Climbing Mount Everest is no child’s play irrespective of how many times one scales the highest peak in the world. It challenges every muscle in your body, your mental strength and your existence.
By Satyabrata Dam
What does it take to climb Mt. Everest? My standard answer is just one word: everything.
As a professional climber I'm often asked what does it take to climb Mt. Everest and my standard answer is just one word: Everything. Despite whatever is said in the media about using supplementary oxygen, Sherpa support, fixed lines making an Everest ascent easier than before let me reiterate that it is never easy and for most ordinary mortals it would be the most challenging, deadly and memorable experience of their lives.
No matter how much you train, or how hard, how strong you are or how many mountains you might have climbed before, Everest’s summit doesn’t come easily. It takes every bit of guts, endurance, courage, madness and mental strength you have and then some more to get up there and return. After having climbed Everest multiple times from different sides, the one that definitely stands out is my ascent through the South Col route in Nepal. On that ascent, I was leading a group and had been training several of them over the previous year.
One needs to be physically and mentally strong to be able to climb Everest. For my team members I had set up a hard regime of physical conditioning focusing on cardio fitness, endurance and strength training along with flexibility, mental strengthening, yoga, meditation and breathing techniques plus some dietary and lifestyle changes.Climbing Everest demands an altogether different approach and system not only due to its extreme altitudes and temperatures but also due to the overcrowding in camps and the length of exposure to such conditions. Mental breakdowns are common and it is imperative to keep the mind happy and morale high. During the lull days, which are aplenty on Everest, we share stories, games, even personal dilemmas and triumphs, and act like a family.
We started our walk-in from Lukla and people loosened up as we climbed into the higher echelons of Khumbu Valley. We made it to the base camp all in good shape. It was resplendent withhundreds of coloured tents from nearly 50 different expeditions. I met many of my old friends. On Everest it is always a reunion of people from around the world. Over the next few days we settled down slowly. Despite knowing the area and the mountain intimately I feel each time I go up it is as tough and challenging. Roaming around the area, we came across debris and waste that has considerably affected the ecology of the highest mountain.
Though, over the last decade, things have improved, there’s still a lot of waste all along till the top; mainly plastic, food waste, human waste, oxygen bottles and human bodies. Once we had acclimatised to the thin air, one early morning we started our first acclimatising climb to Camp 1. The Khumbu Icefall maze is supposed to be the most hazardous section of the climb from Nepal and it looks absolutely horrific from the word go. The wind-sculpted fast ice creates gargantuan ogre-like figures that seem to be tottering on the edge of a massive collapse. We rush through this as quickly as we can. Huge gaping crevasses with wildly swinging ladders bridging the gap are nerve-wracking.One has to cross with utmost care. A slip or fall would surely be fatal. We make it to Camp 1, a relatively flattish upper section of the icefall, in about four hours. We head back to base camp. After another climb to Camp 1, our bodies are now ready to hit Camp 2.
We start in the darkness with winds howling and, mapping the path through the icefall maze with our headlamps, we make a beeline for Camp 1. There are others ahead and behind. Beyond Camp 1, the terrain flattens out with more wide crevasses and as we climb beyond 6,000 m the thin air strikes us hard. We climb slow and breathe hard. It takes around six hours to reach Camp 2. At 6,500 m, Camp 2 is a desolate place full of rock and ice. Tents are erected at different levels, upon slab rocks and ice. Altitude affects the digestive system and our appetites are low yet we must eat as much as we can to generate some energy. We rest there for two nights and then go for Camp 3.
We start slow, forming a line, each member accompanied by a Sherpa. After the initial climb of 200 m the gradient steepens into hard ice. We clip on to the fixed line and push up. It is increasingly difficult to breathe as we aren’t using supplementary oxygen yet. Each step seems like a lead weight tied to our feet. Once we cross 7,000 m the thin air hits us like a sledgehammer. I gasp and ask my mind to focus on the task. We finally reach our Camp 3 location at 7,200 m and after a break of 30 minutes I get the team down all the way to base camp the next day. With this we complete our acclimatisation phase. It has already taken us three weeks from the time we started walking in from Lukla.
While we wait for the summit weather window and for the Sherpas to fi x rope to the summit, we eat and hydrate, rest and recuperate. A few of the members go down to lower places to get more oxygen and recuperate faster. I keep a sharp eye on the weather pattern and reports and discuss possibilities with other guides and leaders. That season we had around 250 people vying for the top along with 300 more Sherpas in support. That’s an insane number of people to be on one mountain. Over 500 people would try to summit within a narrow window of a few days, which is always a matter of grave concern. Traffic jams at critical sections, where overtaking is impossible, has led to disasters in the past.
My window is between May 18 and 21. I brief my members and the Sherpas, splitting the group into three. I will be with the last group. Each group will be separated by a day and I will monitor each one’s progress through the radio. What is most challenging on Everest is to monitor the speed and condition of a climber and to take decisions well in time about who goes up and who goes down. It’s very critical to be able to take that decision that can make the difference between life and death. Another critical requirement is the oxygen. From the moment we start breathing bottled oxygen we are on a race against time. Each bottle can last no more than six to eight hours at normal fl ow and even if we are slow and don’t move due to any reasons, we are consuming that life-giving oxygen. It is absolutely imperative to keep moving, either up or down. We finally start for the summit push and over the next seven days we will go through hell and beyond to summit and return alive. Each season people die on Everest—at an average of 8-12 deaths. Many more suffer frostbite and other illnesses. And it is this uncertainty of whose time is up that keeps me on the edge.
We reach Camp 3 in good shape. Here we spend the night breathing oxygen at a low rate just to ensure no headaches and peaceful sleep, which seldom happens. Next morning, I lead across the dreaded Lhotse face, the steepest and most exposed section of the climb. Any slip is certain death. Following the fixed line we reach South Col, Camp 4, at 7,900 m. It’s a desolate flat terrain full of tent debris, oxygen bottles and howling wind. With the temperature hovering at –20° C, a sizeable gale is tearing at our climbing suits. We huddle in groups inside the tents, gasping for air, and drinking some fluid or munching energy bars. We will rest for several hours. Around 9 pm we exit our tents and get ready for the final summit push. Summit day is always the longest and the most challenging day on Everest, averaging between 16 and 24 hours.
We check each bottle and adjust the breathing rate. From here we have no room for errors. Flooding the ground with headlamps we strike off. Keeping my head down I offer a prayer to the elements and tramp along the fixed rope. As long as we stay clipped to the rope there’s no chance of getting lost. It literally is our lifeline. In four hours we reach the balcony and change our bottles. We rest and hydrate a bit and then take off along the sharp narrow ridge. Well within the death zone, we inch closer to death each second. Gradually the sun rises and the alpine glow spreads orange gossamer across the world’s highest peaks. We stop and stare. Soon we get into our first traffic jam below the South Summit. Finally, we start moving and, fi nding a narrow gap, we overtake slow climbers.
At the South Summit we rest for a while, gasping like fish out of water and then climb on. The Hillary step is crowded and really daunting; we haul ourselves up the steep rock slabs. Many climbers are lying around breathless. Beyond that we walk real slow, halting after every agonising step, eventually collapsing on the summit. The summit flags flutter in the mild breeze. I gaze around the familiar summit with new eyes, with some of the world’s highest peaks breaching the horizon. We hug each other, click pictures and express amazement and gratitude. We are jubilant but my mind is ticking each second off. We are running low on oxygen and the descent is often the most harrowing part of the climb. We must go down immediately.
We start descending carefully. I suddenly feel the exhaustion creeping into my bones. With the summit behind I find myself battling to stay alert. I had been breathing little oxygen all along, keeping reserves for my members, and now it was telling on my endurance. My handpicked Sherpas were among the fi nest and they kept a sharp vigil over the team while I followed last. By the time I arrived at the Balcony my team was well ahead. Lights started shooting and bursting in my oxygen-deprived brain. Every step was torture yet stopping was not an option. By now my oxygen had finished and my lungs screamed for air. Focusing on each step I climbed down. At Camp 4 I collapsed inside the tent. We spent the night at Camp 4 and the next morning came down to Camp 2. By now our wasted bodies barely moved and each step seemed like a herculean eff ort. We rested another night at Camp 2, gulping down as much food and liquid as we could handle, and then returned to base camp.