I Did It! (Part 1)

Success!! On May 25th at 10.50am I summitted Mt Everest without using supplemental oxygen! I am now back in Kathmandu (no working internet in the Khumbu when I got down!), fit and well, if a little tired, bearded and sunburned.

Summit of Mt Everest! Check out the sunglasses reflection!


Before I get into the story let me take this moment to thank my parents, family, friends, the IMG team, my Sherpa guide Thunang and of course everyone reading this blog – YOU. Without your support and belief it wouldn’t have happened.

It had been a pretty wild ride since I left base camp 14 days ago! Let me start at the beginning, with a slight detour that set the tone for the summit bid!

The first drama occured before I had even started on the first stage of the summit rotation! At 3am we left Base Camp for Camp 2 at 6,500m/21,600ft, crossing the gravel-covered Khumbu glacier towards the place we attach out crampons (descriptively called ‘crampon point’), Going over one of the little ice ridges in the dark I slipped on some clear refrozen ice and went crashing down, putting my hand out to brace myself. That was a mistake, and I knew straight away I’d done something to it – a strange moment when I just sat there not wanting to move because I didn’t want to know if I’d broken something. Eventually, when I gave it a wiggle it seemed to do the right things, yet it also didn’t feel right and hurt quite a bit.

Sitting there I was almost in shock that my summit bid could be over before it had begun, and for such a daft reason! It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had, almost a despair that all the time, energy and effort had gone to waste; that it had all been for nothing. I had probably just thrown away my one chance in a single innocuous moment. That said, I wasn’t going to go down without a fight. Tentatively I got back up, “shook it off”, and continued to climb the icefall to Camp 2!

It hurt a lot, but at least for the gripping / pulling motions needed for climbing I could still function well enough, or use my left hand instead. For other motions like picking things up it was agony but those weren’t needed to climb! Perhaps I wasn’t done with this summit bid yet, so at Camp 2 I iced it and stuck with the plan. I also didn’t tell anyone – I figured I’d do that if and when it became a problem. Fortunately it wasn’t!

Swelling on my fractured wrist at Camp 2. But I got through it.


EPILOGUE – When I got back to base camp one of the Himalayan Rescue Association doctors (a Harvard trained ER doctor no less!) took a look at at. It IS fractured! My first broken bone as well.

So I am probably one of the few people to summit Everest with a broken wrist. Why make it easy, eh! 😀

Stay tuned for the next installment!

James

Go, Go, Go!!

It is GO TIME for my final phase, the summit rotation!

It looks like there should be a good summit weather window for me between the 22nd and the 26th. As such, the plan is to head up to Camp 2 tonight and wait up there for the right opportunity as that window approaches and we get more clarity on the forecast.

If I’m feeling strong, the crowds are somewhere else and the weather continues to trend well, then summit day will be towards the front of that window. If the crowds amass, or the best weather trends later, I will likely stretch my legs to Camp 3 and return for a couple of rest days in Camp 2 before the bid. Either way, in the next week I should get my shot!

I am both excited and nervous. The big boss here rightly noted that the only reason to be nervous is if you are unsure of what you are doing. At least for me – without Os – I am also stepping into the unknown above 8,000m. I should perform well up there, but who knows. The final couple of hours was just described to me as ‘crippling’. I’m not scared, just worried that I might not perform as well as I want, or be physically unable to make it. In any case, I’m going to give it every single thing I have. Everything else is out of my control, so I’m focused only on what I can control.

Without oxygen I’m looking at a summit time of 12-14 hours (so a 15-18 hour day), as my best guess. Unlike most climbers I will leave in early hours of the morning to avoid the worst of the night cold, so I hope I can summit by mid afternoon. It’s a risk with the weather, but here’s hoping. In a perfect world that gives me the summit of the world to myself. Can you imagine!!

How to create that drive on the day itself? Last time, from Camp 3 towards the South Col, I realized that is was the same distance I sometime walk my 4 year old nephew to school. He hides behind trees so it takes ages, just like the climb! I just visualized the stage as that same walk with him. How hard can it be! I’ll use the same plan on summit day. I’m also remembering some quotes over the years which have got me through. Here is a favorite which I will write out and take up with me. I’m a normal person; I need these reminders as I go!

Pain is temporary. It may last for a minute, or an hour, or a day, or even a year. But eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it will last forever.

I want to thank everyone for your support along the way, it means a huge amount to me. You are the final piece of the motivation puzzle, and I shall be thinking of that support when the night is darkest. I thank you in advance for getting me through it!!

Fingers and toes crossed, for the summit and a safe return!

James

A beautiful final day in base camp

Breaking News: The South Route is Fixed (We Think)

We hear evolving news in Everest Base Camp that the south side route to the summit (i.e. the fixing of the ropes we all need to climb safely) was finally done today by a team of Guhrka, the elite Nepalese / British military unit. I am very hopeful, both that the news is correct, but more importantly they made it back down safely, in what were expected to be difficult conditions. All fingers and toes crossed (and warmed)!

Why is the fixed line date important? Anchoring it to the mountain is a difficult task which requires a window of good weather – usually 2 days or so – to make it the last bit to the summit. Most of the time the weather forecast is only long enough to show one window, so that first one must be used for the fixed rope team. Now that is (expectedly) done, WE as climbers can use the next forecasted window as a potential summit day. It is HUGE green light!! The countdown to summit day for all of us has begun (we hope!).

The big bosses of the expedition will now start figuring out when we can start moving up the mountain in preparation for any new weather windows we should get. As for me, I’m keen both to spend a little extra time up there to get both physically and mentally reacquainted with those high altitudes, and to wait a few extra days to hopefully let the masses attempt before me. Standing in line at 28,600ft / 8,700m as some people ahead stop and discuss their Kathmandu weekend plans, as happened to one of our guides last year, is not my vision for the big day! 

So all to play for now, looks like things are slowly grinding forward. Fingers crossed!

James

You don’t Need a Weatherman to Tell Which Way the Wind Blows

The weather is the current vogue topic of discussion at Everest Base Camp. Down here, mornings are sunny and warm. I even get woken up by the little birds who come here for the left over food. In the afternoon it generally snows, although rarely more than an inch or two.

At the summit it is a different story. The winds have been generally blowing too strongly for the Sherpa teams to fix the rope to the  on the south side; a prerequisite for teams to plan their summit day. The forecasts have been unrealible with this weather pattern, so it is become a bit of a crap shoot, and time is running a little short. Brace yourself for some ‘traffic jam’ photos of climbers on summit day!

As a result, almost all of the teams are back in Base Camp. The latest guess is 20%+ of climbers are already permanently gone, due to illness or other reasons. Flu is apparently rife, so I have self-quarentined myself in camp. Many others have taken the (expensive) helicopter ride down the valley to recouperate and to avoid illness – we shall see how that works out. Some have gone down to Kathmandu, and I heard several on one team went back to Beijing to recouperate! Not sure that’s where I would go, given the choice.

On the plus side, one of the really great guys here just returned from the main village in the Khumbu, Namche Bazar, with donuts!! I’ve never had fresh donuts delivered by helicopter before! Legendary.

He brought Donuts!


As for my plans, they are weather dependent and uncertain. Most likely I will remain in base camp until it is time to go for the summit. But perhaps I shall head up earlier for one final mini-rotation to keep things sharp. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and only the weather will determine the best.

James

The Second Rotation, Part 2 (The Good)

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.

Me at Camp 3, with the South Col behind


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.

Sunset from Camp 3 overlooking the western cwm, Pumori and Cho Oyu


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!

Tunang in the icefall, with the peaks of Pumori and Lingtren


James

The Second Rotation, Part 1 (The Bad and the Ugly)

Hello friends! I am back in Base Camp, fit, healthy and doing well. It’s been a rollercoaster 9 days on the mountain, from the premature end of my no-oxygen dream to a reversal of fortune. I am still on target!

The first mini rotation

This longer rotation was to be split into 2 sections. The first ‘mini rotation’ was to spend 2 nights at Camp 3, perched at 7,200m / 23,600ft on the Lohtse face. During the day between those nights the plan was to climb to the South Col at around 8,000m / 26,000ft . Reaching that point was the ‘no Os’ test; if I could make it in a reasonable time (6 hours or so) then the no oxygen dream was on. If I couldn’t, the summit was likely out of my reach and the team would put me on oxygen for the remainder of the trip. The dream would be over.

Looking towards Camp 3, about half way up the Lohtse Face


On day 1 we climbed up through the icefall and my problems began. Because of the extra layers needed for no Os climbing at the summit (you get much colder than when on oxygen, as your body can’t metabolise and create heat as quickly) and the snacks / food for 10 days I carried a heavy backpack, climbing the icefall this time was far more physically draining than before. I was already hurting at the halfway point when we were met by a large group of Sherpa descending the route.

“The route is blocked and there’s no way around.” was the explanation. Damn.

However, one of our guides and a couple of the experienced Sherpa in our team had other ideas. While they went to reroute the lines we waited, huddling like penguins against the freezing 4am cold. Remarkably they managed to find a way around the collapse so after 1 1/2 hours we continued upwards – only to be met with another collapse! This was again fixed by our very impressive team, but for another 2 hours we stood amongst the ice getting very cold indeed.

We finally emerged from the icefall as the sun hit, only to face the long walk to Camp 2. I had hit the wall soon after Camp 1 and it was an agonizingly slow, exhausting grind to camp. Three hours later I was not a happy bunny.

We had a day of rest the next day, but at 6,500m it just wasn’t enough to undo the fatigue I had incurred. At 5am on day 3 it was time to climb the Lohtse Face to Camp 3 at 7,200m, and despite some recovery I was way down on performance. A 40mph ice-laden wind made the climb even more challenging, and after 5h 30min I crawled into camp, over an hour slower than my first attempt. What I REALLY needed, an utter imperative, was a good night’ sleep before the push the next day.

Climber resting on the Lohtse Face across from Upper Camp 3


Not to be. In the usual twist of irony, it was in fact one of the least comfortable nights of my life. One of our team was unwell as he pulled into camp after a 12 hour ordeal, and I spent the night jammed into the side of our tent as the poor chap coughed, groaned and moaned without pause. Cold, constricted, hypoxic and constantly awake, it was pure torture. Fortunately for him, I was awake the whole night so I could tell when he became delirious and woke up our 3rd (soundly sleeping) tent mate at around 3am to confer. Ultimately we got our awesome guide, who administered oxygen and started the patient care process.

Needless to say, at 5am my head was not in the game. The last thing on this earth I wanted to do was endure the climb to the South Col. I was exhausted, mentally and physically; to tired to even realize this was a critical opportunity, and a test I was about to flunk. And flunk I did. Not caring about anything at that point I was exceptionally careless with my fingers, getting them near frozen even before putting on my climbing gloves. I was petulant and miserable, and starting straight into the 50 degree blue ice slope worsened my mood even further.

After 50m of slow climbing and some cold finger struggles, my Sherpa guide stopped.

“I don’t think you will make it to the South Col. You are too slow, and too cold. I think you won’t make it without oxygen, better you use oxygen. We should go down now.”

And that was it. We turned around and went down, collecting our stuff before descending to Camp 2. I was initially almost glad we turned around, but as we descended I realized what I had done to my dream and my chances. I had failed, and worse, now I had a Sherpa guide – my sole companion for the climb – who didn’t believe I could do it. To be honest, I think he’d always been sceptical, needing proof before he believed in me and my attempt. And now I had proved his skepticism correct. It made me as angry as I can ever remember being, almost exclusively at myself. Sure, I could be mad at him for turning me around (I was for a while) but ultimately he did the right thing.
I was soon back at Camp 2, with everything to prove to everyone, and mad as hell. I still believed I could do it. Luckily, though, I was only half way through the rotation. I’d demonstrated to everyone I couldn’t do it, but could I somehow recover this situation in the second mini rotation?

Tommorow we shall find out.  🙂

James

On your Marks, Get Set… Go!!

FINALLY it looks like the forecast will come through for us, so myself and Team 1 are heading up to Camp 2 in the small hours of tomorrow morning. Currently the winds are tearing up at 8,000m but are forecast to be manageable by the 4th or 5th when I’m due to climb to the South Col, so it’s showtime!

I admit that waiting the last few days has been hard. You constantly worry that your hard-earned acclimatization from the last rotation might fade, or that you are getting ‘soft’ without any real climbing for over a week. Or that you might miss your flight home. None of these are likely true, but it’s hard to remember that when you are mindlessly munching on the 20th Oreo of the afternoon from pure boredom. In any case, I’m happy to get back up there, and back ‘in the game’, so to speak – and burn off those excess cookies!

It’s also nearly time to break out the down suit, the high altitude mittens and the balaclava. I’m intrigued – so far I’ve climbed  very hot, almost overheating at Camp 3 in just a thermal base layer, a fleece and a shell. Climbing in the full down suit should be an interesting experiment. I can always unzip most of it if I start burning up I suppose, and as long the hands and feet stay warm the rest is just suffering. And that is my speciality.

Target time from Camp 3 to Camp 4 is 6 hours, for a total distance of 0.8 miles. Pitiful, right! It’s like climbing in slow motion. Let’s hope it’s not too slow-motion! I’m feeling strong and more acclimatized than ever, so I hope that is within my grasp.

Wish me luck – although with a lucky base camp flamingo cheering me on it should be a done deal 😉

James