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Official confirmation that the Marathon des Sables is achievable without being able to run and surviving on a daily ration of 4 Pepperamis, 3 cereal bars, shortbread, nuts and coffee sweets… The very sandy and very hot (50C+ in the … Continue reading

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Marathon des Sables – Q&A

What is the Marathon des Sables?
The Marathon des Sables (or “MDS” for those wanting to sound like they are in the “know”) is a 6 day, 250 km race across the Sahara Desert which the Discovery Channel described as the “toughest footrace on earth”. There is a degree of self-sufficiency (you carry everything but water and tents) and each stage has a number of checkpoints with cut off times. It was thought up a Frenchman and I am told entry for ex members of the Foreign Legion is free, so how hard can it be? A more balanced description is available http://marathondessables.co.uk/.

How many marathons have you run and what’s your best time?
This is where my story may start diverging from the stories of some of the other competitors. I’ve never run a marathon; indeed, running for any distance is not something I have accomplished very often in the last 20 years, without ending up on the treatment or operating table.

With all your travelling, you must have an advantage being acclimatised to the heat?
Sadly, most of my travelling has been in the mountains, which are not known for their warmth. Being acclimatised to the heat would be an advantage. Some of my fellow competitors have been training in Lanzarote, some have been hiring the heat chambers used to help Formula 1 drivers prepare for races. I haven’t managed to fit in either of these things; but my wife has used the MDS as an excuse to turn the heating up at home.

How about the challenges posed by sand dunes and the sand generally getting everywhere?
I did go on holiday to the Costa Brava last year, to practice running/walking on the sand and toughen my feet up. My feet blistered on the first (and therefore last) day of walking on sand. My wife reminded me I’ve never been good in the heat or sand.

You don’t have tough feet then?
No. I never have. I remember over 30 years ago when I did the Ten Tors expedition on Dartmoor, I blistered my feet so badly I was taken to hospital after I finished. That hasn’t happened since, so maybe they are improving.

I understand you have to carry all of your own food with you?
Yes. I need to carry at least 2000 calories per day. I’m not planning to take a stove or fuel, so will only be eating dry, cold food. Currently the core of my diet is looking likely to be cashew nuts, jelly babies and Pepperami.

What about the camels?
The camels bring up the rear and act a bit like a “devil take the hindmost” time check. If they catch you then you are out of time. I googled “Camel Racing” and understand they can run at 40mph; luckily, I don’t think they will be trying to overtake.

What has been going well in training?
Well, I have managed to maintain some (too many) fat reserves to compensate for the small amount of food I will be carrying and I have developed a taste for spicy Pepperami. I have also been buying lots of new (and lighter) gear. I am now the proud owner of items such as Dessert Gaiters (which Velcro to your shoes to keep sand out), “Guerney Goo” to stop chaffing, socks with separate toes (like gloves for your feet), a venom pump (in case a snake is also in search of extra calories) and, counter-intuitively, a “Yeti” sleeping bag. I also read Mo Farah’s training tips. Alongside the more traditional activities such as running, he drinks coffee as an integral part of his training regime. I’ve chosen to ignore the running bit and have invested in a Nespresso machine.

Do you actually have any chance of doing well?
No. I definitely won’t be challenging the leaders (I suspect they will be running faster than I walk), and like on Everest there is a distinct possibility of being overtaken by a septuagenarian. However, it seems possible that 6 consecutive days of fast walking could see me complete in the required time.

You’re mad – why are you doing it?
Bravado. Shortly after climbing Everest (Full story: https://markdicksontravelandphotography.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/climbing-to-the-top-of-the-world/) I was at Lords (that’s the one in London where the only “waters” you take are preceded by a “pop”) with friends when a couple of much younger guys sat next to us. As the cricket slowed, and the effects of a few drinks kicked in, I got talking to one of them. It turned out he had just completed the MDS, so I bet him I would do the MDS if he climbed Everest. I’ve never seen him since and we aren’t in contact. I have no idea if he climbed Everest; but a bet is a bet…………

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Everest base Camp and Goyko Ri

16th, 17th, 18th March – Starting Out

The last stage of my Everest preparation was a trip to the South side, Nepalese, Base Camp and a few other trekking highlights partly to improve my acclimatisation and fitness and partly as a holiday with my girlfriend, Claire, the price of choosing to spend two months away from home.  We arrived inKathmanducourtesy of Jet Airways viaDelhiin time to catch up with a few friends, includingPembawho would accompany us on our trek and carry the portion of Claire’s stuff I couldn’t manage.  We knewPembawell from previous treks inNepal.  A 6am start for the flight into Lukla airport, which at nearly 2900m is deemed by some to be one of the most dangerous landing places in the world, signalled the start of the trek in earnest – although the main danger was the 13 Japanese tourists who accompanied us in the plane crashing it, as they all rushed simultaneously to take the same picture out of one side of the plane.

19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd – On Trek

The trekking day starts in a very civilised way (well civilised for me, as previous to meeting me, Claire’s idea of “roughing it” had been a 4-star hotel, she maybe had different views…) with Pemba delivering early morning “bed tea” with a gentle wake up knock on the door.  Packing and breakfast take the best part of 90 minutes before we are on our way in the clear blue skies of the morning moving along in the shadow of the mountain scenery.  The main difficulty is avoiding the trains of hairy Yaks, or their lowland cousins Zhous, on the trail.  The golden rules are a) Yaks have right of way, b) always stay above a Yak when passing, c) never attempt to pass a Yak on a bridge and d) the Yaks don’t know the rules.  By the 19th we had our first view of Everest, by the 20th we had seen it clearly and decided even the bottom looked a long way away, let alone the top and on the 21st we got sight of the famous Yeti skull in the Kumjung monastery, although I was a little disturbed that the apparently 100’s of year old Yeti skull had more hair than me.  By the 22nd the novelty of what at first looked like huge satellite dishes, but are actually solar powered kettles, and human sized rotating prayer wheels had warn off.

23rd, 24th, 25th – “Resting”

In order to ease the process of acclimatisation we had three “rest” days at Dingboche, 4300m above sea level.  Claire was a little disappointed on the first rest day to find out that “rest” actually meant go and climb up a steep peak to over 5,000m, something I was quite happy to do as I didn’t need to carry my 22kg pack.  Aided by Kendall mint cake, which I discovered was the only piece of equipment I had for my Everest attempt that had also been used by Hillary and Tensing, she however found it remarkably easy, although the difference between locals and westerners was clear as we realised that Pemba, even though he was walking as slowly as he could, was clicking his heels together after every step, so that we could keep up.  The second rest day was more of a rest, not by design but as the Dingboche equivalent ofDelhibelly struck all three of us includingPemba.  Three days certainly gave us time to experience the comfort of the tea houses we were staying in during our trek.  Most were a mixture in varying proportions of stone and plywood, although strangely one company “Suraya” seemed to have cornered the substantial market in plywood in the Everest region, with compact basic bedrooms and a lounge warmed by a heater powered by either Yak dung, wood or a combination of both depending on the altitude.  The simple addition of lighting seemed to be the feature that amazed the porters and guides the most as, inexplicably as they were all Buddhist, they crossed themselves Catholic style, whenever the lights came on successfully.

26th, 27th, 28th – Everest Base Camp & Kala Phattar

Following our “rest” the main objectives were Everest Base Camp at 5350m and the view point of Kala Phattar at 5545m with a night a Lobuche, 4700m, before hand.  We got to Lobuche with no problems, enjoying great views along the way but were a little worried when it started snowing mid afternoon.  Fortunately the snow simply made things more scenic, although it didn’t bode well for our attempt at traversing the Tso La pass, 5350m, a few days later.  By our standards we felt we made pretty quick progress to Everest Base Camp, although the local wildlife didn’t seem to think so.  The small birds had an annoying habit of sitting smugly on nearby rocks watching our mediocre progress, until we approach closer and attempted to take photos when, clearly unimpressed with our stealth or ability to accelerate our movements, they merely hopped away without the slightest thought, or need, of bringing their perfectly functional wings into use.  It still being a little early for the South side teams Base Camp was mainly populated with small groups of tents placed largely for the purpose of reserving sufficient space for all the equipment and supplies making its way from Lukla on the Yak trains behind us.

Whilst Base Camp gives a great view of the journey up the Khumbu icefall towards Camp 1 you don’t get a view of the actual summit.  For that we would have to return to Gorakshep, the last group of tea houses and then ascend Kala Phattar, hopefully for some sunrise photos the next morning.  Having successfully “rested” by climbing to 5,000m above Dingboche the main challenge for the ascent was the cold.  Pre sunrise and with strong winds blowing even at 5,000m Claire was glad she had the benefit of my “Expedition” clothing.  The key things that Claire noticed at the “summit” were that a) she had got there and b) she was feeling much warmer than everyone else.  The key things I noticed was that Everest was being buffeted by at least 80 kph winds from the jet stream and had very little snow on it, neither good for climbing, but as I was about 2 months away from a summit attempt this was of little relevance.

We descended happily to Gorakshep but based on the wind and imminent arrival of snow in the afternoon decided not to risk the high pass to our next destination, Goyko, but take the one day longer, but guaranteed safe passage via Phortse.  After the descent from Kala Phattar we therefore had breakfast and descended nearly 1,000m to Periche, where it snowed all afternoon and all night, seemingly vindicating our decision.

29th, 30th, 31stAlternative Route to Goyko Ri

The route to Goyko was partly new to me and partly one I had travelled in 2005.  It was a sign of how things had developed in the region, and how many new “towns” of tea houses had sprung up that both parts of the route were unrecognisable to me.  The viewpoint above Goyko is famous for one of the best panoramas of 8,000m + peaks available to trekkers, but is best seen at sunset.  Unfortunately when we arrived in Goyko mid afternoon it had started snowing again and instead of climbing to the top we had little option but to sit the weather out eating Pringles.  This was still better than 2005 when I had climbed the 600m to the summit only to find I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face let alone any mountains.  Luckily the next morning at 6.10, 20 minutes ahead of schedule a smiling Pemba arrived laden with “bed tea” announcing “weather good” and by 6.45 we were up, off and up.  This fourth climb in less than two weeks however was proving a little much for Claire and only with the injection of a mid ascent Mars Bar did she manage a good pace to the summit.  On reaching the summit we were greeted with the surreal spectacle, more Benidorm than Goyko, of a German trekker informing us that the “summit” was “reserved” for a German trekking group photo.  Resisting the temptation to ask that if this was so, where were the towels, we proceeded slightly higher to the true summit and enjoyed the views.  The views were perfect, a panorama of high peaks including the 8,000m + giants ofCho Oyu,Makalu,Lhotseand Everest.

1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th – The Return

As soon as we had returned to Goyko, the weather was coming in again so we set off for the 2,000m 3 day descent back to Lukla.  In truth it wasn’t exactly all downhill, Claire did seem to think that too many mountains were getting in the way of her descent.  The weather however proved less pleasant than the ascent as bright mornings were replaced with10amrain and thunder storms.  We learnt as we passed trekkers going up that these storms were accompanied by high winds that had shut Lukla airport for 3 days and caused a huge back up in trekkers and climbers trying to get to the mountains.  Luck however was with us again as we left Lukla in the clearest weather I had ever seen, I hoped that my luck with the weather would continue on Everest.

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Tales of a Kyrgyzstan Cooker

When I told people we were heading to Kyrgyzstan for our holidays the questions were generally “Where?” and “Why?”. Having explained it was in Central Asia bordering China and the other “stans” and that it is famous as one of the most mountainous countries in the world people, particularly those who knew my penchant for mountains, trekking and unusual destinations generally got the picture, although many couldn’t resist asking “is it safe?”. Truthfully I hadn’t really considered this question much before I booked the trip but investigation showed that it hadn’t had a major riot for a year and was 144th out 183 countries on the income per head tables, comfortably ahead of both our last holiday destination (Madagascar 172nd) and my next (Nepal 161st). These comforting thoughts were however somewhat balanced by the fact that it was definitely less set up for western tourists than either Madagascar or Nepal and that I had to randomly select an agency off the internet to organise the trip, including the trekking equipment and crew. It was with some relief that we spotted the handheld “Mark Dickson” sign at the airport and meet with Eve, who introduced herself as our 23 year old interpreter and trek “cooker”.

Our trekking was to be 10 days in the Celestial mountains, with the starting point a 2 day drive east of the capital, Bishkek. Here we met Valerie our Russian speaking guide, grizzled, sun tanned and well into his 50s he looked like he had plenty of days in the mountain behind him. The plan as far as we could understand it was to drive to the pass at 3800m early morning, meet the horses and horsemen who would be transporting our gear mid morning, and then head off on trek. This sounded like a good plan and it even bore a passing resemblance to the itinerary we had agreed over email.

By midday there was no sign of the horses or horsemen so we put up the dining tent and had lunch. Those of you who have been trekking in other countries will picture a dining tent as a sturdy construction, often a single, but thick, walled tent with an internal frame and several strong anchors. This Russian made dining tent was thin plastic with a strange external frame and walls which didn’t reach the floor. I mentioned at the time it wouldn’t stand up to high winds, but luckily all was calm. After lunch Valerie disappeared to try and find the horses and the inevitable happened, the wind picked up and the rain started, the dining tent collapsed and Claire made herself useful as a human anchor by lying on top of it and all the gear it was protecting whilst I found the “client” tent which I hoped would be a proper tent and struggled to put it up in the gale force winds. At this point it became clear that our interpreter “cooker” knew little about camping, or putting up tents at least.

Unbelievably the horses turned up at 6.30 pm and our guide informed us, via the interpreter, that for some unexplained reason, the horsemen were late as they had walked rather than ride the horses. This didn’t seem to make much sense, or even adequately explain an 8 hour delay and why they didn’t seem to be worried that they were late but by this time we didn’t care much as we were well inside our tent as it had started to snow, to accompany the gale force winds.

We awoke early to clear skies eager to pack up and get going to make up for our lost day. The scenery and weather were fantastic and we settled into the trekking routine for a few days with the occasional knee deep river to cross, the Russian system for which was to all link arms and cross as a human chain.

After a few days we began to have concerns about our “cooker’s” catering. The traditional supper on a catered trek is soup, main meal and maybe some tinned fruit for desert. The traditional diet for a 23 year old girl in Kyrgyzstan seemed to be a little soup, no real food and lots and lots of chocolate. This 23 year old girl wasn’t going to let the fact she was on a trek ruin her diet. Every night we were treated to soup (containing microscopic pieces of meat or fish but significant quantities of cabbage) followed by a large bar of chocolate, accompanied by chocolate biscuits. I presumed the biscuits were main course and the chocolate dessert, but didn’t like to ask. Lunch was similarly balanced with one small sandwich accompanied by a large bag of nuts and dried fruit and 4 large “wagon wheel” style chocolate biscuits. Just when we thought things couldn’t get anymore bizarre we were served cornflakes with condensed milk and added jelly babies!

If we were concerned over Eve’s catering, we were equally concerned over Valerie’s activities. He had the disconcerting habit of stripping down to his Y fronts, red T-shirt and cowboy hat whilst walking so he looked like one of the village people in retirement. More practically he seemed to have forgotten we were walking and not skiing as he tended to avoid any paths that threatened to get us from where we were to where we were going, in an (unsuccessful) attempt to contour round every single hill without losing any height. On top of this whenever he spoke in English it was difficult to concentrate and take him seriously (even if he had his trousers on) as with his heavy Russian accent he sounded just like one of the meerkats from the comparethemarket.com adverts.

If Eve and Valerie had their own idiosyncrasies, this was nothing compared to their combined performance. Initially, we put some things down to the language. Russian is a harsh language and I am sure even “Merry Christmas” in Russian sounds like a death threat. We presumed therefore that their interchanges were nothing unusual and they laughed when we described them as like an old married couple (a thought that filled Eve with far more fear than Valerie).

Things weren’t helped by the fact that neither of them had thought to bring a watch or could be bothered to look at the time on their mobile phones. This made the daily briefings about the next day’s plan somewhat pointless (we had already departed significantly from the original itinerary by day 2), every leg was “2 hours” regardless of how long it would actually take and plans such as wake up at 7.30 pack and breakfast at 8.00 just meant cold breakfast when they had cooked it by 7.15 but not woken us up.

Everything came to a head on the penultimate day when yet again the deadly duo couldn’t manage to organise getting us, the gear and the horses on the same map reference (actually map references are theoretical as they didn’t bring a map). This according to Valerie (Valeries’s English mysteriously improved when he was complaining about Eve) was Eve’s fault and according to Eve was Valerie’s fault, although both laid part of the blame with the horsemen and both were keen to complain about the others to us. Inevitably the Russian became harsher and Eve managed to act as any tour leader experienced in managing the inevitable mishap would – she burst into tears, went off in a huff and stopped talking to Valerie. Presumably she also ate some chocolate. We felt like we were witnessing a playground squabble, not a trek crew in operation.

Still barely speaking the next morning they hatched a “foolproof” plan to ensure we were reunited with our gear at the final campsite. We would go with Valerie and Eve would go with the horsemen and both Valerie and Eve would have mobile phones to keep in contact. Unbelievably they couldn’t even get this right. After 12 hours of walking we were still “2 hours” from camp (which Eve had placed ridiculously too far down the valley, the phones obviously not having worked) but had hit a main road so we got in a taxi and very much enjoyed finding a restaurant serving meat kebabs without chocolate that evening.

The next morning we point blank refused to get involved in any discussion with Eve or Valerie about why it was the other one’s fault and asked for a suitable half day excursion. There was a nice walk to a waterfall, unsurprisingly “2 hours” there and “2 hours” back. Imagine our surprise when the route involved crawling under thorn bushes, a short belay and rock climb. Following a 12 hour day yesterday we were not happy that these elements of the route hadn’t been mentioned, particularly as Claire hadn’t exactly demonstrated any rock climbing prowess in the previous 9 days. We made our displeasure known and when the transport got back to town Valerie left without a word and Eve blissfully stayed out of our way for the rest of the trip allowing us to track down more meat and beer on the drive back to the capital.

Despite all the above we had a great time in Kyrgyzstan, the Celestial Mountains are well named as the scenery is excellent and whilst the problems above make funnier reading than descriptions of idyllic campsites and stunning scenery, they are part and parcel of visiting a place so remote that we didn’t see a single other tourist during our 10 day trek. So I would definitely recommend Kyrgyzstan, just with a different crew!

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Climbing to the top of the world

8th to 10th April – into China

The team got together in Kathmandu for the first time and had the traditional pre departure diner.  There are 7 of us.  Phil is the organiser who I have climbed with several times in Nepal and Pakistan.  Others include Mark who I first trekked with on Kilimanjaro in 2002, Ian who Mark and I first climbed with in 2007 up to theNorth Colof Everest where we were now returning and Mila who climbed with the four of us on Manaslu in October.  Margaret and Grant who I was meeting for the first time completed the team.  62 year old Margaret had summited with Phil from the South side in 2011 and on her return toAustraliawas christened “Super Gran” by the press for hr exploits.  Grant, who had been unsuccessful attempting the North side the same year, completed the team.

The first challenge, as always after a couple of nights in Kathmandu was successfully making the 5am start for the trip to the Chinese border but fortunately, with the road improvements implemented since my previous trips in 2006 and 2007, the process was smooth.  Even the potentially tense and time consuming task of passing two truck loads of gear through customs was relatively painless, although it did take over 250 porters to carry the gear from the Nepali trucks over the bridge to the Chinese trucks.

11th to 13th April – to Base Camp

Although the roads are now tarmac all the way to Base Camp, so that it’s only a day’s drive, the process of acclimatisation demands breaking the journey into three legs with two night stops in Nylam (c. 3600m) and Tingri (c. 4250m) with accommodation and meals courtesy of our hosts the Chinese Mountaineering Association.  Neither Nylam nor Tingri are major centres and even the Yaks wondering the streets look somewhat bored, although the carts powered by a variety of unpredictable engines are more amusing.

Constant snowfall didn’t make exploring Nylam too appealing, and we were reduced to speculating why the myriad of dogs which roamed silently around the towns during the day felt it necessary to test their vocal cords to the limit throughout the night with their wolf impressions.  The highlight of the journey between the two towns was the views of the 8,000m+ Shisapagnma from the 5,000m+ Tong La pass.  The high winds and dust storms which greeted us on arrival at Tingri were more disappointing, but the views of Everest and Cho Oyu when it cleared the next morning were a vast improvement.

The Tingri “Ha Hoo Ho Tel” had smart and modern rooms, although they hadn’t yet been fully fitted so were without running water and were equipped only with a traditional Chinese outside toilet block of 4 holes in the ground separated by a one foot high wall.  This toilet had the additional “Ha Hoo” design feature that the wind blowing underneath the holes had a nasty habit of sending any used toilet paper back up through those holes from whence it came, or worse the adjacent hole.  Despite these features and the Chinese food being hygienic and plentiful, none of us needed convincing of the merits of a 4am departure for the more familiar comforts of Base Camp.

There are two routes to Base Camp, the bumpyLhasa“Highway” and the even bumpier “short cut” through a side valley only recommended for 4×4 transportation.  We were travelling in the equivalent of a school bus, so were fully expecting the Lhasa Highway, but our driver, undeterred by the fact he had never been to Base Camp and took three wrong turnings before he even left Tingri, selected the short cut.  Although spine jarring the benefit for us where some spectacular views of the mountains around Everest.  Unfortunately despite everyone on the bus having seen Everest many times and there being well over 30 summits between our more experienced climbers and the Sherpa team, a smaller mountain was mistakenly identified as Everest and many megabytes of videos and photos were wasted.

14th to 15th – Setting up Base Camp

Base Camp is both spectacular with a clear view of the mountain and desolate, being rock covered in stark contrast to the glacier on the South side.  It is also battered by seemingly continuous high winds.  We were extremely grateful that Phil and the Sherpas did the majority of the work in erecting the tents, whilst we “acclimatised” drinking tea.  However it still took over a dozen of us to successful erect the circular dome tents, and even then this was only accomplished at the cost of a small rip.

After a night where no one slept well from a mixture of the altitude (c. 5200m), the constant howling of the wind and consequent apparent instability of the tents and the sub zero temperatures inside those tents, the second day still required the completion of camp.  The shower and toilet tents were put up, the interim solution being similar to the arrangements in Tingri but with much more wind, the gas heaters were fixed and numerous solar panels erected to provide power to everything from laptops to the crucial mountain radios, possibly the most important piece of safety equipment on the mountain.

Any remaining time was spent on more aesthetic tasks such as carpeting the various tents and finding the cushions for the dining chairs.  Despite the dust and wind we would not lack home comforts.

16th to 17th – Enjoying Base Camp

At 5,200m oxygen is approaching half of what it is at sea level, the next main camp is at 6,400m (where oxygen is nearer a third), so it is essential to ensure that your body produces more red blood cells to compensate for the lower oxygen and that your body is healthy enough to produce red blood cells that are efficient at carrying the little oxygen there is.  In practice this means 5-8 days at Base Camp before attempting to sleep higher.

The first 3 days are spent exclusively resting, staying hydrated (dehydration is a major problem at high altitude) and eating.  The later point is important as at 5,200m the extra effort involved in doing anything means that most people cannot eat enough calories to replace those that they lose even doing very little.

More by judgement than luck, resting, drinking and eating is exactly what. Base Camp is set up for.  Facilities for our 7 climbers, 8 climbing Sherpas, 2 cooks (who also both happen to have summitted Everest) and 4 assistant cooks include:

  • A kitchen tent, with fully equipped kitchen
  • A dining tent, complete with carpet, dining table and chairs and heated with propane heaters
  • Ladies and Gents toilets each with attached propane heated shower tents, carpeted
  • Two gear  storage tents and a food storage tent
  • A kitchen/dining tent for the Sherpas
  • A Cinema tent, with generator powered projector
  • 14 sleeping tents, all carpeted of course

By way of example we have not 1, but 4, Kitchen sinks in Base Camp.

Meal times are no less sophisticated than the facilities with breakfast, lunch, and a 3 course dinner and even 4pm “happy hour” with wine, cheese and assorted snacks, each proceeded by fragment hot towels.  So we will have no excuses for not acclimatising well in preparation for the first “rotation” further up the mountain.

18th & 19th – Puja Ceremony and Recovery

No climbing can start on an Expedition until the Puja ceremony has been held.  This is about a two hour process consisting of lamas chanting, climbing equipment such as ice axes and crampons being blessed and the erection of a Puja mound and pole, which will burn juniper continuously when anyone is on the mountain.  More bizarrely this particular Puja contained the additional blessing of a leg of Yak, I still haven’t been able to ascertain why.

The date and start time of the Puja is set with reference to astrological charts rather than weather forecasts and as such had to be held inside due to high winds, which we later heard destroyed a number of tents at Advanced Base Camp.  The charts also dictated an8amstart so by10amthe post Puja party had started which involved compulsory rum, beer and Rakshi, the local home made spirit.  The Rakshi is what we are all blaming our “morning after” sore heads on.

20th – Final Preparations for First Rotation

Expeditions are typically split into “rotations”.  Each trip from Base Camp (BC) up the mountain and back to BC is a “rotation”.  Our first rotation will be around eight days in total.  A two day trek to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 6,400m, a couple of days rest, an acclimatisation climb up the steep ice wall to the North Col, Camp 1 (7050m – higher than any mountain outside the greater Himalayan region) and back to BC, a couple of more day rest and then return to Camp 1 to sleep, the next day ascending to between 7300m and 7500m returning to ABC, before hiking back to BC.

Two things need to be in place before we could commence the rotation.  Firstly we required a team of 47 Yaks to transport 1,700 kilos of gear to ABC and secondly we needed a weather forecast which didn’t indicate wind speeds high enough to destroy ABC once it was set up.

The Yaks arrived as scheduled today, the 20th and the weather is good so the team will all leave tomorrow on the 21st. You can follow the journey to ABC on the Spot Tracker.

21st and 22nd – to Advanced Base Camp

 The first part of the trek to ABC is mostly either alongside or on top of glacial moraine.  This sounds spectacular but in reality glacial moraine is the rocks carried or deposited by the river of ice as it moves down the valley.  The 9km and 650m of ascent to Interim Camp is therefore not one of the most beautiful treks in the world, but is more akin to a monotonous weaving and undulating path through and atop the rubble of a recently destroyed tower block.  Not wishing to hang around I was pleased to complete the trip in a little over 4 hours and arrive just as the wind reached uncomfortable levels and the snow started to fall.  The downside of this was that I then had 16 hours in a tent with Ian for company until we were due to leave the next morning.  2 hours of cards and 14 hours trying to sleep largely unsuccessfully as howling winds grasped at the tent wasn’t the best night for either of us.

The second part of the route is more scenic as the rubble is flanked on one side by imposing ice pinnacles.  The downside is the altitude, above 6,000m without the traditional preparation of a climb high, sleep low, acclimatisation schedule progress was slow.  As we reached camp every ten steps were necessarily followed by a brief rest.  Our progress wasn’t helped by increasingly strong and increasingly cold winds as we reached ABC.  I was pleased to get to ABC in a around 5 ½ hours, but I was less pleased that even though I was wearing reasonably thick gloves and boots the increased altitude and wind speeds were already giving me chilled fingers and toes.

23rd to 25th – Acclimatising at ABC

Whilst it is impossible to replicate the comforts of BC at ABC we had a fairly good go.  There were individual tents for each climber, with sleeping mats and foam “carpet” and separate dining and cooking tents.

Despite these comforts we could do nothing about the fact that the Jet Stream had decided to both pass directly over the mountain and descend to as low as 6000m.  This meant that it was too windy to erect tents at 7000m and too windy for the local CTMA rope fixers to work above 7900m.

However even it hadn’t been windy the 1,250m of extra altitude from the Base Camp elevation we were acclimatised to, and consequent lower Oxygen concentration (about a third of sea level), meant our movements were limited.  Everyone was out of breath simply walking 10m from their tent to the dining tent and altitude related headaches were common.  Even some of our experienced Sherpa team who had many Everest summits and would soon be carrying heavy loads up to our higher planned camps were suffering headaches after the swift ascent from BC.

For all of us these symptoms would reduce over the three planned rest days as our bodies produced more and stronger red blood cells to compensate for the lower Oxygen.  What we couldn’t adjust to merely through time was the wind and accompanying cold.  The 13 coldest night time hours of the day were spent completely cocooned in our sleeping bags within our tents.  These bags are designed to keep you warm in temperatures as low as minus 40C.  It was not that cold, but I can’t say exactly how cold it got as even inside my tent my watch batteries gave out when the thermometer showed minus 12C.

Immediately before the night time hibernation was diner, immediately before diner was dressing for diner.  There wasn’t a DJ is sight but merely to keep warm during the 15 minutes it took to consume diner before it became too cold to eat there were plenty of high altitude boots and full down suits on display.

26th – First Climbing Day

Our weather reports predicted no let up in the high winds and freezing temperatures which accompanied them.  We had already taken the decision that our “rotation” would become more of a “semi circle”.  We couldn’t sleep at 7000m so we would merely “tag” 7000m and return to Base Camp to await lower wind speeds.

On the morning of the attempted “tag” the winds had already been predicted to increase to 100 kph above theNorth Colat a little over 7000m.  These added another element to the equation.  It was important to climb as high as possible to trigger the production of more red blood cells and follow the recommended preparation and acclimatisation process, but it was also important not to weaken the body by suffering frost “nip”, or worse, frost bite, to fingers or toes in the cold temperatures.  Significant frost damage could be enough to end the expedition.

The trip to theNorth Colstarts as trek through camp on rock and sometimes ice to the start of the glacier proper where crampons and other essential climbing paraphernalia are donned and the route is pure ice to the bottom of the ice wall.  The final 400m of ascent is a pretty direct icy route, up the fixed safety lines, to theCol.

Largely dependent on their understanding of how successfully their digits dealt with cold temperatures, and how those digits responded on the day, each climber decided how far to travel before returning to the, only slightly warmer, ABC.  Ian, Phil and Grant “topped out”, I given my previous history of frost nip and frost bite on climbs in Aconcagua and Manaslu was forced to turn around at the bottom of the ice wall and Mark, Mila and Margaret decided to return somewhere in between.

 

27th – Return to Base camp

Despite, or possibly because of, continuing high winds none of us needed any encouragement to leave as soon as possible after breakfast to return all the way back to BC.  5 ½ monotonous hours later we had retraced our steps to BC and were recovering from our “semi circular” rotation with the aid of warmer temperatures, lower wind speeds and supplies of beer brought with us from Kathmandu.

28th and 29th – Resting at Base Camp

Soon thoughts will turn to weather forecasts again which will be daily from May.  A few things still need to be in place before a summit attempt can be considered:

–         The rope fixers need to fix the remaining distance from 7900m to the summit

–         Our Sherpa team who, despite the high winds, have already moved about half of our Oxygen to 7000m will need to return to ABC and stock all our planned camps on the mountain up to 8300m

–         Each climber will need to decide on their individual strategy, particularly whether to return to ABC to complete the other half of the first rotation

In the meantime we have concentrated on resting, but particularly eating.  We have all lost significant weight from our “rotation” at ABC, I am down at least 4 inches around my waist since I left London, and although putting weight on is extremely unlikely, even at BC, we can at least try and slow down the rate of loss given we may have up to another month before our expedition is complete.  Thoughtfully the kitchen team have purchased a new side of Yak for this eventuality.

30th April to 3rd May – 2nd “Half” Rotation 

The team have all decided to go once more to ABC and probably onwards to theNorth Colbefore returning to BC to wait for the summit push.

Luckily the various weather forecasts from places as far a field as Seattle, Switzerlandand Portugalall seemed to be in agreement for early May.  The high winds of the Jet Stream will reduce and then move away between 4th and 8th of May which should allow the ropes to be fixed to the summit, our Sherpa team to cache nearly 100 Oxygen bottles in the right locations on the mountain, up to 8300m, and us to rotate.

The Sherpas left on the 1st and we plan to leave on 4th for ABC.  Whether I personally go higher up to theNorth Col will depend on the weather and more particularly the temperatures higher up.

In the meantime we have been amusing ourselves doing laps of Base Camp checking out the lakes on the Rongbuk glacier and the memorials around Base Camp, most famously for Mallory andIrvinewho may or may not have summited in 1924 before perishing.

4thth May to 8thrd May – 2nd “Half” Rotation

It is 17km and 1200m of ascent from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp, and the route isn’t exactly straight.  It is also primarily on glacial moraine, a far from even “path” of rocks.  The journey this time took me 8 hours, the last two in some biting, if not strong by Everest standards, winds.

We took a “rest” day on the 5th although “rest” is not something associated with ABC.  It is usually either too hot if there are clear skies when the beating sun, combined with thin air, makes sun burn and dehydration key risks or else it is too cold.  Of 24 hours in a “rest” day typically the 13 night time hours are usually spent curled up in a sleeping bag designed to keep you warm in minus 40C temperatures, 10 day time hours are spent in your tent hiding from the sun or cold and 1 hour is spent in the dining dome eating or drinking.  Even evening meals are silent affairs as speed eating is the only way to consume what are high quality and varied meals prepared by our cook before the outside temperatures reduce the food to ice lollies.  Despite being tired from the trek up, the low oxygen makes sleeping difficult, during the day or night, and the nearest approximation to sleep for me was lying still counting the stitches in the orange tent fabric.

After a day’s “rest”, we were due to climb to 7,000m for acclimatisation and return.  It was a gorgeous day, clear skies and bright sunshine.  Dehydration and sunburn were much more likely and significantly less worrying risks than frostbite.  It was at this point that I discovered that my knee, which I had injured training for the expedition and aggravated on the way to ABC was hurting more than the previous day.  Fortified by appropriate drugs I set off with the others.

As usual we finalised on slightly different strategies.  Margaret, Grant, Phil, Mila and Mark all went up to 7000m and returned.  Ian, who was recovering from a cough and had already been up to 7000m returned from the bottom of the fixed ropes and I decided to save my feet and knees turning around somewhere in between, happy that the balance between acclimatisation and staying fresh for the summit push was right for me.

The return trek is no more appealing than going up.  Fresh from not going as high as the others the day before, I came back in 4 1/2 hours.  The others followed at regular intervals as they either left later or took a more leisurely approach.  Once back at BC we all enjoyed a more relaxed approach to eating, a glass of wine and looked forward to a proper night’s sleep, buoyed by the fact that we would only have to go to ABC once more, for the summit push.

This morning (8th May) our thoughts have all turned to the necessary elements which need to be in place for a summit attempt.  The CTMA will hopefully fix the ropes to the summit so that our Sherpa team to finish stocking the high camps and we will eagerly be studying the daily professional weather forecasts in the search for a suitable summit window.

9th May to 11th May – Stocking Camps and Rope Fixing

This is the period of the hardest work for both our Sherpa team and the Tibetan rope fixing team.  Both worked hard to complete their respective tasks before the predicted higher winds on the 12th.

We hope the Tibetans have now fixed ropes nearly all the way to the summit and our Sherpa team have confirmed that they have established caches of Oxygen and gear at 7000m, 7800m and 8300m.  The Sherpa team will return back to Base Camp for a well earned rest tomorrow, the 12th.

Whilst the Sherpas have been busy we have done very little, the biggest activity being studying weather reports and walking over to the Russian team’s camp to join them in their Victory Day celebrations.

12th May to 14th May – Off!

Our Sherpas have been back resting, we understand the ropes are being fixed on 18th and a suitable weather window appears to be in place.  So after a period when the main activity has been trying to stay healthy, we are leaving tomorrow for the summit push.

The 15th we will leave for ABC.  We will then rest for 1, 2 or 3 days before the final section of the climb:

Day 1: Climbing to and sleeping at Camp 1 (7000m)

Day 2: Climbing to and sleeping at Camp 2 (7800m)

Day 3: Climbing to Camp 3 (8300m) where we will rest before leaving at around1amfor the summit

Day 4: Hopefully we will summit and return to sleep at Camp 1

Day 5:  Return to ABC

Unfortunately above Base Camp (BC) I won’t be able to send any comprehensive blogs or pictures but hopefully will feed back summit news when I return to ABC and some photos and a fuller blog following my arrival back at BC.  Hopefully, conditions permitting, you will also be able to follow my progress on the SPOT tracker.

15th May to 23rd May – The Climb

Actually when we left on the 15th for ABC we already knew we would not have the chance of any rest days at ABC but would be ascending straight up the mountain aiming for a summit on 19th.  Our information predicted good weather on the 19th in the morning but with wind speeds rising in the afternoon and continuing through to the 25th.  This wasn’t so much a summit “window” as a summit “spy hole”.

Apart from good weather the other thing which may affect summit success is crowds.  There are very few places to pass on summit day and a number of tricky climbing sections where inexperienced climber’s progress can be very slow.  Being stuck behind a slow climber will increase the risk of frost bite and potentially not allow enough time to summit and return safely.  Too many people going for the summit on the same day can make it impossible for everyone to realise their dream.  Team’s traditionally therefore keep their summit plans quiet, particularly from other teams who have had not paid for their own professional weather forecasts.

The first part of the trip was the trek to ABC.  Theoretically being fully acclimatised this should have been easier and quicker than the previous two trips.  Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, I wasn’t feeling as strong, although partly due to pain from my knee this was largely mitigated by double dosages of two different pain killing anti inflammatory drugs and the trip actually took me longer than the previous trip at 8.5 hours.  Worse I arrived even more tired and as usual couldn’t sleep.

The second day was up to theNorth Col, which had been thehigh pointof the rest of the team’s acclimatisation.  I had declined the opportunity for this trip on previous rotations opting instead not to risk frost damage to my fingers ad toes.  Unfortunately the trip to the bottom of the vertical ice wall proved further evidence of my worsening physical condition.  It took nearly twice as long as long as previously and more worryingly I was overtaken by a 73 year old Japanese woman attempting to be the oldest female to summit Everest.  This was probably what prompted Grant to write in his diary that I looked too exhausted to successfully complete the remaining 3 days to the summit.  I was comfortably slower than the rest of the group, although Ian, who was still hampered by the chest infection which had dogged him at Base Camp, slowed down to my pace to accompany me.  The night at theNorth Colset the pattern for the next few days.  Me, Ian and Angelo, the Sherpa who would boil water and generally look after us during the night, each looking like Telly Tubbies in our humongous Down Suits and taking up even more room by placing us and our suits in Down sleeping bags, lying next to each other, soldier still, pretending to sleep.

In all from this point despite many hours lying in a tent I estimate that I slept no more than 2 hours on any night, eat nothing more than two mini chocolate bars and had nothing more to drink than 3 cups of tea.

Day 3 was 800m of climbing up to 7800m.  After two days of climbing and an uncomfortable night at camp 1 I was considerably less ready for day 3 than I had been for day 1.  Luckily we could wait for the sun to rise before departing.  It was at this point that Angelo performed his other tasks before packing and carrying our Camp 1 to become our Camp 2.  Because of my susceptibility to the cold which had prevented success on my last attempt at an 8000m peak, I had to ensure that my fingers wee kept warm at all times.  This meant that when outside I needed the biggest, warmest gloves and like a small child being dressed for a winter walk to school, Angelo had to do the more technical tasks such as putting my climbing harness and crampons on.

The plan was to climb to 7300m and switch on the supplemental Oxygen.  The Oxygen is fed at a rate of between 0.5 and 4 litres per minute into a fighter pilot style mask and mixed with the ambient air, enriching its content.  By 7150m I was struggling again, I was, walking but upward and horizontal progress was limited, Ian and the rest of the team were patiently strung out close behind me.  It was time for the Oxygen, despite my previous mountaineering experience I had never actually put Oxygen on before.  It didn’t make me feel like a fighter pilot, it made me feel like Hannibal Lecter’s prisoner.  Whatever I tried the tight fitting rubberised mask seemed to choke me and even at 1.5 litres per minute I couldn’t notice any actual benefits and was still struggling for breath.

It was at this point that team psychology came to my rescue.  In my mind I could barely walk, I was exhausted, dehydrated and unable to see how I could continue for another several days in more trying circumstances.  The magic “O’s” had done nothing to change the situation.  However I was in front and leading my friend’s Mark and Ian and provided the others were not getting too far in front of us I cold continue for another few steps and still be able to turn around and descend to safety.  So I might as well go a few more steps.

The equation never changed.  I could never see myself getting all the way to the summit, but I could always manage a few more steps and in the absence of any other serious reason would take those steps as long as I felt I could get back down.

By the time I reached Camp 2 Mark had overtaken me and Ian had gone ahead, but we had all made it.  No speed records had been set and we were all exhausted, this was the highest any of us had ever slept.  Ian and myself collapsed into the tent, eventually managed to force down our standard, if wholly inadequate, fare of a mini chocolate bar and a cup of tea and then resigned ourselves to another night of lying wide awake, oxygen mask on at 0.5 and dreaming of sleep which never came.  I used the time to try and get used to my mask and view it as the friend it was, but still occasionally ripped it off in an illogical panic, as in Alien.

Probably because of the uncomfortableness of the previous night, rather than an indication of any keenness or freshness, myself and Ian were the first to depart for Camp 3 at 8200m, having been dressed by Angelo.  I wasn’t feeling any better or faster than the previous day but Ian had slowed down a little so he went first.  This proved a blessing as the previous day he had picked the wrong rock to sit on and ripped the bottom of his down suit which meant as he walked a fist sized lump of goose feathers would leak out and congeal giving him the look of a badly dressed Playboy Bunny as he progressed up the mountain.

Although I was no longer leading Ian the same thoughts, “well a few more steps won’t hurt, I can still get down” went through my head on a rolling loop.  I imagine Ian’s mind was playing a similar record.

There are only 5 mountains in the world higher than Camp 3 on Everest, so it is the world’s highest campsite.  Getting there in itself is an achievement.  It is a barren place, exposed to the elements and on a steep slope.  When we arrived it was snowing and windy and as usual the Sherpas had done all the work.  They had located the Oxygen that they had stored there on 2 previous trips and erected the tents they had carried from Camp 2.  Although they had picked the best sites and levelled the ground to the best of their ability the three of us would all be sleeping at a not insignificant angle.

We arrived mid afternoon and knew we would be leaving beforemidnight.  As usual myself and Ian collapsed too exhausted to eat and drink properly, but the thought that after 4 straight days ascending 3000m we were now only one day away from the summit provided us with the energy to make our preparations for the summit attempt.

We weren’t the only ones with a professional weather forecast and hence at Camp 3 there were large Russian and Chinese groups as well as other smaller units all preparing to attempt to top out on the 19th.  Uniquely in any of our experience the Chinese, who had fixed the ropes the day before, decided that everyone would be given staggered start times to ease congestion.

Whilst simplistically sound in theory staggered start times are fraught with danger.  Climbing speeds vary widely between individuals and some climbers with early start times would be likely to reach he summit in the dark, whilst other would be allocated start times which wouldn’t allow them enough time to summit and return before the high winds arrived.

Even though awake, myself and Ian remained ignorant of the sometimes heated discussions.  We merely accepted our fate when we were allotted a not unreasonable 23.30 start.  There can be few things more bizarre however than lying in a tent at 8200m in the dark listening to a Chinese gentleman announcing every half hour in heavily accented English the  name of the team who were due off next.

Other than the altitude the other obvious big difference between summit day and the previous four days, each of which had been nearly too much for me, was the night time start.  Colder and darker are the key differences between night and day, which made it even harder for Angelo to dress me, and made my head lamp even more important.

The route to the summit on the North side of Everest famously involves the three “steps”, rock formations which have to be climbed in between more mellow snowier sections.  I only actually realised which were the 3 steps on the way down.  On the way up, in the dark, I counted a least a dozen sections I considered steps.  Furthermore the “mellower” sections are not mellow.  In the 9.5 hours it took me to reach the summit only three thoughts went through my head:

  1. What am I doing in the dark, time and again, placing my foot, unstable in its oversize boots and crampons, on a ledge half of my foot’s size when there is a 3000m drop the other side and how am I going to be able to do it again on the way down?
  2. When faced with a “real” step – “how am I going to get my leg up there”?
  3. I hope I have judged this right and I still have enough energy to get down

Of these the third was the most important. Occasionally my mind did wander.  My breath was taken aback as briefly looked up from carefully placing my feet to see the sun rising above the clouds apparently far beneath us.  It took me an age to work out that the warm feeling on my back was the heat from the Oxygen bottle and bizarrely, for a reason I can’t fathom, when I frequently bent myself over double to gulp as much Oxygen as possible I would in my head to ten in a American Woman’s accent.  If I had set mental tests in the state I was in I think I would have been sectioned.

In the night time temperatures dictated that I had to wear the warmest gloves which money could buy.  Unsurprisingly the warmest gloves that money can buy are also the thickest with the least dexterity and so the whole way up, every time that I had to move my safety line from one rope to the next, in order to retain the warmth in my fingers Angelo would perform this task for me.

In order to keep a pace that would allow ascent and descent within the confines of two bottles of Oxygen we stopped only once on the way up.  A spectacularly unsuccessful drinks break.  Ian had a litre bottle of water which was frozen solid, I had a half litre which had kept warm inside my suit but the top was frozen solid.  We managed to share a few mouthfuls from mine after unimaginatively using an ice axe to make a hole in the ice through which we could drink through.

As I approached to within an hour of the summit, I saw our leader Phil descending.  Whilst pleased, the look on his face said to me that perhaps Grant wasn’t the only one with a diary entry that said I wouldn’t make it.  What Phil did next surprised me even more, he leaned over and planted a kiss, well more of a French kiss really on my cheek. I then realised that what he had actually done was clear the intake valve on my mask of ice, which had been blocking the input of the ambient air into the system and would explain my confused mind in the first place.

Finally “well I can make a few more steps” meant the summit.  The first thing I did on reaching the summit was I sat down.  The second thing that happened was that my Oxygen cylinder gasped its last.  As the wind was blowing 45mph gusts on the summit Angelo had left my replacement cylinder sheltered 20m down the mountain.  Even without the benefits of Oxygen I realised that I had just completed the toughest physical challenge of my life.  More importantly I realised that summitting Everest’s reign as my toughest physical challenge would not last long, I had realised all the time during my ascent that a safe descent would be even tougher.  I retrieved my camera, passed it to Angelo for the obligatory summit photo and after no more than 5 minutes on top of the world was on my way down.

The descent was in daylight, easier to pick your steps but easier to see the dangers around you.  As descended the third step I staggered a few steps when I hit the snow and bumped into what had seemed a destroyed tent on the way up.  It hadn’t dawned on me that no one would carry a tent to there, or leave it if they did.  It wasn’t a tent, close up it was clearly a body.  In fact when I looked around it was one of three from previous years by the third step.  I mumbled “sorry” through my mask to the body at my feet and carried on.

The round trip back to camp 3 took 16 hours.  The original plan was to continue down to Camp 1 but we were too late for that and the afternoon winds had already started.  Indeed when the first of our team arrived at Camp 3 they had found our tent upside down, but managed to repitch it with minimal loss of gear.  We would sleep at Camp 3, this time for a whole night, before descending the next day.

Myself and Ian were exhausted, we had had a few sips of water between us in 16 hours, next to no food and completed the hardest physical day of our lives.  It was even too windy to collect and boil snow.  Neither of us could talk.  Whilst we set about trying to thaw the ice in our bottles we quenched our thirst by cracking off and eating the ice which had frozen to the zips and lapels of our down suits, below our masks.  Unsurprisingly those 14 hours in a tent at 8200m, even on Oxygen at 0.5m was the worst “rest” of my life.

The next morning, 20th, the winds were high and if we had been going up rather than down we would have abandoned our summit attempt.  However, we had good supplies of Oxygen and could set our Oxygen at a high 3 litres per minutes to achieve the 1200m of descent as quickly as possible.

As neither of us could talk through dehydration I don’t know what Ian thought, but for me every step down was agony as my body rebelled against the thought of more exercised.  The thought process going down is much easier than that going up.  The equations are simple the further you descend the better you feel and it is much easier descending with the aid of Oxygen so go as fast as you can before it runs out.  All I was dreaming of was being able to stop, sit down and have a drink of water.  Half way down Mila came to the rescue with the latter and showed the benefits of having summitted and returned much faster than us by producing a bottle for us to share.

When I arrived safely at the North Col the oxygen mask came off, I lay down and alternated between taking sips of water augmented with snow to make it go further and violently coughing up blood and phlegm.  My mind knew that I was safe and could rest for an hour or so before a slow 600m descent down the fixed ropes to ABC, but my body just knew that it had been put through the worst experience of its life and that 7000m still wasn’t an altitude suitable for human habitation.

In all 6 of our 7 climbers made it to the summit, accompanied by 5 Sherpas, one climber turning around just by the 2nd step.  Most importantly all made it back safe and sound with no dramas or rescues.  Unfortunately on Everest this year this is not true of all teams.  We benefited from not only strong experienced climbers, but from an experienced back up organisation ranging from equipment, weather reports, kitchen cooks and assistants who kept a clean bug free kitchen and Sherpas who not only stocked and cleared all the camps but supported us individually on summit day.

Personally I have achieved my aim, albeit it took considerably more mental and physical effort than I was expecting, but I could not have done it without the back up of a top class crew working together to get me there.

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Manaslu, October 2011

My last expedition was my 4th attempt at an 8,000m + peak. Manaslu, or “Spirit Mountain”, in Nepal at 8,163m is the 8th highest mountain in the world. Unusually for me I managed to put in some training before the expedition, courtesy of my less than amicable parting of ways with my US bosses swiftly descending into much more litigious “irreconcilable differences”. Despite my efforts to settle these differences before departure, they seemed destined to play out in court on my return. However, all the good I did myself lugging a 27 kg pack around Hertfordshire for 50 kilometres at a time was undone over a long weekend in Edinburgh taking in the Fringe comedy festival, when despite avoiding deep fried Mars bars, I put back on all the weight I had lost since Kyrgyzstan.

The trip started predictably with me and my two climbing buddies Ian and Mark meeting for a beer in Heathrow, even though we hadn’t been coordinated enough to all actually be on the same flight. After a few beers we worked out that we had attempted ten 8,000m peaks with not a single summit between us. We meet up again in Kathmandu, having amused ourselves with various alcoholic beverages, purely to make the Indian in flight entertainment seem better of course, during our respective flights. During the flight I also engaged in some count back and worked out not only had I tried four 8,000m+ peaks without success, but also four peaks between 7,000m and 8,000m plus Aconcagua, at 6,962m, three times. At some point I was going to have to stop ignoring the statistics and accept climbing was not for me.

Once in Kathmandu, the traditional pre departure routine banished such negative thoughts. We met Phil, who I knew well from Everest and who me, Ian and Mark had all climbed with in Pakistan. Then after meeting the rest of the group, we partook in the group dinner, meet some more of our Kathmandu based friends and then drunk into the early hours at the bar in the Courtyard Hotel. Inevitably this was followed by being woken up 4 hours later, with a sore head, a need to eat two breakfasts and an unexplained gash and bruise on my nose. Perfect preparation for a 12 hour bus and truck ride to the trailhead.

The trek to the trailhead started at only 600m and at 9am the temperature was 34˚C. With over 7,500m of ascent to the summit, the end goal seemed a long way away and with temperatures expected to fall 70˚C from this point our bodies were in for a bit of a shock. None of this mattered much at the time as within 3 hours of starting off I had sweated more than on any other trek in my life. Everything was wet with sweat. The only time I can remember sweating more was when I woke up having passed out in my tent in Namibia in the heat of the midday desert sun. The second day was even hotter, up to 36˚C in the shade, and there wasn’t much shade. By lunchtime I was soaked from head to toe, the only upside of which was that the usually uncomfortable prospect of an afternoon of waist high river crossings and monsoon rain became insignificant. Indeed I was so sweaty there was no point changing shoes for the river crossing.

The trek to Base Camp continued in a similar vein, for 6 days. The uncomfortableness of putting on soaking wet clothes each morning was only surpassed by chickens crowing loudly at 4am. These chickens were particularly annoying as I would happily have eaten more chicken for dinner the night before. 8000m peaks are a major expedition and so for 10 western climbers, plus our “expeditor” Phil, we had 8 climbing Sherpas, a kitchen crew of 14 and 175 porters just to get us to the last town before Base Camp. As well as the support team we benefited from enterprising Nepali locals selling sodas to us dehydrated trekkers, until day 4 where the only option they had available was Red Bull imported from, I don’t know how, Vietnam.

The trek ended at Sama Goan, at an altitude of 3,450m, where we “acclimatised” for 3 nights before the trek to Base Camp. Sama Goan is not the most entertaining place, so the availability of beers and our kitchen crew providing wine with dinner detracted somewhat from the effectiveness of the “acclimatisation” programme before the ascent to Base Camp. Base Camp was at a height of 4,850m similar to the summit of Mount Blanc, although the 1,400m of ascent is over terrain which is much easier. As pleased as I was to get to Base Camp my efforts were insignificant compared to the male and female porters, ranging from 16 to 60 years, who did the same trip, some bare footed and some carrying their own body weight in our gear.

Base Camp was bordering on palatial, including a 3 person carpeted sleeping tent for each climber, a communications dome, kit storage tent, dining dome with carpet and heaters and 2 toilet/propane heated shower tents, all carpeted. In all we had not one, but three, kitchen sinks for 10 climbers. When combined with good food, courtesy of Sarki our very experienced cook and the very British break at 4pm, for wine, cheese and snacks, there could be no excuse for not resting and recovering effectively. The only discomfort was the frequent rain, unusual for a Base Camp, but warmer than snow, although setting up communications was the biggest challenge. After three days of much swearing, inefficiently charging solar panels in the rain, differences of opinion and contacting the US satellite providers via Phil’s wife in Bangkok; the conclusion was reached that a conspiracy was in operation and that new codes were required as the original codes had been identified as US government issue by the Chinese and blocked. Either way, three days after arrival full internet communication was in place, to complete the palace.

As always the first event at Base Camp was the Puja. The Puja is the blessing from the Lama and building of the Puja mound required before anyone can venture onto the mountain proper. Having experienced several Pujas they can vary immensely from the quick do it yourself version myself and Mark had before Baruntse, to the full on, 7am start, 3 hour version with invited guests from other teams, followed by drinking until everyone passes out in the afternoon, as I had experienced on Everest. Luckily this one was somewhere in the middle, we had three Lamas rather than one, and it seemed many chanters made light work as we were only watching in the rain for 2 hours and, as it was their 2nd Puja of the day, it started at a very respectable noon. The highlight was the apparent “sacrifice” of the carefully hand crafted, but slightly phallic, cocoa butter pyramids along with mine and Ian’s somewhat over enthusiastic consumption of blessed “rum”, from a coke bottle, although even after this we were compos mentis enough to eat dinner and find our way back to our own tents.

Camp 1 is at 5,750m, a 900m climb initially over rocks, unhelpfully iced up as snow melt flows over them, and then gradually through the crevassed glacier until a steep ascent at the end. Broadly, it is similar in altitude and effort to summit day on Kilimanjaro, although we would aim to do it 3 times. Firstly we would carry a sleeping bag and thermarest up and return to Base Camp, then we would go and sleep at Camp 1 and finally we would repeat the trip as part of the summit push. Well that was the plan. The first trip was the most eventful. I was climbing just 10m below Ian when I looked up to see him signaling me and calmly shouting, well as calmly as one can shout, that he had dislocated his shoulder. As he was on a fairly steep but innocuous section of the climb this surprised me, but on investigation he had clearly dislocated his shoulder in a freak “over stretching” accident. I knew what needed to be done; he needed the shoulder “popped” back in. Unfortunately neither Ian, me or anyone else in the vicinity knew whether our theories would “pop” back in or permanently damage his shoulder, so Ian turned round to descend to Base Camp to consult the doctor who, presumably, would know more about “popping”. The logic being if he got it properly “popped” back he could return the next day, whilst an incorrect “pop” could end his climb. I continued up to Camp 1 and was surprised to hear later on the radio that Ian was on his way up. He had met with another of our team Robert, who from uncomfortable personal experience knew a bit about “popping” and Ian had under Robert’s instruction did his own “popping”, turned round and continued up to Camp 1. On his return to Base Camp and consultation with the doctor it turned out that he hadn’t fully “popped” and he did well not to pass out as the doctor returned his shoulder to its rightful position. Determined as always Ian vowed not to let the pain, or only having partial use of one shoulder, prevent his summit attempt.

Our climbing team was multinational, including British, American, Canadian, Russian, Finnish, Colombian and Czech. The Finn and Czech had successful Everest summits behind them and two others, including Ian, were on Manaslu for the 2nd time. The Czech and one American were even brave enough to bring, and carry, skis for the descents. It was no surprise that Anne-Mari the professional marathon runner who, in 2010, became the second Finnish woman to summit Everest, set the early pace, comfortably being over an hour quicker to Camp 1 than me. The first Finish woman to summit Everest was only a day or two ahead of Anne-Mari, but had to be rescued on her descent, having let her ambition get the better of her judgment and attempted to summit in marginal conditions. The youngest of the group at 24 was Mila, the Russian living and studying in Kathmandu, who held the dubious distinction of being the only person I know, or am ever likely to know, of being thrown out of the Vatican. Apparently she won a scholarship to the Vatican university, I didn’t even know the Vatican had a university, to do a post graduate qualification in pilgrimages but had to leave when the focus wasn’t apparently Catholic enough. At least having been thrown out of the Vatican managed to disguise her eccentricity in utilising any “rest” day in trying to find a frozen lake to swim in.

The second trip to Camp 1 was to carry the rest of our kit up, such as our down suits, and to sleep. Mila had picked up a slight illness and elected to wait a couple of days. The rest of us comfortably shaved time off our first attempt, but unsurprisingly were still well behind Anne-Mari and happily reached Camp 1 only to find that two French climbers had not only “mistaken” one of our 7 large identical orange tents with our gear in, for their one small red tent with their gear in, but managed to rip our tent in the process. No amount of apology from the French could disguise the deliberate nature of their mistake in choosing our more comfortable larger tent, but realising the damage wasn’t deliberate, Phil successfully prevented an international incident when he physically restrained one of our larger Sherpas, Tarke from reciprocating the damage with his crampons on their tent. I am not sure whether Tarke would have cared if the French were still inside or not. Traditionally food above Base Camp is freeze dried meals, but for our meal at Camp 1 we were treated instead to apple pie prepared that morning and carried up by one of our Sherpas.

The next day was onwards to Camp 2, at 6400m. This is equivalent to summit day on Mera Peak but with the added difficulties of a route where the vertical distance is typically 75 degree slopes and the horizontal distance is extended by zig zagging a safe passage around seracs and crevasses. Added to this our night at Camp 2 was only to be our 7th night sleeping at Base Camp or above, a challenging acclimatisation schedule. This probably explains various difficulties in sleeping, which in my case were extenuated by early morning choruses of vomiting from the tents either side. This was the highest we planned to sleep on the mountain before the summit push. 6,400m is high enough to trigger your body into making as many more red blood cells as it can and any extra energy can be saved for the summit push. We collapsed Camp 2 which otherwise is vulnerable to destruction from high snow fall in particular, dropped our gear back to Camp 1 and headed back for wine and cheese at Base Camp.

On returning to Base Camp, our afternoon naps were disturbed by what we at first thought was the aftermath of an avalanche, but we later had confirmed was the edge of an earthquake, which had emanated from the Indian/Nepal border and apparently reached 6.9 on the Richter scale. Whilst we had been away, Sarki had been busy. A helicopter with the final client for another team had arrived and by arrangement with the helicopter company we had negotiated for a side of Yak and several freshly prepared and packaged chicken breasts to be smuggled into any extra space around the client. Sarki had met the helicopter and arranged porters to quickly get the rare meat supplies to Base Camp. Dinner on our return from our Camp 2 rotation was therefore a luxurious mix of double rations of red wine, which we were now viewing in the same way as Rum rations for the British navy in the 18th century, albeit our wine wasn’t watered down like Navy rum, and fresh chicken. The only person missing out was Mila who was at Camp 1, but as she is a teetotal vegetarian, this perhaps bothered her less than it would have bothered any of the rest of us. The side of Yak was put into a home made “fridge” for storage, it is possible that the fridge wouldn’t have met UK standards being made of rocks and snow, but at least there was no risk of cross contamination and we weren’t planning on leaving anything uneaten for long.

Our final trip up the mountain was to be a quick trip with a light load to Camp 1 and from there climbing with all our kit to Camp 2, then Camp 3 and then Camp 4. Camp 4 to the summit and back down to Camp 2 was to be attempted with Oxygen for most of us. So having climbed for only 3.5 days on the mountain, all that remained was to rest at Base Camp for a few more days to allow our bodies to acclimatise further, watch the professional weather forecasts for an appropriate summit combination of low winds and low precipitation and then go for it. As usual keeping the more hyperactive members of the team in Base Camp for four days without them exploding was expected to be the biggest challenge.

Surprisingly I turned out to be one of the more hyperactive members. After 2 days of doing nothing a few of us decided to trek back down the 1,400m to Sama Goan. The UK team of myself, Ian and Mark were accompanied by the two Everest summiteers Anne-Mari and Karel. Two hours later when we reached Sama Goan it became apparent that, other than avoiding cabin fever, our motivations were different. Karel was going to charge batteries to keep his communications with his import/export business back home going. Unfortunately as he arrived at 11am and the power only came on at 5pm. He was a little disappointed and left his electronics to be bought back up by a Sherpa the next day, and so was on his way back by 11.15. Myself, Ian and Mark were more predictably there because it was the nearest purveyor of beer and after a relatively healthy Fanta myself and Ian were quickly enjoying a pre noon Tuborg. Anne-Mari however had altogether different ideas. She had trekked down 1,400m not to rest and recuperate in the forested lower elevations, or indulge in any sinful habits she may have, but to find a flat piece of ground so that she could go for an hour’s running. The UK and Finnish summit preparations had clearly taken diametrically opposite directions. Anne-Mari returned disappointed as it was too muddy to run and we agreed to leave at 12.30 to be back in time for wine and cheese. At that moment Mark turned up, having left later due to some tent repitching. As well as beer his ulterior motive was deep fried momos and by the time these had been made from scratch and cooked myself and Ian were on our third beer, which was enough to prevent us from being inclined to leave with Anne-Mari and Mark at 2pm. Some time after 4.30pm, when walking was no longer a skill we were particularly adept at, we left, carrying liquid gifts for fellow climbers, with some of the Sherpas for Base Camp. The Sherpas had clearly not been in Sama Goan for running either and the muddy, stumbling, trek back in pitch black with two headlights between five took us something approaching 4 hours. Luckily Anne-Mari had clearly anticipated what was to happen to myself and Ian and lent us her head torch. After we poked our faces, with their childish grins attached, mumbling “next time we will get a taxi”, into the dining tent, much to the amusement of everyone else who took that as their cue to retire for the evening, Sarki turned up with a Yak steak for both of us, which we eagerly devoured. As we staggered to our tents, certain in the knowledge we would sleep soundly, but equally certain our alcoholic endeavours probably hadn’t been the best use of a “rest day”, I mischievously said to Ian we would probably be awoken with news of a perfect weather window and be starting our summit push the next day, a thought neither of us relished. I was wrong; the summit push was to be the day after next.

The plan was still straightforward, climb to Camp 1 and sleep, climb to Camp 2 and sleep, climb to Camp 3 and sleep, climb to Camp 4 and sleep and climb to summit and return to Camp 2 and sleep. The risk was that a storm that was predicted to pass to the south of us whilst we were between Camp 1 and Camp 2, might not stick to its predicted course. We were a little nervous when it started snowing at Base Camp mid morning. However we were more nervous when the four Liaison Officers for the various teams turned up. Liaison officers are meant to accompany teams at Base Camp and ensure that teams conduct themselves to the required standards. This includes ensuring that the teams have paid fees for any communications equipment they are using at Base Camp, including essential safety equipment such as mountain radios. Generally teams establish “good relations” with their appointed Liaison Officer in Kathmandu, such that the Officer feels “comfortable” in only paying the team a visit at Base Camp, rather than staying there and not feeling obliged to look too hard for communication equipment. Regardless of the establishment of prior “good relations” it is always a nervous moment as the “fines” for unauthorised equipment can be high and there is always a possibility that a Liaison Officer may rediscover his enthusiasm for a search. It was fortunate therefore that we decided to pack away some of our equipment into our big blue sealed drums for “safety” and convert the “comms” dome into a “medical” dome, just before we left for our summit push.

Our afternoon trip to Camp 1 was through an increasingly thick snowstorm with limited visibility. At Camp 1 we dug out our tents which were already slightly buried under the afternoon’s snow build up, ensured we had opened the front and rear vestibules to allow air to circulate and settled in for a semi comfortable night of sleeping interposed with shaking the tent from the inside to clear off accumulating snow. By morning it was clear that the storm hadn’t stuck to its predicted course. Camp 1 had over half a metre of snow and there had been at least that higher up the mountain. Our Sherpa team was led by Dorjee Sherpa, who became famous as the Sherpa who carried the 20 kg IMAX camera to the summit of Everest in 1996. These days he seemed to have modeled his climbing style on Don Whillans, fuelling his body with beer and cigarettes at every opportunity, and sporting a waist line to match, but still strong. We were relieved as he emerged from our night in a snowstorm at Camp 1, with a cigarette in one hand and a snow shovel in the other; ready to do the majority of any digging required. With that much snow, we had no choice but to dig our tents out and descend. As we left I counted 50 tents at Camp 1, we had watched two tents from other teams collapse as we dug ours out, and assumed at least another 20 unattended tents might not last another day.

Fortunately, we were only at Camp 1. We had to negotiate a single snow slope where there was some avalanche danger from the evening’s snow and the Sherpas made light work of re-establishing the route to Base Camp. The teams at Camp 2 were not so lucky. The route to Camp 3 would definitely be unsafe because of avalanche danger and the route down from Camp 2 to Camp 1 would be significantly more dangerous than the route up, with buried ropes and more avalanche danger.

Our team took the aborted summit attempt well, our non skiing American climber, Steve, amused the Sherpas by teaching them how to make a snow person, it was unclear from the outcome whether it was male or female, rather than a snow Buddha. Phil busied himself repairing the communications dome of which he was so proud, which had collapsed in equally heavy snow at Base Camp the previous night, and I wondered which pair of my three now smelly summit socks was to be my “clean” pair for the next summit attempt. The good news was that fridge was working even better in these conditions. Apart from these minor activities we returned to weather watching, containing hyperactiveness and wondering if the other teams would safely make it to Base Camp.

The next day it was still snowing and the morning stillness was punctuated every few minutes with the sound of avalanches, fortunately all away from the climbing route and camps, but as they were only a kilometre away they were not good for the nerves. With our tents having been left unattended for one night at Camp 1, four of our Sherpas ventured back to check the state of those tents and the route and we gradually received reports from the other teams who had all descended back to Base Camp. Mountains are the home of Chinese whispers, fueled not just by the lack of actual witnesses to events, or the number of people whom the whispers pass through, but also by the multiple native languages the stories are being translated from and into. From other teams we heard of a Sherpa being evacuated with leg injuries who had sought shelter in a crevasse from an avalanche, a Japanese climber with a broken arm and two western clients unwilling to continue after two uncomfortable nights at Camp 2. For the teams higher up it could have been much worse. By the time our Sherpas returned having again dug our tents out at Camp 1, all climbers from all groups were back in Base Camp, watching the weather. Everyone was watching for a break in the weather, some so they could go back up, and some so they could get a helicopter back to Kathmandu. Having dug out our tents our Sherpas confirmed that all other tents, apart from the big expedition who placed their Camp 1 below ours, looked like they had been destroyed by the heavy snowfall.

The next few days were poised to be frustrating, our forecast informed us that the storm could hang around for another few days and could even deposit another 1m to 2m of snow. Even the less hyperactive would be likely to be bouncing off the dome walls after a few days staring out into the incessant falling snow, listening to avalanches. In fact, it took only one day for the conversation to descend into one of the team enquiring if anyone had seen the TV programme which explained how toothpicks were made. I remember hoping that the toothpick conundrum would not haunt me for the rest of the trip. It was at times like this that it seemed so obvious that, despite the small size and lowland geography of England, the English would be keen high altitude mountaineers because so much time is spent sitting around drinking tea and talking about the weather.

Day 5 of our weather enforced rest started much better, it wasn’t snowing and the sun was even appearing over the mountains. I had thought that this was the case on rest day 4, until I realised that the warm orangey glow I awoke to was merely the effect of sleeping in an orange tent and it was still overcast outside. I really should have known better after hundreds of nights in similar tents. Day 5, however, was different. Not only was peering through the tent vestibule leading to the search for previously superfluous sunglasses, but our professional American weather forecast was also predicting that the storm had ended and good weather was following. Even better, the other large team’s professional Swiss weather forecast agreed. The synopsis on the 28th September would be that we would get the three days of sun we needed for the snow to “consolidate”. “Consolidate” is an imprecise mountaineering term for “hopefully not avalanche”. Following “consolidation” we were due high winds on the 1st and 2nd of October and the Jet Stream, which meant even higher and potentially lethal winds, from the 7th. Bearing in mind it would take 5 days from Base Camp to the Summit; this left us with a clear summit window of 5th October. Normally “windows” are described in 3 or more day batches, so in reality this was more of a summit “porthole” than a summit “window” but, we only needed one day, so a porthole would do, however small. Despite the euphoria that an attempt was now possible, even probable, even on this schedule we had 3 more days at Base Camp, “relaxing”, or “chillaxing” as Phil liked to describe it in his pseudo New York slang. I resisted the temptation to go back to Sama Goan with Ian, who for some reason had now been christened Stan Laurel to my Oliver Hardy, presumably because of the “fine mess” he kept getting me into.

In his normal subtle manner the last task Phil embarked on before the final summit push was to collect all outstanding debts, including the well deserved tip for the kitchen crew. Whilst Phil would claim this was pure coincidence, the more skeptical of us tended towards the theory that he found it much easier to collect debts from the living. That cheery pre departure note was topped only by the two Americans choosing to watch various extreme skiers dying or being hit by avalanches on various mountains as their last pre summit ipad movie. I merely took this to be a sign of everyone’s summit confidence rather than anything more sinister.

There were at least two high altitude mountaineering experiences missing from my curriculum vitae at this point. Obviously the one I wished to address was that I hadn’t summitted an 8,000m peak. The one that I had no wish to experience was the discomfort of not being able to completely disentangle myself from the confines a down suit, which by definition is not meant to allow even air in or out, let alone a tired poorly performing body, before performing necessary bodily functions. There are many stories of summit pushes preceded by the incorrect placement of a down suit hood, followed by an extremely smelly and unpleasant ascent with the newly filled hood necessarily put in place. Fortunately, I was not uncoordinated enough to fill my down suit hood, unfortunately I was uncoordinated enough to not manage to fully extract myself from my suit whilst attempting to use the facilities, a not very convenient “convenience” resembling a half height igloo, at Camp 2. The smell which was to accompany me above Camp 2 was to be the least of my problems.

The first two days to Camp 1 and Camp 2 where uneventful, even if I didn’t shave as much off my times as some of the others. I even managed to eat rehydrated high mountain food and completely hydrate at Camp 2, even if I didn’t sleep too well, which is not uncommon at that altitude. The morning ascent to Camp 3 however, saw two members turning around and myself suffering from extremely cold fingers. Despite the comparatively warm conditions for 6,400m I had managed to get cold fingers putting on my climbing harness, and they weren’t warming up. I recognised the symptoms, from my latest unsuccessful attempt on Aconcagua, quickly as frost nip but with encouragement from Phil resorted to banging my hands against my legs as I climbed and forsaking the use of any metallic climbing equipment such as an ice axe or carabineer for the safety line. By the time I reached Camp 3 my finger tips were still frozen, but hadn’t got any worse, and my feet were cold but on close inspection looked fine.

The sleeping “strategy” for Camp 3 was three in a tent, with a Sherpa boiling water and cooking. Whilst Chongba, who was cooking for me and Mark, had the distinction of having climbed Everest 12 times, and certainly knew how to boil water, he carried his Everest success like a trophy around his waistline. The three in a tent “strategy” was not conducive to “sleeping” with three large guys, down suits, sleeping bags and boots all crammed in together, but it was warm.

The departure for Camp 4 was a perfect day for climbing, relatively warm and clear sunny skies overhead. Unfortunately my fingers and toes were still cold and trying to do anything was merely extending the distance from the tips my fingers felt frozen. The good news was that from Camp 4 to the summit I would be on Oxygen and that should greatly assist in keeping my digits warm, so I only had to make the 700m of steep ascent to Camp 4. This time I enlisted the help of Phil to put my crampons on to protect my fingers and again avoided using metallic equipment until it got too steep. Despite these precautions as I left my fingers were still more frozen than the previous day. After two hours of steady ascent, Phil was on the radio to Ian who had been prescribed minder duties for the day. My toes were now considerably colder than when I left and although I could still wiggle them a little bit, this was getting less successful as time went on. Despite the glorious weather, which saw us all stripped of the upper portions of our down suits, wearing only base layers, my fingers hadn’t improved and as I looked up to the shaded area on route to Camp 4 I was shivering. I knew my body could survive much more cold than it realised and that if I pushed on, got to Camp 4 and into my sleeping bag and then put on the Oxygen to the summit that my feet and hands might not get much worse and when I returned to Base Camp, would be damaged but not irreparably. I also knew that if my hands and feet did get much worse, I could face losing some fingers or toes on my return to Base Camp. Such is the dilemma of climbing; your body isn’t designed to go to 8,000m and constantly tells you to turn around. You need to ignore it. Everyone is guaranteed to feel cold, tired, ill or more at those altitudes and it is those that push through this pain barrier that summit. A small proportion pushes too far and ends up missing fingers or toes, or worse. I took the easy route out and decided not to risk my fingers or toes, which I knew would remain intact if I turned around there and then.

For safety on the descent through the seracs and glacier Phil returned to Base Camp with me. My hands looked fine, completely the same as any normal hands, but were still frozen although they obviously would get better. The moment I dreaded was taking off my boots, not because I was afraid of the damage I might find, but because if they showed no such signs, it would confirm in my mind that I simply had not pushed hard enough and if I had managed to keep my hands from deteriorating further, by getting everyone else to do any manual tasks for me, I could have summitted without any permanent damage. As it was my toes certainly felt frozen and there was a big blister on my right big toe which Phil, possibly guessing my state of mind, helpfully diagnosed as frostbite. Sarki, who wasn’t concerned about my feelings, took one look and insisted on the traditional frost bite treatment of bathing in hot salty water. My other big toe was similar but with less “blister” discolouration. For me, the jury was still out. If I had continued I definitely might have lost fingers and toes, but I also might not. I hadn’t pushed beyond my limits, I hadn’t put myself in a position where I had to rely on the goodwill and fingers of others high on the mountain to get me up or down, but I hadn’t summitted. Regardless of my decision it was clear that my circulation was chronically ill equipped for high altitude climbing, frozen fingers at 6,400m in glorious weather when everyone else isn’t even wearing gloves, is not a good sign with 1,700m to go.

Once at Base Camp the picture changes. Everyone is keen to make you feel better. “It’s the right decision”, “the mountains still there next year, fingers and toes don’t grow back”, “it’s a good climber’s decision”, these carried more sincerity for me than the attempts to convince me that my poor circulation wouldn’t prove terminal to my climbing ambitions. Whilst well intentioned, suggestions such as getting hand warmers, better boots, better gloves or even putting it down to a “bad day” seemed to be avoiding the issue. The next day Mark and Ian successfully summitted along with our two previous Everest summiteers Anne-Mari and Karel, and Robert, who selected discretion over valour and sensibly didn’t attempt a full ski descent despite carrying his skis up. Each summiteers was accompanied by one of our Sherpa crew.

Mila had turned around from Camp 4 with cold feet and Robert had been worried about his feet in his ski boots. Neither looked as bad as mine, but more importantly all three of us were OK. Chinese whispers around Base Camp indicated that several climbers had got frostbite on summit day, but as usual this could all be taken with a pinch of salt.

As everyone descended to Base Camp another story emerged. Ian not only had summitted whilst recovering from his dislocated shoulder, but had been critical in rescuing Juanito Oirazabal a Spanish climber who he and Mark had come across lying on the trail on route to the summit. Juanito has something of a reputation. He has summitted all 14 8,000m peaks and is attempting to do so twice, but despite his previous successes he is now known much more for getting himself into life threatening situations and relying on others to risk their lives to rescue him. Most recently this had happened on Llotse five months previously and his lack of recognition for those that saved his life then and willingness to put other people’s lives at risk again had led one major operator to refuse to assist him again in a similar situation. He was so ill prepared that even though he had three Sherpas at Camp 4 who could assist him, he did not even carry a radio to enable communication with them. Ian and Mark knew none of this history and merely saw an injured climber. Ian gave him Oxygen from his own tank, despite the fact that this might put his own summit attempt at risk and repeated the feat on the descent. In all Ian donated 75% of his Oxygen to the injured climber, leaving Ian to descend without the aid of Oxygen. Other members also helped Anne-Mari treated him with an intravenous shot of Dexamethasone, delivered into his bottom through his down suit and Karel also provided Oxygen. Finally two of our Sherpas accompanying the team physically carried Juanito down towards Camp 4 where his own Sherpas could render assistance. It seems unlikely that Juanito would have survived without the assistance of our climbers and Sherpas and the talk around Base Camp was largely how to stop Juanito climbing in the future such that he could no longer rely on other people putting their safety on the line to make up for his current inabilities.

Sitting in Base Camp genuinely happy that both Mark and Ian had broken their run of bad luck, but depressed over my poor circulation which meant I suffered more cold damage than people that summitted, I worried that I seemed to be nearer being once more an over weight desk bound city worker than standing on the top of the world. However the fun was not over, as I went through the pointless exercise of a shower at Base Camp, which served only to remind me of how smelly my clothes actually were after a month of continuous wear, plans were already being laid for the Kathmandu return and celebration and I had no doubt that at some point during the predictable drunkenness, as the umpteenth beer passed my sun burnt lips, excuses would be found and I might be carried on the wave of Mark and Ian’s euphoria towards new challenges.

See more photos at:  http://www.markdicksontravelandphotography.com/section530404.html

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