“Gravity never sleeps!”
It’s a bright morning in mid-April, high in the Himalayas, when Vern Tejas barks out this Zen-like epigram to the group of would-be Everest summiteers arrayed before him. Tejas, a bald-domed, high-energy guide with Alpine Ascents, a Seattle-based mountaineering company, has eight successful Everest summits under his belt, as well as the first solo winter ascent of Alaska’s Denali, at 20,320 feet the tallest mountain in North America. He’s kind of a legend. And when he speaks, climbers usually listen.
His nine students, age 21 to 65, stand at the base of a high ice wall, outfitted in bulky ice-climbing boots, harnesses, crampons and thick gloves. Behind them looms the Everest massif, a series of rugged peaks and icy ridges with the vast Khumbu glacier tumbling down a valley cleaved amid them. Even here, the black pyramid of Everest’s upper reaches remains hidden from view by the bulge of its own sheer, snow-clad west shoulder. On the ridges thousands of feet above, high winds whip billows of fresh snow into glimmering clouds. It is stunningly beautiful but hardly inviting.
A humble journalist, I have no ambitions to conquer these dizzying heights. Instead, it is my 62-year-old father, John Curtis Rudolf , Notre Dame class of 1970, who has come here hoping to stand on the top of the world. Right now, as he stands grinning, ice ax in hand, under clear blue skies, I can’t help but wonder if he just might pull it off.
First, though, he must pass Tejas’ ad-hoc climbing school. The training area sits in the ice just outside of Everest base camp, a colorful shantytown of hundreds of nylon and cloth tents that forms each spring on the shifting ice and rock of the Khumbu glacier, at an altitude of 17,500 feet. This year, the camp is home to roughly 250 climbers and perhaps a thousand local and international guides, cooks, porters and support staff.
Just to the east of camp stands the notorious Khumbu Icefall, a vast cataract of towering ice blocks and yawning crevasses created as the glacier tumbles down a steep slope from the upper heights. It is a dangerous and highly unstable place. Today is one of several training days to make sure the team can negotiate it and the rest of the mountain safely.
Lesson one is the proper use of the ice ax, a short steel ax with a blade curved like a canine tooth. When they climb, their axes must be accessible in an instant — certainly not buried in their backpacks, Tejas says. To demonstrate, he slips his own ax into a loop on his harness, where it dangles like a cop’s nightstick.
Tejas next runs through the proper use of the ax in case of a tumble, a technique known as the self-arrest. I’m confident my father is thoroughly versed in this skill: Over the past several years he has climbed dozens of mountains, including treacherous peaks like the Matterhorn in the Alps. He is no novice. Then again, he’s hardly a pro, either, and I can’t help but think that a little practice might do him some good. I’m pretty sure it’s been a while since he’s been on a glacier.
After a few minutes, Michael Horst, another Alpine Ascents guide, takes over as instructor. Horst is 31 years old — about my age — and during the two-week trek through the Himalayan foothills that we undertook just to get here, I’ve found him to be a generally mellow guy with a dry sense of humor and a surfer’s devil-may-care attitude. Today, however, he’s deadly serious as he demonstrates proper rope technique.
On Everest, climbers are not roped to each other but are attached to a safety line anchored to various points on the mountain. Holding them to the rope is a single carabiner and an ascender — a device that steadily grips the rope as a climber pushes it forward. Every hundred feet or so, there is a knot in the fixed line that must be surmounted. This involves unclipping the ascender, moving it around the knot, and then doing the same with the carabiner. Unclip both at the same time, make one false move, and “adios muchacho.”
“That’s when people die,” Horst says grimly. “They unclip the wrong thing, they slip, and down they tumble.”
Soon, the members of the team are scrambling up and down fixed lines that run along a series of progressively steeper ice slopes. The final one is about 30 feet high and nearly vertical. As the climbers struggle to ascend and descend it without slipping, Tejas begins to bellow like the drill sergeant from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
“You guys need to engage the terrain!” he shouts. “Dig those points in!”
I’ve never really had much, if any, interest in mountaineering, but I must confess that this looks like fun. I manage to scramble to the top of the ice hill, admiring the view of base camp, the yellow North Face tents scattered around the blue pyramid of the mess hall, long strands of Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind.
Fun though it may be, the fact remains that surmounting this icy molehill is the closest I will come to real mountaineering on this trip. In a day or so, I am heading back to Katmandu, and this team of climbers, including my father, will attempt to venture another 12,000 vertical feet up the mountain, into extremely treacherous terrain and at the mercy of the weather.
And while such sunny and clear days make Everest base camp feel like an almost cheerful place, on this trip it has just as often struck me as a hostile and ominous place. Late in the day, after the sun has fallen and drained the color out of the landscape, the air quickly turns bitterly cold — dropping below zero — and the valley fills with shadows. At times like these, it becomes easy to recall how many had come here with dreams of glory and died in terrible circumstances on the slopes. Knowing the risks, I found it difficult to fathom what had driven my father to pursue this life-threatening quest.
Finally, during a rare moment alone together in the base camp mess tent, I press him on his motivation behind the climb. “I’ve always held true that we’re here to get into the game and play it hard,” he says. “I think challenges keep one alive and [make you] appreciate what life is all about.”
It may not be particularly profound, but I find his answer somehow reassuring. He really does seem to look forward to the challenge. In the end, my roughly three weeks in the Himalayas and at the Everest base camp also help alleviate my worst doubts. While I remain worried, I leave the camp at least convinced that my father is not on a suicidally reckless quest, or that he is completely out of his depth. I really do think he might succeed.
A little research supports this as well. As it turns out, while Everest, at 29,029 feet, is indeed the tallest mountain in the world, it is by no means the most difficult to climb. In 2009, for instance, an astonishing 450 climbers made it to the top, with only a handful of deaths. By contrast, at K2, in Pakistan — the world’s second-tallest mountain at 28,251 feet — there have been just 296 successful summits ever, and not a single one in 2009.
Part of the reason for this is simple physics — Everest is just not as steep or treacherous as other extreme-altitude peaks. It is also a very different climb than it was in 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first pioneered the standard route to the top. Today, safety lines are fixed along its most dangerous stretches, dramatically reducing the risk of falling. A professional climbing corps — in the form of companies like Alpine Ascents — has also emerged, lending their years of hard-won high-altitude experience to relative amateurs, at a price.
The result has been a flood of climbers trying their hand at reaching the roof of the world. Among them is a smaller subset of climbers — my father included — hoping to join a select few who have climbed the so-called Seven Summits: the seven tallest mountains on the seven continents. For my father, Everest represents the last peak out of the seven he has left to climb. He had knocked off the first seven (actually, eight — see sidebar for details) in just three years.
But Everest, as my father is about to find out, is no pushover. It is not just the sheer physicality of climbing it that poses a challenge but the psychological grind of eight weeks spent living in a tent at high-altitude, far from friends and family and the conveniences of home. As he tells me after the climb, “Everest goes on for day after day after day. That just makes it brutal.”
Just a week after I leave base camp for Katmandu, the real climbing begins, as he and the team head into the Khumbu Icefall and make for the top. They wake at 4 a.m., in the pitch dark and freezing cold, and by 5 are treading up the glacier, their headlamps lighting the way. By the time the sun is up, they are well into the chaotic jumble of the icefall, maneuvering along narrow ledges and weaving under and amid large blocks of ice, some of them the size of small buildings. They cross the Khumbu’s many crevasses using dozens of aluminum ladders — sometimes three of them roped together over a particularly wide gap.
“On some gaps, you can’t see the bottom,” my father says. “You don’t spend a lot of time looking down, I’ll tell you that.”
Near the very top, the icefall becomes dramatically steeper. With the sun blazing away high in the sky, the ice softens just as the path winds up and under giant seracs that could topple over at any moment. Finally, after nine exhausting hours, the team reaches the top and the glacier flattens out. From there it is a straightforward one-hour hike to Camp I. By the time the team members get there, the weather has deteriorated.
“When we got there the wind was howling, the snow was swirling, and everyone just collapsed into their tents,” my father says.
After a day of rest, the team heads up to Camp II via the Western Cwm, a vast glacial corridor walled-in by the west ridge of Everest on the left and Nuptse, a 25,700 foot peak, to the right. Known as the “Valley of Silence,” the cwn is broad and flat, in some places fissured by crevasses but by no means as challenging as the icefall. At the end of the cwm — Welsh for valley — sits Camp II, at the base of the steep and daunting Lhotse Face.
But after reaching Camp II and resting up for a few days, the climbers do not proceed farther up the mountain. Rather, they turn around and head down the Western cwm and the icefall, all the way back to base camp. This seeming retreat is according to plan: Everest is so high that climbers cannot tackle the summit in a single push; instead, they must climb the mountain in at least three “rotations,” each time going progressively higher and then falling back, allowing their bodies to acclimatize to the lack of oxygen. It is one reason that an attempt on Everest typically takes around eight weeks and makes for such a physical and mental grind.
Soon, though, the team is headed back up the mountain, this time with their sights set on reaching Camp III, halfway up the Lhotse Face at 24,500 feet. Again, they traverse the Khumbu Icefall, and slog up the Western Cwn under the broiling sun. After a few days of rest at Camp II, they strike out up the Lhotse Face, one of the steepest parts of the mountain. The face rises nearly 4,000 vertical feet, much of it at 40-to-50-degree pitches. This day, it is sheer ice.
To hear my father later tell it, he had a ball up there.
“It was very thrilling,” he says. “You really felt you were on the edge. You’re using everything you’ve got.”
Clipped into a safety line, the risk of falling is minimal. But every year or so, a climber somehow becomes unclipped from the rope and goes tumbling down the slope to his doom.
“There’s no room for a mistake,” he says. “One slip and you’d go down that thing like a bat out of hell.”
The team’s goal is to spend a night at Camp III, a series of tents perched on a platform carved into the face. Yet just 500 feet from reaching that camp, the weather turns abruptly. Clouds sweep in and powerful winds begin to howl; with the sun gone, the temperature drops from uncomfortably warm to bitterly cold almost instantly. Balanced precariously on the sheer ice, the climbers struggle to change into warmer gear. Finally the decision is made to turn around.
This is not as easy as it sounds, as the face is perhaps even more treacherous going down than up, and one climber on the team — my father would not name him — freezes up in terror, wasting precious minutes.
Finally, after an exhausting slog, the team reaches the safety of Camp II. From there, most of the team descends again through the cwm and the icefall to base camp — with the exception of two climbers, who return with Vern Tejas to Camp III to spend the night, considered by some a key element of proper acclimatization. My father is in the majority that returns to base camp.
Climbing strong and with only one rotation left to go, my father genuinely thinks he might make the top. Then back at base camp, he is suddenly violently ill. Unable to hold down food or water, plagued by vomiting and diarrhea, he is losing fluids fast. After an examination, the camp’s high-altitude doctor recommends that he return to Katmandu for emergency treatment. This poses a serious but not insurmountable setback, as climbers typically go back down beyond base camp to rebuild their strength and re-oxygenate the blood before finally attempting the summit.
“I was just really hurting, big time,” he told me later. “All the doctors were saying that my climb was over.”
After five days of treatment at a Katmandu hospital, however, he takes the unusual step of returning to the Himalayas, slogging his way back up to base camp, where the doctor is surprised to see him. As he anguishes over the decision to attempt the summit, he falls seriously ill once again. This time, it’s clear the jig is up. With a heavy heart, he heads down the mountain — while the rest of the team begins their final push for the top. Within a few days, he is back in Seattle, following his team’s progress, like the rest of us, via the Internet.
“It was massively disappointing,” he says. “It was definitely very, very humbling.”
As it turns out, the 2010 season was another uniquely successful one for Everest climbers. As in 2009, nearly 500 reached the top, bringing the total number of summits on all routes of the mountain to more than 5,000.
Among those who found success were several especially young and inexperienced climbers. Jordan Romero, a 13-year-old Californian, memorably scaled the north side of Everest, becoming the youngest person to ever reach the top. A young Indian, Arjun Bajpayee, 16, of Delhi, is now the youngest of his countrymen to summit. And Bonita Norris, a 22-year-old who had never climbed before 2008, today holds the title of youngest British female ever to scale Everest.
But while such climbs — Romero’s in particular — made big headlines, the dark side of Everest is worth remembering, although the small-scale disasters on the mountain aroused little interest from the outside world this year. Five climbers have died on the mountain in 2010, from avalanche, high-altitude sickness and exposure. One young Scottish climber suddenly went blind on his way down from the summit and was left to die alone when he could not descend into high camp before nightfall. Another perished from high-altitude cerebral edema, or HACE — the catastrophic swelling of the brain.
Many more suffered falls, broken bones, frostbite, extreme altitude sickness or simple exhaustion, and survived only by good fortune or after dramatic rescues by guides, fellow climbers or Sherpas. (Even young Jordan Romero seems to have had a brush with death. According to the accounts of fellow climbers, an avalanche that swept a Hungarian man into a crevasse, killing him, also careered past Jordan, sending him sprawling into his father, Paul.)
When I talk to my father about his decision to turn back, he tells me his sudden illness simply posed too much of a danger on the mountain, where little margin for error or weakness exists. The recent spate of deaths at altitude (such news spreads fast through the camps) also weighed on his mind.
“I just decided that the risk of something going wrong was too high,” he says. “A couple of people had already died on the mountain, and I didn’t really want to risk my life. I had had two bouts of intestinal illness. And when you get sick at that kind of altitude, it’s just brutally tough.”
Back in the States, he describes another full week spent violently ill in his apartment. Seattle doctors diagnosed him with an intestinal parasite. “As disappointed as I was, I had to admit that if I was that sick there, what would I have done at 26,000 feet?” he says.
While he recuperated, he received word that six of his nine teammates had reached the summit. It was not a moment of bitterness, he says, but just the opposite. “I was thrilled,” he says. “I spent eight weeks with them. These are terrific people.”
Intellectually, he does not question his choice to retreat. Psychologically, he admits it does gnaw at him and probably will for a while.
“I know I made the right decision, but it still hurts,” he says.
As for whether he will try his hand at Everest again, it is not a question he relishes. He won’t say for certain one way or another. But I know one thing: he doesn’t sound at all eager to tackle the mountain again anytime soon. Rather than prepare for a new assault on the summit next spring, his plan now is to settle down and concentrate on other aspects of his life. And maybe have some fun.
I have to say: sounds like a good idea to me, Dad.
Just to be sure, I ask him one last time. Any chance he might go back?
He pauses for a moment, and then laughs a bit cryptically.
“I’m noncommittal,” he says. “You never know what the future brings.”
John Collins Rudolf is a writer/reporter with The New York Times.