A River Runs Through It


Base Camp is melting.  It’s 13C outside and the birds are chirping.  The area bordering the icefall has turned into a stream and the ground underneath our sprawling metropolis is shifting, causing landslides and tent slides.  Spring is here and we all know that it means summit time is nigh.


We are now at our 3rd day in Base Camp, waiting for a good summit window. Every day feels like Groundhog Day:  We wake up when the sun makes the heat in our tents unbearable, somewhere around 7:00am.  Tea time is at 7:30am. Breakfast at 8:00am.  And then of course, there’s the mandatory morning bowel evacuation episode somewhere in between.  After breakfast, it’s endless games of Shithead (the card game requiring the least amount of thought) and/or making obscene jokes.   Then, all of sudden it’s lunch time again.  If you put your money on betting we get beans, bread and potatoes for lunch, you’ll probably win (as an aside, I’m pleased to report I’ve lost ten pounds so far and counting).  After lunch, the cycle of Shithead and jokes begins again.  The highlight of our day is apres dinner.  If no one has played with the solar panel wiring (word on the street is that midget ninjas play with our system at night), we get to watch a movie on the projector Arnold – our team leader – has brought with him.  Last night it was I Am Legend.  Some members desperately want to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but we haven’t reached that level of desperation.  Just yet.  When the movie ends, we stumble up through the boulders that make up our campsite and find our way into our sleeping bags, arms wrapped tightly around our water bottles and pee bottles for the warmth and solace they offer, and we drift off thinking of summits and three-course meals.


But our wait here is not in vain.  It takes a bit of weatherman magic to craft a solid and successful plan to mount a summit attempt. From Base Camp, you need five days to reach the summit: One day up the icefall, past Camp 1 and up to Camp 2.  One day of rest in Camp 2.  One day up to Camp 3.  One day up to Camp 4 and a departure that same day for the summit.  So the decision to leave Base Camp for the summit is based on five-day weather forecasting.  No small feat anywhere in the world, and least of all when it relates to Everest where for the most part, historical weather data is non-existent.  Urs and Arnold have been reviewing available information several times a day and so far, the order has been to wait and see.  Maybe we’ll depart at 3am tomorrow.  Maybe not.  Odds are that we’ll have a few more days sitting here, but we might get the call at 7pm to pack up and be ready.  So we wait.


The 12th offered a bit of a break in the routine.  It was Jon’s birthday. We sang to him, gave him cake.  Then he decided to get decked out in eyeliner because, here at Base Camp, we know how to have a good time.  We also spent some time getting comfortable with our oxygen masks.  Then, with mounting anticipation, we spent most of dinner talking about summit day. From Camp 4, it should take us anywhere between 9 to 12 hours to reach the summit.  We’ll need half that time to get down.  Arnold doesn’t believe in fixing a specific turnaround time since people will likely be arriving and departing from Camp 4 at different times.  His take is that you should monitor how long you need to reach the summit: If you’re nowhere near the summit after 14 hours, “then something is very wrong”.  Right now, we think the 19th or the 20th may make a good summit day.  But we know other teams are also thinking the same.  So we strategize, hypothesize and wait.  All part of the Everest experience.

Guest Post by Grace McDonald


Grace McDonald is a rock star.  She is a 34 lawyer like me from Toronto.  She fell in love with mountain climbing a few years ago and decided to try her hand at climbing 8000m peaks.  She is funny, strong and unbelievably fast.  She is on SummitClimb’s all female two-member Lhotse climbing team.  Lhotse (8383m) is the fourth highest mountain on Earth and sits right next to Everest.  While it is lower than Everest, it is considered to be technically more difficult.  Given its proximity to Everest, Lhotse climbers generally use the same route as Everest climbers, up to Camp 3.  This means that, up until now, the SummitClimb Everest Team and Lhotse Team have been acting as one and will continue to do so until we part ways at Camp 3.   Grace kindly agreed to guest post on my blog. 




I’ve been told I can write about anything I want to – no limits.  Tempting . . . . but some things you just don’t want to know (or I’m saving them for my memoirs)   So at this moment the whole team (Lhotse and Everest – 9 in total) are sitting in a few different lodges in the lovely metropolis of Lobuche (4900m).  It’s nasty, foggy and cold outside but we’re all in good spirits because we’re still on our break from base camp which began 4 days ago for some of us and three days ago for the majority of our team who were too lazy to get off their butts and get the hell out of base camp (ed. note: I was one of the so-called lazy people).  It’s amazing, if you don’t get out by 11 am, you run the risk of getting trapped there all day with excuses – oh but lunch is about to be ready, oh but the weather is going to turn, or but it will take too long to get down to Dingboche (4400m).  Well, eventually everyone showed up in Dingboche and mucho beer drinking ensued.  Let’s just say it’s been a pricey few days, but well worth it.  Complete relaxation has been achieved.  The Snowlion Lodge and French Bakery in Dingboche (GO THERE!) was an oasis for us with warm beds a lovely host and good company.  So, as we sit here on the eve of our return to Everest base camp, thoughts turn to what it is we are returning to.


The Summitclimb base camp at Everest is an interesting place, first of all, although it’s right next to the helipad which could well be considered the centre of base camp, it’s kind of hidden off the beaten path.  It takes some real effort to find us and so far no one has put in that effort.  We’re not taking it personally.  The visual clue is the helipad windsock, hang a left, avoid the glacial lake that recently caved in and suddenly you will come upon “Low Town” containing our massive dining tent and cook tents and a few sleeping tents.  Everyone who arrived at base camp first took the low tents, thinking it would be smart to be near the dining tent.  Turns out it wasn’t the best call because staff wake up and start making noise nice and early.  Ha ha – of the folly of the Low-Town residents! A better decision may have been to move into “Mid Town”, a nice part of camp half way up the hill.  It’s become an almost exclusive European area, with high class residents from Finland, Holland and Switzerland.  There is one resident from England but his sense of humour more than makes up for his lack of high class European roots.  Mid town is a fairly quiet place with a lovely toilet tent but a laissez fair approach to rules and regulations.  In my opinion the place could go downhill at any time making property investment risky.  Lastly, high in the hills above, directly in the helicopter flight path, live the residents of “High Town”.  At one time this was the most highly populated area of the Summitclimb base camp, containing the Camp 3 training climb members, visiting dignitaries from the Everest Glacier School and other visiting friends.  Definitely the youngest demographic of all the areas, but it takes young legs to make this climb day in and day out.  Since the beginning “High Town” has adopted a co-op approach to governance, with random acts of community improvement.  We’ve maintained a strong focus on all things relating to the High Town toilet, which in the opinion of all (including rogue visitors from Mid-Town) is simply the finest toilet tent in the Summit Climb base camp.  Just so you get the correct picture of the toilet tent – it’s a stand up tent with a barrel underneath, number 2 goes in the barrel for further removal, number one can’t go into the barrel or the barrel will get too heavy.  It takes some creative squat dancing to adhere to the rules of the toilet tent but at least for the residents of High Town we’ve all showed great aptitude for this toilet dancing. Back to High Town improvements . . . roadworks were a regular activity early on, and while solid pathways between tents have been greatly appreciated, I believe our greatest achievement to date is the grand curved staircase down to the High Town toilet.  A marvel of engineering and sheer strength.  One particularly difficult rock lift earned me a “she-man” badge.


Sadly, we’ve had some warm weather lately in camp and it’s quite possible may of us will have some new pool installations outside our tents when we return.  We fear one member’s tent is on the verge of falling down into the glacial lake that recently collapsed.  And when I say “fear”, I mean, “we’re all really looking forward to laughing our asses off when that happens”.  Our group really does get on well.  Anyone who didn’t swear profusely upon arrival now swears more than anyone else.  We take all opportunities to play tricks on each other, make fun of each other and encourage bad behaviour – but don’t turn this into more than it is, we do our best to be super serious when climbing, but when we’re not climbing, we try to maintain an 80% silliness factor.  Not all teams operate this way and I think sometimes other teams get the wrong impression – as one member of another team noted during our drinking festival in Dingboche “OK, you guys definitely get the award for being the fun team”.  The fact is we have some incredibly capable embers as well.  One morning coming down from Camp 2 after a decent snowfall, a few of us (with the amazing Jon Kedrowski in at the front) led a whole string of people through the crevasses of the Western Cwm after a whole group of climbers went way off course and found themselves at the edge of a new crevasse.  One of the mountain guides behind us caught up and asked who we were.  I told him we were Summitclimb members and suspected he would turn up later at our camp to complain about us making him look bad, but after he saw how quickly we moved and resolved the situation I think we actually earned a nod of respect and appreciation from him.  Of course about 20 minutes later I caught myself on one of my crampons and face-planted in the snow, watched my water bottle fly down a crevasse and looked up to a full audience of entertained Sherpas – gotta keep it silly :)


Grace and Jon enjoying the simple life up in Camp 1 (5900m).

Who What Where When How and Why


WHO: I’m part of an 8-member expedition team climbing Everest.  I’m climbing with Summitclimb, an expedition company run by Dan Mazur.  My friend Mitch Lewis, who climbed Denali with me, recommended Summitclimb for Everest and since I trust Mitch completely, I signed the papers a few weeks later.   Mountaineering expeditions generally attract A-type personalities who have accomplishments that run a mile-long.  This trip is no different.  I have only spent a few days with my fellow teammates but so far, I’m humbled by their background.  Jon from the US has a PhD in mountain geography and spent the past summer solo climbing all 14000ers in Colorado.  He’s written a book about it and takes time every day to write posts or link up with Fox-31 Denver news to do daily reports.  I sit next to him a lot, hoping he will motivate me to be a better person (and post more), but mostly, I spend my time shaking my head in awe and envy.  Urs is a Swiss pilot and flies Airbuses around Europe.  I like pilots.  He doesn’t know it yet, but he was my bosom buddy from the moment we first met.  UK Richie is a private security guy.  He spent a lot of time in Iraq and he’s a cross between my Kabul friends Mick and Graham.  One of the first things he said to me is: “Don’t you just hate it when you go home from a place like Afghanistan, and most of the people around you just don’t get what you’ve lived through?”  I liked him immediately.  Then there’s Australian Steve, who also spent time in the military before starting his own leadership development company in the US.  He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and likes getting up at 5am to take pictures.  Another bosom buddy.   The others, I don’t know well yet, but I have weeks to learn all about them.


WHAT: I’m climbing Everest.  Really climbing it – all the way to the top.  I’ll be fitted with crampons, a harness and an ice axe for the better part of a month.


WHERE: There are a number of routes you can take to climb Everest.  The two main routes are the Nepalese (South Col) and the Tibetan (North Col) routes.   Each have their pros and cons.  Going through the Nepalese side means multiple passes through the Khumbu icefall – the most dangerous section of the whole climb, largely due to the risk of ice or serac towers collapsing in the area without warning.  But the Nepalese side is usually about 10 degrees warmer than the Tibetan side, which is the main reason I chose to go from the Nepalese side.


WHEN: Everest takes two months to climb as it’s necessary to climb slowly in order to acclimatize properly.  I left Kathmandu on April 10th and expect to make a first summit attempt sometime mid May.  My expedition ends in Kathmandu on June 6th.


HOW: My expedition team is unguided.  However, and as a kind of insurance policy, I have hired a personal sherpa who will be climbing with me the entire way.  Lakpa Sherpa has climbed Everest seven times already and could sling two of me over his shoulder.  The more I spend time with him, the happier I am that I get to have him as my climbing partner.


WHY: Because I’ve been dreaming about climbing Mt Everest every stupid day for the past twelve years and I finally saved up enough money to do it.

Sometimes A Picture Needs To Be Worth a Thousand Words


Thanks to everyone for all the emails, comments and tweets.  Access to a solid internet connection has been sorely lacking, but I’ve read every single message several times over.  I don’t think there’s any way you can climb a mountain like Everest without extreme determination (or just plain stubbornness in my case), so I am hugely indebted to all the moral support.  Keep it coming.  It means a lot to me.


This is how much equipment it takes to climb Everest. My three duffel bags are somewhere in there.



Also referred to as the Lukla Airport, the Tenzing-Hilary Airport is said to be the world's most dangerous airport. The runway sits on an incline, with a sharp 600m drop-off on one end and a cliff face on the other. Expeditions to Everest generally begin with a flight here.



View from our teahouse in Namche (3450m).



Mountain views around Namche.



The monastery at Tengboche (3867m).



Introducing my sherpa: Lakpa



Receiving a blessing from a lama this morning prior to the start of our climb.


Everest Interview


Alan Arnette is an avid mountain climber, having discovered a passion for the sport when he was 38.  He has participated in over 20 major expeditions worldwide, including not one but several climbs of Mount Everest.   He writes regularly for Outside magazine and has a fantastic website dedicated to high altitude mountaineering.  The site sees more than one million visitors each year and contains tons of useful information for those interested in climbing tall mountains.


Every year, Alan interviews climbers who are on their way to attempt the summit of Mount Everest.  He recently posted this interview he did of me:


A Life in Motion

This article first appeared in JustInfo, a Department of Justice Canada publication, on March 23, 2012.  Reproduced here with permission.


Sandra Leduc: A Life in Motion

by Stephen Bindman, Special Advisor, Wrongful Convictions

To suggest Sandra Leduc likes adventure is a slight understatement.

Consider the last six months of her life.

In late November, she returned to the Department of Justice and Ottawa after a two-year posting with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) in Afghanistan.

On April 2, she leaves for two months to climb Mount Everest in her continuing quest to scale the Seven Summits – the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.

And then a week after her return from Nepal, she leaves for a two-year secondment with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to work for the Canadian Mission in the Palestinian Territories as a legal reform advisor.

“I like challenges,” says the ebullient 34-year-old lawyer, whose home position is in the Aboriginal Law and Strategic Policy section.

“Most people think I’m nuts. I’m definitely an adrenalin junkie, but adrenalin rushes can be triggered in many different ways. It’s not necessarily from doing a particular sport. For me, I get an adrenalin rush from doing something new and something that’s difficult and that can be an intellectual activity. I find I get motivated by people who have those similar pursuits.”

Sandra, who joined the Department in 2002 after starting law school at McGill University at age 17, has lived in nine countries on four continents, can fly a plane, and can read and write in Hindi, Arabic and Dari.

But she says she comes by her wanderlust naturally.

“Sometimes I don’t feel very much like an original because my father was exactly like this. He started backpacking in the early 70s, rode a motorcycle most of his life, started the skydiving club at the University of Montreal, and became a diplomat.”

First there was Afghanistan.


Sandra (centre) on a field visit to Maimana, Faryab province, Afghanistan. Persons present in the photo include United Nations Development Programme delegates, the President of the Faryab Court of Appeals, the Chief District Prosecutor and the Chief of the Huquq (Legislative) Department.


Sandra applied to a public service wide competition and was posted to the Canadian Embassy in Kabul in charge of Rule of Law files — including justice, corrections, and human rights.

Her work included political reporting back to Ottawa on Rule of Law issues, implementing and coordinating DFAIT programming in the justice and corrections sectors, working with senior officials within the Afghan government to understand and help them achieve their government’s needs, and representing Canada at bilateral and multilateral international meetings.


Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (KPRT) in Kandahar City. From left to right: Sandra Leduc; the Head of the KPRT Political Section; the European Union Ambassador; the Japanese Ambassador; the Canadian Ambassador; and an interpreter.


For the first year, she lived in a converted three-metre wide blast-proof metal shipping container with two tiny windows that didn’t open. In the second year, she got her own room in a house.

The Embassy staff lived in a compound with no ability to walk anywhere else other than the length of the street on which the compound was situated.

“It meant you couldn’t do the ordinary things you could do here, like going to the movie theatre on weekends or grocery shopping.

“It meant your best friends were your colleagues. We ate all our three meals a day together, maybe had a drink at the bar on the compound together after work, and worked long hours side by side. So you had to learn to get along and set aside differences because it was the only way you were going to survive those long extended hours together.”

“I had an amazing experience. Part of the reason I loved it is that it provided an opportunity to understand what it means to live in a conflict zone, to understand political and socio-economic dynamics in one of the most challenging geopolitical hotspots in the world in a way that isn’t ever fully captured by the media, and to see how our efforts, however small, are actually having an impact on the ground.”


Sandra riding in a Light Armoured Vehicle, Kandahar City.


Sandra also valued the whole-of-government approach of the mission, working together with colleagues from several other departments.

Working six to seven 12-to-14 hour work days every week, every few months, the diplomats were allowed a few days of leave. While many of her colleagues returned home, not surprisingly — given her interests — Sandra chose to travel.

But of course, not any ordinary travel. During her posting and following her departure, she visited 24 countries, including places most tourists avoid — such as North Korea, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.


Panmunjom, Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea. Sandra poses next to an officer of the North Korean army on the border looking into South Korea.


“They were absolute eye openers, completely different.”

And then there is the mountain climbing.


Sandra on the summit of Mount Fuji in Japan.


Among the Seven Summits, she has already scaled Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) in Alaska, Aconcagua in Argentina, Elbrus in Russia and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

The Everest climb will cost more than $55,000 and take two months, including travel and getting acclimatized to the altitude. She currently trains two hours a day, including intensive cardio sessions to prepare her heart for extended periods of elevated heart rate at altitude, a lot of running, biking, and yoga to work on her balance.

She says mountain climbing gives her the unique satisfaction of going to very remote places on the globe that few others have visited.

And there is the pushing of personal limits — seeing how far you can extend yourself outside your comfort zone.

“It’s very simple when you think about it. There’s one goal that you work to achieve over months and months of mental and physical preparation and once you are there, both of those combine together. There’s nothing else that can interfere with that single-mindedness.

“It’s very hard to describe the rush that you feel once you have achieved that kind of goal. It’s one of those things that nothing and no one can take that away from you when you’ve actually ‘summitted’ a mountain. It’s just an incredible life experience and it gets addictive, quite frankly.”

Sandra is extremely grateful to her home section (Aboriginal Law and Strategic Policy) for being supportive and for being a place where she has found files and colleagues that provide her with the kind of intellectual stimulation she craves.

“My experience in Afghanistan has taught me that the Department of Justice has a lot to offer on an international scale. Other departments see that potential and it is up to us to capitalize on it. We certainly have a lot to gain both professionally and personally, and collectively and individually, by becoming involved in these kinds of international activities.”

Follow the Yellow Brick Road


You can go about planning an expedition to summit a mountain like Everest in several ways.  While there are different schools of thought, all focus on one main objective: How best to deal with Everest’s massive height and consequently, the effects of altitude on your body.  Put simply, the air has less oxygen the higher you climb.  While your body reacts to an increase in altitude by producing more red blood cells to carry more oxygen to your organs, this process can take a day or more.  More importantly, the ability to produce red blood cells declines quickly at very high elevations.  Combined with the fact that the body needs more oxygen when conducting strenuous activity, it should come as no surprise that any climbing activity at high elevation puts a serious strain on the body’s capacity to adapt.


Above 6000m, it is commonly believed to be impossible to acclimatize to the altitude as the body begins to deteriorate and is unable to adapt and recover from injuries.  Elevations above 8000m are referred to as “The Death Zone” because the body stops performing as it should and major systems begin shutting down.  Altitude-related life-threatening conditions can develop quickly.


For these reasons, most mountaineering teams employ a simple climbing strategy: Climb high; sleep low.


As you view my tentative itinerary below, you will note the amount of time spent resting at Everest base camp in comparison with time spent higher on the mountain.  Bear in mind that this itinerary is only meant to give you, at best, an approximate idea of where I will be in Nepal at any give time.  In truth, everything will turn on the weather and what my body is telling me.


Wednedsay, April 4 – Arrival in Kathmandu (1300m).

Tuesday, April 10 – Fly to Lukla (2860m). Trek to Phakding (2650 m).

Wednesday, April 11 – Trek to Namche Bazaar (3450m).

Thursday, April 12 – Rest and acclimatize in Namche.

Friday, April 13 – Trek to Pangboche (3750m).

Saturday, April 14 – Trek to Pheriche (4250m).

Sunday, April 15 – Trek to Dugla (4600m).

Monday, April 16 – Trek to Lobuche (4900m).

Tuesday, April 17 – Trek to Gorak Shep (5150m).

Wednesday, April 18 – Trek to Everest basecamp (EBC) (5360m).

Thursday, April 19 – Rest and training day in EBC.

Friday, April 20 – Rest and training day in EBC.

Saturday, April 21 – Trek to Mt Pumori basecamp (5300m) and sleep there.

Sunday, April 22 – Trek to Mt Pumori advanced basecamp (5700m); return to EBC.

Monday, April 23 – Rest in EBC.

Tuesday, April 24 – Trek to the top of Kala Pattar (5500m); return to EBC.

Wednesday, April 25 – Rest in EBC.

Thursday, April 26 – Climb to Camp 1 (5950m); sleep there.

Friday, April 27 – Climb to Camp 2 (6400m); return to Camp 1 and sleep there.

Saturday, April 28 – Return to EBC.

Sunday, April 29 – Rest in EBC.

Monday, April 30 – Rest in EBC.

Tuesday, May 1 – Climb to Camp 1; sleep there.

Wednesday, May 2 – Climb to Camp 2; sleep there.

Thursday, May 3 – Rest in Camp 2.

Friday, May 4 – Explore route to Camp 3 (7150m), return to Camp 2; sleep there.

Saturday, May 5 – Return to EBC.

Sunday, May 6 – Rest in EBC.

Monday, May 7 – Rest in EBC.

Tuesday, May 8 – Climb to Camp 1; sleep there.

Wednesday, May 9 – Climb to Camp 2; sleep there.

Thursday, May 10 – Rest in Camp 2.

Friday, May 11 – Climb to Camp 3; sleep there.

Saturday, May 12 – Descend to Camp 1 or Camp 2; sleep there.

Sunday, May 13 – Return to EBC.

Monday, May 14 – Rest in EBC or descend to a lower village.

Tuesday, May 15 – Return to EBC from lower village. Rest in EBC.

Wednesday, May 16 – Climb to Camp 1; sleep there.

Thursday, May 17 – Climb to Camp 2; sleep there.

Friday, May 18 – Climb to Camp 3; sleep there.

Saturday, May 19 – Climb to camp 4 (7925m); sleep there.

Sunday, May 20 – Summit attempt.

Monday, May 21 – Return to Camp 2; sleep there.

Tuesday, May 22 – Return to EBC.

Wednesday, May 23 – Rest in EBC.

Thursday, May 24 – Second summit attempt (if needed): Climb to Camp 2; sleep there.

Friday, May 25 – Climb to Camp 3; sleep there.

Saturday, May 26 – Climb to Camp 4; sleep there.

Sunday, May 27 – Summit attempt.

Monday, May 28 – Return to Camp 2.

Tuesday, May 29 – Return to EBC.

Wednesday, May 30 – Pack up EBC.

Thursday, May 31 – Trek down to Pheriche.

Friday, June 1 – Trek down to Pangboche.

Saturday, June 2 – Trek to Namche.

Sunday, June 3 – Trek to Lukla.

Monday, June 4 or Tuesday, June 5 – Flight to Kathmandu.

Wednesday, June 7 – Departure from Nepal.