30.03.2020

EVEREST - LHOTSE, THE UNACHIEVED TRAVERSE

In April 2018, one year after their friend Ueli Steck’s fatal fall, Jon Griffith and Tenjing “Tenji” Sher-pa attempted the alpinist’s last project: the first Everest- Lhotse link up without bottled oxygen, live and filmed in Virtual Reality. We got in touch with Jon to hear how it went.

“We lost one of the best alpinists in the world” says Tenji, thinking of his friend and mentor Ueli Steck: “He has always motivated me in climbing and he helped me in becoming an alpinist”. That’s why, when Tenji told me that he wanted to attempt Ueli’s project, so to climb Everest and Lhotse without oxygen, I suddenly thought it was a perfect twist of fate. For me and Tenji it was about honouring the memory of one of our closest friends, but it was also to bring the Nepalese clim-bing community to the main stage – an area historically reserved for their clients.

«I wanted to have the mountain to ourselves »
 

 

In terms of alpinism, the link up of Everest and Lhotse (the first and four-th highest mountains in the world) would have been a huge high altitude athletic achievement. For me, to try and film such a climb in Virtual Reality was a challenge that I had set my sights on for the last few years. It’s without a doubt the most complicated shooting style there is – the camera alone has 17 individual cameras in it. It was very challenging, and in the end, we didn’t succeed: completing the link up requires you to spend a huge amount of time up above 8000m and the altitude is just brutal up there. I was on oxygen as I was filming but for Tenji the struggle is superhuman – the fact that he had already done Everest without bottled oxygen before and was unable to do it again shows how incredibly hard it is. We did summit Everest but we weren’t able to continue to Lhotse, in the end the weather was against us but you have to aim big sometimes!

When we arrived up at Camp 4, the high camp, the weather was not great – all day long and through the evening the winds raged around us, and for the first time I wondered if we would even be able to leave Camp 4. You’ve got to be really careful above 8000m in those winds – your body is incredibly vulnerable up high and the margin for error is very small. We waited some hours in the tent and around midnight we finally left. It was windy, and there were thun-derstorms all around us. Tenji was in-credibly fast out from Camp 4 but at around 8500m he hit a wall – it’s what everyone who has climbed Everest without bottled oxygen says. It was hard to see him struggle so much- he looked like he was in a dream. 10 steps up 5 minutes rest. We’d been moving slowly and all around us the clouds were building- we dipped in and out of snow storms and I wondered how long we had left until the weather would turn really bad.

It’s without a doubt the most complicated shooting style there is

We got to the South Summit in heavy snowfall and I decided to put him on my spare bottle of oxygen so that we could at least make the summit – we weren’t in any real danger of course because you can just turn around whenever you want, but you have to know when to turn around when you’re not on oxygen and I felt like we had reached that point. You need an exceptional weather window to sum-mit Everest without bottled oxygen and we just didn’t get it – that was part of the risk of going late in the season. I wanted to have the mountain to ourselves rather than climb with the huge queues of climbers that you see in the photos (those scenes are sadly the norm rather than out of the ordinary) and so we waited until the end of the season when the weather is also a bit more erratic.

 

 

 

 

I did manage to shoot one of my proudest photos ever though which was nice. Taken at around 8400m on summit day on Mount Everest we were surrounded by three very active thunderstorm cells. The clouds cleared from Everest for about an hour and revealed this sight: the yellow light on the horizon is not light pollution but flashes of lightening from various thunderstorm cells. It was incredible. In the end, we didn’t succeed with the link up but we did succeed in making a really powerful Everest VR film which we’ve just released. I wanted to create a film that was real and genuine, and we did that. We still captured a great story. It has been quite interesting watching my climbing friend’s reac-tions in Chamonix once they take the headset off – I always assume that climbers wouldn’t be that interested in Everest but they have all said it’s the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen. So I’m really proud of what we captured.”
Jon Griffith

EVEREST VR