad idea! But this is why all guides will suggest you get a changeable ticket for your return. Once you are back in Kathmandu, you are no longer under their responsibility.
Again in summary, this section can take a day, a week or a month.
This is what the typical schedule is for both sides:
South Climb Schedule
|Elevations and Times Between South Camps|
See my breakdown of a Nepal climb at this link
North Climb Schedule
Elevations and Times Between North Camps
See my breakdown of a North side climb at this link.
OK, we looked at the parts so lets put it all together (if you are still with me!)
|South (days)||North (days)|
|Travel to Kathmandu or Lhasa||3||3|
|Travel to Base Camp||7 – 10||2 – 5|
|Acclimatization Rotations||20 – 28||20 – 28|
|Travel back to Kathmandu or Lhasa||3||2|
|Range||42 – 53||34 – 45|
Can it be done faster? You bet. Professional athletes, those with gifted VO2 Max or those with unusual ambitions can significantly cut some of these times (I’m sure we will hear from them in the comments!) But for the typical Everest climber who wants to be safe and take no short cuts, these numbers are what you can expect.
The Flight Home
Similar to the flight over, you can be home in a day or two. But while flying hone, let it all sink in, relax, sleep and celebrate the fact that you did something many dream of and few actually attempt.
Congratulations on taking the chance, making the investment and doing your best.
If you summited, excellent. If you didn’t, excellent.
In the end it is all about the experience and you have 100% control over your attitude when things go wrong, as well as when they go right.
Go on your climb with assuming best intentions from everyone and do your best.
Memories are Everything
As always a thoughtful, well-written article of interest to those who have been there, are planning to be there or enjoy following along from afar. Thanks for all your posts and the very best with your recovery!
Thanks Doug and I’m doing well.