The Ultimate Method for Risk Evaluation – The Sky, The Earth, The Team, Yourself. Or…Who Will Summit Everest and How to Decide to Go Up, Go Down, Or Just Go Home?

While Cyclone Tauktae departs the Everest area, Cyclone Yaas moves up from the Bay of Bengal and is headed North towards Nepal.

The vital weather window to reach the top of the world has now been squeezed into a few short days.

Looking out from Everest’s Hillary Step to the West. Cho Oyu center and Shishipangma on the horizon left. The view is even better when you have climbed them both too.

Over 150 people snuck through to the top earlier in May on the tail end of the rope fixers. Around the same number of climbers are holding out for this even shorter burst of hopefully good weather.

The decisions to go up are now highly emotional ones, and hard to step back from.

Time has been invested, money spent. It is for many an opportunity of a life time and some will literally let nothing stand in their way.

How do you decide to go up, go down, or go home?

The first, hardest and most difficult part is to step back emotionally, gain some perspective and break the decision into rational parts. Only then can a climber be more certain about going up or down.

The absolute essentials that must be evaluated, and in this order are:

The Sky
The Earth
Your Team

The Sky

All you really need to do is look up.

Everest is all about the weather. A climber may feel great, be heroic and ready for a perfect day.

But if the weather, and particularly Everest weather, isn’t ideal, they are going nowhere, and they may even need to descend.

The weather alone can easily shut you down. The challenge is it can be kind of ok, and trending better or worse. Then it is a harder decision. When the winds go up it is often clearer, but you can’t climb. Then the winds die down, and it starts to snow.

In between are the little windows of hope.

Keep this decision on the Sky seperate from the others and isolate it as an outside element that nothing can be done about – just knowledge, experience and judgement on what best to do in the conditions.

One-third of weather is the forecast. One-third is experience and intuition on the ground. And yes, one-third is still luck I think. Everest is just unpredictable.

Score for the sky and weather:

0 – for perfect weather,
1 – for OK,
2 – for kind of lousy or getting worse and
3 – for bad or forecast to be bad soon when you are on the mountain.

The Earth

Climbers have been going up and down on Everest to acclimatize. Some once, some a few times. They know the terrain and they should be well acclimatized.

As much as ‘flash’ expeditions are heralded as the new way to climb, those with less experience climbing higher on the route will be less ready to pace themselves. They don’t know the terrain and will have less confidence.

Knowing the route really helps, so if a climber has done multiple rotations up the icefall and on to the Lhotse Face, so much the better.

The terrain can change of course and if you summit and then a load of snow comes down, getting down the Lhotse Face is very scary, as it can avalanche. If it does you won’t be part of this earth for long.

khumbu icefall everest
In the Khumbu Icefall, Everest.

The Khumbu Icefall will also be breaking up the later in the season it gets. It is getting hotter by the day and the ropes will need frequent repairs, the crevasses will be opening further, the ice blocks tipping over more regularly.

Overall though, most climbers should feel pretty comfortable on the terrain, and moving quickly up and down is possible if you are acclimatized, fit and healthy. And as long as it doesn’t snow much.

Score the Earth and the Terrain:

0 – Everest is easier than I thought, the ropes are good, I can gallop up this thing.
1 – Everest is a bit harder than expected, it still tires me out.
2 – Everest is daunting and the climbing is hard work. If the snow comes in we will be in real trouble.
3 – Everest is just plain hard all the time, crampons are a pain, my pack heavy, oxygen troublesome, the slopes are steep and dangerous and I’m just not that confident.

Everest climbing should feel comfortable by now, climbers should, perhaps, be able to feel strong and enjoy it.

Anything less and mentally it will put a climber in a bad place.
Climbing just to say you have climbed Everest is a very unsafe idea.

Everest Kangshung Face, Stephen Venables, Paul Teare
Stephen Venables (left) and Paul Teare carefully apply their Kiehl’s sunscreen before setting off from Everest Base Camp. Photo: Joseph Blackburn

Your Team

Climbers are endlessly evaluating each other.

But more than that, the interactions between the guides, the Sherpas and the climbers is all important.

Those interactions build confidence, helps people feel like someone is looking out for them. In challenging situations, it can make the difference between wanting to go up and wanting or go down.

Most importantly, without a strong team you won’t be having much fun. Sad.

Why do climbers climb Everest anyway?

How to score the Team:

0 – My guide is awesome and makes the hard decisions I expect. I trust my Sherpa and think he trusts me. The team are people who would share their last cup of tea with me on the hill.
1 – My guide is competent and experienced, he is making good decisions. I think my Sherpa’s name is Lhakpa, or Passang? I have a few people here I enjoy climbing with.
2 – My guide is pretty good but I haven’t had much to do with them. There will be a Sherpa with me for the summit, I hope. A small group of my team are ok.
3 – I’m not sure I chose the right guide or team to climb with? I hope to have a Sherpa with my for the climb. My team is mostly out for themselves, we all just want to summit and go home.

Teams can make or break an Everest experience. With the super-egos of individual climbers, high profile guides, Sherpas with high expectations and fellow team members all planning for the summit, team spirit and decision making can sometimes be forgotten.

While an individual can go along and just be there to summit, much of the enjoyment will come from the leadership and group they are with. And it builds confidence to push a bit harder up higher where it becomes ever more important.

robert mads anderson, summit everest

Atop the top of the world. Not a bad place to be early on a Monday morning to start the working week. Photo: David Hamilton


Finally, a climber can think about themself. This is naturally what most climbers start their day thinking about, and then spend the long days in the tent considering it all yet again. The endless “how am I doing?”

In reality, it should be the last thing you think about. The challenge is, and most heightened specific to Everest, is there is an awful lot of “I” in the thinking and conversation, and very little “We.”
But if the elements don’t all align: with good weather in the Sky, terrain on the Earth a climber is confident on, and a supportive Team – climbers don’t need to think about themselves.

Because they really won’t matter – the first three things will have shut Everest down for them already.

Understanding that you are the least important part of getting to the top of Everest can be hard for anyone.

Especially for an Everest climber with so much on the line.

So how can you score yourself?
What is actually important as an individual climber?

0 – I feel great, the decisions made by the guides are the best we can have. I can climb this mountain, none of it is that hard, and I’m really looking forward to not only climbing to the top of the world, but perhaps even enjoying it and having a great experience.
1 – I’m feeling ok, but this is Everest and what should I expect? If my guide thinks I can do it, I can do it? It’s a pretty fun group and if the weather holds maybe I can make it, I’ll have to just try anyway.
2 – I’m not feeling that great about this, but it is Everest so I have to at least try. Everybody else is going and some are the same as me, so maybe I will make it. I’m not thinking about much else, that is the guides job.
3 – So maybe Everest is more than I expected, but I have managed to get to Camp 2 and that’s half way. Maybe my Sherpa and my guide can help me up the rest of the way? I have to do this, I told people I would and paid for it. I’m not coming back and this is it.

So what’s a good score, what should convince a climber to go up or down?

If you have no points at all added in, it probably isn’t a fair view of the challenges of Everest. But if the scoring gets a climber out of their own head, looking at the real concerns, beyond just thinking about themselves, perhaps it helps.

0 – 3: a climber should be fine, though if all 3 points are in one area, that’s a real concern.
4 – 7: evaluate what is an individual 2 or more, and know there is heightened danger.
8 – 10: consider that you are taking heightened risks across multiple areas, you better assume this is a very dangerous situation you are climbing into.
11 – 12: You should probably go down and go home while you still can.

If adding up your score overall gets you to 7, you may want to have another look at your attempt.

While the psychology of Everest climbers tends to be based on self-confidence, self-assertation, perseverance and control, Everest doesn’t have sympathy with any of those characteristics.

Looking at the Sky, the Earth, the Team and Yourself, does allow a climber to isolate the key factors. If you score highly, and thus poorly across the board, it is a clear warning sign.

Isolating the factors can also allow you to push harder. If weather is mediocre, but you are a climber with a strong team and an experienced guide and strong Sherpas, and you feel good, go quickly and make decisions as you go.

Looking over the top of Lhotse on the descent from the top of Everest.Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

The Sky, Earth, Team, Yourself can also be used to look at the real risks, in far more depth than, “it’s lousy weather” and “I’m not sure.”

As much as it is cautionary, it can be used to push harder. With a strong team of talented climbers, moving quickly, you can do things, even in foul weather and in very steep terrain, which can be incredibly challenging.

When we climbed our new route without oxygen on Everest Kangshung Face, by the end, the sky had fallen and the terrain was desperate. But as a team we were unconquerable and individually had a huge belief in ourselves.

Isolating the factors that drive decision making may help create more rational behavior and thus safer outcomes, always a good thing when faced with a decision to climb to the top of the world.

Guides can assist with experience, Sherpa’s can carry oxygen, team members will weigh in, but the final choice to go up or down the hill is still 100% your own.

Ultimately, every individual climber has to make the decision to go up, go down, or go home, and it is entirely their own decision.

Atop the Anderson Couloir, Everest North Face Solo. Photo:Nine Lives – Expeditions to Everest