Tag : everest

Partnerships

The original article features on the Bank of Ireland UK Inspiring Blog series: MDT Bank of Ireland UK Partnerships

Over the past few weeks, I have been working on a project for the Bank of Ireland UK with the overriding theme being partnership. The concept of partnership is most commonly attributed with marriage, more recently civil partnership, and of course, cricket. In the business world, examples of partnership include joint ventures, franchises and even colleague teamwork stretching throughout the business hierarchy. Partnerships can be found everywhere and are an essential part of life, they are the catalyst to progress, competition and success.

Partnerships however can be difficult to come by, and even once formed, they can be fragile; susceptible to a host of fluctuations, momentum shifts, moods and even unexpected success.

That said, I wanted to share a story I have of partnership which was found in the most unlikely of places; at the bolder strewn base camp of Mount Everest. On Everest at the start of the season, Sherpas are busy taking loads up the mountain, fixing ropes, establishing high camps, and generally doing tasks which would be out of the reach of all but the strongest and most physiologically adept western climber. Sherpas are born to be on Everest, literally. They have a superior oxygen carrying capacity having spent their childhood in the high foot hills surrounding the world’s highest mountain.

As a climber on Everest in 2012, I only met my Sherpa days before we started the climb up Everest. Each Sherpa is allocated to a western climber by the Sirdar, the head Sherpa for the expedition who spends an afternoon deliberating over which climbers and Sherpa’s would be most suited as climbing partners. And they do it with surprising accuracy, often matching not only the climbing ability, but also the personality.

Chhewang Dorjee was to be my Sherpa. He was of slight build, quiet, unassuming, and generally a quiet character around camp, but also strong. All Sherpas are strong, but as with many individuals, the quiet ones often have hidden talents waiting to be discovered.

Once I had done all my climbing rotations on the mountain and had successfully acclimatised up to an altitude of 7,000m, we were ready for the final push up Everest; to climb all the way from base camp to the summit and back to base camp in a period of 6 days. This would be no easy feat, nearly impossible for an individual, but within a close knit team, the seemingly impossible comes within reach.

I started climbing with Chhewang at camp 3 at around 7,000m, early in the morning. Our climb was up the steep Lhotse face, across the Yellow Band and Geneva Spur, and across to camp 4, the highest camp on the Nepalese side of Everest at around 8,000m; within the death zone. Starting from camp 3, Chhewang arrived just as I was getting ready to exit the tent. This would be the first time I had climbed using supplementary oxygen, and so Chhewang helped me to set the equipment up and set the correct flowrate. Chhewang and I had only had very brief conversations up until this point since he had been so busy ferrying loads up and down the mountain; and so given that I had an oxygen mask on, we very quickly built up a method of communicating through exaggerated pointing, eye movements and general bad acting.

Chhewang’s duty was to climb with me to the summit and ensure both of us made it down in one piece. I didn’t enjoy this pressure because I like to climb, I like to be self sufficient and I wanted Chhewang to enjoy the climb too. Even for a Sherpa, it must be a special moment to stand on the summit, like their fathers and fathers before them. Chhewang however was under great pressure, although I would only find this out later.

In line with Chhewang’s perceived duties, he would double check each time I clipped in a new rope, almost each step I made, he was watching. He wasn’t particularly old, maybe 28 years old or less, but he had summited Everest 5 times before, so he certainly felt like my guide.

The route started to get busy with climbers and soon Chhewang realised I was a competent climber, and so he set on up the mountain at a terrific pace to go and prepare camp 4, ready for us whenever we reached the South Col, many hours later.

We reached the col at 4pm after a long 9 hour day. We would set off for the summit at 8pm which only gave us 4 hours to rest and recover. Chhewang was recovering in the Sherpas tent, and I recovered with Rick and Mollie. We were all exhausted after a long day, but the Sherpas knew this so they came and helped us boil water for the summit push and generally make life just a little more enjoyable, all the while our bodies were slowly dying in the oxygen starved atmosphere.

At 7:45pm, it was pitch black. I emerged from the tent to see Chhewang waiting for me. He helped me again with my oxygen system, and we checked each other to make sure we were all set for the climb ahead. I treated Chhewang like my climbing partner, he expected to just make sure I was ready and then for us to head off into the night, but I wanted to ensure he was feeling okay too.

Once he reluctantly nodded to me, we set off into the night with only pathetic head torches guiding the way. Valerie, a Frenchwoman on our team had a torch as bright as a collapsed star, rendering our candles effectively useless when her searchlight shone up the mountain.

We climbed for 10 hours through the night. Chhewang stayed by my side for the entire climb and I felt at ease, confident in both our abilities, and whilst climbing together up towards the South Summit, I started to enjoy the experience. There was an effortlessness to our climbing, despite the ultra high altitude. In part this was due to the trickle of oxygen we were receiving each minute, but equally, we seemed to climb well together, with similar personalities and love for the mountains. The Sherpas said we had similar thumbs, and that this meant “same thumbs, different mothers”; the Nepalese for kindrid spirits, I guess.

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You can tell a good partner, especially in climbing, because 99% of the time, they’re just your shadow. What really sets a good partner apart though is when things go wrong. A good partner is instinctive, they suddenly become very present and quickly take control of a situation.

This was elegantly displayed when I ran out of oxygen 50m from the summit. Instead of Chhewang carrying on for the 30 seconds it would take him to reach the summit, he immediately started changing bottles and making sure I didn’t overdramatise the situation any further. Of all the places to run out of oxygen, touching distance from the summit wouldn’t be the one I would choose given that’s where the air is thinnest. Having never experienced this situation before (breathing effectively oxygenless air), I was a little taken back by the sudden desire to hyperventilate, but Chhewang was calm, did his thing, and we then stumbled the rest of the way to the summit.

In 2012, Everest was notoriously crowded, part and parcel of the worlds highest mountain, I guess. But having reached the summit with relative ease, we were a little surprised to find that we were unable to get down, simply due to the trail which was only wide enough for one climber, already being occupied by several more climbing up. It seems crazy that the most technically difficult obstacle to overcome on Everest that year were the other climbers, but I didn’t consider this when I was standing below the Hillary step wondering how I was going to climb along the narrow and infamous cornice traverse somehow passing 10 climbers already on the route. Chhewang had already climbed on to the South Summit and was waiting for me, but after an hour of waiting, he did something I thought was pretty incredible considering the altitude. He climbed on the steepest part of the cornice traverse, completely unclipped from any ropes, around all the other climbers, then on reaching my stance, tied us both together and led us both back along the route. He understood that the danger of waiting and succumbing to frostbite outweighed the risk of falling.

When climbing down from the summit, I realised the great invisible stress and pressure which Chhewang was subjected to, and which I eluded to earlier, was slowly beginning to lift. It wouldn’t completely go until we hugged at the bottom of the icefall at the foot of base camp, knowing we were safe. That pressure was the single thing which stuck out to me about our partnership. Chhewang felt, as a Sherpa, that it was his duty to reach the summit with me, and then get us both down alive again. It was so humbling to see someone who barely knew me, place such a high importance on my own life, and I realised I wasn’t just climbing safely for my own life, it was for Chhewang too.

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After 6 days on the mountain together, we were brothers. It is a partnership like I have never previously experienced, where you actively trust your partner with your life, having previously never met them and even without a common language to communicate with. I wouldn’t have unclipped from the rope and climbed along the cornice traverse with an 8,000ft drop below me solo, yet as soon as Chhewang reached me, I placed all my trust in him.

Of course, successful partnerships are two way processes, and I would like to think that beyond fair payment, I gave Chhewang the loyalty and respect he deserved in a climbing partner, and placed in him the trust needed to reach the top of Everest.

I would never have reached the summit without Chhewang, but in a strange way, he wouldn’t have made the summit without me, or at least someone like me, either.

And that is why, each time I venture back to Nepal and see a Sherpa with whom I have previously climbed, a knowing smile crosses both our faces as we flashback to that time where we both stood at the summit of a mountain, together, and simply gazed out across the Himalaya.

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Ethics of Everest

After doing countless hours of research into climbing Mount Everest in preparation for my attempt in 2012, I have found it harder and harder to discuss the topic of climbing Everest without stumbling over the endless pitfalls of the current ethics of climbing the mountain.  It seems almost everyone has an opinion, from Everest summiteers, to adventure athletes, and even a surprising amount of journalists. There are several contentious areas for debate, such as an appropriate lower age limit, the technological advancements around the mountain, the guided expedition issue, and the timeless debate as to whether it is easier now than when Hillary and Tenzing first summited the majestic mountain.

An age old question

A tough question to answer is what is too young to climb Everest. Is 13 years too young? Is 20 years too young? In fact, can you ever be old enough to be able to fully comprehend and fully grasp the decision to climb Everest? 2010 saw an influx of young people attempting the climb; and within a few days, a 22 year old became the youngest British female climber to have climbed the mountain, and a 13 year old boy became the youngest boy in the world to have summited. The former sparked the unavoidable media frenzy, which asked the question is it morally acceptable to take a person that young, who may not be able to fully appreciate the risks involved, to the top of Everest? Personally I think it depends a lot on the situation. Take for example Bonita Norris. She summited Mount Everest in 2010, becoming the youngest British female aged 22. What makes this more compelling is the fact that she was a novice climber only a few years before climbing Everest. You may then argue that this was a reckless attempt on the grounds of lack of experience, however, after following Bonita and reading about the training she did to overcome this experience deficit, it then becomes apparent that this was not as reckless as it appears on the surface. It would be easy for a non climber to say the 2 years Bonita spent training was completely inadequate and left an attempt on Everest irresponsible. Bonita was in fact, by far the most experienced climber at high altitude on Kenton Cool’s team, and much more experienced than most others on the mountain, who may be deemed older and wiser by non climbers, however this was most certainly not the case.

Jordan Romero was the 13 year old boy, the youngest in the world to climb Everest as of 2010. My concerns lie not with Jordan, but with the ‘challenge’ he has inadvertently created. From hearing interviews by Jordan and his Dad in particular, the climb comes across as quite a clinical operation, with Jordan proving himself on big mountains such as Aconcagua before attempting Everest. By all accounts, and in all honesty, what he achieved was an amazing feat for a person of that age.

However, soon after the climb, there were reports that a Sherpa was planning to take an 11/12 year old boy, or failing that, take his own 10 year old son to reclaim the record!

When you hear statements like this, you have to ask; is it in the spirit of Mountaineering? After all, that spirit is why everyone started climbing in the first place. Furthermore, from everything that I have seen and read, Everest is certainly no place to ‘mess about’.

Fortunately, both Nepal and China have imposed age limits at 16 and 18 years respectively. This does at least show a degree of responsibility from the bordering countries.

Technology

The spirit of mountaineering brings me on to the point of technological advancements on the mountain. This article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11651509 explains how there is now 3G at Everest! This mix of technology and nature is definitely not in the spirit of mountaineering, when one of the qualities of mountains is they are normally in remote areas, and give people a chance to escape the modern society of the western world.

Guided Expeditions

The issue of guided expeditions is certainly one that has raised a substantial amount of press, ever since the 1996 climbing season on Everest. The conclusion from that season is that too many companies were offering to literally ‘guide’ you up the mountain for money. A simple concept, however a deadly one when you read reports of people who were being taught to use crampons at base camp! This takes the ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ motto to a whole new dimension.

First Assents

As to whether it is easier now than when Hillary and Tenzing first summited Everest, if you ignore all other arguments, you have to remember that one of the most important elements of a first assent is route finding. Thanks to Hillary and Tenzing, climbers aiming to summit by the southeast ridge follow the same route Hillary and Tenzing first made over 50 years ago. Route finding is no longer such an immense part of the Everest climb as it was in the first assent. The speed climber Ueli Steck sums this up well when he says he is no better than Heckmair, Vörg, Harrer and Kasparek, the first people to climb the North Face of the Eiger, even though he summited the face in 2 hours 47 minutes, compared with the 3 day first assent.

My Expedition

This makes me think about, and gives me the unfortunate need to justify my own expedition. Starting with the age argument, it is very hard to justify whether you are old enough to undertake such an expedition; however, I do believe in my argument that the specific situation counts for a lot. As Bonita, and even Jordan showed, although they were young, they made up for the lack of age by climbing big mountains, and gaining vital experience at high altitude. In my preparation to climb Everest, I will be amongst others, attempting Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain in the world, in an effort to gain much needed knowledge about how my body will cope at that elevation.

As for the technology, I am a big believer that the magic of mountaineering has a great deal to do with the solitude and separation from the hustle and bustle of the city. For me, there is nothing better than waking up in a deserted valley in the Lake District, and feeling like you have the whole place to yourself.

There is also the issue of the guided expeditions. I think I have found a good compromise, in a well known and respected company called Adventure Peaks, based in Cumbria. Their expeditions are professionally ‘led’ rather than guiding, meaning only people with experience at high altitude and on similar peaks are deemed acceptable for the expedition. This means all their climbers are self sufficient, and whilst there is the invaluable support of Sherpas, at no point are the climbers rigidly guided to the top.

Finally, after seeing Conrad Anker free climb the 2nd Step in ‘The wildest Dream’ without the Chinese ladder, I have only admiration for people who make the first assents. I hope one day I too can muster up the courage needed, when route finding takes you into the unknown. However, there can only be one first assent of the actual mountain itself, and that has already been accomplished, but surely, that shouldn’t degrade subsequent attempts, or stop people from wanting to climb the mountain; after all, this is Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, and that has to count for something.

Ultimately, and having only scratched the surface, the ethics of Everest is a lengthy debate which I don’t intend to revisit in a hurry, but by far the most important message I can offer, is to climb with the same spirit with which you first climbed, the same spirit by which the first mountaineers and explorers climbed the world’s most magnificent peaks:

“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for” George Leigh Mallory, 1922.

I hope you found this remotely interesting! And I would love to hear your feedback.

You can read more about Bonita Norris’s Everest expedition here: http://www.bonitanorris.com/

Adventure peaks can be found at: http://www.adventurepeaks.com/