Everest Summit – summary written on May 27, 2010

Since the summit day (May 24th), we have been on the move every day— descending from Camp 4 (C4) to Camp 2 (C2), then C2 to Everest Base Camp (EBC). Then packing and moving out of EBC, and now I’m on my way hiking out of Khumbu Valley.  While busy walking or climbing every day, I have kept on thinking again and again of what happened during the past few days, but didn’t have much time to sit down writing. This is by no means a detailed report; rather, I just want to give everyone a general idea of what our summit day on Everest was like.

Thunder in the heavens

First of all, it’s very important to clarify the actual condition of the summit day, or more accurately, the summit night. The weather forecast was “less wind, but higher probability of precipitation.” There’s no way to know how much “higher” probability and how much precipitation. So we had to go with our guts and hope for the best. The snow and wind started in the afternoon and soon became blowing snow, heavy storm conditions by the time we were ready to ascend.

Camp 2 radioed down, “Hey, we are snowing at Camp 2 here. How are the conditions down there?” Justin humorously responded, “Yah, we see snow coming up from the ground here.”

We started the summit push around 8pm on May 23rd despite the blowing snow and limited visibility. Alpine Ascents also stuck to original summit plan, as we did, in the hopes of conditions improving later. But Rainier Mountaineering (RMI) postponed their summit push to the next day. I started out by fully covering my face with the combination of goggles, balaclava, buff, and oxygen mask.

Slowly, my goggles started to fog up, but I dared not take them off because I have heard several stories of frozen corneas on summit day, and that would be the end of it all! The few times I briefly removed my goggles to clean them, the wind and snow would blind me instantly. I could feel it was very cold out there, but I was keeping myself very warm with a good climbing rhythm until we hit Balcony.

For a short period, there was even thunder and lightning around us. I was a little concerned, but obviously, there was nowhere to escape to and there were not many objects higher than us. Since lightning strikes on Everest are rare and the thunderstorm did not look like a severe one, our guide decided we would continue.

Balcony – a brief panic

My first scary moment came at Balcony (8,400 m, 27,600 ft), where we would change to a new oxygen bottle. I had been climbing at a good pace and did a good job keeping myself warm. After taking me off from my current bottle, my Sherpa Da Tenji found my new bottle leaking. This is considered to be the textbook reason for accidents on Everest! Any problems with an oxygen bottle not only would cost the summit, but more importantly, could easily cost a life.

While he was busy fixing it, I started to get cold fast. There was blowing snow all around us, blinding from all directions. No matter how I turned, it was impossible to find a safe place to drink or eat. As this dragged on for several minutes, too long in my mind, I started to find myself struggling for air, maybe out of panic. It felt like a long time, though I think it might just be psychological, but it was scary! During those long minutes, my mind kept imagining the worst.

Things that could go wrong…

While we were fumbling around with the bottle, many climbers have passed us and moved on. When I finally got going again, I soon found myself joined at the end of a line of climbers that were going nowhere. A veritable traffic jam on Everest! Another classic situation for accidents! I couldn’t see what was going on ahead. It was dark and visibility was low; I could not make out was around us, left or right. It looked like a narrow ridge, which would be very dangerous trying to get around other people. I was wondering if to the right side of us was China.

My guide, Justin, came up from behind and jumped on the snowbank in order to bypass the line to see what was going on ahead. After quite a while, Justin returned with one of our team members and told the team to “move slowly, wait for the sun! Hopefully the weather will improve!” (Later I learned the implication of that instruction was that Justin was planning to turn the whole team back at South Summit if the weather did not improve by the time we reached there. Looking back, we were lucky that the line moved so slow! Otherwise, my summit would have been called off!)

The line started to move but still at a snail’s pace. I don’t know how long I spent standing still, it felt like hours. My body didn’t heat up much yet, and now my feet and hands were starting to feel frozen. The traffic jam could also waste oxygen, a limited amount in each bottle. We would have to give up on the summit if we wasted too much time going nowhere. I have felt pretty confident about my physical condition before the summit push, but I have no control of all these kinds of unknown situations. I told myself, I love rock climbing and I want to continue to climb after this, so I can’t lose one toe or one finger! I kept on dancing on my feet and wiggling all toes and fingers.

When I finally came close to the spot, it was a rock spur on the South Summit that had slowed down progress (there were also some slow or tired climbers causing the slowdown earlier, but that has been

solved by Justin). It was a long series of imposing rock steps that was very challenging for big boots and crampons. Also, if you stepped to the east into waist-deep snow, you could run into a serious avalanche hazard. As a rock climber, I’m really embarrassed at my clumsy move to struggle through the difficult spots. At that moment, I didn’t know the name of the section. I was wondering if this was Hillary Step, and how many steps did he take? If it was not, how was I going to handle any steps even more difficult than this?

Floating in the clouds 

By the time I was near the top of the rock spur, I could see sun rising through the clouds. Yes, “some clouds,” but they were everywhere. We were completely wrapped in thick clouds! It was a relief to see the sun! I know I don’t need to worry about frostbite anymore. Wind had also calmed down and the South Summit was just ahead of me!

When I stepped onto the South Summit, my Sherpa Da Tenji checked my bottle. I was a little bit nervous. Was my bottle leaking? Did I waste too much air while standing in line? “Ok, you have enough left to go to summit.” What a relief! Then he pointed forward at the col below the south summit, “That’s the Hillary step.” Oh, those rock spurs I just struggled over were nothing?

Hillary step was a little bit awkward, but at least it was only a few steps! After that, just some snow slopes. Life is much easier from there on! Not too long, through the heavy fog/cloud, I saw piles of people hugging around at the end of the summit ridge.

The feeling of standing on top of the world is a little bit strange because we can’t see anything other than the little pole wrapped by numerous prayer flags. Nevertheless, everyone was very happy to finally stand at this spot even though we couldn’t take a panorama photograph of the world. Anyway, half of my seven summits had the same view (clouds), so I was almost getting used to it. (So, this explains the lack of photos I could share with you all. I guess I need to come back again one day to make up for those photos!)

After taking enough pictures (how many can you take in heavy clouds?), I know the more serious job is to descend safely. More accidents happened on descent in mountaineering, especially we have those ice/snow covered rock steps all over the mountain here. More challenging for Everest, descending to C4 does not mean that we have finished.

With each day working at full capacity to climb or descend, each day gets more challenging. From C4 to C2 was a relentless steep downhill. Then, after you felt like your leg muscles have been depleted, you needed to stay alert to navigate through the icefall. Only when you returned to EBC could you relax. The last descent through the icefall was what concerned me even more than the summit. It is like a stream of mini- summits that you have to focus your energy and work so hard on when you are already at the end of your rope



Waiting time was taxing. You are not sure how long the waiting time will be and how to plan your schedule. You worry if the summit window will come before Monsoon arrives. You worry if the icefall will still be safe to pass when we finish the climb. You are worried about getting weaker while waiting (don’t forget our base camp here is as high as high camp on most high mountains on other continents, if not higher than its summit). You worry about getting sick from any random factors, you worry about getting injured…

Now it finally is time to go up, and you can stop worrying about a lot of things that kept you awake. Yet, you know how reliable the weather forecast is for more than a week away in the city, not to mention on a mountain like Everest! One day, the forecast was “confident” about a summit window in mid May; the next day, it said the “forecast model is jumping around.” Everest is a big mountain, and the summit push takes

  • You just can’t wait until you see a clear forecast to start going up, or you would risk missing that precious window. It’s a hard gambling game here!

Thinking of Ed Viester’s “No Shortcut to Summit.” It’s so true on Everest! Every step is so hard! No shortcut! I’m little nervous, so many things to finish, and I need to pack and rest!

Like a soldier training for war, I have gotten bored waiting for the big time. Now all of a sudden, we are moving and I am scrambling around and barely have time to finish off the list of to-dos. While waiting, we worried about getting weaker by sitting around, so we tried to do some exercise every day.

Now time to move, we worry about not resting enough, and realize that we have been so spoiled for so many days— sleeping till daybreak every day, no torture moving in midnight frigid temperature or baked under brutal sunshine at midday. Time to get used to not sleeping well in the night; time to get used to planning every visit to toilet, day or night; time to get used to going to sleep in the clothes that you would wake and walk in; time to nervously calculate when sun will cast its brutal heat on the glacier slope… More this time, need to learn to calculate how many hours I have left on that bottle of oxygen…



May 4 – 8, 2010

My second rotation

May 4: EBC – C1 (6000m) May 5: C1 – C2 (6500m)

May 6: C2 – C3 (7200m), personal altitude record! May 7: C3 – C2 (6500m)

May 8: C2 – EBC (5300m)

This rotation is much more challenging than the first one but I’m feeling stronger and enjoyed it much more. Good health makes a big difference! Not only does it make me stronger and more energetic, but more importantly, it makes me focus on acclimatization instead of fighting the painful cough.

Though I was still very tired when I arrived at camp 1 and camp 2, I was not as exhausted as I had felt in the last rotation. My appetite was good during the whole rotation, and I often ate no less than the biggest guy on the team. Kitchen staff often took me being full as the indicator that everyone else had enough food. I realized how fast I could lose weight at high altitude and I know I can’t afford to keep losing muscle mass at such a rapid rate. Otherwise, I would have no strength left climbing the summit. So I kept on feeding myself protein-based food as much as I could throughout the day.

I slept well and I was surprised that at my personal best elevation— camp 3 (7200m, 24000ft), I was still able to eat and sleep relatively normally (compared to the lower camps). Until people started mentioning it, I totally forgot about panic breathing during sleep— feeling suffocated while sleeping and panicking while trying to catch your breath. Although, I had the bad habit of burying myself completely inside my sleeping bag at night…no wonder there didn’t seem to be enough air inside my sleeping bag!

Five days in a row, we got up in the middle of the night to start climbing before the sun heats up the glacier to an unbearable 100F by mid-morning. Though we finish our climb early in the day, that doesn’t mean you can go back to sleep for the rest of the day. Inside the tent, it’s too boiling to sleep during the day. You have to wait until the late afternoon, when the sun goes behind the mountain, which makes you instantly need to crawl back into your warm sleeping bag! Every day is a hard day, and the hardest day was the day when we climbed on Lhotse face, moving from camp 2 to camp 3.


Lhotse Face

 Ideally, I would have liked to rest a day in camp 2 before tackling the demanding climb at Lhotse Face. But the weather forecast was predicting high winds moving in after tomorrow (May 6). We had to climb it tomorrow or we might have to give up. Another question was, what to wear to the climb on Lhotse Face? It will be very cold in the night, requiring us to be fully equipped in our summit suits. But once the sun comes up, you have to strip down to your T-shirt.

It’s a steep slope, which means there isn’t a safe spot to take off or put on a summit suit. It’s a long climb, and entirely under the hot sun. Every one of us decided to climb in our summit suit, and planned to strip it off at the top and tie it around our waist once the sun came up.

The night was warmer than I expected. Once I started walking, I immediately had to unzip my suit, just to cool down! The slope is steep all the way, and there are several long sections of hard ice bulges that make it a very demanding climb. To be safe, we kept the jumar on the fixed rope all the way.

Once we started climbing on the steep slope, I faced another dilemma. If I covered my face with buff or balaclava, I protected myself from Khumbu cough or sunburn, but I couldn’t get enough air to breathe when the climb demanded it. Air or comfort? A hard choice!

Luckily, the sun was not too cruel today. There was some cloud cover, which significantly reduced the sun’s heat. There’s actually two campsites. A lower camp 3 and a higher camp 3. Unfortunately, the IMG site is the furthest spot on the highest spot at the higher camp! While you’re on a steep slope, you can see very far. But looks can be deceiving! Anything that looks close is actually hours away! From lower camp 3, it’s an hour’s climb to get to the higher camp using a fixed line branching out to the right from the main climbing route.

And yes, you need a fixed line to go to the campsite! The whole campsite rests on a steep slope. There’s not much “flat” ground. Each tent platform has been dug with hard work! There’s not much room between tents even to the edge of the platform. So I had to be very careful in moving between tents! We don’t want to risk damaging our tents with crampons, so the advice is to take an ice axe if you want to walk to the “toilet” just in case you miss a step.

On the way down, I was really looking forward to being back at home, my sweet tent home in EBC, and the feeling I looked forward to most was touching my face with the warm wet towel that would be served at dinner or breakfast time. That’s the only time I clean my face with something other than the freezing cold baby wipe! Our Sherpa guides are also looking forward to being back at home too, but their real home. The moment we touched down at EBC, most of them took off immediately to spend a few days with their family in Portse (most of our climbing Sherpas came from Portse, a village between Namche and Pheriche). Only then did I realize that I have been on the road for more than 50 days already. Time flies by so fast! Yet, the game is still far from over!