Alpine Ascents Everest Summit Day Recap
*Comments from Garrett Madison (lead guide) in blue
Our team of 6 climbers, 4 guides, & 10 climbing Sherpa (7 climbing & 3 support) had arrived at the South Col (Camp 4) on the afternoon of May 22. Our plan was to spend the night sleeping on supplemental oxygen and rest for most of the next day on supplemental oxygen until 8 PM, at which time we would get up and prepare to leave for the summit. Having over 24 hours to rest at the Sough Col before leaving for the summit means that you are much more rested and stronger for the final push to the top. Most teams choose to rest only a few hours at the South Col after arriving, and then leave for the summit that same day in the evening. It seems to me that these climbers are often more tired and have to push much harder to make it to the top, and are often very exhausted by the time they return to camp. Our strategy of resting 24+ hours on a generous flow of supplemental oxygen gave climbers the chance to completely recover from the strenuous push from Camp 3 on the Lhotse Face to Camp 4 at the South Col.
In addition to our guide staff our climbing Sherpa staff was present to assist climbers in every way possible during preparation at the South Col and throughout the climb to the top and back. You can't imagine how valuable it is to have a climbing Sherpa with you who has climbed to the top 10+ times under the direction of our leadership, in addition to your guide, it is truly a recipe for success. All of the climbers who made it to the South Col (and for that matter all who stuck around for our summit rotation) made it to the summit and in good style.
On May 23rd (by far the most crowded summit day) in the afternoon when many teams had climbed and were descending back to Camp 4, one climber from a less equipped team was very distressed (possibly suffering from severe HAPE) and was not able to descend. Fortunately a lead guide from another company who was also descending from the summit (Willie Benegas) took the initiative in dragging this climber down from the South Summit, and our Sirdar, Lakpa Rita Sherpa, climbed up to help him down from the Balcony to Camp 4. Unfortunately the distressed climber was not assisted by any climbing Sherpa from his own team, nor is own "team leader" who is also the owner of the company, and likely would have perished if not for the help of the other guides & Sherpa. As other climbers arrived back at the South Col that afternoon after making the top, quotations such as "this was the hardest day in my life" were abundant. Thankfully with the good weather that day everyone made it back to the South Col.
At 8 PM on May 23rd the Alpine Ascents team awoke from our afternoon nap and had a few hot drinks, filled our water bottles with hot water, and ate some dinner before setting off to climb to the summit. As we exited our tents to put on our harnesses & crampons we noticed that there was a fair amount of snow falling & some gusts of wind. Our weather forecast (we hire a professional forecaster to analyze the weather) had been calling for the 24th of May as the best day in that period for summit weather, and as we were preparing to leave camp we consulted with our forecaster and learned that a storm system had developed in the North (Tibet) and was engulfing the mountain, & would bring winds and precipitation over the next 1-3 days. If this weather continued and the jet stream returned over Everest as predicted, that would mean the end of the summit window. So we left the South Col and climbed up into winds & heavy snowfall knowing that this could be our only shot at the top before the weather effectively shut it down.
Just 1 hour out of camp as we approached the base of the triangular face we encountered an entire team that was descending. They had started out earlier than us & then decided that the weather was too harsh for a safe summit bid. This group of about a dozen climbers was with their guide and a few Sherpa, and thought the right decision was to turn around. As we continued upward towards the Balcony, I reflected on how with difficult weather there is little room for error at this elevation: Everyone's oxygen system, protective clothing (down suit, goggles, hand warmers in over mitts, etc) must be working properly in order to avoid frostbite, exhaustion, etc. The team must be very well organized with effective leadership. Our team climbed close together and communication between the guides & Sherpa on exactly how every climber was doing was monitored closely. When problems arose (and they always do), we dealt with them immediately & resolved the issue so that climbers could continue climbing without having to stop for long. We passed one climber with his personal Sherpa who was descending as we climbed the snow slopes up to the Balcony. By the time we reached the Balcony (about halfway from the South Col to the top), the precipitation had let up quite a bit, but the winds were still blowing 25-30 mph on the South East ridge, and blowing the new snow all around us. It was tough to see and a little intimidating to say the least, but our group continued to push onward.
Just after leaving that rest break we encountered 2 more climbers with their personal Sherpa who were also descending because of the difficult conditions. As an individual climbing in those conditions without the support of a large & well experienced team, I can sympathize with their decisions to turn back, they must have been wondering what will happen if conditions do not improve or worsen? You can imagine succumbing to exhaustion or frostbite while battling the winds, or missing a clip on the fixed lines and tumbling down the Kangshung face (our climbing Sherpa & guides check every single carabiner clip when you make a transition from one fixed line to the next). We decided to push on, knowing that if conditions did worsen we had the resources & manpower available to get everyone down safely and into the shelter at the South Col.
When we reached the top at 8: 30 AM the sky had cleared briefly and the wind & snow had let up, which is typical of mountain weather the first few hours after sunrise. We had a nice view down the summit ridge & could see the top of Lhotse in the distance, with clouds obscuring all else. The descent was uncomplicated and we arrived back in camp between noon & 1 PM. A few climbers from other teams made the top that day, however a significant portion turned back & "threw in the towel" on their summit bid. I know & have climbed with some of these climbers personally and think they could have reached the top if they had the support of a large group of experienced guides & climbing Sherpa by their side to assist in problem solving & encouragement when things got tough early that morning on the South East ridge of Everest. The large group that turned back only 1 hour from camp probably thought that it would be better not to risk climbing in unfavorable conditions. Our decision to push onward and continue to the top with all members was based on very experienced guides & Sherpas, ample resources, & spot on leadership & decision making. We knew that may very well be the only day remaining to make the summit. The following day some climbers did make the summit, however reported high winds & cold temperatures, that was the last summit day of the season for climbers on the South side of Everest.
Climbing Mt. Everest continues to be a very challenging endeavor, and to succeed in reaching the top, as well as return safely especially on a day with less than favorable weather conditions) requires having maximum resources available. I was proud to be part of a well equipped expedition that was able not only able to manage our own climbers needs throughout the expedition, but also to lend assistance in rescuing other climbers, setting the route and fixing the climbing ropes to the summit, as well as provide some gear and medical supplies to climbers from other expeditions when needed.Return to Top of Page