We left the South Col at 8 pm, the wind at a low howl, the oxygen at a constant whispering stream, the crampons twisting and scraping, settling into a pace wrapped in down, encased in our shells, aiming for the Balcony 500 metres above.
A roll of permanent South Col ice cap led to the gradually increasing slope leading up the Triangular Face. Underneath, the crampons cut into the ice, the ascenders slid along the rope leading straight up the Face, from the left the wind streamed across, a roar, then dropping to nothing, then rising again. Overhead, the zillion stars we could see from Base Camp had expanded and set themselves down upon our shoulders and sprinkled the snow with light. Soon the moon came up, and headlamps were barely necessary, dim moon shadows of climbers stretching up the slope. Behind us, a long line of headlamps snaked out all the way to the South Col.
Snow led to steeper rock steps, passing anchors, a single piton driven up into a thin crack, a snow stake pounded flat into a groove, then a more reassuring bolt in the black slate. We crawled upwards, it was my fourth time up these slopes so I knew the rhythm, the distance, the endless dark, the minutes of movement, that stretched and stretched, only the painful ongoing upward movement, the hands now cold on the ascendor, the water freezing even in an inside pocket, ice clogging the mask, streams of smoky breath frosting the down suit and zippers until nothing opened, closed or worked the way it should in the world below. And the start and stop as the group moved, paused, stepped over cliff steps, wound around cliff bands.
On the right the ridge curved closer and we entered the long snow slope leading up to the Balcony, a few headlamps flickering further than the stars away but where we were meant to go high above us.
Just below the Balcony, Bunter turned around, heading down, illness draining him of the energy to continue. Everest was giving us one chance and at any other point Bunter would have happily climbed on up to the top with us. Tonight there was no question, and he made the wise decision to turn back to the South Col. Descending with Thundu, assisting him in passing the myriads of people below, he was back at the South Col by 3 a.m.
We changed oxygen bottles and I dropped the extra tank I’d carried up just in case we became thirsty for more air. We twisted regulators onto reassuringly full tanks and set off up the narrow ridge of snow above, twinkling headlamps drifting off to expansive drops on either side, the beams disappearing into the void. It had been six long endless uphill hours to the Balcony, now we faced an ever rising ridge, leading up to a series of rock steps, showing black against the sky above. Far away to the right across the Kangshung Face, two headlamps sparked seemingly in space – climbers ascending the North Ridge in Tibet.
With a few delicate steps, a lunge and a pull up on the ascender we cleared the short rock step and scrambled up steep fractured black rock onto the final long slope up to the South Summit. It was nearly dawn, nearly dawn, nearly dawn, as our bodies hovered between sleep, and consciousness, crampons cutting into the snow and an endless yellow striped blue rope leading upwards. Then the horizon tinged the darkest of grey and the silhouttes of Kanchenjunga and Makalu, the third and fifth highest mountains in the world, broke the line of light. Ever so slowly the light line went from black grey, to grey to a tinge of warming orange. There was no heat, only the first register of colour that signaled the night wouldn’t really go on forever.
Then the sun broke through, illuminating the earth and all the land below, very much far below us. An Everest dawn from the South Summit is singularly the best dawn ever, looking down on the whole world; Tibet shaded brown, then the high peaks catching the purple hue, the orange, then the red of the sun as we stand atop the earth and feel it turn towards the sun. To the West, Everest cast its shadow in the deep purple of the far horizon behind us.
At the South Summit we are perched atop a pinnacle of ice and the final ridge reveals itself, a sky cutting line of jagged ice and rock cliffs, towering cornices leaning out over Tibet, black rock cliffs dropping off and then disappearing into space into Nepal. We drop down into the notch below the South Summit, and scrape across the cliffs, rising and then falling in a long traverse to the base of the Hillary Step. Bridging between the rock and the ice, we move up, then step left onto tiny ledges, leading up and around the corner left, space below our feet, a few kilometres of the South West Face dropping straight to our tents at Camp 2.
We squeeze through a one legged slot at the top, clamber up some more loose rock held together with ice, put one crampon in Tibet, another in Nepal, then move back onto a long curving snow slope the snakes around a rocky promontory and then the prayer flags, the five colored wind horses waving in the snow above let us know we are finally, almost, nearly there.
The summit is a meter wide, five long, covered in prayer flags. To the North, Tibet extends, white ice encrusted mountains, then brown mountains and hills and plains. South East lies Kanchenjunga in the far distance, Makalu looms a perfect pink granite pyramid just in front of us, then the long jagged ridge leads up to Lhotse to the South.
We are far above all the world, there is no mistaking the dominance of Everest from its summit, it is not only geographically, but psycologically a dominant presence, standing atop it ones life is now divided into ‘before Everest’ and ‘after Everest,’ when the possibilities of what life offers, having looked down from the top of the world seem so much more expansive and hold so much more potential.
Tim and I take a few photos, but the sense of the summit is greater than the need to do simple earthly things and after 45 minutes we turn and head down the hill. Mike will arrive shortly, having climbed quickly up to the South Summit, adjusted crampons and cleared ice from his mask, then climbed along the summit ridge just behind us.
By early afternoon, we are all safely back at the South Col.
Summit day report from 23rd May, 2010
Summit Teams: Robert Anderson and Mingma Tsiring, ‘Bunter’ and Thundu, Mike and Pem, Tim and Dawa.
Robert M Anderson
with valuable high altitude editing by Bunter – thanks