One year ago this month, Fremont resident Andrew Hughes “summitted” Mount Everest by climbing his porch steps 5,683 times. The coronavirus pandemic scuttled his planned trip to the Himalayas, so he re-created the vertical gain to the world’s tallest peak through thousands of reps up and down his 30-inch front porch stairs.
While the pandemic deferred Hughes’ dream to reach the summit of both Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak at 29,032 feet, and Lhotse, the fourth tallest at 27,940 feet, within 24 hours of each other, now it lies within his grasp.
Hughes traveled to Nepal in early April with a team of climbers led by guides from Madison Mountaineering, a mountaineering outfit founded by Bainbridge Island native Garrett Madison. For the last six weeks he has been undergoing the painstaking acclimatization process of climbing up and down in order to prepare for the dangers of peaks higher than 26,247 feet, or 8,000 meters. (Known as “eight-thousanders,” there are only 14 such peaks higher than 8,000 meters worldwide recognized by the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation.)
“I’m feeling great. All of us are ready,” Hughes said via telephone on May 6 from Namche Bazaar, a Sherpa town commonly used as a rest stop for Everest climbers before they begin their summit push. Sherpas finished installing fixed lines on the Lhotse route in early May and four climbers from the Madison Mountaineering expedition will attempt the double summit.
“The challenge is once you’ve completed everything so far, you just wait,” Hughes said, nursing a dry hack common to high-altitude climbers known as the Khumbu cough.
While Hughes awaits an appropriate weather window to make a bid for the summit, he has ample time to reflect on the twists and turns that nearly derailed his trip — which, if he completes his summit successfully, will make him one of only 40 or so people to reach both summits on a single climb and one of only 500 or so people to complete the so-called Seven Summits, or the highest mountain on each continent.
Even as he trudged up and down the stairs during #AtHomeEverest, Hughes kept the 2021 Himalayan climbing season in his sights. He continued to train throughout the year at home in Fremont and, when gyms reopened, at the Olympic Athletic Club in Ballard.
“I celebrated the small reopenings, even an hour at the gym, just to get out of the basement,” he said. “It was more mentally important than it was physically to have some semblance of what was.”
But no matter his physical training, there were factors outside of Hughes’ control. While toward the end of last year signs pointed toward the Nepalese government issuing permits for the 2021 climbing season, Hughes’ original New Zealand-based climbing team canceled in early February given the uncertainty. Hughes scrambled to find another team and landed a spot with Madison Mountaineering, with whom he had previously climbed Mount Vinson, the tallest peak in Antarctica. In March, the Chinese government canceled all climbing permits for the spring season from the north side of Everest, which sparked fears that Nepal might do the same. Nepal ultimately maintained the climbing season, but the government required quarantines for inbound travelers until just days before Hughes’ arrival, when they began accepting travelers with negative coronavirus tests.
“Until I was on the plane, I was in doubt it was going to happen,” he said.
Once back in Nepal, Hughes reacquainted himself with the humbling Himalayan vistas. In 2019, he was evacuated by helicopter from Camp 2 (elevation of 21,500 feet) to a Kathmandu hospital with a case of trail pneumonia. After an exceptionally dry year, Hughes returned to find an intimidating scene on the infamous Khumbu Icefall, a treacherous stretch of seracs and crevasses between Everest base camp and the various high camps.
“The Khumbu is so much more full-on than it was in 2019,” Hughes said. “The dry weather has cracked open the glacier and there are crevasses we are jumping over where there should be a ladder.”
The crowds of trekking tourists are all but nonexistent and climbing teams keep to themselves to practice social distancing. “You used to invite people over for coffee or to play cards. Now the only time you get close is in the icefalls where maybe you’ll fist-bump a fellow climber,” he said. “It’s been a very different base camp experience.”
Hughes is ambivalent about the quiet on the trail to and from base camp. “Two years ago the Khumbu Valley felt like it was a highway of people coming and going. This time we felt like we had the trek to ourselves, albeit to the detriment of the local economy — it’s a huge cost to the lodges in the valley,” he said. “It’s something that will probably never be this way again.”
While Hughes and his teammates took some R&R days in Namche, the first wave of climbers were heading up to Everest ahead of a windstorm. Hughes estimated that about 140 climbers were seizing on the weather window out of a total of just over 400 climbing permits issued this season by the Nepalese government. Expedition organizers reported May 13 that two climbers died on their summit bids, the first deaths of this Everest climbing season. The ongoing COVID-19 surge in India has also crossed into Nepal and some climbers have tested positive. Nepal canceled all international commercial flights through May 31, leaving evacuation flights as the only way out for U.S. citizens.
“Getting out is definitely going to be interesting,” Hughes said.
But in the meantime, he is focused on the upcoming challenge: spending upward of four days in the so-called “death zone,” or elevations above 24,500 feet where limited oxygen is a ticking time bomb for the human body.
Hughes is aware of the risks after six weeks of mostly good weather but sometimes adverse conditions, including winds at Camp 1 that flattened his tent while he was inside and a moment where he plunged through a crevasse down to his thigh on the Western Cwm while not roped up to his climbing team.
“We’re all losing weight. I lost 20 pounds last time and didn’t even do a full summit push. I’m eating as much bread and yak butter as I can to put some more back on,” he said. “The main fear is how much you can push your body and still perform at a safe level.”
Adding Lhotse to the already grueling Everest climb is a bonus, a rare opportunity to link two 26,247-plus-foot peaks because they share a ridgeline. Like many mountaineering challenges, this double summit was once considered impossible but is now slowly being incorporated into commercial guiding trips. Not that this feat is anything to scoff at says Mark Gunlogson, president and owner of West Seattle mountain guide outfit Mountain Madness, which leads Himalayan trips.
“I don’t care who you are, it’s impressive,” he said. “You’re going up a second day to kill a bunch more brain cells.”
As his team’s planned summit day approaches on or around May 19, weather depending, the long duration of a Himalayan expedition has taken its mental toll. “After almost a month and a half, people are starting to have that pull to the life back home and they want to find that finality of the climb,” Hughes said.
For him, that pull is the conclusion of his five-year Seven Summits quest and the start of a new adventure by proposing to his girlfriend. “Spending all this time on the mountain you think about what matters and want to get back and celebrate other parts of your life,” he said.
When Hughes does finally land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, he knows exactly which stops he’ll make. “I’m a Fremont boy, so on the way home off I-5, I’m going to hit Dick’s for a burger, Taco Time for a burrito, and then end up at Fremont Brewing three blocks from my house,” he said. “Oh, and I’ve had a lot of dal bhat and local potatoes so I’ll probably swing by PCC on the way home as well.”