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Dispatches : Climbing

The Full Story of Kenton Cool and the Triple Crown

For Kenton Cool, climbing the Everest Trilogy was a dream, not a plan. Every climber who attempts Everest knows these three Himalayan giants well. They define the boarders of the Western Cwm and are never out of sight.

In 2009, the British climbing guide plotted an expedition where he would leave Everest Base Camp at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall to climb Nuptse (25,791 feet), then Everest (29,035 feet), and finally Lhotse, the world's 4th highest peak at 27,940 feet. But the lack of interest from sponsors, plus a full time job leading clients on Everest, stalled his plan.

But early last month, already at Everest Base Camp, Cool’s sole client had to back out for personal reasons. When he learned that another team was climbing Nuptse and would put up ropes, the dream came into reach—the Khumbu Triple Crown.

Cool, 39, from Gloucestershire, is no greenhorn. He took up climbing while earning a BSc in Geological Sciences at the University of Leeds. His CV is rich with first ascents, and difficult climbs. He was nominated for mountaineering’s Oscar, the Piolet d’Or for his climb on Annapurna III.

Cool knows Everest. He has a perfect record on Everest, reaching the summit on each of his ten attempts. He made the first cell phone call from the summit in 2011. He found fame throughout the UK in 2012 for taking one of the Olympic Gold medals awarded to members of the 1922 British Everest expedition to the summit. (The medal was for Alpinism, a now defunct category.)

During the closing ceremony of the first Winter Olympics, held at Chamonix in 1924, Edward Lisle Strutt, the expedition’s deputy leader, pledged to take the gold medal to the summit. They did not reach the summit in 1922, stopping at 8,230 meters, but set a new altitude record. That pledge was lost in history, but when Cool got the opportunity to finish the job, he became a national hero.

Cool’s climbing partner would be Dorje Gylgen. They had climbed together since first meeting on Everest in 2007. Young at age 28, Gylgen was a trusted partner, strong and as determined as Cool, with a matching 10 successful Everest summits.

Cool knew Everest and Lhotse would be attainable, but Nuptse was more of an unknown. Nuptse is the lowest of the three and rarely climbed. It is considered quite technically difficult and the South Pillar attracts the world's best climbers. The main summit was first climbed on May 16, 1961 by a British expedition.

This year, Himalayan Experience’s Russell Brice had his sights set on the summit and put up his best team of Sherpas to fix ropes to the summit. A small, all-women team of 4 were to climb the route. Cool approached Brice and talked him into sharing the ropes. 

Cool left Base Camp on May 15 at 5:00 a.m. He had previously stocked the upper camps with supplies, and he had no client, so he was free to go as fast or as long as he could. “With no client to look after, I was free to climb for fun, for selfish reasons," Cool said. "It was an opportunity to open my wings, climb with Dorge and enjoy it for what it is. It was great. Sometimes we lose that sense of fun in climbing when we are working to help clients reach their dreams and bring them home safely.”

Gylgen had spent the day ferrying loads to the South Col and did not join Cool on Nuptse.

Cool left Camp III on Nuptse at 2:00 a.m. on May 16. He said it was a difficult climb, longer and much more technical than Everest or Lhotse. Climbing with 29-year-old Alex Txikon, he broke the deep snow-bound trail about an hour ahead of the Himex team.

The summit of Nuptse is known for being difficult, with loose, rotten snow and large mushrooms of wind-driven cornices that can turn into death traps.

Cool and Txikon reached the loose snow just below the summit with one of the Himex Sherpas, Nima. Tethered to a piece of line cut off by Nima, Cool, climbed onto the mushroom of snow and gingerly touched the very top.

“My crampons were slipping on the crumbling snow, I was struggling to maintain my stance. With both arms outstretched, my mind went to my family, my wife and children—and for a moment, I was afraid.”

Ellen Miller, climbing with the Himex team described it this way:

“The shapes of snow mushrooms at the top were indeed rotten and fragile ... and very much like swiss cheese. We got to the summit of the mountain, top of rocks and Earth, but the wind-formed snow shapes were slightly above. Our Sherpas and guide thought it was too dangerous and foolish to climb on top of those formations as the snow was cracking and crumbling under our feet, and if they had broken, we could have plunged off of the mountain ... thus we stood on the last piece of solid snow and 'touched' those snow waves.”

Both Miller and Cool give immense credit to the Sherpas who fixed the route. "With all the controversy around western climbers and the Sherpas this year," Cool says, "Seeing the Himex Sherpas work so hard to set the line, increased my considerable admiration for them."

With Nuptse complete, Cool now saw his dream come into focus. He immediately went from the summit of Nuptse to Camp II in the Western Cwm, arriving at 5:45 p.m. the same day he summited Nuptse.

On May 17, he and Gylgen climbed to Camp III on the Lhotse Face. Then, on May 18, to the South Col. They left the Col at 8:00 p.m. on May 18, reaching the summit of Everest at 1:45 p.m. on May 19.

Standing in the cold and dark, Cool later said on his Facebook page, "Disappointment of being early and not seeing sun rise made good with privilege of sitting alone in absolute silence with my friend just as i've always think Hilary and Tenzing did. Dorje and I laughed at the stupidity of our small head-torches beaming into nothing."

They descended quickly and avoided any other climbers. The Everest climb was almost routine for the seasoned guide. Back at the South Col at 4:00 a.m., they rested and soon left for the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Leaving the South Col at 10:30 a.m., they climbed down the Geneva Spur. Cool began to think about what he was doing. He was having fun. It was almost a race between him and Gylgen, a contest of strength and willpower.

They arrived high on the Lhotse Face on the afternoon of May 20. Gylgen went on to the high camp while Cool stopped at the lower one. But then something unexpected occurred. 

Hearing moaning from a nearby tent, Cool went to investigate. He found 58-year-old Taiwanese climber Xiaoshi Li in a tent. He was with a Sherpa who was also impaired.

Li had summited Lhotse on May 16 but had quickly begun to show symptoms of HACE. Ben Jones, a guide from Alpine Ascents International had spent the previous day with Li. He had administered the steroid dexamethasone, but a long-line helicopter rescue had failed.

Now Li was alone in his tent as his Sherpa prepared to descend to Camp III, fighting for his own life.

Consulting with the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) at Base Camp, Cool began a night-long vigil. He gave him more dex and eventually began CPR as Li's pulse weakened. 

Thoughts of climbing Lhotse and the Trilogy slipped farther and farther back in his mind.

Li passed in and out of consciousness throughout the night, uttering faint groans and unintelligible words to Cool.

At 4:00 a.m., May 21, Li's heart stopped. Cool frantically applied cardiac massage under the direction of the HRA. After two and half more hours, he stopped, devastated.

Sitting back in his tent, Cool had lost all motivation to continue his climb. He felt the death had been avoidable, that Li’s logistics company had let him down.

Cool was ready to quit. But fellow guide and friend Mike Roberts, climbing on his own that same day, stuck his head in the tent and said simply, “It is time to go.” It was 8:00 a.m. and the weather was perfect.

The two mountain guides joined forces and caught up with the Sherpas at high camp and left for the summit at 9:15 that morning. Cool had regained his motivation and began to climb.

Lhotse is known as a dangerous mountain, with the final push to the summit through a narrow, rock-filled gully. Another climber above them kept knocking rocks onto their heads. 

Cool described the final push as “Unpleasant. Nothing like I have ever seen in the Himalaya, with rocks falling all around. But I throughly enjoyed climbing in the couloir, so narrow at times that you could touch both sides with your outstretched arms. It was the difference in style of climbing, unlike the large, open slopes that many 8000-meter peaks are defined by—it was more like climbs found in Chamonix or even Scotland.” 

The four climbers reached the summit at 1:00 p.m. on May 20, a short 35 hours after summiting Everest. It had taken them 3 hours and 50 minutes from Lhotse's Camp IV. The overcast skies kept him from what he says is the reward for his climbs—a nice view.

Cool is ecstatic. His only regret was that Gylgen was not on the summit of Nuptse with him.

In looking at the Everest season, he is pleased that there was not a repeat of the 2012 difficulties with long lines and large crowds. He cites last year’s two short summit days, compared to nine this year, as the reason for a more orderly season. 

When asked about solutions on the overcrowding on Everest, he speaks of guides and operators taking more responsibility for their clients. He believes clients need to be better informed about the dangers of low-cost operators. He does not believe raising the permit fees will address the problem of inexperienced climbers, or crowds.

In a surprise move, Cool says he might skip Everest next year. Instead, he is considering a new route on Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain.

But the emotion in his voice betrays his excitement for a new project, one which he's keeping under wraps. He describes it as something he has wanted to do for a long time in an area currently not open for climbing. That is all he would say. I guess we will have to wait and see.

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'High and Hallowed:' The Quest to Document the 1963 Everest West Ridge Expedition

Fifty years ago, James Whittaker became the first American to summit Everest via the South Col. A second party from the same team led by Tom Hornbein, a 32-year-old anesthesiologist, and Willi Unsoeld, a 36-year-old Kathmandu-based Peace Corps staffer, wasn't interested in repeating that route. They believed there was only one challenge worthy of the force they'd marshaled on the mountain: the previously unclimbed West Ridge. And on May 22, 1963, they accomplished just that.

Forty-nine years later, mountaineers David Morton and Jake Norton returned to Everest hoping to follow in Hornbein and Unsoeld's footsteps—and film it. The team was unable to summit due to icy conditions, but their film High and Hallowed: Everest 1963 premieres at Mountainfilm in Telluride on Friday. Five decades on, the film returns to the mountain to discover if the call of adventure, risk, and uncertainty that drew the first Americans to the summit exists today.

Between the two of you, you've summited Everest nine times. Given the absurdly long lines and commercialization of the mountain, what keeps drawing you back?
When you go to work on the mountain as a guide, you start to be identified with it. So I've had some assignments to go back and shoot or guide. Nowadays, I’m unlikely to go back, but like anyone who’s been to Everest, you never say never. I don’t go there for the aspects of climbing I love—the challenge and solitude of being in remote, beautiful places—but I do love the friendships I’ve made there.

Norton: Despite all the chaos and abuse Everest receives, it’s still a stunning mountain with an incredible history and, at the very least, an interesting future.

Outside of certain circles, not many people know about the American ascent of 1963, which was, in many ways, a very modern climbing project—laden with science experiments and focused on style and difficulty more than "conquering" virgin terrain. How significant was their expedition?
Norton: The ascent of the West Ridge in 1963 is one of the most amazing ascents of any mountain ever. Not only did they push the limits in all ways, they totally cut the cord. They were without support. They couldn’t turn back once they were a few hundred meters above their high camp. In an age when people were climbing the easiest routes, they deliberately took a very difficult one. It was an incredible break from the norm.

One of my first exposures to climbing was reading the West Ridge, and it has been burned into my mind ever since. It’s a combination of what they did then and the mythology that’s sort of sprung up around it. To a lot of people, and Americans especially, that climb represents the epitome of what going out on big mountains is all about.

Last year, in making the film, you tried to retrace their steps but were unable to summit due to ice and a lack of snow. What was it like to have to turn back?
Because we wanted to go in the same style and follow the same route as Tom and Willi, we had to bring supplies up to Camp IV and V. But with the ice, we needed a way to get down which meant rapelling or putting in fixed lines. It became too time-consuming because of the ice, which easily shattered apart. We didn’t have a chance. The writing was on the wall fairly early on, but we kept at it toward the end.

Norton: We went in optimistic. Sure, we thought the route was going to be tough, that it was going to kick our butts. But we didn’t think that ice would be the problem. Our concern was having too much snow. Instead, the slope was covered with blue bullet-proof ice that shattered apart when you placed a tool into it. We couldn’t move quickly or efficiently. And we were getting barraged by rocks, which added spice to it all.

To finally make that call is never an easy one. The mountain had subtly and less than subtly been telling us that for a long time. On that final day when were a 100 meters below the West Shoulder, it was painfully obvious it wasn’t going to happen. It was painful to have to turn around, but also very easy because there was no question we were going to summit.

Where did your obsession with the West Ridge begin?
About 20 years ago, I’d go rock climbing at a gym in Seattle and Hornbein would be there. I knew who he was, but a lot of the younger climbers had no idea. He was off with guys his own age doing climbs that weren’t the hardest in the gym. 

Fifty years after their ascent, there’s a lot of 20- and 30-something climbers who aren’t aware of the 1963 expedition. They’ve only heard about the modern Everest. I’ve always wondered how Hornbein could write a new edition of his book or how a film could appeal to younger people, to place it within the climbing cannon of the Americans.

Norton: I’ve been interested in the West Ridge for years. Hornbein and Unsoeld have always been heroes of mine. But their story, partly because of personality and also from the way we tell our histories, had been largely forgotten. I wanted to share that story with a greater audience. And becoming good friends with Tom over the last six or seven years has led me to want to tell it even more.

What was it like filming on Everest?
We tried to keep it light and simple with one crane—which we didn't use much—and handheld DSLRs. We figured we’d focus on telling the story more than using camera wizardry.

Norton: When we looked back while putting together the final film, we hadn’t shot enough in the worst conditions. You never want to take your camera out then. But it made it hard to tell the story of what turned us back—the conditions—visually.

Was it tough trying balance telling the story of the 1963 summit with your own expedition?
That was our big challenge.  We always had a vision for how to tell the 1963 story. It was harder to figure out how to add in our story without people walking away and wondering why it was in there. The 2012 stuff ended up serving as a window into how much different it was probably like when Jim and Tom and Unsoeld summited than it is today.

Norton: We decided the real story was 1963, and 2012 becomes relevant only when it underscores how badass those guys were back in 1963.

Do you think their sense of adventure and uncertainty has been lost on Everest with the $100,000 private expedition as the norm?
I hope this reignites the spark within the climbing community: the reward of commitment—even though it’s dangerous—to the route, or putting yourself in a situation where the outcome is uncertain. We also wanted to show that the Everest of today isn’t what it once was. We don’t have a disparaging attitude, but the mountain has become such a different thing. There's no uncertainty anymore on the standard routes. That sense of adventure is missing. And we wanted to show that without name-calling or finger-pointing.

Norton: We hope to educate people about what happened in 1963. Not so much of what they did, but some of the more metaphysical and metaphorical aspects of why they did it. It’s about Tom’s belief that climbing is about uncertainty, which people don’t embrace on the standard routes of Everest these days. The mountain’s still there physically, but it has been brought down to a commercial level. Conversely, on the West Ridge, it’s just like 1963. We have some more tools at our disposal, but it’s a full-on adventure to this day.

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Pro Tips: Climber Melissa Arnot on Pushing Herself (and Treating Herself)

She’s not even 30 years old, and Melissa Arnot is already one of the most recognizable names in climbing. As a guide for Rainier Mountaineering since 2004, Arnot has notched 94 ascents of that peak and summited Everest four times—the current record for a non-Sherpa woman. If all goes as planned, she’ll climb Everest again this spring, without supplemental oxygen. How does she prepare for laps at 29,035 feet? Acupuncture, gold stars, and the occasional beer.

PINS AND NEEDLES: “Six weeks before a trip, I do weekly massage and acupuncture. It prevents sprains, strains, and tendinitis.”

DOWNHILL BATTLE: “Downhill hikes are one of the most important things I do. Three days a week I hike in my crampons and climbing boots, with 50 pounds of weight in my bag, 3,000 feet up at Sun Valley. Then I hike right back down. A lot of people think it’s bad for their knees, so they ski down or take the lift. But you’re working totally different muscles.”

SHUT-EYE: “Sleeping at elevation is difficult, so sometimes I use Ambien. It’s one of only two sleep drugs approved for use at altitude.” 

STICKING TO IT: “I write my training program a few weeks before I do it. If I complete everything, I give myself a gold star. If I miss one thing, I get a silver star. Two things, a green star. The worst is a red star. I’ve had one red star in my life, and it still haunts me.”

STAY FRESH: “I’ve started to become hyperaware of how much processed food we eat on expeditions. So I avoid those foods at home. No grains or potatoes, just fresh whole foods—and tons of fruits and vegetables.”

MIND OVER MATTER: “To switch my pain brain off, I’ll count to 100, then count to 100 again. Then I’ll try to remember how many times I’ve counted to 100.”

TREAT YO’SELF: “I’m a total beer girl. I push myself hard, but I enjoy a cold hefeweizen at the end of the day.”

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Alpine Project Hybrid Hoodie

BEST FOR: Variable conditions.

THE TEST: A single multipitch climb in Squamish, British Columbia, was all it took for one tester to endorse this vertically inspired jacket. The pockets sit above the harness. The Gore Windstopper membrane in the torso and at the tops of the arms rebuffed cold gusts, while the more breathable stretch-woven panels under the arms kept the Velcro-free wrists in place when reaching overhead. But the most noteworthy feature was the stretchy hood, which fits neatly under a helmet and affords great peripheral vision.

THE VERDICT: Send it. 1 lb


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Firetail GTX

BEST FOR: Alpine climbing.

THE TEST: Vibram outsole with a dedicated climbing zone? Check. Rough-and-tumble nylon-mesh upper? You bet. Climbing-shoe lacing and narrow toe box? Done and done. Our tester took the waterproof-breathable Firetail GTX up to the Grand Teton’s high camp in Wyoming without feeling so much as a hot spot on the way. He expected a comfortable hike, but what he didn’t expect was to leave his climbing shoes behind for a summit push that involved 5.8-rated pitches.

THE VERDICT: It’s probably too overbuilt—and too stiff—to serve as most people’s everyday hiking shoe, but it blows away the competition on technical terrain. 14.4 oz.


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