Just how was he not slipping? It was as if he wore invisible crampons! No matter how I concentrated, one of my heavily booted feet developed a mind of its own every third step rendering me temporarily breathless. As I struggled to match both the young Sherpas speed but also agility I became acutely aware of the low guttural drone of Sherpa prayer. I was gasping for oxygen, he simply prayed.
The unexpected overnight snow had blanketed Base Camp; just I time to add spice to my 2am departure through the Icefall and ultimately to C2 [6400m]. My backpack felt unusually heavy, already exacting a toll on my shoulders. I tried to transfer the bags weight to my waist, but nothing seemed to work.
We meandered along the snowy, rocky path, illuminated only by head-torch, passing dark, ice-encrusted tents of other slumbering teams until finally we left the avenues of BC and entered the lower reaches of the icefall. My Sherpa Sonam, a 25-year-old waif of a man, barely paused, his pace relentless, his sympathy for his 55-year-old companion non-existent.
It was the 4th May and two days in advance of the main group’s departure and I was on my way to attempt the summit again. I had been in the country only twenty days and was well on my way to achieving my somewhat ambitious goal of “Heathrow to Heathrow in one month”. The forecast was exceptionally good – I had sat with Russ on the 2nd and examined the predictions minutely – the weather window looked open from the 4th right though to 13th – a virtually unprecedented event.
Seven very painful hours later I walked into desolate Camp 2. The Icefall, always a place of nervousness for me since my 2013 avalanche experience, had not disappointed, treating me to the distant sight of an enormous ice collapse – something I could have very much done without. This, coupled with the seemingly endless trudge across the barren Western Cym as the baking sun emerged left me weary beyond belief upon arrival.
I popped my head into the Sherpa cook tent announcing my arrival, before retiring to my personal tent to unpack my rudimentary possessions. This was my summit push, so I had travelled deliberately light. Battery power was at a premium etc. The plan was for me to grab a good nights sleep before leaving C2 and climbing on the 5th to C3, the 6th C4 and try and summit Everest on the early morning of the 7th – all within the parameters of my 30 day, Heathrow to Heathrow ambition.
With my scant possessions unpacked, I slumped in my tent and immediately fell asleep – the suns warmth acting as a powerful anesthetic after such exertion. An hour or so passed before I jerked awake, suddenly shivering as the heavens had rapidly clouded over prompting a severe temperature drop. I frantically wriggled into my Down Suit, the obligatory uniform donned by all aspirant Everest climbers. The suit is made of 2-3” of padded goose feathers - its very similar to literally wearing a duvet-onesie. It does the job and summiting Everest would be impossible without it.
I glanced through a crack in the tent door and saw the smatterings of predictable afternoon, snowy, precipitation. I dragged on my high altitude boots, exited the tent and resolved to sit painfully alone in the dining tent, the second of the two large tents that constitute the Himex C2 base. And there I sat, willing the hours to pass.
Finally, the cold and isolation forced me to seek solace in the Sherpa cook tent, the temperature in here normally a few degrees higher owing to the gas burner/stove that roars almost constantly as sack after sack of ice is melted down to make drinking water. The two resident Sherpas, although welcoming, remained largely mute throughout the cooking of the evening meal, which we ate, huddled together at a childlike 17:30. I was in my sleeping bag by 17:45 in an attempt to stave off the furious C2 cold. However, before lights out, I was called by Russ at BC and informed that logistics – [the days leading up to my departure had been marred by 3-4 days of incessant Icefall collapse, prohibiting the porter/Sherpa load carrying transit, so crucial to the stocking of higher camps.] and weather [affecting Ropefixers] had dictated that I spend the following day, [the fifth] at C2 and not proceed higher – there was not yet enough physical support up high. It became an enforced rest day, a day that would push my theoretical summit day to the 8th May.
The Rope Fixing team, a team of 10 Sherpas, 2 men each drawn from a selection of 5 teams, are the acknowledged rock-stars of Everest. It is their job to scale the mountain, sometimes using old 2016 rope and more often free-climbing, in order to lay new rope, bought at huge expense from BC to summit. Obviously setting this rope at lower levels, for instance between C1 and the South Col [8000m] is, if not routine, relatively easy. Setting the ropes above 8000m is quite clearly not as easy. The weather for fixing on the 5th [Balcony] and 6th [Summit] had been deemed perfect when I had left BC, but this forecast had deteriorated enough to delay my plans by a day.
The 5th of May dawned, as is so often the case, brilliantly blue and spectacular. Only when the sun had cast its warm hand on my tent did I emerge, wearing the same down suit of yesterday, and the same down suit I had worn in my sleeping bag. Yet despite such insulation I had still awoken chilled. I dragged a rickety chair from the mess tent, placed it in the sun, secured two pieces of cardboard bread from the cook tent, slathered the bread in jam and sat in the sun.
To my left the magnificence of the Lhotse Face, to my right the expanse of a largely uninhabited C2: There I sat, the view remaining unchanged save the arrival of afternoon cloud and snowy deluge which once again consigned me to a solo vigil in the mess tent. Again I sat and ate with the Sherpas for both human company and physical warmth. However just before bed I was cleared by Russ to leave C2 at 7am and climb with Sonam to C3 – however, the forecast was for a windy, cold morning but with a likely improvement as the morning progressed. The Sherpa team would climb alongside us taking loads higher and also preparing to fix ropes one day ahead of my own progress. I was effectively trailing them by one day.
The 6th dawned predictably – windy. I ground through my “eyes open to leave the tent” ritual and was just about to climb out into the cold when Sonam appeared, unzipped my tent door and informed me that our C3 climb had been cancelled owing to cold and wind. However, the Sherpa team had mysteriously departed at 3am, conscious of the cold/wind forecast and had somewhat predictably suffered on the Lhotse Face, dumped their loads at C3 before returning to BC – all before I had managed to set off. Their autonomous and dubious decision to leave at 3am and disregard the forecast that the wind would dissipate by 10-11am had effectively executed the day. They were back in C2 and I was consigned to sit out another torturous, idle 24 hours. Another day lost, not by the logistical strain, but apparent stupidity.
The attraction of this early season weather envelope had been attractive to not only me, such that I could contain my expedition to one month, but also to Russ, the owner of Himex. The shorter an expedition the less expensive etc. – better to be finished early than having to continually spend on food, Gas, oxygen etc. As a consequence the normal protocols of steadily building up stocks of food, oxygen, tents, cook-sets, sleeping bags etc. had largely been overlooked. Given the exceptional forecast we were shooting for an early summit and hence logistical support, whether it be at C2 or above was subsistence level.
And so I spent the early morning of the 6th huddling in the Sherpa tent, sheltering from the buffeting and freezing wind, trying to ascertain why this group of bullet proof individuals had ventured out and up so early. As I struggled to overcome the almost impenetrable language barrier and inscrutable visage there was suddenly a frenzied radio call. Apparently a young Sherpa had fallen on the Lhotse face, slid a long way and been swallowed by the Bergschrund crevasse at the foot.
In seconds these same Sherpas, who had only recently returned from exactly the same place, had all once again donned their harnesses and packs and virtually sprinted from the tent. Helpless and frankly feeling useless I exited the tent and watched as they covered the distance to the Bergschrund in record time. One carried a stretcher on his back.
I could see a collection of black dots congregated perhaps 30-40m below the bottom of the Face and beneath the Bergschrund – the distance normally takes me 90 minutes to walk, so nothing was very clear. I heard the cries for a rescue Helicopter over the radio – it became clear that the young Sherpa had been unclipped from the rope on the face, had slipped, slid 350m down the face, luckily avoided the crevasse and ground to a halt some 40m down the Western Cym. The radio shrieked of chest, arm and leg injury. I sat and watched this collection of ants in the distance until I finally heard the insect buzz of the rescue helicopter. The impressive machine roared over C2 before daintily touching down 5-10 from the injured boy. In seconds it lifted, tilted its nose forward and headed back down the Cym, to my surprise suddenly hovering and landing a second time, only to pick up the injured Sherpas distraught Father! The helicopter was suddenly gone and the rescue Sherpas returned – their mood more than somber.
I sat the remainder of the day, in the same chair, in the same spot, as the remainder of the Himex climbing team, who had left BC at 2am, slowly hauled themselves into Camp. Tomorrow the 7th would be an obligatory rest day for them. I, on the other hand, would hopefully be cleared to climb to C3 with Sonam on the 7th morning, targeting the 9th as a summit day.
However, at 17:30 on the evening of the 6th, Russ informed me the Sherpas were demanding a rest day on the 7th, perhaps the result of a combination of their daft 3 am windy departure or partly in reaction to the Lhotse accident. Either way, I was stuck at C2 another day. My only hope was to be cleared on the morning of the 8th, targeting a 10th Summit – I was getting desperate and owing to the lack of food at C2, a little skinny. The weather was holding and the forecast was still ok – but the delays kept coming.
Russ, desperate to help us all to an early summit, had been contending with unprecedented problems. He had now lost 3 of his 12-member Sherpa team; he had lost one NZ guide to a form of suspected minor stroke and his Japanese guide to ongoing gastric sickness. He had struggled through countless, joyless, infuriating meetings with other teams regarding the execution of the rope fixing, a virulent flu bug laying waste to the Northern end of BC, Icefall collapses and Sherpa “politics” and a sudden unsubstantiated Sherpas distrust of his weather forecast but finally he called me on the evening of the 7th and green lighted myself, Kenton, Rob and Kazou to finally climb to C3 on the 8th, with a view to summiting on the 10th – still within my self imposed time limit. The weather appeared fine.
Overjoyed we left C3 at 05:30 on the 8th and over the course of a very cold morning climbed the icy Lhotse face once again, finally arriving at C3 at approximately 09:45. Ominously, the wind, although weak had been bitterly cold. Kenton and I complained to each other of cold fingers, mine so painful that I needed to slow to try and bring them back to life.
The whole Sherpa team having left C2 an hour before us, had arrived at C3 and kindly set our two frail tents, before proceeding higher to the South Col. From there the fixing team had been tasked with roping to the “Balcony”, a spot half way between South Col and the summit. As we four lay inert in our two tents for the remainder of the day, we could only pray that these skilled workhorses had not only great conditions to work in, but also the energy to compete the Balcony fix. At 17:30 an overjoyed Russ confirmed by radio that, yes, the team had roped to the balcony and that despite the enormous effort the Sherpas had put in today, they were perfectly set for roping Balcony to Summit the next day. In concert we were green lit to climb to C4 the next morning. The 10th summit felt certain.
All four of us suffered a painfully uncomfortable night, breathing supplemental oxygen but not really embracing sleep. The hours crawled past, two to a tent, almost spooning to keep warm. I had tried to eat an infamous “boil in the bag” meal, but had not been able to stomach more that a few pigeon mouthfuls – it was a nightmare night for me.
At 04:15 Kazou awoke, fired up the Epi-gas cooker and started melting ice. I forced a cup of coffee down and we both then started to harness and boot up. I shed as much weight from my pack as possible, the intention being to collect this discarded equipment upon my return. I thrust the oxygen cylinder into my pack, securing the mask and radio to the outside. Both Kazou and I were ready to exit the tent and join the Sherpas we had been warned the previous evening would be re-ascending. I could hear that Kenton and Rob in the second tent were in a similar state of readiness.
Kenton made the obligatory radio call to Russ advising of our very imminent departure only to be struck by Russ’s reply. We were to descend. Apparently the Sherpas who had spent the night on the South Col were reporting severely strong and freezing winds – we were sitting at C3 and the air was calm. We were dumbfounded.
What happened over the next 2 hours can only be described as desperate pleading. Kenton and I repeatedly pleaded with Russ to be allowed to continue, even to the extent that we, ourselves fix the rope. All we needed was a little Sherpa help – just a couple of guys. Russ had the full picture of course. He on the one hand had Kenton and I pleading like desperate children, but he knew, from his interaction with Phurba, his chief Sherpa quite how desperate conditions were on the Col. He also knew the logistical situation – how much oxygen was left after the previous days labours etc. He also knew that the Sherpas were to a man coming lower – they couldn’t work in such conditions. All this felt surreal to Kenton and I sitting in two tents and zero wind.
Finally the Sherpas who had spent the night on the Col finally appeared in C3, almost apologetic that they had not been able to complete their task. The weather forecast, the Holy Grail to which we had become so wedded, had essentially failed us. It had been way colder and way windier than predicted – the window had closed – we had been 18 hours from our goal. Snow began to fall.
The crushing decision to descend was made – the high to low in our emotions was immense. Tears were shed. Russ told us the weather window was closing and the next was weeks away. I had missed the 1-month target by a day.
We left our tents under an unusually grey sky and edged our way once again down the Lhotse Face. I stopped briefly at C2 to climb out of my suffocating down suit, before proceeding with Sonam down through the Icefall to BC, a laborious 6 hours marathon. The snow, now heavy, found every clothing crack and raised body temperatures. Finally and without incident we emerged from the Icefall, deflated and frankly exhausted.
Finally in BC I sat with Russ and discussed options. The early summit rush had clearly taken its toll – the camps were run down, they need restocking and many people, not only the Sherpas needed rest. There was no new weather window on the immediate horizon – as a consequence “normal expedition service” would be resumed. The Camps would be restocked over time, the Sherpas rested and the wait for another window would resume – the likely timescale being a further 2 weeks of waiting – and then no certainty.
After 5 successful climbs of Everest in 12 years and 12 long months of my life spent in our around Everest BC for the Nspcc, I had tried to do something a little different. I had tried to condense the expedition into something I personally could more easily cope with. The physical element was within me/us. Indeed we stood on the cusp, only to be thwarted by a plethora of circumstance.
I could, as I have done so painfully in the past, simply sit and wait for a second, much later May window. Indeed I waited 10 excruciating weeks in 2005 – but that was for my first summit – I would have waited forever.
Time has now passed. Another summit, number six, would have been nice and we gave it a good go, but it is not something I am prepared to do at all cost any more. I set myself a time limit and we were timed out. The three remaining members of the Himex team left at a lonely, empty BC are all people who have never climbed Everest before – I expect them to wait, hopefully seize the next window [God willing] and summit – but for me, waiting in mind numbing isolation for a total of two months is not what I wanted. One month was enough and we came excruciatingly close.
What is important is that once again the charity has benefitted - I have raised a lot of money and I thank those who have contributed. However, the amount is a shadow of previous years but this is understandable.
It appears that for whatever reason I have reached my “sell-by” date. The previous 12 years of expedition fundraising have been remarkable – I am not sure of the total amount raised but it’s huge and a testament to the incredible generosity of you – yes you. The Charity is beyond grateful – every person who has made the effort to contribute has changed a child’s life.
I was one such child.
Some people know my story, some don’t. All I do know is that as we walk this beautiful world we pass by monsters. We can’t see them, we can’t feel them, but they are there waiting their moment. One day, very long ago, I was caged and unable to escape – the results have shaped my life and those who mean so much to me. The Nspcc was not then available to me – it is now to so many children suffering even worse fates than mine.
I will not climb again. I tried to achieve success in a month because I cannot any longer cope with the isolation and distance from my family, a fact Vanessa knows only so well when enduring my embarrassing Satellite phone calls. I am no James Bond.
There will be other ways in which I will help the NSPCC. However, without this charity there is much suffering. Please try and overlook that you may have contributed in the past and do so one more time.
This is the last time. I wont be back.
Thank you, on behalf of so many damaged and violated children, from the bottom of my heart for the incredible support over the last 12 years.
Thanks for 12yrs of support.