Everest: The Only Way Is Up
By Christina Freeman
Kim Hess takes time to reflect in Russia's Baksan Valley in July 2012. Courtesy Kim Hess.
By Jennie Lay
Two local mountaineers convene at a Steamboat Springs coffee shop. It’s mid-winter – down time for the Himalayan climbing season, the period for augmenting one’s strength in preparation for spring’s summits. This is a casual introduction for a veteran Sherpa, and a potentially life-changing transfer of wisdom for a novice who will make her first attempt to climb 29,029-foot Mount Everest in May.
As he sips black coffee this afternoon, Chhiring Dorje Sherpa is fresh off a summit on 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain. He guided the expedition without oxygen. He’s back home relaxing with his family in Steamboat, trying to do nothing but let his body rest before spring’s ascent on Everest.
Kim Hess enjoys a latte on her lunch break from Fleischer Sport, one of seven eclectic jobs she is working these days to help support her climbing habit. Every minute she’s not working is spent training at Manic or skinning up the ski area.
Dorje Sherpa, 40, is heading for his 13th ascent on Everest this spring. Edging in on the one-year anniversary of emigrating with his family to Steamboat Springs, the celebrated Nepalese climber has guided at least 100 clients to the top of the world, summited seven other 8,000-meter peaks, and made one of climbing history’s most daring rescues during a deadly disaster on K2 in 2008. The Explorers Club awarded him the Tenzing Norgay Award for his exceptional mountaineering in the spirit of the famed Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who pioneered the first summit of Mount Everest in 1953 with Sir Edmund Hillary.
Hess, 30, is making her first attempt on Everest this spring. This is the fifth summit she will tackle on her mission to conquer the Explorer’s Grand Slam: summiting the tallest mountains on all seven continents, plus the north and south poles.
“It’s setting in that I’m going. I’ve been dreaming about this for 22 years,” Hess tells Dorje Sherpa. She confesses that she is nervous about the Khumbu Icefall, a notoriously tricky and changing passage en route to Everest’s summit. The passage proved deadly for 19 people, including 16 Sherpas, who perished there last year in a single avalanche.
He inquires which route she’s pursuing.
The southern approach, from Nepal, she replies.
“Last year was bad luck. This year, I don’t know,” Dorje Sherpa tells her, showing a Buddhist nonchalance for fate. Climbing season ended abruptly on the south side of the mountain in 2014. This year, he will be ascending the north side of Everest, from China, with Swedish clients. “It’s just luck. I don’t know,” he repeats.
Dorje Sherpa will climb without oxygen this year, a plan that was thwarted a couple years ago when he got stuck in Steamboat waiting on a slow-processing green card. Hess, the novice, marvels at his prowess and reacts by simply saying, “Hell no.” She’ll be using oxygen, thank you very much.
As an expedition leader, Dorje Sherpa heads back Nepal on Valentine’s Day to start prepping for his clients’ arrival. Along with his brother and fellow guides, it takes nearly 35 day to assemble the gear and supplies for their ascent up the north side of the mountain.
Hess departs for Kathmandu on March 22. She’ll spend only a couple days in the city before heading deep into the Himalaya.
Every ascent on Everest has its perils. The northern route encompasses more technical rock climbing. The southern route harbors the notorious Khumbu Icefall.
Dorje Sherpa knows well the guides who Hess will be climbing with. In a true Steamboat moment, this climbing superstar from Kathmandu advises his new climbing compadre, “They are my hometown people. Any problem, you call me.” Dorje Sherpa and Hess exchange phone numbers and email addresses and make a date to reconnect over tea on the other side of the world. Hess is relieved to know a familiar face she can turn to.
Dorje Sherpa says everyone who got turned back on Everest last year is going back up this year – it will be as crowded as ever on the mountain. Hess confesses that her greatest fear is traffic – too many people just standing in line waiting to head up the ropes while she freezes to death.
Hess and Dorje Sherpa are about the same size. They are compact athletes, slight in their silhouettes. Hess says her biggest battle is staying warm: “I just wear everything I have. I layer and stay covered. The biggest thing I can’t do is sit long.” That makes a potential traffic jam on Everest most terrifying to her.
A journey to Everest encompasses a plethora of shared ritual. More than just a summit, it is an expedition through an exotic and spiritual land. Dorje Sherpa offers Hess valuable travel advice: “Kathmandu is very exciting. A lot of wild dogs,” he warns. Go to the giant stupa at Bodinath and visit the Buddhist lamas “to get the luck.” “Finish with jetlag” before you get to the mountains. Drink only the tea, coffee and water. Skip the beer.
“The next day, you go in the airplane if it’s good weather. You see Everest’s sister and pray to it for good luck. Then you see Everest,” he says. Like most hikers heading to the top of the world, Hess will land on the precarious airstrip at the Himalayan town of Lukla, elevation 9,383 feet. Dorje Sherpa advises her that this is where she will finally encounter the first signs of real life in the mountains. Higher up, at Namchee Bazaar, he advises her to head directly through the market for the statue of Tenzing Norgay, clearly a point of national pride that was completed last October.
Dorje Sherpa says Hess must spend the night at the Tengboche monastery, do the puja ceremony and get blessed by the monks. She should not look at the memorial wall that is full of tragedy on the way up – read it on the way down. Don’t ever take off your sunglasses.
At the summit, she should look for
the Buddha that he carried up from the southern Nepali approach (something he
could never do from the Chinese north) and placed among the prayer flags during
one of his three 2007 summits. And, last but not least, he shares the takeaway
lesson from his 10-day meditation with the Dalai Lama in 2012: “Life is short
and don’t do bad things.”
Hess’ climb toward Everest
When Hess was eight years old, her mom’s friend went to Everest base camp and brought back photos and stories that enthralled her. “It was so cool, so pretty….it’s like going to the moon,” she recalls. She read John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and watched the Everest Imax movie. The Discovery Channel’s “Everest: Beyond the Limit” was her final enticement. “That sealed the deal. I saw footage of guys crossing the icefall. I wasn’t scared. I was inspired,” she says. Hess was also egged on by the fact that the men on the show who treated their sole woman climbing partner like she had no business being on the mountain.
Hess grew up in Denver, the youngest of four siblings. She graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in integrative physiology, thinking she was going to be a doctor. Instead, she traveled the world, including every continent except Antarctica. She finally set down roots in Steamboat six years ago. During a holiday cocktail session with her brother, the idea to climb the seven summits emerged.
By the next morning her brother had it laid out. First they hiked the Colorado Trail together to see if they could hack each other as siblings. “Through hikes are not our jam. I would never do that again,” she says. But they went forward with the sibling-supported summits. In February 2010 they summited South America’s 22,841-foot Aconcagua in Argentina. “We came back so jazzed on it. I felt like I had something to prove. I think people thought I would never really do this,” she says. Since then, she has spent four years training on a three-times-a-week regimen with Graham Muir at Manic
In July 2011, she went to Russia to make the one-day summit on Europe’s 18,510-foot Elbrus. With its chairlifts and huts and lack of technical climbing, she says she totally underestimated that mountain, where the wind was ripping on summit day.
In Tanzania, she and her brother hired a local guide to climb Africa’s 19,336-foot Kilimanjaro via five days on the Machame route. “That’s a crazy mountain. You start in the jungle with monkeys and work your way up in to a glacier,” she recalls. They were greeted at the foot of the mountain by their parents, her mom in a head-to-toe African ensemble, and whisked off on a safari. After making that third summit, Hess felt like people started taking her seriously, although “the fact that you think I can’t do it makes me want to do it even more,” she says.
Summiting North America’s 20,237-foot Denali was a training endeavor Hess took seriously. Unfortunately, she broke her foot on the dance floor at a wedding five days before she was set to leave for Alaska. “I don’t cry very easily, but the minute I saw the x-rays I started to cry,” she says. In the end, she went with the theory that mountaineering boots are stiffer than a cast, and this ascent was a case of mind over matter, a test of how tough she was. She was prepared to bail out if she couldn’t make it, but it was an unusually sunny, perfect-weather summit.
She felt victorious, reveling in a sunset and a moonrise on opposite horizons, telling the guides that it was the coolest thing that had ever happened to her; however warm weather made the descent precarious. A crevasse had opened and an anchor had fallen out at a spot where she had to make a leap with her 80-pound backpack and a wakened foot. Her arm got caught in the fixed line. It was a serious break, and at the 14,000-foot base camp she took an emergency trip out on the helicopter.
Now Hess heads to Nepal. "Everest can be a shit show. It's always a gamble. Denali was a gamble and I lost," she says, despite the success of her summit. She has had several wrist surgeries and didn't really think she'd be attempting the world's tallest peak this year. Turns out, she also departs for Nepal and the re-opening of the southern approach on Everest without her brother.
“I’m curious to be a part of what Everest is this year…to be apart of the culture, to learn from the people who were there,” Hess says. “It’s going to be a year that people are going to write about. It’s going to be such an experience.”
Follow the progress of Dorje Sherpa’s north face Everest ascent at www.rolwalingexcursion.com.np.
Follow Hess’ south face Everest ascent at www.kimhessclimbs.com.
Eric Meyer: Wise Advice for Tackling Everest
With two Everest summits and a string of other extreme-mountain experiences under his belt, veteran Steamboat Springs mountaineer Eric Meyer offers advice to Kim Hess and other new climbers on the world’s tallest mountain.
Choose your team wisely.
“The most important thing is the team you’re climbing with…their reliability. On a commercial climb, you can never choose your climbing partners, but you do have the integrity of the outfitter to make sure everyone is physically capable and technically proficient to do the climb.”
Be prepared for the unexpected.
“A person never knows how they’re going to do in extreme altitude until they get there. Even then, so many factors can come in to play – health, strength of the remaining team. Logistical factors that you can plan for and attempt to bring in to place, but you can’t predict tents blowing away as you come in to camp. The most important thing is to have good leadership – make good judgments at all phases of the climb.”
Take personal responsibility.
“People don’t appreciate the vast temperature differences you feel on the mountain. Lower on the mountain, it’s not that cold, especially as you’re actively climbing. Maintaining your nutrition, rest and personal health are as important as dressing properly for the conditions.” Like Hess, he also gets cold quickly with his small stature with low body fat. “No one is going to tell you when to put on a layer or take it off so you’re not sweating. Thinking ahead and really listening to your body as you’re climbing is really important – how to take care of yourself, getting hydrated, fed and staying warm is a personal responsibility.”
“Appreciate the people that you’re with. One of the things that always strikes me as amazing and beautiful is the landscape and the colors on the mountain and how they change from black to orange….everything is magnified. The color spectrum is remarkable. It really gets dramatic high up on the mountain. That’s one of the things that a person remembers most from being high up on the mountain – how it is to be part of this changing Technicolor landscape.”
“Play pranks on each other. Joke around. Frisbee and hacky sack and watching movies in a base camp tent are always a highlight of base camp…the camaraderie and sharing of things that are familiar and comical to people from all over the world. Borat is funny to everyone from everywhere.”
“There will be highs and lows…for everyone. When you’re amped and dialed in nothing seems impossible. Staying mentally focused and motivated is hard at the beginning when you’re probably not feeling that great….not eating as much, sleeping as well. It becomes kind of like a chess match, planning your acclimatization and getting all that. On summit day, you’re the highest person in the world. You have to have levity.”