The Live Love Laugh Foundation at the summit of Everest (Part 1)

On May 12, 2016, at 8:24am I reached the summit of Mount Everest for the 6th time. It was the perfect day for climbing to the highest point on the planet: no wind or high clouds, not too many people on the mountain or dangerous conditions on the route. When I took the last few steps to the summit I had tears in my eyes that quickly froze to my eyelashes. After giving a hug to Pasang Rita Sherpa, my climbing partner, and congratulating each other, I removed my backpack and took out The Live Love Laugh Foundation’s banner that was rolled inside and had been with me every single day for more than two months. We had reached our goal: climbing to the summit of Mount Everest for mental health awareness.

The Live Love Laugh Foundation at the summit of Mount Everest

When I planned this expedition, one of my goals was to make an attempt to climb to the summit without supplemental oxygen, something I’d never tried before. That meant spending more time acclimatizing, climbing all the way to the South Col at 8,000m to get ready and also to go later in the season to try to go during the best and relatively warmer weather (perhaps -25º instead of -35ºC). That would only happen by the end of May and my original plan was to climb late. But during the fist days of May I had to cut short my second rotation after just two days because of high winds. The wind also affected the rope fixing team and they were forced to turn around before the South Col. After so many years spent climbing Everest I knew that being patient and adapting are some of the keys to a successful climb and that’s exactly what I did. I found myself back at my base camp on May 3rd.

Pa Rita Sherpa descending on the Khumbu Ice Fall

Dr. Nima Namgyal Sherpa, our base camp manager was one of the people coordinating the rope team’s movements up and down the mountain. Nanga Dorjee, the leader of the Sherpas working with Asian Trekking, was sending his team to get the camps ready. I met with both of them every day to keep track of the progress. The third person that was essential to our success this season was Michael Fagin who, bases halfway around the world, provided the extremely accurate weather forecasts that I used to make decisions about when to climb.

Our section of Everest Base Camp

While I was recovering at base camp on May 4th, two things happened. The Sherpas finally reached camp 4 at the South Col and the weather reports started showing much lower than usual wind speeds between May 9 and 12. The jet stream would be away from the mountain. They showed a significant increase starting on the 13th. I was still missing one rotation to the South Col to feel comfortable enough to try climbing without oxygen. But the weather forecast was just too good to ignore. And it really seemed like the Sherpa would make an effort to reach the summit on the 11th of May. One of the biggest lessons I’d learned on Everest on 2011 is to try to avoid being stuck with a lot of people going to summit on the same day. That year I decided to turn around because of a massive traffic jam below the Balcony. I promised myself that would never happen to me again. And it seemed like nobody else was aiming for the 12th of May since there was no certainty that the Sherpas would reach the summit on May 11. There had been delays before. It was a gamble. But I decided to put my trust on the Sherpa.

On May 6th I packed once again but this time I got everything I need to reach the summit that wasn’t already at camp 2: my down mittens, high altitude boots, down suit, the banner and my oxygen mask. That’s right. After debating this issue a lot, and I mean hours and hours thinking about it, I decided the only safe way to go for an early summit was by using supplemental oxygen. What tipped the scale in favor of going with oxygen was that my main goal still was bringing The Live Love Laugh Foundation’s banner to the summit of Everest to raise awareness about mental health. Going early, with no crowds and using supplemental oxygen would give me the best chance to achieve this goal. The new plan was to climb up to camp 2, keep track of the Sherpa’s progress and the weather for May 12th, and if everything still looked good, move up to camp 3 on the 10th, camp 4 on the 11th and then to the summit.

At 2:30am on May 7, climbing with Pa Rita Sherpa, we did a final puja at base camp and left to climb the Khumbu Ice Fall one more time.

Climbing over a crevasse with aluminum ladders

First rotation - Everest 2016

Climbing Everest involves a long acclimatization process. We make several ascents on the mountain before the final climb to the summit. Every time we go up, we climb higher and higher. Some people call each of these cycles “rotations”. I arrived at Everest Base Camp at 5,300m to begin my rotations on April 19, after attempting to climb Mount Pachermo, and climbing to the summit of Lobuje East.

Everest Base Camp  

Everest Base Camp  

Pachermo is a non-technical peak around 6,200 meters high that this last winter received almost no snow and therefore had many sections covered in blue ice. I was climbing with Phurba Sherpa from Thamo and we decided the conditions were too risky for the little acclimatization benefit the peak had for me. I later climbed Lobuje alone on a beautiful Himalayan morning with no wind. I was very proud to carry The Live Love Laugh Foundation’s banner to the summit. One of my goals for this Everest expedition is to raise awareness about depression and mental health issues, making the climb much more meaningful.

Puja at base camp

Puja at base camp

Base camp this year seems as big as the last two times I’ve been here in spite of the disasters from the last two years. It’s still a crowded tent city that sprouts at the beginning of April and it’s almost completely gone during the first days of June. We had our blessing ceremony on April 21st, and the multicolored prayer flags rose over our tents. Just two days later, at 3:00am, I started moving up the Khumbu Icefall and straight to Camp 2.

The icefall is one of the most unstable sections of the route we’re climbing. In 2014 over a dozen Sherpa lost their lives when an avalanche fell over the icefall and just last year the earthquake swept the rout and we had to be evacuated via helicopter from above Camp 1. It’s covered with huge crevasses we cross with aluminum ladders tied together over them. The route through the icefall changes every time we move up and down. It’s difficult to be objective with this kind of analysis but I believe this year the icefall is in one of the worst conditions I’ve seen. Usually snow covers parts of the seracs, making it more stable and passage is faster. Now, after a very dry winter, it’s almost made of chunks of ice, big and small, that obviously came from multiple collapses.

Khumbu Icefall

Khumbu Icefall

I arrived at Camp 1 after dawn but before the sun hit the glacier. Then came the frustrating climb along the Western Cwm. From the amphitheater made from Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse, snow accumulates and forms the Khumbu glacier. It is not very steep or technically challenging but between the extreme heat and the long distance, it wears out any climber and the hike seems endless. Seven hours after leaving base camp, I reached Camp 2 at nearly 6,500m.

Camp 2

Camp 2

View from my tent at camp 2

View from my tent at camp 2

Camp 2 is considered an Advanced Base Camp since it’s “safe” location allows us to have a small kitchen and dining tent, making our stay relatively comfortable. I remained at camp 2 for four nights. The first two were extremely windy but the weather improved later on. Sleeping was hard at the beginning and on the first night, as exhausted as I was, I spent most of it lying awake and listening to music on my iPod. During the days, I tried to move around as much as possible and climbed to the base of the Lhotse face. By the end of those four nights I was feeling the benefits of acclimatization, having no more headaches, moving faster and sleeping better. But it was time to head down to thicker air. I started my descent at 5:30am at the time I considered it was safer to go through the icefall. A few hours later I was having breakfast at base camp. That was the end of my first rotation.

Tomorrow at 2:30am I’m heading back up to Camp 2 and I will be gone for 6 days while I climb up to the South Col at 8,000m where Camp 4 is located. That will be my final rotation before the summit push.

Please take a moment to visit The Live Love Laugh Foundation’s website. You will find very useful information if you or somebody close to you is going through depression or any other mental health issues: www.thelivelovelaughfoundation.l

Climbing Everest and Overcoming Depression: It's all about Little Victories

People who have followed my blog know that I really try to avoid using clichés. It's very tempting to fall back on them, especially when writing about climbing. But there’s a concept that perfectly describes how to tackle a challenge that at first may seem insurmountable: break it down into smaller goals and take them on one at a time. That’s the way to climbing Mount Everest. I believe that’s also the way to start overcoming depression. 

A two month-long expedition to climb the highest mountain in the world involves a lot of variables, many that are out of our control such as the weather, route conditions, rock fall, icefall collapses, crevasses, etc. No wonder it can seem at first like an impossible goal. It’s so easy to feel discouraged. For me the first step is to break down that huge challenge into smaller goals. Make each one clear and attainable. When I reach a goal, I call it a “Little Victory”. The goal for one day may be reaching camp 1 for the first time. During summit day I may have several goals every hour. Keep breathing... Keep moving your hands and feet to avoid frostbite. One of the goals I had for these last few days was arriving in Kathmandu without having any of my luggage lost by the airline (last year none of my 3 duffle bags arrived in Kathmandu with me and I only got all of them back 3 weeks into the expedition). Fortunately this time I had my Little Victory. 

Arriving at Kathmandu Tribhuvan International airport

Another thing that I do is to identify which variables are completely outside of my control, like the weather, so I don’t stress over something I can’t change.

With depression you may feel that you are in a deep, dark emotional hole and making your way out is a hopeless task. Perhaps you feel you don’t even have the energy to start moving into the light. That you are too deep in it to get out. The key is also to break it down into smaller goals. In some extreme cases the goal may be to get through a whole day without crying or feeling worthless. That would be a Little Victory. For someone it may be to get out of bed and go for a walk. Another Little Victory. It’s also important to understand that with mood disorders, although at first it may not feel that way, things will eventually get better. Especially with support from family and friends, and the proper treatment. The Live Love Laugh Foundation's website has some essential information about understanding depression and how to begin your recovery.

So getting back to clichés: how to climb Mount Everest? One step at a time. Want to build the Great Wall of China? One brick at a time. Want to get over depression? One day at a time. A Little Victory.

Paragliding over Sarangkot, the launch above Pokhara

For the last two days I’ve been in Pokhara, Nepal for some final training hikes and a few paragliding flights. Today I’m traveling back to Kathmandu to receive our Everest climbing permit from the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation. Then it’s off to Lukla and the Himalayas, and the highest mountain in the world. I’m looking forward to those Little Victories. 

Boats in Phewa Lake, Pokhara

Boats in Phewa Lake, Pokhara