Summitting Everest is the pinnacle of many climbers’ lives, but one Hong Kong-based mountaineer followed it by scaling next-door Lhotse too
By Paul Niel
“We need to turn back… now!”, shouted Chewang, my climbing partner.
That was all I could make out through the relentless storm. Even through my puffy down suit I could feel the battering wind and the constant impact of driven snow.
I was on the final approach to the summit of Everest. We had left our last camp on the South Col, at an elevation of 8,000 metres, a few hours earlier. Since leaving the tents, the snowfall and wind had steadily increased, becoming ever more menacing. Visibility had dropped to the point where I could barely see the person ahead of me on the rope. Slowly but surely, cold had crept through my oversized high-altitude boots and had begun to capture the feeling in my toes. Small icicles hung from my beard.
As I clasped an icy outdrop of rock through my cumbersome gloves, my oxygen-deprived brain needed a few moments to conclude that Chewang was right. But even so my heart sank – we were so close and turning back would likely mean all the months of training and preparation would come to nothing.
* * *
Our expedition had started out seven weeks earlier from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, from where we had flown into Lukla, a small village at the south end of the Khumbu Valley. My goal was unusual. Inspired by an old book on the 1956 Swiss expedition to Nepal by Albert Eggler, ‘The Everest – Lhotse Adventure’, I planned to attempt not just Everest, at an elevation of 8,848 metres, but also neighbouring Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world at 8,510 metres.
The Swiss had come incredibly close to a first ascent of Everest in 1952, the year before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed it, but had to turn around at 8,595 metres. Four years later, the Swiss returned and pushing two teams out across the Lhotse face, managed the second ascent of Everest as well as the first of Lhotse.
With the peaks connected by the South Col, I wondered if I could scale both mountains in one single push. I found support for this bold plan from our expedition leader, Greg Vernovage, an accomplished Himalayan climber who I had met for the first time during an expedition into the Ellsworth Mountains in Antarctica. There we had daydreamed at length about possible trips to the Himalayas. Now I discussed my idea of a possible back-to-back summit attempt with him. It had only been attempted a few times before and was first successfully achieved as recently as 2011 by an American mountain guide. The attempt would require a lot of additional logistics and, most of all, for me to be in perfect condition as I would need to spend two or more days above 8,000 metres. I would need to find the stamina to keep going after returning exhausted from the first peak.
From the start, Greg’s credo was patience. Due to the reduced air pressure, one lungful of air on the summit of Mt Everest contains just a third of the oxygen of a similar lungful at sea level. In order to compensate, the body must acclimatise, a process that is slow and takes weeks. Climbers who ascend too quickly are greatly increasing their risk of succumbing to altitude sickness and the consequences can be fatal.
Unlike on the average Everest Base Camp trek, our team opted to give ourselves more than two weeks for the 70-kilometre trek through the Khumbu Valley from Lukla, pausing to rest for a full day after each day of hiking to give ourselves time to adapt to the increasing elevation.
The Khumbu is also the home of the famous Sherpas, who, due to their adaptation to altitude, have played an integral part of every expedition to the Himalayas over the past hundred years. My climbing partner himself was a Sherpa – Chewang Lendu from Phortse. Extremely strong, he had climbed Everest three times before.
The path up the valley was extremely beautiful – steep mountain slopes crowned by innumerable peaks, cloaked with dazzling glaciers. The vegetation became more and more scarce as altitude increased, eventually becoming mere threads of green among the rocky glacial moraines and ice.
Everest Base Camp nestles beside the Khumbu glacier at the head of the valley at around 5,300 metres. Here hundreds of yellow and blue tents, occupied by climbers from all over the world, create one of the highest settlements anywhere, every year during April and May. From Base Camp, expeditions set out to line the route to the top of the world with several camps, each stocked with equipment and food, to be used as stopovers on the summit push.
The crux of the route lies just outside base camp: the treacherous Khumbu icefall. Our acclimatisation demanded that Chewang and I would need to navigate our way up and down through this constantly moving river of ice several times. Rising more than six hundred metres above Base Camp, the countless blocks of ice, some as big as several-storey buildings, create a deadly labyrinth.
On our first attempt we started very early in the morning, when the air is coldest and the loose blocks were most likely to be frozen in place, pushing up towards Camp 1, located above the icefall.
The route was breathtaking – gaping crevasses lay in wait, traversed by tenuous ladder bridges, sometimes three or more ladders bound together to reach across the void beneath. Edging across in cramponed boots, the passage across these death traps is an exercise in balance and intense concentration. Below my feet I often heard the creaks and squeaks of the glacier ice and sometimes could feel avalanches rushing by below us. We were walking in silence for the most part, but from time to time I could hear Chewang’s mumbling the Buddhist mantra, ‘Om mani padme hum’, asking Qomolungma (the mother goddess of the earth who they believe lives on Everest) to be merciful.
A few days earlier, one his friends from Phortse had died in the icefall when he walked off the trail and fell more than 50 metres into a crevasse. The hole was still clearly visible as we passed it. Sadly he would not be the last casualty claimed by the mountain in 2013.
Luckily for us, as the first rays of sunlight hit the icefall that day we were already enjoying a cup of tea at Camp 1. We had done well but this was just a stopover and we continued the next day up to the more comfortable and larger Camp 2, situated at the bottom of the Lhotse Face at 6,400 metres in the Western Cwm, a steep valley framed by Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. This was our highest point so far and the effects of altitude started to show: my head was pounding, I was nauseous and every step left me short of breath. “It will get better!” Greg assured me.
We spent two painful nights in Camp 2, watching Sherpa teams fixing ropes on the Lhotse face. It was during this time that renowned mountaineers Ueli Steck and Simone Moro began their own climb of this face. Famously, this led to bad blood as it violated the unwritten rule that the process of rope fixing is not to be disturbed. In an incident that came later to be known as the ‘Brawl on Everest’ a group of Sherpas attacked Simone and Ueli upon their return to Camp 2, eventually forcing them off the mountain.
The first I knew of it was when I was awoken from an afternoon nap by several enraged Sherpas storming by my tent. Chasing them, out of breath, I could only grab Chewang’s arm and hold him back, but watched helplessly as stones were flown and insults shouted. Thankfully Greg managed to step between the fighting parties and eventually calm the situation down. It was not a glorious day for climbing.
After two days of acclimatising, I had my own moment of drama when one of my crampons snapped while I was crossing a deep crevasse. Stunned, staring for a second down into the black abyss, I gathered myself and crawled on all fours to the other end, trying to catch my breath as fear ran through me. Once safely on firm ground, I managed to put together an emergency fix with a pocketknife and a few loops of rope, that got me back to Base Camp.
Back in my tent, it was time to recover. The lower elevation made me feel better immediately but I was surprised by just how much energy the trip into altitude had cost me. I ate as much as I could as I replenished my reserves and, a few days later, we were departing again, this time headed directly to Camp 2.
From there, the impressively steep Lhotse face rises more than 2,000 metres with our next goal a range of tents, right in the middle of that face, at 7,300 metres. Although I could feel my body already coping better with the thin air on this trip up, I still suffered with every step above Camp 2, every ten steps followed by a minute’s rest. Reaching Camp 3, I found my appetite had gone and I slept badly that night: more signs of altitude sickness.
Any discomfort I felt though was forgotten by the tragedy that befell our team next morning. One of our Sherpa guides was found lying unconscious in his tent, his condition worsening rapidly. Before we could even get the medics on the radio, his heartbeat stopped. He died within minutes. The whole team was shell-shocked. It was a blunt demonstration of the fine line between life and death on this mountain. Should I get in trouble, a rescue would be very unlikely. Despite each of us having paid thousands of dollars for experienced guides and Sherpas, we all still bore a heavy responsibility for ourselves. We needed to be vigilant of what our bodies were telling us.
A push higher up was aborted in light of events, and we returned to Base Camp where it took days for us to pull ourselves together physically and emotionally and refocus on the climb. Thankfully though the weather started to improve and the forecast for the second half of May predicted a window of several days of lower winds, vital to even attempt the summit.
We got started again on May 13 with another early morning climb through the ice fall and after some rest at Camp 2 we were pushing again up the steep icy Lhotse face. The thin air was tightening my chest like a belt, leaving me constantly fighting for breath.
As I reached the next camp, I was happy to find my friend Knut from Norway already lying in the tent and greeting me with warm tea and soup, desperately needed to make up for the thousands of calories I was burning. The camp itself is an uncomfortable place – the tents are pitched on small platforms hacked into the steep slopes and the high risk of falling keeps everyone in their temporary shelter whatever the weather.
From the outset I had decided to use oxygen from this altitude upwards. The main difference it makes is the perception of cold – having more oxygen keeps the body warmer, significantly decreasing the risk of frostbite. Losing toes or fingers was not an option I wanted to have to contemplate.
Early next morning though, as Chewang and I started to climb the final bit of the face, I felt cold. Really cold. Especially in my toes. To my horror I realised I had forgotten to keep my shoes inside my sleeping bag the previous night so they were literally frozen. I cursed, angry with myself for my stupidity. But there, in the middle of the slope, there was nothing I could do. Crunching up my toes, some feeling came back, a reassuring sign. With the extra motivation to get it over with, I began to increase my pace, taking fifteen steps instead of the usual ten before resting. Just before lunchtime we reached the final camp on the South Col where we would rest before the start of our final ascent up to the summit. Luckily, an inspection of my feet showed no blue or black frostbite marks and I made a mental note – underlined, in red – to never repeat my mistake.
The South Col is a miserable place. There a few tents fight the unceasing, buffeting wind on the rocky saddle between Everest and Lhotse. With the elevation close to 8,000 metres, it is the beginning of the so-called ‘death zone’, the elevation at which the body’s ability to look after itself degenerates more rapidly. Eating takes real effort, sleep is next to impossible.
I was therefore not unhappy that our schedule called for us to make our summit bid that night. Via radio, Greg, back at base camp, shared the latest weather forecast: all good. I spent the last hours carefully packing my backpack, then, at seven in the evening, it was finally time to go.
I followed closely in Chewang’s footsteps and just before midnight we reached the Balcony, a small plateau halfway to the summit. But the weather was worsening steadily. The cold was biting through my gloves, the snow and ice freezing up my googles and oxygen mask. That was when we heard over the radio that another team higher up were reporting that conditions were getting even worse. Despite the positive forecast, we were walking into an unexpected storm!
It was here we made the difficult decision to turn back. The way down was tough and extremely dangerous with visibility barely two metres, and I seriously feared I would miss my tent and walk straight out into the Kangshung face. Still, it was the right choice to make.
In the early hours of the morning, we reached the South Col. Exhausted and frozen to the bone, I collapsed in my tent, as the deafening storm raged outside, deeply disappointed and unsure of what to do next. Most of our team called it quits and returned all the way back down to Base Camp. Somehow I still had strength though and elected to stay put.
Time passed really slowly as the storm raged, but by late afternoon I realised that the wind was slowing and Greg confirmed the improvement in the forecast. By early evening the sky had cleared and totally unexpectedly I was being offered a second chance!
This time Chewang and I started later, heading up into a surprisingly clear night, with stars overhead. Buoyed by the conditions I felt like running up the mountain, but the altitude meant every fast step ended in immediate shortness of breath so that idea didn’t last long.
Nevertheless we progressed steadily, step by step, until, almost magically, I could soon see the first silver lining on the horizon: sunrise. As dawn broke, I was looking along the final summit ridge – a view I had desired since my childhood. A thin snow ridge, it is the narrow dividing line between a 3,000-metre fall on the right side down the Kangshung face to Tibet, and a similar drop on the left down to Nepal. At the ridge’s end stands a 20-metre high rock: the famous Hillary Step, the last major obstacle before the summit. I would have to wait a bit before I could have a go at it though, as a few climbers were already struggling up its exposed rock. Looking down between my legs I could see Camp 2, more than two kilometres below me.
As I pulled myself up the step on some ratty old ropes, the sun rose behind me, a big yellow fireball lighting up the mountains all around and throwing a massive triangular shadow over the Himalayas. Climbing over the last snow pile, I could make out the summit, adorned with prayer flags.
Those final steps seemed to take forever as I shuffled, in a near-trance, to the highest point on the Earth. Then Chewang grabbed my hand and said, “Well done!” Despite his oxygen mask I could see his smile.
We remained on the summit only for a few minutes. It was a cloudless, cold morning and we took in the stunning panorama but we were conscious there was still a lot of work ahead. Having snapped a few important summit pictures, we turned around, already focusing on the next goal, our second peak, Lhotse.
We first returned to the South Col camp from where we needed to traverse over to Lhotse. Checking our equipment, we started out again and after a short rest in Lhotse high camp with some tea and our last supplies of soup, we started climbing again.
The route up Lhotse is a long, steep, ice couloir to the top, the angled and unstable rock making it more technically challenging than its higher and more famous neighbour. Some of my teammates had previously expressed serious doubts about the possibility of adding a second summit, but I felt positive now, energised by the wonderful success on Everest. Chewang also seemed as strong as ever.
As we climbed higher, tiredness was really starting to take its toll as this was now the third ascent in three days, with more than 70 hours spent in the ‘death zone’. But like the last kilometres of a marathon, the muscle pain and tiredness mixed with the euphoria of being close to a big goal. I was carried forward on a surge of emotion and just after sunrise we reached the summit, our second peak in 24 hours.
I still find it hard to describe the feeling, as Chewang and I stood all alone on the peak. I recall staring at the ranks of mountains all around, a view unchanged by, and uncaring of, the feats of any man. Still I was flushed with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and happiness. Chewang too was grinning from ear to ear.
Fifteen minutes later we started our descent, wanting to reach the safety of Base Camp as quickly as possible, while treading cautiously with the knowledge that most accidents happen on the way down. Back at Lhotse High Camp however, a Chinese climber, seemingly suffering from cerebral edema, had collapsed unconscious. Two Sherpas were with him but didn’t seem to know what to do. Following the advice of the doctors over the radio, I attempted to administer emergency medication. A helicopter also attempted a rescue, but had to abort due to our altitude.
Neither Chewang nor myself were in any condition to carry the victim, so a relief troop of Sherpas was mustered in the lower camps. Meanwhile Greg urged us over radio to descend, not wanting to have two more casualties. Seeing that there was nothing more we could do, we eventually did so, leaving behind our medicine and remaining tea, and wrapping the climber in my sleeping bag. Nevertheless it was a very tough call. The way down was long and, this late in the day, the sun had loosened the rocks in the ice, turning them into potentially deadly missiles, a few of which fell almost continuously down parts of the face.
I summoned all my concentration, fighting exhaustion and dehydration all the way. As we reached Camp 2, late in the afternoon, I felt drained as never before – I could have happily slept on my feet. Still it was only early next morning, after a night’s urgently needed rest, and having finally crossed the icefall one last time, that I was able to relax, as Greg greeted me at Base Camp. He was thrilled with our success, but also relayed the news that the Chinese climber had died.
It has been months since the events of those days, but I think I am still processing all that happened. It was a walk on the edge in all ways, a rollercoaster ride of emotion with the climax of the twin summits followed by helplessness as we witnessed the mountains claim a fellow climber.
For me however, the fascination with high mountains remains. The flame still burns. I had joined a select club, becoming the ninth person to stand atop both Everest and Lhotse within 24 hours. Barely seven days later, I boarded a plane for Alaska. Denali, the last of my Seven Summits, was calling. AA
When to go
The best time to climb any 8,000-metre peak in Nepal is either the pre-monsoon season (April/May) or post-monsoon season (September/October).
How to get there
Direct flights to Kathmandu are offered by Dragonair, Silk Air, AirAsia and others from a range of Asian cities.
What to take
Climbing Everest requires a range of specialist equipment including a down suit, gloves, high altitude boots and a sleeping bag rated at -40˚C. Make sure you have tested and familiarised yourself with the equipment prior to the trip: Base Camp is not the place to learn how to use crampons. Thamel district in Kathmandu has a range of mountain and outdoor shops for last minute purchases and rentals.
Select a reputable operator for your trip. International Mountain Guides (www.mountainguides.com), HIMEX (http://himalayanexperience.com) and Adventure Consultants (www.adventureconsultants.com) are three of the biggest names, with years of experience on the mountain and reliable Sherpa support teams.
A trip to Aconcagua in Argentina is good preparation for an 8,000er. You get exposure to altitude and learn about life on a weeks-long expedition. A good blog that covers the climbing season on Everest as well as offering many tips can be found at www.alanarnette.com