Vertiginous Highs and Deadly Lows on Everest 2024 – Triumphs, Tragedies and The Art of Waiting

While Kami Rita Sherpa and Kenton Cool set records this week, respectfully making their 29th and 18th successful ascents to the top of the world, others were far less fortunate.

Mongolian climbers Usukhjargal Tsedendamba and Purevsuren Lkhagvajav disappeared somewhere above the South Col, having made the bold move to climb without oxygen or Sherpa support.

Mongolian climbers Usukhjargal Tsedendamba and Purevsuren Lkhagvajav, who disappeared above the South Col on 12 May. Photo: Himalayan Times

While supported by 8K expeditions at Base Camp, the Mongolians did forego oxygen or Sherpa support up high, made an early season attempt when acclimatization may have still been insufficient and climbed when temperatures were still very cold, a combination that may have proved deadly.

Climbers may occasionally get lucky on Everest, but stacking up a host of challenges doesn’t often prove successful.

Success on Everest can more often be seen to be a result of what you don’t do, not what you do. The simplest things: choosing the right team and leadership, timing, acclimitazation and balancing perspectives is far more important than charging forward, tackling the impossible, when the alternative can be so finite.

Patience and simply waiting around aren’t often considered great sporting attributes – but on Everest those are exactly what may keep you safe.

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. And you soon realize it isn’t all about you.

Actually, very little about climbing Everest 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 already and are setting out again, this time for the summit.

And an expedition has gone from being what they can do, to what the mountain will now allow them to do.

With a weather forecast for a very gentle week ahead, with a mix of low wind and little precipitation, the season could hopefully be long and offer a range of timetables to summit in.

Those with patience could well see their strategies rewarded.

For many it is still 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 stay low, then of course the clouds and snow often rise up. In between you must sneak to the summit.

Everest, South Summit, Geneva Spur South Col
Everest South Summit with climbers just visible on the snow on the ridge. Lower climbers bottom left climbing over the Geneva Spur towards the South Col. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

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.

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 – I still think it is a great mix and listed them all below.

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 Base Camp 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.

The range of any good library – a few from the Somerset Maugham room at The Mandarin in Bangkok. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Just a few books that should grace your Everest library should you have skipped your English Literature 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 ever so 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.