Apparently the only thing certain about a plan is that it will change! After many varied and colourful iterations of the original climbing plan I finally found myself awake before my alarm, staring at the inside of my tent as it was battered by heavy and gusting winds. I lay there lamenting the fact that my little tent had been erected on a small, high rocky outcrop. Surely this gale was strong enough to lift my little home off its perch?
I glanced at my phone/watch and elected to preempt the alarm and prepare for this mornings jaunt from C2 6400m up to C3 7400m, where the intention was to spend one night trying to sleep in the thin atmosphere. The only continuing question was the weather and whether this wind, which had been correctly predicted, would further stall our progress.
Unfortunately, punctuality isn’t this teams strong point, so instead of standing around whilst the throng “faffed” in the cold, I tagged onto the tail of the 4 man Sherpa contingent charged this day with carrying loads [sleeping bags, cook sets etc] to C3 and exited camp.
These men are the true stars of any expedition. The loads they carry, not with complaint but with pride, are simply incredible. I don’t consider myself weak either at altitude or sea level, but these extraordinary creatures put me to shame.
We trudged off the rocky moraine on which C2 of positioned and struck out over the inclined snow and ice slope that leads to the foot of the Lhotse Face. This early and expedited level of exertion is always hard. It always takes me a while to correct and settle into my breathing rhythm and discover a pace that I can sustain. However the magnetic draw of the Sherpa pack ahead tempted me into pushing a little too hard too soon.
The winds were brutal and attacked me from my left. I tried covering my ears and face, but despite my best efforts the blow-torch burn of intense cold penetrated the smallest of gaps, apparently leaving me with a touch of “frost-nip” on my cheekbone. The skin has gone an attractive deathly white colour in a precise strip where the blowtorch cold gained access. This delightful new look will test even Vanessa’s love!
After ninety minutes hard graft I finally arrived at the bottom of the Lhotse Face where there exists a Bergschrund, or to you and I, a harsh fold in the ice where the semi vertical face is forced horizontal, free to continue its journey down valley. This bend or fold in the ice is of course constantly changing as nature's momentum takes its course, the resultant crevasse demanding constant attention from the Icefall doctors.
The 2017 Bergschrund thankfully demands only one ladder but is tricky to negotiate nonetheless and requiring a significant leap of faith to find suitable crampon purchase. Having crossed the ladder the Lhotse face is accessed by traversing to your right and upwards, a maneuver that tests your faith in the ropes – you have to effectively leap into space to get over the lip and onto the face.
However, I was soon stabbing my crampons into the blue ice surface, sliding my Jumar [a simply mechanical device with mini teeth that grips the rope allowing progress in a singular direction] up the rope and once again trying to engage my own inner autopilot that finds my comfortable rhythm.
The battering ram wind continued. One moment there was eerie silence, then suddenly a roar as a new wind express approached. As it hit I would turn my back, stamp my crampons into the ice and hope this wave wouldn’t be enough to dislodge me.
The snow was as fine as talc, coating my exposed left side in a formidable crust. The wind carried wave after wave into both myself and the Sherpas above. I stared up at the nearest of them, his body hunched against a new attack. The assault of wind and snow was visually spectacular, but my fingers were already hard to feel, so I declined the opportunity to dig out my camera and snap a picture.
Suddenly my radio crackled with the voice of Richie, one the guides now standing at the foot of the Lhotse Face with the rest of the team, questioning the merit of continuing such was the apparent battering the Sherpas and I were receiving. The debate continued on a different radio channel than the norm, but the result was that the main team would decline to climb to C3.
I was surprised but also alarmed that this decision would prompt a recall for the Sherpa’s and I. I wanted to complete the acclimatization process, at least to my own satisfaction and visit C3. Even if the wind strength was predicating against sleeping the night, I felt it imperative that I at least “tag” the altitude, such that my body doesn’t suffer this shock a second time when we shoot for the summit.
The conditions were harsh, but my fingers and toes still felt part of me and I knew only 200 vertical meters left to be climbed. The Sherpas were asked their feelings but their reply was intelligible to me. A sudden break in the debate allowed me to insist that we continue to C3 before descending. We could cope – it was harsh and spectacular, but we could deal with it. Russ acceded to this request – the five of us continued.
Not too long later I stood on the horizontal tent platforms cut into the ice by these amazing Sherpas, gulping water and marveling at the view. Ironically, the wind seemed less brutal now we were higher. I sat for fifteen minutes as my heat rate eased before hauling myself to my feet and joining the Sherpas for the descent.
Two rope lines have been installed on the face – an up and a down and the team split left and right onto both ropes. It was immediately obvious that the sheer blue ice and the 50 knot wind would not lend itself to anything but a succession of rappels from one rope anchor and rope section to another. So, with now totally numb fingers I engaged my abseil loop repeatedly down the face before I finally traversed to the top of the Bergschrund.
As I stood waiting for an abseiling Sherpa to disengage from the rope and allow me access, I was assaulted with one last tremendous blast of wind, snow and ice that in seconds had dammed the snow up to my knees. As if by magic the blast halted and I abseiled down to the start of the single ladder and escape.
We walked into camp just in time for lunch – a somewhat surreal experience as I was still panting as I ate.
The decision, after much dreary debate was to descend to BC the following early morning, as for the next few days, perhaps until the 28th, the winds on the summit, and to a lesser extent C2, would rise to circa 100 knots. There was not much to be gained huddling together in a barren C2 just hoping, seeing as there was not the equipment in place to assault the summit, even if the forecast were wrong.
We left C2 at 5 am on the 26th and meandered down the same well-trodden track we had painfully climbed but a few days before. It was bitterly cold and the wind harsh and persistent. I had no idea of the wind chill factor but it felt record-breaking. Reversing all the ladders we had previously struggled across during our ascent, Bruce and I entered the top of the icefall, leaving the rest of the team behind.
We felt like salmon swimming against a Sherpa tide of C1 and C2 bound porters, all carrying loads necessary for the future summit attempts. We moved quickly, as the icefall, as previously described, is simply a suicidal place to linger. Momentarily delated as a heavily laden Sherpa climbed a ladder we needed to descend, we gazed down onto the precise point where 14 Sherpas lost their lives in 2014 and where I had skirted the same fate in 2013.
Then suddenly, as we watched, a huge, house sized chunk of balancing ice toppled and crumpled to the ground. For a moment it looked as if the billions of tons behind it would follow, but miraculously the rest remained standing. On instinct I half turned to run, before realizing that there was nowhere to go. Lord only knows what was going through the minds of the Sherpas arrayed in direct line of this huge ice collapse. From a distance I could see their bodies spasm as one. But there would be nowhere to go – nowhere to hide. The spasm was reflex. There would have been no escape.
Suddenly all was calm – then frenzy as ludicrous efforts were made to speed up or rush through this particular area. However both altitude and a ladder choke point denied any rushing. You are where you are and one simply has to accept it and pray.
The descent continued with the early morning sun now bathing the waking BC below and before us. Finally, some 3 hours after departing C2 we walked from the icefall and stopped at crampon point. Replacing helmet with baseball cap, many layers of Arctryx for just one layer of thermal underwear, we then began the painfully long walk back through downtown BC to the "suburb" where Himex is based.
We walked into the Himex camp at 9am. I shed my pack and boots, immediately selected a new set of clothing and grabbing the old set, towel and toiletries, made a bee-line for the cook tent. I grabbed two huge bowls of steaming water – one for my rancid clothing and one for my rancid body.
I stripped in the “shower tent” [the shower sadly unusable owing to the early cold] and executed a precise top to toe bowl wash. Simply awesome! Now dressed in new clean clothes [yes even underwear] I attacked my dirty washing. The day was clear, blue and windy – my clothes dried in hours.
That night I slept the sleep of the dead, only to be woken by a 7am helicopter. I could have slept for much longer, somewhat unusual for me. I actually struggled to get up that morning and retired to my tent for a further kip at 11, only to be woken at 12:30 with the call to lunch.
The winds seem likely to abate in the next couple of days allowing the Sherpas to complete their work on the mountain and opening early climbing possibilities. However, the weather isn’t always compliant and the best laid plans etc…….
For now its rest – and I feel I need it. My body hurts from top to toe and I need to do literally nothing for a couple more days. It will recover and my opportunity will come – I hope.
When planning these Everest Nspcc expeditions my mind does obviously drift to the what-ifs. I am surrounded by a wonderful family who have to contend with the legacy of my past on a daily basis. There is my wife Vanessa, who is both the strongest and kindest of people I have ever met – she has had to be, to contend with a person like me. There are my kids – Hannah, Oliver, Seth and Ethan, all of whom have had to live at times under my shadow.
To many, it must seem odd that I depart bi annually to risk life and limb leaving such a beautiful collection of individuals whom I adore behind. Well it’s odd until one understands the context, because leaving is certainly not what I want to do.
I went through what no child should but too many do. Many children go through so much more than I – a fact that is hard for even me to comprehend. There is not one day that I do not somehow relive the events of so long ago, my personal mood surging and plunging in concert. Some probably think, “how can an 8 month period in ones childhood have such a long lasting and devastating impact”?
Well I cannot offer a reason other than it does – the effect is viral. From the moment it happens you, as a person, change and hence those around you change in accordance. My Mother’s life changed when she discovered the shocking involvement of my Father. My Mother’s life changed when she understood that I had expected her to help me and blamed her for my perception that she had not – the repercussions have been endless.
My kids have been blameless and born to someone who had a history which is and has been probably incomprehensible – they are blameless but have no doubt been altered in both subtle and unsubtle ways by what happened to their Father.
And lastly Vanessa, a woman who, despite knowing my complete history has never turned her back – quite the contrary. Without her I would already be a memory.
I am aware of the many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands who keep their fractured histories out of bounds, lucky to have secured a beachhead into life without declaring the horror of their past. They are people, like me who stare at their kids in blessed relief that they didn’t suffer the same life altering humiliation and indignity.
However, there are hundreds of thousands who have not managed to secure this desperate beachhead, who frantically lunge for the sanctuary of the beach but despite their best efforts are repulsed and flung back into the waves. Both child and adult try many times, only to finally slip silently beneath the waves.
It is for all these people, both secure in their lives, but defending horrific pasts, and those who have effectively drowned that I have continued with this string of attention seeking expeditions. People shouldn’t care if I successfully summit a mountain – all that should matter is the reason it is attempted.
And so I sit awaiting an opportunity to summit a huge rock.
Please don’t miss the point.
C2 - bc, cold.....
Dwarfed by the icefall...