As he made the final push to the summit of Mount Everest, Clayton Matthews found himself on the Cornice Traverse virtually alone. A week later, a lineup leading to the top of the world would go viral as it was captured in a photo taken in this very spot. But as 43-year-old Matthews looked up, he had the traverse to himself. He climbed as the sun rose, casting a pink glow on the right side of the route, in Tibet, but leaving the Nepal side in shadow, the outline of the tallest mountain in the world cascading in a dark pyramid-shape for miles below.
"I could literally take my right hand and dip it into Tibet. It was like dipping into the sunrise. It was surreal, it was spectacular. It was one of the most stunning things I've ever seen in the mountains," Matthews said after returning to his home in Squamish. "I've summitted, I've climbed and skied probably 100 mountains, and I've never had a summit day where I've been able to do that."
When he reached the summit, there were only six other people. An hour later, after taking photos, around 20 people were there, including a saxophone player.
"He started playing just as I was leaving, so it was kind of surreal walking off the summit of Everest with somebody playing the saxophone in the background," Matthews said.
2019 has been one of the busiest seasons in Everest's mountaineering history, as Nepal's government granted permits to more than 380 people to climb the world's tallest mountain — the most in a single year.
Matthews was one of the climbers who made it to the top of the world and back during the first window of good weather, before crowds ascended and photos of lineups leading to the summit on May 23 and 24 made international news.
May is the month when the wind subsides on Mount Everest, allowing a brief timeframe for climbers to attempt to make it to the top. But earlier in the month, a windstorm battered camps, and a crew had to reset the fixed lines up the mountain. Matthews said he convinced his expedition leader to push forward to Camp 2 before the ropes were fixed, as the team was already acclimatized. They ran into the route-setting crew at Camp 3 on May 14, as they finished putting in the lines to the summit. The next night, the climbers left their tents at 9 p.m. On May 16, Matthews and his team — including the first vegan climber to reach the top with completely animal-free equipment — summitted Mount Everest.
It was only once Matthews was in Namche, the city 2,000 metres lower and off the mountain, that the second window of weather opened up, and crowds of climbers went up.
"I was pretty much reading the news as everybody else was as it was coming online and on Facebook and social media," Matthews said. "I was really, really thankful that we climbed on the days that we did, for sure. They were kind of horrifying photos."
While there were no injuries in his group — save for the lingering numbness in some of Matthews' toes — media attention focused on what Matthews called "two poorly planned days.
"I think there's a lot of people calling for Nepal to limit permits and to limit stuff that's going on there, but at the end of the day, Nepal just issues the permits. They don't really have a say in when people climb. It's not really Nepal's fault that there's huge lineups on certain days. It's up to the operators and the guiding companies to communicate to one another and say, 'Hey, we're going on this day, we're going on that day.' Try and minimize the crowds. A lot of what happened there was their own doing, the way I look at it."
Given that tourism is Nepal's driving revenue source, Matthews said limiting permits is essentially limiting the country's money, so he doesn't expect to see it happen.
"They shouldn't really have to do that because people on the mountain aren't co-ordinating the climbing properly. I think Nepal itself is kind of getting a bad rap for something that they can't really control," he said.
Much has also been said about the number of climbers going to Mount Everest without any experience. Matthews, who has been living in Squamish since 2000, began mountaineering in 2011. He invested in a six-month training program leading up to his Everest expedition, and, on top of that, did laps of the Stawamus Chief with a 60-pound pack on his back.
"That was invaluable," he said. "Even though it wasn't at altitude, it was at sea level, but just carrying lots of weight and lots of mileage, steep hills, that helped out a lot."
Training and experience in the mountains are critical, Matthews said, adding that the combination of waiting for weather windows, inexperienced climbers and many people on the mountain is what causes lineups.
When Matthews was summitting, between 30 and 40 people were ahead of him. Since most people are right-handed, therefore holding onto the fixed lines and climbing on the left side, Matthews was able to safely pass most of the other climbers by climbing with his ice axe on the other side of the fixed lines. Then he was able to continue at a slower pace.
"For me, the whole trip was fantastic," Matthews said. At Base Camp, he met other like-minded mountaineers and is now trying to decide what his next goal will be. There's a Canadian expedition eyeing Kangchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world that also sits above 8,000 metres. Some of his Everest teammates want to go to the fifth tallest mountain, Makalu, next year. Then Matthews also wants to ski Mount Vinson in Antarctica, a long-time dream of his.
In the meantime, within a few days of returning home to Squamish, Matthews was already back rock climbing the Chief. Despite the numbness in his big toes (which will eventually go away), he tackled some slab, climbing around eight pitches.
While he was still in Nepal, Matthews said, "I was actually thinking about rock climbing quite a bit. It looked like Squamish had a pretty good stretch of decent weather and a lot of my friends were rock climbing. I was posting stuff being on Everest, I was actually kind of jealous of all the good climbing that was going on in Squamish while I was gone. As soon as I got home, I really wanted to get out. The first couple of days, I was tired. Yesterday I figured I'd give it a shot. I was pretty slow, but I had a lot of fun. It was great to be back out on the rock."
See a photo gallery of Matthews trip here.
Hear parts of The Chief's interview with Clayton Matthews on The Squamish Sound podcast, episode 18.