Chapter 4

The voice of the wind

I stood, alone, in the middle of an immense valley, dwarfed by the giant slopes on either side. The Nuptse ridge rose up in a gargantuan sweep of fluted snow, ice and rock, the sun reflecting off the icy slopes as off burnished silver. The west ridge of Everest was a more sedate affair, bulging snow slopes rising in waves towards the crest. Slowly coming into view in the distance was the south-west face of Lhotse. It hung like a giant white veil of ice, sweeping down from the rocky tiara that crowned the face. Clouds formed and dispersed, as if torn by relentless indecision whether to fill the valley or abandon it. 

I was alone on an alien planet, guided only by a line of marker wands, strips of red cloth tied to thin poles. The valley was riven by huge crevasses, mostly hidden by bridges of snow. The wands indicated which bits of the seamless white surface rested on hundreds of metres of solid compacted snow rather than on thin air. 

I had decided that if I waited for the men to return from camp 2, I would fall hopelessly behind in acclimatisation. I was not going to give up that easily, so I was climbing up to the 6 500 metre camp on my own. Regaining the initiative was exciting, but the vast scale of the world I was moving through was intimidating. I felt very small and solitary.

I saw two small figures moving towards me, one substantial, one slight, Bruce and Ian. They were on their way down to base camp. We stopped for a few minutes, passed round a water bottle, caught up on the news of the past few days. Then we went our separate ways. 

The featureless snow plain seemed to stretch on to infinity. I appeared to be taking the same step over and over again. The clouds had dissipated and the sun was hammering down on the valley, reflected back by the snow. With no wind the heat built up as in an oven. I pushed up the sleeves of my thermal top and cursed the sweaty warmth of the black fleece salopettes I was wearing. My feet, encased in double boots designed to keep them warm in extreme cold, were now swimming in burning sweat. I draped a scarf across my face and neck and plodded on. 

Each time I sat down for a rest, leaning back against my pack rather than bothering to take it off, my backside rapidly became numb with cold, while the rest of me steamed gently. I pulled out more sunblock from my rucksack and smeared it on to my sweaty, dirty skin. There was a long way to go before my next bath. I had to be crazy. 

Then I remembered I could have been standing up at 7.45 a.m. to lecture 200 bored first-year journalism students about the history of the South African press. Maybe there were worse things in life than climbing Everest. With the encouraging thought that however bad it got, I was unlikely to be asked to explain, yet again, the structure of the English press, I trudged on.

I stumbled slowly up the final moraine slopes and flopped into my tent like a stranded fish. The French climber who was camped next door sent over a thermos flask of tea. Given that at this altitude water was obtained by melting ice on a gas-powered stove, a time-consuming process, a ready-made flask of tea was a treasure.

I spent an uncomfortable night. Insomnia and nausea made sure I got little sleep. I lay awake in the darkness listening to music. Once Tchaikovsky had been rescued from sounding like a slow-motion death wail by warming up the walkman batteries against the skin of my stomach, the music provided an escape into another world. Eventually even that began to pall. The tiny green glow of my digital watch was the only thing that proved that time was actually passing, rather than having been forever suspended. Looking at it yet again I realised several hours had vanished. It dawned on me, to my considerable disgust, that I had been sleeping while dreaming about lying awake being unable to sleep. 

The next morning I finally emerged, mole-like, to survey the camp scene: rock, ice, sky, cloud, and a scattering of tiny many-coloured tents huddled together. The various expeditions were camped on one or other of two rock ridges. A street of ice ran between them. The head of the valley was dominated by the huge ice wall sweeping up to the rocky summit ridge of Lhotse. A trail of black dots crawled up an invisible line in the middle of the face, like a train of ants following their own mysterious path up the white tiles of a kitchen wall. I wondered if I would ever make it up that far. However, my solo ascent had boosted my confidence considerably. Up to now camp 2 had been my goal. Based on my previous experience, I had been confident that that was within my grasp. Now I was beginning to set my sights higher. Camp 3 was the next marker. I could see the tiny black dots, clustered in tiers above each other. They were taking shelter in a line of bulging ice pinnacles, seracs, which swept down in hanging waves from the summit of Lhotse. Sometimes I fantasised about being on the summit or about how it would feel to be coming down - never about going up. Mostly I thought about it all in little chunks - each manageable on its own, even if they were a bit much put together. However, all that would have to wait for the next ascent. I spent one more uncomfortable night at 6,500 metres and then headed back to base. 

Four days later we were all back at camp 2. This would now be our base for the rest of the expedition. Deshun, still waiting for news of her permit place, remained unhappily at base camp with Philip, who was acting as base camp manager and technician. Camp 2 was a lot more fun with company. Bruce proved a constant source of amusement. After mountains and photography, his two main interests seemed to be tea and women. The standard procedure with tea was to down six or seven cups at breakfast and then throw it up again about half an hour into the climbing day. He saw this as perfectly logical. Even half way up Everest, he still had an eye for a pretty woman, particularly one of the Americans who tended to cross the western cwm in nothing but full-length red thermal underwear and a harness. Most unusual were his ‘lucky under-rods’. They had apparently been to Antarctica three times, and all over the Himalaya. He always wore them on expedition. 

After one rest day we set out for a day trip to camp 3, set at 7,400 metres, in order to acclimatise further. The massive bulk of Lhotse dominated the camp at all times, a giant face of glistening ice with a crown of jagged granite rock. It was brilliant white during the day, deep gold fading into rose at sunset, radiant silver at night. And it was big. 

I lay alone in the darkness of my tent the night before we left camp 2, questions creeping stealthily into my sleep-deprived mind. What if it was just too far, too steep, too high? I pushed the ever more demoralising thoughts away, and waited for morning.

I followed the others up to the head of the glacier, the Lhotse face hanging in front of me like a giant frosty curtain. As I approached its foot, the deep blue shadow of the valley seemed to deepen, until the cold penetrated my bones. My body seemed only to work in slow motion, as if moving through water. It was the insidious effect of the altitude, the invisible enemy, tangible only in the failure of my body to work properly.

The foot of the face was marked by the bergschrund (a giant crevasse) and a demolition site of avalanche debris. Gravity and cold were constantly at war on the mountain. As soon as the icy grip eased on any of the rocks or ice blocks frozen into the face, they began the rapid tumble down the slippery slope.

We crossed the bergschrund by means of a narrow bridge of snow. The far side was a five metre high ice cliff, breached by a diagonal crack line. I enjoyed the technical challenge of the climb, the careful balancing against the chandelier-like ice formations. Once we were on the Lhotse face, the route moved up in waves, long sections of steep climbing broken by smaller but precipitous ice steps. We climbed on the left-hand edge of the huge stacking of seracs, a nine-millimetre line of rope providing a safety line.

It felt like climbing on a giant treadmill. It became a test of will, of my ability to continue to put one increasingly heavy foot in front of the other, to keep my hand sliding up the rope, to keep moving upwards. However, for the first time I was gaining height rapidly. The cwm slowly assumed its true proportions of a small valley cradled between two huge ridges. The Himalaya west of us became visible, a view of dozens of mountains, presided over by the massive presence of Cho Oyu, sixth highest mountain in the world. I paused to drink it all in: the grandeur of the Himalaya, the brutal blackness of the south-west face of Everest contrasted against the ethereal icy sweep of the slopes of Nuptse. It was all so beautiful. It was hard to believe that it was really me, high up on the slopes of the world’s highest mountain. It seemed impossible that all this had come true for me.

‘Stop there,’ Bruce said. ‘It’s a brilliant background for a photo.’

‘Is it going to make me look way hard, Bruce?’ I teased. ‘It’s all right for you guys, a bit of ice in the beard and you look like rugged explorer types.’ I still felt a little apart from these men, with their experience and confidence. However, I felt a rising sense of belief in myself. I expected though, at some point to crash into my limits, to finally find that the challenge had become too difficult for me. But, so far, nothing had approached those boundaries. 

Once we had returned to camp 2, the question of what was to happen next was endlessly debated. Ang Dorje said the Sherpas needed three more days to finish moving all the necessary loads up to camp 4, and then a rest day. The weather seemed to be settling. If Everest followed its normal pattern, we should have a good two weeks of stable weather coming. As the Sherpas climbed direct from camp 2 to camp 4, a concept that boggled my mind, we would go again in three days time.

In the next few days the Swedish climber and a Spanish team tried for the summit and were defeated by deep snow. The weather remained erratic, with periodic high winds which sounded like an express train howling past on the horizon. From our camp we could glimpse the south col, the 8,000 metre pass between Everest and Lhotse where camp 4 was situated. Although it would be utterly still at camp 2, spindrift would be whipping off the mountains and off the col like an immense white Buddhist prayer scarf. At times it would drop down across the Lhotse face, whipping up whirlwinds of snow. 

Then a message came up from base camp, passed from Rob Hall’s team to us via Henry Todd, a British expedition leader with whom we were friendly. The IMAX team, who were making a wide-screen movie of climbing Everest, would be filming up to camp 4 on the 7th, 8th and 9th. Rob Hall would organise to fix ropes on the summit ridge on the 10th, and then Rob Hall and Scott Fischer would move their clients up to the summit over the next two days. Hall and Fischer wanted the mountain clear on the 10th and 11th and were wondering where we would be.

The fairly blunt answer was that where we would be depended on what the weather was doing, although we were likely to be between summit bids. Booking summit slots a week in advance seemed rather cocky. The mountain and its weather dictated the climbing schedules. We had no desire to get involved with the bigger teams. We did not want to use their summit ropes, or to shadow them up the ridge. We just wanted to be left alone to look after ourselves.

That flurry of excitement over, the hours stretched on. There was no symbiosis between my tape collection and Ian’s. His was full of things like Beautiful South and the Cranberries, mine with Tchaikovsky and Verdi. The only books around were the autobiography of the British explorer Ranulph Fiennes and the second volume of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs. I read and reread Fiennes’ book until I virtually knew it by heart. The thing that struck me most strongly was his sheer bloody-minded determination to see something through. I was to need some of that myself in the weeks that followed.  

However, the most obvious source of entertainment was the IMAX team, who was camped across the way from us in a small city of yellow tents. Of great value as an object of speculation was expedition leader and film director David Breashears. David, with a multi-million dollar budget at his disposal to make his movie, took his job very seriously. He had descended upon each of the teams at camp 2 to announce that he would be filming higher on the mountain and to request their co-operation. Mal’s team had been honoured with a visit, as had Peter Athans’s American team. We waited in suspense to see if we too would be treated to a royal command performance. But to date nothing had come of it.

We were reduced to listening to David’s frequent radio calls to the United States. Indeed, we could not avoid listening to them, given the volume at which they were carried out. They always followed the same ritual, with David pacing backwards and forwards across the moraine, shouting into his radio in his broad accent about his latest movie deal, or buying and selling stocks on Wall Street.

We sat and waited for the winds to die. We were packed and ready to go, but we would never know for sure when we turned in each night whether we would be going climbing the next day or not. I hated the pendulum-like changes of plan, from being all psyched up to move back up the mountain to suddenly being faced with another long day of doing nothing but getting psyched up for the day to follow. I found the waiting tougher than the climbing.

I was feeling more and more grumpy. I really wanted a big hug and to cry on somebody’s shoulder. Bruce would probably have taken it too seriously and Ian was out of the question. I found Ian curiously attractive. Perhaps it was simply the enigma of his personality, perhaps the intensity of his drive. He could be very charming when he wished to be, and curiously kind. His rare smiles made his whole face light up.

Then came the news that Deshun was on the permit. The ministry, unable to get hold of our team at base camp, had faxed the news through to South Africa. Ian seemed uninterested.

‘I’ll believe it when I receive a fax from the ministry,’ he said. ‘As leader I am the only person who can be officially informed.’

He looked at me with that curious closed look he has, when he has pulled his shutters down. All my tension from the past days swelled up in a giant surge of anger. I was speechless with fury. I wanted to scream at him, to smash those shutters, to force him to acknowledge that the rest of us existed too. 

Underneath the pulsing anger, a small, calm voice of reason spoke. We were, hopefully, only days away from the summit. This was no time to have a pitched battle with a fellow team member. In furious silence I withdrew from the tent and stalked off up the glacier. All the things I wished I’d said to Ian hammered through my head. I wandered among the rocks and ice pinnacles that stood at the edge of the moraine, kicking at pebbles. I tried to understand why one stupid comment should have produced such an irrationally angry reaction in me. What was it that was really worrying me?

I felt marginalized, peripheral to the team. I knew that it was partly spatial. Ian and Bruce shared a tent and much of the decision-making happened informally as they lay together, chatting over events. But still I felt left out. 

Eventually my patience with self-pity ran out. I didn’t want to go back to my camp, to sit alone in my tent, or to face Ian’s complete failure to notice that he had even made me angry. I wandered disconsolately across the ice until a Danish climber invited me over to their mess tent. I spent the afternoon with their team, trading stories of climbing round the world, and speculating about the weather. 

The next morning the wind was still blowing, if not as noisily as before. We decided to go up, although with little enthusiasm, and reached camp 3 in the late afternoon. It perched nerve-wrackingly on the edge of the slope, seated on a little platform chipped out of the ice. There was no flat ground around it, only the great sweep of the south-west face of Lhotse behind and the thin air of the western cwm in front. Bruce arrived before I did, and was busy arranging everything. 

‘Be careful,’ he fussed. ‘Don’t bring in any snow. Dust your boots off.’

‘Yes, Mum,’ I said and collapsed across his carefully organised tent floor.

It was the first time we three had shared a tent, and with three bodies and three sets of equipment, the result was warm but decidedly intimate. We had, by and large, to move one at a time and take care not to dislodge the equipment stacked carefully round the edges of the tent – food, gas bottles, oxygen bottles, personal kit. A subtle manoeuvring was started in order to stay away from the end where the stove was waiting. Somebody was going to end up with the time-consuming process of melting snow and ice to generate the many litres of liquids we each needed to drink. Ian took the bold move of simply lying across the tent and refusing to budge. I ensured I was trapped behind him at the back end of the tent. Bruce found himself sitting right next to the stove.

‘Make us a cup of coffee, won’t you, while you’re there?’ I said with a smile.

We were 36 hours from the summit of Everest, 36 hours from the culmination of the expedition. I settled down to sleep keyed up with nerves. I was glad to be sharing a tent. I drew confidence from the company. However, I was worried about the altitude. I repeatedly jerked awake, unable to breathe, with the terrible sensation of imminent suffocation. It was a typical symptom of altitude, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with. Eventually, at Bruce’s suggestion, I pulled out one of the orange oxygen cylinders. I put the soft leather mask over my face and tasted the strangely tangy oxygen-enriched air. I slept better that night than I had since first leaving base camp.

The next morning we seemed to be making an unprepossessing start. By 9.30 a.m. we were still mucking about trying to get ready. Our initiative seemed to be leaking away. The Sherpas had already climbed past on their way from camp 2 to camp 4. The pot was back on the boil and I poured us all another cup of tea. It was so much easier to lie back and do nothing than to keep moving towards eight hours of tough climbing.

Slowly the silence was filled by a strange strumming sound. The flanks of the tent began to shiver, the guy-ropes to hum. I peered out. Wind was howling across the fixed ropes. The debate began once more. If it was another windy spell, there was no point in going higher. We would only use up precious energy and supplies. But then again, it might only last an hour or two. We could not afford to delay that long. Maybe we should just climb through it.

As the wind howled, the conversation circled endlessly through the various options, and many cups of tea were consumed. We were sitting in a lazy doze when Bruce suddenly perked up.

‘Wind’s died. Listen to the silence.’

The wind had died, the sun was out, it was a beautiful day. However, it was too late to make a push for camp 4 and then expect to climb on that night. Staying one more night at camp 3 was the best option. We realised, though, that the Sherpas were going to be unimpressed. 

‘They’ll be wondering what sins they committed in their previous lives to have got stuck with us in this one,’ said Ian, as he tried to reach Ang Dorje on the radio.

Camp 2 seemed like a holiday camp in comparison to this tiny tent perched so hazardously on the steep slopes. There was no possibility of even going outside for a short walk. There was nothing to read, nowhere to go, no one new to talk to. Nothing to talk about. I peered out of the tent, seeking at least visual escape from the grey tent interior. The Himalaya stretched out to the west, row after row of icing-coated triangles, like a child’s drawing of mountains. As the sun set the triangles slowly turned golden and then were engulfed by the rising cloud layer. It was a beautiful night and felt as if it might be a sadly lost chance for the summit. However, Philip provided an excellent forecast from the Danish satellite weather system. They predicted four days of no wind and clear weather. It looked as though this was indeed to be our window.

I settled down for another night, determined not to use one of our three remaining bottles of oxygen. The pattern of jerking awake to apparent imminent suffocation repeated itself. Time seemed to be slowing down. The thought of a whole night of it filled me with dread. My throat began to tighten with the lump of held-back tears. That made breathing more difficult. I began to panic, the lump grew. I was caught in a downward spiral. My windpipe seemed to be shrinking by the minute. Soon it would be as narrow as a thread. I would never get my breath back.

Ian sat up, pulled in a bottle from the tent’s bell and dumped it between us. The metal was icy to the touch but reassuring. He rapidly attached a mask to it and pushed it on to my face. My panic subsided as my lungs filled with air. I wouldn’t have minded an arm round my shoulders to tell me it was all going to be okay, but it seemed oxygen was all I would get.

The next morning we were lying in our snug sleeping bags, each waiting for someone else to make the effort of lighting the stoves for tea, when the stillness was broken by shouts from the Taiwanese camp pitched nearby. Bruce stuck his head out to find some Taiwanese Sherpas chattering excitedly and preparing to move back down the ropes. 

He pulled his head back in and looked at us with huge eyes.

‘One of the Taiwanese team has just fallen down the Lhotse face.’ 

It seemed that he had gone out of his tent, without putting on crampons or clipping in to the safety ropes and had slipped. Although he was alive when they found him, he died a few hours later.

I was horrified by the suddenness with which someone had simply ceased to be. It was such a careless way to die as if it made any difference how you died. However, I also felt a curious sense of relief. I knew the statistics, that there was on average one death per season on Everest. Maybe the mountain god would be satisfied and there would be no more deaths this season. What I hadn’t thought about was the fact that this season the Nepalese government had allowed far more climbers onto the mountain than in previous years. The statistics needed to be adjusted to take that into account.

Complacency was one of the biggest risks we faced. Humans are almost too adaptable. After so long in a vertical environment we had all become familiar with the steep slopes, the slick hard ice and soft wet snow. With the repetition came confidence. We had to be careful that confidence did not deteriorate into carelessness. In our normal lives we make mistakes all the time. It’s just that mostly the consequences are minimal. On Everest there was far less of a margin for error.

Shaken by the sudden death, we left camp 3 later than we had expected and joined the back of the trail of climbers. With the welcome onset of some good weather, four of the thirteen expeditions were on the move – the Taiwanese, Scott Fischer’s group, Rob Hall’s group and ourselves. We all hoped to leave for the summit that night.

I found myself walking in the footsteps of Scott Fischer, the giant, blond American leader who was climbing at the back of his string of clients. Each in turn crossed the steep icy traverse to the start of the yellow rock band, a wide strip of smooth, angled rock slabs. The rock-faces were scored with hundreds of tiny white scratches, the marks left by the crampons of numerous climbers. I was climbing on oxygen and the difference was noticeable in the growing gap between myself and Bruce and Ian behind me, who were not using it.

At each rest break, I looked out to my left. With each metre of height gained I could see more of the Himalaya, less of camp 2 now so far below me. That ever-increasing view was the reward for all the effort I was putting into the climbing. Whenever I grew despondent at the sheer volume of mountain that still remained above me, I had only to look out and marvel at how far I had already come to regain my confidence. 

However, the temperature was starting to drop and I needed to keep moving to stay warm. Scott was stopping his clients to bundle them into down jackets and I slowly passed them, one by one, as I traversed my way across the snow slope towards the rocky outcrop of the Geneva Spur. At the foot of the spur my oxygen ran out. I packed the mask into my rucksack and crouched down for a few moments, hands jammed into my armpits, fingers wriggling determinedly. Little flares of pain ran down my fingers as the numbness retreated. I slowly surmounted the loose rock of the spur and began to traverse round towards the great rock expanse of the south col. The fixed ropes that ran along the traverse became increasingly tatty and finally stopped altogether. The wind was picking up, and spindrift was beginning to swirl. I moved on as quickly as I could to find all the expeditions’ tents huddled together in a crescent moon, as if cowering away from the vast col. Our two tents made up the furthest point of the crescent. I scrambled gratefully into a tent, and burrowed my way into down jacket and sleeping bag. Within 10 minutes the wind was howling steadily, snow was blowing horizontally across the col and visibility was down to little more than six metres.

I waited alone in the tent. My sense of time was uncertain, but increasingly I felt sure that Bruce and Ian were not that far behind me. Outside the wind howled, whistling through the guy-lines and hammering against the tent fly. I peered through the flap and received eyes full of stinging spindrift for my trouble.

What to do? How long to wait? Ang Dorje passed over a thermos flask of hot, milky tea. 

‘I am worried for the men,’ I shouted across to him. ‘They should be here. Something is wrong.’

He gazed at me impassively and retreated into his tent. 

I drank the tea, ran increasingly dramatic disaster scenarios through my head and waited. I dozed lightly and lost all sense of time. I jerked out of an uneasy slumber to a hard banging against the tent. I hastily ripped open the door and pulled in Bruce. His black beard was frosted white, his body shaking with cold.

‘We got caught in the storm,’ he mumbled, through chattering teeth. ‘Ian pushed me into the first tent he could find. I don’t know where he is now.’

As he and Ian had pulled themselves over the crest of the Geneva Spur it had started to snow heavily. They had reached the end of the fixed ropes and had stared into a curtain of driving snow and cloud, unsure where exactly the camp lay. Staying close together, they had forced their way on through the white void, finally finding a modicum of shelter in the lee of a large boulder. Then, in a fleeting gap in the storm, Ian had seen the outline of a brightly coloured yellow tent. The occupants would only take one member, so he had shoved Bruce inside, and had moved on in search of shelter for himself.

I was squeezed even further into the corner of the small tent as the front entrance was thrown open once again and Ian stumbled in, helped by Ang Dorje and the force of the jet stream winds. He had dived into the tent of Scott Fischer. He told us that Rob Hall was definitely going for the summit that night and Scott would probably go as well. They expected the weather to improve.

Ian was trying to remove his clothing but seemed uncoordinated. His speech began to slur, becoming more and more disjointed. He seemed to be drifting in and out of reality. Suddenly he slumped onto my lap and lay still. Ang Dorje and I manhandled the dead weight into a sleeping bag. As Bruce concentrated on warming himself up, I lay next to Ian, rubbed his icy hands in mine and offered all I had to give, the heat of my body. I peered down into his face, so small as it lay surrounded by great billows of down sleeping bag. I noticed for the first time that his eyelashes, dark near the ends, were red at the roots. The skin around his eyes was so pale by contrast, the skin that had been protected behind his glacier glasses from the harsh glare of the high-altitude sun. He looked so fragile and I felt utterly helpless. Humans weren’t really meant to exist in this environment. We might simply trespass for a little while, but always at our peril.

I noticed him shift from unconsciousness to sleep, and he seemed briefly aware of me, as his hands tightened round mine. I continued to lie next to him. He and Bruce were both asleep. I was glad I was not there by myself. In that extreme environment I felt particularly drawn to touch people, to reaffirm my humanity by sharing it. 

Ian opened his eyes, looked into my anxious ones. I noticed that his eyes were grey, that he was wearing contact lenses. He reached up to touch my nose and say thank you. I laughed and ruffled his hair. We moved apart. The danger past, we retreated into our personal space. Yet, in some strange way, we had crossed an invisible line.

The danger past, we had to face up to what was to happen next. Ang Dorje and the Sherpas wanted to go for the summit. I felt good and strong, better than I had expected. I, too, wanted to go. I feared that every day spent waiting at this altitude would simply weaken me. Tomorrow the weather might change, the winds might rise again. Our chance would be gone. However, both Bruce and Ian were feeling battered and tired by their passage through the storm, and favoured another 24 hours of rest. None of us knew what to make of the weather.

This was it. The decision. Stay back and miss the summit or press on and risk the weather. I listened to the circling conversation, edgy and impatient. I wanted to go and would climb just with the Sherpas if I had to. However, I was reluctant to go without the other two, after all we had been through together. Was it more important to keep the team together, with the risk that no one would reach the summit, or to split the group to grab a summit chance? I didn’t know.

The Sherpas agreed to wait one more day. For better or worse, the decision was made. The wind died in the late evening and the spectacular Himalayan star pattern began to peep through the cloud. At 11.30 p.m. we watched as the other teams left for the summit, one by one. As the tiny, gleaming head-torches slowly made their way off into the darkness in the early hours of 10 May, the unspoken question was whether we had made a terrible mistake. Rob Hall was on the way to his fifth ascent of Everest, a record for any Western climber. Scott Fischer was an experienced and immensely strong mountaineer. Both had decided the time was right. 

At least it was our decision. It would be better to have done what we thought was safe and to have made a mistake, than simply to have followed people more experienced than we were, and then to have blamed them if things did not work out.

Nevertheless, the question echoed through the silence of the tent. Had we wasted our only chance because we had been too chicken to push on?

The night was windy and desperately cold, but the next day seemed calm. The south col was a flat plain of angular black rocks, bordered on two sides by the slopes of Lhotse and of Everest. The other two sides fell away down the precipitous slopes of the Lhotse face and the Kangshung face. The various tents were huddled together in one corner of the plain. The sunlit nylon domes in yellow and red seemed bravely cheerful among the black surroundings.

‘Many people reach summit, Bara Sahib.’

Ang Dorje was very pleased and eager to go that night. We began to prepare. Bruce’s pile of equipment swelled and dwindled as he first added more and more bits he might need, and then, considering the growing weight of his rucksack, began to discard excess equipment. Then he would suddenly spot something that he couldn’t live without and the pile would start to grow once again.

I sat among a colourful chaos of sponsors’ flags, trying to find a balance between filling all our commitments and carrying so much stuff that we never get to the top. A knot of excitement and nerves was building up in my stomach. At last, we have the chance to go. Finally we could find out what the summit ridge was really like. However, we might find out that it is just too much, too hard, too far, too high. Anticipation and fear chased each other round my system as the adrenalin began to rise.

Nagging doubts remained. We had not heard the other teams return. The weather was once again deteriorating. At 6 p.m. Bruce picked up the radio to make the usual evening call. Philip asked for Ian.  His next words came as an appalling surprise. 

‘We have just been told that Rob Hall and Doug Hansen are descending from the summit near the Hillary Step and have called for help. Their base camp can’t reach their camp 4 so they have asked us for help. They would like you to take them some oxygen as they are both running out.’


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