1am – the alarm goes off. I ease my body out of the warm cocoon of the sleeping bag, slowly dress and head down to the mess tent. Oatmeal and toast.
We eat breakfast in introspective silence. Not quite awake yet fully aware that ‘this is it’, a start of this mythical climb. This is why both of us are here… to fulfil a dream to climb this beast of a mountain, to be humbled by it, not to be fooled into sense of personal invincibility and still to find ourselves amongst those who got to stand on top of the world and made it down safely.
We walk out of the dining tent and head to the stupa with scent from burning of sage brush. We throw rice onto the fire, circumvent in clock-wise direction and head for the icefall.
It’s a new moon. Just a sliver of it. It’s a warm still night. With a headlight one can only see some 2 meters ahead. 30 minutes in we get to the crampon point. I look up and see a snake line of headlamps heading higher into the belly of the icefall.
I night-dream and think back to how my passion for climbing came out of these nocturnal alpine adventures: heading out of refuges in the wee hours of the morning, traveling on glaciers and meeting the first rays of the dawn. I think back to the Matterhorn climb – following the headlamps of others, moving fast in darkness and being utterly unaware of potentially deadly exposure.
Khumbu icefall – a landmark on the route to Camp 1 – is an infamous guardian of Everest. In 2014 it claimed the life of 14 sherpas who were caught in avalanche that bounced off large chunks of ice.
I focus on the task at hand: moving fast through blue ice. ‘Climbing Everest, no big deal’ says Colin. We laugh and suddenly relax… And there goes another hour of meandering upwards amidst huge ice blocks, crossing ladders, making leaping steps onto ice bridges.
2 hours into the journey pre-dawn light gathers and provides contours to the majestic range we now know so well: Pumo Ri, Nuptse, Lho-la. The morning light streams in more – making rock folds dusted by fresh snow achingly beautiful. Your heart just goes… seracs, blocks of cracked ice, rock – it’s so bloody beautiful. I almost break into tears from feeling the extraordinary privilege of being able to be here, to carry on this route, to have enough experience not to lose my wits and be able to be here in this moment, not in the tense claws of fear.
At times, the going gets tough and I find myself out of breath or on the last energy stretch. ‘Time to eat’… I stuff half a ‘Bounty’ bar in my mouth and ten minutes on energy reappears. Waiting for one’s turn at ladders provides a minute or two to get your breathing back to ‘conversational’ pace.
It’s now 6:30 and we get to the last layer of the icefall cake shaky half-suspended ladder that finishes in mid-air with a transition to the side into dubious steps broken in a vertical wall. Last stretch and I rise up above to see the plateau of Western Cwn that stretches towards Lhotse face. Camp 1 is another 30 minutes of meandering on the flat crevassed territory. 10 minutes and we see the Southern summit of Everest. It seems less off-putting close-up – trompe-oeil no doubt given that it is 2800m higher than C1.
My hands are frozen. I put on a puffy and change gloves. It takes 10 minutes to warm up. The sun appears and I settle on a matt for a well deserved nap under the sun…
4 hours later on we are holed up in a tent in snow blizzard… Tomorrow we will be resting here hoping to grow more red blood cells to help us up in the thinner air.