Life is not what we live, but what we will remember and … the way we will remember and the way we will describe …
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The final decision that I will ever try to summit Everest I made on July 1st 2008, after my descending from the Denali peak (Mt. McKinley), Alaska.
I reached the Kahiltna glacier base totally warned out. The descend from the peak took me 21 hours with the whole equipment on my back: 40 kg rucksack, plus 40 kg loaded sledge. It was the toughest day out of 19 day climb to the highest peak of North America (6.193 m). Denali peak is located the furthest north east of the so called World Seven peaks.
While waiting the small local K2 airplane to fly to Talkeetna, I needed more than thirty minutes rest to forget the weariness from the exhausting expedition and to make the decision: Everest will be my next challenge!
March 29th 2009 I arrived in Katmandu, the capital of Nepal. In the Shanker hotel I met the members of the Everest 2009 expedition organized by the Adventure Consultants from New Zealand. It is one of the most prestigious agencies organizing expeditions on the world’s highest summits. It was established by Rob Hall who, unfortunately, was killed on Everest in 1996. After his death, his friend Guy Cotter is the agency head.
After the presentation of the expedition leaders David Hamilton and Ang Dorjee, followed the detailed equipment check and the instructions what we will need to buy while in Katmandu. The other expedition members were: Hamish Fulton – artist from UK, Neill Johanson – architect from Australia, Carsten Bennike – businessman from Denmark, Darius Irani – businessman from Australia, and David Chaplin – farmer from Australia.
After completing the necessary equipment and providing the necessary permit from the Ministry of tourism of Nepal we went for sightseeing tour.
Katmandu is e dynamic city. It is a mixture of religious monuments from the past and modern internet coffees. The mystic past of the forbidden and inaccessible Nepal Kingdom is still vibrant but supplemented by the excitement of the modern capital of 2,5 million inhabitants. The Hindu population is dominant and the 75 different ethnic communities live together in mutual tolerance and respect. Our interest was aimed at the representatives of the Sherpa people. They moved from Tibet 4 to 5 centuries ahead, they are Buddhist and populate the higher areas of the Himalayas. They are the main porters of all the Himalayan expeditions.
3. Trekking to the Base camp
Early morning April 1st , after few hours delay because of the bad weather conditions, we finally took e flight from the Katmandu airport to Lukla (2840 m) one of the highest airports in the world. The flight took about thirty minutes above the picturesque landscape.
Our next point was Phakding (2610 m) where we spent the first night. The next day, after the 5 hours trekking we reached Namche Bazar (3440 m), the last bigger populated village where we spent two days. Namche Bazar is social and commercial center of the Sherpa people. The greatest merit for the urbanization and organization of everyday life of this region (schools, hospitals etc.) deserves Ser Edmund Hilary and his foundation.
The next day we reached Pangboche (3930 m.), the birthplace of the Ang Dorje, our main sherpa, one of the most eminent sherpa in the whole world. By now he has summited Everest 12 times. He was a member of the well known expedition of the Adventure Consultants Agency in 1966, one of the most tragic events on Everest when 12 mountaineers were killed together with the agency founder and owner – Rob Hall. This tragic event has been described in the John Krakauer’s bestseller book: Into the thin air.
In Pangboche, with the fascinating dominant view of Ama Dablam peak (6814) the special blessing ceremony was performed by the local Lama. All of us got amulets and katas (silk shawls) which we were wearing till the end of the expedition.
We continued our trek to Pheriche (4240), dim and windy village where we spent two days. We climbed 5050 m. and returned to the Pheriche lodge. The training of climbing and staying overnight on lower elevation we practiced during the further trekking.
The first six days of our trekking we passed by green meadows with juniper trees and birches, boisterous waterfalls, magnificent rocks and babbling streams.
In this phase of the trekking we started to feel slight hypoxia manifested by the difficult breathing, headache and stomach aches. The main guide of our expedition, David Hamilton from Scotland, who had three times summited Mt. Everest, warned us that from now till the end of the expedition we will never feel good (normal).
On our way to Lobuche (4910) we passed by the place called Chukpo Lare where we noticed lot of memorials of the mountaineers and sherpa people killed on the mountain. Between them I noticed the memorial of Dime Ilievski-Murato, the first Macedonian who, as a member of the Macedonian expedition, on May 1989 summited Mt. Everest. His memorial is just e few steps on the path where all the mountaineers pass by facing Ama Dablam, the west and east peak of Lobuche (6135). I was very excited by the encounter with Dime’s memorial. In one hand, I was proud that one Macedonian succeeded to summit the peak 20 years ago, but in the same time, I felt tearful because he didn’t come back home to share his joy with his family and friends.
I could feel the energy of the deceased mountaineers and sherpas, people who physically were killed, but their souls will remain for good on this sacred eternal place.
Finally, on April 10th we reached the base camp (5364) where several other expeditions had their camps. There we met the members of the Croatian women expedition.
Each of us got his own tent. There was a bigger one which served as dining room, another one with shower, and one with the communication equipment. This was our home for the next 5-6 weeks. The first phase of our expedition was behind us.
4. Base camps and acclimatization
The first base camp is situated on the Kumbu glacier, in the foots of the Khumbu icefall. The icefall is moving 1 meter a day, which means that its configuration changes daily. The amphitheatrically surrounding of the base camp make the Pumori (7165), Lingtren (6749), Lho La, the west ridge of Everest and Nuptse (7861), where you can permanently hear the echo of the avalanche thunder.
The next few days in the base camp we spent for acclimatization and relaxed walking to the nearby peaks.
The puja ceremony, in which the Sherpas pay homage to the mountain deity, is the starting point for all Everest expeditions. It is the special ritual when the local lama chants towards the improvised Buddhist altar and prayer flags created for the ceremony throwing tsampa (a roasted barley flower) to invite blessings for climbing the mountain. Our was performed on April 12th.
The next few days we spent exercising and improving our skills of surmounting the obstacles at the foot of the glacier.
Our first glacier climbing started on April 18th. It was minus 10 degrees Celsius. We ascended the so called pop corn zone in pitch dark and after 5 hours we made our descent back down.
The next day, April 19th at 1am we have been climbing for 6 hours the marvellous labyrinth of ice towers, crevasses and ladders to reach the Camp 1 (6100 m) located at the peak of the Khumbu icefall at the entrance of the Western Cwm, known as Quiet valley.
The next morning at 5am we started our climb to camp 2 at the extremely low temperature. On the east side we could see the Lotse and the sunrise at the south-east ridge of Mt. Everest. The steep slopes of Nuptse were on our south side.
After 3 hour ascent we reached the camp 2 (6500) on the west ridge. The camp is settled on the moraine (stone remains of the gliding glacier). It has the function of upper, advanced base camp. There we spent 2 days and for the first time we heard the piercing sound of the wind coming from Mt. Everest.
The next day was very cold and windy but we proceeded higher toward the Lotse face. Darius collapsed. The following day we descended to the base camp. It took us around 5,30 hours. Darius and David Chaplin decided to quit.
The regime in the base camp was everyday trekking combined with rest and relaxed walks. We could feel the benefits of the acclimatization: sleep was relatively better, breathing more relaxed, headaches and dizziness less frequent.
On April 29 we started the second phase of the altitude acclimatization. Early morning we entered the glacier and after 6 hours we reached the camp 1.
The next morning we continued our ascend to camp 2. It was freezing cold and we couldn’t feel our fingers. When we reached camp 2 we were exhausted due to the unbearable hot sunbeams. There we spent one day. The next day we proceeded higher to camp 3. The Lotse face we reached after one hour. The next steep icy segment 900 m. high had to be climbed out with fixed ropes and the use of so called yumar. It was the real test for our endurance and readiness. We needed 3 ours to reach the camp 3 (7300m) located on the exposed and steep location with the fantastic view on Lotse, Pumori and Everest peaks. The temperature was freezing cold early in the morning and very hot during the day.
The next day, staying overnight at the Camp 3, our acclimatization was done. We returned to Camp 2, and then to the Base camp. In the same afternoon we had a meeting with the main guide, David, who announced very bad weather conditions for the next 10 days which made us feel disappointed. He suggested to go down to Pheriche (4200 m) to have a quality relax. We all agreed. After 4 days of relaxation, sleeping, reading, good quality food and everyday trekking exercises we returned to the Base camp. Because of the continuous move of the glacier, the configuration of the terrain around our tents was changed.
The next few days it was snowing. We spent the days in the base camp waiting for the better weather forecast. It was the tense period when, because of the extension of the expedition the body is invaded by the so called catabolic phase. It is the phase of defragmentation, although the period of acclimatization was over. I lost about 8 kilos mainly from the muscle tissue. Almost all the fat from my body was dissolved and I was more sensitive to the cold.
According the weather forecast from Switzerland, and according to other expeditions schedules, we made a decision to start our ascend to the peak on May 15th early in the morning.
Finally, early morning March 15th, after hundred of kilometers spent on the Himalaya slopes up and down between 2800 and 7300 meters, we forwarded through the icefall. I was very happy climbing this very risky segment knowing that our retrace down will be the last time. The terrain configuration was quite different. Some of the pitons and fixed ropes were loosen and anfunctional, and part of the aluminum ladders seriously destabilized. We needed more than 5 hours and thirty minutes to climb to Camp 1 where we spent the next day. During the day the temperature in the tent reached 40?C, and after the sunset it was minus 20?C.
The next day we proceeded to Camp 2, and then to camp 3 ascending the Lotse face. The weather was extremely windy and cold. We started to feel the symptoms of the so called catabolic phase: fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, nausea …
We spent the night using the oxygen. I hardly could sleep. I had shortness of breath and extreme coughing episodes which worried me thinking about possible pulmonary edema. But, these were only symptoms of global hypoxia which my body experienced very well. On May 18th we ascended to the last high altitude camp, the camp 4. The ascent was extremely hard. We slowly proceeded the few hundred meters steep and icy trail with the oxygen masks. Than followed the transverse pass toward the so called yellow band. After passing this technically arduous segment, we reached the Geneva Spur and entered the death zone (over 7600m).
At noon we reached the camp 4 on the South Col. Because of the good weather forecast for the next day and the information that the great deal of the expeditions will make a peak the next day, it was decided to proceed to the summit the same evening.
During the afternoon several times I went out of my tent but because of the strong wind and freezing weather I was urged to withdraw back. However I made a few photos. The view was fascinating. You could follow on the same level the long and steep ridge of Nupse proceeding toward Lotse. Deep low was Pumori and other lower peaks (over 7000m). Finally, in front of us emerged the terrifying South peak of Everest.
We started our ascent to Everest on May 19th at 9,30 pm. There was Pasang Tenzing in the lead, then the sherpa Dawa Jangbu, me, Ang Dorjee, and the other members of our expedition. The night was very cold. We moved in pitch dark with our head lamps on. Through the freezing air we could see million of stars, more that I have ever seen in my whole life.
We passed the Blue ice region which is not very steep. The ascent through the Triangular Face in the dark because of the cold was really exhausting. Some of the expedition members thought that it was a real psychological temptation. We were moving towards the ridge known as Balcony (8414) where we had a rest.
It was still dark. The wind chill was between -37?C and -42?C. I felt the first signs of fatigue. Considering the fact that we had already reached 8400m I thought that climbing the peak will not be very hard. But, the real struggle was before us. The climb from the Balcony to the South Summit was longer than I anticipated, however not too difficult. When I reached the South Summit (8750) the day was dawning. I could notice the shadow of Everest on my left side. The view of the real Everest peak made me breathless. The left side of my sunglasses was frozen. Although left sightline was blocked the view was spectacular.
A knife-edge ridge leads to the Hillary Step, the most exposed section, with its almost vertical icy rocks twenty meters high. The activity was slow paced. One step, three to five inhale and exhale, second step, three to five respirations … Only a few moments I passed the most frightening obstacle on the ridge, a huge snowdrift collapsed right where one of our sherpa moved out. None of us abreacted, nor made a comment. As if everything was normal and nothing special happened.
While I was approaching the summit, because of the clouds gathering on the east side, I made the last efforts to reach it. At last I was there! At 8 am I was on the top of the world, the highest point of the Planet. Pasang Tenzing, Ang Dorjee and Dewa Jangbu were already there with the frozen Buda and praying flags around them. I stepped on the summit insured by the fixed rope with one leg in Nepal and the other in Tibet-China. I took out the oxygen mask trying to unbutton my pocket to take out the camera. The zip was frozen covered with the thick layer of ice. I managed to unzip but … my camera was completely frozen. Luckily I could make use of the other one, Nikon D90. I took the Macedonian flag out of my rucksack. I was very happy and moved. The feeling of the nationality is one of the most dominant in such moments. Weaving the flag I had a feeling that the whole Macedonian nation is with me on the top of the world. I was standing on the top for 30 minutes without oxygen mask. I have just forgotten to put it on enjoying the unforgettable moments of calmness, fullness and satisfaction. Dewa Jangbu sherpa insisted to move down. In that moment I couldn’t understand why was he so persistent. But … the climb up was just half a success. The feeling of delight was not complete because of the risky and dangerous return climb.
From the current point of view and time distance I can conclude that the estimated prompt return down is one of the key factors for the successful realization of the whole expedition. It is necessary to maintain the considerable percentage of the inner psycho-physic reserves necessary for the extremely arduous climb down toward the South Col.
The toughest part of the whole expedition was in front of us – the return back to the South Col which is very dangerous and has the highest incident rate. The visibility was very low. I was very exhausted and empty of adrenaline. The logical reasoning and critical thinking were minimized.
There was a queue at the Hilary step and we had to wait while the group of climbers slowly struggled through the knife-edge ridge. The Hilary step is the most exposed section of Southeast ridge climb, especially in the state of exhaustion and extreme hypoxia. I spent almost forty minutes close to the rock crevice waiting for the climbers to pass not able to move. I even didn’t noticed that the chief guide David and Carsten already passed by. According to David, out of his four climbings, this one was his toughest one. I was thinking about Dimitar Ilievski Murato and his climbing down on May 1989, at 6 pm. Pursuant to the actual standards, the climb of Everest should be at 10 am or 12 am at the latest. The climb down after 2 pm is dangerous and risky due to the bad weather conditions. I imagined Dime going down alone in late afternoon …
I reached the South Col where I changed the oxygen bottle and had the last sip of tea from the small flask. Sherpa Dewa Jangbu, in front of me, and I ware the first from our team going down from the top. Pacing through the snow I felt strong and painful blow on my neck caused by the big ice ball provoced by the climbers behind us which awakened me from the state of levitation and indolence.
At 1 pm we reached the Camp 4. I hardly took off my rucksack and other equipment, and fall asleep in my tent with my legs out of it. Ang Dorjee and Hamish arrived about 4pm. I woke up the next morning at 7 am fresh and satisfied of the great success, but aware of the troubles expecting us, the climb down to camp 3 and camp 2 along the yellow rocks of Lotse face strip.
In the morning Nil and Hamish reported frozen fingers. Nil’s appearance was awful. Three frozen fingers and cramped face. Our base camp manager, Carolina, and the chief sherpa met us at the Icefall base.
This was our sixth passing along the Icefall, the toughest one. The ice was melting and the fixed line a bit cumbersome, the ladders destabilized.
All of a sudden we heard the voice of the sherpa coming from the radio station. One sherpa of our team fall down in a crevasse deep 30 meters in the Icefall.. The loaded rucksack draw him down while fixing the ropes. Luckily, the big rucksack got jammed in the middle of the crevasse. After 2 hours he was rescued with three broken ribs and evacuated to Katmandu, but because of the bad weather conditions the helicopter landed to Gorak Shep after three days when he already had evident signs of pneumonia.
We had a sushi dinner party at the Base camp. The fatigue was evident on our faces, but we were happy and satisfied because of the successfully performed long and exhausting expedition.
We left the Base camp on rainy and foggy weather.
What to say at the end?
Everyone has his own mountain which he is supposed to climb. And he climbs it. Each has his own way of climbing.
I was happy because I had the opportunity to climb the highest mountain – Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the world.