On May 23 at 6:30 p.m., a 39 year-old Chinese climber named Wang Jing and a small team of Sherpas became the first and only climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest from the south so far this year.
Without fixed ropes, and long past the customary 2 p.m. turnaround time, Wang and her guides pushed up Everest's summit ridge, including the crux of the route, the 40-foot cliff known as the Hillary Step. Then, perhaps more impressively, they came back down the same treacherous knife-edge in the dark, and safely descended 3,000 feet to Camp IV on the South Col, the gap between Everest and Lhotse. It was arguably one of the most remarkable ascents of the world's highest mountain since the era of commercial guiding began more than two decades ago.
But not everyone saw it that way.
Five weeks earlier, a massive avalanche had killed 16, including 13 Sherpas and 3 other workers, casting a cloud of tragedy and strife over Everest and essentially bringing all expeditions on the south side of the mountain to a halt.
Because Wang insisted on climbing Everest when virtually every other Nepal-side expedition had abandoned their plans, and because she used a helicopter to bypass the difficulties of the Khumbu Icefall, where three unrecoverable bodies of avalanche victims were still buried, her Everest ascent has been mired in controversy—derided as being in poor taste, the indulgence of a rich "pseudo-mountaineer" who breached basic climbing ethics and ushered in a debased new era of "helicopter mountaineering."
Nowhere has the criticism been more vehement than in Wang's home country, where Chinese blog sites have been inflamed with outrage, some of it misinformed.
"Helicopter Jing, you're imbued with the stench of your money-bought certificates and honors ... The holy Everest has been dirtied by you, a cunning and ugly person!" said one angry commenter on Weibo, a Chinese social media site. "This is a permanent shame in the history of Everest climbing. This is a notorious joke in mountaineering circles!" another weighed in.
The Everest summit came on Day 128 of Wang's 9+2 project, her globe-spanning attempt to reach in record time both poles and the summits of the highest peaks on all seven continents (plus two alternate summits, to preclude any dispute about which mountains actually constitute continental apexes).
A Mountaineering Marathon
She began the bravura feat of trekking and climbing on January 15, when she skied 68 miles (110 kilometers) from latitude 89 degrees south to the South Pole, and finished her marathon 149 days later, on June 13 at 11:20 a.m., standing on the summit of Mount Blanc with friends. Her elapsed time was 143 days for the two poles and seven summits—Alaska's Mount McKinley, climbed on June 6, technically completed the set.
I first met Wang Jing on May 25, two days after her sunset visit to the summit of Everest. She had stopped for a ceremony in her honor in the Khumbu trading town of Namche Bazaar. She was still drained by the effort of the preceding 48 hours. After 12 and a half hours on the climb to the summit, she had returned to Camp IV at 11 p.m., Friday, May 23.
She spent a frigid night with her five Sherpa teammates on the South Col—they only had two tents and two sleeping bags for six people—then resumed the descent on Saturday, reaching Camp II at noon. On Sunday morning, she and the Sherpas flew out of the Western Cwm—a broad, flat valley that ends at the foot of Lhotse Face—by helicopter.
There wasn't much chance to hear the details of her Everest ascent during the Namche stopover. She had donated $30,000 to the local hospital and was feted with speeches, ceremonial kata scarves, milk tea, and cookies. She gave a brief interview to a reporter from the Himalayan Times, entertained a few of my questions, demonstrated her flexibility by putting her foot over her head, and was whisked off to Kathmandu by helicopter. That night, she boarded the first of four commercial flights to Anchorage, Alaska, and went on to Denali National Park to climb the tallest mountain in North America.
Despite the controversial use of helicopters to reach Camp II, Wang's Everest climb was formally certified by the Nepal Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation in June, and in Kathmandu on June 30, she received the International Mountaineer of the Year Award from the Nepal government, an honor she was told had also been given to Sir Edmund Hillary.
Two weeks ago, when she flew to New York for a vacation with her husband, Faqiang, and their two daughters, Cady, 11, and Kathy, 9, we had a more leisurely conversation at a restaurant in lower Manhattan.
Wang speaks little English; her friend Xi Ye, a 45-year-old investment banker at Goldman Sachs, translated. She was still surprised by the enmity her Everest ascent had provoked, particularly in China, and wanted to correct inaccuracies in the written accounts of her climb—ranging from her alleged attempt to hide her use of helicopters to her age.
I hesitated for a long time, and for the first time, I felt the threat of death, as if I were trading my life for the mountain.
"I was really mad when they said my age is 41," she laughed.
Dressed in pants and a black blouse, Jing, as her friends call her, appeared unassuming, good-humored, even giggly at times, over the course of a four-hour conversation. She also displayed an unmistakable will and drive, qualities that surely figure in her climbing résumé, which began with Kilimanjaro, her first snow mountain in 2007, and now includes three Everest ascents and six other 8,000-meter summits—Makalu, Manaslu, Broad Peak, Cho Oyu, Lhotse, and Shishapangma.
A Childhood in China
Jing grew up in the rural town of Ziyang in Sichuan Province, the youngest of four children. Her father was a factory worker; her mother worked for the local village government. Her formal education ended after middle school. She later worked as a waitress and met her husband in 1993, when he came into the restaurant hoping to land a contract to print its menus.
In 1995, they bought a design patent for a tent and co-founded a tent-manufacturing company called Tianhui—Everyday Happy, in English. Wang sewed the first tent herself.
"In the beginning I had no idea there were companies like North Face that were making tents," she recalled. The couple eventually moved the business to Beihei, a city in Guangxi in southwest China, and in 1999 founded Beijing Toread Outdoor Products Company, an outdoor gear and clothing firm that they took public ten years later. It now has a market value of about one billion dollars.
Wang began planning her 9+2 project last fall, motivated not so much by brand enhancement—"I don't want to sacrifice my life for a product," she said—as by the desire to challenge herself and to promote the cause of women and outdoor activity in China.
When her original Everest outfitter, Russell Brice, of Himalayan Experience, called it quits after the avalanche, her 9+2 project hung in the balance. Wang returned to Kathmandu on April 27 and tried to get permission to climb Everest from the north side. She was turned down by authorities in her own country.
Knowing that Nepal officials were insisting on keeping Everest open for climbing even though the Khumbu Icefall was impassable—the Sherpas specialists who build and maintain the route through the icefall had removed the ropes and ladders—Wang contacted a Kathmandu-based outfitter, Himalayan Sherpa Adventure.
For a flat fee, which she declined to disclose for "business reasons," Himalayan Sherpa Adventure hired two cooks and five guides: Pasang Dawa Sherpa, Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa, Lhakpa Gyaljen Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa, and Da Gyalje Sherpa. Contrary to press reports, all had summited Everest on multiple occasions.
On May 7, Wang and her new team returned to Everest Base Camp. The next day, May 8, an American woman, Cleonice Weidlich—who had a permit to climb Everest's neighbor, Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world—took a helicopter to Camp II, despite the Nepali government policy limiting helicopter flights above the icefall to rescues. (Weidlich climbed near Camp III before retreating.)
The Fog of Controversy
In the past two months, so many confusing and contradictory statements have been attributed to various Nepali authorities regarding the use of helicopters after the avalanche that it's difficult to say who had permission to do what. Whatever the case, two days later, on May 10, Wang's team flew up to Camp II with Fishtail Air pilot Maurizio Folini, a fact she says was widely reported and insists she never attempted to hide.
In her mind's eye she said she could still see the Kangshung Face plunging 10,000 feet below them, and their little team alone on Everest with nothing to hold onto but each other. 'My tears just came down,' she said.
"I had no idea whether my outfitter had a permit to fly a helicopter or not," Wang told me. "When I signed the contract, I knew we would possibly have to fly over the icefall. We assessed the situation from Base Camp and knew there was no way we could climb. First, it was impossible. And second, we didn't want to go through the section where the dead Sherpas were still in the ice. I never realized it would cause such a big controversy. If you don't fly to Camp II, you just go home."
Once on the mountain, Wang was unaware of the uproar brewing around her. Some of it was undoubtedly rooted in resentment that Wang had the south side of Everest virtually to herself. (See "Maxed Out on Everest" in National Geographic magazine.) She also had the persistence—or, some would argue, the insensitivity—to proceed when other expeditions with hundreds of high-paying Western clients had folded up and gone home, their plans willingly canceled out of respect for the dead and considerations of safety or unwillingly abrogated by threats of violence from activists in Base Camp seeking to enforce a climbing boycott for political and economic leverage.
The question of whether it was disrespectful to climb after the tragedy of April 18 is not easy to answer. Many grieving Sherpas who wanted to go home after the death of so many of their brothers might say yes. But many would have stayed and worked if they hadn't felt intimidated by threats from activists using the tragedy to press the sclerotic Nepali government for labor reforms.
The Sherpas rustled up by Wang's Nepali outfitter found themselves with one of the most lucrative jobs they would ever have. Wang told me she contracted to pay a lump sum to Phurba Gyaltsen Sherpa, the managing director of Himalayan Sherpa Adventure; she didn't know the individual salaries of her hired guides.
But in Lukla last May, a member of Wang's team told a guide I had hired, Krishna Gopal Shrestha, that each Sherpa had received a $10,000 salary and a $2,000 tip for three arduous weeks of work, an amount that would ordinarily take three or four seasons on Everest to earn. Wang didn't dispute the sums when I broached them with her.
The Long Climb
Starting on May 12, Wang and her team began a series of acclimatization hikes between Camp II at 6,474 meters (21,240 feet) and Camp III at 7,158 meters (23,484 feet) on the Lhotse Face. In addition to pitching tents and tending to their client, Wang's Sherpas also had to set the fixed ropes, a job normally handled by a larger contingent of Sherpas assigned to the task by big commercial expedition companies at the start of the spring climbing season. The satellite weather reports showed a window of good weather around May 18, the date she initially hoped to make a summit attempt.
She climbed to Camp III on May 16, but her Sherpa team was too exhausted from fixing the route to follow, and she returned to Camp II the next day. She spent the next three days resting up and waiting for a weather window.
On May 21, the team was ready. They moved up to Camp III, and on May 22, continued on to Camp IV at the South Col at 7,906 meters (25,938 feet). They planned to mount a summit bid the following day, Friday, May 23.
Wang left the next morning at 6 a.m., climbing with "Young Lhakpa," as she called her 22-year-old guide, Lhakpa Gyaljen.
At 3 p.m., after nine hours of climbing and well past the time most commercial expedition leaders would have ordered their clients to turn around, Wang and four Sherpas reached the South Summit, about 200 meters and two hours below the summit. (Da Gyalje Sherpa had returned to Camp IV.) From here on, there would be no more fixed ropes, because they had run out of rope.
"What do you think, Jing?" Pasang Dawa asked.
"What do you think?" she replied.
"At that time, everyone was quite silent and somber," she recalled. "I said, 'Can we try a little bit more?' So we climbed another 15 minutes and got above the South Summit. And then we stopped and talked again. Should we turn around? Pasang, who was leading, said if we went for the summit, we would have to come down in the dark with no fixed ropes.
"I hesitated for a long time, and for the first time, I felt the threat of death, as if I were trading my life for the mountain. And that was when I said, 'I want to push forward, but it's my own decision.' I didn't want anyone else to feel they had to come with me. That's when old Lhakpa [Lhakpa Nuru] turned around and went down. Once you make a decision, you just go for it. I had no hesitation, but when I looked around I felt nervous. The first two times I had climbed the summit ridge of Everest, in 2010 and 2013, I had crossed at night. This time it was in the daylight, and we had no fixed ropes, and you could look down the Kangshung Face [on the Tibetan side of the mountain]. It's a very steep drop."
Pasang Dawa led out, roped to Wang, who was roped to Young Lhakpa and Tashi Sherpa—none of them secured to the mountain by fixed lines as they would normally be. As they worked their way up the ridge, above the South Summit, they came to the famous barrier of the Hillary Step. Pasang clipped into an old fixed rope, but it was mostly for psychological reasons. They all knew better than to trust a weathered, wind-frayed line.
Finally at 6:30 p.m., they reached the top. In a video that Pasang shot, you see the rare sight of Everest in the sublime sundown light—Lhotse, Makalu, and countless other peaks in the distance, the fanciful cloud kingdoms and all the high Himalaya realms burnished in the last rays of day, a scene beautiful to witness, but often poison to be caught out in.
On camera, Wang in her red Toread down suit takes off her oxygen mask and says, "Ok ok, ok," gulps some oxygen and says in Chinese: "I really didn't think I could climb up to the summit, because it is truly very, very difficult. Since we didn't have a fixed rope, we got to the top by foot. Also, today I feel the bravest person is Pasang, who walks in front. Oh, I don't really feel I know how to climb down yet. What amazing Sherpas."
They were back at the South Col by 11 p.m., and off the mountain 48 hours later. The trip began to vanish like a dream.
A few days ago I got an email from her adding a detail about that stupid-brave moment above the South Summit at 3:15 p.m. when, having offered the Sherpas a chance to go back and leave her to her folly, she decided to press on without knowing whether she could make it up alone, much less back down with no line to guide her in the dark.
In her mind's eye she said she could still see the Kangshung Face plunging 10,000 feet below them, and their little team alone on Everest with nothing to hold onto but each other. "My tears just came down," she said.
What was she going to do next? I had asked her, back in New York. She thought she might stop climbing for a while. "I hope to be a housewife," she said. The lights in the restaurant were being turned off. She said goodbye and headed uptown to rejoin her family—just an ordinary tourist in New York with tickets that night to see the Lion King.
Chip Brown is a contributing writer for National Geographic. He wrote about the role Sherpas play in the Everest climbing industry and the impact on their community in the wake of the tragic avalanche that killed 16 in April.