I had done a bit of mountaineering in the past, climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Cotopaxi in Ecuador and a mountain called Huayna Potosi in Bolivia, but was hardly a seasoned mountaineer, and had done very little in recent years. Then in 2003 I saw an advert for and booked a trip to climb Elbrus in the Caucasus, at 5642 metres. The climb itself was actually rather easy as you go most of the way up the mountain by chairlift, and then part of it by snowcat, so we only had to climb the top 800 vertical metres. But I would recommend it as a way to see a part of the world that not that many people in Western Europe have visited, provided that you have the stomach for a four hour flight with Air Siberia from Moscow in order to get there, that is. Next stop was Aconcagua in Argentina, at 6962 metres the highest mountain in the Americas. I went in 2004 with a Russian company that I discovered on the Internet, alpindustria. This was getting a bit more like real mountaineering with bitterly cold temperatures and strong winds to cope with, load carries to establish camps on the mountain, and of course very thin air. But essentially the climb is a walk, albeit an extremely tiring one, and I reached the top, exhausted, but OK. Then alpindustria asked me if I wanted to join them on their Everest expedition this year, climbing from the Tibetan side. A difficult decision. While obviously to get to the top and return safely would be a fantastic thing to achieve, I was naturally very aware of the dangers involved in climbing Mount Everest. In addition my experience was really only at the bottom end of the range of what would be considered acceptable to be attempting Everest. Everest is 8848 metres high, and it would be better to climb a peak of around 8000 metres first, to give my lungs more of an idea of what they were in for. But other climbable 8000 metre peaks are either in the Karakorum, where a lot of climbs have failed in recent years due to very heavy snowfalls, or are in Tibet, close to Everest and I felt would offer rather too similar an experience to climbing Everest for me to want to do both. I was advised that I did stand a reasonable chance of reaching the top, so in the end, after much thought, decided to go ahead. I arrived in Kathmandu on 31st March and the other members of the expedition gradually appeared over the next few days from their respective parts of the world. There was Viktor and Marko, from Slovenia, who set the scene by promptly going off on a very long acclimatisation hike to the north of Kathmandu, Noel and Lynne from Northern Ireland, Lorenzo from Italy, Harry from the Netherlands, three Americans, John, Jamie and Nathan, and about ten Russians. After Viktor and Marko had returned, it was time to take the road up to Tibet. We were delayed for two days by a general strike declared by the Maoists, eventually deciding to break the strike by taking the road. Tragically one of the Russian expedition members, travelling in a taxi behind the rest of us, had his foot seriously injured by a grenade device thrown into the taxi by Maoists and had to be evacuated back to Russia. Not a good start, and we arrived by jeep at Everest Base Camp (5400metres) a few days later rather chastened by the event. And so began the climb. We had a few rest days at Base Camp (BC) at 5200 metres before moving on up to Intermediate Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 6400 metres. It’s a walk between these camps, and rather impressive in the higher stages as you walk along a narrow moraine between two glaciers, each eroded down to pinnacles by the action of the sun. ABC is probably the highest point that you can reach in the world without an ice-axe and crampons. We spent a few days at ABC before a few members, including me, carried on up to Camp I (or the North Col) at 7000m for acclimatisation. This camp is in a spectacular location at the head of an ice-wall which you climb by means of fixed ropes. You most definitely need your crampons and ice-axe here. Having got there you really feel like you have achieved something, although you are still 1800m below the summit. I spent quite a fitful night up there before descending to ABC, and then back down to BC. We spent a further few days at BC before re-ascending to ABC, for our second acclimatisation trip. This time we all went up to the North Col to spend a night there. I found that it took me longer to get from ABC to the North Col than it had done the first time – this was a bit worrying as I should have been getting faster as I acclimatised. Anyway, we went back down to BC. After a short rest down at 4300m in a small Tibetan town it was time to begin the actual summit attempt. At this point unfortunately, Noel, who had been suffering problems with his eyesight since the first ascent to ABC decided to leave the expedition as he had been advised that he could go permanently blind if he ascended again. Lynne was to leave with him. The rest of us returned to ABC to await some clear weather to make a summit attempt. The main difficulty with climbing Mount Everest is the wind. The cold is not that much of a problem because you have such good clothing, and the altitude is debilitating, but can be manageable if you have oxygen (as we did). But the wind at the highest levels can make progress on the mountain simply impossible. So we had to wait for a good weather forecast for the top of the mountain, and that gives you a lot of time to kill. Anticipating this problem, I had taken some art materials with me so as to fill the time. One day, while sitting on a rock doing some sketching, I was surprised to see Marko and Viktor heading up the mountain. The forecast was indicating a slight lessening of the wind (but not much), and they had decided to try to make use of this window. Marko and Viktor were considered to be the two strongest members of the expedition. Three days later we got word from Viktor that he had reached the summit and returned to the top camp, Camp III. He informed us that Marko was about an hour behind. So we waited to hear from Marko. We waited throughout the afternoon. And we waited with increasing anxiety through the evening. And next morning, with still no word, it was clear that he could not have survived. It seems he had run out of oxygen very high up and was simply unable to descend. His body was found by sherpas near the top the following day. There wasn’t very much to be done; his body couldn’t be brought down, but I think it dampened the appetite of quite a few of us, including me, to reach the summit. After Marko’s death, we continued waiting for a better weather forecast, but it never came. It was a great disappointment; your body cannot acclimatise beyond 6000m and so all the time you are waiting at 6400m you are slowly weakening. We spent two weeks there and the wind high up just kept on blowing. You could see the plume of windblown snow extending for miles downwind of the summit. In the end, with time running out before our flights home, it was decided that we would all at least make an attempt, and see how far we got. We were divided into two groups; I was to be in the second one, consisting mostly of non-Russians. The climb up to the North Col was uneventful, although again I was slow. I was suffering from some sort of throat infection which was causing me to cough up something unrecognisable, but which I later learnt was the lining of my throat. Lovely. Others had suffered from this earlier, but had got over it; I was unfortunate to be suffering it during the actual climb. After a night at the North Col, we proceeded on to Camp II, at 7700metres. We had oxygen now, but still the effort of putting one foot in front of the other was beyond anything you could imagine. I arrived with my sherpa, quite late, and collapsed into my tent. I didn’t manage to eat much for dinner. That wind slammed into the tent all night long and I awoke in the morning completely devoid of energy. Merely putting on a boot left me tired and out of breath. I didn’t feel ill or uncomfortable, just very very weakened. I took some time to get ready, but eventually we were off, for Camp III. Every step now required an enormous effort of will. The wind was ferocious, and as the day progressed clouds started to roll in. If we were to leave for the summit that night we would have to leave from Camp III at around 11p.m. We needed the weather to improve for that, but instead it was getting worse. I could have reached Camp III at 8300metres, but there was no way I was going to reach the top that night. The alternative was to spend two nights at Camp III and that would place more of a strain on my body than I was prepared to accept. Reluctantly, at around 8000metres, I decided to turn around. It was a pitifully slow descent and no easier than going up, probably harder in fact because I was descending without oxygen. For the other members of my group, it was indeed too windy to make a summit attempt that night. Nathan came down the next day with slight frostbite. The others stayed the night and made an attempt the following night. Lorenzo suffered a frozen eyeball making him blind in one eye causing him to abort his attempt, but frozen eyeball is not as bad as it sounds; they defrost happily enough. Dmitri reached the summit successfully (his third attempt). John reached the summit and got back to Camp III having used all his oxygen, declaring that he was simply not able to descend any further. After being advised that he was going to die if he spent a third night at Camp III, somehow some spare oxygen was found and he survived. Harry too reached the top, but much later than the agreed turnaround time. He stumbled into Camp III and then stumbled part of the way and was carried down the rest of the way to ABC where the expedition doctor did a heroic job of keeping him alive through the night in spite of serious cerebral oedema. I was glad not to have summited on those terms.

Posted on Monday, December 30, 2013 at 10:57 by Registered CommenterRobert Ulph | CommentsPost a Comment