These last few days have been a roller coaster - physically, emotionally, and meteorologically.
This is where it began...
Pete has a cough and a bad chest. This doesn’t often happen to Pete – “1974” was the last time apparently – although there has been some speculation that he wheezed a bit when storming the cottage at Goose’s Green in the Falklands. Anyway, he decided to head to Namche with Tom, the photographer (who also had a cold) on the advice of a doctor. We would wait at Base Camp and set a summit date when he returned.
But no! Suddenly, a summit window appeared in front of us from the weather forecast. One too good to miss! Gone were the million-mile hour winds and in was the perfect window. Angels would carry us on their shoulders to the summit in the 16th hour. We rushed to the chopper pad, where Pete was patiently waiting at 11:15 for the 06:45 chopper.
“What do you think, Pete?”
“My chest is no good, but if it’s a good window you should take it,” he said.
It didn’t feel right, I must say - attempting a For Rangers mission without Pete, but he would be better in a few days and ready to take the next summit window.
We packed, sent a few WhatsApp messages, swallowed some Kathmandu fried chicken and set off through the icefall.
It has changed a fair bit since we last went through. Huge lumps of blue ice, scrambled all over the place, split and mashed from the main Khumbu Glacier. Jumping smaller crevasses, and being mocked for my wobbles on the ladders over the larger ones, we made it to Camp 1.
Moving in the dark, the cold started to hit us. Tom remained a wee way behind me. I think this was more because of the particular Nepalese incense drifting from my trousers, than for any physical reasons. Ice walls and crevasses in the dark at 22,000ft seems to have a peristaltic effect on my sphincter.
We arrived at Camp 2 at 21:30. Exhausted. Freezing. Capable of very little other than thanking Cookie (Kin San) for the hot water he had boiled. I used a little of this to unfreeze my crampon straps, which were frozen solid, swallowed a little, and kept the rest as a hot water bottle.
We slept all day ready for the climb up the Lhotse face. We planned to depart at 17:30 in summit suits, and get straight onto oxygen at Camp 3, fall asleep and wake up early and make our way across the South Col.
As we approached the face, Jay suddenly scrambled and threw his pack over his shoulder. Behind him, I bravely threw myself beneath him, saving him from an almost certainly fatal 1-foot fall.
“Fuck off Sam, I need a shit!”, came his eloquent Preston articulation.
I did fuck off – about three metres – I was too tired to move any further.
“Put your crampons on!” I heard from behind a boulder.
As I did so, I heard:
Oh, shit was right. Poor Jay had chronic shits, and we were all too tired to really notice.
“Let’s head back,” said Tom.
It was clearly the right decision. We were buggered from an all-nighter at Camp 2, and the thought of chronic diarrhoea while straining up the Lhotse face is not something I’d wish on Robert Mugabe.
We would miss our precious window.
I was still feeling pretty strong. I think. Jay could sense I was a bit disappointed. “Can send a Sherpa from Camp 2, Sam,” he said. “You can carry on.” I must confess, I was tempted. But sense prevailed. It would be three hours before a sherpa caught up with me if I didn’t move. Five if I started climbing. It was freezing. There was no sherpa support at Camp 3, and a night alone at 23,500ft on oxygen was not a thrilling prospect – despite the dream of making a push on the summit the following night.
I remembered a letter sent to me by my uncle Michael, my father’s brother, a couple of months ago. “Don’t be seduced by the mountain” is what he said. He should know. I could not conceive more sensible advice, for even my cowardly self was being honey-trapped by the lure of the summit.
Luckily, Jay made it easy. I suspect he sensed I needed someone to tell me. “No, Sam. We’re going down”. And so we did.
I awoke at 06:00 looking at a steady stream of climbers on the Lhotse face, heading to Camp 4. I was pissed off. We should have been up there. We were going to miss the perfect window.
I thought of the climbers. They would be nearing the summit, a day ahead of us. It’s a strange emotion, envy – and it brings out the very worst in a man’s temperament. I could not help feeling a tinge of resentment that they were so close, and we would be back where we started.
Then suddenly there was commotion on the radio. Climbers were having to turn round. The route had issues. The route fixing team were up to their chests in snow. Teams were having to turn back because of the conditions. I cannot imagine how horrible that must be – to be so close yet so far. It must be complete agony.
But selfishly I was relieved.
If we had been OK yesterday, we would have got to Camp 3 and beyond the point of no return. We would have used our oxygen, and would never have been able to make another attempt. We had very nearly forfeited our chance.
We had been saved by Jay’s guts and my lack of the same.
We will be able to have another crack at it. We are now re-acclimatised. We will be fresh and have the full sherpa support we were lacking. We will be one group again, complete With Pete’s whistling, which bizarrely I’m looking forward to hearing again tomorrow.
I learned a huge amount about high altitude mountaineering today. I learned that things continuously evolve, and situations change in a heartbeat. I learned that patience and good decision making can be more important than strong legs and lungs. I’m incredibly grateful good decisions had been made.
Someone up there was looking down on us yesterday.
Oh, and we’ve run out of bog roll.