Climbing Mount Everest



Dragan Jaćimović is the first Serbian climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest. An expert on the Himalayas with decades of experience, Dragan offers climbing and trekking expeditions on Dedico. He spoke to us about the mental and physical challenges of climbing Mount Everest and the moment he thought he would lose his life on the mountain.

 16 min read

How did you start climbing, when did you know this is what you wanted?

I initially started my climbing life in Slovenia, where I learned from the best climbers. It was not until I went to the Himalayas for the first time in 1996 that I knew I really wanted to pursue it. When I arrived, one breath of that fresh Himalayan air was enough to infect me with the famous Himalayan climbing bug. I have not recovered to this day and have now been going to this "lobby of giants" for more than twenty years. 

One breath of that fresh Himalayan air was enough to infect me with the famous Himalayan climbing bug

Dragan offers expeditions with Dedico:

Tell us about your first time climbing Mount Everest?  

My first time climbing Mt. Everest was on May 26, 2000. This is an excerpt from my diary during the final day of the climb.

South Col

The evening was calm. Silence scares me, because we are left only with ourselves. We all went into the tent for a quick nap. I had trouble sleeping and was tossing and turning. I looked at the time - 20:58h. It was time to get ready to leave so I woke everyone up. Outside there was a ghostly silence. No wind. Everything quiet like before some important battle. Voices were heard. I looked outside– snow is falling. Someone was already out and was putting his crampons on. Headlamps started radiating in the dark and illuminating the snowflakes that fell over us.

We got together in a group and hugged, feeling an enormous energy. We all shared a common objective: to reach the summit. Putting our hands in the middle like a basketball team before the game, we made sounds of encouragement to one another. Our voices did not go far; the darkness and clouds swallowed them up. At around 23:00, we set off into the unknown. I had no sense of orientation as it was pitch black and I only saw the trail of the headlamps in front of me. Trying hard to silence my thoughts, I focused my attention on the climbing. Glittering streams of snowflakes flashed through the light beam from my headtorch. As midnight approached, I felt the summit getting closer and closer- I could almost smell it. The top of Everest, however, is not the goal, nor a means to win a prize. It is only one step on the journey ahead.

Reaching the Balcony (8500m) is not so difficult, but it's a long climb surrounded by dark. You try to block the inner flow of thoughts and the multitude of questions that emerge from nowhere. Be here and now, think only about the next step. Think about breathing! I know breathing is a natural, automated process, but at this height of over 8000 m, your life depends on your oxygen intake. It is vital to make several cycles of breaths before each step, so that the body can function at all. Breathing was not my only concern. At these heights, reality does not differ from dreams. Sometime after midnight, I witnessed the birth of a full moon. Usually, we are used to seeing the moon from below on the ground, but here it was the other way around. It's like standing on a hill and looking at the sun on the horizon slip into the sea. It was a miracle of miracles, and we watched, fascinated by the beauty of an almost full moon shyly emerging from the surface of wrinkled clouds.

At this height of over 8000m, your life depends on your oxygen intake.
Dragan Jacimovic – The first Serbian climber to reach the top of Mt. Everest
Dragan Jacimovic – The first Serbian climber to reach the top of Mt. Everest

I turned off my headlamp, not needing it anymore in the dusk light. Below the Balcony, there is a narrow passage. As you walk through, sharp rocky walls rise up either side of you. In a momentary lapse of concentration, I cut open my jacket on the right elbow. I do not feel tired, which is good because I'm still about a hundred meters away from the ridge. The snow had stopped falling. To the east, the dusty light announced a new day, while the feather-like clouds beneath us floated in silence. They looked tame, at least for now. Everything was silent. Red spread across the eastern sky and the first rays of sunshine light up my face. I felt a thousand times stronger: the sun gives birth to life. I welcomed the new light, resting for a moment and collecting my strength.

As we approached the Balcony, the speed of our climb slowed down. We got there a little after five o'clock in the morning. Replacing the oxygen bottle and switching the regulator to a new bottle took me about ten minutes. I had to remove the ice from my oxygen mask. It was extremely cold. Todd then told me with tears in his eyes that he is giving up. He can’t go on anymore. He told me that Mike had also turned back during the night because he had problems with his oxygen mask. Although others were in front of me, I didn’t hurry. I made a two or three-minute video with my camera, longer recordings were not possible because my hand was stiff from the cold and I had to save the battery for the summit. I ate a high-energy chocolate bar to mask my hunger.

Up from the Balcony, the ridge is not a steep climb. The main problem now was deep snow. From the ridge, you can see the eastern slope of Everest and its summit. You're mine, I thought, smiling to myself. This self-confidence was still with me when my oxygen supply from the bottle suddenly stopped. I had to stop, take off my backpack and examine it. The pressure indicator had completely dropped, showing only 5% left. Not possible! I just replaced it! I started tapping on the indicator, checked the valves, swore and prayed to God. I don’t know what made it work, but suddenly the pointer came back to where it should be. I put the mask back on my face and took a deep breath. The oxygen came through the hose and the smile returned to my face.

The North Side of Mt. Everest – Above the clouds
The North Side of Mt. Everest – Above the clouds
It seems like there is an invisible force slowing down your steps.

Having to stop interrupts your rhythm and you start to get frustrated because the top is getting closer, but you are getting slower. With every meter you climb, you feel more impatient and it seems like there is an invisible force slowing down your steps. Putting in a huge amount of energy to go faster, the peak seems to move further away with every step you take. Older, more experienced climbers have told me that there are certain climbing rules for up to 8000m, and completely different ones for above that. I wonder now, are there any rules at all here, or should every man seek his own way to the top? I carried on climbing. The sun shined up the ridge all the way to the South Summit (8711m). I caught up with my partner and he told me that he was giving up. I was shocked by his decision because he was more physically prepared than I was.

It seems that opportunities don’t make a man, but his choices: I thought I chose Everest, or did it choose me? The greatest times of our lives begin at the moment when we face our fears. After my partner turned back, I became aware that I was completely alone. From this point on, I took all the responsibility for the success of our expedition. I didn’t look back to see my partner begin his descent, instead searching the mountain ahead for the easiest route to the south summit. One path to the far right clearly had the most frozen snow, so I chose it. The most important thing now was to keep hyper-alert to my surroundings, my brain working at 200 miles per hour. This is the only way to prevent doubt and fear from separating you from the route you have chosen. So I continued on. There’s nothing scientific about it- I learned long ago that as soon as you’ve made a decision, you should not doubt it. You can only do your best and focus on reaching the end without turning back.

Kabru IV (7318m) – The west face
Kabru IV (7318m) – The west face
Your view suddenly expands out to hundreds of kilometres again.

Everything became easier when I climbed up the ridge and started the climb to the South Summit (8711m). Occasionally, a cloud floated across my path. The air currents are extremely powerful up there, carrying clouds through the sky as if they were leaves blown on an autumn breeze. You are surrounded for about 10 seconds by thick, dense, disorientating cloud, then the light of the sun shines brightly through and your view suddenly expands out to hundreds of kilometres again. Below the South Summit I met Patrick and Rick. They had returned from the summit and were rushing to the safety provided by tents on the Southern Saddle. Hot soup and tea were waiting for them. I was very envious. Only now can I see how much time I lost when I separated from my partner and when I was climbing the Balcony.

Shortly thereafter, I saw Tim. He looked like a man who just got out of the freezer. Completely white, with frozen snow on his clothes and oxygen mask, he was hurrying, as if he wanted to escape as quickly as possible. Through the foggy glass of his goggles, I saw worry in his eyes. He said something to me, but I couldn’t hear anything above the wind. I nodded and went on, step by step, breath after breath. Time was still, perhaps this was the moment that lasts forever, as Zen-Buddhists say. I finally reached the South Summit (8711m). My eyes were seeing the image I've seen thousands of times on photos of other expeditions. A sharp ridge running up to the Hilary step, then snowy deposits from the west, all the way to the peak.

Beyond the South Summit, there is a slight dip in terrain on the ridge, which ends with a steep part of two to three meters. On one side, there is snow and the edge of the crest of the Everest East face, and on the other, a rocky wall that snow was unable to cling on to. You have to cross a precarious path along a snow-covered sharp ridge leading to the foot of the Hilary step. A strong western wind threatened to blow me all the way to China. Fearful of the wind and snow roofs, I tried to move lower- about three meters away from the edge of the ridge. The final difficulty stood over ten meters high, made of snow and rocky slopes, known as the "Hillary Step". At sea level, it would not pose any difficulty, however, at 8778m it was my "wailing wall". I was very aware that this was perhaps the most difficult obstacle I had faced. Towering in front of me was a high wall made of ice, snow and granite. I was grateful for the strong winds on Everest that had blown away a lot of the snow. I tucked into a wide curve between two walls and started slowly climbing.

Namche Hill, Khumbu – This is my world
Namche Hill, Khumbu – This is my world

There were a few old ropes left behind by climbers. I connected two of these ropes, attaching my ascender. The summit was very close, I could feel it. After a couple of meters of torture in this rocky gap, I reached snow and immediately hammered in my ice axe above my head. I worked to establish a rhythm bring my breathing under control. Eventually, I climbed out of the Hillary’s Step and sat down on the snow. I took a break for about 10 minutes, before getting up and moving along the edge of the snowy ridge towards the top. Again, rhythm. Again, step by step. I kept reminding myself to be patient- I was, after all, asking a lot from my body. Leaving Hillary’s Step behind me, just a few snow-capped slopes stood between me and the summit. This last part of the climb was, and still is, the longest journey I have ever made.

I climb along the last slope, stopping to glance up. Fifty meters away, ribbons and flags of bright colours carrying prayers to the gods flutter in the wind. In that moment, I felt very relieved. I just wanted to get to the place they call the "roof of the world" and sit on it. Just below the top, there is a granite block, which only appears when there are strong winds, otherwise it is covered with snow. I still had about ten meters left. I started to cry. With each step, pictures and memories of the troubles that I went through to be here today flash across my mind. After years of hard work dedicated on one mountain, this is the moment when the circle closes and the seeker and the sought become one. As the northern ridge of Mount Everest came into view, I noticed someone's footprints in the snow. I was finally standing at the highest point, nothing else was above me. I tried to shout out in victory, but what came out instead sounded more like a defeated scream. All this time, I had been expecting to be overwhelmingly elated, but I just felt empty. Pain and joy seemed to be the same, I screamed again. None heard. There was nobody there to share the experience and rejoice with. To feel real joy, you must have someone to share it. I was empty. All emotion was buried deep inside, crammed into my bodily pain.

It is hard to describe the emotional state you find yourself in upon reaching the highest point on the planet.

Looking out over the infinite Himalayas, I sat down on the snow and started preparing the camera. People told me before I left that once I reached the summit, I should turn the camera on and not turn it off until I come off the peak. Every second up there is precious. All I had planned to say, I had forgotten. I gazed over the surreally infinite landscape. It is hard to describe the emotional state you find yourself in upon reaching the highest point on the planet. No matter how tired and empty you feel, you just can’t be indifferent for long. Through the lens of my camera, the peaks around me appeared: Lotse (8501m), Makalu (8481m), Kangchenjunga (8586m), Cho-Ouu (8201m). Emerging through the clouds, which hung at around 7500m, the mountains looked like islands rising through the surface of a stormy ocean. Eventually packing up my camera, I made my way back down, one step at a time.''

Kabru IV (7318m) – Rock climbing just above Yalung glacier
Kabru IV (7318m) – Rock climbing just above Yalung glacier

Do you take amateurs to ‘Island peak’ or ‘Mount Everest’. What kind of training do you want people to have before joining you on the climb?

We take amateur climbers to Island Peak but not to Mt. Everest. To join our climb to Mt. Everest, climbers first need to go through our course and climb Island Peak.

Island Peak is the perfect place for learning, as it has all the terrains and requires all necessary skills that you need to climb Mt. Everest. Our clients learn a lot during their time in the Island Peak base camp and during the climb to the summit.

People can prepare for the climb by training regularly with the emphasis on raising their aerobic skills. Hiking with a 10kg backpack, MTB riding, running, rowing, swimming ... etc. are all desirable activities to prepare the body for what is waiting for you at 5000m+. The mountain soon shows us who is prepared and who “cheated” a bit during their training preparations.

Dedico's Tip: Where to get started in climbing and mountaineering:

We’ve heard the pollution due to the climbing tourism became a big problem in the Himalayas. What's the situation? are there solutions for that?

You’re right, there is a huge pollution problem in the Himalayas right now. Every year, tons of waste are cleared manually and taken off the mountain. I think that harsher consequences are needed to motivate expedition organizers to take better control of garbage waste. The existing system is obviously not effective.

Also, it would be great if all climbers heading to Everest were made to undertake mandatory training addressing pollution and proper disposal practices. There are good examples in other parts of the world, such as a compulsory lecture by Rangers of the Denali National Park in Alaska. Perhaps something like this should be organised in Kathmandu in the future.

My only motivation for going to the mountains is to transfer knowledge to other people.

Are there any climbs you still wish to do? Is there a challenge you still wish to overcome?

To be completely honest, I don’t have any personal challenges as a climber. I've come to a point in my life where I no longer have the need to prove anything to myself, nor to anyone else. Now, my only motivation for going to the mountains is to transfer knowledge to other people. That is what fills me with joy. I enjoy seeing smiling people at the top, and I'm even happier when they become aware of the changes that happen to them during climb. They do not conquer peaks; they build a new self-confidence.

Why have you selected Island Peak (Imja Tse, 6189m) for on of your Expedition Courses?

We have chosen this mountain because it offers the opportunity to educate climbers in various crucial mountaineering skills, a relatively easy access to BC (base camp) and proper acclimatisation. The peak is also not too high (although it isn’t a hill either), so the impact of high altitude is reduced. This is important because people’s working ability during the course and their attention to the acquisition of new skills remains consistent and isn’t impaired by the effects of high altitude.

You are the first man from Serbia to climb Mont Everest. What is the feeling of being at the very top of the world?

The first thing that goes through your head is: thank God, no more. After that, there’s a kind of emotional emptying that I have not experienced in my life, and as a result of this catharsis you start to feel quite peaceful. That's why the return to the BC from the top is so dangerous as people aren’t thinking clearly when they are riding the wave of accomplishment. That's why true happiness and satisfaction hits you only when you reach the base camp. After a good deal of sleep, of course.

We know you have helped a large number of people to climb many peaks around the world, including Mt. Everest. Your experience in hiking and mountaineering expeditions is extremely rich. Can you tell us what the most important thing is in this business? What is the first thing you try to teach someone who goes with you for the first time to the mountain?

With my organisation so far, over 1,000 mountain climbers have climbed to the top over 5000m, over 400 peaked at over 6000m, and 25 of them have had the honor to look down at the world from over 8,000m. Such impressive results are a rarity and a reflection of our great commitment and huge experience. My privilege is to transfer this experience on to others. The most important thing is that all these mountaineers have returned home and are healthy. The first thing everyone has to learn is respect for nature, i.e. ethical codes of behaviour in the mountain. Everything else is very simple. The condition and technical knowledge can be learned very quickly, but the wrong motive for going to the mountain is difficult to correct.

What has hiking taught you? Is this sport, in your opinion, better than others and why?

My opinion is that this is not a competitive sport but a way of life. When a person realises that every peak in the world can be climbed easily, if he doesn’t compete with nature, other hikers or himself, then his life will take on a new dimension. When we stop trying to prove anything to ourselves or to others, then we begin to truly enjoy the climb. And only when we begin to transfer this experience to others, that is, to give what we received as learning gifts from the mountains, then all the years spent in "conquering the useless" get a new meaning. There is no price that can match seeing happiness on the faces of people I lead in the Himalayas.

You are extremely fond of Nepal and the Sherpa community. What is it that attracts you to this far away country? Could we learn something from them?

My first visit to Nepal was in 1996. Every year I go to the Nepalese Himalayas, which is a rare continuity for me. I am attracted to the peace that I feel there, the simplicity in communicating with people, the untouched nature and the energy being surrounded by those Himalayan giants. I feel that we can learn a lot from the people who live in great harmony with nature. They are a mirror in which we can see all our own faults and virtues. Most people, however, turn a blind eye to what they see in that mirror, and accuse the local population or the mountains for their own frustrations and failures. From the Sherpa people, we need to learn the importance of family and the local community with which we share all the good and evil in our lives. Also, we could learn how to more respect the nature and the mountains we are climbing.

For me, the Himalayas are like a person’s last refuge

How would you describe the Himalayas?

For me, the Himalayas are like a person’s last refuge. The place where time stands still, where in their dictionary, there isn’t a word for fighting, where you feel that you are just dust on the floor and that your ego is your biggest enemy, where people do not dominate nature, but adapt to it and live according to it, where friendship is not only a word, where smile is the basic way of communication, where good deeds are talked about for years... All this, and even more than that.

All Himalayan peaks are beautiful in their own way. It's not just a bunch of snow, ice and rocks that are pretty eye-catching when looked at from a certain angle. As Sherpa says, a mountain is a person with its own name and surname that deserves respect as any other being.

Do you think that your experiences with this culture and their way of life made you a better person?

I don’t think that meeting with another culture and their way of life is decisive, but the experience that builds in a man during many expeditions, during which he constantly questions himself, he gets to know more and discovers things about himself. It is a continuous process of self-awareness while being in communication with nature and other people in extreme conditions of life. Also, contact with the people living there forced me to reconsider some of my own beliefs and prejudices. They belong to a completely different cultural and religious domain; their view of the world is very different from ours. It does not matter whether they are right or we are, but the important thing is to embrace new experiences and expand your views by observing their perspective. By doing this, you are fighting against the exclusion of others that is so common in today’s society.

Article supervised and edited by Molly Patrick.

Wouter is Dedico's Business Developer manager. Responsible for knitting together our global network of teachers, he specialises in adventure, sports, kitesurfing and crafts.

Why should you get into climbing?

  • The Himalayas has plenty of trekking routes suitable for all levels
  • With the right supervision, you can challenge yourself and conquer demanding climbs
  • Expose yourself to a new culture, group of people and way of life

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