News 33 Hours on Everest THE FIRST 14 I had slept relatively well at 7,700m at Camp 2, wearing my Summit Oxygen mask through the night and breathing supplementary oxygen at a rate of 0.5 litres per minute. I had shared a tent with Dawa, who was allocated as my Sherpa for the summit bid. Having a personal Sherpa above Camp 2 was a lesson I had learned from last year, since collecting and melting snow and ice for cooking is cumbersome and exhausting at such high altitudes. We would leave at 10 a.m. for the move to our high camp (C3) at 8,300m – the highest camp on earth and higher than nine of the world’s fourteen 8,000m peaks. By 8 a.m. I was already starting to pull on my down suit and prepare my gear for the day. For breakfast I ate only a cereal bar and had a small cup of hot chocolate. High altitude severely affects the appetite – I had eaten some under-cooked soup noodles the previous night, but I felt unable to stomach much this morning, probably due also to nerves – today I would climb for the first time in my life above the Death Zone of 8,000m and I was unsure how my body would react. At 8,300m, there is only 36% of oxygen available compared to sea level. By 09:45 I was strapping crampons on to my high-altitude boots outside the tent, and at 10:00 I set off alone. Both Phurba and Sean would follow and overtake me, and Sam set off with his Sherpa, Psimba. Dawa would also follow later after carrying a load up to high camp. I climbed up the steep and rocky north ridge to the Russian camp at 7,900m – this had been my team’s campsite the year before, and I quietly fought some mental demons as I passed the camp. The Russians had one team of ten climbers preparing to set off. We also passed Gil, one of the independent climbers who was sharing our logistical set up – he was attempting to climb without supplementary oxygen and had moved up to C2 a couple of days ahead of us. I began to traverse right before the slope steepened. Even with fixed ropes in place, careful footwork was necessary on some exposed traverses. A careless footstep could lead to a long fall down a section of fixed rope to the next anchor. Soon, Sean and Phurba caught me and I began to follow them up a very steep snow slope, which was made more exhausting in the strong sun and by the lack of breeze. My down suit was open from neck to waist, but I was having trouble venting heat. As we turned a corner we could see a big team of people resting on a rocky ledge thirty metres above us. A few parties were now descending down the same fixed line that we were ascending on, so we sat down to wait for them to pass, and to grab a rest. We could see a lot of movement above – I suddenly realised that a team of Sherpas were attempting to lower a semi-conscious climber down the slope. His legs and feet were tied together and Sherpas had attached a series of lines to various parts of his body in an effort to control and bring him safely down. It was a monumental task at such extreme altitude. He had collapsed suffering from High Altitude Cerebral Oedema at Camp 3. HACE was something I greatly feared, and we all carried dexamethasone to treat it in case a team member fell ill – I also hoped that having a sixth oxygen bottle would increase my safety margin and help me avoid this deadly condition. Watching his rescue as we climbed to high camp was a sobering reminder of the risks I was taking and the frailty of life above the Death Zone. I worked hard to refocus, conscious that with such a small team of Sherpas (three), my own chances of rescue would be much lower. After five hours of climbing, we reached a final steep snow slope and glimpsed some yellow tents beyond, clinging to the mountain. The terrain now was increasingly steep all the way up to the northeast summit ridge. As I hauled myself up the fixed line, I could see that the tents here were pitched in some horribly precarious positions – there were simply no flat spots on which to pitch a tent. Rather than setting up our own tents, agencies worked together to allocate empty tents to those on different rotations. The terrain was so steep that I crept cautiously down to my allocated tent entrance and gingerly removed my crampons. – I entered my allocated tent and found sleeping mattresses, a sleeping bag and cooking detritus strewn all over. Clearly this tent had been heavily used! I was amazed to also find cigarette butts – who in their right mind would want to smoke at 8,300m with so little oxygen in the air? Regardless, I collapsed gratefully in the tent and began to rest. Dawa arrived half an hour or so later – he looked in the tent and motioned he was not happy to sleep there. It’s true that it would be almost impossible for two adults to lie down as one third of the tent was over the edge of the precipice. He indicated that I should move to a different tent with him, but I had no energy or intention to repack all my kit, put crampons back on and move to another tent, so I chose to stay put alone. This negated somewhat the benefit of having a personal Sherpa. I now had six hours to kill, since we would start climbing at 10 p.m. Sleep was out of the question – I had far too much nervous energy and my stomach was churning. Remarkably, I found I had a mobile signal up here with my China Mobile SIM, so I chatted with loved ones on Whatsapp and shared a Facebook update, until my battery died. To save weight, I had left my battery pack at the camp below. I also had charge remaining on my iPod so I listened to music and started going through the mental process of counting back from 10pm to list all the things I had to do to be ready – eat, drink, sort my summit bag, prepare hand and foot warmers, decide on glove combination etc. I had taken Imodium to try to limit bowel movements, but my stomach began to cramp quite severely. Getting cold hands during high-altitude toilet visits was something I dreaded. I had frozen six fingers on Denali in 2012 on an early season expedition and nerve conduction had taken months to recover. I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and rather than face my fears I reached for a zip lock bag and answered the call of nature right there in the tent. Dawa chose this precise moment to bring me some water he had prepared and I quickly fumbled with the tent zips spouting my profuse thanks. I was doubly grateful. An hour later Dawa returned with some soup noodles. He handed me the pot and told me to dump anything I didn’t want out the back of the tent. I ate most of the noodles, then opened the back door of the tent, tipped the top to the side, and watched in horror as the pot loosened from the handle and began to roll down the steep slope to fall thousands of metres below. Phurba came to my tent to borrow my sat phone to arrange for forty yaks to come up to advanced basecamp after our summit attempt. Sean had called by radio to let me know that Sam would leave at 9 p.m. with Psimba and Dawa, and that I would leave at 10 p.m. with him and Phurba. Phurba is our Head Sherpa and had been to the summit nine times before, so I was happy with this change of plan. I would carry two oxygen bottles and Phurba would carry my third. It was now 8 pm. With two hours before my date with destiny I began to dress for the summit attempt. Despite my attempts to focus only on the here and now, I had shed more than one tear during the last few hours. I was sitting at 8,300m, reflecting on my decision to descend last year, and finding myself now in totally different circumstances with a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream. I thought about my family and loved ones, and what my success or failure would mean to them. I thought about all of my supporters, who had followed me both this year and last year. I thought about all the school pupils I’d spoken to, and the responsibility I felt to prove to them the importance of never giving up. I thought about difficult work situations I had found myself in, and how I had overcome those difficulties. Each new thought generated a strong emotional response, which I tried to channel in the most positive way possible. I was absolutely determined to climb to the top of the world. It was now or never. THE NEXT 9: Sean called on radio at 21:30 – I was dressed and ready and began to strap on my crampons. It was dark now so we would climb through the night by the light of our head-torches. Sean took the lead, and I followed up the fixed rope that ran through camp, with Phurba behind. The slope up to the exit cracks that join the northeast ridge is unremittingly steep. After what seemed like just a few minutes, we caught up with Sam, Psimba and Dawa. Sean spoke to Sam to make sure he was clipping in at all times, and to increase his flow rate – his Sherpas had set it to 1.5 instead of 2. I was wearing a harness around my waist and legs. On my harness, I carried two safety devices. The first was safety line, with a karabiner on the end. I would clip this karabiner into the fixed ropes that the Sherpas had placed earlier on the route. If I slipped or fell, this safety line should catch me. The second device is a metal handle called an ascender. This clips onto the fixed rope and can only move one way – up. So if you fall and your ascender is clipped in, it should catch you. It’s physically impossible to carry a climber’s body down from this altitude because of the very low oxygen levels. Each step I took now required enormous effort. I would climb 5 or 10 steps and then have to stop to recover my breath. I would breathe and breathe and breathe to get my energy back, and then take 5 more steps. Above 8,000m, the simplest tasks are exhausting. Putting on your boots can take 15 minutes. Going to the bathroom becomes almost impossible. And if you do have to go, you risk serious frostbite when you take off your mitts. The area above 8,000m is known as the Death Zone, because human beings simply cannot survive in such extreme conditions, and our bodies are literally dying. We can only spend a few hours up there, and then we must come down. Sadly, each year on Everest, around ten climbers never come home. Often, they suffer heart attacks, or strokes. They suffer High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema, where your body fluids leak into your lungs, and you drown in your own body fluids. They suffer High Altitude Cerebral Oedema, where these fluids leak into your brain tissue, causing swelling. This is always fatal unless you descend immediately. As we reached the ridge, the wind was blowing strongly and consistently in our faces but slightly off to the right. We were not wearing goggles as we expected very low winds, so this biting cold wind was an unpleasant surprise. We frequently had to stop to bow our heads and turn them out of the wind. Very soon, I had frozen icicles attached to my eyelashes. Moving along the ridge, very often the fixed ropes were buried and we had to pull hard to free them from the frozen snow. I had to stop quite frequently to catch my breath – not only was I affected by the altitude, the terrain was so steep and exposed that I was far out my comfort zone and generating a huge amount of nervous energy. I was wearing two merino wool base layers, an insulation layer and a down gilet beneath my down suit, and this combination was keeping me warm, despite the biting wind. My toes were OK – I had placed foot-warmers inside my Olympus Mons boots. I was concerned about my fingers in the wind, but found that whenever they became cold I had little trouble warming them up. I wore a very light liner, a power fleece glove and then only a shell mitt – this allowed me to get my fist properly through the ascender, and the mitt liner was warmer than any glove combination. After four hours of climbing, we reached a cross-like feature at 8,550m on the ridge, which promised a brief moment of shelter from the wind. I unzipped reached inside my down suit to sip from my 500ml Nalgene. We had eaten and drank nothing for the first four hours. I also pulled out an energy gel to provide a small but instant calorie hit. Sean advised that he would descend as he as struggling to stay warm – he had picked up a bug and it was no longer safe for him to continue, but he wanted us to have a realistic chance at the summit. He spoke to Phurba to advise that I would make my own decision about continuing or not, and also spoke to Sam to advise that if Phurba and I turned back he should slow strongly consider descending. I entered a brief state of shock. Would 2018 also end in failure? Were the winds too dangerous to continue? My absolute priority was to get home safely, and I knew that the further we climbed, the more difficult a retreat would be. Did I have enough energy to get safely up and down? While I was processing these thoughts, we continued on. I took the lead with Phurba behind. Sam and his Sherpas followed a little further behind. After 15 minutes I had my first conference with Phurba. We were both worried about the wind and knew that higher up the winds would be fiercer. While the wind was not strong enough to blow us off our feet, it was an insidious and constant presence. I asked Phurba to take the lead – he was much faster than me and I could sense his frustration at having to wait at each anchor for me to catch up. He preferred to follow behind at whatever slow pace I set, but I wanted him up front where I could safely follow. We reached the boulders at the base of the Second Step. We discussed the weather again for a good 10 minutes. I began to imagine the descent without summiting – it was too distressing to think for very long. Since neither of us wanted to commit to turn back, Phurba led up while I dragged myself in very poor style upwards. There is a long ladder here that was placed by the Chinese in 1960. It’s a test of faith to clip in to the fixed rope, then climb up 20m knowing that a mistake would result in a fall of thousands of metres. I had to take great care clipping my safety line onto the fixed rope beside the ladders, since there are so many old ropes in place from previous years’ expeditions. With an oxygen mask on, it is very difficult to look down at where you are placing your feet – I could feel beads of sweat forming as I gingerly placed each footstep. At the top of the ladder there is a hideously exposed traverse, and even in the dark of night you can feel the exposure as you climb round. On the second step, if you make a mistake clipping your safety line onto the fixed rope, or if you fall and the rope breaks, you’ll fall thousands of feet, and you wont survive. Many climbers have died on these steps, and their bodies remain there frozen, high on the ridge. From time to time, as we had climbed up, we caught glimpses of these fallen climbers by the light of our head torches. Above here, we changed our oxygen bottle. I chose to wait for Sam to catch up to try to establish his intentions, but the wind meant our conversation went something like this: Me: “Sam, you going up?” Sam: Mumbled something but kept on walking Me: “Sh*t, better keep going” 30 minute later, Phurba revised his estimate – only 90 minutes to the summit! The third technical step was shorter, but still took a great deal of effort. I could see a bright light for off and high up to the right. I was certain this was the summit – maybe it was a climber’s head-torch, or maybe the Chinese had placed a lantern on the summit? I wondered how we could climb so high in the next hour-and-a-half. Phurba had now had enough of waiting at anchors, so I agreed to take the lead again. We were ascending a steep snow slope, which nevertheless seemed less steep than much of the other terrain we had been on. I was able to get my breath and walk upwards without stopping every ten steps. What was that shape ahead, fluttering in the breeze? It looked like a prayer flag, but I knew it couldn’t be as we had so much climbing still left to do. The first glimmer of light had begun to brighten the horizon, but only the light of our torches outlined the indistinct shapes above. For a moment, I stood still in complete shock. With wide eyes, I turned around to look at Phurba. “Phurba, that is not the summit”. “Yes, summit!” We embraced, and I thanked him sincerely for bringing me through the elements to this wonderful place. I will never forget the feeling of shock, relief and disbelief. For several hours Phurba and I had been the highest humans on Planet Earth. Just fifty more steps up the slope and I would be on the highest point in the world, the summit of Mount Everest. Growing up on a council estate outside Glasgow, it had seemed an impossible dream. As I took those fifty steps, I repeated over and over “Oh My God. Oh My God. Oh My God.” Despite self-doubt. Despite my own fears. Despite past failures. Despite the wind and cold. I stepped onto the summit of Everest at 06:15 on 18th May 2018. Phurba followed in my footsteps. The wind was howling. We clipped in, and then I pulled out my camera and asked Phurba for a summit photo. I pulled my sat phone out of my pocket and tried to make a call home, but it was far too windy and cold so I gave up. I took Phurba’s camera and fired off a couple of shots with the flash. We embraced again. Kneeling down led to an agonising attack of pins and needles, exacerbated by the effects of Diamox. We looked briefly down into Nepal to see some head torches far below. My elaborate plans for photos and videos with the Finding Your Feet Flag on the summit seemed comical now, with the wind howling around us in darkness on the summit. I had carried my flag all the way up Everest, and I would carry it all the way back down. I hoped that reaching the summit was enough. THE FINAL 10 We agreed that I would go down first - I was in no mood to argue now. We descended towards Sam and his Sherpas, where we had a quick embrace and encouraged him on. He would summit about 75 minutes after me. Further down, we met other climbers ascending, as dawn began to break. I pulled out my camera to take a few shots, which will surely become treasured mementoes later in life. I could now see the northeast ridge route that we had climbed up, and the amazing vista beyond. We down-climbed the technical steps – although I carried a figure-of-eight device for abseiling, down climbing was much faster. I was impressed by the exposure, yet terrified in equal measure. We descended past a large Russian group, many of whom fist-bumped me to congratulate me as we climbed down. As we were reaching 8,550m, Phurba pointed out a climber clad in yellow ahead at the cross-like feature where Sean had turned back. As we approached, we could see that he had partly climbed onto a rock platform, and appeared to be searching in his rucksack, which was open below him. An oxygen bottle was tucked in below him. We shouted to get his attention. I tried to shake him, but could feel his body was stiff. We realised that he was dead, and had died very recently. It was later established that he was a 41-year old Sherpa for the Russian team and had suffered a stroke. Rest in Peace Pasang Norbu Sherpa. We continued to descend in sombre mood. Before long, we could see the tents in Camp 3. I was feeling very tired, but wanted to get as low as possible – I had promised this to loved ones. As we wearily walked down towards C3 we saw Sean preparing to leave. He waited for us and congratulated us – he was still weak and he also wanted to get as far down the mountain as possible. I lay in my tent for 60 minutes, still on oxygen. I had no water left from the litre I had carried up, and my throat was parched. Phurba made me a cup of water, and I retrieved another Nalgene with half a litre of icy water. I ate only a few sweets. We had been on the move for 28 hours, but the descent was far from over. Sam arrived in Camp with his Sherpas, as I was getting ready to continue down. He had some problems with his eyesight due to the sun and wind. I advised him to stay on O2 and he committed himself to going further down. I switched to my third and final oxygen bottle to help me get down, and strapped it to the outside of my pack. I stuffed my sleeping bag and all my other gear into my rucksack and started down the fixed lines. It didn’t take long to get down to C2 from C3, but it was incredibly hot so I stripped down my down suit and tied it off so I was descending in a base layer, which helped massively. I couldn’t identify our tent at C2 to pick up a small bag of gear, so I continued working my way down the mountain. I was soon onto the seemingly never-ending steep snow slopes between C2 & C1. There were quite a few teams ascending to C2 to start summit bids so I was constantly unclipping and re-clipping the rope as I passed them. It felt incredible to be on my way down from a successful attempt as they were climbing up. I had run out of water completely now, and my gels were still frozen. I felt like I was running on vapours. Finally, I reached a small slope up to C1 at the north col. I staggered to the tent that Sam and I shared. We had stove, pans and ice to melt, but I had no way to light the stove. C1 would provide no respite. I had to get down the north col to ABC. I thought I would be lucky to get to C1 from the summit, so I was really happy to be so low, but ABC was calling. There, I would be able to sleep in relative comfort, and I could drink Coke and eat more appetising food. I lay in the tent for 45 minutes sucking oxygen and then repacked my bag – I had quite a bit of kit stored at C1 and I had to carry it down. With a heavy pack, I launched myself down the north col for the last time in my life. I walked wearily across the plateau towards crampon point, where I collapsed again before removing my crampons. The final walk to ABC seemed interminable. My feet and legs were aching, my mouth was dry, my throat hurt, but each step took me closer to ‘home. I walked into the mess tent at 5pm. The cook staff helped me remove my boots and gave me hot water to soak my feet. I drank two cans of juice and two cokes, and ate two bowls of noodle soup. I had been on the move for 33 hours with no sleep and little food or water on my way to the top of the world, but now I was down, and safe. Postscript: The following day, legs and feet aching, I walked the 20km down to basecamp. We spent two nights there, waiting for team-mates to descend, then took an epic 18-hour journey overland through Tibet, crossing the China/Nepal border and onwards to Kathmandu. Although Kathmandu sits only 100-km from the border, the roads are so bad that it took us 6 hours from the border to finally reach our hotel just before midnight. While we drove to Nepal, our three Sherpas had a rest day at ABC then had to climb back up to Camps 1 & 2 to strip the camps and collect used oxygen bottles, before dismantling both ABC and basecamp. Once this hard work was done, they travelled overland with all of the equipment over two days to reach Kathmandu. The expedition was finally over. The reality of what we achieved is only just beginning to sink in.