The Long Walk Home

It seems to have become traditional to leave base camp by helicopter at the end of an expedition. In fact, of the 28 climbers who started our expedition, myself and Sharon (plus Jonny, one of the guides) were the only ones to trek back rather than fly. For me it wasn’t about the money (although the chopper is staggering pricy), but about processing what we had just achieved and slowly descending into civilization. I think the shock of being in the chaos of Kathmandu an hour after leaving Base Camp would be unpleasant at best.

We left at mid morning the day after arriving and walked back down the glacier. The clouds were beginning to gather, and as Everest slowly disappeared from view I put in my headphones and played a couple of songs to remind me of the moment. It felt like closure, a final reminder which will always make me smile in the future.

Down the valley I go….

I’d got a slightly later start as I said my goodbyes to Greg, and managed to lose the other two before I started! I wasn’t worried though, and a cup of sweet milk tea in each village while I looked for them in the tea houses was fine by me. I knew where they were probably going anyway. Probably. Around 4pm I finally arrived at the Himalayan Hotel in Pheriche, my favorite guesthouse on the trek, and sure enough there they were, sitting in the window and drinking tea. Success! The guesthouse was deserted apart from us, which was a surprise. We were right at the end of the trekking season, but a total absence of trekkers was still a shock. 

A stark contrast to my journey up the valley


Oh it was wonderful to sleep in a proper bed again! To be sure, the beds there are basic to say the least, but I didn’t care. I slept like a baby. Breakfast the next morning was Tibetan bread and jam, and it was a thrill to have something DIFFERENT for breakfast. The food in base camp was very good, but the ability to actually choose breakfast, well, that was a treat! 

It was a fairly long walk – about 18 miles – from Pheriche to Namche Bazar. It was so joyous to descend the valley and watch as the mountain sides turned from grey to green. The strong scent of pine and juniper filled the air, and filled me with happiness. THIS was why I waked down, and I admit I hugged the first tree I walked past. We crossed the raging river at the base of the valley and ascended back up to the monastery at Tengboche. Love that place.

Tengboche monastery


The last few miles dragged but eventually we rounded a small hill and there was Namche Bazar laid out below. I had left with the town covered in snow, and now it was covered in green. I have always liked it there, and to return was special. We descended the carefully carved steps and soon arrived at the Khumbu Lodge. Home sweet home!

Home sweet home, at Namche Bazar


There were some trekkers in the lodge and they soon discovered we had just returned from the summit of Everest. That makes you a minor celebrity and I must say I didn’t mind the attention. They were good people and it was frankly nice to talk to some different people for the first time in 10 weeks! We had a good meal and more importantly, my first beer for 75 days! I think that’s a record for me, and one I’m unlikely to break for a while. 😄

The next day was the last one to Lukla. Jonny was on a mission and we soon lost him ahead, but I was in no rush. We would certainly miss that day’s flights and I was happy to savor my last day in the Khumbu. I drank it all in – the intense green, the rumble of the river, the warm air of lower altitudes, the smell of the flowers and the call of the songbirds. I had my final view of Mt Everest, a peak of the now-distant summit through the monsoon clouds, and I said my goodbyes and a thank you. The mountain had been merciful to me, and I was deeply grateful.

So green, so lovely!


After lunch the final hill before Lukla appeared. We were here! The archway at the top of that rise marked the end of the trek, and I was both happy and sad. I’d become quite attached to the place, and wondered if I’d ever return. Right then I understood why some people come back and climb the mountain again. It’s not about the summit any more, it’s about the overall experience and to be connected to this place once more. Will I be back? Perhaps, although not for Everest. In any case I’d like to think that wasn’t my last time standing underneath that arch.

Myself, Sharon and Mingma Sherpa at the end of the trek


We checked in, and to my pleasant surprise I met Terez, the Himalayan Rescue Association doctor who I’d met in Pheriche! She had been working as a doctor for the helicopter rescues and was leaving the next day. It was time for a few more beers!

The next day I awoke to a beautiful morning. Sharon was hung over, but as I never get them I was full of bounce. We shortly went over to the chaotic airport and waited for our flight. In the departure room (‘lounge’ would be an overstatement) the TV was playing a film about a plane crash. Given there had been a fatal plane crash the week before at this airport I thought that was about the most ill-timed thing I’ve ever seen. Like ‘Airplane’ as an in-flight movie. Twisted genius.

You couldn’t make this up…


Soon it was our turn and we boarded the last flight of the day. The plane accelerated and in the nick of time we dived off the runway and launched into the valley below. Civilization beckoned, and I was ready.

We arrived in warm, sunny and smog-filled Kathmandu without incident. Once in the Hotel Tibet in Kathmandu I looked in a full length mirror for the first time in 76 days. Ouch. I imagine some people leave Everest looking like mountain men. I looked like I had been adrift in the ocean for those 76 days! I was indistinguishable from a shipwreck victim, which was a shock. All the modest muscles I had laborious built in the gym over many months – gone. Much work to do when I get home, that much was apparent.

Shipwreck victim!


And yet I didn’t care. 

“Wear it with pride.” was Jonny’s advice when I noted my sunburn and scarred lips. And he was right. Nothing a few weeks and a shave couldn’t fix! Or a spa! Terez knew of an infinity pool on the roof of a hotel in Kathmandu, so later that day I found myself drinking a blue lagoon cocktail in the sun. It was a lovely end to a wonderful trip.

Dramatic pose… check!


My dad once told me “There are no holidays of a lifetime, just a holiday for this year.” In this case, however, I will make an exception. Truly the trip of a lifetime.

Until the next one….. 😋

—–

Thank you for following my blog, I sincerely hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed bringing you with me.

Happy adventures!

James

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Victory!

It was hard to get out of the sleeping bag the next morning for the final walk down the icefall back to Base Camp. It was the fifth long hard day of climbing in a row and I was still drained from the whole experience. The walk was also compounded by the fact we had to bring down everything we had in Camp 2, so our packs were heavy. Not usually a problem but I’d lost so much strength in the last few months that loads which were easy during training now placed a good deal of stress on my body. Fortunately Thunang offered to carry a few items of mine down for me, which really helped me out.

Plenty for the poor lad to carry through a dangerous maze of unstable ice!

The Western Cwm was filled with thick cloud as we set off, coating us in a cold white silence which was accompanied only by the crunch of crampons on the ice. The experience was wonderfully peaceful and I was reminded again of why the cwm is sometimes called the ‘valley of silence’. The only other noise we could hear was a faint roar of what sounded like river rapids in the distance. I thought it was meltwater beneath us in the glacier, but I asked one of the sherpa and he instead pointed up. It was the winds of the jet stream raging high above us at the summit of Everest. It was a final and fitting reminder of the harshness of this unique and special place.

Silence in the clouds, with the south face of Everest behind

The walk to Camp 1 was serene, yet interspersed with quite scary crossings of the cravasses. My favorite moment was when a random idiot pushed in front of our line of waiting climbers to cross a ladder. Because he was just too cool, with his jacket covered in sponsor patches and his designer grizzled beard, he crossed quickly and without clipping into the safety rope. Watching him lose his balance half way and very, very nearly fall into the bottomless pit below made me chuckle. Yeah I know I shouldn’t have laughed but it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. I gave him a hearty round of applause when he made the other side, which I’m certain he appreciated.

This is why you clip into the safely rope

The descent of the icefall was similarly surreal in the dense cloud, and again the silence was palpable. It was probably better in the cloud; generally harder to see just how much danger you were in. My favorite part was when the route passed directly beneath a string of 10ft icicles, a real ‘sword of Damocles’ moment! Progress was slowed a little by my wrist, but it was healing well and didn’t give me too much trouble. Soon enough we had descended the final vertical ladder and crossed the 40ft wide cravasse, which hadn’t been there on my very first rotation. 

PROPER icicles, and probably not all that safe

The final ladders in the icefall

 

The final fixed rope appeared in front. Taking care not to fall – it would be the ultimate fail to stumble now! – I climbed down and then continued along the flatter ground until Crampon Point. We took off our spikes and I beamed with a big smile! A couple of small ice ridges to negotiate and we would be back in Base Camp. 

The final few feet to Crampon Point alongside the meltwater


Walking into our camp, I admit a few tears began to flow as I subconsciously acknowledged I had essentially achieved the impossible. I had both summited without Os in my first proper attempt (and as an amateur) AND returned safely. I felt a huge sense of pride, accomplishment, satisfaction and frankly relief. The harder and longer the adventure, the greater the odds and the more difficult the personal challenge, the greater the emotional reward. For me at least, everything is bottled up during an expedition and released at once in those final few moments when you know, you KNOW, that you have actually done it. Or when you have certainly failed. Those last few minutes of each adventure are as profound as any I have experienced in my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. To smile until my cheeks hurt and to cry with happiness, those are the moments I will remember for a lifetime.

Myself and Sharon a few minutes after arriving back at Base Camp, very tired and very happy!


James

Return to Camp 2

I woke shortly after dawn and after a cup of oatmeal (I’d cracked my bowl in half in the first week!) I slowly began packing my gear. I felt infinitely more rested compared to the prior afternoon but still quite drained from several days of hard climbing in a row. In this improved state, however, I was now able to appreciate the view from the South Col. The col itself is a bit of a rubbish tip – it’s a lot of effort to carry rubbish down so no one does it –  but the view is good! 

The South Col

We set off around 7am and crossed the col to the Geneva spur. Once again, walking was more difficult than I expected but a thousand times better than 24 hours before so I wasn’t concerned. Everything is relative, after all. Even Thunang had to take short breaks, however, which was a first for him. I guess he was human after all!

We crossed the spur and made the steep traverse to the Yellow Band. SO much easier in this direction! There were a decent number of climbers on the rope climbing up to the South Col, and even a couple climbing without oxygen. Not sure any of them summited though, with the weather up high due to turn worse and the jet stream returning. I continued to wonder (and still do) what weather forecasts all these people follow.

The Lohtse face was manageable, even with my wrist, and soon we were on the last stretch to Camp 2. The main dangers were now behind us, and with just the Khumbu Icefall to go I felt I was nearly home. Once again I was out of energy, but salvation was just a few steps ahead as the IMG camp loomed close. I could see a few of the sherpas and clients waiting, and it warmed my heart. Great to see everyone again!

Funuru, one of the head sherpa and expedition organizers, was the first to congratulate me, and you could see the genuine happiness in his eyes. Being congratulated by the guy who holds the summit number record on Cho Oyu, another 8,000m peak – 17 summits, plus I believe 10x Everest summits – was pretty special. It was only then I felt I had done something pretty unusual and pretty difficult. I sat in the eating tent and enjoyed a big bowl of spicy noodles and several cups of juice, and just smiled. It was wonderful to be back.

Camp 2 and salvation!

James

The Summit and Descent

I spent 15 minutes at the summit of Everest, the highest person on earth. What was it like, you ask? Well, not as euphoric as you might expect. It was -23C / -10F and somewhat windy up there, and I was really quite tired after the exertion of the climb. I was also acutely aware that I was only at the half way point. Stastitically, more people die on the descent than on the way up, and that was the second rookie mistake I wanted to avoid. Beyond that concern, I knew I was slowly dying. Without supplemental oxygen at the summit the human body (and brain cells) are actively breaking down, and I was keen to return with most of my brain cells still working. They don’t grow back, after all. Happiness and satisfaction at the summit, certainly, but no elation and little time to appreciate it all anyway. 

That said, there was a strong sense that I was in a very special place, especially as there were only the three of us (myself, Thunang and another sherpa carrying my emergency oxygen) on the entire upper mountain by that time. I could see literally hundreds of miles into both India and Tibet, a view which encompassed the entire width of the Himalaya from plains to plateau. Snowy peaks and endless mountains receeded to the horizon like waves on the ocean, each wave fainter than the previous. From my vantage point I looked down on mountains far below; mountains which had previously towered above me as I looked up from Base Camp. The scale of the place and the sheer size of Mt Everest was hard to comprehend. I had decided to climb this mountain in part because it was a unique experience and a unique place, and it did not disappoint.

A view from the summit *credit: IMG Hybrid Team*

We took some photos and soon it was time to leave. With one last look and the widest of smiles I stepped off the summit for the last time and began the walk back down to Earth – at least that’s what it felt like. With most mountains this is where things get less strenuous. Not on Everest. We certainly were moving faster, but not as quickly or as easily as I expected. Breathing still controlled my world, and I was still a slave to that harsh master. Descending to the South Summit was also technically tricky, culminating with me putting a crampon point right through my down suit. Ooops. Oh well, it wasn’t like I needed it for much longer, and a few feathers in the wind never hurt anyone. We crossed the Cornice Traverse and made the short grueling climb to the top of the South Summit before descending the ridge below. When we reached the steep rock section midway down I quickly understood how people get themselves dead on the return leg. With my broken wrist wrapped around the rope as a brake and my crampons slipping on the rocks I have had better moments. It was just so draining to keep concentrating and progress was slow, but eventually we were back on safer snow and nearly at the Balcony.

It was now I completely ran out of gas. Each burst of action was only 2 steps followed by a rest. With so little oxygen available the body tries to burn glucose for fuel, and I was now fully depleted. At this stage the body is forced to then burn a combination of fat and muscle, which it can only convert slowly, and two steps was all I could muster before giving my body a brief chance to metabolize some new fuel. I could see where we were going but it seemed like a mirage, never getting nearer. The climb up to the Balcony that morning had been brutal, and the same section in reverse was no better. Not my favorite bit of mountain, that much is certain.

On the climb up my body had started to visualize different actions in strange ways, and here it began again. Each conscious breath in was accompanied by a sense of blue and left. It wasn’t a hallucination and I didn’t see anything visually, it was more like a daydream but one which ran concurrently with my waking mind. The level of blue – and hence my rate of breathing – was then overseen in my mind by an old man with a white beard. Nope, I have no idea either! It was like my body was communicating to me in the third person. In addition to blue and left, I found that when I hyperventilated out of my control those sensations disappeared and I instead had a sense of yellow and right. I think it was my body’s way of giving feedback on my levels of hypoxia and it’s cause, but I don’t know. I said I wanted unique experiences, and these certainly qualified.

On the way down things were slightly different. Here, the number of steps I could take was oddly controlled in my mind, not by the old man with the white beard, but by a German banker in a dark suit! I used to work for a German bank when I was younger, but it was still very random. On the final approach to the South Col I remember negotiating with this banker on whether I could instead take three, or perhaps even four steps in a row! He said no!

Finally, at around 4pm I was only yards from camp, still taking 2 steps in each cycle. I pulled off my crampons and unceremoniously dived inside my tent, too tired to move much more. A very kind sherpa made me some instant noodles while I crawled into my sleeping bag (still fully clothed, minus the boots) and I soon fell into a deep sleep. My face was covered in ice and I was the most tired man alive, but otherwise I was in one piece, past the majority of danger (for now), and happy. I had reached the summit of Everest and stage one of the descent had been a success! 

Back in the South Col, unable to remove the ice from my beard


James

The Climb to the Summit

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.

The triangular face and the south west ridge to the south summit *IMG Hybrid Team photo*


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.

Sunrise on Makalu and Lohtse from just below the Balcony, 8,350m


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 view from the Balcony at 8,400m / 27,600ft


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!

Climbers descending from the South Summit


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.

Looking from the south summit to the Hillary step and summit ridge *IMG Hybrid Team photo*


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! 

Me on the summit, with the summit tripod behind


James

To the South Col!

It was wonderful to be in Camp 2 as the first wave summited and descended to our Camp. Totally exhausted, they walked like contented zombies across the rocks to the dining tent to be greeted with congratulations and attentiveness. Everyone had summited and all eventually returned to camp without injury. It was inspiring, and I felt remorse to have missed the chance to summit with them. Bravo to all of them!

Very tired, very happy!!


And yet their stories of triumph were tempered by tragedy. Several other, less prepared teams attempted to summit that day and several clients needlessly lost their lives. Many others suffered frostbite and other injuries. Members of our group has seen several new bodies along the route to the summit, and a couple of guys even watched as a delirious climber above fell over a cliff to his death. It was harrowing to hear and visualize these experiences, happening so near yet so far beyond my control. It made me start to dread the climb ahead, to potentially face such horror and the dilemma of how to act if the same happened to me. I’ve rescued a few people in the mountains before, but those were easy decisions where I had the capacity to help. Without oxygen near the summit things would be very different. It was a somber night of thought as we ate dinner and went to bed in preparation for the next morning’s climb to Camp 3.

By 4am the next morning we were walking toward the Lohtse Face, soon to be bathed in the clear glow of dawn. As before, my aim was to arrive at Camp 3 as the most rested climber, not as the first. The weather was a little better than before, but more importantly I felt stronger; the extra aborted trip to Camp 3 and extra rest seemed to have helped my acclimatization even further. 5 hours later I was in my tent and feeling good.

Towards the evening we were jolted by the sound of a helicopter flying past, a very rare occurance at this altitude. I peered out of the tent and saw a small group of climbers descending the fixed rope and located about 30 meters above us, all frantically waving at the chopper. It made many passes with the rescue line dangling below, but they were just a fraction too high and eventually it had to descend. I heard later it was a Korean climber who ended up losing most of his hands and feet to frostbite. Another reminder of the place I was about to go.

Spot the helicopter from Camp 3!

I slept well and the next morning we began the climb to the South Col at 8,000m. I was climbing slowly but steadily, but was eventually passed by our whole group. I had to remind myself that everyone who passed me was using oxygen to stop myself getting frustrated. I was in a different race entirely. In what seemed like an age we passed the Yellow Band, and I remember feeling that it was easier this time than last. In any case I was breathing less, an encouraging sign.

We crossed the tricky traverse and then began to climb the Geneva spur. The weather had turned us at this point the last time, so this was now new territory for me and my altitude record. At the top of the spur was a steep wall of snow; a challenge but I eventually crested the top. It was a moment of great excitement for me. You can’t see beyond this point from below and it is the gateway to the South Col. A moment of personal exploration was coming.

The result could have been better. Sticking my head above the crest it was almost taken off by the wind. A gale was raging through the South Col as it often does, and from near calm we were now climbing in 60 mph winds. Oxygen starved, cold and tired, this was a new experience alright. I staggered onward along the blessedly flat(ish) section to reach the South Col.

I was greeted with carnage. Pieces of shredded tent flapped violently in the wind as a few sherpa shout instructions to each other. I was ushered into one of the existing tents, and it was a blessing to be suddenly sheltered from the maelstrom. I’d made it!

The south col. Amazing view, tough place!


To be honest, if things had been nice I would have been disappointed; the South Col is feared for its utter inhospitability, and I was luckily enough to get a good taste of that without it getting dangerous. And apart from the wind I felt super. I shared a tent with one of the IMG guides, and at one point he took out his pulse oximeter, a small device for measuring how much oxygen is in your blood.

“Can I have a go?” I asked after he’d taken his, while using oxygen I might add.

“Um, I don’t think you want to do that.” was his response, as he was expecting my stats to be shockingly low given where I was. However, he eventually relented and I took my reading.

“Huh. 71% with a pulse of 117.” I exclaimed in surprise. For context, my saturation level was higher than my last reading in Base Camp a few weeks before! It was a super good reading for 8,000m.

I was ready for my big day.
James

I did it! (Part 2)

I spent a day resting at Camp 2 before heading further up the mountain for my summit bid. I was on the same schedule as the ‘Classic 1’ team, so at 4am the next morning our group started up the Western Cwm to the Lohtse face. I was climbing at a slower pace to conserve energy for the final push, giving me more time than usual to admire the scenery and appreciate both where I was and what I was actually doing. It was beautiful sunrise and I felt so lucky to have the opportunity to be there.

Sunrise down the Western Cwm, climbers ascending on the right


Sadly though the fun was short lived. A fierce wind was blowing from the summit right down the Lohtse face, so at the bergschrund the conditions changed from a mellow walk to a gritty battle against the spindrift and ice pellets. It raised the stakes and the determination needed, but wasn’t insurmountable. Seeing a glove tumble past in the wind gave me pause though; someone further up was having a bad day!

Climbers heading up the Lohtse face to upper Camp 3


We eventually reached upper Camp 3 at 7,250m/23,800ft and settled in – it was 3 to a tent up there, which is not a favorite of mine. My last 3-in-a-tent experience at Camp 3 had been awful (and a prelude to my Camp 4 failure), so I was praying this was better, and that history would not repeat itself.

Fortunately this time things were better and I did get some sleep. However, to keep the trend of misfortune going there was a surprise waiting in the morning. Overnight the updated weather forecast had come in. While the forecast for the early morning on summit day (the 22nd May) was still good, the winds were now expected to rise to 60mph+ much earlier than before. On Everest that is certain frostbite territory, meaning my summit window had now shortened considerably.

I had a decision to make. I could leave earlier on summit night to give me more climbing time, but without Os that plan significantly raised my risk of getting frostbite before the (relative) warmth of the sun arrived. Or I could leave at the same time and accept the short window, but that raised the likelihood of being turned around through lack of time before reaching the summit. Or I could go back to Camp 2 and hope the next window, expected in a few days, was better. If that window didn’t materialize – and it was right on the forecast limit so we were guessing – I had no summit bid at all.

“Understand that if you come down you have one shot left, that’s it. We won’t have time for another.” was the advice on the radio from Greg, the leader of the expedition in base camp. 

All my eggs in one basket. But the new window might be a good basket, rather than the current one which I knew was bad. Better a small chance of success with extra suffering, rather than climb knowing I’d be turned around before the summit.

I decided to go back down and wait. 

My sherpa guide Thunang soon appeared at Camp 3 – several of the sherpa had returned to Camp 2 as there wasn’t enough tent space in Camp 3. When I told him the new plan he had the look of a man who had just climbed all the way to Camp 3 only to be told we were going back down! But down we went, with fingers and toes crossed that I’d made the right call. Only time would tell.

Camp 3 in the afternoon


For several days I sat at Camp 2 with those fingers crossed. Each day at 5pm I got on the radio with Greg to discuss our updated plan, based on the latest weather analysis he received every afternoon. The remaining IMG climbers soon arrived from Base Camp, in preparation for their own bids, and we decided that my best shot was to join them on their planned summit day, the 25th. The forecast now showed it to be a carbon copy of the 22nd, the day I had forfeited, but with a longer window. If the forecast held we could make this work!

James