Because we are there


Somehow I knew I would be back to try to climb Mt Everest this spring for my fifth attempt. 

I was at Base Camp on 18 April 2014 when an avalanche from the West Shoulder killed 16 high-altitude workers on the Khumbu Icefall. The next year I was sitting again at Base Camp, at 11:56 on 25 April 2015, when the Khumbu Glacier groaned and heaved below me. That time the sound was not from beneath, but above. The earthquake broke off a piece of Mt Pumori, which fell on Base Camp. The wave of snow and ice killed 16 Nepali porters and guides and two foreigners.

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Both years, expeditions were called off. I returned in 2017 but had to turn back due to bad weather. Then in 2018, incredibly, it was too hot to climb as the reflected sunlight turned the Western Cwm into a parabolic mirror. We passed a dead Russian climber at Camp 3 and tried to rescue a Nepali guide, but it was too late.

I knew that if I did not do it this time, I would never come back to Mt Everest. This year, I had a good feeling right from the start, as we improved our speed during rotations. However, we were worried right from Base Camp that although the numbers of climbers was more or less equal to previous years, everyone was moving up at the same time to make it in time for the same weather window.

There were queues on the icefall, and you could see hundreds of headlamps lighting up the ice blocks above and below us. More than 300 climbers, with their high altitude guides, all seemed to be moving up together as the weather, which had been unstable, suddenly cleared.  

We started the final ascent at 9:30PM and I managed to keep speed as night gave way to dawn over the blanket of clouds covering Tibet. Reaching the South Summit, I looked at the bumper-to-bumper traffic ahead on the summit ridge and told my partner: “Safety first. This is dangerous, we should head back.” 

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It looked horrific: people were going up and coming down at the same time along the same rope, along a knife-edge ridge, clipping and unclipping as they passed each other. I waited for our expedition leader Jamling Bhote for about 30 minutes, and seeing the rush had eased a bit we decided to give it a go. 

We climbed over the Hillary Step, and after another 30 minutes we were on the summit with two dozen or so other climbers. There was some euphoria but no wild rejoicing. I was just stunned to be there, with no possible higher point to reach. It was an enormous pleasure to take in the landscape — the Rongbuk Glacier below us, Mt Makalu in the distance.

To the west, I spotted the saddle on Ganesh, where I had once set foot, and beyond it the familiar shape of Manaslu. Incredibly, we were looking at mountains nearly 400km away, right across Nepal. 

Heading down we came across a dead American climber at the Hillary Step, who we heard later had suffered a heart attack. He was alone, a backpack covering his face. My goggles were frozen over, and I nearly tread on him as I slipped and injured myself when my crampons hit rock.  

It is hard to say if the deaths this year were due to the long waits above 8,000m. There are complex factors at work. For example, a Sherpa who fell on the Lhotse Face apparently had an epileptic attack just as he was changing his safety. 

The problem this year was not so much the overcrowding but inexperienced Indian and Chinese climbers holding everyone up. Many of them were on short ropes literally being dragged by their Nepali guides, even on semi-flat glacier sections. I saw an Indian client being slapped by a guide at the South Col. Another Indian man was collapsing one hour into the Khumbu Icefall. In stark contrast, members of the Indian Army team were skilled and extremely strong. 

Everyone who is on Mt Everest has made a conscious decision to be there. It is their choice. It becomes problematic when people do not do the right thing on the mountain, which ends up costing someone else’s life.  

Mountaineering is dangerous; you cannot make it 100% safe. We just try to move through a dangerous environment as safely as possible. Simple exhaustion is the number one cause of death up there. Fitness is a key element, but even the fit will die. Waiting at altitude can be a problem — that is why you need a reputable team that does not scrimp on oxygen. Everest is not easy. The Icefall and the Lhotse Face involve technical climbing at altitude. 

The Nepal government must work with mountaineering companies to ensure climbers have the requisite skill to be there. Certificates won’t work because they can be bought. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the climbers themselves. 

Nisha Bhote of Everequest Expeditions, who climbed with us, put it best: “To be on top was like a dream. But I also saw how easily it can become a nightmare.”   

Damien Francois is a climber and author of The Holy Mountains of Nepal. 
This was his 19th expedition in the Nepal Himalaya.

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