SUMMITTING MOUNT EVEREST
Since Hillary and Tenzing conquered Everest in 1953, over 4,000 people have scaled its summit, but anyone contemplating ascending the highest mountain on the planet requires a special mix of fitness, skill and bravery bordering on insanity. Deep pockets are necessary, too – expeditions cost in excess of £40,000 – and plenty of time.
It takes around two months to complete the task, from first arriving in Kathmandu, to acclimatising and, finally, pushing for the summit on one of the rare days in May and sometimes October when the wind drops, the weather is suitably mild and climbing parties set out at midnight in pursuit of the ultimate goal.
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Who goes and why?From the moment it was identified as the world’s tallest mountain, Everest became a ‘third pole’ with climbers desperate to be the first to reach its peak. Now that we know how dangerous the climb is – at least seven people a year have died on Everest during the 21st century – why do people still continue to flock to it?
George Mallory, who died on the mountain in 1924, famously said he wanted to climb it, ‘because it’s there’. For today’s climbers, reaching the summit is often a lifelong dream that inspires a deep sense or reverence, as well as demanding intense preparation and incredible physical and mental toughness. Each climber will possess a good quantity of risk-taking genes, too, as this climb involves both the risk of death and the risk that you’ll bag a great story but no summit. In fact, only half of all climbers make it to the top, and some of these will be Sherpas, professional climbers and guides, as well as paying clients.
A competitive nature is probably a common trait amongst climbers, too. After all, if you’ve reached the top of the highest peak on the planet, that’s a very undeniable achievement. Summitting Everest is as big as it gets, so while it might not be on the bucket list of the many, for a daredevil few, it’s the trophy to bag!
Among those who have made it to the top is Yuichiro Miura, the first man to ski down Everest from the South Col in May 1970 (although he did sustain horrible injuries). He then went on to become the oldest person to summit in 2003 at age 70 and again in 2013 at the age of 80. American Jordan Romero was the youngest person to summit aged 13 years 10 months in 2010. While Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa have each summitted 21 times.
How to climb Everest
Almost everyone who now climbs Everest uses the services of a commercial expedition operator. These are based around the world, and attract an international clientele. Anyone with the right climbing experience and sufficient funds can join, but you also need to be able to work as a team with your fellow climbers – ‘soloists’ who want to go it alone, supported by a single Sherpa, are frowned on by the climbing community.
Acclimatising is key. There is 66 percent less oxygen in each breath on the summit of Everest than at sea level and while oxygen is used to support climbers, even trekkers visiting Base Camp can experience the breathlessness and headaches associated with Acute Mountain Sickness. This can kick in anywhere from around 2,400m altitude; Everest Base Camp is more than twice that.
All expeditions rely on a huge support team of Sherpa climbers. By the time paying clients have arrived and settled in at Base Camp, a team of Sherpas has already been busy establishing routes using ropes and ladders to Camp 1 on the side of the mountain, and will be ferrying loads of equipment up there. Once the expedition is underway, working its way up the mountain and then going back to Base Camp to rest, the Sherpas head up to establish the highest camps, stocking them with bottled oxygen ready for the expedition to make its summit attempt.
CostsBagging the biggest peak on Earth isn’t something you can do over a weekend, with National Trust membership and a picnic. It’s a big expedition with a massive price tag. A company based in the West, which still relies on local high-altitude support climbers, will charge around £45,000 to £50,000. Local expeditions charge less, around £27,000 for a well-run, properly supported climb, but in recent years, new operators on the ground have offered Everest for much less, raising concerns about correct pay for Sherpas as well as safety standards.
There are certain fixed fees that explain this hefty price tag. All expeditions must pay for helicopter insurance for their staff as well as life insurance. Government taxes account for another chunk. Each climber must pay $11,000 (around £7,600) to the Nepali government for a permit, while the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee claims another $600 towards its ‘ice-fall doctors’, who fix the route through the Khumbu Glacier into the Western Cwm.
The overall fee also includes everything from the wages for guides and Sherpas to the food, climbing kit, tents and transfers. Operators usually supply some training once you arrive in Nepal, too, in climbing techniques, glacier travel, rope fixing, ascending, descending and safety techniques, and you’ll also be taught how to use medical and communications equipment, and even how to cook at high altitude! Crucially, though, the price cannot guarantee you’ll make it to the summit – only 50 percent of people who shoot for the top, make the top.
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A total of 282 people (168 westerners and 114 Sherpas) died on Everest between 1921 and 2016, 176 on the Nepal side and 106 on the Tibet side. Few of the bodies are brought down, so there are well over 200 corpses on the mountain, some of which serve as grizzly landmarks for other climbers. The unidentified corpse of a climber on the north side of Everest became known as Green Boots, and was used as a landmark until 2014, when the corpse disappeared, presumably removed or buried.
Everest doesn’t actually pose substantial technical climbing challenges, but it’s the altitude sickness, extreme weather and strong winds (up to 175mph on the summit – Everest’s peak is the windiest place on earth) that can prove so deadly, as well as avalanches and the dreaded, ever-shifting Khumbu Icefall. In addition, it was recently reported that the Hillary Step, a rocky outcrop near the peak of Mount Everest, has collapsed, probably due to the earthquake of 2015. This potentially makes the climb even more dangerous.
Making it to the top, though, is only one victory – you then have to get back down. Sadly, many climbers do not return to Base Camp after this extraordinary achievement, and a quarter of all fatalities occur on the descent.
One of the most disastrous expeditions on Everest was in 1996, when 12 people died trying to reach the summit in a single day. This was documented in the book Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer, who survived the experience. He has been critical of the recent Everest film adaptation of his book – and about climbing Everest altogether. He said: “Everest is not real climbing. It’s rich people climbing. It’s a trophy on the wall, and they’re done… When I say I wish I’d never gone, I really mean that.”
Everest Base Camp
Everest Base Camp plays a key role in any serious expedition to summit Everest. Initially, climbing parties hike up here from Lukla, sharing the trail with regular trekkers, before establishing a camp and acclimatising here, often for several days. This is not the only period when regular trekkers can catch sight of serious mountaineers, though. Typically, expeditions involve a series of ‘rotations’, in which climbers ascend higher up the mountain and then drop back down to Base Camp to recuperate before, ultimately, attempting the summit. The window of good weather needed for this final summit bid changes each year, depending on when the monsoon occurs in Bengal, but most successful attempts occur in late May.
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