The Logistics of Everest

As we mentioned last week, the Himalayan climbing season is in full swing, and the first teams of mountaineers should be arriving in base camp on Mt. Everest this week. BC on Everest falls at approximately 17,500 feet, higher than most mountains in the world, but it is only the beginning of the climb that hundreds of people have paid as much as $65,000 each, and devoted two months of their spring, not to mention countless hours of training, to attempt.

The first of those numbers is the one that usually gets people to raise their eyebrows. $65,000 is the upper end of the spectrum when it comes to climbing Everest, and it is possible to go for as little as half of that, which is still quite a sum of money of course. But when you’re climbing the highest mountain on the planet, do you really want to go on a “bargain” rate? The money goes to cover the cost of supplies, bottled oxygen, guides, Sherpas, and more.

Once non-climbers get over the sticker shock of how much an Everest climb costs, they then focus on the two months that it takes to complete the task, and they often wonder how come it takes so long. The two month time line includes when the mountaineer sets off for Kathmandu and continues up until they depart Nepal for home. Upon arriving in the Napali capital, there is usually a few days spent there acquiring permits and organizing gear, before they fly to Lukla and begin the roughly ten day trek to base camp, or head to Lhasa in Tibet, depending on their chosen climbing route.

There are a number of paths that climbers can take to reach the summit of Everest, and they can vary greatly in difficulty. The two most popular routes are the North and South Col routes. The North Col falls in Tibet, and thanks to the borders of that country being shut down for over a month, there are few teams climbing from that side of the mountain this year. Instead, the vast majority are climbing the South Col route, which is the same one that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used back in 1953 when the made the first successful ascent.

No matter which side you climb from however, the approach is similar. Teams will establish a series of camps at various altitudes on the mountain. Each time they go up they will build one of these camps, leaving behind supplies that they will need when they make their final summit push. After the camp is created, they will spend the night there to acclimatize to the altitude, before descending back down to base camp to rest, recuperate, and resupply before repeating the process, going higher on the mountain, until all four of the required camps are complete.

On the South Side of the mountain, Camp I is located at 19,900 feet. From there, the climbers go up a bowl shaped valley called the Western Cwm to establish Camp II, also known as Advanced Base Camp, at roughly 21,300 feet. Moving up the Lhotse Face, they will build Camp III at 24,500 feet, before finally creating Camp IV at 26,000 feet, just below the region of the mountain dubbed “the Death Zone”, so named because the air is so thin at that altitude, that the human body actually begins to break down due to the lack of oxygen.

The creation of these camps takes several weeks, thanks to the slow process of moving all the equipment up the mountain, and the equally slow acclimatization process. Once the camps are ready however, the teams will then wait in BC for a weather window to open. They need to have several days of good weather to make a summit attempt, and it can sometimes take awhile for such a window to open. In the meantime, they sit, and wait, and hope that they can finally get underway. Many experienced climbers say that the boredom that stems from sitting, and waiting, is the hardest part of the climb.

When the opportunity does come, the teams will set out from base camp, moving up the mountain, one camp at a time, spending the night at each before continuing upwards the next day. When they reach Camp IV, they’ll rest and prepare for Summit Day, which begins at midnight, with the climbers setting off in the dark for the summit with the hopes of reaching their goal.

If they’re lucky, they’ll get to the highest point on the planet by mid-morning, but slower climbers will straggle up to the summit into the early afternoon. There is a cut off point in which guides will turn their teams around if they are taking too long however, as they don’t want to be caught above 26,000 feet, after dark, when high winds, sudden storms, and low oxygen can be deadly.

Upon reaching the summit, the climbers will spend just 10 or 20 minutes there, before turning back down. The experienced climbers know that the summit is just the halfway point, and you still need to descend safely for it to be a successful climb. Most will end up spending the night back at Camp IV before completing their descent the next day, arriving back in base camp, where it all started.

In a day or two, they’ll begin the long trek back down the Khumbu Valley to Lukla, hop a flight to Kathmandu where they’ll spend another few days, before at long last, they’ll turn for home. By this point it is usually late May or early June, nearly two months since they set out after their dream.