The top of Mount Everest was just 100 meters before us when the Sherpa behind me tapped me on the shoulder. Time to turn back, he told me, and I agreed.
ARKHALE, Nepal — Everyone wants me to talk about how I climbed Mount Everest in 25 hours and 50 minutes, faster than any other woman in history.
The truth is, I stared down death less than three weeks before my famous summit.
On May 11, 2021, I set out from Base Camp to climb Mount Everest for the third time. It would be my first speed climb attempt.
The weather forecast called for clear conditions and set the scene for a perfect ascent.
Everest was devoid of climbers that day apart from myself and the four Sherpas assisting my journey.
The air was still and quiet, perhaps too perfect.
I reached 8,500 meters above sea level to what’s known as the Balcony without issue.
That’s when the weather transformed into a perfect storm.
Wind and snow suddenly began to blow at 65 km/h, completely taking us off guard.
The Sherpas and I were just 349 meters from the summit of Earth’s highest peak, but the situation was rapidly changing.
No one could rescue the Sherpas and me from that kind of altitude. Helicopters and planes can’t access the side of a mountain like Everest at the height of the Balcony.
We decided to tough it out, thinking the storm would dissipate because the forecast called for calm weather.
The snow became thick, and our goggles were coated with ice.
Taking them off would freeze our eyeballs and leave us permanently blind.
We’d reached the 8,750-meter mark after two grueling hours in the storm, taking our place at the South Summit.
The top of Mount Everest was just 100 meters before us when the Sherpa behind me tapped me on the shoulder.
Time to turn back, he told me, and I agreed.
The danger was too great, and Mount Everest wasn’t going anywhere.
We descended back down the mountain to Camp 4, at 7,924 meters above sea level, in about an hour and a half.
The other two Sherpas who were waiting there for us thought we had died, or at best, gotten frostbite.
When I came into the tent, the Sherpas quickly took off my gloves and felt my hands.
Shocked, they asked, “Ada, why aren’t your hands cold?”
Knowing your body and its limitations is the key to mastering Mount Everest.
I packed three types of gloves, extra oxygen masks, and I climbed 5,000-meter mountains multiple times per day ahead of this year’s journey.
Training for a speed climb of Mount Everest is entirely different than a regular climb.
I rode my bike from China’s Sichuan province to Tibet, from Tibet to Guangxi province, crossing more than 5,000 kilometers in the snowy mountains.
Many people approach climbing Mount Everest with too much confidence.
They may be solid at low altitudes, they may have experienced climbing other mountains 8,000 meters above sea level, but the altitude on Mount Everest is just different.
Many experienced climbers become weak somewhere between Camp 2 (6,400 meters) and Camp 4 (7,924 meters).
My first two attempts to climb Mount Everest were monumentally disastrous.
When I arrived for my first climb in 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas, and the Nepalese government closed the mountain to tourists.
Undeterred, I returned the following year when a severe earthquake shook the entire country.
Fifteen people were killed at Base Camp, including five of my team members.
I was severely injured and evacuated by helicopter and then by private plane back to Hong Kong for treatment.
I didn’t return until 2017 when I reached the summit of Everest in four days, becoming the first woman from Hong Kong to scale the mountain, and repeated the feat over the same time frame in 2019.
By the time May 29, 2021, rolled around, I had seen a lot of what Mount Everest could do to a person.
Even more importantly than that, however, I knew my body better than ever before.
I became proactive in the training and actual scaling of the mountain, unlike in previous attempts when I had deferred to the Sherpas’ wisdom.
One of the four Sherpas who joined me, Pemba Dorje, is the fastest man ever scaled Mount Everest, reaching the summit in just eight hours.
However, most male Sherpas don’t know a woman’s body, and I kept that in mind throughout my journey.
Two Sherpas would guide me from Base Camp (5,600 meters) to Camp 4, where two other Sherpas were waiting more than 2,300 meters up the mountain.
We left in the afternoon. The sun’s reflection off the snow at Base Camp was so intense that sweat-soaked my socks and clothing.
As I climbed in altitude, the temperature progressively dropped from 20 degrees Celsius to negative 30 degrees.
Changing out of my damp clothing was a matter of survival, but I was also racing against the clock.
We were scheduled to change at Camp 2, but I told the Sherpas that wasn’t an option, and we had to set up a tent right where we were.
I went into the tent to change out of my damp clothes and drink hot water while one of the Sherpas retrieved oxygen tanks from nearby Camp 2.
We reached Camp 4 and slept there for the night when a storm found us once more.
The wind ripped into the tent and woke everyone, except for me, leaving the whole team red-eyed.
The Sherpas were mystified by why I could sleep through the frozen night and such a height, but sleeping on Everest has never proven challenging for me.
On May 30, we reached the summit. Other climbers began screaming with excitement, people took out their phones, and exuberance gripped the peak of Mount Everest.
I told my Sherpa, “take a photo and let’s go back down,” I wasn’t there to look around and celebrate.
More than three-quarters of deaths and injuries happen on the descent of Mount Everest. You haven’t survived until you’ve come back down to Base Camp.
I knew the danger of becoming excited, so focus consumed me throughout the entire time I was on the mountain.
The infamous Hilary Step didn’t scare me, and I didn’t look around because I wasn’t thinking about anything except my training.
Everyone loves talking about my 25 hours and 50 minutes to the peak of Mount Everest, but it took many near-death experiences and took control of my climb to get there.
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