Chapter 14

Highway in the sky

I lay staring into the velvet darkness. More than looking, I was listening, but the only sound was the subtle hiss of oxygen through my mask. Outside it was deeply, profoundly silent - Chomolungma’s blessing, for it meant no wind, stable weather and relative warmth.

I pressed the light on my wristwatch and the tiny square of vivid green lit up, 11.15 p.m. Our summit bid would start in a few minutes. This would be the third time I had set out in the middle of the night for the summit of Everest, and as ever the emotions were mixed. I was warm, and relatively comfortable, deep in my sleeping bag, jammed between the food and bottles of oxygen. To get up, get out, go climbing through the dark icy hours of the early morning, when the human body is at its lowest ebb, seemed like a poor idea. And always there lurked the tension of the great unknown, the rocky ridge that stretched on from the First Step, virgin territory for us. But in the tension was excitement, challenge, anticipation. If all went well, we were less than 12 hours from the summit.

Ian’s headlight went on, and he began to rustle around. The time for contemplation was over. The summit bid had started. I had had just four hours of sleep. I’d barely eaten since leaving camp 1. But I barely noticed either. Now was the time to run on reserves.

Dressing was a slow process – over the thermal underwear went a polartec top and fleece jacket. Then began the grovel to get into down salopettes, twisting awkwardly in a tent barely high enough to kneel in and crammed full of kit. Then I put the insulated inners into the  hard plastic boot outers, before cramming my foot into the combination. Onto fingers went thinsulate inner gloves, a stretch fleece mid glove, with a fleece mitt over that. 

Pemba was passing over thermos flasks full of hot drinks. We dressed slowly, stopping every so often to drink, to take a few puffs of oxygen. Then there was a check on everything in the rucksack: sunglasses, spare gloves, video camera, film, batteries, sponsors’ flags, oxygen bottles and water bottles. My SLR camera went onto the rucksack waistbelt, the two compact cameras into pockets of the down jacket.

We were nearly ready to leave. Crampons went onto the boots, overgloves onto hands, a down jacket was the final piece of clothing. I struggled out of the tent to be greeted by a spectacular night. It was full moon. There were no clouds. Hundreds of snowy mountains were spread out below us and every one was glistening in the moonlight. I moved away from the tent, standing awkwardly on the snow slope, to allow Ian room to get out. My thermometer read -17°C, for Everest a very warm night. Looking out to the north, I could see just one sign of man, the glow of the lights of a town that I guessed must be New Tingri. There was no talking. As soon as we were all ready, around 12.30 a.m., we began to move up the steep slopes, first Jangbu, then me, then Ian, then Pemba. There had never been a better chance to go for the summit of the world.

Not that it felt like it for the first hour or two. Almost immediately I felt badly overdressed. All the layers felt hugely awkward, and I was stiff and clumsy within them. Worse than that was the heat. Within minutes I was sweating heavily inside the clothing, the sweat then cooling against the skin, making me feel hot and cold simultaneously. I had never climbed this high in weather this warm. As always, starting out at night, I felt uncoordinated and unbalanced. Each time it seemed impossible that I could keep going like this hour after hour. Fretting about temperature and clumsiness got me up the steep snow slopes to the foot of the rock. I stopped and looked back out. The gleam of the moon on the snow was so strong we had no need of head-torches. The north face swept down below our feet, a swirling mixture of deep black and white-silver. The tents had already disappeared into the shadows.

I have always liked the look of mountains. The first real ones I ever saw were the French Alps. I remembered swinging across the Mer de Glace in the cable car, staring out at the dozens of rock pinnacles and snow slopes. Admittedly, at the age of eleven I was more worried about the cable car falling out of the sky than captivated by the mountain scenery. It was also the first time I had ever seen snow. Bundled up in my woolly jumper and mittens, I was affronted by women in bikinis sunbathing on the roof of the cable station. Snow was supposed to be cold. I knew that from books.

As a teenager I spent several December holidays at a summer camp in the Drakensberg. The camp staff were decidedly odd in retrospect, but they did allow us a lot of freedom. I explored the verdant mountain slopes on foot and on horseback. I loved the space, the grandeur of the peaks, the stillness of the valleys, the sheer expanses of open air. It felt like land without limits.

I turned back to the rock of the north face of Everest and switched on my torch to look for cracks. The climb up to the ridge consisted of intermittent small rock-faces, steep and loose, with diagonal snow runnels between them, up which we worked our way. With something technical to concentrate on, my discomfort began to fade. I climbed close behind Jangbu. As the only one of the four of us who had climbed to the summit from the north before, he was in front. Ian and Pemba were shadowy figures below us. I drew some comfort from not being the slowest of the group, and kept on moving. The night was silent except for the crunch of snow under my feet and the rasp of breath through the oxygen mask.

I climbed up the last shale slopes to the top of the ridge, and stood by Jangbu. A hunt through the vast number of garments that covered my wrist (three gloves, four jacket sleeves) finally revealed my wristwatch – 2.30 a.m. Ian climbed up towards me slowly, and finally was gasping by my side. An icicle hung from the nose of his mask, the moist, warm air he was breathing out condensing and freezing immediately.

‘What’s my oxygen on?’ he asked. I hunted for the spiky metal dial on the tube.

‘About two-and-a-half,’ I muttered past my own oxygen mask.

‘Turn it up to four. I don’t feel as if I’m getting any air to my chest at all.’

While I fiddled with Ian’s oxygen Pemba pulled out a radio to see whom he could rouse at the foot of the mountain. Padam was clearly awake, answering quickly, sounding tense. Phuri was equally clearly sound asleep, ignoring all attempts to get a response from camp 1.

We started along the ridge. On our right the north face dropped away, with the plains of Tibet, and the western Himalaya visible. The ridge was corniced on our left, waves of snow hanging over the Kangshung face. We walked along the highest rock band. The cornice ceased for a few metres and we walked right on the edge. The Kangshung face dropped away vertically, with the glacier three-and-a-half kilometres below us. In the moonlight I could see Lhotse, Makalu. It was a breath-taking view. On the north side the lights of New Tingri had gone. It felt to me as if we were the only human beings left on earth. 

The first mountaineering book I had ever read had been during my December vacation at the end of my first year at university. I was squatting with a group of rock-climbers in a flea-ridden flat in Fishhoek, to sample the delights of Western Cape climbing. To pass a rainy day, I raided the Fishhoek library and found a book about an all-woman expedition to Annapurna. I was fascinated by the concept of the challenge, and by the realisation that it was not just a man’s world. Although not yet believing I could do such a thing myself, the first seed of my interest in mountaineering had been planted.

My first encounter with Everest had been a year or so later, when British mountaineer Stephen Venables came to my university in South Africa and told the story of his ascent of Everest, the first British ascent without oxygen. This caught my attention far more than any English lecture in the same venue ever had. However, it still didn’t feel like something that I personally wanted to do.

The snow on the summit ridge had gone, and we were walking on rock. It was indeed a very dry season. I had remembered the ridge as flat, a straight line from where we emerged to where Fran lay. But it was both further and steeper than memory suggested. My head-torch was on now, to find a trail across the shattered rock. It provided a small pool of golden light, with everything else in pitch darkness. Suddenly my light pool illuminated a pair of green boots.

They were lime green, fitted with black crampons, lying right in my path. After a moment of complete shock I realised it was one of the three bodies Helge had warned me that we must pass on the summit ridge. It was probably the dead Ukrainian. I moved my torch away, stepped past him and kept moving. This was no time to loose concentration.

Ahead lay the squat, black mass of the First Step. In the back of my mind I knew Fran must be lying somewhere near by but I didn’t swing my torch to look. I simply followed Jangbu as he grabbed the fixed ropes and began the steep ascent. If, a year previously, we had reached this step at this time of night we would not have seen Fran. We would have just climbed on past, and continued to the summit. Or so I thought at the time. 

I found the First Step higher and steeper than I expected, and wasted little time on trying to climb it in style. I thrutched to the top, gasping for breath, pulse pounding. We had passed through the door from the known to the unknown. What followed from there would be the key to the success or failure of nearly two years of planning and attempting to climb Everest’s north side. 

What followed was spectacular, unnerving and unexpected. In the manic focus of both mountaineers and the public on the infamous Second Step, all else gets forgotten. The First Step gets a passing mention, but everything else is just preamble or epilogue to the Second Step. Russell had said the traverse between First and Second Step was dangerous, but the reality was an eye-opener. We were not on top of the ridge, but traversing along its north side, big cliffs above us to the left, and a surprisingly sheer drop on the right. We were working our way along a system of ledges, many of them crumbling on the edges, and covered in loose scree. Occasionally a ledge would end, to resume half a metre higher, or lower, demanding a nasty little technical move over the gaping abyss of the north side. One particularly obnoxious little clifflet had me, face into the rock, stomach pressed against the cliff, tiptoeing (metaphorically speaking, given the massive boots and crampons) past a rotten bulge of rock, with hundreds of metres of fresh air below my heels. 

The situation was not helped, but rather badly hindered, by the rotten ropes left lying from previous years. I had no confidence in the condition either of the ropes, or of their anchor points. Some lay loose on the rock and there was the constant danger of my getting them entangled around my crampons.

However, the climbing was interesting, and the exposure exhilarating. The great abyss fell away to the gleaming glacier. The full moon was hanging in majesty over Cho Oyu, and her massive neighbours. Climbing that high, over so much air, I felt more as if we belonged in the territory of the moon, than in that of the earth. 

The ridge had eased for a short while, before presenting another cliff face, with a narrow ledge running round a corner into the unknown. Jangbu had already disappeared around it. It was the next challenge and I had just begun cautiously to negotiate it, when I heard Ian’s voice. Although I was constantly aware of the shadowy figures climbing with me, they were like ghosts in the night. For one of them to speak, to break the sacred silence of this moonscape, was a shock.

Ian was calling to me. 

‘I’m not going on. This is not what I expected. I don’t like this rock at all. I’ll wait here.’

It took a moment for the implication of his words to sink in. The question is often asked how coherently you are thinking at these extreme altitudes. Looking back on this important moment of decision and communication, I know that I was thinking clearly, but more slowly than in normal life, and perhaps with less depth of future consideration. I just wanted to keep moving. I wasn’t about to argue the decision with Ian, to try and persuade him otherwise. With excellent weather and approaching dawn, and no indication from him that this stemmed from anything more serious than his well-known dislike of rock-climbing, I was not concerned about leaving him.

‘Are you sure,’ I shouted.


‘Do you have enough oxygen?’



I turned round and moved on, believing Ian and Pemba could be trusted to sort out the issues themselves. I did wonder whether Pemba would turn back as well, and if so whether he was carrying any of the sponsors’ flags I was supposed to photograph on the summit. However, climbing back to them to find out seemed far to much like hard work. Fate would sort it out.

I rounded the rock corner, out of their sight, and stepped down onto another ledge system. With my left foot down, my right foot jammed behind me, in mid step. Suddenly, instead of being fluid, mobile, in constant interaction with this rock challenge, I was awkwardly frozen, incapacitated, teetering on the edge of the sunless abyss.  I suddenly realised what a rabbit must feel like when standing frozen in the glare of oncoming headlights.

I fumbled grimly behind me to find what had caught my foot. Although I twisted round, I could not see the offending appendage. I dare not twist too far, as the rucksack pushing against the cliff was forcing me off-balance. My thickly gloved fingers detected thin strands of rope wound round the toe bail and front points of my crampon. The worst of the loose rope was the kernmantle, where the mantle had frayed away. The kern consists of a number of fine strands of white rope, each in turn being made up of hundreds more strands. My crampon was caught in a nest of these fine, strong strands. 

I heard Pemba’s voice in the distance, apparently calling to me.

‘Just wait, I’m stuck,’ I shouted, the oxygen mask doubtless killing the sound immediately. I was tearing at the fine threads of rope, but the force was futile. In the end I had to slow down and concentrate, tracing the threads with my fingers, and then unlooping them one by one. Finally the foot came  free. Once again I was on two feet, feeling stable. I edged back to the rock corner and looked round it, to see what had become of the others. Both Ian and Pemba were climbing towards me along the traverse. Assuming they had sorted themselves out, I moved on, looking out now for the infamous Second Step.

I was climbing into a magical moment. As we had moved along the summit ridge the moon had been slowly sinking in the west, while the sky in the east gradually lightened. The moon, burnished gold, was finally dropping into the low cloud in the west. The sun was just coming up, flaming orange, in the east. The narrow north-east ridge of Everest ran between the two, with nothing but empty air all around it. In the subdued pre-dawn light, it felt like a highway in the sky. It was a pathway to heaven, all the dross of the earth left thousands of metres below us. Such moments are unforgettable, unrepeatable. It was the priceless reward for all the effort involved in getting there.

And there, as if standing as the final guardpost on this road to heaven, loomed the Second Step.  It was high, shadowy, a brooding mass facing east, the deep brown rock tinged pink by the rising sun. I took out the SLR for the first photograph of the day, the Step and then Jangbu climbing it. Its reputation is notorious and I was excited to finally be standing at its foot, to measure reality against the myth. 

It comes in two sections, a fact, which I had not appreciated. The lower section was steep, awkward climbing up cracks. Then a ledge provided respite before the famous ladder, placed there on the second ascent by the Chinese in 1975. Given its fame, it turned out to be a surprisingly ordinary ladder, mustard-coloured, with holes in the rungs, set on the right-hand side of an open book of rock. 

The sheer verticality of the ladder was the first obstacle to overcome. The air might be thinner but gravity seemed stronger than ever, and with each step I seemed to be moving a tremendous load upwards. But worse was to come – the ladder ended, but the cliff didn’t. The ladder stopped just below a bulge of rock, which was pushing my upper body out and back. To the right, up by a foot or two, was a narrow ledge backed by another, smaller rock-face. At the left-hand edge of the ledge was a solidly wedged little boulder, with loops of rope hanging from it. I teetered there for ages, unsure what to do, afraid to commit to the move. Finally I grabbed the loops with both hands, and edged up the ladder, to get my feet as high as I could. The only option seemed to be a desperate belly flop up and right. I was not impressed by the situation, feeling tired, heavy, and horribly overdressed for this kind of rock gymnastics. I flailed through the move, with all the grace of a fish out of water. 

I grovelled across the ledge gasping for breath, irrationally tired. My oxygen mask seemed to be suffocating me, rather than helping. I hastily climbed the last steep steps, to reach the flatter, safer ground of the ridge above. Then I looked at my oxygen indicator. My bottle was empty. I was exposed to the full implications of trying to breath air that has only a third of the oxygen that is available at sea level. I cautiously took off my rucksack and transferred my mask from the now empty bottle to the full one next to it. Putting the mask back on, I once more got the sharp, tangy smell of the life-giving air.

The shadow thrown by the reputation of the Second Step is such that one tends to assume that the ascent is pretty much over once the Step has been climbed. That was to prove yet another myth in a morning full of surprises. Above the Step the ridge widened. The cornice dropped away on the left, providing the first uninterrupted view to the south. On the north side the ridge fell away gently. In our direction of travel it gained height slowly, moving towards the rock mass of the little-mentioned Third Step and the great snow slope, which is so clearly visible from base camp. With no technical difficulties for distraction, I suddenly felt terribly slow. I continued to move steadily, although I was stopping for a few breaths every eight or ten steps. At one such stop Ian caught up with me and suggested a vent stop. We were now bathed in sunshine. In contrast to the previous year, no wind had come with the dawn, the weather was clear and still. The temperature was probably only a little below freezing and we took off our down jackets. Nevertheless the water in our bottles was frozen close to solid. What little of it was liquid was teeth-jarringly cold. 

I plodded on. Ian was right on my heels and this always made me feel too slow, worried that I was the one holding the team up. Now I was stopping to rest every few steps, bent over one knee, sucking air in to my depleted lungs. A growing depressing realisation was that the line of rope did not skirt round the Third Step, as I had always assumed, but climbed right through it. And then if this ridge was bad, how much worse was the steep snow slope going to be? As if to provide the final macabre touch to the dismal mood, a body was lying a little way down the slope on the right. His clothing was faded by years of harsh sun. He had obviously been there for a while. He looked so pathetic, a rag doll tossed aside, a tiny figure forgotten on the giant mountain slopes. 

All along the ridge I had experienced sudden weird jolts of familiarity, as a scene appeared with which I felt uncannily familiar. In fact I was encountering scenes of which I had seen photographs, without having fully appreciated at the time what I had been looking at. 

My first real encounter with icy peaks had been in 1990 when I went to the Ruwenzori mountains in Central Africa with a man I hardly knew.  As we approached the mountain, concealed in cloud, the glaciers and rock peaks appeared suddenly out of the swirling mist, hovering in the sky like a divine revelation. I was hooked.  Stephen Kelsey and I spent two weeks climbing every summit in the range, not seeing another person in all that time.

The following July vacation, for the second year running, I convinced the History Department to allow me to write delayed exams. I linked up with Stephen again and headed for Bolivia, for my first encounter with a real mountain range, the Andes, and with real altitude, up to 6,000 metres. I hared up the slopes, trying to keep up with the boys, and promptly went down with altitude sickness. I watched, I learnt, I got cold, tired and frightened and I loved every minute of it.

I swotted for the history exam on the plane back from South America. When I complained to one of my History professors that I never seemed to quite crack firsts, he told me dryly that if I could bring to my History the passion I expended on my climbing, I would have no problems.

Reaching the foot of the Third Step brought my mind back to the job at hand. It proved easy rock-climbing, and got Ian off my heels. The snow slope was not much worse. At least you had an obvious height gain with each step. In these last two seasons, I had watched many little figures tiptoe up this slope, visible from both base camp and ABC. I looked out, across and down the great basin of air held in the arms of the north and west ridges of Everest. From the glacial pool at the foot of the north face an ever thinner stream of ice wound its way north. And somewhere just beyond its end, at the beginning of the dusty plains of Tibet, lay base camp, invisible to the eye. There Padam would be anxiously watching our progress. Did anyone else even know we were up here? Camp 1 was closer and clearer, a tiny mass of faint colour on the snow below Changste and Everest. Phuri would be sitting in the doorway of the tent, watching. ABC was invisible on the rocks. Perhaps Russell was down there watching, waiting to see if the season would end peacefully, or in one final disaster he would be called on to sort out. 

But if disaster struck us now, no one would be able to come to our aid. We were so high, trespassing on the edge of space, that we were beyond all human aid, except what we could offer each other. That, too, was severely limited. 

Even now, the mountain never ceased to surprise. We did not simply climb up the snow slope onto a snowy summit ridge. Instead, we moved off to the right, onto yet another rocky traverse. Now we were directly above the centre of the north face, seemingly headed straight for the west ridge. We were crossing the very apex of an enormous pyramid. The face fell away and down, very distinctly down, for 3,600 metres. It was like standing on the summit of the highest mountain in South Africa, looking straight down at the sea. It was a hugely exhilarating place to be. The entire world lay at our feet, stretching out and away. 

As a teenager even cable cars and glass-faced lifts frightened me. One classic epic in my second year of rock-climbing involved an overhanging jam crack with 45 metres of air below it. Terrified of swinging out into space if I fell off, I burrowed into the crack, refused to move in any direction, and burst into tears. The leader, with infinite patience, slowly coaxed me up, move by move. I rewarded that patience by finally clawing my way over the top of the cliff and absolutely refusing to do the 50 metre free abseil back into the gorge. To return to our campsite he and I were forced to walk cross country for five kilometres, without torches.

However, as I climbed more, my fear of heights lessened. I took to cleaning windows of high-rise buildings to earn money for my climbing trips. I would hang on an abseil rope, rubbing away at the giant glass walls, listening to my English setworks on audio tape. Nauseated executives sometimes had to leave their offices rather than watch me hanging around outside their windows. 

Fear of heights never goes completely. To lose that nervousness would be to become overconfident. However, one learns to control it, to distinguish between genuine danger and unhelpful psychological terror. From the moment we can crawl a voice from the heavens is telling us not to clamber up the stairs, or not to climb into that tree. We’ll fall and hurt ourselves. The adults are right. We probably will. At the age of two I tried walking around the landing of my parent’s staircase with a pink blanket over my head. It made sense at the time. I walked off the edge and was saved from nasty injury by bouncing off some cushions. 

However, the fear can become so ingrained that it overwhelms our common sense, prevents us from doing what we would like to do with our lives. Despite having spent three seasons on Everest, the only time I have come close to killing myself was in the Swiss Alps. While abseiling off a rock route, I tried to reach an anchor point that was just too far from me. The end of the rope slipped through my hand. Unfortunately the ground was still 100 metres below me. It was an error born of carelessness and overconfidence. I had already abseiled hundreds of pitches that summer. As I fell, I managed to hook my elbow over a passing tree stump. I would live to climb another day.

Jangbu turned towards the rock and began a steep scramble up the final slope. I followed up this unexpected rock challenge. It was a straightforward but exposed set of diagonal scrambles. I pulled up onto the snow ridge at the top of the face and looked expectantly to my right. I saw Jangbu moving ahead with steady determination, a trail of footprints in the snow. No summit yet, and no indication of how much further it would be. There was nothing to do but keep climbing. 

When I left university at the end of 1991 I had a degree in History, History of Art and Classical Civilisation. I’d had great fun getting it but had no idea what to do with it. I dithered between honours in History and a year climbing in Europe. Not a hard choice to make, I spent the British winter selling climbing equipment in London and the next summer camped in the French Alps. I linked up with a sweet traffic officer from Birmingham and talked him into trying a 16 pitch rock route. At the end of the first pitch he was looking pale and said I’d have to lead the whole route. I stared back at him. I had never done anything of this magnitude without a more experienced partner. As I hauled him up it, pitch by pitch, we watched avalanches come crashing off the Freney pillar. I was exhilarated by the situation and by the responsibility. He was very quiet and looked a little green. We reached the top of the rock pinnacle and then abseiled back down to the ground. He staggered back to camp and had a hernia. 

I found other partners and kept climbing. We didn’t do anything spectacular, just lots of it. Climbing with strangers, I had to take responsibility for us both, no matter what they claimed to have climbed before. Climbing is as much a mental game as a physical one. It is an intricate jigsaw puzzle of multi-faceted bits of challenge that need to be fitted together to create a harmonious whole. Mountaineering becomes a much larger extension of that. I now needed just one more piece to make my Everest jigsaw complete. 

I crested a small rise and saw a series of little dips and rises, finally rising to a peak. On its left was a vertical drop down the Kangshung face. On its right it sloped away gently. A curved line of footprints, left by teams from the three previous days, ran like a confetti trail to the top. Jangbu pointed enthusiastically and shouted. I couldn’t hear his words but I knew what he meant There was the final piece to my jigsaw. We were going to make it!

I turned and looked back. Ian and Pemba were at the top of the rock. We were all going to make it. I followed after Jangbu, finding the last section less tiring than I had anticipated. Finally the trail of footprints curved up and left to a marker – a photograph of the Dalai Lama, facing north over the plains of Tibet. A Sherpa had left it there three days previously. I stopped next to Jangbu,  and looked  at my watch. It was 8 a.m. We had made a fast ascent. It was 29 May 1999, three years and four days since our last summit, exactly 46 years since the mountain had first been climbed.

We were immediately hit by a cold wind from the south. Taking off my rucksack, I pulled my down jacket back on, and grabbed my camera. First I took the 360 degree panorama of the view from the top that we had not got in 1996. Then I took pictures of Ian and Pemba, little orange and yellow figures moving up the fluted snow ridge towards us. Then pictures of Jangbu as he posed on the very top. 

Ian began to yell at us. The summit sits right on the edge of the Kangshung face, and is partly corniced over it. From his position on the ridge he could see we were straying onto the corniced section. We moved back to solid ground.

Looking around, we had a clear day with a little low cloud in the valleys. The portrait of the Dalai Lama was framed with prayer scarves and prayer flags lay on either side. The tripod that had marked the summit in 1996 was now about half a metre down on the south side. Footprints led off down the ridge towards the south. 

Pemba joined us and immediately pulled out a radio to call down to Phuri and Padam. He was off in an excited chatter of Nepalese. He had finally achieved the summit that he had sacrificed the year before to accompany us down the mountain.

Ian came up after him.

‘I don’t like this,’ he announced. ‘I want to get out of here.’

We needed to get down to business. I pulled out the pile of sponsors’ flags that needed to be photographed. Ian took the photographs. Pemba and I held the flags, with Jangbu standing behind. The lurking fear was that I would miss one, crumpled in some corner of the rucksack. I had to get this right, because there wouldn’t be another chance.

Then I pulled out the video camera for a few hasty shots, rather wobbly panoramas, and then Ian talking to Padam on the radio. Ian took the camera and pointed it at me.

‘Take off your oxygen mask,’ he yelled. I did and sat there feeling blank, forgetting that this was video and I should be saying something. 

Ian and Pemba got ready to leave. The wind was taking its toll. After eight hours of steady exertion, we all got cold quickly standing still. However good the weather, we could not underestimate the danger of the descent. Four people had died on Everest this season, every one descending from the summit.

I saw two flags we had missed and said Jangbu and I would stay just a few minutes longer. Jangbu and I finished up the last of the photographs. I had hoped that this second time to the top of the world I would be able to sit down, just for a few minutes, and soak up the feeling of being there. Because there isn’t going to be a third time. But in the end it was too cold. Having spent 45 minutes on the summit I turned to leave, the last of the four of us to go.

In some senses the summit was, perhaps inevitably, an anticlimax. The coldness of the wind and Ian’s edginess both unsettled the experience. In some ways I was too busy taking pictures to just look at where I was. In fact it is impossible to freeze-frame a moment of your life, to put the emotions in a jar so they can be savoured for ever after. 

There was less of the incoherent wonder of 1996, less of the incredible celebration at base camp and at home. Once I had left camp 3, just eight hours before, and seen how good the weather was, I had been basically confident of reaching the summit.  But that had its own virtues. In place of wonder was confidence and experience. The 1996 expedition had dropped out of the sky, a miraculous gift. This one had been my expedition from first conception to this summit. This was the culmination of two years of work, of planning, of training, of climbing, of just keeping on trying. That was a greater summit than the pile of snow that lay on top of the mountain.

Climbing down the ridge was spectacularly beautiful. We were once more out of the wind, moving in idyllic conditions. I got to photograph everything I had missed in the dark on the way up. Ian and Pemba were ahead, providing two figures, yellow and orange, to pose against the dramatic swirls of the corniced ridge. As one film ended it got pulled out and stuffed in the pocket of my jacket. Another canister was pulled open with my teeth and jammed into the SLR. 

Sometimes I had to remind myself just to stop and look, rather than photograph, to appreciate the moment, rather than always trying to record it for future appreciation. And sometimes I had to remember to forget the photography and concentrate on the climbing. One error and all this could yet end in disaster.

With the confidence that comes of returning home, rather than venturing into the unknown, I enjoyed the rock traverses, revelling in their exposed positions. The Second Step was as unhelpful in the descent as it had been in the ascent, but the rest was simply great fun. 

Crossing the traverse in full daylight, I could now appreciate just how exposed and narrow it was. Somewhere, several hundred feet below me lay the body of George Mallory, who had fallen to his death 75 years previously, and been discovered by the Americans a few weeks before. There, too, lay the bodies of many others. I could now see why. With the route narrow and loose, the chance for error was considerable. An able climber, tired, moving quickly and unroped, had only to make one slight mistake, to slip, to stumble, to find himself tumbling down those steep slopes. A fall might not be immediately fatal but anything that left one basically immobile was a virtual death sentence this high on Everest. 

The dreams of many mountaineers had come to an abrupt end on these summit slopes. I stood on the top of the First Step, and looked down onto Fran, lying at its bottom. She had slumped down from the sitting position we had left her in, but otherwise she was just the same. And now she would be there for eternity. What for us was a beautiful descent had been for her an ever growing nightmare. 

Yet as I walked on along the ridge I wondered at the turn fate had dealt us. Ian and I had always assumed that, if we had not encountered Fran on 24 May 1998, we would have climbed on and reached the summit. We would have been spared another year of waiting, another entire expedition to fund, organise, and climb on. But now I was not so sure. We had climbed this year in supremely good conditions, no wind, high temperatures. The previous year had been different. Even as I had approached the foot of the First Step the wind and the cold had been slowly eating away at my reserves. I knew now, and Ian was later to agree with me, that we had underestimated the difficulty of the climb from the First Step to the summit. Last year, given our uncertain start, the poor weather and our misjudgement of the route, would we in fact have reached the summit, if Fran had not stopped us? I began to doubt it. I think we might have ground to a halt, too cold, too disconcerted by the difficulties, and have turned back. And had we turned back in such circumstances, it was most unlikely that we would ever have bothered to return. In a strange way, it had all turned out for the best. 

We were back at camp 3 by 1 p.m. I was now thoroughly tired. We had been on the move for over 12 hours. Ian and I collapsed into our tent and drank warm juice while slowly beginning to pack up. However, ‘slowly’ was not in the vocabulary of Pemba and Jangbu. For them it was time to go home, right now. The tent was more or less taken down round us, the sleeping mats rolled up from under our backsides. We piled our rucksacks high, and then set off down the mountain. This was less like fun. I was deeply tired, running on too little food, too little water, and carrying too much kit. My back hurt, my feet hurt. And just after that the spell of good weather that had seen teams summit every day for the previous four days, ended. Abruptly. The season was over. We had made it by a mere six hours.

First it began to snow lightly. That was almost a pleasure, as once again I was feeling overdressed in a full down suit. Then the grey clouds closed in around us, and the wind began to blow. The temperature was falling rapidly. My shoulders were aching from the weight. With a down suit and a climbing harness in the way, it was almost impossible to get the weight of the rucksack onto my hips. We plodded stoically down the snowy slopes. 

Phuri had climbed up from camp 1 and met us at 7,900 metres. The other two headed on down while he gave us some hot juice and took some of our load. We took our crampons off and prepared to descend the rock ridge to camp 2. This was where conditions became truly unpleasant. The snow had stopped but the wind began to howl. The scree of the rock ridge had formed an icy skin over ground damp from the earlier snowfall. The surface was desperately slippery. The safety rope was also frozen, at times with a rind of ice on its windward side thicker than the rope itself. Time and again my foot would hit an ice patch and I would slip, crashing onto my butt. The rucksack would swing wildly across my back, pinning me under its weight. Tired, miserable, generally cross, I would sit in a huff, trying to find the energy to pull myself together and keep moving.

I would struggle onto my knees only to be knocked sideways by a brutal gust. The exposed north ridge left us open to the full fury of the west wind. More than once I turned my back to it, and huddled down to wait out the spell. Seeking sympathy for my misery, I pulled out my wind metre to confirm that conditions were as bad as they felt. They were. Winds were gusting up to 86 kilometres per hour, and the wind-chill temperature was -40°C. My greatest worry was whether the camp 2 tent was still there, not blown away in the wind. 

The agony seemed endless, an unmitigated nightmare. The ridge stretched on forever. We were the only people alive in an icy hell, without beginning, without end. Just as I was about to drown in my own drama, the ridge grudgingly came to an end. I sat down in the lee of a big boulder to put crampons back on. The tent, which was mercifully still there, was only some 10 metres away, but with my load and my exhaustion, I was not about to risk a slip on the icy snow. 

I finally collapsed in the camp 2 tent at 6 p.m., frozen, drained, the nasty end to 18 hours of climbing. Ian stumbled in a while later. His voice was almost totally gone. He lay unmoving across the tent floor, a cold, heavy heap. 

I found a spare bottle of oxygen, put my mask onto it, and pushed it towards him.

‘What’s this?’ he mumbled.

‘Oxygen. Just take it. It’ll help’.

‘I can’t breath,’ he whispered. ‘My chest has closed up. I can’t get any air.’ 

Four hours of climbing into the icy cold wind had proved the final straw for Ian’s lingering chest infection. I bullied him out of his outer clothes and boots, and into his sleeping bag. Then I turned to the problem of liquid. Both stoves were frozen solid. The lighters could barely raise a spark. And there was no snow in the tent bell clean enough to risk melting for drinking. Ian was dead to the world. I simply was not going outside again to fetch snow. 

I slumped down on my sleeping bag. Tears of exhaustion trickled down my cheeks. Ian took over the role of bully long enough to get me to give up on the stoves, and get into my sleeping bag. Enough was enough. The day was over. We both slept like the dead.

We woke to howling wind. The clouds had cleared and the sun was shining. However, the wind wailed on and temperatures were low. I would have given a lot not to have to climb on down that day, but that is the nature of mountaineering. You always have to have enough left to get back to the bottom. We dressed, packed and prepared to leave. I ate half a packet of Super Cs. The stoves were still refusing to work. The water in our bottles was mostly frozen, leaving only a few trickles to pour down our throats. I noticed that the urine in my pee bottle was totally opaque and dark orange. I was badly dehydrated, but felt neither thirsty nor hungry. I was now digging deep into my reserves.

Ian was ready first and set off into the wind, leaving me putting crampons on and sorting my outer gloves. When I stood up outside, it was totally still. I put my Goretex overmitts and camera on top of the bell of Russell’s tent, which still stood next to ours. A gust came up, grabbing one of the gloves. I watched it tumble down the snow slope, straight over the edge of the ridge towards the glacier. We were not out of it yet. 

A few hours later we were 500 metres further down, sitting at camp 1. The great ice cliff that protected the campsite sheltered us from the wind. I felt warm again for the first time in 18 hours. Pemba and Jangbu had stripped camp 1 and were waiting for Phuri to bring down the last of camp 2. They had a stove going and I was pouring hot juice and coffee down my throat. My hunger was back with a vengeance. I hadn’t eaten for 90 hours and had lost four or five kilograms in that time. Now I was stuffing my face - whole-wheat digestives, Melrose cheese wedges, Koo fruit, biltong - all the pleasures of home.

I felt that it was now finally ‘over’, that the expedition could be called safe and successful. But Ian refused to agree. We had to reach the glacier first, had to be off all the mountain slopes. There were still the steep ice slopes below camp 1 to negotiate, with a final challenge. The general high temperatures were melting the top layer of ice. The anchors, generally icescrews, which secured the safety ropes were all coming loose. We needed to descend with particular care.

It was a slow process as we let our tiredness set the pace. There was no need to push now. At the top of the abseil, where once the Tibetans had poured over me, the Sherpas caught up with us. We stood aside to let them pass, and they descended one by one. Their style said so much about the character of each of them.

Pemba came swinging past with a cheerful greeting: ‘Okay, Bara sahib, okay, Didi?’ With little preamble he swung himself over the edge, with solid, purposeful gestures. His feet hit hard into the ice wall, assured, deliberate. There was no sign of the shy young man of the 1996 expedition. He had grown to be a superb mountaineer, confident and competent. He was more than that, though. He had a sense of responsibility for others, a care for their welfare that made him an excellent sirdar. Although our team of Sherpas was a group of equals, Pemba’s voice was the one heard most often.

Phuri went down second. Jangbu checked his abseil set-up for him, for he was still new to these more technical matters. He dropped over the edge with a worried frown and a huge grin. He flailed all over the place as he descended, still technically amateur but yet with an ingrained confidence in this vast mountain environment. Next year he hoped to get a place as a summit Sherpa on an Everest team. Sadly, it would not be one of ours, but it had been a pleasure to watch the ABC cook gradually transformed into a summit climber.

Jangbu went last, his movements small and precise, his face composed, his emotions unreadable. He floated down the wall, each crampon meticulously placed, just the frontpoints grazing the ice. He had reached the summit of Everest four times, three times on our expeditions. He was now a married man. New challenges spread out in front of him

These men, with their enormous physical strength, capacity for endurance and balanced temperaments, had allowed us to complete these expeditions. We could not have done it without their aid. I used to think their physical ability was simply the result of their environment. Where we grew up behind school desks and travelling in cars, they walked the precipitous slopes of the Himalaya, breathing the thin mountain air. But now, particularly having watched Phuri so rapidly extend his mountain experience, it felt to me as if it was something more intangible than that. Some of the Sherpas seemed to have a psychological affinity for the mountains, a capacity for belonging that we would never have. Russell, with his vast Everest experience, perhaps came closest to it. We would always be aliens, trespassing where we should not go. 

In the years that I had been associated with Everest, the Sherpas had increasingly been asserting their own identity as superb high-altitude mountaineers, rather than living in the shadow of the foreigners. Earlier in the season Babu Tshering Sherpa had climbed to the summit from the south side and had camped there for over 21 hours, without oxygen. The previous season, in October 1998, Kaji Sherpa had climbed from south side base camp to the summit in 20 hours and 24 minutes, the fastest ascent ever. Ang Rita Sherpa and Apa Sherpa were tied for the most ascents of Everest, with 10 summits each. The profile of Sherpas such as these is high in their home country. The rest of the world is also beginning to wake up to their ability, and to their contribution to Everest ascents. 

I could not have made my ascents of the mountain without their assistance. I could also not have got the same enjoyment out of those ascents without their company, their even temperaments, their gentle humour. They were the people to whom these mountains truly belonged.

Two days later we were all back at base camp, with all our equipment. We received an emotional welcome from Padam, who had spent two long and lonely weeks trying to stop yak herders liberating our equipment at every opportunity. Padam did not speak the Sherpa language, and so could not talk to the Tibetans. The herders would open tent zips and look under flaps, whether the tents were occupied or not. If caught, they simply backed off with a huge grin and nipped round the back to try again. 

Already the mountain was moving into our past, our eyes were refocusing on the future. We had spoken to family and the media back home. I had washed off five weeks of dirt in Russell’s hot shower. The results were heavenly - clean, fragrant skin and hair that was not stuck together all the time. The trucks would be arriving in two days time to take us away, back to the lowlands, to greenery and people. I was ready to go. I wanted warmth and no wind, no coughing and normal food. I wanted to move on.

But first came the party, one last celebration of the mountain and its people. We joined with Russell’s team, who had got six to the summit. Helge had done up one of his tents as the ‘Chomolungma Castle’, complete with party hats, streamers, balloons and prayer flags. Russell appeared in a jacket, made out of goatskin, and a tie, made of the carry rope for the water bottles. He brought out the French champagne, and team members, Sherpas, and support staff crowded into the tent to celebrate. The Tibetan Mountaineering Association officials appeared to hand out silver-white prayer scarves, so long they almost reached the ground. Later we danced to ABBA, while the Sherpas ran around outside firing rockets into the air. 

We drove out of base camp at 5 a.m. two days later. The mountain was partly obscured by pink cloud but the summit was clear and the very first rays of sun were catching the ridge. The summit hung above the cloud, a golden jewel suspended in the sky. At last the pressure was off, the expedition was over and highly successful. We had done all we had set out to do. During the hard days of climbing high on the mountain there had been little time to reflect over what we had achieved. The focus was always on the immediate moment, and on that to follow it. But now, at last, things were beginning to sink in.

I had made it. 

By the end of the spring season of 1996 there had been 835 ascents of Everest and I had been the 39th woman ever to have reached the summit. By the time we drove away in 1999 there had been 1 173 ascents and 52 women had reached the highest point in the world. But the summit of Everest from both the south and the north – I was first woman ever to achieve that. It was not bad for a girl from a land of sun and beaches, at the southern tip of the African continent, who just three-and-a-half years earlier had looked at the Sunday Times and wondered if she should send in an application for an Everest expedition led by some man she had never heard of. 

I had sent in that application because I loved the mountains, and because I didn’t want to spend to rest of my life merely wondering what would have happened if I had applied. Perhaps somewhere in a parallel universe is another me who didn’t apply and now lives a totally different life. I wouldn’t swap places with her. Although I waded through many kinds of difficulty, nothing even began to outweigh the joy of experience that I gained.

The record as the first woman was something special, something fun to have achieved, but it occurred almost by accident. What I have that I cherish most is three-and-a-half years of life lived to the full, of memories, of experiences, of knowledge of the world and of myself. I remember sunrises, special vistas, moments of laughter, more clearly than I do the summits.

Why climb Everest at all? And why on earth climb it twice? 

Just for the love of it.

And there it was to have ended. No More Everest! I was very clear about that. I even went ahead and wrote the book that would be the final account of my Everest years, the book that you have just been reading. And yet... life never turns out quite as one might expect. 


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