Yellow tents appeared through the thick cloud and blowing snow. The blue wall of glacier ice behind the tents popped against the overcast, grey skies. Last years' arrival at Camp 1 was the polar opposite to this year. This place, the saddle between Changtse and Mount Everest, is the North Col. It oscillates between a dead calm, solar oven and a frigid wind swept ridge. Yesterday's experience was more tropical than tundra, and I reached the Col in nothing more than a short-sleeved T-shirt.
The Northeast ridge route from the North Col (photo copyright: Zeb Blais 2017)
This dichotomy is a great metaphor for the Northeast Ridge Route. The route ranges from benign hiking to climbing with extreme exposure. The exposure is mitigated with fixed rope, but walking the knife edge between the 11,000' Kangshung Face and the 8,000' North Face is still better than a cup of coffee on summit day.
The route starts at Base Camp on the Rongbuck glacier in Tibet. Teams acclimatize before arrival, either by trekking or pre-acclimatizing, like we do on Alpenglow Expeditions Rapid Ascent trips. Once at BC, we spend close to a week here to gain a good base acclimatization. Alternating between hiking and resting, we wait for our bodies to physiologically adjust before moving up.
From left: acclimatizing hike, view from 6000m, Topo hiking from BC (photo copyright: Zeb Blais 2017)
The terrain around BC is mostly loose rock and there are a variety of hikes to choose from. We hike down to the Buddhist Rongbuck Monastery, up a frozen river to over 6,000m in our tennis shoes, or navigate the moraines around base camp. Once we're feeling good and are confident about moving up, we make the jump to ABC.
Hiking from interim camp to ABC (photo copyright: Zeb Blais 2017)
The move to ABC takes two days. We divide up the 11 mile and 1,200m (4,000') journey with an overnight at Interim Camp. Thick gravel and loose rock cover the glacial ice of the East fork of the Rongbuck Glacier and the trails between camps are well trodden by climbers and yaks. After arriving at ABC, we give our bodies a couple days rest before returning to work on acclimatization.
ABC sits on the East Rongbuck Glacier and camps are constructed on top of rock dragged off the flanks of Chagtse (the northern peak of the North Col). Trails through the loose rock link camps to the climbing route above.
The acclimatization process above ABC consists of tagging high points above camp and sleeping at 7,000 meters (23,000'). The philosophy on how to acclimatize varies greatly between teams, but generally teams share a few basic steps.
We start by tagging Crampon Point (6,500m), where the rock trail ends and a snowy glacier extends to the base of the fixed lines on the North Col face. The terrain is loose and rocky from ABC to Crampon Point, but the gradual grade makes it an easy walk. From here, we return to ABC to sleep. Since it's not terribly taxing, we usually climb the following day.
Approaching North Col (photo copyright: Zeb Blais 2017)
The next move is to climb to the North Col (7,000m) and return to ABC to sleep. We hike to Crampon Point once again, where we don our technical climbing gear and begin climbing. After traversing a nearly flat glacier, the fixed lines begin and we start climbing the heavily glaciated face to the North Col. The terrain ranges from nearly flat to around 50 degrees, bobbing and weaving around crevasses and through glacial bulges. Tents at the North Col are lined up behind a large wall of ice that provides protection from the wind.
Climbers nearing the North Col camp at 7,000m (photo copyright: Zeb Blais 2017)
Our final rotation is to climb to the North Col and sleep there, with an additional climb above 7,000m the following day before returning to ABC to sleep. This is not an absolutely rigid schedule and it depends a lot on how team members feel and the timing with our summit window.
When we have finished our acclimatization, we rest for a few days to prepare for the summit push. Depending on when our weather window appears, we will either choose to stay at ABC and rest, or descend to Base Camp. We recover much better with the thick air at BC, but it adds around a week to our schedule. It takes one day to descend to BC, two days to rest there, two days to return to ABC and two more days of rest there before going for the summit.
Choosing a summit window is one of the most crucial parts of the expedition. It's about picking a day with suitable weather and minimal numbers of other climbers. The temperatures, wind speed and precipitation all have to align to provide suitable conditions for climbing. A general rule of thumb is clear to diurnal (afternoon clouds with potential light precip) skies with temperatures of -25C and winds of 25kph. If it's colder than -25C, we need less wind to attempt the summit. If it's windier, we need warmer temps.
From ABC, our summit push takes 4 days. On day one, we leave Base Camp after a normal breakfast and climb to the North Col without O2. When we arrive at North Col, we breath O2 on 1L/min while we unpack, make dinner, hydrate and sleep.
Day 2 we move to Camp 2 (7,800m/25,500'). We start climbing on 2L/min and, depending on our pace, will bump it up to 4L/min. The goal is to arrive at C2 using 1 bottle of O2 or less. The climbing starts off as mellow, lightly crevassed glacial slopes until 7,500m. From there, the snow ends and it becomes rocky, 3rd class terrain. Tent platforms at Camp 2 are terraced on the steep rocky ridge. Dropping a water-bottle here means that you will have a bottle no more. It's comfortable, but fairly steep on either side. We use oxygen as before, using the remainder of the O2 bottle we started at C1 (North Col). After sleeping on 1L/min, we eat breakfast and pack up for the move to C3.
We climb to Camp 3 (8,300m/27,000') on 4L/min. The terrain here continues as 3rd class rock and snow, before hitting a large panel of steep snow. After the steep snow, a couple of snow gullies leads to a large snow field where C3 is made. The snowpack is thin and the slope is steep enough that it's difficult to make a tent platform big enough for an entire tent. In 2016, our platforms were just big enough to squeeze two climbers on one side of the tent while the other third of the tent hung into space. Here's hoping for deeper snow this year! Again, this camp is on steep enough terrain where you have to keep a tight eye on your gear. A clumsy movement could mean a precious oxygen bottle shoots down the mountain.
Day 4 is summit day, and it's our only alpine start of the trip. We wake before midnight, eat a small breakfast, prep our gear and are climbing before 1am. Departure time depends on the strength of our team, weather forecast, and what we anticipate the route conditions to be. This is an absolutely unbelievable day of climbing.
Left: Exit Cracks Right: Northeast Ridge-Kangshung Face on left, North Face on right
The route is steep and offers intense exposure. From camp, we climb a series of steep snow-filled cracks, known as the Exit Cracks, to gain the Northeast Ridge. The ridge is a proper knife edge for the first few steps and we're divided between the Kangshung (east) Face and the North Face by the narrow rock and snow at our feet. We stick to the west side of this ridge as we climb a variety of snow slopes and rock slabs.
After the Exit Cracks, the route has three technical steps. The first comes and goes without much notice, just a small rock bulge. The second step, a sheer 30' tall rock face, is the crux of the route for most teams. It is fixed with a wobbly ladder that dangles on years of accumulated fixed line. It is fun to balance on the swinging ladder and maneuver back onto the rock, but the awkwardness of the move makes it a challenge for many climbers. The second step can become a bottle-neck if there are crowds on the route. The third step is a 4th class "stem box"- a rock corner with a few holds for hands and feet on each side. Again, it makes for fun climbing, but can be a pinch point if there are too many people.
Above the Third Step, the route is more consistent. A large, steep triangular snow slope leads to the summit ridge where off camber rock slabs make traversing challenging. Above this rock slab, the terrain changes back to snow and flattens out a bit until the summit. The summit itself is a patch of snow covered in prayer flags and big enough to fit a small team, and sits at 8,848 meters/29,035 feet.
Getting back down is the most important part. After spending around a half-hour on top, it's time to start heading down. Our O2 tanks aren't getting any fuller and the rest of the summit day is long. The goal is to get as low on the mountain as we can. Ideally, this means Advanced Base Camp, where we can eat a full meal, celebrate with beers, and not need to sleep on oxygen. That makes for a massive day.
In 2016, our summit day from start at C3 to finish at ABC was 16.5 hours, which included a fairly speedy ascent from C3 to the summit in 4.75 hours. We gained 600m (2,000') and dropped 2,400m (8,000'). If we don't have the energy to get back to ABC, we'll camp as low as we can, make a hasty freeze dried meal, sleep on O2 and return to ABC in the morning.
The climbing is over once we're back at ABC. From here, we take a rest day, pack our things and return to Base Camp. Our Sherpa team breaks down ABC and sends the infrastructure down behind us on yaks and porters. At BC, we sort gear, pack up our things, celebrate the trip with some champagne and tequila and get on the road back to Lhasa!