To prepare for our ascent of Mount Everest, we went through an intense training program, after barely arriving at Everest Base Camp (EBC). Here’s a brief recap of our training:
We practiced basic ice climbing skills on an obstacle course set-up in the ice fall right behind EBC. The obstacle course required ascending fixed lines, some rappelling, as well as working on descending via an arm wrap. None of these techniques are particularly difficult, but it’s important to be really proficient and efficient, to ensure that you can move quickly and without glitches when conditions in the ice fall ask for it.
We temporarily left EBC to climb Lobuche Peak, which is an approx. 20,000 ft / 6,000m mountain facing Everest. It’s not a difficult mountain, yet I struggled on the way up. I’m not yet sufficiently acclimatized and each step therefore became a massive effort. Yet, my time from high-camp to summit turned out to be very reasonable, and we were rewarded by amazing views of the surrounding (much taller) mountains. It was a beautiful day with a perfectly blue sky and reasonable temperatures, even at this extreme altitude.
We underwent “ladder training”. One peculiarity of climbing Everest is that the Khumbu Ice Fall needs to be crossed to get to the camps toward the summit. To facilitate the climb through the ice fall, ladders are often the preferred means for crossing huge crevasses. Sometimes these ladders are installed horizontally, vertically, or any angle in between. They are installed and maintained by a team of incredibly skilled and courageous sherpas, also known as the “icefall doctors”. As helpful as these ladders are, crossing them can be a scary experience and requires practice and full concentration. Below is a video of the team practicing walking on ladders. Crossing a tiny frozen lake turned out to be much easier than crossing a crevasse so deep that the bottom can’t even be seen.
Hundreds of feet of absolutely nothing can be right below these ladders, and knowing that a misstep can result in a bad fall makes being on a ladder a nerve-wrecking experience. I’ve learned that I have to focus 100% on my feet. If I slowly place one foot ahead of the other, staring at the front teeth of the crampons to make sure that they engage properly with the rungs of the ladder, I don’t even notice the abyss below. Still, as these ladders move and bounce, especially when multiple ladders are tied together to obtain the necessary length, it’s always a good feeling when you reach the other side of the crevasse.
It was finally time to practice our skills in the ice fall. Our dry run through the ice fall began at about 3:00AM. It’s the coldest time of the night, when it’s the least likely that blocks of ice abruptly shift or fall, potentially threatening the team while climbing. It was a scary and stressful experience. I was too nervous to record videos or take pictures, but will do so next time we cross the ice fall on our way up to the higher camps.
On my way back down, I saw Ueli Steck, one of the most accomplished active climbers. He is currently preparing for his “Everest Lhotse” climb. It made me feel very clumsy, seeing him gracefully and rapidly navigating through the ice fall, whereas I struggled with each step.