I was on my hands and my knees at around 28,500′ and I couldn’t breathe. I looked at my Sherpa, Lakpa and motioned with my hands that I was suffocating. My oxygen was either turned off or the mask was frozen and all I could think about what was getting down and home safely. We had just gone up the South Summit in a unexpected and terrible storm where the winds were whipping at more than 50mph and the temperatures without wind-chill were about -45c. I kept thinking about 1996 and “Into Thin Air”. Little did I know that in just a few hours we would come across a fellow climber in the same position on the Balcony who was in the final moments of his life and there was nothing we could do to help him? Worse was where he was situated on a narrow ledge with massive drop-offs on either side caused us to clip out and clip in to the ropes around him, and try to save ourselves.
The day had started at about 7am where we made the push from camp 3 to camp 4, up and across the yellow band and up the Geneva Spur, just straight up from about 24,000′ to 26,000′ when we finally got to our tent around 130pm. I was completely knackered, my legs were thrashed and my appetite was a distant memory having lost around 15lbs over the past month and a half, We spent the next few hours in the tent boiling water, breathing bottled oxygen and worrying about what the night would bring.
I had my -40 down suit on with several layers underneath, a set of three workable gloves (guide, wool and mittens), two hats, a balaclava, and my trusty Everest Millet boots with sturdy crampons on. What I didn’t know is that for the 11 hour climb to the summit and 6 hours down is that I would only be able to drink about 1/2 litre of water and about a dozen peanuts and raisins for not enough energy for what my body and brain needed.
At 9pm we left the relative comfort of the tent and started up the South Col. It started out as a beautiful night. A half-moon lighting up the sky and 6o fellow climbers with their headlamps on leading the way straight up the mountain and nothing to hear but the crampons biting into the hard snow, jumar and carabiners latching on to the fixed line ropes. Somehow, after the past 45 days of pain and misery, I was able to find some reserves and just rocked my way up to the balcony at about 27,500′.
Then it all started to go wrong.
The storm hit and the climbers ahead of us going up the South Summit crawled to a halt. We were literally frozen in place and getting colder by the minute.
At one point I turned to Lakpa and said, “I’m really scared”. He asked if my fingers and toes were ok and I said, “Yes” and we kept going.
With me, I had the Juniper and JUNOS flags, two lucky necklace charms and a special prayer flag and envelope with rice that the local Lama had given us.
At the top of the South Summit it was a complete white-out, the wind was howling so much my face and goggles were getting whipped with blowing snow that felt like sand as it got through any exposed pore on my face.
At about this time (7am) most every other climber turned back and it was just the Hilary Step and the last 500 meters to get to the summit. In the end around 12 climbers and Sherpas summited of around the 60-70 that started the evening. Somehow, somehow, I got up from my knees and used every ounce of energy to throw myself up the Step and try to breathe in air without the mask where no oxygen could be.
I never felt like I had summit fever and at this point I just wanted to live and come back home. I looked at Lakpa and thought, “OK, we better have enough in our reserves to go down”.
As we navigated the last 500 meters where there is a 8000′ drop to Nepal on one side and 9000′ to Tibet on the other, all I could do was to make sure every step mattered and I kept going forward.
Suddenly, suddenly! – There it was – the Top. It looked like a mirage in the whiteness. We took our last steps and clipped in at the highest point on the planet. We hugged each other and it was surreal.
Lakpa spent a few minutes in prayer and offered some donations to the monument at top and I offered my own prayers and got him to take a few precious pictures.
I tried to unfurl the flags and they just wanted to blow away, but we got off a few and then it was time to go.
My fellow climbers Squash and Stewart from UK joined me on the summit shortly after I arrived at 08:15 on May 12th but my long-time climbing buddy Paula was nowhere to be seen and I was so worried. Much later I found out that she had to turn around at about 8200m after being threatened with frostbite and exposure and I was so happy that she was safe but very sad about her not making the summit.
As we passed the Japanese climber and we waited there a bit, all I could think about was how close I had come to being in the same position and getting down was another adventure. When we all got back down to camp 4 at around 2:15 in the afternoon and after climbing for the better part of two days, we all gave thanks and prayers to our work and loved ones who were there with us on the journey and we knew that we still had to get back to Base Camp, Lukla, Kathmandu and eventually the safety of our families and people who cared so much about us.