Clouds Brewing Above and Covid Below. What’s the Next Move on Everest?

On Everest, you get up to Base Camp, then you go higher, then you go down.

Then it storms, lines form when you revisit the icefall, you get sick, you get better, hopefully.

The sun comes out and the sun goes away. You soon realize it isn’t all about you.

Actually, very little of it is about you.

Everest, Lhotse, robert mads anderson, Tangboche Monastery
Everest, left, and Lhotse, right, from Tangboche Monastery.

Perhaps this year more than ever, being a climber means being able to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions.

Throw in a global pandemic and the added uncertainty of some, like Furtenbach Adventures, choosing to pack up and head down valley before summiting, and you have yet another major element in the mix.

Even heading down looks increasingly uncertain right now, with Kathmandu valley locked down, quarantines required and international flights cancelled until the end of May.

Over 150 climbers have already summited this year. For the nearly 300 remaining it is now a time to question why they didn’t go earlier in the season and get it over with.

Climbers are left to nervously watch the weather forecasts, with jet streams moving over the mountain and a cyclone moving up the coast of India and headed North. Will it be possible to squeeze in a quick summit and get down in time?

Wind maps – useful for paragliders and climbers alike – foretelling a lot happening over the next few days on the Indian Sub-continent. Orange and red are not the happy colors.

Or will the combination of weather challenges trap climbers in higher camps or back at Base Camp. Many have schedules that put them on or in the midst of their hoped for climb to the summit, a particularly hard time to change plans or abort.

While some stronger climbers may be up for another rotation up and down, time at altitude, high altitude emotions and stress and other teams leaving makes it doubly hard. After you are acclimatized on Everest, a quick rest and then a climb to the summit is ideal.

Any delays risks your nerves, getting weaker, and of course this year, getting Covid.

With the jet stream potentially headed for the top of the mountain, nobody is likely to climb high on the mountain right now.

Some leaders have put a tentative date on the calendar. Some team members get on the phone home and say, ‘yes, soon.’ Then they call back and say ‘maybe, later.’

It is all dreams though, with reality happening somewhere between a spring jet stream and a summer monsoon and those elusive few days when the top of the world opens up to human visitors. The winds must go down, then of course the clouds and snow rise up.

In between you must sneak to the summit.

For fit, healthy and confident climbers it is when you just have to give it all away: listen to the birds in the morning, eat a good lunch and enjoy the movie.

For some, this is the hardest part of the whole expedition, the waiting.

One year we got to go all the way to the South Col, then up in the dark to 8,300 meters just below the Balcony, where we walked into a huge blizzard. Then we retreated back to Camp 2 and another book, and then turned around a few days later and went all the way back up and onto the top. We were like super acclimatized, if just a little bit tired.

Heading up the Western CWM, Everest West Ridge on the left. A rare reverse plum blowing off the summit ridge

Of course long time guides like Dave Hahn were masters of waiting – and probably the best chess player on the mountain as well. I remember wandering through Camp 2 and Dave was sitting comfortably engrossed in a game. I knew it was simply time to go back to my tent and open another book – the weather just wasn’t going to get any better up high soon.

The days of libraries at Base Camp have been supplemented by devices, a Kindle with its seemingly never die battery still the option of choice. With a half decent WiFi signal at Base Camp, you can restock at will. And you can read the rumors, innuendo and opinions of half the rest of the world following your climb.

So Here is What to Do if you are stuck in Base Camp

Reading more Everest climbing books, about cold, wind and drama of the heights isn’t the best choice, you are already living that story.

On one expedition I foisted my best of the best from my English Literature degree on the Camp one year – I still think it is a good mix.

Just a few books that should grace the library should you have skipped your English Literature studies:

Lawrence’s; Women In Love, Shute’s; On the Beach, Maugham’s; Of Human Bondage, McEwan’s; Atonement and Conrad’s; Heart of Darkness are a good start.

For the long storms or waiting for the winds to drop, throw in War & Peace, add Romeo and Juliet into the mix for variety and then see if the altitude will allow you to get through Ulysses – or if just a bit much, go for Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, both by Joyce.

If the storm still rages, go for a bit of Sylvia Plath and throw in some Ted Hughes poetry to round out the happy family. If you thought you are in a dark place, this is darker and then you can crawl from your tent with a smile.

If Steinbeck’s East of Eden wasn’t forced upon you at a young age, now is the time. For perhaps the best of current U.S. fiction start with McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and then read through the rest of The Border Triology if weather allows. Avoid The Road, unless looking for a darker place than you may want to be.

By now you should be heading for the summit, but if not, revisit a few of the authors like Lawrence and Maugham, add Sons and Lovers to the mix along with the lesser known but excellent, The Razors Edge, conveniently set in a very warm place to keep the chill off.

These days there are also the movies and one year we had the full James Bond collection courtesy of Ruairidh and Foo – a great way to see the evolution of the genre – and if the weather looked really bad a double feature was always easy to justify.

Everest, Base Camp, bouldering
A great backdrop, and boulder problems from ankle saving easy, to some serious test pieces. The Everest plume still foretelling the winds on the heights in the background. Photo: Michael Phethean.

For activities on the South Side, the boulders on the way to Pumori Base camp will provide both a good workout and a stunning backdrop for a good session after breakfast.

Should you wish a reprieve from EBC, a quick hike down to Gorak Shep was one of Borge Ousland’s and I’s favourite pastimes. We’d run down the trail for a burger and beer at the Himalayan Hotel, providing that popular Staycation feel of the upper Khumbu. Admittedly we were about the only ones to count this as fun.
Learning to relax on mountains, particularly for those who do real training, can be exceedingly difficult.
We were preparing for Everest one year, on the slopes of Cho You, with a team including double Olympic Gold medalist Steve Williams and climbing partner Richard Parks – in preparation for his 737 attempt – climbing the 7 summits and reaching all three poles in 7 months.

After our rotations on Cho Oyu up to Camp 2 and down again, Steve asked me more about his training and what he could be doing for his upcoming Everest ascent? He had already outlined the training leading up to his gold medals – and what he had done for Cho Oyu.

It was a schedule and discipline level far beyond what I’d ever imagined – from timing, nutrition, training, mental discipline, along with team interactions and coordination. Physically both he and Richard, as they would prove the following year, were more than fit. Olympic training schedules for professional athletes are on a whole other level.

Shishipangma, Cho Oyu, Everest, Hillary Step
Shishipangma, far left, Cho Oyu, center left, from the base of the Hillary Step, Everest.

It was their need to untrain themselves from a schedule which was proving difficult. They had way too much discipline.

One needs to embrace, as one of our French team members said on Cho Oyu, ‘the beautiful uncertainty.’

It is embracing that ‘beautiful uncertainty’ that makes Everest climbers so nervous right now as they wait their turn on Everest.

Stephen Venables, Everest, Everest 2019, Everest Kangshung Face
There is always ice sculpture to while away the time at Base Camp. Stephen Venables passes by the Lady of the Lake, compliments of our photographer Joe Blackburn.