Practice Run No.3: Summit Success

In Practice Run No.3by Steve

A tough day out.

I am writing this retrospectively, but… what a tough bloody day. I have had some tough days out before, but this one has to be right up there.

When people head to the summit from C2, they generally leave around midnight to get up and back in the day. We had been moving well so decided to leave later to minimise the amount of time spent out in the cold night.

At C2 I didn’t really sleep much, the cold, the discomfort, the anxiety knowing I was lying on a cliff edge, and the nervousness for the day ahead all kept me awake. I lay there, dozing on and off, until 0300 when the alarm went off. It took us an hour to boil some water for a hot drink and get dressed. Nothing happens quickly at this altitude. By 0400 we were on our way, Kaljang (my climbing Sherpa) and myself.

The night was cold, but not as bad as I was expecting. Mentally I had prepared myself for sub -20degC temperatures, with windchill pushing it well below -30degC. That is what the weather forecasts had been. I did not have a thermometer on me, but I’m guessing that night must have been a balmy -15degC or so. There is something to be said for preparing for the worst.

The first few hours took us up through the Grey Couloir and up to Mushroom Ridge. The Grey Couloir involved narrow traverses and climbing several sections of near vertical (and sometimes overhanging) snow/ice pitches. Negotiating these with the aid of fixed ropes made it manageable, but still very tough. Full credit to anyone who free climbs this route.

Watching the sunrise from high up in the Himalayas was spectacular. Although we had little time to stop and enjoy it. By 0730 we were at the location of the old Camp 3 (~6200m) at the bottom of the final ramp to the summit. It would have been a superb campsite, flat level space, excellent views, but the “Dablam”, the hanging glacier, perched precariously above was an obvious hazard. It was not a place to stop, but rather keep moving through to minimise exposure time.

When we got up to the old Camp 3, there in the snow was a bloke lying in the fetal position with his head cradled in his arms. We checked on him and he seemed ok, but what was he doing there? He had apparently started out from C2 at midnight with his “mate” and a climbing Sherpa. He had got that far and felt he couldn’t go on, so had agreed with his “mate” that he would wait there while his “mate” went for the summit with the Sherpa. I put “mate” in inverted commas because what kind of “mate” leaves a friend exhausted, lying in the snow, exposed, at 6200m? It was a recipe for disaster. At those altitudes, in those temperatures, you must keep moving to generate body heat. With the sun just coming out and still winds, he was managing ok. But it would only take a few clouds and a bit of wind and he would quickly become another statistic. It was the kind of foolish decision that would have got him and his “mate” on the 6pm news back home, for all the wrong reasons. We suggested he should descend back down, but he was adamant on waiting there till his “mate” got back down. We had tried.

Reflecting on this situation after getting back down, I asked myself, “did we try hard enough?”. The answer would have to be “No”. We had checked on him, and half-heartedly offered to take him down, but the fact was, I didn’t want to turn around, I wanted to keep going up. He was an adult and still in a mental state where he was capable of making his own decisions. So was it our responsibility? Possibly not. But how would we feel now had the weather deteriorated and had the unthinkable happened? Fortunately it did not come to that.

From Camp 3, you can look up and see the summit, but it was still more than six hundred vertical meters up a snow slope averaging around 60 degrees. We left old mate in the snow and pressed on for the top.

When we left C2, two Sherpas had left just before us. They were climbing together just for fun, without any clients. We had been keeping pace with them all morning, and could still see them on the hill just ahead. It was reassuring to be keeping up with them. We must have been making good progress.

We had got about half way up this final face, we were up above the Dablam at around 6500m, and all of a sudden it felt as if someone had put the brakes on. I had entered Struggle Street big time. My legs felt like lead. With every step up I was left gasping for breath. I was starting to doubt whether I had it in me to make the top. The fact that I had not stopped to eat nor drink anything all morning probably wasn’t helping.

One step, two step, stop, breathe, breathe breathe, breathe. One step, two step, stop, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe. This is what I was reduced to.

It seemed like eternity, then all of a sudden I could see the prayer flags marking the 6812m summit and Everest appeared directly behind. We topped out just after 1030. It was a magical moment. I gave Kaljang a big man hug. Despite what seemed painstakingly slow, we had still made very good time.

Conditions on the top were picture perfect. There was almost no wind, it was relatively warm, and had full 360 degree view of the Himalayas. It was spectacular.

Reaching the top for me was quite emotional. It was not that long ago that I was lying in hospital facing potentially a very different future. The fact that I am still able to get out and about and pursue my dreams means the world to me.

I gave Mum and Dad a call from the top. The wonders of modern technology. Mum’s mobile went straight to answering machine, no surprises there (sorry Mum). But had a good chat with Dad.

We hung out on the summit for about 30min, got a few photos for the pool room (if I ever have a house with a pool room), then it was time to get down. We were still only half way. An American, the friend of the bloke who was lying down at C3, had started descending just before us, abseiling on the fixed rope. The problem was, he didn’t appear to know how to abseil. How bloody hard is it? You just lean back and let gravity do the work. Anyway, he was making a complete meal of it. And with him on the rope, and the rope tight, we could not use it to abseil down ourselves. Down climbing was possible, but risky, one slip and you’re gone, so we waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually he got to the first anchor point and got off the rope, then we clipped on and zipped down. But as we’d got to the anchor point, he had just begun attempting to abseil the next section of rope. This happened 3 or 4 times until I lost my patience. I yelled out to him to stop at the next anchor to let us pass, which thankfully he did.

We abseiled the remainder of the six hundred odd meters down to C3. Old mate was still there lying in the snow, waiting for his friend to come down. He had been there for over 6 hours. I know I am still very inexperienced, but I am taking steps to learn the required skills, to serve my apprenticeship under the guidance of experts, such that I can undertake these activities safely. I’m not so sure about the approach these guys were taking.

From Camp 3 we continued descending down through the Grey Couloir towards C2. Descending back down, I could not believe what we had climbed up during the night. The exposure was insane. I was physically scared attempting to traverse back over these narrow snow ridges, no more than a foot wide, with shear drops both sides. Somehow I had managed to climb up over these sections during the night, under head torch, without even blinking. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

As we descended, the sun and the heat was intense, and we still had all our gear on which we had set out in during the night. I only had a one litre water bottle with me, and had drunk half of that even before we left. The rest I finished off at the top. It was a big mistake. We eventually stumbled back in to C2 around 1430, by which stage I was completely exhausted, severely dehydrated and had a thumping headache. We put the stove straight on and started to melt some snow for drinking water.

After an hour at C2 drinking and eating, we decided to press on down to base camp. I packed up all my gear and at 1545 we were back on the ropes traversing the narrow rocky ridgeline back to C1. Once back at C1 we could start to relax as the technical sections were over.

From C1, we chucked the head torches on as the sun was starting to set, and it was then just a long downhill trudge to BC. 1930 and we were back at BC, back on horizontal ground. It was all a little surreal.

It had been a very long day, a very tough day, a day with a lot of ups and downs (physically and metaphorically), but it was one of the best days of my life. I had been preparing for this day for a long time and couldn’t be happier. Although I won’t be going back up there any time soon, not on that hill anyway. Been there, done that.

“Go with the decision that will make for a great story”.