Have you seen a lightning storm form underneath you? Have you seen satellites at night, not above you but at eye level? Have you seen the sun rise on the vast landscape on your left, but total darkness on your right as that part of the world sleeps away? Have you seen the curve of the earth because you are so high up?
I have, from the summits of Everest and Lhotse.
I like to set bold physical goals for myself. I feel that a person should create a worthy goal for him- or herself every year, something to keep you from watching TV on the couch, something to inspire you to get out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to train. Something that at the end of the day will make you feel you’re living a life well spent. This year that goal for me was to summit Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse in a single multiday push.
I started thinking about tackling this Khumbu Triple Crown in late 2017, after reading an article about how British mountaineer Kenton Cool pulled it off in 2013. I began training for it on December 1 with Uphill Athlete’s Steve House.
I used to climb a lot when I lived in Boston in the early 2000s. I would spend hours driving up to New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, even during winter, to climb. When I moved back to Singapore in 2006, I switched to running ultramarathons, starting with the 4 Deserts challenge, a series of four 155-mile stage races in the Sahara Desert, the Atacama Desert, the Gobi Desert, and Antarctica. I progressed to more challenging ultras thereafter. That gave me a strong fitness foundation, making it easy to get back into mountaineering after a break of more than 10 years.
I had trained with Uphill Athlete before and had enjoyed their scientific approach to getting my body tuned up for the hardship of climbing. However, as a father of two kids with a full-time career in finance, I must confess that training for this objective was mentally and physically tough for me. To maximize family time, I would wake up early in the morning to commence my training by 4 a.m. (Once I even started at 3 a.m.!) Sometimes I would train late at night, after I put the kids to bed, and would finish my workouts at 2 a.m.
The sacrifice was worth it. By the time I left for Nepal in early April, I felt that I was the fittest I’d ever been. I was able to do fasted runs of 6 to 7 hours under the hot Singapore sun, skipping breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and I was able to do stair climbs carrying 70 to 75 percent of my body weight. These are workouts that would have been hazardous for my body at the start of my training program, but Steve’s plan made me progressively stronger over the months.
The training was so hard that I never once felt that I couldn’t physically make it on the mountain. Looking back, it was harder than the climb itself. That was good, because it left me with only mental hardships to overcome, which were tough enough to deal with on their own.
Guy Cotter of Adventure Consultants was my guide and partner on the attempt. We started the expedition with an acclimatization climb of Lobuche East. Once we got to Everest Base Camp, knowing that we would be heavily reliant on external factors such as weather and rope fixers, we kept our plans flexible. I had wanted to climb all three peaks in one go to minimize the risks of going through the Khumbu Icefall multiple times, but the ropes were not yet ready on Everest and Lhotse (they are fixed by external parties), and I would have lost my acclimatization benefits had we waited two weeks for all the ropes to be up. In the end, we settled on a plan to climb Nuptse first, descend to base camp, then climb Everest and Lhotse in one go with a 24-hour window in between those two summits.
On April 29, we started up Nuptse, which I ultimately found to be more challenging than Everest or Lhotse. Right from start we were on steep terrain—snow-covered rock slabs and bulletproof ice that our crampons struggled to penetrate. It was nonstop, unrelenting hard work until we turned back 10 hours later. As I watched our Sherpas fix ropes ahead of us, our lead guy, Prakash Sherpa, kept falling as we neared the summit. This is a Sherpa who, according to Guy, had fixed ropes to the tops of Dhaulagiri and Manaslu last year without supplementary oxygen. When you see someone as strong as him struggling on Nuptse, you know that conditions are very challenging. True enough, he radioed back to us and decided that they could go no further. Slab conditions had formed, equipment was running out, and they were tired. While it would have been nice to summit, I felt that what we had achieved given the difficult conditions was impressive enough for me.
After a week back at Everest Base Camp, we began our Everest-Lhotse push. This time, the Khumbu Icefall was an even bigger mental hurdle for me. Guy and I had encountered an avalanche on the Icefall during our Nuptse summit attempt, standing helpless as large rocks rolled past us at high speeds. Ang Dorje, a very experienced Sherpa with 19 Everest summits, was injured during the avalanche and had to be evacuated by helicopter. That brought a heightened sense of life’s fragility to me, a realization that each day on the mountain could be my last day. Remaining mentally strong in the face of this awareness was very difficult for me.
By comparison, it was easier to surmount Everest’s more physically demanding obstacles. Steve’s training prepared me for difficult bits like the rock climbing on the Yellow Band and just before the South Summit, where it was more about digging into my reserves than summoning mental toughness. In fact, climbing up the mountain wasn’t nearly as difficult as coming down. We summited Everest on May 16, then had only a few hours of sleep at the South Col before heading up Lhotse.
We reached the summit of Lhotse on May 17, just 24 hours after standing atop Everest. Descending Lhotse was the most exerting part of the climb for me, as it was back-to-back with Everest and I was weak from lack of sleep and low on energy. Fortunately, my experience with running multiday ultramarathons kicked in and I was able to overcome the extreme fatigue and get myself down to safety.
We arrived back at Everest Base Camp on May 18, having ticked two of the three summits I’d set out to climb. On the mountain, I learned a lot about the human body’s ability to absorb hardship and handle discomfort over long periods of time. I learned to let go of unnecessary worrying, because many things in life are simply beyond our control. We are not gods. You prepare yourself to the best of your abilities but learn to accept that life will throw you lemons sometimes. Instead of getting upset or angry, which is a waste of time, it is with a positive attitude in times of adversity that you get to turn those lemons into lemonade.
Having climbed the highest and fourth-highest mountains in the world, I think I will take a break for now. The toll of hard training and taking time away from the family is too much to bear. The beautiful memories gained from my expedition will stay fresh in my mind for a long time to come.
-by Uphill Athlete Kahshin Leow