recounts summit bid
Will and I walked slowly back across the Rongbuk
Glacier towards Advance Base Camp, stumbled is
perhaps a better expression.
limping heavily, the pain evident on his face,
me with a monster load dragging behind me,
exhausted beyond belief.
I half croaked and half whispered - having
coughed up most of throat lining over the past
three days - "it's like dead men
could hardly raise a smile though. Like me his
lips are so badly cracked and split that any
movement literally causes too much pain, and
pain is something we have been living with
enough for the last while.
know Richard has been keeping you updated with
what has been happening by way of the infrequent
calls I have been able to make. There is no
doubt that the difficulty of our challenge and
the subsequent drama that came upon us at 8,600 meters,
just a few hundreds yards from the top of the
world, meant that our own survival and descent
superceded everything else.
and I can still hardly believe what happened but
one thing is for sure, that being above 8,000 meters
without oxygen is so hard, so debilitating, so
massively sapping of all your physical and
mental energy that Life distils down to just a
few essentials and in essence they are
self-preservation of life, judgment and
anybody out there was uttering a little snort of
derision right now, a little self-complacent
smirk then I swear Will and I would both resort
to physical means. It is a measure of how much
we have just been through. Everest this season has a few climbers
attempting the north ridge without oxygen.
Including, myself and Will, Alexeir the Russian
who summitted on the 17th and a lone Italian who
we have not seen since Base Camp and have no
had a team of five friends climbing with oxygen
to help set up the camps and of course clear the
mountain afterwards. Will and I faced climbing
to the top of the world having to carry all our
own gear on and off the mountain and we made the
decision to not use oxygen which necessitated a
lightweight approach, almost Alpine style, and
this was in
part reached by the fact that we had been so
strong in the early stages.
timings to the various camps were really fast
and we didn't suffer any illnesses or headaches.
Sherpas befriended us as one of their own. We
carried the same loads as them and took it as a
personal achievement when we knocked twenty
minutes off our previous times. To give you and
example, our time to Camp 2 with a load was down
to 3 hours (from 7,000m to 7,600m) and yet other
climbers who had Sherpas were coping with up to
7 hours. That's not meant as a boast, simply an
it came to our summit bid we got good weather
forecasts and headed off very confidently. You
have to be on Everest; you have to know what you
are letting yourself in for and this is an
important distinction. We see too many people up
here who seem not to understand the concept of
ascending up to 8,000 meters and beyond.
we reach Camp 1 at 7000m and things are good.
The next morning there is a load to carry up to
Camp 2 which we manage easily. We put up our
tent and the weather is glorious, the views
awesome. We can see
right over the north face, it's stunning. Our
little tent is pitched on a platform that is on
a forty degree slope so when I have to go to the
toilet after dinner, Will belays me through the
tent door! If I slipped halfway through my
business then I would slide three thousand feet
very quickly onto the Rongbuk Glacier.
put Will into a dilemma when I also ask him to
pass the paper.
day dawns good and bright and we pack up the
tent and all our kit to take up to Camp 3 at
7,900 meters, a scrambly sort of climb over snow
and loose rock and shale. Because we are trying
the Alpine-style ascent from here, we carry
everything on our backs and it's heavy. But it's
not too bad. Now we start passing ruined tents,
each lump of detritus telling the story of some
drama high up on Everest. We put our heads down
and try not to think of just how exposed this
part of the north ridge is.
the north east ridge seems immeasurably long and
difficult. The summit, to our right, at times
looks 'just there!', other times it may as well
have been the moon. Camp 3 at 7900 m was hard,
it was so windy that Will and I resorted to hand
gestures to communicate. This was just a
blasted, exposed, remote spot chosen for no
other reason than it's altitude at just below
8000 meters. Here we were at a shade under
26,000' and the wind seemed to come straight
from the manual of Winds From Hell.
chose a spot that was a tiny ledge overhanging
the north face. To stand looking down straight
down thousands and thousands of feet made you
feel giddy. To pitch a tent there seemed
foolhardy but there was nowhere else. A few
other tents clung to the rock like limpets,
nylon flapping like crazy, a spiders web of rope
strewn over the top and attached to stones to
hold them down.
took ages to pitch the tent and we were severely
gasping for breath when we climbed inside. Will
tried to get the stove going but lack of oxygen
and freezing cold gas cylinders meant that it
took forty five minutes. Forty five minutes. Can
you imagine the frustration? Forty five minutes
of striking matches. Eventually will built a
small bonfire of toilet paper on top of the gas
stove itself which he then lit and kept alive by
adroit use of the gas valve. This, as you can
imagine, is dangerous stuff. A gas explosion
followed by rapid tent conflagration at 26,000'
would be a new one on most people, I'm sure.
was now about 4pm on Thursday 18th May. With
minimal gear we planned to leave that night at
10pm to go for the summit. We made brews, we
drank what we could, we ate almost nothing and
we listened to the wind. The wind bent our
little tent out of shape to such a degree that a
severe gust would throw us around inside. A pole
bent inwards would catch you on the face, like a
debated on whether to go or not. At this rate,
the wind would stop us in minutes. We decided
this was a localized area of high wind, which
was subsequently proven to be true, and I put
the call through the Helen in Scotland [his
office manger] to give her the news. I'm sure I
sounded like an idiot on the phone but for Will
and I there was a sense of "this is
it!" followed by "oh my God, this is
it was all happening, but seemingly in slow
motion because it took two hours to dress.
Putting out boots on was hard because you have
to lean forward to tie the myriad laces and Velcro
straps. After fiddling for fifteen seconds with
a bobbing head torch to try and see what's
happening, you just gasp and let go and lie
back, panting for ten minutes. It's very
time-consuming and tiring.
though we are standing outside and checking each
other over. Silly things like doubling back the
waist belt on your harness can be forgotten. And
this is partly where the experience comes in;
most of what we were doing should come
naturally, second nature. We see so many people
being 'told off' by Sherpas for something like
having their harness inside out! Being up there
in the dark on Everest, or any mountain for that
matter, it has to be as natural as can be.
Part 2 to follow...