The famous view of the summit ridge from just beyond the South Summit.
How much is a picture worth? A hundred dollars? Thousand? A life? A marriage?
Mount Everest has always been a draw. 'Because it's there', Mallory said and maybe he was right. It’s the highest and so the famous come: Bonnington, Messner, Krakauer, Boukreev. They need to test themselves against an absolute, perhaps; a goal that has become a cliché of the public consciousness; a goal that garners instant respect and likely also scorn.
'It's a selfish thing,' my wife said and she's undoubtedly right: months of training, lonely days on the trail while she was at home tending to the kids, the errands; the pulse of everyday living. She's there while I jet half way around the world, still working, ferrying the children to dance class, to robotics, to band; teaching our son to drive. Me, I'm up among the clouds, snaking through the seracs of the Icefall, listening to the rock, ice, and snow, avalanching relentlessly without reason. Some slides are harmless, far from the beaten path, others potentially deadly.
It’s a selfish thing, cavorting about when any second a calamity could overtake me and forever leave the children without a father. Two people die of strokes, one only in his thirties. Could one of them have been me? Probably, but they're not so I press on. Avalanches destroy Camp 1 then Camp 3. We're not there so it ends up being okay. Other tents are found and the expeditions press on.
The Sherpa are doing most of the work, carrying food, oxygen, opening the route, getting injured because they are the ones on the front lines. How much misfortune, how much death is acceptable to feed our vanity? Still, the high altitude Sherpa can become rich, famous, so no one seems to mind and the expeditions press on.
Sherpa on the S2 Mountaineering/Windhorse Expedition.
Is it even mountaineering, is it climbing, what currently is happening on Everest? Jumaring up fixed lines, climbers who've barely worn crampons let alone ascended rock in them? It's a dangerous carnival ride, a partner says and still we press on towards the summit, towards that tiny goal high in the sky. It’s a circus but with death near; rocks careening relentlessly past.
Summit day: May 19th; cold, clear, Lhotse now beneath our feet, Makalu in the distance somewhere in the direction of the rising sun. The Hillary Step - perhaps the most famous forty feet in mountaineering is before us. If only people knew how to edge with crampons. Long lines, waiting. There's going to be death later after the winds pick up and fatigue sets in, but now in the early morning the scene is filled with beauty and possibilities.
The summit. What is a picture worth? One thousand, ten thousand dollars? How many months off from work? It's not just a picture, though. It's a test, a trial, a life changing experience of terror and beauty. So much more than a few pixels on the memory card of a frosty camera.
It's over now and most of us made it back down alive. There are a few more widows, a smattering of kids now missing a parent but for most that isn't the case. We talked of making a comedy of an expedition. Will Farrell laughing his way up Everest but it might not be funny. What's more important a life or the summit?
It’s a selfish thing my wife has said and she's surely right. Now, having been there, having fulfilled a lifetime dream, I know that it was likely a swan song. The culmination of so many years of dreaming yet there are probably better uses of my time: my children, my wife, the students that I teach during my day job. Still, it was Mt. Everest and people will always come because it is.
Below, I have included some pictures of the experience to perhaps kindle an obsession. Be safe!
Women at Durbar Square. Kantega on the approach.
Taboche and Cholatse from near Lobuche. Yak leaving base camp. Massive avalanche sweeping out of the Western Cwm. Thirty tents in Camp 1 were destroyed but luckily there were no deaths. Pasang; a barely known legend of Everest whose been fixing the Icefall since the 1970's. Now a member of the Icefall Doctors who are such a help to so many. Puja ceremony before entering the Icefall on the way to the summit. Crossing a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall. In the Khumbu Icefall.
Camp 1 With Nupse behind, taken before the avalanche. Climbing the Lhotse Face. View of the Western Cwm from Camp 3 on the Lhotse Face. Pumori in the background. Long lines on the Lhotse Face, May 18th, 2012. Climbing above the South Col on the night of May 18/19th 2012. Nearly forty years of dreaming fulfilled. The summit with summit prayer flags reflected in my glasses and the plains of Tibet behind. View West From Everest Summit. Photo by Tom Burton. I took a panoramic video from the summit going in a nearly complete circle to capture the view in all of its majesty. That night I found out that my camera had been too cold and the video didn't work. The only stills that I took were of me and one accidental shot showing prayer flags draped over the summit by my feet. Anyways, Tom, one of my teammates, took a few beautiful shots, and was kind enough to allow this photo to be annotated and displayed on SummitPost. So many thanks to Big Lew for the amazing job that he's done naming all of these peaks! Lhotse from just below the summit with the South Summit visible below. Makalu from just below the summit. The Hillary Step as seen on the descent after waiting for an hour to get through the crowds. View down to the Balcony before the winds hit later in the day on the 19th of May, 2012. Everest from the South Col. The route follows the shallow gully up and right to the level spot on the ridge, the Balcony, then left to the South Summit, then back to the true summit. Once again, thanks to Big Lew for his spectacular annotation of this picture. At this point of the climb, I just wanted to get down, not admire the amazing peaks before our eyes. Forests near Tengboche: smells and the sound of birds after 2 months in the heights.
Now I'm back and can only thank Jeff, Tom, and Will, my teammates. Thank Dorjee and all of the Sherpa who gave so much; the Icefall Doctors and the people of Nepal. Thank Julie, my wife, and the kids; my colleagues who picked up the slack when I was gone.
Further Annotated Photographs
After posting this trip report, I got a note from Big Lew (Isheen) asking me whether it would be okay to annotate some pictures from the trip. Interested, we corresponded of a bit and he created some amazing pictures as a result. I have incorporated two of the photos above. I didn't want to fundamentally change the nature of my report, but am thrilled by the added dimension that his work has added. I see these photos as a potential resourse for anyone interested in the highest place on Earth. As a result, I am posting additional photos from this collaboration below. Please enjoy Isheen's fabulous work!
Khumbu peaks beyond the ridge of Nuptse from above the Hillary Step on Everest; May 19, 2012.