One of the first questions often asked about climbing Everest is, how fit do you really need to be?
So you trek up to (or helicopter into) Base Camp, hopefully still filling relatively fit and strong, knowing the real challenge is just starting.
You get a day or two of rest, then you walk across Camp and reach the base of the Khumbu Icefall. You do this in darkness as the icefall is colder and less likely to move.
You think about this, but it won’t really be real for you yet. And it is pitch dark, your life is subsumed into the beam of your headlamp.
You look up and think this is it, this is where I will learn if I am fit enough, if I can really climb the tallest mountain on Earth.
But the Khumbu Icefall, which certainly rewards good crampon technique, isn’t as much about fitness, as it is about fear.
Day one climbing on Everest you will go up the icefall a ways, marvel at the ice towers, teeter across a few ladders, and then come down, early hopefully, before it becomes blazing hot, the ice starts moving and the clouds come in.
Probably not so bad, unless you happen to fall off a ladder.
Your next sojourn into the Ice Fall takes you much of the way through the ice and up towards Camp 1.
Here the ice towers loom like skyscrapers and the crevasses disappear into unseen depths of darkness. A few things will have changed since your last climb. A tower or two will have fallen over, a ladder over a crevasse will have disappeared into a huge hole as the abyss below opens up.
It quickly becomes evident the icy trail you are following, is shifting and changing every minute. If you are unlucky enough to be atop or underneath something that moves, you will most likely just disappear.
Above you, the West Ridge looms, perpetually building and shedding snow with every storm. The ice towers here are building sized, perched just overhead and totally unpredictable – except for the simple knowledge that at some point they will certainly fall down. This happened in 2014 and 16 people were killed.
As you wander through the myriad maze of the icefall, your concerns about fitness fade and you have to decide if you want to climb this mountain bad enough to risk dying for it. It won’t be bravery that gets you through, but acceptance of fear and making a very conscious decision you are going to keep climbing anyway.
As you climb, you may as well enjoy the view, you are passing through a magical and stunning place, encased by ice, containing the snowflakes that fell ions ago far above you.
As David Breashears, Director of the 1996 Everest IMAX movie, commented to me once at Base Camp – “No climber would go through the Khumbu unless it got them to the top of Everest.” It is a risk level that would be pretty much unacceptable anywhere but on the way to the top of the world.
Deciding what your “risk tolerance” is, as Garrett Madison often describes it, is key to making a decision and climbing confidently or retreating back down the mountain. It is a decision ultimately made by everyone on just about any climb they do.
So climbers on Everest creep through the Khumbu icefall, they sleep at Camp 1, they hide or forget or bury or accept their fear, and move onto the heights. Or, as a man commented to me in Gorak Shep, the first village before Base Camp, who had been into the Ice Fall the day before, “Robert, it’s just not for me, I’m going home.” Self actualization is an underrated quality and all to rare some times.
So first you must conquer your fears.
Most teams require an ascent to Camp 3, at 7300 meters (23,950 feet)on the Lhotse Face, either a climb up for a leisurely lunch, or an overnight there. Even if you are now scampering through the icefall and sleeping decently at Camp 2, inevitably it seems, the Lhotse Face is what will really decide if you are fit enough.
Part of it is the start, which varies from year to year, but is often over an immense bergschrund, with gaping icy holes and vertical hanging ropes strung up onto the ice of the Lhotse Face. It is an easy place to quickly feel intimidated, surrounded by walls of ice 1,000 metres plus high. When you look over your shoulder, the summit of Everest looms in the plume behind you.
Early in the season the summit may well still be in the jet stream. If you choose not to look up, the roar above you is like a 100 freight trains going by, so you will still know it is there.
Once up on the Lhotse Face itself, depending on the weaving of the ropes over the ice, an occasional very steep section with brick hard ice is underfoot. Until good steps are kicked in, anyone with less than good crampon technique and a close relationship to all of their front points will struggle as they approach 7,000 meters.
The ice wears on your ankles, calves and thighs. Bodies gym trained but not ice trained discover there really wasn’t a machine to prepare them for this.
Oxygen thins and just as the slope lays back a bit and you can start moving, the morning cold turns to blazing sunshine. As you shed your down jacket the wind picks up, and for maybe 15 minutes you are comfortable.
Then the sun is followed by a blizzard. Everest starts becoming more Everest like.
Camp 3 can seem an eternity away, the last 100 mètres take some an hour. Arrival is often not so much measured in hours as in breaths. At Camp 3, tents are askew, sleeping platforms roll across the brick hard ice and you never want to step outside your tent without crampons on. Everyone hears the story of the climber who clambered out of his tent in down booties and slid off down the mountain.
However, the views, the heights, the clouds below you, are sublime. But the body is most likely very unhappy with what you have put it through. Focus on the sublime and keep breathing.
The thought that the summit is another two days away, of even longer and harder days ahead, may creep in. Are you really fit enough?
Was there any way to really train for this?
So once you get over your fears in the Icefall, it does help if you are really fit, and climbing fit, to get up Everest.
Though you can only get so strong, crampon technique can always be improved upon – it is potentially the single most important skill to hone on any big mountain to save energy and move quickly.
So you have moved through the fears of the icefall, you have proved you are fit on the Lhotse Face.
Finally, finally, it is time for the final assault.
Though assault may not seem quite the right word. Just sneaking up the peak and tagging the top may be more the state-of-mind. Just avoid thinking all you want to do is get it over with and get down.
There is a long, hard, and very dangerous way to go yet.
Your fear is conquered, fitness is verified.
Now it is simply back up one last time to reach the summit.
When you leave the South Col, in darkness, in wind, in cold, isolated inside your oxygen mask and bundled up like a spaceman, heading for the top of the world seems a very long ways away.
The pace is incredibly slow, oxygen makes you sound and feel like another creature.
Fear is long forgotten. Fitness is reduced to putting one foot in front of the other; just not that hard despite the fact it is painful.
If there is a line of people in front, behind, or both, there is little you can do to change pace. All that is left is a mantra, of, ‘I can do this. I can do this.’ And perhaps a gentle prod to move those slower than you aside.
Have faith in the fact you have conquered your fears, proved your fitness and now you just need to keep moving.
It is not about believing in a higher power, but believing in a higher place.
High altitude emotions tend to ride a rocket.
From feeling better than ever.
To seriously questioning the dangerous and ludicrous position you have put yourself in. Best to just keep moving in those moments.
Hopefully, with dawn, the day starts anew.
The summit ridge with its exciting climb over the Hillary Step, places you on the final spectacular ridge and soon the summit is all yours.
So what you really need to climb Everest is to first conquer your fears.
Then you have to be fit enough and skilled enough to balance your way up the Lhotse Face.
Then, finally, you must have faith in yourself to climb through the night and touch the top of the world.