Last night was a night I certainly won’t forget in a hurry! Yesterday Jason, Salma and I spent the day in our tents on top of the north Col trying to wait out the winds, in the hope we would be able to climb up to 7500m the next morning. Little did we know that by spending another night on top of the north Col we would risk being blown clean off the mountain and waking up a long, long way away.
During the day the winds had been too strong for climbing, but nothing to be unduly concerned about. Sleeping at camp 1 in winds like these was normal and there was no real danger. If only we had known that the winds we were experiencing were only an appetiser for what was to come. We found out, when we returned to ABC the next day, that, that night the Jet stream moved closer to Everest than in any time in the past 10 years, bringing with it unbelievably strong gale force winds.
The previous night neither Jason nor I had got much sleep as the floor of our tent was very uneven at the sides. We therefore decided to sleep in different tents that night enabling us to lie across the middle of the floor. Salam was already in his own tent, as the tents are not that big and any more than two would make for a very uncomfortable night. We agreed to have our radios on at 5a.m so we could contact each other and assess whether the conditions were good enough to climb to 7500. The Sherpas had returned to ABC to rest after their climb the night before so we were alone at camp 1 and the decision to climb higher would rest solely with us.
The night started off reasonably well and after boiling snow to put in my nalgen bottle to use as a hot water bottle, I settled down. At 8p.m. I turned on my radio to check in for the radio call and also to see if Salam and Jason needed anything before going to sleep. Chris, one of our guides, was the first to call in. He had descended to ABC with the rest of the team a couple of days before, and had kindly remained there with Zack, our other guide, instead of descending to BC with everyone else, to man the radios in case we needed anything. After checking in and having a quick chat about how each other’s days had been, I turned off my radio and headlight and went to sleep.
About 11:30pm I was woken by the tent literally rising up and down off the ground. The winds had picked up to such an extent that they were coming in and under the bottom of the tent and pushing me up and down. Immediately I looked for my radio to check that both Salam and Jason were okay. After turning the radio on I had to turn the volume up fully to be able to hear anything over the sound of the wind battering against the side of my tent. Thankfully after a couple of attempts I got hold of Jason. He asked if I had been able to contact Salam, whose tent was next to mine, I said ‘no’ but that I would try and put my head out of my tent to shout to him in case his radio wasn’t working.
As I slowly moved to the porch of my tent trying to keep myself as spread-eagled as possible to stop the floor lifting up I thought back to my expedition to Ama Dablam where I had experienced a storm while sleeping at camp 3, and where all our tent poles had been broken during the night. That night was one of the scariest nights of my life and I just hopped that tonight would not be a repeat. As I unzipped the inner door of my tent I got a face full of snow, blow up from under the front door. After brushing the snow out of my eyes I opened the inner door further to try and reach an arm out to partly open the outside door, so I could stick my head out and shout to Salam.
As I put my head out of the tent my headlight hit the surrounding tents. Half of camp 1 had been destroyed, tents poles were broken everywhere, many tents had collapsed and were flapping wildly in the air barely being held to the side of the mountain, whilst others had clearly succumbed to the wind and had already been blown off the mountain. Salam’s tent had lost the outer cover and now looked very vulnerable to the snow. It was a scary scene to witness and it almost felt surreal. I remember thinking at this point that we could be in real trouble.
Shouting over the wind was near impossible, shout after shout got drowned out by the wind but thankfully, after a while, I got a reply form Salam who’s voice then came crackling over the radio. Jason still had his radio on and the three of us joked about how we didn’t think we would be climbing up tomorrow if this weather continued. After checking again that we all were ok we agreed to radio in again in an hour. I then lay back down, pulled up my sleeping bag tight around my neck and prepared for a long night.
Unfortunately as the night went on the winds seemed to increase rather than subside. The front of my tent was now billowing like a yacht sail with every gust, and I was getting more and more worried I would be pushed over the side of the north Col, which was only half a metre behind my head. With my feet I pushed my rucksack into one corner and my food bag into the other in a futile attempt to try and stop the front of the tent lifting up. I kept thinking how the tent was tied down with bamboo poles rather than metal ones (they are lighter to carry up) and praying that they would hold. I remember I kept picturing, in my head, scaffolding in Asia, where they often use bamboo instead of metal due to its strength, in a vain attempt to reassure myself it would hold.
Seconds seemed to turn into minutes, and minutes to hours that night. Lying there believing at any moment you might get blown off the side of a mountain really makes one think about what is important in life, and makes you question whether taking such a risk with your own life is worth it.
Thankfully, the winds started to subside in the early hours of the morning and after putting some ear plugs in I managed to drift in and out of sleep, being woken up every so often when big gusts came rumbling down the mountain.
Around 6:00a.m. we had another radio conference to decide what to do. The winds had subsided enough that it was now possible to evacuate down to ABC but while two of us had previous high altitude experience, one did not and we were worried that climbing down the ladder just below the top of the north Col may prove too challenging, especially in the state we were all in, deprived of sleep and still not fully recovered from our various ailments. We therefore tried to contact ABC to get advice but unfortunately no one was up yet as they had no reason to suspect we would need to contact them. We finally decide that it would be best to try and wait out the winds a bit longer in hope that they would further subside and we could move down to ABC more easily. Amazingly, after a couple of hours the winds stopped!