Big Decisions on the World’s Highest Peak

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa, April 25th, 2004.

Never in my wildest dreams had climbing Mt. Everest seemed a reality. At 29,035’, it was the highest, most expensive to climb, and deadliest peak in the world. After summiting the highest peak in North America, Denali (20,320’) many people had asked if I would attempt Everest. My standard response was, “not unless someone else pays for it.” Now that was exactly what was happening. I had just completed three months of world travels with an adventure based reality TV show, Global Extremes, and was one of five selected to form a team to make an attempt on the Northeast ridge of Mt. Everest. It was a dream come true, but, in a dream I never really had. For me, Mt. Everest was high and dangerous, and mostly overcrowded with many people of extreme ineptitude in the mountains. However, despite this, a paid, guided trip to Mt. Everest was a dream come true. This sort of thing NEVER happens to me! It was an opportunity of a lifetime and one I would not even consider passing up.

Having just returned home from Iceland and three months racing all over the world, I was exhausted. Our lead guide advised us to rest and put on as much weight as we could in our two weeks leading up to the climb. These two weeks went by in a whirlwind. Nearly daily, boxes appeared of new climbing gear from sponsors. There was packing to do, eating, taxes to file, and bills to pay. And of course, if I hoped to keep the job I had at the phone company, I figured it might be a good idea to show up to work for the two weeks I was home, before I left again for two months. The time went by very quickly. Friends and family would gush at me, “You must be so excited!” Who had time to be excited? Who had time to think about it? The reality of this reality TV show, and the impending trip to climb Mt. Everest had not really sunk in. There was too much to do, and not enough time to do it.

Before I knew it, I was airborne again, heading South and then West across the Pacific to Osaka, Bangkok, and eventually 26 hours later, Kathmandu, Nepal. My excitement for this trip was mostly in the places I would get to see, not so much for the climb. Sitting here now, that seems like something absurd to write about a climb of Mt. Everest. But, this trip would take me through Nepal and Tibet, places I never thought I’d get to see. The bonus was getting to Base Camp and the opportunity to climb on the famed, treacherous slopes of Everest.

The Global Extremes expedition would attempt Everest via the Northeast ridge. This is a less popular route because it is a more difficult climb, yet, less dangerous than the Southern approach. There would be no Khumbu Icefall to traverse, like on the other side of the mountain. Thus, a bit less risk, though every bit as dangerous in all other aspects.

On the North side of Everest you can drive to base camp. Our plan was to spend a week traveling into base camp, so our bodies could acclimate to the extreme elevations. In high altitude mountaineering, if you do not spend ample time acclimating it will kill you. All the while traveling towards base camp, we were gaining elevation and spending time along the way to allow our bodies to adjust to the altitude. From Katmandu we flew to Lhasa, Tibet (China), then drove to Xigatse, Tingeri, and onto base camp on the Rongbuk Glacier. For me, the time spent getting to base camp was an experience in itself. These towns, cultures, and landscapes are so different from my own, to be there is to have the ability to see and absorb another way of life. To explore the palace of the Dali Lama, drive across the Tibetan Plateau, walk for miles in Xigatse, playing kick the can with a small boy in Tingeri, and our first glimpse of the Himalaya; are all experiences I will cherish and never forget. Those however, are stories for another time.

Base camp (BC) on the Rongbuk glacier is a vast field of glacial moraine, surrounded by 20,000’ plus peaks, and Everest looming directly to the South. A beautiful, if not desolate location to spend the next several months. Our team of five climbers is composed of exceptional athletes. Three of us have extensive climbing experience and have been on top of some of the world’s highest peaks. The other two, although not climbers by nature, are in exceptional shape and have paid there dues in the mountains. In addition, there will be a guide, several Sherpa, and six cameramen. In total there will be almost 50 people in camp supporting our team of five climbers. In addition to cook staff, there must be directors, satellite and microwave techs, commentators, and an array of production staff, not to mention one person in charge of the major sponsors Toyotas, sent. Unlike any other climb I have organized on my own, this climb, I had to do nothing, but show up. Camp was already set up, food prepared, water melted, loads hauled. It was never easy to forget that this wasn’t just a climb, but a TV show.

After a few days of adjusting to life in base camp and 17,000’, our team started climbing the surrounding peaks. Every other day we would hike a new peak, most of them around 20,000’. We would climb high during the day and always return to base camp to sleep. This was allowing our bodies to adjust to the higher elevations that we would encounter as we ascended Everest. And as always, there were interviews and TV responsibilities to attend to. Alternate days from the hikes we would spend in base camp organizing and repacking gear. Everything had to be ready for our assault on the mountain in the months to come. Soon, we would move to Advance Base Camp (ABC), and our gear needed to travel by Yak, prior to our departure from BC. Also, our team made adjustments to camp to make it more user friendly and comfortable. We would spend the better part of two months here, so it made sense to make things comfortable. There were lots of large flat rocks to collect, to make a “porch” in front of each tent. This made getting in and out of the tents easier and kept the dust out. However, the hauling, at 17,000’, was not so easy, as our lungs panted and searched for oxygen that didn’t exist.

During our time in BC, I never tired of the phenomenal views of Everest at all times of day and night. Often, early morning light would illuminate fresh snow on the summit pyramid. By late, afternoon, high winds would blow the snow in a large plum off the summit, while the peak lay bathed in orange low angle light. There was always wind, you could count on it. Usually in the morning, our team would relax in the seeming warmth of the sun, devoid of wind. By 10am, we’d scurry for our tents or heavier down gear as the wind picked up blowing down the glacier from higher up. Warm is a relative phrase anywhere on Everest. Temperatures were usually around freezing, and often colder, particularly with the incessant wind. And certainly the higher up the mountain we went, the colder it was, and windier.

Despite all the activities happening in Base Camp, there was still a lot of downtime. There was plenty of time for reading, writing, games, eating, talking, and thinking. BC is a very social place. With 14 teams in camp, from all over the world, and numerous famous climbers, it was fun to visit other camps and get to know some of the other faces on the mountain.

Our team was on a somewhat accelerated program of acclimating, and everyone had their good and bad days. Typically, I would return from an acclimating hike with a headache, not uncommon at these altitudes. One of the real challenges of doing well on Everest is staying healthy and keeping your appetite. The Fab 5, as the production team referred to us, were all doing well in both respects. After several weeks it was time to move to ABC. We would spend two days hiking the 12 miles and gaining 4000’. Our plan was to move up to ABC and do more acclimating hikes from there. We would start climbing the mountain, hoping to get as high as Camp 3 (25,912’), then retreat all the way to BC to rest, before making a final summit attempt.

The two day hike to ABC was up the Rongbuk glacial moraine. It was slow going at this altitude and across rocky moraine. We traveled the same route as the Yaks that were carrying our gear up to ABC. Two strenuous days later, we reached ABC. It was like starting over again. We had to move into a tent, sort out gear, and absorb time to let our bodies adjust to this new elevation of 20,992’. Several days were spent lounging around camp, watching high winds blow a steady plum off the summit. Several nights I spent in the tent, listening as the wind, sounding like a jet engine, would rage down on us from the North Col, rattling the tent, until I was certain it would be launched, with no concern for me inside.

On our fourth day at ABC, we began to climb. Using fixed ropes we would ascend up the steep slope to the North Col and Camp 1. From there we would retreat to ABC and rest. Then going up again, spending the night, and climbing higher the next day to spend the night at Camp 2. Our trip up the crevassed North Col, was difficult traveling. The wind had its gander up and visibility would alternate between good and bad. To make matters worse, there were a lot of people on the route this day causing traffic jams and dangerous situations. In my mind there are several problems with an Everest climb. One is the sheer number of people that Everest attracts. Many climbers can afford such an expensive climb, yet have no experience in the mountains or at altitude. Inexperienced climbers in large numbers create situations that can be extremely dangerous. Yet another problem is the fixed ropes. They can be extremely sketchy. New ropes are put up yearly, while the old ropes are not removed. So, in a conflagration of multiple ropes, you never know which are safe and which are not. Is mountain climbing really just pulling yourself up a rope that someone else put there?? It boils down to several ethical climbing issues, none of which I had ever had to deal with on self-driven expeditions in the Alaska Range. Nonetheless, with one foot in front of the other, we reached the Col and retreated to rest for a few days.

Before long, it was time to climb, back up to Camp 1 at 22,960’. This trip was in sunny, somewhat warm weather. Camp 1 is a small camp perched on the very top of the North Col, with mammoth drop-offs on either side. It is a very small area, with a large number of tents. After a restless night, it was time to move to Camp 2 at 24,600’. This looked to be a short hike up easy terrain to the top of a long, narrow snowfield that offered little technical challenge or difficulty. In Alaska, this climb would take me an hour at the most. Not so in the Himalaya. It took me almost five hours to get to Camp 2. What seemed so easy from sight, turned out to be one of the most challenging things I have ever done. The slope steepened as we climbed higher and the air became thinner. I found myself giving everything I had, physically and mentally, to be able to take even one more step. It was exhausting work and I was never quite sure I would have enough fortitude to reach Camp 2. Ultimately I did, but it required all the stamina I had.

Camp 2 is one of the wildest places I have ever camped. It is a small camp chipped out of ice on a very steep snow slope. There is no room for error here. If you drop something, it is gone, sliding several thousand feet to the glacier below. If you fall, same thing happens to you. And your chances of living through such an ordeal would be slim. As it goes, you cannot make a mistake here. For the most part, we spent the time in our tents, hiding from the cold, resting, and preparing to go higher the next day. Everything takes longer at this altitude and it was an extreme effort to melt snow for water. With a lack of appetite and thirst because of the extreme altitude, I had to force myself to eat and drink. Sleeping is even difficult, and there was very little of that. The upside of Camp 2 is the scenery. From here our entire team reveled in the views of endless unnamed, unclimbed Himalayan peaks and a few notable ones included Pumori and Cho Oyu. By morning, the wind picked up as we struggled to stay warm and reach Camp 3. No one made it that far. As planned everyone retreated to ABC to rest. In utter amazement, the trip back down was as difficult as the climb up. My body was thrashed and exhausted and in need of rest.

After two days we were back at base camp for at least a week of rest before seeking a weather window to attempt to make a summit bid. It was here that I struggled with the decision to continue on or abandon the climb. After four days, I made up my mind. I was done. I felt with rest that I could go back up and maybe even reach the summit. But I wasn’t sure I could make it back down in good order. This could not only be lethal for me, but could also put my team in jeopardy. I had pushed my body as far as I could. It had been a winter full of racing with very little recovery time, and I just didn’t have it in me to continue on safely. The scales on this decision tipped for me when I thought about what I would do in Alaska on a self-driven expedition. I would go home and try again another year. With that perspective, my decision became an easy one. I broke the news to the team, guides, and production crew. All were very supportive and understood, which was a huge relief.

For two more weeks I stayed in BC with the team and helped the production crew. My technical skills were of some use to them and the production of the show. The rest of the team eventually mounted a summit attempt. Their attempt was thwarted at Camp 4 in order to rescue climbers from another team that got caught in the dark on their return from their summit bid. The reality of close to a 10% fatality rate and nearly seeing it first hand and questionable weather found two more of the Fab 5 dropping out. Our guide abandoned his climb after getting hit in the head with an Oxygen bottle randomly launched from higher on the mountain. Things that I knew to be true were coming to light; that Everest is a very dangerous place.

Ted and Jesse, two of the Fab 5, from Colorado, endured for several more weeks waiting out bad weather. In an amazing display of fortitude and perseverance they reached the summit! From a TV screen in Centralia, Iowa, I watched it all happen, live, from another part of the world that I had just left. It was a time of jubilation and tears.

For me, in the end, it really wasn’t important if I reached the summit or not. The experience was complete and one of a lifetime. I had been around the world doing amazing things and forming some lifelong friendships. Everest will be there next year and the year after. Like many things, it’s not worth a life to reach the summit. I’d rather, walk away and maybe someday, stand in base camp, again, and wonder what it would be like to stand on top of the highest mountain in the world.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska. He is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. He can be reached at henkeltr@yahoo.com. Copyright 2004 Troy Henkels