My 5th Continental Summit

Elevation 29,035 feet (8,848 meters)
Continent Asia
Location  Nepal and Tibet (China)
Mountain Range Himalayas
First Ascent 29 May 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
My Ascent May 25, 2001

Straddling the border of Nepal and Tibet lies the highest point on Earth, Mt. Everest, my fifth continental summit. After flying into a small village called Lukla at 8,000 feet, it is nine days and about 40 miles to base camp at 17,500 feet. My team and I chose to climb the South Col route, steeped in mountaineering lore and the same way taken by Everest pioneers Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

The most difficult part of the whole mountain comes right above base camp with numerous trips through the treacherous Khumbu icefall. A living beast, the icefall slides slowly down the Khumbu Valley creating an ever-changing landscape as huge chunks of ice, the size of school buses, calve off and shatter below. Zigzagging through the Icefall are dozens of deep crevasses so wide, the only way across is to lay rickety ladders across them.

Most expeditions rely on Sherpas, the local people who live in the Khumbu Valley, below Mt. Everest. The Sherpas transport team gear back and forth through the Icefall to supply higher camps. Growing up and living at extreme altitude makes them very strong high on the mountain, and they were indispensable for my expedition.

Below the top is the South Summit, separated from the true summit by a knife-edge ridge the width of a picnic table. On the right of the ridge is a 12,000-foot drop into Tibet and, on the left, a 9,000-foot drop into Nepal. Next comes the infamous Hillary Step, 50 feet of vertical rock, just 300 feet from the top.

Excerpt from Touch the Top of the World:

I had dreamed about Everest since I had begun climbing, and it was almost beyond my imagination just being here, experiencing this legendary mountain for myself. For half my life, I had been acquiring thousands of skills and special techniques that would keep me safe in the mountains. Our Everest planning had taken two years, the physical training, a year. I had run the foothills of the Rockies a hundred times, had sprained my ankles a dozen. I had shivered through endless blizzards near the tops of mountains around the world.

For two months, we had been shuttling loads up and down the mountain, while pushing through tremendous doubt and fear. So by mid May, as time dwindled away, I found myself at Base Camp, awestruck and disappointed as I thought about all we had been through to get to this point. Mike O. and I sat in our tent engaged in long conversations about what constitutes success. You could do everything right, make few blatant mistakes, and still fall short.

I worked hard not to buy into the idea that standing on top meant tremendous success while falling a few feet short meant utter failure. This savage unpredictability was the very element I loved and hated about mountains, and made this pursuit an adventure, not just a sport. But even though I could rationalize falling short, it was no less painful.

As summer approached, temperatures rose fast. The frozen lakes surrounding Base Camp were now flowing rivers. The black ice supporting the rocky moraine had melted out around our tents, leaving them perched atop narrow, three-foot-tall plateaus of ice with the tent corners sagging over the edges. With the warmth, the icefall would become an impenetrable impasse as crevasses opened wide, avalanches raked the slopes, and ice walls crumbled.

Because of the increasing danger, climbing permits required climbers to be off the mountain by the last day in May. As yet, no one had even attempted a summit bid. A few smaller teams had been driven off the South Col by high winds and loaded snow slopes. Many teams, discouraged and homesick, had already given up and broken down their camps. On May 20, our long wait paid off; four days of high pressure were predicted. We headed up again, fighting a gusty wind blowing spindrift in our faces. It was my ninth time through the icefall, and we knew it would be our last attempt.

To learn more about my Everest expedition, watch the documentary film, Farther Than the Eye Can See, and read the chapter titled "Everest" in my book Touch the Top of the World.

  • Everest Article on Outside

    Check out my article on Outside Online about our ascent of Everest. It’s a brief retrospective of the great team effort that went into my reaching the summit. 

  • Greatest Moments on Everest…I’m #4

    Outside Magazine Online just published an article about the Ten Greatest Moments On Everest. Naturally, the list includes Tenzing Norgay and Ed Hillary’s first ascent and Reinhold Messner’s solo ascent. But my ascent is fourth on the list! 

  • Touching the Top of Everest - 1st blind ascent

    This is a clip from Farther Than The Eye Can See when I actually reach the summit!