Chapter 11

Knocking on heaven’s door

I squatted on my haunches, peering at Trevor through the lens of my video camera. By the time his chest stopped heaving and his legs starting moving again, my arms were cramping with the effort of holding the camera steady. It was 20 May and we were on our way to camp 1. I was feeling strong and motivated, ready to grasp this mountain by the horns and show it who was in charge. This is a silly feeling to have on something as big as Everest, but I was buoyed up by the ease with which I was climbing. I was now well acclimatised and my body moved easily, my muscles working in a fluid rhythm. Even with filming on the way, I had constantly been waiting for Ian and Trevor to catch up with me. 

Both Ian and Trevor were frustrating to film. So often the legs moving were just a brief aberration. Two or three steps later the man of the moment would be bent over a knee, gasping again.  Everything happened in such slow motion that it was agonising to watch. Ian I was not concerned about. He was battling the mandatory chest infection and I had long since learnt that until such time as he was lying comatose at my feet, I could assume he would make the next camp. Trevor worried me more. He simply did not have the pace to cover the distance up to the summit. This was the first day of what should be a five day push, taking us from ABC to the summit and back. I wondered if he would still be with us in a few days time. We only had about 10 days left in the season. We needed to move.

I filmed as Ian and Trevor collapsed wearily into the tent and began the job of squeezing the possessions of three people into a rather small tent. The filming may be part of the expedition plan but there comes a point when it looks suspiciously as though you are waving a camera around to get out of the hard work of pitching tents, sorting kit, chopping ice and cooking meals. And they might just be right. I decided, for the sake of the greater good, to put the camera away for a while.

‘I’m buggered,’ announced Trevor, and buried his face in a cup of hot coffee made by Ian. The tent was not a pleasant place to be. Six sweat-soaked socks were steaming up the inside of the tent rapidly. The cold might reduce the smell but it could not kill it completely. We were all perched awkwardly on top of sleeping bags and clothing. Each of us was feeling that the other two were taking up an inordinate amount of space. It was the beginning of what was to be an unpleasant night. By 7 p.m. there was no more to eat, no more to say. We settled down into our sleeping bags. On one side I was pressed against the wall of the tent. On the other were various bony bits of Ian, knees, elbows and suchlike. Under and around me were an assortment of clothing and equipment. My inner boots were stuffed into the bottom of my sleeping bag, along with inner layers of clothing, suntan lotion, water bottles, video batteries. Outer boots, crampons, rucksack, Goretex clothing, down clothing, were all fighting for space around me. I seemed to be the overall loser in the affair. None of this helped with the insomnia that came with sleeping at 7,000 metres. Hour after hour I lay awake, staring into the darkness of my eyelids, staring into the darkness of the tent ceiling. Anticipating this turn of events, I had brought my walkman and two tapes. By midnight I knew every hiss, every scratch on the two tapes. Silence was better. 

But the silence was filled with Ian’s snores, Trevor’s groans and gasps. There is nothing more galling than lying wide awake, listening to your tent companions apparently enjoying a solid eight hours. The temptation to shake them awake was very strong, but I figured the risks were too high. I suffered on alone. My digital watch had survived the expedition of 1996 and was with me once again. The lurid green light was once more the only indicator of the passing of time. Ten minutes would pass, maybe fifteen if I was very disciplined about not looking at the watch. Exhaustion, anticipation, nervousness, all made an unpalatable mix. This was the worst of the worst of high-altitude climbing.

By some perverse trick of fate, I fell asleep as it began to get light. By the time the sun was on the tent, I was warm, comfortable, dozing happily. I had spent all night wishing day would come so I could get up. Now day was here and all I wanted to do was stay in my sleeping bag. The three of us formed a grumpy crew as we wriggled out of our warm pits and began to dress and pack. 

The sky was crystal clear, the sun blazed down on the snow. It was a winter wonderland. Standing by the side of the tents, it looked like a perfect day for climbing. The only hesitation was the high wail of wind in the distance.

‘Well, Trevor?’ Ian asked.

He looked uncertain, drained by the previous day’s exertions and a night of little sleep. The white ridge that undulated up towards camp 2 looked deceptively straightforward. We had been warned that it was radically foreshortened and was both longer and steeper than it looked. 

‘I’ll climb up for a few hours and see how I go,’ he said cautiously. 

We nodded agreement, shouldered our rucksacks and set off across the camp site towards the ridge. The idyllic morning ended about 50 metres further on.

As soon as we emerged from behind the snow ridge that sheltered camp 1 from the west wind, we were hit by a gale. I pulled the hood of my Goretex jacket tight round my face, put my head down and soldiered on. The wind howled around me, swirling about my head, creeping down the neck of my jacket, rubbing icy fingers across my face. Before long my cheeks and the tip of my nose were numb, the rest of my face suffused with a cold burn. I pulled out a neoprene face mask with a fleece neck cover attached. This made all the difference, protecting my face, blocking entrance to my jacket. The mask gradually became damp and gungy from the moisture of my breath, but it was worth it. 

I was climbing at right-angles to the path of the wind. My left side climbed in a pool of calm, my right was relentlessly buffeted. The wind gusted, never allowing me to set my balance. One minute I would be leaning into it, supported by its sheer force. Then it would die, just for an instant, and I would be stumbling sideways, out of control. Eventually I turned my back to it and climbed up the mountain slope crab-style, crossing one boot over the other. 

It was impossible to communicate with anyone more than a few steps away from you. The wind ripped the words straight out of the depths of your throat. I could see Ian shuffling up the slope below me. His head was bent right down, and he looked like a little red gnome. But he was moving upwards.

Far below him I could see the tiny figure of Trevor – going down. The wind had torn away the last of his determination. He did not have the energy left for the several days and nights that still had to follow. Over the next few days he made his way back down the mountain, to keep Jan company in the lonely base camp vigil.

Far above me the slope stretched on. In the end I found it consisted of four great rises of snow, followed by four easier sections. The rises hide camp 2 from view. The snow stretched endlessly on upwards. Each rise was steeper than the last, and longer. I could not look out to the west because of the wind. The view to the east was hidden by edge of the ridge. The only marker of time became the receding view of camp 1. 

What had been a substantial platform of snow, home to a dozen expeditions, slowly dwindled into a tiny ledge, perched precariously on top of great cliffs dropping down to the east and central Rongbuk glaciers. The tents were reduced to little dots of black, sprinkled on the snow like mouse droppings. Tiny black points moved on the snow slopes below the tents. Looked down on like that, it seemed a ludicrous place to camp. 

The last of the rises was interminable. I knew I was near the top because I could now see ABC. The east Rongbuk glacier swept up into the valley below us, with the narrow sidewalk of moraine running up the one side. A vague indication of colour was the only visible sign of the tent town that made up ABC. 

In the long days at ABC I had watched tiny figures approach camp 2. They had only become visible on the final section just below the tents. They had always seemed to move ludicrously slowly. Now I understood why. I was stopping every 10 steps, puffing into my face mask, trying for once to fill my lungs with air. The air just wasn’t there. 

The tents slowly came into view. There were six tents, scattered at the topmost point of the snow ridge. Above them the terrain turned to rock. Ours was a very small russet tent, set off to the left. To pitch the tents a ledge had to be cut into the snow. There was no flat ground. I shuffled up the last slope and collapsed at the tent door. With much huffing and flailing I got myself, and my rucksack, into the bell of the tent. For the first time in six hours I was protected from the force of the wind. At last I could look out to the west, the view that had been hidden from me for so long by the wall of the north col, and all this day by the wind.

That view justified every minute of exertion. Laid out below me was a 200 degree view of the Himalaya. I was high enough to look down on much of it, but not so high that I lost all sense of scale. On the far left lay Pumori and the edges of the valley that held the south-side base camp. Due west was a great highway of glacier, leading towards Cho Oyu, sixth highest mountain in the world. Another giant, Shishapangma, was visible on the far horizon. Below me was the bowl of the central Rongbuk glacier, with the north face of Everest dropping steeply down into it. The north ridge ran down from me, tapering down to a now tiny camp 1, before soaring upwards again towards the summit of Changste. Right of that lay the range of smaller mountains that formed the view east of ABC. Now I was looking down on all of them. The tents of camp 2 provided a brave burst of colour in this world of blue, white and brown. 

Once again I was on a mountain high, emotionally and physically. We were at 7,600 metres. We were some 40 hours from reaching our goal, standing once more on the summit of Everest. We were in the most glorious place. I felt as if I was standing in the middle of somebody’s expedition book. During my first expedition, to the Ruwenzori in central Africa in 1990, I remember looking at myself reflected in my partner’s glasses, standing on a glacier, dressed in all my mountain kit. 

‘I look just like a real mountaineer’, I thought. ‘I look just like a picture out of a book’. This camp, with its views of the great glaciers, of the dozens of snow-peaked mountains, was straight out of a mountain story. 

Through the last of the afternoon I sat by the tent entrance, melting ice and brewing drinks. To Ian’s annoyance I kept opening the outer door to peer out at the setting sun. Each opening brought a flurry of spindrift and a wave of cold air, but it was worth it. A rising tide of cloud had washed in among the massive peaks. The sun was sinking slowly into it, a ball of deep orange turning the surrounding cloud hazy gold. As the sun slipped down into the cloud sea, it changed colour to brilliant pink, set over shadowed purple, shot through with the last golden rays. Slowly darkness began to take over. Now the clouds were turning to sombre blue, glimpses of soft pink still visible in the far distance. It became too cold even to peer out of the tent door. The last colour was left to fade away without an audience.

With the high-altitude team now down to two members we had oxygen to spare. I spent a night in solid and happy slumber, aided by a gentle trickle of oxygen-enriched air. The excitement was mounting.

But then again the mountain has no interest in the plans laid by the fleas that scuttle up her skirts. She measures time in geological ages, not in years. The change from one day to another means nothing on such a scale. Yet to us it meant everything. We woke before dawn to howling wind. The guy ropes were strumming, the tent skin pushed taut. We were a tiny boat in a sea of moving air, our prow pointed straight into the wind. I peered out of the tent door and got eyes full of spindrift for my trouble. The wind was considerably stronger than the previous day. The climbing ahead of us would be higher, harder, longer, more exposed than the previous day. It was an unhappy combination. 

At 6 a.m. Ian called down to the Sherpas, who were sleeping at camp 1. Sheltered from the wind themselves, they were keen to climb. We were unsure. Ian said he would call them again at 8 a.m. We lay in our sleeping bags and watched the yellow fabric ceiling surging under the pressure of the wind. A full day of climbing might well be feasible, but what would conditions be like up on the summit ridge? We didn’t want to be stuck waiting at 8,300 metres, our top camp. 

Two Uzbek climbers were camped a few metres below us. Shortly after dawn I had watched them set off round the corner and up onto the rock ridge. Shortly before our second radio call they came stumbling back down and dived back into their tent. That decided the issue.

‘We will wait here,’ Ian said to Pemba.

There was an unconvinced mumble over the radio. The Sherpas were beginning to wonder how seriously we were actually taking this.

‘No Pemba, don’t worry. We are not coming down. We stay here until the wind dies and then we go on up’

With that out of the way, we settled in to wait out the next 24 hours. We were trapped in a tent smaller than a double bed. There was little room to manoeuvre, nothing to do. We dozed, made cups of tea, talked about nothing in particular. By mid morning the wind seemed to have lessened. I began to wonder if we had made the wrong decision. 

Ian huddled in a corner as I dressed in my full down-cum-Goretex suit, and pulled on my boots and harness. Taking the cameras, I ventured outside.  The wind was persistent, steady, but not unbearable. The Uzbeks had gone to ground and there was no other sign of life. I moved gingerly round on the snow. With the exception of about a square metre of ground in front of our tent, there was no flat surface in any direction. I explored a tatty white tunnel tent pitched on the slope above us. Inside was a mess of empty food packets. The fabric had been torn by the force of the wind, and hung forlornly from the metal hoops. The owners were in for a nasty surprise when they came back. 

I then ventured across the snow slope towards the start of the rock ridge. The main north face was hidden from our camp. As I moved cautiously round the snow bulge I found out why. I had fortunately clipped into the safety rope, because I rounded the corner into a brutal wind that brought me down onto my knees. I could hardly lift the camera to my face, let alone hold it steady. The tents were situated to protect them from the full fury of the wind raking across the north face. Any doubts I had had about the wisdom of waiting a day were literally blown away. I edged back round the corner and stuffed my hands into my armpits, trying to regain some warmth. All the while the sky was brilliant blue and the sun was shining down benevolently.

The afternoon was occupied by the venerable activity of weather speculation. I sat by the bell of the tent, melting ice, and looking out periodically for any sign of action. At last a tiny figure appeared over the horizon of the ridge below us. It moved at a steady pace, so looked like a Sherpa. However, the colour of the clothing suggested to me that it might be Russell. 

‘Does he have Sumio with him?’ Ian asked. ‘I doubt he would move her up the mountain if he wasn’t confident of the weather.’

Russell’s team was down to one client, Sumio Tsuzuki, a Japanese woman. All his considerable expertise was now focused on getting her to the top. It was her third attempt. She had failed on the south in 1996 and the north in 1997. Russell had the most sophisticated weather forecast information of any of the teams on the north side. We reckoned that if Sumio was on her way up, he must think the weather would stabilise. We began a ‘Sumio’ watch, looking out for her brightly coloured down suit. It was a long wait but at last she was in sight. Our mood improved no end. Only a direct notification from God would have been a better indicator of good weather.

As the afternoon progressed, camp 2 began to fill up. A British climber, Mark Jennings, arrived, with a Sherpa. Then two Americans turned up. Both were big men and they proceeded to crawl into the smallest tent I have ever seen. I doubted that they could both lie down at once in it. It was a funky design, with transparent panels and orange and purple colouring, but it wouldn’t have made a decent dog kennel, let alone a tent. 

Not surprisingly, the Americans were first up the next morning. The rest of us were just stirring in our respective tents while they were busy dressing – outside their tent. One told me that they had a hanging stove in the tent. The buffets of wind had been washing the water out of the pot and all over them. They had had little sleep and even less to drink. They were keen to move on. 

We packed up in a much more relaxed manner. Our little tent seemed positively luxurious after comparison with theirs. We were just getting under way when Lhakpa, Pemba and Jangbu arrived. Nawang, who was not in the same class as a climber, was toiling some way behind. They were all carrying enormous loads. Pemba had been a little over-optimistic when he told Ian that camp 3 was fully supplied. Perhaps they had not wanted to hump too much stuff up to top camp until they were convinced that we were serious. There can be little more depressing for a Sherpa than to have all your team give up half-way up the mountain, and to be left to go and retrieve all the equipment you carried up to top camp. 

However, the result was that everyone was moving slowly. For the first, and probably last, time in my life, I was keeping pace with our Sherpa team. The ridge became steeper and narrower, a hazardous jumble of loose rock slabs interspersed with snow patches. It was classic mixed ground with the crampons on our boots alternately a help and a hazard. Tents were scattered up the ridge. Unlike other camps, with so little flat ground on the ridge, there was not a common camping site. Most people who put in camp 2 as low as ours put in two more camps, not one. The Americans, the British, Russell and the Uzbeks all eventually stopped, camping again around 7,900 metres. Only Ci Luo and ourselves kept on moving. 

Climbing the rock ridge required concentration, and patience. The ridge just kept on coming at you, level after level of scattered scree. I was climbing steadily and felt good. I finally stopped at the Americans’ camp, and looked around to see who was where. Ci Luo, Pemba and Lhakpa were just ahead of me. Jangbu, Ian and Nawang were below me. The ridge we had climbed was still clear, but scoops of mist were wandering across the north face. Above me I could see the tell-tale snow plumes that indicated strong winds higher up. Light sprinkles of snow began to fall as I waited. I decided it was time to pull out the oxygen. Oxygen not only enables you to climb faster, but it stops you getting so cold. The temperature was falling as the weather worsened. This was no time for heroics. I dug around in my rucksack to find the bottle I was carrying. The cold leather mask went onto my face, under my jacket hood. I opened the bottle valve and set the regulator to 2.5 litres per minute. Then I turned my attention to the great north face.

At about 7,900 metres the route turns off the north ridge and begins a diagonal traverse up and across the north face. A ramp of snow ran below a line of black cliffs. Once we had rounded the cliffs, we began to climb steeply up a huge snow bowl. Below us the face dropped away over a rock rim. Nothing more was visible until I saw the Rongbuk glacier, riddled with crevasses, lying a little under three kilometres below me. The exposure was immense. We were clinging to this vast wall, with an infinity of air spread out beneath us. The size of the face was breathtaking. It seemed ridiculous to imagine that I would ever surmount it, would ever be standing on the summit ridge I could glimpse in the distance. 

Mist swirled around us. At times it would clear completely, revealing ever more mountains spreading into the distance. Then it would return, drawing a veil over the view, settling like a damp cloak over me, dropping tiny pellets of snow onto my arms and hands. I was bitterly tired, with little idea of how much further it was to the last camp. My mind roamed aimlessly, seeking any distraction from the grind of the climbing. Sometimes I thought about what the summit day might bring, but mostly that was too depressing. I barely felt as if I could reach camp, let alone climb 600 metres higher. Sometimes I thought about home, about warmth and greenery and life. I imagined the freedom of being on a sun-baked rock-face, dressed in little more than a few scraps of lycra, feeling the rough warmth of the rock under my bare hands. Then for a while I redecorated the living room of my house. I happily spent thousands on a complete makeover of the room, changing colours and patterns and furniture. 

Eventually all the distractions began to pall. I started to count footsteps, sometimes in patterns of four, sometimes in eights. Then I set my focus on the next anchor point on the rock and counted down until I reached it, trying not to stop on the way. I seldom managed. 

The snow bowl was finally below me. Once more we were on mixed rock and snow. I fixed my eyes on each rock ridge we approached, hoping that when we surmounted it I would see little coloured blobs of tents. So far I had been disappointed. What I could see, though, was the summit ridge. It was clear of mist and I could now appreciate the full length of it. I ran my eye back down from the summit. There was the final rock and snow ridge. Then came the steep slope, a pyramid of snow. Below the snow ran a ridge of rock, marked by three distinct features. The Third Step was a round hump of rock, looking like a high-altitude paperweight. The Second Step was like the blade of a cleaver, a square, thin-edged cliff. I could see what looked like tiny figures moving along the skyline. I took them to be climbers descending from the summit. A narrow line of rock then led to the First Step, an elongated dome with a patch of white snow at its foot. 

I noticed movement on the white patch. Watching intently, I could see two black dots. One was still. The other circled round and round. This all happened very slowly. Each time I stopped to get my breath back, I would look up and watch the dots. They had to be climbers but I couldn’t think why they should be spending so much time in one place. The bottom of the First Step seemed an odd place to stop. 

The puzzle of the dots was driven out of my mind by the appearance of coloured blobs much closer to me – tents. Our camp 3 lay at 8,300 metres, higher than all but five mountains on the planet. It is the highest regularly used camp in the world. It is not, however, any great shakes as a site. It was on steeply sloping ground, mixed rock and snow. Piles of snow had been scraped together to form platforms. I collapsed next to the tent Pemba and Lhakpa were pitching. It was late afternoon and the other three were still on the slopes below us. It was not the best planned run-up to a summit night. Mist continued to swirl around us. It was difficult to tell what evening would bring. 

Ian arrived, looking exhausted, and none of the Sherpas seemed too fresh either. We sat in the tent, drinking luke-warm tea out of a thermos. Ian called Jan at the 6 p.m. radio check and said we would call back at 8 p.m. to tell him what we had decided to do. Then we looked at each other.

‘Now what?’ he asked.

‘I’ve felt better,’ I said. 

We did not know how hard the summit ridge was going to be, only that it would be harder than that which we had climbed on the south side. The day had been too long, the rucksacks too heavy. We had made camp too late, and were ill-prepared for the night ahead. There was too little time to rest, to recuperate. The weather was too uncertain.

It was not difficult to talk ourselves out of it. Ian called Jan, and told him and Trevor to shut off the radios until a 9 a.m. call the next morning. We then crawled into our bags and settled in for solid sleep undisturbed by expectations of the summit.

‘Tea, Didi. Didi, tea ready.’

The voice filtered through into my dreams. Tea. How nice. Tea in the tent before getting up for breakfast.

I opened bleary eyes and fumbled for the tent zip. Pemba handed me a thermos, his face a faint blur behind the glare of his head-torch.

‘We must get up now, Didi. We go for the summit.’

I stared at him in sleepy confusion. I thought we’d decided to give up. Obviously the Sherpas had not reached the same conclusion. I gazed out of the tent door. The night sky was pitch black, jewelled with stars. The cloud had gone, the wind had died. I nudged Ian.

‘Wake up. Apparently we’re going climbing.’

At that point it seemed easier just to go with the flow. In some ways it had been an advantage. I had slept solidly, without being keyed up with the knowledge of leaving for the summit in a few hours. 

However, we had not prepared ourselves to go, so dressing and packing took some time. I was feeling neither strong, nor particularly co-ordinated. But then I always felt like that on night-time starts. I took the half-used oxygen bottle off my mask and begun battling to fit another one. The valve was screwed too tight. Ian had to find a penknife, and, battling to focus through the glare of his torch, numbed with cold and too little sleep, made the fiddly adjustment. He was swearing under his breath. Base camp was solidly asleep, in the knowledge we were not going anywhere. So there was no one to tell. It did not seem the most auspicious of starts.

We finally stumbled out of the tent at 2.30 a.m., picked up our rucksacks, adjusted our oxygen sets, and moved off into the coal-black night. With no moon, the Himalayan peaks spread out below us were the faintest outlines of deep grey against the black sky. We each moved in a tiny yellow bubble, the fragile world of light and warmth cast by the head torches. Six tiny bubbles moved up the steep slope of snow, like six fallen stars trying to crawl their way back up to the heavens. Lhakpa led, followed by Ci Luo. I followed with Pemba on my heels. Ian and then Jangbu came behind. 

The snow ended and a line of dark cliffs ran off in both directions. Jangbu and Ci Luo were busy climbing diagonally up and to the right. The narrow beam of torch-light made climbing tricky as we tried to work out where variously to place hands and feet. We were not dressed for rock scrambling. Massive Goretex mitts impeded sensation and made it difficult to use rock edges. Worse than that was trying to rock-climb with crampons on my boots. The metal spikes meant my foot did not end where common sense told me it did. The spikes tended to slip on the rock. In the torch-light I could see dozens of tiny yellow lines scored into the brown rock – crampon scratch marks. Remnants of old ropes lay across the rock. Although these sometimes provided a welcome handhold, something I could curl my glove right round, mostly they provided a potential hazard in which my crampons would tangle. 

Climbing the rock cliffs took concentration and focus. It provided a distraction from the heavy tiredness of moving at 3 a.m. It also took a lot of breath. I stopped on each ledge, panting and huffing into my oxygen mask. The damp leather sat cool against my skin. There never seemed to be quite enough of the sea-fresh air emanating from it. After five or six heavy breaths, I would start moving again.

Between the rock steps were sneaky ramps of snow, taking us diagonally upwards. The night was cold but still. The resulting temperature proved reasonable, when mitigated by all the clothing. With my eyes adjusted to the torch-light, the surrounding darkness was as impenetrable as a coal face. I had no idea how far we were up the north face, how much further it was to the summit ridge. Below me was over 3,000 metres of inky space, but it could have been three metres or three million metres for all I could see of it. 

Looking back down, to judge how those behind me were faring, I was confused to see six crawling stars, instead of three. My brain ticked over slowly, as deadened by lack of sleep as by lack of oxygen. Eventually I realised they must be other climbers, also on their way to the summit. I turned back to the task at hand. All that mattered to me was to keep a reasonable distance ahead of Ian and Jangbu, so that I wasn’t slowing the team. Beyond that it was just about taking one step, and another, and another. As long each step went roughly upwards, I was doing the right thing.

I climbed through yet another band of rock, and up mixed rock and snow slopes, to find Lhakpa and Ci Luo standing, waiting. Looking up revealed sky, rather than more mountain. We had reached the ridge. I looked to my right, where the snow wound off into black distance. To my left, however, behind a wall of spiky rock formations, was air. And in the farthest distance was a thread-thin line of pink, the merest suggestion that light would be returning to the world in the near future. 

A figure stumbled up behind me, and moved off in to a hollow to the right, where he huddled down. He wore a purple down suit and I realised he must be one of the Uzbek team. As we waited for the rest of our team, the pink glow was slowly spreading. The pitch black rocks turned deep purple. The bed of cloud that lay below us to the east was tinged with salmon pink. I fumbled in the pocket of my down jacket for a camera. I was not about to try and muck around with the controls of my SLR. One Goretex mitten came off, shoved into the other armpit. The tiny compact camera was lifted, the button pressed, shoved back, and my hand was back in the mitten within the minute. Even so, I could feel the fingertips of my right hand tingling with cold. 

As soon as the other three had joined us, we moved on. There was no conversation, only the sound of our boots crunching on the snow, the rustle of our jackets. We left the Uzbek waiting for his team-mates. A little further along, the snow wall that guarded our left side was breached for a few metres. I looked out, and stopped in amazement. 

The north face of Everest makes for a climb of half a world. To the west you have the most spectacular views, 180 degrees of Himalaya and of Tibet. To the east you have nothing but the giant wall you are perched on. It blocks out the rest of the world as surely as if it did not exist at all. Now, suddenly, I was afforded a glimpse into that hidden world. The face fell away vertically just beyond my feet. Far below, out of sight in the murky distance, was the Kangshung Glacier. Most impressive, though, was the great falling sweep of the Kangshung Face, tinged rose colour. It was topped by the snowy line of the south-east ridge, set against an indigo sky. There lay the ridge we had climbed one year and 364 days previously. Behind it lurked the rocky crest of Lhotse. The sombre blue pyramid of Makalu stood clear and proud to the east. Once more the camera came out, very briefly, and popped its tiny flash across the blue void at the 4 000 metre high snow wall. 

However, the new world to the east brought mixed blessings. With the magnificent views came a less welcome element – wind. It was a nasty, sneaky sort of wind, winding its way deviously round my body, before stealing down the collar of my jacket to attack the very heart of my body heat. 

Slowly the copper-orange orb of the sun slid up out of the grey mantle of cloud, but its warmth did not reach me. The snow along the ridge turned golden before my feet, but it was the coldest gold I had ever seen. Before, the light of dawn had always brought both hope and warmth, signalling that the worst of the challenge was over. This dawn was different. The temperature dropped steadily as the wind rose. 

My toes were still warm in the massive protection of my boots, but everywhere else my heat was retreating towards my core. My fingers were feeling numb, and so slow to move. My face had a strange, mask-like sensation, as if it no longer really belonged to me. Fumbling in the massive mittens, I pulled the down jacket hood close round my face. Determinedly wriggling my fingers, I walked on along the ridge. 

Two strongly opposed forces were at work. My only weapon against the icy wind was my own body heat. As long as I kept moving, I felt tolerably comfortable. However, we were approaching 8,600 metres above sea level. Even with supplementary oxygen, the air was bitterly thin. I was wanting to stop every 10 or 15 paces to get my breath back. Each time of resting became a race between too little air and too little heat. 

I was not enjoying the experience. However, I felt I could just tolerate it as long as nothing further went awry. The ultimate goal was worth the current discomfort. I retracted my vision, my expectations, to concentrate on nothing more than the next few steps.

The ridge was a steady, but relatively straightforward upward rise. Snow and rock were mixed. The path was bordered by a corniced snow wall on the left, hiding the drop. On the right it veered off steeply down broken rock slopes. Looking back, I could see the first line of sun catching the snow curve between Everest and Changste. Climbers at camp 1 would be waking up as their tents began to warm in the sun’s heat. The glaciers of the central and east Rongbuk were still shrouded in dusky blue shadow. 

We had spread out as we moved up the gentle incline. Each climber had his own rhythm, took his own time to stop to catch a breath. Ahead of me the ridge rose abruptly. A great heaped mass of rock squatted in our path. This was the First Step. With all the time that had been spent debating the Second Step, I was taken aback by the sheer height of the First. Although in a less precarious position than the Hillary Step on the south-east ridge, it looked like a tougher climb. Steeply angled rock slopes were sprinkled with snow. Jangbu was already several metres up it, with Pemba on his heels. Ci Luo followed closely behind.  I would be next to tackle it.

Something off to the right caught my eye, blotches of colour. I looked across and saw, slightly down the rocky slope, a boulder. Just below it lay a body with a purple jacket and red boots. That surprised me. I had not realised that there would be bodies on the trail. But bodies I had seen before on this mountain. I looked back towards the Step. 

Then the body moved.  


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