This is Go the Travel Podcast, a podcast about travel, places, and for today’s story: adventure.
All of our episodes have been about travel to places like Cuba, Iceland, or Argentina, but in this episode we’re going to tell you an adventure story about Mt. Everest.
STANIFORTH: I just remember hearing this huge crack above my head, that’s when panic set in, ‘cause I realized that this was the sound of ice breaking off the mountain. Genuinely thinking, ‘this is it, this is how I die.’
CWALINSKI: That’s 21 year old adventurer, Alex Staniforth, recalling one of his two attempts to summit Mt Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.
STANIFORTH: I wasn’t your likely prospect for Everest. I wasn’t active or outdoorsy or into challenges at all. It was all about overcoming adversity.
CWALINSKI: Not your typical adventurer, Staniforth suffered from health conditions that would have held back many people.
STANIFORTH: Relentlessly bullied throughout my entire time at school. Had epilepsy when I was 9, only a very mild form, but was enough to really shatter my confidence at a young age.
CWALINSKI: Staniforth suffered from panic attacks, depression and eating disorders. He knew he had to turn this around and take control of this circumstances, instead of letting them control him.
STANIFORTH: Whatever challenges we face, we don’t always get to choose, but what we can control is how we deal with them.
CWALINSKI: He started challenging himself with tasks that he never thought he could do, like rock climbing, scuba diving, and competitive running.
STANIFORTH: That constant proving limits thing. It’s really empowering and I’ve never felt it before.
CWALINSKI: This set him on a path to push further, to try and conquer on of the world’s toughest challenges.
STANIFORTH: I had this kind of eureka moment one day when I asked myself, where is Mt. Everest and I saw a photo and that just captivated the journey. That gave me my purpose, that gave me the chance to prove myself wrong. And so from then on I went higher and higher.
CWALINSKI: Still a teenager, Staniforth would need years of physical preparation before he could make an attempt. Proving himself as mountain climber along the way.
STANIFORTH: But it’s all about taking steps. My first taste of altitude was the Alps, with Mt. Blanc when I was 17.
CWALINSKI: Standing at 15,781 feet, Mt Blanc is the tallest mountain in the Alps. Climbers in Europe who want to be taken seriously, have to complete this summit before they can move on to higher climbs.
STANIFORTH: That then gave me the opportunity to go on higher to a 7,000 meter peak, in the Himalayas called Baruntse.
CWALINSKI: Mt. Baruntse is one of many mountains, climbers summit before making an attempt on Everest. Standing at 23,497 feet, there is less than half as much oxygen in the air than at sea level. This would be Staniforth’s first time climbing at extreme altitudes and his first time experiencing high altitude mountain sickness.
STANIFORTH: My first real high experience, and before we even got to Mera Peak high camp, I was really suffering with the early onset of HACE: High Altitude Cerebral Edema. Which is a nasty thing to have; really nasty.
CWALINSKI: HACE is a severe type of Altitude sickness that can occur at altitudes over 15,000 feet, where the brain begins to swell. Once at Mera Peak high camp, Staniforth’s condition wasn’t improving.
STANIFORTH: And so with that, I realized very quickly that that wasn’t going to happen, came back down. I was in a bad way, and more ill than I’ve ever ever felt in my life.
CWALINSKI: HACE causes climbers to suffer headaches and confusion. Loss of appetite, vomiting, difficulty walking, and slurred speech are other signs and symptoms. HACE has been compared to suffering from a hangover and the flu at the same time, It can also be life threatening, if left untreated.
STANIFORTH: Was basically told that if I didn’t recover the next day that I’d have to be helicoptered out, it was that bad.
CWALINSKI: The only sure fix to anyone suffering from high altitude sickness, is to go to lower elevation, which is what Staniforth and his team did.
STANIFORTH: So the drop in altitude certainly helped. Amazingly, a bit of time lower down was all I needed, and I recovered quite quickly
CWALINSKI: Climbs like these require acclimating to the altitude. Climbers do this by gradually ascending in elevation, giving the body time to adjust to the thin air and low atmospheric pressure.
STANIFORTH: A week later or so, we were at Baruntse base camp and I was back to strength and we went to the top. I’m not an expert, I’m just sharing my experiences. Age and fitness doesn’t do anything for you. It’s a good idea to be fit, but I don’t personally believe that fitter you are the more successful you’ll be. Being too fit you almost create an expectation that you’re going to do well.
CWALINSKI: After successfully summiting Mt. Baruntse, Staniforth was ready to push for Everest. But one of the biggest obstacles to getting there is a financial one. He would need to raise 45 thousand dollars, which is hard to do when you’re still in school.
STANIFORTH: I was still at school, yea, I was sort of 17, 18. I still recall taking days off of school to go and sit in a board with the CEO and managing director of a multi-million dollar company. At 17, I’m there in a suit with a stammer, trying to be taken seriously.
CWALINSKI: Staniforth spent about a year fundraising and going to meetings like this. One of the biggest challenges is standing out from the crowd of people seeking sponsorships.
STANIFORTH: It’s about how you market yourself, you’ve got a lot of people trying to do this, and in my position, I didn’t have wealthy parents to just sign the check. I had to go out and work for it big time, with corporate sponsorships and fundraising through businesses.
CWALINSKI: The money eventually came, with Staniforth raising the last of it only a few weeks before he departed.
STANIFORTH: And so it was the end of March, 2014, we flew to Nepal, for what should have been a two-month expedition.
CWALINSKI: Two months is what it takes to climb Mt. Everest and return home. Most of those days are spent acclimating to the altitude and waiting for the weather conditions on the mountain to clear up. The weather is the most unpredictable part of the climb. Winds can reach up to 200 miles per hour and temperatures can drop to negative 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Conditions like these have killed over 250 people on the mountain. Today, only the most experienced climbers are able to lead expeditions up to the top.
STANIFORTH: The trip was led by a British mountain leader who has now climbed Everest 5 times, so I was in a well supported team.
CWALINSKI: Most people arrive in Katmandu, Nepal before flying to town called Lukla, which has the closest airport to Mt. Everest. From here, climbers have to hike to base camp which sits at 17,598 ft and can take several weeks to hike to get there.
STANIFORTH: We set off as normal, we got to base camp. It took us about three weeks.
CWALINSKI: Base Camp is the setting stone for Everest Climbers. It’s a small temporary tent village that can house hundreds of people in the spring. A lot of time is spent here preparing for the next several weeks of hiking to camps further up.
STANIFORTH: And then you’ve got camp 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then you’ve got the top. So you move between them to acclimatize basically.
CWALINSKI: Climbers spend weeks hiking up and down these camps preparing their bodies for the altitude. But before they even arrive to Camp 1, they have to hike through an area called the Icefall.
STANIFORTH: The icefall is probably the most dangerous section of the route. It’s a pretty unavoidable obstacle. To get to camps 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., you have to move through it.
CWALINSKI: This part of the climb has claimed more lives than any other part of the mountain. That because it’s part of the Khumbu Glacier, so there’s a chance that ice will move.
STANIFORTH: Because it’s constantly moving, you’ve got the risk of falling ice (FX), you got the risk of crevasses.
CWALINSKI: Crevasses hundreds of feet deep that have been known to open up at random. The bodies of some climbers who’ve fallen into these, have never been recovered. Large towers of ice stick up out of the glacier and have been known to break, dropping chunks of ice the size of cars and houses down below.
STANIFORTH: And it’s quite spectacular, it’s a real stunning landscape.
CWALINSKI: To get through the Icefall, several Sherpas would go ahead of the climbers to find a path.
STANIFORTH: Sherpa are an ethnic people of the Himalayas. They are the most super humanly strong people that I have ever seen.
CWALINSKI: Living at these altitudes, Sherpas are better adapted to hikes at high elevations. They accompany nearly every expedition up Everest.
STANIFORTH: The Sherpas are amazing, nearly every climber will tell you this, but they are a highlight of every trip to Nepal. They do become good friends very quickly, even thought they live such a different life. A lot of them make a living out of mountaineering. We essentially use them as our support team.
CWALINSKI: On April 18th, 2014, 25 people, mostly Sherpas, were setting up the route through Icefall. They checked the snow and ice for stability. Over the deep crevasse, they constructed temporary bridges out of ladders and rope. Meanwhile, Staniforth and his team were hiking to Base Camp.
STANIFORTH: A day before we got there, there was the huge avalanche in the Icefall,
NEWS CLIP 1: The high altitude avalanche hit early Friday morning, but above the mountains basecamp at more than 20,000 feet.
NEWS CLIP 2: An avalanche this morning, claimed at least a dozen lives. That is the greatest one-day toll, recorded on the world’s tallest mountain.
CWALINSKI: The avalanche killed a total of 16 people, all Sherpas. The entire climbing season was cancelled before Staniforth and his team could even begin the climb.
STANIFORTH: We had to pack up and go home, having not actually gone up above Base Camp.
CWALINSKI: But Staniforth was determined to give it another shot. A year later at 19 years old, he returned to Base Camp.
STANIFORTH: Got to the basecamp, and we set off on our first rotation. The first rotation is Camp one for one night and then you go to camp two.
CWALINSKI: Prepared to push through the Icefall, Staniforth the rest of the team loaded up their backpacks and put on their gear. Crampons, helmets, ropes and carabineers are just a few of the necessary pieces of equipment need to traverse the terrain.
STANIFORTH: Our team had left basecamp about 5 in the morning whilst the ice is more stable. After 5 long painful hours, it’s absolutely exhausting, we were probably less than half an hour from camp one.
CWALINSKI: Having crossed over the deep crevasses on ladders and under large ice towers, Staniforth had nearly finished crossing the deadliest place on Everest.
STANIFORTH: At this point I was on my own because my leader and my teammates had dropped behind me by about ten minutes. And two guys are about ten minutes ahead. Everybody else had just raced ahead. I was struggling, like struggling big time that day.
CWALINSKI: At this point, Staniforth is standing at over 19,000 feet in elevation. The altitude and lack of oxygen was taking on toll on his body.
STANIFORTH: And I was so tired that I remember pulling on the rope and just keeping on, pulling one step at a time, and that’s when the Nepal Earthquake it.
NEWS CLIP 1: Earthquakes of this high 7.2 Magnitude are rare. This is the worst to hit this Himalayan nation in over 80 years.
NEWS CLIP 2: The earthquake struck before noon local time in the capital city Kathmandu.
NEWS CLIP 3: Old brick buildings simply crumbled, with many people trapped under rubble.
STANIFORTH: And I just remember hearing this huge crack above my head, like splitting in the whole valley and that’s when panic set in, ‘cause I realized that this was the sound of ice breaking off the mountain. Behind that, you’ve got the distant rumble of an avalanche coming straight at you. The fog that day, the visibility is so bad that we probably couldn’t see more that 30 meters away. And so you hear this noise booming at you, but you can’t see it. So you can’t run, you can’t hide. You just have to set off as fast as you possibly can and all the time looking and trying to work out where this thing is going to come from. And after a short while you here the noise getting closer and closer, like an express train. Louder and faster. But you assume that it’s fallen behind you, because it should have hit me by now.
STANIFORTH: And then suddenly the air pressure just flips and it just hits you with this ‘whack’ like a ton of bricks. At first it knocked me over, but it wasn’t solid, it was just a cloud and a big battering of wind and noise roaring at you from every angle. You’ve got this soft snow going into your face and you turn your head to gasp for air, but it’s like being suffocated. And you’re kind of thinking, when is going to end, when is it all going to turn black. That was the first time I really realized what was going on. And I guess at 19, genuinely for the first time in my life, for a few seconds thinking, this is it, this is how I die. That’s the most sickening feeling of fear.
STANIFORTH: And then nothing, it just stops like that. And then you open your eyes, you look down, and you’re shaking from head to toe, but you’re still here, in disbelief.
CWALINSKI: Staniforth and the rest of his team survived. The main path of the avalanche just missed them, instead it struck base camp where they had been only a few hours earlier.
STANIFORTH: Huge avalanche, like a tsunami of rock, ice, and snow that just came down and absolutely whacked Base Camp. Which has never happened before. Sadly 22 people died at base camp.
CWALINSKI: The avalanche surpassed the previous years’ death toll, becoming the deadliest event in Everest’s history. Staniforth’s team was stuck at Camp 1 for two days before they could go back down. When they got to base camp, they found that 3 members of their support team had died, all of whom were Sherpa.
STANIFORTH: That was a massive loss because for them they’re just doing their jobs and they were meant to be in the safe place. Our tents were covered under a foot of rock, snow and ice, had we been at base camp.
CWALINSKI: Staniforth says doesn’t have plans to return to Everest anytime soon, but it’s not off the table. Despite being only 21 years old, Staniforth has overcome a lot. Even when things haven’t turned out as planned, he keeps pushing.
STANIFORTH: Success is about coming back stronger, and I think about the challenges we face, whether that’s chosen or a marathon or Everest or, being in the Army of anything, or if it’s out of our hands, it’s about how we respond to it. That’s why sometimes the biggest obstacle are ourselves.
CWALINSKI: Right now Staniforth is busy conquering his next obstacle.
STANIFORTH: My next project, which is actually completely different from anything I’ve ever done before. Climb the UK, It’s the highest point of all 100 UK counties, so cycling, walking, running, and kayaking.
CWALINSKI: Staniforth is currently on the road doing this challenge. If you want to keep track of him, we’ll have a link to his social media accounts on our page at gothepodcast.com. If you want to find out the whole story about Staniforth’s life, you can get his new book out now, called Icefall.
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