In April of last year, Tenjing “Tenji” Sherpa was sitting in Everest Base Camp as his climbing partner and mentor, the world-renowned Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck, was acclimatizing on the north face of nearby Nuptse. Steck was preparing for an attempt of the Everest-Lhotse traverse without bottled oxygen, a feat that had never been accomplished before and one that he and Tenji planned on completing together. But that all came to an end when Tenji received the news that his partner had fallen to his death.
Tenji returned to the mountain this climbing season to finish what Steck had started. But this time, he was accompanied by Jon Griffith, another close friend of Steck’s who’d had the idea of livestreaming the project and filming it in virtual reality. The plan was for Tenji to accomplish the feat without bottled oxygen while Jon followed and filmed him, using oxygen as he needed it. In the end, poor weather forced Tenji to go on oxygen and abandon the Lhotse section of the climb but, nevertheless, the duo was not dismayed. They’d succeeded not only in honoring Steck’s legacy, but also in telling a new and unique story about Everest.
We caught up with Jon upon his return to talk about the project, his bond with both Steck and Tenji, and the nature of storytelling at high altitude.
What exactly is the Everest-Lhotse traverse, and what makes it so difficult?
Mount Everest is, obviously, the highest peak in the world, and Mount Lhotse is the fourth-highest. The idea was to climb both of them in one go without the use of bottled oxygen, which hasn’t ever been done before. As it’s extremely hard to climb at high-altitude without bottled oxygen, that’s really the challenge. In fact, many climbers would discount a bottled-oxygen ascent of Everest because it’s basically doping. There’s no two ways around it. In this environment, oxygen is a performance-enhancing drug. The whole point of Everest is that it’s the highest peak on Earth, so the difficulty comes from being at such high altitude with such thin air. By using bottled oxygen, you take away that level of difficulty.
Doing the Lhotse link-up requires not only climbing Everest without oxygen, but then scaling another 8,000-meter peak without coming back down again. That altitude is just brutal. I can’t relate because I haven’t done Everest without oxygen, but it’s really hard work. It’s this whole other world of pain and suffering that you can’t even begin to appreciate. While you’re not climbing with your hands on Everest — you’re just walking up hill — it’s still physical exercise, and there’s a lack of oxygen in your muscles. That also leads to getting cold very quickly because we use oxygen to generate heat — which is a real problem, given that frostbite is such a problem higher up. That’s the point when you just feel like total shit. Imagine waking up from your worst-ever hangover, from a three-day party where you didn’t sleep. You feel wrecked. You have to dig really deep both physically and mentally. It’s just like that, and watching Tenji do it without oxygen really made me appreciate how miserable the whole thing is. But that’s just Everest. Imagine doing all of that and then continuing back up. It’s a crazy amount of time spent at altitude, and also a hell-of-a-long day of climbing.
Like you said, you have to be able to mentally persevere through a lot, but at the same time, you have to know when the risk is too much. Is that something that’s difficult to balance at high altitude?
Totally. Down here, our brains function normally, and we can perceive dangers. Up high, because your brain is in this horribly foggy state, all you’re thinking about is putting one foot in front of the other. I was definitely on hand to support Tenji, and I decided to put him on oxygen at the South Summit because the weather was so miserable and it was not at all conducive to a no-oxygen ascent. I didn’t get scared for his life, because that’s a bit dramatic and that’s not how we work as climbers, but it certainly got to a stage where I thought that to finish this safely, he needed to go on oxygen.
Can you talk a little bit about the bond between you, Tenji, and Ueli Steck, and how you and Tenji came to the decision to attempt this?
Ueli and I had started this together, but we weren’t able to carry out the plan before he passed away. I’d spent so much of my time the year before he died putting this together, with various sponsors and all the technology that goes along with VR, so I wanted to finish the project for myself, but also because it was something that I had started with Ueli. He really was like an older brother to me, and I felt like I had to finish it off, for both of us.
I’d originally planned to go with Killian Jornet, who is known for running up mountains, so this was right up his alley. He broke his leg just before we were meant to leave, though, and on the same day, Tenji sent me a message saying his client on the north side of Everest had broken his foot and he had no work. Killian and Ueli had known each other, but more so as colleagues, whereas Ueli was Tenji’s mentor. It was then that I realized this was the perfect story: Ueli’s protegé finishes off his last climb.
I’m interested in your perspective as a storyteller on Everest. More so than most peaks, this is a mountain and a climb that has been documented many times, especially now that it’s such an overcrowded mountain and is plastered across Instagram. As a photographer, how did you approach this climb in a way that made sure you were telling a unique story?
That was actually the motivating force for the entire project. Everything we see on Everest is a fallacy. Hollywood, documentaries, celebrities — these are all just clients. All the hard work is done by the Sherpas and the high-altitude workers. They are the ones who set the fixed lines to the top and put up the camps, but you don’t always see that. It’s a crazy amount of support that us climbers get from them. I wanted to show an Everest climb that wasn’t this false story for once, which is why I wanted to shoot Ueli doing the traverse. For starters, he’d be doing it without oxygen, and that’s a story that hasn’t been done before. And then, obviously, throwing the virtual reality into the mix transforms it into a completely different story because a different medium is involved.
Had you worked a lot with V.R. in the past?
Not a huge amount, to be honest. I have done quite a bit, but V.R. is such a nascent industry — nobody has a lot of experience with it. Even the cameras are really new. For instance, I was trying to shoot these long-exposure time lapses of the full moon rising over the Khumbu Valley, but there’s no goddamn time-lapse function on the V.R. camera. On my regular camera, I can just plug it in manually and press record, and every 30 seconds, it will take a long exposure and I can just go to bed. But here, I have to literally sit there with the app on my phone and press record every 30 seconds for hours. It’s 30 frames a second, so you shoot for about three or four hours to get about 15 seconds of footage. And you’ve got to be pretty religious about it because every 30 seconds you’ve got to hit the button. So you can’t even read a book while you’re doing it. You can’t really do anything for just 30 seconds. So you just have to sit there, freezing your ass off, pressing record over and over. But the footage is incredible, and I kind of like the fact that nothing in the V.R. is really set up yet. It’s kind of rustic in that sense.
Obviously, the climb didn’t turn out exactly as you had hoped. Can you talk about the moment you realized the traverse wasn’t going to be feasible?
We woke up at Camp 4, the high camp, and there were really strong winds. I started to panic because I’d invested all of this money and two years worth of my life into this project, and I kept thinking: If we don’t make the link-up that’s one thing, but if we don’t even make Everest, then we’ve got nothing. Nobody’s going to watch a film about Everest when they don’t even get to see the top of the mountain.
We waited about three-to-four hours in the tent and then, around midnight, we finally left, though it was still really mixed weather. It was windy, it was snowing, we were in the clouds, and there were thunderstorms all around us. Despite the fact that we’d been moving so slowly because of the weather, we got close to the South Summit, which is literally a stone’s throw from the main summit. It wasn’t getting insanely dangerous, but we’d already pushed it a bit far and at that point, we were moving too slow, so I decided we should put Tenji on oxygen, get to the summit, and get back down. It felt stupid to push it any further.
Do you think you’ll attempt it again?
I don’t know. The link-up itself isn’t something that massively interests me as a climber. It’s a fantastic feat of high-altitude human endurance, but I’m more interested in more technical climbing. The focus, for me, was to shoot this V.R. film. And yeah, we didn’t shoot the link-up itself, which would have been the cherry on top, but like I said, I’m trying to make a film that’s not just for climbers. Everyone is interested in Everest — people are always interested in watching media that comes out about that mountain, even if they’ve never climbed anything in their lives. I wanted to create a film that was real and genuine, and we did that. We shot the Everest story. It’s a shame we couldn’t keep going, but we still captured the story.
On your Instagram, you say that the photo of the Milky Way over Mount Lhotse might be one of your proudest images ever. Can you elaborate a little bit about why that is?
Facebook and Instagram can be very filled with hyper-saturated eye candy. It looks good and you’ll get a million likes, but nobody really remembers the photo. I always try to strive — though you can only get one or two of these a year — for a photo that really grabs your attention because you see humans in locations you’ve never seen them in before. That’s why I like taking cameras on hard climbs. You get these photos where you double-take and think, “Jesus Christ — I can’t believe places like this actually exist on our planet. And look; there’s a human being there.” For me, this is one of those shots. I know it’s not of a super steep climb, but being surrounded by these huge thunderstorms is crazy, and yet, the Milky Way sat right above on an empty mountain. I’ve seen a million photos of Everest, but I’ve never seen a photo like that one. It doesn’t mean it’s the world’s best photo, but it means it’s something different, and I think that’s why I like it.