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.


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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1 Response to Climbing to the top of the world

  1. Pingback: Marathon des Sables – Q&A | Mark Dickson Travel and Photography

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