Above It All: Norwich’s Schellens Ascends Everest

  • Norwich native Geoff Schellens takes a selifie atop Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. Schellens, now a Washington-state based mountaineering guide, led a private client to the summit in May.

  • Schellens' client, John Stenderup, foreground, and a Sherpa named Siddhi approach the top of the Lhotse Couloir, connecting Mount Everest to Lhotse, the world's fourth-highest summit.

  • Stenderup approaches the south summit of Everest.

  • Stenderup, foreground, makes his way up Everest's Khumbu Ice Fall.

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2017

Norwich — Over 10 years as a professional mountaineering guide, Geoff Schellens has led countless expeditions to high summits in Washington state’s North Cascades, Alaska’s famed Denali, the Swiss Alps’ Mont Blanc and more.

Until this spring, the Norwich native had never ascended the world’s tallest peak, the venerable Mount Everest in the Himalayas of Nepal.

Schellens and a client of several years, John Stenderup, flew with a group of about 10 other clients and guides into Kathmandu in late March, a few days later departing the town of Lukla for a 9,000-foot ascent to Mount Everest’s base camp. That section alone took about 12½ days, in part because of foot traffic.

The Nepalese Tourism Department issued a record 371 climbing permits this year, with at least an equal number of Sherpas on the mountain.

“There were a lot of other folks, so you move slow and take some rest days,” said Schellens, 34, during a recent visit to his childhood home on Upper Turnpike Road. “It’s a good portion to go at a comfortable pace and start to get your body used to climbing.”

The acclimatization process truly begins upon reaching base camp, at 17,600 feet. Allowing the body to adjust to the difference in oxygen pressure — or the failure to do so — is often decisive in whether an attempted ascent of Everest is successful.

“If you move up too quickly, you subject yourself to acute mountain sickness, which can be severe or mild and can result in a lot of nausea, headaches and dizziness,” said Schellens, a 2001 Hanover High graduate who now resides in Ashford, Wash. “It’s not anything you want to be experiencing at all, let alone when you’re 20,000 feet high on Mount Everest.”

The group spent 5½ days acclimatizing at base camp, a festive area that’s a veritable city of tents and climbers.

“There were probably 1,500 people there, and there’s mountain staff there. There’s a lot of good food; we had salmon and steaks. (Renowned British DJ) Paul Oakenfold even played there (on April 11).”

Acclimatization rotations then began, where the group gained elevation in increments before returning to base camp. Taking Everest’s South Col route, they climbed Khumbu Ice Fall, a moving glacier with large crevasses. Schellens, Stenderup and the rest relied on fixed rope lines and ladders maintained by Sherpas to navigate the icy terrain.

“You realize how important the native Sherpas are to climbing the mountain when you’re on a section like that and you see them carrying huge loads of gear,” Schellens said. “They’re true heroes.”

On day 20, Schellens and company reached Camp 1, at more than 20,000 feet, later embarking on a long, steady climb of another 1,800 feet to Camp 2. “That section is long and flat. It took about three hours for only that much elevation gain,” Schellens recalled.

Returning to base camp for another 4½ days, the group began its second rotation, spending two nights at Camp 1 and eventually climbing the nearly 4,000-foot Lhotse ice wall to reaching camp 3, at 23,625 feet.

After returning to base camp once more, Schellens and Stenderup joined another guide, Brent Bishop, and his client with plans to summit. However, problems with fixed rope lines left them stuck at camp 2 on May 8.

“We were ready to go all the way, but we ended up doing an extra rotation because of the fixed line problem,” Schellens said. “We ended up back at base camp.”

Fittingly, a stream of poor weather kept them for another few days at base camp, where satellite internet is available — for $50 per gigabyte. “You have to be really careful with how much email you send,” Schellens said.

The foursome finally left base camp for good on May 16, climbing through Schellens’ birthday two days later and reaching Camp 3 on May 19.

The next day the group tussled with high winds, using supplemental oxygen to help reach Camp 4, also known as South Col, stationed at 26,300 feet.

The group only managed about 1½ hours of sleep before setting out for Everest’s summit at 11:30 p.m. on May 20.

“Leaving at night gives you a buffer zone, so if you run into any snafus, you have a better chance of daylight and warmth being in your favor,” said Schellens. “If you wait until first thing in the morning to leave and something happens, dark and cold can be fast approaching.”

Ascending at a 35- to 40-degree angle on fixed lines, the group was nearing the top of an ice face when it encountered the first of two stricken climbers. Neither would survive, accounting for two of four deaths on Mount Everest that weekend, according The Guardian.

“The first man was very close to dead, eyes frozen open. I tried to give him a steroid that can be life-saving, but the vial was frozen, too,” Schellens said.

About 10 minutes later, the group ran into another man who was able to get on his feet. Bishop and one of the Sherpas elected to guide him back to South Col, while Schellens continued with Stenderup and Bishops’ client.

“We knew he had a chance to survive, so we had to try and help,” Schellens said. “What surprised me was that about 70 people had passed him before we got to him. We were the last people to leave South Col that night.”

Now a threesome, Schellens’ group reached an area at dawn known as the balcony, watching sunrise over the Himalayas before climbing another hour or so to Everest’s south summit, at 28,500 feet.

From there, the final 535 feet to Everest’s true summit are some of its most challenging, a knife edge-style ridge where oxygen is at its scarcest. With Schellens leading the way, the group reached Everest’s lofty peak under blue skies just after 10 a.m.

They spent about 20 minutes there before turning back.

“It was an amazing feeling to finally get up there, but it’s funny — as a guide, you’re kind of always thinking about daylight and just making sure the people you’re in charge of stay on their feet,” Schellens said. “You want to enjoy yourself, but the shorter you keep summit day, the less chance there is for an accident.”

The threesome returned to South Col around 1:30 p.m., reuniting with Bishop and resting for about 11 hours before setting out for Lhotse via the steep, narrow couloir route, reaching the planet’s fourth-highest peak around 9 a.m. on May 21.

“We accomplished the goal, and that’s the most you can ask for,” said Schellens.

After a two-night stay at base camp during the descent, the group was back in Kathmandu on May 26 for five days of celebration.

“A lot of restaurants and beer,” Schellens said. “I think it was well-deserved for all of us.”

Back in Washington, Schellens will continue to guide in the North Cascades, with destinations including the iconic Mount Rainier, before going to Peru in mid-July. He wouldn’t rule out a return to the Himalayas and Everest, though he certainly has had his fill for now.

“Before I die, maybe,” he said. “It would have to be with the right people to work with.”

View photographs from Geoff Schellens’ mountaineering expeditions at www.theexposededge.com.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.