Jon Gupta has reached the summit of Mount Everest twice, in 2013 via the South side and in 2017 via the North side. Jon owns and is the leading guide of the British company ‘Mountain Expeditions’.
Why mountaineering and not a normal 9 to 5 job?
It sounds a little like you’re suggesting that mountaineering as a job isn’t normal!? I’m not sure many of my friends an all the guides around the world would agree with that! My work is actually very often 9 – 5 when I am leading/instructing in the UK. I meet my clients at 8:30am, we chat about the day ahead, objectives, learning outcomes etc and then head into the mountains/crags. The days normally end at 4:30/5pm after a cup of tea and a debrief in a cafe. Then I’m home. Of course this is completely different when it comes to the expeditions!
Whilst I was at university I began freelancing as an outdoor instructor and have continued to pursue a career in the outdoors. Other than part time jobs previous to this I have never done a ‘9 – 5’. Interesting I have thought about it regularly and weighed up the pros and cons of both – of which there are many. Having become accustom to this job, life style and the freedom of choice (which I feel incredible privileged to have) I think I would struggle to fit into a regular 9-5 office type of environment.
Taking people out into the world I love so much whether it been the UK or Overseas is incredible rewarding for me and I feel privileged to have a job I enjoy so much.
Which side of Mount Everest did you most enjoyed to climb, the South or North?
Oooo though one! Both are pretty special and offer a very different but equally incredible experience. I have thought about this questions quite a lot having now been both North and South and I do have an answer which I’ll tell you in a minute. There are big pros and cons to both sides which most people are aware off (the objective dangers, the crowds, the technicality, time spent above 8000m etc) but for me running a small scale expedition being on the North this year felt totally right. The North is quiet, more rugged and less ‘touristy’. There were perfect days when we were climbing above 7000m and there were only a couple of people to be seen anywhere on the mountain! My experience on the South was utterly amazing thanks to a few key people – Tim Mosedale, Kenton Cool and Adam Booth, but sadly substantially not as amazing as it should have been thanks to efforts of one other person who shall remain nameless. I left on a high but with an underlying feeling being mildly deflated due to the impact this person had had on me, and I cant forgive them for taking that away from me.
Which I enjoyed the most is very difficult for me to say as the situation on each was completely different. On the south I was sort of ‘helping’ Tim Mosedale out a little and otherwise on my own itinerary, so not really a client and not really a guide. However, on the North I organised and lead the entire expedition from start to finish.
So, in short – I probably laughed more on the south but took more away from experience on the north…and if I went again I would prefer to go North.
During the two times you stood on the summit of Mount Everest did you take your oxygen mask off and if so, what was it like?
In 2013 Jabu and I reached the summit at 02:50am and had it to ourselves for 30 minutes. I took my bag off and mask for the entire duration we were on the summit and felt absolutely fine. The first thing you notice is your body cooling down. Once the photos were done we sat together looking down into the Khumbu pointing out other mountains we knew and had climbed together in previous years. It was really special few minutes for me.
This year on the north I felt super strong. Up to Camp 3 at 8300m I used only a very low flow and during the 5 hours at 8300m I didn’t use it at all and felt great. Of course I used oxygen up to the summit as I have a duty of care to my client to be in the best state of mind possible. On the summit I again took my bag and mask off completely for over 30 minutes and felt really strong and clear minded walking around and taking some videos etc. After this time my hands stared to get cold and I could feel my core temperature slowly dropping so masks went back on and we began our descent. I was very pleased with my personal performance up high this year which is always reassuring when I hope to continue pursuing a career in high altitude guiding.
Have you personally had any scary moments while climbing on Mount Everest?
On either expedition I haven’t personally had any scary moments. I have spent a substantial amount of time in big high mountains both whilst leading expeditions and personally so I feel very comfortable being on Everest. I would say that on both trips I was rarely, if ever, outside of my comfort zone. Perhaps the scariest thing was hearing the o so familiar noise of someone dropping their figure of 8 down the Lhotse face and quickly trying to dodge it whilst it goes accelerates off into oblivion. The Khumbu ice fall is an intimidating place but it was quiet and calm every time I had to pass through it. The North side is far safer objectively which I prefer as these things are more out of your control.
Was standing on the summit the second time as good as the first?
Much much better!! The personal rewards for me were huge this time. I had organised and lead a hugely successful and safe expedition to the summit of Everest (and back down) and my client (Mollie) was in doing great and Lhakpa and Lila were also feeling great. Over the past 6 weeks I had done everything I could to make sure the trip ran smoothly, safely and Mollie was feeling good too. It had been a really tough call to make an attempt in the weather window we went for as the weather forecasts were all over the place this year, but with some tough decision making, experience, good judgement and a slice of luck it all paid off perfectly. We topped out in under 8 hours just at sunrise. It was really really magical.
Reaching the summit is only the half way point. How do you mentally prepare yourself knowing that you had a long descent?
Going bigger, further and harder in the mountains is all about drawing on previous experiences, and lots of them. Having those big summits and big descents in the bank to draw on both physically and mentally helps you for the next one. Mollie has also done Everest before (from the south and got stuck in traffic during her descent) so she knows only too well how hard you have to dig on the descent.
After 30 minutes on the summit I looked at Mollie and I knew it was time to begin the descent. She had given her all to reach the top and would undoubtedly become slower and more tired during the descent. It’s also very easy to neglect the importance of staying hydrated (it’s the absolute key too high altitude success) so we stopped regularly during descent to take short breaks and drink plenty. We also had an excess of oxygen so I was able to slightly increase everyone’s oxygen levels during the descent which also helps a lot when fatigue begins creeping in.
How did you find climbing the Second Step compared to the Hillary Step?
In absolute truth I was quite surprised by the Hilary Step – it was smaller and easier than I was expecting. Of course we used the fixed lines which substantially reduces the technicality of the step but still, it’s quite short lived. In 2013 whilst moving along the final summit ridge from the south summit to the summit I was absolutely loving it – it was only Jabu and I and no one else anywhere close. With each step I was thinking about what it must have been like to have been the first person to have climbed the ridge. It must have so special.
The second step is much bigger and more awkward. The Chinese have installed 2 short ladders to help climbers get around the first part of the second step then a big 10m ladder to get out the top. Overall its easily 40m of high gain to complete the second step. Personally I found them both fine. I climb technical routes in rock and ice regularly and relished the stepper and more technical sections of the route. I loved summit day on the North.
While on Everest have you ever see anyone who you thought should not have been there and what is the minimum you like your clients to have climbed before taking them on Everest?
Who’s to say who can and can’t climb a mountain? Also, just because someone might have climbed a number of big mountains it doesn’t make them a competent and safe mountaineer. Of course I have seen people who can’t put their own crampons or harness on and I shake my head in disbelief – they quite simply shouldn’t be there with that limited knowledge and experience. I guess the times have changed and Everest isn’t what it used to be perhaps – but I didn’t get to see Everest 5/10 years ago. Just because one person managed to make it to the top and back alive with limited or no experience it doesn’t mean everyone can or should try. Sadly there will always be a company that will take anyone who can pay, and sadly these companies are probably the ones you want avoid.
There are of course many many climbers I met who were very experienced, competent and sensible in the mountains but you’re less likely to hear about these guys as they don’t shout about it as much.
I have no plans on making a habit out of working on Everest every year, far from it, but I will go back as and when I have good strong clients who are ready for Everest. In my clients I look for a number of attributes and an overall picture. I would want them to be independent, self sufficient and competent climbers and mountaineers in the their own right. Altitude experience is essential but having bags of 7000 and 8000 isn’t as important and the above. I have no plans to drag anyone up but more so to lead and guide small scale highly professional expeditions for individuals or small teams.
The Sherpas are the backbone of Mount Everest, although they get paid, do you think its right for them to risk their own life by helping others reach the summit at back down?
On the both sides I think the amount of risk they expose themselves too is directly related to the experience and competency of the clients and the pressure put on them by the company they are working for. Of course climbing Everest is inherently risky but the risk is greatly reduced if the client is very competent and experienced. They are less likely to have any problems. That’s just fact. The two Nepali guides I used (Lila and Lhakpa) had very little direct input into our experience until we got to our summit attempt. Previous to this they had been busy up on the mountain getting the camps ready and putting the oxygen in place etc at their own pace and without the additional need to look after anyone. Climbing when the weather was good and resting when it was bad. 2 friends on the mountain working hard and looking after each other. Lhakpa told me they loved the freedom on the mountain.
Other than the obvious risk of exposing your body to extreme altitudes and the potential for the weather to change very quickly I have to be honest in saying that I didn’t feel much risk whilst climbing the mountain from the North side. But if you acclimatise well and pay for top quality weather forecasts you can reduce these risk as much as possible too.
On the south of course the Sherpas/Nepali guides will pass through the Khumbu Ice fall many times which is objectively quite dangerous. But on a ’normal year’ most of the accidents happen high on the mountain. So I still stand by my first point: If the client has no experiences the Sherpa is at a much great risk.
If you could change one piece of mountaineering equipment/clothing to make it better what would it be?
Probably the oxygen system. I find the masks quite annoying and I don’t enjoy wearing it. I don’t want to make Everest easier but if the oxygen cylinders were lighter and lasted longer this would be great. It would also mean less rotations and carrying for the Sherpas.
You have climbed mountains all over the world, do you have a favourite?
Personally it would probably have to be Peak Communism 7495m (50th highest peak in the world) in Tajikistan. I climbed this Alpine style with my friend Nick and it was one of those summits that pushed me right to the limit both physically and mentally. We didn’t know if we were going to make it the summit until the very last second. It felt truly incredible to stand on the top. Less than 20 people summit on an average year.
Name one climber (dead or alive) you would like to have a few beers with chatting about mountains?
I thought long and hard about this and for many reasons it would be Ueli Steck. I only ever met him once very briefly in passing but I could think up a thousand questions and discussions I would like to have had with him. He is a worldwide inspiration to thousands of people including myself. But more than all his achievements he came across as a great human and humble one at that. I recently read Jonathan Griffths eulogy to Ueli and it was very well written. Ueli sounded like an incredible Alpinist and a wonderful person.
What does the future hold for ‘Mountain Expeditions’?
More mountains!! Since the birth of Mountain Expeditions around 7 years ago it has grown organically predominately through word of mouth and little social media. I have a deep routed love for the mountains and everything they offer us from the small local hill to the steepest north face – they offer something for everyone. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to facilitate these expedition and have met so may amazing people along the way, many of which I know called good friends. For Mountain Expeditions I hope to continue with the expeditions I currently run and I hope to open up a number of new expeditions to lesser known peaks and perhaps even some unclimbed regions over the next few years. As a small company I am steered a little be by demand, but now I have a great client base I’m exited to open up these new trips.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
Another interesting question! I don’t know the answer to this and no one does – which in itself is quite special really. I like to think perhaps they did, and got to share that very very special moment together on the top. But perhaps they didn’t. To be frank, it doesn’t matter and we will never know the answer.
If you would like to find out more about Jon Gupta then please pay a visit to his website at www.mountain-expeditions.co.uk