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Climbing the World to End Alzheimer's
Mar 272017
Southeast Ridge

I occasionally read the Southeast Ridge route to the summit of Everest is called the “yellow brick road” or “paved” or something else suggesting that it is sidewalk-esq, easy, with no challenge and attainable by all. I suspect those who say, write and repeat those descriptions have never been close to Everest. And if they have summited, perhaps their memory was affected by the lack of oxygen 🙂

We all know about the Khumbu Icefall (I recently did a post on the dangers) on the south side and the 2nd Step on the north but there is one section on the south that is rarely mentioned – by guides, journalists or climbers themselves – the Southeast Ridge.

This photo was taken by my teammate Simon Arnsby in 2011 as he summited Lhotse and I summited Everest. I am somewhere in the picture!

Everest Southeast Ridge in 2011 as seen from Lhotse

Everest Southeast Ridge in 2011 as seen from Lhotse. Photo courtesy of Simon Arnsby. All rights reserved.

The section in focus is between the Balcony and the South Summit. It is an 800 foot, steep rock ridge line that can be seen as you leave Camp 3 and above.  You have no choice but to climb up and climb down this beast.

Everest SE Ridge from Geneva SpurEverest SE Ridge from Geneva Spur

Everest SE Ridge from Geneva Spur. Photo by Alan Arnette. All rights reserved

It is usually climbed in the dark of dark at night, with oxygen flowing swift and freely from your bottle and, perhaps, with a line of people in front and behind. While the westernly winds are somewhat blocked, a stiff breeze is more normal than not as are temperatures flirting with -20F/-28C.

In other words, it cold, dark and windy, not a place where you want to linger.

Let’s take a close look at the sections using a narrative from my 2011 summit climb.

Leaving the Balcony

I drink half a liter of water and try to force down an energy bar. Sitting on my pack at the Balcony represented a major milestone in my Everest history. I was higher than on any of my three previous attempts. I smiled to myself and looked up, to my right.

In all my research, the Southeast Ridge proper was rarely described or even mention. Most of the guide websites simply include it in the description of summit night as part of  a sentence like ” … leave the South Col before midnight and summit between 8:00 am and 9:00 am” Hmm, details matter.

To my eyes, the route looked straightforward, a simple snow slope that was dimly lit by an almost full moon and stars, but the headlamps of Mingma and Mirjam, my teammates, lit up the route enough for me to have pause. In spite of all the talk of crowds, lines and slow climbers; Kami and I had left all that behind with our fast trip to the Balcony. My gratitude, and respect, continued to grow for this 46 year-old Sherpa.

We left the Balcony around 1:30 am. It was dark. The wind was beginning to pick up. The air temp seemed to drop quickly. I was getting cold after sitting at the Balcony but now that I was moving again, I was heating up. Sweat was forming on my chest under the down suit.

I adjusted my goggles to keep the wind from hitting my eyes but not pushing against my oxygen mask. I slid my jumar up the fixed rope, preparing to advance over the next anchor.  I focused on simple mechanics. I looked ahead only to confirm that I was still close to Kami.

About 10 to 20 minutes from the Balcony, the angle increased. I began to struggle. My breathing picked up. I felt tired. I stumbled. Doubts entered my consciousness. My steps shortened. And then I made a decision.

I would no longer fight the mountain. I would not compete with anyone else, past present or future. I began to accept the reality of where I was, what I was doing. I focused on climbing at my pace, my style. I relaxed.

SE Ridge Full Lower

SE Ridge just above the Balcony. Photo courtesy of Simon Arnsby. All rights reserved.

As we left the balcony, I turned off my radio. It was being monitored by the IMG staff at base camp. If I got in trouble I could turn it back on but the constant chatter was distracting. In 2011, this section was a dead zone and probably remains that way today. No radio signals came in or went out. The quiet was only disturbed by my own breathing. My steady inhale and exhale of the supplemental oxygen and the crunching of my crampons on the snow.

I was climbing Mt. Everest.

The Steep Slabs

I got into a rhythm of short, simple steps. Soon I was reducing the separation with Kami, Mirjam and Mingma. I felt good, no I felt confident. But I also knew there was a long way to go … back to base camp and home … from the summit – if I got there.

All of a sudden, the terrain became steeper; the snow disappeared. I was on rock. Another surprise. I felt like I was an astronaut enclosed in a life saving cocoon, breathing bottled oxygen. If I exposed my skin, it would freeze. I my oxygen ran out, I most likely would die. If I slipped off the edge, it was thousands of feet to level ground. If I …

A memory of climbing on Cho Oyu in 2000 came into my mind. I remember reaching the Yellow Band and struggling on the rocks. Making a huge step, took all my breath. I remember gasping for air and ripping off my oxygen mask, mistakenly thinking it would get me more air. I remember calming myself down, controlling my breathing, regaining control. This was not going to happen on Everest, I told myself.


SE Ridge Rock Slabs.Photo courtesy of Simon Arnsby. All rights reserved.

Over my oxygen mask and thru my goggles, I used my headlamp to show the trail. I carefully placed my crampon points on the rocks, looking for any small depression, any crack to place a point for better purchase. I kept my jumar taunt on the white nylon fixed rope.

I was steady, not fast, but moved with clear purpose. I thought of my purpose for climbing, Alzheiemr’s.  My intent was foremost on my mind. But then I thought of nothing but the mechanics of climbing.

I was climbing Mt. Everest.

Almost to the South Summit

After what seemed like hours, but was only two and half hours of climbing in the cold dark night, the steep terrain eased all of a sudden. Ah, we are at the South Summit, I rewarded myself with a sigh of relief. I took a few more steps and then drew in a deep, long breath. To my disappointment, I was not on the South Summit and the ridge became even more steep.

I looked up to see a slope of perhaps 55 degrees, not huge but now at 28,300 feet, with it being five days since I left base camp, I was tired. I was really tired.

I took a deep breath, plunged my ice axe into the snow and took a short, simple step. The fixed rope came up to me as Kami was pulling on it ahead. I followed his lead.

SE Ridge South Summit

SE Ridge South Summit. Photo courtesy of Simon Arnsby. All rights reserved.

Finally the terrain eased. I had reached the South Summit. It was 3:00 am. The sun was hinting at rising over the eastern curved horizon, and I could see the route to the summit.

I sat heavily on my pack to take another short break. With the dawn teasing us, I could see Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world at 27,838’ to the east. Lhotse, the fourth highest peak at 27,890’  was to the south. And Cho Oyu at 26,907’, the sixth highest to the east. I was higher than any of those peaks.

I was climbing Mt. Everest.

And to the Summit

My emotions began to increase. I had always understood that if can you reach the South Summit, then you should reach the true summit. But I remember my attempt from 2008 when my teammates turned back at the South Summit due to high winds. I had turned back earlier that year, losing my mojo, a complete collapse of my self confidence and accepting total defeat. But also I had learned.

With the flanks of Everest no longer blocking the Westernly winds, I felt strong gusts. With the sunlight barely making it presence known,  it was cold – in this moment it was the coldest, windiest and darkest time.

And I felt alive.

SE Ridge Top

SE Ridge Top Photo courtesy of Simon Arnsby. All rights reserved.

I looked towards the summit and let my eyes follow the ridge line. I knew I had to cross the Cornice Traverse, climb the Hillary Step and continue to the summit. But in this moment, at this time, I knew I could do it.

I was climbing Mt. Everest.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

Comments on/from Facebook

  9 Responses to “Everest 2017: The Climb to the Summit Not Discussed”


    I just loved it, I was with you every breath of the way. Just for one moment I literally felt panic run over me. After you switched off your radio the vast expanse of the SE Ridge together with the silence from your radio made me feel a long way from anyone and anywhere. Your writing is so descriptive that you were able to portray your new feeling of calm and control.I can imagine the desire to rip off your mask in order to wrongly feel you could take in more oxygen. I loved the clear Informative photographs where thanks go to Simon. Despite all the books on my shelf I am still looking forward to your next script.Cheers Kate


    Alan, thank again for some great content on a section not discussed much. An additional aspect of an Everest summit that I don’t think has been covered much is describing the descent, especially down some of the steeper sections, SE Ridge, Lhotse Face, etc. It would be great to see an article similar to this discussing the descent and its challenges.


      Thanks Chris, perhaps as we get closer to the summit pushes we can discuss the descent. But two words summarize it: endless and empty.


        Hi Alan,
        I love your site and eagerly await every post.
        Why would you describe it as empty? As I am an armchair Everest enthusiast, I am curious why you describe it in that way…


          Thanks Adina, ’empty’ refers to how the climber feels. nothing left, no energy, no reserves, empty.


            And to add to Alan’s comment, when you achieve your goal of reaching the summit, you’re overtaken by this huge rush of euphoria, and adrenaline. Once that passes, you have nothing left in the tank. This is also typically why so many deaths happen on descent.


    Fabulous, fabulous description. That experience is what climbing is all about, especially climbing Everest.