Everest: A Family First

Climbing Mount Everest is considered one of mankind’s greatest feats of human endurance. The two month quest to reach the highest point on earth is a journey filled with unparalleled challenges and some of the roughest and most extreme conditions imaginable. In 2008, my family and I decided to undertake the challenge, becoming the first family of four to successfully reach the summit. It was an expedition that challenged the mental, emotional and physical limits of our entire beings but to finally reach our goal was an incredible and unforgettable feeling.

The idea of attempting to climb Mount Everest originally began with my father. We were sitting around the dinner table one evening about two years before we departed for the expedition when my father casually posed the question of who amongst us would be interested in attempting to climb Mount Everest. I didn’t give it much thought at the time but I said it sounded like a challenge that I would be interested in and my brother and sister responded similarly. That’s how it all started and over the subsequent two year period I began to think more and more about the mountain and soon it became a personal goal of mine that I felt a strong drive inside of me to attempt to reach.

Although there were a lot of logistics we had to deal with in the two year time period before we departed on the expedition, the majority of the logistics came together in the final two months before the climb. Many things took a significant amount of time and energy and were very difficult for us to coordinate including gear purchases from all over the world and getting the family together to discuss and organize our approach as Adam, Laura and I were all living in different cities at the time. Eventually we were able to make everything fall into place at the last minute and the date of our departure arrived.

On April 5th, 2008 Dad, Laura and I flew out of Toronto towards our first destination of Kathmandu, Nepal. Adam had to fly over a few days later because of school commitments and mom had flown a week earlier because she wanted a bit of extra time to acclimatize.

After spending a few days in Kathmandu, acquiring the gear that we were unable to bring with us from Canada, we took another smaller flight to the village of Lukla near the outskirts of the Himalayan Mountains. A ten day trek brought us and our huge amount of gear and supplies into Base Camp where we would establish our home base for the two month expedition.

We used an outfitter for our Mount Everest Expedition which was a little different for us. On other mountains we had not used an outfitter but it is almost a necessity on Everest because of the very long period of time and the frequent movement between camps for acclimatization. Someone needs to replenish the food supplies and provide the many tents and safety equipment so this is where an outfitter comes in. We opted not to climb as part of the main group, however, so that we would have the freedom to make our own climbing decisions and rely on our own experience.
Once at Base Camp we settled in to the small dome climbing tents that were pitched on icy jagged rock surface of the Khumbu Glacier. The glacier is continuously moving so Base Camp is always changing shape as the ice slowly melts and changes shape beneath the tents. It seemed like a comfortable enough place at first but two months is a long time to spend on a mountain and before long it became quite miserable with all the sicknesses, hardships and the lack of hygiene facilities.

Because of the extreme height of Everest, climbers need to acclimatize in order to be able to continue up to higher altitudes. This is the main reason why it takes so long to scale the mountain. A lot of the deaths on Everest are a result of climbers gaining altitude too fast and not allowing their bodies to go through the necessary acclimatization changes. This mistake of climbing too fast will lead to acute mountain sickness and eventually your small blood vessels will constrict and rupture causing Pulmonary or Cerebral Edema. Pulmonary Edema is when this rupturing of small blood vessels causes your blood to leak into your lungs eventually leading to partial suffocation and it can be recognized by a gurgling sound when talking or breathing. Cerebral Edema is even more serious and is when the blood leaks into your brain. It can cause all sorts of problems including extreme dizziness, blindness and eventually death if the climber is not brought to a lower altitude very quickly. We met climbers during the expedition with both of these edemas so it is not an uncommon occurrence and extreme care needs to be taken in properly acclimatizing before continuing to climb higher. At altitudes lower than Base Camp, limiting the speed of your ascent is sufficient for proper acclimatization but above Base Camp we had to do an up-and-back approach where we made progressively longer acclimatization climbs up the mountain each time returning to Base Camp to allow our bodies to recover and the acclimatization changes to take place.

Above Base Camp we encountered the infamous Khumbu Icefall which is essentially a steep incline of cascading chunks of ice created as parts of the continuously moving Western Cwm Glacier break off and slide or tumble down towards Base Camp. It takes about eight hours to climb through the icefall and because of our up-and-back acclimatization process we had to pass through the icefall a total of six times. The enormous blocks of ice, called seracs, move 1 – 2 meters (3 – 6 feet) per day and it is quite a dangerous section to go through because the seracs can fall at any time creating ice avalanches and a number of climbers have been killed by this falling ice.

By far the most nerve-wrecking aspect of the Khumbu Icefall is that the continuous movement of the ice creates very wide cracks or crevasses which are hundreds of feet deep and we had to cross them on aluminum ladders many times tied end to end by thin rope.

Alan on the Lhotse Face

After an 8 hour climb through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, we finally arrived at Camp 1. Camp 1 is almost always windy making it very cold and not a very enjoyable or safe place to stay. However, after our first climb through the icefall, the tents were a much welcomed sight.

Climbing to Camp 2 we followed the edge of the Western Cwm Glacier, quite close to the steep-walled base of Mount Nupse. The route is located here to avoid the massive crevasses in the center of the Western Cwm but one has to be careful of avalanches off of Mount Nupse as many of these avalanches sweep right across the route we were on.

Camp 3 is half way up the Lhotse Face which is a 6000-vertical-foot steep, icy face. Climbing on the face was a challenge because of the incline and because of the constant threat of ice, rocks and other objects that careen down the face from above with very little warning. Dad and Laura had some close calls on the Lhotse Face with huge rocks coming at them from above. The tents at Camp 3 were connected by climbing ropes and caution needed to be taken to ensure we clipped into the ropes when climbing between tents because a fall from Camp 3 will result in tumbling all the way down the Lhotse Face back towards Camp 2, a mistake that has claimed a number of climbers lives in years past.

Our first climb to Camp 3 was just for acclimatization and we had to head all the way back down to Base Camp afterwards to recover. After our second time to Camp 3, however, we continued on, using our oxygen masks for the first time at a very low oxygen flow rate just to preserve our energy for higher up.

Before arriving at Camp 4 we had to scale the Yellow Band and the Geneva Spur. These huge rock formations were extremely difficult to surmount because of the low amount of available oxygen. It seemed to take all my energy to put one foot in front of the other and it was an extremely slow process.

Finally, after at least eight hours of climbing from Camp 3, we arrived at Camp 4 which is at an altitude of 8000 m (26000ft). The howling wind roaring across the barren rock and ice made it a very desolate looking place. Camp 4 is in what is known as the “Death Zone” which is the area above 8000 m where there isn’t enough available oxygen to support life. Your body is continuously degrading and spending more than a few days at that altitude is very risky. Almost every year there are a few climbers that lose their lives in the Death Zone and the year we were there was no exception.

After arriving in Camp 4, we had a few hours to replenish our water supplies by melting snow and ice before we departed again that night with no sleep on our 12 hour summit attempt. We each wore a small head lamp which would be guiding us through the night. Laura was very sick and was unable to continue climbing with us. She called us on the radio and told us she was heading back to Camp 4 and the three of us continued on along with our two Sherpas (local Nepalese climbers who climbed with us).

The climb during that night was probably the biggest challenge of the expedition. There was a terrific blizzard most of the night and the blowing snow and ice on the climbing ropes iced up our mechanical ascenders rendering them useless at times and causing us to fall significant distances down the steep South Face. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity of climbing, we arrived at the Balcony, a small plateau on the South-East Ridge of Everest. From the Balcony we turned and started heading steeply up the South-East ridge which eventually brought us to the South Summit.

From the South Summit we could see the actual summit of Everest and our spirits were lifted. However, we still had about a two hour climb across the treacherous Summit Ridge. The Ridge had a lot of jagged, exposed rock and the steel crampons we were wearing on our mountaineering boots were constantly slipping on the rock.

It was an incredible feeling when we finally surmounted the last jagged rock section and trudged our way slowly up the last snowy crest to the summit of the highest mountain in the world. Wow! The feeling of finally reaching our goal was absolutely incredible.

Although we had achieved what we had set out to achieve, the challenge wasn’t over yet. The way down is considered by many climbers to be even more dangerous than the way up because of the complete mental and physical exhaustion. In fact, many climbers have lost their lives on the way down and we had our two biggest scares on the descent.

My terrifying experience hit me just after I have started down the Summit Ridge and I ran out of oxygen. I won’t go into a lot of detail on this website about the specifics surrounding this frightening occurrence but it was a very serious and sobering experience. It involved both human and equipment error and led to the onset of edema symptoms that got severe enough that I could not control my movements and I thought that I was going to perish on the mountain. I can assure you that this type of event when you truly think that you are going to lose your life has a profound and very deep effect on a person.

Our second terrifying scare took us by surprise the following day after Laura, who had been too sick to climb with Dad, Adam and I, headed off towards the summit by herself except for the one Sherpa who was with her. We went through a very long period of radio silence with no word from her and we were beginning to fear for the worst.

Thankfully, we are all still around to tell the story and we were able to successfully reach our end goal as well. Although it is not a journey I would want to embark on again, it was an incredibly fulfilling and character-building experience that will remain with each of us for the remainder of our lives.

The biggest challenge about the mountain is mentally preparing yourself for the immensely long period of time it takes and all the hardships the mountain creates. This mental difficulty is the reason in my opinion why only about 29% of the dedicated climbers make it to the summit. With the incredible challenges and hardships that climbers encounter, it is almost impossible to convince yourself to keep going and not to give up.

One of the greatest advantages that we had, and one of the main reasons I believe we were successful when so many are not, is that we were climbing as a family and we looked out for each other that much more than climbers who were relative strangers might in similar situations. On Everest the level of available oxygen is so low that we were running on a third mental capacity and expedition members need to work as one collaborative unit in order to be successful.

Our Everest expedition is a very powerful story and one that portrays and is very relevant to many of the challenges and difficulties that we are faced with and have to overcome in our day-to-day lives. During my keynote presentations and interactive workshops, I combine many of the images, short videos and anecdotes from the expedition along with other relevant sources and information to create a message that is informative, entertaining and most importantly instills and enforces the purpose and objectives of each particular event.