May 24: Climb to the roof of the world
For the first 4 weeks being here on Everest, I would spend long periods standing and staring at that high section of the North East Ridge from basecamp. My eyes would follow the line from Camp 3, up the exit cracks, along the three rock steps to the summit. As we prepared to leave for the summit push I consciously stopped looking up at the ridge. Standing and looking at it was not going to help anymore. I had a job to do. I concentrated on my own tasks and preparing my gear. I prepared for a battle.
After studying the forecasts daily for two weeks, the summit window came upon us faster than expected. The chosen date was 19th May. This allowed us just enough good days beforehand on the 16th, 17th and 18th to climb higher on the mountain and get into position at camp 3 to make a dash for the summit on the 19th. However this meant we had to leave basecamp and move steadily up the mountain, camp by camp, day by day with no rest days. As I packed my gear in basecamp I wondered to myself if I had the stamina to do the job.
I left early from basecamp at 6am for the 17km walk to Advanced basecamp(ABC). I have grown to hate this walk. I consoled myself with the fact that this would be the last time I would ever do it, no matter what happened on this summit push. It’s long, rough and very hard physically, mainly due to the altitude. I walked slowly with Phil for the first hour. Soon he left me. Mark Horrell also soon passed me. I had one aim, to get to advanced basecamp with as much energy left as possible. The next 5 days were going to be the toughest physical challenge of my life. I could not afford to blow all my gas on day one by setting to fast a pace.
I arrived at ABC after 8 hours of walking. Very glad to get there, and fortunately not too exhausted. I re-hydrated with cup after cup of milk tea and sat in the cooking tent with the Sherpa’s which is much warmer due to the gas cookers.
After a bad sleep that night at ABC, I packed my bag the next morning for the north col. I went through my gear over and over, down suit, sleeping bag, mittens, harness, crampons and axe etc. Did I really need this? Did I really need that? Anything deemed non-essential I left behind. I didn’t pack a toothbrush, I left the camera case behind, spare batteries were kept to a minimum. As I zipped up the door of my tent I took one last look inside. A single morose thought entered my mind, would I see this tent again? ‘Of course you will you dick – think positive’ I told myself.
I left ABC at 10AM, Ian joined in behind me and I set a slow steady pace up the glacier towards crampon point. After one hour we stopped here, and put on our crampons. It was hot in the sunshine and out of the wind. I walked alone for the next 45 minutes to the base of the fixed ropes where I sat in the sunshine and had a drink and a rest. The climb up the fixed ropes to the North Col is a grind. This was my 5th time doing it and it had well and truly lost any appeal. I attached my jumar to the fixed ropes and started working my way up. Slowly, one foot after the other, slide the jumar. After 2 hours I popped out on top of the North Col, feeling cold and tired. We shared tents, three persons to a tent. My tent mates were Mark Horrell and Chongba Sherpa.
I did not expect to sleep at the North Col as the altitude is to high. I was not wrong. For 12 hours I lay in my sleeping bag looking at the ceiling. Time passed by so slowly. It felt like I was in prison. I knew from last year that spending nights at the col drains me of energy very fast. Morning could not come fast enough. I felt lethargic and groggy as we drank tea in the tent and I ate some noodles for breakfast.
Today’s climb from the Col to Camp 2 was going to be hard work. Phil had deliberately placed our camp 2 higher than normal camp sites. At close to 7900m, it meant 800m or 900m of vertical climbing. He did this to make the climb from Camp 2 to Camp 3 the following day shorter. I expected to take around 8 hours to reach camp 2 and be exhausted when I got there. I put my down suit on for the first time. For the next three days I would live in the down suit. I slid a full 4kg oxygen cylinder into my backpack along with regulator and mask. We planned to climb to around 7300 – 7500m before switching on the oxygen. It was a hot day with little wind as I set-off up the North ridge. I soon became too hot and stripped my downsuit down to my waist, tieing the arms around my stomach tightly. I climbed with Phil and Pasang Nima Sherpa. We slowly trudged up. I would take 5 steps at a time then stop for a rest and recover my breath and energy. I felt lethargic from the altitude and lack of sleep the night before.
As we climbed higher and the air became thinner the climbing became harder and I got slower. At 7300m we finally donned oxygen masks and turned on the gas cylinders. Ahhh…. the cool sensation of oxygen flowing in over my face through the mask. I dialed the regulator onto 1.5 litres per minute. This one oxygen bottle had to last me all the way to Camp 2 then over night to the morning while I slept on it. Immediately I felt better breathing the oxygen, stronger with more energy.
As I started off again up the snowy slope of the north ridge I could move continuously without stopping. As I got higher and started to pass people I started to think something was wrong. Why was I feeling so good? Maybe the oxygen was turned up too high to the maximum flow rate of 4l minute instead of 1.5? I should not be feeling as good as this? Last year even breathing bottled oxygen I did not have much energy. Paranoia overtook me and I stopped and took off my backpack to check the oxygen settings. Sure enough it was only on 1.5l. I shrugged my shoulders, put my backpack back on and kept climbing. It felt great to feel so strong and I moved steadily up and soon arrived at Camp 2.
Camp 2 is perched on the North Ridge and the tents are set-up on rock platforms. Its not a place where you get out of the tent and wander around as it is too steep. There are some lovely views down onto the East Rongbuk glacier, Changste, the North Col and Advanced Base Camp. As I lay in the tent, I dialed my oxygen down to 0.5l/minute which is enough for resting and sleeping. I waited for my tent mates, Chonga Sherpa and Mark Horrell to arrive. After sometime they turned up, both looking pretty knackered. Mark came into the tent for a few seconds then promptly threw up in the vestibule. “You ok dude?” I asked him? “Yes – just exhausted” was his reply. Chongba came into the tent and lay down. “Camp 2 so far” he mumbled. You know its been a tough day when the Sherpa’s are exhausted.
I was looking forward to sleep that night. The previous night at the col I had none, but I knew that breathing bottled oxygen I would definitely sleep better here at 7900m. Dinner was a packet of freeze dried chicken rice which I shared with Mark and I thought was quite delicious. This was a great sign, I even had appetite at this altitude. As I settled into my sleeping bag to sleep, I hoped that the strength I had found today would not desert me for tomorrow’s climb to camp 3. A climb that I remembered from last year when I arrived I was completely spent.
What a sleep that night. I woke only 3 times, twice to pee into my pee bottle. I felt refreshed and so much better than the previous morning on the North Col when I had no sleep. Phil climbed past our tent, “it will take 4 – 5 hours to reach Camp 3 today” he shouted into our tent. I opened the tent door to a wonderful view down onto the Rongbuk glacier. I poked my camera out and took some photo’s as other team mates slowly climbed up past my tent on their way to Camp 3.
I finally dragged myself out of my sleeping bag and started getting ready. Amazingly I even felt better today than I did the day before. I loved the feeling of being so high. I have a technique I call the crab which I use for climbing steep snow slopes which I developed in New Zealand quite by accident. I put my ice axe in front of me and hold the head with both hands. I point my feet out at 45 degree angles either side and waddle my way up the hill, taking very small steps with my feet, and plunging my axe higher and using my arms to help pull me up. It looks very weird. Kami Sherpa was laughing at my style. But it is extremely energy efficient and I can zoom up steep snow slopes continuously without tiring. I ‘crabbed’ my way up towards to Camp 3, passing people along the fixed rope and arrived in 2 hours flat.
Bloody hell, my paranoia overtook me again. Why was I going so much faster than last year? Was this power just some enormous surge of adrenalin rushing through my body? Would it suddenly run out any moment and leave me in a wasted and spent heap? Then again maybe the Pulmonary Edema (H.A.P.E) last year must have weakened me more than I realised. When I tried to climb high again after contacting H.A.P.E my lungs were probably not fully recovered. I had also trained hard for months with Darren Blakely and the team from UFIT for this climb. Not just low intensity walking around with a pack on my back like many climbers seem to do for training. But high intensity training aimed specifically at maximizing my performance at high altitude. Maybe this was paying off? I didn’t know exactly what it was, I was just happy I felt so good and hoped it would last.
After some time Mark and Chongba turned up at the tent at camp 3. Chongba melted snow for drinks and we all lay in the tent with our oxygen masks on resting. It was a hot day with little wind. You cannot talk easily with the oxygen mask on so we lay lost in our own worlds. My mind was busy going over and over summit evening coming up in a few hours time. We had planned to leave around 11PM. An issue was that there was a large Chinese team also leaving for the summit that evening. There climbers seemed inexperienced. They had a ratio of either one guide to a client or in some cases even two guides to a single client. I was nervous about getting stuck behind them. Getting stuck behind slow climbers can make you very cold as you queue and wait. Then again to leave in front of them might mean having to leave around 10PM or earlier. This could mean getting to the summit very early in the morning – probably in the dark. I really wanted to summit in the light so I could at least see some views. After some negotiation between the groups it was decided the teams would leave on staggered starts. The Chinese would leave before us. We would leave at 11:30PM. Phil called on the radio from his tent and told me to leave first out of our team along with Pasang Nima, who I would be climbing with.
It is so important to have a good start from the tent on summit evening. By good start I mean leaving with all your equipment working properly and most importantly being warm. Warm hands, warm feet and warm body. It’s so cold during the night when you start to prepare, and you have to do so many small things with your hands that you need to take your gloves off. It becomes very easy to get cold fingers as you prepare and if you start with cold hands then it can be very difficult to warm them up again.
As I lay there I went over and over in my head my preparation for leaving the tent. I loaded the pockets of my down suit strategically. Everything that is not inside your down suit pockets close to your body freezes solid. Sun cream, water bottle, camera, head torch, satellite phone, spare goggles, all have to be in the pockets inside the suit next to my chest. I placed my crampons in the vestibule. I opened a pack of chemical hand warmers at 9PM, to give them enough time to reach max heat by 11PM when I would need to use my hands. I placed my crampons strategically in the vestibule so I only needed to swivel my legs out the tent and could sit and lace them on without having to get outside the tent. I ran through the procedures over and over. How to put on my harness lying down, how to put on my boots inside the tent. Then I lay and waited. Waited for 10:30PM when we would start to preparations to leave for the top of the world. I could not sleep. I kept looking at my watch every 15 minutes, until finally 10:30PM came around.
Within less than 30 minutes I was ready to leave the tent. Pasang Nima (from now on referred to as the ‘pocket rocket’ due to his small stature but explosive power) came down to the the tent to check if I was ready. I gave him my hand warmers which by now were quite hot and opened a fresh pair and put inside my gloves.
The pocket rocket helped switch me to a new oxygen bottle, load my backpack onto my shoulders and sort the oxygen hose then we climbed up to his tent where he did his preparations. 11:20pm and we were off climbing the North East Ridge!
As I looked up into the darkness I could see the pin pricks of other climbers lights higher up who had left earlier. The pocket rocket took off out in front and I struggled to catch up with him. To access the North East Ridge proper you follow the exit cracks up for a few hundred metres. This is rock scrambling and is a good warm up for what is to come later.
I was so excited to be finally doing some real climbing, with real exposure, rather than the dull snow and rock plodding over the last few weeks. Very soon we caught up to the first groups of Chinese climbers. Climbing the exit cracks, it is relatively easy to pass climbers. The guides would normally let us pass as they felt our presence behind. I was glad to catch up to some groups as it slowed the pocket rocket down and gave me a chance to catch my breath.
Climbing in the pitch dark, I had very little idea of where we were on the mountain. I was sure that I had crossed the 1st step at one stage as I scrambled up a steeper section. Then I came to the first major bottle neck of the night. A line of around 15 climbers were waiting at the base of a cliff. Ahh, this must be the second step I thought. I waited in the queue impatiently. As I got closer to the cliff I could not see any ladder, which I know is fixed to the second step. Bloody hell, someone stole the ladder I thought to myself!! The climbers trying to climb the cliff were going so slowly, pulling on the rope and not trying to climb the rock at all. There were two climbers in particular who both had teddy bears on the outside of their packs who were struggling.
As I waited my toes started to get cold and I concentrated on wriggling them back and forth to try and keep them warm. Finally after 30 minutes it was my turn. Instead of pulling on the rope to pull myself up, I climbed the rock using the plenty of available footholds. It was much easier and faster than trying to pull yourself up using the rope. “Who the hell would have taken the ladder down from the second step?” I thought to myself as I climbed. Then it finally dawned on me. This was only the 1st step, not the 2nd step!
We came to a large rock with a small cave underneath it. I knew exactly who was resting under here. Green Boots, the first dead body along the route. So named because of the green Koflach boots he wears. Green boots has been lying here since 1996. I passed 6 corpses in total on the way to the summit. Green boots is the only one who looks peacefully asleep and does not look grotesque. The rest of the corpses do not appear peaceful, and are in awful positions, upside down with their heads downhill and arms sticking out, curled up into the fetal position, or in one case still attached to the rope and hanging onto the side of the cliff. I said hello to Green Boots as I walked past. Seeing him somehow made me feel secure, like I was seeing an old friend.
The ground from the 1st step to the second step becomes a very exposed traverse along the side of the ridge on downwards sloping rock slabs. The rock was very dry with no snow. With crampons on, great care was required with each footstep so as to not slip off the rock. Even though it was pitch dark but I still got the feeling of the exposure under my feet.
Soon I arrived at the second step. Even in the dark, looking up at the shadow of the cliff it looks impressive. Once again there was a queue here. Once again the two climbers with the Teddy bears were having a difficult time. High altitude climbers become fixated on weight. We weigh and compare almost every item we wear or carry and think of ways to cut down the weight. Carrying things at altitude is much harder than at sea-level. They feel much heavier and in an environment where it is a huge effort just to move your own body weight you definitely don’t want to be carrying any surplus. Yet here were these two climbers who could not even drag themselves up the second step who could afford to carry teddy bears on the outside of their packs? My feet once again grew cold as I sat waiting for them to haul themselves up the ropes. They would pull themselves up a short distance then sit and hang there for what seemed forever as they got their breath or energy back. As I waited I contemplated pulling the teddy bears off their backpacks, setting them on fire and shoving them up their backsides. Maybe this would motivate them to climb faster?
Finally it was my turn. Wow, I am climbing the famous second rock step. There is a short ladder followed by a scramble then another longer ladder. At the top of the long ladder you have to step out onto a ledge. Even in the dark as I stood on the ledge I felt the awesome feeling of exposure, of a huge drop off. Its like being punched in the stomach as you look over into the void, and imagine whats down there. It was awesome.
From the second step to the third step is an easy walk with no exposure. As we worked our way up to the base of the third step, the sun started to rise and I was treated to an amazing hue of colours lighting up the summit pyramid of Everest. The third step is easy to overcome, 2 or 3 rock moves and you are on top of it. There before me was the mighty summit pyramid of steep snow. It looks very close to the summit, however its not a direct line and still at least an hour away. I was feeling a little tired here so asked the pocket rocket to turn up my oxygen from 2l to 3l for the last push to the summit.
Up we climbed, exhausting work, step by step. The first summiting group which had left around 9PM passed us on their way back down from the summit. Towards the top of the summit pyramid, the route sneaks off to the right onto an extremely exposed rock traverse. A fall from here would see you having a very exciting roly poly for 3000m down to the glacier below, by which time your body would be in lots of little pieces. I concentrated hard, with every foot placement, as my crampons struggled to find purchase on the downward sloping slabs.
A sharp zigzag in the traverse to gain height and finally we popped out onto the snow ridge, with just 100m to get to the summit of the world. Wow the summit! Finally I could see it. It looked busy with maybe 15 people standing on it taking photos etc. I was feeling very tired but not exhausted, and slowly plodded my way up the final snow ridge. Prayer flags lay scattered over the summit. An aluminium survey stake stood proud on top. And wind, all morning we had been in little wind, now here at the summit the wind was blasting in.
With immense relief I took the last few steps to the top of the world at 7:10AM. I say relief because I was very glad I did not have to climb any higher. I sat down in snow just a few feet below the summit and for the first real time admired the view. And what a view it is. Phil turned up also just a couple of minutes behind me. I took out the John Foord and UFIT flags and took photo’s with them.
I had always intended to make a voice post using my satellite phone from the summit. When I pulled out the phone however it was completely iced up and would not turn on. “Oh no, looks like I have wrecked the phone” I thought. I then made a short video from the top.
What happened next could be described differently by different people. Phil would say I acted like a spoilt princess. I prefer to say I had a small panic attack. As I stood on the summit, my oxygen bottle ran out. The oxygen lasts for around 8 hours per bottle at a flow rate of 2l/minute. I went from breathing relatively normally to having a suffocating feeling. I realised immediately what the problem was and came down to Phil and the pocket rocket. “I am out of gas, please change my bottle”. I knelt down in the snow as they switched over bottles for me. “OK you are back on” said Phil. I took a deep breath through the mask, nothing came in at all and I still had a suffocating feeling. In fact I could not get any air at all, even through the ambient air valve which allows air from the outside in. “Fuckin hell, its not working” I shouted. “Yes it is, I can hear it” replied Phil. I tried to take more deep breaths. Still no air. As I breathed out hard the seal above my nose broke and the air rushed up past my glasses fogging them up. In my by now hypoxic state I did not realise what had happened and thought I was losing my vision. “Fuckkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk, whats happening, there is no air”. Phil realising what happened then grabbed my head in his hands and put his mouth over the valve on my mask and blew as hard as possible. The valve had iced up hence the reason I could not get any air. A couple of quick blows and finally the air came back in. It was all a little traumatic, especially having another mans lips so close to mine.
I have no recollection of the next ten minutes or so as we descended the snow ridge. From here the descent becomes dangerous as you have to wind back down the very exposed rock zig zag. I told my self to switch on and be careful. We slowly and carefully picked our way down we passed other team members on the way up, Ian, and the two Mark’s. It was great to see that they would soon too be standing on the top.
I would like to day the descent was fast and simple, however I once again got caught up behind some climbers going very slow. Coming down over the 3rd step, we were help-up by a girl who seemed petrified of downclimbing. She was having all sorts of arguments/discussions with her guide, and making lots of high pitched whining sounds(similar to the noise an englishman makes when you ask of him a favor). I sat down and waited. And waited. And waited. Her guide finally had to set up another rope system and belay her down. Once our turn, with two or three simple rock moves, we were both at the bottom in less than a minute. We moved off towards the second step. We passed Margaret on the way up moving very slowly. She had a very bad cough and chest pains which were affecting her performance. I moved quickly past her, but later on found out she had decided to turn around here. This was the best decision she ever made in her life. Otherwise she would still be up there. I stopped quickly to make a voice update on my sat phone which by now had thawed out. I couldn’t think of much to say so kept it short.
The second step turned into more drama as the whining girl really put on a performance. She was shouting at her Tibetan guide at the top of the step. Descending the second step is not technically difficult, however it is extremely exposed in some parts and you don’t want to fall. She seemed completely freaked out. I sat and waited while her and the guide ‘discussed’ back and forth. The guide set up another belay for her. She looked like she was going to start crying. I felt absolutely no sympathy for her whatsoever. You don’t come to the North East Ridge at 8700m and start getting climbing lessons while you hold everyone else up and they sit there using up there life blood supply of oxygen.
I thought of my journey to Everest. 12 years of climbing independently around the world. How I had studied the North East Ridge route and the technical difficulties and trained specifically for that. Sunday mornings at dairy farm quarry in Singapore rock climbing with my crampons. Climbing the west ridge of Malte Brun in NZ, chosen specifically for its exposed ridge traverse and similarities with Everest’s North East Ridge. And this girl had turned up here without even the ability to downclimb a ladder. The spectacle I was seeing repulsed me. People turning up with no respect for the mountain. The desire for instant gratification without the discipline to do the hardyards, the research, the training and the preparation. Her guide held up his hand to me and said in broken english “very sorry, I do not know why the girl cannot climb down the mountain”. I shrugged my shoulders back at him and mumbled no problem through my mask. It was a complete lie.
As we downclimbed, I photographed some of the dead bodies on the way down. I had been thinking on the way up whether or not to do this. Some people say it is unlucky. After some careful consideration and respect for any family members or friends who may be reading this I decided not to put any of the photo’s into this blog post. Little did I know that at the end of the day there would be two more fresh bodies to climb over on the North ridge.
Finally the girl managed to get down. The pocket rocket and myself descended carefully and swiftly and managed to get in front her and her guide and her guide as we made our way along the exposed traverse to the 1st step. In daylight I could see all the way down to the glacier below. It was a beautiful feeling to be carefully edging along the ridge, aware of the consequences of each step.
Soon we got stuck behind yet another group of 5 climbers who were moving 5 – 7m apart each. They were exhausted and would downclimb about 5 m only then sit down and rest for a few minutes. It looked very difficult to get past them so we eventually resigned ourselves to patiently downclimbing slowly behind them. Finally around 12:00PM we arrived back at Camp 3. The first thing I did was answer a call of nature. I told the pocket rocket what I was about to do, and he said ‘ok’ and sat down right beside me as I did my business. I was too tired to care and so was he.
As we made our way back to the tents we noticed one of the tents had blown away and had only been caught by another tent. We tried to lift the tent back to its platform but with sleeping bags and gear inside it it was to heavy especially in our weakened state. I went into my tent and lay down and promptly went to sleep. A little while later Phil turned up and shouted for me to come and help. I took off my oxygen and staggered back up to help. We were all knackered and without oxygen especially at 8300m I had the strength of a 3 year old kid. Slowly we took out the gear from the tent and I bundled it into a sleeping bag. Only then we managed to right the tent back onto its platform. I looked for a rock to tie the tent down with and eventually just sat down and stared at the tent for about ten minutes, too tired to move. “I better get back on the oxygen” I told myself and staggered back down to my tent.
I was tired, however I still had enough energy to get down the mountain further, at least to the North Col and probably all the way to ABC. A quick discussion with Phil, who suggested the team stay at Camp 3 tonight as the other climbers were not back yet and they would be too late to descend. I contemplated descending alone. Hmmm, maybe I will have a small rest first. It was a decision I came to regret.
Around 5pm Mark Horrell and Chongba Sherpa turned up. They were exhausted. Mark crawled into the tent and promptly started dry reaching and vomiting through exhaustion. I had full respect for Mark’s performance and commitment the last 5 days. He had put everything he had and a more into getting up and down the mountain safely. He was completely exhausted when he got to each higher camp but kept pushing on every day. He never complained once about anything even when I know he must have been hurting. He had been petrified today on certain parts of the climb but was able to push on through. “How was it dude?” I asked as he slowly recovered from his retching attack. “The most exhausting and terrifying day of my life” he mumbled back. “do you have any water?”
Damn! I had been lying here for 5 hours in the tent and had not even bothered to melt any water for Mark or Chongba who were very dehydrated after being on the go for 16 hours. I felt terrible. What had I been doing? I had done nothing except wallow in the tent, I hadn’t even descended when I had the time and energy. And worse, I had not even bothered to make my team mates a brew which is an unwritten code in the mountains. I took the stove from Chongba and guiltily started melting snow. It’s a long slow process. It took at least 1.5 hours to melt enough snow to make one pot of tea for the three of us, plus some soup. “Axe can you empty my pee bottle please” Mark asked me just before he drifted off to sleep. I took it from him, unscrewed the cap and leaned as far out of the tent as possible. Damn, the tops frozen up I realised. I leaned out further to bang the frozen pee against a small rock. “whats that smell – somethings burning… shit the tent!!” As I leaned out I had pushed the tent against the stove and burnt a big hole in the tent.
“Grant your feet are cold, you need to warm them up!” I was dreaming. Margaret was telling me over and over again “Grant your feet are cold, you need to warm them up!” I woke up slowly from my sleep, wondering for a moment where I was. Shit my feet are freezing, as were my legs and my backside. It felt like being in a deep freeze. The wind was pounding the tent outside and spindrift was coming into the tent coating everything. I turned on my head torch and unzipped the tent door. My boots in the vestibule of my tent were completely full with snow. I had left the tent door slightly unzipped to let in air during the night. Spindrift had blown in through the burn hole in the tent and the unzipped door and covered my entire sleeping bag and almost everything in my side of the tent. I was lying in an icy tomb.
My legs and feet were the main problem. I got up into a kneeling or praying position to minimise my body contact with the floor. I must have sat there in the praying position for an hour. Rocking back and forth to try and get warm and telling myself:
“you stupid idiot”
“you stupid idiot”
“you s stupid idiot”
“You had the chance to go down this afternoon and you stayed here at 8300m in the deathzone. You know you should have gone down. Now you are freezing. Everything is wet. Getting down tomorrow morning will be a nightmare”
As it always does, morning did eventually come around. As I found out later the other members had bad evenings also and were not in good states in the morning. It gave me new respect for staying at 8300m, especially in bad weather. There is only so long you can last the intense cold.lack of oxygen and horrific winds. “Chongba I will melt some water for breakfast” I said. “No point – too windy for stove” Chingba replied. I settled instead to have the traditional mountaineers breakfast of a look out the tent door and a couple of breaths of fresh air.
Slowly we got ready to leave our icy tomb. My gloves were wet and my hands were freezing. I would work for a few minutes then stop and put my hands under my armpit to warm them up again. I was the last one to leave Camp 3. The wind was howling in as I started down the fixed ropes. I soon caught Margaret with her Sherpa Chedda. She was huddled over at an anchor point trying to put her second layer of gloves on her freezing hands. Her chest infection was really taking it out of her. I knelt down and put her gloves on properly on her right hand hand while Chedda worked on her left hand. I then checked her oxygen and noticed she was only on 1l/minute. After a quick chat with Chedda we turned it up to 2l, which would make her feel warmer and also give her a little more energy for the descent. I walked on past her. I felt really sorry for Margaret, she was in so much pain and so sick yet, there was nothing I could do, she had to get herself down the mountain as fast as possible.
I soon caught up to Phil, Ian, Mark and Mila and walked slowly down with them for a way in the strong winds. They struggled down slowly, occasionally tripping over, or just sitting down on the rocks through exhaustion. I took several video’s of them to highlight the wind.
Eventually we all made it to the North Col, where we were sheltered from the wind and could sit and relax for the first time in 3 days without our oxygen masks. I sat for one hour here, drank some water and ate almost a whole bag of winegums. They tasted like heaven. I then headed off for ABC, for the last time down the fixed ropes. I felt stronger the lower I got and in no time was back in ABC sipping on hot milk tea. One by one the others rolled in, some looking like they had aged 10 years in three days. Margaret was so sick when she arrived and in so much pain I could hardly bear to look at her. But she is made of tough stuff and even though she could only talk in a whisper she told me a funny story about what happened to her the night before. She also asked me to call her husband Tad to let him know she was all ok.
The next day at ABC we rested. We started to hear various reports of deaths coming in. Two people on the North Ridge, a Spanish doctor succumbed to exhaustion, a German climber fell and broke his leg on the second step and died. 4 people from the south side. And an older climber was stuck high up in the deathzone in camp 3 in terrible conditions getting weaker and weaker by the day.
After dinner that night I left the dining tent, picked up my satellite phone and wandered a short distance down the glacier to get some privacy to call Stephanie. I overheard someone talking loudly on another Satellite phone in heavily accented English. “he is stuck at camp 3 and will die if he does not come down. Do you want to pay money US$5,000 – $10,000 for a rescue team to try and reach him tomorrow?” I realised this was the older climber stuck at camp 3’s team mate talking to his family back home.
I called Stephanie who was at home in Singapore. After our usual small talk I told her about the death toll.
“6 people died in the last 2 days”I said.
“what, what happened ?”she said in surprise
“oh they died on the way down from summit, another climber will die tonight, he is trapped at camp 3. I just heard his team mates calling his family to tell them and ask if they want to pay for a rescue mission”
Stephanie remained silent for a long time.
“Do you realise how scared I have been the last few months, dreading the time I would receive a phone call like that about you? Some stranger telling me you were dieing or were dead high up on the mountain? And you stand there and talk about it so calmly, you tell me there is man dieing above your head right now while you stand there like its normal? Its not normal.
Whats wrong with you?
Do you realise how scared I have been waiting here while you are on the mountain last year and this year?
I cant talk to you right now”
Our conversation ended.
“Whats wrong with me? I thought. I knew that I had unlocked a chamber of emotions and fears in Stephanie that she had been trying so hard to keep under control – for many months.
I stood on the glacier in the cold night air holding the phone in my hand. I looked high up on the North Ridge to the position of Camp 3. I thought of the old man lieing in his tent alone. Freezing slowly to a lonely death as he struggled for oxygen with every breath. What an awful way to die.
The sound of celebrations came from another tent where victorious climbers sung in celebration of their successful summit. I thought of the old man’s family, how would they be feeling now, having just received this phone call. I thought of the other climbers who died. The German guy at the base of the second step, the Spanish medical student. How would their families, their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, wives or girlfriends be feeling hearing the news?
I thought of how Everest seems to bring out the best and worst in humanity. The craziness of what I had seen over the last two years. The ego’s that came to ‘conquer’ the mountain for their bragging rights, stepping over corpses en-route to the summit as if they were mere objects, high altitude theft of equipment, false claims about making the summit, queuing up behind incompetent climbers who could not even climb a ladder and finally standing here listening to people celebrate as a man lies dieing in his tent 1900m above my heads.
Yet at the same time Everest has some amazing stories of inspiration and hope. Heroic, daring rescues of fellow climbers, the warmth, loyalty and bravery of the Sherpa people and the triumph of the human spirit over the adversity of mother nature.
12 years ago, Everest cast her spell on me. Along the way my obsession with the mother of all mountains has changed me. She has given me pain and suffering. She has also given me great joy. Lately the obsession has started to overshadow my sense of compassion, my balance on life and my relationships with the people I love. I will say goodbye to her tomorrow, I know I will miss her intensely in the future, but I should never come back. It’s time to find other mountains in my life.