Kathmandu, 30th May 2003: We are all safely back in
Kathmandu after our summit attempt, here is what
South Col 18.00.
22nd May 2003. The wind dropped to a gentle breeze and Henry made the decision
that we were going for the summit that evening at 9pm. I shared a tent with
Rob and we prepared frantically but didn't manage to get out of our tent until
By then the 20 or so tents on
the South Col seemed to have disgorged about a hundred climbers and their
lights were all strung out on the mountain ahead of us. Communication with
teammates is difficult, if not impossible because of the oxygen masks but I
could see that Robb was as disappointed as I was that there were so many
climbers ahead of us. A number of those ahead of us were moving very slowly
and we knew that we could not pass them on the single rope thus we would have
to climb at the rate of the slowest climber ahead. As we reached the snowfield
at the edge of the South Col we noticed that Kevin and Vicky were ahead of us.
Rob quickly passed Vicky and I slotted in behind her as we began to move
slowly up the increasingly steep snow gully leading to the summit. Progress
was painfully slow as a result of the pace of some of those ahead of us.
Half-way up the gully I was astonished to see Rob off the rope with his back
to the mountain. He was answering a call of nature - I think he may have set a
world record. I was getting concerned about the pace so I moved off the rope
and passed Vicky and slotted in behind Kevin with the hope of passing Kevin
when I could. After passing Vicky I started to get increasingly breathless -
instead of 5-6 breaths for every step I'd be taking 10-20. I signaled my
Sherpa, Sonam to check my oxygen and he confirmed that my cylinder was empty.
I carried on to a ledge where he could change my empty cylinder without
holding up those behind. Unfortunately it took some time to change the
cylinder and I rejoined the rope but many climbers had passed me and I was
now nearly last on the mountain. At the top of the snow gully the ground
changed to steep mixed rock and snow which I didn't like at all. Fortunately
this only lasted for about an hour when the gully turned right forming another
steep snow gully heading up to the "Balcony". I carried on up the snow slope
passing a couple of climbers when I began to feel increasingly breathless
again. I signaled the problem to Sonam and he checked my oxygen and said
"plenty". so I battled on. Eventually, I was taking about 5 minutes between
each step and the climbers I had passed had re-passed me. Sonam understood
that there was something far wrong and began to check each bit of my oxygen
equipment. It became clear that there was oxygen pressure in my system but
that there was no flow through the valve which allows the oxygen into the face
mask. The valve in the face mask was frozen solid with ice. Sonam took off his
down gloves and rubbed the bladder and valve between his hands I thought
something was getting through so I tried to struggle on for a few steps. It
seemed to work for five minutes then I was back to no oxygen again. All the
time I could see my companions disappearing into the distance as we struggled
to solve the problem. By the time we reached the Balcony it was after 3am and
the problem was worse. We had almost ground to a halt and I knew that the
summit was impossible at this rate but other than try without oxygen we had to
keep clearing the face valve. By then I knew my summit bid was over. I wept
under my mask and said to Sonam "We go down", Sonam said "We try Ian ...we go
on." I said "Not possible" and sadly we turned round to go down.
As we turned I noticed the
wind was rising, I prayed for the sake of my teammates higher on the mountain
that it would not increase. Even though I was comparatively fresh the decent
was as frightening and punishing as anything I've ever experienced. I slipped
and slithered down the ropes hoping the fragile fixings would hold. Dawn broke
as I descended and the warmth combined with the lower altitude meant that my
valve freezing problem was easing and by half-way down I was breathing oxygen
again without having to stop and clear the valve every few minutes.
I tumbled into my tent on
the South Col at about 7am by which time the wind was increasing to 40-50mph,
a dangerous situation for those still high on the mountain.
Near the summit Kevin was in
the lead. He was shouting to slower climbers to let him pass but mostly to no
avail. There was a queue of climbers stretching from the Hillary Step almost
to the South Summit. Eventually, after waiting about 45 minutes with Robb
close behind he scaled the Hilary Step and went on to summit about 10am. The
wind was so strong that Robb couldn't take any photos and Kevin and Robb just
spent a few minutes on the summit before attempting their decent which was
once again temporarily prevented by a 45 minute queue at the Hilary step.
Meantime, Vicky who had
fallen back a little was well and truly stuck in the traffic jam below the
Hilary Step. The wind rose to gale force and her sherpa Ang Serring (a three
times Everest summiteer) wisely advised her that she should turn around before
it was impossible to get back down. Fortunately, Vicky followed his advice and
they headed down. By this time it was nearly 11pm and Vicky had been on the
Mountain for 13 hours.
The next day dawned with the
gale still howling across the South Coll. After a hair raising traverse across
the Geneva Spur we raced down the mountain for camp 2 and safety.
The next day Kevin, Robb and
myself trudged down through the icefall for the last time. But the mountain
wouldn't let me go without reminding me of it's power. As I crossed a snow
bridge that I had crossed many times before, it collapsed and I dropped into a
crevasse. I was clipped into the ropes so I avoided anything except cuts and
bruises. Then as I came down the very last face on the Icefall the ice screw
pulled out and I fell 15ft - more cuts and bruises.
Kevin Robb and myself left
Base Camp for Kathmandu the next day. I am resting in Kathmandu for a few days
and will be back in Edinburgh 3rd June
I would like to express my
sincere thanks to all who supported my climb. Together we have raised
thousands of pounds for sick and dying children. I am, of course disappointed
that I didn't summit, but my disappointment is very much lessened by the
knowledge that such a lot of good will come from this whole experience.
Ian Mackay QC
30th May 2003