Project 314 Blog #13 – On top of the world (again) – part 1

May 31, 2023

Jake Meyer

Client Accounts' Director
Jake at the summit of Mount Everest

Saturday 20th May – Wednesday 24th May – Days 38-42

In 2005, only a few months after my 21st birthday, I spent over 2 months in Tibet (China) on the North side of Mt Everest. In the end, I managed to reach the summit on day 64 of the expedition, and in turn completed my quest for the 7 Summits – the highest point on each of the continents. It was an experience and achievement which would define my early adult life and solidify my self-identity.

For years afterwards, I carved out a career speaking about my experiences on Everest – sharing my experiences with audiences around the world. It is perhaps difficult to pin-point the actual juncture between the genuine memories and the inevitably storytelling, with the recollection becoming more of a distance drunken haze, supported only by photo chapter cards that I’ve seen a million times.

(go out and get motherlessly drunk every night…)

After the debacle on Kanchenjunga, basecamp became a place of despondency and melancholy. There were those who seemed almost happiest in their aimless autopsy of the summit attempt, those who couldn’t wait to leave and the remainder who sloshed around decision-making inertia.

I know that had Kanch been my only target, I would have been sucked into the same apathetic sluggishness – to throw the towel in and go home or to stick around for some sort of a second chance. You throw so much – physically, mentally and emotionally – into a summit attempt on a mountain like this, that even just the thought of having to go back up again can be enough to side-line even the most positive.

Thankfully though, I had a very worthwhile alternative step – and that of course was moving on to Everest and Lhotse. They say that a change is as good as a rest, and even though moving to another mountain(s) would be no less of a physical challenge, it did represent the psychological substitute that perhaps I needed.

Fortunately, Kristin and Lama (her Sherpa) were also headed back West to the Khumbu too, so from a logistical point of view, it made life much easier. Kristin was on a quest to re-break her own record of the fastest time to climb all 14x 8000m peaks. She had just broken the genuine record of a slightly more media-hyped (but factually inaccurate) achievement – and this time was aiming to do all 14 in around three months.

Jake with Kristin Harila
By piggy-backing onto her travel, that would get me over to Everest nice and quickly. I suspect that she was also quite appreciative of the company, on what was otherwise a rather lonely and transient experience she was having. It also helped that we’re both ambassadors for the same watch company – so part of the Bremont family – thus providing an instant connection of shared values.

It took us three helicopter rides to reach Lukla – the start point for most people’s experience of trekking in the Khumbu. There we waited in the ‘terminal’ for another ride up to Everest basecamp. The heliport was a hive of activity, with trekkers and climbers alike. There was no real distinction between them, other than perhaps their clothing. One Chinese climber was still wearing his down suit and high-altitude boots, having been flown directly from Camp 2 after a successful summit of Everest. He didn’t appear to have any specific injuries – so I suspect that his was an expensive flight of convenience, rather than an emergency evacuation.

As the hours passed, and the shadows lengthened, we began to become a little less confident about our chances of getting into basecamp that day. Kristin had been checking the weather reports, and we knew that the 24th was looking like the best possible summit day. To keep to her strict schedule, she needed to be hitting Everest on the morning of the 24th, and ideally bouncing straight onto Lhotse on that evening, so that she could get back down and then back to Kathmandu before the next mountain.

At the last possible moment, and practically as we were starting to look for a hotel for the night, we got the call that we were good to go. A swift 20 minute helo ride (piloted by the Italian climbing legend Simone Moro) got us up to Everest basecamp. Despite the patches of low cloud, he expertly flew us NAP of the earth, hugging the valleys, rock features and glacial moraine to the base of the Khumbu Icefall.

‘Basecamp’ hardly seems appropriate for the tented conurbation that we landed at. Given this year’s anniversary, I can’t help but wonder at what Hunt, Hillary et al would think at the modern-day Everest experience.

Firstly, the scale: the camp comprises of many hundreds of tents – from small personal dome and box tents to large kitchen and dining tents, and now more recently the huge spherical recreation tents – all of which stretching over around 1km along the rock and ice of the glacial moraine. Secondly, the amenities: my personal tent had electric lighting and power points, an insulated liner and a proper single mattress and pillow. The recreation tent was set up like a Starbucks, with barista, comfy chairs and tables and shelves of freshly baked cakes and snacks. In our dining tent, the table didn’t just have an array on condiments on it like we had on Kanch, but a fully stocked bar, with beer, gin, champagne – almost anything we might have wanted. A large flatscreen TV in the corner played the BBC world service.

Despite these comforts, we weren’t going to have much time to enjoy them, as due to our late arrival, we’d had to push our climbing schedule. We had a few hours sleep, then emerging bleary-eyed from our tents we met for a ‘breakfast’ of cheese omelettes at 0100 before departing at 0200.

As we were pre-acclimatised, our plan was to skip C1, and move straight to C2. Our reasoning for our early start wasn’t just the distance to be travelled, but also the fact that we would be moving through the Khumbu Icefall – one of the most dangerous sections of the entire climb – which had already claimed at least three lives this season.

The infamous icefall is (as the name suggests) a cascade of collapsing glacier which tumbles down from the Western Cwm – the sudden release of confinement causing it to split and splinter like broken meringue. During daylight hours, the warmth of the sun causes this environment to become even more unstable, hence the protective benefit of moving through it in the very early hours whilst it was still cold.

Lama, Kristin and I moved fast and efficiently through the icefall – our headlights illuminating only the most immediate section of the route. Whilst the route itself was easy to follow (marked with the ubiquitous fixed rope), it was a constant obstacle course of ice blocks, ramps, headwalls, and crevasse crossings. The mind boggled at the creativity (and no doubt trial-and-error) required by the ‘icefall-doctors’, the team tasked with fixing and maintaining the safest route through this intricate labyrinth of ice.

The most famous images of people climbing through the icefall are invariably of climbers crossing the crevasses using horizontally laid ladders. We did have to use a number of these – although thankfully, this year’s route made efficient use of them – and the majority were limited to not much more than 8ft (still too wide to jump!). Mostly, they were nicely secure, with taught ropes on either side providing a supportive handrail. Thankfully, with my big feet (size 11 boots) – my crampons are longer than each rung, providing me with a nice stable support as I gingerly make my way across the ladders. As well as the deaths from a serac-collapse triggered avalanche, we were well aware of a number of stories from just the last few days of people who had fallen into crevasses, so it paid not to become nonchalant about overcoming these obstacles, and always remaining clipped into one of the ropes with your safety line.

We made good time through the icefall, and after around three hours reached Camp 1 where we stopped for a brief cup of hot, sweet tea just as the Cwm was starting to become light. Because of the steep, high-sided valley we were in, it would be many hours before the sun itself would actually reach the foot of the basin, but we were very conscious that when it did, it would become a furnace – and uncomfortably hot to walk in.

The second stage of the trek from C1 to C2 wasn’t quite as higgledy-piggledy as the icefall, but involved winding our way across the shelf of the Western Cwm – tracing our route between the crevasses. Up ahead of us was the spine-like summit of Lhotse, to the left was the endless ridge of Nupste, and appearing gradually to the left was the imposing bulk of Mt Everest itself.

Jake and Kristin making their way through the KhumbuDespite having stood on its summit before, this is a view that is both alien and familiar at the same time. I’ve never seen it with my own eyes – and yet it is an image etched into my mind from photographs and media. It is like seeing a natural wonder or famous landmark for the first time – the Pyramids, Times Square, The Eiffel Tower – such a familiar image, but still so awesome in the flesh.
Seeing the South-Western flank of Everest was no different. Sometimes, the reality of a landmark can be a little under-whelming (Mt Rushmore anyone?) – but Everest certainly didn’t disappoint, and if anything, seemed much bigger and more imposing than expected. Perhaps when you know that you have to get up there under your own power, the sense of scale can seem a little more engulfing.

We made it into C2 (6400m) after only six hours – which was a new personal best for Kristin (her 4th time, and she moves fast!). By way of comparison, her cameraman Manish (who has summited Everest, and is an accomplished mountaineer) took 13 hours to get to C2. I don’t know whether it was adrenaline or excitement spurring us on, but we were flying!

C2 felt like basecamp on most other mountains. Plenty of tents, and large dining and kitchen tents as well. For most climbers, C2 acts as the main starting point for climbing on the mountain, and they would visit it several times on their rotations before making their final summit push.

We met with a few other climbers here – Americans Ben and Tyler, Anwar from Kuwait (who I’d met in Kathmandu – so was great to see him again), South African Tony, Ukrainian Toni (Antonia) and a fellow Brit and experienced mountain photographer/film-maker Sandro. They had all been on the mountain for five or six weeks and were getting ready to make their final push.

I was also introduced to my Sherpa – Fursang, who comes from a small village near Lukla. Whilst he looked older, Fursang was 36 and had climbed Everest eight times before, as well as several other 8000m peaks. Given my poor experience of my (frankly useless) Sherpa on Kanchenjunga, I was initially suspicious about who I’d be given, but any doubt was quickly dismissed, as I rapidly recognised that Fursang was everything that I would expect and desire from a Sherpa – strong, experienced, kind and completely focused on his client – all traits that I would see in abundance over the next few days.

After a few hours rest, Kristin, Lama, Fursang and I got together to discuss our plans. The 24th was still looking like a really good day to summit, however we were conscious that this would also be the main focus for a lot of people on the mountain. This year had seen a record number of permits issued to foreigners on Everest (440+), and with the accompanying Sherpas, this would mean a risk of overcrowding. Whilst there had already been an initial summit window, and several hundred people had summited, there were still lots of climbers chomping at the bit to have their chance to summit.

Looking at the weather reports, whilst the 23rd had more wind and a higher chance of snow, it was still possible, and in all likelihood would be a quieter day. But it was already the 21st May – this would mean that if we wanted to hit the 23rd, we’d have to skip a camp and push straight to C4 tomorrow… uh oh – was I starting to regret attaching myself to such an ambitious and strong climber?

Of course, I had no firm commitment to Kristin (and she certainly didn’t need me!) – however even in only three days I’d already formed a strong bond with her and Lama, and I was keen to try and keep up with them if I could. Something also made me feel that she was enjoying feeling like more of broader team, rather than it always just being her and Lama.

So, another alpine (early) start for all of us – alarm went off at 0130, and by the time we’d had some egg fried rice for breakfast and had filled our water bottles, we were heading back into the inky darkness by 0300. We had been able to see C3 perched inconceivably on the side of the Lhotse Face at 7100m – a collection of tiny dots on an otherwise immense sheer wall of snow which came all the way down from Lhotse to the Western Cwm. Now that I had Fursang with me, there wasn’t the requirement for us all to stick together in the same way that we had the previous day coming up through the icefall. As a result, Kristin and Lama soon got ahead of us, and I didn’t see them again properly until we reached C4.

The first part of the ‘day’ went well, and we reached C3 in good time – after only about 2.5 hours. Whilst it’s not completely required, it’s certainly not uncommon to see some climbers (non-Sherpa) using oxygen to move from C2-C3. I was feeling strong, so really didn’t feel the need for it. However most people (Sherpas included) do start using it from C3 to help with their push up to C4. To be honest, the Sherpas are usually carrying much heavier packs than their clients at this height, so I certainly don’t begrudge them the benefit of using O2 at this stage.

On Everest the first time round, I started using oxygen at 7500m. On K2, from about 7350m and on Kanchenjunga again 7300m. I was keen to see how far I could go before I really needed it, so didn’t automatically strap it on at C3. Nearly everyone else was using it, and Fursang had his on, and was encouraging me to put mine on – however stubbornness meant that I left it in my rucksack. I could really feel the altitude, and every step was hard work, however I was keeping up with the speed of those in front of me (who were using O2), and therefore was happy with how I was doing.

The route from C3 continued straight up the Lhotse face for several hundred meters, before traversing out left up and over a feature called the ‘Yellow Band’. It is so-called, as it is an obvious band of much lighter rock (almost yellow in colour) which really stands out against the whiteness of the snow and the darkness of the other rock on the mountain.

After crossing the Yellow Band, we continued up again, before traversing again towards another feature of dark slate called the Geneva Spur. This was named in recognition of the incredible Swiss effort to climb Everest in 1952 – which got incredibly close to the summit – and would have ‘claimed’ Everest at a Swiss success, rather than the eventual British/Commonwealth achievement that it became in 1953. As a rather nice nod to history, the Swiss were incredibly supportive to the British attempt including confirming what supplies they’d left at which camps on the mountain, which helped the British logistical effort the following year.

Climbing through the night through the Khumbu icefallJust before reaching the Geneva Spur, there is the high camp for Lhotse at around 7750/7800m. Whilst Lhotse can be climbed from the South Col (Camp 4), having this alternative high camp does make for a slightly more direct ascent of Lhotse – pushing almost 650m directly up into the central couloir.
By the time I was getting closer to the Lhotse High Camp, I was really feeling the altitude – heavy legs, heavy pack and extreme breathlessness. My personal desire to reach C4 without using Oxygen was rapidly diminishing, and I could also sense Fursang’s concern (or perhaps exasperation with my obstinacy). So at around 7800m, I finally gave in, and started on the O2. It was a personal no-O2 altitude record for me, and whilst it would have been nice to have dragged myself into C4 without it, I was really pleased to have reached as high as I did without it. I was getting quite a lot of surprised looks from other climbers (including Sherpas) up until this point – probably assuming that I was going for a completely O2-less (and therefore mad) ascent.

The South Col at 7900m is the shoulder between Everest and Lhotse. It’s barren and windswept – and pretty desolate – probably as close to being on the moon as it’s possible on this planet. The 30 or so tents seemed to be clinging on for dear life, as the wind sought to scour the ground itself. Collections of oxygen bottles stacked on the ground awaited teams preparing for their own summit attempts. There were several bodies lying in the snow – one which was from the previous day, still in all the brand new modern kit – fresh snow collecting around him; another sheltered next to a large rock had obviously been there for much longer.

We made our way over to our tent, where Kristin and Lama were already in residence. It was around 1300 – they’d been there since 1100 – having made really good time moving from C2-C4 in only eight hours. I think that previously, Kristin had taken over 10 hours total to cover the same distance, to more proof that she and Lama were on fire – and further evidence that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them on the summit push!

We snuggled into the tent – enjoying the respite that it gave us from the wind and the cold. We would be leaving for the summit at 8pm, so it was a case of spending the afternoon trying to rest and recuperate as best as possible. The two previous nights had offered extremely limited sleep – so we were already operating at the limits of tiredness… one more big push to go.

Having brought a fair amount of food to the high-camp, unsurprisingly I’d lost my appetite. I was well-aware that I needed to eat something, and yet all I wanted to do was cocoon myself in my sleeping bag and dose. I managed some ramen noodles and a cup of chicken soup, but that was about it. Once our thermos’ were full, we closed our eyes, enjoying the relative warmth of the tent and desperately trying to get some rest in the bank – knowing that the next 24 hours would offer no repose.

After what seemed like only a few minutes of uncomfortable rest, it was 1900 and time to start getting ready. I forced down another cup of soup and a few pieces of dried mango and then struggled back into my downsuit. For the previous 48 hours, I’d been suffering from incredibly painful intercostal muscles. Every time I tensed my stomach I was in agony – which of course made coughing (something I’d been suffering badly from for several weeks) absolute torture.

At times I even wondered if I’d broken or cracked some ribs – the pain was so unbearable, however there was no obvious bruising or discolouration to indicate anything that serious. I even worried that perhaps I’d suffered a pneumothorax (punctured lung – which I’ve had previously) – but fortunately there was nothing indicative of a pneumonic issue. My cough was one of those annoying dry tickly ones – so all I wanted to do was give a really good deep hack – but this just exacerbated the pain in my torso. All in all, not a lot of fun – and all rather concerning given what we were about to do. Dosing myself up on ibuprofen seemed to help a little bit…

Fursang and I left one hour before Kristin and Lama. There was no need for us all to leave at the same time, they’d only overtake us quickly, and ideally they’d time their departure so that they’d hit the summit just as it started to get light at around 0430.

The route to the summit is broadly split into three sections. The first section from C4 heads straight up a steep but steady long snow ramp to a point called the Balcony at about 8400m. There were a few lights ahead of us in the distance from people who’d started out earlier. It was cold and windy at this stage, with a surprising amount of snow and spindrift in the air .

I must admit that I really wasn’t feeling it at this stage – everything felt heavy, and every step was hard work. Several times we met climbers coming back down – retreating from their own attempts. I wasn’t sure if I felt good about these defeatists, or if I wanted to use their decision-making as justification for us turning back. I was so conscious that the following day (24th) was due to be much better weather – and that it would be so nice to go back to the tent to seek shelter.

Thankfully (as it turned out), I didn’t articulate my concerns to Fursang, and we kept pushing on – slowly and surely, ever gently upwards. I forced the constant mantra into my mind: “There is a finite number of steps to the top. Every step I take gets me closer”.

Jake carefully crossing ladders over a crevasseThere were other small groups above us – pairs, triplets or quads of climbers. The light from their headlamps signalled their progress, and on occasion gave us cause for satisfaction if we caught up with them. Of course, catching up with them was a double-edged sword – initially it would mean that we’d match their pace and that might give us some respite, but soon invariably that would become frustrating and we’d want to overtake. Overtaking in turn would require a significant shift in gear to create the speed and energy to do so successfully. It would require unclipping from the main rope and forging on up past those in front, usually through the powder snow on the side of the trail. Like watching snails racing, the speed of both parties would be minimal, but the increased effort required to overtake a group in front would be huge in comparison.

After about three hours we reached an area known as The Balcony at 8450m. Whilst there wasn’t anything obvious to see, it was from this point we’d then start climbing along a narrow ridge up towards the South Summit. The wind was really whipping up over the ridgeline and despite the use of the oxygen, I could feel my fingers starting to get cold, especially from whichever hand was controlling the jumar (ascender). I’d take turns in balling my fingers into a fist inside the palm of my glove, trying to coax whatever warmth I could from the blood flow. I’d decided not to wear large down mitts, as they severely limited any dexterity I might need to change over carabiners and safety lines, and run more risk of cold damage by having to remover my hands from them to do the manual tasks.

As we approached the South Summit (8750m), we saw some headlights coming towards us in the dark. It was Kristin and Lama – they’d already made it to the summit and were already returning back. It was nearing 0400, but it was still pitch-black – even the stars appeared camouflaged amongst the swirling fantasia of white sparks created by the lamp-light catching the spindrift in front of our faces.
As they reached us, I grasped out to Lama, fist-bumping him in congratulations for his (assumed) success. We embraced awkwardly in our suits of feathered armour and he mumbled his appreciation.

Kristin warned that whilst we were nearly at the South Summit, there was a little more wind up there, and along the ridge, and to be careful of the cold, and then equally congratulated us on our progress and near-achievement. The meeting was heart-felt but brief, and before we knew it, we were alone again on the side of the mountain, with their headlights rapidly descending beneath us, as they made their decent and way towards Lhotse – the second target of their day.

A few minutes later, and after several sharp rock sections, the steepness of the climb suddenly abated, and we were on the South Summit. From here, we would now be on the final summit ridge – running almost directly north for around 250m towards the true top of the world.

In 2019, whilst undertaking his record-breaking attempt to climb all 14x 8000m peaks in less than 7 months, Nims Purja took an infamous photograph which sent shockwaves around the world, and reinforced the clickbait media image of Everest’s overcrowding problem. It was view looking across from the South Summit showing the entire summit ridge as a queue of brightly-coloured climbers, patiently waiting their turn to stand on top of the world. It reinforced the negative stereotype of the Everest Experience and was/is every climber’s nightmare – both in terms of inconvenience, danger and risk.

However, for Fursang and me, nothing could have been more different from what we were about to experience. As we hit the South Summit, dawn’s gentle glow was starting to illuminate the Earth. The initial ebb of a pale light was starting to crystalise a world beyond that of the limit of our headtorches. And it was an empty world. There was no one ahead of us. Having overtaken the last group 30 minutes earlier – we had the entire summit ridge to ourselves.

It was utterly magical. My worst fear was to have to be trapped in a bottleneck of climbers on the summit ridge – burning daylight and oxygen and rapidly getting cold through inactivity. Overtaking on this treacherous ground would be almost impossible (and I’m much too British and polite to try and jump a queue!). But there was nothing in front of us save the purity of the snow and rock that defines the route.

Jake at the summit of Mount Everest with the British flagWe briefly sought shelter behind a large rock to change over our oxygen bottles, before starting to make our way along the ridgeline. Up ahead was the feature which I was aware of as ‘The Hillary Step’ – however the challenging steep snow-covered rock buttress, made most famous by the picture of Dougal Haston daringly swimming his way up in 1975, wasn’t nearly as imposing as one might have been led to imagine. This is partially due to it’s reformation following the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, which is said to have caused a section of this to collapse, leading to a much more pronounced ramp, rather than a buttress.

At the foot of the Hillary Step there was a body – likely several seasons old due to the extent of the snow coverage over it. It was the only obvious one that I saw up there, although I later found out that there was one which had become lodged down a crevasse that we stepped over, as well as several others which were lying just off the main path.

Even though the ridge was only a few hundred meters long, it still took us around 30 minutes to make our way slowly and steadily along it towards the true summit. There were several false summits to be surmounted on the way, however these did not provide the normal sense of frustration that they might have otherwise have done – they were purely obstacles to be crossed in pursuit of the end goal.
And then there it was. The obvious apex of snow, festooned in faded prayer flags and banners. The wind whipped the spindrift into a sun-lit halo overhead. The rope petered out a few meters from the summit, but somehow that didn’t matter and Fursang and I both happily unclipped from our safety line for the last few steps to the summit.

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Part 2 to follow, including the tortuous descent and Jake’s thoughts on the expedition as a whole. Read it here

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