The Summit Night – 15th & 16th May 2017
We arrived at camp three, our final stopping point, at around 4pm on the 15th May. It had been an unrelenting, long and hot climb up from camp two. Camp three is located at 8,300m above sea level, 300m into the death zone, it is higher than every mountain in the world, but five. At this extreme altitude our bodies are rapidly deteriorating, there is such little available oxygen up there that life cannot survive for long. For these reasons, it was important to understand that camp three wasn’t really a camp, it wasn’t the place to sleep or hang around for too long. We would use it as a rest spot, to spend just enough time here to re-fuel, re-hydrate and psych ourselves up for what lay ahead. Therefore leaving camp two that morning, I knew, this was the real start of our summit attempt, we would be on the go for the next 30 or more hours.
Camp three on the north side of Mount Everest sits just below the north-east ridge of the mountain, this impressive ridge line paves the way to the summit. If it wasn’t for the extreme high altitude, camp three would be a quite a nice place to stay. The views are simply phenomenal, looking out of our tent you could see out over the whole of the Himalayas, mountains sprawled out below you, as far as your eyes can see. Looking upwards you can see the Yellow Band, a golden coloured rock band that encircles the whole of the summit pyramid of the mountain. One of my favourite Everest facts is that in the yellow band and the rocks which make up the summit pyramid actually contain fossils of 400-million year old sea creatures. Once, these rocks lay at the bottom of tropical seas, but now they tower above the world, over 8,000m above sea level. I smiled to my-self as I thought about this incomprehensible fact while looking out over the yellow band. My eyes then traced the route I would be taking in just a few hours time, up and along the north-east ridge, over the 1st, 2nd and 3rd step and onto the highest point on earth. From camp three it looked so close, I felt as if I could almost touch it, less than 600 meters above us. Could this be achievable? I had already come so far and given so much of myself, could I keep going and push on this final section?
Hunkered down in our tent at camp three, Jon and I began the never ending process of melting snow and ice for drinking water. Over the next few hours we needed to melt as much snow as possible to re-hydrate ourselves and to cook food with, this was our one chance to refuel and set ourselves up for the climb ahead. Jon warmed up the batteries of our sat phone inside his down suit, the battery life of all of our electronics was getting zapped by the cold temperatures and this was our most important piece. After a few minutes warming, Jon popped the batteries into the phone and pressed the ON button. After a small delay, the screen lit up, phewww, we had charge. Jon rang his Dad, Robin. Since we had left ABC we had, had no internet connection. Jon would therefore ring Robin every afternoon to access our weather reports. The report Robin read out to us at camp three hadn’t got any worse than the day before, this was good news. However we were well aware that we only had a small, tight weather window to make our summit attempt. The night ahead was forecast to be okay, not too much wind during the night, it would be cold, but we could deal with that. The issue was the next day, the 16th May. From our forecast, the wind was predicted to begin increasing from 9am and by the afternoon of the 16th of May the wind would be dangerously strong.
We discussed our options with Lila and Lhakpa, do we take what would undoubtedly be the safest option and descend back to camp two now and then back to ABC the following day, giving up our summit attempt? Or do we leave for the summit in a few hours but be prepared to turn around at any point if the weather begins to change? Unanimously, we all chose option two. Everyone agreed that they felt strong and completely psyched for what lay ahead. Comparing how I felt at this final camp on the North side at 8,300m to the South Side at 7,900m in 2012, I felt like a different person. In 2012, I was about to take my first steps into the Death Zone, I had no idea how my body was going to react up there, no idea if I would make it to the summit or even make it back down again, I was scared. Sitting at camp three on the North side, I was five years older, I had five years more mountaineering experience and I had five years more confidence, I believed I could make it, but of course, I was still scared. To make the most of our small weather window, we needed to leave camp early, by the latest 8:30pm and we needed to move fast up to the summit and back down again, especially back down again. This gave us just five hours at camp three to rest and sort our kit for the summit attempt.
We once again donned our massive high altitude suits, mountaineering boots, crampons and oxygen masks, completely encompassed in our own little worlds. This kit was our only defence against everything the mountain might throw at us that night. We began out of camp three and up the initial slopes. Jon lead the way followed by Lhakpa, then me, then Lila. The first few minutes of any climb or hike are always hard. I felt sick from the nerves while leaving camp three, this was it, this is what it all came down to. The three years of sponsorship hunting, the year of physical training and the six weeks I had already spent on the mountain, didn’t matter anymore. That was the past and I was in the present, the very real present of this dark, dark night high up above 8,000m and heading for the top of the world. After a few minute I fell into a rhythm, two small steps, catch my breath, push my jumar up the rope, two small steps. Lhakpa would wait for me at each anchor point, his presence was so reassuring, he has been with me on all of my big Himalayan climbs, quietly by my side, there was no one else I would rather be up there with.
It was pitch black, our head torches illuminated the small patch of ground in front of us, but there was nothing to give you perspective, no way to know what was coming next. This was until I caught sight of lights flicking high up above us, a small team of climbers had gained the ridge a few hundred meters above. In 2012, I had climbed to the summit on the south side with at least 150 other people, it was busy, really busy. But this night high up on the North side of Everest, the only people I could see were this small team up ahead and a few lights beginning to leave camp three down below us. It felt isolated and remote. The four of us would be relying completely on each other, there was no one else to help, no helicopter evacuation, no support team, it was just us. I knew these boys were so much stronger than me, I knew they were more adapted to this environment, but I had to step up, I had to prove myself, I wanted my team to know they could rely on me as much as I was relying on them.
Not long after leaving camp we reached a steep rock section, the exit cracks up to the north-east ridge. This was our first taste of what lay ahead, pulling ourselves up the fixed ropes, my crampons scratched against the rock as I attempted to get secure foot placements. After a few minutes of exhausting pulling and clambering we gained the ridge, the ridge that would lead us all the way to the summit. Through the darkness I could feel a huge drop on my left hand side, I flicked my head torch to the left and wished I hadn’t. The ridge falls away into thin air, straight down into what looked like a never ending infinity. We began along the ridge climbing over some small rock sections, traversing across the face below, carefully stepping on sections just big enough to secure a few crampon points, I had to concentrate the whole time, there was no let up from the danger. One wrong move, one slip, I could fall down the never ending north face to my right. Yes I was attached to the fixed ropes, but I didn’t trust them and I definitely didn’t want to pull the rest of my team down with me.
I could feel we were making progress, slow progress, but we were moving. We barely stopped to rest or talk, we just kept moving up and up and up. Jon would go on ahead and assess the next section of the route, closely followed by Lhakpa, Lila and I. Each time we caught up with Jon, he would shove a water bottle or an sugar energy block at me, which I would squeeze around my oxygen mask and into my mouth.
After sometime we reached mushroom rocks. A significant feature on the route to the summit on the North side of mount Everest. There was no doubting when you were in the right place, these other worldly rock formations lined a small section on the ridge. Top-heavy, these rocks had been so eroded by the wind that they now had a thin base but were balancing a huge boulder on top. They looked totally unstable, like you could push them over with one touch. But how could they be? Located at 8,500m above sea level on this exposed ridge, these rocks had seen it all, the worst weather systems the mountain can conjure up, and for so many years. During George Mallory’s and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 expedition they used mushroom rocks for their final camp 6, before their fateful summit attempt. Nowadays, we use mushroom rocks as the location to change our oxygen cylinders and stash heavy canisters for the descent. After this brief respite, we began moving again and soon arrived at the base of the 1st step.
The route to the summit of Mount Everest is significantly more technical on the North side of the mountain than it is on the South side. On the South side summit day, the major crux of the route is the Hilary Step, no doubt, dangerous and tricky, as I so clearly experienced on the descent in 2012. But on the North side of the mountain there are three rock steps, aptly named the 1st, 2nd and 3rd step. Ranging between 20 and 40 meters in height, these steps are formidable obstacles when climbing at such extreme altitude.
By the time I reached the base of the 1st step, Jon was already half way up it. It looked steep, but achievable. I knew I had climbed sections so much harder than this in the UK, but there I had two thirds more available oxygen. I began up the ropes, positioning my feet on the rocks and pulling myself up. Within a few seconds, my arms started to burn, I would stop and shake them, trying to push my oxygenated blood into them more quickly. Eventually I reached the top of the 1st step where Jon and Lhakpa were waiting for me. I caught my breath as quickly as we could and we were off again, this is no place to stop for too long.
Between the first and second step, it was narrow, single file terrain. In the pitch black, it felt like there was no room for error. But our little team pushed on, we still had the biggest obstacle to come, and soon. The infamous 2nd step. The part of the climb I was dreading the most. Before the expedition I had tried not to look at too many photos or videos of the 2nd step. I knew when it was there in front of me, I would just have to deal with it, but I didn’t want to work myself up over it. I have a fear of heights. I know it sounds ridiculous, especially given my chosen sport but I can be pretty terrified at times. Especially when I am not in control, flying, looking out the window of a high rise building or even driving over the Forth road bridge, I feel nervous. I think one of the reasons I climb is to attempt to get over this fear, I hate having it as a weakness. I have got better, learnt to control it, I don’t usually let it hold me back from what I want to achieve. But the 2nd step was imposing to say the least. A 40m rock section, with a near vertical finish and endless drops down the North face of Everest. The 2nd step starts with two small wobbly ladders up to a tight platform. Crampons on ladders is a horrible thing, the noise, the scrapping and the unsteadiness. Needless to say the dexterity of your feet is significantly reduced as they are inside huge double layered boots. After the first two ladders I held on as tight as possible to the ropes as I edged my way around an awkward corner, then in front of me was the obstacle I had been dreading the most. The near vertical wall and a huge long ladder tethered to it.
I got to the bottom of the ladder and looked up, I shouldn’t have done that. I needed to take this one small step at a time and keep my eyes focused forward. Lhakpa had already topped out of this section, but Lila was slowly coming up behind me. I clipped into the safety rope, unsure how it would secure me if I fell. I took the first couple of steps, carefully placing my feet on the ladder rungs, I gripped the ladder with my hands as tight as I could. My huge high altitude gloves began to feel more like oven gloves, I held on the best I could. Each step, each small movement was calculated, I felt my heart thumping in my chest, but I was barely breathing. Don’t look up, don’t look down, just keep moving. Eventually my hands came to the last rung and I saw Lhakpa eagerly peering over the edge to see where I was, that must have been the slowest anyone has ever climbed a 10 metre ladder! But I was at the top! And trying not to think about how it would be on the way down. Lila shot up the ladder behind me and we all carried on. I knew the 2nd step was about 8,580m in altitude, lets say 8,600m, maths at that height is hard work. There must only be another 250ish meters in height left to gain. We were over half way from camp three to the summit, but I couldn’t focus on this, I had to think about what was around the next corner, the next step. Everything was so present. I had no thoughts of home or the people I loved, no thoughts of success or failure, just complete focus on the climb and each movement I took.
Between the 2nd and 3rd step, it felt like the intensity of the climb was starting to let up. In the dark I still couldn’t see the edges of the ridge, but could feel around me that it had widened. We could begin to move slightly faster and get back into the rhythm, one step, move jumar, catch breath, one step. Soon we came to the 3rd step. Another rock section, 20 meters or so high. Before this expedition, I had read a blog from another Everest mountaineer who stated that he had hardly noticed the 3rd step when he climbed it. As I was pulling my heavy, exhausted body up the third step I was cursing this man in my head and at the same time wishing I had bigger biceps.
Standing on top of the 3rd step, I looked around me, I had been so focused on the climb that I hadn’t noticed it was starting to get light. It wasn’t yet sunrise, but those first few moments of dawn where darkness begins to evaporate around you and your vision starts to clear. Up ahead, I could make out the summit, it still looked so far. I still wasn’t convinced I would make it. Between us and our objective was a large, steep snowfield. Exhaustion was beginning to paw at my body, each small step took everything I had, and then again, so did the next step.
In the dull early morning light, I didn’t notice him, until I was standing right by him. I stopped still, my body felt cold and my mind was racing. A man, was just a few feet from where I had stopped, lying on his front with his head facing down the slope towards me, arms sprawled out in front of him as if he had fallen, and his hands, I couldn’t stop looking at his hands. At some point during this mans last few hours he had lost his gloves, his perfectly frozen hands were reaching towards me, now as pale as the snow they rested on.
I must have stopped for less than a second and looked at this man for the shortest moment, but I took it all in. I had an overwhelming feeling to run, to get away from the dead, as quickly as I could. In my hypoxic mind, I didn’t see this man as a human, I didn’t see this as a man’s body, I didn’t think of the last time blood flowed through those pale hands or the last time they touched the person he loved. All that my mind could conjure up was that this was something evil, something bad. He was dressed just like we were, a big down suit and high altitude boots, he looked just like Jon, Lhakpa, Lila, and he looked like me. I had to get away from him as quickly as I could. And I did, I pushed on and I didn’t look back.
Since this morning, I have tried to work out the reason why I reacted like this, why no thoughts of him even as another human being entered my mind. When I was faced with this, I blocked out every possible emotion that would inhibit my climb. I had unconsciously suppressed the reaction I would have had if faced with this in normal life, on a normal day. But high on the slopes of Mount Everest this was far from a normal day. My mind had, without my control, acted exactly how I would have wanted it to. Blocking out these emotions is what I had to do to keep going, to keep moving and the keep myself alive.
As we reached the bottom of the steep snow field I saw Jon had stopped and was talking to someone. I reached the pair and realised that this was our friend Sean, the leader of the other British team on the mountain. We had last seen them as they passed our tents leaving camp three the night before, they must have left an hour or more before us. After waving goodbye and wishing them good luck I hadn’t thought of them again all night. I quickly learnt from Sean that his whole team had summited earlier in the dark and they were all following him down. Looking up the slope above I could see figures spread out along it, all descending towards us. As we passed Sean’s team on the way up I had a quick chat with each of them. It was great to see their familiar faces up there, a touch of reality, it was a reminder that the present situation we were in wouldn’t last for ever. Even if one member of the team told me it was just another half an hour to the top and another member told me it was over an hour…
The snow on this slope was fresh and soft. With each two steps you took upwards, you would slip back one. It was exhausting work, my body screamed at me for more oxygen, to stop and rest. But with each slippery step, we were edging closer to the summit and that was the only place I was heading. At the top of the snow slope we traversed to the right around the back of the final summit pyramid. As I rounded a corner, I see Jon throw his hands in the air, he shouts down to me, ‘I can see it, I can see the summit!’. It wasn’t until that moment that I knew I was going to make it. Before then I didn’t let the thought of success or failure even enter my mind, but now I was sure, we were going to summit.
Soon I found myself on the final summit ridge, I could see the huge orange sun rising on my left hand side, I could see a blanket of cloud covering the world thousands of meters down below us, only the highest mountains peeked out of it. I could see the summit, the top of the world and I was returning for the second time. For the whole of our summit push, I had been numb to most emotions, but within a few metres of the summit, they began to trickle in. I had wanted this for so long, I had worked so hard to get here, I had given it everything and I was going to summit.
As I stepped up to join Jon and Lhakpa on the summit, Jon engulfed me in a big down suit hug, we had done it. We had reached the top. As I looked down the route on the Southside of the mountain, I remembered the two months I had spent there in 2012 and how I felt reaching the summit for the first time with Lhakpa. In 2012, I am not sure I enjoyed being on the summit. I have no recollection of feelings of joy or achievement. All I felt was overwhelming exhaustion and fear of the route down. But this time things felt different. I felt different. I looked around me and soaked it all in. I was standing on the summit of Mount Everest, watching the sun bringing in a new day with the best possible team I could have hoped for. It was an honour to share Lhakpa’s 11th summit, Lila’s 6th summit and Jon’s 2nd summit on the 16th May 2017 at 4:45am.