The 14th of May 2012, 4am, Everest base camp. We are up and ready for a gruelling 7 days on the hill, and if we are lucky enough we will get our chance to stand on top of the world.
Roger and Paul who will be waiting for the second weather window got up early to wave us off. This was great, especially as we were all feeling pretty nervous, having them there cracking jokes helped to dispel the butterflies.
We began through the icefall about 5am. There were 6 of us in our climbing team, myself, Matt and Becky, collectively known as the kids with our mean age of 21. A French lady, Valarie, an American dude, Rick and our guide Dr Rob Casserley. We move through the icefall at a good pace having travelled through it so many times before. I felt strong and completely psyched for what lay ahead. I enjoy the icefall; it is unstable and dangerous but also exciting and beautiful. We reached camp 1 in good time and sat in a tent for a while raiding leftover food supplies. Unfortunately all we could find was pate and some strange looking tuna. We then headed for camp 2, its only took about 2 and half hours but it’s a slog in the midday sun. A bit of excitement came when a massive avalanche erupted off Nuptse, and headed straight for us causing me and Becky to drop our bags and run for our lives (sprinting at over 6,000m is not easy!). Luckily it wasn’t as big as it first looked and didn’t reach us, but I did think for a moment that it was game over.
We spent an extra night at camp 2 as ropes to the summit were not being fixed as early as we had hoped. However, thank god we did stay that extra night. The night we were originally planning to spend at camp 3, a massive serac fell onto the camp destroying a lot of it. A Sherpa from Jagged Globe was badly injured, Rob rushed up to help. The Sherpa was choppered out from the Western Cwm after a massive rescue operation. Camp 3 was very empty that night so luckily no one else was hurt, and luckily our plans changed so we were not at camp 3...Is this just a game of luck...?
On May 17th we heading up to camp 3, located half way up the Lhotse face, tent platforms are cut out of the ice on this steep face. It’s an interesting place to spend the night, with amazing views all the way down the Western Cwm. We reached camp about 2pm, I was sharing a tent with Becky and we spent the rest of the day eating and drinking and listening to some tunes on her Ipod. That night we slept on oxygen for the first time and I think it did the trick as I got a good few hours sleep.
The next morning we donned the downsuits, upped the flow rate of oxygen and eagerly left camp 3 on what really was the start of our summit attempt. As we clambered out of camp 3 we saw the queue, oh dear. Our plan to leave slightly late to avoid other climbers certainly hadn’t worked. A solid line of climbers stretched from camp 3, all the way up the Lhotse face and as far as we could see to the yellow band. This was not a good start to our summit attempt, hundreds of other climbers all heading to the South Col and most to the summit that night. We jostled for space in the queue, overtook as many climbers as possible and then close to the top of the face, accepted our place in the line and moved like snails up to the yellow band. Rob got rather frustrated at one point and started shouting to the climbers on the yellow band that we weren’t here for a picnic...He had a point. Nobody seemed to have much urgency about their movement and in 6 hours time we would have to leave the South Col for the Summit, we were still 2 hours from the South Col, not cool. After the yellow band the crowds thinned out a bit and it was much easier to overtake. So we got a wiggle on over the Geneva Spur and down to the South Col. We arrived at the South Col at 4pm after 8 hours of queuing and climbing. We were leaving the South Col at 8pm for the summit. This gave us just four hours to melt snow, drink, eat and rest as much as possible. Not ideal but we cracked on, the weather the night after was bad so this was our only chance. I plugged in my ipod and attempted to psych myself up for what lay ahead. Remembering all the reasons why I was there; the months and months of trying to get sponsorship, all my family and friends and their amazing support, raising money for ActionAid and the children living in poverty that I had visited in Kathmandu, and climbing for my friend Julian who no longer has the chance to climb Everest.
I was ready. I emerge from my tent and my Sherpa Lhakpa is there waiting for me, in a lovely yellow suit, I like the fact that we are matching. He fits my oxygen while I get my crampons on. Head torches are flickering all over the South Col as climbers are getting ready; we need to be ready and away before them. Rob gives the order and we are off, marching out of camp 4 and up the initial slopes. We overtake quite a few teams and we are away right at the front, this is good! But little did I know it was going to be a massive 18 hours before I crawl back into camp 4, an exhausted mess.
In the darkness I quickly lost contact with the rest of my team, I wasn’t even sure if some of them were in front or behind me. But that was okay, I had Lhakpa, silent but reassuring Lhakpa. I could always feel him close behind me, pressing to keep moving. If I stopped to catch my breath for too long he would pick up the fixed line and give me a little whip with it. I felt slightly like a horse being whipped to run faster. But all done with good intention; communication up there is hard with oxygen masks, cold and wind- and ordinarily Lhakpa is a man of few words.
We reach the balcony; I have no idea of how long we have been climbing for. I don’t want to check my watch as I don’t want to be disappointed by the time. I am fixed on 5am, I know at 5am it is going to start getting light and I should be close to the summit, 5am. Until then we trudge on through the thick darkness, completely encompassed in my own world. Inside my massive down suit, under oxygen mask and goggles, surrounded by darkness, having my own personal struggle. I could have been anywhere, the darkness covered everything. I just kept thinking each step I am closer to sunrise and when the sun rises I will be nearly there.
I knew I was going slowly, I knew I felt weak. I could see a group up ahead, maybe some of my team? But I just couldn’t catch them up no matter how hard I tried. I look behind me and there is a snaking line of head torches as far as I can see. Shit, I am leading about 100 climbers up here. I really don’t want to be behind them but I hope I am not slowing anyone down. Up ahead I see the line of climbers has stopped. We have come to a rocky section that needs to be jumared. The group in front of me (not my team they are long gone) are making a mare of it. There seem to be about 6 clients and a couple of guides trying to teach them how to jumar- seriously guys couldn’t you have practised before Everest summit day!? The snaking line of head torches catch up behind me, we wait. I don’t know how long we waited for this team to struggle over this section; I still wasn’t checking my watch, maybe 30, 40 minutes. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the people below me at the back of the snake, but I was now very glad to be leading the snake. Lhakpa and I quickly jumar this section, the speed of two people compared to a team greatly increases our efficiency.
We plod on, I feel like we are now making progress and we have gained a lot of height. Is it time to check the watch? I play a game with myself to guess the time....maybe 12 or 1am at the latest....I uncover my bright blue Casio from layer of down suit and gloves ; 3:45am! This means just over an hour before it begins to get light and then we will be almost there! This is amazing, I might actually summit Everest! Spurred on I try to push my body to move a little faster. I get about 10meters then stop to suck air from my oxygen mask, it seems today at over 8,500m I am going at one speed, a very slow plod. No matter that my head wants to go faster, my body is not capable.
At about 5:30am the route up in front of me is dark, but I stop and turn around, wow! The most amazing sunrise I think I will ever see in my whole life. A straight line of orange spreads across the whole horizon, illuminating the Himalayas.... Wow, just Wow.... We press on but I keep stopping to sneak a look behind me, seriously Wow. Up ahead I see a peak, is this the summit? I get excited, but then realise we haven’t reached the South summit or even climbed the Hilary Step yet, how could this be the summit? Focus Mollie, hypoxia playing tricks on me. This must be the south summit, and it’s beautiful, seriously beautiful. We climb up, winds pick up when we reach the top, and I’m on the South Summit of Mount Everest! The sun has got a little higher and the view a million times better. To the right of me Tibet sprawls out below and to the left the whole of Nepal. Mountains spread as far as I can see, for miles upon miles, and I am higher than them all. Then I see the shadow, I had seen a picture of this on the internet, but it still took me by surprise. The shadow of Mount Everest as a perfect pyramid. It practically took my breath way, and I didn’t have much breath to be taken away.
We descend slightly from the South Summit onto the infamous ridge which leads to the Hilary step. This ridge is about 1 meter wide, to the right is your chance to fall 2,000m into Tibet and to the left your chance to fall 2,000m back down to camp 2 and ruin someone’s breakfast. Neither was an option. Ignore the exhaustion and focus on each step. I felt in control, that was important and hopefully not just the masking effect of hypoxia. We reach the Hilary step. I see a group of people descending the last section, one is wearing a horrific lime green suit, there’s only one person I have seen on the mountain in this suit, it’s Becky! They made it! Becky closely followed by Rick and Valarie woop! I haven’t seen them for over 10 hours, I am so glad they have summited. We exchange a few words, I have no idea what I said maybe congratulations, maybe god this is hard work...And then they are gone, back to the South Summit and back to safety, just me and Lhakpa again. But that’s okay I am spurred on by our meeting and need to get to the top. We quite quickly get over the Hilary step and very near the top bump into Matt, Rob and their Sherpas. They seem okay, especially Rob he is talking a lot but I am not really digesting what he is saying. Later Matt told me he said it was okay if I want to turn around, wow I hadn’t even registered this, I must have looked a mess. We were less than 1 hour from the summit and that was the only place I was heading. From the top of the Hilary step it took 30-40 minutes to the top, and it hurt. False summits, thinking I’m almost there, then seeing it 50 meters ahead, 50 long long meters.
Lhakpa and I reached the summit of Mount Everest at 8am on the 19th May, 12 hours after leaving the South Col. I sit down and drink. I don’t know what I expected; but there’s no fanfare, no fireworks, no feeling of overwhelming achievement. Just relief, relief and exhaustion. Relief that I don’t have to climb up anymore, relief that in a few hours time I will be back at the South Col and relief that I don’t have to deal with the disappointment of not summiting. We take some pretty unimaginative photos with my sponsor’s banners, I am still sitting down, trying to force a smile but my face is literally frozen in place. For one last picture I stand up and spread my arms wide, I’m on top of the world! And suddenly some feelings of joy seep in. I need to remember this, the amount of effort it’s taken to get here, enjoy it Mollie, try and enjoy it.
Its freezing cold and its windy, we pack up and head down after less than 10 minutes on the summit. Okay time to focus; the descent is where people die, and I am not going to die. We reach the Hilary step, descend the first little section and then are stopped by people coming up. Lhakpa and I wedge ourselves into a corner. I feel secure, but the other side of the rock I am leaning on there is a 2,000m drop hmmmm. Here we wait, so many people are coming up this section. There are two ropes but they’re twisted into each other, so people start to come up one rope and then switch to the other half way, there’s no rope to descend. The people keep coming, 30, 40 minutes we wait, wedged into our rock corner. I urge Lhakpa to be forceful, we need to get down, we are on oxygen so this is a time game. Unfortunately Lhakpa is a gentleman and not the most forceful. After 45 minutes I have had enough, I shout to the climbers coming up that we are moving down. They just look at me and keep climbing. No seriously guys we are coming down. I push Lhakpa into action and we carefully descend this section, people see we are on the move and stop coming up but we still have to unclip around people. Unclipping from the safety line with a 2,000m drop behind you is not cool.
We get about 5 meters down, to the top of the main section of the step and are stopped again. I see a line of climbers backed up onto the ridge, all queuing for their turn on the crux of the step and we are going in the opposite direction, damn. We secure ourselves on the fix line and get as close to the rock as we can, here we wait. There are a couple of climbers in front of us also trying to get down, I hope they are pushy, but they’re not. Climbers come up over the step, unclip around us and clip on the other side while we hold them to stop them from slipping. This is not fun. Many of them look scared. One woman reluctantly unclips around me, I hold onto her arm, she clips back in the other side, when she looks me in the eye I can feel her fear, she’s petrified. I am glad we are not summiting this late.
After an hour of this waiting, not moving, I’m starting to feel pretty ill. I have barely drunk all the way up, almost 14hours. I need to drink and eat and get off the bloody Hilary Step, this is all I could think about. Then I start to feel really ill, my head feels light, I know something’s wrong. ‘Lhakpa, you need to help me’ I whisper, he looks at me but it doesn’t register. ‘Lhakpa, I think my oxygen has run out, you need to help me’ He checks the gauge on my regulator, I see panic flick across his face, shit it really has run out. Then we are off, he doesn’t think twice but leads me down the step stopping other climbers from coming up. I don’t really remember getting down this section but I think I slid on my bum. He leads me by my safety line, clipping me round other climbers, I feel completely helpless but I have faith in Lhakpa, he is strong. We get off the step and he sits me in a tight corner, I’m not really aware of what’s going on around me, just focused on Lhakpa, he will help me. He quickly pulls another oxygen canister out of his bag and changes mine, turning the flow rate up high. I suck on my oxygen mask and within a matter of seconds I feel okay again. That was close. But I guess we got off the Hilary step. We carry on for a few minutes until we get to a safe area where people are resting. We stop and drink, I am so thirsty, I thank Lhakpa, what would I have done without him.
After our rest I am feeling good, we quickly get back across the ridge and over the South Summit. We arm wrap and abseil pitches that had taken us hours to ascend that morning. We reach the balcony and I start to enjoy myself. The fact I had just summited Mount Everest begins to sink in. We stop to drink at the balcony and I just look around me trying to absorb this place, it’s totally beautiful.
I stumble back into the South Col about 4 pm, we had been climbing for 18 hours and I was drained. I unzip my tent and there’s Matt and Rick smiling up at me, it’s so good to see them and so good to be back. I get in and they give me water and food. We are still on oxygen but after a few minutes I can’t breathe, I feel like I’m sucking air through a straw, having some kind of asthma attack, even though I have never had asthma. The boys look at me bewildered and shout for Rob, I just get up and run to Rob’s tent. He quickly calms me down, gives me an inhaler and an injection of Dexamethasone (a steroid used to treat AMS) as well as lots to drink. I spend the rest of the night in his tent squashed in with him, Becky and Valarie, too scared to be away from his medical expertise. He diagnoses me with Tracheitis, inflammation of the trachea. I remember when Rob first arrived at basecamp he told us the story of one of his clients a few years before, who had trachitis and coughed up her trachea lining at camp two and almost died in the process. Great, now I’m scared. We spent a pretty hideous night at the South Col, Becky had frostbite in 9 of her toes and was in a lot of pain, I was constantly coughing and struggling to breath and four of us were squashed into a 3 man tent just below 8,000m....not the comfiest night ever!
The next morning the South Col is cold, really cold. The wind had picked up over night and was now sweeping through camp. But feeling slightly more alive I move back to my tent to see Matt and Rick, they look exhausted. All this time up high was starting to take its toll, we need to descend and get back to the oxygen rich base camp. We pack up and begin to move out of the South Col. The rest of my team shoot off, I try to keep up but after a few meters stop and feel like I am coughing my lungs up. My trachea is so inflamed that I can barely breathe; I have to stop every few steps to catch my breath. Rob stays with me; he stays with me for the whole day and our long, long descent. He reassures me and attempts to make me laugh, he’s a star. We reach camp 3 and take off our downsuits, the sun is now up and we are boiling. I then proceed to cough up my trachea lining or at least part of it. Then we carry on to camp 2, quickly arm wrapping the Lhotse face.
When we reach camp two the rest of our team has carried on to BC. We are slow, well I am slow, Rob is my wingman. But at camp two is the B team on their summit bid, hoping to reach the top a few days later. There’s Roger, Paul, Ryan, Kenton and Keith. It’s great to see their fresh faces but you can tell their nervous and probably not reassured by the state I had just crawled into camp two in! It’s getting late so we quickly eat and drink and then head down accompanied by Lhakpa and another Sherpa. Leaving camp two at 4 pm, I had only ever travelled through the icefall first thing in the morning; this will be a different experience. We get to camp 1 and I say goodbye to the Western Cwm, my favourite place on Everest. I’m slow every step hurts, my body is in a state of exhaustion and my trachea is on fire. But my mind is so focused on base camp, there we are safe and there we can rest. We press on through the icefall, its mushy after the suns heat during the day, it feels quite unstable. Its dusk and it will be dark soon. We don’t bump into anyone. Having the icefall to ourselves in the fading light was quite a special experience, especially after the queues the day before; I could even appreciate this through my exhaustion. It gets dark and we put on our head torches, Lhakpa leads us through the ice maze and to the safety of base camp. I couldn’t be any more indebted to this man.
Again, just relief and exhaustion. We clamber up to our camp, in the mess tent everyone is waiting for us. Our climbing team plus Bonita, Henry, Bob and Victor Saunders’s son Hugo. It’s so good to see them; it’s so good to be back. Now here is that feeling of joy and achievement that I missed on the summit. Up there I was still only half way, back down here we had done it and we were safe. I was a complete mess, but I had summited Everest and made it back down to base camp, it felt truly amazing.
I am now back home in Devon and have had a whirlwind week of celebrating, trying to recover and attempting to comprehend the last two months in Nepal. A massive thank you to my sponsors, The Mark Evison foundation and Fielding Financial Family for all your support. And thank you to my family and friends for all your incredible support and sorry to make you worry! And finally a massive thank you to my team, the Kids, Rob, our amazing Sherpa team and everyone from our basecamp who made this a seriously amazing experience.