In April 2016 an international expedition to Mt. Everest (8848 m) began under the guidance of Alexander Abramov, head of the 7 Summits Club. A team of RD Studio filmmakers took part in the expedition to shoot a documentary “The DNA of Altitude, or How to climb Mt. Everest,” a project that began in 2015 by request of Russian TV’s First Channel (a popular channel in Russia).
For Vlad Moroz, director of Red Fox, it was the second attempt to summit the mountain (the expedition in 2015 was terminated because of the devastating earthquake in Nepal). He returned and told us about the challenges that had to be overcome on the way to the summit of the highest peak on Earth.
What are the key features of an expedition to Mt. Everest?
The Base camp of Mt. Everest is located at the altitude of 5200 m. In comparison: the highest peak in Europe, Mt. Elbrus, is only a little bit higher – 5642 m. We arrived, and felt the altitude immediately: one had a headache or felt nauseous, and it was difficult to move. There was absolutely no heroism.
The acclimatization process lasted five-six weeks, though the ascent of the summit – only took one day. We were getting ready for that day very thoroughly: spent a night at the altitude of Mt. Elbrus, then at the altitude of Lenin Peak (7134 m), then climbed higher than Ismoil Somoni Peak (7495 m).
Sometimes I thought what would happen if I couldn’t do that all. I was preparing such a long time, and then I had to show my best in one day. As Alexander Abramov said, ascent is 30% of a summit success, the remaining 70% is descent. If the weather is good, oxygen is available, Sherpas help, the chances for a successful ascent grow. If the weather is bad, it’s a big problem. Fortunately, we were lucky and the weather was good.
How was your acclimatization organized?
Strength isn’t restored at altitudes higher than 6000 meters. The more often people climb up, the better their acclimatization but the worse physical shape they have. Some people lost 15 kg of muscle, not fat. The body eats itself; I lost about five kilos.
The longer acclimatization lasts, the less energy remains, but it’s possible to move faster. Balance is needed. When people climb without oxygen they try to stay at high altitude the least time possible. Some people climb Mt. Cho Oyu first (an eight-thousander in the Himalaya, not far away from Mt. Everest, on the Tibetan side), then they come to the Base camp, go up and spend a night in the Middle camp (5800 m, second camp on the way to the summit) where strength can be restored. Then they climb to the ABC (Advanced base camp, 6400 m), return and descend lower than the Base camp (5200 m) where there is enough oxygen to breath. After that they go up again. So on the one hand, they are at the altitude, on the other hand – the are able to restore their strength.
We had another tactic. We climbed to the Middle camp (5800 m), spent a night and returned to the Base camp (5200 m). Then we climbed to the ABC (6400 m) to spend two days there to acclimatize, then descended again to the BC (5200 m). After that we climbed to the North Col (7200 m), spent two nights there and returned again to the BC (5200 m). In total we completed three acclimatization ascents. According to our experience, this tactic works in the expeditions like ours: almost everyone in our group estimated their own capabilities correctly.
How do you estimate physical capabilities correctly to summit the mountain and keep a normal state of health?
There is a balance: the faster a man goes, the more mobile he is. The oxygen tank can be used a longer time. If a man moves too slowly, he arrives late and feels worse. Also, if the weather is bad, a man may become sick quickly. After all these are high mountains, more than 6000 meters.
It’s important to go trying not to waste 100% of energy. Sometimes people die at the top or during the descent. Sometimes, while going down, people stop to take a rest at a high altitude; they go to sleep but don’t awake.
Sometimes you want to go fast, but it’s not a good idea, because can get a sore throat or a chest pain. I didn’t understand always what happened to me. It was difficult to protect myself. Even experienced athletes may have pulmonary or cerebral edema and it can’t be controlled. In this situation a man should descend quickly. In a high altitude expedition it’s important to understand when to stop and turn back.
Did you train during the expedition?
We had ice training at the ABC. It’s a normal practice for an alpine camp: team members are taught to walk in crampons on ice and snow, to use an ice axe and a rope. Newcomers or athletes that don’t have enough skills can be in the expedition.
At altitudes higher than 6400 meters you have to do unusual things: climb up on the ropes, fasten and unfasten safety hooks. These safety skills are very important. If a man falls down five meters when fastened to a rope by a safety hook, it will not cause a big problem. But if a man is unfastened or he doesn’t realize that it’s important, he may have serious problems.
People going up sometimes don’t know it very well. It can happen that someone is staying ahead, and doesn’t understand what to do or is doing everything slowly so people behind can’t go forward. Somebody’s delay can influence everyone badly: people have to stop,blood circulates slowly, they freeze and so they can get frostbite.
When I was at 8600 m, a group of Indians was ahead. They moved very slowly and absolutely didn’t know what to do. I was waiting and feeling that I would freeze soon, but couldn’t pass them. I moved one leg 400 times, then another leg 400 times, and felt better. So technical trainings before the ascent is a very useful thing that allows you to move faster. All those skills provide safety, since thought processes slow down with lack of oxygen, and it’s important to do many technical things automatically.
Are there complicated technical stages on Mt. Everest?
There are two places with stairs and lots of ropes tied a few years ago. There is one new rope among them which everybody uses. People go upstairs 10-12 meters. It seems to be easy, but some people don’t understand what to do at that altitude. My crampon lugs got caught on some steps – an unpleasant feeling. Every movement was hard in the cold and with lack of oxygen.
No need to be a rock climber to summit Mt. Everest, but from the North Col (7200 m) to the peak there are ropes. You have to use a harness and safety hooks, to fasten from one rope to another. These are basics, but basics at a high altitude.
What did you feel when summited Mt. Everest?
Happiness, delight! It was a culmination of the expedition. We made a few photos, enjoyed a view around: it’s very beautiful there, the weather was nice. When I climbed, my friend Vitya Bobok suggested a call by satellite phone. I barely dialed the number of my wife with naked fingers, it’s quite dangerous because you can get a frostbite, but I didn’t get through.
How was the descent?
It was not easy. We had to pass by ropes again all the way back from the top to the North Col (7200 m), it’s neither more nor less than 1,5 km of altitude drop. We arrived physically exhausted, and then we had to descend to the ABC (6400 m) the same day. We needed to go down one more kilometer, but we didn’t have energy. In the evening we reached the ABC, and spent a night there. We felt excitement because of overexertion and tiredness at the same moment; we were very emotional. I didn’t sleep that night, but woke at 4 am and admired the mountains.
Next day after the descent we had to pack our belongings and put them on yaks, but after the ascent we were exhausted, all we wanted to do was drink or eat or sleep. We were doing everything very slowly, so we left for Base camp not in the morning, but not until 3 pm. It was a long descent and the last couple of hours I was moving in darkness. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a flashlight, so I was going almost by braille. It was getting cold. I had a bottle of water and a warm jacket in the backpack, but couldn’t use them – I didn’t have enough energy to stop and change clothes. I almost don’t remember how I reached the Base camp – I came along a trail in the night. Luckily, there is only one trail, so I didn’t get lost.
Was anything unpredictable during the expedition?
The weather was unpredictable. When the good weather will be, and when the route will be ready – that’s what can’t be planned. A Chinese group was responsible for hanging ropes to prepare the route. If the weather is good, and ropes aren’t tied, expedition teams can’t go up. There are four days to go from the Base camp (5200 m) to the assault camp (7800 m). We were nervous while waiting: the weather can change or the group won’t prepare the route in time. We couldn’t control it, though the result of all expeditions depended on it.
How did you use oxygen?
We began to use oxygen in the Base camp (5200 m). It’s bad for acclimatization since the body adapts slower, but for us this process was more painless.
Oxygen use mode in our expedition conditionally included two stages: acclimatization ascents and the assault ascent. We used supplemental oxygen during the acclimatization ascents only on the first night of stay at every camp. We felt better, and the risk of getting high altitude sickness decreased. We spent the second night in every camp without oxygen. Honestly, it was terrible: we slept half hour, then dozed, had a headache. It was a strange feeling: I neither slept, nor stayed awake, I was far away from reality. Thus, we slowly adapted to altitude.
The assault ascent (from the BC (5200 m) to the summit (8848 m)) was completed without oxygen until the North Col (7200 m). I will never forget my first night without oxygen. I couldn’t fall asleep, looked at watches – time was 1:45 am, slept a little, looked again – 1:46 am. I hardly fell asleep, then woke at 5 am and understood that reality doesn’t correspond to the image in my head. I should quickly synchronize them somehow. I took a player to follow the time by length of songs. In the moments like these it’s important to be patient and just wait until they finish.
We used oxygen from the North Col (7200 m) every night, and it was a big relief for all of us. We acclimatized quite well to that moment, and it was important and necessary to have a clear mind during the assault.
Could you climb solo?
A real solo ascent was completed by Reinhold Messner. But here the route is ready, ropes are everywhere, so it’s not a problem. Sherpas accompany, help with oxygen, support, so it’s not a solo ascent. For professional mountaineers it’s profanation, but for a simple man – it’s a feat. For many athletes and guides expeditions to Everest are a job. People say that one pays money, and guides bring them to the summit, but it’s not true. Indeed, it’s hard work.
What was your source of strength?
In such a serious project as expedition health, endurance, motivation and weather are important. Being in good physical shape is needed, it will help to overcome obstacles. Besides that, a strong motivation is required. People will be living for seven weeks in harsh conditions so they have to force, control, and limit themselves in order to achieve the goal. You are proving something to yourself, not to anybody else.
After the expedition in 2015 was terminated, I met a guy from the Czech Republic on the way to the ABC. He resigned his job and sold a flat to climb Mt. Everest, and next year he couldn’t return there. He staked a lot on that expedition, he had a serious motivation, but unfortunately he didn’t summit. This year I didn’t see him on Mt. Everest.
How do your expedition experiences influence your everyday life?
Very positively. First of all, it allows me to avoid stress. What stress can compare to summiting Mt. Everest, climbing 8000 meters, spending a night at 8300 meters, etc.? This experience allows you to use motivation beyond everyday problems at work, to be ambitious and invest a lot of energy in something. I trained there and implement here.
What is needed to be successful?
Health, motivation and luck are highly important. A man should be ambitious and strong. It’s important to be stress resistant, especially in extreme situations that can happen in mountains and everyday life. One should react correctly to them. That’s what is needed to be successful.