The scene was set; a failure in the first mini- rotation and everyone to convince. It was time for me to focus.
The Second mini-rotation
It was a slightly tense conversation with the big boss of the expedition that evening, but I will say this: he was enthusiastic and supportive about my idea of 2 days rest and then trying to reach the South Col once more. As always, I ask only for the opportunity.
Those 2 days of rest went quickly. I ate mostly with the Sherpa team at Camp 2 as I found the simple food of rice and lentils, noodle soup or rice pudding much easier to eat, and thus much easier to eat 3 plates full at each meal. I was back, strong and ready to go. And most importantly I was focused, complete with a proper ‘eye of the tiger’ stare and a hardened determination to get this done. Get with the plan, or get out of my way.
The climb to Camp 3 (for the third time) was the REAL James; leaving plenty in the tank for the push the next day I still managed a time of 3hr 45min, nearly 2 hours faster than the last mini rotation. I also remembered what Jonny the guide had said the night before. He reminded me that Alex Lowe, one of the best climbers ever, once said that having fun was more important than anything. So this time I tried to enjoy it; to acknowledge I was fortunate to be climbing in a special and iconic place; to appreciate the views; and even the process. It was remarkable how much more positive it made feel, and it made all the difference to my attitude and performance.
Sunset from Camp 3 was amazing, and after some noodles I settled into a wonderful sleep, an unusual thing at Camp 3 by all accounts. Suddenly it was morning, -25C and time to get going. By 6am we were climbing towards the Yellow Band, the first obstacle towards the South Col.
This time our climbing pace was strong, overtaking several of the Sherpa, and yet it was hard. Each inhalation I took was as deep as could be, and yet I could barely take a step on every other breath. Any faster and I was forced to soon stop, panting for air as though I’d been sprinting hard. Worse we’re the moments I actually forgot to breathe – whether bending down to clip the rope or taking a drink of water. Suddenly I felt a suffocating feeling, like the last few seconds of a maximum breath hold. A tingling would start and I would pant almost uncontrollably, desperate for air. Only after a few breaths would the feelings would subside and I would be able to continue. It was a uniquely unpleasant sensation, yet all too common during the ascent. All in all, the process of climbing at this altitude is one of continual suffering.
We muscled over the Yellow Band as the wind picked up and the snow started blowing, making our progress more difficult. 5 hours and 15 minutes after leaving camp we reached the Geneva Spur at 7,800m, the last obstacle before the South Col at 7,950m. Conditions had worsened to a blizzard, naturally blowing directly into our face, and all the Sherpa were tying their loads onto the fixed line and turning around. The right decision was clear. A quick snack and radio call with Base Camp and we were on our way back down.
Despite not quite reaching the South Col the climb was a success. In difficult conditions we had climbed at the target pace I had been set (the South Col in 6 hours), and importantly that pace was still solid at the end. Yes it was pretty damn painful, but it was manageable, and that was all I needed to know. It was what those around me needed to know.
“I think you can summit without oxygen.” was my Sherpa guide’s response once we reached Camp 3. It was music to my ears; to have him on board was the final piece of the puzzle I really needed. But boy did he need some convincing!
By the time we reached Camp 3 the blizzard had abated (typical!) and we were treated to another spectacular sunset. From there we descended to Camp 2 the next day, and then back through the icefall they day after that. Back in Base Camp, we are safe and sound. And importantly, back on track!