So after spending some time recovering in Chitwan National Park, riding elephants, going on canoe rides down the rivers and hunting for tigers in the jungle I thought I’d better finally write an account of my summit day. As many of you already know, summit day was somewhat chaotic to say the least and our group had more than its fair share of incidents as a result! I understand that the flow of information back to the UK during that week was pretty sparse… so hopefully my account will give you a flavour of what we all experienced out there.
The majority of our group arrived at Camp 3 late afternoon, full of excitement and apprehension surrounding the final push for the summit later on that night. The move up to Camp 3 from Camp 2 had taken its toll on a number of the group with some members collapsing as they reached camp. On arriving at Camp 3 there was some confusion as to where our tents were but after a while we managed to sort it out and I was able to settle into mine for some well needed rest.
The plan was to leave for the summit at around 10:30pm, whilst in the meantime, taking on as much liquid and food as possible. Camp 3 is at 8300m, 300 meters into the death zone, so you are on a constant supply of oxygen at this altitude. With all the inherent dangers you want to spend as little time here as possible!
Once in the tent I started setting about getting some water to drink. Even at this height you still have to boil snow to get your fluids and its a long, frustrating process. Simon took charge of setting up the stove while I went outside to collect snow which we could melt. The time spent in the tent at Camp 3 was an eerie experience! You are lying there on your back, with your oxygen, mask on waiting in apprehension to leave for the summit. The only sound being that off the gas stove boiling in the background and the wind gusting off the side of the tent. The only light is a luminous glow from the gas stove in the background. In addition, conversation is very limited due to the oxygen masks everyone wears.
Many people find it hard to sleep at this altitude, but thankfully I was able to drift between consciousness and some sort of sleep. Come 9:30pm we started getting our gear ready. Even the smallest of tasks at this altitude takes a lot of energy and time. Fresh oxygen bottles for the summit had been left in our tents by the sherpas so we didn’t have to go collect them. I was last out of my tent at roughly 10:45pm because I was at the back. As I left it was pitch black and the only light came from your own and others head torches. Simon and Mark were already out of their tents, had their boots on and were setting off. By the time I had my boots on the flickering spots of their head torches were a faint glow in the distance. Surprisingly there was no sherpa around camp to guide me off or point me in the right direction, so after looking for one for about 10 minutes I just set off on my own.
After 10 minutes or so I bumped into Nigel and Simon, with a sherpa each to guide them. I walked with them for a short while, but as they were going more slowly and I wanted to push on, I left them and continued by myself up the fixed lines. For the next couple of hours I continued to climb the fixed ropes alone, often at points wondering whether I had strayed off course as I had not caught up with anyone else yet. I was not too worried though as I was confident in my ability and could see the head torches of those in front of me. Just as I got onto the ridge I caught up with Keith, Geordie and a sherpa. Amazingly both Geordie and Keith’s head torches had stopped working and they were relying on the light from their sherpa’s. Geordie was going more slowly than both Keith and the sherpa and was about 10/15 meters behind them (which is a considerable distance at this height to catch up) so I walked behind with him for about 30 minutes so he could use the light from my head torch till he caught up.
I continued on with Keith and Geordie and their sherpa, but I was all to aware of time moving on and the pace we were going at. After about half an hour we bumped into Josh coming back down with a sherpa who didn’t look happy. From what little conversation we were able to have on the ridge I was able to gather that his oxygen mask had not only broken but also frozen, which meant that Josh was no longer receiving any oxygen and had had to turn around, much to his disappointment. This was obviously a great blow for Josh, but he said he should be ok and able to get down with his sherpa, so we continued on.
After about 10 minutes more of walking it started to become apparent that something was not right with the shepra we were climbing with. He was constantly sitting down and by this time we were going very slowly. We continued on for another 5 minutes before he finally sat down and took off his oxygen mask. The next 15 minutes were spent with Keith and I both trying to convince him to put his mask back on… but with no success. Surendra, the sherpa we were with, was now really suffering from hypoxia and was now taking out photos of his family from his down suit and chucking them off the ridge. Unfortunately my radio had changed frequency somehow and we couldn’t change it back. Furthermore, neither Geordies nor Keith’s was working either so we couldn’t contact anyone to let them know what was happening. Up ahead and above us though, we could see head torches and it was starting to get light. We could just make out a figure coming down the 1st step which we had now arrived below. I decided to carry on and climb up the step to see if they had a radio we could use, and thankfully it was one of our guides Matt coming down. Unfortunately though, he was in a bad way aswell and was having to descend immediately! After explaining the situation to him he said he would deal with it. I wanted to continue on though, so I swapped radio with matt so I had a working one, and continued on up the 1st step.
(Amazingly on returning to advanced base camp I found out the Nerue one of our other sherpas had to knock Surendra out cold to be able to hold his face mask on him to get him breathing again. Which must be one of the highest punches ever thrown!)
For the next 30 minutes or so I walked by myself to the bottom of the second step. About half way between the first and the second step though I noticed that way down below me, what looked like a fire fight was going on. Lights were flashing on and off all the time and it looked like a war was going on, with explosions erupting everywhere. In fact it was a lightning storm, going on within the clouds far below me! It was a truly amazing sight to bear witness to and was almost hypnotic.
As I neared the second step I started looking for the oxygen cache where we were to leave our empty bottle before we changed cylinders, but I couldn’t find it. (I only realized later on, after I was down again, that there was no oxygen such cache as we were told, but that we were just to leave the empties somewhere safe). My oxygen had now run out but I believed there was nowhere to store my empty cylinder at the bottom of the step. I knew that time was pushing on so I radioed Bolla at base camp to let them know my position and check I was ok to continue on. Bolla came back saying that it was ok so I decided to carry on and climb the 2nd step without oxygen and change my empty cylinder at the top, when I could find somewhere to store it.
The second step is the crux of the ascent when climbing the north side of Everest and climbing it without oxygen certainly made the going ‘interesting’. Once at the top and I had found a suitable place to store the empty cylinder (which turned out to be on my back) I sat down to change for a new one, eager for oxygen to be flowing through my mask again. However, when I connected the second cylinder to the mask, I discovered it was empty. This didn’t matter though as we had a 3rd spare cylinder… but to my horror after connecting this final backup cylinder, I also found out that it was empty. I thought I must be doing something wrong, so tried the first cylinder again. I couldn’t believe that I would have been given two empty cylinders to take up on the final ascent! Just then I spotted another sherpa from one of the other teams descending so I asked him to check them for me. He had a go at connecting the cylinders in case I was doing something wrong but he too confirmed that they were in fact empties!
I then got on the radio to let people know I was out of oxygen and needed a bottle brought to me quick. The first few times there was no response to my radio calls and I started to grow very frustrated. After another try though, Bolla from advanced base camp came over the radio silence. I explained the situation to him and he reassured me someone would be with me in 10 minutes with another oxygen cylinder. 10 minutes past and no oxygen came, another 10 minutes past and I radioed again asking where it was and I was told it would be 10 minutes but that it was definitely coming! Another 10 minutes past though and still no oxygen had arrived. I was starting to get cold now as I was sitting down and not moving, whilst waiting for this O2 to arrive. I radioed once more and again was told just ten more minutes. Finally after numerous radio calls , asking for oxygen always with the same response “10 minutes”, and asking sherpas passing on the way down to double and triple check that my oxygen cylinders were in fact empty, Ed Laughton and his sherpa from another team passed by me on their way down. Thankfully after explaining the situation he very kindly gave me his spare cylinder of oxygen.
The difference when I connected the cylinder to my mask and took my first breath of fresh O2 was dramatic, even considering that my oxygen mask had partially frozen and the flow of oxygen was rather limited. I spent the next 5 minutes regathering my energy and preparing mentally to move off again. Ironically though as I was getting up to set off, two sherpas from my team (Adventure Peaks) turned up. They then proceeded to tell me it wasn’t a good idea to go on and that I should descend. After explaining what had happened and trying to tell them I wanted to go on, I realised it was pointless arguing and accepted that I would have to descend, and hope for another chance to go for the summit again.
It was heartbreaking having to turn around just 200 meters short of the summit especially after I had been sitting there for the last hour and a half staring at it! It was so close and it had been within my grasp and I felt it was being taken away from me through no fault of my own! With much reluctance I turned around and started my climb back to Camp 3. On the way down all sorts of thoughts and emotions were passing through my mind. Disappointment, anger and questions were flying through my head about how I could have been given two empty cylinders and then told to wait 10 minutes for oxygen when in fact it never came and I had to get it from another team on the mountain! This train of thought was abruptly halted though when I saw a man collapsed at the bottom of the 1st step with his sherpa trying to get him to his feet!
The man at the bottom of the step was exhausted and could barely move. I couldn’t go down the step while he was at the bottom for fear of knocking rocks down on him. I tried to shout down to see if they wanted help, but the sherpa either didn’t hear me or was too busy trying to get his client to move. I waited for 10 minutes at the top before Brendan arrived (another member from our Adventure Peaks team). After waiting another 5 minutes we decided to descend the step. I was first at to reach the bottom and offered our help immediately. It was clear the sherpa was getting nowhere and had resulted to hitting him while we were descending the first step in a last ditch attempt to get him to move. After we had helped pull him to his feet Brendan noticed that there was a hole in his oxygen pipe which went from his mask to his cylinder. He then tried to patch it up as best he could with some duck tape from his water bottle. Even with his oxygen now flowing properly the man could only walk a couple of steps at a time before collapsing down again, even with us supporting him. I then got out my energy gels which I had and my water bottle and gave them to him in hope that it would help.
It was a serious situation and we knew that if this man could not get to his feet and walk he would probably die up there. Brendan told him this in a very blunt way and told him we were moving again in 2 minutes and that he would have to stand up. For the next 20 minutes we alternated between 10 steps to 1 minute resting supporting the man the whole way. It was very slow progress but at least he was moving. As we past one of the dead bodies which scatter Everest the sherpa pointed out to his client that this would very likely be him if we didn’t start moving faster. Thankfully this seemed to hit home and we started to see signs of improvement in the man’s physical condition. Gradually he started walking further and further on his own.
My oxygen mask had now frozen up, so I was getting no oxygen from it and Brendan’s cylinder was low and needed changing. The struggling man was now able to walk with just the support of his sherpa so we decided to stop for a brief rest in order to change Brendan’s cylinder. Brendan was knackered having been right to the top so I changed his cylinder for him. There was some confusion as to which cylinder to put on and which one was full but we finally got some air following into his mask. As we continued on down we saw another collapsed body. At first I thought it was a dead body from a previous expedition year, but as we got closer to our horror we discovered it was Nigel, another one of our team members. He was curled up in a ball! We quickly rushed down to discover him in a terrible state. Stuart, our other guide who had summited with Brendan, was not far behind so I quickly went back and told him about Nigel.
Stuart was with Nigel very quickly and started to organise getting him down the mountain. After radioing our sherpas for help, Stuart started pretty much carrying and lowering Nigel down the mountain single handed. It was amazing how much energy he was able to muster up after having previously summited himself. Without a doubt, Stuart saved Nigel’s life that day.
On arriving back into Camp 3 I discovered that the majority of people who had been behind me, had already descended further to Camp 2, Camp 1, or even in some cases as far as Advanced Base Camp. I was still furious about the fiasco which had played out with my oxygen bottles and having been told oxygen was coming when it wasn’t. I was determined to give the summit another shot with full bottles of oxygen as I was sure I could make it. I therefore climbed into my tent determined too stay up and give it a second shot the next night. If I went down to Advanced Base Camp, I knew the chances of coming back up and getting opportunity would be very slim. I therefore started to boil water in hope of staying up. Gavin one of the guides for another team arrived into Camp 3 at this point and was needing a tent to stay in util he went for the summit that evening, as not all their tents had been put up. I told him it would hopefully be just me in my tent so he was welcome to rest in there.
Stuart was dealing with Nigel at this time, who was in a very bad state. Once Stuart was free I radioed him and told him about my plan to stay at Camp 3. Stuart came over to my tent to tell me that unfortunately that was not possible as the sherpas were to tired and none of them wanted to go back up the next night. Thankfully Gavin who I had previously met at Base Camp said that I could possibly go up with the second party of his team that were arriving the following day. After much persuasion I convinced Stuart I would be ok to stay and managed to secure two new FULL bottles of oxygen.
I had some oxygen left in my bottle which I was given by Ed Laughton up on the ridge. I planned upon using what was left to breathe until I went to sleep. There wasn’t enough left to sleep on and I needed two full bottles if I was to go for the summit the next night so I accepted I would have to sleep without oxygen. Gavin was extremely helpful and boiled water for me and himself continuously while he waited to go for the summit. He left for the summit about 8:30pm leaving me in the tent on my own. The rest of my team had descended to Camp 2 or below and I was the only member left at this altitude. I sent a text to my family back home letting them know that I was going for the summit again the next night and explaining what had happened that day. It was a cold night without oxygen up at Camp 3, but my sleeping bag was warm and I wrapped my down jacket and salopettes around my self as well to try and keep out the cold. As I was falling asleep I received a text back from my family saying that they supported my decision to go again and asking if there was anything they could do to try and help convince Adventure Peaks back home to help me more. Surprisingly the text also asked if Keith Reesby was up at Camp 3 with me as he was missing (he was in fact safely back at Camp 2 and this just highlights the confusion which went on that day). Eventually I fell asleep and apart from a couple of times briefly during the night, didn’t wake until half 6am the next morning.
About 7:00am there was a knocking on the tent door. One of the Adventure Peaks sherpas Dorgee was there, but not to offer assistance, but wanting me to go descend with him. I tried explaining that I was staying and going for the summit again that night. I therefore had to radio Stuart in order to get him to speak to Dorgee, but when I radioed Stuart he to tried to convince me to come down, saying that if I did we could possibly arrange another attempt after I had rested in Advanced Base Camp. Eventually we agreed to check in again at mid day and reassess my situation. It was clear by this point that both the sherpas and Adventure Peaks wanted me to come down. Come 11:00am I got a radio call from the lead sherpa from the Dan Mazur team (the same team that Gavin, who had stayed in my tent resting before his summit push the previous night, belonged to). The sherpa said that they that they were terribly sorry but in fact they didn’t have a spare sherpa, meaning that I couldn’t make the ascent with them.
The next time I spoke to Stuart he had been informed of this and I was told that if I went up again, Adventure Peaks would not help and I would be completely on my own, but the option was still there to come down and if I did, we would discus how best to go about getting another shot at the summit. I reluctantly agreed, as even though I was confident I could make the summit and get back safely on my own to Camp 3 or 2 that evening, I was not willing to put the lives of other people on the mountain at risk who might try to save me if something did indeed go wrong. In my view this would have been selfish! This was by far one of the hardest decisions I have ever made up to this point in my life. I knew that if I left Camp 3, there was little chance of getting another attempt at the summit in 2010, despite what Adventure Peaks were saying.
On my way down from the summit I found Mark, one of our team members who had slept at Camp 2 the previous night. He was sitting in the snow near Camp 2 at the top of the ridge going down to the north col. Stuart and the others who had slept at Camp 2 as well had already started down and were far ahead. After speaking to him it was obvious he was exhausted, I therefore asked him if he wanted me to stay and go down with him to which he said yes. As we were going down Mark was getting more and more tired. Eventually he got so bad that he could only walk a couple of steps before falling over and was having to abseil relatively flat ground just for support. Unfortunately my radio was now out of battery after spending the previous night up at Camp 3 and for some reason Mark’s wasn’t working either so I couldn’t radio for help. To make matters worse, the weather was horrific and we were caught in a full on blizzard, exposed between Camp 2 and Camp 1 on the North Col. Mark kept wanting to sit down but with a lot of persuasion and pushing I got him moving. He was so tired I had to clip him in and out of the fixed lines and set up his abseil for him each time.
About half way down from Camp 2 Mark was walking or abseiling only a couple of steps each time before sitting down again. Thankfully a doctor passed by at this point and seeing Mark was in trouble gave him an adrenaline shot to help him get down. We tried the doctor’s radio to contact Adventure Peaks as well but it was different from ours and we couldn’t manage to change the frequency on it, but he promised to contact Adventure Peaks to request help when he got down. I then took Mark’s rucksack off him and put it on my back, also putting his oxygen cylinder down the front of his down suit to try and reduce the weight he was carrying. We continued on like this for the next stretch, still stopping every 10 steps for Mark to rest, or for me to tie him in or out of a fixed line. After a while I found it was easier to sit / lie on my back and just slid down the slope! The snow was now very deep and you could easily slide all the way down. This was in fact really good fun!
After a couple of hours one of the Adventure Peak sherpas passed us and I told him what was happening. Unfortunately he didn’t have a radio on him and was downloading equipment from Camp 3, so had a massive rucksack on. So I said I could manage for now if he would go down and contact Adventure Peaks for help when he got to the North Col and come back up to help with Mark. Ironically another sherpa from Adventure Peaks passed us half an hour later but he too was load carrying down. Towards the end of the North Col there are come cravases and I didn’t feel safe sliding down any more. So I decided to take Mark’s Rucksack off and tie it to a sling which I attached to my harness and drag it behind me instead. It was clear the adrenaline which Mark was given was starting to now take effect as we were now able to go for a couple of minutes at a time before he needed to rest.
Eventually we made it into Camp 1 and Mark collapsed into one of our tents which had been badly damaged by the wind. After checking he was ok, I went over to 7 summits tent to ask to borrow their radio and contact Adventure Peaks at Advanced Base Camp. They were extremely helpful and offered me tea to drink while I spoke to Stuart on the radio telling him the situation. Mark was to tired to come down today from Camp 1 and definitely needed to rest, but I was eager to get down and see the rest of the team and gauge the possibilities of going back up for a second summit attempt. So after I finished speaking to Stuart I went back to Mark to check he had some water boiling and something to eat that night then told him I was going down to Advanced Base Camp.
The walk down to Advanced Base Camp from the North col was extremely tiring. It had been a very long day and what should have only taken a couple of hours max to get down from Camp 2 to Camp 1 had taken over 6 hours helping Mark. Thankfully when I was down from the North col and walking towards crampon point to take off my crampons I saw some head torches in the distance which turned out to be some of the cook boys from our team who said they would carry my rucksack for me the last bit of the way which was gratefully received news! I finally made it into Advanced Base Camp and to a nice cold beer! I wanted to talk to Stuart about the possibility of going back up immediately, but it was late and everyone was now having dinner and I thought it best it wait till tomorrow.
The next morning after speaking to Stuart I found out the only way I could go back up was to find a sherpa that was willing to go. Josh was also interested in coming back up as his summit attempt had been wrecked by his mask freezing. Unfortunately none of the sherpas in our team wanted to go back up, so this left me Stuart and Matt our two guides going round the other teams at Advanced Base Camp to see if any of them were willing. Unfortunately things turned out as I expected and Adventure Peaks were not able to organise another attempt for myself and josh. We were both obviously very disappointed at this news as we felt factors outside our control had stopped us reaching the summit.
I am currently back in Kathmandu now helping out in an orphanage until the 10th when I fly back home to the UK. I will be meeting Adventure Peaks when I am back in the UK to discuss what happened on summit day, especially in regards to my empty oxygen cylinders and being left sitting in the cold at over 8600 meters. I will keep you all updated on the outcome of this meeting but at present I hope to go back next year and complete my goal of standing on the summit, and complete what for me has been a years hard work.
Whether I will return to the North side of Everest I am not sure. For I know I would have made the summit had it not been for factors outside my control and spending another two months there may be very hard work after seeing the same scenery for so long. Instead I am thinking of the south at the moment which will present a new and fresh challenge.
Thank you all very much for your support, not just over the past two months but the past year and hopefully next year if I do come back you will follow my blog again (next time hopefully without all the technical problems)! I have appreciated all the replies and comments and most importantly all of your generous donations for my cause. This has proved one of the most challenging and rewarding things that I have tackled in my life, and perhaps the beginning something even bigger. If you would like to donate any more to these two very special causes (Cancer Research & Marie Curie), please visit my website.