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Everest 2003: Himalayan Guides 2003 Everest Expedition
Featuring reports from Ian Mackay

Kathmandu, 30th May 2003: We are all safely back in Kathmandu after our summit attempt, here is what happened:

         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 10pm

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



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