Aspenite’s May 23 summit of Mount Everest was opposite of nightmare conditions reported this year
After returning Thursday from a successful summit of Mount Everest on May 23, Aspen resident Tony Caine was puzzled by friends’ inquiries about crowding and mayhem on the world’s highest peak this season.
The New York Times and other media have been filled with stories in the past two weeks about “nightmarish” conditions in the narrow window to reach the summit this May, but Caine said that was opposite of his experience.
“We were there on the busiest day, probably at the busiest time with people coming up as we were coming down. I just didn’t experience it,” Caine said Friday of the crowding that some reports said led to waits of as long as two hours to cross the ridge between the South Summit and real summit.
He believes the reports are accurate portrayals of snapshots in time, but he also thinks crowding conditions were eased when the teams had the right guides and Sherpas, made careful preparations and climbers took personal responsibility to get fit and experienced enough for the challenge.
For Caine, the trip was the experience of a lifetime.
“My impressions were, ‘Just stunningly beautiful,’” he said. “You’re looking down at the sun coming up on you at points, skipping across the tallest peaks. The color blue you see in the sky you don’t see anywhere else. It was just captivating.”
Caine was invited on the trip by Jim Dickinson, his “best buddy” of 44 years who had to cancel an expedition last year because of an injury. They were joined by a third friend, Mike Mulrooney.
Caine was confident he could succeed on Everest after more than 30 years of climbing and mountaineering. It was reassuring that he had been on several prior outings with the group’s guides, Todd Passey and Seth Timpano of In the Company of Guides. They assured him he was capable of scaling Mount Everest.
The three friends weren’t able to summit together. Dickinson decided at Camp II he would not continue. Mulrooney was feeling particularly strong, so he took advantage of a window to summit early in May, then went on to tackle neighboring Lhotse, as well.
Caine said that people who have not climbed Everest tend to condense the experience to the summit day. It’s so much more than that, he said.
They arrived in Kathmandu on April 9 and went through a detailed regimen to acclimate to the high elevation. They spent several days hiking in the wind and cold, trying to maintain their stamina. Weather forced them to stay in their tents for parts of numerous days, including May 8, when Caine turned 62. Their Sherpa cook made him a birthday cake.
He weighed 190 pounds at the start of the trip. In Aspen on Friday, he weighed 159 after gaining back a few pounds.
“There’s a lot of misery along the way,” Caine said.
Probably the toughest day was at Camp IV at the South Col, waiting for the chance to attempt the summit. At 25,938 feet, the site is in the death zone, where altitude sickness is a threat, sleeping is next to impossible and climbers’ digestive systems can start shutting down.
Caine said he probably managed one hour of sleep while at the camp from 1 p.m. May 21 until his team set out for the summit at 9:30 p.m. on May 22. He said he struggled the first few hours of summit day.
“On the way up, I’d look up and see headlamps 1,000 or more feet above me, so I just said, ‘Keep my head down, one step at a time, even Mount Everest is going to run out of altitude at some point,’” he said. “When daylight started to surface there, it was just rejuvenating, gloriously beautiful.”
They were passed by a handful of Sherpas during the climb in the darkness. They also passed some teams traveling slower.
News reports about overcrowding usually feature pictures of long lines of climbers in a queue on the ridge between the South Summit and summit. Caine said his team beat the biggest rush on the ascent due to departing at 9:30 p.m. the prior evening.
“On our way up, we might have been slowed only 5 or 10 minutes by people slower in front of us that we chose not to go around,” he said. “You know, it’s just so beautiful there, there’s no reason to rush around them. We had plenty of time.”
They summited at 6:30 a.m. on May 23 and shared the mountaintop with between 20 and 30 people. Crowding wasn’t an issue, Caine said. He estimated they departed after about a half hour.
“The 30 minutes we were up there, that’s when a lot of the traffic started coming across the ridgeline and underneath the Hillary Step,” Caine said.
He credits his guide and Sherpa Namgya with making preparations that minimized delays and kept him safe. It was Namgya’s 16th Everest summit.
“I was one of three people tethered together and I’m in the middle. (A guide was on one side of him, Namgya on the other.) There is a fixed line that goes all the way across,” Caine said. “The issue is, the people who are coming up, they’re attached to the fixed line. They don’t want to get off. People are coming down — you’re mixing your carabineers on the fixed line. Somebody has to give to go around.”
Because his group had a total of about 12 feet of rope, 6 feet on either side of Caine, they could keep one person clipped in to the fixed rope at all times while making their way around other climbers.
“We were able to very efficiently go around the people who were coming up,” Caine said.
He estimates they lost only another 10 to 15 minutes on the descent from having to maneuver around other parties.
“Even with the crowds, if people are efficient in how they pass each other, I just didn’t see how there could be two-plus hour waits that they were talking about,” he said. “I’m certain it occurred, but it had to be because of inefficiency, people unwilling to unclip and move around, people not being tethered to someone else to do it safely.”
His team also had plenty of oxygen canisters and planned where they would switch them out with full replacements. They also carried spare regulators and masks. Their Sherpas opined that people who run into problems are typically attempting the climb on a shoestring budget, leading to lack of preparation and even a shortage of oxygen.
Caine said he saw five bodies in 24 hours. He was uncertain when the deaths occurred.
“It freaked me out a little bit,” he acknowledged. Talking it through with the guides, he realized death is part of reality on the peak.
Much of the media coverage has sought answers to why 11 people have died on the world’s highest peak this climbing season, making it one of the most deadly years. The Nepalese government has been blamed for allegedly issuing too many climbing permits — 381 this year.
Caine said he didn’t have enough information to comment on whether too many permits are being issued.
“My perspective is, if one gets themself in the right shape and plans the according resources including Sherpa support, it’s a safe mountain,” Caine said.
The clients who are being guided up to Mount Everest don’t have to pass any mountaineering tests. Inexperience has been identified as a possible reason for so many deaths this year. Caine said he would “fully agree” that climbers should have to meet some qualifications before attempting the mountain.
He would advise people to take the opportunity to climb the mountain, with the caveat on proper conditioning and experience.
After achieving the feat, he will be content now to return to rock climbing and pursue various rock spires in Moab’s canyon country.
“You can sleep in a bed,” he said with relish.
But Nepal will forever be among his fondest memories.
“Everest isn’t just about climbing the peak, it’s about the entire experience,” Caine said. “The porters, the Sherpa, the local Nepalese couldn’t be nicer, warmer people. I don’t know that they receive the credit they really should.”