Lessons from Shishipangma – how to pick your summit day on Everest

What’s the best way to pick your summit day on Everest?

There is of course the weather, with the detailed graphs and charts and personalized Sat. calls with experts like Michael Fagin or Marc De Kayser.  Marc spends his winters (the southern summer) with us in Antarctica honing his skills in some of the most inclement and changing conditions on Earth. He is also the fastest ice runner in Antarctica, but that is another story.

Then when you have the weather picture worked out, you can have a look at what conditions are like on the mountain – a foot of snow doesn’t make the slopes of the North Col or the Lhotse Face all that inviting. All pretty simple.

Then you factor in crowds, and how many people you want to be in front of or behind of – and try to lend a touch of control to the chaos.

You also get to decide how you feel – is it really your time and are you ready? On that front you don’t have many options. You go when the stars align, and you are not necessarily part of the equation, you will just need to climb.

Which is why you had better been spending your waiting time wisely. And when the alarm watch signals or your guide taps you on the shoulder, you just get ready and go. Not that you have probably slept anyway.

As much as you can put all the rationale to work for you with a plan to summit Everest, there is also another way – the behind the scenes decision making going on with your Sherpas, as I soon found out the first time I led an expedition to Shishipangma.

We were a week into our expedition, in the less than predictable post-monsoon season. Yet the weather was perfect.

We were up pre-dawn and climbing higher every day. In 10 days we had Camp 1 and 2 ready, with plans to skip 3. Weather reports were good. Gear was packed, food in place. I just felt the weather would never hold, I was impatient in the extreme – and probably driving everyone nuts with my daily insistence on forward and upward motion.

We weren’t using oxygen, so we were moving up quicker with less for our Sherpas to carry, and less for us to think about. There are quite a few advantages to not using oxygen if you have some altitude experience. It was Shishipangma after all, the lowest of the 8,000’rs, where extra air really is just cheating. I talked to my Sirdar – “when shall we go?”

Shishipangma, Himalayas, 8000 meter peak,
Shishipangma rising from the Tibetan plateau, an elegant pyramid of ice and snow. The route goes up the sunlit ridge just right of centre.

“Can I just use the Sat. phone?” he asked. A long phone call ensued.

“Ok, we wait another day,” he said. I reset the plan, the weather was cloudier, but ok.

Next day, another meeting with my Sirdar, “Here is what I think, now is good right? When shall we go?” I asked even more impatiently.

“Can I just use the Sat. phone?” he requested. Another long conversation on the phone.

Day three, same thing, “Heh lets go,” I say.

My Sirdar gets on the phone, it is 11 a.m.

“Ok” he says, “We go now.”  We have a big lunch, we pack up, we head up to Camp 1.

The next day we climb on to Camp 2. The weather is perfect. We sleep fast, get up at 2 a.m., are at Camp 3 on the ridge at sunrise.

The snow deepens, we have a small team, and only a few Sherpa’s. We are all taking turns breaking trail up the spectacular ridge. There are no ropes, no-one in front of us, no trail.

We are carefully choosing the route balanced between the snowy slopes leading off steeply left and the rocky ridge and cliffs to the right. It is a real tight walk between stable and unstable. It’s long and hard, with enough fun climbing to make it interesting. By 4:30 p.m. we summit. The weather is very stable, the team still strong, bright lights still shine in our eyes.

Yes, a bit late, but skies are clear and wind is low. The snow is deep, but we hug the ridge and stay off the slopes below. We have headlamps, what is there to worry about? We are tucked back into our sleeping bags in Camp 2 by 11 p.m.

Makalu, Everest, Cho Oyu
Makalu, left, Everest, center with plume, Cho Oyu, right. From the Pang La, Tibet

We wander back to Base Camp the next day, I’m walking with the Sirdar.

“All ok at home?” “Oh yes, he says. I thought all the phone calls were something family related in Kathmandu. I was curious.

“Do you want to use the Sat phone when we get back?”

“Oh yes,” he says, “I must call the Lama.”

“The Lama?”

“Yes,” my Sirdar says, “he picked the Lucky Day.”

So much for modern technology, digitized weather reports, high camp logistics and team acclimatisation.

Just climb 8,000 meter peaks on a Lama certified Lucky Day.

As told to Peter Hillary’s National Geographic group on their return from Tibet, Kathmandu, October, 2018. 

From an Expedition with Jagged Globe.