Chapter 13

One step at a time

The Tibetans believe that mountains rest lightly on the earth and that, if they are not pegged down, by chortens or prayer poles, they are liable to fly off. It seems a fantastic theory for something as heavily grounded as the pyramid of Everest, with its many thousands of square tons of rock. But the Tibetans do not get bogged down by the narrow-minded geophysics of the situation. One has only to see a mountain peak floating above a sun-lit cloud to realise they are indeed creatures of myth, and of wonder. The spirit of the mountains surpasses all their physical realities. 

Right now it seemed as if Everest had indeed taken wings and vanished. We had been driving across the Tibetan plateau for hours and not a glimpse. Even crossing the great Pang La pass, from where, a year ago, we had first seen Everest’s majestic pyramid bisecting the horizon, there was nothing. A dusty haze hung in the air, the result of a winter and a spring with very little snowfall. Of mountains there was no sign. As we drove through the convoluted maze of foothills, I had a bizarre vision of the inhabitants of some remote tropical island looking up to see a massive rock pyramid flying towards them, in search of a spot for its summer holiday.

We finally turned the steep corner into the Rongbuk valley. The valley ended abruptly - a four kilometre high wall of rock and ice. Everest was back.

Everest was back, and so were we. Once more we were going to be crawling up her skirts, hoping to teeter briefly on her crown without disturbing her - Chomolungma, mother goddess of the world. Despite all the media hype, no one ‘conquers’ a mountain like Everest. We just hoped to trespass on her mighty slopes long enough to nip up to the summit and back before she shook us off like unwanted fleas.

When passing through Kathmandu I had filled Elizabeth Hawley in on the details of our expedition. She was a Nepalese institution, and has kept records of Himalayan expeditions since time immemorial. She had finally given up on mountains such as Shishapangma and Cho Oyu, which dozens of expeditions now attempt each year, but she was hanging on grimly with Everest, looking besieged by the sheer volume of information she had to process. She interviewed each expedition on its way in to the mountain, and again on its return.

As she meticulously wrote down our expedition details, she had commented that maybe the following year I would finally come to do something different, ‘get over the Everest obsession’. We were back to finish off the north-east ridge of Everest. This expedition was small, and totally focused. Ian and I were joined by Pemba and Jangbu, with Phuri in support. That was it. The sole aim was to get ourselves to the summit. Was it obsession? I wondered about that but decided it was not. It was the final bow to a magnificent mountain. 

We had spent the rest of the year of 1998 in South Africa working on other things. We had made no firm decision about a return to finish the north ridge of Everest. Only early in 1999, when we had to make a final commitment to getting a permit, if we wanted one, did we seriously face up to the issue. There was a certain ‘oh, what the hell, why not?’ feeling to our decision to try one last time. I was certain that if we did not succeed this time, I would not be coming back. 

However, in 1998 I had simply had no idea if I was capable of climbing Everest’s north side. Now, though, I thought I could, if weather, health and conditions allowed. Those were some big ifs but it seemed worth a try. We still needed to pay for all this. We cut the expedition budget right down and started looking for money. Some was personal money, some was raised from companies, some came from a group of trekkers we organised to come and visit us at base camp. It was a close run thing, and there was more than one time when I thought that it simply wouldn’t happen. As it was we ended up coming out to Tibet nearly a month later than all the major Everest expeditions. 

This time, though, I was intimately involved in the chasing of finance. I called company after company, made polite noises when they said no, and then phoned some more. I went on radio looking for trekking clients, talked prospective candidates through all the details, gave slide shows, and waited to see if they would finally sign a cheque. By the time we had finally accumulated enough to go, I felt this was my expedition in a way neither of the previous two had been.

We set up our base camp in the same spot that we had had the year before. This time Padam would be running base camp, with Mangal back to help with the trek group. Our chorten was still standing on the great boulder above our camp. Once our tents were in place and the prayer flags strung out from the chorten, it was almost as if we had never left.

The mountain dominated everything, as ever. This year, though, it was particularly stark. There had been very little snowfall, right through winter and spring. The north face was a massive rock wall.

On our east side was Russell Brice, back with a new group of clients. On our west were other friends of 1998, Wilfred Studer and his wife Sylvia. Wilfred was an Austrian mountain guide. The first thing one noticed about him was that this big man had tiny feet. He had lost all his toes to frostbite. Now, for his holidays, he and Sylvia were attempting Everest without oxygen. 

‘An Austrian, Peter Habler, was one the first two men to climb Everest without oxygen,’ he explained. ‘In Austria, to have climbed Everest with oxygen is not to have climbed it at all.’ 

It was their third attempt. In 1998 Wilfred had turned back at the top of the Second Step, deciding that it was too cold for him to risk continuing. I had enormous respect for a man who could be that close to his goal and have the strength of will to turn away from it. Wilfred had no pretensions about his considerable abilities. He had a ready smile and a humorous outlook on life and climbing. He proved good company.

The first few days, and the first explorations up the glacier towards ABC, were uncomfortable, as ever. My body took time to get used to sleeping on the ground, to walking hour after hour, to carrying loads. But the old ways soon reasserted themselves. Lying in our tent at night, totally encased in a cocoon of down, falling asleep snuggled up against Ian, I could imagine no better place to be.

On 8 May we were resting at base camp, watching the summit ridge through Wilfred’s telescope. Three tiny figures were crawling up the final snow slope to the summit. The weather was perfect, clear and warm. They were from the Ukrainian team and would be the first climbers of the season to summit. Every team on the mountain would have swopped places with them just then. 

But the mountain is fickle, and the weather seems to be less stable in the earlier weeks of the season. During the afternoon the group of trekkers arrived to spend some days with us at base camp and above. The wind was howling, snow was falling. They huddled into our mess tent, bitterly cold, depleted by the new altitude, watching the tent fabric flap and shudder. They looked out across the barren, stony wastes towards a mountain that had long since disappeared in cloud. I could see from the horror in their eyes that they would hardly agree with me on the beauties of base camp.

They were agog for the latest news from us. While in Lhasa they had found a report on the internet that on 1 May an American team had found the body of George Mallory, the British mountaineer last seen making his way towards the summit in 1924. Now 75 years later, his body was apparently almost perfectly preserved. There was no sign of his camera and so no concrete proof of whether he had reached the summit before his death, or not. Speculation was raging. 

We had no idea all of this had happened. Communication was limited. When everyone was crowded together in a camp like ABC news passed round quite quickly. But once climbers moved away they could disappear for days without other teams knowing what was happening. Each team assumed themselves and others to be self-sufficient. We were one of the few teams still at base camp, so those who were watching the internet knew far more of what was happening on the mountain than we did. 

However, the next morning news was travelling faster. We heard that the three Ukrainians had reached the summit around 2 p.m. However, they had battled on the descent, climbing in poor weather, struggling to find the right route. Vladislav Terzyal was safely back at top camp by 9 p.m. Vasili Kopytko disappeared, and was presumed to have fallen. Vladimir Gorbach was stranded above top camp, badly frost-bitten, and out of radio contact. Only their doctor was at ABC, their leader was at base camp. Russell went down to see the doctor, taking a spare battery to power their radios, and began co-ordination of a rescue.

The drama played itself out over the next few days as I took a group of our trekkers up the east Rongbuk glacier. We had several couples in the group. Although it was the men who all talked big back in South Africa, in most cases they were now languishing at base camp, felled by altitude, while the women had quietly and successfully made their way to the higher camp.

The Ukrainians had two more waves of climbers, at 7,800 metres and at 7,000 metres, waiting to move towards the summit. They climbed up the mountain, and met Vladislav struggling down with Vladimir. All his toes were frost-bitten, as were all the fingers of his left hand and his nose. The Sherpas of another expedition dumped the loads they were carrying and helped to carry Vladimir down to camp 1. The rescue took all day, reaching camp 1 around 7 p.m. Luckily, he was a little man, only 65 kilograms, and they simply took turns to piggy-back him down. 

In the meantime, climbers from the American team, a few others and about fifteen Sherpas had climbed up to camp 1 with a stretcher. Pemba and Jangbu were among the Sherpa group. The victim was then lowered down the steep ice slopes through the night, reaching ABC around 2 a.m. There Russell had turned his camp into a field hospital and rescue kitchen. Vladimir was unconscious on arrival and was put on a drip. They worked on him for five hours, until dawn. He remained at ABC for the remainder of that day, while a group of yak herders came up from base camp for the next carry, down 22 kilometres of glacier back to base camp.

The following day I was up at 6,000 metres, with the hardiest of the trek group. We walked along the tongue of moraine, which ran between two seas of ice pinnacles. The pinnacles rose 20 or 30 feet above us, an angry sea frozen mid-storm. Their surfaces were pure white, dusted by snow as powdery as icing sugar. In the cracks that led into their icy hearts, the white turned to pale blue and, where the ice was most compressed, deep lapis lazuli.

The trekkers were running all over, passing round cameras and posing by the most extravagant ice pinnacles they could find. Their vision broadened mine. I become too caught up in the climb, focused always on the next horizon. They, without that single-minded concentration, looked laterally, discovering scenes to which I was blinkered. 

A little black snake moved towards us in the distance. It slowly resolved itself into a line of 12 people, walking slowly. It was the Ukrainian rescue party. Vladimir was now being carried by the yak herders, piggy-back in a makeshift chair. They disappeared from view and then reappeared virtually on top of us, stopping next to us to give the injured man a drink. His nose was pitch-black, his hands were wrapped up in down gloves, his eyes were glazed and exhausted. But he would survive.

Despite being part of a strong and well-organised team himself, it had taken the efforts of dozens of people from his own and other expeditions to get him down to the safety of base camp. He still had to spend a night at base camp before he could be driven out over the rough dirt roads and across the plains of Tibet to a medical facility. He had to live through four days of whatever medical treatment his and other expeditions could provide before his ordeal was over. Rescue is possible from high on Everest, but it requires a victim who will survive the days it takes to get him or her down, and it requires the efforts of many people, generally from other teams.  Other teams, in helping, are often using up their supplies, particularly of oxygen. They are also using up their physical strength. Helping may well mean the end of their own summit hopes. 

Despite all this, most climbers and most teams do all they can to assist. Accusations are thrown around about climbers not helping, mostly by people thousands of miles from the event itself. People fail to realise that in a world this remote, climbers may well be beyond what it takes to save them. If they have hours left, rather than days, no amount of well-meant intentions is going to make a difference. 

Then we received much better news. Lhakpa  had elected to climb with a big commercial expedition on the south. He was the team sirdar, a very prestigious post. On May 12 Pemba and Jangbu were sitting on the north col as Lhakpa reached the summit of Everest, for his sixth time. They were able talk to him on radio, and patched him through to us at base camp. The moment was particularly poignant for the brothers Lhakpa  and Jangbu because with Lhakpa on the summit was their younger brother. It was his first big expedition and he had reached the top of the world. The excitement of this summit fired up both the Sherpas and ourselves. As soon as the trek group had left, we readied ourselves to move up the mountain.

I walked back and forwards in front of our kitchen tent, restless, anxious, and increasingly angry. We were due to walk from base camp to ABC, a long, stiff hike. We had too much kit to carry. I was not fully acclimatised to ABC yet. Ian had developed yet another chest infection and I was worried about what that meant for the expedition. I wasn’t sure I would make it to ABC in one day.

It was 8.30 a.m. We were supposed to have left at 8 a.m. Ian had barely begun to pack. I began to fume. We rubbed through on most things, but the time-keeping still drove me crazy. I walked over to ask when he thought he would be ready. What was meant to be an innocent question triggered a short, nasty row. I called him lazy and he called me selfish. After trading insults for a few minutes we stopped talking to each other altogether. 

An unpleasant start stretched into an unpleasant day. I was passing transit camp around midday, feeling tired, over-loaded and sorry for myself. It began to snow heavily and I decided enough was enough, and dived for shelter in Russell’s transit tent. Ian made a similar decision about half an hour later. We ignored each other. 

The storm passed, although snow continued to fall lightly, and the long afternoon hours were crawling by. I picked up my camera and headed outside to look around. In the middle of the worst of times, the mountain once again created a moment of magic.

A few hours previously it had been a world of rock, but now a lace blanket of snow covered the ground. The big rocks still resisted, melting the snow as it landed and glistening black and wet in the white world. Clouds filled up the valley, with high peaks making the occasional eerie appearance, floating above the mist. 

The next day I moved into new territory, for this expedition at least, over 6,000 metres. Tired, and miserable from the on-going stand-off with Ian, I turned to music to disguise the effort of the climb. When I heard heavy panting coming from somewhere when the tape ended, it took a moment to realise it was my own breathing. I was passed by various French climbers going down. They had arrived, heavy with attitude, to climb Everest without oxygen. They were ‘real’ mountaineers. Having reached 7,900 metres, they had thought better of the whole thing and were headed home.

Then I met up with Mangal, who was coming down from ABC with a flask of hot coffee. He poured me a cup, and then continued on down to meet Ian, who was, to my malicious relief, well behind me. The hot, sweet coffee felt like a blessing as it poured down my parched throat. However, my altitude-troubled stomach was less convinced. I had not eaten all day and my stomach was in no mood to have to deal with the sugary liquid. An unhappy bubbling feeling was rising.

Through my headphones came the dulcet sounds of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. They discreetly masked the retching as I threw the coffee up all over the icy rocks. It was not a good day.

It was not a good day high on the mountain either. The previous day two Americans from the Mallory search team had topped out. Now, in the afternoon, five members from two expeditions, Belgian and Polish, were reaching the summit. Sporadically cheers would go up from their camps. But at dinner I gathered three climbers were not yet back at top camp.

That night I lay in the darkness of the tent, unable to sleep from altitude. Bored with my selection of music, I stared into the blackness of the night. There were no lights to be turned on, nothing to do, no-one to talk to. Inside the tent it was -10°C, so it was not even an option to get out of my sleeping bag . 

I wondered why I did this to myself. I could be living comfortably back in my house in Johannesburg, curled up under the duvet with my cat. Why put up with the discomfort and the risk? I had already climbed Everest. And climbing any mountain was not the most logical activity in the world, when you really thought about it. You just ended up back where you started - at the bottom.

My watch inched past 2 a.m. I could tell that Ian was also unable to sleep. We were together physically, separated by a million miles emotionally. I was simply miserable. I dislike fights, my temper tending to cool off almost as quickly as it flares up. Ian takes longer to get angry and longer again to get over it. 

An arm reached across the darkness, bumping into my face. I took that as an invitation to reconcile, and curled myself round it. The cold of the night was replaced by warmth and happiness. The dawn brought a rose-pink hue to the slopes of Everest, while golden clouds rose over the north col. The deep blue shadow of the valley floor was slowly dispelled by the sun’s light. I watched from the door of our tent and I remembered why I did this.

That night we had dinner with Russell’s team in his camp. Russell’s expeditions were superbly organised, and most luxurious. I was particularly taken with the special sachets of chocolate powder for sprinkling on top of the cappuccino. His dining tent had a proper table, with chairs. We found it laid with tablecloth and cutlery. One of Russell’s clients, Helge Hengge, had cooked up a cheese fondue, with freshly baked bread. Helge, a slim blonde German, was friendly and uninhibited. She had already turned the heads of all of Russell’s Sherpa team. 

The discussion obviously opened with events on the mountain. We already knew that Joao Garcia, a Portuguese member on the Belgian team, was frost-bitten but on his way down. The Polish leader, Ryszard Pawlowski, had survived a night out on the ridge and was also on his way down, with slight frostbite. Tadeusz Kudelski, a member of the Polish team, had disappeared. The Belgian leader, Pascal Debrouwer, was also missing. Now Russell had the latest news. In the mid-afternoon, members of the Italian team had seen a climber fall from the ridge. It was thought to be Pascal. We had also heard that Michael Matthews, a member of the OTT expedition that Lhakpa was on had disappeared on the descent from the summit on the south side.

Russell was gloomy. Deaths on commercial expeditions always raised more stink than those on private ones, and rebounded on other commercial operators. The image of rich novices buying their way up Everest had lodged firmly in the mind of the public after the events of 1996. None of the facts stuck: that most deaths were experienced climbers, that the percentage of deaths had not risen in all the years climbers had attempted Everest, that there was no guarantee that climbers on private expeditions were more experienced or those on commercial ones less so. Commercial clients were as often sponsored as private expeditions were. Everyone had to find the money somewhere. 

Guiding was a tradition as old as mountaineering itself and making use of people expert in local conditions makes a lot of sense. Russell and his Sherpa group had the best organisation and the greatest experience of any team on the mountain. The result was that he inevitably ended up organising rescues for other expeditions. 

Perhaps what had taken many people by surprise was the way, in the 1990s, the number of people attempting Everest had expanded, and therefore the number who reached the top had increased. Previous summit climbers seemed to get huffy about it, mostly because it made their personal ascents look rather less awesome. The way the two most popular routes on Everest are climbed has changed. The sheer number of people climbing makes it easier for all concerned, as work can be shared. However, as we saw with Fran in 1998, it does bring other problems. Modern equipment helps, as does the volume of knowledge now available about the mountain. What has not changed is the cold, the weather, the altitude, the climbing. For those for whom that is not enough, there are a dozen other routes up Everest, each difficult, even more remote, mostly ignored. For any that hanker after an old-fashioned challenge, it is there for the trying. 

On 19 May Ian and I set out for an acclimatisation climb to camp 1. The 1999 route came as something of a shock. The previous year, and for some years before that, it had followed a pleasant curve, sweeping up to the right, before traversing back above a large ice cliff to the camp site. This year the safety line ran straight up from the bottom, disappearing into the distance above us, like an Indian rope trick. It was a route with a mission. This was partly the fault of the Ukrainians, who had put up the route. They had a summit to reach and had no intention of going in any direction other than up. It was also due to the enormous crevasse that had opened up across the previous route.

I was barely a third of the way up the climb and I was already doubled over, gasping for breath. Sweat was pouring down the inside of my thermal top, and I felt dizzy. This time it was not the altitude but the heat. Just 12 hours earlier it had been –9°C, and that was inside my tent. Now my thermometer was telling me 41°C, a 50 degree fluctuation in just 12 hours. Days like this were not that common, but were dreadful when they occurred. There was not a breath of wind, not a wisp of cloud to cast any shade. We were climbing a section of the mountain where there was no rock, every inch was snow-covered, every inch was reflecting the sunlight back. The atmosphere was much thinner than we were used to, the sunlight was less diffused. My face and hands were slathered in total sunblock but the sweat was washing it away. The rays reflected off the snow were reaching all the sneaky bits I had forgotten, the underneath of my ears and nose, under the chin. It was not the best of conditions in which to try to climb 400 metres of steep snow and ice.

I battled on up a nasty 60 degree slope. Through the whole of April there had been no snowfall on Everest, but we had had several storms recently. The result was soft powder snow that wouldn’t hold the weight of a footstep. Under it was glass-hard ice that was barely scratched by the metal points of my crampons. Tired and frustrated, I reached a ledge at the foot of an ice cliff. A short section of vertical ice was followed by a long slope of 80 degree ice and snow. A safety rope ran all the way up it, so it was not dangerous. But it was going to be exhausting.

A tinkling sound was followed by a shower of ice particles onto my head. Climbers were coming down from above. Suddenly, like lemmings over a cliff, the entire Tibetan expedition, 12 members in all, came cascading down the ice slope one after another. I knew that they had been camped at camp 1, in preparation for moving higher up the mountain, and was surprised to see them descending.

Their English was not good (although better than my Tibetan) but the import of their news was clear: ‘too windy, too cold, go down!’ It was hard to believe in this 40° furnace but the face I was climbing blocked the wind. The mountain was not yet ready for climbing.

More worrying than weather was illness. The harsh environment was taking its toll on our bodies. Ian’s chest infection still lingered, resulting in body-wracking fits of coughing. I was paying the price of climbing in the heat, with mild heat-stroke and a badly burnt lower lip. 

Health is such a fragile commodity. Months of planning, thousands of dollars, all of it can be rendered worthless by some minor illness. At these altitudes the body does not recover. Even a small cut on a finger, one that would heal in days at home, can stay open week after week at high altitude. Any more serious illness meant going down to base camp or even lower to recover.

Jangbu and Pemba had been supposed to do the final lifts of equipment to our top camp over the next few days. Once that was in place, the team would be ready to make a bid for the summit. However, Jangbu radioed down from camp 2 to say he felt sick, hit again by a stomach bug we thought we had cured at base camp. They both decided to come back down to ABC. The delay was going to push our schedule back again, and we were running out of time.

We sat in the kitchen tent as Ian and Pemba debated logistical alternatives. Jangbu was asleep in his tent. Phuri was melting ice, and listening intently. There was simply too much equipment still to be moved. We were risking running into June. Although we had the time to do that, at some point the mountain would be affected by the monsoon storms. Every day we delayed increased that risk. 

Phuri started talking to Pemba in Nepalese. Phuri was an exceedingly strong man and an able mountaineer. His main problem in life was being Pemba’s younger brother, by eight years. Phuri regularly led clients up the trekking peaks of Nepal, and in 1998 had done day trips up to camp 1, carrying loads. However, Pemba was reluctant to concede that Phuri might be able to go higher. Phuri saw his chance in Jangbu’s illness. With his help, all the equipment could be lifted from camp 1 to camp 3 in just two days. At last Pemba reluctantly consented to the plan, and proceeded to lecture Phuri on all the risks involved. Phuri listened with great seriousness, but nothing could disguise his bubbling excitement. 

Phuri went on to sleep at camp 1, his first night ever at 7,000 metres, and then carried loads from 7,000 to 8,300 metres two days in a row.  It was an astounding performance. When the three Sherpas returned to ABC, neither Pemba and Jangbu were carrying anything, while Phuri carried equipment for all three of them. He had clearly been cast in the role of the apprentice, but once again nothing could suppress the huge grin. He was delighted with himself.

On the night of 24 May we were ready to leave for the push to the summit. The excitement was mounting. I felt weather would be the only obstacle. We were once again fit and now ready and well prepared. The weather seemed to be stabilising, preparing for a spell of several days of good weather. A lot of teams were on the move. We were deliberately holding back, hoping to be able to be the only team on our summit day. We wished no one any harm, but did want to be able to do our own climb, our own way, without getting messed up in other team’s dramas. 

We were sitting over cups of coffee after dinner, trying to work out where the other teams were, when Russell walked through the tent door. He was supposed to be at Camp 2, on his way to the summit, with the rest of his team. He was one of the strongest climbers on the mountain, and probably the most experienced. He said he had been throwing up everything, even water, for three days. Dehydrated, and with no fuel for the body, he had had to turn back. Even the strongest of humans were so vulnerable in this extreme environment. We were living on the edge of what the human body was designed to do.

Climbing up to camp 1 was a pleasure. As Ian tackled the vertical ice wall, he was climbing straight into the sun. I waited below, taking pictures. The ice glistened, the snow sparkled. Ian stood profiled against the skyline, yellow gaiters, yellow mat rolled on his rucksack, red shirt, blue harness. He contrasted beautifully with the white-silver snow and deep blue sky. I photographed upwards, getting bursts of sun flares exploding from the hot white star of the sun. In the next three hours of climbing I ran through three films - all of Ian climbing above me. I didn’t even notice the exhaustion of the steep walls, the visual opportunities were just too exciting. I just hoped that what I was capturing on film was living up to the compositions my eyes were marking out.

The following day spent acclimatising at camp 1 was not a pleasure. I had passed a bad night. Every time I reached a pleasant drowsy state and began to drift off to sleep, I’d suddenly jerk back to wakefulness, with a horrible feeling of suffocation. I finally fell asleep around 3.30 a.m., exhausted, frustrated, bored silly.

The next day was another scorcher, with no wind and no shade. The tent was like a sauna.  Ian lay inside it, stripped down to his underwear, rubbing snow onto his skin to cool down. I could not bear it in there. I wandered around, photographing the camp, a multi-coloured squatters’ camp set on the pristine snow. I watched climbers on the ridge up to camp 2, ant-like figures making agonisingly slow progress. That was tomorrow’s mission.

Good and bad news was all around. Through the telephoto lens of my video camera I could see climbers on the final snow slope before the summit. What was stinking hot at camp 1 was perfect weather two kilometres higher. A total of sixteen climbers reached the top, the first to summit since the drama of the Polish and the Belgians. 

Then over the rise into the camp came our Austrian neighbours from base camp, Wilfred and Sylvia. They collapsed at their tent, exhausted, and I took them cups of hot juice. Wilfred’s voice had gone but he told me their story in an agonised whisper. They had left the top camp at 2 a.m. It was the third year they had attempted to climb Everest. But it had just got too chilly. They climbed without supplementary oxygen, which made them that much more vulnerable to cold. They had turned back - a third unsuccessful trip, but at least they were safely down.

As I plodded up the snow slope the next day I realised my rucksack was too heavy. Much of the weight was the video equipment and some of it was going to have to go. What had seemed so dinky and lightweight in Johannesburg was feeling remarkably heavy right now.

I focused on the next point where the rope was anchored and concentrated on climbing up to it without stopping. On arrival I doubled over, gasping for breath. The inadequate oxygen was painfully obvious in my slow climbing and frequent stops. Breathing was deep and fast. My pulse was hammering away.

Resting my arms on one bended knee, to get the weight of the rucksack off hips and shoulders for a few minutes, I watched the snowflakes landing gently on my black salopettes. We were lucky with the weather. We were climbing in cloud and gently falling snow, so the temperatures were reasonable. The snowflakes fell in absolute silence. Those that landed on the skin showing between my gloves and my sleeves melted instantly. Those on my clothing stayed awhile, slowly fading with my body heat, until they became completely transparent, and then disappeared. Most were six-sided stars, looking like white starfish. On a few I could see the delicate crystalline patterns of each arm.

As I neared camp 2 I began to be passed by the successful summiteers making their way back to ABC. They all had drawn faces and tired bodies. They moved with dreadful slowness, given that all they had to do was walk down a snow slope. Still, the camaraderie of the mountain shone through. Each time as we passed, stopping briefly to swap over safety slings on the fixed rope, I congratulated them and they wished me luck. 

‘It was hard, harder than I expected,’ was a refrain I heard often. 

Another 10 climbers reached the summit that day. 

There was drama the next morning as we started out from camp 2 for camp 3. In the tent next to ours was Helge. Three Sherpas and three members from Russell’s team, including Helge, had reached the summit the previous day. As we lay in our sleeping bags, trying to find the courage to get out into the cold, one of Russell’s Sherpas floundered into her tent. He was snow blind and had spent the night stumbling down the ridge. The glare of the sun off the snow is so acute that, without sunglasses, it will burn the retinas, causing temporary but exceedingly painful blindness. The cure is to spend several days with the eyes in total darkness. He had lost his glasses while helping a Japanese climber. Not having experienced the condition before, he was terrified of losing his sight. Helge reassured him, while covering up his eyes to protect them from further damage. As we prepared to leave another Sherpa came up from camp 1, to lead his fellow climber down to safety. 

Just for the sake of dropping his glasses, a big, strong climber had been reduced to a stumbling child. He had to have his crampons clipped on for him, have his safety sling attached to the rope, be guided step by step. That was the challenge of mountaineering. In normal life we make mistakes all the time. However, we hardly notice, because the consequences are so minor. On Everest those same mistakes can mean the difference between death and survival. The margin for error is so much narrower.

On the slope of the north face below camp 3 we were climbing at the top edge of a cloud blanket extending across Tibet. It was typical of the two moods of the mountain. Sometimes it dipped below me, and became a beautiful silver-grey fluffy blanket bathed in sunshine. It blanketed the plains of Tibet, with the mountains west of us rising through it. I could see the smooth snow dome of Pumori, the jagged profile of Cho Oyu, and, closer to home, the scalloped ridge of Changste. Arching over it all was a sky of pristine blue, lit by a benign sun. 

Sometimes the cloud rose up and enveloped me, and that lovely, fluffy blanket became grey, windy and full of wet snow. The icy wind howled round me, blowing mushy snowflakes into every available crack. They then melted against my skin and dribbled down the collar of my jacket. 

As I climbed I was once more passed by successful summiteers on their way home. That day another 15 climbers reached the top, including most of the Tibetan team. I was also passed by those who had given up, finding it all too difficult. We never exchanged more than a few breathless sentences. Their passing was both sobering and exciting. We were the last team still making a way up the mountain. It could be done, but it would not be easy. 

When the cloud dropped I saw above me the rock ridge that led up to the mountain’s highest point. I could see the rock cliff, the First Step, where we had stopped the previous year. Beyond her lay the unknown territory that led to the summit. We should be there in the next 18 hours - maybe. In my confidence that I could climb this side of the mountain, that was the one uncertainty, the one unknown. What would the ridge be like? 


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