Peak performance: Timing the climb to the top of Everest
When asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.” The windy, frigid summit of the mountain rises 29,029 feet above the Tibetan Highlands in Central Asia. Trekkers to the south base camp may be met by tourists who have helicoptered in to enjoy champagne and gaze at the mountain, but the climb to the top is no party. Plan on taking longer than two months to reach the peak.
Why does it take so long?
The expedition to the top of Everest will take about two months. The trek through the Khumbu Valley in Nepal, to the south-side base camp, the most popular route, takes about 10 days. On the Chinese side, climbers simply make a three- to six-day drive on a paved road to base camp north. Once at base camp, experts recommend as long as two weeks to acclimatize to the altitude.
As they become used to the thin air, mountaineers begin the climb to the summit through a series of staging camps, typically going beyond the camp and returning to it to further acclimatize. Base camp 4 is the final staging area. From here, weather, particularly high wind, determines when “summit day” is. Scaling the peak of Everest begins at night so climbers can get to the summit in the morning and return to camp by nightfall.
Which Everest base camp is best?
Each camp has its pros and cons. Base camp north can be reached by road, while you have to hike to base camp south. The Chinese, who control base camp north, don’t allow helicopters on the mountain, so rescue might be delayed. Tibetan Sherpas have less experience than Nepalese, who have been assisting Everest climbers since the days of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to reach the top of the mountain. The weather is more benign at base camp south. To the north, the wind blows 30 to 50 mph every day.
Mount Everest advice
Do join a guided expedition. Italian climber Reinhold Messner’s 1980 solo Everest climb without supplemental oxygen set the gold standard for alpine-style ascents. But only one other climber, to date, has made it to the top alone. You’ll be safer in an expedition, you’ll have quicker access to medical help if you need it and you’ll have your guide’s expertise to rely on.
Be prepared to pay a small fortune to summit Everest. The permit alone costs around $10,000. Add transportation, supplies, guides, insurance and gear and the amount needed to climb the mountain can rise to over $100,000.
Train, train, train. Don’t attempt to summit Mount Everest unless you’re in good condition and understand how to use your gear. The long hike to base camp alone requires physical stamina. Climbing through Everest’s death zone above 25,000 feet exposes you to frostbite and altitude sickness, in addition to the rigors of climbing to the top of the tallest mountain in the world.
On the down side
Don’t expect a solitary trip up the mountain. Base camp alone supports about 1,500 people, including climbers, medics and staff. The number of permits sold to foreign climbers changes from year to year. In 2017, for example, it was 371. Those climbers are supported by a larger number of Sherpa guides, swelling the number to 800. With an average of only three or four good climbing days, the path to the summit and back gets crowded.
Climbing Mount Everest is hard. The dangers range from minor irritations, like a small cut that won’t heal at high elevation, to a fall to your death. Don’t disregard anything your guide or your Sherpa tells you. Listen to your guide’s advice on which goggles to wear, which clothing combinations are best and when to take a break. They’re the experts, not the guy at the outfitters shop who sold you a balaclava.