This is the blog that I hoped I’d never have to write. Neither of us got to stand on top of Everest, and at first glance one might deem the expedition and the months of preparations a failure. Despite the massive disappointment of not having achieved our ultimate goal, and the fact that we were so close, on reflection the whole experience has been exceptional, and provided a vehicle to test ourselves to the very limit.
Summit day started at 22.30 with everyone vacating their tents, trying to put on their crampons, organise their oxygen (O2) cylinders and masks, and find a spare Sherpa under the lights of their head torches. Unfortunately, Jonathan had to leave the group a couple of days before due to altitude sickness, which along with the loss of other members of the group earlier in the expedition, left us either almost a one on one Sherpa/ client ratio, supposedly. A spare Sherpa fitted in behind me as we all shuffled past but conversation was always going to be limited due to the O2 masks and the fact that he spoke no English. The pitch black was only interrupted by the head torches and an electric storm off in the distance, but as it got light after about 6 hrs of climbing, it became obvious that my Sherpa was struggling. As a matter of Sherpa pride he hadn’t been using O2, and it took me quite a while to persuade him to put on his mask and descend, leaving me and Geordie who’d just joined us, to continue the climb.
The fact that we no longer had Sherpa support was a blow but not a show-stopper. The fixed ropes show the way but pacing and safety are definitely enhanced if you have that confidence booster of someone overseeing you. My main issue, and one that can most definitely can be a show-stopper, was the supply of O2 from my mask. Only very few people in the world can operate with impunity at very high altitude without supplementary O2. The vast majority of us will simply fall unconscious and die, so the flow of O2 from our cylinders is what our lives depended on. Throughout the initial climb up to the 1st of the 3 steps leading to the summit cone, I was aware that my O2 apparatus was not operating as it should, with constant icing of the valves and pipes inhibiting the amount of gas that was available for me to use. As the activity became more intense with the near vertical section of the 1st step, I was regularly left retching and hyper-ventilating, desperately grabbing at my mask trying to get some oxygen inside me. Being deprived of the amounts of O2 that I so desperately needed over a period of hours left me not only utterly exhausted by the time I got near the 2nd step, but also very anxious as to whether the O2 equipment would keep me alive during that last section. Most challenges require a combination of factors to be in place to enable success, and mountaineering perhaps more than most requires a substantial amount of luck and robust equipment. On this occasion we were both let down by the effectiveness of our most vital piece of equipment, the O2 apparatus. The summit looked so close at only a few hundred metres away, but realistically it was still 5 hrs of some of the most exposed and physically demanding climbing on the ridge. I felt completely drained and worried about the oxygen, because if my mask continued to restrict my O2 then I could be left beyond help. I’d just decided to go for the 2nd step and see if I could find a Sherpa to look at my mask, when suddenly I was standing in a cloud and could barely see 10 metres. I shouted to Geordie about how quickly the bad weather had come in and asked if he could see enough to go on. He looked at me uncomprehendingly, and after repeating myself, he assured me that the weather was in fact still gin clear and he could see for hundreds of miles in every direction. The couple of other climbers I asked as to what the weather was like must have thought I was mad, but I was utterly confused as to why no one else could see that the visibility had come down to mere metres. Something had happened to my eyes and I didn’t know what. I’ve subsequently found out from a high altitude specialist that my corneas had begun to freeze, but at the time it just added more confusion, although it made my decision to turn back easy.
Challenges like this require risk and sacrifice, but it’s all about balancing risk. It’s about recognising the risk and assessing whether the potential outcome is worth the potential sacrifice. To me, the personal satisfaction and experience of reaching the summit is not an outcome worth risking my life or eyesight for. Dead bodies are scattered along the summit ridge and act as a stark reminder that the risks are not exaggerated. A Japanese climber died only yesterday 50 m from where I was standing the day before, trying to make my decision; maybe they decided to take the risk? I’ve grilled myself over my decision ever since I got down to a safe altitude, running over whether I could have done things differently, and I am absolutely content and satisfied that I was right. Dave Bunting, who led the Army expedition to the West Ridge in 2006, was confronted with the most difficult of decisions when he cancelled the attempt just short of the summit due to an extremely high avalanche threat. His team were a highly motivated group of service personnel who had trained for 3 years for this opportunity, and some within the group thought he was being risk averse. Risk aware is not risk averse, and I thought it was a great piece of leadership when he sat the brooding group in front of him, looked them in the eyes, and told them all that if there was anyone in the group thought the likely sacrifice of a group member was a suitable risk for a summit attempt, then they were wrong- full stop. It made sense to me.
I am therefore strangely content sitting here at BC, despite the perceived failure. I am gutted that we didn’t summit, but I know that on another day, with O2 equipment that did what it said on the tin, I could have done it (assuming my eyeballs didn’t freeze again) but it was not to be this time. It’s been an incredible experience and one that I will value always. It’s not often you get to make life and death decisions when you’re at the edge of your physical and mental capabilities, and I’m proud that I think I gave it everything but ultimately got my priorities right.
Finally, apologies to Laura and my parents for keeping them guessing for a couple of days; I know it was massively stressful but I’m back in one piece as promised!
Thanks for all your support