Facing the top of the world
“Because it’s there.” That’s the answer George Mallory gave when asked why he wanted to conquer Mount Everest. Unfortunately, Mallory didn’t make it back down from his 1924 summit expedition and it remains unknown as to whether he successfully reached the top.
There’s something that draws people to mountains; the wilderness, the serenity, the challenge. In the past, I’ve enjoyed a nice hike or two up Wales’ Snowdon or Scarfell Pike in the Yorkshire Dales. These obviously pale into insignificance when you consider a climb like Mount Everest (although George Mallory actually trained on Snowdon many years before his Everest attempt almost a century ago).
The stats are mind-blowing. Everest, also known to the Nepalese as Sagarmatha and to the Tibetans as Chomolongma, stands at an incredible 29,029 ft (8,848m) – that’s around 5 and a half miles above sea level – and is growing by an average of 4mm per year. As of the end of the 2016 climbing season, 4,469 different people have summited Everest 7,646 times since the first official successful attempt by Tenzig Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary back in 1953.
Just to put these figures into perspective, above 26,000 ft (8,000m) the human body simply cannot survive. Breathing the low-pressure air doesn’t provide enough oxygen and internal organs begin to shut down. Anywhere on the mountain above this height is coldly dubbed ‘the death zone’. Almost 300 people are known to have perished on the mountain, with almost 200 bodies either lost or deemed too high to attempt a safe recovery operation.
Of course, with no mountaineering training or any experience of climbing anything higher than Sri Lanka’s Adam’s Peak at 7,359 ft (2,243m), I wouldn’t be attempting to summit. That would be suicidal, not to mention the fact it costs somewhere in the region of £100,000 to attempt the climb with a guide and Sherpas. I’d be trekking to Everest’s Base Camp and summiting Kala Patthar at 18,192 ft (5,545m) for even closer views of the world’s highest mountain.
The term ‘Base Camp’ really doesn’t do this place justice – it almost sounds like it’s nestled down low in a valley with a nice warm breeze and barbecues on the go. It couldn’t be much further from that in reality. Sitting at 17,598 ft (5,364m) it’s still a tough ask for most people, especially those like me, with no experience of extreme altitude.
I joined a group with my travel buddy, Cass, two friends from London named Suzie and Rachel and a very determined man in his 60s called Ravi. We were led by a very professional yet hilarious Nepalese guide named Chheshang. Together, we attempted one of the toughest things I’ve ever done; facing burning sun, horizontal torrents of rain, blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, rogue yaks and altitude sickness.
Lifted directly from my diary, this is my account of that adventure…
Sunday 16th April 2017
Early start from our hotel in Kathmandu for the flight to Lukla. Such a small plane! I found myself sat right at the front behind the pilots and enjoyed stunning views of the Himalaya to my left. Every air pocket felt like a sudden drop, leaving your stomach tingling and your palms sweaty…great fun! We landed at Tenzig-Hillary airport on an incredibly short runway cut into the side of a mountain, and promptly set off on our expedition. The skill of the pilots to land anything on this tiny airstrip is nothing short of incredible! I found myself facing stunning vistas composed of pine forests and rice paddies, while below ran ice-blue glacial rivers down from the mountains above.
Steady walking so far and all seems ok – expecting altitude sickness to hit at some point (apparently I’m at a disadvantage being the youngest in the group!) I’ll keep a close eye on things.
Tonight’s teahouse is simple, a little damp but ok. Four months ago I’d have likely turned my nose up at it but the last few months of travel have changed all that – I’m perfectly happy here now! Early to bed before a tough day’s hike tomorrow.
Monday 17th April 2017
Today I had my first brief glimpse of Mount Everest. MOUNT F*CKING EVEREST! With my very own eyes! Unexpectedly it was from a viewpoint between the village of Phakding, where the group slept last night, and Namche Bazaar where we’re heading to today. Such an amazing feeling…I can’t wait to view her from close up!
Ate and drank a hell of a lot today to combat the onset of altitude sickness – 5.5 litres of water to be exact, so certainly no headaches or anything today. Plenty of fluid intake and taking things slowly really are the only tactics for avoiding altitude sickness, but it could strike anyone at any time. So far though, I actually feel great! 9 miles done today with a climb from 8,713 ft (2,656m) to 11,318 ft (3,450m) through the most breath-taking scenery I have ever seen.
The three metal rope suspension bridges we crossed today were rather exciting, even the 200m high one – named ‘Hillary Bridge’. Ok, I’ll admit that one was a bit nerve-wracking! I definitely felt like Indiana Jones, although the gale blowing through the valley would certainly have blown his hat off!
Our guide, Chheshang, has been fantastic so far, such a character! A lovely guy and terrifically helpful! He’s measuring our heart rate and blood oxygen levels as we go – at the moment I’m on par with our Nepalese porters! I wonder how long that will last as we climb…
Tuesday 18th April 2017
Acclimatisation day today at Namche Bazaar, we have a couple of these built into our expedition so to ensure we give our bodies time to adjust to the ever-increasing altitude and ever-decreasing oxygen levels. We’re staying at the amusingly named ‘Hil-ten’ – it’s actualy an abbreviation of the first two summiteers, not just a play on words! Unfortunately, not the best sleep last night due to the bloody French group in rooms upstairs making incredibly loud noises stupidly early! (Brian Blessed was right – never camp below the French!)
Our acclimatisation trek was enjoyable but tough. A steep climb in parts up to 12,467 ft (3,800m) and the ‘Everest View Hotel’ for lunch. This place didn’t disappoint. Probably the most pleasant cup of tea I’ve ever had, looking out over the top of the world!
The cloud quickly engulfed the area (which we have learned is a common occurrence around this time of day) which made our descent back to Namche Bazaar very cold indeed. The afternoon was free to enjoy and explore the village – set in an alcove in the side of a mountain, it sweeps round in a horseshoe shape and is steeper than San Francisco! There’s a coffee shop hidden away which bakes the most delicious brownies, it’s safe to say I had more than one!
At dinner we sat with another expedition group who were on their way down from Base Camp to Lukla – one week ahead of us. They appeared exhausted and despite doing their best to give us plenty of useful tips for the rest of our climb, they looked weary and worn-out. One of them told me they’d timed things badly with the weather – dust, wind and temperatures of -28˚C had hampered their efforts to go any higher than Base Camp itself, meaning they never made it to Kala Patthar. Their sun and wind-burned faces made me realise just how tough this challenge was about to become…
Wednesday 19th April 2017
It’s my dad’s birthday today but I don’t have any phone signal to pass on my wishes so I’ve recorded a video message which I’ll send once we’re back in Kathmandu. Either way, happy birthday pal!
Today we had a long trek through the valley to Tengboche, going up, down, up again, down a bit more, up a load…you get the picture! It’s frustrating trekking downhill when you know you’ve got another few vertical miles to ascend to reach your goal.
I was unsure how the effects of high altitude would feel but I’m starting to succumb to them now and they’re not too pleasant. My legs ache more than they have done in years, all because at altitude the body doesn’t repair itself as quickly. Just simple things like climbing stairs leaves you out of breath and with a heartrate like you’ve just sprinted a mile. I managed to relax a little this evening though with my first shower in 3 days, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the nicest shower I’ve ever had but at 12,677 ft (3,864m), it was perfect!
We saw enormous eagles flying overhead during today’s hike and the vegetation is noticeably changing. The lush pine forests are starting to become scarce as are the vast arrays of blooming flora, although rhododendrons and, quite surprisingly, hardy little wild orchids are pretty common.
Just before arriving at our teahouse for tonight located in Deboche, we paid our respects at Tengboche Monastery, one of the highest in the world, an incredibly humbling experience.
Thursday 20th April 2017
The group left Deboche this morning bound for Periche. The trek took us through the very last scenes of pine trees and rhododendrons and into more rugged landscapes. It looks a lot like the Scottish Highlands now, with plenty of cloud cover to accompany it. Since we went above the 13,000 ft mark around lunchtime, I’ve been suffering from a dull headache. I’m still on top of the water consumption situation (currently sitting at 5 litres so far today) but it’s no good. Just having to tough it out.
I made it wearily to tonight’s teahouse at 13,950 ft (4,252m) feeling a little deflated. My spirits rose when I found myself sat eating dinner in the small, wooden-clad dining room listening to music the owner had put on his outdated hi-fi system; Deep Purple, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Audioslave, Rainbow, Def Leppard, Aerosmith – certainly not what I expected to hear up in a place that feels miles from civilisation but as I sat eating my carb-laden dinner, listening to music I was brought up on, I suddenly felt very much at home!
Friday 21st April 2017
Second night here after another acclimatisation trek up to 15,748 ft (4,800m). Incredibly steep today. I’m really feeling the lack of oxygen today; legs are exhausted, my breathing is laboured and my head is pounding. At heights like these, protein takes much longer to digest so a carb-heavy diet is what’s needed – that doesn’t help much though when your muscles are crying out for protein to repair themselves! That, coupled with no rest days (we’ve been trekking for around 8 hours a day for the last 6 days) is taking its toll. It’s incredibly frustrating given that the daily treks themselves would actually be easy closer to sea level.
After the acclimatisation trek, we had the pleasure of attending a lecture on altitude sickness with volunteer doctors from Australia and the US – something I found myself very interested in, given it was starting to have an impact on me. I left feeling reassured that my dull headaches were commonplace but safe in the knowledge I knew exactly what warning signs to look out for that would mean it was getting into danger territory. Hopefully that won’t be the case, I don’t fancy a helicopter evacuation!
We also saw a very poignant memorial to all those who lost their lives on Everest. The numbers really hit home when you see each individual name written down. Some perished at Base Camp or en-route to it – a reminder of how deadly this place can be.
Saturday 22nd April 2017
An extremely tough day today. We trekked hard from Periche to Lobouche – 14,435 ft (4,400m) to 16,207 ft (4,940m) through desolate landscapes. At these altitudes I can see nothing but rocks and moss – a stark difference to just 2 or 3 days ago. My head is throbbing agonisingly on and off, making me finally agree to taking a painkiller or two. Still no other signs or symptoms of anything more serious yet though.
Breathing has now become incredibly laborious on even slight ascents as we passed the 5,000m mark (16,404 ft). Along the way, we encountered blistering sun, followed by a rather ferocious snow blizzard which drew visibility down to just a few feet. Part-way to our teahouse in Lobouche, we came across what is known as ‘Everest’s Graveyard’. A series of memorial stones to those who died chasing their dreams here. It was whilst I was walking around, making a point to read every single stone, that I noticed a young Chinese woman standing alone, visibly distraught by one of the memorials.
I approached her, to find she was looking over the memorial to three Chinese climbers. Understanding the Chinese are a very patriotic nation, my friend and I walked towards her, hoping to find some probably meaningless words of consolation for her fellow countrymen, whom she’d likely never met. What she said to us next broke my heart.
“He was my brother and climbing partner. We used to climb all over the world together. I never went with him to Everest and he never came back.”
I felt tears running down my face and we could do nothing but embrace. There were no words in that moment. Simply no words.
Sunday 23rd April 2017
A cold start today. All the teahouses are now blending into one. The group left Lobouche early passing through barren, cold terrain, but terrain that had its own kind of beauty. Freezing cloud accompanied us all the way to today’s destination; Gorak Shep. Sitting at 17,007 ft (5,184m), this place can’t really be called a village at all – absolutely everything for sale here, including simple things such as water, has to transported up here by porters – the unsung heroes of the Himalaya. All that’s here is a collection of sheds, to put it crudely. Tonight’s teahouse could be best described as ‘minimal’.
After lunch here, we embarked on the final stretch to Everest Base Camp itself. The hike along the Khumbu Glacier from Gorak Shep to Base Camp wasn’t particularly challenging but given the excruciating headache, freezing temperatures, howling wind and snow blizzard, it became incredibly tough. The temptation was there a few times to stop but we pressed on. Bleak.
I don’t know if it was the way I was feeling but the sight of Base Camp was a little anti-climactic. The views of the Khumbu Glacier and terrifyingly gargantuan Icefall, extending high up the mountain, certainly made up for it. We all shared an ‘Everest’ beer at Base Camp before heading back to tonight’s ‘shed’.
Laid in my sleeping bag, I must only have had an hour or so of sleep. Every few minutes you’d find yourself terrifyingly gasping for breath – the kind you see people do when they emerge having spent too long underwater. Breathing rates whilst you sleep simply don’t give your body the oxygen it needs to work.
Monday 24th April 2017
My alarm woke me at 4am. In the pitch black and double minus figures I jostled with the opposing thoughts of either staying wrapped up in my sleeping bag in desperation of keeping warm or venturing out for the final ascent of the expedition – to the summit of Kala Patthar for views looking down onto the Icefall and Base Camp at sunrise.
Considering that many of the places on this world trip I’ll never get the chance to see again, I dragged my arse out of my warm(ish) sanctuary. It was cold. Cold as f*ck. Donning more layers than a large onion, I headed outside with the group, finding my way with a headtorch. The stars were utterly mind-blowing. I really have never seen a sky like it – up here with no light pollution, you can see the milky way with the naked eye.
With daylight hot on our tails, we began our ascent of Kala Patthar, up to the highest point I’ve ever set foot – 18,192 ft (5,545m). My water bottles and camel pack had all completely frozen solid in temperatures below -10˚C, making my headache situation worse. After checking myself for any other symptoms of altitude sickness, I gave myself the all-clear and pressed on. By now my legs burned like never before, I lacked the energy to take even simple strides and my breathing and heart rate were both through the roof. I needed motivation and I needed it fast. I could see people from other expeditions turning back as the going got tougher.
“You go ahead” our group leader, Chheshang, called. Some of the others wanted a rest, and rightfully so, but I think he could see my desperation to get to the summit, so I pressed on. I’d noticed the sun rising fast, gradually touching the mountain tops around us, heading from east to west. In order to keep myself going, I decided I’d race it to the top of Kala Patthar and the first to touch summit would be victorious. This seemed to help get me through the slog as I scrambled over icy rocks and tricky terrain.
Success! Standing looking down over the Khumbu valley, the Icefall and Base Camp, with only a handful of peaks above you, is incredible. I faced up to see the very top of the world. No point on earth is higher. The summit of Everest, kissed by dawn’s eerie sunlight, scraping the clouds above it looked simply majestic.
So that’s that, but no story would be complete without the ending. The following two days saw me and the group descend back to Dingboche and then onto Namche Bazaar, followed finally by Lukla for our flight back to the capital, Kathmandu. For much of the afternoon on our first day of decent, we seemingly had the whole of the Himalaya to ourselves; wandering back from Kala Patthar with not another soul in sight – the mist that hugged the terrain did make me question whether we were lost, but our trusty guide delivered us safely back to Dingboche for the night.
One thing I’d read about before heading out to Nepal, was the injection of energy you get and the new lease of life during the decent. After spending the best part of a week dealing with a lack of oxygen, descending to the oxygen-rich ‘lowlands’ below 13,000 ft (4,000m) gave me a spring in my step. I could breathe again, sleep again, my legs felt fresh and much to my elation, I was no longer plagued with the pounding headaches which had almost stopped me half way up Kala Patthar. I felt like a new man! I actually found myself on the finally stretch into the village of Lukla, sprinting uphill as if I were approaching the finish line of a marathon.
After a meal we arranged to thank our guide, Chheshang, and our porters, Chhepal, Sange and Yogesh, we settled down for our final night in a teahouse. Looking back, I actually miss those places. They had genuine character and the buzz about them provided you with a real energy to reach the top.
The following morning had one final adventure in store for us, the flight from Lukla. Remember how I said the approach towards the narrow strip of asphalt cut into the side of the mountain at Tenzig-Hillary airport was hair-raising? Well the take-off well and truly had me on the edge of my seat!
We boarded our 8 seater prop plane and taxied to the very end of the runway, facing down a steep gradient that looked incredibly short. At the end of the airstrip was nothing. Just nothing. A sheer drop down into the valley. Given that most airports have runways at least 6,000 ft (1,829m) long, the meagre 1,729 ft (527m) at Lukla had me a little nervous. As the pilots cranked the engine up and we began to judder forwards, I held on tightly. We rapidly picked up speed, hurtling down the 12% decline towards the valley below.
I’ll admit, seeing the runway below you just disappear as you simply run out of asphalt, only to be replaced by the view of an enormous chasm, made my palms a little sweaty to say the least! One final adventure on what has been a personal highlight of my entire life so far.
It’s one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever undertaken. I’ve suffered with fatigue, headaches, breathing difficulties and bleak weather. But would I do it again?
…in a heartbeat.