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The High Life The High Life

Leading a team to an 8000m summit demands impeccable organisation, unwavering commitment, and an affinity for the otherworldly landscapes of the loftiest mountains. Jon Gupta shares his guiding experience on the world’s third highest peak. 

A dizzying, immense sense of pride hit me full force. I turned to watch the team, clients and Sherpas, celebrate together on this magnificent summit. I felt a little overwhelmed with emotions. Organising and guiding an entire expedition team on Kanchenjunga (8586m) was, without question, a career and personal highpoint for me. Unparalleled, picture perfect, and pivotal in so many ways - not just for myself, but for my team too.

Although this was my eleventh 8000m expedition, all the previous ones had been on a one-to-one basis and so I hadn’t been required to organise much of the logistics. Instead, we had always had the luxury of joining a pre-existing expedition.

Consequently, I felt more invested in this trip than ever before, coupled with the significance that Kanchenjunga held to me personally thanks to my Indian ancestry.

The high-altitude world has treated me incredibly well. It has gifted me some of the best, momentous and magical opportunities which have exceeded my wildest dreams. This cold, bleak, hypoxic world doesn’t suit everyone, but it does suit me.

The simplicity and purity of high-altitude life has become my norm. Where many people flounder, I flourish. It is so far removed from the noise, bustle, and busyness of normal life. Reflecting upon this trip, it still doesn’t feel real. How long will it take for the experience to fully absorb into my fibre?

Who knows if it ever truly will… After all, much of it feels like a dream.

Ten minutes below the summit of Kanchenjunga, I slid my pack off my shoulder and clipped it to the anchor in front of me. The weather was perfect. Stealing a moment, I looked up watching a couple of my team ahead turning a rocky corner before stepping onto the final snowy summit ridge. I bowed my head with a smile of disbelief, I honestly couldn’t believe it, we were all going to make it! I pulled my goggles out the lid of my pack and swapped out my sunglasses. I could feel the emotions rising.

We had left our 7400m high camp at 21:00, nearly 10 hours ago and set off into the night. Breathing heavily and climbing carefully we followed the pool of light our head torches cast in front of us, inching our way higher and higher. It was a warm calm night and the snow conditions under foot were perfect. Firm crunchy snow held our crampons as we kicked in hard on the steeper ground.

It's funny how everything we had done for the previous four weeks had all been leading to this moment.

All the time spent climbing and camping on the lower mountain to become acclimatised.

All the cold evenings in our tents eating freeze dried food, peeing into a bottle, and trying to keep warm in our sleeping bags.

And the many hours and days spent climbing through cold and stormy weather. All with the hope that our efforts would pay off for a chance to stand on the top, just for a moment.

Rewind seven months.

I had tentatively messaged a few regular clients whom I knew well and a few friends to see who may be interested in climbing Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.

Their experience varied, some had climbed multiple 8000m peaks before and some hadn’t. The ones that hadn’t, had shown me they were capable. They had the right technical skills as well as the right attitude. My wild dream was to pull together the perfect team and facilitate the expedition of a lifetime for them.

Kanchenjunga is a very quiet mountain, and this in itself is very appealing. It has a reputation of being big and difficult, so not many people climb it. The plan was to have a small team of likeminded climbers and run the trip in a way which allowed them to work together, do their own climbing, and feel independent but supported by myself and the Sherpa team.

Big expeditions are always special, but I desperately wanted this one to be another level. Drawing on my experience of over 24 Himalayan expeditions (of which 10 have been to 8000m peaks) and more than 100 expeditions worldwide, I tried to consider every single minor detail. Should anything unexpected happen whilst we were up high, we would have the systems in place to deal with it.

During the last few months, I’d spent countless hours making notes and lists on my phone. From permits and logistics to basecamp set up, food, communication, tents, oxygen, ropes and hundreds of finer points. I pondered all aspects of the trip and had numerous long conversations with my local agent. It all takes time, but I enjoy the process. It all adds up over the weeks and months to lead to the final summit push.

Back in the present.

I soon pulled around the rocky corner and looked up. Most of my team were already on the summit embracing each other and celebrating. I bent double leaning heavily on my knee as the first of numerous emotional tidal waves flooded me. Tears ran down my cheeks hidden from view inside my googles. I followed Mingma and Nick up the final snowy steps to the join the others. A few steps later I fell on one knee and embraced Nick on the summit. I had given everything I possibly could to ensure Kanchenjunga went as smoothly as possible for them and here we all were.

Together at the top.

From the summit there was still a lot of effort to expend and concentration was paramount, gravity can be unforgiving. After three long and very hot hours we arrived back at Camp 4 and collapsed, rapidly stripping off our down suits before falling into our hot tents.
There is a fine balance to be found in these moments between staying put at high altitude or conjuring up some deeper energy to pack up and head down lower. The latter is the better option if energy levels allow.

I did my part, hopping between the tents and doing anything I could to encourage them to get sorted and go down. More water, more food, helping to pack up sleeping bags, small gestures which feel monumental in a state of exhaustion. The descent went as smoothly as I could have hoped for.

It’s amazing how you feel better with each step down as oxygen slowly increases again.

There are many moveable parts to big expeditions and there needs to be a shared responsibility and collaborative element. Both the Sherpa and client teams worked seamlessly together, without individuality or ego. Time and space are available in quantities that our everyday lives simply cannot provide and once you begin it’s hard to sympathise with anything outside the expedition bubble.

Kanchenjunga lived up to be everything and more than I could have hoped. I cannot take full credit for the success and eventual outcome of this trip. However, I do have a great sense of pride knowing that I facilitated this experience. On May 25th, 1955, two Brits, Joe Brown and George Band, made the first ever successful ascent of Kanchenjunga. 67 years later, I helped the 16th - 21st Brits to climb the mountain. It has been an absolute honour and joy to share this journey with such a wonderful group of people.

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Words and Images by | Jon Gupta

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