Mount Everest is a busy mountain in the spring, but for over a decade the world’s highest peak has been nearly empty in the autumn. The post-monsoon season brings more difficult conditions that has steered large expeditions towards other peaks in the area. Because of restrictions imposed by Chinese authorities on Shishapangma and Cho Oyu, more climbers were aiming for Manaslu and Everest.
One of the biggest cruxes with Everest in the fall is the lack of climbers who can share in establishing the route with fixed ropes. In 2017, Alex Txikon brought 80 ladders to the south side base camp and hired three ice doctors to help fix ropes. The northern side of Everest has far too much snow to be considered in the fall.
This year, however, a number of teams moved into base camp to attempt Everest. One of those teams was a group of Mountain Hardwear climbers, including Squamish-based Tim Emmett and Joe Vernachio, the president of Mountain Hardwear. Vernachio came up with the idea of attempting Everest as a way to product-test new Mountain Hardwear high-altitude clothing and equipment, such as their down suit, Trango tent and 75-litre pack. Vernachio brought a diverse team from Mountain Hardwear to experience base camp. Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering was the lead guide on the trip. Other teams included Polish skier Andrzej Bargiel and his brother, who were attempting to ski Everest.
This year marked Mountain Hardwear’s 25th anniversary and Vernachio took over as president of Mountain Hardwear in 2017. “It’s simple: to be a premium and legit brand that connects with the next generation of mountaineers and climbers,” Vernachio said at the Outdoor Retailer show.
“I believe climbing is on the edge of having a renaissance, especially with young people. That doesn’t mean that we won’t do other things and make products for other activities, but climbing is at our core.”
The Everest expedition meant a great deal to Emmett, who wrote on social media while approaching, “After three decades of wondering what it might be like to experience, each day we are moving closer to the reality of finding out.” Emmett was the most experienced climber in his team.
The British-born adventure climber has nearly perfected ice and mixed climbing, along with sport and trad climbing, para-alpinism and alpine climbing. Many will remember when he made the first ascent of Interstellar Spice at B.C.’s Helmcken Falls (watch below). It was the first ice route to be graded WI12. Back in 2016, he and top boulderer Jamie Finlayson made the first ascent of 100% Proof next to Brandywine Falls. “Tim lead all the pitches and totally crushed it,” said Finlayson of the WI6 M10.
Emmett was nominated for a Piolet d’Or for climbing Keda Dome in Pakistan with Ian Parnell in 2006 and on three separate times he stood on a ice climbing world cup speed climbing podium. Close to his home on Canada’s west coast, he sent Superman 5.14c. He discovered climbing at the age of 15 while on a school trip to the British crag Chudleigh. During university, he rose to the top of British climbing and was featured on the cover of the magazine On the Edge at 20. To say that he was more than prepared to climb Everest would be an understatement.
Before reaching base camp, Emmett had the chance to meet 87-year-old Kancha Sherpa, who was part of the first ascent of Everest expedition in 1953. The team arrived at base camp in mid-September and had a two-hour Puja ceremony.
“A very powerful experience asking the goddess of Sagarmatha (Everest) safe passage for our climb,” Emmett wrote on social media while on standby to hear about weather conditions. At base camp, they joined the other teams to make a joint effort in getting ropes fixed to camp one. A number of ice fall doctors were going to be trying to find a safe passage through the Khumbu Icefall over the next few days.
Over the next few days, the team would fix ropes through the serac-riddled icefield. One of the major cruxes was a steep fin of glacier ice that blocked the team’s way. Emmett was recruited to use his ice climbing skills to climb to the top of the crux. He and Dorgee Sherpa (18 Everest summits) managed to unlock the section. It was a huge success for everyone hoping to advance to camp one. Garrett Madison said, “Great day up in the Khumbu Icefall with Tim Emmett who sent the ‘ice fin’ shortcut, previously an impasse that held up our team and others.”
The fixed-line route traversed under a number of massive glaciers with threatening seracs. The Sherpas reached camp one, but on their return noticed a nearly 100-metre tall dangling serac above their route. The Polish team used their drone to fly above to take images, which revealed that the serac appeared to be closer to falling off. The last time a serac collapsed was on April 14, 2014; it killed 16 Sherpas. The new dangerous serac was bigger and higher on the mountain. The experts in base camp anticipate it would do far more damage.
Emmett, thanks to years of making decisions about objective hazards informed the team of his thoughts. The objective hazards led to Madison calling off the attempt. Emmett wrote on social media, “All through my life I have navigated risk. I try to make good decisions in potentially dangerous environments using education and my gut instinct to guide me. I’ve lost too many friends to turn a blind eye and plead ignorance… I lay in bed last night, awake for most of it contemplating our next move, knowing there was no way I could let myself and any of our team be subjected to this potential catastrophe.”
Over the past few years, the climbing community has lost dozens of cutting-edge climbers to avalanches and serac fall. “Mountaineering has its own risks which have to be accepted for one to move forward, but this particular one is way outside the norm and a game of roulette, with many bullets,” said Emmett. “For sure I am totally gutted to miss this chance to experience something I have been curious about for much of my life, but when you see a red flag, take note and make good choices.”
Emmett and the Mountain Hardwear team left base camp. Mountain Hardwear was founded in 1993 in California by a group of former employees of Sierra Designs. Their first sponsored athlete was Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb all 14 8,000-metre peaks.
Keeping with their tradition, Mountain Hardwear currently supports a number of the world’s top alpinists, including Emmett, Vivian Bruchez and rock climbers like Ethan Pringle.
Making smart decisions in the mountains is key to survival. As Viesturs once said, “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”