Camp IV The Death Zone 7,920 m (26,000 ft)
From Camp IV, clear weather and low winds become the critical factors. Climbers can’t risk the last 1,000 meters (~1100 yds.) if the weather isn’t clear and the winds reasonable. Climbers can only endure the altitude at Camp IV for a maximum of two or three days. If the weather does not cooperate within that window, climbers are forced to descend. The summit bid is lost. Because of the combined dangers and the disorienting effect at that altitude, the area is known as the Death Zone. It has earned that moniker.
If the weather cooperates, we’ll begin our summit push around midnight and hope to summit in 10 or 12 hours. First we’ll reach an outcropping called “The Balcony.” We’ll rest there for a moment to appreciate the surrounding peaks in the early light of dawn.
The Balcony to South Summit
Using oxygen and our low energy reserves, we’ll want to keep moving to stay ahead of the biting cold and any potential weather changes. Insurmountable rocks will force us to circumnavigate through deep snow. At this elevation and with such steep slopes, the snow poses a serious avalanche hazard. Still we’ll move towards a small dome of ice recognized as the South Summit. 8,750 meters above the world. 100 meters left to go.
But this is perhaps the most notorious part of the climb.
Corner Traverse to Hillary Steps
From the South Summit, we’ll follow a very sharp-edged ridge called the “Cornice Traverse.” It is the most exposed section of the climb. To the immediate left is a 2,400 meter (17,900 ft.) drop down the Southwest Face. To the immediate right is a 3,050 meter (~10,000 ft.) fall down the Kangshung Face. This narrow ridge leads to a 12 meter (~40 foot) rock tower we’ll have to climb. Hillary Steps.
Tired. Aching. A little disoriented. Probably a headache. Perhaps a little nauseated. And a series of snow covered rocks to climb. The ropes already fixed in place provide some semblance of confidence.
It is the last major obstacle. A big one, to be sure, but it will be overcome. After Hillary Steps, we cross a moderately inclined field of loose rocks and snow, on another very exposed ridge, covered with a tangle of disposed climbing ropes. We’re told this last snowfield seems endless and is almost overwhelming. But with all we’ve experienced to date, it seems like we’ll cross it on auto-pilot.