Thursday, 31 May 2012

Summit bid - 37 hours without sleep!

I'm sorry but as this covers almost two days it is quite long so grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea and a biscuit or two! 

Departure from Camp Three 24th May

We had agreed a set off time of 6.30am the previous evening and were given a new oxygen cylinder that we were told should last 7.5/8 hours at a two litre per minute flow rate. Unbeknown to us the sherpa's had set it at 1.5 per minute which with hind sight gave us a margin for being slow.

On getting out of my tent I was horrified to see this queue of people stretching as far as the eye could see up the fixed ropes! We were not the only ones planning a summit on the 25th May. The earlier photo that I posted under ' an accident waiting happen' would have been just as apt!

We joined the queue and, ever so slowly it seemed to me, we began to inch our way up the rest of the Lhotse face.

So our best laid plans seemed to be in turmoil.

Well it's fair to say that this season has been one of the most difficult in recent years as there have only been two very narrow ( ie two/three day) weather windows coupled with Russell Brice's decision to withdraw entirely from the mountain which probably added a delay to fixing the ropes to the summit.

Consequently on our planned summit attempt of the 25th there were probably over a hundred people attempting to reach the top.

As we ascended the fixed ropes on the Lhotse face, David, Warner and I tried to overtake some of the slower moving climbers by ascending the 'down' rope but after about an hour we had only gained about ten places and so resigned ourselves to a slow but steady plod up the face to where the route traverses horizontally to the left across the Yellow Band.

Part of the route across the Yellow Band is almost vertical and scrabling for grip on the smooth rock with crampons was at times very difficult.

Beyond this there is a snowy couloir where the route for the summit of Lhotse branches off. Thankfully this seemed to significantly reduce the numbers on the route.

By now it was mid-morning and the sun was already high in the sky and baking down upon us. There was nothing to do but to put up with it - I certainly wasn't going to loose my position on the ropes.

Next came the Geneva Spur, another rock band that needed to be negotiated. Once over the top of this it was with great relief that one could see the South Col but not the tents yet. It wasn't long though after a fairly level traverse over rock that the tents came into view.

The south col is a really desolate place and very wind swept. Warner and I arrived there after about six and a half hours which was pretty good considering the numbers on the route and the fact that you can only go as fast as the person in front you.

I was sharing a tent with both David, and Nick, who arrived about an hour after me.

Shortly after arriving David got the weather forecast from Adam at BC and it wasn't good! Previously the forecast had indicated sub 15 mph winds but now within the space of less than 24 hours the forecast indicated winds speeds around 20/25 mph with gusts of 35-45 mph around dawn just as we would summitting! The forecast also suggested that by the following day the winds would subside again. So it was a gamble either go for the 25th and hope the winds might not be as forecast but knowing that there were just within the bounds of possibility. Or wait another day (without adequate food) and hope the forecast didn't change significantly again.

After much deliberation and seeing what the other teams were doing David decided to stick with the original plan and a scheduled departure time of 8.00pm that evening .

Nick and I then spent the next three hours just solidly trying to boil as much water as possible to try and rehydrate. It wasn't untill at round five pm that we tried to get some sleep. Well I suspect it was nerves but Nick and I got none!

At around seven pm Nick and I started preparing for the final leg of this trip of lifetime. Filling our flasks, getting some snacks together etc. So it was at just before 8.00pm that we set foot outside of our tent only to see a long line of headtorches illuminate the night sky high above us. I met up with Winma my sherpa who was very kindly going to carry my additional oxygen cylinders for me (2 bottles weighing 4kg each).

I had already lightened my pack as much as possible by relying on Pasang and David to carrry the essentials ie medical kit etc.

By the time we left we had now been up for 13 hours.

The South Col is fairly flat and rocky but this soon changes to an icy face that quickly steepens to an average of 45/60 degrees and it literally remains at this angle or steeper all the way to the South Summit. In fact it was the steepness that came as a surprise to me. I knew there was approximately 900m of ascent but hadn't appreciated that the route literally takes the most direct route, there's no zig zagging to lessen the angle.

Winma and I soon settled into a rythym and occasionally he'd unclip me from the rope to over take slower moving people. Whilst I could get by I would be gasping for breath for minutes afterwards. It might be easy for him but for me it was a Herculean effort. After the first couple of hours he dropped back behind me and just let me keep my place on the queue.

We soon came to a rock band that needed to be climbed. This was the sequence: move one foot up trying to find some purchase for your crampons, take a couple of breathes, slide the jumar up, take a couple of breathes, try and find some grip for the other foot and take another couple of breathes. This sequence was to be repeated over snow and rock for the next ten hours!!!

David had said that it was roughly five hours to the Balcony, which is a shoulder where the route then follows the ridge line, and then a further five hours to the top.

My watch was buried beneath several layers and I'd made the conscious descion not to look at it as I felt it might be demoralising if I wasn't within or around the five hours to balcony.

I just kept relentlessly plodding on up, my target was purely to keep up with the person in front - nothing more, nothing less.

It wasn't too long before we came across a body. It was somebody who had sadly died earlier in the month. Soon there was another, this time still clipped into the rope, so we had to respectfully unclip from the rope and give them a bit of space. In all we had to pass four bodies on our way up and down.

It sounds dreadful but I didn't give them much thought except how sad, all I could concentrate on was breathing and climbing. There was no spare capacity within me at the time for how and why, or what if. Everest is a dangerous place and whilst it's very easy for me to say it: you should always have some reserve capacity to get down back the mountain unassisted.

I couldn't tell you when exactly but after the balcony Winma changed my first oxygen cylinder.

Every time I looked up all I could see was a line of head torches stretching ever upwards, false summit after false summit came and went. It was as of I was on a continuous conveyor belt, as soon as I thought I was making progress my hopes were dashed by the sight of another line of headtorches high above.

Still unaware of the time, I thought to myself and hoped that I'd see the signs of dawn spreading from the East but nothing came, just darkness and the stars.

The wind was picking up now and my hands were getting cold despite having some thick down mitts on and some liner gloves. So I opened some chemical hand warmers I had in a chest pocket in my down suit and popped them inside the mitts. Because of the reduced oxygen pressure they were really ineffectual and hardly warmed up at all.

Not only were my hands cold, I'd not eaten or drunk anything since leaving the tent which I estimated was over seven hours ago! In my rucksack I had a litre of water (no doubt frozen by now) and a litre of sweet tea in a thermos, whilst in an inside chest pocket I had 500 ml of water.

However I didn't want to stop and loose my place on the rope. I also worried that if I stopped would I ever start again? The plod, plod rythym would be broken. Somehow I knew I had to keep moving. So every now and then I had a quick drink of the water from my chest pocket whilst the person in front was stationary but it was soon gone. The next drink I had was half way down when I drank my litre of tea at around 9.00am

So severly dehydrated and with leaden feet I just continued to put one foot in front of the other and slide the jumar up. I was just a robot functioning without thought. There was certainly no pleasure in this climb in fact quite the opposite. I kept thinking: its got to get light soon, please please let me see a glimmer of light, all the time my hands were getting colder and colder.

Every so often when I felt I was weakening I had to remind my self why I wanted to climb the mountain. Must keep going , don't stop I kept telling myself. I didn't want to let myself or my family down, or indeed any of you.

Finally yet imperceptibly at first, there was a very dim glow over to the East. At last dawn, I thought to myself. I immediately thought I'd soon be warm and perhaps my hands would be ok. I also thought that the time must be around 3.30 am, so I'd been going for roughly eight and a half hours without a break.

Surely it couldn't be much further to the south summit, I thought. Buoyed on by the ever increasing light, each false summit still crushed my spirit yet finally I could see another ridge coming out of the gloom slightly to the left. This must be the north west ridge that leads to the summit I thought. Surely the South summit can't be much higher!

The wind was increasing now quite dramatically and the gusts were enough to blow you off your feet if you weren't careful. Then suddenly I was suffocating! I couldn't breath though my mask. Pulling the mask away from my face to break the seal I gasped for breath. After I had got over the initial shock I checked the reservoir and saw that the bag was still inflated so oxygen was still available. The only other potential item it could be was the exhilation valve freezing.  All I could do was to trying free the inner flap with my tongue!

I could have stopped and taken the mask off completely to try and solve the problem, however I thought it less hassle to carry on as I was. (In fact after I had summited and was descending the problem stopped as the wind was no longer blowing directly over the valve and causing rime ice to form).

Finally I reached the South Summit after about eight hours and whilst the north summit only looked a few hundred metres away it was going to take me another two hours to negotiate the ridge and infamous Hilary Step.

By now some groups had already summited and were returning along the very narrow ridge. It's difficult to describe but I would have thought a cross between the narrow sections of the Cuillin Ridge and Aonach Eagach ridges would be fair.

By now I was really tired and first couple of attempts of traversing some of the rock was embarrassingly pathetic , I just could not seem to get any purchase with my crampons. Any delay just saw people coming towards you as people returned. I could almost hear people behind me tutting. I thought I must get a grip of the situation. The climbing wasn't technically difficult (although there was a 4000m drop!), I was just exhausted. I had to dig deeper to find whatever physical reserves I had left!

Next came the Hilary Step, probably a grade 'Diff' climb of 4 m with a very 'thrutchy' move at the top. You literally had to straddle the top of the rock with one leg either side of a triangular pillar whilst clipped into one rope. Very ungainly but the consequences of falling would have been catastrophic!

Finally came a couple of snow slopes with false summits. David was on his way down by now and gave me a great big hand shake. It was just what I needed to make the final push. At last the TOP!!!!

Was I euphoric? Not at all, just relieved that after ten hours and forty minutes I didn't have to climb any higher!! After I'd caught my breath I spoke to Phil who was on the summit and took a couple of photos. The next thing was that the battery on my camera died. Whilst I had a spare battery on me my hands were numb and would have been incapable of changing it so I only have a few!

I looked all around and took in the view - did it really register? Partially. Yes it was amazing to literally be the highest person on the earth at that particular time and to physically see the curvature of the earth. Yet I knew I was only half way through the climb - it wasn't really over until I was back at the South Col.

The descent once I'd negotiated the ridge to the South Col was fairly straight forward, if ever so tiring, and took about six hours mainly using the 'Sherpa wrap'. My hands eventually warmed up with no I'll effects.

I got back to the South Col around lunchtime on Friday. I'd caught David up and Nick wasn't far behind me by the time I reached the tent.

Despite being so exhausted we deliberately spent the afternoon melting snow to try and rehydrate. It wasn't until the sun set around six thirty pm that we eventually went to sleep.

We had been awake for over 37 hours.

Taking into account the climb up to Camp Three we have been climbing/walking continuously for the last eight days. It's taken up until this morning (31/5/2012) for me to be properly rehydrated as indicated by the colour of my urine. Whilst I felt have physically more tired previously, mentally I've never been more challenged. I think it helps to be stubborn!!

Five of us reached the summit that day.

The deceased: it costs roughly $25000 to recover a body to base camp. This may be covered by insurance (unlikely) or the families have to pay. Consequeny most of the bodies are left either on route or cut free.


  1. Fantastic accomplishment, we are very happy to have everyone we met back down safe.

    Klaus & Angela

  2. Jonathan Dixon1 June 2012 at 20:24

    So happy you made it up and down safely. Thanks for your incredible writing, I've always been fascinated by everest, but it's not something I'll ever do, so it's wonderful to have such a well written account such as yours that can transport one to the summit of the earth so effectively. Congratulations.