Yesterday on the 14th of May Steve Plain, along with his climbing partners Jon Gupta and Pemba Sherpa, were the first climbers after the Sherpa fixing team to summit Everest for the season and in doing so brought an end to Project7in4. The Aussie climber set a new world record for climbing the 7 summits in just 117 days. The team made it back down to Camp 4 later in the night and, all going well, should be back to Base Camp this afternoon local time. It was touch and go there for a little while as the winds on Mt Everest were not playing ball with the climbers and the fixing teams. Steve had done his acclimatising and was ready for a summit push nearly a week ago, however high winds were keeping climbers from going much higher than the South Col. In the end Steve's patients was rewarded and he bettered the last record by 9 days.
To get that particular record Steve Plain took a gamble on his strategy. The previous record holders and attempts had followed a similar order of mountains as Steve for the first half however for Everest and Denali, the cruxes of the 7 summits, they opted for an order which meant climbing those mountains in more standard and predictable climbing seasons. They would climb Everest in May and then quickly whip over to Alaska to climb Denali in peak season, which is the end of May/start of June. This would hopefully mean the route was well established and objective hazards known, camps established and plenty of people around. Talking with Steve before he headed to Elbrus, he explained that to better the current record he needed to take a big gamble on the order and swap up Everest and Denali which meant climbing Denali out of season.
This strategy suddenly turned Denali into a big deal; as if it wasn't already. Not only climbing in bitterly cold temperatures in the -50ºC 's, but also his party being on the mountain alone and being the first to summit for quite some time. Crevasses needed to be found, wind slopes needed to be avoided, camps needed to be established and even simple things like stairs needing to be kicked. All of those route setting elements that just help that little bit more when you're not the first one to arrive at a mountain needed to be worked out. What's more, no one knew the conditions or how Denali had changed over the winter. As is often the case with high altitude climbing, or any condition based alpine climbing for that matter, it takes the first person to summit for the season just to show the mountain is climbable then it opens the floodgates for other climbers to start up. Sometimes the presence of new crevasses, or avalanche danger created by the winter snow mean that first summit is particularly difficult.
As we know now Steve's gamble and his hard work paid off. He and Jon were able to make a particularly memorable summit of Denali and then head over to Nepal with only one more to tick off. Throughout almost the whole trip his health and energy levels seemed fantastic however after a couple acclimatising trips up to various Everest camps he did fall ill for the first time. So in the end, perhaps that extra week of waiting for the weather to die down did mean he was in much better shape to make a safe summit and in doing so held true to the Mountain Equipment ethos of "live fast, die old"!
Congratulations Steve Plain! You make our little Aussie mountaineering community proud!
Amendment to article: Since publishing this blog post we have since learnt via his GPS tracker Steve is heading up for a summit attempt on Lhotse. Chill time will have to wait...