recounts summit bid: Part Five
Everest with Love Part 5:
can be no denying our predicament. One look at
the faces of fellow mountaineers and Sherpas
when they heard the turn of our events reflected
similar realization that took some time to sink
in at 8500 meters?
mean you were at the Second Step and Will
dislocated his knee and you had to come down??
Incredulity in their voices. But for us at that
time the need to act was paramount. In fact it
took about 45 minutes. Initially we decided to
take out our bivi bags and rest for a bit to? see
how things went?.
started looking for a suitable resting spot out
of the now increasing wind. "Look,"
said Will pointing to a large rock,
"somebody's already got the best
upon close inspection, we saw it was a corpse,
the body of an Indian climber from some years
back. I remember recoiling, the shock of that
frozen body jolting what little sense I had in
me that this was extremely serious, the most
dangerous of all situations that we could be in.
read the stories of Everest, in fact I've read
them all. So has Will. We've read the ones that
talk about struggling up to the north col in
eight hours, and 90% of them have described
ascents with oxygen, with Sherpas to help and
crackling all the time, "facilitated Base
Camp" disgorging fresh Sherpas with
thermoses of hot orange. So few have described
unsupported, oxygenless ascents. You need to go
back to the times of Pete Boardman, Joe Tasker
and Doug Scott for that sort of heroics, or more
recently Venables ascent of the Kangshung Face
(his book is one of the finest Everest accounts
ever written I believe).
you look to the Russians, the Eastern Bloc, the
likes of Erhard Loretan for details of what to
do when you go into the Death Zone without the
life-giving oxygen, without the concerned face
of a Sherpa there to help. Now you're into hard
country. We had no idea of any of this, no
comprehension. We didn't know that where we were
standing, on that streak of exposed rock at over
28,000', a Yugoslav just the day before had
simply fallen off .
was on oxygen. Or so they say; some say he was
found in his tent frozen dead a day later.
Memories become disjointed up there, like
flickering stills in an old handheld movie. Will
and I couldn't know that dozens of people were
going down, suffering from everything from diarrhea
to frozen eyeballs, to absolute collapse
exceptional man from Austria, with both his feet
chopped in half from previous frostbite,
sporting specially shortened climbing boots, had
turned back with his wife with loss of balance.
of the French Basque team, a hell of a nice guy,
was being escorted off the mountain in a state
of catatonic exhaustion; several Japanese were
being taken off by attentive Sherpas loaded with
fresh oxygen from ABC. Everest was not giving in
there were the successes, many on the 16th and
17th. In particular for us the Russkies with
Alexei summiting in 16hours without oxygen and
the entire team making the top on the 20th.
a lone Spanish climber without oxygen, lays
claim to possibly the strongest man on the hill;
a small spare man with an intense gaze he looked
like a young Messner.
Yamada, the little Japanese guy I climbed Vinson
with, also summitted with Brice's eight-times summiteer
Sherpa and the Swiss team of Kobler got 7 or 8
to the top.
Koreans topped out too very well and the
international team put three on top I think. But
all of this meant little to us standing by
ourselves in a dilemma that only fiction could
think it's all congested and you're fighting for
standing room. We saw exactly two people in the
next five hours, and both of them went past us
with just a nod.
about it now Will and I shake our heads in
disbelief at our situation. I find it hard to
put into words the extreme seriousness of what
had happened. At the time we were almost blase
about it, unthinking about the objective danger.
Now we shudder with the memory. I was more
concerned about the urine soaking through all my
layers. It was disgusting, revolting.
meanwhile had climbed into his bivi bag and was
just sitting there, leaning against his
rucksack. We were both breathing heavily,
spending a lot of time just staring at nothing.
Looking around at the view. The summit was still
within our reach, we both thought.
know at that moment that I thought Will's
dislocated knee would go away and we would carry
on. We talked about timings. Without oxygen we
thought another three hours should do it. I
wondered if the cold urine would still be as
uncomfortable. We sat on.
cold bit deep and I remember that very slowly
the realization of where we were, what we were
doing, the decision we had made, began to filter
into my brain with ridiculously slow speed. The
lamp, when it lit, was not a bright 200W
brainwave, it hardly ranked on the watt-meter.
It was a tiny bulb, so dim as to make a joke of
the Laws of Brightness. It was a birthday candle
in a gale. What in hells name were we doing?
long had we been sitting here, on the northeast
ridge of Everest? Half an hour? Forty minute7s?
Sweet Jesus, we were going to die. We had to
stirred in his bag and turned to me. His face
registered the same lack of mental acuity as me,
we must have looked like two people acting cows.
he said, "I have an idea". There was
no emotion but I felt like crying. Will's knee
was bandaged. We were on Everest, Everest for
crying out loud and our tent may as well have
been on another mountain range, in another
country, on another bleedin' planet. And I stank
of urine. Suddenly that seemed pretty
inconsequential. It took ages to get ready, I
discussed with Will and we think about half an
hour. Maybe forty minutes. To stand up, I mean.
To stand up and point in the right direction.
Getting the bivi bag back into the rucksacks,
putting the rucksacks on our backs, I've got no
idea. I can't even recall doing it.
this year has been drier than usual. The
northeast ridge especially has been mostly loose
rock and shale and shist, with patches of snow.
This makes it extremely dangerous on crampons,
imagine skittering about. We had axes but at
that time we were still using a pole for
up is one thing but descending when you have
been lounging at 8,500m was quite another. And
Will was soooooo slow, and I mean soooo slow. At
the First Step he slipped and fell. He cut his
head. I was not even fast enough to put out a
hand. He swore and floundered about on the rock,
righting himself, getting up.
just stood there. I couldn't do anything, I just
couldn't. I only willed him on, my breath the
only thing I could hear. He stood up and looked
at me, there was a smear of blood on his
forehead. I nodded. He nodded. We carried on. It
was a long way to go.
ever so slowly we descended. In 2000 I came off
the south summit on my own and then from the
south col the next day with Andy Salter who at
that time was in a bad way with a squeezed
vertebrae. I remember thinking then that he was
pretty heroic for his stoic descent, each step
evincing a grimace of pain.
was my privilege, and duty I knew to my friend,
to stay with him. But then we had Sherpas
carrying our tents and we had been using oxygen.
I have to say that this descent with Will was as
different as chalk from cheese. With Will right
behind me, his noisy breath broken by sobs, I
tried my hardest to help. I never tried so hard,
I never climbed so carefully in my life to try
and guide him, show him the easiest way,
truth I probably did bugger all because Will was
in that stage of pain that brings tunnel vision.
But we carried on and the hours dragged past. It
got cold, it got a bit more windy, it got more
at 8,300m when it appeared was distressingly far
away. All those steep snow ramps to negotiate,
all those rock ledges. By now we were stopping
every two or three steps. I tried to say
"Are you all right?" to my friend, to
this person I was sharing this time with, but
all that came out was "Euurrghh". He
knew what I was saying. "Uhh-huuuuuh,"
he replied and we both leant against a rock, our
faces spread against it, eyes dead.
later, oh dear God it was hours later, we
reached 8,300m. I think maybe four hours to
descend exactly two hundred meters in vertical
height. But we were off the ridge and now we saw
humans, other people. People moving slowly, like
in treacle. We crawled, I mean we crawled to a
patch of flattish ground and lay down, curled
like two question marks on the rock and Will
suggested asking someone else if we could borrow
first person we asked nodded no, I don't know
who it was. "Will," I said,
"we've got to get down below 8,000m.
Everyone else here has oxygen, we can't survive
a night without it and have the strength to
carry gear down tomorrow. We need to move on. We
have to mate."
looked ready to cry, the thought of all that
effort too much to comprehend. But he knew I was
right. "We'll have to push the boat out,
mate" I joked with a grotesque attempt at
laughing. This had been our catchphrase
throughout the expedition, "pushing the
the joke rebounded and I started my coughing
spasm again. Now I was on all fours and vomiting
and retching, my head straining forward like
that bit of transformation in the film An
American Werewolf in London. Now I had stopped
breathing altogether and my entire throat
spasmed into paralysis and after a few of the
worst seconds in my life a lump of what looked
like blood- soaked muslin was ejected. Oh dear.
If that wasn't a sign to move on.
minutes later I had myself in order and we moved
off. Will's leg was oddly angled, the
dislocation of the knee had forced his foot to
be angled out at some forty degrees to the
straight. He told me afterwards that the knee
cap itself had moved actually to the side of the
joint and the two bones were rubbing together as
body hadn't yet had time to create it's own
defence of liquid (the next morning a grotesque
balloon had formed on one side of his leg
though, at least the size of two fists).
we got to 7,900 meters our little tent possessed
all the attraction that Israel must have had for
the Gentiles. It had now been 22 hours since we
had left this little abode of ours. The wind
buffetted the nylon with biblical strength and I
was staggered that the little North Face VE24
was still standing.
old Tiso's provided the best, and we needed it.
first thing we did in the tent was absolutely
nothing for ages, ages and ages. Then we looked
at Wills leg. Pulling apart a tent pole we used
the elastic inside and wrapped it round his
knee. As the material bit in and pulled the knee
cap round a bit Will lay back and moaned in
squeezed through tightly shut eyes. Now we had
to get some hot liquid into us. We had drunk all
of one liter between us since leaving the tent.
The gas cylinder was frozen as usual and we
built a bonfire of toilet paper on top of the
stove inside the tent. Duke of Edinburgh Award
groups do not do this on your hikes!
five minutes the matches still refused to light.
I do suggest you go one day with a matchbox and
try to light a match for forty five minutes. As
an exercise in frustration; and then imagine
yourself in a tiny tent at just below 26,000' in
minus ten in our situation and your character
will surely be tested!
all that stuff you read in the books about
"60 degree slope here",
"technical rock section there".
Lighting a match became our entire existence,
our whole reason for being alive! The two of us
bent over the little box, the stick of wood held
against the striking pad, our breaths as light
as gossamer, the cold eating into us, the little
bundle of cotton wool just nanometers away to
catch the remotest iota of a spark and we
prayed. Oh yes we prayed. Will's thumb was
white, I could see the deep cuts that are
endemic up here, and then the increased pressure
on it as the match was drawn firmly, not too
quickly, towards the stove.
familiar scratching sound and the tiniest puff
of smoke around the match head and our eyes,
unblinking lest we miss the slightest hint of a
catch, widened slightly in anticipation and deep
hope. The match held perfectly in position.
Outside the wind so loud that it threatened to
come inside at any moment. And no flame. Will
and I exhale with a moan. We try again. Our
heads are touching, our mouths inches from the
matchbox and the stove. We looked like two
crouching monks in purple, deep in supplication.
the match lit ("I prayed," cried Will,
"I ruddy prayed and it lit!") and the
stove sputtered into life. It took over an hour
to make a cup of soup. Now we looked at rest.
Words were a scant part of our life at this
stage. We worked together in perfect harmony as
if reading from a script. There was a seamless
teamwork to our tasks that I am tempted to call
survival. I really think it was. But we had a
problem. In order to conserve space and weight
we had only brought up one sleeping bag. It was
obvious that Will would take it.
here it becomes very difficult to maintain your
body core temperature. A lot of people die of
exposure because extreme exhaustion and the
general deterioration of your body organs at
this altitude means that hypothermia sets in
very quickly. Will was more in pain and needed
the warmth of the bag. I got the bivi bag. Has
anyone out there spent a night in a bivi bag? I
have, many times, but not at 26,000' on the
Night that God Invented Cold and Wind.
Will snuggled into the Rab Summit bag and
darkness surrounded us I climbed into my bivi
bag and lay down. Immediately I noticed one
great salient fact that cut through my addled
brain above all else. I was absolutely freezing.
I looked at my watch, it was now 11pm. The night
was yet young! In all my life, I will never
forget and never allow myself to forget, that
night and the cold that was my partner through
those long hours.
of it I spent on all fours rocking back and
forth. The bivi bag around me gathered up all
the stench of urine and passed it through the
opening just around my face. As I coughed and
coughed and coughed, I also retched and retched
and vomited. The smell of vomit competed with
the smell of urine and I only waited for my
bottom to join in the action. It may as well
have, the more bodily functions the merrier. I
peed once. On big mountains we use pee bottles,
brightly marked bottles with "Pee?" written
all over them.
the dark in your bag (bivi or sleeping) you
kneel facing away from your tentmate and hold
the bottle in position. Then there is the job of
freeing numerous zips and taking aim. This can
be difficult in just thermal bottoms. In five
layers of fleece and down, you are working blind
(gasping for air, often with face facing
skyward, screwed up in concentration, mouthing
little instructions to yourself ("Left a
bit, hold it, hooooold it") and the whole
operation has an air of exquisite danger to it.
The hand holding the bottle does so with a vice like
grip that never wavers. The sound of the urine,
when it comes, is listened to with all the
keenness of a master ornithologist, for the tone
will indicate how full the bottle is!
nightmare is to overfill. This night I filled to
the brim and successfully raised the bottle from
between my legs to screw on the lid. I carefully
placed the bottle to one side of the tent and
continued my rocking. My feet needed massaging
constantly. Will moaned and tossed and turned.
He was actually asleep. Later, maybe 4am I lay
down and tried again to sleep. It was
impossible. My whole body shook with cold. Then
there was the smell of urine. It was so strong,
so ammoniacal that I was almost stifled for
breath. But hold on, it was just a bit too
strong wasn't it?
some long minutes I lay and pondered this and
then, like a boot in the testicles, the terrible
truth hit me and I swear I just cried out in
mortal pain. Sitting upright and turning round I
turned on the head torch and swung the beam onto
the Thermarest I had been lying on. It was
completely dark and the pee bottle lay to one
side, less than half full by now. My entire down
jacket down the back was soaked. I guess there
are times in Life when you really do think that
nothing could make it any worse and I am tempted
to say that was one of the times. For the rest
of the night, until a cold light suffused the
dawn at around 5am, I knelt in that tent. Ed
Hillary once said "Most people like a
challenge, few people enjoy hardship" He
was right, so ruddy right.
rest of our story deals with our descent and the
Saturday morning greeted us with howling winds
and the onset of a storm that would last four
7,900 meters Will and I had a job on our hands
and we knew it. Taking the tent down itself took
two hours and I had to carry it. Will couldn't
carry his half and that was that. He was going
to have a job carrying himself, to be sure.
started down and passed broken tents, broken
people; it was all so serious now. We were
struggling now and there was an air of grim
determination about us. No words, no point. It
took easily five hours to reach our Camp 2 at
7,600 meters, to get down just 300 meters. Our
timings were shot. We needed to move more
quickly. The whole mountain boiled with cloud
and heavy wind. It was like some awful nightmare
and the wind tore at our clothing constantly,
pulling our rucksacks, throwing us against the
rock, tripping us, pushing us uphill, pushing us
over. I never want to experience that again.
things were really against us. We had to clear
the mountain. Other groups, who had Sherpas,
were now back at ABC having carried just their
personal gear. Sherpas would be coming back up
here to clear the tents. There was no way we
could come back up again, we were too shattered.
We had to clear it all now!
Will couldn't carry anything ! At 7,600 meters
we ended up with an extra 50 kilos of gear, four
bags which included our tents and all our stuff
that we had painstakingly put in place over the
last eight weeks.
Will, there's only one way to do this, like
Denali; I'll lash all the bags to my harness and
lower it down with me as I go down the slope.
It'll be all right!"
down we went. With a rucksack the size of a
small country on my back and four bags dangling
off my harness and with Will right behind me
limping and staggering, in the teeth of a storm
with visibility down to nil, we got down to Camp
1. And that is my biggest memory of four days
without any sleep whatsoever and all that
happened. The two of us welded into a tiny
survival team, inching our way down that
mountain. I have a friend who dramatically
describes carrying 10 kilos above 7,000 meters
as like "carrying a grown man on your
back". He gets all wrought up over it. I
tell you, carrying over 50 kilos at 24,000' is
something I can say I've done now and it's
amazing what your body can do.
limits you can push it. But the limits Will
pushed his body also defy belief. Will lost two
stone on his trip to Everest and I'm sure the
rot set in on that day. We really "pushed
the boat out" and when we got back to Camp
1 I have rarely experienced such exhaustion.
next day we took the lot down the headwall,
dangling off my harness! Where we had down climbed
and abseiled off in half an hour previously, now
we took three hours. Crossing the glacier at the
bottom we did indeed resemble dead men walking.
At the moraine Will left his rucksack and simply
said "I can't do it anymore".
walked ahead with bags on my head, in my hand
and my rucksack hanging like a giant boulder on
my back. I never turned once to look at the
mountain. We walked with great deliberation,
great slowness and eventually the tents of ABC
came into view. Coming into camp I just felt as
we had come through a war. Many people have
experienced this same moment, it's decidedly
unique mix of emotions that is intensely
personal. People stand outside their tents and
watch. "Those are the guys without oxygen,
aren't they" I heard someone say and you
can't help but feel a little pinch of pride.
Tirta our cook saw us from two hundred yards
away and I was making slow progress. Will was
just behind me. Tirta came rushing out calling
one member of staff God Bless him, he's an old
man with arthritis and a heart condition, and he
tried to take my rucksack off me but he couldn't
lift it and then the weight was off my back and
I'd dropped the bag off my head and Tirta was
trying to hold me up and so was Will and then I
just lost it and all the realization that we
were safe hit me and Tirta was hugging me and
chanting Buddhist prayers and all the pent-up
emotion and the intensity and the fear, the
goddamned fear, and the effort of it all just
seemed to hit me and I fell over and big fat hot
tears rolled down my cheeks, and Will was there
too and the two of us choked and coughed and
held each other.
cried for the fact that I just knew right there
and then that it had been such a hard couple of
days and that from somewhere, somewhere inside,
we had dredged up enough strength and enough
resolve and enough character to deal with the
situation on the biggest mountain in the world.
have died for a lot less up there. When the
limits get pushed like that, it's kind of a big
impression and sitting now eight days later in
my hotel room, it's just as hard to put into
words although I've tried in my mind.
says "It comes to you in parts. The
extremeness of it all, how we coped. I remember
bits and think 'did we do that?' God, we must
have been strong!
I know that I love Bec (fiancée in Sydney) even
more, that what we went through up there has
made me want to hold her more tightly, hold onto
Life more tightly, but I couldn't put it into
Back at ABC
took about two days to recover from the worst of
the coughing. We slept badly but Will
deteriorated rapidly. His coughing took on an
intensity that became alarming and his knee was
very bad. Tirta too was coughing badly. To be
honest he should never have been at Advance Base
Camp, he should have been home with his feet up
and the grandchildren crawling over him. Poor
old guy, he was like an uncle to us.
the end it got so bad we made a dash for Base
Camp and poor Will suffered big time. 23 kilometers
over rough ground and his knee looking like one
of those funny shapes you blow balloons into.
Stuff was coming out of his mouth that would
have done a horror movie proud. I was really
worried. Even at Base Camp he didn't improve and
by now I was almost back to full strength,
eating like a horse and getting drunk one night
with the Russians on copious quantities of
vodka, whisky and cognac.
gear came down on the backs of ten yaks and it
was a nightmare to organize. Just us two to deal
with the Chinese and the Tibet Mountaineering
Association and Will resembling a bit part from
Day of the Zombies.
they got us out quick because of the illness and
we loaded the truck with our gear and took the
jeep across Tibet. Two days later we pulled into
Kathmandu and first port of call has been the
hospital. The chest X-ray shows it clearly, or
not so clearly in this case. Where the lungs
should show dark on the X-ray, indicating
clearness and healthy organs, Will's are almost
doctor sucked in his cheeks and tutted and
hummed and hahhed and said "Advanced
now Will is in recuperation and his thin gaunt
face, shaven and cleaned, shows at least relief
that things are on the up. You can only put up
with so much pain. In a few days I am flying up
to Lukla with some extremely special friends who
have come from Ireland.
be trekking to the village of Bupsa, Khari Khola
and Bumburi on behalf of the charity Moving
Mountains and looking at the clinic, the school
and the monastery which we will be renovating
alongside Adventure Alternative. You
can be a part of this, go trekking in Nepal with
us and combine it with work on those buildings,
teaching and working in the area. We'll
also be looking at the village of Bumburi for
installing a renewable energy device to provide
power for the villagers and hopefully be working
with Graham Robey of Energy Development
Co-operative on that.
a few weeks I'll be in Tanzania with a group on
Kilimanjaro and I'm looking forward to a
wonderful expedition on Africa's highest
thing is for sure, oh very sure, I'll be having
a porter carry my bag! Thanks
you to everyone for your support. Please don't
write and say "I'm so sorry you didn't
summit". It's not like that. I hope this
story explains why. Everest will always be
there, we may not have been lucky enough to
dream of it's summit again. We are and we will
Alternative is organizing an Everest Expedition
for 2005. If you are interested then call us. I
have now organized two Everest Expeditions, one
on each side, and I speak with some authority !
Thanks to Helen Harbison, Chris Little and
Richard Sheane for all their hard work. I
am staggered at their enthusiasm, their
efficiency, their utter brilliance. Employing
young people with bags of energy and initiative
and character is what I always intended to do
with good reason. As a bonus I consider a great
privilege they are also the finest of friends
one could ask for. Calling them nearly every day
on the telephone was a highlight I never realized
would be so keenly anticipated.
than friends, they cared in a way which I found
humbling. When I eventually did get through on
the phone after the summit events, it was 3am
and Richard sounded groggy. His voice when he
heard mine was remarkable. "Oh dear God,
you're alive, oh thank God!"
screamed when I croaked down the line and for a
moment ear drum damage joined my list of
ailments. It's so wonderful to have that sort of
support. Thank you.
Tiso and his company, Tiso the Great Outdoor
Specialists, who sponsored me the equipment for
this expedition. I am entirely in his debt and
without the standard of kit we had I guarantee
we would still be up there, frozen in place.
Robey of EDC Ltd who ensured through his
sponsorship of solar panels and equipment that I
could in fact send all these messages, make all
those phone calls and maintain enough power
supply. If you hadn't already guessed, the
future is in the sun. It's amazing stuff, solar
Mochrie, an old friend who got me the satellite
gear through Marconi and Xantic in Holland. I
had the very best kit, the finest M4 satellite
unit that allowed me to transmit all those
pictures at ISDN speed. The Iridium handheld
phone I took all the way to 8600 meters, but I
didn't use it. That was human error, or at least
human inability to do anything other than
urinate in his own trousers!
the phone worked and they are available through
to you all out there. Dream
big and dare to fail.
in Advanced Base Camp, Base Camp and Kathmandu.
one is here.