None of us slept that night due to the trepidation of what was ahead and partly because once again it was damn uncomfortable in the tent!
The alarm went off at 11:15pm and we again started the process of boiling ice for 3 people to drink straight away and to top up our bottles for the day ahead.
The normal time to wake up and get started on Summit day is around 8 or 9pm the night before but due to the weather forecast for the 26th of May we decided to start much later. There were supposed to be strong winds overnight which would pick up to their maximum at around 5am. Normally climbers are approaching the summit at 5am but as we did not want to be up that high on the exposed ridge in those conditions we delayed our start and aimed to be at ‘The Balcony’ at 5am. The winds were supposed to then die down and the day would be perfect – clear skies and no wind. The forecast couldn’t have been more wrong!
The ideal amount of water to carry on Everest Summit day is a 1 litre bottle in an insulated case clipped to the harness for drinking straight away (before it freezes) and two 0.5L bottles to keep inside our down suits which are kept warm from our own body temperature. To make this much water at 8000m in -40 degrees is a lengthy process, it took a good two hours to boil up this much ice and involved a couple of trips outside the (relative) warmth of the tent to go chop out more ice or try to find clean snow.
While the water boiling process took place we tried to eat some more snacks to provide us with some much needed calories and also spent a good 30-45 minutes shaking our hand warmers around trying to get them activated. It turns out they take a LONG time to activate when there is 20% of the normal levels of oxygen in the air. They eventually started to show glimmers of warmth so we stashed them in our gloves immediately.
We slept in our down suits that night as it was freezing even in a -40 degree sleeping bag so not having to put them on saved us some time while getting ready. We slept with our boots in the tent to stop them from freezing too and made sure all this gear was on before finishing the process outside.
Organising the gear outside is the tricky part. Putting on crampons and a harness with big gloves is close to impossible so you need to quickly remove your gloves, try to get a strap into a buckle or tighten something before your fingers freeze. Once the numbness sets in you have to stop what you’re doing and quickly stuff your hands back into your gloves or down suit to try and let the blood return before ripping them out again to continue the process. My harness in particular – the Black Diamond Couloir – is great for smaller warmer peaks as it is ultra-lightweight but the buckle is so fiddly that it takes a couple of minutes just to get the strap through and doing it with high altitude gloves is impossible.
I finally got my harness and crampons on, got my head torch fired up, had my snacks available in my outside leg pocket, water bottles in place, sun cream, glasses and goggles in place for when the sun comes up and was ready to set off into the night.
I remember when I arrived at the South Col just how steep the route on Everest herself was. For some reason I thought it was a relatively low gradient but a long distance and this is why it was normally 8 hours to the summit. That night as I looked up into the star filled sky I saw a trail of stars which appeared to be moving. They were the other 5 climbers on the hill that day. Even though I saw the route earlier that afternoon I was still surprised at how high in the sky this trail of lights was.
There are not that many ‘features’ on the Everest Summit route. Straight out of Camp 4 there is the very steep slope which resembles the Lhotse Face, this peels off to a ridge line on the right with a narrow chute between some rocks which I labelled ‘The Chimney’ (it may actually be called that). A fairly short but steep slope then leads up to ‘The Balcony’ which is a giant chunk of rock with a massive drop down into Tibet on the other side. Climbers then follow the ridge line up to a band of rocks which is just below the ‘South Summit’. From there the route follows a corniced ridge line which leads to ‘The Hillary Step’. After the Hillary Step the corniced ridge line continues until there is no more mountain to climb. Some areas of loose rock and a pile of snow with some prayer flags marks the summit of Mount Everest, top of the world and the highest point on Earth.
Some of these waypoints are usual places to exchange oxygen bottles. Normally climbers will use half a bottle, swap out for a new one at the Balcony, use another half as they continue up to the South Summit where they will swap out to another new bottle. Use a bottle to the summit and back to the South Summit and then use the remaining bottles as they move back down to Camp 4.
We started climbing at 2am. The first few hours were uneventful and in complete darkness you tend to zone out and just focus on your breathing and taking the next step forward. We were clipped into the fixed line the entire time so other than breathing and stepping up, all you have to think about is unclipping and reclipping at each anchor which is about every 50 metres or so, you spend hours staring at the heels in front of you.
The sky over China started to glow a deep blue as the sun started to rise. It was nice to have the light of day reveal itself as being up at 8000m+ in the darkness is an ominous feeling. Seeing all the bodies on the previous days and reading the infamous stories regarding the situations which occurred around the features we were climbing through, I couldn’t help feel that death is ever present. It is not an extreme feeling when climbing up there but rather than a disturbing calm. With the low oxygen environment, you are aware that very gently and very quietly you can easily drift off and your life can slip away if you are not concentrating on your equipment, your oxygen and constantly staying vigilant. I had the feeling that Death’s talons were tugging at my down suit all day. Insidious. This helped me focus on every part of the process and doing everything right.
As we moved up the narrow path in the Chimney I got to the top and took a break to catch my breath. Immediately to my right the body of a climber was splayed next to me. The position the body was in was particularly disturbing, he looked like he had been thrown onto his back leaving his legs twisted and one of his hands in the air. This was the body of an American climber who had died a couple of days before. I wasn’t sure of the exact circumstances but it was something to do with lack of oxygen and taking too long. His glove had blown off his hand with his bare skin exposed to the elements. For some reason this body was the one which affected me the most and stayed in my mind for the rest of the day. I tried not to look at him, checked my gear and moved on.
We got up to the Balcony without issue. I did not swap out my oxygen as I still had a good amount left and could make it to the South Summit without running out. I was under the impression I was using 3 litres a minute but every time I checked with my Sherpa he would give me a different answer. The few times I took off my pack I would check and sure enough it would be on 2 or 2.5 litres a minute. I have heard of Sherpa doing this to slow climbers down but I wasn’t going fast at all so I assume he was instructed to conserve the Os where possible as our team had bottles stolen from our tents at Camp 4 a few days prior.
As we moved from The Balcony to the South Summit, the darkness was quickly receding and it looked like the weather was doing exactly as predicted with the wind calming after 5am. The world below us started to light up as we climbed higher and the views into China were spectacular although not a completely clear sky. As I could see more and more I realised that there was a thick layer of grey cloud not far above us. It must have been sitting somewhere between 9,000m and 10,000m. In the distance over the mountain Cho Oyo, I could see a huge lightning storm furiously igniting the dark clouds. I hoped it wouldn’t come in this direction. I then looked around and noticed a lot of cloud building in in all directions. Some large Cumulus Nimbus (anvil shaped storm clouds) were building off in the distance, deep in Nepal. I thought to myself that the weather looks like its turning but I ignored this negative thought and continued on having confidence in the weather report Tim had pirated from another team’s frequency hours earlier.
Once again Jon was ahead of us by about 30 minutes with his Sherpa Jabbu struggling to keep up with him. My Sherpa Galjin and I were just behind Rory and Dorjee who were now coming over the top of the South Summit.
Climbing up the rocks to the South Summit was tough but otherwise uneventful. As we got to the ridge between the South Summit and the Summit, Jon and his Sherpa Jabbu were probably getting to the top of the Hillary Step. The high layer of cloud appeared to be descending from above. I was conscious that we were still heading up while this ominous weather was coming straight down. Jon was probably arriving on the summit just as Rory, myself and our Sherpas were getting to the Hillary Step. It had definitely changed in the 2015 earthquake. It is a different landmark to what it used to be and to most climbers benefit, some of the larger rocks which were obstacles are simply gone. There was now a nice little snow ridge going up the right hand side with slanted slabs of rock tilting straight down into Nepal on the left. The snow ridge of course was shaped wrong on our summit day making climbing up it impossible. We instead opted for the icy angled slabs of rock which with blunt crampons made for some very dodgy climbing. I slipped and fell a few times but luckily the rope caught me before I made it off the edge. The next stop down from the Hillary Step is Camp 2 which is 2000m directly below, not a good place to come off! Once we negotiated the Hillary Step Rubble we were up onto the corniced ridge where we saw Jon descending just before the summit. The final ridge went on longer than I was expecting but after some time of moving up, down and up again we saw the summit.
When there was no more mountain to climb, all that was left was a very small mound of packed snow which was in the shape of a little bench and was the highest point. There was only one line of prayer flags draped across the top of this ice mound and a photo of the Dalai Lama attached to a small stick. I was expecting to see a pile of prayer flags and other litter as I had seen in photos from previous years but this year the summit looked quite small, untouched and humble. As I got to the end of the line, I unclipped from the rope and we walked the small slope up to the top of the world. The cloud had completely descended upon us now and visibility was gone. We could see maybe 10 metres in all directions, everything was white. I did not care about the view, I made it, I had climbed to the summit of Mount Everest and I was at the highest point of Earth. I arrived at 9:45am on Friday the 26th of May 2017, 7 hours and 45 minutes after we left Camp 4. I was elated. I have had this goal looming in front of me for three years and it has been a dream of mine for almost 10 years. Under my oxygen mask and goggles I shed a tear as I sat on the icy bench. We all congratulated each other and took our obligatory photos. I took out my sat phone and called Alejandra to give her the good news. I could not chat for long as my hand was freezing in the now blasting icy winds. I called my Dad as well who I quickly updated with the situation. They both appreciated the haste of the call once I explained the conditions we were in. They congratulated me and told me to get down safely, I could hear the happiness and relief in their voices. More tears.
I was so exhausted on those final steps, all I wanted to do was sit up there for hours and rest and recuperate but in the back of my mind there was a sense of urgency. I knew this weather was getting worse and this is probably the worst place in the world to be in a storm. It was time to get out of here!
We packed quickly, ate some snacks (another two Jelly babies for me which took the day’s total to 8) and had a swig of our remaining water before the packs went on and we moved back down from the summit to the fixed line. The weather was now officially bad. Really bad. The winds were probably well over 60kmph with a fine icy sleet creeping into the gaps in my head system and starting to burn any exposed skin. When we got to the Hillary Step we could only see half of it due to the thick cloud. We negotiated it the best we could. Rory opted to rappel down the steeper part but I just arm wrapped the rope and climbed down like the Sherpas. Unlike the Sherpas though I had a big fall here when both my crampons slid out from underneath me on the now sleet covered slabs. I recovered, caught my breath and kept moving.
I was officially drained at this point. My energy levels were zero. Every movement was a massive effort. I swapped from my glacier glasses to my goggles and they immediately fogged up and I could not see a thing. We moved along the ridge to the South Summit and then made our way to the rocky section below. I stumbled and fell down this section with a bit of down climbing included for good measure.
Heavy snow was falling now and whatever trail there was in the snow on the way up, it was now completely gone. This makes for a dangerous descent with the visibility at almost zero, fogged up goggles and a trail which had vanished Rory and Dorjee took off ahead of Galjin and myself. They disappeared into the white about 20 metres ahead and it was just Galjin and I. We were both constantly falling in the invisible pot holes of the trail buried in the deep powder snow. The section below the South Summit is kind of like a trail with long drops on either side. The drop on the China/Tibet side is probably 3500m and at at angle of 70 degrees. One slip here while not clipped in and you’re done. As I stumbled and fell my way down the trail I stopped half way between the South Summit and the Balcony to check how Galjin was going.
He was gone.
I couldn’t figure it out. He was right behind me the whole time. I stopped descending, took my goggles off and tried to focus in the thick white nothing. There was no silhouette so that means he was not within 10 to 20 metres of me. I looked down the sides and saw nothing but white. There was only one answer to this. Galjin is dead. He must have unclipped for some reason. A lot of Sherpa will not clip into the fixed line at certain points so they can move faster. I assumed he had done this, slipped and was somewhere far below.
I looked down the rope to try and see Rory and Dorjee. They were nowhere to be seen. I checked behind again and Galjin was still gone.
Being the last team on the mountain and having no radio as they were with the Sherpas, I knew I was now alone.
The wind was ripping now. I was scared. I still couldn’t see anything and I came to the realisation that it is now down to me if I am going to survive this.
I had not checked my oxygen for a good couple of hours and had no idea how much I had left. Death was waiting and watching rubbing his hands together. Another soul for him to take. I thought of Charlie and how she would grow up without her Dad. I thought of Alejandra having to raise Charlie with only the memory of her stupid husband who died on top of Mount Everest. I thought of the dead American at the Chimney and wondered if my body would become a waypoint for climbers next year. I realised I HAD to get down to where his body was. From there I could descend to camp with oxygen or not. Even with an injury or frostbite, I could make it down from there. I just had to get there and fast! I tried to run but just fell over straight away. I was on my hands and knees in 2-foot-deep snow gasping for breath in the now suffocating oxygen mask ‘had it ran out already?’ For the first time in my life, I was certain that I was going to die and for me to make it out of here was highly unlikely. I have been in situations before where I thought I might die (Aconcagua for example) and I remember being quite nonchalant about the whole thing but now that I have a baby girl to think about the feeling was completely different. It was sad.
I took my mask off and yelled as loud as I could into the raging wind. My voice was blown away like a puff of smoke in a cyclone. I tried to whistle but nothing came out. I picked myself up and ran as fast as I could with only the black rope disappearing into the white to guide me. Falling, stumbling and gasping for air, I kept moving, kept calling out. After about 10 minutes I think I heard a voice in the wind. I kept stumbling down. I saw a silhouette! I yelled out “Dorjee!” I heard a voice again. I saw the rope tug. It was Dorjee and Rory! I’d made it down to them!
When I got to Dorjee and Rory there was feeling of massive relief but I knew we were not out of the woods just yet. I thought back to the 1996 disaster on Everest when a freak storm came out of nowhere, caught a team out high on the mountain and killed eight of them. I thought this could quite easily become us.
Dorjee asked where Galijn was. I said “He’s gone”. Dorjee went quite, took off his pack and got out his radio. He hunched over to block the wind and tried to call for Galjin into the radio. There was no answer. Meanwhile Rory was having some visibility issues and Dorjee was helping him with his goggles and making sure he was protected from the bitter wind.
We sat there for what seemed like a good 30 minutes. I had my back to the wind the whole time and in my suit, I was fairly warm and well protected. Rory was also well sheltered from the wind.
While we waited we looked up the hill constantly in the hope that Galjin would appear. I thought I could see the silhouette of a person for a moment but it then disappeared in the white – no it was my imagination. I knew no other climbers were above us. Then again I saw it. What was I looking at? Galjin was gone. Was this a person or my mind playing tricks? Then again it appeared slowly limping down from the white. A large piece of the shadow broke off and blew away. As I watched it I realised it was a mitt. The shadow got closer and sure enough it was Galjin. He was hurt and limping pretty bad. He had lost his goggles and glasses and his face was covered in ice, he bypassed me and Rory and went straight to Dorjee.
Later we would find out that he had indeed slipped just after the rocks and fallen towards China. He says he was clipped in but if he was he would have been visible on the ropes somewhere behind me. Having said that, if he was not, surviving a fall in that location would be been near impossible. Galjin is tough as nails so whatever happened to him, his strength is what helped him claw his way back up to the trail, collect the spare oxygen cylinder and descend to us with his face half frozen.
Once we had regrouped at the Balcony, Dorjee took care of Galjin and Rory and I was sent down as I was good to go.
I followed the trail back down from the Balcony to the Chimney where the dead American was. I was almost relieved to see him as he marked the point where I could return to camp and my family no matter what happened. I sipped the remainder of my water, nodded to the American, checked on Galjin limping down slowly behind me and continued down the hill.
The rest of the trail was straight forward. It was straight down. I got into a good rhythm and made my way back to the South Col in a fast but controlled descent. The storm was still pummelling us and the South Col – the bare exposed blue ice saddle which it is – seemed to funnel and amplify the winds to the point I was nearly being blown over. I kept moving forward and made it back to Camp 4. I found our tent with a few holes and makeshift poles added as it had been pretty hammered in the storm too. I took off my crampons and climbed inside the tent still covered in ice where Jon and Tim were laying down boiling up water in anticipation for our arrival. I filled in the guys on the eventful descent and Jon wasn’t surprised but Tim seemed a bit shocked with how pear shaped things went. He was completely unawares the whole time. I had assumed Dorjee radioed down to Tim while Galjin was missing but I guess not.
Within 30 minutes the other guys came down and Rory piled into our tent to collapse in an exhausted heap next to me. We rested for a couple of hours before the decision was made that we should get out of here due to the storm. The tent was damaged and the winds were supposed to only get worse so staying there would not be the best idea. Even in perfect conditions staying at the South Col is best avoided due to the oxygen/sleep/death issue which is ever present.
One thing I forgot to mention in this post is the physical effort required on summit day. Let’s just say, I was working at 100% the whole day and constantly out of breath, exhausted and questioning if I could even do it. I just kept moving forward. In the end, it is your mind which takes you to the top not your muscles. (but remember to save some energy for the descent!)
We packed up our gear and got ready to descend the 1500 metres to Camp 2 (6400m) where life was a bit more hospitable….just.
The descent from South Col to Camp 2 and then onto Base Camp was eventful and almost disastrous in itself so I will save that for the next and final post.
As there were not many pictures on Summit day, here is a teaser of a few hours later when the skies cleared on our descent just so we can finish up on a bright note.