Fergus White on Climbing Everest – Part 3
In 2009, putting his career in IT consultancy aside, Dubliner Fergus White travelled to the Himalayas to train as a mountaineer. 6 months later during spring 2010, Fergus returned to the Himalayas to climb the 8,848m of Everest, becoming only the 19th Irishman ever to do so.
Hot on the heels of Ascent Into Hell, a thrilling account of his time upon the world’s highest mountain, Fergus has teamed up with close friend Gavan Doherty, CEO of 247meeting, to produce a series of Everest podcasts.
In the third episode, we join Fergus as he guides us from Camp 3 at 7,200m to the summit, the very top of the world, at 8,848m. Along the way, we encounter the deceivingly romantic sounding Yellow Band, Geneva Spur, the Balcony, and the Hilary Step. In the Death Zone above the 8,000m mark, Fergus discusses what it takes to keep mentally strong as well as the incredible dangers on the summit push.
This series of interviews coincide with the Everest climbing season. In the last few days, the first summits of 2018 occurred during a brief weather window, including one double leg amputee.
Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 in the series by clicking each link respectively, or move on to Part 4. Tune in to the discussion and be sure to grab a copy of Fergus White’s Ascent Into Hell. Have your say or ask your questions by tweeting @247meeting!
Check the transcript
Gavan: Welcome to the third in our series of podcasts with Mr. Fergus White, an Everest Summiteer and author of bestseller, “Ascent Into Hell.” My name’s Gavan Doherty, CEO of 24/7 Meeting. We know Fergus through his corporate life.
Fergus: Hi, Gav, how’re things?
Gavan: Very good, so we’re delighted to be joined here by him to give us his perspective on what is happening on Everest at the moment. We’re in May, May 17th. Last week we spoke about the route up as far as camp three, so I’d be very curious to find out, and from what you tell me there’s action above camp three. So I’d love to find out a bit more about what [inaudible 00:00:37] land.
Fergus: Busy day, Gav, yeah, busy week, I’d say summits have kicked in this week, but taking up where we left off last week, we go from camp three up to the top and have a look at that route.
Fergus: So here is Everest again, here is the summit of Everest, Lhotse, Lhotse, this is camp three just here in the Lhotse face. The route takes them up here across the yellow band, over the Geneva Spur to the South Col. It goes up the Southeast Ridge here, South Summit Hillary Step, into the summit here. So just zooming in on that, this is another view here, so camp three would be here on these ridges here, I think we saw that last week.
Fergus: You go up across here, up the yellow band here, and all of the bands…
Gavan: And the yellow band is?
Fergus: Just, it’s bare rock.
Gavan: Okay, yeah.
Fergus: Everything here is ice and snow, and there’s glacier down here, but this is always exposed. So it’s a little bit trickier, it’s a visual landmark and of course with crampons you’re scraping across it.
Fergus: And just to see that now, look at it here from another view, you can see here you go across the Lhotse face here, and there is that yellow band. Then you go up this sort of hidden valley here, all the way up here to the very end, find a little route here and then you climb up. Then this is the Geneva Spur, this big black outcrop of rock. Up here is about 7,950 meters, of course we’re into the death zone, at that stage. Most people are on oxygen tanks and from there then we continue on. So let’s have a look now when we come out of camp three. So this is pretty much the start of the route from camp three. Up around the Lhotse face, you can see it’s hard snow and ice, this is a clear morning, this would be about eight o’clock in the morning I suspect.
Gavan: And that’s you there in the foreground?
Fergus: It’s me here, yeah.
Gavan: Very good.
Fergus: And then my buddy Greg Whitterstang [SP] just behind me, he would’ve taken the photo.
Fergus: With a fixed rope in here we’re connected to [inaudible 00:02:17] you slip, you’re straight down to the bottom.
Fergus: The rope will give you something to catch on to. Again, we’re on the oxygen mask here, just having a little snack here first thing in the morning, little gel bar, the sort of thing you’d have at the marathons yourself. So the route goes up the Lhotse face here and just there, then we traverse across, that’s the Lhotse Traverse, walk straight across the face there to head for the yellow band just here.
Fergus: So I remember now we went up here, I suppose it’s about an hour and a half to get from here up to there, maybe two hours if it’s slow.
Gavan: And what’s that distance wise?
Fergus: It really wouldn’t be very much.
Fergus: If I was at sea level, that’s probably just a short stroll at sea level, but it’s the…
Gavan: But up there it’s…
Fergus: It’s the altitude.
Gavan: And are you…
Fergus: It’s the lack of oxygen, that’s what get you.
Gavan: You’re effectively, it’s one stone step at a time.
Fergus: It is, yeah, you’re probably taking, you’re definitely taking one full breath in and out between steps, maybe even two full.
Fergus: So if somebody was to walk that pace at sea level you’d think, oh, like they’re just trying to annoy me.
Gavan: Yeah, yeah.
Fergus: They’re putting their foot down and then they’re not moving for about five seconds, and then they’re putting their next foot, and that’s the…
Gavan: But you’re exerting yourself as hard as you possibly can.
Fergus: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Fergus: I mean you’re sucking in through the mask the whole time.
Gavan: And even with the oxygen, is it just that the oxygen’s not enough to compensate, or…
Fergus: The oxygen only really gives you an extra 1,000 meters, so if you’re at 8,000 meters with a mask that’s the same as being at 7,000 meters.
Gavan: So it’s not like a SCUBA set-up where it’s complete oxygen, okay.
Fergus: SCUBA is air, and it comes out the same as if you were at sea level. What we’ve got out here is pure oxygen and it comes in here through this, and it’s just a little trickle of oxygen.
Gavan: Okay, that’s true.
Fergus: So we’re breathing in the ambient air from here which has at this stage, maybe only 40% the oxygen at sea level.
Fergus: And then we just get a little teeny kick of pure oxygen coming in the side.
Gavan: I hadn’t realized that.
Fergus: You can turn it on here, anything between half a litre a minute, up as far as four litres per minute. Now obviously the faster you flow it the quicker it’s gonna run out.
Gavan: Yeah, yeah.
Fergus: Normally we’ll be on maybe one and a half litres per minute. You know, four would only be if someone is, you know, after collapsing or something.
Gavan: Okay, yeah.
Fergus: When you’re sleeping at night up at camp four you might leave it on half a litre, and you know, would trickle away.
Gavan: You’re not exerting yourself.
Fergus: Yeah, I’d say if you have it on one and a half litres per minute, you’ve got about seven hours out of it.
Fergus: So up here to this, to the crossing point there which is the Lhotse Traverse, so I remember when we got up there, just sat down, turned around took a little break with my buddy, took out the camera. So this is looking back down.
Gavan: You’re looking back, yeah.
Fergus: Yeah, so camp three is in around here somewhere. Here’s the guys coming up, you can see sort of doubled over here, a few of these guys, you know, many cases the heads are down. This is camp two back here the little yellow spots, you can see crevasses here from the moving glacier, crevasses along there.
Fergus: Camp one would be about here where the spotlight is, that’s the ice fall there, it drops back down into base camp, and this is Everest up here. So we’re going up the back of Everest so to speak, to the South Col and then…
Gavan: Yeah, head up Lhotse first and then turn for Everest.
Fergus: Exactly, yeah that’s it. So after we get to the Lhotse face we go across here, over the yellow band and head up then what I said was the Geneva Spur.
Fergus: So this is sitting on the top of Geneva Spur, if I just go back a few slides just to show you where we are now, we’re looking down. So I’m sitting up here on the Geneva Spur.
Gavan: Okay, yeah.
Fergus: Looking back down.
Fergus: And we came up here and went across. Let me just go back to that. So that’s there, the broken slate of the Geneva Spur, as you see it’s a leg, it’s straight down. Straight down here you can see all the crevasses there on the Western Cwm Valley and there, one and a half kilometres below me there is camp two.
Fergus: So from the Geneva Spur then we continue on to the South Col and camp four. Sorry, just before I did that, this is, you know, sitting at the Geneva Spur just looking out. This is Lhotse just across the way here.
Gavan: Okay, so there are three mountains together which you showed us at the beginning.
Fergus: That’s right, Lhotse…
Gavan: Everest being the tallest, yeah.
Gavan: Lhotse and the, and have many people climbed this?
Fergus: Only 20 people is all that have made it to the top of Lhotse.
Fergus: As you can see, I mean, it is sheer. I know part of the problem is that they say as you get close to the top, it’s very unstable snow, so you’re walking on a narrow ridge and the snow could give way.
Fergus: What happens on many of the expeditions, well, there’s not many expeditions, but many that do, they get so far and they make a call and they say, “Look, these conditions are not right.”
Gavan: It’s too dangerous.
Fergus: Yeah, it’s the [inaudible 00:06:29].
Gavan: Strange, you know, that it’s far more dangerous based on those stats, but it’s not a household name.
Fergus: Yeah, I mean, as I said, only 20 have made it to the top, 7 have died…
Fergus: So percentage-wise there, you know, it’s completely different to Everest. I mean looking at it, I mean I’m looking at this here, I can’t even see a route. I think the guys go up somewhere behind this ridge, but I really am not even certain. Looking I can’t even guess where it would be.
Gavan: Not good for climbing.
Fergus: Yeah, and you can see here… I suppose that’s the challenge. You can see here where the snow has broken away, would’ve been avalanches if they had dropped down here all the time.
Gavan: Yeah, okay, yeah.
Fergus: Actually, it’s somewhere from here, Ueli Steck, this time last year…
Gavan: I remember the name, yeah.
Fergus: Yeah, he died somewhere along here, he fell and he fell back down into the valley. He was attempting Everest as well as the climatizations he went about, you know, 800 meters up there.
Fergus: But unfortunately, I know he slipped, something went wrong, and down and down he came. Maybe his foot gave way, who knows?
Fergus: So that’s sitting up on the Geneva Spur and just looking across, looking back at where we’d come from. This is camp four then over here, this is heading into China, Tibet. Super cold when you’re up here. Sometimes in the tent, you know, middle of the afternoon it can be warm, but aside from that, you can see here everybody’s wrapped up here.
Fergus: Got their jacket suits on, the hoods are up, everyone’s kind of closed up.
Gavan: What kind of temperatures are you talking about?
Fergus: I can’t, you know it’s hard to say.
Fergus: And there’s nighttime and there’s daytime, you know, certainly at night it’s well below minus 20 centigrade.
Gavan: Yeah, okay.
Fergus: During the day, I mean, I think if water was ever in the shade it would freeze immediately, so it’s always far below zero.
Fergus: But if you’re in the direct light of the sun sort of like when you’re skiing, you know, [crosstalk 00:08:)6] it can feel quite nice. But if you stand in the shade and put a bottle of water in the shade, it’s gonna start turning to ice straight away.
Fergus: So this is the South Col here, and what normally happens is the guys arrive up to the South Col maybe middle of the afternoon, and they plan then the final summit push, the last 900 meters they climb through the night. It’s maybe, depending on fast you’re going sort of 8 to 14 hours to get to the top, and the plan is you gotta make it up to the top. You might only stay there for 20 minutes and then get back down again before nighttime comes back in again. So there’s no point in leaving at nine o’clock in the morning.
Fergus: Because you’re not gonna get to the top til nine o’clock in the evening, it’s already dark.
Gavan: Yeah, in the dark, yeah.
Fergus: So normally people leave maybe 11 p.m., climb through the night hoping to make it to the summit a little bit after sunrise.
Fergus: You know, nine o’clock would be a good time, then you could be safely back down by, you know, noon or one o’clock. It gives you a little bit of time to spare before dusk comes.
Gavan: Okay, yeah.
Fergus: So having a look at the route then up from the South Col. So this is Geneva Spur, camp four is around about here.
Fergus: And this is the route, now of course when you’re doing this, for almost everybody it’s pitch black, it’s nighttime. So we come out of camp four, we climb up here, up through these rocks here, and we’re as I say, it’s oxygen tanks on. You know you’ve got about seven hours in your oxygen tank. So you go up to here, you can see the little route there possibly, can you just see there?
Gavan: Okay, there? Like a kind of a ridge or shelf? Yeah.
Fergus: Yeah, that was from the day earlier where guys had been on it, and just here is the balcony, and that’s where you get the first oxygen tank change.
Fergus: So we normally have three oxygen tanks for the summit. So the first one gets us up to there, takes about six hours. I think when I was there it was in and around midnight when that change was made. You change your tank there and then you continue on up this ridge, and it is a ridge, you know, it’s straight down on the left and it’s straight down on the right.
Fergus: Continue up here, there’s a couple of slabs here to be climbed, and so it’s hands and feet to continue on a few more slabs here, always along the ridge. This might be kind of three o’clock in the morning at this stage, and you climb up here, that’s the south summit there.
Gavan: Yeah, okay.
Fergus: It’s about 100 meters below the true summit, so it’s…
Gavan: True summit, yeah.
Fergus: It’s, yeah, 8,750 that summit, that summit height.
Gavan: Okay, yeah.
Fergus: And normally when you’re climbing you’re looking for some sort of a route, as you can see this is just sheer, this is sheer, you can’t get up any of that.
Fergus: I mean, that’s just absolutely sheer. You’re always looking for some sort of a route, and you know, this is one of the easier routes, for want of a better word, the South East Ridge takes you up there up to the South Summit.
Fergus: Once you go past the South Summit then, this is about…
Fergus: Yeah, maybe 75 meters then from the top. So this was taken about maybe 6:00, 6:30 in the morning when my buddy Greg, who took this photo. So this is after the South Summit, so just going back down there. You know, so we’ve made it up to the top here.
Fergus: This was all in the nighttime, you know, three, four, five in the morning. Sometime around five o’clock the sun started to rise. We continued along at sunrise…
Gavan: Nice sunrise?
Fergus: Lovely, yeah, I mean, the sun is over here in China, you can see it’s low because it hasn’t got over the ridge, so it’s almost just sort of eye level, just looking straight across here. Here’s the fixed rope here that marks the route for us. A few individual climbers climbing up here, you can see them. A few guys just there. This then is the famous Hillary Step there, these two boulders.
Fergus: You can see that there, it’s about a 10 to 12 meter, it’s not vertical, it’s you know, I don’t know what that is, maybe it’s 70 degrees or something like that.
Gavan: But it’s rock climbing of a sort?
Fergus: Yeah, but it’s, I mean again, if that was at sea level you’d nimble up on your hands and feet, you wouldn’t think twice about it. It’s just the…
Gavan: Up in the air at the top of the world.
Fergus: It’s the exhaustion, you’ve got the big mitts on, you’ve got your crampons on, the crampons are scraping at the rock. You know that of course if you make a mistake, I mean it’s, all of this is straight down.
Fergus: Of course you gotta stay clipped into the rope, then again you know, there’s old rope and you have to trust the rope as well as we saw last week.
Gavan: Yeah, you need faith in the rope.
Fergus: Ropes do come out.
Fergus: There’s a little guy there in yellow shorts, you can just see here, and it continues on up here. Little speck there, that’s me there, I know because I’ve zoomed in on this. That was my buddy Greg was standing here and he just took this shot, by chance I happened to be in it.
Fergus: It continues on up here again quite narrow, and that’s just shy of the top. I know it’s not the exact top because I know there were five or six guys ahead of me, and you can’t see them, so they’re just…
Gavan: Yeah, okay.
Fergus: Just a matter of yards, it’s all just up here. This as I said, was about 6:30 in the morning. So that’s as you’re very close to the top and then last photo here, this is the top. This is a friend of mine, Khalid [SP], he got to the top, just judging by the shadow there, it’s maybe 12 noon or so.
Fergus: Yeah, he’s only five paces from the top there, he’s climbing but he took the picture. Again you can see there’s the route back there, you can see how narrow it is here, I mean, that’s only what, two feet from the rope you go off the edge there.
Gavan: Okay, and there’s a huge drop…
Fergus: It’s overhanging snow. Same here.
Gavan: And that’s unsafe, you don’t know where the snow is, you don’t know where the rock is…
Fergus: Oh, you’re gone, oh, yeah, I mean, just standing there, that’s probably gonna go all right, but with another few inches and you’re definitely gone.
Gavan: Yeah, wow.
Fergus: And here you can see it’s kind of steep as well because the snow hasn’t stuck on that top drop stand there.
Gavan: Yeah, too steep to hold on.
Fergus: [inaudible 00:12:48] where we came. And then behind us then, that was Lhotse, where we came up from.
Gavan: Yeah, fantastic, wow, okay.
Fergus: So that’s that route from the top, camp three up.
Gavan: From what you tell me, there’s a weather window between kind of April and May and this is kind of the climbing season or the summiting season that we’re pretty much either coming towards the end of, or slap bang in the middle of, and what, have people climbed this, what’s going on this year?
Fergus: At the moment?
Gavan: Around now?
Fergus: So there’s been up to this point it was the rotations where people were gradually going higher and higher on the mountain, but in the last six or seven days the window has opened, so the monsoon has pushed up from the Bay of Bengal, it’s pushed the Jet Steam out of the way and it gives you reasonably calm weather, and there has been some very calm weather the last few days. So in the last 4 to 5 days, 200 people have summited. About 100 on the North side, 100 on the South side.
Fergus: Conditions do seem to have been good. Maybe just two things of note there, the record now is held by Kami Rita Sherpa, he’s just hit 22 summits.
Fergus: And he’s been doing this for a long time. I think they said he’s gonna try for 25 and then retire.
Fergus: So he’s gonna push his luck another three seasons.
Gavan: Is it the physical, I mean 22, you know, I have no point of reference other than it seems really hard, is it the length of time it takes or is it just the physical toll it takes on you, or how long, the kind of preparation or…
Fergus: I mean, obviously this guy is top class, and you know, his lungs, his body, it just works very well at altitude, and I suppose to an extent as well, that’s his livelihood, he earns more probably in those two months than you would in five or six years down in the lowlands. That’s what he does, he does it well.
Gavan: He’s not summiting for pleasure, it’s work, he’s bringing people up.
Fergus: Yeah, it is definitely, he would be on a team, and one hopes he enjoys it as well. What’s the point in just climbing if he can get paid to climb it then, it always makes it a bit more pleasurable when you get a few baht [SP].
Fergus: Just another thing of note which is very unusual this week, I haven’t heard of it happening before. The regulators, I’m just looking here, Kelly, do you see this regulator here? Same as on a SCUBA tank.
Kelly: Oh, yeah, the valve, lets their [inaudible 00:14:51] air flow in.
Fergus: I mean, this is under tremendous pressure what’s in here, there are 3,000 litres of oxygen squeezed into 3 litres.
Fergus: On about 20 or so, the people who were ascending, was it last night or the night before, those regulators failed.
Fergus: And some of them just, it seemed to be only as they got higher, some of them were kind of a slow escape, others were more of a sudden sort of, oh, what’s gone wrong, and you could see their…
Gavan: And all your oxygen is gone?
Fergus: See it shooting out and see the kind of the cloud of smoke behind it, so it must have been a new design, I’m not sure what happened, but in and around 20 of them failed, and so for those people involved, at that stage you’re reliant on the oxygen, because you’ve been climbing for a few hours with it you can’t just suddenly stop using it.
Fergus: You could maybe get weaned off it slowly and start your descent, but when it suddenly stops you’re in big trouble.
Fergus: So it was a kind of could be the wrong word, but it looks like cool heads prevailed, there were some spare regulators there and the teams that were affected made the decision immediately to descend.
Fergus: There’s no sitting around thinking about it.
Gavan: It’s all over.
Fergus: Yeah, a couple of guys, they were able to share a mask coming down, so maybe two guys coming down together, you know, walking beside each other and every now and then switching the mask from face to face.
Gavan: Incredible, yeah.
Fergus: And it’s the case [inaudible 00:15:55], just go back there, it’s a case obviously of, you know, slow and steady, get back down to the South Col, and back down there, you know, you can sit in the tent. Most people would have oxygen at the South Col, but at least if you’d been up higher you’ve sort of acclimatized a touch.
Fergus: So by the time you get back down you can, you know, sit there, do nothing and maybe there’s the odd spare regulator there.
Gavan: Yeah, is descending less effort than ascending?
Fergus: Descending is far, yeah, descending is almost, almost, the main problem with descending is don’t slip.
Fergus: But in terms of effort there’s no comparison.
Fergus: I always found going down about three times the speed of going up, but you have that lovely sense that every step is a step into oxygen.
Gavan: Yeah, yeah.
Fergus: I mean, it is very easy to descend.
Fergus: And particularly when you want to. When you’re going up, you know, it’s like you always have that fear, I’m walking into danger.
Fergus: Every step is in the wrong direction.
Fergus: Even though you wanna get to the top. When you’re going down you have no doubts.
Fergus: It’s real simple, you just go down.
Gavan: You’re going home, yeah.
Fergus: Yeah, exactly.
Fergus: So that as I said, that was the most unusual that that happened, I haven’t heard of that happening before.
Gavan: And it’s incredible the way a technical failure can scupper the best of projects, you know?
Fergus: Just one of those, I presume it was a new design, I’m just looking under [inaudible 00:16:58].
Gavan: Yeah, yeah, the nose, yeah. And any fatalities, any bad news, any…
Fergus: Unfortunately, there was one, yes, one Sherpa, if I could just go back to your page, I mean it’s, you know, it is the nature of the climb.
Fergus: Everyone knows the climb is dangerous. Unfortunately a Sherpa died, it was last night, or I think it was the night before, somewhere above the South Col, so somewhere along here, along this ridge.
Fergus: It’s not known what happened.
Fergus: I heard a report that he had gotten snow-blindness, but I don’t know if that was, I don’t know what caused that, I can’t say, but…
Gavin: Or contributed to his becoming disoriented, or yeah.
Fergus: Something went wrong and unfortunately there was one Sherpa that died there.
Gavin: Yeah, very sad news.
Fergus: I mean, you know, it is normally, I mean there could be four, five, six fatalities a year, so hopefully that was the one and only one.
Fergus: You know, I know there’s maybe another week of climbing, so there’ll be another, maybe there’ll be more people that will climb it, and hopefully that’s it now.
Gavin: That’s it, yeah.
Fergus: If weather stays good and with a bit of luck.
Fergus: Then hopefully that’ll be it.
Gavin: Fantastic, okay, well, I think that’s, you know, thank you very much, and hopefully we might then meet up next week to discuss, I mean, there could be another 200 people climbing up between now and then.
Fergus: Yeah, I mean, we’re wrapping up, I’m not sure how many are left, but there’s definitely over the next four or five days when that window’s there, there’s a lot still trying. So yeah, we can wrap up the season then and get the final numbers.
Gavin: Fantastic, we’ll catch up with you then.
Fergus: Thanks, Gav.
Gavin: Thanks very much.