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Atop Mount Everest: A Climber's Account of Scaling the Highest Peak

What it takes to get to the roof of the world

Published: Jun 1, 2013 06:48:36 AM IST
Updated: Jun 1, 2013 08:31:25 AM IST
Atop Mount Everest: A Climber's Account of Scaling the Highest Peak
Image: Brad Clement / Spindrift Film
A climber at 24,000 feet, on the Lhotse face with South Col and the Everest summit in the background

2006, Everest, Nepal
Sunlight streamed into my tent. I was bundled up in my sleeping bag that protected me from the -40°C temperature. It was still too early to go to the dining tent, so I pulled out a book. But as I started reading, something seemed amiss. Instinctively, I covered my right eye and read a few lines: All fine. Then I covered the left, and all I could see was a big black circle and a thin sliver of light. I burst into laughter. I must be dreaming, I can’t possibly have gone blind in one eye. Heck, I was at Advanced Base Camp (ABC), 6,400 m up Everest. I had broken three ribs due to a bad cough and every breath was painful, had lost about 15 kg—the body does not regenerate at altitude—and tongue blisters had made eating and drinking painful. This could not be happening. But no. I was awake.

It had been a tough season. Twelve climbers died on the North Side, the route my team had chosen to summit. Forty-three climbers had passed by the body of David Sharp, a young engineer from the UK who had often joined us for tea. David sat down, exhausted, above Camp 4 on his way down from the summit and never got up again. Double-amputee Mark Inglis would pass him by without helping him and go on to summit; later, his stumps raw from the pounding his prostheses had given them, he would have to be dragged down from above Camp 2 to ABC in sleeping bags and then hauled off the mountain on yakback. An Indian Army soldier jumped from 8,230 m to his death below, for reasons unknown. And our team would expend tremendous effort in perhaps the highest altitude rescue ever: A climber collapsed below the summit because his breathing apparatus wasn’t checked properly when he started from high camp. It was just one more suspenseful, ruthless, and inspiring season on Everest.

Potential actions and outcomes raced through my head. If I quit, the time, money, and effort put into making this season happen would be for nought. Probability my sponsor will bail on me: 50 percent. Probability that I can I find a new one in time for next season: 10 percent. Incremental probability of death: 0. Probability to summit: 50 percent. Probability of instant sight restoration: 0. Probability of ribs fusing overnight: 0. Decision: As long as I can safely continue, I will.

1982–2006, various places
My Everest journey started in school in Bombay, in my sixth standard, when I saw a National Geographic documentary on Tenzing and Hillary. I knew right away that I was going to climb Everest, but kept it my secret; I felt telling would prompt comments that would squash it real fast.

With a friend, I would try to scale the walls behind Bandra Fort. When we could, we’d hike the hills around Lonavala. Anything climbable anywhere, we gave it a shot. My first “big” expedition, though, came when an uncle arranged for my cousins and I to hike and camp from Harsil to Gaumukh, at the mouth of the Ganga.

While in college in Pennsylvania, I hiked the Appalachians with friends. When I moved to New York for my first job, come Friday 5 pm, we would drive about 480 km to the Adirondacks and climb the highest peaks there. I took every opportunity to backpack.

It was about this time that I realised that I had to step it up a bit if I was ever going to attempt Everest.

So I set myself a goal: To climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks in each of the seven continents. I started in 1998, with Kilimanjaro, at 5,895 metres, Africa’s highest mountain. I moved to the San Francisco area for work reasons, but also to be closer to the Sierras where there are many peaks over 4,000 m, the better for training. In time, I would also climb Kosciuszko (Australia, 2,228 m, 2006) and be the first from India on Elbrus (Europe, 5,642 m, 2000), Aconcagua (South America, 6,961 m, 2001), McKinley / Denali (North America, 6,194 m, 2003), Vinson Massif (Antarctica, 4,892 m, 2006, with Malli Babu). These climbs, and others, gave me experience in various terrains and elevations. And, as important, I have been able to immerse myself in cultures around the world: I have now travelled through 35 countries.

Atop Mount Everest: A Climber's Account of Scaling the Highest Peak
Image: Brad Clement / Spindrift Film
A climber at the Base Camp, with the Everest’s west shoulder in the background

2006, Everest
I mentioned my vision problem to my teammates, but did not draw much concern. A doctor on a sister team would be there in a few days. I talked to doctors from two other teams, but did not get any answers.

In a couple of days, we were to climb to the North Col; at 7,010.4 m, it is the highest point climbers reach to acclimatise before going for the summit. (On the highest peaks, the air is so thin breathing feels like sucking in oxygen through a straw. So you don’t head straight to the top; you climb, stay at one altitude for a while, give your body time to make more blood cells to be able to extract as much oxygen from the air as it can, then climb down for a bit, before going even higher.)

I started out late, but caught up, and with another team member, was the first to get to North Col. By then, two other team members had experienced significant distress from altitude and had to sleep with oxygen. The team spent a night there. Next day, while most team members went back to base camp, another team mate and I went about 300 m above North Col, both to acclimatise further and to take in the otherworldly vistas that only an eight-thousander can offer.

2006, San Francisco
I am slow on the mountains. To compensate, I carefully selected small teams, partners closely matched to my speed. And I worked out like mad, three hours a day, six days a week, in the gym. Saturday night, I would take anti-inflammatories to relax my muscles, rest on Sunday, then start training again on Monday.

In 2006, a blood test said I had Beta Thalassemia Minor (BTM), low haemoglobin in the blood, crippling for a climber. It dawned on me that being anaemic had been a gift, making me craft a quiet, self-sufficient style that has served me well.

Once I knew I had BTM, I accepted that my speed thresholds were what they were, and became more scientific in my approach. Research guided my routine. I rest when I get anaerobic, persist when I throw up. Just acknowledging the BTM, then setting it aside and getting back to training, has kept me on course.

2006, Everest
Back at ABC, our doctor arrived. But she was unable to help. The team descended to Base Camp to recover and rejuvenate. We took acclimatisation hikes to the nearby village. A few days later the team leader gave me the option of staying back at Base Camp due to my health and said that the rest of the team would head back to ABC for an ‘optional’ hike. One has to keep moving to stay strong, so it seemed logical and I continued my hikes to the village below.

After four days, the team called to say that they felt there was a good weather window and they would take a shot at summit. I was a two-day walk away, and was appalled that the team would leave me behind. I packed, and made the 22 km climb through rugged terrain in one day, getting there totally spent. But the team had already left.

Next morning, I decided to go up myself. The expedition organiser, who had decided not to summit in the last weeks preceding the climb, came by my tent. I had expected he would be apologetic, even supportive, but to my horror, he started yelling at me. I began to understand what was going on.

Of the two sherpas assigned to accompany me, one had an incredibly bad cough and the other was not exceptionally fit. As I went past ABC, something inside me collapsed. I had this deep feeling that something was terribly wrong. While most team-mates had rested there for several days, I had made a marathon dash and was continuing straight on to summit. My intuition said, not now, not like this. I came back to ABC for the day.

2001, Aconcagua, Argentina
It was unbearably cold, it felt a lot colder than -40°C. I had summited, and was on the way down, when I crossed paths with an Austrian man on his way up. It was late, and it would get colder. When I spoke, I couldn’t tell if I spoke or just thought that I had. I yelled at him, told him to turn around and head back down, or he would die. He seemed to speak very little English. He asked me to take a photo as he would be alone when he got to the top. I knew that further down, there was a Dutch climber who needed help. This was no place to wait for the Austrian.

I decided to keep moving down and to help the Netherlander. Getting down with no flashlights and no maps was dangerous, but we made it. I woke up the team leader of a neighbouring team, borrowed his satellite phone and called Rescue, but it was too stormy for them to get to the Austrian. When they did get through two days later, they found him collapsed near where I had encountered him, in critical condition. They could not save him.

That climb changed me. After months of training, getting psyched to bag a peak, instead of accomplishment or contentment, I felt only deep despair.

I resolved to make future climbs about the process, to enjoy the moment, to let summiting become  secondary. A climb is won, I decided, if one adheres to the values of safety, friendship, summit. In that order.

Over the years each climb brought new challenges. Physical and logistical challenges are easy; interpersonal problems have a way of getting magnified at altitude. I remember the accidents the most. Like when a friend had fallen head-first, and I had to hold his head together as we waited for a navy helicopter to get him. Most times, things happened on other teams and we tried to help as best as we could.

2006, Everest
It had been almost a month since I had partly lost vision. Yet I felt strong inside. I talked to other teams at ABC to see if I could, after a couple of days rest, put an ad-hoc team together. I did not have much luck. I headed down to BC to see if I might be able to find another team to work with. There, I heard that one of my former team’s members had collapsed near the top, and the team expended all the resources it could to save him. There was no way for me to get back up to help. Other teams seemed equally washed out.

I continued to look for options to make a summit bid. Finally, an Irish doctor warned me that taking Codeine to numb the pain from the broken ribs would make me dull when I needed to be the sharpest. Then he asked, “We don’t know why you lost vision in your right eye but what if you were on your way to summit and lost vision in the left too?”

Convinced, I reluctantly gave up.

I returned to Mumbai and Chennai to see eye doctors and to let my ribs heal. For a while it was unclear what would happen: Surgery or self-recovery. As it went, in a few months the vision, ever so slowly, returned. (Today I sometimes confuse an ‘i’ for an ‘l’ and see a little waviness in some words, but for the most part, I have normal vision.) I took this to be a divine sign to climb Everest again.

In 2008, we had to cancel because of riots in Tibet. In 2012, I was able to secure a sponsor, but at the last minute that crazy cough returned even before I set foot on the mountain, and I had to cancel the expedition. Numerous visits to doctors, ENT surgeons, and a CT scan followed.

This year, I had to cancel again. Then, via the web, I found a couple of doctors including one professor at a local medical university. They called it a “once in a blue moon asthma” triggered by certain conditions, and gave me a simple cure. Wallah, the problem was solved in a day.

My sponsors have been kind and patient and stuck with me for the next season. I can see and the cough issue is now resolved. Ahead is another season of training, another handful of good training climbs. A few extra bottles of oxygen to compensate for the Beta Thalassemia Minor and I will be ready again.

I think back to my heroes, Tenzing and Hillary, in that long-ago documentary. Most of all, I remember their camaraderie: Until they died, they never revealed who had summited first. “We did it together,” they said. And that’s how I will go to the top too, with my climbing partner.

Atop Mount Everest: A Climber's Account of Scaling the Highest Peak
Image: Brad Clement / Spindrift Film
Just above Camp 1, in the Western Cwm, at around 20,000 feet

What does it take to climb Everest?

Cynics say that these days, climbing Everest is all about money: If you have enough, you can be practically carried up to the peak. It’s true that you do need money (about which, more below), and that there is a mini-industry that caters to climbers, making the ascent much more accessible and far easier than it was 60 years ago. Easier. Not easy. You still need to do a bit of work.

Step zero: can you take altitude?
The ability to acclimatise is genetic: Some very fit triathletes might not be able to handle it; a lifelong couch potato might have it in his genes to do so.

The only way to find out: Go to about 3,000 m above sea level—options include the Char Dhams and Leh—after having spent a full night at 2,000 m. If you have mild headaches, loss of appetite, and a feeling of malaise, no problem; that happens to the best climbers. But if you have significant headaches and vomiting, chances are altitude climbing is not for you. Bottom line: If your body reacts intensely, it just won’t work.

Do the preparation
You must learn technique: Using ropes and pitons; traversing a glacier; rescuing someone who has fallen into a crevasse; maximising your chances of rescue if you fall into a crevasse; arresting your fall if you begin to slip off the side of a mountain; fixing things when the right tools are not available. That’s just a small sample. You must also learn about the clothing and equipment you will need, and how that changes with terrain and weather.

Do an advanced mountaineering course. After years of ad-hoc training, I felt as though I had a good handle on mountaineering. In fact, it was only last year that I enrolled in a formal course, and believe me, there were a few tricks this old dog got to learn!

That said, there is no substitute for actually going out and putting yourself in different situations. Climb as many peaks in as many terrains, conditions and altitudes as you can before even considering Everest.

This will also help you with the other important learning: Dealing with fear. It is scary the first time you are alone in the wilderness; the first time the cold gets intolerable; the first time you encounter super-windy conditions; the first time you sleep on a narrow ledge with a sheer 1,000 m drop below. All these are little deaths of the ego, and an exhilarating rebirth when one conquers them. This, by far, is the most important part of gaining experience.

Also crucial: Cardiovascular fitness. Best way? Do something that you enjoy that increases endurance and strength. Do it five days a week. Most climbers run or bike as part of their fitness regimen; some are professional guides, so their jobs give them a good workout. In the last few months before a big climb, you can assess your cardiovascular and strength fitness and do a more focussed gym routine.

I used to spend several hours a day exercising, but in the last season, after my BTM diagnosis, I made my training truly scientific, and I have cut training time to an hour a day.

Paying the bill
You’ll need  a strong wallet, or a sponsor. Set aside  $40,000 to $65,000 (~ Rs 21 lakh to Rs 35 lakh) for logistics fees, and roughly the same again to purchase gear, pay for last-year training climbs and airfare.

A barebones logistics vendor (who may not have a great safety record) will cost around $30,000 (~Rs 16.2 lakh), and you’ll need to pay for your own training, gear, and airfare. Or you could go with a vendor with a strong safety record and pay them $65,000 (~Rs 35 lakh).

Budget for extras like additional oxygen bottles ($500 per bottle, ~Rs 27,000, or an additional Sherpa to accompany you ($5,000, ~Rs 2.7 lakh). A self-organised expedition could set you back as much as $100,000 (~Rs 55 lakh).

Gautam Patil analyses businesses, delivers motivational workshops, and climbs high peaks. He lives in the San Francisco area. More about him at  gautampatil.com

(This story appears in the 31 May, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Gaurav Mehta

    sir mounteverst per jana chata hu mein ek hearing handicaped hu log mera mazak udate hai kya mein ja sakta hu please aap information meri email id per de iske liye traning kah se le jati hai Gauravmehta174@gmail.com

    on Sep 1, 2013
  • Ashok

    Climbing Everest is beyond my pay grade, saw it from a small aircraft, a distinctive streak of snow seeming to fly east from it, but, as a young man, stood in reverence at Gaumukh, at the spot where the pristine Ganga makes into the world. These worlds belong more to the gods than to men.

    on Jun 6, 2013