Ama Dablam, Everest, weather window

Is the hardest part about climbing Everest waiting to climb Everest?

We were on Cho Oyu, prepping for Everest, 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.

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. 

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.

It was the need to embrace, as one of our French team members said on Cho Oyu, ‘the beautiful uncertainty.’ It is embracing that ‘beautiful uncertainty’ that makes climbers so nervous right now as they wait their turn on Everest.

On Everest, you get up to Base Camp, you go high, you go down. Then it storms, lines form, you get sick, you get better. 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.

And Everest climbers tend to be very much about themselves, about control, about taking charge. On Everest, at this time of year, that just doesn’t happen.

Everest Weather Forecast
Our forecast in 2010. Reading these became second nature, a quick glance and all those lines made perfect sense. Then a bit of luck, being healthy, hoping everyone else isn’t thinking the same thing and on the same day. Our first group summited on the 19th that year, then on the 23rd.

Right now most teams have pretty well acclimatized, they have been high, and now go low.

The expedition has gone from being what you can do, to what the mountain will now allow you to do.

With the jet stream ripping across the top of the mountain, nobody is going anywhere high on the mountain right now, even the Sherpas.

Some leaders put a tentative date on the calendar. Some team members get on the phone home and say, ‘yes, soon.’

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.

Soon there will be the call to arms, the time is set. Then you wake up to a snowstorm. All the rope fixing, your carefully packed pack, the carefully timed return from the valley, goes out the window. Even the sound of the helicopters get impatient.

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.

Everest Base Camp
Everest Base Camp, the part it is hard to train for, the ‘beautiful uncertainty’ of it all.

Of course long time guides like Dave Hahn were masters of this – and probably the best chess player on the mountain as well. I remember wandering through Camp 2 once 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 our 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.

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 Lit. 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 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,  adding 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 of course 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.

On the north side, the gully and mini-mountains around camp provide a great chance to scamper up and down the hills of Tibet, keeping the lungs active and the legs in shape. Inevitably the waiting is still there, and a retreat to the tent, the favorite tunes and an afternoon nap with the Yak Bells ringing is called for, all in the name of more acclimatization.

Everest reading
Not a book on my reading list, the visuals perhaps a bit too prescient at the time?