Photograph: Copyright Gavin Turner
Mount Everest, a.k.a. Sagarmatha, a.k.a Chomolungma is tallest mountain on the face of the Earth. It is hostile and compelling, beautiful and capable of killing.
In addition to the bodies of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine there were also the remains of seven porters frozen on Everest when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the the summit of Everest in May 1953. Everest is a mountain where death and triumph are inextricably linked.
Mount Everest (the western variety of the name was given to the mountain by Andrew Waugh after his predecessor in the post of British Surveyor General of India, Sir George Everest) is a comparatively young mountain which began life at below sea level; the remains of marine microorganisms have been found 300 feet below the summit. We use Himalayan sea salt in cooking. Like all adolescents its behaviour is not always rational or predictable. Capable of stunning beauty and deadly climatic extremes it is both goddess and bitch.
Photo: Copyright Gavin Turner
However well prepared you are, however fit, redoubtable and determined the mountain can and will defeat you. It’s latest production was an avalanche. “Fifteen high-altitude Sherpa guides including base camp cooks were killed by an Everest avalanche on Friday morning, the deadliest single mountaineering accident ever on the world’s highest peak. At least eight people have been rescued, some of them with serious frost-bite injuries.” (ekantipur.) Three are still missing.
Our friend with a great love of mountains and experienced mountaineer was on the icefall with his Sherpa when the avalanche struck. He wrote on his FaceBook page: “I was climbing through the icefall this morning at about 6am when a very large avalanche struck a couple of hundred meters above us. I was with my incredible Sherpa, Phu Tsering. We watched the enormous avalanche cloud approach us and we were both covered in snow dust. After some initial concern, we knew we were safe and essentially out of harms way. Phu Tsering chanted some Buddhist prayers and made an offering to the mountain. The avalanche cloud covered us, but fortunately we were a couple of hundred meters under the impact zone.”
The Sherpas are an ethnic group from the mountainous region of eastern Nepal. A powerful, resourceful and independent people many have come to make their living on the mountains where they are regarded as knowledgeable, experienced and capable of great feats at extreme altitudes (possibly because of genetic adaptions). A tremendous bond is quickly formed between a climber and his/her Sherpa. It is impossible to quantify the impact their deaths will have on their families and community.
Gavin wrote: “I spoke with my sherpa before he left and he informed me that he would not be returning. Yesterday, with tears in his eyes, he showed me photos of his wife and two year old son. For him, the risk of returning is simply too great, the financial reward of working on Everest irrelevant compared to his love and connection to his family. I fully support his decision. We hugged before he left and he gave me a small packet of rice as an offering I should make to the mountain.”
Gavin was planning to climb one on one with Phu Tsering (the Sherpas like Gavin because he is strong, fast and knowledgeable) the classic method of reaching the summit. I suspect they also like him because he is knowledgeable, respectful of the mountain, peoples and culture, and has humility.
Sitting in his tent at Base Camp it is impossible to know what thoughts and feelings are possessing Gavin. It is no small feat properly preparing for an ascent. Beyond the financial outlay there are the months of rigorous training, preparatory climbs (Gavin did a solo climb of Aconcagua in South America in preparation) his one goal is walking along the ridge towards the summit of Everest as the sun is rising.
A climber experiences two ascents simultaneously on the mountain, the mental and the physical.
Mountains have individual characters, climbers address them as people. One can only imagine the dialogue that Chomolungma and Gavin are currently experiencing.
You can find my Q & A with Gavin here: http://everestandthetoenail.com/2014/02/23/toward-everest-qa-with-mountaineer-gavin-turner/
The Icefall the afternoon following the Avalanche. (Photo Copyright: Gavin Turner.)
Mingma Nuru Sherpa(Namche-4)
Dorji Sherpa (Namche-9)
Ang Tshiri Sherpa (Namche-7)
Nima Sherpa (Namche-9)
Phurba Ongyal Sherpa (Khumjung-7)
Lhakpa Tenjing Sherpa (Khumjung-2)
Chhring Ongchu Sherpa (Khumjung-2
Dorjee Khatri (Taplejung)
Dorjee Sherpa (Khumjung-7)
Phur Temba Sherpa (Sankhasabha)
Pasang Karma Sherpa (Juving-5)
Asman Tamang (Sotang-9)
(Source: Tourism Ministry)
What a city! Quite incredible. Interesting flight from San Francisco which included a brutal moment of turbulence that, even with my seat belt on caused me to leave my seat, limbs all over the place. Watching the wings flexing and the engines on the Jumbo shaking and moving with the wings showed just how hostile flying can be. Given recent events over the South China Seas it was a sobering moment, a situation eased by some delightful company each side of me on the exit row. The CoP was further up the cabin due to a United cock-up, but I was entertained by the company of two unique individuals who helped the hours fly by. Two excellent movies Philomena, and About Time watched on flights at some point over the past three weeks. Hard to believe I am back here so much happened.
A wonderful trip to the top.
These are Gavin’s answers to a series questions I sent him. Gavin is on an expedition to climb Mount Everest in April/May. He is a man with a profound love and knowledge of climbing, mountains and the culture and peoples who live in their shadow and overwhelming presence. Wish him well, follow him on Facebook.
Q & A with Mountaineer
You can follow Gavin at Toward Everest on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GavinTurnerExpeditions
Help turn Gavin’s ascent of Mount Everest into a dream for others, donate to
What first compelled you to become a climber?
I’ve always loved to climb, so it’s hard to know what first compelled me. Some of my earliest memories are of climbing up the narrow walls of the hallway inside my grandparent’s home. It was fun, challenging and the view was different from up there! As a teenager I would climb this huge pine tree in my backyard and scramble up coastal cliffs near where I grew up in South Australia. There was a sense of freedom in that. Even back then I was already enthralled by the spirit of climbing.
You enjoy solo climbing. What is it that gives you such pleasure?
There is a purity of experience that comes with solo climbing. Everything is magnified. It’s just me and the mountain. It’s a rare experience. While I’m climbing I’m totally engaged and focused on the mountain and what’s going on around me. While the external environment demands attention, the inner experience is of equal value to me. The mountains are great teachers. Cultures all around the world have understood that and the same is true today as it was thousands of years back. A lot of striving, determination and struggle takes place in the mountains. That is what is most evident from the outside. People setting big goals and all the focus and commitment it takes to get there, pushing on despite the challenges. But there is also a lot of letting go and acceptance required. Climbing does take determination and perseverance, but it also requires balanced decision making and sound judgment and knowing when to say “not today”. There is a gracefulness in saying “not today” amidst the energy that pushing for a summit brings. I’ve enjoyed and learned as much from those times as when I’ve made it to the summit.
Race car drivers have specific behaviours to deal with fear and danger. What are yours?
Mountain climbing, in general, takes place very slowly. Up high on Everest, just a few steps every minute, so it is quite different from car racing! It’s not an adrenaline fuelled sport. Staying in the present, which climbing demands, is the best way to mange the fear and uncertainty that big mountains can create. It’s always about the next step, staying in the moment, one breath at a time. It’s easy to lose perspective, get overwhelmed and then succumb to the desire to be safe and warm somewhere else. I continuously assess my own body and how I’m feeling in terms of the altitude. Is my thinking still okay? I’ll perform some basic cognitive tests on myself to make sure I’m still doing okay. But coming back to the next step I’m taking and staying calm and balanced is the key for me.
On one climb of Rainier I was at about 13,000ft on a lesser climbed route, we had climbed through the crux (the most technical section of the route) and the sky was blue and conditions ideal. We were already celebrating the summit, even though we were about 2 hours away. With little notice, and in a period of no more than 15 minutes, the conditions changed and we were in a total whiteout, with visibility less than 50 feet. Snow and ice was blowing sideways as the wind picked up on the upper mountain. In these conditions, it is difficult to focus on the ground and it is hard to know if you are moving uphill or downhill. It’s a challenging place to be. My climbing partner and I stopped and assessed our situation. We were close to the summit and would be able to descend the standard route from the summit. Turning back now would mean a difficult down climb, something we had agreed we wanted to avoid if possible. But continuing higher on a mountain, into a storm, its asking for trouble. So we turned around. About 7 hours later we were back at the car, thankful for the decision we had made.
What is your single most cherished climbing achievement to date and why?
My solo climbs on Rainier have all been very satisfying. As was my recent climb of Aconcagua, in December 2013. I didn’t climb a technical route, the expedition was more of a warm-up for Everest. I reached the summit of Aconcagua just 9 days after entering the Park and climbed from Camp 1 at 16,000ft to the summit at 23,000ft in 9 hours and returned to Camp 1 later the same night. I was by myself, too, so to spend those long hours up high by myself, with no one else on the upper mountain, and to have the summit to myself, it was very satisfying!
Who are the climbers you most admire, past or present?
For Himalayan climbers, Reinhold Messner stands out. What he did on the 8000ers was remarkable. First ascents, solos, without oxygen. Chris Bonnington too. These days, Ueli Stick is doing some pretty wild stuff! There are many great climbers out there. I don’t read climbing magazines, so I’m not up to date with the whose who in the climbing world.
How important is it that you will be following in the footsteps of the great mountaineers?
I think the history and stories will become more inspirational once I am on Everest. Right now, I’m focused on my training and staying healthy. When I’m training, my mind often goes to what summit night will be like on the SE Ridge of Everest. I’ll know the answer to that soon.
Everest is the highest point on the surface of the earth. Apart from that what are the key reasons for wanting to summit? Why do it?
I knew that was coming! It’s a hard question to answer. It’s Everest. It’s such a powerful place. I would say for every mountaineer, Everest represents a pinnacle experience.
Everest is symbolic, a metaphor, for the human experience. Great highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies, dreams realised and shattered. It all takes place there. I have always believed in following my dreams and pushing the boundaries of my own potential. I guess this climb is about both of those.
Is the climbing history of Everest important to you? I’m not an Everest history buff, but I’ve read about some of the more famous climbs…it’s inspiring stuff! Venables’ climb of the Kangshung Face, Bonnington’s on the SW Ridge, Messner in ’78 and ’80, Hornbein and Unsoeld on the West Ridge…there’s more. These guys were pioneers. Legends.
Do you think Mallory made it to the summit?
Mallory was an incredible explorer. Tibet and Everest must have been so rugged and wild 90 years ago. While Conrad Anker was able to solo the Second Step, I am not sure if Mallory had the skill and strength to do so. What seems clear (by the location of his body) is that Mallory was descending when he fell. So perhaps he got to the Second Step and after giving it his all, decided he couldn’t climb it, and turned around. Or maybe he was able to climb the Step, summit and died on the way down. I think he probably turned around at the Second Step.
How important is physical fitness as you prepare for April?
It’s very important. A high level of physical fitness, which includes not just cardiovascular stamina but strength and power too, will enable me to effectively respond to the demands of Everest.
I have developed a good base of endurance over many years of hiking and climbing, and this is essential for Everest. But stamina alone is not sufficient for optimal performance. Traditional endurance training typically favoured a high volume and low to moderate intensity method of training. This leads to imbalances and weaknesses in areas that have been ignored. Many endurance athletes and coaches have discovered this to be true. Extensive research has now shown that intensity is the most important factor in an athletes training program. More than any other training variable, it is intensity that brings the results. Considering this, developing a broad base of functional fitness and cultivating a sharper, more powerful edge to my endurance has been my focus in training for Everest. For this reason, I have chosen to use CrossFit to train for Everest.
I have been averaging about 10 sessions of CrossFit per week. The variety of a CrossFit workout keeps me on my toes and helps to keep me interested and focused whilst training. The emphasis on functional movements is important because the body gets used to moving as it was designed to move – as a whole, integrated system. CrossFit fosters a balanced athleticism and a confidence to tackle diverse challenges. The high intensity, which CrossFit is well known for, conditions my cardiovascular system for the challenges of climbing at extreme altitudes – as it will need to function high on Everest. I’ve done a lot of work with sleds, developing leg strength through the front squat and back squat, high intensity rowing and running intervals to supercharge my lungs and a lot of classic CrossFit stuff like box jumps, kettle bell swings and burpees! CrossFit keeps me engaged, it’s fun, challenging and I get to push myself and, ultimately, I’ve developed an all-round fitness and strength in ways I would have never imagined.
Mental preparation is also vital. What techniques are you using to prepare for this particular climb?
Mountaineering is largely mental. On summit day, really on any mountain, when the body is exhausted and lungs are burning, it’s all about the mental game. Physically it’s a lot of suffering. I’ve only been above 26,000ft once (on Cho Oyu, which I climbed in 2008). It’s a stressful environment. Decision making and judgment are impacted by the lack of oxygen, as well as the extreme exhaustion that generally accompanies high altitude mountaineering. Going back to the basics…focusing on the next step, the next breath, one step at a time. There is no rushing the summit of Everest. It’s a long game and I relish that aspect of the climb. It’s similar to completing any large goal…it has to be broken down into smaller parts, otherwise it feels overwhelming. Everest is a big mountain, but a series of steps will get me to the top. My goal is to enjoy each day and get up to high camp feeling positive and strong. One step at a time.
Many people are attempting Everest for reasons other than practicing the art of climbing. Do you think there should be restrictions on who can climb?
I think the Nepali Government should cap the number of expeditions that are allowed to climb each year. But I doubt that will happen. Recently I watched again the IMAX Everest movie that captures the events of 1996. The narrator says that Ed Veisturs is concerned about the large number of teams on the mountain and their inexperience. That year, I think it was about 6-8 teams. This year, there will probably be 25-30 teams on Everest. The crowds are a concern and have become one of the biggest sources of danger for a climber on Everest.
Do you find being part of an expedition conflicts with your love of solo climbing?
No. The great majority of climbers join an expedition when attempting Everest. And its virtually impossible to undertake a true solo climb of Everest these days, as there will always be people on the mountain, most likely right next to you. There are so many mountains in the world that offer a wilderness experience. Unless you’re tacking one of the lesser climbed routes, Everest isn’t one of those. I’m looking forward to being part of a team and yet having the flexibility to climb independently with a Sherpa. That is one of the reasons I chose to go with International Mountain Guides. They are professionals, run a high level outfit and they enable climbers to climb 1-1 with a Sherpa. I know I will benefit enormously from climbing with a Sherpa and I’m looking forward to that part of the trip.
What do you see as the challenges in climbing as part of an expedition?
60 days is a long time and there are different personalities to deal with. Lots of people wanting to climb Everest, so I’m sure it’ll be quite a scene up there. My plan is stay relaxed, patient and enjoy the experience. I’ll be on Everest!
Once you are down from Everest what is the next climbing challenge you are going to focus on?
Not sure, just now. This one first.
What is your favourite piece of equipment?
For Everest, it will be my Mountain Hardwear down suit. That will keep me warm as I climb through the night to the summit!
If it’s not too personal a question, what will you be taking with you to the summit?
Many years of dreaming and inspiration. And some photos of those closest to me to remind me what I’m doing up there, to take photos with them on the summit and as a reminder to get back home safely. That is most important.
I was just up on the roof. Another crystal blue sky day, sun hot, cool breeze, pollution banished to the outer edges of the hills around the valley. Just above the remaining smog in the sky above the hills hung a smudge of rock, a round mountain where the Himalayas could be.
Met with fellow Hashers, this was the view from the car park where we met.
Our walk took us to the top of the hill well behind the house and back again.
On the way up this is what we saw. The air is clear at the moment, a cool breeze blowing in the afternoons blows all the dust and pollution out of the valley affording the most splendid views.