Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring

 

This was always going to be a strange year on Everest. After natural disasters had halted all climbing in 2014 and 2015 there was a strong desire to return to the ‘business as usual’ model that had worked for most of the past decade. The total number of climbers was down a little from recent years. Some of the leading western companies (and guides) were either not present or had very small groups. However collectively the western companies were still the dominant force on the mountain and had sufficient manpower to dictate the climbing agenda.

On arrival at BC we found conditions to be unusually dry and warm. There was bare ice and running water everywhere. The icefall looked like it would close early and teams began to prepare for an artificially shortened season. Then midway through the season it started to snow, and this continued for a week. Suddenly the problem became one of too much snow. There was an avalanche on the Lhotse face before the yellow band. In the end this snow was good news for the route (particularly above the South Col) but for a time it looked like it could be a problem. Ropes were fixed to the summit on 11th May and the first summit window followed this. Several teams could see this coming but could not get sufficient ‘stuff’ onto the South Col to take advantage. By the time the second window opened (predicted for 18th, but actually 19th) there were hundreds of climbers waiting to take advantage and 19/20/21 were busy days with some of the expected problems in terms of deaths and injuries among the weaker teams.

This is my description of our summit climb written for the Jagged Globe website on my return to Base Camp on 15th May.

After our third rotation on the mountain we returned to BC on 5th May for a few days rest. It became clear that the route to the summit would be fixed on 10th/11th May and a possible weather window could occur immediately after this.

Our team of climbers were well acclimatised and our sherpa crew were confident that they could stock the South Col Camp by 11th/12th, so we made a plan to aim for a summit bid on 13th May. Leaving BC on the 9th we took a rest day on the 10th at Camp 2 and proceeded to Camp 3 on the 11th and Camp 4 on the 12th. There was far more snow on the mountain than I have ever seen before. The Lhotse Face, which is often hard blue ice, was in perfect conditions for a ski descent, and the steep scree slope between the South Col and the 'balcony' was entirely covered in deep snow.

Winds were stronger than expected on the South Col on the night of 12th/13th but we started out from our tents at 22.30. There had been a clear path in the snow visible the previous evening but the wind blown snow had covered all tracks and it was hard to find the start of the route in the dark. Pem Chhiri led the way and after a few hours of zig zag climbing he located the partially buried rope that led upwards towards the balcony. We were the only team moving at this point and it was hard work for Pem and Nima Gyalzen to break trail through the deep snow.

After several hours of effort in the dark we reached the 'balcony' at approx 8,500m and the team each changed to their second oxygen cylinder. At this point several sherpas and climbers from another group caught up with us and we were pleased to hand over the trail breaking duties. Weather conditions had been moderately windy up until this point, but as we climbed towards the South Summit at 8,790m the winds increased.

At approximately 07.15 we reached the South Summit just as the winds rose to 30 knots plus. This was accompanied by blowing snow and visibility of less than 50m. I was strongly of the view that continuing to climb upwards in these conditions was unacceptably dangerous and aimed to cancel the ascent. I consulted with the two most experienced Sherpa guides with the team (Pem Chhiri and Nima Gyalzen) and they suggested resting in a small hollow just below the South Summit for a short while to see if conditions would improve. I was skeptical of this, as I feared that the wind strength would increase.

We waited, and the sherpas were correct. We each changed to our third bottle of oxygen.

The winds dropped a little and the blowing snow gave way to clearer skies. In around 30 - 40 minutes we were able to proceed along the snow covered ridge towards the true summit. In a 'normal' season this section is mostly a rock climb, but this year it was entirely on snow. The 'Hillary Step' was unrecognisable, buried beneath deep snow. Steve and Tamding were out in front and reached the summit at 08.48. The rest of the team, Nick, Pem Chhiri, Mary, Nima Gyalzen, David, Chhimi and Ang Rinji reached the summit around 09.45.

We spent 15 minutes admiring the views and taking pictures. It was a privilege to be alone on the summit of the world's highest peak on a day when no more than 30 people summited. The wind continued at around 20-25 kts during this time and we all had to be careful to avoid frozen fingers or other cold injuries.

The winds continued as we made our way back along the summit ridge and clouds started to build as we made our descent via the balcony to the South Col. By 14.30 the team were all resting and recovering in the relative 'comfort' of our tents at Camp 4. The team of climbers and sherpas all did a great job to reach the summit under such challenging conditions. A 16 hour round trip is a big effort on any mountain, let alone Everest. It was one of the hardest summit days that I have had on Everest in 9 attempts.

Kathmandu, 29th May 2016 (Everest Day – the 63rd anniversary of the first ascent of Everest)

David Hamilton
High Adventure
67 Castle Road
Hartshill
Nuneaton
Warwickshire
CV10 0SG

Email:  david@highadventure.org.uk

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