“It was warm last night, the temperature was up to minus 15C!” said our expedition leader, Jamie. The balmy temperature didn’t last as all the other nights married temperatures between minus 20C and minus 30C. Essentially, it is the equivalent of sleeping in your domestic freezer or something even colder. By the morning, ice crystals decorated the inside of our tent and any movement of the tent shell resulted in an unwanted shower that would infiltrate our clothing and sleeping bags.
Generally, we wouldn’t creep out of our bags until 30 minutes after the sun had hit the tents rocketing the internal temperature up to a more comfortable zero. This made getting dressed a tolerable experience, especially if we had secreted our clothes into our bags for an hour or so to warm them up. I was to learn that it was additionally desirable to ensure that the sun cream also made it into my bag to prevent it from freezing so that I could ensure that I put it on my face and neck before I go t dressed (otherwise it inevitably got applied on to clothing as well as skin causing my clothes to get grubby too quickly). Add in a nalgene bottle that acts as a hot water bottle and it’s a jumble store in there!
Usually I look forward to getting out of bed because I’ve suffered another bad night and daylight brings the ordeal to an end. It’s a mixture of not being able to sleep properly (despite taking diamox), getting bad headaches (for which I take paracetamol) and generally feeling sick. This is all quite usual at altitude. We are now at 6,400m/21,000ft and, I am assured, no one feels perfect.
The best preventative is to force myself to drink lots of water – at least 4litres per day – but that is easier said than done. The water not only helps replace fluids lost normally but also helps replace fluids lost by excessive breathing. Our heart and lungs have to work more than twice as hard at this altitude than at sea level to complete the same task. So activities that would be simple normally become seriously hard work. Everything I do seems ridiculously difficult and, for some reason I don’t understand, I am unable to use the full volume of my lungs. Under pressure, my breathing is short, shallow and sharp thereby further restricting my abilities. I become the slowest in the group and the Sherpas, and the expedition powers that be, come to view me as a liability. For someone who has always been athletically able this is unbelievably frustrating.
One of the other reasons to drink loads of water is that it replaces fluids lost to the dry atmosphere. Moisture is sucked out from our bodies like blotting paper; skin rapidly becomes dry and flaky, cuts and cracks appear around the mouth and on the hands and fingers. Once they appear they are all but impossible to heal. Debbie’s fingers and thumbs are slavered in oily creams and permanently bandaged. The corners of my lips are cracked and all I can do is manage that they don’t get worse.
Water also helps the kidneys wash out extra acidity in our blood that has been caused by poor exhalation of carbon dioxide. I never learnt much about this and it doesn’t sound good but, I would have thought, that it was all balanced by the increased carbon emissions coming out of my arse.
Finally, at least I think finally, drinking my own body weight in water helps prevent my blood thickening. The cause of this is the body responding to the lack of oxygen in the air as the muscles demand more oxygen. The result is that the bone marrow releases additional red blood cells into the veins, raising the red blood cell count from 30% to 50% in the blood supply.
One of the most common symptoms of this thickening is retinal haemorrhages – bleeding from the cells at the back of the eyes. Some research claims that one in four Everest climbers is affected by retinal haemorrhages but, normally, they are minor and pass unnoticed by the climbers. However, in the case of one poor chap called Peter, the effects were sufficiently extreme to lead to a total loss of vision.
At 1pm, he was standing in the bright sunlight on the top of the world “elated, cheery and bubbly” but shortly afterwards he went blind and had to be abandoned to die from the cold. There is no rescue possible above 8,000mts/26,000ft and even where we are (6,400mts/21,000ft) proper medical facilities are three days away.
So all things considered I am inclined to drink as much water as I can manage, short of drowning myself, but it takes a lot of concentration. Warm water is easiest to imbibe – it’s chiselled from ice, boiled and purified and left in thermos flasks on the mess table. I add flavourings such as orange, black currant, even peach for heaven’s sake, but it doesn’t prevent me from feeling sick – it merely keeps me alive.
One way of measuring how well we are adapting is to measure our blood oxygen level and heartbeat. There is a small device that fits simply on a finger that can come up with the answer without the need for any pain (i.e. needles). At Base Camp my blood oxygen level was 78% (100% being expected at sea level) and my heartbeat was 80bpm (normally I would be 50bpm). Now at Advanced base camp some 1,300mts/4,200ft higher, my blood oxygen level has dropped to 70% (being in the 60’s is bad news) and my heartbeat has increased to 88bpm. With the restrictions in my lungs this may not be surprising but it’s not helpful either. I am beginning to think that I am not cut out for living at altitude and seriously wonder if I can continue much further.
Debbie, on the other hand, was doing brilliantly. Apparently it is often the case that asthmatics perform very well above 5,000mts/16,500ft because they are now high enough to be free of all the nasty stuff hanging in the air that normally restricts their breathing. I am temporarily jealous but, in truth, I wouldn’t swop places with an asthmatic for anything.
Living at altitude is hard work and not much fun. Eating, sleeping, in fact every activity, has to compete against an ever present feeling of exhaustion and apathy. ‘Glacial lassitude’ as it is satirically known. Everything we do is carried out in slow motion, whether it is getting dressed, going to the loo, even tying a bootlace. Partly this is because the mind yearns for sloth and indolence and partly because the body is struggling to work at oxygen levels at which it can’t fire the engine at full power. It is necessary to be totally goal focused to make it tolerable for any length of time and, of course, the real climbers who have the summits in their sights are just that. They have been on the mountain, living at or above 5,000mts/16,500ft for nearly six weeks already and may be here for another 2-3 weeks yet, waiting for an appropriate weather window to come along. It must be deadly boring because, in our set-up, there is no internet and no mobile reception either.
Both are available at Base Camp on the south side of the mountain but that is little comfort. On the other hand news from the south side (via VHF radio) isn’t good. The abnormally dry weather has caused landslides and loose rock to cascade down upon climbers causing some nasty injuries. Some expeditions have been cancelled altogether which may be good for profits of the organisers but represents heart-break for everyone else – summit aspirants will have lost their money along with their chance of standing atop the world’s highest mountain, Sherpas will have lost wages and bonuses, but the authorities will have the exorbitant climbing fees safely locked away. On the other hand there will be a decline in the number of deaths on Everest, so it’s not all bad news.
On our side of the mountain everyone still awaits the CMA (Chinese Mountaineering Association) to organise Sherpas to place fixed ropes all the way to the summit from where they have got to so far (about 7500 metres). This strikes me as a bit of an oddity. These summiteers, who look down upon us happy trekkers with an air of distain, will be able to reach the top without needing anything more than very basic climbing skills. All they need to do is to attach themselves to a fixed rope and off they go. It’s nothing like the danger and the abilities that the early pioneers needed to ascend to the summit and, although Everest is the highest mountain in the world, it is a long way from being the most difficult to climb.
But it is cold. Even when the sun is shining in a clear sky there is no atmosphere to hold the heat. It’s not like sun bathing at the top of a 3,000mtr/10,000ft ski resort – if anyone tried that at this altitude they would lose their ‘whatsits’ to frostbite. I have on a base layer, a long sleeved and collared lightweight top, a fleece, a thick windstopper top and a hard-shell rain top. I am warm enough most of the time until it clouds over or the wind blows.
The typical weather pattern is for the mornings to be pleasant (that’s a relative term!), then in the afternoon, the sun goes behind cloud, the wind picks up and it starts snowing. By 4:00pmish it’s bloody freezing and it’s a fight to stay warm. The temperature tumbles down, all activities are suspended (especially washing) until the next day and the world goes into a curious limbo as time is counted down until we can reasonably go to bed.
The whole washing/changing clothes routine also takes on a whole new dynamic. By the time we reach Advanced Base Camp (known as ABC) we haven’t had a shower for a week and it’s likely to be the best part of another before we can enjoy such a luxury again. However, odd though it may seem, we don’t stink. Whilst I accept that I probably can’t smell myself, I can sure smell others and the only ones whom I don’t want to be downwind of are the Sherpas (whom, I’m told, never wash) or, worse still, the yak herders who wear disgusting smells like a badge of honour. I suppose the freezing temperatures inhibit the development of our bodies’ stinky bacteria and, despite vigorous activity, it is too cold to work up a sweat. It means that I can return to my days as a young teenager in which clothes can be worm for at least a week, whilst soap and water can be avoided like the plague.
One thing that cannot be avoided in this oxygen deficient air, though I wish it could, is the daily acclimatization activities. We will wander off somewhere to stress the body, thereby helping it to adjust to the altitude, but there’s nowhere interesting to go in this high desert. Nothing lives here – no flowers, no plants, no bushes, no trees, no animals, flora or fauna – just stupid humans and even they cannot remain permanently without dying. So we spend 2-3 hours scrabbling around the rocks and enjoying spectacular views of the mighty Himalayan peaks.
Gazing upwards, I am overcome by an overwhelming sense of history. The morning sky would be a clear, bright blue and the wind would carry to us the air that had kissed the 8,000mtr/26,500ft great summits of the earth. I became aware that this place had witnessed some of the heroes of the past, people who had inspired a generation as they strove to achieve what no man had managed before. Was this where Mallory and Irvine had stood and assessed their next steps to the summit? Above us, on the steep, pristine white slopes our predecessors had suffered, many had failed but all had believed. That we could stand on this spot was all the more thanks to them. Their lessons provided today’s opportunity for hundreds of would-be summiteers and their sufferings were our debt. They are rarely acknowledged in today’s self-centred world but, compared to us, they were tough, brave and resolute.
On our second morning, our entire expedition assembles for the Puja Ceremony, a religious service conducted by a Sherpa Lama which will invite blessings for our ascent and ask the mountain for forgiveness for any pain that our crampons and ice axes may inflict upon it. A square altar measuring around one square metre is made from rocks collected from around our camp that has a wooden pole rising from the centre. Around the altar offerings are laid of sampa cake (made from roasted barley), rice, butter made from yak milk, fried dough, fruits, chocolate and drinks (mostly alcoholic). Our critical climbing gear is piled up one side – crampons, ice axes, boots and harnesses – to be blessed and imbued with good luck. Juniper is smouldering from the other side, wafting smoke over the altar and the items that decorate it. It all makes for a wonderful splash of colour on a cold, grey day when the snow came earlier than usual.
Prayers are chanted, rice is thrown, prayer flags are unfurled, attached to the altar pole, and stretched out across a 5 metre area in 5 different directions in a ceremony that lasted a good hour, if not longer. We all stood together for the final chants and rice throwing before sharing the food and drink as one body, uttering toasts and wishes for good luck to all our colleagues. Finally, the sherpas smeared sampa flour on everyone’s face as a symbol of their hope that we will all live to see each other when we are old and grey. It was a profound ceremony and I felt our walks would now be protected by a benign force that would watch over us.
When not walking the mountain, we would practice climbing up ropes and abseiling down ice in our plastic boots and crampons. At first it was difficult and awkward but we gained an uneasy familiarity with the skills required to get us up to the North Col at 7,010mtrs/23,000ft. It would have all been so much easier if only our expedition leader, Jamie, had bothered to inform us these skills would be needed before we departed the UK (where we could have completed an appropriate course) rather than letting us in on the secret when we reached Base Camp. Nonetheless, as the day of our final ascent approached both Debbie and I felt we were ready for the challenge (if a little apprehensive).
So it came as a real shock to be questioned, in front of the rest of the group, about the appropriateness of continuing. I suppose I should have seen it coming because Jamie made it perfectly clear from the moment we arrived at Base Camp, over a week ago, that he didn’t think we could make it to North Col. He would gainsay everything we said, he would try to put us down, he would add a negative to every optimistic or aspirational comment we made. We had tried to avoid his company because the constant put-downs were spoiling our trip. Now at the last moment, and with the entire group present, he had both of us firmly in his sights. He began with a disingenuous comment: “I admire those who make their own decision about their health. James, how do you feel about your abilities to get to North Col?” Obviously no implication implied or intended!!
I felt that I could make it, after all we were only talking about another 600mtrs/2,000ft (even if it was pretty much vertical) and my only concern was coping with the altitude so as to be able to complete the ascent and descent in a safe time. If I was taking too long I would turn back rather than put myself (or others) at risk.
He then turned against Debbie: what about her lack of abseiling skills (I’m ok now thanks), her nervousness (gone thanks), would she be able to do as she was told if she got stuck (yes), was she strong enough physically (yes), mentally (yes) and, finally:
“What about your head injury from a horse riding accident? Because there are only two other people I have encountered on a mountain, at this altitude, with such past injuries, and both dropped dead in front of me.”
Where the f**k did that come from??? Left field or what? Could it be true or had he just made it up? When counter questioned Jamie became very vague, not answering questions directly – like what actual altitude did they drop dead?
“Had I known about your head injury earlier, I would have told you the dangers,” he pontificated. It transpired he had known about this since we joined the expedition and hadn’t said anything.
So, here we had a real problem. Was he telling the truth or was it simply a ruse to stop us from going further? We couldn’t possibly get any verification. Without internet, without mobile phone connections, it wasn’t possible to contact a specialist. So I said that Debbie and I would discuss the situation and let him know later.
With that the discussion lapsed. The other two in our group did not face any questions about their abilities to make the climb despite Mike declaring himself ‘exhausted’ and Jo being both sick, tired and with a worryingly low blood oxygen level. This tirade had all been about stopping us.
Discussing it all with Debbie in the privacy of our own tent, she was obviously affected by the personal onslaught. She had climbed into her sleeping bag and looked ready to burst into tears. She has spent her life coping with impossibly difficult physical problems and lived through a steady stream of authority figures stopping her from doing things, telling her she isn’t able. What these idiots don’t realise is that she is the toughest person I know and can push herself way past the limits of most mortals. But the seeds of doubt that had been planted about her past head injury (she had fallen off a horse and smashed her head, resulting in bleeding inside the skull that had squashed her brain into half its size. She still has holes in her skull from where the blood had been sucked out) had grown and wouldn’t go away. Being a mother and a grandmother, she didn’t want to risk departing this mortal coil simply to climb a hill. But she was really upset, not just with the timing of it all but also with the dreadful manner in which it had all been so badly handled. And our money had already been trousered.
Debbie decided that she couldn’t take the risk. I decided that I couldn’t go to the top of North Col without her – that would be rubbing salt into an open wound. We were in this together and, as always, we would stick together, achieving or failing our goals as one. It was unbelievably frustrating as I felt that Debbie was better placed physically than me to climb the Col and, I also felt, with some grit and determination, that I could make it. But it was not to be. So we would walk to the base of the Col where Debbie would remain whilst I climbed a couple of rope lengths before coming down again.
Jamie was ecstatic. But he wasn’t finished yet. The next morning we all set off early for North Col. Despite being the slowest I was placed in front, behind a climbing Sherpa who raced off encouraging me to follow closely. He would get 40 or 50 metres ahead of me before stopping and waiting for me to catch up. As soon as I approached him he would be off again waving at me to follow him. After 40 minutes of this we reached ‘crampon point’, well ahead of anyone else where we swapped our trekking boots for plastic climbing boots and crampons.
It was a beautiful morning. The sun beat down from a cloudless blue sky and the wind had failed to put in an appearance. The summit triangle of Everest looked close enough to touch. It was as hot as it could be at this altitude and, with the reflection of the snow, we were covered with factor 80 sun cream on every single square micro-millimetre of exposed skin. I have even shoved sun-block up my nose. Despite our precautions two of the others suffered from sun burn on their tongues and the inside of their lips that made eating and drinking an unpleasant experience for the following few days. I found that my sunglasses were insufficient protection against the strength of the sunlight as it bounced off the ice, assaulting me in every direction. My eyes were squinting, half closed as I tried to offset the astringent glare on my eye balls. I was later to learn that dark glasses with a spectrum 4 (glacial lenses) were required but this was yet another omission from the kit list.
After ‘crampon point’ the Sherpa continued to hassle me for speed and, after another 30mintues, I told him that I would be taking a 5 minute rest.
“Is that ok with you? You don’t mind too much?” I said in my most sarcastic voice.
At the bottom of North Col I put on my climbing harness and, as I was easily first to be ready, I set off with the Sherpa up the icefall. Again he kept shooting ahead, urging me to run after him. After ten steps I was knackered. This was much harder than I imagined. It was a real grind requiring determination and perseverance. I decided to try ten steps forward, 15 breaths rest. This began to work better but, the higher I got, the harder it became and before long I could hardly manage it. The Sherpa scuttled down to me and got me to try a different technique to the one that Jamie had been teaching. Basically it involved both arms and legs and I found it much easier. I could manage 15 steps forward but needed 20 breaths rest. No amount of willpower could make me go any faster; it was as much as my body could possibly manage.
I still felt exhausted after each set of steps and I would lie prostrate, face down against the ice whilst my lungs heaved away. I couldn’t decide if I was drowning or suffocating but I was sure I was dying. Bloody hell, this was hard!
I reached the top of the second rope and rested again, clipping my safety line onto the third rope. Looking back no one else was near me. I realised later that this is an old climbing trick: exhaust the weak climber as quickly as possible so as to get them out of the way. I later saw it being used against a Russian climber, the old hands, like Jamie, being quite open about it:
“That Russian is slow he can’t possibly get to the top. The Sherpa is going to make him reach the top of the Col and then will keep going until he’s too exhausted to continue and will want to come down again.”
It is the climbing equivalent of cowardice: pushing someone as hard as possible to limit their capabilities and bring their climb to a swift and premature end. It’s like the cowardly male in a relationship who wants out but doesn’t have the guts to say as much. So he is continually unpleasant to his partner until it is the partner who terminates the relationship in a welter of bad feeling.
For myself I felt that I could continue and, if Debbie had been with me, I would have continued but, as I said to her I would only go two rope lengths, I now went down. I suppose I must have reached 6,700mtr/22,000ft. It’s higher than anywhere in Europe, Africa, Australasia. It’s higher than anywhere outside the Himalayas other than Aconcagua in South America. But it wasn’t what I was aiming to reach.
Debbie & I returned to ABC to wait for the others. One, Mike, made it to the top of the North Col which was a fabulous achievement. But at the same time that meant that out of our group of originally 7 people (who had collectively paid $45,000), only one person had achieved their goal – a big failure rate (for the expedition leader) and a tale of caution to anyone paying money to go to Everest.