Let’s get the #1 question out of the way: no, I did not summit Everest. I did, however, hike to Base Camp, spend a fair amount of time there, climb up to Camp 1 and Camp 2, and share the whole experience with true mountaineers and aficionados alike… in one of the deadliest seasons in Everest history. The experience, in fact, left me so raw, it’s taking me over a month to sit down and write this post.
Getting to Everest Base Camp is an adventure in itself. An 8-day hike through the Himalayas that I had already undertaken in 2015, in the midst of catastrophic earthquakes. The trail was as spectacular as I remembered: snow-capped peaks, glacial rivers, hanging bridges, rhododendron forests, cute yaks, Buddhist monasteries, prayer flags… and red-cheek Sherpa kids!
The main difference this year was the insane amount of people on the trail. At times, it felt like we were walking in a procession. And the little villages along the way were starting to feel overdeveloped, with dozens of teahouses and Starbucks-like cafes with wi-fi. Most times though, the trail still preserved its magic, like when you spotted Ama Dablam for the first time, when we reached the Tengboche gompa after 2 hours of brutal switchbacks, when you climbed above Dingboche or when we finally entered the Khumbu Glacier moraine, with Everest and Nuptse towering over the tinny yellow tents of Base Camp.
In Base Camp, I was staying with Summit Climb, a budget outfitter that offers an “Everest training expedition” which allows people like me, with limited climbing experience, to go up to Everest’s Camp 3 (Their trick is to get a permit to climb Lhotse, which shares the path with Everest up to that point, but has a government fee of just ~$1,000 vs. Everest’s $11,000).
Life in Base Camp was rather uneventful. Most days we simply rested and acclimatized, meaning we would get up around 8am, eat a copious breakfast in the dinning tent, hang out there chatting with other climbers (including “real ones” going to the summit) or playing Trivial, eat a copious lunch, hang out a bit more or take a nap, and eat a copious dinner before getting into our tents around 8pm. We would quickly change clothes and get into our super warm sleeping bags, because the temperature would drop sharply the moment the sun went down. The facilities were basic, but sufficient… the bathroom tents deserve a special mention :S There was even the possibility of getting wi-fi from Everest Link, though he price was crazy and it usually required a walk up to the router tent to get it to work.
One day we went on an exploration of the camp area, stepping into the infamous Khumbu Icefall for the first time and observing how the sherpas pulled water from under the ice, then walking up to check out how more luxurious expeditions were set up, and take some shots at the “official” EBC marker. Base Camp was busy, but at least it wasn’t rundown as I had feared; most expeditions were doing their best to keep it clean and organized. Which is quite impressive, if you think there were hundreds of tents at the time we were there, and the only way to dispose anything was carrying it down the mountain for days.
A couple of days later, we went on an acclimatization hike to the Pumori Base Camp, right in front of the Everest range. Pumori is one of my favorite mountains, it looks like it was drawn by a kid, it’s so perfect. The hike was quite exhausting, which I guess should be expected when you make any effort at 18,000 ft (5,500 m). The views throughout and especially once we reached the camp were gorgeous, very similar to the ones from neighboring Kala Patthar.
And then, a couple of days later, we finally did some training (yeah, this thing was not very well organized, and communication on the plan was limited at best). Some of our sherpas set up a fixed rope in the icefall and we practiced going up and down, using our crampons, jumar and figure 8. It was exhilarating and I felt quite strong. But I also felt utterly unprepared, trying to absorb as much learning as possible, and realizing I had no chance of being safe on the mounting without a sherpa by my side.
That afternoon, we ventured further into the icefall, hiking through massive blocks of ice to the beginning of the fix rope. I didn’t know this either, but turns out people who climb Everest these days do it by being clipped to a fix rope pretty much the whole way up. This is one of the factors that has contributed to agglomerations, making it too easy for people with limited experience to attempt the climb, which is a recipe for disaster.
For a couple of days, we shared the Summit Climb camp with five guys who were going for the summit, and had just come down from what it’s called the first rotation, spending a few days going up to Camps 1, 2 and 3 and sleeping there to acclimatize. One of them, Robin, had come down early because he was coughing blood and was heading down to the valley to recover. He would die 10 days later, shortly after making the summit. We obviously didn’t know it at the time, but seeing all these guys with significant mountaineering experience looking beat up, and hearing their stories was another wake-up call that this place was no joke. Btw, one of those guys wrote a series of blog posts that I highly recommend.
Back to my story, we were suddenly told that we might be going up in a couple of days, because bad weather was approaching, and it was better to get up now than in over a week with all the folks going for the summit. So after another uneventful rest day, and a short night dominated by nerves, we got up at 5am, gobbled some breakfast and grabbed all our gear. [Continues in next post]