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Gavin Bate Everest 2002 Expedition

Gavin recounts summit bid

Yesterday Will and I walked slowly back across the Rongbuk Glacier towards Advance Base Camp, stumbled is perhaps a better expression.

Will limping heavily, the pain evident on his face, me with a monster load dragging behind me, exhausted beyond belief.

"Will," I half croaked and half whispered - having coughed up most of throat lining over the past three days - "it's like dead men walking!".

Will 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.

I 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upon us at 8,600 meters, just a few hundreds yards from the top of the world, meant that our own survival and descent superceded everything else.

Will 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 friendship. 

If 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 idea about. 

Alexei 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. 

Our 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 explanation.

When 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.

So 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.

I put Will into a dilemma when I also ask him to pass the paper. 

Next 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.

Above 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. 

We 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.

It 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.

It 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 well-placed punch. 

We 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!".

Suddenly 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.

Eventually 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.

Note: Part 2 to follow...

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Gav forces food down at 8,000m