A new milestone in virtual mountaineering was celebrated this week, as the four Nepalese mountain guides Lakpa Sherpa and Pemba Rinji Sherpa and their supporters Kusang Sherpa and Ang Kaji Sherpa became the first men in the world to document the whole South route to the summit of Mount Everest with a 360° camera rig for Mammut’s #project360. The full route is now online and can be seen at http://project360.mammut.ch.
Capturing the breathtaking views from the world’s highest mountain, Mammut’s #project360 plays a pioneering role in bringing the real life Mount Everest experience into peoples’ living rooms – without special effects, animations or computer generated images.
This spectacular route now can be experienced in breathtaking full 360° panoramas at http://project360.mammut.ch. In addition, all of Everest’s most iconic passages are highlighted with feature videos and exciting bonus information.
Setting off in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu the #project360 expedition was spearheaded by virtual reality expert and technical director of the project, Matthias Taugwalder. He initiated the #project360 with Mammut two years ago when they documented the first 360° ascents of classic Alpine routes on the Eiger North Face and the Matterhorn’s Hoernli ridge.
Taking their pioneering virtual mountaineering expeditions to the ultimate heights, the #project360 Everest expedition started near Lhukla. After the blessings of a local Buddhist monk, the expedition members set off by foot to make their way to the Everest Basecamp at the bottom of the Khumbu glacier at 5380 meters of altitude.
In the base camp the preparations for the ascent to the summit started immediately and apart from preparing the camera kit, technical director of #project360 Taugwalder also explained the equipment to the Sherpas, who climbed all the way up to the summit with the 360° rigs. After the customary Buddhist Puja ceremony, where the Sherpa climbers asked the divine Mount Everest for clear passage, the serious climbing began.
For Mammut it was absolutely clear right from the beginning that Sherpas would be the only appropriate candidates for this challenging summit endeavor. Mount Everest is home of the Gods to the Nepali people and therefore it is their call whether the whole climb should be documented in full panoramas. Climbing Everest is a great honor for every Sherpa and a very respectable job in the Himalaya. After all, the first people setting foot on top of the world’s highest mountain were a Sherpa and his New Zealand climbing partner: Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary.
Without hesitation Lakpa Sherpa, the leader of the 2016 #project360 expedition underlines that he is proud to carry one of the cameras to the roof of the world. “I see great value in the project that shows both beauty and threat climbing Mount Everest”, says the professional mountain guide and founding member of the Nepal National Mountain Guides Association. For this cutting edge project he roped up with mountain guide colleague Pempa Rinji Sherpa who also summited Everest several times. But it is not without the help of Kusang Sherpa and Ang Kaji Sherpa that the summit was possible. The two experienced Sherpas and climbers supported the two mountaineers to make the expedition successful.
Straight after Basecamp the first challenge of the ascent awaited when the climbers had to navigate through the Khumbu glacier’s labyrinth of seracs, ice walls and crevasses. The constant movement of the highest glacier in the world makes this 2,6 kilometer long climb an unpredictable and dangerous passage, where the equipment and the climbers’ abilities are put through a first real test.
After camp 1 a two-to three hour long climb took the #project360 team members through the Western Cwm, which is also known as the Valley of Silence as it is sheltered from winds by the gigantic Lhotse, Nuptse and Everest mountains. Notorious for its changeable weather pattern, temperatures can drop from 40 degrees Celsius to below Zero in hours, but Lakpa Sherpa and his colleagues crossed this section successfully and arrived in Camp 2, also called Advanced Base Camp (ABC).
Once they’ve come through the Bergschrund on the foot of the Lhotse face, the two experienced Nepalese mountaineers tackled the blank ice of this challenging face between 6400 and 7324 meters of altitude. On this tricky climb, which on average is between 40 and 50 degrees steep, trust into the equipment and your climbing partner is essential. On arrival in camp 3 the team took a deserved rest. Now the acclimatization to the altitude was key.
In such great heights, resting and saving energy are the most important factors that tip the scales for success or failure. Even with supplementary bottled oxygen a human being can only survive roughly 48 hours in the “death zone” above 8000 meters of altitude. Acclimatization is basically to trick the body. By regularly pushing the night camp up higher followed by rest days in lower regions, the body produces red blood cells that are responsible for the oxygen intake. The calculation seems easy: the more red blood cells, the better the oxygen intake. However, only very few and only the fittest of alpinists can try to climb Everest without oxygen.
Strong winds and drastic temperature changes made the next two technical passages – Yellow Band and Geneva Spur – also very challenging, and the climbing with crampons was even for seasoned mountaineers like the four Sherpas extremely tiring and needed full focus. The next stop at 7989 meters was South Col/Camp 4, where the #project360 crew stopped for a rest before pushing on to the summit. Even with oxygen supply climbing in this altitude is extremely tiring and handling the crampons and fixed lines with thick gloves is also a challenge. The final rest stop before the summit was on a platform known as ‘Balcony’ where the Sherpas re-supplied with oxygen before the final push.
But not only climbers’ abilities are put to a test climbing in this altitude. To document the whole route in panorama images required a fully automated camera system that works reliably even in harshest conditions. Together with Mammut, #project360 initiator Taugwalder developed and tested a system that met the requirements of even climbing Everest. Six GoPro cameras are synched in a cube, shooting pictures every 30 seconds while a second camera rig films the whole time. Nevertheless, the Sherpa team has to check the cameras from time to time and repairing malfunctioning equipment at this altitude can be an additional challenge.
After the South summit at 8750 meters, a steep, knife-edge ridge posed another threat for the Sherpas, as this is the most exposed section of the Everest with the South-East ridge going down more than 2400 meters and the Kangshung face even 3350 meters. Next up is the key section of the whole climb, the Hillary Step at 8790 meters. Climbing on fixed ropes and with only little oxygen extreme focus is essential on this 12-meter long, almost vertical, rocky face. This passage is infamous for producing long waiting times due to other climbers going up and down. After the Sherpas mastered the world’s most well-known climbing crux, it was only 60 meters of altitude before they reached the summit and became the first mountaineers that managed to capture the whole route to the summit of Mount Everest with 360-degree camera rigs.
A personal triumph for the four Sherpas, a milestone in virtual mountaineering and the triumphant highlight to Mammut’s #project360.
Photos: Matthias Taugwalder / #project360