“When you go to the mountains, you see them and you admire them. In a sense, they give you a challenge, and you try to express that challenge by climbing them.” Sir Edmund Hillary
I went to see Steve Bell in England, one of the founders of Jagged Globe. After a morning of expedition talk about the upcoming 50th anniversary climb I was leading for them, we spent the afternoon on the gritstone cliffs outside of Sheffield. Then, naturally, onto a pub dinner.
“There is before Everest and after Everest you should know,” said Steve. “And it is different.”
Obviously he meant once you really summit, as my track record getting to the actual tip-top was then pretty mediocre, if not downright abyssmal. A mix of overzealous hard routes (2), no oxygen or support (most), attempted solos (2), winter solos (1), and at least one better left forgotten, were all in the mix.
Steve Bell had more confidence in me than I may have had in myself at the time, putting me in to lead a high profile team on the 50th anniversary of the first ascent, complete with a host of trekkers and a BBC film crew in tow.
Bringing up the “After Everest” part certainly meant he felt I would join that crowd one day.
I had always wanted the experience of climbing Everest. And then one day I could look back up, standing by myself, and know the route, the mountain, in its entirety, from the bottom to the top.
Like fully comprehending a painting, a song, or writing a book end to end. And standing on the top of the world, for a climber – what could be better than that?
Saying I had climbed Everest would always be fun, but far less important. I’d essentially been a climber since birth, I liked to go to the top of things. First trees, then rocks, then mountains.
This year on Everest the headlines are of post-covid, of perhaps a bit of quiet with less people registered, of mild trekking into a seemingly ever warming basecamp.
And always the money. Yes, Everest costs money, but life costs money, a challenge in itself. For Everest you just need to come up with a bit more of it.
And of course all the people on Everest, too many people.
Yet the experience of climbing Everest is still very singular, unmatched and unique to each of us, that once in a lifetime opportunity to touch the top of the world.
However you decide to climb Everest, be it an old route, a new route, or just any route, it is still an incredible experience. And it is a rare absolute in our ever changing world.
I’ve yet to have anyone come down from Everest and moan about the route, the sunrise, or how perhaps, technical difficulty aside, it just wasn’t that hard. Because it is hard, even after one, or two, or ten times. And I think it is more dangerous than ever up there. So you really have to want it.
Ed Webster returned from our Kangshung Face climb with a photo that he lost quite a few fingers for, now for sale as the Frostbite Sunrise. That does say something about the experience. Hard, life changing.
But also, as Peter Hillary presciently pointed out on our In Hillary’s Footsteps trek up to Base Camp, a good way to judge an experience, is being able to answer the question, “was it memorable.”
Because so much of life isn’t all that memorable, or it is just passing time.
Everest, good or bad, is certainly never indifferent. And I certainly haven’t met anyone without at least a few very vivid memories of their climb and of summit day – or night as it often happens to be.
When we climbed the Kangshung Face it was an intensity, day after day, right up until the final day, of loving the climbing and our route and our team. While also wondering, perhaps a bit too often, would we get out alive. Perhaps thoughts for my latest book, Nine Lives – Expeditions to Everest started there?
Over on the North side of Everest, still sadly closed in 2022, it is about those ever fading brown to pink to purple to orange sunsets, that you will never experience anywhere else in the world. All playing out while the wind incessantly sweeps off the plateau with indescribable volume.
On the South side of Everest, it is that memorable step out of the Icefall and into the Western CWM, into the Valley of Silence, (except for those rather loud avalanches), with the tallest mountain in the world hovering far above your left shoulder that will be ever unforgettable. You can look up and see people popping over the South Summit and imagine yourself already there. It is a good place to be.
So while the stories may be of rubbish, and the naysayers talk of money and crowds, having not climbed the peak, their perspective can only be that of a “Before Everest” climber. While the “After Everest” climber will know the experience can still at times be pure, simple and fun, with hopefully a magic day climbing along that incredible summit ridge to the top of the world.
A good summit day on Everest can be the most spectacular day you ever have. And it will most certainly be memorable, in any fashion.
And if you don’t like the thought lines, just try something new, there is still plenty of that. It will probably cost less money and you will be lucky to see any trash at all. If you meet someone, you will be happy to see them. You certainly won’t be standing in line.
Because it is good to be “Before Everest,” with all the anticipation, the expectations and the adventure ahead of you.
But it is even better being, still in this life and, “After Everest.”