Everyone knows that a love affair with Everest, the highest and most inhospitable piece of terrain on earth, can be fatal. Indeed, my first skirmish on the mountain in 1996 resulted in a shave with death rather too close for comfort. Eight climbers lost their lives and many more suffered terrible frostbite injuries in the space of 24 hours as we fought the most savage of storms whilst high on the mountain.
But like the love of a good woman or man, the lure of the mountain beckons you back and if you’re not careful you can become besotted. In 1998, I returned a wiser, more experienced climber to take on this 8,848m / 29,028 ft monster peak and summited safely with good friend Bear Grylls.
In 2004, Glenn Shaw, a man who had spent his life in a wheelchair with brittle bone disease begged me to take him to see Mt Everest. In doing so, he broke the altitude record for someone in a wheelchair.
In 2007, Giles Cardozo built some amazing Para-motors capable of flying as high as the summit of Mt Everest and a member of the team did just that, with the mountain directly in front of him. And in 2015 I shall be escorting a team of corporate friends on the trek of their lives high on the slopes of Everest in order to set the world record for the highest formal dinner party.
In this short piece, a beginners guide to climbing Mt Everest, I will be sharing with you my top tips for a safe, pleasant and successful expedition based on my 3,000 + hours spent on the mountain.
Read any self-help book and it will bang on about being prepared… I agreed, but being too knowledgeable about this particular holiday destination and you are likely to lose the element of surprise, mystery and intrigue. You might also scare yourself out of going, particularly if you read the fatality figures – over 200 people. And the majority of these victims lie encased in ice somewhere on the frozen slopes of the mountain. During my first year on Everest for every six successful summit climbs, one person would die.
Of course you are going to want to be physically fit to take on such a challenge. A year before departure, I started a progressive build up of endurance runs, mountain hiking weekends and I never took an escalator or elevator if a flight of stairs was an option. I also took advice on what the best clothing, kit and equipment I should take. Especially important is a warm sleeping bag, the latest high altitude boots and a good book. Many days and nights are spent resting and lounging about trying to recover from a few hard days climbing. Mental affirmations of success are important too and visualizing what a successful outcome might feel like helps to calm the nerves and sends positive mental stimuli around the brain.
Trek to Base Camp
Any serious excursion to the tallest mountain in the world normally requires a day or two in Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu where mountain visas, permits and last minute essential purchases are required. Kathmandu is a hive of frenetic humans hammering about town on their daily travels to find work, manning retail stores or generally running errands. Bicycle rickshaws are everywhere and the throng of people, choking street dust and cacophony of noise is a shock to the system. It will be a major relief to most people when they touch down by plane or helicopter at Lukla airport in the peaceful foothills of Mt Everest at circa 12,000ft.
The secret to a pleasant trek to Base Camp is taking your time (10 – 12 days), walking very slowly, drinking lots of water and sweet tea, applying suntan lotion, not carrying a heavy rucksack (15 kg’s max with essentials only including a down jacket) and stopping frequently for rests whilst the body adjusts to the thin dry air. It’s great to stay overnight in the famous “tea houses” with their smoky rooms, freshly cooked meals and wonderful hospitality.
Climb to the summit
From Base Camp on the Nepalese side of the mountain, you are faced with a 2,500 ft wall of crumpled, jumbled and chaotic ice blocks known as the Khumbu Icefall. It’s a dangerous, intimidating and confusing maze of cascading ice moving slowly down the valley. Once past this formidable natural obstacle, a 4 km hike up the Western Cwm to the base of the Lhotse face (4th highest mountain in the world) and it’s a 5,000 ft climb to the South Col, from where the final assault on the mountain via the SE Ridge, South Summit and the 40ft sheer cliff-face of the Hillary Step awaits you.
Climbing Everest is like an ultra-marathon and can take participants 6 weeks going up and down the mountain re-supplying the various camps and acclimatizing the body to the increasing height and lack of oxygen. Towards the top there is less than half the normal oxygen that can be found at sea level and this makes for very cold, painful and soul-destroyingly slow progress. The secret here is patience, tenacity, endurance, humour, teamwork and a deep sense of optimism – an inner self-confidence. Do not take drugs if you can help it. Allow your body to adjust naturally. It is and you are an extraordinary “machine” and the capacity for survival in extremis must never be under-estimated.
Climbing Mt Everest will always remain a tough challenge for expert and beginner alike but it brings rewards of personal satisfaction, self-awareness and binding friendships that’s difficult to match. With a bit preparation, patience and endurance it’s entirely feasible for a beginner (with expert assistance) to take on this formidable and majestic mountain.
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