After 3 months full time training in Chamonix I flew out to Nepal on 23rd March to start my attempt on Mt Everest, the world highest mountain at 8848m (29,029 feet).
24th March , 2012 - An expedition preparation day
I left Chamonix Mont-Blanc in France early on 22nd March and flew from Geneva to Bristol in the UK. I spent the day packing my gear for Everest and driving to Heathrow Airport for a night flight to Kathmandu via Bahrain.
Arriving late on 23rd I ate dinner and slept briefly. Five other climbers had already arrived and we would be joining together in one group under the support of Peak Promotion Nepal, the logistics and climbing organizer. The five are all doctors who came together with the WMS, Wilderness Medical Society. Shobita from Los Angeles, California, Johanna from Linkoping, Sweden, Bob from Lynchberg, Virginia, Mark from San Diego, California and Huseyin from Brookyln, New York, originally from Turkey.
The first day started with breakfast in the Yak and Yeti hotel, my base in Kathmandu, followed by a gear check with Mingmar, one of the expedition Sherpas, and a shopping trip for a few extras I hadn't already bought. Its amazing to see how much gear I now have, most of it made by Rab, with a few other important things like summit boots, ice axe and camera gear. In the afternoon we have a lecture on the Topout oxygen equipment that we will be using.
At 4 pm we had a briefing about our day to day schedule and a welcome dinner in Bhojan Griha restaurant with traditional singing and dancing.
25th March , 2012 - Blessed by a Lama
In the morning, we met with the seventh reincarnation Lama Tulka. He blessed us and our expedition, placing a blessed khata scarf and sacred neckless around our necks. Later the group went for a hike in the hills around Kathmandu, but I opted out and went for a haircut, more shopping, doing laundry from Chamonix! And a deep tissue massage :) I would be the only one the next day without sore calf muscles! Off to Lukla tomorrow, plane at 6 a.m
26th March , 2012 - The gate way to Mt. Everest
The landing strip at Lukla (2800m) is one of the shortest and steepest in the world, there's such little space that the runway is sloped uphill to make stopping much quicker, literally within a few meters. After waiting for all the bags to arrive, our Sherpas organized the pre-arranged porters and yaks to take our gear. One set that would go straight to base camp and another that would accompany us every day on the trek. You can see how much gear is needed for 6 people to climb a mountain!
Once this was done we made a short 3 hour hike to our first nights stop in Phakding at 2600m. I think I must have picked up a virus in Kathmandu; I felt really weak and had a painful stomach. The lack of sleep probably didn't help either.
27th March , 2012 - Namche Bazaar
Slept really well and felt much better today, which is good as we had a harder 7 hour day scheduled, finishing with a steep uphill section to our stop for the next 2 days, Namche Bazaar. The trail to Namche is beautiful, following the Dudh Khosi River, emerald green waters and snow capped peaks reaching over 6000m. My pre-acclimatization in France helped a lot and as we approached Namche at 3400m I was passing group after group of high school kids on trekking excursions to base camp, and listening to conversations of 'why is he going so fast!' My blood oxygen saturation using a pulse oximeter was still a healthy 98% on arrival.
28th March , 2012 - An acclimatization hike to Everest View hotel
Today we started off with a 7.30am breakfast and an easy acclimatization hike to Everest View hotel. It has one of the first glimpses of Everest, trekkers and climbers can get on the way to base camp. The trail winds its way up from Namche Bazaar to 3880m, a good way to start producing extra red blood cells, aiding the acclimatising process.
After two large pots of hot chocolate we make out way back down, via the Everest museum, with a traditional sherpa house much like the homes our Sherpa guides were born in. Alongside this is a photo gallery of Sherpa culture and Everest summiteers. It was great to see the photos of our Sherpas celebrating their previous summit successes! Apa Sherpa, who holds the record for summiting Everest - 21 times, has quite a few photos on the wall!!!
30th March , 2012 - Khumjung.
From Namche we take a higher trial through the woods to Khumjung (3790m). In the afternoon we take a nice steep acclimatisation hike to Kunde peak at 4200, almost half way to the top of Everest! We also stop at the Kunde hospital where Bob's son was treated and evacuated by helicopter two years ago after getting sick here while trekking.
At Sunshine lodge, our hotel for the night, dinner is a feast, noodle egg soup, steak and chips, and apple pie. The steak is more like a burger, but so good we order another one. We're wondering when we're going to hit the ceiling of our food budget!
David Breashears has also checked in, and shows us a demo of his GlacierWorks project. He's comparing historical images of Himalayan glaciers and asking what glacier melt can tell us about climate change and the challenges that must be met as water availability and land-use change.
31st March , 2012 - Trek from Khumjung to Tengboche
Early at six the next morning, I get up to take some photos of the town and Ama Dablam, one of the most majestic mountains in the Everest region. Soon after, I go back to pack and have breakfast.
A deep valley has to be crossed and we 'lose' 700m before having to climb up the other side. Mark, who had knee surgery in December, is still trying to catch up in his training, so decides to carry some weight today, both testing his knee and strengthening himself for the weeks ahead. His nickname for the day is Mark Sherpa!
Only 30 minutes after arriving at Tengboche (3850m), we take another hike to 4190m, and get to a small stupa in the middle of a snow flurry. Mark also falls in a 'crevasse' on the edge of the trail. It might be snowing but there's no ice in sight! We're all making progress in the acclimatisation process. We need to be in good shape now, as we're heading into the high country tomorrow!
Before dinner, we also make a visit to the monastery, and on the way out we see the goddess of Everest, someone we all need to keep happy!
1st April - 2nd Lama Blessing
Lama Geishi wishing us his best for our climb of Mt Everest.
2nd-8th April 2012 - Pangboche - Island Peak
Continuing on a from Pangboche we reached Dingboche at 4300m, and a good place to acclimatize for 2 nights. The next day we make an acclimatization hike to 5000m.
The next two days are very similar as we are heading higher on the way to our first real challenge Island Peak which is just under 6200m. We move again to Chukhung at 4700m and two more nights, with an acclimatization hike to 5535m. Incredibly it’s also the highest point that Hussein has been to, so from now on it will be a new personal high for him.
Next morning, we go to Island Peak base camp at 5100m. Chukhung was the last place with village or tea houses, so we are set up in tents and also a fairly luxurious dining tent, which we take advantage of to have a few extra zzzs.
We are supposed to leave at 2am the same night to climb Island Peak (6189m), but it snows all night and at the arranged time we are told to go back to sleep and wait another day for better weather.
The next day a Portuguese girl comes down after a 17 hour epic in snow, thunder and lighting. We are glad of having waited out the storm!
After relaxing most of the day we get ready again, and are hopeful with the weather clearing. We are woken up at 1am with breakfast in bed read: sleeping bag and tent, and set off in minus 15 c temperatures.
After a long steep trail to almost 6000m, and 4 hours of climbing, we reach the glacier and rope up for the final slog to the summit headwall. This is often the turnaround point for tired climbers who are faced with a 60 degree ice wall about 200m high reaching to the summit ridge.
Because of the bad weather yesterday there are far more people than usual and it takes 2 hours to get up to the ridge. This constant traffic jam is something I'm not looking forward to on Everest where it’s going to be much colder and higher and the risk of hanging around more dangerous.
I finally make it to the knife edge summit ridge with Lhotse (8500m) looming in the background. Two years ago when I climbed here the peak was fairly flat and room to walk around on. This year it had totally changed with a tiny peak, barely enough room for 5 people to stand hunched together.
The climb down is exhausting with more jams on the fixed ropes back to the glacier and I sit down in the snow and eat 2 Clif bars and a Mars bar to re-energize. At about 2pm I get down to the snow line, and shortly after, one of the Peak Promotion cooks walks out of the mist carrying a tea-pot and biscuits. It’s amazing with all the gear and modern clothing being carried by climbers that this young guy looks like he's out for a picnic at 6000m, with nothing but a light jacket and a tea pot in hand!
Back at the tents everyone is exhausted with no appetite, and fall asleep almost instantly. In the morning waking up, we are well rested and eager to eat again.
Writing this in Periche at 4200m in a well heated modern looking hotel, we are reluctant to leave for more punishment from the harsh environment of Everest!
9th April - 13th April 2012 - Base Camp
From Periche at 4200m its a 2 or 3 day trek for the final few miles to Everest Base Camp (EBC) with a stop over at Lobuche (4900m). EBC is about 5300m so we were going up 1100m again, but this time, with previous acclimatisation and a rest in Periche, it was much quicker and easier to gain this height. We even decided to skip Gorak Shep and the famous view of Everest, as the weather was cloudy and not worth the extra effort to get to the lookout. After 2 weeks of trekking the lure of base camp was stronger. On the way we past a memorial of people who have died whilst mountaineering, on Everest and other peaks in the area.
It's great to eventually get to EBC: individual tents, dining room, kitchen, toilets, all set up in separate tents on the rocky glacier moraine. Best of all, no more packing and unpacking every day. Our private tents have a big thick mattress and pillow, and plenty of space for all the gear we have brought. Set back away from the kitchen and tents of the trekking groups, it's quiet and has a great view of the ice fall we're going to be negotiating in the next few days. I spend some time organising my gear (its the first time I've seen my Rab summit suit!). Its also the first time I've had a shower in 10 days, I don't want to take the dirt all the way to the summit! and it feels great to be clean again.
Before we can go through the ice fall, a Puja ceremony must be performed, the last blessing from a Lama, which needs to be given before we can head up the mountain. The ceremony, however, is best reserved for auspicious days, either a Friday or a Monday. The next is Friday which also happens to be the 13th! but its also the Nepali New Year, 2069 in their calendar. This is as about as auspicious as you can get, so will hopefully, at least cancel out the Friday 13th superstition.
In the meantime we spend 3 days resting, acclimatising, eating, and doing some ice climbing practise. I'm so glad I started doing this in Chamonix. Its not a good place to start, you don't want to be wasting mental and physical effort learning this on the way up Everest!
The Puja Ceremony
This 2 hour ceremony is extremely important in any climb of Everest. For a start the Sherpas wont climb without it, its kind of a celebration and blessing rolled into one. Before the ceremony starts all the climbers take their important equipment, such as boots, ice axe, crampons etc to the Puja (located within our site), in order for them to be blessed by the lama during the ceremony.
The Lama arrives, we drink tea, he chants, drums play, and the equipment is blessed (thampa flour is thrown over the gear). After a while it turns into more of a celebration, with everyone drinking chang (rice wine) and beer. Just before the end of the Puja everyone grabs some flour and at the right moment we all throw it over anyone else in close proximity. Dancing and mandatory drinking! of rum marks the end. We can now look forward to an early morning walk through the ice fall!
14th April 2012 - Khumbu Ice Fall
Our day begins at 5am as we are offered hot tea in our tent, by 5:30 we are dressed and wearing our boots and harnesses with our crampons stowed in in our backpacks. At 6:10am we are off with a stop by our Lhopsu (the stone structure that was the center of our Puja Ceremony yesterday). where our Sirdar Mingmar shows us how to pay respect before entering the Khumbu Ice fall. The path was well marked with flagged bamboo stakes. At first it meanders back and forth slowly gaining elevation. The pace quickens soon though and we find ourselves crossing gapping crevasses 50 – 100 meters deep on old aluminum ladders. In places you could see the fixed line from years past that exited and entered a smooth wall of ice ten to twenty feet down. Perhaps this was part of the path from years ago. Our goal today was to make it half way through the Ice Fall. We made it more than 60% before we turned around and returned for hot drinks and food at base-camp.
14th April - 19th April 2012 - Base Camp - Camp I and Camp II
After a day’s rest we head into the ice fall again, this time all the way to Camp 1 where we will stay the night and go on to 'touch' Camp 2. Shobita has decided not to continue with the Everest climb, so there are 5 of us now, but after a few minutes Johanna feels she doesn't have to power to continue either, so it’s just the four guys now. What an expensive trip to Base Camp!!!
We make good progress, and after a few hours rise above the ice fall into the Western Cwm. The scenery here is incredible and we arrive at Camp 1 among the huge mountains of the Himalaya. The tents have already been set up by some of the Sherpa team, so we have a relaxing afternoon before settling down for the night.
In the morning we can see all the way to the Lhotse Face, with the West Ridge of Everest flanking the left side of the valley. Today we aim to go to Camp 2 for acclimatization and then back to Camp 1 either to stay another night of go back to Base Camp again.
It’s a long slog to Camp 2 at 6500m heading through the shallow valley, and Camp has barely been set up. We're lucky to get some soup and noodles from the new kitchen. This will be our new Base Camp for the serious climbing in the next few weeks. For now we (Hussein especially!) are content to take a nap on the sun heated rocks and look up at our first real views of the huge face of Everest we will be climbing (via the South East Ridge).
The way back to Camp 1 is much quicker, only an hour down, as opposed to 4 hours up, but it turned out to be a long day, so we are happy to stay another night at Camp 1. Unfortunately, the combination of a cold and not so great high altitude cooking make for my worst nights sleep so far. Mingar and Pemba have cooked some pasta, but half way through it I throw up 5 times. Surprisingly though I feel good! And have a Clif Protein bar instead. During the night I wake up about 10 times to clear my head cold.
Luckily I'm not too tired in the morning, the minus 15 Celsius temperature helps with that, and I head down to Base Camp at 06.30 am. It’s good to be back for a breakfast of porridge and pancake :) and 3 days rest before heading back up the mountain.
1st May, 2012 - Base Camp
An extended stay at base camp and two trips to nearby Pumori Base Camp to stretch our legs and get some different views of Everest. We need to rest, and not over exert ourselves, so we don't make any trips more than 2 or 3 hours.
On one of the excursions I'm approached by another guy who is supported by Rab, he's also a photographer, and here for a week working on a project about Everest, and asks if he can photograph me in my summit suit. Its fun dressing up at Base Camp, and actually wearing the suit outside for the first time!
There's a lot of killing time now, one day, take a shower, the next day wash socks, read a book, etc. etc.
Finally we are up on the mountain again, 4am start and straight to Camp 2. With a 1 hour rest and shelter at Camp 1, I get to Camp 2 at 11.30am, just before it starts getting too hot. The last hour is much slower as I approach 6500m again.
The camp has been moved uphill a little, as the kitchen tent was blown away since our first time here. This time tent sites have been made and we stay for 2 nights. The original plan was to go on to Camp 3, but the fixed lines haven't been put up yet, and Mingmar tells us to go back to Base Camp again. This creates an extra rotation on the mountain which is a bit tiring, but will hopefully make us stronger in the long run.
Getting back to Base takes 3 hours, and we have just spent the last day and half resting. Its much easier to eat down here, so hopefully the next time up will be easier. We have just decided to leave again early on 30th April. Oxygen tanks have also been stocked at camp 2 for our summit attempt.
7th May, 2012 - Camp III
The next stage of the climb is getting to Camp 3. Doing this wouldn't be so hard if it weren't for the fact that we have to repeat the Ice Fall, repeat Camp 1, and repeat Camp 2 for two more nights. So far no individual part of the mountain has been that hard, but taken together, over and over, its getting very fatiguing. Its certainly becoming the hardest climb of my life.
The day after getting back up to Camp 2, I have about 5% energy. I don't know why, and I don't know if I will feel better the next day. I didn't feel like this the first time I was here. I think its the collective time at altitude, and the lack of energy from good food. I'm just glad we don't have to go higher today.
The next day I'm on about 50% energy which is just about enough to get to Camp 3, at 7100m, in 8 hours of steep, laborious climbing. Its the highest place I've ever been, and almost 1000m higher than I've ever slept before. We have 5 tents cut into the side of the Lhotse face, looking up at the South Summit of Everest. Our Sherpas have already been here to set up the site, and considering the location its very comfortable. People have been known to fall to their deaths here just leaving their tents to relieve themselves!
Sleeping is very intermittent. I've developed the notorious Khumbu Cough, a deep and explosive, unstoppable cough. Its not nice to wake up, thinking its early morning, but in reality, still on 9pm!
At about 8am we have soup, and marshmallow pies for breakfast and leave soon after. Its about -20c, and standing still leaves you on the verge of frostbite. Luckily getting down is quicker than going up.
After 3 hours we're back at Camp 2, and all decide to stay another night, its not worth wasting energy to get back a bit earlier, and climb down through the Ice Fall in the afternoon, the most dangerous time for avalanches, and 'ice falls'.
The next morning we head down, by the time we get back to Base Camp I'm exhausted and wondering how hard the final push to the summit is going to be. Camp 3 is only half way from Base Camp to the top of Everest! I'm beginning to realise why everyone uses supplementary oxygen to get to the top.
For now we have about a week to rest, go down to lower altitude to suck in the higher relative oxygen levels, and heal any coughs and colds we've picked up. I slept 10 hours last night, so I'm starting to catch up already :)
7th - 14th May, 2012 - Preparations for the final attempt
The most relaxing week of the expedition so far is about to come to an end. We've just enjoyed a great few days at tree level in Debuche at 3700m. After trekking back to within a days hike of our starting point 6 weeks ago! we were able to breathe in oxygen and the scent of pine forests. After being on the glacier for so long with nothing to smell except the toilets, and gas fires, everything was accentuated and smelt great. The food was good too and it was good to get our appetites back at this lower elevation, and cram in a few extra calories too. After three nights at the Ama Dablam Garden View, we reluctantly headed back up to base camp. From here on in, we would only be going up, all the way up, to the top of Everest, 5150m above us!
14th May -Back at Base Camp now for 2 days, and we've finally been given the go ahead for the summit. Fixed ropes above the South Col - Camp 4 (8000m) still haven't been fixed, but they are on track to be done by 18th, which means the earliest we could summit would be 19th. We've also just found out that the weather is likely to be very bad from 21st-27th, so that leaves only 2 days for everyone waiting at base camp to be ready and get to the top. So, we are leaving Base Camp on 16th May, spending a night each at Camp 2,3,4 (South Col) and then making a night/early morning push for the summit on 18th/19th, and then back to Base Camp a few days later.
May 26, 2012 - Summit Day
We left Base Camp on the 16th having made our first test of using mask and oxygen, and made our last journey up through the ice fall to Camp 2. This was my last chance to take photos, and I took every opportunity, at the same time negotiating new sections where the ice had shifted again.
Another team, from Indian, was making their way up too, and we shared the dining room Indian style, on the floor, talking about the coming few days on the mountain. Everyone was excited and a bit nervous to be going up finally, and went to bed early to rest.
17th May. In the morning we looked up to Camp 3 to where our tents would be, but for some reason we couldn't see them. In the night an avalanche had taken them away!! After a bit of a delay Mingmar told us to get ready and go. We would make do somehow!
When we arrived all the tents we had used previously were covered in snow, with one sole surviving tent. Luckily Jagged Globe generously allowed us to use some spare tents they had there. If we had gone up a day earlier, we may well have been in the tents when the avalanche happened!
On the way Huseyin had dropped out with breathing difficulties and tiredness. It would be the end of his Everest challenge.
18th May. Today, as it turned out was the starting point of our summit push. At 6am climbing from Camp 3 at 7100m to the South Col at almost 8000m, then leaving soon after for the summit at 9pm the same day. Most groups have a good rest at the South Col during the afternoon, but this year there were so many people going up at the same time, we were literally queuing up to make footsteps. This meant we didn't get to the South Col until 5pm, couldn't rest for more than an hour, and had to get ready again at 8pm for the Summit, which would be a climb through the night and all the next day. Not ideal preparations for high altitude climbing on top of the world.
Any rest we did have was hard to come by, the winds were funnelling through the Col and battering our tents. At 8pm, Bob and Mark couldn't believe we would actually be going up in those winds. I told them to get ready, we'd surely be leaving in 30 minutes. Sure enough we were, and we were ready by 9pm and out in the wind. Hundreds of other people were already out, and progress was painfully slow.
After 12 hours of climbing, and having left Camp 3 at 6am the day before, I was too tired to keep going. At 9.30am, at 8700m, I sat down and didn't get up again for an hour and half. In fact I even slept there for about an hour! My sherpa had also deserted me, going up ahead instead of staying to encourage onward. It was time to turn around. I was running out of time and not realising how close I was to the South Summit, the point where I would have seen the Hilary Step and the top, I decided to turn around and head for home. By this time my sherpa had returned wondering why I hadn't continued. I was wondering why he had!
Its painfully disappointing not to have summited after all this time and effort training, not just in Chamonix, but climbing many mountains around the world in the last few years, and to be so close too. Making the decision to turn around is obviously tough, but while sitting at 8700m thinking about this, I saw a number of people go past me thinking that some of them would die, and they did. So its not just a matter of climbing higher and higher until you get to the top, you need to be sensible too and hope to know what is the right thing to do at the time.
I later found out that Mark turned around with frostbite shortly after leaving the South Col, and Bob successfully summited ahead of me with our Sirdar Mingmar Dorji Sherpa. Hopefully I will be able to make another summit attempt in the future, but only if someone else pays for it next time! Any sponsorship would be very welcome!