Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring

 

In the Spring (pre monsoon) season of 2012 I led my seventh Everest expedition (sixth for Jagged Globe). On the morning of 25th May five (out of seven) clients plus myself and five sherpas reached the 8,848m summit. This was a good result in what has generally been considered as a 'difficult' Everest season. My aim below is twofold: to examine the factors that contributed to making 2012 a 'difficult' year on Everest, and to detail the actions taken by the Jagged Globe climbers to maximize the chances of a safe and successful outcome for our team.

I hesitate to use the word 'easy' in relation to any high mountain in the Himalayas. But it is true to say that Everest has become more achievable by mountaineers with modest abilities in recent years. Both individually and collectively the leading guiding companies have amassed a body of knowledge and experience that enables them to offer increasingly professional and predictable Everest expeditions. Combined with greater coordination between the leading teams, improved weather forecasts, improved clothing and footwear, and improved (lighter weight) oxygen equipment, this has led to these companies enjoying ever higher summit success rates with low accident rates. (There are a number of cut-price and inexperienced operators whose actions serve to reduce the overall summit success rates and boost the accident figures).

This trend has been evident for more than a decade but has accelerated in the last few seasons. However 2012 was the season when this process stalled. It remains to be seen if this was a temporary aberration or if the long-term trend is changing. The 2012 season can be seen as 'difficult' if the experiences of the past three seasons are regarded as 'normal'. If instead, the past few years are regarded as unusually favorable, then 2012 could be seen as part of a normal cycle of fluctuating 'easy' and 'difficult' seasons.

There are undoubtedly some medium/long term environmental changes occurring in the Everest region and these are having an effect on the route up Everest from Nepal. Global warming seems to be increasing Springtime temperatures at Base Camp and on the mountain. This could be beneficial if it meant that 'early season' summits would be less cold than in the past. However the most important effects seem to be increased instability in the seracs and ice cliffs above the Western Cwm (West shoulder of Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse Face). These threaten several sections of the Everest route between Base Camp and the South Col. The Khumbu icefall seems to have reduced in total volume and has become more 'broken' in some areas. As the current route between Base Camp and Camp One nears the top of the icefall it avoids broken ground in the centre by travelling further left. This allows quicker travel, but at the risk of greater exposure to the danger of serac fall from above.

Some commentators have suggested that 2012 may have been a 'drier' than normal year in the late winter / early spring, resulting in little snow cover on the underlying ice and rock of Everest in the climbing season. Alternatively the three issues below may have been the result of climate change, or just an unlucky coincidence: Stonefall on Lhotse face below camp 3 necessitating the route to be moved several hundred meters to the right, Serac avalanche from Nuptse that hit Camp One on 28 April, Serac Fall in the area of Camp 3 on 17 May that destroyed a dozen tents and injured a Sherpa. Taken together these three incidents contributed to a feeling in Base Camp that 2012 was turning into a dangerous year on Everest.

The single most significant factor that made 2012 a 'difficult' year was the fact the good weather periods were fewer and of shorter duration than in the recent past. The existence of large well-organized teams on Everest has led to the amount and quality of fixed ropes improving significantly. These teams also have excellent camp facilities all the way up the mountain. However all this 'stuff' takes time and manpower to move up the mountain. Today's style of Everest climbing needs longer periods of stable weather high on the mountain in order for Sherpas to put these high quality facilities in place before guides and climbers can climb to the summit. The larger teams also need to be able to make at least two separate summit bids several days apart as they have insufficient tents (particularly at camps 3 & 4) for all climbers to be in the same camp at the same time (& summit on the same day).

When Everest climbers talk about 'unsuitable weather' they are usually referring to winds on the upper slopes that are too strong to allow safe travel. There is a seasonal phenomenon that occurs each year where windspeeds are high at the start of May and drop significantly before the onset of the monsoon at the start of June. In some years Everest has a period of several weeks where windspeeds are low enough for safe climbing. Some years there can be several shorter periods of low winds interspersed with periods of high winds. Modern forecasting can give a reasonably accurate indication of these patterns three or four (sometimes five) days ahead.  With a selection of possible summit days to choose from the various expedition teams can plan their ascents to avoid unnecessary overcrowding on summit day. At least that's the theory - it does not always work!

In 2012 the first possible weather window suitable for the Sherpa rope fixing team to climb to the summit was 10/11/12 May. A group of 12 strong sherpas (including Pasang from Jagged Globe) from the leading expeditions prepared to climb to the South Col on the 10th with the aim of fixing to the summit on 11th & 12th. Meanwhile a support team of Shepas was due to carry ropes and oxygen to the South Col on the same day. Heavy snowfall on the 10th ended this plan and the next suitable weather window did not occur until 18/19/20 May.

By the time this window opened all the climbing teams in Base Camp were ready for their summit attempts  (they had placed all necessary equipment and supplies at Camp Four on the South Col). Rather than wait for a possible second window most of the teams chose to aim for the first one. With the forecast indicating better conditions on the 19th than the 20th almost all chose the first date. The result was very predictable and pretty unpleasant for many of the participants. Far too many people on the route (some estimates say over 200) led to slow moving queues on the fixed ropes and 'traffic jams' at the obvious bottlenecks and steep sections of the route. There are reports of people being delayed for between one and two hours at several places including the Hilary Step on the summit ridge. There were four fatalities this day high on the mountain. I do not have access to the details of each case but it is reasonable to assume that the main contributing factor was overcrowding leading to very slow progress and climbers exhausting their finite and often under-resourced oxygen supplies.

The next weather window on 24th / 25th was accurately predicted by the forecasters. By normal Everest standards both of these dates were 'busy', but not nearly as bad as the 19th May. Having seen the problems on the 19th some teams chose to start as early as 18.00 on the evening of the 23rd. This caused some climbers to arrive on the summit before dawn, but did have the benefit of spreading the arrival times of the various groups on the summit over a number of hours, and reducing the holdups on the route. Weather conditions were OK for climbing on the 25th from the South Col to the South Summit. However conditions on the summit ridge were quite windy. The following day conditions were slightly better and those summiting on the 26th perhaps had the best summit conditions of the 2012 season.

This summary of the 2012 season sets the scene for a description of the Jagged Globe expedition. The team comprised 7 climbers, 2 guides, 1 Base Camp Manager/Chef, 7 climbing sherpas, 1 sirdar, 6 cooks & kitchen assistants (4 in BC and 2 in Camp Two). Every season is different and every team has different strengths and weaknesses. Sensitive expedition leadership is about providing a programme that suits the prevailing conditions and the temperaments of the team members. The details below describe how the 2012 Jagged Globe Everest expedition was run. In other years with different teams the choices made could be different.

The expedition started earlier than many other teams. This enabled us to have a longer and more demanding trekking programme before reaching base camp. In addition to the obligatory 'trek' days and 'rest' days there were several optional climbs to increasing altitudes (Chukung 5535m, Kongma La 5550m, Kala Patar 5545m). This helped to ensure that all members of the climbing team arrived at Base Camp well acclimatized to the altitude and in good physical condition.

On arrival at Base Camp there was no need to rush onto the mountain as we still had several 'spare' days in hand. We devoted several days to
skills training on the glacier and familiarizing ourselves with the route before we climbed to Camp One. We spent three days on glacier travel and ice climbing practice, climbed to 6450m on the lower slopes of Pumori, and made two early morning practice trips into the Khumbu Icefall.

Our initial plan called for three trips onto the mountain prior to a summit bid. The first would take us to Camp One, the second to Camp Two, and the third to Camp Three. Working around short periods of poor weather (mostly snowfalls) these three objectives were achieved on April 19th, April 24th, and May 6th. During this period our Sherpa team had placed most of the necessary equipment and supplies at Camp Four on the South Col. This meant that we were ready to plan our summit bid for any date from mid May onwards.

Weather forecasts indicated that the winds would not drop sufficiently until  May 18/19. Ropes were not yet fixed above the South Col. Together with many other climbers the Jagged Globe team moved to Camp Two on 16th May in expectation of a summit bid in the following days. However it soon became apparent that more than 200 climbers were on the same schedule. There was never any possibility that we would join such a large group on a summit bid. As we watched the unprecedented sight of 200 people slowly moving in a single unbroken line from Camp Three to Camp Four on May 18th, we knew that there would be problems when the same large group reached the summit ridge the following day.

The forecast had shown that May 21st could be a suitable summit day, so we waited hopefully in Camp Two. However this window closed as new forecast information became available, and we made the reluctant decision to return to Base Camp for a short rest before returning for the summit. No sooner had we reached Base Camp than the next weather window was predicted for a few days ahead. This led us to shorten the planned break in Base Camp and the team climbed again to Camp Two on May 21st.

All the expeditions were aware that the route through the Khumbu Icefall was due to be 'closed' on May 28th (later extended to May 30th). This meant that the weather window predicted for 25/26 May was going to be the last opportunity to climb of the season. After summit bids it takes the Sherpas several days to close the camps on the mountain and carry all equipment to Base Camp, so expeditions must allow several days for this before the icefall route is closed.

The large number of climbers on the route between Camp Three and Camp Four on 24th May delayed our progress to the South Col. We arrived mid afternoon, later than planned, and the team had only a short time to rest before the summit push. We left the South Col at 20.00 with several teams visible on the route ahead, and many more behind. Throughout the climb the wind was noticeable but not excessive: perhaps 15-25 knots. Progress was steady with most teams moving at a similar pace. We were able to pass a few slower people on the way to the Balcony at 8,500m. Above this the route steepens and passing people is much harder.

By 04.00 the lead group of Mingma, Warner, Tundu, Cian & myself,  reached the South Summit just as dawn was breaking. At this point the wind picked up noticeably and was blowing at approx 25-35 knots across the summit ridge. Ahead we could see a large number of climbers, some moving upwards towards the summit and some descending back along the route. In normal conditions climbers will cover the ground between the South Summit and the Main Summit in one hour.  With so much 'traffic' on the route this section took us two hours to climb. However the delays we experienced were numerous and short and nowhere were we forced to stop for more than a few minutes.

By 06.00 our group of five reached the Summit. The strong winds had been a minor inconvenience while climbing, but proved a serious obstacle to taking good photographs. While we struggled to operate cameras with cold fingers Phurba, Phil, Wangdi & Ian arrived. The sky was clear and the views were good in all directions, but the cold wind meant that it was not a good idea to hang around any longer than necessary - so we began our descent after spending about 15 minutes on top. As we traversed the summit ridge we met Tsering and Nick above the Hilary step. They continued to the top arriving a little after 07.00. The team regrouped on descent and stopped for a long break close to the balcony before descending to the South Col. Everyone was safely back at Camp Four by 11.00.

The descents from Camp Four to Camp Two, and then from Camp Two to Base Camp were memorable for the large packs that everyone carried. Meanwhile the Sherpas carried even more enormous packs and closed all our camps on the mountain in a remarkably short period of time. Once in Base Camp the team realized that homeward flights from Kathmandu were booked for a few days ahead and there was little time to rest and relax.  Despite sore feet and weary legs everyone trekked to Lukla in 3 days arriving on 30th May. Bad weather and delayed flights could have got us 'stuck' in Lukla for several days, so we chartered a helicopter for the day on the 31st and over three flights it took all of us plus all of our bags to Kathmandu. This gave us a few days of rest at the Summit Hotel before the team dispersed to their various home countries. I attended the debriefing with the Nepalese Government Ministry of Tourism and this brought the expedition to its official conclusion.

In hindsight the expedition outcome was as good as could be hoped for given the circumstances of the 2012 season. It is unfortunate that we experienced a 'busy' summit day, as this gave a less enjoyable summit experience for the climbers than they would have has on a quieter day. But there were no realistic alternatives available this season, and at the end of the day the climbers preferred reaching the summit on a busy day in 2012, rather than having to return and spend a further 10 weeks on the mountain in another year.

The expedition would not have been possible without the hard work and support of the Jagged Globe office team in Sheffield, the staff of Summit Trekking in Kathmandu, the Sherpa cook team (4 in Base Camp and 2 in Camp Two), the 7 man Sherpa climbing team, Base Camp Manager & Chef Adam, Deputy Leader Pasang, and Mara.


David Hamilton 24/6/2012

David Hamilton
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