It is known in Nepali as Sagarmatha, in Tibetan as Chomolungma, in Chinese as Zhumulangma and in English as Mount Everest. Regardless of language, the mountain is infamous for being the literal peak of the world, the highest ascension point possible, and one of the most dangerous mountains to attempt.
To date there have been 305 recorded deaths on the mountain with causes ranging from altitude sickness to cardiac arrest to sheer exhaustion. In 2019 alone, 12 people perished during the climbing season (April and May), one of the deadliest years in history.
The dangers and legacy of Everest did not deter two Hood River residents from their attempt this spring.
John Phillips and Scott Woolums have been friends for decades and mountaineering for longer. Woolums is a professional adventure guide and owner of Adventures International, and Phillips is the Chief Compliance Officer for North Capital Management.
Together they decided in 2018 to take a 10 week trip that would hopefully culminate in an attempt at the summit, the first for Phillips and the eighth for Woolums.
“Given my seven-summit quest I’m on, Everest was always on the list,” said Phillips. “I was joking around with Scott last year, asking about when we were going to climb it and that sort of just led into more serious talks about taking a trip.”
“I’d say last Fall is when it became a reality,” said Woolums. “The shift for me comes when you begin working on all the logistics, getting everything prepared. Fortunately I have good relationships with people over there, which makes all the difference. I was excited to go back after taking a five-year break.”
The pair left Portland on March 27 and opened their trip with three weeks of trekking through Nepal, taking in the sights and culture and doing some much-needed acclimating.
Their travels took them up and down elevation, ranging from 4,600 feet at the capital city of Kathmandu to 18,500 feet at Kala Patthar. In mid-April they flew to Kathmandu and spent a few days driving, from Kathmandu to Kerung to Tingri, and from there they ascended to the Tibet Base Camp. They were traveling up the north, Tibetan side of the mountain, a route less popular than the south, Nepal side.
“That was my recommendation,” said Woolums. “I won’t go to the south side because it’s overcrowded and becoming exceedingly dangerous. The Tibetan side has a different feel and is quite nice.”
The majority of fatalities in the 2019 season occurred on the south side of the mountain, where lines to summit made attempts last hours longer than normal. Famous pictures circulated in May of dozens of climbers standing in a uniform line that snaked its way along the mountain ridge and up to the peak; waiting for hours in freezing temperatures greatly increases the risk of death for climbers.
“I think the choice comes down to summitting at the earliest possible window and being part of the huge lines you see in the pictures,” said Woolums. “Or choosing to wait and try at a different window. That’s all it takes — that one little choice. But, people get up there and they’ve spent weeks climbing and just want to reach the top.”
The pair took to the Tibetan side among a larger traveling group; approximately 10 climbers and 18 Sherpas made up their entire proxy. They spent about two weeks acclimating to different altitudes, traveling between Base Camp (17,056 feet), Half Camp (19,024 feet), Advanced Base Camp (21,300 feet), North Col (23,000 feet) and Camp Two (24,750 feet).
In that time, as their bodies grew accustomed to the conditions, there wasn’t fear in their minds, but confidence and excitement.
“I feel I’ve got Everest down,” said Woolums. “We had a lot of good equipment, lots of oxygen, plenty of Sherpas to help. Anything that you could have reasonably foreseen going wrong we had covered. What it came down to also was making smart decisions; people not using common sense, that’s what you read about.”
“It didn’t seem all that dangerous to me,” said Phillips. “There were fixed lines on the technical sections, we had good gear and there were minimal crowds when we were climbing. I’ve climbed with Scott before and trusted him enough to keep me safe.”
In the second week of May, the pair returned to Camp Two and proceeded to Camp Three, reaching an elevation of 27,390 feet. This was to be their basis for a summit attempt after roughly six days of acclimatization. The window was condensed due to the China Tibet Mountaineering Team not fixing a necessary rope line to the top until May 22, considerably late in the season.
In the end, the decision was made to forego a summit attempt and instead turn back and return to Base Camp. While initially disappointed, as could be expected, the pair expressed no regret in their decision.
“It’s a leap of faith; sometimes in life you have to go for it, even if ‘it’ is frightening,” said Phillips. “I knew that even if we didn’t make the summit, the trip would still be amazing and it was. We got lucky and had a safe and wonderful time.”
“Maybe we missed our opportunity,” said Woolums. “But we weren’t waiting in long lines which greatly increases the risks. It was still one of the greatest Everest trips I’ve taken, between the trekking through Nepal all up through the mountain.”
The decision to turn around less than 2,000 feet below the peak may not have been an easy one, but given the severity of the 2019 season, it was a smart one.
Following their descent of the mountain, the pair returned to Kathmandu and stayed there through May, finally departing in the first week of June. While their personal reflections on the trip celebrated the Nepalese culture, the breathtaking landscapes and the time spent with friends, both climbers expressed their disdain for a common sight they beheld on the mountain.
“I was amazed at all the debris and tents left by other climbers,” said Phillips. “Trash, just trash left behind really upset me. It’s a sign of people not respecting the mountain and putting ‘getting up’ above everything else. That was disturbing, far more than any climbing fear I had.”
“The problem stems from underfunded trips,” said Woolums. “People want to summit as cheaply as possible, which leads to situations where leaving their tents are easier. If you have a well-funded, organized trip like ours was, you don’t end up leaving much at all.”
Phillips described seeing stoves, tents and oxygen bottles littered throughout the area of different camps. The problem is a growing one for both sides of the mountain, and an element that the relevant governments are working to address. With both friends back in the States, the Everest trip seems to be the last summit attempt for either; and both are grateful to be home.
“This was a wonderful trip but definitely once-in-a-lifetime,” said Phillips. “I don’t regret a single second but I won’t be going again.”
“I’m not sure,” said Woolums. “I’m 61 now, and age plays a factor with the health risks up there. I may manage a base camp or work certain altitudes, but to summit again would require very special circumstances. I doubt I will try again; I’ve been up there plenty of times.”