Everest. So sprawling is the scale and macabre history of this fabled landmass, the name alone should be enough to give your brain momentary frostbite. Indeed, separating the myth from the mountain isn’t easy – but it is important.
Over 200 mountaineers have died climbing Everest in the past century. In 2015 alone, a record-high 22 climbers met their fate atop the massif (avalanches accounting for 29% of deaths, 23% for falls and 20% for exposure or acute mountain sickness, among other deadly factors).
Few know the dangers more than British explorer Matthew Dieumegard-Thornton. In May 2012, aged just 22, he became one of the youngest climbers in history to reach the summit. Here, he reveals the darkest parts of an Everest climb.
1. The ‘death zone’ makes you delirious
“The difference between Everest and most high-altitude climbs is that you need supplemental oxygen to reach the summit. An average journey takes five or six weeks, with much of the trek designed to help your body acclimatise. We had a good rotation, we didn’t get sick and we completed it on the first attempt within five weeks. But nothing prepares you for that thin air, it makes you delirious. They call the area where there’s not enough The Death Zone. Up there it’s all or nothing.”
2. There are a lot of crevices
“There are loads of crevices on Everest, many requiring you to traverse across them on ladders. Normally you start the journey with single ladders, gradually getting two ladders back-to-back and then eventually you get three ladders, like in this video I took [above]. I’d never climbed a horizontal ladder with crampons on before Everest, but feeling a little drunk on the lack of oxygen helped to ease any fears. On Everest, you encounter obstacles, tricks and techniques you’ve never had to solve before, and it all comes together on the same mountain.”
3. Sherpas can be crazy
“If I fell into a crevice nothing would probably happen as I’d still be attached by a rope. But the worst part is watching the Sherpas. They are paid by load/weight, so the more rotations they do the more they get paid, so they cut corners to go faster. They don’t clip in, they don’t wear helmets, they don’t do a lot of safety stuff. They’ll be walking across the ladders unclipped holding on with their hands. The day before we got to a big crevice past camp one we were told a Sherpa had fallen into it and died a day earlier. A rescue team had dragged his body up and he’d bled all the way up the icy face of this square crevice. There was no smell, it was just the sight of the blood. It was a lot darker than I expected it to look, and it made me feel physically sick. It put the climb into perspective.”
4. The mountain hides itself
“You can’t quite take Everest in. Not fully. It’s so far away that when you can see all of it that it looks like a painting, and close-up it’s so big that it’s not possible to know what you’re even looking at. It’s almost as if the mountain hides itself: you can’t see camp three until you get to camp two. Then you only see camp four once you’re going up around the side of the mountain. Even on summit day it looks unrelenting. The size is a huge problem to overcome mentally.”
5. You will probably see dead bodies
“Everest is littered with dead bodies. When you leave camp four and you’re on your summit day, it’s so high up there you can barely take yourself. You can’t take a heavy rucksack, so if you die up there then there’s very little chance anyone will be able to get you down, and so you encounter bodies. Some families do pay for teams to pick up a body and lower it down. For the most part everyone stays very positive, you don’t talk about this stuff, but you can’t help but notice the bodies because their clothes are still bright. You might see some bare flesh but you won’t see a skull as the skin is almost embalmed as if it’s been frozen in time, almost like a waxwork. The clothes are flapping in the wind and ultra violet light, each person with their own story.”
6. Debris is a constant danger
“Everest isn’t your traditional up and down mountain – it’s not a technical climb; K2 is a more difficult mountain to climb in terms of technicality – but you still need to watch your step. Due to Everest getting drier as a result of global warming, and not enough snowfall, the mountain effectively sheds a layer of ice and rocks which tumble down the mountain. Basically, you have to negotiate terrain that is trying to throw a lot of stuff at you, and these can be boulders the size of a car.”
7. Failure is a big fear
“One of the biggest challenges with Everest is funding. It costs over £40,000 to plan a trip, you need good marketability, and it’s harder than ever to stand out from the crowd. I contacted 2,000 companies, and in the end it was just luck – Yellow Pages were re-branding and wanted Everest as part of their messaging, so I was in the right place at the right time. You don’t want to let anyone down, and this added pressure of failing when people have invested so much in you can play on your mind.”
8. Reaching the summit feels like a horror movie
“I went into the climb imagining dying at the top of Everest would be quite a tranquil end – should the worst happen – because the oxygen is so low that you’d just fade out. But no, the summit is so windy and hostile – it’s simply not a nice place to be. It is extreme. You feel a long way from help and nobody is going to rescue you. The wind adds so much suspense I can only liken it to the sound of a horror movie. By the point I reached the top I was so hypoxic, or rather, low on oxygen, that I completely forgot about taking photos for all my sponsors. I only cared about myself in that moment as I felt so punch drunk. But when you’re pitting yourself against nature in a very raw way, thinking about yourself is no bad thing.”