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.

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About markdicksontravelandphotography

I’m a travel and adventure sports enthusiast, working as a travel writer and photographer. My most recent climbing expedition was a successful summit of Everest from the Tibetan side.
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