- Gavin Bate, a British explorer who runs the travel company Adventure Alternative, has scaled Everest six times
- He shares with MailOnline Travel his near-death experiences on the world’s biggest mountain
- Climbers often succumb to fatal accidents because of being ill-prepared for the journey ahead
- He reveals how some people turn around and give up at the sight of a crevasse they must cross on a ladder
Reaching the top of the world’s highest peak may seem like a heavenly experience, but an explorer who has climbed Everest six times reveals how it can actually be complete hell.
Tumbling ice blocks the size of cars, mini avalanches, diarrhoea six times a night on the edge of a cliff and the brain’s operating capacity being reduced to just 15 per cent are all to be expected when scaling the world’s biggest mountain.
Gavin, 49, from London, is an extremely experienced climber, having summited Everest six times – three times without the help of oxygen (considered a necessity by most climbers) and twice on his own. The most extreme attempt was in 2005, when he made a solo trip without oxygen, with only one stop.
But his experiences show that even experts can end up in big trouble.
In 2002, Gavin was climbing the North Face of Everest when his friend Will dislocated his knee cap just 100 metres from the summit.
He said: ‘We knew we were in trouble – there’s about 14 dead bodies on the north side and they’ve died from a lot less than a dislocated knee.
‘So my decision was whether to stay with him and likely die, because we were without oxygen at 8,500 metres (27,887 feet) so the clock was ticking against us, or leave him and go down.
‘I decided to put him on my back and it took me three days to carry him down but we were lucky – we made it.’
It was an incredibly close shave that shows how treacherous the journey is for even the most experienced people.
He said: ‘You have to question seriously if you are capable, because if you think that $70,000 (£49,000) is going to buy you safety you’re wrong as the guide is just a human.
‘Even the Sherpas, as amazing as they are, can only do so much at 8,500 metres.’
One reason Everest is so different to other big mountains is the effect that being at such a high altitude, above 7,000 metres (22,965 feet), has on the body.
Gavin said: ‘In 2005, I tried to climb Everest solo without oxygen, with only one camp stop at Camp Two overnight on the way up.
‘I went from there to the summit and all the way back to Base Camp without stopping, but I had to stop 100m short of the summit because there was a queue of people and I knew if I waited for an hour I’d die because of the impact of having so little oxygen in the air at that altitude.
‘It’s known as the death zone near the summit, because at that altitude your organs start shutting down.’
The air pressure near the peak – 250 compared to 1,013 at sea level, means more than 99 per cent of climbers take spare oxygen because of the effect on the body, but they are still hugely affected by the altitude.
Gavin said: ‘Your body is dying very fast even with extra oxygen because of two main reasons.
‘Firstly, hypoxia – a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues because there is only 20 per cent of the oxygen available at sea level, making your mental ability about 15 per cent of what it normally is.
‘For example, if asked to repeat “the quick brown fox jumps over the fence” I usually manage the first three words – it’s a feeling of real drunkenness.’
‘Secondly, liquid usually held in the body’s cells by pressure goes the other way. So liquid inside your brain seeps out into your cranium and the liquid in your body seeps into your lungs, making them fill up and putting you at risk of dying from a pulmonary edema.
‘Some people are more susceptible to this second issue than others as it is a metabolic thing, but that is the point about experience – if you’ve never been to an altitude above 6,500 metres (21,300 feet) before then you don’t know how your body will react to it.’
‘So if a client was joining a trek up Everest, I would definitely want them to have climbed 7,000-metre peaks (23,000 feet) before and an 8,000-metre (26,000 feet) peak preferably – if they hadn’t I would ask them to do one before Everest.
‘There are 14 8,000-metre peaks in the world, and some are quite easy, they’re just expensive and take time. But that’s the only way that you’ll ever know what you’re like at altitude.’
On top of the health problems, the sheer fear people experience means that they often just decide against completing the climb, regardless of how much time and money they spent getting there.
Gavin charges $45,000 (£31,500) per person to scale Everest and made lifelong friends with clients he took, but many companies charge around $70,000 (£49,000) and he says the more unscrupulous businesses take that cash from climbing novices, knowing they won’t end up making the climb.
He said: ‘The success rate for novices is pretty low. I’ve seen people get to Base Camp then turn around and walk out.
‘Once you arrive at Base Camp, it takes ten weeks to reach the summit as you have to make several journeys to Camps One, Two, Three and Four, to acclimatise before attempting the summit.
‘Because of the fear taking hold during these trips over conditions, only about 25 per cent of climbers get to the summit.
‘Many struggle to go further than the first journey up to Camp One, when you leave Base Camp at 4am in the dark and head up the ice wall – a frozen waterfall with ice blocks the size of cars toppling all around you, as well as mini avalanches and sometimes big avalanches.
‘From there, you’ve got to cross ladders suspended over crevasses – often these basic home DIY ladders are really two or three ladders tied end to end and you’re teetering along with your crampons and big, heavy boots holding onto a bit of string as a guideline over a several-hundred-feet drop.
‘Here a lot of people turn around for home.
‘Then you get the people who reach the Lhotse Face and find out exactly what it’s like to climb a steep ice wall 1,200 metres (4,000 feet) high.
‘The sheer impact of realising that the slightest error will really hurt you means people freeze into inaction.’
The extreme weather conditions also help to frazzle the nerves, creating a feeling of despair in even the most seasoned climber.
Gavin said: ‘When the weather picks up, it is so loud – you cannot hear yourself.
‘If you’re in a tent up the mountain during a storm, the wall of the tent start imploding and you are have to sit there with your arms and legs forcing out the side just to stop it crushing in on you and snapping.
‘Then a lot of people realise, “S***, I’m at 7,500 metres in a tent, in a storm on Everest and any moment these poles are going to snap and I’m just going to be stuck here. Where is my experience to help with these things?”
‘You hear these stories from people up at places like Camp Three, which is halfway up the Lhotse Face, a 5,000 foot slope of snow and ice, where the tents are chipped into the side.
‘They come out of the tent to go for a pee in the night and they haven’t clipped in, take one step and fall off the mountain.
‘That is a very common thing, people taking risks where you never should – why wouldn’t you clip into a rope? Those things come naturally when you’ve done a lot of climbing.’
Even if you are fully prepared, a number of basic health conditions often send a climber packing.
Gavin said: ‘During the 10 weeks it takes to scale the summit, obviously if there is a big avalanche or earthquake there is a good chance you will die, but on a big mountain climb it is usually the accumulation of small things like a chest infection or gut problem that breaks people.’
One is the Khumbu Cough, caused by low humidity and sub-zero temperatures experienced at high altitude and exacerbated by strenuous activity, which all climbers succumb to.
Gavin said: ‘The Khumbu Cough will gradually wear away the lining of your throat to the point where you are coughing so hard that you are on your knees, having three-minute coughing fits, bringing up blood and bits of throat lining.
‘That cough has stopped more people on Everest than anything.
‘You cannot inhale very dry cold when you’re panting because you react with a coughing fit. So the most common thing you see is people on their knees coughing.’
Gavin continued: ‘Or a cook might fry something in old oil and you end up with a gastric problem so you’re dehydrated and finished.
‘Or, you have a couple of nights without sleep because it’s so much harder to sleep at altitude and you have to go back down.
‘So you’re coughing, you’re not sleeping, you’ve got diarrhoea because everyone does, maybe six times in the middle of the night in -20C on the side of a mountain… all of these things accumulate to wear you down.’
Climbing the last 100m (330 feet) to the summit of Everest, using the rope that all climbers clip into
These aren’t just one-off tales – there are numerous dead bodies on Everest of climbers who made mistakes, suffered from ill health or fell victim to an accident that wasn’t their fault.
But an ill-experienced climber isn’t just putting their own life at risk, they are endangering others.
Gavin said: ‘Five hundred people climbing a mountain might not seem like a lot for something the size of Everest, but because you are constrained by weather, when the sun comes out 200 people all climb on the same route, on the same piece of rope, so you get a long run of people.
‘A lot of them move super slowly because they don’t know what they’re doing and if they are somewhere halfway among a line of 80 people nearing the summit, then the 40 people behind them are all at risk.
‘You have to be good on crampons, good with your axe, confident, know when to move efficiently, breathe well and so on, but you often see someone leaning against the rock and panting or crying out of fear and holding 20 people up behind.’
Instead of treating Everest like the ultimate bucket list goal, Gavin believes people who aren’t highly experienced climbers should think hard before spending thousands on a challenge they are highly unlikely to finish.
He said: ‘You hear people boasting that the only thing they have climbed before Everest is Kilimanjaro and that is the mistake – when the cache of climbing the highest mountain in the world becomes more important than the reality of climbing.
‘Because Everest is the highest mountain in the world, why would you want to start your career with that? Why not get to that point in your career where you feel like you deserve to climb Everest. That’s how I felt about it.
‘In 1998 I was doing a climb of Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world, and was standing at the summit feeling very happy with myself when I looked across the mountains in Tibet to see the summit triangle of Everest.
‘I remember thinking, “I’ve been climbing for 18 years, I’m probably ready to try and climb Everest,” and two years later I was on Everest.
‘Traditionally as a climber, you start off hill walking, do rock climbing, then Scottish hill walking, next going to the Alps for the first time, then you get invited onto a trip to the greater ranges like the Andes or the Himalayas, and it builds up, until suddenly someone one day says, “Hey, what about Everest?”
‘That’s what I see as the natural progression.
‘I really enjoy taking climbers to Everest, but they will only enjoy it if they are ready.’