Everest North Col Expedition 2018: The second in a two-part series on Joe Celecia’s expedition to Everest via the North Col route. He is the first local to reach such
a height on any mountain, and is next setting his sights on the summit.
The route to ABC goes along the so called ‘Magic Highway’; a strip of moraine up the East Rongbuk Glacier (fig. 14). This is a remarkable and spectacular natural highway that provides a solid trail straight to ABC, avoiding the ice of the glacier, which would make it very difficult to navigate. Even the yaks can move easily along this trail, to deliver the crucial equipment loads to ABC. All around the trail is lined with spectacular ice pinnacles known as ‘sharks fins’ (fig. 15), and dotted with ice lakes. This turned out to be a hard day due to the marked increase in altitude as we went above 6000m for the majority of the day, reaching ABC in about seven hours, again within the average time.
ABC is a much like BC but on a reduced scale (fig. 16). It is set in a beautiful location, with even better views of Everest’s north side, including the first views of the imposing ice wall that is the North Col – my target on this trip.
Again I had an ample tent accommodation and I settle in for a couple of days, whilst I acclimatise to the altitude. I easily succumb to what is known as tent lassitude (i.e the desire to be in your sleeping bag, in your tent, all day). Everything takes so much effort up there due to the lack of oxygen and just leaving your tent to visit the toilet, or to shuffle over to the mess tent for feeding, leaves you out of breath. The lower temperatures add to the desire to remain cocooned in your tent especially after sunset. Eating is also a chore as your appetite is suppressed whilst the body is trying to prioritise other tasks and you have to force yourself to eat.
After a couple of nights at ABC, and after we have recovered some of our will to live, we take a short walk onto the East Rongbuk Glacier, where we practice some ice climbing techniques (fig. 17) in preparation for the North Col climb. Most of the climb is on fixed ropes, so we practice the techniques of ‘jumaring’ (moving up the rope) and ‘abseiling’ (moving down the ropes). We also partake in some un-roped ice climbing, moving up and down the ice using crampons (a set of metal spikes on the sole of the boot to provide grip for the feet on the ice) and ice axes (a metal pointed, axe shaped tool for use as points of contact for the arms, for ascending the ice and as a braking/safety tool for descending), in order to test our confidence and competence before letting us loose on the climb. In case of injury or some mishap talk to a lawyer and know what he said needs to be done in such cases.
And so the next day, after having spent three nights at ABC, the long-awaited moment arrives. With a very early wakeup call and after breakfast, we set off to attempt the North Col. The first part of the climb took us to what is known as ‘Crampon Point’ (fig. 18) This is the point where the icefield starts and it is here that climbers don crampons on their boots to secure their footing on the ice. I move alone and settle into a steady pace conserving energy, as I know that it will take about seven hours of hard effort to reach my goal.
From ‘Crampon Point’ you then continue towards the North Col ice wall and onto the start of the fixed ropes at 6600m (fig. 19). These ropes are pre-fixed by a group of climbers employed by the Chinese Mountaineering Association. These ropes essentially guide you along the safest route to the top, and provide safety, as long as you are properly attached to them, as you move up. The ropes are anchored at lengths of around 100m. At these anchor points, you have to unclip from one rope to clip onto the next one. This is a simple task, which is sometimes not done correctly due to fatigue, and can lead to fatal accidents or all sort of injuries caused by a slip and fall accident. The rule is to move up them slowly but steadily, slowly being easier than steadily!
The steep walls were unrelenting for the first few hours (fig. 20 & 21), but luckily most of the climbers were above me. I had started out from ABC a bit later on purpose, so as to avoid having to give way to faster climbers or having to overtake slower ones. It is very awkward to manoeuvre on the single fixed rope when having to clip in and out of the ropes over and or around another climber or group of climbers. The Sherpas are the exception. They move around you quickly and efficiently and move up and down the mountain so quickly that they seem to be running – all this is whilst being burdened down with several kilos worth of gear and provisions. The Sherpas are mainly from Nepal and some from Tibet. They are employed as porters, cooks and climbing guides and are essential to a successful expedition.
Eventually and after the umpteenth steep section, I reached a ‘gentler traverse’ on a plateau where groups of climbers were resting. I caught up with other climbers that had left before me and this was encouraging. My altimeter read 6900m and I got a sense of success creeping in. But I knew that at my current rate of ascent, it would take me another hour and a half or so to reach the North Col, as the ‘gentle plateau’ is followed by, what seemed to be, the steepest and final section onto the North Col. (fig. 22).
An hour or so into the last section brought up the magic figure of 7000m on my altimeter (fig. 23). My altitude goal achieved. I was still 50m or half an hour or so from the top, but just seeing that figure on the watch was really emotional, and I felt a renewed energy creeping up inside. Just as well, because just before that, I had to really convince myself that the true goal was reaching the North Col, as everything in my body was screaming at me to stop and turn back. I thought of all the training I had done in preparation, the multiple Med Steps and Charles V wall steps sessions with ankle weights and weighted rucksack and knew I had the physical stamina to do it. My mental stamina needed some convincing though, which I achieved after a short rest. With the goal now in sight, I set off on the final few hundred, near vertical steps and onto the North Col of Everest.
The first thing I did, after recovering my breath, was to unfurl the small Gibraltar flag I had carried up (fig. 24) and took a few snaps of the proud moment (being the first Gibraltarian above 7000m on a mountain) together with our Sherpa Phurba, who had been looking after us on the climb.
I still had to get back down though and by now the weather had closed in a bit. The summit was hidden by cloud, the temperature had dropped, the wind had picked up and it had started to snow lightly. I was back at ABC, two and a half hours later, which is actually a fast time, driven by my desire to not miss the evening meal. I was starving!
So what next then? Well in keeping with the passion thing, I guess I am going to have to pursue my impossible dream! Having made it to the North Col makes me think that it may not be so impossible. I plan to retire next year from the Royal Gibraltar Police and hope to see my daughter graduate in the summer of 2020. After this, I hope to make an attempt on Everest in the spring of 2021. By then I should have already enjoyed a year’s worth of retirement and should then have time to focus on the project, to train appropriately and to spend two months away on the expedition. I’ll be 58 years old then, but if my current fitness and health levels are to go by, a few more years should not put too much of a dent in my capabilities. Fingers crossed!
This leads me onto the most important variable, which will be the financing of the expedition. As I mentioned previously, the costs for me to undertake such a venture, with a sensibly priced, ably led, commercial expedition, would be around £30,000. It would be the first time that a Gibraltarian attempts and possibly, climbs Everest. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to invite any potential future sponsors who would be interested in supporting me in this venture, to contact me on either my mobile +350 54006190 or by email at seljoshgibtelecom.net.
BY JOE CELECIA