At 8848m above sea level, Mount Everest is the highest mountain on Earth. Every year, adventurers all around the world travel to Nepal, the home country of Everest, to go all the way to the top. But the journey is hellish and some don’t make it back alive. One Australian, Pete Wells, managed to reach the summit in 2010 and make it back in one piece. He spoke to Lifehacker Australia about his experience and what to expect if you do want to have a crack at Everest or other high altitude mountains.
The history of Mount Everest is fraught with tragedies and many deaths have occurred up there. Some bodies of the deceased are still up on the mountain side, buried under the snow and unrecoverable. So besides the rigorous training process you have to go through to prepare yourself for the high altitudes, you have the possibility of death looming over your head if you are brave enough to try.
Despite all the hardships and dangers, Adventurer Pete Wells decided to climb Everest anyway. He was enamoured with the history and mystery of Mount Everest and spent a few years planning his trip.
“I just really wanted to see if I could do it,” Wells told Lifehacker Australia at a media event for the movie Everest.
In 2010, Wells and another climber went up the mountain with two Sherpas (Nepalese natives who have adapted to the tough conditions of Everest). He succeeded in reaching the summit and credited the Sherpas for helping him complete this insane challenge. Five years on, he still considers it his biggest accomplishment.
Wells is keen to impart some wisdom to those who want to put themselves through the Mount Everest climb. Here are five things that can happen to you when you climb the famous mountain:
#1 Make careless mistakes
Scaling Mount Everest is no easy ride. You’re climbing for hours at a time up the steep mountain side, wading through thick ice and braving the elements. The higher you climb towards the summit, the less oxygen there is available. You’re exhausted, you can’t breathe properly and you’re overwhelmed by the number of things to consider to ensure your own survival.
Under these extreme conditions, it’s easy to have a lapse in judgement and make a mistake. The problem is, these mistakes could be fatal.
During the Lhotse Face section of the Everest climb, Wells and his team had to guide themselves past the steep mountain side. He decided at one point to take a step without clipping in the ropes that kept him from falling. He slipped and nearly plummeted to his death.
“I thought it was such a small step, it’d be alright. I thought ‘Come on, what’s going to happen? Well, I slipped. I only just managed to grab onto the rope and that saved me from certain death,” Wells said. “From that time on, I was more diligent than I’ve ever been in that whole expedition.
“But it is so easy to become lazy and apathetic. That’s when you can make the big mistakes. You do learn from them, though.”
#2 Get punched in the face
Temperatures on Mount Everest can drop to as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius with winds of over 160km per hour at the summit. It’s freezing and the cold can do all sorts of things to your body. Wells spoke about how he couldn’t feel his toes for most of the trip and was worried about losing them because he’s a surfer. So he spent a lot of time and energy bashing his feet into the ground to improve circulation.
One other thing the cold can do is freeze the moisture in the nostrils so you can’t breathe properly.
“It’s like running on the beach with a beach towel pressed against your face,” Wells said. “You’re not getting air properly.”
There are a few ways to overcome this issue. You can dig hard into your nostrils to extract the ice or, if you let your Sherpa know about the problem, he’ll happily give you a good punch in the face to get the ice out.
Wells chose the other alternate: he punched himself in the face instead.
When you push your body to its limits in high altitude conditions, you’re putting an enormous amount of pressure on your body. Your brain, oxygen starved and tired, will rebel. You may begin to see things that aren’t actually there.
Wells recounted an incident during his Everest adventure where he was close to the summit and he looked out into the distant sky over Tibet, Nepal’s neighbouring country. He admired the pretty fireworks over Tibet and wondered if celebrations were going on for another climber who had successfully conquered the mountain.
It took Wells a few minutes to realise that there were no fireworks. It was all in his oxygen-starved head.
#4 Get “Summit Fever”
Summit Fever is when the excitement and anticipation to reach the top of a mountain takes over and nothing will get in your way. You lose regard for your safety and everything else. This is what has killed a number of climbers that have attempted Mount Everest. The allure of beating the tallest mountain in the world can take over and sometimes it can lead you to compromise your own ethics and morals.
Which leads us to the next point…
#5 Make tough moral decisions
When you’re so determined to reach the top, you can lose perspective on what is important. The personal values that you normally hold dear can be compromised. There are stories of climbers finding unconscious individuals (probably collapsed from exhaustion or other ailments) on their way to the summit and just leaving them there.
Wells made a pact with his team that if they find somebody in trouble up the mountain they would forego the journey and prioritise saving a life. But he does understand why some people would resist providing assistance.
“First of all, it’s really hard for anybody to say what they will or won’t do at that altitude,” he said. “It’s easy to say with the benefit of all the thick oxygen we enjoy at sea level that ‘Oh, we’ll do this or I’ll do that’. When you get out there, things do change.”
Wells remembered that he did run in to an elderly man making his way towards the summit. The man was hunched over, breathing heavily and his Sherpa was nowhere in sight. Wells stopped to see if the man was fine. He said he was okay, told Wells not to worry and that his Sherpa is just out in front. He ushered Wells to move on. Wells did.
“I decided at that moment to walk away from that guy,” he said. “I still think about him. You have to live with yourself and your decisions because you can’t get that moment back.”
If you are keen on scaling Mount Everest or other high altitude mountains, Wells said you need to ask yourself one question: Why do you want to do it?
“If your ‘why’ is strong enough, it means all those days with really bad weather, where you’re stuck in your tent, tired beyond belief, eating rubbish dehydrated meals; you will get through them,” he said. “If your ‘why’ is strong enough, you’ll be alright. If you’re half-cocked about the whole thing, you won’t make it through the tough times.”
Have you ever been on an extreme adventure that pushed you to your limits? Let us know in the comments.