Sauraj Jhingan is only 90 days from his dream climb. Here’s what it takes to make an Everest ascent possible.
With merely 90 days to go before I set out on my quest for Everest, I find myself completely overwhelmed by the mountain of work (pun intended) yet to be done. With our team of 5 climbers and 40 support staff having to survive 60 days on and above the Khumbu Glacier, this expedition is more than a quest for the highest summit in the world. When it comes to the sport of mountaineering, planning an ascent of this sort is both an extremely long expedition and one of the largest logistical operations in the world.
Besides the obvious challenge of how to feed this proverbial army, I have other decisions to make. I find myself back in my Pune Expedition Office, over 2,000 kilometers away from the mighty Himalayas, staring at the next file on my desk: Equipment Manifest. While planning my expeditions, rather than focusing first on the climbing equipment required at the summit, I usually find that if you work from the base up, chances are you won’t miss out on any item in the equipment inventory. Therefore, my first point of concern is the equipment required to survive and sustain that long duration of 60 days spent living on the glacier.
But by “equipment” I do not mean solely the hardware we need to cope with ice and snow.
We can’t risk losing all our equipment every time the glacier shifts and contorts, which happens every four or five days). It isn’t surprising to wake up one day and find that the small distance of 10 meters between your tent and the kitchen has increased by a rift in the glacier causing a gigantic ice crevasse to open up. You just thank your lucky stars that you aren’t in it.
For two and a half months, the Khumbu Glacier will be our home. Therefore, we must have all the creature comforts required to keep us physically fit, and more importantly to keep our morale positive. I must make sure that we have a well-established kitchen and dining tent, stocked with food and fuel, to keep us going for the entire expedition.
The dining tent is also our common area, where we will spend a bulk of the day lounging around. To keep us mentally stimulated (or distracted), we need a large collection of books and magazines, board games, playing cards (the favorite pastime of our Nepali staff), and Uno (an alternate form of playing cards). We also need a table with an unlimited supply of confections and hot coffee/tea/drinking chocolate to keep our fluid intake high. As our high-energy food station it also acts as our constant source of comfort food.
The dining tent has another role: It is our base of communication, with our laptops connected to the Internet for monitoring the weather (as often as possible), our Sat Comms (satellite phones), and our walkie-talkies (for staying in touch with the teams higher up on the mountain). This communication equipment of course must be situated on a part of the glacier, relatively more stable then it usually is.
Yes: We have Internet access at the base camp! We have two basic choices: phones or Bgans.
There are cell phones and/or satellite phones using networks from Iridium or Thuraya, depending on where you are climbing. A combination of phones sometimes might be in order. While climbing, Thuraya is best for Asia, Africa, and Europe; Iridium is the choice for North and South America, the oceans, and the poles. Iridium phones are significantly more expensive than a comparable Thuraya handset. Thuraya offers a clever sleeve that holds an iPhone, making your phone book and apps easily accessible. We will also be using a GSM phone along with a local SIM card and data plan from the local provider. In Nepal, for example, this would be NCELL. Since 2011, on my treks through the Khumbu Glacier and the Everest Valley I could get good voice connections at Everest Base Camp (EBC); and I get spotty connections up to Camp 2 on the South Side.
Another option is a Bgan. A Bgan is a high speed modem device about the size of a laptop computer that connects to the Internet via a satellite. You pay based on the number of characters transferred and received. You simply plug the Bgan into your laptop, click a button to connect to the Internet, and start using your normal software. It is expensive, renting for US$375 a month plus US$7 per megabyte. But if you are doing a lot of postings, especially with pictures, it is the only way to go.
After establishing a relatively comfortable base camp, I now shift my focus to the climb ahead and the equipment required to sustain us at the three temporary camps above the Khumbu Ice Fall.
The climbing gear I will wear physically pretty much conforms to the norms as stipulated by the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA). That includes a helmet to protect me from falling rocks and debris; a climbing harness to stay attached to the fixed ropes; down Gore-Tex gloves to protect my hands from frostbite; a Petzel climbing seat harness to keep me attached to the fixed ropes; Gore-Tex waterproof pants; SCARPA or La’ Sportiva Insulated mountain climbing boots; crampons to walk on Ice and hard snow; my CAMP ice axe to give me support and stability’ Alpine ascenders and descenders to assist me in climbing up ropes, 4-5 carabineers for safety and locking; and last but not least, a pair of snow glares. They do more than make me look cool in photos; the lenses also protect me against the glare of the sun on the snow and thus from snow blindness.
This comes to a grand total of 10-12 kilograms of just climbing equipment, not counting the weight of the rucksack I have to carry. I remember the first time I strapped on all this equipment during my Basic Mountaineering Certification training at the age of 22 years. The only thought I had was, “How the hell am I gonna stand, let alone climb a bloody mountain?”
Higher up on the mountain, the average temperature drops to a range of 30 to 50 degrees Celsius below zero, and the wind goes up to 60-80 km/hour. The most critical and life-sustaining part of my gear is the down suit, which looks like a sleeping bag with arms and legs. I personally use a North Face AAKC, Himalayan Down Suit. It has serious insulation: 800-fill goose down body, Climashield Neo and Gore Windstopper Insulation Shell-100% nylon ripstop. Once upon a time, down suits didn’t exist especially among the first ascents, but today they are considered an essential piece of clothing in our high altitude wardrobe.
Lack of oxygen is a major challenge posed by Everest, often dropping to less than 30% of what you experience at sea level. Humans cannot survive for any length of time at elevations above 26,000 feet (8000m), appropriately termed the “Death Zone.” At this altitude, the human body is unable to acclimate to the low oxygen and begins to deteriorate, thus forcing us to use oxygen cylinders. Manufactured in St. Petersburg Russia, the POISK oxygen cylinders is what we will use during our expedition bid. Its volume, size, and dimensions are ideal to fit my needs. One POISK bottle filled to 260 Bar at 20 degrees Celsius weighs under six pounds (2.7 kg). In addition, The POISK regulator is lightweight (0.35 kg), easy to use, and very reliable. The regulator is a constant flow device and can be adjusted in ¼ liter-per-minute increments ranging from 1 to 4 liters per minute. At a constant flow of 2 liters per minute, I will require 5 cylinders to climb Everest as well as one back up cylinder, thus bringing the total cylinders required by my team to 21 cylinders.
The total cost of procuring all this equipment amounts to approximately US$4,000–$5,000 for just one climber. Though this seems like an incredible expense, remember, at the end of the day, my life really does depend upon it.
Making this list has been extremely cumbersome, but the exercise has reduced the challenges of actually procuring all the necessary equipment and making sure that all the bases are covered. Though this may seem different from my life at Druva, working in a software firm taught me to appreciate the necessity of paying attention to the small aspects that can make or break a product or venture.