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Gavin Bate Everest 2002 Expedition

Gavin recounts summit bid: Part Five

From Everest with Love Part 5:

There 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?

You 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?.

We 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 spot."

But 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.

I've 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 provide back-up.

Radios 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).

Or 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 .

He 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 (German).

One 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.

One 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 easily.

Then 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.

Jorge, 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.

Atsushi 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.

The 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 rival.

People 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.

Talking 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.

Will 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.

I 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.

The 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?

How 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 move.

Will 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.

"Gav," 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 mean ages.

I've 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.

Everest 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 balance.

Going 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.

I 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.

Gradually, 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.

It 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, anything.

In 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 scary.

Camp 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.

Hours 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 their tent.

The 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."

Will 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 boat out".

But 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.

Twenty 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 he walked.

The 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).

When 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.

Good old Tiso's provided the best, and we needed it.

The 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 pain.

Tears 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!

Forty 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!

Forget 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.

The 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.

Eventually 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.

Up 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.

As 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.

Much 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.

In 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!

The 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?

For 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.

The 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 days.

At 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.

We 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.

Now 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!

But 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.

"Look 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!"

Will nodded wearily.

So 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.

The 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.

The 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".

I 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 special.

A 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 our names.

Our 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.

I 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.

People 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.

Will 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!

"Now 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 words?".

Epilogue Back at ABC

I 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.

In 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.

Our 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.

Eventually 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 entirely white.

The doctor sucked in his cheeks and tutted and hummed and hahhed and said "Advanced bronchitis!".

So 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.

We'll 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.

In 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 mountain. One thing is for sure, oh very sure, I'll be having a porter carry my bag! Thanks

Thank 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 go back.

Adventure 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.

More 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!"

Helen 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.

Chris 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.

Graham 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 power!

George 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!

But the phone worked and they are available through Marconi.

And to you all out there. Dream big and dare to fail.

Gavin

Written in Advanced Base Camp, Base Camp and Kathmandu.

Part one is here.

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Camp 2 at top of snow ramp, Camp 3 halfway up rock face towards top ridge at 7900m