This is Chapter 3 in my latest book, Nine Lives – Expeditions to Everest. It covers a 6 man team who go into the central Rongbuk in the late monsoon, to attempt the Super or Japanese Couloir, which ascends directly up the right hand side of the North Face of Everest. It joins the Hornbein Couloir and finishes up that to the summit.
In the evening, we climbed up 330 feet (100 meters) of steep snow, pounded and furrowed into hard icy rows by multiple avalanches, which really should of told us something, and reached the bergschrund.
The bergschrund, formed by the glacier below pulling away from the Face above, was the line between the gentle, meandering glacial slopes and two miles of vertical ice crystals stacked above us all the way to the top of Everest.
There was a long stretch across the bergshrund, an unbalanced climbing move where one foot was far below, the ice tools were stretched out and sunk into the (hopefully) hard snow above.
The rear foot pushed and stretched down and the upper arms stretched up and everything is all out of shape and unbalanced. Then the other foot needs to be placed ever so high to clear the gap, the yawning chasm that is the glacier trying to get as far away from the Face as possible.
Then there is the moment of trust, when it is hoped the tools are solid in the snow above, the push from the lower leg will carry one far enough to get the other crampon stuck somewhere better than the powdery, sluffing snow at the lip of the gaping chasm, get a grip, so the body can be pulled up and over and onto the mountain itself.
Then there is the mind, knowing, saying, shouting; this is it then, this is when you go from horizontal to vertical, this is where you go from being in a place you can sit down and rest to a place you better hang on good and tight with every step you take. And with every step you take you will be going just a bit higher than the last, away from the safety and horizontal life below. But above is the top of the world, so off we go. We are climbers and this is what we do.
It was dark, but not pitch dark, it rarely being totally dark on Everest. Being a bit closer to the stars must help. They ride just over our shoulders.
The ‘our’ on this expedition was Mark Hesse, Harry Kent, Jay Smith and myself. We were headed up a route first pioneered by the Japanese, a single, slightly sweeping couloir that runs from the base of the North Face to the summit 9,850 feet (3,000 meters) higher.
It is perhaps the most elegant, the most simplistic and the most direct line on all of Everest. It finishes up the Hornbein Couloir, so you can add classic to the mix of superlatives. It is Everest after all, the mountain of superlatives. In this case perhaps well deserved.
Our idea was to climb at the tail end of the monsoon, when softer snow would allow us to climb directly up the couloir and on to the top in a single push, with a bit of a nap somewhere in between. We thought 40 or maybe 50 hours would do it. So stepping across the bergschrund to spend that long on the Face, carrying little more than daypacks, made that step over the bergschrund a bigger step for our brains than our boots.
Unlike many climbs on Everest, where you start out slowly, or wander up through an icefall, the North Face is absolutely abrupt. You are on the relative safety of the glacier, then you are on the face, where it is anything but safe. Much of the danger is not of your own doing, it is uncontrollable. Especially during the monsoon, it is simply a matter of deciding when to go, what level of risk you are going to accept, because it is never going to be anywhere near what you would call safe.
You watch the weather, you wait, then you go.
Speed and the cold of darkness are your only allies.
Up into the couloir we climbed, a line of headlamps, first person breaking trail, the rest following, swapping the lead like bike racers in a pelaton. This was Mark Hesse’s concept and we liked it – like a ‘Tour de Everest,’ all in a line, drafting up the mountain. We didn’t have ropes on, we were all climbers and climbers on Everest don’t fall.
Besides, it was more fun, more committing, more ‘Everest.’ Simple. Pure. Climbing.
Inside my down suit, I was soon sweating. A step, a moved ice axe, another step, repeat. Climbing third or fourth in the line up the steps was nice and solid. But in the lead it was slipping and punching and muttering as the snow moved and shifted and generally slid downhill. But being in front was being in front and all real climbers I know would much prefer to be in front.
Being second in line one lived in hope the step would hold, was consolidated, wouldn’t punch through into the step below. With the boots buried in the snow and the crampons sucking heat out of them, the toes were perpetually cold. Varying degrees of ice cubes were attached to the front of our feet. Too hot at the core, too cold at the toes, too windy on the face, breezes rustling the skin like raw sandpaper.
Was there any joy? Should there be joy on Everest? Is it even allowed?
Perhaps in the austerity, in the commitment, in the blackness, in the air of frosted crystal there was joy; being a part of the improbable and still being mostly in control.
Over our shoulders was the Tibetan plateau, glowing black with distant hill shadows. When we started we gained height rapidly, we felt good inside, we were 1,000 feet (304 meters) higher in just over an hour. Then we didn’t really get tired. Just slower, and slower and slower.
Somewhere in the depths of darkness before dawn I remember heading out to the side of the coloir, looking for harder snow. Knee deep was livable, climbable. Once it was up to our thighs it was just too much, swimming and pushing and slipping down as much as going up. Each of us had our own ideas on route, non of it was fast so we wandered about as the route steepened, looking for anything hard to sink our points into and keep moving.
The side of the coloir was a lot steeper, with the snow hiding miniature cliffs, steps of black rock that the front points clanked into and dully skidded off. The clank hurt the toes and bounced all the way up to the headache. And the steepness was like fall off and tumble to the bottom steepness. It wasn’t plummet steepness, it was roll and tumble and cartwheel steepness.
The fall would of gone on for a very long time and it wouldn’t kill you quickly, it would just start to break things and twist you all up and there would be a lot of pain and then you would roll out onto the glacier and lie there all alone and very lonely and then you would die in a little while. I had a friend that did that and I didn’t want to do that. So when my toes clunked, I moved very slowly. To the left, to the right, finding passage.
There is always a way up Everest, it is about unlocking the secrets.
On our varying paths, Jay Smith headed straight up and through, Harry wove off to my right, Mark coming up between us just below. We were unroped but were still climbing together, had a sense of each other. There was joy in that, in climbing with others who were good enough that there wasn’t hesitation, there wasn’t concern about abilities. Each of us was looking after ourselves and very capable of climbing through cliff bands at 3 A.M. at 22,000 feet (6,705 meters) and not get in trouble. At least not yet, not to start with.
Dawn took forever.
I’m talking about it now even though it is nowhere near coming. And maybe it was 4 A.M., maybe 4:03, maybe 4:05, because time is measured by sensation and movement and pain and thoughts in the brain, and all that is happening at a rate and pouring into the body so fast that in a minute the breath is coming and going and fogging the air, the wind is coming in around the ears with a whistle, the toes are numb, only how numb, a bit numb, not too numb, not get frostbite and freeze off numb.
And thoughts of warm sleeping bags and tents below. And moving the arms up and pushing down on the axes to provide just a bit of relief to all the twisting and pushing and turning of the leg muscles. Meanwhile the stomach is empty and a warm drink would be nice but only slushy water is at hand and that is inside the suit sloshing coldly against the chest in the water bottle. It should of stayed warmer but it didn’t.
All that thinking in the head means about 30 seconds have passed and another few steps have been taken and we are a foot closer to the top of Everest. Which is why now it is only 4:06 A.M. and the dawn begins to seem a dawn that may never arrive and the sun has just plain forgotten to wake up today.
Like slugs on a wall we creep foot by foot up and out of the coloir as it breaks into the upper slopes, our trail sliming out behind us, a dark line disappearing into the depths of the coloir below. The sun having been forgotten, having been given up on, finally colors the horizon purple, a deep, only in Tibet purple, with a glow as deep as a Tibetan monastery, a glow of the earth coming up out of the plateau. The sun hints for a long time though, its heat is imagined, but it fires a mental spark, a match inside the brain.
The wind goes funny, the breeze from the west gets excited in the dawn, it swirls and plays in different directions now, rushing up the Face before turning and dancing down. It circles and spins and is extra cold in its excitement. It could be all imagined but it happens in the Everest dawn, again and again, until dreams of breezes playing together become real on the mountain.
Now the slope slowly rolls back, it is not fall off and tumble to the bottom steep, it is big hill like, but the distance stretches like a sand dune, the snow deepens, it rolls through dips and piles into hidden drifts.
There are no rocks to clunk into, only wavering cliff bands that are slightly above us, or maybe way above us, or maybe forever, so long does it take to cross them.
Then the sun comes up like a great circus of light and the colors spin off over the horizon and the snow turns yellow and a hint of heat is actually detected, a thin wave of warmth in an ocean of cold.
The dawn is glorious and we are climbing Everest and the dark cold depths of the night wash away and drips of euphoria melt in.
A sip of slush, the clock rushing forward now, 8 – 9 – 10 AM. Now the day is here it starts to run away with itself. We move right, through some cliffs, left, over some more snowy rock steps. The climbing is actually fun, thinking is fun, having to put the points on a ledge and stand up. Probably wouldn’t go far if we fell, just tumble into the deep snow below. Maybe. So used to going up that now it is part of what we expect.
“How’s this,” asks Jay.
It is a less steep spot above a few cliff bands. It looks less steep but when I get there, it isn’t anywhere near flat, just a 30 degree slope instead of a 50 degree slope. Above it is steeper. And the snow runs quickly up into the base of the Hornbein Couloir. Below it is the same, and the cliffs we can sandwich ourselves between provide a sense of being somewhere.
It is good to feel like we are somewhere in the midst of so much sameness and snow and steepness rolling off below us. When the Australians climbed this section of the Face they called it White Limbo, though they were off to the left about a mile. A mile? Probably, this Face is so big it defies logic. We have climbed a mile up vertically, nearly a mile to go. A few miles wide. Right in the middle of Everest it seems.
Jay is chopping and scooping and stomping out a ledge. It isn’t a quick process. Down a few feet and over two is another slight indentation.
“Here we are,” says Harry, “start digging.”
The outer layer of snow brushes off, then a few kicks get me a few inches deeper. Then it is hard packed snow, like cement, and a chip here and there is all that happens. Looks like we won’t have much of a home here. It is very calm though, the wind dies, the hanging stove is anchored and melts some snow into tepid water which a tea bag turns brown and that is lunch.
5,000 feet (1,524 meters) of elevation gain, no sleep, a very small icy picnic bench aren’t conducive to eating much. Harry is at home though. I suspect he may actually be having fun, which makes me feel a bit the same.
It is a fun tempered by the immensity around us, the sense we have put ourselves in a position where success is hugely committing and escape is very hard.
Once the begschrund was crossed, every step was harder, taking us higher and putting us further from where any practical human would be. Simultaneously we were headed for the top of the world, the holy grail.
On the tiny ledge, we put our pads under us, added soup as a second course and sat with our legs dangling over the Face.
The view, the view is of the rest of the world and today, right now, it is singularly beautiful. Tibet is deep brown and purple with orange on the fringes and deep pinks in the valleys. There is no sign of humanity, it is the earth and only the earth, and we sit on the edge of it, cooling our heels, and move onto some mashed potatoes.
Jay is still digging, he will have a real ledge soon. Mark arrives, the last 1,000 feet (304 meters) a murderous slogging journey up to our picnic spot. He is moving slowly, saying little, but says he is okay. None of the rest of us are exactly a picture of lucidity though, so don’t really worry, not yet.
Everest tired is a different kind of tired, moving like a snail and not speaking full sentences is normal.
We have burned up over 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) in 10 hours and tonight we will climb an infinite number more to reach the summit, then come down and go home, having climbed Everest for our summer vacation.
We are climbers and knights and heros and nothing will stop us.
That is just how stupid altitude makes you.
Either you are one step out of the grave or stepping into heaven, and there is no in-between.
Cumulous clouds build up far out on the plateau, massing up and floating towards us, but still a long ways out, habituating a world that is not yet part of our concern. There isn’t much we can do about this.
We have waited nearly two months for what we feel should be the right weather, now we are halfway up Everest. We need to rest, drink, and when darkness settles, head for the top. The night climbing theory is it is cold at night, so climb at night and keep warm. And when it is warm, bask in the sun and rest.
So we while away the afternoon, and drink more tea, and dig a few more inches into the ice and call it a bed. Then we melt more snow and more snow and have some potatoes and cheese and pretend to lie down and pretend to sleep.
The light slides off the earth like a friend leaving. Above Harry and I, Jay and Mark settle into their sleeping bag. They rustle, they talk, they roll over, they try again. Harry and I have a final cup of tea and do the same.
A tent would not only protect us from the wind, it also forms an oh so important emotional barrier to the great outdoors. But tents are heavy, tents mean we would have to camp, tents are for slow-pokes. The list of things we don’t have on Everest is longer than what we do have, a real rarity.
Consequently we are experiencing the great outdoors in all its grandeur. We are having a wilderness experience in a very high place. It being the monsoon, we could well be the highest 4 People on Earth right now. Or we just may be completely crazy.
On a big climbing wall, we would be anchored into solid rock. Here there is nothing very solid to anchor to. And there is no way you want to climb inside a bivouac sack and a sleeping bag on a bed of hard ice on a two foot wide ledge occupied by two people without being anchored somehow. So we tie into a loop of short webbing and sink our ice axes and then try to sleep, but as one would expect it is not something that comes easily. But eventually the body gives up and we rest and doze.
The wind picks up, sweeping across the plateau and up the face, I go from half doze to half awake.
“My toes are cold,” says Harry, “mind if I warm them up?”
Real men warm their cold toes on other men’s stomachs. I slide my down suit apart and Harry slides his toes in, still in his socks gratefully. If it is saving toes or a cold stomach for 30 minutes, the latter is much preferred. It doesn’t really cool me off, Harry’s toes are soon warmer, we sip some water and go back to dozing. We’ll leave in an hour for the top.
In an hour the clouds that had been hovering out on the plains get bored with just sitting there. They come rushing across, over the foothills, blow up the face and it begins to snow. Light, dancing flakes, followed quickly by more and bigger flakes. Then monsterous, Everest size snowball size flakes start pouring out of the sky.
The darkness turns to white as the snow piles up, quicker than can be imagined, filling in behind our backs and pushing us forward on the ledge. It wasn’t actually a big ledge to start with, now it is shrinking rapidly into nothingness and returning the ledge to the mountain, forgetting that, in all due respect, it was to be our bed for the night.
Compounding this, we can hear from the upper ledge that Mark’s body is not happy with him. His breathing isn’t good, his head is hurting. Jay is looking after him but that doesn’t include a whole lot, the only way to feel better is to go down. If we were contemplating it before, the snow now seals our fate. There won’t be a move upwards in this.
Harry gives up on sleeping and decides the night hours are better spent on a snow cave and starts digging. I occasionally kick a lump or two of snow off the ledge to indicate I’m helping. Harry doesn’t really care if he has help, it just keeps him warm.
I warm his toes up for him again on my stomach. Maybe by now it is midnight. I’m remembering the last time, two years before on the Kangshung Face. That was a bivouac after over a week of climbing. This is one brutal night, then a day, and my reserves are just starting to be tapped. But the sense of isolation, of being a long way out, of no rope, no climbing gear, a huge snow slope, a snowstorm. Better to be just about anywhere else in the world right now.
We’ve lived a lifetime in the last 24 hours and have another to live before dawn. We don’t feel we can climb down in the dark in the snow, too easy to wander out over a hidden cliff and topple off. But the snow is still snowing, rivlets are coming down from above.
We are on the tallest mountain in the world, in the monsoon, on a face we have sat watching for days on end and we all know exactly what happens when it snows. It avalanches. Maybe not immediately, but inevitably. The North Face just doesn’t hold snow well.
The only consolation is when it does avalanche, they are the most magnificent, snow bombing calidascopes of avalanches, starting high up near the top and sweeping down the coloir with such force that if one does come there is no doubt about the outcome. I’ve never wanted to die in an avalanche, the tumbling and the violence and the air being sucked away in on the Kangshung Face was bad enough. But if there is going to be an avalanche now it will be absolutely grandiose and will catapult me straight to heaven. It will be so big it might send my body right along with it.
Somewhere towards dawn, Harry actually has a half decent snow cave dug. Just in time to stuff the bags back in the sacks, pack the stoves, just too much trouble to think about brewing up anything, and roll off the ledge, ice axes held briefly skyward, a glance into the heights of the Hornbein Couloir above, now wreathed in cloud and snow.
Then we head down. Before I go I wait for the others to leave. Like on the West Ridge Direct in 1985, when I came down from on high a day after all the others, I am in no rush to go.
The upward journey seems so incomplete without a summit and now there seems no reason to rush down. If the Face avalanches it avalanches. I look up into the depths of the Hornbein Couloir just above us. It snakes up through the black rock bands before twisting off out of sight. Above it the summit sits, eternal plume pluming from the top. It has completely stopped snowing and the clouds of the night are drifting off, only the occasional lonely snowflake drifts down.
We are climbing straight down in a single line to minimize any shearing on the snow.
We are both a second away from death in an avalanche and invincible at the same time. We will not slip, we will not fall, we will descend back down, to the land of the glacier and we will be safe. Or we may not.
Going down is quick, but after two nights without sleep, and very little to eat, and a bit of a camping trip out at nearly 8,000 meters, sometimes the body just doesn’t go the way I want it too. Feet start out going straight down into the steps. But any little catch of the crampon, any breaking of snow and I slide sideways and have to rebalance myself. It is oh so tiring and the body starts to cry and wimper and moan and complain.
Every time I look down it is a million miles to go. How can it be this far down a mountain we were little over half way up. “For gods sake, it must be the tallest mountain in the world or something.” And it is and there is nothing to do but keep going. Around is only snow and more snow, we are so minute, calling us ants would be optimistic, we are sand flys in the white.
Below me Jay steps down through the hidden cliff bands and drops into the apex of the couloir. If anything avalanches now, this is where it is all going to happen. We now have the big one hanging above us if the whole Face avalanches, and we could trigger something smaller right here but equally deadly that will drag us down to the bottom.
The only way down is to go straight down the center as fast as we can. Jay takes a few short glissades, decides he likes it and takes off. Harry procedes more cautiously, then takes it up as well. I slip and slide along behind them, reach Mark and go down just in front of him, back to walking. It is easy to get lured into glissades in the Himalayas, thinking your strength and reactions are the same, but I’m remembering the Kangshung and what a fool I was. Guess I learned something.
Then in a swoosh of snow and trailing a rooster tail, Mark goes past me. I can’t tell if he is in control, or losing it. He slows, speeds up, slows, then gains speed and disappears over a steeper section and is gone. No sound. I’m back to being alone on Everest. Descending. I do it one step at a time over and over again and soon catch up to Harry.
“Did you see Mark, he went past me going 100 mph, can you see him.” We can’t see anything, the couloir which looks so straightforward from below rolls and curves up the mountain when you are inside it. Below us we can just see Jay, he shouts something and takes off down the coloir after Mark.
Harry and I carry on at our own sedate pace, which is as fast as we can go and still keep our legs under us. If I had been thinking I’d been too conservative before not glissading, I’m now not going anywhere near putting my butt in the snow. Walking will do just fine. We go down for an hour and it doesn’t look like we have gotten any closer to the bottom. A second hour approaches and now we are in the steeper lower section, the final twist that leads out to the bergschrund.
Specks on the glacier come into view. One, then two. Both are moving around. It can only be Mark and Jay. Mark has slid the last 2,000 feet (610 meters) of the coloir, flew over the bergschrund and is now walking around on the glacier. It defies logic.
I count again, it being high altitude. One, then two, now three specks wandering around. Three, what is three, why are there three people? Has Mark split apart and there are two of him, plus Jay wandering around. Too high, too long. Too much snow on the brain.
It is still a long way down, Harry and I carry on, the thighs burning, down and down, the final section to the bergschrund steepening to the point I turn and face in for the final steep section down to the lip.
This is where the Everest soloist Roger Marshall got to on his descent, and fell and crashed and died after climbing high on the Face the day before. This is not the place to be tired, the bergschrund is like an ice climb in itself.
The final lip over the bergschrund and onto the glacier is a final huge lean back and step down to plant the outer boot far out on the slope. The ice tools release from the ice of Everest’s North Face and I am free. It isn’t the moon, but it is a small step from the mountain and a big step for the head.
The natural sense of self preservation, so strongly dialed up, slides away and only then is the past tension felt, with a relaxation of life flowing back in where managed fears had kept the mountain at bay and kept it from overruling the senses.
The avalanches above still threaten, anything coming down will still take us out as much as if we were on the face. But we don’t really care, we are feeling we have been up, we have come down, we won’t get hit now. We are right until we are wrong, and we won’t be proven wrong today.
Even the avalanche fan on Everest is huge, extending out from the Bergshrund and eventually merging into the upper Rongbuk Glacier, a miniature mountain unto itself. The going down part goes on and on. And this is only the tiny bit before what we climbed. I turn and look back up the couloir, its immensity following our transit now a reality, it’s nearly two miles (three kilomètres) of verticality stacked over our heads.
Who were we to even think we could climb this in one push. But over half-way in a day, if only it hadn’t snowed, and snowed, and snowed. Then I realize we are right now, today, probably the luckiest four men alive. Every other time it has snowed like this before the face has avalanched.
Now here we stand, looking up, wishing we had climbed a bit higher, not being thankful we got down at all. Climbers just climb and the goal of the climb is to get up. We didn’t get up, so going down doesn’t feel that good.
Our Doctor, Bill Hammell has skied up to meet us. The third person is explained. Mark is okay, he has broken his glasses, is shaken but his rapid descent has warded off the worst altitude symptoms. We work out he must have glissaded/rocketed/fell nearly 2,000 feet down the slope. And he broke his glasses.
We snap into our skis; no ropes, no harnesses, we ski off down the glacier, lighter than air.
The Face sits behind us, it avalanches the next day, rumbling, sweeping down, clearing the route.
We are already heading down from Base Camp, packing, leaving, looking over our shoulders at the reality of where we had lived so much in so brief a time.
A year of planning, nearly two months waiting, a day of climbing up, a night out, a day climbing down.
That’s Everest for you.
Nine Lives – Nine Expeditions to Everest
Chapter 1. Everest West Ridge Direct – Life is Intuition
Chapter 2. Everest Kangshung Face – Life is Now
Chapter 3. Everest North Face – Life is Dangerous