26 December 2018
Robby Kojetin describes some of the most significant memories of climbing Mount Everest.
To put my Everest experience into a single blog post is not the easiest of tasks. It is more suited to a book, one which is six years in the making and currently sitting on about 78 000 words. So I’ll try capture the essence of the expedition and highlight some of the most significant moments.
I've been lucky enough to visit the Himalayan Khumbu region four times. In 2009 I was a member of Himex’s Everest team to the South side, climbing from Nepal. My subsequent trips back to the mountain kingdom were as a tour leader on two treks to Everest Base Camp and an expedition to Ama Dablam, an iconic 6853m peak, just 12km from Everest as the crow flies.
The difference between climbing Mount Everest and trekking to Everest Base Camp
I have to make the difference between an Everest Expedition and a Base Camp trek very clear. So many times when discussing Everest, I am met with, “Oh yes, my brother-in-law climbed Everest last year September”. No. He didn’t.
So here are some facts to highlight the differences between the two.
- An expedition to Mount Everest’s summit usually takes place between March and June.
- An average trip takes 72-76 days, from landing in Kathmandu.
- There are approximately 30 South Africans who have sumitted Everest. I was number 17 (woohoo).
- The 2016’s package prices (for one person) ranged from $30,000 to $85,000. Different operators offer different facilities and level of support, but the phrase “you get what you pay for” definitely applies.
- This fee excludes any personal equipment or clothing, flights, travel insurance or any guarantee of the summit.
From Kathmandu to Base Camp
For me, the trip began when I was 16. I dreamed of Everest since the day I saw the iconic shot of Tenzing Norway in that inky blue jacket holding his axe high on the summit. But, for the sake of this blog, let’s start in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
You’ll fly in a small 21-seater airplane or helicopter from there to Lukla. You land at the Hillary-Tenzing airport, the world’s most dangerous airport. From here the trek to Base Camp (BC) begins.
For many, the trek to BC is an adventure in itself, myself included, and one worth considering. From the moment you land you’re surrounded by some of the biggest mountains on Earth and things just get better. In the days that follow you will encounter yak trains, rural villages, and jaw-dropping panoramas. And you’ll be immersed into a culture like nowhere on the planet.
The BC trek will take you to a similar height to Kilimanjaro’s summit (5643m Kala Patar) but over a longer time period, allowing for better acclimatisation. The distance you walk is about 150km as opposed to Kili’s 85km. The usual BC trek takes between 2-3 weeks in total.
Once in BC we made our home for the next 10 weeks on the famous Khumbu icefall. This is a glacier that is constantly creeping and grinding its way down the valley. This all sounds like fun and games until you’ve repitched your tent for the third time because your real estate is tipping over. From this camp we would climb three times to higher altitudes before we finally made our summit bid.
Acclimatising at altitude
After a week of doing nothing but reading, eating, and mingling with our new international family, we set off down the valley to climb Louche East. At 6100m, this peak was a trekking peak used for acclimatisation.
It was quick 3-day return trip to achieve that altitude without the danger of going through the icefall - statistically the most deadly part of the mountain. That three-day jaunt happened to be the second-highest mountain I had yet climbed. But it was dwarfed by the neighbouring peaks.
A week later we repeated the trip. This time we slept on the summit, a step as important to our preparation as it was spectacular.
The real climbing begins
Then the real climbing started. Our trip through the Khumbu icefall was a mix of excitement, fear, disbelief and nervousness. We wormed our way through the labyrinth of ice lego the size of houses, and school buses. They were creaking and cracking constantly, making their way down the valley.
Camp 1 sits above the icefall at 6100m, at the foot of the Western Cwm. Camp 2 (6500m) is set up at the base of the southwest face of Everest, directly below the Hillary Step. Camp 3 is another 1000m higher, dug into the ice cliffs of the Lhotse face. (Lohtse is the 4th highest mountain in the world.) And Camp 4 sits in the South Col at 8000m, after you have traversed the Lhotse face, the Yellow band and the Geneva Spur. We spent a night in each camp, all as part of our altitude training.
Fast forward 7 weeks of repeating the walk to Camp 3, and we moved into Camp 4 for the summit attempt. Just like on Kili, the process starts before midnight. You make tea, get dressed, and check your bag for odds and ends repeatedly before stepping out the tent to start the ‘pole-pole’ stroll upward. (Pole-pole is Swahili for slowly slowly - your first lesson on Kilimanjaro.)
Except on Kili, it wasn’t -30˚C with 50km winds. And you weren't sucking oxygen through a rubber mask, or carrying your own air at the cruising altitude of a Boeing 737.
The summit lay 800 vertical metres and nine gruelling hours away. We got there at 9:13am on 23 May 2009. Visibility was down to less than 10 metres, the wind was relentless and the temperature dropped to -47˚C on top…but it was the best 22 minutes of my life.
In closing, I realise that living in a frozen wasteland for three months isn't everyone’s cup of tea. You may not want to summit Everest, but the journey to go and see her, and stand at the foot of these indescribable giants is a humbling and invigorating one. So, if your Bucket List has something along the lines of “Witness something majestic”… get yourself a pair of decent hiking boots, slap a bag on your back and get to Base Camp. (And I know just the right place to get everything you’ll need for your adventure ;)
Some interesting Everest facts
- 2016 saw the female record for the most summits - 7 Summits by Lhakpa Sherpa – as well as the first US female to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen, Melissa Arnot form the North side.
- The most summits by a single person is shared by Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi, who have an incredible 21 summits each.
- The triple layer boots needed for the extreme cold cost between R13,000 and R20,000 a pair.
- Our team of 22 climbers and a Sherpa support team of around 50, took 39 tons of equipment, food, oxygen, solar panels, gas bottles and supplies onto the mountain and back again.
- The warmest temperature ever recorded on the summit of Everest was -16˚C and in winter temperatures of -70˚C are not uncommon.
- For the Capetonians out there, Everest’s height is the equivalent of 9 Table Mountains stacked on top of each other.
If you enjoyed reading this, I've tried to bring the experience of climbing the highest mountain on Earth to life in every aspect in the book I've written. I hope to publish it by the end of 2016, so keep an eye out.
For more information, photographs and speaking engagement bookings please visit www.robby.co.za