Everest 2009: A guy in a crowd on a hill
September 1: My Injury Report is available for your perusal.
Below you'll find my pre-expedition goals and philosophy.
I will be attempting Mt. Everest via the standard South Col route during April and May 2009.
My goal is to reach the summit while using as little outside help as possible. On the popular routes these days, it is almost impossible to climb as an individual or even as a team. I will be climbing independently; I am not a member of a team of climbers, but I do have Base Camp support and my support provider (Phil Crampton of Altitude Junkies) will be there in case of emergency. And on this Everest route, it's unlikely that I'll be out of sight of anybody for more than a few minutes!
My goal is to make minimal use of porters, fixed rope, and supplemental oxygen while on the climb. I agree with Mark Jenkin's statement that style IS substance when climbing big peaks. While the general public doesn't care about style, I do. At the same time, I'm not going to walk away from a sure shot at the top if it means violating a self-imposed style rule. But it does mean that I start by playing the game in a certain way, and only 'cheat' if I feel it's absolutely necessary.
The Realities of Everest in the 21st Century
There are certain realities to accept on either of the two easiest Everest routes. There will be many more fixed ropes than are necessary, as guiding companies need to provide extra safeguards to support their (sometimes inexperienced) clients. In general, though, it's silly to climb right next to a safety line and not use it. Some locations clearly require fixed ropes. I'm not going to solo the Khumbu Icefall (a la Goran Kropp) to avoid fixed ropes! While I would be happy to carry or fix rope, I know that Sherpas earn their salaries by doing that work, so my intrusion only keeps them from making money.
Bottled oxygen is the great equalizer on Everest. About 4% of summiters have reached the top without bottled oxygen. Certainly a vast majority of climbers who use oxygen wouldn't reach the top without it. But oxygen is heavy (over 7 lbs per bottle) and it requires a lot of work to get it to the high camp at 7900m (25,900 ft).
All of these fixed ropes and oxygen bottles are generally transported by high altitude porters (ethnic Sherpas, Tamangs, and others). For most climbers, these porters carry all of the camping gear as well, and set up tents, cook meals (sometimes), and generally do all of the real work of climbing Everest. The paying climbers only have to carry their own clothes and sleeping bags, and ascend from camp to camp. I won't be using these porters and will establish my own camps, carry my own gear, and cook my own food.
So I plan to climb in the following style:
- Using most of the available fixed rope is unavoidable. I have to be content with the knowledge that I could climb the route without them, if need be. This doesn't include the icefall, which requires fixed ropes for safety's sake for all climbers.
- Anything I want to use above Base Camp, including oxygen, is carried by me. I won't have any Sherpas carrying tents, food, fuel, stoves, etc. Except:
- Most teams set up an Advanced Base Camp at about 6400m (21,000 ft) and have a kitchen staff to prepare meals. Since I'm paying for this service anyway, I will use this ABC facility.
- I will use the minimum amount of bottled oxygen needed for safety. I won't know what that amount is until I assess my level of acclimatization and fitness.
Answers to some questions people ask me
After last summer's K2 tragedy, why go back to a big peak?
First, I didn't get much above Camp 2 on K2, so I really didn't get a shot at the top. Second, with my teaching schedule, I can only attempt peaks in Nepal when I'm on sabbatical, which is every seven years. Taking off an additional semester in a couple of years is just too expensive to justify. So it's this year or 2016.
This is still a good question, and I think that one can't stop their own life because of a tragedy that occurs to somebody else. We only drive and fly because we accept the danger involved and we can do many things to minimize the dangers involved. And there is nothing inherently safe about staying off of the big peaks. Goran Kropp biked from Sweden to Nepal and climbed Everest almost completely solo, only later to die after a fall from a short practice cliff.
From an altitude perspective, it's the ultimate challenge. It's also a relatively safe peak. There is little avalanche and rockfall danger, and the route is well-maintained in general. The crowds and weather are the biggest obstacle to summiting the peak.
What do you mean, safe? Wasn't there a big disaster there in 1996?
Yes, but that was primarily due to bad decision making, not due to the dangers posed by the mountain itself. A lot has been learned in the past decade. As a fairly cautious climber, I tend to avoid those situations that have a potential for disaster (such as the first summit day on K2 last year).
So Everest is easy, right?
Nobody who has climbed it has said that it's easy. It is technically easier that K2 (second highest) and Kangchenjunga (third highest peak), both of which I've attempted, but there are still difficult sections high up on the mountain, and of course the extreme altitude has a major effect. So it's a real mistake to underestimate the difficulty of any peak.
Why care about the style? Getting to the top is the most important thing, it doesn't matter how you do it!
So riding a helicopter to the top is climbing Everest? Being carried on the back of a Sherpa is climbing Everest? Establishing a ski lift and riding that is climbing Everest?
See, you have style concerns as well. The current 'commercial style' is really an old-school approach to climbing big peaks, which were envisioned as military operations. Their approach wasn't unreasonable, given that they were facing many unknowns, especially the extreme altitudes.
A more modern approach is to say, 'he who succeeds with the fewest toys wins.' Given the advances in equipment, technique, and knowledge about high altitude, it makes sense to adjust our approach to the times. We have to give the mountain a sporting chance, and I see no accomplishment if the outcome is certain.
That being said, the general public doesn't give a darn about style, so success is equated with standing on top.
Why go to the south side (Nepal) rather than the north (Tibet/China)?
The north side has a number of disadvantages for me: the lack of a trekking approach (for both aesthetic and acclimatization reasons), the high top camp (8300m), limited camp sites, and the lack of a chance for a descent below 4000m prior to the summit attempt or in case of illness. Unfortunately Nepal is much more expensive due to their outlandish peak fee for Everest. But it's a great example of capitalism; they charge the rate the market is willing to pay.
Why do you think you can do Everest in this style?
I have a fair amount of experience doing things this way and by myself. I've shared a tent with another climber on exactly two nights over the last 3.5 expeditions, either because I was traveling solo or (on K2) because we were in a group of three. Except for tents on a couple of trips, I've carried all of my own gear, food, supplies etc on every trip. This includes carrying our camp to 8000m on the north face of Kangchenjunga.
Since 2001, I've been on five 8000m expeditions (Kangchenjunga North Face, Broad Peak twice, Gasherbrum II, and K2). Also in that time, I've summited Kili and Aconcagua, and made a solo attempt on Denali. While I have only summited one 8000m peak (GII in 2006), I've really only blown one realistic chance at a summit, 2004 on Broad Peak (I reached 7900m); in other cases the weather (Kangchenjunga, Broad Peak 2005, Denali) and fatalities (Kangchenjunga, K2) intervened.