Everest 2009 Report

1st April:, at Namche Bazaar in the Khumbu region. We had our first glimpse of Everest today, from afar, to the sounds of Queen in my iPod earphones. It was totally uplifting, and my spirits soared. We have walked for 2 days now, and are at Namche, the "capital" of the Sherpa's region.

We have a large group of climbers (26) with Himex, and a group of trekkers who are going as far as Base Camp. In addition we have 6 Western guides who are vastly experienced, and a brilliant team of sherpas for climbing and logistical support. The weather is balmy during the day, cloudy in the late afternoon, and pretty cold at night.





6th April: The trek into Everest Base Camp winds uphill and downhill through Sherpa villages.  The Sherpas (the word literally means Easterners) are Buddhists, originally from Tibet, now living in Nepal, a largely Hindu country, and they are accustomed to living at altitude. Whilst at the start of the trek in the hills are covered in Rhododendrons, trees, greenery, now at 4450 metres, the slopes are pretty barren. We have taken the trek slowly, so as to acclimatize gradually. There are a few things which stand out compared to my previous mountain experiences:

Firstly, almost everyone in the team is constantly and regularly updating blogs to the internet in realtime. So we will come to a stop for the day, and out come solar charging panels, PDAs, laptops, and  Satphones.  Most climbers have websites, and a range of info is being posted on the internet daily. So whilst I am in a remote location, where there are no roads, no electrical lines, I am not really “away from it all”.

The picture below shows the laptop and the BGAN satellite device perched on a rock wall at the Sherpa village of Khumjung.




Secondly, this is an incredibly well organized and sophisticated expedition. There is a serious focus on logistics, ensuring maximum comfort, nutrition, and convenience for the climbers.  The philosophy is that climbing Everest is tough enough, so one might as well give oneself the best possible chance.  We have a full-time expedition doctor monitoring us constantly, the food is plentiful and palatable, and the guides really are guides, not showing the way in the sense of where to walk, but rather guiding us with advice and monitoring our progress. Many are multiple Everest veterans.

In the picture below, one can see the summit of Everest in the top centre, just to the left of the whispy clouds.  The route to the summit at 8850 metres is underneath the whispy clouds, and the route curves upwards from right to left. The big mountain (seems higher, but isn’t) on the right is Lhotse, Everest’s nearest neighbour.


It’s all getting closer – we are two walking days from Everest Base Camp!



10th April:  We are finally at Everest Base Camp on the South Side.  The altitude is 5,300 metres and today is the first clear day after 4 days of intermittent snow. We could see the summit of Everest until about a half hour before Base Camp, that’s the view in the picture below, with the telltale plume off the summit. 




The next picture below is of the Himex (our operator) camp, to my right, all those are the logistics, dining, and sleeping tents. In the middle background one can see the legendary Khumbu ice fall, and the route goes through the top centre of the pic, between the two mountains.



Now we have to rest and regenerate.  This is so exciting and truly awesome.

13th April: The Puja ceremony marks the end of the Base Camp preparations by the Sherpas and climbers. A two-hour ceremony was held yesterday, in our camp, with Buddhist chanting, juniper smoke, food, drinks, dancing, and Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze to the backdrop of Mount Everest. Then group photos were taken. Until after the Puja no Sherpas would go onto the mountain proper, but now the timing is regarded as auspicious, and the preparations of higher camps can commence. The trekkers who had accompanied the climbers to BC have now left, and we have to focus on acclimatizing to higher altitudes, and mountain skills.




There has been quite a lot of altitude sickness, colds, and health adjustments, but this is pretty normal. We eat in three dining tents, and the food is pretty good. There’s tea and snacks at all hours. The toilet and ablution tents are hygienically kept, and there is always hot water and soap for washing hands. Staying healthy is the priority. We are about 15 minutes walk from the main Base Camp, in our own Himex Base Camp. There is a WhitePod, a dome-type structure in which we can watch DVD movies in the evenings.





21st April: We are back in Everest Base Camp after an exciting ascent of Lobuche Peak. The purpose of the climb was both to acclimatize to a higher altitude and to get high mountain technical experience. We trekked down from Everest Base Camp to Lobuche BC which is at 4,900 metres, slept there, and next morning climbed up to Camp One at 5,200 metres and slept on a rocky plateau. We woke at 4.15am, and after cooking a brief breakfast in the vestibule of the 2 person tent, started out at 5.30am up a snowy slope which steepened considerably. The climb from Camp One to the summit took me four and a half hours with spectacular views of the Khumbu Glacier, and the surrounding peaks.


The height of Lobuche’s summit is 6,120 metres, which makes it the 2nd highest mountain I have ever climbed! The summit day height gain was almost a thousand vertical metres, which is useful training, and there were fixed lines most of the way, placed by our Sherpa team.


Gilad-Stern-Lobuche1 Lobuche1


Gilad-Stern-Lobuche2 Lobuche2


Gilad-Stern-Lobuche3 Lobuche3


The view in the pic Lobuche3 shows me a few metres below the summit, on the final icy stretch


Gilad-Stern-Lobuche4 Lobuche4


Gilad-Stern-LobucheSummit Lobuche Summit


The final traverse to the top is quite spectacular, and in the picture LobucheSummit above, the actual summit is the snowy cornice facing left at the top of the pic. The route is from the lower right of the cornice to the crest on the upper left.


After summitting, we climbed down to Lobuche BC, spent a night there, and trekked back to Everest BC. The days are quite warm and the Khumbu ice fall has had some serac falls and is not yet considered safe to traverse.



22nd April: The focus is now on ice skills, and altitude acclimatization. For ice fall training we practiced on ladders in the glacier, and rehearsed abseil and jumar skills. I was a bit shaky on the ladder, and have to find the right space to set my crampons onto the ladder's rungs, whilst maintaining my balance. But practice will improve things!



Our next acclimatization stage will be to go back to Lobuche Peak, and this time ascend from Base Camp to the summit in one stage (missing out Camp One), and sleep in a tent on the summit ridge for one night. That’s the plan for the next few days.





27th April: Phew, that was challenging but satisfying! I am back at Base Camp, after the second ascent of Lobuche Peak, this time, direct from Base Camp (4,900 metres) to the summit (6,120 metres). We trekked down to Lobuche Base Camp, and slept there, getting up early in the morning, eating and drinking as much as one could put down, and setting out with backpacks with food and gear. For the climb, I wore my high altitude boots, crampons, harness, and had the jumar and ice axe in hand. My personal aim was to ascend to the top in one big push, in less time than I had previously taken in total, to get from bottom to top, in two stages over two days. I managed to do this.

The route was less snowy than just over a week previously, and more icy and rocky. I found it tiring, and at times, on the steep, icy parts, I moved quite slowly. Our tents were perched on a shelf which our Sherpas had dug out on the summit ridge.





The views were spectacular. As the sun set, we saw the magnificent peaks with a reddish hue, Everest, Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, Nuptse. But as the sun set it became pretty cold. We were two to a tent and had to melt snow and cook a meal in a bag, as well as brew lots of warm drinks to rehydrate. The experience was meant to familiarize ourselves with the independent camping routine which we will follow higher up.




At daybreak next morning we hastily packed up, and climbed down. The descent was icy and steep, and a good breakfast awaited us at the Himex camp at Lobuche BC. Then I trekked back up to Everest BC for lunch.

Now the preparations are done! The innovative strategy in our group has been to do 2 climbs of Lobuche Peak in order to acclimatize to a higher altitude and hone our snow and rope skills, as a substitute for 2 return trips up through the Khumbu ice fall. That’s effectively saving 4 crossings of the ice fall, as this is the objective danger on Everest’s southern route. Now that we have completed our Lobuche objectives, we will move onto the next stage: a crossing of the Khumbu ice fall, the Western Cwm, the Lhotse Face, and spending time at altitude at higher camps. This will likely be an extended trip (4 or 5 days), and is a prerequisite, compulsory prelude to the last stage of this endeavour: the actual ascent of the mountain.

It’s a month now since I left home, and we are getting into the business end of this climb. It’s scary, and exciting.



30th April: Tonight at 2am (in the early hours of Friday, May 1st) we plan to leave Base Camp on the ascent to Camp One (C1). We will step onto the Khumbu ice fall and make our way up to the Western Cwm at about 6,000 metres.

The picture below shows the layout of the camps.



Courtesy of www.alanarnette.com



1st May: THE ICE FALL CROSSING: We had an early breakfast (2.00am) at our Base Camp, and then hiked with our packs to “crampon point” at the entrance to the ice fall. At 3.30am we started up through the mangled blocks of ice and hanging “icebergs”. To give an idea of how tortuous the route is, it’s 700 vertical metres of a glacier which tumbles down at a speed of, maybe, about a metre a day. That’s a pretty slow “fall” and it’s as if the massive towers and blocks of ice are in suspended animation. They are named seracs, and range in size from 10 storey buildings, to the size of houses, to the size of a car. To give some idea of their weight – a “small” block of ice measuring 1 metre cubed (a metre on each side), weighs one ton – 1000 kilos! They hang perilously and awkwardly, and really can fall at any moment. They move less at night when the temperature is far below zero. But as it gets light – and especially when the sun hits the ice fall, the ice blocks resume their slow downwards momentum. To add to the dramas, there are massive hanging glaciers on the sides of the ice fall, on Everest’s west flank, and on Nuptse’s right flank, and blocks of these can also fall off without warning. So we try to cross the ice fall in the early hours of the morning – which is just as well, so that one can’t see how dangerous the route is! And there are also crevasses which have to be crossed by means of ladders placed in the ice fall by the “ice fall doctors”, Sherpas who maintain the chaotic route.




I was pretty nervous, and in fact, in the days before I had actually decided not to go through the ice fall, and then had reconsidered. My worry was that this seems to be a particularly warm season, and there have been a number of avalanches in the ice fall. So far nobody has been hurt, but deaths on this section of the route are not uncommon. It is the “objective danger” of the southern Everest route.

As I went up dawn broke, and the route became steeper, and more jumbled. It was hard going, and I was pretty tired, but the route through the ice fall is the only way to get into the strangely named “Western Cwm”, the valley leading the Everest, The route was pioneered by the Swiss in 1952, and then successfully used by the Hilary/Tenzing ascent of 1953. As soon as one reaches the top of the ice fall one is safe, in a broad ice plain. I emerged after six and a half hours of climbing. I felt jubilant and humbled by the experience. I thought of the description which Jacob used in Genesis, after his dream of a ladder linking heaven and earth. He said: This is surely the house of God, and this is “shaar hashamayim” – the gateway to heaven. I was so moved, relieved, and awe-struck.





I stood at the entrance to Western Cwm, with Lhotse, the 4th highest mountain in the world at the far end, (pic above) Everest on the left, finally at Camp 1.

It was unbelievably hot, as the Cwm is a massive bowl of reflecting ice and snow. But soon enough it clouded over and we began the task of collecting snow to cook and melt, and prepare food and drink.







I sat in the snow with the cooker between my feet.


2nd May: THE FOOT OF EVEREST: We woke early so as to walk the length of the Western Cwm before the sun hit it and temperatures rose to a typical 40 degrees Centigrade. The route is circuitous so as to avoid the deep crevasses.




It was bitterly cold, far colder than freezing. I tried to keep a steady pace as the whole height gain was no more than 400 vertical metres, and the slope pretty mild, but the cold was debilitating. My nose felt completely numb, my fingers (in gloves) like wood, no feeling. But then the sun hit us from over Everest and we started to cook! Gloves and hats came off, sunscreen and sunglasses on. What a contrast. In the picture below, the big black rock in the top centre is Everest! That’s before the sun hit the valley.




Camp 2 is on the moraine at the foot of Everest, on its Western slope. It also lies at the foot of the Lhotse Face, an ice slope leading up to Camp 3.

In the picture below, the summit of Everest is just beyond the top of the picture. Our mess tent is behind me.




It became cold before too long, and we had to put on down suits again. In the next picture, my tent is on the left, and the sunlit Lhotse in the background, the summit just below the whispy cloud.




The toilet facilities (below) are well, okay, but this is a pretty remote place!




The night was another cold one and everything seemed to freeze solid. But, we were sleeping at the foot of Everest, after all!



4th May: AVALANCHE!!!!: I can’t overstate how scared I have been of the ice fall, and the relief of arriving at Camp 1 safely a few days back, was tempered in my mind by the fear of the obligatory descent back to Everest Base Camp. I have been thinking actively of abandoning my Everest summit quest as I just can’t get my mind round the idea of having to traverse the ice fall again. I have sent a few emails discussing my anxieties. Simply put, I am dead scared of the ice fall. My health is good, I have no altitude sickness, I am having a great time, and the views are spectacular, the experience utterly unique. But the ice fall exercises my mind non-stop. The ice conditions are marginal; it’s been pretty warm, and whilst the statistics are in my favour, can I really rely on the “it won’t be me” strategy. I know that the chances are that there will be an avalanche in the ice fall, and that the chances are that it won’t be me who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. I know that the objective reality is that it is dangerous. The ice fall is not controllable, it’s not predictable. And I have been weighing up whether the summit of Everest is worth the personal risk, and tending towards packing it in! The thing that keeps going through my head is that it’s a warm year, and getting warmer as summer approaches and the ice fall melts more.

So as I was going down the ice fall this morning I was saying to myself, please God, get me out of this place safely today, and I will be so grateful to be out of danger, I don’t see myself coming back up here! This is the limit of my bravery. Now discretion must take the better of valour for me…..

We started out from Camp 2 at just after 7am, and made our way quickly to Camp 1. By 9am I was descending with the New Zealand guide Narly, and with Chris Jones, an Irish climber in our team. The first part of the ice fall went quickly as we tried not to dawdle. That meant, no stopping to take pictures, making the 30 or so ladder crossings efficiently and staying clipped to the fixed ropes. One should never, ever, unclip from the ropes! As we neared the relative safety of the last few ladders I took the picture below in which one can see a broken ladder below the operational ladder, and the deep, seemingly bottomless crevasse below.




It was about 10.30am, sunny now, and we were at the final ladder over a crevasse, on the down trip. Here’s what I recall: Chris was halfway across the ladder, Narly about to cross, and me two metres behind on the ice slope. We heard a loud explosive sound, somewhere between the sound of thunder and a massive “crack”. We knew well enough that it was an avalanche. Then time seemed suspended, and drawn out. I looked up and saw that a piece of serac from Everest’s west side had come loose high above us and was plummeting down with a trail of ice and snow, and who knows what debris in its wake. Chris crossed the ladder, Narly told me to stay where I was, and to go up the slope by a metre, to get away from the crevasse’s edge, and crouch down. At the same time he yelled into his radio to the Base Camp manager that we were being hit by an avalanche at the final ladder. (He explained to me afterwards that this is crucial – if we are to be buried by the avalanche, his training dictates that he should have indicated to rescuers where to search for us)

Narly crossed the ladder and hid with Chris below a piece of large drift of serac, but not before shouting to me that I should stay calm and be prepared to be “dusted”, by the avalanche. The “dust” refers to a cloudy airborne mix of snow and ice. I looked up and the avalanche cloud was approaching, time still elongated. At that stage I curled up on the ice slope, double clipped to the rope, and watched the cloud of snow, ice and debris billowing out towards me. The issue was – was the cloud just “dust”, or would we be hit by bigger blocks of ice, remembering that a small block – say the size of a stove, would weigh 1000 kilos. And ice blocks hitting our area would trigger further ice collapses round us. And we were perched on either side of a crevasse!

Then the cloud reached me and I was covered in snow and ice chips. It had been hot and I had only a light blue shirt on my upper body. I recall being very cold, iced over, and…. alive! Then the “dust” cloud slowly cleared.

I stood up, rushed across the ladder, and saw that Narly and Chris were fine. I recall asking Narly if he would take a photo of me covered in snow. He said, no, we had to move on immediately as an avalanche is often followed by a second, as the ice is loosened. So we moved on. I was feeling dumbstruck, numb, and elated to have escaped such jeopardy. Then, maybe a minute later, we heard the crack, the explosion, of another serac fall. We turned round and saw the avalanche heading towards us from the same place as before. Narly yelled to us: “Unclip from the ropes, and run as fast as you can!” We did that, careering down the ice slopes madly. But this avalanche was smaller, and did not reach us.




This picture was taken about 10 minutes later at the base of the ice fall.




This picture is of Chris and I as we reached crampon point, and safety.

We made our way back to our Base Camp, and told our story to the others who had watched the avalanche from a further distance. It’s hard to describe my feelings of deliverance and relief. About 10 minutes after walking into camp there was an avalanche behind us from Nuptse, and I took the picture below, in which one can see a bit of the avalanche cloud. It gives an idea, a small idea, and from relatively far. It was pretty scary to be in it!




Now I am back in Base Camp. Chris offered to buy me a beer! I settled for a Bitter Lemon, but our eyes met as we toasted each other. It’s good to be alive!



6th May: This is a series of pictures from the avalanche that I was in, taken by a team member who was standing below the ice fall. In the first picture one can see the avalanche after about 10 seconds. As the pictures progress, one can see the advancing cloud. I was inside the middle of that cloud!























8th May: DEATH IN THE ICE FALL, AND LIFE AFTER THE ICE FALL: Yesterday morning three climbers fell into a crevasse in the Khumbu ice fall, as an avalanche broke from the exact same serac as in “my” avalanche 4 days ago. I heard the report on the crackling walkie-talkie radio, and Lobsang, accompanying us, translated from Sherpa language: Two climbers were rescued, one injured, and the third was not recovered from the crevasse, and is dead. The ice fall has claimed yet another victim: a climber who likely set out, hoping: “Let it not be me.”

There is full coverage of this ice fall tragedy on a number or websites, but a good one which tracks things well is http://www.alanarnette.com/alan/everest2009.php

I’ve decided: I am not going to go up the icefall again. I have sat with this for a few days, and am thrilled to have had such an amazing and utterly privileged experience. But, I can’t stop looking at those pictures of the avalanche in which I found myself. My simple, down-to-earth reason for not continuing: I’m scared.



I have left Everest Base Camp, am trekking back down the Khumbu Valley, with a French climbing colleague from my team, who has decided that he cannot risk all by going through the ice fall again. He is 41, and has 3 kids. He said to me: “L’Everest restera un reve et ne sera pas un cauchemard pour mes enfants”. (Everest will remain a dream, rather than becoming a nightmare for my children)

My mood is excellent, and this has been one of the great trips of my life. I have climbed on the highest mountain on Earth. I have set foot in the Western Cwm, a valley at the heart of Everest Just think, no human being has ever set foot there without having either climbed up the ice fall, or crossed from Tibet (very, very few people have done this) over the summit of Everest itself!. A helicopter once landed in the Cwm, in 1996, to collect the injured Beck Weathers (Into Thin Air), but the pilot (the only person inside) did not get out. That helicopter rescue has never been repeated, it's too perilous. So I have set foot in a place which is special, demanded effort (it took me six and a half breathless hours going up), and I feel privileged.

I have glimpsed more than a person can ordinarily hope to see in a normal lifetime. I have climbed up and down that icy stairway, seemingly to heaven, across crevasses, surrounded by hanging seracs and glacial debris. I have slept in the bosom of the mother of all mountains. I have tried to tread carefully, and feel that I have had Amazing Grace, and now I must go down the mountain.



When I first failed to reach the summit of a big mountain (Aconcagua), I realized something obvious, but profound for me: If I go to the movies and buy a ticket, I am going to be seeing a movie. It’s really a sure thing. But, if I arrive at a mountain, with time allocated, air fares paid, equipment acquired, guides and tents, ropes and jumars, it’s still not a sure thing. The mountain is not a movie. Money, intent, desire, fitness, are not a guarantee, or a ticket. The mountain decides. It took me three trips to Aconcagua to finally get to its summit! And then, the mountain let me sneak up, with humility and reverence.

I have been occupied with this Everest venture for two full years. Last year, in 2008, we were booked to go on the northern route in order to avoid the ice fall danger, but the Chinese closed Tibet and we had to postpone to 2009, and switch to the southern route. I have had a fascinating and creative two years, pre-occupied by thoughts of Everest, preparations, and physical training.

There is a poem named Ithaka which I was introduced to just before I left for Nepal. It describes Ulysses’ epic journey, which had as its end-point, his home town of Ithaka. The poet, Cavafy, says that the destination is only one component of the journey:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey,
Without her you would not have set out.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

What next? Well, I am, thankfully, alive and well. I will continue to climb mountains. In fact, I already have a plan to climb in the very, very near future. Table Mountain awaits me.



25th May: POST SCRIPT ON EVEREST SPRING 2009: The Everest 2009 season is over.

My friends and climbing colleagues, John and Robbie have returned safely to Base Camp after summitting. In fact, most of our group summitted. So, I am both relieved that all went well, pleased that my mates reached the top of Everest, as well as feeling envious that others summitted, whilst I went home. I suppose I should have envisaged that when I left Base Camp after the avalanche.

I'm also pleased to have had the privilege of having participated in an Everest expedition, to have been healthy, inspired, and to have returned home safely.





I walked down the Khumbu Valley with my French colleague. The walk was cathartic. I felt the anxiety of the ice fall leaving my system, and I loved the rich oxygenated air filling my lungs as the altitude dropped. I felt a spring in my step, and had no doubts about my decision. We flew from Lukla to Kathmandu, and then I travelled home to Cape Town via Qatar. Back at home, I sorted cleaned, and packed away my altitude climbing gear, and jogged up the familiar Table Mountain.

I have watched events on Everest through the websites and blogs for the past two weeks: the weather got colder; then the weather forecasts predicted good weather; the teams readied themselves for the last push up the hill; they left a week ago; the weather held; many summitted; there were no further serious avalanches in the ice fall; my friends posted their summit pictures on the internet. The final death toll for Everest Spring 2009 seems to be 4 climbing deaths: the climber (husband, and father of 3) who died in the ice fall avalanche on May 7th; and 3 other climbers who died, it seems, of altitude-related causes.

There is a memorial field of chortens, stone platforms with plaques, a day's hike below Everest Base Camp. The memorial stone in the picture below caught my eye when I walked past, because of the Star of David - it's of a young Jewish explorer, who, I read on the internet, wandered off the track near Everest and was probably consumed by an avalanche. His body was never found. The one thing that all Everest climbers who die probably have in common, is that they never expected to die. Yet, climbers die each year. It's a sobering thought.





I'm thrilled for my team-mates who summitted, and a bit unsure about how I feel about myself. I suppose that John is right - he phoned me, and then wrote to me after his summit, and on hearing about my feelings of ambivalence: "You had sound reason to go home, if your mind is not 100% confident and committed to the climb, you are headed for disaster, so please don’t over-analyse your decision, it was a good one for you at that time." As I read that, it rings true to me. At the time, my thoughts were about the avalanche and not about the summit. My body felt strong; my physical state was fine, but my head wasn't right for the climb.

Some closing notes: I am proud of my South African climbing colleagues, John and Robbie, and the summit they worked for and achieved. We have climbed together lots over the past decade, and will surely meet again in the hills. I was thrilled with the enterprise and passion of Russel Brice owner of Himex, the Sherpas, guides, and supporting staff, and their superb organisation of the Everest expedition. My family have been very involved and supportive. My work colleagues at Eden Africa have held the show together admirably so that I could train for Everest, and take a long leave of absence. My friends supported me with belief, and concern.

Especially noteworthy and curious for me was the availability of internet, email, and website blogging. The nature of climbing has changed in this respect. Think about this: It's actually bizarre to lie huddled in one's sleeping bag in a tent at the foot of Everest, flip open a tiny laptop which has had its battery charged during the day by flexible solar panels, log onto the internet via satellite connection, download emails, and upload a report and pictures for the blog. That was part of my, and other climbers' daily routine. It's now probably more the rule than the exception. And it changes something fundamental about high-altitude mountaineering. One can share one's feelings, doubts, concerns, triumphs, daily with family and friends. Everest is still as high as it ever was, but it's now far less remote. I, personally, have enjoyed the communication, the blogging, and the emails I received and responded to, and am grateful to those who stayed in touch with me.

As of now, I think I will go back to Everest in the future, and try again, probably from the North (no ice fall!)