As I fell asleep the tent was still being hammered by the strong winds. With frostbite a major worry we had decided to depart between 12 and 1am, shortly after the winds were forecast to drop. I slept like a rock until 11pm, whereupon I noticed that the guide Luke was already gone. People laughed when I said I would be able to sleep at the South Col – but I knew I could!
I got ready as my sherpa guide Thunang waited. I took out my boots from the bottom of my sleeping bag and put them onto my warm feet, connecting the cables of my foot warmers so I could start them early. My gloves and mitts were tucked into my down suit, awaiting their use, and every few minutes I put my cold fingers inside the suit (and under my arms) to rewarm them. Everything was a hassle, but it was imperative I left the tent with everything toasty – or at least not cold. Starting with frozen boots or icy fingers was a sure recipe for trouble later, and I wasn’t going to make a rookie mistake, at least not yet.
At 12.30am I emerged from my tent onto the deserted South Col. The winds were light and you could sense the deep, deep cold of the air with each breath. With the new moon the darkness was complete, save for the small bright spots projection from our headlamps. After much messing with crampons (putting them on with mitts while hindered by a puffy suit at 8,000m is not my idea of fun) I was ready. At 12.45am we turned right and began the walk across the col to the start of the ropes at the base of the triangular face.
Immediately I began overheating, about the last thing I expected despite wearing all my layers simultaneously for the first time. I took off my down vest and Thunang tied it to the fixed rope anchor. I was scared to abandon it, to be honest – what if I got cold higher up? – but something had to be done and I had no backpack to carry it in.
“If I can just make it to sunrise I’ll be OK.” I told myself, so I clipped into the first rope on the triangular face and began to climb.
It was a brutal experience, both physically and mentally. Enough people had climbed that shallow sloped steps had been kicked into the route, giving the impression of an endless staircase which rose steeply into the blackness at the limit of my headtorch. My goggle lenses were quickly frosted in ice and I could barely see where to put my feet. It ruined my rhythm and made each step a haphazard exertion followed by a number of deep breaths as I refound my balance and focus. In the darkness I felt trapped in my own internal world made of nothing but discomfort and determination, each force pulled hard in opposites directions. To stop or to step, cold and discomfort, that was my entire world.
After several hours of this the first light of dawn lit the clear horizon in beautiful crimson red. We had reached a narrow snow gully and eventually crested the top onto a narrow snow ledge at the base of the next slope. Laying on this ledge, not 2 feet away, was what looked just like a shop mannequin, dressed in a down suit and expedition boots. Its gloveless fingers were twisted, the hands held up by its head in a ‘Don’t shoot’ position. The torso lay rigid and flat, as though the mannequin had been standing tall just moments before toppling backwards in the wind. Its bare face was haunting. There seemed to be no pain, but rather an expression of disbelief and fear as it stared, eyes wide open, towards the blue sky above.
Of course, it wasn’t a mannequin at all. And yet I found it difficult to rationalize this object as a man, frozen to death in the snow. I admit it didn’t affect me as much as I would have thought, at least not right then. Perhaps it was the surrealism of what I briefly saw. It is a sight which I will never forget, and I feel immense sympathy for that poor chap who lost his life in the harshest of places.
As the sunrise bathed the mountain I knew something needed to change. I had climbed at a ‘slow and steady’ rate to make sure I didn’t go too hard, too early, yet I was moving too slowly. I could take more suffering than I was experiencing, so it was time for ‘fast and steady’. The goggles came off and the sunglasses went on, restoring my vision, and I began to quicken my pace.
After two more rope lengths we reached the Balcony, about half way to the summit and the first of two key landmarks. It was 6.00am exactly. We stopped for a rest and Thunang radioed in our location to Base Camp.
“5 hours 15 mins, that’s, um, not great.” was Greg’s reply. We had a target of 4 hours so I were quite a way behind, and that section had been the easy bit. Thunang again suggested I start using oxygen – which I again rejected – and I told them of my resolve to move faster. I was terrified I was going to be turned around before the summit, and my determination was reignited. I’d rather crawl on my hands and knees than forfeit this singular opportunity of a lifetime.
The next goal (and second key landmark) was the South Summit, located just before Hillary step. It was the key to my success. If I could make it there I knew I would summit, so I set off up the South West Ridge like a man possessed. ‘Fast and steady’ was even more uncomfortable than ‘slow and steady’, although not excessively more. I was at my limit but I just kept fighting, trying to step every 2 deep breaths rather than every 3 or 4 as I had previously done. In the light and with clear vision I could keep my focus and my breathing rhythm, a much better situation than before. It helped. On the ridge we were met by a strong wind from the left but with the sun up it was a minor distraction more than a genuine hinderance.
About half way up the south west ridge, at the start of some tricky rock bands, we met the first of the team members returning from the summit. I barely recognized some, their faces hidden by their balaclavas and oxygen masks, but all seemed happy. Luke the guide was with them, and he radioed Base Camp again to give an update. He eventually passed the radio across.
“Hey so we’ve been looking at the new forecast, looks the winds will pick up earlier.” Greg informed me. “So your turn around time is now 12, rather than 3pm like we talked about.”
What! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here I was, slowly killing myself (quite literally) to go this fast, and they tell me I only have 4 hours left for a climb I thought would take another 6. I am very hard to make angry, but that did it. Fortunately for everyone involved the radio reception went out after the first couple of sentences of my protest. I just couldn’t believe what had just happened.
In that moment I felt abandoned by everyone; it was now me against the mountain and against the world. And yet I knew this was what all my previous adventures had prepared me for; alone and up against the odds, when the going gets tough the tough get going. Yet it was the hardest moment of the entire expedition. Greg told me at the very start that whether I summitted or not was more about my mental strength than the physical, and he was 100% right. It would have been SO easy to put on the oxygen, or to admit defeat and give up entirely, but I knew I would regret that forever. I had more in the locker and I wasn’t going down or giving up until I had used every ounce of it. There was only one response to the situation. Grit my teeth and go faster!
“Right, put that radio away,” I told Thunang, “we have to get going! And NO! I’m NOT putting on the oxygen, for the 10th time!”
Light speed became ludicrous speed. Damn it was unpleasant, but I didn’t care. Discomfort was not the problem, time was. Keep safe, keep stepping. Bending to the ground to clip the rope resulted in panicked hyperventilation as I briefly suffocated and frantically gasped for air. Each step was accompanied by visceral desire to stop, rest and catch my breath. It wasn’t painful, per se, just an undefinable discomfort. It’s like a maximum sprint – at some point you are forced to stop, but it’s generally not pain or an inability to breath which makes you stop but, rather a undefinable urge to slow as your body goes anaerobic. Climbing here was similar; a 10 hour non-stop sprint.
Soon I was faced with the steep but fairly short final climb to the South Summit. The steps were big, which helped a little, and 90 minutes after the radio call I was standing on the South Summit. I’d smashed my segment target time of 5-6 hours nearly in half. I was getting pretty tired at point but I was happy; the goal was now SO close. We radioed Greg, and his surprise and joy at my rapid arrival to this point was fabulous to hear. I felt I had my team behind me once more!
At the South Summit we passed the remainder of the IMG team as they descended. Conversations were short and soon I was crossing the Cornice Traverse to the Hillary step. In low snow years this is precarious, in 2017 it was hardly noticeable. There is an 11,000ft drop on the left and a 6,000ft drop on the right and I was expecting it to be terrifying. Instead it wasn’t at all, which was disappointing! Cool to see but otherwise somewhat forgettable.
I was now on the final segment, the Hillary step and the final climb to the summit traverse. It was the steepest and most technical part of the climb so far, but by taking one move at a time it wasn’t too bad and went quickly. It also appears that since the 2015 earthquake the actual Hillary step is no longer there. Hard to tell as snow conditions vary a lot, but I don’t remember there being a difficult rock section. In any case I reached the final snow steps and climbed to the final ridge.
Two things now stood out. First was Thunang’s congratulations. I think that was the first point in the climb where he thought I would make it without oxygen! Better late than never I suppose. The second was that I STILL couldn’t see the summit flags! I guessed we were close but it still felt I had work to do, and Thunang’s celebration felt premature.
We continued along the gently rising track, looping slowly to the right past the corniced sections close to one side. Then finally, around a cornice I saw it. 50ft up a modest slope was a small tripod draped in Buddhist prayer flags. Beyond, nothing but blue sky. It was the summit of Mt Everest, and the highest point on earth!
Soon I was there, 10 hours after leaving the South Col. I embraced Thunang, he had suffered me for so long and I couldn’t have done it without him. He was as happy as I was, I think. Summitting is a special moment for everyone, even if you have done it before from what I can tell. I climbed onto the final snow pile by the flags and held my hands to the sky. I had made it, and without using any supplemental oxygen!