Posted on in Todd Talks by Todd Johnson

A few years ago, on a free day in Chicago, a few of us from Penn-Troy decided to go to Navy Pier to see a movie. We eventually settled on a film called “Everest.” This movie was based on actual events from a disastrous expedition in 1996. We all left the theater scratching our heads, wondering why anyone would think trying to climb the tallest mountain in the world was a good idea. All told, 8 people died attempting to summit Everest after getting caught in a blizzard. I was amazed at the trek people had to make just to get to base camp!

Over the years since watching Everest, I have continued to think about the challenges climbers face in their attempt to get to the peak. Being naturally curious, I often do some research in my spare time. I found that just attempting a climb on Everest is expensive. The costs usually start in the $30,000.00 range and go up quickly, making this the first hurdle in the ascent.

Base Camp – elevation: 17,700 ft.
The Everest Base Camp is located at 17,700 feet above sea level. This is over 3,000 feet higher than the highest point in the continental US. Again, this is just base camp. This is where you will find media and families.  There are frozen lakes where clothes are washed. You can also hear frequent avalanches and the crashing of icefalls. This is as far as some will make it. It is recommended that you acclimate to the elevation by staying here for 40-60 days.

Icefall – elevation: 18,000 - 20,000 ft.
Stage two of the journey is the icefall leg. Climbers navigate dangerous ice crevasses and walls by walking across ladders and clinging to ropes. They must do this early in the morning, before the ice becomes even more unstable than it already is.  Clipping on to the ropes add a bit of comfort until you realize sudden avalanches could trap you, so you cross as quickly as possible and un-clip as fast as you can.

Camp 1 “Valley of Silence” – elevation: 20,000 - 21,000 ft.
This enormous, flat area is a glacier with tons of huge cracks and crevasses. They can be snow covered and open quickly with just a step. Stay away from walls, which pose avalanche danger. This is usually the easiest part of the climb, but deep snow and blizzard conditions can toughen the trek.

Camp 2 – elevation: 21,000 ft.
At last, a rocky patch. And the first, up close, glimpse of Everest. This is the last chance for a decent meal, as everything after this is instant pack food. Reportedly, there is a lot of neat, old climbing gear here to look at.

Camp 3 “Lhotse Wall” – elevation: 22,300 - 26,300 ft.
A 4,000 ft. wall of ice and stone, tangled with lines, both old and new. Be sure to give the lines a good tug to make sure it’s strong. Unclip and clip on to your next line quickly and keep an eye out for falling ice and rocks from climbers above you. Once you clear the wall, you’re at Camp 4.

Camp 4 “The Death Zone” – elevation: 26,000 ft.
Here you are probably beginning to feel as if you are leaving earth’s atmosphere behind. You are weak, tired, and most likely a little scared of what the next day or two will hold. Will you live and have amazing stories of how dark blue the sky is at this height, or how small and beautiful the Tibetan Plateau looks from here. Or will you die and join the estimated 300 people forever left to the elements, because it’s too dangerous for people to get themselves down the mountain, let alone another person. Try to get some rest and drink lots of fluids. The final push is at hand.

The Summit – elevation: 29,032 ft.
Most summit attempts begin in the late night due to how long it takes to reach the summit. So, in the darkness of night, you step out of your tent into the unimaginably cold, dark night to the sight of a strange sliver of light. That is the glow of other climbers’ head lamps, as they attempt to make a check mark on their bucket lists. It’s so cold the ice axe and crampons have trouble digging into the snow and ice. It would be a shame to come this far to just turn around, but some do. There have most likely been people turning around or calling it quits the entire trek. Once you reach what they call “the balcony,” you switch to a new bottle of oxygen and head to the south summit. The actual summit is not far at all now. The last obstacle is “Knife Ridge.” It is sharp, jagged and steep. In the middle, the Hillary Step used to await. Named after Sir Edmund Hillary, who was the first recorded person to reach the summit in 1953. This was a nearly 40-foot vertical rock face that no longer exists after the strong earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015. From here on out, the name of the game is careful progress to the summit, and the top of the world. The jubilation, celebratory hugs, and pictures are quick because now you get to do it all again, but in reverse! And try not to remember that most accidents happen on the way down.