Everest prep is in full flow for many climbers around the world, as countdown to the 2016 season continues. After two disastrous seasons, everyone is hoping for better fortunes in 2016. I won’t be going this year. Being out there during the two biggest disasters in the history of Everest in 2014 & 2015 has left its mark, so I need to take a breather. But for the 600+ climbers who will be making the journey, or indeed the thousands out there who are thinking about climbing Everest, here are some of the lessons learned from years thinking about, training for and attempting the highest peak on earth.
1. Choose your Expedition Company carefully
Don’t be blasé about this. Its your life and climbing Everest is dangerous stuff. So research the company you intend to go with, make sure they know what they are doing. There are many great companies offering expedition packages, but there are also a bunch of charlatans out there too. The key things to look out for are…
- Do they have a good reputation among folks who have climbed with them in the past.
- Do they treat their Sherpa and workers well – insurance, pay etc (hard to judge this).
- Do they insist on every guide and Sherpa carrying an avalanche beacon.
- How many times have their guides/Sherpas summited Everest in the past.
- Are they value for money – Its your hard earned funds, so make the assessment.
- Do they test/assess applications to make sure no jokers get accepted onto your team.
The last point is very important. If you are able to sign up without being asked for your climbing resume or being sufficiently grilled or even tested to ensure that you are ready for such an undertaking, then be very wary. If you have not been vetted, then it is likely other have not either, and you could end up with jokers in your team. I’ve seen some examples of this across seven continents – folks who seemed not too familiar with crampons, folks who never really slept in sleeping bags before!!! I kid you not. I’m no world expert by any means, but I do try to prepare fully for the task I am facing. So make sure you are signing up with a company who take this shit seriously and is not out to grab whatever money they can from fair weather clients. Its your life and your expedition.
2. Have Satellite Communication
During the 2015 earthquake, we were able to use a Sat phone to make contact with home from Base Camp and reassure our families we were OK while media reports of destruction were teaming onto their televisions from Nepal. Make sure you have a means of contact. There is some wifi in the Khumbu valley, and some at Base Camp, but it tends to be patchy and never works when the shit hits the fan, so have a plan for communication if something happens. Do not tell the Nepal Tourism Ministry about your Sat phone when you go through the dog-and-pony show for the permit you pay $11,000 for. They will charge you more money which never makes it back to the rural communities, so keep it in your bag and keep your mouth shut. There are also some nifty Sat trackers in the market from Delorme and others. This will help folks who come to find you if something goes wrong.
One of the lessons from the 2014 disaster was to ensure that climbers and Sherpa all carry avalanche beacons to help the rescue and recovery process. Many folks evangelized about this post the 2014 disaster and then promptly ignored it in 2015. Learn the lessons from the past and make sure you have a beacon in case something happens. The Khumbu Icefall is one of the craziest places on planet Earth, and is prone to avalanche, as is Camp 1 and other areas of the climb. Do the math and conclude that you need to be smart and have one with you.
3. Try to go Tech Lite
On my first season on Everest I decided to bring an iPad, laptop, multiple cameras, phone – the works. I heavily regretted it and for my second season on Everest in 2015 I scaled down to just a smartphone and GoPro. This has the added advantage of improving your chances of being ready on time each day, but also decreases your stress levels. If I had a dollar for everyone I saw along the way who was huffing and puffing about the lack of wifi or the shitty connection in Dingboche that was driving their blood pressure higher than the altitude was causing it to be, I would probably be able to afford to go back to Everest myself. So less is more when it comes to technology. Blogging is great, it brings the world closer to the Everest experience, so if you do it choose a tech lite option and try not to be one of those stressed irate people giving out stink that the signal in Gorek Shep is shite, you are in the mountains… relax!
4. Be wary of companies who mix trekkers with climbers
This is my personal viewpoint which not everyone agrees with. Folks climbing Everest invest over 30 times more in their expedition than trekkers invest in reaching Base Camp. Climbers spend 2 years solidly training and preparing everything from their physiology, altitude adaptation, gear management, strengthening their immunity etc. and adjust every aspect of their lives to be able to have a shot at climbing the mountain. They are meticulous about hygiene and staying strong during a 60 day expedition where uniquely the first 20 days is spent in a busy trekking valley with tea houses and villages. Trekkers to Base Camp have a 2-week goal with different stakes (thats fine, thats what they signed up for), but they don’t have the same militant attitude to wellness and hygiene even though their immune system and that of the climbers are often equally susceptible to the sorts of infections you meet along the trekking route. Thats not a slight on Trekkers, I trek regularly and love it, but the world of EBC trekking and high altitude mountaineering are very different. Last year I met a climber who was part of a well known western outfit who mixed their climbers with trekkers, and he became sick because one of the trekkers had become ill. He was so angry about it he could hardly speak. Someone who didn’t have the same stakes as he did, put his 2-year goal at risk all because the expedition outfit wanted to kill two birds with one stone and mix trekkers with climbers. In no other walk of life would you allow years of preparation and investment to be haphazardly degraded by merging with folks on a completely different mission to yours. Infections early on in the mission will only get worse as you rise in altitude and will threaten your mission. If you are joining a company to climb Everest with, make sure they are focussed on Everest, not on some hybrid trek option where the focus is not solely on the goal you investing in.
5. Hygiene is King
Nepal is a very beautiful country with great people. However it is not all clean and the first two weeks of the Everest expedition is unique in that it treks through villages in a dusty, dirty, highly populated trekking route, exposing folks to infection which many succumb to en route to Base Camp. Kathmandu itself is objectively filthy and the Khumbu valley route has so much footfall that it becomes packed full of Yaks transporting goods between villages and to EBC. The Yak dung ends up being thrown about the place in microscopic dust particles on the trekking route and gets into your lungs. This can lead to the dreaded ‘Khumbu Cough’ which can be impossible to shake as you gain altitude. So you need to wear a buff from the moment you land at Kathmandu airport until the moment you get into the Khumbu icefall. The world between Kathmandu and EBC is rife with infection, from food poisoning to Yak dung particles, to paper money and peoples hands. Leave the Kathmandu sightseeing until after your mission. Bring lots of purell with you and use it as if you were Howard Hughes. If someone comes into your camp to visit, don’t let them open their mouth until they have introduced themselves to the large container of purell. I know what you are thinking… ‘this sounds like first world nonsense’. Well maybe you are right, but I grew up on a farm, fell into a slurry pit when I was a kid and was pretty immune to lots of stuff by the time I became an adult. But i’m not immune to infection in Kathmandu, and am not immune to the spread of bacteria on a 60 day mission in the tea houses and villages in the Khumbu. So choose to have less piety and more of a plan for hygiene and stick to it religiously. Hygiene is key to staying healthy – there is no shame in it.
6. Bring Fruit and Vegetable supplement
The food at Base Camp will generally be good as it has been transported there in advance on Yaks and will include protein, vegetables, carbs etc. However for the 20 days until you reach Base Camp you will likely be wandering in and out of Tea Houses eating the local food from the Khumbu Valley. Look around you in those villages – if you don’t see rivers don’t eat fish. If you don’t see lots of beasts in the fields, don’t eat meat. I tended to eat lots of eggs (protein) because I could see lots of hens, and potatoes (Carbs + I’m Irish) because I could see fields of potatoes. I always have garlic soup because it helps ward off any gut infections which might be trying to edge their way in. However fruit and veg is rare and you will very soon miss their benefits. So find a great fruit and veg supplement. I used JuicePlus (ground fruit and veg in capsule form), but each to their own. Its a long expedition, so you need to give your body the best chance of staying strong, so think about your nutrition, make sure you know what foods you will be having, and supplement for whatever will be missing from your diet. In addition always have energy snacks of your own stashed and available. You will burn up to 6000 calories a day in the high mountain and lose up to 12kg on the mission, so make sure you have lots of energy and nutrition around you.
7. Study your itinerary and know it backwards
I continue to be amazed by how little some climbers know of their itinerary. Some folks seem willing to fork out a house deposit to just take it one day at a time and do whatever the guide tells them is next on some blind agenda. Bullshit. Get your itinerary early (most decent companies will have it packaged and ready for you by now) and study the hell out of it. Get Google Maps and YouTube videos and study what each day looks like and is likely to feel like. Understand why the itinerary is structured the way it is (acclimatizing and rest periods etc.) and be comfortable it is a good fit for you before you sign up. In 2015 I was presented with an itinerary which was not logical. It has been constructed to enable trekkers to get the most out of two weeks, so the pace of the first 15 days were crazy and would have lead to serious and unnecessary degradation for the folks sticking around for the longer mission. I challenged it and got together with the expedition owner and a number of other incredibly well respected expedition leads to revise it to something that made more sense. This involved changes to help stay out of the Khumbu Icefall as much as possible having been on Everest during the 2014 disaster in the Icefall. If a company is not showing signs of learning and embedding lessons from major disasters of the last couple of years, and cannot stand over the validity of their itinerary when challenged, then they are not the company for you. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that climbers should wholesale be re-designing itineraries, climbing is not a democratic activity, but I do think that any climber who chooses to climb Everest needs to feel confident in the itinerary of the company they chose. If you don’t understand your itinerary then you are not taking the mission seriously enough. Everest could kill you, so wise up and take it seriously. To those who swot up, I tip my cap – you are all nerds just like me and i love it.
8. Learn to chill and relax
It is a 60 day mission. The first 20 days en route to EBC should be pretty predictable and most likely won’t change all that much from the stated plan. However everything from that point forward is subject to change. It depends on weather, expedition team leaders reading the movement of teams on the mountain, readiness of the team as a whole. You need patience and lots of it. Learn to be comfortable sitting and staring into space. Learn to not be pissed off by the annoying habits of strangers who you met for the first time 20 days ago and will now be your Everest team-mates. Some of them will be great to be around, some will be arseholes. You might even be the arsehole yourself – everyone is different. So have coping mechanisms in place to remain calm and relaxed throughout. Retreat to your tent and put on some Imagine Dragons on your ipod if you start to feel the anger rising. If you need to sleep, perhaps get some recordings of Dr. Ben Carson speeches to help that along. The ability of people to co-exist with strangers and work together as though they had known one another for years is one of the biggest assets to a successful mission. So practice chilling out. You will need to convert all of your pent up anger and belligerence into determination on the upper mountain, where days will feel like painful weeks.
9. Prepare for everything
It takes a heck of a long time to prepare for Everest. Most of the folks who climb Everest are just every-day people who have saved up for years and years or worked tooth and nail to get sponsorship to make it happen. Everyone is there for their own reasons, and the vast vast majority are not the ‘rich westerners’ portrayed in the media. Always assume however that the person in front of you on the mountain has trained every available hour to be there and compete accordingly. Train hard and train for everything. Practice with more weight than you will be carrying on the mission. Train being out on the hills for days on end. Practice gear management, shedding and adding layers quickly, accessing equipment while on the go. Train on ladders to mimic the icefall crossing. If you arrive at Everest and have never practiced on a ladder with your crampons on, then you need to ask yourself why that has happened. Make sure you iron out small issues such as the bits of the Grivel crampons which can stick on ladders, and get the angle grinder out to solve that. Be equally meticulous with the rest of your gear. This is likely going to be the biggest expedition and challenge of your life – apply the same degree of preparation as you would to any other massive life decisions. The more you prepare, the more you will enjoy the mountain expedition. Finally get proper insurance. It is tricky to find insurance which will cover rescue and recovery above 6000m. I recommend Ripcord Because it worked well for me when all hell broke loose and I eventually got back to Kathmandu following the earthquake last year.
10. Enjoy the experience
Not many people get to climb Everest, while others have no interest in it whatsoever, so horses for courses. In total something like 4000 people have climbed it 7000 times in recorded history. That is a very small subset of humanity. While the numbers are growing year-on-year (and reaching levels which won’t be sustainable without it turning into a shitstorm), you get the chance to be one person among 600 climbers at Base Camp attempting to be part of the Everest Class of 2016. That in my humble view is one of life’s great privileges. Your hard work got you to this place, so now enjoy it. Enjoy the meandering Khumbu Valley route with its Indiana Jones style bridges, the quirky tea houses, the cool cafe’s in Namche, the monasteries and the crazy Lama with the hole in his head who gives you the ‘blessing’. Enjoy all of it for the incredibly unique life experience that it is. Keep your eyes on the prize, but look up now and again to enjoy the view. Its Everest after all :-).
The mountains are for everyone, but coming back safe and successful is the realm of the skilled and well prepared.
Paul Devaney – Irish Seven Summits