Everest Expedition – Nepal – 2006
The Icefall is a frighteningly unstable place and one of the most dangerous parts of the climb. There are bottomless crevasses everywhere and unstable blocks and seracs of ice just waiting to fall. Three Sherpas, working for another expedition team, were killed when the top half of the Icefall collapsed on top of them at the beginning of the expedition at 7.30am one morning – it could have happened to any of us. There was a line of them and we knew Ang Sering Sherpa who was directly behind the three that were killed. He was so distraught and shocked by the accident that he dropped his rucsac there and then and ran all the way out of the Icefall and went back to his home in Pangboche further down the valley, telling us that he would never return to work on Everest. It was horrific and it caused two of our team to return home as well. The best time for climbing through the Icefall is in the early hours of the morning when the ice is hard and stable. Alarms would be set for 4am followed by tea and porridge. Sherpas entering the Icefall could be heard chanting prayers asking the mountain gods to protect them, some would smoke and the sweet smell of burning juniper filled our nostrils as we walked through the numerous camps to the start. The smoke is believed to carry their prayers up into the heavens. It is quite eerie particularly as no-one really says much; one just concentrates and gets on with moving steadily through the ice. I found it easiest to get into a rhythm and to try and stick to it. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and always clipping onto the fixed lines. A team of ‘Ice Doctors’ had the dangerous job of making sure the Icefall was in good condition for the climbers. They would check the anchors, the ice screws and the lines. Each time we passed through the Icefall it was different, parts collapsed, ladders became bent, new crevasses and ice cliffs formed – I always felt nervous going through the Icefall and my mouth was often dry! By the end of the expedition we had passed through it a total of ten times!
Camp 2 at 6400m is situated about two hours climb from the foot of the Lhotse Face. It is in a beautiful position at the top of the Western Cwm with views down the valley below the towering valley sides of the western flanks of Everest and Nuptse. Walking up the Cwm was exhausting as it just went on and on and Camp 2 never seemed to get any closer. The camp was set out in a similar way to Base Camp where we had a mess tent and a kitchen tent where Pasang Temba and Ang Sherpa cooked us up some amazing food. Ben and I shared a tent from here onwards. We have done all our climbing together in the past and it is always good to have a soul mate on these type of expeditions to share the experience with. Ben is quieter and more reserved than myself who is perhaps a little more gungho in making decisions but as we are so different, we compliment each other well. Overall, we spent about two weeks at Camp 2 venturing up to Camp 3 which is half way up the Lhotse Face with even more stunning views of Cho Oyu (6th highest mountain 8200m) and Pumori. The Lhotse Face is quite steep in parts it was up to 60 degrees. Most of it is hard, blue ice; If you are not clipped in then one slip would almost certainly be fatal. A Czech climber who was climbing Lhotse slipped over 800m while he was in the couloir – he was found the next day in a coma having been out all night. He died a few hours later. As Reinhold Messner once said, ‘Mountains are not fair or unfair – they are dangerous’. Camp 3 at about 7300m was a cramped and windy place. Our tents were at the very top of the camp below the Yellow Band. The floor of our tent was curved due to the heat of our bodies melting the snow beneath us. It was like sleeping in a hammock and highly uncomfortable, particularly as it was full of gear like oxygen bottles and spare tents. It was damp and cold when we got there so at this point we put on our down suits which warmed us up immediately. We had our little gas stove melting ice continuously as we had to keep drinking. We peed into bottles to avoid going out into the freezing winds outside. It was easier this way! Immodium came in useful too!
From Camp 3, on our second visit, we started breathing bottled oxygen on our way up to the South Col. As soon as one puts an oxygen mask on there is a notable difference – things become easier and one moves faster. We climbed up the Yellow Band, a rocky band of yellow rock above camp 3 and then moved steadily upwards to the Geneva Spur which is a steep traverse on snow leading to the South Col. Once on top of the Geneva Spur, the terrain levelled out a little and half an hour later I was on the snowy Col at just under 8000m. I was the first there and so waited for the Sherpa team and others to join me as they had the tents. They arrived an hour later and I helped them put the tents up. The wind increased and it started to snow. I was concerned as we were leaving for the summit that night at 9pm. We spent a number of hours resting and melting more ice. There were four of us in a two-man tent now which was even more uncomfortable and cramped. The weather cleared and at 7pm we started to get ourselves prepared to climb to the summit. It took us about two hours at this height to get ready as we moved slowly and our brains were also slow due to the extreme altitude. Outside the temperature was dropping and inside the tent it was about -30 already! At 9.15pm we set off. I felt uncomfortable and tired. My back was aching having been in cramped conditions for so long. I just did not feel ready. We paused after every two steps and I thought, at this rate we won’t make it as we are moving too slowly. My legs were screaming at me to stop but my mind told them to continue! After a couple of hours we reached the fixed ropes and clipped in with our jumars (ascending devices which move up the rope but not down) after another two hours my jumar had frozen and wasn’t gripping the rope as it should so I had to keep prodding it with my crampon spikes to free it up. My oxygen mask was also freezing up as it was now about -50 with windchill. I took my thick mittens off to try and do something. My hands instantly became cold and went numb but I had to fix my mask or my climb would end here. After half an hour I was shivering. I was now at about 8400m and in trouble. I radioed down to base where they told me to send Topchen, my sherpa, down to Camp 4 but to take his mask and oxygen from his pack, which I did. I immediately felt my body warming up with the oxygen and carried on to catch Ben who was waiting for me at the Balcony. We then continued steadily upwards, with Pansang Dawa Sherpa who was with Ben. The moon and stars showed us the way. Makalu was behind us glimmering in the dim light, we could see electrical lightening storms in the distance but our hypoxic minds did not seem to worry! Just below the South Summit, Ben had the same problem with his mask and upon closer inspection it had frozen solid. We drilled a hole in it with a penknife and tried to bypass the valves by sticking the pipe into the new hole. It was basic but it seemed to work. When we reached the South Summit I knew we would make it. I felt strong and there was the summit. I felt a rush of adrenaline. The Hillary Step was right there in front of us and on our right hand side, the Kangshung face fell 5000 or 6000m away beneath us. We climbed the corniced summit ridge, the famous Hillary Step and then plodded slowly up to the summit. I tapped Ben on the leg and with tears in my eyes said,
“this is it! We just have to get down now!”
He turned to me and squeezed my hand, also with tears of joy and said nothing. He didn’t need to. We were standing on the summit with the world at our feet. It was the most magical feeling I have ever experienced and certainly one I shall remember forever. All those years of dreaming had come true. We could see for miles and miles into Tibet and all over Nepal. We pointed out the mountains we had climbed, we took photos and some video footage which all required huge effort.
The wind was increasing and after about 35 minutes we turned to make our way down, taking extra care not to make any mistakes. It was exhausting but we reached the Col after about 6 hours. We had not slept and the summit climb had taken about 17 hours. Upon reaching the tents, we collapsed and dozed for a few hours unable to do anything.Two days later we were safely at Base Camp having done it. I don’t think I can recall having ever been so exhausted! I suffered from three frostbitten blackened finger tips on my right hand. This was caused when I took my gloves off to try and fix my mask. Ben suffered from very badly frostbitten toes on his left foot. At the time of writing we are not sure whether he will lose some or not. It will be another 5 months until we know!