Chapter 6

Stairway to heaven

We pulled ourselves out of the tent, and stood in the clear, crisp night air. It wasn’t as cold as I had anticipated, and it was completely still. Bruce was busy sorting out Jangbu’s head-torch, which had mysteriously decided not to work. Pemba was still fiddling with his oxygen bottle. Above us the mountain loomed, a huge shadow of a darker shade of black, set against the night sky.

Bruce was speaking to Philip on the radio as I trudged slowly over the uneven surface of the col behind Pemba. I felt disorientated from the lack of sleep, stiff and cold. As I moved awkwardly up the steepening snow slopes, I trawled through my mind for every possible excuse for turning round and crawling back into the warmth of my sleeping bag: illness, altitude sickness, too slow and didn’t want to hold up the others. Unable to think of one that would convince Ian or Bruce, or, for that matter, myself, I kept moving. Thinking of excuses became a mental game, to distract me from the slog of the climbing. I dreaded a night like the horrible one I had had reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro, when I had almost talked myself out of the Everest expedition. 

We climbed up a snow gully and then over bands of loose rock, sprinkled with snow. We wound a devious route across ledges and up unstable breaks. The insecure surface called for a degree of thought difficult to dredge up in the early hours of the morning. We each moved in a tiny, individual pool of yellow light cast by our head-torches. Strung out below me, the others were reduced to minute stars in the inky blackness of the moonless night. The small circles of light formed fragile bubbles of purpose and direction in an otherwise limitless landscape. The only sounds were the rasp of my breath drawn through the oxygen mask and the crunch of snow underfoot.

The night sky was clear and pitch black. Occasional sheets of lightning on distant horizons turned the sky momentarily electric-blue and the hundreds of peaks of the Himalaya stood silhouetted in jagged black grandeur, before disappearing again into darkness. There was an eerie splendour to it all.

Pemba stopped, fiddling with his oxygen set. I moved up slowly to stand by him.

‘No oxygen,’ he blurted out, his voice on the edge of panic. ‘It doesn’t work.’

I tried to focus my attention on his oxygen set, to concentrate through the fog of sleeplessness and altitude. I checked the various indicators slowly and meticulously, assuring myself that the bottle was full and the oxygen flowing. I realised I must be missing something, but what? 

The figure below moved up steadily to join us and I saw to my surprise that it was Ian and not Bruce. I waved a gloved hand at Pemba’s oxygen cylinder and he leant over to inspect it. 

‘It’s on a one-litre-a-minute flow rate, instead of two or three,’ said Ian. With a quick twist of the value he adjusted the regulator. 

  We climbed on up the steep slopes of shattered rock and loose snow. Even though Pemba was ahead of me and Ian close behind, I felt intensely alone. No one else could know how I felt, no one could help me find the strength to do this. We were higher than all but a few mountains in the whole world, but still this one loomed above us, disappearing upwards into the inky night. I was frightened. The snow slope seemed so steep, yet not steep enough. It was too precipitous to walk up easily, yet not vertical enough to plunge my ice-axes into properly. Below me it fell away into yawning blackness, the void both concealing and emphasising the drop down to the south col. 

I was acutely aware of how much height I had gained in the last three hours. To fall now would be to fall all the way down, to roll and bounce and scream, smashing into rock and ice, before landing on the stony col, still, broken, like a rag doll. 

I was aware of Ian’s presence a few steps below me. I took comfort in that. I considered telling him that I was scared, but there was no point. There was no way out of this. Even to give up meant returning down the treacherous ground I had come up. For me to freeze with fear only endangered the others.

And besides, I was not that afraid. I had not put in months of effort, weeks of slog, to give up 12 hours from the top. I just wanted to share my feeling. I compromised and imagined telling Ian, while not actually doing so. I feared that he would not understand, that he would read my admission as weakness. I knew it was not. It was acceptance of who I was, knowledge that I could be both frightened and capable simultaneously.

As I was battling my private demons, the snow had been changing from grey to salmon to faint pink. While I moved upwards, the first false light of dawn illuminated the line of the eastern horizon. Slowly the pink smear spread sideways and then reached up into the sky. As the sun rose from the horizon so far below us, the mountain turned vivid pink. The plateau below was striped with pink, orange, blue and purple. The deep valleys on either side of the mountain filled with dark blue shadow. The south col appeared out of the darkness, reduced to a little black postage stamp between Everest and Lhotse, the tents invisible. The yellow orb slipped smoothly into the pale sky, and light and life and confidence returned with it. 

Now that the night had passed, I was surprised by how short it was, and how warm. The sweat was trickling down my back, stewing in the warmth of my massive down jacket and salopettes. In the end it was easier than the Kilimanjaro night. I clambered onto the Balcony, the junction with the ridge that we would turn to follow to the summit. It was marked by a dozen orange oxygen bottles with the names of David Breashears and the IMAX team emblazoned on their sides. I sank down in the snow beside Pemba, resting gratefully against my rucksack, and watched Ian toiling up towards us.

He sat down beside me and pulled off his oxygen mask. I tried to tell him how I had felt through the night. He grinned at me.

‘I’m proud of you.’

Pemba, Ian and I looked out over the Himalaya, the black and white mountains now glorious in pink, purple and gold. The sombre pyramid of Makalu dominated the view, a massive mountain of classic proportions, fifth highest in the world. To the left, the deep valley of the Kangshung glacier reluctantly emerged from darkness. On the horizon, the squat form of the giant mountain of Kangchenjunga, third highest, reigned supreme. 

I found a deep sense of satisfaction in looking out over so many mountains, and being apparently equal with some of the biggest. The long slog through the dark had yielded its reward, a giant leap in height, concrete evidence that we were making progress and might actually be able to complete this challenge.

Then I turned to look upwards. Above me the long snowy ridge wound up towards the south summit. A tiny line traced its way up it, the footsteps of the Americans and French from two days previously. The main summit was still hidden, the path to it still elusive, the big unknown in my assessment of my ability to reach it. 

Pemba, eager as ever, began to move up the ridge. Aware of the cold and stiffness seeping through my body, I started to follow him, with Ian close behind. I found it distinctly depressing to have him following me so closely, given his poor physical condition over the last few days. Then he moved on past me. It was rather like losing a race to a snail, I thought dismally as I watched him plod steadily upwards. We both seemed to be moving incredibly slowly. I assumed it was some time in the mid-morning, but the effort of locating a watch under the numerous layers of clothing and gloves seemed too great. I marked time by the gradual rise of the sun.

I battled through the soft snow, sinking up to the knee with each step, my axe shaft plunging into the snow as if it were butter. The steps left by others crumbled away under the new weight. The resulting progress up the ever-steeping ridge was slow and painstaking. In a few places tattered remnants of fixed ropes lay in the snow, their anchor points uncertain and their history unknown. 

I became aware of a giant pyramid of blue, running across the cloud and the peaks of the Nepalese Himalaya. I stared at it in puzzlement for a moment before realising that it was the shadow of Everest, cast by the rising sun. I stopped to photograph it, thinking, it is so beautiful ... and so big.

‘We’re above 8,500 metres,’ Ian called down to me. ‘We’ve cleared the top of Lhotse.’ 

We looked towards the giant mountain that had loomed over our trips up the western cwm and our days at camp 2. We had climbed its slopes so diligently and so repeatedly, counting each step done, cursing each step still to take. Now the giant was below us.

I was experiencing a growing feeling of suffocation. My oxygen bottle was empty. I sat down in the snow to change it for a fresh one, to remove my by now unbearably hot down jacket, and to rest. I left the empty bottle to collect on the way down. By the time I was moving again Pemba was out of sight and Ian was disappearing up the twisting ridge. I moved in my own miniature universe, where the only sound was my straining body, and the only sight the few steps directly in front of my feet, the next few steps to be taken.

Achingly slowly, the south summit approached. I blocked it out, watching only the two steps in front of my feet, saving a look upwards for the occasional treat, to convince myself that I was actually making progress. Still, I wondered how far ahead of me Ian and Pemba were. Was I moving hopelessly slowly? I imagined standing on the south summit and seeing them in the far distance. I imagined Ian yelling to me to turn round, saying that it was too late, too far for me. And I imagined myself telling him to get stuffed.

At last I clambered onto the top of the south summit of Everest - 8,700 metres, higher than any other mountain in the world. I felt an amazing sense of disbelief that it should actually be me who had achieved all this. But could I go further?

I looked across to the ridge that ran towards the true summit. In a few shocked seconds I absorbed several salient facts. It was a classic mountain ridge, knife-edged, corniced, twisting gently up over a series of rises. I instantly recognised the rock step on the ridge as the Hillary Step. It wasn’t as fearsome as I had imagined. I noticed the doll-like figures of Pemba and Ian approaching the step. They weren’t as far ahead of me as I had feared. I took in the precipitous nature of the ridge and the immense drops on either side of it. That was do-able. The summit was still not in sight but it couldn’t be too distant.

From deep within me incredible excitement welled up. 

I could do that, I could climb that ridge. I had the energy and the ability. For the first time in the entire expedition, standing on the summit of Everest manifested itself for me as a concrete possibility, rather than just a wishful daydream. All the weeks of uncertainty, of bad weather, of ill health were swept away in the awesome realisation that the goal lay so tantalisingly close.

‘Ian,’ I yelled, and watched as he turned cautiously towards me. ‘Ian, I’m going on.’ It was a statement, not a question, but I was still relieved when he waved in agreement.

He asked if there was any sign of Bruce. Looking back down I could see three little black dots, the last just at the Balcony. All were moving upwards. I did not know who was who. We had strung out dramatically along the ridge, more so than we had expected. However, that was how we had climbed all the way up the mountain, often coming into camps several hours apart. 

We would descend by the same route, there being nowhere else to go. Anyone who fell by the wayside would be picked up on the descent. I was focused on looking after myself and assumed the others were too.

I moved down the short steep slope to the start of the ridge, past a pile of orange oxygen bottles and a long, blue shape. I realised with shock that it was the body of Rob Hall. I looked away. Crossing of the ridge had to claim all my attention. The trail ran just to the left of the knife-edge of the ridge, staying below the cornices that hung over the Tibetan side, while staying above the unstable dinner plates of rock a few feet down on the Nepalese side. The only flat ground was the footprints left by previous climbers. I moved up the ridge almost as if I had put on mental blinkers, seeing only the two footsteps ahead of me. It was a little like walking along an undulating plank. Not particularly difficult, if you ignored the fact that there was a 2 500 metre drop on the one side, and a 3 000 metre drop on the other.

Despite my concentration, other thoughts and memories wandered through my head. It was ten years and half a world away from orientation week at Wits University in 1987. I had spent the week wandering around the university, looking at all the different clubs on offer. I had watched with disbelief the figures in old khaki shorts and shocking pink lycra scaling the library wall, and listened to the pitch from the Mountain Club chairman. I had not been convinced, and was more interested in joining the Exploration Society. But on the very last day, with the abandon born of spending my father’s money, I decided to join the Mountain Club as well. Little did I know then where I would be 10 years later.

My steady progress along the ridge was broken by the wall of the Hillary Step. I stopped short, trying to re-focus mentally from snow to rock. The first section was relatively easy, involving some cautious scrambling. Then a traverse across loose scree brought me to the foot of an awkward, angled chimney, filled with loose rock and snow. I wriggled my way up it, suddenly conscious of the burden of the bulky clothing, the big oxygen set, the enormous boots and crampons. Jammed awkwardly near the top I contemplated the creeper-like mass of ancient fixed rope that hung down the back of the chimney. Manoeuvring past it without getting it tangled around my rucksack, crampons or ice-axe was as much of a challenge as negotiating the wall itself. Finally I grabbed a huge bundle of it in one hand and pulled, wriggled and flopped my way onto the summit of the block.

Again odd memories floated through my mind. I remembered the first rock-climb I ever did, Donkerhoek Corner in Upper Tonquani, a gorge near Johannesburg. It had been all of grade 12. A classic chimney thrutch, it was an unprepossessing beginning. I quite enjoyed the climbing, was less impressed by the amount of flaming Sambuca being thrown down everyone’s throats, and was far from convinced that this was an experience to be repeated. However, I was impressed by a young and handsome blonde called Mike Cartwright. Given that the only place he could be found on the weekends was on a cliff face, I had decided to give this climbing lark another go.

Once above the Hillary Step the ridge widened. I realised with amusement that although the exposure, and the danger, was far greater here than on the slopes lower on the mountain, I felt no fear, only exhilaration. I could see straight down the south-west face of Everest, down to the tiny camp 2 over 2,000 metres below me. We had come a long way since then and a longer way still from home.

I had been moving alone along the ridge for some time. Pemba and Ian were out of sight ahead, the other three climbers somewhere behind. Although I mostly concentrated to the few steps in front of me, blocking out the vast empty spaces that surrounded the ridge, occasionally I allowed myself the luxury of looking out across the myriad of snowy peaks below me. With no one else in sight, and no signs of human existence visible below, it was like being the last person alive on earth, having the whole of a magnificent planet to myself.

I felt humbled, aware of how frail and fragile the humans were dotted on the side of this huge edifice of snow and rock. I was also frustrated. The ridge undulated gently. Each crest looked as if it might be the final one, but as I dragged my weary body onto the top I found another one slightly higher, slightly further on. The ridge seemed to run on interminably in front of me. I felt as if I was on a snowy treadmill, a ridge that ran forever with no conclusion. I felt condemned to walk it for eternity.

I tried to suppress all expectations, to deal with the ridge step by step, rather than to face the inevitable disappointment expectation of the summit would bring. 

My mind wandered once more, seeking escape from the mental boredom of the slow, plodding ascent. I recalled my first great pronouncement on my climbing career. It was made halfway up a small, loose and aloe-strewn rock face in Wilgepoort. I declared that while I liked climbing, I had no interest in learning to lead rock routes. Within a few months I was leading.

My next great pronouncement came after a friend hauled me up a 300 metre rock-face at Blouberg. The first few hours I enjoyed, but then I was ready to go home. Unfortunately we were only half way up. I announced that I was interested only in walk-ins under half an hour, and climbs of 50 metres or less. Over the next few years I climbed big walls all over Southern Africa, and then moved on to 600 metre rock-walls in the Alps.

My third great pronouncement was that, although big walls were great, you wouldn’t catch me dead mountaineering. Too high, too cold, too dangerous ... 

I moved slowly up yet another small rise and onto the top of it. And stopped short, aware of two figures and a sudden blaze of colour. Ian and Pemba were seated in the snow with something behind them that to my puzzled gaze looked rather like a ruined tent. After hours in an almost monochrome world of blue sky, white snow and black rock, the medley of red, yellow and green was disconcerting. Then Pemba turned and saw me. A huge grin spread across his face and I noticed his gold tooth glinting in the sunlight. He stood up and began to wave both arms and his ice-axe in the air.

That’s it, I thought. That is the summit of Everest.

For the second time that day I was filled with an incredible sense of excitement. At last I knew that not only was I capable of climbing Everest, but that I had actually done it. Only ten more metres. I had never imagined it would get to this.

The last slog up the final slope seemed interminable. I clambered slowly towards the dash of colour, which became a pile of prayer flags covering a metal tripod. 

Ian spoke into the radio: ‘And then there were three.’

Philip’s voice came through in a chatter of excitement.

I sank down on to my knees beside Ian and hugged him, barely able to feel the man beneath the piles of clothing we were both wearing. I turned to hug Pemba, acutely conscious of the pleasure of being able to share the moment with friends. I was glad that I was not there alone.

Ian had reached the summit some twenty minutes earlier, followed shortly thereafter by Pemba. He had announced over the radio: ‘We have 9:52 and the Nepalese and South African flags are flying on the summit of Everest.’

The base camp crew had broken out into wild cheering. They had begun to pass round the tins of San Miguel beer that had been chilling on the ice of the glacier. Patrick had answered the phone to find it was the producer of the Radio 702 morning news programme. 

‘Hold on,’ he had said. ‘There’s a broadcast coming through, they’re somewhere on the mountain.’ Then he had begun to shout. ‘They’re on the summit! They’re on the summit! Put me on the air! Put me on the air now!’

The news had gone out at six o’clock in the morning in South Africa, to friends and family who had been awake all night, to insomniacs and early birds, to depressed rugby fans who had just watched the All Blacks thrash the Springboks at rugby.

Now Ian thrust the radio at me. Pulling off my mask, I was aware of the immediate drop in oxygen. There was only a third as much air here as there was at sea level. I spoke into the little black box in my gloved hand.

 ‘Hello, base camp, can you hear me?’

Everyone offered me their congratulations.

I sat on the pile of snow, trying to order my thoughts, trying to let the enormity of it all sink in. I couldn’t believe that I, that we, had actually done it. 

Then my mother’s voice came through faintly from the black box.

 ‘Hello, Cathy? Good morning, darling. You are the star for us.’

 How strange it was to be so far away and yet so intimately connected, to stand on the summit of the world and speak to my mother in her living room in Johannesburg. It was a huge thrill to be able to share with her the very moment that I was on top. My parents had been so supportive through all the difficulty, never hinting to me what worries or fears they might have.

I tried to sort my thoughts coherently, to be able to say something meaningful over the radio. But the emotions that were swelling through me tossed my words into chaos.

Ian handed Pemba the camera and he and I clambered onto the summit itself, holding out Ian’s ice-axe with the Nepalese and South African flags hanging from it. After weeks of battling the most ferocious winds, the breeze was now not even strong enough to make the flags flutter.

I looked down at the multi-coloured blaze of the South African flag with a shiver of excitement. I remembered being a teenager in the ‘old’ South Africa, standing in the hall of my school in Johannesburg, mouthing the words of the national anthem ‘Die Stem’ and wondering what it would be like to live in a country where one was actually proud to be a citizen, where the anthem and the flag really meant something.

And now I knew. 

I never expected to do something under the colours of my country, to make any kind of public contribution to the achievements of the nation. But now as I looked down at what was for a brief moment the highest flag in the world, I was proud to be South African, and proud to have forged a small place in the history of my country.

I looked at what actually marked the summit of the world. The large metal tripod left by the Americans in 1992 as part of a re-surveying of Everest’s height was almost covered in vividly coloured Buddhist prayer flags. Beneath them was a collection of tiny photographs in frames. Although I did not know it at the time, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, who was part of the IMAX team, had left them there. He was the son of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who had done the first ascent of Everest with Edmund Hillary 43 years earlier. I removed the South African flag badge that was pinned to my fleece jacket and placed it in the snow.

Part of me wanted to relax, to sit down and soak in the sense of really being on top of the world. But that was overwhelmed by the nagging worry of the long, long way we had to descend. Every one of those steps so laboriously taken on the way up still had to be taken again before we were safe again at camp. The summit was not a finish in any sense, but only a halfway point. I knew the risks of descent, the chances of making a mistake due to tiredness or simply lack of concentration. With the drive for the summit gone, all that remained to keep us moving was the survival instinct.

To spend only 15 minutes on top after months of effort to get there seemed less than logical. But in the end it had been about getting there, not about being there.

Ian and Pemba were packing up to leave and I joined them reluctantly, with one last glance out across the hundreds of mountains below me. Whatever I climbed in the future, I thought, I would never have to climb this high again. I meant that with all my heart. But then my pronouncements about my future never were very trustworthy.

As we moved steadily down towards the Hillary Step, we encountered Jangbu and Ang Dorje moving determinedly upwards. 

‘Bara Sahib, Didi, ramro, very well done,’ Ang Dorje said.

‘You guys going on to the top?’ asked Ian.

‘Oh yes.’ That decision was theirs to make and neither they nor we ever assumed it would be otherwise. We wished them well and continued on down. They called down to base camp from the summit at 10.55 a.m.  Jangbu had been there once before, when he had climbed Everest from the Tibetan side, but for Ang Dorje it was an unexpected culmination to his long career as a climbing sirdar. 

Crossing the narrow ridge past the Hillary Step was a trying process. Each time I looked down my glasses misted up from the hot air rising out of my oxygen mask. Yet I dared not take the glasses off, for fear of snow blindness. Ian was climbing a few metres behind me, and, unbeknown to me, he nearly fell off the ridge. He moved his right foot onto the dark outline of a footprint seen through his misted glasses. Only there was no snow, only empty air. As he lost his balance, his heavy rucksack swung slowly but inexorably towards the drop and he began to fall. Even while thinking that these were his last moments, he swung his ice-axe in a wide arc towards the narrow snow ridge. It gripped, leaving him staring straight down the bottomless south-west face, watching his beanie falling on without him. We were, supposedly, climbing together, yet I could have done nothing more than turn and watch him fall. 

I stopped at Rob Hall’s body for a few minutes, a tiny personal tribute to the life, the achievement and the tragic death of this talented climber. It was strange to me that we should both have been climbing the same mountain and yet have had such radically different experiences.

Encountering bodies on the mountain is not fun. For many people it seems such a horrible concept that they would rather not climb than risk the encounter. These were the first bodies I had ever seen. But he lay there so peacefully. For me what I saw was no more than an empty suitcase. The energy that made up Rob Hall had long since moved on to the next great adventure. 

I crossed over the south summit and onto the steep ridge below. A small figure was visible below me, still moving determinedly upwards. I realised with shock that it was Bruce. I had assumed he had given up. I paused to take a photograph of him as Pemba passed him. As I approached he put out his arms and pulled me into a huge bear hug.

‘Pemba gave me the news,’ he said. ‘Well done, woman. I’m so chuffed you guys have done it.’

We sat down together in the snow and I asked him if he was okay, if he was having problems. He said he was fine, just moving slowly. Then he began to quiz me about the climbing above us, the nature of the difficulties, the length of time I had taken on each section. I realised he had no intention of turning back with us. I was not sure what to say to this and waited for Ian to join us.

Bruce pumped his hand.

‘Well done, mate. It’s amazing you made it,’ he beamed.

Ian asked him to come back down with us. Bruce’s ready smile in no way hid the steely determination of his answer.

‘No, I’ve come this far. I’m going on.’

Both Ian and I assumed Bruce would simply go on to the south summit, a major achievement in itself and then turn back from there. Bruce agreed to take a radio and another full bottle of oxygen from Ang Dorje, when he passed him. Ian exhorted him to keep in touch on the radio, with us and with base camp. Bruce confirmed he was happy with the route down, and knew where to turn off the ridge. 

We watched him move slowly on upward, before turning round to continue down the mountain. A short while after having left us, Bruce passed Jangbu and Ang Dorje, and took Ang Dorje’s radio and another bottle of oxygen. Ang Dorje also suggested that Bruce turn round, but he remained adamant. At 12.20 p.m. he called base camp on the radio. Philip asked him how he was feeling

 ‘At the moment I’m feeling great. Everybody has summitted except me. I’m about 30 minutes below the south summit. What I’m going to do is press on on my own to the south summit, keeping a very close eye on conditions and weather and myself. If everything’s all right on the south summit, I’m going to take the radio with me. I’ll check in with you, and then I’ll press on, just to see if I can top out.’

It was not a situation we had anticipated. I had always thought I might be the one to turn back, or fall behind. That it might be Bruce never crossed my mind. That moment of decision, when Bruce went on and we went down came under heavy criticism after the expedition. Many felt Ian should have ‘ordered’ him down. However, our expedition did not run that way. And I’m not convinced Bruce would have paid any attention. Ian could hardly have threatened him. At the time, given that Bruce was completely lucid, it did not seem a bad decision. It was midday, the skies were clear and the weather warm. He had nearly seven hours of light left. Other teams from earlier in the season had been at much the same altitude as he at much the same time. In climbing alone along the summit ridge, he would not be doing anything different from what we had already done. 

Much was made of so-called ‘cut-off times’. But there is no moment when a gong rings out from heaven and announces all climbers must turn round. Each climber must judge when he have run through half his reserves, and then have the discipline to turn back. That point is different from individual to individual, and is not easily judged. In the end each individual must make a personal decision and then accept responsibility for it.

At base camp the waiting continued. Patrick spoke to President Mandela, who said that, ‘the news came to us as a real surprise, and also a cause for jubilation because of the fact that the conditions on top there were not conducive to this achievement, but our children did very well indeed.’

He asked if he could speak to us when we were safely down and began to give Patrick his telephone number. Patrick interrupted frantically. He visualised President Mandela giving out his personal telephone number live on air. He could imagine every citizen in South Africa phoning the President up at home to complain about everything from the state of the nation to the neighbour’s barking dog, and he himself, as a result, never working in the media again.

We, meanwhile, had reached the Balcony. I dreaded climbing down the steep snow slope that I had found so frightening on the way up, but daylight and descent made it easier. We moved across the loose rocky ledges relatively quickly, passing Scott Fischer’s body all wrapped up in rope. I was surprised by his location, because in the end he was not that far from the south col. I moved on to the fixed ropes, conscious only now of sore knees, deep exhaustion and an overwhelming desire to reach the tents. On my arrival I was too tired to feel anything much, but slowly got on with the chores of pulling on warm, dry clothing, while waiting for Ian.

He arrived at last and stood exhausted by the tent door, huddled over, head down, hands jammed into his armpits. I waited for a few minutes and then seeing that he seemed to be beyond moving, climbed reluctantly out of my sleeping bag. I pulled his oxygen bottle out of his rucksack, fished out his down jacket and bullied him into the tent.

At 4.40 p.m. Ian pulled out the radio and called Philip to report our safe return. 

Philip was worried about Bruce. He had not radioed since 12.20 p.m. Ian asked Philip to hold all goodwill messages until the team was fully reunited. 

Ian and I crawled into our sleeping bags and I reached across to hug him. I was glad he had made it, and made it first. After all the effort he had put into organising and running the expedition, he had earned that summit a hundredfold.

‘No, if anyone deserved it, it was you,’ he said to me.

We lay back in tired silence listening to the gentle, reassuring hiss of our oxygen regulators, and keeping an ear open for the crackle of the radio, or the crunch of boots on the rock.


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