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Gavin Bate Everest 2002 Expedition

Gavin recounts summit bid: Part Two

The stars are out and the air is crisp but not achingly freezing. We are togged up in all the down gear and wind suits. In my pocket I have the phone, the digital camera, a load of crushed chocolate, strepsils and toffees. It's important to crush all this stuff beforehand because on the move with gloves you can't do it. In 2000 I remember having a Mars Bar in my pocket; I couldn't eat it because I couldn't unwrap it with down gloves on! In our rucksacks we carried spare gloves and hats, cameras, spare head torch batteries, a bivi bag and a few personal items; Will had his furry koala with him, I had a piece of wedding cake from Helen's wedding. It was all very minimal, but then that was our intention and also the advice given to us by an eight-times Sherpa summiteer.

We headed up the face. And it is a face! Sometimes we traversed across loose rock and shale, other times headed straight up steep snow ramps, all the time hugging the north east ridge, just below it in fact. To our left was the ridge, to our left the expanse of space that is the north face. We were like two insects slowly crossing this sheet of rock and snow and ice; it was most exhilarating.

People talk of crowds on Everest, great trainloads of people shuffling up together, signposts even! What a load of old rot. Will and I didn't see a soul, not a single person for the first five hours. That's a long time to be at 26,000' + on Everest and the terrain wasn't easy, not at that altitude anyway. Sure, as an alpine route it wouldn't rate; but in the middle of the night up there, you know all about it. There were ropes and some of them were well placed and some of them were appalling. You didn't know whether it was from this year of last. And at the end of the day you use a rope as a safety measure, a precaution, not as the sole anchor by which you hang your whole body weight ! We climbed solidly and surely for the first four hours and it was the knowledge of where we were that dominated our thoughts. As I said, insects clinging to vast face. And it is vast ! You can't believe how big it is until you're up there, picking a precipitous route and seemingly going nowhere. I have to say a lot of climbing Everest is about patience! You move so agonizingly slowly that there were times I would shake my head and just say "When will we ever get there?". But that's where the teamwork comes in; Will and I would encourage each other, our voices small in the night air. But it was enough. If he can do it, I can do it! But we were now into the 8000 meter barrier, the infamous Death Zone and your body knows it!

Now, without oxygen bottles to breathe life and warmth into the system, it becomes increasingly obvious that parts of you are not working, giving up even. Breathing for starters. You breathe in, but it doesn't seem to work right. Where's the energy? Suddenly you need 5 breaths to walk half a dozen paces and then you collapse onto your pole, gazing down at the circle of light from your head torch, gasping, trying to get more puff, but none comes, and then there's that panicky feeling like somebody holding your head under the duvet and just not letting you up for air, and you start thrashing for a bit and when you do get your head our there's that delicious moment when cool fresh air is pumped back in. Well, imagine all that without the cool fresh air bit... We slowed down when we could see the route turn drastically straight upwards to the ridge. It looked so close ! But going straight up was a killer; now we managed just two or three steps. I was breathing through my mouth very heavily and the cold air dried the back of my throat to a point where to swallow was extremely painful. Every time I tried it was like a huge dry stone blocked the way and not a drop of saliva to ease the way. This in turn caused coughing, great heaving spasms of coughing that left me on all fours with eyes watering and needing at least four minutes to gather myself before continuing. Will too was coughing but not as often; once when I looked down I saw bits of what looked like finely chopped liver on the ground, there goes my throat lining I thought dispassionately.

Dispassionately is the right word; although we were both hurting we just took it all as part of the deal. We didn't stop and say, rationally, "Hey, we coughing up parts of our throat here, how about we just call it day and turn around ?" I don't know why, I really don't, we just carried on. We put up with it and that was that. And I'm not saying all this to make us out to be anything, I'm just describing what goes on up there. I saw head torch beams. We were approaching Camp 4 at 8300m and people who had camped there were now getting ready to go for the summit. It was comforting to see them, we had felt quite lonely and isolated. Now about 200 meters ahead, there were people! A real boost to our systems.

We assume Part 3 to follow.... Stay tuned

Part one is here.

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An easy bit around 8000 meters, but very exposed and cold. Can you spot Advance Base on the moraine below?