Everest – North versus South

468482_10151510494367983_1149989524_oSix months ago this week, my bags were packed and I was headed to Nepal to attempt Mount Everest for the second time. Seven long months of training were behind me and I felt confident that I was much more prepared, both physically and mentally, than I had been in 2013 when I failed to complete the Seven Summits. But while I lay sleeping in the relative comfort of my hypoxic tent at home, a block of ice weighing up to 30 million pounds was breaking loose in the Khumbu Icefall.

More than 100 Sherpa climbers were busy making their way up the mountain carrying heavy loads of food, fuel, tents and supplies when the ice came roaring down the glacier taking out everything in its path. Unfortunately, some of the men were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time and minutes later, on the worst day in Everest history, sixteen were lost forever.

I received news of the avalanche early the next morning when a friend emailed me to make sure I was not on the mountain. It took a while for the disaster to sink in and not being there and only hearing about the accident via news reports, I had no idea what was happening on the ground. In spite of the enormity of the tragedy, never for a minute did I think my trip was going to be cancelled. After all, people die on Everest every year and the climbing goes on. In fact, people had died on almost every mountain I had been on since Julie and I made the decision to see how many of the Seven Summits we could climb. But this event was different. Unlike most of us who do not see the mountains as sacred places, the Sherpa climbers do. And understandably, many did not want to continue after the events of April 18th which took the lives of so many friends and family members.

I remember just sitting silently in a state of shock when I received the email from my guide, Adrian Ballinger, telling me the climb was off. Adrian had flown over to Base Camp early to assess the situation and while his Sherpa team was willing to climb, it was apparent to him that their hearts would not be in it. When it finally sunk in that I would not be going to Everest, I have to admit that there was a slight touch of relief…due to me not knowing for certain if I had trained long and hard enough. But the overriding feeling was one of just numbness. I never felt angry, like so many of my fellow climbers did, but I can certainly understand their feelings given the work we had all put in to prepare, not to mention the financial investment we all lost. While it would be disingenuous for me to say that I was not severely disappointed, I tried not to feel sorry for myself and reminded myself what the families of the lost Sherpa were going through. I also knew that it just as easy could have been me in the Icefall when the serac broke loose. The large ice overhang on Everest’s west shoulder had been a concern for years and many people felt it was just a matter of time before it came crashing down. I remember my Sherpa, Dasonam, being very concerned while we were moving through that exact section back in 2013. At the time, I was too awestruck to be scared but now I realize how naïve I had been.

For about a month after the cancellation, I did no training. I just wanted to do nothing and I didn’t want to think about climbing again. But Everest has a way of not letting you go and deep down, I knew that I would have to face another decision soon…whether or not to go back. Just in case, I started going back to the gym…not for the 4-5 hours a day I had become accustomed to, but just for an hour here and there. I was secretly hoping that I had not lost too much of my fitness and I was surprised to learn that I was still in pretty good shape. Not wanting to lose all that I had gained, I upped my visits from 3 days a week back to the 5 days I was used to. All the time, the lure of Everest was building and even though I told no one, I knew that I would be going back.

As it stands today, the next big decision is whether to head back to the south side in Nepal, change course and try the north route in Tibet, or sit out 2015, see what unfolds, and be ready for 2016. Given the current political climate, there are financial risks on both sides of Everest to consider. It’s been six months since the tragedy and the Nepali government still hasn’t made things right for the families of the Sherpa who died. Immediately following the accident, they announced that they would honor the 2014 climbing permits of all climbers for a period of five years but now it appears they may be backing away from that promise. The north side is no better as the Chinese have been known to shut it down with no notice, the last time being in 2008. It’s always a crap shoot on the north side (which is the main reason the larger operators have established their operations in Nepal) and until you have your permit in hand, you are never sure if you will be climbing.

In addition to the political situations to consider, the other huge factor is safety. While I have complete confidence in both guiding companies I am considering, I need to decide which route suits me best and which route gives me the best chance of being successful. To get answers, I did extensive research on both routes and spoke with several climbers who have climbed or guided both sides. As you can imagine, this is a pretty small fraternity but everyone I sought out gave valuable advice.

The north side is generally considered more dangerous with a death rate double that of the south. I have taken this statistic with a grain of salt, however, due to the fact that most of the more well established guiding companies have been operating on the south exclusively for some time. Had they been on the north side, the statistics could very well be reversed. The north is considered colder and windier and its camps are at higher elevations which mean climbers must spend more time at very high altitude. There is also no chance of helicopter rescue on the north should things go badly. The summit day on the north is slightly shorter and it is traditionally less crowded although no one knows if this will be the case in 2015 as many climbers originally considering the south may elect to change their plans due to the uncertainty with the Nepal government.

The south side has the Khumbu Icefall, the only section of either route that is totally out of a climber’s control. One only has to look at 2014 to realize just how dangerous this section can be. Once above the Icefall however, the south route appears to be slightly easier and safer.

If I were in my 30’s, the smart decision would be to sit 2015 out, see how both sides play out and then look to 2016. Unfortunately for me, time is a factor and while my health is excellent now, there is no way to know what my condition will be in 2016 or whether I will still have the desire to put in the time necessary to get ready. The clock is running on my decision as I owe it to both teams to let them know something as soon as I can. Plus, having the decision behind me will make it easier for me to focus on the training without the distractions. Regardless of which side I choose, my goal is to go back to Everest as prepared as possible and give it 100%. The last thing I want to do is face failure again and another tough decision.

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