Chapter 5 

Anybody out there?

Just take some oxygen up to Rob Hall and Doug Hansen at the Hillary Step, said base camp.

Doug was one of Rob’s clients. The Hillary Step was at an altitude of 8,700 metres. The magnitude of this request was horrifying. The bad weather was intensifying, strong winds, extreme cold, snow, low visibility. We were at least eight hours climbing time from Rob, even in good conditions, and, having never been above the col before, would not be able to find the route in a storm.

The obvious question was why ask us? Of all the teams at or above 8,000 metres, we were the furthest away from Rob. The sad answer was that the base camp crews could not contact any of their own members, besides Rob. A second call from Philip, who was now at Rob’s base camp, told us that there were another 21 climbers missing. 

I found it hard to comprehend the suddenness with which we had been plunged into disaster. What could be going on up the mountain with all those climbers? Experience was supposed to be your biggest asset. I knew the other teams doubted our chances because of our relative inexperience. When Rob had tried to ‘book’ 10 May for his summit, the official reason was to reduce congestion. I had heard the unofficial reason via the ever-active climbing grapevine - he was saying he didn’t want the risk of having to waste time and resources rescuing incompetent climbers from other teams. There was a sickening irony in all this.

Ian made it clear to Philip that, although we could provide the muscle of a rescue, we could not route-find in a raging storm. We needed someone who knew which way the climbers were likely to be descending. It was thought that there might be some Sherpas at Rob’s camp 4 and we were asked to look for them. 

‘Their tents are yellow,’ was the unhelpful direction.

A request to go outside that at base camp would have simply meant pulling on a down jacket and grabbing a torch for a few minutes’ walk took on a very different dimension at 8,000 metres in a howling storm. Ian battled through the awkward process of dressing, pulling on Goretex salopettes and jacket, hat, gloves, plastic boots. The inner boots were still damp from the previous day’s climbing and it was by now a very cold damp. 

I was glad it was not me going out. The wind was strumming against the guy-ropes of the tent like fingers over guitar strings. The tent walls shook as if hit by a giant hand. The cold seemed to seep through the fabric. However, inside we were relatively warm, relatively safe. I wondered if I would go out if I had to. I quite frankly thought I would simply become just another victim of the storm’s ferocity within ten minutes. I hoped I wouldn’t have to make the choice.

I watched as Ian wriggled into the last layers of protective clothing and crawled out into the storm. All those layers that seemed so massive when we first sorted through them in the sunshine way down the trail now seemed so insubstantial in the face of the wind. The figure buried in all the layers of clothing seemed even more insubstantial. 

We might be physically closest to the unfolding tragedy but in the face of the elements proximity meant very little. Bruce and I waited for Ian’s return, chattering inanely, anything to fill the silence of his absence. 

Ian was finding moving through the storm a nightmare. The incredible force of the wind made it like trying to breathe out of the window of a speeding car. His face and eyes were scoured by the flying snow and ice particles. He held both hands up against his face and squinted through tiny gaps between his fingers. The tents had vanished in a pandemonium of noise and ice. The gusting, freezing winds were totally disorientating. Hands jammed under his armpits for warmth, hunched forward against the sting of the gale, he moved crab-like into the eye of the storm. He needed to stop every ten or fifteen steps to get his breath back, yet only moving kept warmth pumping through his body. 

He stumbled across the first tent by accident, tripping over a frozen guy-rope. The tent side was vibrating like a drum from the force of the wind. Beating against the fabric made no impact. Shouted words were immediately torn away by the wind. With frozen fingers, Ian could not find the tent zips, let alone try to pull them open. He left the tent and moved on. Finally one tent opened, to reveal the face of Neil Laughton, a British climber on the Henry Todd team whom Ian had last seen over a cup of hot chocolate in base camp. Behind Neil was a pile of cold, tired, frightened Sherpas. 

Neil joined Ian to continue the search. Ian recognised a boulder he had previously used as a reference point when moving from tent to tent. It seemed to be bigger somehow, and covered in snow. A figure sat motionless on the rock with his hands neatly folded on his lap and his chin resting on his chest. Neil recognised him as one of his team who had left camp 3 with Neil that afternoon. He had been so slow Neil had thought he had turned back. They dragged him back to Neil’s tent.

Ian was once again alone in the storm. Base camp had no more ideas. Rob’s Sherpas seemed to have vanished. Philip suggested Ian get himself back to our tents.

Ian returned, deathly pale under his sunburn, with icy cold feet. The risks of going out on any rescue attempt were huge - frostbite, hypothermia, disorientation, losing the tents, losing life. The concept of ‘calculated risk’ had just been catapulted into a new dimension. When does the time come to forget about other people and concentrate on saving yourself and your friends? 

Deshun huddled at our base camp radio base station, linking us to Philip, who was at Rob’s base camp. News trickled through, that Rob Hall and Doug Hansen were trapped somewhere below the Hillary Step, that Scott Fischer was out of oxygen and struggling, that the Taiwanese leader, Makalu Gau, and two Sherpas, were in trouble. 

I envied the base camp crew, in the warmth and the peace 3,000 metres below us. Yet it couldn’t have been easy for them either. Stuck down there, four days’ climbing from us with no idea of what conditions were really like, frantic with worry, desperate to help and yet totally helpless. They could do little but radio instructions into a weather chaos that they could not even begin to appreciate. They could issue all the orders they liked. It meant nothing to the people up here.

The next radio call wanted to know how many Sherpas we could contribute to a rescue attempt. Ian made it clear the Sherpas could not be ordered to go to the rescue. It had to be a free choice. At base camp our liaison officer was making it clear to Deshun that he was most unhappy about Sherpas risking their lives in the storm.

About 11 p.m. base camp established comms with someone called Stuart Hutchison at Rob Hall’s camp 4. A report had come from him of lights in the storm, but then the comms had gone down. We were asked to confirm it. We peered out but saw little beyond sweeping snowflakes. 

There was a strange, dislocating feeling about being warm, well fed and breathing bottled oxygen, when somewhere out around us people were fighting for their lives. The line between safety and dying was so thin, as thin as the millimetre-thick nylon sheet that made up our tent.

Our tent was a tiny bubble in a world gone mad. It was as if we were plunged into a Dantean hell as the mountain was raked by howling winds, cloaked in swirling snow, frozen to its very core. It was as if we and our mountain had been ripped away from the very earth itself and now swirled distraught through space, caught in a vortex of insanity. We expected moment by moment that the tent fabric would tear, that in a few seconds we would be hurled from our haven into madness. Caught on the line between calm and panic, between safety and death, we could do nothing but wait.

Bruce placed a torch in the tent door, shining out onto the face of Everest, in the hope that it might indicate where the tents were. I lay in my sleeping bag, waiting for the crackle of the radio that would bring further news. Opening my eyes a crack, I could see the light burning in the tent door, like a beacon of hope. However, with my eyes closed the light vanished, while the noise of the wind did not. It howled on, so much more powerful than our pathetic little light. It was a remorseless, unrelenting killer, all the worse in that it could neither know nor care about the suffering it was inflicting on the humans struggling through it.

I dozed on and off. Several times the sound of Ian’s voice on the radio woke me, but the news never seemed to bring anything but more confusion. Sometimes I woke in turning over and saw his silhouette against the tent wall, seated propped up on his pack, holding the radio, waiting. He never seemed to sleep.

Around 2 a.m. Ian went out a second time, this time in pursuit of some Sherpas whom base camp thought might be with Stuart. He finally found Stuart, a team-mate and a Sherpa. All three looked completely shattered. Now base camp thought Scott’s team might have some spare Sherpas. Ian spent minute after precious minute banging on tents trying to find Scott’s camp, but without success. As he stood up slowly from yet another tent he found himself completely disorientated. He began to stumble round in circles. His feet had become wooden blocks jammed inside his boots. He dropped to hands and knees to continue the search. He made it back to our tent and once more collapsed, drifting in and out of consciousness. 

Philip spent the night at Rob Hall’s camp, huddled in between Americans, Britons and Kiwis, all curled up on the floor in sleeping bags. In our base camp the falling temperatures were taking their toll. The generator had packed up completely and the radio base station was being run off back-up batteries. Patrick Conroy, the Radio 702 reporter, had been nursing his recording equipment inside his jacket throughout the evening. Finally even that froze. He and Deshun spent the night on the floor of the comms tent, huddling together, unable to sleep. 

We all woke around 5 a.m. and made a brew of tea. The possibility of being of any help to other teams seemed to have evaporated. The weather continued poor. We had been too high too long. We could be at camp 2 by the afternoon and at base camp the following day.

A 5.30 a.m. call from Philip told us that Rob Hall and a few climbers were still missing, but it seemed that most had managed to make it back to camp 4 during the night. They also had contact with a Sherpa called Lhakpa who was on the south col and prepared to go back up when conditions improved. Would we help? There was nothing to say but yes. Ian asked for one hour’s notice so we had time to get dressed. We went back to waiting.

Around 6 a.m. I heard noises that sounded more like voices than the howling of the wind. Unzipping the tent door, I peered into the maelstrom and saw a torch-light in the darkness. Stuart crawled into the tent, bringing with him flurries of spindrift. He brought news that two of his team-mates, Yasuko Namba and Beck Weathers, had been seen lying out on the col near the Kangshung face. Everyone thought they were dead. Although Ian offered to go out and try to bring the bodies in, Stuart refused on the basis that they were definitely dead. 

Once he had left, we continued to talk unhappily about the two ‘fatalities’. Although we each knew that the magnitude of the storm made some fatalities likely, these were the first actually to be reported dead. And so close to camp. Surely here we could have helped? We continued to doze, waiting for the call from Lhakpa. 

Our Sherpas were adamant that they wanted to go down and they left as soon as it was properly light. The storm was slowly beginning to abate, although the winds were still very high. Neil came over to our camp looking for batteries for his radio and information, as he couldn’t talk to any of his other camps. At the same time Stuart arrived again. 

Stuart explained that Doug Hansen had now been confirmed as dead, although Rob Hall was still alive somewhere below the south summit. Andy Harris, one of Rob’s guides, was thought to have gone over the edge of the Lhotse face and to have been killed. (This later turned out to be incorrect. Andy disappeared near the south summit.)  Stuart reaffirmed that both Beck and Yasuko had been discovered on the edge of the Kangshung face and were presumed dead.  Makalu Gau and Scott Fischer were still missing, but all the other clients and Sherpas from all three expeditions were safely back in camp. Everyone was amazed that Rob Hall should have survived the night. Once more, together with Neil this time, we tried to persuade Stuart to accompany us to fetch the bodies of Beck and Yasuko, but he refused, feeling the attempt to be futile and dangerous.

With Stuart’s permission, Ian radioed this news down to Philip.

‘Philip, I can confirm four people missing, definitely presumed dead. Roger so far?’ 

Missing, presumed dead. Dead.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t what we had come here for, what they had come here for. Had they had a presentiment, when they left for the summit 36 hours previously, that they had less than two days to live?  

This wasn’t an epic survival drama anymore, where everyone escaped at the last minute with various injuries and some great stories to tell round the dinner table in years to come. This was it. Over.  For ever.

We were resting, gently breathing from our masks, when suddenly a faint, unidentified American voice broke through on the radio. It asked us to give our radio to some American on the south col, whose name we did not catch. We assumed someone had taken a radio from our camp 2 tent. 

The voice came over again, not identifying itself, but insisting we hand our radio over to someone whom we had never heard of on the south col, someone who did not even seem to be part of any co-ordinated rescue effort. Ian refused, and asked who was in charge of the rescue operations at camp 2. He was told that it was the British leaders, Mal Duff and Henry Todd, and so he asked to speak to one of them. Mal took over the radio call and confirmed that we should hold onto our radio as it had provided all the communications thus far. 

Henry then came on the radio and requested a detailed inventory of the sick and injured at camp 4, as well as a head count. Bruce volunteered to go out to do the inspection, and was joined by Neil. Bruce was gone for about an hour. Even in daylight with the improved weather conditions, moving from tent to tent was still a tricky and chilling business. He looked in on Stuart and gave the New Zealanders six AA batteries so that they could power up their dead radio. He then visited Scott Fischer’s team, who confirmed that they were all accounted for besides Scott himself, but they refused to give any further information. Bruce was cold and tired by the time he rejoined us, and desperately in need of a cup of tea.

Finally five Sherpas left camp 4, two to try and find Rob Hall, the other three to look for Makalu Gau and Scott Fischer. They felt they could move faster without the help of Westerners. At least it meant we were now free to go down. However, by the time we had packed and secured the tents, spindrift was sweeping across the col and its steep, deadly edges had disappeared into a grey-white haze. We had missed the window to escape. 

I felt a curious lack of interest in this news, combined with a remote sense of relief that I didn’t have to get up and put in some eight hours of climbing. So much easier just to sit there … I realised I had to pull myself together. That was how people died, by just sitting around and losing interest, their thinking getting slower and slower. We’d been too high, too long. I started to unpack my rucksack, concentrating hard on each action, reminding myself why I was doing it.

Bruce had spent the last three nights complaining bitterly of being squeezed into the side of the tent. Over six feet tall and broad in shoulders and stomach, he seemed to require more than his fair share of space. Now he chose the colder but roomier option of staying alone in the now vacant Sherpa tent. He came over with some food that he had cooked up. I didn’t feel at all hungry, yet opened up a packet of chicken casserole and ate my way through it from top to bottom. It was the first time I had ever finished one of these substantial meals. Having eaten it, I felt neither hungry nor full, just the same as before. 

Around 3.30 p.m. Bruce burst back into the tent with startling news.

‘Beck Weathers is alive!’ he announced.

He had crawled back into camp on his own, badly frost-bitten but alive nevertheless. We sat in silence, reflecting on the implications of this. The obvious accompanying thought was Yasuko. When had she died? Might she still have been alive in the early hours of the morning when we had considered going after the ‘bodies’? Should we have tried harder? The mountain forces hard choices on us, unpalatable questions about how far you go for your fellow man before you just get the hell out to save yourself. They were questions we would probably never have had to face up to, had we stayed in the conventional safety of the suburbs.

An hour later we heard over the radio that Makalu Gau was very badly frost-bitten, but alive. The Sherpas had carried him back to camp. Scott was dead. Rob Hall was still hanging on but the Sherpas could not reach him. 

That night Ian and I lay buried deep in our down sleeping bags, holding hands. Through the previous three days we had increasingly reached out to each other for support and comfort. The warmth and strength of one hand holding another could make all the difference. Now I stared into the pitch darkness of the tent and wondered what was happening between us. Was I imagining his changed attitude to me? My feelings were a confused jumble. He began to stroke my face with his fingers. His touch felt fiercely hot in this place of stark cold, almost burning my skin. I listened to the wind wailing round the tent. This had to be the strangest place on earth to be thinking about love. The tent was thick with darkness. If it hadn’t been for his touch I would have had no indication that anyone else was there. I rolled over, felt for his face, and kissed him. Once again the warmth of it was intensified by the cold around us. I was unlikely ever to forget where we first kissed.

Around 2 a.m. the wind reached a whole new intensity, a whole new rage. I lay awake looking at the thin black nylon above me, stretching and straining under the pressure, the flimsy poles bending and cowering in the face of the tremendous onslaught. I thought of the tiny particles of ice being whipped horizontally across the col, any one of which could potentially slice through the nylon of our tent like a razor, flinging us abruptly into the heart of yet another storm. 

Ian put on his head-torch and began searching for his boots and jacket. Mine were tucked up by the head of my sleeping bag. He squeezed up next to me, lying watching the tent fabric for any sign of tearing. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind howl.

The descent from camp 4 was a cold and subdued business. We made camp 2 by midday. Bruce and I quickly pulled off our heavy boots to release the feet that had been trapped in them for so long, Ian looked at his own extremities with reluctance. When the boots finally came off the nails of his two big toes were midnight black, with several of the other toes also showing signs of frostbite. We each stared at Ian’s feet in silence, wondering what they meant for his chances of another attempt. The last news of the day came from Philip. Rob Hall was no longer answering his radio. The final casualty figure for the storm was five dead.

The next day I plodded slowly down the western cwm, feeling thoroughly depressed. It was a full two weeks since we had left base camp. Two weeks in time and an eternity in experience. I plugged into my Walkman and the overture to Verdi’s Nabucco came pouring into my head, the glorious music like an audio version of the visual beauty around me. I drank in the views, the icy magnificence of Everest and Nuptse, trying to imprint each angle on my mind. I was desperately afraid that this would be the last time I would see them. I wanted to try again, so much, so very much. I was delighted to have reached 8,000 metres. But how much further could I go if I had the opportunity?

Philip was sitting on a giant rock, at the top of the last slope up to the camp, waiting for our arrival. Patrick, the radio reporter, stood awkwardly behind him. He had spent the last four days filing dramatic reports on our team, but this was the first time he had actually seen us face to face in Nepal. 

‘Would you like me to carry your pack,’ he asked me nervously, trying to be polite.

I stared at the young, slender reporter. I had just spent three nights at 8,000 metres and two days descending Everest.

‘I’ve carried it this far. I think I can manage the last 300 metres,’ I replied.

I sat down on the floor of my tent, among the chaotic debris I had abandoned two weeks previously. A pile of mail lay on the floor, blue aerograms, brown parcels. I had expected to be excited to receive news of home, to catch up on events in South Africa, but I felt a strange reluctance to open them. Home seemed so far away and news of it so alien, so irrelevant, to the experiences I had just been through. 

I wandered off down the glacier without plan or direction. A lot had changed since I had walked it last, including the facts that I had reached the undreamed of height of 8,000 metres and that six people had died. I battled to find a perspective on these two things, turning helplessly in a deep fog of melancholy. I sat down by a lake and threw rocks at the ice.

That evening Ian knocked on the door of my tent.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked. I nodded unhappily. 

He squeezed my arm. ‘If you need anything you know where to find me.’ 

I watched him walk away and then sat in the darkness of my tent, crying. Finally I couldn’t stand the misery of my loneliness any more. Deshun was asleep. Bruce and Philip were celebrating our safe return with a giant greasy fry-up in the kitchen tent. 

I walked over to Ian’s tent. I had expected a comradely arm round the shoulders, a pep-talk. Instead he pulled me into his arms, under the warmth of his sleeping bag. Once I had cheered up, there didn’t seem to either of us to be any good reason for me to return to my tent. We spent the night curled up together. In the morning I could hear Rajan, the kitchen boy, standing outside my tent calling ‘Bed tea, Didi. Didi, bed tea.’ Not surprisingly, there was no reply. He continued to call with patient insistence. I buried my giggles in Ian’s chest and hoped Rajan would give up before the others realised what was going on.

That day we watched laden yaks moving past our camp down the valley. Teams were beginning to move out, heading for the luxuries of home. Intellectually things like hot showers, real beds, fresh food, were appealing. However, all I wanted to do was go back up. The thought of climbing back up the Lhotse face filled me with horror, but to turn away now was to negate all the effort I had already sunk into this project. Fortunately both Ian and Bruce were as single-minded as I was about trying again. The Sherpas were equally keen. Deshun had been too inexperienced to climb on the mountain on her own. Once we returned to base camp, she had not wanted to push forward her climbing ambitions after the traumas of the storm. She was hugely excited about finally getting a chance. 

We did various radio interviews. Death and disaster had, as ever in human history, awoken great interest. The radio staff were mostly horrified at our trying again. I found it all rather ludicrous. No one would expect climbers never to climb on Everest again. So what difference did it make if it was this year or the next? I guess for them the news that people actually died doing this activity came as a shock. Maybe they thought the talk of the danger was just part of the media hype around the event. Now they seemed to find our acceptance of these events incomprehensible. 

Part of me was excited to have the opportunity to try again, part of me grimly resigned to the effort and discomfort that the attempt would entail. Best of all was that I finally felt an equal part of the team. The storm, for all its tragedies, did us the world of good in pulling us together as a crew. It had increased my trust, both in Bruce and Ian, and in myself. I realised that my isolation had been to a large extent my fault, founded in my own uncertainty and consequent reticence, my unwillingness to push myself forward in the company of the others. I resolved to be pushier. 

We were now low on oxygen but managed to buy seven more bottles from Henry Todd. He counseled us against trying again. He felt the season was over, that there would not be another window of good weather. He had lost several friends in the storm. His advice to us was to call it quits and try again another year.

Another worrying factor was that Ian was battling a lingering chest infection. Although he looked terrible, he hid the true seriousness of it from us. His chest was on fire, his head throbbing with fever, and he could hardly breathe.

It was an unhappy crew that finally regained camp 2. I had moved off ahead, loving the day. I was fit and acclimatised, the weather was cool. I loved being alone in that extraordinary landscape. I powered up the glacier, cutting my previous time by half. Ian stumbled in much later, exhausted. Bruce followed him, smoking with anger. Deshun could be seen trailing in the distance. She was battling and had taken to whining. Bruce had had a short, sharp fight with her as he had tried to get her to move faster.

‘I realised today that my expedition ends here,’ Ian said to Bruce as he collapsed in their tent. It was all so unfair. Mentally, he was the toughest of the lot of us, but illness could destroy even the best. After all we had gone through together in the storm, we really were a tight-knit team. To lose any one of us was to lose a whole part of what we were. Bruce had always been easy to get along with, a good friend from the start. Ian was different. I had no idea where he and I were going, but I wanted him to be there on the summit day with me. We kept away from each other now that we were in the company of others. However, Bruce watched us with a knowing smile as I sat with my feet ever so casually under Ian’s sleeping bag.

The next day we were enjoying the usual activity of watching IMAX leader David Breashears on the radio. Some things never changed. Suddenly he stopped, listened into his radio intently and then turned to us. He was actually going to talk to us!

‘Turn on your radios,’ he called. ‘Nelson Mandela wants to speak to you.’

We stared at him in stunned silence. Why would the president of the country call up a little mountaineering expedition? Nobody really wanted to radio Philip and find out that it was just a joke.

However, a few minutes later a voice came through, faint but clear.

 ‘This is President Mandela here in South Africa.’

He said he was happy that we were attempting to climb Mount Everest again.

‘I am fully behind you. I have a lot of confidence in you and I know you are going to succeed. The whole of South Africa stands behind you because it is a significant expedition and I wish you all the luck.’

When he signed off, Ian handed me the radio and walked away in silence. He was more shaken by that conversation than by anything else that had happened up to then on the expedition. We were all hugely elated. The whole mood of the team had taken an upswing. We were now fully determined to do all we could to get up this mountain. 

By the following evening we were back at camp 3. With each step I had taken up the long, steep ice incline of the Lhotse face I had promised myself that it would be the last time I had to do it. It had become a mental mantra, that one done and that one done, never again and never again. However, the Sherpas reported poor weather up at camp 4. The euphoria was evaporating rapidly. 

I decided I had absolutely had it with this mountain. With the cold and effort, and above all with the stupid, stupid weather. We should have gone home when we had the chance. I buried my head in my sleeping bag, and tried not to look as if I was crying. With three of us jammed in the tent, there was nowhere to go, no privacy, no space. I could feel the atmosphere cool as the men realised what was happening. Mercifully they said nothing. Bruce continued to melt snow. Ian quietly slipped an arm across my shoulders.

I suddenly felt hungry. I sat up, smiled awkwardly at Ian, and wriggled round to where Bruce was tending the stove.

‘Is there any food going? I’m starving.’

He stared at me in bewilderment, unable to keep up with the emotional changes of pace.

I woke the next morning to the howl of the wind, humming against the guy-ropes, slapping against the tent fabric. The Sherpas radioed up from camp 2 that they thought the wind too strong and were staying put. Once again it was a round of questions and decisions. Eventually we retreated back down to camp 2. 

The next morning brought mixed fortune. Deshun, unable to eat or sleep properly, and plagued by headaches, had set off down to base camp. Philip sent up news of good weather. We decided to head back up the next day. Although I knew weather reports were unreliable, a good one made a huge difference to my attitude. However, Ian was still wracked by coughing. Bruce and I made a half-hearted effort to talk him out of coming with us. He asked only to be allowed to climb up in support of us, to get as far as he could. There was no telling him otherwise.

By the evening the wind had died down and the western cwm was completely clear of cloud. We agreed to leave camp at 5.30 a.m. However, the next morning there was no sign of life from the male contingent. Of all the things we had experienced together, this was what annoyed me most. I could have had an extra hour’s sleep, with no difference to our leaving time. All sorts of more important personality clashes passed me by, solved by some kind of mutual compromise. This got me really worked up.

I stalked over to their tent and peered inside. Bruce was fiddling. He had about 11 different pairs of gloves laid out in front of him: fleece ones, wool ones, thick ones, thin ones, red ones, blue ones. He couldn’t decide which particular combination to take today. Ian was still asleep, sleeping bag pulled over his head, happily off in the warm and cosy land of Nod which I had dragged myself from a long, cold hour before, at his instruction.

I abandoned them as a lost cause, steaming off up the glacier. Fuelled by righteous anger, I managed a magnificent couple of hundred metres before the altitude, the cold and the weight of my rucksack deflated my energy. 

Once on the Lhotse face, rather than battling cold, we were overcome by heat. My body felt immensely hot and heavy with the load and the clothing. It was just too much to feel as if you were about to get heat stroke at 7,000 metres on Everest, surrounded on all sides by ice. However, the heat wasn’t the only strange factor. The sky was clear and the mountain absolutely still. Nothing moved. After the weeks of express-train winds that had always sounded in the background, the silence was uncanny.

One last twist of fate stood between us and camp 4. Ian, who was brewing up at camp 3, had placed his lighter on top of the rubbish packet. He then knocked the packet with his sleeve, sending it and the lighter spinning out of the door and down the ice slope. 

Bruce’s lighter failed to produce a spark. Mine seemed to have been left at camp 2. We looked at each other in consternation. 

‘And for the want of a nail, the battle was lost,’ muttered Bruce as he continued to try to coax a spark from his beleaguered lighter.

No flame meant no heat. No heat meant no liquid. And no liquid, at these altitudes, meant rapid deterioration. Another night and a day and we would be in serious trouble. 

‘I’ve got it!’ Bruce exclaimed triumphantly as he managed to get a tiny spark to ignite the gas and the stove roared into life.

We reached the south col the following afternoon. All the tents had gone, only our two remained, huddled together in the midst of the vast rocky expanse. Pemba had found some abandoned prayer flags and was busy stringing them up, providing a burst of colour against the black and white of the mountain. To the west, mountain after mountain protruded from a low-lying blanket of cloud. Otherwise the weather was clear and still. It looked to be a perfect night.

Bruce radioed base camp to say we would definitely be going, probably around 11 p.m. I settled down in my sleeping bag, wearing my inner layers of clothing, thermal long-johns and top, with fleece salopettes. The thermal layer had not been taken off since I had left base camp a week before. 

The excitement was welling up inside me. It was really, finally, beginning to happen. This time we were on our way to the top. I wished this had come two weeks earlier, when I had felt that much stronger. But I was feeling quite good now. We were so close … and yet still so far. Sleep seemed an impossibility. Butterflies were breeding in my stomach and my mind was racing in circles. 

Then Ang Dorje’s hand was pounding against the tent door, a thermos flask of tea ready to be passed in to us. The little time there had been for sleep was over. In between cups of tea, working in a sleep-deprived daze in the small pools of light cast by our head-torches, we struggled to dress for the cold night’s work ahead. We wore down suits, consisting of salopettes and jackets, over our fleece clothing. It was like wearing a sleeping bag with arms and legs cut into it.  It would be the first time we had had to climb in such extreme cold and they would be necessary.

My feet were already encased in warm socks and insulated inner boots. Now the inner boots had to be forced into the rigid, plastic outer boots, the frozen laces had to be tightened and tied, and last the nylon gaiters had to be pulled up and zipped closed over the bulky down legs. Balaclava, woolly hat, climbing harness, inner gloves, fleece mittens, Goretex mittens, all had to be put on.

Thermos flasks had to be filled with hot juice, oxygen sets checked and attached to bottles in the rucksacks. Sunglasses were stored for easy retrieval at sunrise, a last check for cameras, spare batteries, extra film.

It all seemed to take an age.

‘We must leave, we must go,’ Ang Dorje urged, fidgeting in an agony of anticipation.


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