It has been a long and wild climbing season on the world’s tallest mountain. Over the past few years, Mt. Everest has been widely criticized for being an over crowded stage for publicity seekers and tourist climbers who have no business being on the mountain. That hasn’t changed much this spring, but when you add in the recent brawl between three European climbers and a mob of angry Sherpas, not to mention the death of a very well known Russian mountaineer earlier this week, the 2013 season has been a strange and difficult one indeed. But for most of the climbers, the end is now in sight. After nearly two months away from home and weeks of acclimatizing at altitude, all of their preparation is about to pay off. Summit Day has arrived at last.
The summit of Everest has remained an elusive place thus far this spring. A week ago two teams of Sherpas completed the job of fixing the ropes to the top of the mountain from both the North Side in Tibet and the South Side in Nepal. A couple of daring and experienced climbers followed closely behind and were able to top out just before a system of bad weather moved in. Since then, high winds have kept the summit out of reach and challenged the patience of the other teams waiting to make their ascents. Over the past few days, a number of those teams attempted to reach the top, but most of them were turned back by persistent bad weather. Today the skies cleared, the winds have calmed and temperatures have even warmed a bit making it a perfect day to climb to the top.Most of the climbers launch their final push to the summit from Camp 4, located just below the so-called “Death Zone” at approximately 26,000 feet. It will take them hours to reach the 29,029-foot summit where they’ll stumble onto the ridge with a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration. They’ll have just a few minutes to enjoy the view and savor their accomplishment, because any mountaineer will tell you that the summit is only the halfway mark. They’ll still need to descend back to their starting point at C4, where they’ll get some much needed rest before continuing further down tomorrow.
The biggest challenge the climbers will face on their way to the summit will be the incredibly thin air. Most will use bottled oxygen to help them breathe at high altitude and to stave off the effects of altitude sickness, which can be deadly at such heights. Long lines will also form at a couple of strategic points on the mountain as the exhausted mountaineers struggle to overcome a few technical challenges just below the summit. While standing in those lines the thin air and cold temperatures will have an opportunity to conspire against the climbers as well, making frostbite a real possibility.
For many, Summit Day is the culmination of years of hard work, dedication and focus. Today, and over the next few days, dozens of climbers will see their sacrifice pay off at last. Those who do make it to the top will enter an elite group of men and women who have stood at the top of the world.