The northern spring climbing season is fast approaching. Another season for climbing Mt Everest will be here before you know it. For many, it will bring to the forefront of their mind their own dreams of climbing Mt Everest.
With the increasing media coverage as the season approaches, blog posts, FB news feeds start to fill with information, some of you will be wondering what Mt Everest means to you and whether at some time in your life you might want to attempt to climb to the summit. For others, it may be a reminder of past success, or perceived failure, that you might have experienced on the mountain.
For those of you contemplating a climb, no matter how remote the idea might be, this article may be just the thing to give you the edge to climb closer toward your goal. If so, you might want to read on…
You have decided to attempt to climb the highest mountain in the world – the beautiful, majestic, intoxicating, challenging, awe-inspiring, formidable Mt Everest aka Chomolungma (the name attributed to the mountain by the Tibetan people) or Sagarmatha (attributed by the Nepali people). She is, in every sense, the mother goddess of the earth. And, I say ‘she’ (or ‘her’) because to the people who have known her the longest, she is a motherly, living being, embodying the power of nature on earth.
So, you want to climb Mt Everest?
I remember the first time I saw her through my own eyes – I was silenced by everything that she meant to and inspired in me. She was then and remains, the tallest of the tall poppies and, at times, she is targeted like many tall poppies. She deserves everything that is good and, above all, she deserves, and commands, respect. When I got to the point that I decided I wanted to try and climb on her slopes and maybe, just maybe, stand on her summit, it took a long time after that before I felt I had earned the right to say it out loud, that I would ‘give [the climb] a go’. I kept my thinking private for some time until I felt I had put in the hard yards and had earned the right to verbalise my goal.
If public information on Mt Everest nowadays was to be believed, then every man, woman and dog is reaching the summit of Mt Everest, there is a café near the top and there are steps to the summit, aren’t there? It ain’t so hard and I heard that a friend of a friend of another friend climbed it in 2 weeks and they didn’t even train. So, sounds like a piece of cake, really. Yeah…nah.
From my climb some years ago now, when I did have the privilege of reaching the summit of Mt Everest, and from my more than 15 x 8,000m+ expeditions since, I have learned a lot about what it takes to climb 8,000m peaks successfully. For those contemplating climbing Mt Everest, read on to learn about some of the secrets that are guaranteed to enhance the likelihood of your success.
If you think you have trained hard at other times of your life, then get ready to train even harder. In the lead up to Mt Everest, you want to hone your physical self into the best that you can be in order to give yourself the best chance of success. In particular, you want your legs and back to be stronger than they have ever been before. That should be a given.
Get strong, get fit, and forget about short cuts. Short cuts will get you a short trip, and you will be lucky if you even make it to your summit push.
Here is something to consider: maybe don’t be 100% mountain-fit at the start of your expedition. You don’t want to tax your immune system before the trip starts, and you will increase your mountain fitness as you trek to and climb up the mountain on your acclimatization rotations. You want to be at your peak on summit day not on Day 1 of your expedition. Practice this approach on a pre-climb to see how this works for you.
Get as many technical skills in your tool kit as you can. I decided that even if I would not be likely to do particular types of climbing on Mt Everest, or using a particular skill, I worked at putting that tool in my toolkit anyway, just in case. The benefit was that I was prepared in a well-rounded way, knew I had extra back up skills, and I was agile and adaptable and ready to face whatever was presented to me.
I often say to people that, from my experience, high altitude mountaineering is 60-70% mental and emotional, and the rest is physical. At times, high altitude mountaineering is more about ‘suffering’ than fun – what I mean by that is that it is tough: adjusting to the low oxygen levels in the atmosphere, coping whilst your body adapts, experiencing the weird stuff that your body does as it adapts, being dirty, smelly, unwell at times, cold, hot, long days and nights on the move, being constantly tired and often under pressure etc. So, to prepare yourself for the challenges you will face, you want to be mentally tough.
You want to be tough, focused, resilient, courageous, strong, or similar. Your mind will normally give in well before your physical body so you have to build up mental strength to help you through the tough times.
Climbing big mountains can be an emotional rollercoaster, especially if you are not prepared for the experience, you are out of your comfort zone and away from your normal support network. Think about what you need to support your goals and build the framework for ensuring you get the emotional support you need.
Go prepared to be part of and work in a team
Team cohesion is a crucial element to success on big mountains, just like any big project that you are involved in. If humans are involved then you need the humans to work together well in order to achieve the desired outcome. Climbing Mt Everest is no different. If you go to the mountain thinking everything is about you then, think again. High altitude mountaineering is for the most part, as a surprise to many, a team activity. Team members contribute in many different ways to the outcomes so you want to do your bit to help the team along. And, when the going gets really tough, it is going to be the camaraderie and support of your team members, combined with great leadership, that help you to achieve your goal.
Keep your ego in check
For this one, we need to go to Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
Ego = 1/knowledge i.e. ‘More the knowledge, lesser the ego. Lesser the knowledge, more the ego’.
If you don’t know how to keep your ego in check, maybe think about working on this some more before you attempt to climb Mt Everest.
Some time ago, when on a trail with someone who at sea level would leave me in their dust, I noticed they were trying to keep pace with me. In their case, they had just come from sea level. As for me, I’d been acclimatizing for weeks ahead of our climb. Knowing the personality of this person, I knew that I needed to get them to slow down or they were guaranteed to get sick or weak. I tried to explain that they needed to slow down. In the context, with an out of control ego in play, with what I know now, me applying logic to the issue was never going to work. So, I decided one day to go really fast ahead of everyone and then sit and wait for that person to catch up (as invariably, that one person was trying to pace me and I knew they would be ahead of everyone else). Then, for every day after that for several weeks, I then planted myself at the very back of the team hoping the person would slow down. They didn’t. It was truly upsetting for me to see their climbing strategy play out as it eventually did.
I remember another time in recent years being on a big mountain and battling with myself over the fact I was so much slower than a couple of people I would normally keep pace with. Although, logically, I knew they had been acclimatizing for nearly 6 weeks at altitude and I was coming from sea level, I battled my ego trying to come to terms with what was going on. Whilst I was burning much needed energy battling myself, my speed and what I felt were my inadequacies on the mountain, my ego was partying away knowing it was winning the battle. Against an out of control ego, logic does not get a look in. Did I summit? Well, yes, I did, but I was lucky to have a great leader and mentor in Lakpa, his wise counsel (that did not focus on ‘logic’ but which strengthened another part of my brain), enabled me to work through my challenged thinking and get me back on track.
Learn about the mountain
Before I went to Mt Everest, I Googled my way to gathering a lot of information about Everest – photos of the route, likely objective and subjective hazards, I read blogs, and I spoke to people who had climbed it before. I gathered information on what worked for other climbers, what didn’t and what would they do differently if they were to climb it again. I then analysed all that information and made decisions about how that information could be applied to our team and me.
Learn about the culture
Learn about where you are going. Ideally, you would have been to Nepal (for south side routes) and Tibet, China (for north side) before so that you know what to expect. Learn about the people, their food, their spirits, their lives, and the land they live on. All of these things help to connect you with the mountain.
Learn about altitude
My first experience with altitude was 20 years ago, in 1998 – I went to Nepal and trekked in the Annapurna area. My next experience was a few years later when attempting a climb in Asia at around 4,000m+. With no real concept of altitude, I spent both experiences wondering why on earth I was breathing so heavily, and what had happened to my fitness! Needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of time since those early days, getting to know altitude extremely well, and from many different perspectives.
By the time you go to Mt Everest, you want to have a really good level of knowledge of how your body adjusts at altitude, what helps, what doesn’t, how to identify symptoms in yourself and others, and what to do if things are not going to plan.
Learn how to function in the cold, and in the heat
Climbing Mt Everest will present you with extreme cold, and extreme heat potentially, in the cooking oven of the Western CWM (normal south side route). Despite thinking I was applying enough sunscreen and was covered up, I got some of my worst sunburn EVER in the Western CWM. On the flip side, get to know your strengths and weaknesses in cold temperatures. Be prepared, as every Girl or Boy Scout should be. Err on the side of caution and give your body the best chance of being prepared for the temperatures you will experience.
For me, an inherited issue means that I often feel the cold well in advance of the average person. So, Lakpa and I worked out strategies many years ago that give me the best chance of keeping going even in the chilliest of conditions. On Ama Dablam some years ago, Lakpa and I decided to climb in winds that we knew we had the strategy and experience to handle. Once we started climbing, however, the winds proved to be much higher than forecast. Many would have descended. However, knowing each other’s limits as we do, and being well prepared for the wind chill, we continued to the summit and descended without incident.
Choose the right logistics for you
One of the biggest mistakes I see climbers make on Mt Everest (and other big mountains) is not choosing the right level or type of logistics for their ability or for an appropriate risk profile. Some climbers see a price and go ‘yep, that’ll do’ or ‘yep, that fits my budget’. Yeah…nah. My best advice to people making a decision based on budget is to wait a year or two until you can increase your budget, and get the logistics best suited to you and an appropriate risk profile.
Ask questions. So, you have a guide with you? Ask about their experience, background, and ask about things that are important to you, your safety and the wellbeing of your team.
The reality is that you can die or be seriously injured climbing – and Mt Everest increases the risk of both happening. Mountaineering, especially at high altitude, is a high-risk activity. But, you can minimise your risk responsibly by choosing the right logistics. And, you can minimise the possibility that someone who has paid for logistics with an appropriate risk profile is not caught up in rescuing you in a situation that could have, potentially, been avoided, or the risk appropriately minimised.
Get your family and friends on board
A reality of being away from your loved ones for a long time is that you are going to miss them. Before you go, work out some communication strategies with each other so that they can support you whilst you are on the mountain. Let them know exactly what kind of news you will want to hear and what will spur you on. Also, let them know what you don’t want to hear and, if there is bad news, in what circumstances will you want to hear it. Bad news at the wrong moment can result in you calling ‘time’, and then later you might regret that you called ‘time’ and wished you had prepared for this kind of stuff in advance.
Ask yourself ‘the’ question
What is ‘the’ question? Well, you want to ask yourself ‘Why am I doing this? Then, you want to have a good answer: one that feels empowering, special, and it means something to YOU. You are the one training like a crazy person, giving up a whole lot of time, heading into an incredibly challenging situation and spending a lot of your hard earned money in the process. So, you want to know that you are doing it for all the right reasons – and that those reasons matter to YOU.
The special significance of climbing Mt Everest is not lost of those who know what is involved, the sacrifices that are made, and the incredible life experiences and lessons that can come from setting out to achieve a big goal and achieving it (or not). For some, the drive is to stand at a high point or for the personal challenge the highest mountain in the world presents. For others, it is to see the views, or for some other reason personal to them.
Climbing Mt Everest can be life changing. Any big goal can have great rewards, and life changing consequences. Mt Everest is no different. For many years I said to people that climbing Mt Everest did not change my life but it changed my thinking. I think I was in denial about the fact that it had changed my life because if your thinking is changed, then so too is your life. Now when asked, I just say to people that climbing Mt Everest did change my life, because it did, and all for the better. My thinking around possibilities has developed far beyond what it was before the day on which, for but a moment in time, I got to look at the view from the highest point on earth. And, what a view it was.