A Beginner's Guide To The World's Highest
Two things happened recently that made me think again
about Everest. Not just think mind, but completely
re-evaluate the way I looked at the roof of the world. The
first was reading an article we received from a guy called
Mick Crosthwaite. Mick had just got back from an attempt on
the big bump with the '1998 British Everest Expedition'.
Sounds kind of big and exclusive doesn't it? 'The British
Everest Expedition', the sort of jape reserved for serious
high altitude mountaineers with years of hard, technical
climbing experience tucked under their harnesses. Except
that three months before Mick first pitched his tent at base
camp, he was a self-confessed mountaineering novice with
barely any snow and ice expertise and just a few informal
scrambles up to about 6500 metres in Tibet to his name.I
have to admit that my initial reaction was along the lines
of, just how dumb is that? In fact you could leave the
question mark out. I just thought, 'dumb'.
The second thing that made me question my assumptions was
talking to Steve Bell of Jagged Globe. Jagged Globe are one
of several British companies currently offering guided
ascents of Everest and Steve was outlining the basic
capabilities he'd demand from a prospective client who
wanted to summit the big one.
As he ran through his checklist, I realised that according
to Bell's criteria - and he should know - I,
with my modest Andean high altitude experience and Scottish
ice-climbing background, was qualified for a crack at
Everest myself. Okay, there was the small matter of $39,000
looming between me and the roof of the world, but come up
with the cash and there was no reason why I shouldn't be
blowing like a steam pig on the big one.
qualified for a
crack at Everest
What's more, according to Bell, a committed, fit, walker
could go from zero, yes, absolute zilch experience to the
point where they stood a reasonable chance of topping out in
as little as a year, although two years would be more
We're not saying that climbing to over 29,000 feet is a
holiday - anyone who's read Jon Krakauer's book 'Into
Thin Air' should have no illusions about that - but
here, without the moral, ethical and emotional judgments,
are most of the basic facts you need to know about taking on
Everest. We're not, by the way, telling you that there
aren't such judgments to be made, but here at AT, we reckon
that they're down to the individual.
Of the major obstacles to climbing Everest, altitude,
along with cold, is the one that affects everyone, novice or
Himalayan veteran. The reduced pressure at altitude means
that although the concentration of Oxygen is the same as at
sea level, each breath you take effectively contains less.
Acclimatisation is the process by which the human body
adapts to this situation by producing more red blood cells.
The highest altitude where people live permanently is around
5000 metres and, according to Steve Bell, this is the
crucial point. If you can acclimatise above this point,
you'll almost certainly be okay even higher
Some people seem physiologically unable to cope with
altitudes above 5000 metres. Above around 6000 metres your
body is starting to die slowly, while above 8000 metres,
life expectancy is a week at best and closer for four to
five days for an average person - though what an
average person would be doing at 24,000 feet is another
matter. Jagged Globe look for a background of climbing
successfully at over 6,000 metres, though they'd consider
someone who'd climbed hard routes at slightly lesser
where people live
You could write a book on the effects of high altitude,
but in essence, everything from thought to breathing becomes
massively harder. Nearly all climbers use supplementary
oxygen high on the mountain, but the effects are still
The Technical Difficulty
Everest from the South - the usual approach
- isn't technically difficult in mountaineering
parlance. What this means is that there's very little
serious, steep climbing involved. Most of the route is
moderate snow and ice - around Scottish Grade I or II
- and even the renowned Hillary Step is, says Bell,
only around Scottish grade III. That's probably within the
physical capability of anyone reading this magazine. The
difference is that Scotland isn't yet at an altitude of
8,000 metres plus, where even breathing takes a conscious
effort and even easy technical climbing feels desperate.
It's usual to install a permanent rope on The Step to
What this simple analysis ignores is that the harder you
climb, the more you should have in reserve on easy terrain,
and the faster and more safely you should be able to move if
the weather turns or you find yourself in a crisis
situation. As a beginner you'll almost certainly be on a
guided trip where someone else is making the bigger
mountaineering decisions, but you're always going to be
responsible for your own immediate actions on the mountain,
so ideally Jagged Globe want clients who've climbed harder
than the minimum.
Arguably, just as important as technical competence is
bad weather climbing experience. At over 8,000 metres you
need to be able to look after your personal safety if the
weather does close in. Scotland in winter is, as Alan Hinkes
has said, excellent training for this.
The Brain and Motivation
Guides, Sherpas and modern equipment may have made
Everest easier than it used to be, but says Bell, climbing
Everest is 'still amazing even with oxygen.' Part of that is
down to the huge mental commitment needed to succeed. 'It
is,' he says, 'like taking a step out of the real world. For
ten weeks you live in a strange dream-world where
experiences are heightened … On Everest there are
constant reminders that you're on borrowed time. There are
bodies and you climb past them.' There is, he says, no place
to hide from yourself, no facade.
Without huge determination and mental toughness you won't
get to the top and even with them, there are no guarantees.
Then there's coming home; after the harsh simplicities of
life on Everest, 'real life' can seem dull and unexciting.
It'll change you for sure, but that's travel for you.
You don't need rock climbing-type upper body strength for
Everest, but excellent cardiovascular fitness and strong
legs are essential. Running, cycling or swimming are all
good training, but humping big sacks up steep slopes is
probably the best. Fitness and acclimatisation have no
obvious relationship, though often older, steadier climbers
tend to go better at altitude than frantic young tigers.
The Financial Cost
With Jagged Globe, you're looking at an overall cost of
$39,000 including flights, transport, sherpas, communal
equipment and food etc. On top of this you'll probably need
to spend around £1500 on personal equipment, though if
you're a keen trekker, you'll already own a surprising
portion of what you need.
The total includes a share of the peak fee levied by the
Nepalese government,which, in Mick Crosthwaite's case came
to around $10,000 of his £19,000 total cost. Insurance
arranged through Jagged Globe would cost £797.
According to Steve Bell, clients range from the seriously
rich to those who have scrimped, saved and scraped to raise
the money through sponsorship. You don't have to be loaded,
though it helps.
The Nuts and Bolts
On the lower slopes of the mountain you're looking at a
standard layering system, much as you'd use trekking
- base layer, fleece, shell etc. Temperatures in the
Khumbu ice fall can rise to 30-degrees or more, so a sun-hat
is vital. You'll also need two pairs of glacier glasses to
prevent snow blindness and permanent eye damage.
Other basic kit includes a one-litre pee bottle so you
don't have to leave your tent to take a leak at night,
plastic cutlery to prevent sticking to lips in sub-zero
temperatures, a five-season down sleeping bag, inflatable
sleeping mat for insulation from the snow, water bottle with
insulating cover and a metal vacuum flask to prevent drinks
from freezing on summit day.
On top of all this, you'll need special, high altitude
plastic double boots together with an insulated over boot.
Because feet swell at altitude and tight boots can restrict
circulation and contribute to frostbite, Jagged Globe advise
two sizes bigger than standard size. To combat the extreme
cold - in the Western Cwm temperatures can fall from
30-degrees to minus 30-degrees in an hour - either a
down romper suit or down trousers and jacket are needed,
together with down mitts, together with Gore-Tex
An alternative to a full Gore-Tex jacket and salopette
combo is a light one-piece windproof, highly breathable
wind-suit that saves vital ounces. Other altitude
accoutrements include a neoprene face mask to protect face
and nose from extreme windchill and vapour-barrier socks.
The latter are thin, waterproof and non-breathable and worn
between a liner and outer sock to keep the outer sock dry
and consequently help to keep feet warmer.
If there's a surprise here, it's how little specialised
personal kit is required to climb Everest, though on top of
this you need to add a lightweight oxygen set and cylinder
for summit day.
Food and Drink
You wouldn't get Keith Floyd on Everest, even if you
can't keep Brian Blessed off it. One of the effects of
altitude is to depress appetites and deaden the taste of all
but the spiciest food. This is a double problem as an
Everest climber burns a massive 6000 calories per day.
This'd be hard to make up at sea level, high on the mountain
it's impossible. At base camp you live a life of relative
luxury with food prepared from local ingredients by sherpas,
higher up climbers usually use rations brought from home,
though often even the tastiest delicacies are impossible to
force down. Mick Crosthwaite speaks fondly of the stinkiest,
smelliest salami he could find, but would pass over
delicacies like treacle pudding. An extreme dislike of
porridge is a recognised characteristic of high altitude
mountaineering, or at least it ought to be.
Fluid is the other major requirement of life high up.
Altitude has a diuretic effect and all that panting and
exertion doesn't help, so life on the mountain is one long
battle to stay hydrated, which means melting snow, making
brews, drinking them, while more snow's melting and so on.
Ditto with food. Even so, Steve Bell reckons to lose two
stone from his greyhound-like eleven and a half stone, six
foot frame over the course of an Everest expedition. It's
simply impossible to take 6000 calories a day at altitude,
which isn't helped by the digestive system's reduced
efficiency when dumped unceremoniously on big mountains.
It's surely only a matter of time before someone launches
the high altitude mountaineering diet - the pounds
just fall off and so do you…
The Route and Timing
If there's a 'normal route' on Everest it's from the
south and this is the usual approach followed by guided
expeditions. Base Camp -5400 metres - is set
up below the vast Khumbu icefall. From here the route wends
its way through the towering seracs of the icefall, a
potentially deadly river of slowly moving ice, riven by huge
crevasses and fed by ice pouring over the lip of the vast
Western Cwm above. The icefall is crossed using fixed ropes
and ladders, but ice cliffs the size of houses are always
poised to collapse so it's a dangerous place.
Camp 1 is usually at about 6100 metres above the
icefall and from here the route climbs up the Western
Cwm- a huge, high valley - to Camp 2 at about
6400 metres. From here you carry on towards Lhotse for about
four to five hours and 800 vertical metres to Camp 3 at
around 7200 metres. From Camp 3, low down on the steep
Lhotse Face, if you carried on straight ahead you'd reach
the summit of Lhotse, but for Everest you need to head left
across the steep, icy 55-degree slope, climbing up through
the so-called Yellow Band, named for obvious reasons before
climbing up the Geneva Spur towards the South Col. From the
top of the Spur, you traverse again over to the flat, high
plateau which is the site for Camp 4 and the jumping off
point for the summit at 7986 metres.
The South Col is about the size of three football
pitches and has an unfortunate reputation as the highest
garbage tip in the world, being littered with abandoned
tents, sleeping bags and - notoriously -
several bodies. Climbers can only survive at this height for
a couple of days, meaning that the window for summit
attempts is a narrow one. This is one of the main reasons
Everest is so hard to climb, cop some foul weather at this
point and you're scuppered.
Summit Day begins before midnight and, effectively
has three legs. The first climbs about 600 metres from the
Col up to the Balcony (8600 metres), a bump on the SE Ridge
about the size of two pub tables. Here most climbers will
switch to a fresh oxygen cylinder carried up by a sherpa for
the summit attempt. From here the ridge climbs more gently
to the South Summit at 8760 metres, some 100 metres below
the top. Then comes a section of narrow ridge to the
infamous Hillary Step, a short, moderately hard step that's
usually climbed with the aid of fixed ropes. Once above that
it's a haul along a narrow snow arrete to the roof of the
world. The final ridge isn't particularly difficult, but is
very exposed and climbers on it are vulnerable to wind, so
this too is usually roped. Fall off to your left and you're
in Nepal and to your right, Tibet.
The need to acclimatise means that climbers operate on a
sort of snakes and ladders system, moving up the mountain
then returning to Base Camp before heading up again, rather
than climbing in one push.
When To Go
There are two narrow windows of opportunity on Everest,
pre-monsoon in mid to late May and post-monsoon in
mid-October. During the winter the mountain's upper slopes
are lashed by unfeasibly violent winds - the
jetstream - and it's also extremely cold, during the
monsoon, huge dumps of snow make climbing impossible.
If there's one book anyone considering climbing Everest
should read it's Jon Krakauer's 'Into Thin Air', his
first-hand account of the disastrous 1996 season when 15
people died on the mountain. 'That book,' says Steve Bell,
'imparts what it feels like to be on an 8000 metre peak.
It's essential. If it puts you off then you shouldn't be
there.' Far from discouraging people, he says, Krakauer's
harrowing account of the disaster has actually made more
people aware of the feasibility of guided ascents. Another
quite different first hand account worth a look is Matt
Dickinson's 'Death Zone'.
For a climber's perspective on the commercialisation of
Everest have a look at Joe Simpson's 'Dark Shadows Falling',
which articulates the doubts many mountaineers have about
guided expeditions and their morality.
For general technical climbing information, Fyffe and
Peters 'Handbook of Climbing' is an excellent reference
Yes, I want to climb Everest and claim my free kitbag
- who do I contact?
Contact: tel: 0114 276 3322
Jagged Globe (previously Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions)
were the first UK outfit to guide Everest and have now been
there four times with some 23 successful summiteers, though
even they couldn't get Brain Blessed up top.
Contact: tel: 0114 258 8508
Also run guided climbs on Everest.
There are numerous companies organising treks to Everest
Base Camp, but indendent trekking is straightforward and
carries lots of, well, Everest news.
always a good helping of Everest stuff in there.
all the Everest links a chap could possibly want.
Local Names: in Nepal: Sagarmatha (means: goddess
of the sky). In Tibet: Chomolungma (means: mother goddess of
First Ascent: 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary, NZ and
Tenzing Norgay, Nepal, via the South Col Route. Neither ever
said who stepped on the summit first.
Named After: Mt. Everest was named in 1859 for Sir
George Everest, the British surveyor-general of India. Once
known as Peak 15.
Best and Worst Years on Everest: in 1993, 129
summited and eight died (a ratio of 16:1); in 1996, 98
summited and 15 died (a ratio of 6:1).
Summit/Death Ratio: Statistically for every five
climbers that reach the summit, one dies.
First Oxygenless Ascent: 1978, Reinhold Messner,
ITL, and Peter Habeler, AUT, via the South-East Ridge.
First Solo Ascent: 1980, Reinhold Messner, via the
North Col to North Face.
First Ascent by a Woman: 1975, Junko Tabei, JAP,
via the South-East Ridge.