Having brewed up as much as possible at the high altitude where 1 litre takes two hours and sorting out ones kit to go we set off at 2230 into the cold and dark.
On reflection, no one appeared to orchestrate leaving or indeed if there were any accompanying Sherpas. It was mainly a steep slope with lots of head torches and some very exhausted western climbers.
Personally I set off well and though obviously very exhausting work, I was making good progress up the hill to the ridge. A Sherpa with an Adventure Peaks down suit on appeared to be shadowing me, albeit unfortunately we hadn’t met previously.
Getting onto the NE ridge seemed to take forever and despite my best efforts with two sets of gloves and hand warmers my hands were becoming increasing useless with the frost bite/nip.
When we eventually got to the ridge I noticed a) how much of a relief it was that the going was now far quicker as it was far less steep and b) how beautiful it was. Walking on precarious rock with crampons with huge drops either side is quite intimidating but with the crystal clear sky and lightening storms in the distance it was striking.
It was however at this stage that I started to struggle. Though my pace had been good and well ahead of schedule my breathing had become increasingly difficult. For some reason my ‘Top Out’ breathing apparatus seemed to be pumping less oxygen in than before. What I hadn’t noticed was that the box which held the bag had broken (probably on the climb to the ridge). Though it wasn’t operating properly, I could still draw some oxygen from it and thus though it had slowed me down, I could still move and thus cracked on. At this point with the reduced supply, the blood to my extremities reduced and very quickly I lost practical use of my hands. Sod it- I can’t type anyway! I mentioned before that we were also doing this climb to raise funds for our injured troops some of whom had lost entire limbs so what was the odd digit in comparison? And thus resigned myself to the fact that I would lose some fingers and was in fact happy with exchange in return for summiting. Besides which the sun would be up soon and hopefully that would warm up my core temperature.
Very soon afterwards we passed ‘green boots’ a very earie and sobering moment striking home the point that this place is called the ‘death zone’ for a reason and no one can get you off the mountain except yourself! He was so well preserved that it could have been one of our group having just stopped for a nap and of course never having woken up.
Half an hour later we reached what I think was the 1st step. We climbed it but it was at this stage that I was really really struggling to breathe through my apparatus. Alongside the limited airflow the valves had all completely frozen. So much so that I couldn’t draw any air in at all and even at this altitude I could breath easier the atmospheric air than through the mask. Via body language I communicated this with the Sherpa of which we both tried to rectify it to no avail. I couldn’t clear the blockage and he did not know how to resolve the issue. I then tried to call our group leader and then all our group’s call signs to see if anyone could help or had a spare. There was no response. I then urged the Sherpa to attempt the same. He didn’t understand. After trying on numerous occasions with no response some of the others had caught up and two other Sherpas played with the mask to fix the issue. It was then that one of them noticed a crack in the tube; ” Very. Very bad!” “Very Very Serious. Must Go Down, Must go Down!”
I asked if anyone had a spare or if he could go down and I had his tube allowing me to crack on?
Quite understandably with the dangers involved he wouldn’t let me for fear for himself.
We were probably 100 yards from the second step- the last technical obstacle before the summit. I could even see the head torches on the summit ridge which seemed so close. I’d spent a year training for this was going really well and yet with no other breathing apparatus there was no other option.
Once the decision was made I was very quickly aware I was somewhere between 8500-8600m with no supplementary oxygen and thus fear kicked in. I’ll be honest in saying I’ve never been as scared in my life. There are over 10 dead bodies on display on that ridge up to the summit and for anyone thinking this challenge is easy we were only minutes from losing a few more and another climber died last night too.
Pure flight or fight stuff yet the lethargy and lack of air makes you so weak you just want to take a quick break. The reality is though, if you do, you end up like the rest and never wake. By this stage, my hands were almost completely useless and I have to say that the Sherpa added real value for the first time in assisting me clipping in and out of ropes – and thank God he could.
Hours later, back to the relative safety of high camp (8300 m) with the sun having risen I looked back on the summit ridge to see some of our team (albeit a very limited few) taking the last steps to the roof of the world. To a man they are all great guys, thoroughly deserved it and so was delighted for them but selfishly was absolutely gutted and frustrated that I wasn’t among them knowing hand on heart that I would have been and the only thing that had stopped me was something completely out of my control.
As such after getting my head down for an hour or so and still panicking a little about my lack of breathability ( the valves had now unfrozen and thus though still not ideal, I could get sufficient amounts of air to be resting on) I started to enquire what the chances were to have another crack that night?
I didnt want to descend further if I was going to go back up. For some reason despite trying many times, my comms didn’t seem to get a reply and after some arguing, talking and explaining with some other sherpas I decided to descend by one more camp (to 7800m and out of the death zone) to further safety and await a more definitive response.
After another few hours and still not hearing what fate Keith and the others had had reports started to come in that there had been many complications on the mountain, some had summmited, some had had issues and others had simply turned around. The group leader and one of the strongest clients were helping another one of ours down with cerebral odeama. I was still waiting to see if there would be another chance but now I heard that with the severity of incidents and cause of events the answer unequivocally was “no”.
Disappointed, frustrated and a little angry, with that clear direction I therefore decided to descend back to relative luxury and thus went all the way down to ABC.
Later that evening, exhausted, the rest of the group managed to get themselves back to 7800 eventually although listening to the radio communication with the days serious events it was more by fortune than judgement that everyone in the state they were got back to rest and safety.
In hindsight it was an unbelievably hard day and in total from rising for the summit attempt to arriving back to ABC was 19 hours on the go. It even trumped some of the other days on this trip and that is saying something but fuelled with frustration but especially pure fear to get out of the death zone you find levels of energy you didn’t think were possible and indeed to that end truly reach the limits of your capability.
Finishing on a high point, Max our characterful American made it to the summit and back to ABC in a day an unbelievable feat of energy and endurance. As a result Andy, Ian, Heather and myself toasted his success and the other’s safety.
Exhausted, relieved, warm and most thankfully all alive we collapsed to an unbelievable nights sleep.
The analysis and reflection can start tomorrow…