Pete is back from Namche, and the rest of the team are back from our ill-fated attempt at a summit push.
We have had a few days of fried Spam from Lal and are getting some relative warmth back into our bones at Base Camp.
Daily we look at the three different weather forecasts that come through on Jay’s phone – gathered around him with the keen interest of a pack of dogs gathered around the posterior end of a new dog.
Pete has been busy in Namche and has drawn up a series of timelines for prospective summit dates.
“24th looks good,” announces someone. “Winds drop on 22nd,” says someone else.
“Fucks sake,” I think. “I’ve only just come back through that bastard icefall. We’ll have to head up through it again in a days time”. The ice fall is changing shape and form rapidly now, as the days become increasingly warmer. Coming down from our aborted mission, it was what Geth described as ‘messy’. I described it as a ‘prick of a thing’.
I had also discarded the tatters of dignity I had previously retained and created a ladder technique all of my own – which involved crawling (and wailing) like a small baby over the horizontal structures, much to the amusement of my climbing colleagues.
“Just pretend it’s on the ground, Swampy,” said Tutu Tom. “Thanks, mate – I’ve been imagining it on top the Eiffel Tower these last few months,” I replied sarcastically. (I may have failed to mention that I have been named Swampy, since my unfortunate piss bottle accident.)
It turns out vertigo is not a condition that can be cured by repetitive exposure – much in the same way that scaring the shit out of a coward only makes him more of an emotional wreck.
“We’ll plan with Sange,” announces Jay. We are acutely aware that our Sherpa team has been worked extremely hard, taking supplies and oxygen continually higher up the mountain. “The guys need a rest too.”
As it becomes clear that a small break in the jet stream is likely between the 21st and the 24th, we plan a summit push on the 23rd. It gives us (and most importantly our Sherpas) a couple of days rest before we push up to Camp 2 again. We will have some winds on the summit, perhaps as much as 30mph, but this is OK, and the team is feeling strong.
We leave base camp on the 20th. It feels good to know that this really is it. Any aborted attempt now will mean the expedition is over. We are all together again as a group, and we are, for the first time, making this transition up to Camp 1 with our individual Sherpas. Only Sange will stay behind, having a slightly extended break as he had only just returned from guiding Kirstie.
I feel I haven’t mentioned the Sherpas much. These men are super-human, carrying oxygen and supplies with seemingly inexhaustible energy. They are strong men. Hard men. But they are there to keep us safe, and they take their job seriously.
I also want to mention the HST support team. This team have looked after us like children. Chefs, sherpas, porters, and Samir, our fantastic manager, who juggled logistical nightmares as one might manage a chess board. It’s a great team.
For those of us who had made an attempt on the 16th, we are feeling strong, and reacclimatised. Tom (the Phot), however, is finding it hard going, and it is clear that his congested chest has not entirely cleared up in Namche. Pete seems good but is deliberately pacing himself – monitoring his heart rate closely.
The climb to Camp 2 is relatively uneventful, and we rest up there well. The next afternoon, we will push out of Camp 2 to scale the Lhotse face again, and set up at Camp 3, where we will sleep on oxygen, and prepare for what essentially is a long 24-plus hour summit push (with a small rest at Camp 4). I’m sick of British army rations, and Pete has bought me some noodles in Namche.
As we leave Camp 2, Tom (the Phot) stops and turns back. He is pretty upset, but clearly, his chest and congestion have made this incredibly hard. We don’t say anything – there’s really nothing to say, and he trudges back to Camp 2. We are five.
We slog out towards the face, and Jay, tutu Tom and I arrive first at the crampon point with Geth and Pete about 50m behind. I’m strapping on my crampons when I hear Tom say, “What’s happening here?” We turn and see Geth and Pete, a small way away shaking hands.
I wander back towards them. It then dawns on me what the handshake was all about. One is turning back. As I draw near, Geth shuffles past and pats my back. “Shit, it’s Pete.” I’m not sure what to say to Pete. This has been a dream of his since he was a young boy. We have been training, planning and saving for this for the last two years.
“Something’s not right, and if I carry on, I’ll become a statistic up there,” says Pete. Pete is famous for pushing his body to the absolute limits, and for him to say this warrants no response. This must be serious. I’m not entirely sure what to do. I awkwardly hug my mate and turn back to the others. Geth has often joked about Pete being my ‘safety blanket’, and suddenly it feels very true. I’m still with Jay, Tom and Geth – three highly competent and accomplished mountaineers, but somehow without my mate – and staring up at the 300m wall of Ice that is the Lhotse face, I feel extremely vulnerable.
Regardless. We climb.
The transit from a restless night at Camp 3 followed by an exhausting slog over the Yellow Band, over the Geneva Spur and into the “Death Zone” that is gated by camp 4 is relatively uneventful. It is a hard slog, but we do it in relatively decent weather, and at a decent pace. (Pace is defined by footsteps per hour up here). I arrive on my own, between Geth, Jay and Tom and after a slightly disorientated wander around the tiny camp to find our tent, I squeeze into it and try and get comfortable between bodies, packs and oxygen bottles all crammed in with us into the 2-man tent.
We lie there for perhaps four hours. We are going to leave for our final assault on the summit at 8pm.
I have mentioned before the strangeness of moving at night. One’s imagination is confined to the prism of light in front of your nose, and the ability to distract your mind from anything other than your immediate pain is impossible.
As we move, the initial 45 minutes feel like a horror film. We step aside as a climber is lowered down on a pulley system by three sherpas. He’s groaning but conscious. Then comes another, similar package, this time 40 metres further up. This is a woman, and her head lolls around. We try and hold her head still as they lower her down the icy slope, but she is unresponsive. I am certain that if she is not already dead, she will be in a matter of hours.
No sooner have we clipped on and continued climbing, an Indian man is being half dragged half pushed by his Sherpas down the mountain. He is screaming and tearing at himself, his bloodshot eyes rolling around. Again, we stop and step aside from the rope as his Sherpas struggle down with him. He is in the advanced stages of HACE, and it is a terrifying thing to witness.
40 metres further on, we unhook to move around a corpse illuminated in the darkness by our head torches. This Indian man has clearly fallen, he lies face down, frozen solid. He is still on the line that we are moving up.
Christ, I think. I don’t want to summit this much. I contemplate turning back, but the thought of moving past all that again, on my own, and without my colleagues means I continue to carry on my uncertain stagger up the icy slopes.
We reach ‘The Balcony’ where we rest and change oxygen cylinders. The arrival at a featured landmark provides some morale, and we keep going, now stronger.
There are more bodies and other moments of reflection, but now, sitting here writing this, I can remember only pain and exhaustion for a seemingly never-ending amount of time.
And then, the sun rises. And spirits revert back. Suddenly we are at the Hillary Step, and we all know we will summit. The Step is exposed, with thousands of metres drop either side. Tom shakes my shoulder, and I can hear him muffled beneath his mask: “You're shitting yourself, aren’t you?” he says gleefully. “Fucking right…” I reply. Except I realise I am smiling. I’m going to finish this. I am gutted not to be with my mate Pete who got me this far – but – I’ll bloody well finish this. I’m with Jay, Tom and Geth. These are good blokes, and it all seems pretty easy now moving with these guys.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve read nothing but accounts of the queuing, and the waiting. I want to stress that we did not see this. We summited at our own pace, and save a short wait at the choke-point that is the Hillary Step to allow several climbers coming up, we did no waiting, other than what is sensible on a precarious ledge.
We summited, and I ‘posted’ a postcard I had written to my father, which was caught by the 30mph winds. I left the Kenya stamp that he is on up there along with a plait containing locks of hair from my wife and two daughters, and a beaded bracelet that Briar my eldest had made for me. We then held the Kenya flag together, and the For Rangers flag, as I had promised Pete, I would do. We took photos. We did that, and then we turned around, and we climbed down. That was that.
Unlike me, my father had been a genuinely accomplished mountaineer, who had died in an accident on Mt Kenya when I was a small child. My mother had stoically brought up my sister, and the poisonous little creep that was my juvenile self, alone and single-handedly. Although it wasn’t single-handedly. This wonderful country, Kenya, had played an enormous role in making sure that as a young boy I wanted for nothing, and was given every opportunity, with a community that banded around my mother. The space, freedom and wilderness meant I grew up more rounded and happier than I ever had any entitlement to be.
For that reason, it seemed a fitting thing to take the Kenya flag to the top of the mother of all mountains. And to place the ForRangers flag there too – the charity that supports the people who protect the wilderness that helped nurture me and is the lifeblood of this beloved country. I feel extremely honoured and proud to have done so.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Jay Morton for his guiding, humour and making sure I didn’t make too many stupids decisions, not just on this exped, but also our previous climb up Manaslu.
Many thanks to the other boys for not smothering me in my sleep. And lastly, to my mate Pete, for inspiring me to have a crack at everything.
Thank you all so much for all your support, and I hope you will continue to support For Rangers.