At least 11 climbers died on Mt. Everest this year, and that has a lot of people talking about what it takes to climb the world’s tallest peak. To find out more, I talked with two people from Birmingham who’ve been to Base Camp, and one who’s been to the mountain five times with two summit attempts. Here’s what they had to stay.
I asked each of the three—Bud Hopson, Marcy Fine and Kent Stewart—about their experiences, and also what they’d recommend to people who have a trip to Everest on their bucket list. They had some great advice!
Bud Hopson’s Everest story
Bud Hopson and I first met at Cherokee Bend Elementary School, in Mountain Brook. He’s been living in Kathmandu, Nepal, for the past four years. He originally went to do the old Tenzing Norgay-Sir Edmund Hillary route from Jiri to Base Camp. He took 23 days to do the 12-13 day trek, stopping to sit by rivers or visit with people in the villages along the way.
When it was time for him to head back to the U.S., a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Kathmandu. Ultimately, 9000 people died. Many others—including Bud— were injured and more than half a million buildings were destroyed. Bud stayed and got involved in relief efforts, and has been living in Nepal since.
Marcy Fine’s Everest story
Marcy Fine and I also met at Cherokee Bend. A longtime educator just outside Washington, DC, she had summited Kilimanjaro but never thought Everest would be a possibility due to her teaching schedule. That changed when a friend suggested a trek to Base Camp during Spring Break. In April 2017, she and a friend went with “a tentative goal of reaching Base Camp.” She and her friend made it, and lived to tell the tale.
Kent Stewart’s Everest story
Of the three people I spoke to, Kent Stewart is the only one who’s actually attempted to summit Everest. Before he went to Everest, he’d successfully summited six of the famous “seven summits.” For the uninitiated, that’s the highest mountain on each continent.
Kent’s been to Everest five times between 2013 and 2019, with two summit attempts.
- In 2013, he “realized Everest was a different animal than all the others,” and came home after Camp II.
- In 2014, he was ready to head back when an ice avalanche killed 16 Sherpas and the season was called off the day before he was supposed to go.
- He went back in 2015 and was at Base Camp when the earthquake hit and killed 22 people at Base Camp. Due to the magnitude of the disaster, the season was called off that day.
- In 2016, he was on the mountain, had chest pain and thought he was having a heart attack. He came home to triple bypass surgery and a discovery of pulmonary hypertension. Note that he’d been climbing mountains since 2006 and training harder on a daily basis than most of us ever will in our lifetimes.
- In 2019 he went back, unable to get the dream of summiting out of his head. The pulmonary hypertension hit again when he got a bit higher on the mountain, and he headed back. When he was back home, 11 people died on the mountain.
Here are their recommendations for anyone who’s considering a trip, whether to Base Camp or to the summit
1. Seeing Everest is a great thing to have on your bucket list
- Bud: “People would be foolish not to come see Nepal, the Himalayas, Everest, before they die. You can ride a motorcycle up and watch the sunrise over Everest.”
2. Everest isn’t a place to learn to climb
- Here in the Birmingham area, we have lots of opportunities for rock climbing – both indoors and outdoors. It’s important to note, though, rock climbing and climbing a mountain like Everest are two totally different things.
- Bud: “Everest isn’t a starting point—it’s a finishing point.”
- Marcy: “Only really exceptional climbers belong beyond Base Camp! If you don’t have the skills and climbing resume, don’t even attempt the summit; you’re just a danger to yourself and others. Or, spend the time to get those skills and then go.”
3. There’s a lot to see on the trek to Base Camp, and in Nepal in general
- Bud: “It’s outstanding to be out in the mountains, walking along rivers. When I first saw Everest, it brought me to tears. You can get more of the culture in the small towns—it’s one of the coolest and hardest things you’ll ever do. There are 6-7 peaks before you get to Everest on the Jiri to Base Camp trek.”
- Bud: “Here in Nepal, there are Buddhist monasteries, Hindu temples, festivals almost every week. If you like riding a motorcycle, it’s so beautiful. You can hear tigers in the jungle at night and see rhinos walking down the middle of the street. It’s a super-interesting place to be.”
- Kent: “Base Camp in Lukla is at 17,500 feet. There’s danger involved in the 10-11 day trek. That said, it’s an amazing experience, staying in tea houses and trekking and getting to know the local people in the villages.”
4. You have to train for both trips
- Kent: “Jiri to Base Camp requires multiple hours a day trekking, with some rest days. Some days can be 6-8 hours, walking from village to village, uphill all the way. It’s pretty strenuous.”
- Marcy: “Training is key, but you can’t train for altitude. For me, training meant lots of stairs while wearing my boots and pack, plus about 30 pounds of weight. Since we don’t have big mountains or elevation gain around here, I was on the StairClimber for 1-2 hours most days.”
- Marcy: “I also trained in boredom — no music or movies while climbing. It helped me mentally, because I thought, ‘It will never be this bad in Nepal because the scenery will be so amazing.’ There was a lot of time when we were just ‘pack mules’ staring at the backpack in front of us, slogging along. We sometimes had to remind ourselves to notice where we were!”
5. There’s a fine line between pushing yourself and listening to your body
- Marcy: “Don’t be too stubborn to stop when your body tells you it’s time. There has to be a limit—go with someone you trust, a good friend or partner who can tell you when you’re acting erratically.”
- Bud: ” When I started experiencing problems with the altitude, I turned and went back down. There were monkeys in the jungle. Being with a special guide and experiencing the country is magical.”
6. If you’re going to climb the mountain, be prepared
Since Kent was the one who had attempted the Summit, he had some great advice for anyone who’s dreaming of making it to the top:
- “Don’t rush. Start small. Getting in shape is good, but there’s no substitute for getting out and climbing or hiking. Kilimanjaro is excellent to start on. It’s not a technical climb, and you can get a good idea of how your body does at altitude. Everybody’s body is different.”
- “Going to Colorado and hiking 14,000 foot mountains is also a good way to start.”
- “After you do those, Mt. Rainier is a good training mountain—it’s similar terrain to Denali or Everest. It’s only 14,400 feet, but it’s relatively steep, all on a glacier, so you can gain a lot of experience climbing on ice.”
- “In addition to getting on as many hikes and mountains as you can, find a good training program. Research endurance training. The best training for mountain climbing is going long distances for long time periods with a relatively low heart rate. A summit day can be 20 hours. Being in great shape and being in Everest shape are two totally different things.”
7. A great guide makes all the difference
- Marcy: “Make sure you’re traveling with a reputable company that treats the guides and Sherpas well. Ask around, read reviews, ask specific questions of the company (local guides vs. Western, type of gear and shoes the crew wear, etc.).”
- Kent: “Nothing is more critical than the guide you decide to go with. The great majority of the fatalities over the last few years were people went with cut rate guide services. They don’t have guides that have ever summited Everest before. They don’t have the resources to assist in getting you down if something were to go wrong. They don’t provide as much oxygen as a climber will need if summit day turns into a longer period than anyone expects. There’s a wide range in what guide services cost—don’t scrimp on this if you can afford not to. Go with a company that can be with you if something goes bad above 24,000 feet.”
8. Even with the best guides, there are no guarantees on Everest
- Kent: “The most respected guiding outfit on the mountain had a fatality this year. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to survive. There’s always the possibility of something bad happening, although the odds are much better in your favor if you sign on with a reputable team.”
9. There are benefits, even if you don’t make it to the top
Here’s what Kent had to say:
- While Kent is understandably disappointed that he never made it to the top, “I don’t regret going. It’s an unbelievable place. I’ve been able able to climb through the Khumbu icefall ten times now—that’s a once in a lifetime experience. I will never do anything that will match the sheer magnitude and excitement of that.”
- “Dream big and try to do things you don’t think you’re capable of doing. The real satisfaction comes when it’s over, and after you’re back home.”
- “I’d never be in the shape I’m in had I chosen any other hobby 13 years ago. From a health and mental standpoint, building confidence and discipline—training for a big mountain requires a lot of self discipline that serves everybody well in everything they try to do.”
Whether you’re the type of person who enjoys climbing mountains, walking in mountains, looking at mountains, or listening to stories of people who like to do all of those things, Everest holds a certain appeal. If you do ever decide to head to the other side of the world, these wise words from folks who’ve been there can help you have a safer and more satisfying experience.