Tuesday, 7 June 2011

On top of the world

When I was ready to leave the tent the conditions were absolutely perfect (still less than 20 below zero but very little wind and you can't really expect much more up here).

I was climbing with Dawa Sherpa who was very strong and had summitted with one of my friends, Pete Sunnucks, last year so felt I was in good hands and set out at 2230, 30 minutes later than scheduled but over an hour earlier than last year so no big deal.   The turn around time was 12 hours so my plan was to race up to the North East ridge and reach the second step in the dark and change my oxygen above the second step, this would hopefully take the turn around deadline out of the equation and hopefully allow me to coast a bit more higher up.

Carrying three full oxygen cylinders plus other kits is no mean feat at this altitude, last year when I first stood up the weight was a bit of a shock to the system and took a few minutes to adjust but this time I was relieved that my pack didn't feel quite as heavy!!  Sticking to the turn around time is very important, most of the fatalities on Everest occur on the way down when people are late to the summit and either run out of oxygen or get trapped on the mountain.  I got up onto the North East ridge in less than two hours, passing a few of my team mates and was feeling very strong still and well on course.  I caught up with Mark and Ben who were in good rhythm so settled in behind them.

There had been a lot more snow fall this year and there was a light covering of snow on the route which made some sections much easier in crampons, this was evident as we passed Green Boots (our first radio check in point) and the body was much less visible than last year.

The first test on the route was the first step, a 30ft rock wall, where I had been unable to continue beyond here last year due to strained knee ligaments, however on two good legs I flew up there and continued on.  There were trickier sections still to come and as time wore on I realised I would have had further difficulties along the route (especially as I had also lost one of my climbing mitts) and was now completely comfortable that I had made the correct decision to turn around in 2010.

The infamous second step loomed ahead and I could see the head torches of those that had left before me on the step.  It was a 100ft rock wall made up of a series of ledges and ladders.  The main ladder was placed there by the Chinese in the 1970s and, I believe, until Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding proved it could be done for the film "The Wildest Dream" it had never been free climbed, unless of course Mallory and Irvine managed it in 1924...

As planned I reached the second step in the dark about five hours after leaving high camp and, as the technical crux of the climb, I was expecting a considerable challenge here and increased my oxygen flow from 2 litre/ minute to 3 litres/minute.  It wasn't quite as I had expected but still absolutely exhausting but I made it up safely, albeit very out of breath.  I think that climbing up in the dark helped because, as I saw more clearly on the descent, the step was very exposed.

I stopped to change onto my second oxygen cylinder and take a rest and drink just above the step.  We were now about 3 hours from the top (and importantly still over 7 hours until my turnaround time), were making very good time so could afford to take a break and ease off a bit from here on.
Above the second step
While we were stopped my feet began to get very cold and numb, I had never suffered cold feet in my 8000m boots before and due to this and the warm forecast temperatures I decided not to wear any foot warmers and wondered whether this was a mistake, fortunately once I got moving again they began to warm up.  We continued along the ridge to the third step and summit pyramid, passing a number of dead bodies which acted as a reminder that there was no margin for error.
As the sun began to rise it became even colder and I noticed a section of my left eye was beginning to blur.  I was concerned that either my cornea was freezing up or I had developed a retinal haemorrhage, I decided that I would put on my dark goggles and continue on as long as it didn't get any worse.  Fortunately it didn't and the blurring had cleared up by the time I got back to camp.

Shortly after third step we reached the summit pyramid.  The summit appeared tantalisingly to be in sight at the top of a snow slope we still had to traverse around the summit pyramid, up through some rocks and move along one final snow slope before we reached the summit.   Knowing that we had plenty of time I didn't rush and it took around two hours from the bottom of the slope.
Traversing the summit pyramid (c8800m)
I reached the summit nine hours after leaving high camp at 0730, quite possibly the quickest British climber from high camp to the summit in 2011 (still trying to double check this)!  The weather was still calm, the skies were clear and the view was absolutely breathtaking.  Aside from our team, there were only four other climbers on the mountain that day and we had timed our summit to perfection - thanks to Zac, Chris and Michael Fagin (our weather forecaster) for this.
Top of the world
Without goggles
I spent just under an hour up there, resting, taking in the view and taking some photos.  I did completely fail to take any video footage or take my flags out of my pack which I am a bit annoyed about now but I will live with it.

View back down the route from the summit
The team also bagged a number of records. For two hours Geordie was the youngest Brit to complete the Seven Summits until George summitted and become the youngest person in the world to scale all of the Seven Summits and youngest Brit to climb Everest.  Stephen hit a golf shot from the summit which became the highest, although we were all very amused when he gave us the world premiere of his video of this event at base camp and the video cut out during his back swing.  But the blue riband record goes to Geordie and me, we "high fived" on the summit to achieve the highest high five in history.

Stephen's achievement in reaching the summit was particularly outstanding, he had been evacuated to Kathmandu with stomach problem 10 days before we left for the summit and only returned to base camp the day before.  He had even had to use a cover story, an artist going to base camp to paint the Rongbuk Glacier, to get back across the border (unsupervised travel in Tibet is still prohibited).  Unsurprisingly given his loss of acclimatisation, he started showing signs of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) at high camp so descended with Chris to ABC through the night and is convinced that Chris saved his life.

Descent and Exit
Dawa and I descended to high camp by 1300.  The descent wasn't completely trouble free.  Firstly, Dawa stood on my hand with his crampons which was incredibly painful but amazingly no broken bones and then I got some moisture into my goggles causing then to steam up a lot which made some of the sections very tricky indeed.  The worst section was getting onto the ladder at the top of the second step, there is a blind drop from the top onto the ladder where you have to lower yourself onto the ladder six feet below.  I tried to lower myself down on the rope and just couldn't find the ladder with my feet so had to hurriedly pull myself back up before I fell, on the second try I decided to abseil down and managed it but with an 8000 foot drop lurking I am really surprised that there aren't more fatalities here it was genuine heart in mouth moment.

I was totally dehydrated and exhausted by this stage and abandoned my plans to descend to ABC the same day.  I rested for a couple of hours at camp 3 and then descended to camp 2 for the night.  The remainder of my litre of water had frozen and so I had managed to survive on about three quarters of litre since I left the tent for the summit the night before.  I was absolutely desperate for water but equally desperate for sleep, fortunately I had some hydrated energy gels left and so opted to use those to get me through the night.

I had one more bottle of oxygen left and had to elect whether to sleep on it or save it for the way down.  I was very tired and felt my body could cope without oxygen for a night at 7800m so elected to save my oxygen for the descent the following day.

It snowed heavily and the wind howled all night and I did feel for those who had elected to go for the summit tonight.  Aside from the vision problems I hadn't really suffered from any major problems in the cold and altitude although I had noticed that on the way down I had began to hear voices.  I put this down to a combination of hyppoxia, dehydration and fatigue and had read about this being reasonably common for exhausted high altitude climbers so wasn't overly concerned.

The whole team reached ABC on 27 May and descended to base camp the following day. At base camp Ben's frostbite was getting worse, Mark was peeing blood, Jason and Stephen were also still ill so all were evacuated to Kathmandu early.
Back at ABC
The rest of the team left base camp a day later and travelled to Kathmandu to celebrate.

The celebrations were topped off with a night with the Sherpas at Rum Doodles, the traditional post expedition venue.  Teams document their expeditions with a team footprint and all Everest summiteers are entitled to free meals for life (although not drinks am afraid, this was stopped after it was abused)!
Team footprint
None of this would have been possible without the hard work of the Sherpa team.  Those guys are incredibly strong at altitude (for example Ang, who weighs less than me, amazingly carried an 80kg pack down from camp 2) and worked extremely hard to help us reach the top.

Rum Doodle restaurant
I am in the process of sorting through the photos so will add them to the gallery section soon so all that remains is to thank you all for reading my blog and hope you enjoyed reading it! 

Monday, 6 June 2011

Summit attempt begins

Firstly many thanks to Dave, Euan and Paddy who looked after my blog while I was away and indeed even found time to add some "very witty" pictures and comments of their own!!

I arrived at ABC with the intention of going for the summit on 25 May but following a change in the weather forecast and after much debate within the team we decided to delay our attempt until 26 May, this would give us lower summit winds and better weather for the approach days.

The following day we received news of yet another change and it seemed that we would have to endure high winds of up to 60mph on the North Col and North Ridge climbs.  We were aware that with the increased snowfall that the monsoon was imminent (once the monsoon arrives climbing becomes extremely dangerous) and we knew we didn't have forever so decided to stick to the 26th and, if necessary, spend an extra night on the North Col.
Bottom of the headwall
Typically winds on Everest are higher later in the day so we set off up the North Col early on the 23rd.  I felt great, my pack was much lighter than on our last North Col climb and I powered up from ABC to the North Col camp in just under five hours (including two hours of breaks), even keeping pace with the Sherpas on the headwall (admittedly they were carrying much heavier loads and probably weren't really trying but was still a boost to my morale).  Once again some of my teammates had paid the Sherpas to carry up some of their kit, I was glad that throughout the trip I hadn't had to do this and carried all my own gear - hopefully this would stand me in good stead higher up.
On the North Col
As it happened the wind did not get up on way up the North Col and while this was a relief at the time, it did call into question the reliability of our weather forecast.  We planned to spend the night up there, assess the weather in the morning before deciding whether to proceed up the mountain.
North Col camp 
The morning arrived but the forecast winds didn't so we set off early up the North Ridge.  It may not look by much but the North Ridge is an incredibly tough slog up a seemingly never ending snow slope.  The weather started off bright and warm but I wore my full down kit to reduce my pack weight although my pack was still a very heavy 20kg.   I didn't seem to be alone in carrying a heavy pack and the whole team was struggling here with Heather and Simon both deciding to turn back.  As we progressed the weather closed in and on account of the heavy pack, I reached the top of the snow slope,  7500m, more slowly than on our earlier acclimatisation climb.  Above here the ground changed to mixed rock and snow, the heavy snowfall in recent weeks meant that there was more snow than in 2010, this was both a help and hindrance.

On the way to camp 2

Camp 2 was situated between 7600m and 7800m with our tents were situated at the top of the camp which meant that from the time we saw the first tents it would be over an hour before we reached our own camp which was frustrating at the time but very welcome the following morning.  I eventually rolled into camp after about 7 hours at 1530, very tired and a couple of hours after my target time but still 4 hours earlier than in 2010 which would give me more time to re-fuel and hydrate.
Arriving at camp 2

There is no obvious place to camp up here and with no flat surfaces the tents are usually perched precariously on a ledge and I had to dig out a flat surface in the porch before being able to work the stove.  I had managed a couple of litres of water and dehydrated Spaghetti Bolognese (which was practically inedible but was forced down) and then settled down to rest with no sign of my tent mate, Salam.  I was awoken shortly afterwards by a Sherpa with the news that he was still going but moving slowly and wasn't expected for some time.  I boiled up some water for him and waited, he eventually arrived exhausted in the dark at just before 2100.
The climb up to high camp was a much shorter day, 4 to 6 hours, and once more over mixed ground.  It was on this day last year that I sprained my knee so while the climbing was not technically difficult I was keen to avoid a repeat although had taken the precaution of carrying two knee strappings (one for use on the go and the other stronger one should I need to strap up at camp).  I immediately recognised the spot were I injured myself last year and even though I took extra care here, I was still very tense and glad to overcome it without incident this time.
On the way to camp 3
The weather was sunny and calm.  I felt strong once and I climbed up into the "death zone" (above 8000m and the 3rd time I have reached this altitude) and up to high camp, arriving in just over 4 hours at around 1300.
Arriving at camp 3 (8300m) the highest camp in the world
Having taken the decision not to set up high camp in advance, no doubt influenced by the storms wrecking a number of tents on the North Col, the Sherpa team had left earlier to set up camp.  Once I got up to high camp at 8300m some of the tents weren't ready but after a short wait (and offer to help, which fell on deaf ears) I dived into a tent and began the process of melting snow to make water.  After the debacle of last year we had decided to allocate two stoves to each tent unfortunately we had only had one working stove and I began to feel a sense of deja-vu.

I was sharing a tent with Mark and we quickly got to work, the first pan took an hour but after that we got our act together and both managed to eat a dehydrated Sweet and Sour chicken meal, which was surprisingly palatable.  I had also brought up a big bag of Salt and Vinegar peanuts which given the huge salt deficiency in my body tasted so good (although weirdly the thought S n'V makes me wretch now).  I decided to only carry a litre of water on summit day figuring that any more would freeze and just become excess weight so I needed to rehydrate as much as possible before leaving the tent.  I managed about two and a half litres which was excellent considering I had managed less than a litre last year so was as hydrated as I felt I could be.

By about 1830 Mark and I had finished melting snow and had enough to get going and by this time Nick joined us in our tent.  Nick was exhausted and, after a rationale discussion, he took the unselfish decision not to go for the summit.

Mark left the tent for the summit at 2130 and I followed him an hour later.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Done and Dusted

Some of you will by now be aware that Andy has achieved his goal and is now returning to camp for a well-earned rest. Knowing him as I do, he'll have some cunning new challenge up his sleeve for his next project....

There is no truth in the rumour doing the rounds of Twitter that he has been involved with Jemina Khan and/or Imogen Thomas and fled to the Himalayas to escape the furore around the super-injunction.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Summit Itinerary

Most of the team left BC on the 19th to either break the back of the journey and use intermediate camp or to give an extra rest day at ABC. My preference is to spend an extra day at BC, where I am sleeping and eating well. Since the Sherpas arrived down here I have been eating with them. I much prefer their Dhal Bhat (Lentil Curry, this won't surprise those of you who know I am a huge fan of beans and lentils) to the western food that we are normally served, and crucially also find it much easier to eats lots of it. Salam has also been joining me and we have been told we are now honourary Sherpas- hopefully this is a good omen!

After arriving at ABC on the 20th, I will rest for one day before climbing up the North Col on the 22nd. I have left a fair bit of kit at the North Col camp so shouldn't have as much to carry as last time and will be probably take around 4.5 hours. Although if some of this kit (eg. down kit) was lost in the storms I won't be climbing higher but since the critical stuff was in the group tent it should be OK.

Once we have left ABC there will be no more rest days as the body deteriorates more quickly the higher you go so we will climb to 7800m the next day. Most of this day (up to 7500m) will be spent on the North Ridge, which is a snow slope, and above 7500m the ground changes to mixed snow and rock. This will be a tough day, last year I didn't arrive in camp until 1930 and some of the team until after 2100 which made it difficult to refuel and hydrate properly. I went well up to 7500m a couple of weeks ago and am aiming to leave North Col earlier and make much better time this year.

The next day continues on mixed snow and rock up to 8300m. Like the previous day not massively technical but I strained my knee ligaments on this day last year so need to be careful not to repeat although am carrying a brace and a strapping. This should take 4 to 5 hours and get me to high camp around lunchtime/ early afternoon.

Once at 8300m, I will spend the rest of the day trying to melt snow/ice for water and eat as much as possible - both an absolute nightmare at this altitude!!

We have spoken a lot about summit day at BC and the team have all been allocated departure times based on expected speed. I am due to be the last to leave my tent at 2200 Nepal time (1745 UK time) on the 24th and all being well aim to reach the summit in around 8 to 9 hours, so by the time everyone in the UK wakes up on the 25th I should be on my way down.

Obviously it will be difficult for me to update this until I return so the Adventure Peaks website (link on the left on the main blog page in the new section, although I understand they have launched a new website since we have been out here so may not work anymore) is the best place to follow our progress. I also understand Stu is planning staying up in his lucky pants to update the team's progress through the night on summit night.

We are now back up to a full complement for the summit attempt so hopefully there will be good news all round in a few days.

On the road again

Finally we have some good news on the weather front and I will leave base camp tomorrow and aim to summit on the 25th.

It's been a strange few days at base camp, all the teams except for us and one other have been waiting at ABC for early weather windows which did not materialise. Consequently, there have still been no summits from the North although the CTMA team are heading to the summit today to complete the fixing of the ropes up to the summit.  Conversely, there have been plenty of summits from the South (I have wondered many times if I should have gone that way and could now be relaxing in Kathmandu) although the weather on that side is now much worse and I understand that many teams have left the mountain.

The other Northside teams are aiming to summit on the 20th and 21st whereas we will wait. While it would have been easier to follow the other teams up to ABC I am pleased that we stuck to our guns and have stayed at BC where I think we will have eaten and rested much better than we would have at ABC.  Hopefully, they can all summit on these days and leave us with a clear mountain on the 25th.

The only worry with our strategy is with acclimatisation, it is now two weeks since I climbed up to 7500m and normal thinking is that acclimatisation last around two weeks (although this is not an exact science). Personally, I will have spent two weeks at base camp (i.e. exactly the same amount of the time as last year) and walked up to around 5800m a couple of time so I expect it will be OK but won't know until I climb higher again.

The summit push itself will be five days of climbing, each consuming around 10,000 calories which, coupled with the appetite suppression at altitude making it very difficult to consume more than around 1500 calories a day, can be very debilitating.  Especially when you also factor in the difficulties keeping hydrating.

In addition to dehydrated meals (which are not the best and very difficult to digest at the best of times), I will be carrying chocolate, peanuts, energy gels, beef jerky and energy powder. Hopefully these will be enough to keep me going but I will need to be very careful to make sure they don't freeze - particularly on summit day.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Day 6 in the Big Brother house

Sixth day (and counting) at base camp...I am saying this with a mock Geordie accent (a little like the one Jim and his brother adopt).

The weather forecast has not been very promising. That said, we are the only team still at base camp. There is a hint of good weather on the 16th/17th/18th, summit winds of 35-50 mph (not really what I would call good weather) so all the other teams moved up to ABC to try and grab an early summit.

Still no mention of the monsoon in the weather forecasts (traditionally the best summit weather is just as the monsoon system arrives and pushes the jet stream away from Everest giving a few calmer days) and to my mind waiting is the best strategy. Most teams appear to be using European weather forecast whereas we are using an American one (the same source that delivered excellent summit conditions for me last year and Cho Oyu) so I am pleased we all agreed to hold off and just hope it proves to be the correct decision, although a bit strange when the weather forecast is the most important part of the day (makes me feel a bit like an Australian cricket fan hoping the rain will save them again).

Since we made this decision, it looks like the Chinese have also began to lean towards a delay and are now saying the summit ropes won't be fixed until the 18th. I understand this has created panic amongst the teams at ABC who now have to decide whether to stay up there, come back down or try and fix the ropes themselves. There is a meeting this afternoon between the CTMA and teams to try and work things out but these "politics" appear to rear their head very regularly (this is very frustrating as today looked like a good summit day and no doubt many people made it from the South, although it is Friday the 13th so maybe people held back).

I am hopeful that we will be able to make our move on or around the 17th but best not to get a date into the head before the weather settles.  Although, if we have to wait much longer we will have to start thinking about re-acclimatising (acclimatisation normally lasts around two weeks) which would be highly annoying.

Unfortunately, Stephen had to return to Kathmandu a few days ago. He had been very ill for a over a week and lost a lot of weight so this seemed the most sensible decision. The early signs are promising that he will be able to return to the team over the course of the next few days and hopefully be able to join up in time for the summit bid.

Without a firm departure date, everyone is just trying to keep their frustrations in check and keep themselves busy and healthy. I am trying to eat and sleep lots (up to over ten hours a night now), keep healthy and do regular exercise without wearing myself out although wandering round base camp feels like a prison exercise yard (not from first hand experience mind) so am trying to be creative and find new places to visit.....as well as doing 'things'.

Hopefully will have some more positive news to report in the next few days.