Date: 3pm, 24th May 2007
Location: Everest Base Camp
Altitude: 5300 meters
Weather: Fine but fairly windy
I am very happy and relieved to finally report that I’m now safely down at base camp. It’s only really now that I can say that I’ve done it, and can start to celebrate.
As you could probably tell, I was pretty dejected at 5pm on the South Col. We had followed the weather forecasts, and changed our summit date in order to get better weather, but the forecasts changed after we had committed to this new date. With the wind ripping at our tent and blowing snow into it whenever a door was opened, I would have put our chances at less than ten percent. By 8pm, the wind had died off slightly, but I thought it was too windy to go. Having lost 4 toes on my foot to frostbite before, I am now acutely aware of weather conditions. But I spoke to Fiona on the radio and she reminded me of the good gear that I have, in particular the Hotronic footwarmers and Jett heated vest. Both of these would be indispensible later on. At 9pm we decided to give it a try as high as the Balcony and see what the conditions were like.
It’s an incredibly long way to the Balcony and very steep. In the early days of climbing Everest they had their last camp at the Balcony, and I wish we still did! It was so cold when we got to the Balcony. But that’s where the problems with my oxygen started. There was a problem with the thread on one of my bottles, rendering it useless. So I was down a quarter of my bottles. Not too much of a problem. I used a lower flow rate from here on in.
Climbing up to the South Summit was a little harder than last year, as there was much more exposed rocks. It was a poignant moment for me when I came to the spot just below the South Summit where last year I was alone with an empty oxygen tank. I was very glad this year I was using the smaller, lighter Poisk oxygen instead of the IMG system. Poisk can hold about 40% more oxygen for the same weight of tanks. The IMG oxygen system is proprietary, and they use only two bottles instead of 4. Poisk gives you much more redundancy in the event of something going wrong, which can so easily happen with either system.
We continued onto the South summit and then we proceeded to change to my last bottle, which was being carried by Lhakpa. I looked around and Lhakpa was no where to be seen. With only 10% of the bottle left, I was unsure of what to do. I decided that Lhakpa must have gone on to the summit, so I thought I would go to. I could see the whole summit ridge, but couldn’t see Lhakpa, but figured that he might be hidden in a dip. It was then that I realised that my oxygen mask wasn’t working. It has a reservoir in it which catches the oxygen that is flowing out of the bottle when you are not breathing in, and this reservoir was full, and not emptying at all. Two other climbers with us this year reported the same problem. So I was getting less than half the oxygen I should have been. And to make matters worse, I was on a reduced flow rate to be able to have enough oxygen to get to the summit, about 1-2 hours away. So, I found the climb to the summit extremely difficult and I thought I would have to turn back. It was really cold and a number of people turned around, but I was already using the footwarmers and I turned on the Jett vest and this made a massive difference. It was very difficult to breathe, but I found that by concentrating on the breathing techniques I had learnt with the Spirotiger, I was able to progress. The Spirotiger had taught me how to use all my lung capacity and without this I don’t think I would have got there. I noticed I was pretty unsteady on my feet and I had to be very careful not to fall. It wasn’t until I was 10 meters from the summit, that I knew I would get there. When I got there I took some very quick photos and then went to Lhakpa to ask him for my bottle. His reply stunned me – he had left it down below. Try as I might, I couldn’t get him to tell me where it was. He looked at my regulator and first told me that the bottle was nearly full. I said it couldn’t be and asked him to check again. He then looked and said that it was empty – “We go down now”. Oxygen was still flowing, but not for long. I asked him where the last bottle was, but he just kept saying, down there.
So how was my experience on the top? Very fast, a relief for having got there, and absolutely terrifying that any moment I would run out of oxygen for the second time. I did take in the view – The brown plains of Tibet on one side and all the peaks of Nepal spread out way below me, looking like little bumps in a black and white carpet.
We headed down and I found the Hillary Step very difficult. There were quite a few oxygen bottles that had been stashed along the way, and I kept hoping that one of them would be mine. I had decided that if I ran out, that I would use one of these, but stay there while Lhakpa went and collected mine. I would then leave mine in its place, or else swap if I hadn’t used much. This again is one of the benefits of using Poisk over any proprietary system.
Just below the South Summit we found my bottle, and I can’t tell you how relieved I was. A quick change and we were on the way down again.
Snow Blindness & Getting Down to Camp 2
I was wearing some new goggles with a fan in them to stop them fogging up. Despite this, as we descended they started to fog up a lot. By the time we got to the balcony they were really foggy and I was warm, so I took off my goggles to put my sunglasses on, and that’s when I realised the foggy vision was actually my eyes, and not the goggles. Within minutes, my vision deteriorated further, and I could hardly see anything, just blurry colors. Talk about scary. Lhakpa was resting and I was extremely anxious to get down, so I started following the ropes down on my own. Pretty soon I couldn’t even see the rope against the snow and had to scratch around for the next one when I came to the end of each. Once I followed an old rope which came to a dead end, and I had to go back up again to the last rope.
Fortunately, Lhakpa caught up to me and then we made better progress down, as he clipped me into each rope. It was such a relief to reach the South Col. I crashed into the tent, shortly followed by Attila.
At this stage I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I suspected that I had frozen my cornea with the extremely cold winds. Attila said that he thought it was snow blindness, but I said I didn’t have any pain at all. We spoke to a very relieved but soon concerned Fiona, and she came back saying that she thought it was snow blindness too. It turns out the goggles don’t have high enough UV protection. I decided to stay overnight at the South Col, but our very experienced base camp manager Ptemba said that it could worsen, and that I had better head down to C2 straight away. So I packed up everything as best I could and headed down.
As I headed down, wearing both goggles and sunglasses, it was very difficult to work the ropes. I was utterly exhausted when I reached C2, having been on the go for some 18 hours. I crashed into a tent and slept until the morning.
Last Time Through the Icefall
At 5am Attila and I woke, packed and left for base camp. I found it very tiring getting down, as I had very little energy reserves left. At one point I heard a large crash in the icefall above me, and later Attila, who was behind me, reported that a huge section of the route had collapsed and he had to negotiate a way around it. Talk about both of us being lucky.
I was needing to stop and rest every 15 meters. But this was before I came across a person from the Singapore team who had fallen into a crevasse. I think he was crossing a ladder when one of the ropes gave way, and he toppled into it. He was with a Sherpa and the sherpa couldn’t work out what to do. Dawa, the son of the owner of Asian Trekking, also came along, and with the three of us, we lowered a rope down to the man, and just hauled him out. Not the text book way of doing it, but it was fast. I carried on down, now even more tired, which I didn’t think was possible.
I rounded a corner and who should I see, but Fiona, who had borrowed Meagan’s climbing boots and climbed up to see me. She had even crossed several ladders, without a harness or crampons. It was fantastic to see her, and the the drinks and food was a lifesaver. We carried on down together, just like last year. At the bottom of the icefall, we met Joseph, who has a small outdoor photographic studio setup and is making a coffee table book about the people on Everest this year. I think it will be great reading.
Both Fiona and I would especially like to thank Nick Grainger for his tireless support throughout this second climb. You have probably caught glimpses of his involvement, but while we’ve been up here, he’s been the lynch-pin of our contact with the outside world. Thanks a lot Nick!
We’d also like to mention our families. Both this year and last, we know we’ve put them all through a lot. When we sent an SMS today saying that I was through the dangerous section of the icefall, John wrote back – “now we can breath again”. It’s easy for us to forget what we put them through but we very much appreciate their support.
Thanks to everyone else as well for your support and encouragement throughout this climb. It’s been absolutely fantastic having you along for the ride. It’s been a very long expedition and the connection with a the outside world through your messages has been a fantastic help in keeping me motivated and focussed. I feel as though it’s not just me that’s climbed but a whole bunch of you!
That’s all for now. Tomorrow, we plan to start the trek out – probably over 3 days.