Summit Day Arrives On Mt. Everest

Mt. Everest from the South Side
Kraig Becker

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.

80-Year-Old Climbers Vie For Record Of Oldest To Summit Everest

Min Bahadur Serchan looks to remain the oldest to summit Everest.Two octogenarians are preparing to go head-to-head to determine who will hold the record for the oldest to summit Mt. Everest; 81-year-old Min Bahadur Sherchan of Nepal and his 80-year-old rival Yuichiro Miura of Japan are both currently in Everest Base Camp on the South Side of the mountain. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the two climbers will set out for the 29,029-foot summit as they both look to fulfill a dream of climbing Everest in their eighth decade. Setting a new mark for the oldest person to accomplish that feat would simply be icing on the cake.

Sherchan is the current record holder, having previously climbed Everest in 2008 at the age of 76. He managed to reach the top of the world’s tallest peak exactly one day before his Japanese counterpart, who was 75 at the time. That was Miura’s second successful summit as he also climbed the mountain in 2003 at the age of 70.

Unsurprisingly, the rivalry between these two climbers is a bit one-sided. Sherchan says that he hasn’t returned to Everest in an effort to keep his record but instead he simply wants to attempt to climb the mountain in his 80s. Miura on the other hand is quoted as saying, “records are meant to be broken.” Clearly he would relish the opportunity to claim this crown for himself. In order to do that, however, he must first reach the summit and then hope that Serchan does not.

The two men will soon get the opportunity to prove that they still have the strength and skill to pull off this difficult climb despite their advancing age. If everything goes as planned, the Sherpa team charged with fixing the ropes up the mountain will complete their work tomorrow. That will clear the way for the commercial climbing squads to begin their ascents once they get a clear weather window that will provide access to the summit. The forecast calls for high winds over the next few days, but things should start to improve early next week. After that, the two men will have their duel on the slopes.

[Photo Credit: Yuichiro Miura]

Americans On Everest: A Look Back At The Famous 1963 Expedition

Americans on Everest: Jim Whittaker at the summitYesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the first American to summit Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain on the planet at 29,029 feet in height. That successful venture came ten years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent of that mountain, but in the decade that had followed only four other climbers had managed to stand on top. The 1963 expedition would not only put an American on the summit for the first time, it would also open an entirely new route that had never been climbed before. That expedition would also go down in history as one of the most daring and successful ever, setting the standard for those that would follow.

Ironically enough, the expedition was actually led by a transplanted Swiss climber by the name of Norman Dyhrenfurth. He took a team that consisted of 19 Americans, 32 Sherpas and 909 porters carrying 27 tons of gear and equipment to the mountain. In those days there was no airport in the Everest region, so that trek began in Kathmandu and covered 183 miles on foot. It took a month just to reach Base Camp, which was where the real work would begin.

In the early weeks of the expedition the team concentrated on acclimatizing to the altitude and preparing for the challenges of climbing the South Col route pioneered by Hillary and Norgay. Those efforts payed off early on when 34-year-old Jim Whittaker of Seattle, WA, and his Sherpa guide Nawang Gombu, planted the U.S. flag at the summit on May 1. It was a huge day for Whittaker personally and an even bigger one for American mountaineering.But the expedition was far from over. On May 22, three weeks after Whittaker’s historic climb, four more Americans would head to the top of the world. Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad would once again go up the South Col while their companions Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld would attempt a difficult new route along the West Ridge. No one had ever approached the summit from that direction before and it would be a true test of their skill and endurance. Not only did Hornbein and Unsoeld successfully manage to complete that route, they met Bishop and Jerstad on the summit. Those two men had endured an eight hour climb in high winds to reach the top as well, and while there they managed to capture the first ever video footage from the summit of Everest.

Americans on EverestAny mountaineer will be quick to tell you that the summit is only the halfway point and the four men still had to get back down safely. They started to descend just as the darkness of night settled over the mountain, making an already treacherous experience even worse. At one point, the two groups became separated and Bishop and Jerstad had to stand in place for several hours, calling out to the companions in an effort to help lead them with the sound of their voices. Eventually they were reunited, and the descent would continue, but after stumbling along in the darkness for several more hours they decided to risk bivouacing for the night.

Using a rock outcropping as shelter, the men huddled close for warmth. Without tents or a sleeping bag, they knew their chances of survival were slim, but they didn’t relish the idea of falling down the South Col in the darkness either. The high winds subsided some, bringing a small measure of comfort. But they were all freezing, exhausted and hungry. Their chances of survival looked grim.

But survive they did and the dawn brought them new hope. Resuming their descent they came across teammate Dave Dingman, who had abandoned his own summit bid to search for his missing friends. Dingman and a Sherpa brought bottled oxygen for the team and then helped to safely lead them back down the mountain. Unsoeld and Bishop had suffered severe frostbite to their feet however and would need to be evacuated as quickly as possible. In the end, Unsoeld would lose nine of his toes and Bishop would lose all ten, plus the tips of his little fingers.

When it was over the expedition set a new standard for high altitude mountaineering. The U.S. team had put five climbers on the summit, more than any other before it. It also opened a new route along the West Ridge, which remains one of the greatest achievements in mountaineering history. The summit push marked the first time that two teams simultaneously approached the summit from different routes as well, something that others would do in the years that followed.

The five-minute video below was released by National Geographic following this important climb back in 1963. It spotlights some of the difficult conditions the American team faced while on Everest. Today, there are hundreds of successful summits each year on that mountain, but back then it remained an elusive and deadly challenge.

[Photo Credit: National Geographic]

Three Mountaineers Assaulted On Mt. Everest By Sherpas

Sherpas on Everest attacked three climbers this weekendThe 2013 spring climbing season on Mt. Everest took a strange and unexpected turn this past weekend when a team of three climbers was assaulted by a mob of angry Sherpas. The incident first began at one of the mountain’s high camps, then reignited further down the slope when tempers flared up once again. If it weren’t for the brave intervention of other Western climbers, the conflict could have resulted in severe injury, or even the death, of the mountaineers involved.

This past Saturday, independent climbers Ueli Steck of Switzerland, Simone Moro of Italy and Jonathan Griffith of the U.K. were all climbing towards Camp 3, located at 7200 meters (23,622 feet), when they came across a team of Sherpas. The high altitude guides were busy fixing lines up the mountain that the commercial climbers will use as they scale it over the next few weeks. The Sherpas asked the Europeans to stay off the ropes while they were being worked on, as it was possible the climbers could dislodge debris and send it falling down on them while they worked. Steck, Moro and Griffith, who are each very accomplished climbers, agreed with the request and proceed up the slope using their own ropes that ran parallel to those the Sherpas were working on.

As they neared their campsite, the three climbers needed to cross the fixed ropes in order to get to their tents. As they carefully proceeded over the lines, the lead Sherpa, who was working above them at the time, rapidly descended and immediately began shouting at them to stay off the ropes. He accused the team of dislodging a chunk of ice, which struck and injured one of his workers below. Something the European climbers deny. The argument only escalated from there, culminating with the entire Sherpa team ceasing their work and descending to Camp 2 in a huff.Steck, Moro and Griffith then proceeded to their campsite to drop off several loads of gear and discuss what to do next. In an effort to extend an olive branch and show respect to the Sherpas for their efforts, Steck decided to help with the rope fixing himself, adding 260 additional meters to the work that had already been completed. But after spending some time mulling their options, they decided it was best to descend to Camp 2 just as the Sherpas had.

Sherpas on Everest attacked mountaineers this weekendUpon arriving there, they were immediately met with an angry mob. The team of 17 Sherpas that the climbers had confronted on the mountain slopes had grown to nearly 100. The group attacked the three men, punching and kicking them repeatedly. Some threw rocks at them in an effort to severely injure or even kill them. The incensed Sherpa contingent was clearly out for blood.

Fortunately, other Western climbers were on site and jumped in to serve as a buffer zone between the trio from Europe and their assailants. It took the better part of an hour, but things finally began to calm down. At that time, the Sherpas told Steck, Moro and Griffith that they had better get back down the mountain to Base Camp, because if they spent the night in C2, one of them would lose his life. They promised to see to the other two climbers as well.

Grabbing a few pieces of gear, the three men descended back to Base Camp, but out of fear for their lives they didn’t use any of the fixed ropes that are in place along the route. When they arrived in BC, Ueli Steck was immediately flown to a hospital in a nearby village for treatment. He had suffered a minor injury to his head when he was struck by a rock during the melee but doctors didn’t find any serious damage. After spending a night under observation, he was back in Base Camp the following day.

The team had been considering continuing the expedition. Steck and Moro are two of the best climbers of their generation and they don’t give up easily. But after meeting with authorities yesterday and members of the Sherpa association, the three European climbers have decided to call it quits for the season and head home.

In the aftermath of the violent incident, three of the Sherpas have been removed from the mountain, while the police and the Ministry of Tourism investigates what exactly happened. Everyone knows that this story won’t be good for Nepal’s image, which relies heavily on tourism dollars from climbers and trekkers to stay afloat.

[Photo Credits: Rupert Taylor-Price via Wikimedia, Jonathan Griffith]

Sherpa Is First Fatality Of The Season On Everest

On the left is the summit of Everest, tallest peak on the planetThe spring climbing season on Mt. Everest is barely a week old and the mountain has already claimed its first death of the year. On Sunday, 45-year-old Mingmar Sherpa took a fatal fall into a crevasse while descending from Camp 2 on the mountain’s South Side. His companions attempted to mount a rescue operation but it took several hours to retrieve his body from the crevasse, at which time it was already too late.

Mingmar was a member of the famed Everest Icefall Doctors, a highly trained group of Sherpas whose job it is to build and maintain a safe route through the Khumbu Icefall each year. The group places ladders across open crevasses and fixes ropes through this dangerous section, allowing the climbers that come after them to pass through quickly and safely. That route had just been completed on Saturday and the Icefall Docs were helping to shuttle gear up the slope to two of the higher camps when the accident occurred.

Last spring was a particularly deadly season on the world’s tallest mountain where ten people lost their lives in pursuit of the summit. Unusually warm and dry conditions helped to make the mountain unstable, causing rocks to tumble down its slopes and forcing climbers to scramble across bare rock rather than the more preferred snow and ice. The 2013 season doesn’t appear to be a repeat of those conditions, however, as it has been a long, cold winter – with plenty of snow – in the Himalaya this year. As a result, the entire mountain is more stable, which should translate to fewer hazards and fatalities in the weeks ahead.

The mountaineering teams are just now arriving in Base Camp and will begin heading up the mountain in the next few days. Most will spend several weeks acclimatizing to the altitude while honing their skills and watching the skies for a weather window that will allow them to make a summit bid. Traditionally, the first summit attempts from the commercial climbing teams begin around mid-May.

Hopefully this early-season death isn’t a sign of things to come this year.

[Photo Credit: Kraig Becker]