Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'
Two in the morning rolls around fast over here. It did today, at least. That is when I got up to stuff a few last things in my pack and meet Ed Viesturs for breakfast in our dining tent. I think we both were focused and keyed up for a journey through the Khumbu Icefall and thus were not too picky about breakfast. Instant coffee and rice porridge did the trick for me. We walked a little before 3 a.m., at first in some fog, but then under stars and a big moon by the time we’d gotten our crampons on at the start of the climbing route. Ed graciously allowed me to go first so that I could set a pace I might live with and complain less about.
I’ll admit that my natural tendency might have been to be a little insecure over having Ed Viesturs, one of the world’s great aerobic athletes, two steps behind me where he could see just how feeble and weak I might turn out to be on any given day. But... the short sleep, the rice porridge, and bitter coffee must have worked the perfect magic, because I didn’t feel feeble and weak as we crossed the first ice ridges. I actually felt ready to go climbing... ready to feel my heart and lungs ramp up, ready to get some sort of burn going in my leg muscles.
The plan was actually two plans that came together. I swear I don’t have any great love for the Khumbu Icefall. I wouldn’t generally go through it without good reason, but when I hope to guide someone through it, I’ve come to value previewing the darn thing first myself. It can be wildly different from year to year (and from the beginning of a climbing season to the end), and I like to know where the hazards are and where reasonable rest breaks might be hiding. Ed, with his goal of going for the summit without oxygen, has to continually push himself in the weeks and months leading up to that attempt. He needs and wants all the exercise that he can squeeze in... preferably at altitude. And even better if he can preview the Icefall route and get a little gear up to our newly established Camp 1 site. So our schedules converged and it seemed to make good sense that we go together, despite his need for speed and my need to not be humiliated. We both had light loads of gear for CI and our standard guide’s packload of emergency and rescue gear in case we either got ourselves in trouble or came upon someone else inclined that way.
We could see about a dozen headlights some distance ahead of us, but we reeled those in before too long and passed a team of Sherpas that were carrying heavier loads than ours. We didn’t talk as we climbed by headlight and moonlight... I doubt I’d have been capable of talking and there wasn’t any need for talk. It was a time for thinking and doing.
I thought a bit about how I’d met Ed Viesturs in the summer of 1985 on Mount Rainier. He would have been starting his third year of guiding then, and I was a wide-eyed and fairly naïve aspiring climber. I took a five-day climbing seminar with Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., and Ed was the junior guide on the trip. He must have done something bad, because when it came time for choosing rope teams for the summit bid at week’s end, Ed got me. I was strong enough, having just spent a first winter working in the ski industry, and before that I’d swum competitively at college (“competitively” being used loosely here), but I didn’t know anything about big mountains or how to tap into the strength I had for them.
That climb was memorable. We were well up the Ingraham Glacier and taking a break when another guide with a different team busted a big crevasse bridge and took a huge fall. That guide was Eric Simonson, who is camped just a hundred meters away from me right now and who turned out to be a great friend and mentor. I didn’t know Eric then, though, and so when Ed tried to get his rope team moving in a hurry in order to go up and help with the crevasse extrication, I believe I protested—pointing to the unfinished peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my hand. (I’m sure I didn’t protest vocally since, although Ed wasn’t famous back then, he was still formidable.) Long story short, Eric lived, I didn’t get to eat my sandwich, and we didn’t make the summit. I was hooked. I became a guide with RMI the very next summer.
Ed and I, although we worked together for some years at Rainier, didn’t do a whole lot of climbing together. Partly because before too long, his expedition career took off in a big way. Mine took off a little later and in different ways. We come at things differently. Ed relies on hard-won fitness, VO2 Max, pre-trip training, and a legendary ability to calculate and get shrewd in the big hills. I bring mountains down to my decidedly less athletic level through repetition, constant practice, pigheaded determination, and never-ending fear of failure. Sometimes the results of the two methods can be similar.
Like today in the Icefall. I thought we made a pretty good team, and I took a lot of pride in that when we rolled into the Camp 1 area three hours after we’d begun. I never imagined, 24 years ago, that Ed and I would be bouncing over ladders and scrambling up icewalls together on Mount Everest all these years later. It was a blast.
And it was cold up there at 19,867 feet [6,055 meters] before sunrise at Camp 1. We cached our gear and began to beat feet down. It can be tricky to keep up the concentration required so as to not misstep, catch a crampon, or poke through a crevasse bridge on a fast descent of the Icefall, but it can be equally dangerous to go slow in a place where big things tend to fall down around you if you linger. We did have to do some lingering though. Ed and I encountered about a hundred of our best friends... Sherpas from various teams who were either carrying loads or guiding climbers. We’d look nervously at the big ice towers tilting above us, but we’d stop to exchange pleasantries anyway, remembering which trips we’d done together and promising to catch up over tea in some safer place.
Ed and I were kicking off crampons at around 9 a.m. in bright sunshine down at Base Camp. We both expressed relief at having satisfied some of our curiosity about the glacier’s surprises and our own fitness to tackle it again. We’d come down in time to see the rest of our team suiting up for ice climbing practice and rope technique review taught by Seth Waterfall, Peter Whittaker, and Jake Norton on the glacier close to camp. I passed the rest of the day with adrenaline in my veins and a smile on my face. The plan is for a few others to check out the Icefall tomorrow.