Everest via The South Col Route

Suggested list of skills required for attempting Everest
I often get asked about Everest and what level of technical competence is required for a safe ascent. Suffice to say that you need to be extremely competent in certain skills areas and that they should be second nature if you are going to have a better than even chance of summiting. Some people go there extremely ill prepared … and some of those people do manage to summit. Unfortunately others pay the ultimate price.

Now, just because you see a programme on the telly about, or read a book by, someone who summited with little or no experience doesn’t mean that it is within the realm of everyone else out there who is similarly inexperienced. Perhaps they had a natural predisposition to being good at altitude. Maybe that person was just lucky. Whatever the reason, you can’t assume that any old Tom, Dick or Harriet can do likewise. You have to ask yourself the ultimate question ‘what would I do on summit day, in deteriorating conditions, if my Climbing Sherpa had an accident or died right in front of my eyes?’ Ok so it is a slightly unusual question to ask, and is painting pretty much the worst case scenario, but you should be prepared for the worst case scenario just in case. It also gives you far better ownership of your expedition and summit success if you did it in good style and well within your comfort zone.

The actual climbing on Everest is far less technical than, say, on Ama Dablam. But you still need to have certain skills and a level of understanding about the equipment you’ll be using as well as pros and cons regarding certain situations. It is not a case of monkey see monkey do. At ultra high altitude, even with supplementary oxygen, hypoxia (lack of oxygen) has a marked affect and can blur the edges of your reasoning. If you have no depth of understanding about the skills you are using then you may well employ the wrong skill in the wrong situation with devastating consequences.

Not everyone who aspires to summit Everest is from a climbing background and this is absolutely fine. If you have, say, skied to The North Pole, entered a number of ironman competitions or you are an ultra runner then you will have a great understanding about the importance of having routines and the need to look after yourself on a daily basis. If you don’t take care of yourself and, in particular, let yourself get, say, a little bit dehydrated each day, then the cumulative effect is that at the end of 6 or 7 weeks you will be a complete liability to yourself and therefore those around you which includes not only the Climbing Sherpas but also your fellow team members. Ultra high altitude mountaineering can be very debilitating and if you can’t even maintain your hydration then you will become much more susceptible to the effects of high altitude, Acute Mountain Sickness, HACE, HAPE as well as being far more prone to the likes of frostbite and hypothermia.

At the end of our 2011 expedition my team didn’t look scabby, sun burnt, drawn and debilitated. In fact they didn’t look as if they’d just been to the summit of Everest! That’s because they all understood the importance of concurrent activity, having systems in place, the importance of maintaining their health and hygiene and reacting to the ever changing environment.

So I’d suggest the following as the basics required for a successful ascent of Everest (bold denotes absolute requirements whereas normal font denotes skills that would be very good to have as part of your extensive repertoire).

1. Start rock climbing (indoors or outdoors) with an instructor on single pitch terrain (short rather than long climbs). Start this sooner rather than later.

A. Skills to be learnt

      i. how to fit and adjust a climbing harness

      ii. how to fit and adjust a climbing helmet

iii. how to tie in to the end of the rope with a rethreaded figure of 8 knot and a stopper knot

      iv. have an understanding of the differences between ‘snap gate,’ ‘locking’ and ‘twist lock’ karabiners – when and where to use them and their potential drawbacks when used inappropriately. Attention to be drawn to the danger of a 3 way load.

v. how to use a belay plate to safeguard the leader and how to hold a small slip or fall

      vi. understand the concept of belay plate orientation (depending on the type of device and your type of harness and depends on whether it is orientated up / down or left / right – there are very subtle differences and sometimes it is easy to have the belay plate incorrectly orientated and thus compromise its effectiveness)

vii. how to tie and adjust a clove hitch

viii. how to uncoil and prepare the rope for a climbing session

ix. how to coil a rope at the end of the session (butterfly coil preferred)

      x. have an understanding of objective danger from a view of, say, rock fall potential as well as the hazard associated with having other climbers in the vicinity (particularly if they are above you)

Timescale – from just a few sessions to 2 to 4 months (minimum) depending on how quickly skills are acquired. Many months or even years of experience will be very helpful.

2. Progress on to multi pitch outdoor climbs as a second

A. Skills to be learnt

i. how to uncoil and prepare the rope, tie in to the bottom end and correctly thread the belay plate ready for your leader to start climbing

ii. how to correctly belay a leader, especially when they place gear above their head and then climb up to and beyond the gear (pay rope out, take rope in and then pay rope out again)

iii. how to retrieve gear placed by a leader and how best to rack it on your harness

iv. how to clip in on arriving at the stance and make yourself safe before being taken off belay by the leader

v. understanding the transition at a stance (passing gear to the leader, back coiling the rope, stance management)

vi. climbing calls used in a multi pitch environment

Timescale – 3 months to many years

3. Abseiling

A. Skills to be learnt

      i. learn to abseil with an independent releasable safety rope managed by an instructor

•  Different ground to be considered:

•  slabby rock faces

•  vertical rock faces

•  how to negotiate an intermediate overhang / rock lip

•  multi pitch abseils

•  abseiling diagonally across a rock face (NOTE – how to minimise the risk of a pendulum swing)

B. Different devices to be used

•  figure of 8

•  belay plate

•  figure of 8 with ‘prussik’ back up

•  belay plate with ‘prussik’ back up

•  understand the advantages and drawbacks of having the prussik on the leg loop and / or having the belay device extended

C. Objective hazard to be considered

•  avoidance of getting clothing / hair caught in the belay device

•  correct way to thread a figure of 8 so that the rope can’t get caught on a rock and flip over the top of the 8

D. Progress on to abseiling without a safety rope (consider having assistance from the bottom of the rope where an instructor can weight the rope from below if necessary)

      i. Different ground

•  as above

      ii Devices

•  as above

      iii. Considerations

•  use of a ‘cows tail’ to extend the figure of 8 away from the harness and also facilitate easy clipping at the next belay point when on multi pitch terrain

Timescale – again this could be from a few sessions to many weeks or months. This is an essential skill but can be picked up quite easily. It is also a skill that is easy to get wrong particularly when tired and not concentrating.

Remember – There are no second chances if you make an error when abseiling.

4. Scrambling. Scrambling is moving on intermediate terrain where it is too steep to walk but not as steep as to need to be climbing all the time – but generally speaking handholds will be used quite frequently. To that end scrambling is a great way to move on mixed steep terrain quickly, with or without a rope depending on the route, and is a great way to gain height in the hills. Scrambling can be on quite easy but precipitous terrain where the consequences of a slip can be very serious. Without due regard scrambling can be conducted in what people perceive to be a safe manner, whereas when one person slips the consequences are that the other person / rest of the party can’t arrest their fall.

A. Skills to be learnt

i. Route choice on steep scrambling terrain

ii. How to rope up and take coils to shorten the rope between group members

iii. How to manage the rope when scrambling and understanding the importance of not having any excess slack rope between people

iv. Short roping where the leader and the second move together with a taught rope in ascent and descent

v. Improvised belays and quick methods that are used to safeguard the party (including using direct belays (i.e. rope round a solid boulder) and use of the Italian hitch).

Timescale – minimum 4 to 6 months concurrent with the climbing skills being learnt.

5. Use of crampons and ice axe on snowy terrain

A. Skills to be learnt

      i. How to walk in snow without crampons

      ii. How to kick steps going diagonally up a slope using the ice axe for balance / assistance

      iii. How to kick steps directly up a slope using the ice axe for assistance

      iv. How to descend snow slopes without crampons

      v. How to use the ice axe to arrest a fall

      vi. How to use the ice axe to create a suitable platform to stand in

      vii. The importance of boot / crampon compatibility

      viii. How to walk with crampons on

B. Terrain to be covered

      i. flat snowy ground

      ii. flat snowy ground with rocks sticking out

      iii. easy angled snow slopes (diagonal approach) up and down and correct use of the ice axe for balance

      iv. steeper snow slopes (diagonal approach) up and down and correct use of the ice axe for balance (consider when it is no longer practical to take a diagonal line)

      v. steeper snow slopes facing in going up and correct use of the ice axe for security

      vi. steeper snow slopes facing in going down and correct use of the ice axe for security

      vii. traversing snow slopes facing the direction of travel

      viii. traversing snow slops facing in to the slope

      ix. easy angled ice and correct use of the ice axe for balance

C) more advanced terrain to be covered

i. easy angled ice with intermediate steps and correct use of ice axe for balance

ii. steeper icy slopes and correct use of ice axe for balance and security

iii. steeper slopes where the use of 2 axes becomes more appropriate

iv. graded ice pitches where the use of 2 axes is required along with the security of a rope from above

Timescale – the more time spent doing this the better as there is quite a lot of snowy terrain to be covered on Everest.

6. Glacier travel

A. Skills to be learnt

i. Acquaintance with glaciers will be a great bonus but not an absolute necessity. Often the glacial terrain that people encounter in, say, The European Alps, differs significantly from the glacial terrain of The Khumbu Icefall. One does not generally encounter ladders stretched across yawning chasms let alone the complexity of the route in The Alps and such terrain would undoubtedly be avoided at all costs!

Timescale – A few visits to glaciated mountainous terrain would be very beneficial. Previous expeditions to altitude will be a great bonus.

7. Hill sense and Campcraft

A. Skills to be learnt

      i. A general awareness of how best to pack a rucksack

      ii. Knowledge of the ‘layering’ system and how to adjust your temperature when on the move (rather than stopping, removing clothing and starting again only to stop and put it back on again in the shade 10 minutes later)

      iii. Acquaintance with getting gear and clothing out of, or putting it back in to, your rucksack without the possibility of it blowing away (sometimes trickier than it sounds and on Everest could lead to a life threatening situation)

      iv. General awareness of where and when to stop when hiking and when to take on fluids and food

      v. Personal administration throughout the day

vi. How to pitch a tent (done for us on Everest by the Climbing Sherpas but a good skill to have just in case)

      vii. Use of stoves and how to cook when camping. Think about concurrent activity – get the stove on and then put the tent up. When the tent is up and sorted, hey presto!, you have hot water. Think about effective time management (remember that fluids are more important than food and food is more important than sleep. But if you can develop systems you’ll be resting whilst the stove is on and cooking whilst having a drink))

      viii. General tent routine. Over the years I have come to realise that tent routine is actually a far more important factor for people to understand than I had initially thought. What came naturally to me was, for some people, totally alien. As a result of poor tent routine and a lack of attention to detail people don’t get the water, food and sleep that they ought to which, in turn, means that they aren’t as fit, healthy and acclimatised throughout the duration of an expedition as they might have been. Having ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ sounds incredibly obsessive, however, knowing where things are can dramatically improve the experience of staying in a tent – especially when you are at altitude and where the pitch isn’t necessarily perfect. Throw in some night time sub zero temperatures and the associated frost storm you that will ensue inside the tent the next morning and it’s a triple whammy.

If you know where your matches are (and that they are always popped back into a plastic bag); if you know where your food is; if you know where you keep your drinks and snacks; if you don’t knock over your cup of tea because it’s always in a bottle with the lid screwed on; if you never lose your suncream; if you always put your sunglasses away and won’t inadvertently sit on them and break them: if you always know where you keep your lip salve and that your torch is at hand throughout the night then you will be in a better condition the next day than you would otherwise have been.

Remember – water is more important than food and food is more important than sleep (and at even higher elevations oxygen is more important than water). On the mountain you won’t drink enough, you won’t eat enough and you won’t sleep enough – but you mustn’t just accept that as a fait accompli. You must continually strive to keep hydrated and you must maintain your energy levels by topping up on the intake of food, even if you have lost your appetite – and you’ll do this much better if you have a tried and tested tent routine.

It also goes some way to reiterating the fact that rest days at Base Camp are vitally important. When you are at Base Camp you are not wasting time … you are taking on fluids and energy, catching up on sleep … and acclimatising.

Timescale – as much as possible so that everything becomes second nature.

8. Altitude

      i. It would be good to have been to moderate altitude a number of times so that the feeling of breathlessness on exertion will not be alien. This can either be when going on to Alpine glaciers, when on a backpacking trek or an expedition to moderate to high altitude. Basically the more the better and, to a certain extent, the higher the better.

      ii. Knowledge of Acute Mountain Sickness, HACE and HAPE would be of benefit but not essential. There are comprehensive notes on my website. Another aspect about being ready for the expedition is your mental preparation. It’s all very well having the technical skills and being fit but if you aren’t psychologically ready for the trip then you may well end up not summiting for other reasons. Have a look at some of the reasons why people don’t summit Everest and the 7 attributes required to attempt Everest in the first place.

If you have any comments and / or questions then don’t hesitate to get in touch.

And if you require any tuition in any of the above skills or techniques then please don’t hesitate to get in touch and we can compare diaries. The cost per day for 1:1 instruction is £180 – but the excellent news is that £50 for each day of tuition is then deducted from the cost of your Everest trip. To that end not only are you acquiring the necessary skills but you are reducing the cost of your expedition and spreading the cost accordingly.

You don’t get that elsewhere do you?