It was a hot and steamy night in downtown Kathmandu. The room heaved and swayed with an intoxicating mixture of Monsoon humidity and smouldering incense, leaving just a hint of jasmine floating gently on the air. A dark group huddled near the back stairs. They never spoke above a whisper, never made eye contact. The revolution was over, scores had been settled, but clearly, there was still much to be furtive about. The tie-dyed silk shirts and flared trousers had been here a lot longer. They’d once been content, perhaps even a little smug, as they watched the world hustle by. But now, spread across the yak-hair cushions beneath the tarnished Buddhas, they were dazed and confused as to how thirty years could have slipped by quite so quickly.
Suddenly, there was a hush of anticipation. The drums stopped drumming. The waiters stopped waiting. Even the flies stopped flying, as slowly, carefully I unfolded the small, unassuming piece of paper. And for a fleeting moment I was a young boy again – a young boy dreaming of climbing the highest mountain in the world!
Actually, what I’d really wanted to do when I was a young boy was work in construction. To do something practical. To make a meaningful and beneficial contribution to society and mankind. And of course the opportunity to wear the tight, brushed double-denim. The shiny hardhat titled jauntily to one side. The seriously droopy moustache. With the sounds of Bruce Springsteen throbbing in the background, baby, I was born to run! Then the Village People ruined everything! So I dreamt of climbing Mount Everest instead, because I guess that’s what young boys do.
But the responsibilities and commitments of modern life are not kind to boyhood dreams, pushing them further and further into the background until eventually they’re postponed to another life. But now an invitation to climb Mount Everest trembled between my fingers. And how could I say no? This was surely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fame, glory, and okay, probably frostbite as well, but equally an opportunity that may never come again. And I thought, what will I say if I do actually stand on the summit? Something profound, obviously. Profound, but a little understated, as befitting an Englishman’s mid-life crisis.
I sank back into the sticky, plastic chair, my eyes weeping from the thickening incense. Sweat splashed off the vinyl table top, turning fluorescent as it mingled and danced in the flickering light. The restaurant, released from the moment, quickly returned to normal; noisy, smelly, uncaring of boyhood dreams – probably uncaring of any dreams. I closed my eyes for a moment and drifted back to the first time I’d stood at the foot of the world’s highest mountain – three and a half vertical miles of black, foreboding rock towering over the glacier. Awe inspiring, certainly, perhaps even haunting. Imposing, definitely, perhaps even threatening. It had seemed so impossible to climb then. And as the restaurant walls closed in and my head began to spin, it seemed no less now, the doubts sweeping over me like one of Everest’s endless avalanches, ever eager to oblige should anyone wish to partake in their game of chance.Go to kickstarter
‘For heaven’s sake, for once in your life act your age! You’re way too old to be dreaming again. You don’t have a team. You don’t have any money. And what about all those responsibilities and commitments? And most importantly, do you really have what it will take to be, just for a moment, the highest human being on Earth?’ Cold fingers of doubt circled and squeezed my stomach.
Kathmandu was finally asleep, even the stray dogs deciding to give the city a moment’s peace. I lay on my hotel bed. I thrashed at the coarse-cotton sheets embalming me in a sticky, sodden mess. I peered through the corpse-encrusted mosquito blinds out across the crumbling rooftops. I fiddled with the air conditioner, which hadn’t worked since ceiling mirrors and lava lamps were essential bedroom accessories. Nothing helped. All thoughts were of that small piece of paper, and Everest.
There are many things at which I’m pretty hopeless – few people can empty a karaoke bar quite as fast. And when it comes to marksmanship, I’m the reason they invented automatic. But rather surprisingly there are a couple of things for which I do seem to have some latent talent. But the only reason I know the difference is because I’ve tried them all. My curious nature hasn’t allowed me to shy away from a challenge just because success was not guaranteed. Besides, not knowing how to do something is a pretty poor excuse for not trying.
And success on Everest would certainly not be guaranteed. I didn’t have a clue how to raise the money. I knew nothing about sponsorship, return-on-investment, and dealing with the media. I’d never put an expedition team together before. I had no idea how to approach and work with foreign governments. And probably most intimidating of all, I’d never climbed a mountain before – well, not one of any notable size anyway.
I did, however, have one advantage – I knew, I knew nothing. My experience of life had taught me that some of the most dangerous people one can encounter are those that think they know what they’re doing, but in practice, they really don’t. There is also a strange satisfaction and contentment in knowing one knows nothing, as it provides the foundation on which to build, and there are no accumulated bad habits to be avoided.
Obviously it would be unforgiveable to go to the mountain unprepared, so from the position of knowing nothing, all I had to do was simply list the appropriate skills and experience I needed before I reached the mountain, and then just get on with learning and accumulating them.
So maybe I was too old to be dreaming again, but every great story, every great life is just a collection of moments. Moments that have been made into memories.
"So when the late autumn leaves finally begin to fall, shouldn’t a balance sheet of our life reflect all the memories that we’ve made, all the good deeds that we’ve done, for ourselves, and for others?
Surely personal wealth is not measured just by the balance in our money bank, but also by the memories in our memory bank? The ability to look back and say, ‘And to think, I did all that (and I’m not finished yet!).’
So shouldn’t we dare to make the most of each moment? To ask ourselves, is this a moment I will remember? And if not, what can I do to make it into one? At what age are we supposed to stop dreaming? Because for each of us there will come a time in our lives when our memories will become more important to us than our dreams. And the time left to create those memories from this day to that becomes less and less with each passing day. So when we find ourselves standing on the threshold of a dream and those dark doubts begin to work their wicked way, then sometimes we just have to jump first and build our wings on the way down.
Because it’s never too late to make one more memory.
Kathmandu was beginning to wake, the sunrise already striking the myriad temple domes, reflecting faith and hope back out across an anxious city. Time to make a decision. Time to set a goal. Because after all, a goal is just a dream with a deadline. The much-maligned air conditioner suddenly shuddered, groaned violently, and then against all odds, began to whisper a gentle, cool breeze across the room. Everest’s siren song was calling, and who was I to refuse a lady!
Blinking against the glare of the morning sun I stared out in wonder over the surrounding mountains, the sheer scale of which vied with the altitude to take one’s breath away. Three years had snowballed past since that steamy night in downtown Kathmandu, and now, by one of those strange quirks of fate that life seems to enjoy so much, I found myself leading the first Everest expedition from the whole of the African continent, with three of us squeezed like greasy little unwashed sardines into our tiny tent at camp 3 pitched half way up the shimmering ice on Everest’s south side. At 22 000ft and no larger than a kitchen table, camp 3 was as spectacular as it was dangerous. The crisp dawn air bit deep into my nostrils. But I didn’t mind. These are the days we will remember, these are the days of dreams.
‘What’s happening, dude?’
I nodded a rather limp reply to the cheerful climber hauling her way up the fixed ropes which snaked past our tent. Her impromptu greeting had caught me at somewhat of a disadvantage as I was fairly sure that we hadn’t been previously introduced, and I hadn’t been called ‘dude’ since I hit that nice chap from Seattle with my rental car.Go to kickstarter
Snoring soundly next to me, his whiskers quivering to the rhythm of his breathing, was Bruce Herrod, a great bear of a man with chipmunk cheeks and the wild, black-bearded looks of a mad sea captain. Bruce’s happy, easy-going nature coupled with a fiercely bright mind made him a great team-mate to have on your side in a tight spot, and an easy choice as my deputy leader. He was also my dearest friend.
A few days after we’d arrived at base camp, Bruce and I had climbed the scree slope behind the camp, and looked down on our kitchen and mess tents, our storage and supply barrels, our radio and satellite communications, our photographic and computer studios, all the trappings of a modern Everest expedition, and we’d shaken hands, because that’s what we’d promised to do – not climb the mountain, but put the expedition in the position to at least try.
‘Right youth’, I said, ‘Let’s go and see what this climbing’s all about shall we?’
‘Any idea where the route goes?’ asked Bruce.
‘None at all. But everyone seems to be disappearing over there each morning’, I replied, indicating a small line of footprints vanishing into the bottom of the huge Khumbu Ice Fall.
‘Right, over there it is then’, grinned Bruce with his usual enthusiasm. And over the next three weeks we’d worked our way through the ice fall, up the seemingly endless Western Cwm, and then up the glistening, fifty degree ice to our present camp on Everest’s south side.
Squeezed up next to me on the other side however, was Cathy O’Dowd. Now I’d only met Cathy a few weeks before our Everest expedition, but from the moment I first saw her emerge from the mists of Kilimanjaro, I was captivated. Music started to play! Angels started to sing! Lust……I mean love, love was definitely in the air. So with my heart pounding in my ears and a lump building in my throat, I searched for that which is so important to us men is these situations – the ability to act really cool! So setting my proudest Sean Connery eyebrow, and my tightest John Travolta trousers, I strutted forward to make sure that I was the first of the team to introduce myself. I still cannot understand why I didn’t see that tent guy rope stretched out across the path!
Because my foot caught the guy rope, and much to Cathy’s surprise and amazement, I hurtled straight past her, and landed face down in the pool of filthy slop water left by the cook team after washing-up after lunch. And my momentum was such that I launched into one side of the pool, planed my way across, bounced out of the other, and started sliding down the side of the mountain in the greasy mud.
Now, Standard Operating Procedure for us mountaineers when sliding down a snow slope out of control is to take our ice axe, jam it into the snow, and lean on it, and hopefully our weight on the axe will slow us down. It’s called self-arrest. Which of course is all very well, but I was on Kilimanjaro, and I didn’t have an ice axe! But that was okay. Because us highly trained athletes can usually rely on, well, blind panic in these situations. So I grabbed the first thing that came to hand, which happened to be the banana that I’d been saving for lunch, and without a moment’s hesitation, I jammed it into the mud, and hung on for grim death. Actually, you’d be amazed quite how challenging it is trying to look cool while sliding down Kilimanjaro clutching a banana!
The handsome young climber crawled from his sleeping bag, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and fumbled for his boots. He was only going outside for a minute, he didn’t need his crampons, he didn’t need to clip into the fixed ropes. Pulling on a jacket, he manoeuvred out of the small tent and stood on the icy slope. It was a beautiful morning, a perfect day for climbing, a wonderful day to be alive. As he gazed along the western length of the Himalaya from Everest’s camp 3, he fumbled with his trouser zip.
Suddenly his foot slipped. Falling backwards he put his other foot out to regain his balance. But it had no grip on the slick, hard ice and he began to slide. Faster and faster he slid. Harder and harder he tried to halt his fall. But without crampons, without ice axe, he could make no impression on the relentlessly slippery surface. Twisting, tumbling, rapidly gathering speed, he accelerated down the 1 000ft slope towards the Western Cwm. Miraculously he was still alive when his team-mates reached him, but he died shortly afterwards.
With a final heave I pulled myself over the crest of Everest’s Geneva Spur and lay panting in the soft, wet snow. I closed my eyes for a moment’s rest, trying to relieve the pain in my throat, burnt raw from breathing so little oxygen. But as soon as I relaxed I quickly started shaking with cold. I couldn’t feel my fingers and my damp clothing was already freezing against my body. I tried to breathe a little warm air into my frozen gloves but the effort burnt my lungs more than it warmed my fingers. But what a view! From my breath-taking vantage point I could see Everest’s huge glacial valleys stretch away beneath my feet, like giant scoops of vanilla ice cream melting on a hot summer pavement. But as I watched, vast armies of storm clouds swept up the valleys. The wind became noticeably colder and more threatening, and it started to snow heavily. With the climber’s tragic fall from the tent next to ours, we’d left camp 3 for our final camp 4 at 24 000ft on the south col later than originally planned, and while I was pretty sure that Cathy was safely in camp above me, Bruce was still somewhere below, and a storm was almost upon us.
I peered over the edge hoping to catch sight of him. But as I squinted into the swirling mist the wind suddenly funnelled all the new snow straight up the side of the spur and blasted it out over the top like the spray from a champagne bottle – straight into my face. I spluttered and swore as I coughed up the powder snow and tried to clear the freezing mess from my eyes without losing my contact lens in the process. Come on Bruce, where are you? Don’t you realize I’m freezing up here? I wonder if I should wait? Maybe I should just press on without him. If I stay here much longer I’m going to freeze to death.
Suddenly there was a second explosion of powder snow and Bruce, gasping and blowing, collapsed in a steaming heap beside me. Rolling onto his back, he shook his arms and legs violently in the air, like a shaggy dog after a cold bath, in an attempt to clear himself of all the wet snow, and then with a last shake and thrust of his arms he sat up and looked out into the raging storm.
‘Where does the route go from here?’
‘That way I think’, I replied, indicating an area of storm, wind and horizontal snow that looked pretty much the same as any other area of storm, wind and horizontal snow. Showing a thumbs-up sign over his shoulder, Bruce led off slowly into the teeth of the storm.Go to kickstarter
The route to camp 4 and safety was a narrow one. A mistake to the left would plunge us down Everest’s icy south pillar, while a mistake to the right would send us hurtling down the huge Kangshung face into Tibet. But we had to keep moving no matter how poor the visibility because if we tried to sit out the storm we would never survive. So we stumbled and groped our way forward, foot by dangerous foot, the wind blasting wet, sticky snow up our nostrils and into our mouths making it almost impossible to breathe. The wind chill had dropped to a frightening level and the cold quickly cauterised any area of exposed skin. Suddenly Bruce sank to his knees.
‘Sorry mate. I’m completely shattered. You’ll have to lead from here.’
I squinted into the driving snow, set my sights on a large boulder and edged forward. Bruce stayed on his hands and knees. Pulling off my gloves I fought with freezing fingers to tie our climbing harnesses together to make sure we didn’t lose each other in the near-zero visibility.
Bruce nodded. More stumbling. More groping. Then a sudden jerk backwards as Bruce sank to his knees once again, gasping for breath, and clearly near the end of his tether. This could definitely end in tears. But then, like lifting the corner of an angel’s veil, the mist parted and I caught the fleeting glimpse of a brightly coloured tent standing out like a beacon of hope in a sea of desperation. I knew we didn’t have any brightly coloured tents, but right now, a tent was a bloody tent. So foregoing any attempt at subtlety, I grabbed Bruce by his harness and dragged him towards the tent and safety.
Bruce banged hard against the wall of the tent. Cathy ripped open the door and pulled him in, his black beard frosted white by the snow, his body shaking with cold.
‘We got caught in the storm. Became totally disorientated. Ian pushed me into the first tent he could find. Then went in search of one for himself. Don’t know where he is now,’ explained Bruce through the fabric of his wet underwear, which was getting caught in his beard as he battled to pull it over his head. With a grunt of success and a shower of ice particles the offending item was thrown into a forgotten male mess at the bottom of his rucksack.
Cathy was squeezed even further into the corner of our tiny tent as I threw open the door and crawled inside. She sighed in resignation at the amount of fresh snow that blew in with me and which would soon turn the floor of the tent into a skating rink. Bruce and I were now safely reunited with Cathy in our high camp on the south col, battered and shaken from our experience, but safe nonetheless.
The south col is a truly amazing place. Because although it’s at 24 000ft, there’s no snow or ice anywhere. It’s a barren platform of loose rock about the size of a football pitch. But it’s a football pitch on which the Devil himself might play because the jet stream winds sweep across the Tibetan plateau and blast away all the residual snow and ice, and polish the rocks until they gleam like black, marble headstones. As the gateway to the summit of Mount Everest the south col has a haunting and desolate beauty.
Because of the unpredictable nature of the weather, we’d decided not to leave for the summit that night with the other teams but to wait twenty-four hours in the hope that it would become more stable. So the following afternoon I lay curled up in the corner of our crowded tent looking at the summit flags wrapped so expectantly around our ice axes, and tried hard not to get too excited. There was still such a long way to go.Go to kickstarter
And that probably best described my progress with Cathy as well. I was still haunted by the look on her face during our first meeting, a mixture of shock and horror as it slowly dawned on her that the rather tragic, banana-clutching figure, which was rapidly disappearing out of view, was in fact going to be leading her forthcoming Everest expedition. But, notwithstanding my entirely believable impersonation of the village idiot, I have a hidden strength of character (well hidden, my Sergeant Major might say!), so I was determined that somehow during the course of our Everest expedition I would pluck up the courage to invite Cathy out. Perhaps we’d sit together under the Himalayan stars and watch the glacier move (well, that’s about as exciting as my dates usually get I’m afraid).
So, being an ex-military man, my plan of attack was to meet the challenge head on. No messing about here. Get a grip of the situation. Take the bull by the horns and ask Cathy out the moment we arrive at base camp. But with all the comings and goings, and all the other guys around, there never seemed to be quite the right moment to broach the subject. But that was okay. Actually, better anyway that I wait until we reach camp 1, where the effects of the increased altitude on rational thinking will play more in my favour.
But camp 1 came and went without a suitable opportunity presenting itself. And so did camp 2. And camp 3. So by the time we’d squeezed into camp 4 that afternoon on the south col, I’d pretty much resigned myself to just concentrating on reaching the summit. Because, of the two possibilities presenting themselves, on the one hand reaching the summit of Mount Everest, while on the other getting Cathy to go out with me, somehow the summit seemed the one with the more realistic chance of success. So I snuggled up in my warm sleeping bag and dozed off, dreaming of the great challenge that lay ahead later that night. Now, if only the weather would give us an opportunity.
We’d barely dozed for a few hours before the storm was upon us, unleashing itself across the south col with a ferocity bordering on revenge. Each fresh blast of wind sent fine particles of ice chasing frantically around inside the tent like a plague of silver mosquitoes, until exhausted, they collapsed across our sleeping bags in a layer of freezing frost. I switched the radio back to standby. The message from base camp had been clear. There were twenty-one climbers, from three other expeditions, lost and missing somewhere out in the storm. They’d left for the summit the previous midnight and had now been caught by the storm on their way back down. And oh, by the way, if we didn’t have any other plans for this evening, could we just nip outside and rescue them all!
The wind paused, building its strength, before roaring across the south col and smashing into our tent once again. There were twenty-one climbers lost and missing in the storm, and I was pretty sure that if one of us went outside then there would be twenty-two climbers lost and missing in the storm. And that’s if we didn’t fall off the south col first. But on the other hand these were fellow climbers out there, and I felt as though I should be doing something – I just didn’t know what. I mean, how could our small team possibly help so many? And I started to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what everyone was asking me to do. Stay in and be safe. Go outside and risk everything to help others. It was my decision. Which was rather unnerving, I mean if I was capable of making decisions they would never have made me a British Army officer in the first place! I’d always known that I’d been indecisive in the past, but now I wasn’t so sure. But I knew I must stop procrastinating – well, soon anyway.
The wind shrieked and swore. The walls of the tent drummed and hummed. The pale green light of the radio ghosted around our frosted interior as base camp waited for an answer. It was minus 15°C inside the tent but my hands were sticky and clammy, and a trickle of cold sweat ran down my back as I struggled to make up my mind what I should do. But then it happened. I had an idea, which as an ex-Army officer came as something of a pleasant surprise. What if I concentrate on what I can do, however limited, which is to go outside and just try and help one climber, and not allow myself to get overwhelmed by what I know I can’t do, which is to go outside and try and help everyone? Concentrate on can-dos. Yes, that just might work!
‘Going out?’ asked Bruce softly.
I nodded. He sat up, tugged the ice from his beard, and started rummaging around for his inner-boots. Cathy reached for her down jacket.
‘Best I go out on my own.’
Bruce and Cathy stopped and looked up.
‘Well, if we all go out then there’s every chance that by the time we find anyone we’ll all be too shattered to help them. But if I go out on my own and find someone, then you guys can come and provide the muscle of any possible rescue. And besides, I may need you to come and rescue me!’
It wasn’t a great argument but Bruce had been in enough expedition situations to know that it was a logical one, so he squeezed into the corner so that I could start getting ready to go outside. But getting dressed in the tiny confines of our little tent was easier said than done, so I suppose it was inevitable that disaster would strike sooner rather than later. Because the Velcro at the bottom of my trouser leg quickly grabbed my sock-covered foot and I was plunged into a desperate struggle to regain ownership. The battle was ferocious. No quarter being asked or given. Logic, and the careful untangling of the mess, was quickly replaced by male anger and the determination to use all necessary force to rip the offending pieces apart, naturally causing them to glue themselves ever closer together.
But then, in the last desperate act of a scoundrel, my foot was suddenly released, and it shot out of my trouser leg and kicked over Cathy’s precious pot of boiling water, which she’d been nursing from blocks of raw ice for the last two hours (our only source of water was to go outside, chop blocks of ice, and then melt them inside the tent) and sent the steaming, life-giving liquid looping in a cascading wave out across her sleeping bag. No one said a word. No one moved a muscle. Even the storm seemed to hold its breath in anticipation. I looked anxiously across at Bruce who was sitting behind Cathy, but he shook his head solemnly and sliced his hand across his throat. Actually, I was now rather pleased to be going outside. Because no matter how cold it was going to be outside, it was bound to be warmer than how frigid it had just become inside. So leaving Bruce to man the radio and Cathy to mop up her sleeping bag before it froze solid, I quickly finished dressing, unzipped the tent door and tumbled out into the storm.Go to kickstarter
Immediately I gasped for air. I couldn’t breathe. The sheer force of the wind sucking all the air from my lungs, like trying to breathe outside the window of a speeding car, and I stood bent double trying to suck in painful gasps of desperately thin air. Time, distance and direction were swept away by the ferocity of the storm. There was no up or down, no left or right. I tried to get my bearings, but looking up into the wind was impossible as my eyes and face were immediately scoured by particles of snow and ice travelling at way over a hundred miles per hour. I couldn’t put on my goggles to protect my eyes because they were dark for the sun and the snow, and now it was about seven o’clock in the evening and pitch dark. So the only way I could make any progress was to hold my hands up to my face and squint through the tiny gaps between my fingers in an attempt to see where I was going. And then, hunched crab-like against the force of the wind, I set off into the storm.
But no sooner had I shuffled away from the lee of the tent than the wind grabbed the bobble of my woolly hat, pulled it out to one side, and started propelling it around and around my head. Faster and faster it flew. Quicker and quicker it spun, until the roar of the wind and the whirl of my bobble made me feel quite seasick. But I couldn’t worry about my propelling bobble, because the extreme cold had started to freeze my left eyelid to my contact lens, leaving me with sight in only my right eye. And this you can try at home, because with sight in only one eye you can’t hold a straight line, and so inevitably I started to drift round and round in circles.
I had to admit to myself afterwards that this was probably not the way Bruce Willis would have handled the situation. I have this recurring vision of a lost and desperate climber battling his way through the storm, hoping beyond hope that through a fleeting gap in the mist and snow he’ll see a rescue party coming towards him, perhaps with a nice steaming hot drink. But instead, as the mist parts, all he sees is a demented hunchback going round and round in circles with a propeller strapped to the top his head.
Judging my lunge to make sure that I didn’t lose my hand in the process, I grabbed the offending bobble, stuffed it down the front of my jacket, and set off once again. Gasp. Stumble. Stop. Gasp again. The effort of fighting the storm at this extreme altitude without using bottled oxygen meant a stop every ten to twelve paces to catch my breath. But moving was the only thing that kept me warm. So each stop in the fierce wind drained more and more of the body heat that I could ill afford to lose.
Suddenly, through a gap in the mist and snow, I saw the most astonishing sight. Perched motionless on a boulder was a figure, dressed in a bright red jacket and trousers, fluorescent yellow climbing boots, all neatly set off with an emerald green woolly hat, with a bobble on the end, but it wasn’t fair, because his bobble was frozen out horizontally sideways and wasn’t propelling at all. His hands were folded neatly in his lap and his chin rested gently on his chest, and long icicles hung down from his face, and they looked for all the world like a long, silver beard. And his ice axe was squeezed tightly between his knees, and it looked for all the world like a fishing rod. Now at 24 000ft there is only a third of the oxygen that is available at sea level. So the first reaction from my oxygen-starved brain was, ‘Wow, I wonder what a six-foot garden gnome is doing out in weather like this?’
The wind was plastering him with loose snow, and I knew that if I didn’t get him to some shelter quickly he would soon be gone from sight altogether. So pushing my rear end right up into his chest, almost sitting on his lap, I reached behind me, grabbed his arms, pulled them over my shoulders, and leveraged him up onto my back, as though I was lifting a sack of coal or sack of potatoes. Then, without any real idea of where we were going, I moved him away from the boulder with his toes bumping on the rocks behind.
Gasp. Stumble. Stop. Gasp again. Now I was down to four paces before stopping. But even then my lungs exploded with the extra effort. A searing pain crashed through my chest, and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to carry this chap very far. So I just concentrated on what I could do, which was to slowly push out my left foot, then bring up my right. Gasp for air. And then again, left foot, right foot, while at the same time fighting to keep the climber in balance against the buffeting wind, because I knew that if I dropped him I would never have the strength to lift him back up again.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably no more than about fifty yards, as luck would have it, I stumbled right into the door of a little yellow tent. And as I gently lowered (okay, dumped) my frozen climber to the ground, the tent door opened, and a head popped out. Well, I quickly established that the head belonged to the Royal Air Force, but unfortunately he wasn’t any use to me (which, I have to admit, really didn’t come as that much of a surprise – my years in the Army having taught me that the Air Force isn’t much bloody use to anyone!).
Actually, he wasn’t any use to me because he’d come up from below that day, not down from the top, and he hadn’t seen any of the twenty-one missing climbers either. But the good news was that he recognized the fellow I’d been carrying as one of his team-mates, so he pulled him inside and said he would look after him, which was great because I could now go back out and see if I could find someone else.
Back outside, my shoulder was now hunched so far sideways to protect my face from the wind that I was almost walking backwards into the storm. The resulting lack of vision meant that I had to ease my boot gingerly out into the darkness to make sure that there was solid ground on which to stand, rather than the empty space of the 3 000ft drop down Everest’s South Pillar. Progress was desperately slow, and desperately cold.
It was eerily ironic that this enforced backwards movement was the only reason I saw the second climber. I’d already passed him by the time I noticed him slumped to the ground, his back resting against a shallow rock, and would have certainly missed him altogether had I been walking normally.
‘You okay?’ I shouted rather inanely into the climber’s face. A flicker of ice-encrusted eyelids was his only response. I jammed by knee into the cold, wet shale, dragged his arm across my back, and tried to stand. Neither of us moved. I was panting hard now, the inhaled spindrift making me cough and choke. Bracing myself for another lift, I threw everything into one last effort to get the climber off the ground. We still didn’t move. Without assistance from the climber himself or without the added advantage of him already sitting on a boulder, there was no way I was ever going to be able to lift this chap, let alone carry him to safety. Clearly I needed help. And that meant the Royal Air Force!
‘Hang on. I’m going for help!’ I shouted into the climber’s ear. Another flicker of the eyelids. I stood up, gazed into the swirling, white darkness, and realised that in trying to lift the climber I’d lost all sense of direction, and had absolutely no idea where Neil (the RAF chap) and the tent I’d just left was hiding. Equally, even if I found the tent, how would I guide us back to this climber, who would certainly be lost if he didn’t reach some shelter soon?
I jammed my hand into my down jacket pocket and fumbled around. Was it there? Had I remembered to leave it there for just such an emergency as this? I felt the hard metal bump against my fingers, but with two layer of inner gloves, as well as outer mitts, I couldn’t grasp it between thumb and palm, so, notwithstanding the huge risk, I removed my hand from my pocket, pulled off my gloves, thrust my hand back in, and immediately felt my exposed fingers freeze against the bare metal of the small prismatic compass. No time to waste, no time to worry about my fingers which had already started to turn white and numb, so taking a note of the bearing (so that I could follow the return back-bearing) I took an educated guess (okay, complete thumb-suck!) as to the location of Neil’s tent, and set off again, squinting in pain as my eyelids grated across the layers of ice forming across my contact lenses.
Clearly, what little luck was available that dark night was flowing in my direction because I found the tent without further mishap, and with Neil not hesitating for a moment when asked for help (notwithstanding that he’d already climbed up from camp 3 earlier that day) we were able to return to the frozen climber and carry him back to the relative warmth and safety of the tent. Then, leaving Neil to look after his increasing list of casualties, I climbed back out into the howling, gusting, freezing wind and flying ice to continue my search.Go to kickstarter
But as soon as I turned away from the little yellow tent I became completely disoriented. My head started to spin, I couldn’t focus my eyes, and the whole ground seemed to be moving on its own. And as I planted my foot firmly on the ground to stop it moving I finally felt the feeling leave both feet, and all the warning bells went off because I knew that this was the onset of frostbite. I was certainly going to be glad when this mid-life crisis was over!
So jamming my hands under my arms in a somewhat futile attempt to keep them warm, I braced myself once again against the thunderous power of the wind, and with rising panic headed back out across the south col in search of the safety of our tent and Bruce and Cathy. Shuffle. Stagger. Stop. Squint into the wind. Any tents? Nothing. Keep going. Must keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop!
Suddenly a stiff, frozen guy rope brought me crashing to the ground. Was this our tent? No idea. Can’t see through my frozen contact lenses. So I fumbled forward, running my fingers up the ice-covered rope, feeling for the tent wall. Then using both hands I began to beat on the fabric with all my strength in an attempt to contact anyone who may be inside. No reply. So, taking a deep, painful breath I began to shout at the tent and pummel the flysheet at the same time. But no sooner had the words left my mouth than the wind blew them contemptuously off into Tibet, and I was left coughing and gasping, bent double, trying to force what little oxygen there was into my tortured lungs.
By now the snow plastered on the side of the tent had soaked through my gloves and the wind-chill had frozen them solid, so I couldn’t even feel what I was touching let alone contemplate opening the zip of a tent door. So not knowing whether the tent was indeed empty or whether the people inside simply couldn’t tell the difference between my banging and that of the wind, I had little choice but to continue my desperate search for safety elsewhere.
‘Thought I heard someone knocking’, said Bruce as he reached out, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, and dragged me inside. Bruce and Cathy took one look at the state I was in and immediately pulled off my frozen boots and soaking wet clothes. Then Cathy wrapped me in a nice warm sleeping bag while Bruce poured me a large mug of his precious mixture of hot chocolate and a little (well, maybe a little more) Khukri rum, and slowly, carefully I poured the life-giving liquid between what were by now very swollen, chapped and frostbitten lips. Then, as my hands and feet were the most damaged, Cathy pulled me into the middle of the tent in front of her, jammed a hand under each of her armpits, pushed my feet up between her legs, and with my head resting gently on her shoulder, I slowly slipped into an exhausted sleep as the warmth of her body seeped its way through my frozen bones. And over the next two to three critical hours my friends brought me back from the brink.Go to kickstarter
‘We’ve left it too late,’ I said, squinting through the narrow ventilation flap.
‘Aye’, agreed Bruce. ‘We should’ve left early this morning when the weather was more stable. It’s too risky in the afternoon. We know all too well what it’s like to get caught out late in the day.’
We’d wanted to escape from the south col as early as possible the next morning, but with so many climbers queuing to use our radio it was past midday before we could start making a move. But the weather, which had been threatening to disintegrate all morning, had finally broken, spindrift was sweeping across the south col and its steep, deadly edges had already disappeared into a grey-white haze.
‘So, it’s going to have to be first thing tomorrow morning then?’ I said.
‘Yep’, grinned Bruce. ‘Either that or we’re in for a very, very long stay’.
The wind had always been strong, but now it had a whole new intensity, a whole new rage. I lay gazing up at the thin black nylon above me, stretching and straining under the pressure, the flimsy poles bending and cowering in the face of the onslaught. I thought of the tiny particles of ice being whipped horizontally across the col, any one of which could slice through the nylon like a razor and immediately pitch us into a life and death struggle with the elements. I looked across at Cathy.
‘Do you know where your boots are?’
‘I’m wearing them,’ she answered firmly, her eyes searching the vibrating roof for the smallest sign of a tear and potential disaster. Sleep was out of the question. I slipped my hand out of my sleeping bag and felt across the tent floor to make sure my headtorch was within reach. Inadvertently it brushed and rested on Cathy’s hand as she did the same. I waited. And waited. But she didn’t pull her hand away. So neither did I.
I wasn’t sure what time it was, but the first light of dawn was already filtering through the seams of the tent roof. And with it came silence, that morning, the most beautiful sound in the world. I knew then that we were going down.
I sleeved away the growing tears of frustration and panic. My fingers had to work. The crampons had to go on. Bruce and Cathy had set off down the mountain as fast as possible, it was the only sensible way to stay warm, and there was a very real danger of the wind returning and trapping us once again. I’d tried to keep up but there was a limit to how hard I could push my damaged feet, so I’d slipped behind. Now I was marooned on top of the Geneva Spur with frozen fingers, frozen fingers which would not allow me to strap on my crampons, and without crampons there was only the fast way down – the tragedy of the Taiwanese climber slipping from camp 3 was proof enough of that. But no matter how hard I willed them, no matter how hard I swore at them, no matter how hard I rubbed them, crying out in pain as the skin came off in layers, my fingers simply wouldn’t respond. Clearly, this was as far as my journey would take me.Go to kickstarter
‘Bloody hell youth, can’t leave you for a minute!’
Surely, I’d never been so glad to hear Bruce’s voice, and as he knelt down and quickly strapped my crampons to my double-boots, I was at a loss to know what to say to someone who would delay his own escape, and put himself at further risk, to return and check on the welfare of his friend. I hoped one day that I would know.
By the time we were able to escape from our battered little tent on the south col, one of the most tragic storms in Everest’s history had claimed the lives of eight of those twenty-one missing climbers (five on the south side of the mountain and three on the north). And with my frostbitten feet and everyone’s general exhaustion, it took us two full days to get back down to the safety of base camp – our tiny specs of colour and hope lurking amongst the towers and crevasses of the relentless Khumbu Glacier.
It’s easy to imagine that when the great problems of life arise we’ll just be so cool, so calm, and so collected. We’ll ride into town, rescue the damsel in distress, and ride off into the sunset. But when I was asked to go out into a storm at 24 000ft on Mount Everest, I wasn’t so cool, calm, and collected. I was in serious danger of being completely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what was being asked. And I was in serious danger of doing what I guess is the worst thing we can do in any situation - nothing! It’s so tempting to sit there and think that if I just wait long enough then perhaps someone else will take ownership of the problem, and I won’t have to make a decision. But by deciding to concentrate on what I could do, and ignoring what I couldn’t, I was able to break through the paralysis of doing nothing, go out into the storm and help at least two climbers back to safety. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we may not be the best person for the job, but we may be the only person for the job.
After the storm most of the other teams on the mountain decided to pack up and go home, perhaps come back another year, and they strongly suggested that we do the same. And sitting outside our base camp tents watching their yaks and porters heading off down the glacier it was so tempting to join them. I knew that the first village down the trail had steaming hot showers. And the village after that had just discovered, the all-day breakfast! It was as if the bacon and eggs had created a life of its own and was coming up the glacier to drag me back down. But we decided to stay. Because during the expedition, and particularly during the tragic storm, we’d developed a team spirit that was stronger collectively than we were as individuals. A team spirit that we felt could still take us back up the mountain, who knows how far, maybe even still to the top. So after just four days rest and recuperation after the storm, we packed up huge loads, because we now had to re-supply all our camps on the mountain, and driven by a strong sense and belief that this time, finally, we could be successful, set off back up the mountain.
And for twelve long hours that day we hauled our increasingly heavy loads across the yawning crevasses and up the vertical ice walls of the Khumbu Ice Fall. And then shuffled our way up the seemingly endless glacial valley of the Western Cwm, which in the baking heat of the afternoon sun made me wonder why I’d suddenly joined the French Foreign Legion! I could almost hear the cries of ‘March or Die’ echoing out across the valley.
So by the time we followed the last of the twilight shadows into advance base camp at 21 000ft, that ‘strong sense and belief that this time we could be successful’ was long gone. We were cold, tired, and miserable. The spindrift I’d inhaled during the storm had turned into a full blown chest infection so my lungs were wheezing like punctured bagpipes, and my frostbitten feet were absolutely killing me. And as we collapsed into our tents we barely had the energy for one more step, let alone three more days climbing to the top. We were drenched in freezing sweat and looked more like drowned rats than potential summit mountaineers. Maybe it was time to go home after all. Then the telephone rang.
President Nelson Mandela: ‘I am so happy that you are attempting to climb Mount Everest again. I am fully behind you. I have a lot of confidence in you and I know you are going to succeed. The whole of South Africa stands behind you because it is a significant expedition and I wish you all the luck, over.’Go to kickstarter
No pressure there then! Well, as you can imagine, we were transformed from drowned rats to world beaters just in the time it took an elderly gentleman, sitting up in bed in his pyjamas on a Sunday morning, to make that radio call. We were electrified. We felt as though we could take over the world, let alone climb Everest along the way. And forever afterward that became our own personal Mandela moment.
And it made such an impression on me, because here was a world leader who was prepared to come out publicly and support what we were doing. And let’s just remember for a moment, we hadn’t achieved anything yet, we were still near the bottom of the mountain! All we said we were going to do was not give up. All we said we were going to do was just go back and try again. But that was enough for him to reach out and make a Mandela moment that quite literally changed our lives.
It would seem that in today’s judgemental society if one doesn’t ‘succeed’, one has by definition ‘failed’. No allowance is made for anything in between. No credit given for just having made an effort in the first place.
Is this really the way to encourage our young (and not so young) people to challenge and test the boundaries of their comfort zones, and by so doing perhaps discover or create something of benefit to us all?
Of course most of us live in the real world somewhere in between these two extremes, so an unexpected word of encouragement or a simple acknowledgement of our efforts can make even the most difficult moments into ones to be cherished and remembered. So I wondered whether there was perhaps someone in my business, my community, or my family to whom I could reach out to in some small way and make a Mandela moment that they too might cherish and remember.
Well, after the excitement of our Mandela moment we didn’t hang around and first thing the next morning we packed our bags and rushed back up the mountain. Well, not exactly weasel-up-a-trouser-leg I’ll admit, but as we hauled our way back up towards camp 3, we consoled ourselves with the fact that this was definitely the last time we would have to kick our way up this soul-destroying sea of shimmering ice. Tomorrow afternoon we would be back on the south col. Tomorrow night we would finally be climbing towards the summit. Nervous energy fizzled and sparkled between us.
There was no need to look out at the weather the following morning, we all knew how bad it was. The freezing temperature, the frenetic wind buffeting the tent from side to side, the fresh snow sliding down its walls. Trying to sit out bad weather high on Everest can only end in tears. So later that morning, as we headed back down towards camp 2 rather than up towards the south col and the summit, there was no escaping the suffocating sense of disappointment and despair.
Barely a handful of words were exchanged during the subsequent two days that we sat at camp 2 waiting to see if the weather would improve, or if we would finally have to give up and return home without having made a third attempt on the summit. But, as is the wont of a mountain big enough to create its own weather, the third morning dawned bright and clear, so without any debate or discussion, we left camp 2 and headed back up the mountain and, with a touch of irony, I noticed that the two days enforced rest had dramatically improved my chest and feet, and I had no problem in keeping up with Bruce and Cathy.
Two hard days climbing later found us back on the south col, the scene of the great storm. We left for the summit promptly at midnight, and it was a beautiful and clear night, a little chilly to be outdoors, but there was no sign of the dreaded wind of our first attempt. And as we made our way across the blackness of the south col sheets of electric lightening flashed and danced around us, reflecting off the bare metal of our ice-axes and crampons, and exploding in a dazzling kaleidoscope of rainbow colour. Bruce and Cathy wouldn’t believe me, but I was sure that I could hear the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever playing in the heavens because it made us look like little disco balls from the 70’s heading up into the dark unknown.Go to kickstarter
After leaving the flatness of the south col, the route to the summit becomes steep and narrow very quickly - it’s the southeast ridge. So we settled into single file, each going at our own pace, each totally absorbed with the physical and mental effort of simply placing one foot in front of the other.
Because, although we take tremendous strength from being part of a team, forward progress is an individual effort. No member of the team can climb the mountain for another. Trust me, as leader of the expedition, if I could have delegated the work, I would have done so a long time ago! But you can’t, if you want to get up there you have to take every step yourself. So we just concentrated on the eighteen inches in front of each foot, cocooned in the claustrophobic confines of our oxygen masks, for hour after relentless hour, at altitudes the human body was never meant to endure.
I quickly lost track of time. It’s not practical to look at your watch buried deep beneath a huge down jacket and three layers of gloves, so as the rising sun set fire to the snow beneath my feet, blushing Everest’s fellow Himalayan giants in a swirl of pink and gold, I thought I’d just stop for a moment and sneak a quick look to see how much further I still had to go. But as I looked up, I was startled by a flash of colour. Reds, greens and yellows fluttering and dancing in the early morning breeze. Now on big mountains we live in a monotonous world of whites and greys. If we’re really lucky, we get a bit of blue from above, but most of the time it’s just whites and greys, and after eight weeks on the mountain, that’s pretty much what your eyes get used to. So when you start seeing reds and greens and yellows dancing in front of your eyes at these altitudes, you tend to worry a bit! So tentatively I reached out and caught one. And slowly, like stirring yesterday’s porridge, my mind began to unravel what I was holding. Flags. Buddhist prayer flags. Buddhist prayer flags marking the summit of Mount Everest. I’d made it. I was standing on the top of the world.
For a few glorious moments I marvelled at being the highest human being on earth. So high you can see the curvature of the earth, the horizon gently bending away at the edges as if eager to be the first to see what lies beyond. And I allowed that feeling to wash over me, to become part of me. I wanted to hold onto it. So next time I’m stuck in the traffic on the freeway, or watching my whole life pass me by in the checkout queue at the supermarket, I can close my eyes and remember what this moment felt like. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed laugh or cry, so making sure that I was on my own, I did a little of both.
Then it was time for my profound summit statement. The definitive declaration that would encapsulate all my hopes and dreams of standing on the summit of Mount Everest: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap towards impressing girls at parties!’
Somehow, in the moment, it didn’t seem to have quite the same dramatic impact as when I first wrote it, so I decided that ‘Land of Hope & Glory’ would fit the bill nicely. But then, reminding myself that whatever glory there had been was now long gone, and there was precious little hope (nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!), I settled for the tried and trusted ‘officer out of his depth’ version instead.
Ian: ‘We have nine fifty-two, and the Nepalese and South African flags are flying on the summit of Everest.’
The horizon shimmered and danced, the haze from a warming earth rising to embrace a cloudless sky. Then a rhythmic stomp, stomp, stomp from behind heralded Cathy joining me on top. Now, from the south col up to the summit is a good ten to eleven-hour climb, and it’s just a mindless slog with nothing to think about. But actually, what I’d been thinking about, or possibly scheming about, or even fantasising about, was perhaps, if on the small chance that Cathy and I did in fact stand on the summit together, then maybe the sheer drama of the moment, the huge importance of what we’d just achieved would mean that I could sneak the ever-so-smallest kiss of congratulations on top. But of course, with Cathy standing right next to me, my courage inevitably failed me completely, so I resigned myself to just settling for the formal handshake, as you do.Go to kickstarter
But then I saw it. And I still don’t know exactly what it was. Maybe it was the way the Tibetan breeze was playing with her hair. Maybe it was the way the early morning sunrise sparkled in her eyes. But it said, ‘Now is your time. Now is your moment. Be bold. Be brave. This could be your finest hour!’ So, plucking up all my courage, I reached out, held Cathy gently but firmly by the shoulders, closed my eyes, and kissed her full on the mouth. And I still cannot understand why I didn’t remember to take off my oxygen mask!
Anyway, fortunately, Cathy’s nose didn’t bleed for as long as I expected (something to do with the altitude I think). But, as the seconds ticked away, a fortnight at a time, I was desperate to change the subject. So when, to my everlasting gratitude, the telephone rang, I was saved. Especially as I knew this was bound to be Oprah calling to congratulate me, arrange all the interviews, sign up all the book deals, this was finally my opportunity to join the nouveau riche. Because I remember it was explained to me very quickly, at my first debutante’s ball, that nouveau riche is considerably better than no riche at all. So with great excitement I answered the telephone.
Ian: Hi Oprah, it’s great to speak to…
Hello Mother. How are you?
No, no I’m fine.
Yes, I know I haven’t called, but…
Yes, I know I sound a little distant, but…
Yes, the mountain.
Listen Mother, I have to go now.
Yes, I am warm enough.
Yes, I am wearing my fleecy underpants!
Okay, okay, bye for now.
Yes, love you too. Byeeee!
Mothers are the same all over the world. They have this unique knack of bringing you crashing back down to earth, just when you’re getting too full of yourself and too big for your boots. I mean, I was only standing on the summit of Mount Everest waiting for my call from Oprah, but to her I was still just her little boy who may not be warm enough, and who should definitely be wearing those dreadful underpants she bought me for Christmas. It was actually a wonderful and poignant moment that we shared together. Rather unfortunately for me however that wonderful and poignant moment had just been broadcast live to millions of listeners on talk radio, so notwithstanding my unexpected summit success, the sordid saga of my fleecy underpants has ensured that my ability to impress girls at parties still remains extremely limited.
But I’d only put the radio down for a moment when it rang again, and this time it was Cathy’s mother.
Cathy: ‘Hi Mom, it’s great to hear your voice. It’s amazing to be up here. We’ve been climbing since midnight and we’ve finally made it. I can’t believe we’ve done it. It’s the most incredible feeling.
Meanwhile, at a management conference being held by one of the world’s leading mining corporations, the deputy chairman, still in his dressing gown and slippers, knocked rather sheepishly on Cathy’s father’s bedroom door and declared, ‘Ah, Michael, I’m terribly sorry to disturb you old chap, but your daughter rather seems to be standing on the summit of Mount Everest.’
The radio station covering our climb wanted to patch Cathy through to her father, but the conference venue was right at the limit of its broadcast range. So, unaware of the unfolding drama, the company’s middle managers, returning from their keen-to-impress early morning run, were treated to the extraordinary sight of one their most senior executives, still in his striped flannel pyjamas, swaying precariously at the top of a baobab tree, pointing a radio-telephone to the heavens and shouting ‘Cathy, Cathy, can you hear me?’
Cathy had barely finished speaking to her mother when the radio rang a third time. Now, having been an internal auditor I realise that you wouldn’t expect me to be much good at mathematics, and obviously I’m not, but even I had worked out by now that we’d pretty much run out of mothers who could call us, so I wondered whether this was perhaps the fathers who were starting to call.
President Nelson Mandela: ‘I just want to say that the news came as a real surprise, and also a cause for celebration, because the conditions on top there were not conducive to this achievement, but our children did very well indeed’.
‘Our children did very well indeed’, only six words, but a Mandela moment that will stay with us forever.
At no stage during the expedition did we assume that we would reach the top. We just wanted to do our best, not let anyone down, and who knows, maybe have a little fun along the way. So when we reached camp 1 at 19 000ft and realized that it was higher than any of us had ever slept on a mountain before, we decided to throw a party to celebrate this new altitude record, this little moment of success en route to our higher goal. But of course this immediately set a precedent, so we now had to have another party to celebrate reaching camp 2, and then camp 3, and then camp 4. In fact some of the other teams thought we did far more partying than we did mountaineering.
But it was important for us to celebrate these intermediate moments of success because we were acutely aware that there would probably come a time when we would have to pack up and go home without having reached the summit. And if that happened we could still feel a strong sense of achievement because each new stage we had reached on the mountain had been a moment of personal success in its own right. A moment made into a memory that nobody could take away from us. We were succeeding in stages – one memory at a time. Memories are also made during a journey, not just at its end.
I was the last to leave the summit, and as I turned my back on the fluttering Buddhist prayer flags and the little pile of personal memorabilia left on top and began retracing our steps back down the narrow ridge, treading that silver tightrope bridging the divide between heaven and earth, it was still a bright and cloudless day with a gentle, warm breeze blowing across the plains from India. Squinting over the top of my oxygen mask, I saw the dark outline of another footprint through my misty glasses and carefully placed my right foot firmly in the snow. But this time there was no snow, only empty air.
Fear and panic tore at my insides as my heavy rucksack started to swing me off balance. Instinctively I lashed out at the fragile snowy ridge with my ice axe, more out of hope than conviction. But it stuck. And as I hung from my axe and gazed curiously down into the void, I saw a flash of green floating gently on the breeze. My woolly hat had come off in the fall and without any undue ceremony had quietly taken my place on the long journey down to the glacier below.
It was great to see Bruce again, standing below us with the whole of the eastern Himalaya stretching out behind him, his piercing blue eyes framed by a mass of frozen hair and beard, his face breaking out into a huge grin as our body language told him we were returning from the summit.
‘Well done, youth. I’m proud of you’, said Bruce as he gave Cathy a huge bear hug. A nod and a firm handshake were enough between best friends.
‘Coming back with us?’ I asked.
Bruce shook his head and raised his eyes towards the top.
‘How are you doing for oxygen?’
‘So, so’, he answered glancing at his regulator. ‘I’m already on my spare’.
‘Here, take mine. It’s still full. And besides, I’ve got gravity in my favour’.
Having exchanged bottles, we wished each other the best of luck, and then Bruce resumed his slow plod up towards the summit while Cathy and I continued back down. By mid-afternoon Cathy and I were back in our tent on the south col, lying exhausted in our sleeping bags with screaming muscles and aching joints, listening to the gentle hiss of the gas stove melting yet more ice for our raging thirst. I’ve probably been more tired than I was then, but I can’t remember when.
Bruce knelt in the snow and pulled out his camera. He hadn’t taken any photographs all day, but this was one scene that he wasn’t going to miss. Tugging off his mitts, he fiddled with the delicate controls to make sure that he got the exposure just right. Then, fixing the camera to the top of his ice axe, he snuggled up next to the summit tripod, and with a big grin he clicked the remote control. He’d done it!
The radio suddenly crackled in my ear. Bruce was calling from the summit.
Bruce: ‘I’m just chuffed to f**k that I’ve finally made it. It’s been a long time coming mate, and I’ll be real careful on the way down, over.’
He sounded so vibrant and alive, so pleased with himself. He sounded like a proud Englishman who had just achieved his life-long dream. And of course that’s what he’d just done. We spoke for about twenty minutes, and I explained where I’d left some extra oxygen bottles in case he needed them, and then, after base camp had patched him through to his girlfriend in London, we wished him luck, told him to hurry back to us, and with the weather still fine and warm, we settled down to await his return. And we waited. And waited.
The rising sun brought welcome warmth to our bones if not to our hearts. Bruce was still missing, and although Cathy had salvaged some half-full oxygen bottles discarded by another team, we couldn’t wait much longer. But equally, I couldn’t bear the thought of my friend making it back to the south col only to find that his team-mates had left without him. I wanted to give him every possible chance, no matter how small, no matter how unlikely. So, arguing that our meagre oxygen supply would best serve just one of us, I convinced Cathy to make her way back down while I settled in to wait for another twenty-four hours.
I sat bolt upright, gasping for air. I glanced at the radio. Silence. I looked up at the summit slopes. Nothing moved. Without giving it much thought I started screwing in a replacement oxygen bottle, but it wouldn’t fit. Concentrating properly this time, I tried again. It definitely wouldn’t fit. With a tinge of panic I grabbed for another bottle. That wouldn’t fit either. I tried bottle after bottle, but all with the same result. They may have fit Cathy’s regulator, but they definitely were not going to fit mine. My third consecutive day above 24 000ft, and I was out of oxygen! If I stayed any longer I would be dead before morning, and I didn’t think Bruce would want that. It was already dangerously late to be going down, but down is where I must hurry while I still had the strength to move.
I stood on the south col looking up at the summit slopes of Mount Everest for one last time, hoping beyond hope that one of those small, black specs in the snow, which I knew were just rocks, but maybe one of them would suddenly stand up, shake off all the loose snow and start moving back down. But deep down I knew it wasn’t going to happen. My dearest friend was up there with his smiling eyes and wild, bushy beard; with his floppy Union Jack underpants and his smelly socks; with his quiet confidence and his inner strength. The friend who had pulled me by the scruff of the neck out of the storm to safety. The friend who had climbed back up the mountain to help me with my crampons. But now it was time for us to part. I almost called Bruce’s name one last time, but I didn’t. I just turned around and started the long, lonely journey back down, not realizing how difficult and dangerous it is to be climbing downwards with one’s eyes so full of tears.
When we dare to dream, dare to make each moment a memory, we feed the flame of the human spirit. But we do so in the knowledge that sometimes those memories may be tearful rather than triumphant, sad rather than satisfying. But that mustn’t stop us dreaming or daring in the first place. The flame of the human spirit burns in all of us in some shape or form. It’s like a small flickering gas pilot light, always on, always ready and waiting. Turn it up, feed the flame of the human spirit, and it will burst into life and together we will do and discover extraordinary things. But if we tell ourselves, or each other, that things can’t be done, that they’re too risky, too dangerous, that we don’t have enough experience, or we can’t get the public liability insurance, then that flame of the human spirit will flicker, falter, and ultimately die. And how will we ever forgive ourselves for not having passed the flame of the human spirit, the power of making memories, on to the next generation.
The haunting Buddhist chant rose from the small, grassy hilltop, swelling outwards, filling the giant horseshoe of surrounding mountains. The voice rose and fell in an endless cycle of life, death, and the great Himalaya. We’d returned to Mount Everest to build a memorial to Bruce in the shadow of the mountain that he loved so much. We wanted to say a final farewell and give ourselves the freedom to move on with our lives. Lives that would not include Bruce, but lives that would be profoundly better for having known him. As the heavy grey clouds parted and gentle warm sunshine smiled across our small gathering, we read a few words written by a climber, for another climber, somewhere else in the world, but the sentiments held true for us all.
In my dreams and strangers faces
In some expressions of my morning mirror
But cannot reach you, in your solitude
Nor breathe the same thin air that laid you down.
I would give all my world to have you back,
To remember you not in a photograph,
But in your smiling eyes and wild ideal.
And yet I would not pay a price to high,
I would not dream of asking you to change.
If you were with me now, I would still help,
Encourage you to reach for mountain tops,
Watch as you strive for where you should not go.
And you would go again and die again,
And I would cry - but cry how much more
If you should ever cease to be yourself."
- Mike Thexton
A lone, black crow perched confidently on the handle of my ice axe, its smooth, shiny head bobbing from side to side, its bright yellow eyes blinking in the shimmering moonlight. It was 2 o’clock in the morning, 25 000ft, and it was desperately cold. The thermometer cheerfully announced that it was minus 40°C and falling. So Cathy and I didn’t hang around, we made the final checks to our equipment, and then two years after first standing on the summit of Mount Everest, we once again left our high camp for another summit attempt on Everest, but this time from the north side of the mountain, from Tibet.
Now there’s no need to worry, because when you get to the north side of Mount Everest you’ll find that the route finding is very straightforward. You just head up the left hand side of the mountain, up and up and up, and then just before your next step takes you 10 000ft the fast way back down to Tibet, remember to turn right. Now you’re on the northeast ridge which, baring a few excursions out onto the north face itself, will pretty much take you all the way to the top.
Actually, it was just as well for me as leader of the expedition that the route finding was straightforward, because I always remember that after five fruitless years trying to teach me the difference between latitude and longitude, northings and eastings, my geography teacher’s final school leaving report simply stated, ‘The boy does well to find his way home’. And I’ll never forget the number of times my Sergeant Major used to pull me to one side in sheer frustration and declare, ‘Sir, your map reading, it’s so bad! The only reason the soldiers follow you is out of idle curiosity’. But then again, he always was of the opinion that officers should never be given what they want as it only encourages them.Go to kickstarter
As you follow the northeast ridge, there are three distinct rocks steps that have to be climbed before you reach the summit, which were most wonderfully named by the British in 1921, with all the flair and imagination you would expect of us - the first rock step, the second rock step, and the third rock step! Well, we’d done our right hand turn and were edging our way along the ridge when Cathy suddenly started waving and pointing frantically at a shape lying at the bottom of the first rock step at 26 000ft. And even in the early morning gloom, because it was now about 5 o’clock in the morning, I could see that it was the shape of a body. A body dressed in purple and black.
A body, but who could it be? Perhaps we’d found George Mallory or Andrew Irvine? No, idiot. Not unless they wore purple jackets in the 1920s that no one knew about. My mind raced looking for a rational explanation. But there wasn’t one. Bodies on Everest are pretty well documented, but there had certainly been no mention of this one. There shouldn’t be a body here, but clearly there was. And then a violent shiver rippled up by back. But not from being in the presence of a life passed on, but from the remorseless, unrelenting cold. Just those few moments of stationary reflection had caused my body temperature to drop alarmingly. Can’t stay here, must keep climbing. Then the body moved.
Sometimes in life you’re travelling on a set, well-ordered path, all contingencies allowed for, all eventualities planned for, when suddenly, without warning and without reason, everything goes pear-shaped. There we were, just a few hours below the summit, we could see the flags flying at the end of the ridge, but when that body moved, everything changed for us.
The northeast ridge of Everest is treacherously unstable. It’s a chaotic mass of sloping granite and slate roof tiles just waiting for an excuse to slide off the mountain and carry the unwary climber thousands of feet down to the glacier below. So as fast as the terrain would allow, Cathy and I edged our way across to where the body lay and knelt down, one on either side. And, as I brushed away the long, dark hair covering his face, I saw a sight that I still see every day and will never forget. Because it wasn’t a he, it was a she!
I gazed in shock and horror into the tender face of Francys Arsentiev, our American friend from Norwood in Colorado. But what was she doing lying here? And where was her Russian husband Serguei? It seemed inconceivable that Frankie would be lying here without Serguei, but I couldn’t see any sign of him, and there aren’t too many places to hide at the top of the north face. So I realized that at some point in their climb he must have fallen those thousands of feet down to the glacier below.
Lying there I had never seen Frankie look quite so beautiful. Her skin was milky white and absolutely smooth. I knew this was a sign of severe frostbite, but, nevertheless, seeing her stretched out on the cold, hard rock made her look just like a Chinese porcelain doll. Then she started to mumble, a ghostly plea whispering up on the early morning breeze.
‘I’m an American. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.’
I was shocked and wanted to say, ‘Frankie we’re not going to leave you, we’re here now, we’re going to help you’.
But I was gasping beneath my oxygen mask and unable to talk to anyone. So I had to put my face right up to hers and pull my mask to one side so I could make myself heard. But as I did, I looked into her eyes, and realized, she wasn’t talking to us. She didn’t comprehend that anyone was with her. It was just as if the lights were on, but there was no one at home. Whoever she was talking to, they were certainly not of this world.
Then, as gently as my thick gloves and cold fingers would allow, I started checking Frankie for any sign of trauma injuries, perhaps from a fall or from a flying rock. There didn’t seem to be anything obviously damaged or broken, which was good news, but it quickly became apparent that she was suffering complete muscular collapse. I could bend her arms and legs in any direction without resistance. It was as if, with a single sweep of a wand, Frankie had been transformed from a strong and able climber into a helpless rag doll. This was not good news. When someone becomes immobile on a mountain as big and remote as Everest, they’re probably going to die. Life lies in the ability to keep moving.
Frankie was dying before our eyes, and we had to get her down. And the only way that was going to happen was for me to pick her up, stick her on my shoulders, and start carrying her down. I had no idea how far I could carry her, probably not that far, but until I tried, I would never know. And anyway, perhaps we’d get lucky and meet some of the other teams coming up the mountain and we could share the work. But right now the priority was simply to get Frankie up onto my back and start moving down.
So with Cathy cradling Frankie’s head in her arms to make sure I didn’t bash it on the rocks when I lifted her up, I moved behind Frankie, scratched my crampons into the loose shale to get a really good purchase, and then slid my arms under her shoulders and grabbed two big handfuls of down jacket. I paused. Just for moment. To catch my breath. Then I started sucking in great lungfuls of desperately thin air as if preparing to go underwater. Another quick pause. Now I was ready. Now I was totally focused on what I knew would be singularly the most important lift of my life. Then, with a final gasp, I threw all my strength and energy into getting Frankie up off the ground.
And up she came. But only about eighteen inches, and only from the waist up. Nowhere near the height I needed to get underneath her and leverage her up onto my back. For a few endless seconds I held her as high as I could, hoping beyond hope that somehow I could muster the strength for a second effort. My lungs heaved. My muscles throbbed. It was minus 40°C outside, but inside my down jacket the perspiration was just pouring off. Then my arms started to shake, convulsing with spasms and cramps, and I knew I didn’t have long, so I shouted at Frankie, I pleaded with her.
‘Frankie, you have to fight. You have to help me! Americans fight. If you want to live, you must fight!’Go to kickstarter
I just wanted to galvanize a reaction, any reaction. Maybe she could take just a little of her own weight. But I may as well have been shouting at the wind – there was no reply. Then my arms stopped shaking, because all my strength and energy deserted me. It sank down through my legs, oozed out of the soles of my feet, and without so much as a backward glance evaporated out across the Tibetan plateau. The battle was lost. I had nothing left. And as I laid Frankie back down as gently as my trembling arms would allow, I collapsed next to her, dangerously exhausted.
And now tears of frustration mixed with all the perspiration because, this isn’t supposed to happen. I so badly wanted to help our friend. But in her moment of need, it was simple, I wasn’t big enough, and I wasn’t strong enough. And with the best will in the world, there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t say, Frankie wait there, and go off and do a course on being bigger and stronger. I couldn’t say Frankie wait there, and go off and be reborn six foot six and twice as wide in the shoulders. There was just me. And in Frankie’s moment of need it wasn’t enough. And it was a shattering realization.
Then I looked up at Cathy. And now real fear gripped my heart. Because what I hadn’t realized was that while I’d been concentrating on Frankie, I’d been moving, I’d been keeping warm. Well, relatively speaking in minus 40°C, but warmer nevertheless. Cathy hadn’t. She’d been stationary at 26 000ft for far too long, she was critically cold and in desperate danger of becoming immobile as well. So as heart-breaking as it was, Frankie’s time had now passed. Because I knew that if Cathy didn’t start moving right now she would never move again. In these conditions seconds really can make the difference between life and death.
Life is about choices. And sometimes being a leader means having to make those choices for other people. So one by one we turned our backs on our hopes and dreams of climbing Mount Everest from the north side, so close at the end of the ridge. And one by one we turned our backs on Frankie and her gentle mumblings of ‘Don’t leave me’. And with our heads spinning and tears streaming down our face, we stumbled back down the steep rocks towards our high camp, being painfully reminded how difficult and dangerous it is to be climbing downwards with one’s eyes so full of tears. And once safely at high camp, Cathy and I huddled together for warmth and for comfort, and to take a few moments to remember the passing of a fellow climber, and a friend.
By the time we arrived back at base camp Cathy had recovered completely, but sadly the trauma of losing Frankie wasn’t over quite yet. We wanted to make sure that her next of kin were told of her passing in the proper manner, but that was easier said than done because of course we were stuck in the middle of the Tibetan plateau. And we’d only known Frankie by her married name, Arsentiev, and so had no idea of her parent’s surname, and therefore no idea of how to reach them by telephone. So we had to wait for the American Consul in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to contact the State Department in Washington, so they could send someone to find Frankie’s parents, take them to one side and tell them that they had just lost their daughter. So they in turn could take Frankie’s ten-year-old son Paul to one side and tell him that he had just lost his mother. I thought this would take at least four to five days before we would get confirmation that it had been done properly.
But the media who had been following our expedition wanted to know why we hadn’t reached the summit, and I wasn’t sure what to tell them. I knew that if I told them about Frankie the news would be around the world in minutes, not four to five days. And I had the nightmare vision of a little ten-year-old boy skipping through the shopping mall with his friends, not a care in the world, turning the corner and seeing a newspaper poster, or perhaps television news broadcast in a shop window, announcing the death of his mother before his grandparents had told him privately.
So I released a simple statement saying that we’d given up our summit attempt to try and help a climber in distress, but tragically had not been able to save them, and so we’d returned to base camp. At the same time refusing to give out any details that might identify the climber until we’d received confirmation that their next of kin had been notified in the appropriate manner. I didn’t think this was difficult for anyone to understand. I just thought it was the right thing to do.Go to kickstarter
Sometimes in life, however, one’s best intentions don’t turn out the way one intends, because the media quickly leapt to the conclusion that our refusal to name the climber in distress meant that he or she didn’t exist, and that we were simply manufacturing excuses for not being good enough to reach the summit. And they accused us of not telling the truth and, basically, being liars. This took us completely by surprise. Why would people who we had never met, to whom we had done no harm, or to whom we bore no ill will, consciously set out to do us harm? Was the necessity of a short-term sensationalist headline, regardless of the truth, more important than the long-term damage that such accusations might cause? Sadly, yes.
So, hoping to limit the damage, I started dialling the number of the Press Association, because I knew I only had to tell them two words, Francys Arcentiev, and we would immediately be vindicated and everything would be back to normal. It was so easy and so tempting. But as I started dialling the number I couldn’t get out of my mind the vision of a little ten-year-old boy skipping through the shopping mall, turning the corner, and finding out about the death of his mother from the media before his grandparents had told him privately. So I put down the telephone and resisted the temptation give out any more information.
I knew by this stage that we were not going to leave base camp with much, but I was determined that we would leave with our integrity. Because for better or for worse, as long as I can say, ‘I invested in my integrity and simply did what I thought was right’, then that’s good enough for me, I can live with that. Because our integrity is all we have to offer the world, it defines who we are, and it’s how we will be remembered. Integrity is what we do when no one else is watching, and it separates the good memories from those that we would really rather forget.
When we turned our backs on Frankie, and with heads spinning and tears pouring down our face, made our way back down the steep rocks towards high camp, I was determined that this was not how our Everest story was going to end. I didn’t know how and I certainly didn’t know when, but I was determined that one day we would come back to the north side of Mount Everest and finish what we’d come so close to achieving. I wanted to set a target for the future that would take our minds off the tragedy of the present. I also knew deep down that bad things in life come to pass, not to stay.
So we returned home with heavy hearts but with high hopes for the future. Well, that was until reality gave us a good slapping, and I realised that we were completely broke. Nevertheless, working side by side, scrimping and saving every penny, Cathy and I managed to scrape together enough money for another expedition. So, just the following year, as the first rays of dawn transformed cold greys into warm pinks, Cathy and I tip-toed back along the northeast ridge. And at 8 o’clock that morning stepped onto the summit of Mount Everest for the second time.Go to kickstarter
And this time we marvelled at the curvature of the earth together. This time there were no important telephone calls or silly dramatic poses by me. There was just the two of us, and it was perfect. Because, standing on the top of the world for the second time, I made up my mind to undertake the greatest challenge of my life. One far greater than climbing Everest from the south side, which I’d done. One far greater even than climbing Everest from the north side, which I’d also now just done. Standing there I knew it was a challenge for which I was uniquely unqualified, but nevertheless one that I must pursue beyond all others. Because standing on that little pile of snow, that just happens to be the highest pile of snow anywhere in the world, I made up my mind to ask Cathy to be my wife.
During the intervening twelve months between our two north side expeditions, I guess I’d rather naively hoped that the mountain would have taken pity on Frankie, and somehow moved her away from the prying eyes of passing climbers, perhaps even down the north face to join her beloved Serguei. So when Cathy and I paused on top of the first rock step on our way back from the summit, and looked down at the forlorn, crumpled figure still lying exactly where we’d left her twelve months earlier, there was no holding back the memories, or the tears.
And as I climbed passed Frankie I thought, someone should do something about this! Conditions on the mountain are so extreme that bodies don’t disintegrate to any great degree. Our friend deserved better, if not a proper burial then at least a covering of rocks to preserve her dignity and to protect her from the birds. Someone should do something about this. But not us. Returning from the summit we had neither the time nor energy for such an undertaking. No, burying Frankie would have to be left to a much bigger and stronger team in the future. So once again we turned our backs on Frankie and made our way back down the mountain, leaving her to surrender her dignity to all those who passed by.
Years passed, the responsibilities and commitments of modern life once again pushing thoughts of Everest further and further into the background. Each spring I would look for news of Frankie, because just two days before we’d found her, Frankie had become the first American woman to climb Mount Everest without using bottled oxygen, only the third woman in the world to do so, an incredible achievement, surely someone would do something to preserve her dignity? No news. My fiftieth birthday came and went, my back, knees and hips rapidly following in sympathy. Still no news.
Then I realised that sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we may not be the best person for the job, but we may be the only person for the job.
‘I’m not convinced’, said Cathy, raising her eyebrows.
‘It’s true’, I replied, waving my latest edition of Cosmopolitan under her nose. ‘It definitely says here that fifty is the new forty! So that means I’m entitled to another mid-life crisis!’
‘But seriously though’, said Cathy, ‘why on earth do you want to go back to Everest again at your age?’
I thought for a moment.
‘Because she’s there!’
There are budget expeditions, and there are low cost expeditions. Sometimes there are even shoestring expeditions. Then there was our expedition to bury Frankie. Cathy and I scraped together as much as we could, and then, given my relentlessly advancing years, and increasingly shaky legs, decided rather hopefully that it would simply have to be enough. But not enough for both of us. So Cathy volunteered to stay at home and keep paying those equally relentless monthly bills that haunt all of us, while Phuri Sherpa and I, just the two of us, went off to see if we could bury Frankie.
The flight to Kathmandu was indicative of our budget. I’m not saying it was cramped, but I used to be a lot taller. They did however offer ‘baby changing facilities’ towards the rear of the aircraft, which I thought was a nice touch. Because let’s face it, not every baby turns out the way the parents would have wished. Maybe a little too round. Maybe a little too short. So I can understand a mother using the facility to change a boy for a girl, or perhaps grey eyes for blue. I did however think that it was a facility best reserved for the mothers, because, left to their own devises, there was every chance that the fathers would come out with a wide screen plasma TV, or a new set of golf clubs, or perhaps even one of those cute little plastic aeroplanes that doubles up as a key ring and whose lights flash on and off when you push it along.
The Tao of Everest story began in downtown Kathmandu, and it very nearly ended there.
‘At least six weeks complete rest’, announced the orthopaedic surgeon, holding up the scans showing the extensive ripping and tearing to the tendons of my left ankle. Clearly, falling down the stairs of the Tibetan Guest House had not been the best preparation for climbing to 26 000ft on the north ridge of Mount Everest. It was far too expensive however to wait for my ankle to heal in Kathmandu – far cheaper to convalesce at base camp. So later that afternoon I could be found dodging and weaving my way through the suicidal Kathmandu traffic in search of last-minute shopping while desperately trying to avoid further injury; my flailing crutches quickly claiming three cyclists, two pedestrians, and having an extremely close encounter with a justifiably irate TukTuk driver. Nevertheless, after two terrifying days stretched out across the back seat of the Land Cruiser as it negotiated the treacherous passes and narrow defiles of the Tibetan plateau, often with the help of our clearly certifiable Tibetan driver, Phuri Sherpa and I arrived at base camp, somewhat shaken and stirred, but safe nonetheless.Go to kickstarter
There can be few more humbling experiences than standing at the foot of Mount Everest’s huge north face as it towers three and a half vertical miles above base camp and challenges the very wisdom of our human endeavour. But I was distracted by a more pressing question. How would my crutches cope with the jagged moraine, ice lakes, deep snow and river crossings on the daunting ten-hour trek up to advance base camp?
Sleep was also becoming a problem. Flat on my back was fine, but the moment I moved a searing pain shot through my ankle. It seemed that the box of Nytol sleeping tablets that I’d picked up at the airport would be just the job. I wasn’t so sure however after seeing emblazoned on the back, Warning: This medicine may cause drowsiness. Now admittedly someone may have bought a box of sleeping tablets without understanding their basic function, and therefore the manufacturers thought it necessary to state the breathtakingly obvious, but, may cause drowsiness? The complete lack of faith in their own product was unnerving. I would have been considerably more confident of a good night’s sleep if I’d read, Warning: Take two of these bad boys and you ain’t never gonna wake up!
Hands blistered and swollen. Armpits red and raw. Sweat plastered my face. Salt stung my eyes. The relentless pounding up the East Rongbuk Glacier had taken its toll of both body and support, my crutches now three inches shorter than when I’d set out. But finally, hunched forward over my splintered support, my limp ankle dragging behind, and with enthusiastic cries of ‘the bells, the bells’ echoing out across the glacier, I shuffled safely into advance base camp at 20 000ft.
We were quickly surrounded by the usual gaggle of enthusiastic Tibetan ‘real estate agents’ eager to show us their collection of premier accommodations. And while the substantial detached residences stretching down Stockbroker Row, with their easy access up the mountain, running water, and prestige of living amongst ‘old money’ were duly impressive, it was clear that prices had risen substantially since my last visit eight years earlier, and that we would have to reduce our expectations and seriously ‘down glacier’.
After enquiring what we actually had to spend, we were left with just one die-hard agent who was clearly some way short of his monthly target. So after rolling his eyes to the heavens indicating quite expressively that he would not normally operate at our extremely low end of the market, he led us through Stockbroker Row (mostly Swiss and German teams), down through the First Time Buyers (mostly Chinese), down even further through Toilet Tent Row (don’t ask!), until ultimately, horrors of horrors, we crossed below the river. Now I’m not saying that this was a rough part of town, but even the marmots were heavily armed.
We were eventually shown a small, motley area of snow and moraine nestling rather quaintly amongst the glacial pinnacles, and which could be loosely translated from the Tibetan as a ‘Renovator’s Dream’. Apparently the agent had been holding it for a family of yak herders, but ultimately they had decided that their children deserved better in life and so the property was back on the market. In no real position to bargain, we duly paid the modest asking price, and then set about with pick and shovel to create ourselves a home from home for the next six weeks.
Life between the Sherpas of different teams is very social and very male. Talk inevitably reverts back to the timing of summit attempts and the excitement of success. But it was different for Phuri Sherpa. He could be seen sitting quietly on the periphery of the conversation knowing that he would not be attempting the summit this season. He had a different goal. One, which as a believer in reincarnation, he didn’t fully understand, but one that he knew was important to me. So he ignored the knowing looks of his peers and their talk of summit bonuses, and let me know that as long as I kept climbing then so would he.
It was a fashionably late 8:30am as I left advance base camp, Phuri having pointedly ‘shaken the snow off the roof of my tent’ two hours earlier as he left. The climbing was about to start, and as my crampons bit expectantly into the crisp, hard snow and my double boot gripped my fragile ankle as if to say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after you’, the thrill of climbing on the world’s highest mountain surged through me once again.Go to kickstarter
3,000ft of climbing in under six hours without bottled oxygen – not exactly ‘Sherpa time’ I’ll admit, but highly acceptable I thought for the over-50’s. And now that Phuri and I were safely tucked into our high camp at 24 000ft, I felt that success was within our reach. Up at 1100pm. Leave by midnight. Probably seven hours climbing to where Frankie was lying at 26 000ft. So, allowing two hours for the burial and then six to seven hours back down, with a bit of luck we could be back in advance base camp in time for afternoon tea. Now, if only the weather would give us an opportunity.
We’d barely left the tent at midnight when the wind struck. Fierce, uncompromising, relentless. And then the snow. Snow like I’d never seen before. Thick, heavy, like freshly mixed wallpaper paste. Continuing up was out of the question. Going down was the only option, and quickly, before the weight of new snow made an avalanche inevitable. So down we went.
‘Bara sahib! The tent!’, cried Phuri, pointing back up at our tiny home, which in just a matter of a few minutes, had all but been consumed by the weight of the fresh snow, the arched fibreglass poles straining to breaking point. Now it may only have been a tent, but given our non-existent budget, it was the only one we had. The moment we lost our tent was the moment we lost our expedition. So, avalanche risk or no avalanche risk, it had to be saved, we couldn’t let our expedition end tonight! So we turned around and forced our way back up to the tent, and grabbing the snow shovel, I started to dig. Standing at first, and then on my knees, throwing the white globular mass in every direction. The snow fell. I dug. Still the snow fell. I was losing. And I was exhausted. Phuri dug. He couldn’t keep up either. At this altitude we simply didn’t have the oxygen capacity to dig fast enough. We were going to lose our tent, and our expedition.
Then Phuri reached into the bell of the tent and pulled out our two priceless bottles of oxygen, and looked at me with questioning eyes. Should we or shouldn’t we? Without using the oxygen we would definitely lose our tent, and our expedition. But if we used our only two bottles of oxygen, which were to be strictly kept for the burying of Frankie at 26 000ft, then that would end our expedition as well. So what were we to do? The wind thundered around the corner of the ridge and smashed into our backs once again, threatening to flick us off the mountain with contemptuous ease.
I nodded at Phuri, and he smiled back. We both knew the answer. Concentrate on what we could do now, which was to save the tent, and let tomorrow take care of itself. So I grabbed the oxygen mask, felt the warm, invigorating vapour surge through my body, and started to dig. We both did. Fifteen minutes on. Fifteen minutes off. For six long, wretched hours until reluctantly the storm retreated in the face of the rising sun. The tent had been saved, but at what cost?
Aching back and throbbing ankle. Blistered hands and burning eyes. The retreat back to advance base camp was proving to be a miserable affair.
‘I say. Are you Gene?’
I looked up at the imposing lady of a certain age standing astride the fixed ropes intentionally barring my downward progress.
‘Are. You. Gene?’ she asked again. Slower and louder this time, the exasperation and impatience obvious in her voice. Now, given the precarious state of the expedition’s finances, I was tempted to reply that for the right price I could be whoever she wanted me to be. Sadly however, my current state of personal hygiene was barely likely to attract the price of a Tibetan ham sandwich let alone two new bottles of oxygen, so I had to reluctantly admit that I wasn’t Gene.
‘Are you sure?’ she persisted. ‘I’m looking for Gene.’
Now, given that Stanley set the precedent of going to Africa to look for Livingston, no one could reasonably object to this lady coming to Everest to look for Gene. However this was obviously a personal mission and one best accomplished without any interference from me, or anyone else from planet Earth for that matter. So, quickly assuring her that I wasn’t Gene, had never been Gene, and had no plans in the foreseeable future of becoming Gene, I wished her the best of luck in her search and made my escape, making a mental note to look out for television’s next great Everest extravaganza, Death Zone Everest: The Quest for Gene!
My overall mood wasn’t improved by the sad passing of my iPod. It was barely five-months old. We will never truly know whether it suffered a terminal hard drive failure due to the increased altitude or, as it watched us progress further and further into the depths of Tibet and then turn with malice aforethought towards the huge north face of Mount Everest, it finally lost all hope of ever seeing Cupertino again and simply died of a broken heart.
There was much discussion as to whether the noble iPod, the guardian of Edith Piaf and The Cranberries, of Frank Sinatra and Pink Floyd (albeit for a dismally short time) should be allowed to rest where it fell, as befitting a proud soldier in battle, or whether, in a probably futile attempt to recoup at least some value from its outrageously expensive purchase price, it should be turned into a paperweight. Right, a paperweight it is then!
The sense of disappointment was palpable. Neither of us knew what to say. We had tried so hard. We had come so close. But all to no avail. True, the tent had been saved, but we were far worse off now than before we’d started. We had no oxygen. We certainly didn’t have any budget to buy any more, and I had serious doubts as to whether my legs would take me anywhere near 26 000ft again. Clearly our expedition was over. And so we went to bed that night knowing that the following morning we would start the long journey back home.
‘Bed tea, Bara Sahib!’
I wasn’t sure which part of last night’s, ‘Don’t wake me, ever’, Phuri hadn’t fully understood, but maybe if I ignored him he would go away. Maybe he was just a bad dream? Besides, my stomach was in no mood to face yet another Tibetan fried breakfast. The tent shook fiercely.
‘Bed tea, Bara Sahib. Bara Sahib, come quickly!’
Clearly, he was no dream.
Nervous excitement and muffled laughter. Shuffling feet and friendly jostling. It was a strange mix for breakfast at 20 000ft. I wasn’t sure how many of the other teams were crammed into our tiny kitchen tent, but it seemed like most of them. I smiled weakly at the assembled mass, nodding awkwardly to the few faces I recognized. It was touching that so many had come to say goodbye. When suddenly, to loud cheering and clapping, Phuri drew back the blanket covering our folding kitchen table to reveal two brand new oxygen bottles. A gift beyond measure and beyond words from our fellow climbers. All different nationalities, all different languages, but everyone united in their support for what we were trying to do. They couldn’t bury Frankie for us. Their goal was different. Their goal was the summit, and you couldn’t do both. But they could provide us with the means to finish the job, and we were determined not to let them down. Four-week-old eggs fried in rancid yak butter slapped across Tibetan sourbread. Breakfast had never tasted so good. We weren’t finished yet! Now, if only my fifty-something legs would keep going.Go to kickstarter
Silence. It’s strange how nothing can mean so much. But on Everest silence isn’t nothing, it’s everything. It’s opportunity, excitement and anticipation all scrambled and blended together into a feeling like no other. And as I waited nervously in our semi-collapsed tent at 24 000ft for another midnight start, not daring to breathe lest it evoke a violent repost from the winds, that wonderful feeling began to creep up from my toes. Perhaps the weather was going to give us an opportunity after all!
The exhausted climbers returning from the summit had warned us to expect deep snow, but I’d never imagined the north face could hold so much. What had previously been a barren mass of granite and slate roof tiles was now a shimmering sea of soft, wet snow just waiting for an excuse to avalanche. Phuri and I balanced nervously astride the crest of the ridge at 26 000ft, the peach dawn silhouetting us against the yellow and greens of India to the south, and the greys and browns of Tibet to the north. And the surrounding mountains. So many mountains. There may well be a more dramatic and awe-inspiring place on Earth, but I doubt it. These are the days we will remember, these are the days of dreams. It had taken us seven lung-bursting hours to reach the area where Frankie had last been seen. But now, rather than cover her with easily accessible rocks, hard work no less, we were faced with wading down the north face in thigh deep, avalanche prone snow and then digging a succession of holes to try and find her resting place of the last nine years. Phuri and I were thinking the same thing. This was going to be hard. But not as hard as coming back another year. So, anchoring a couple of ropes around two of the more solid looking boulders frozen into the ice, I looped them down to where I thought Frankie was most likely to be lying, and as Phuri and I tentatively felt our way down the ice-covered lines, a group of climbers returning from the summit crossed the ridge above us, no doubt checking their oxygen regulator flow rates as their oxygen-starved brains imagined they saw two rather dubious looking characters disappearing backwards down the north face.
Well, we found Frankie on the second attempt. And as I brushed away the last crystals of ice covering her face, as if wiping a frosted window back into the past, I could see the events of nine years ago so clearly. But I couldn’t touch. I couldn’t intervene. I couldn’t change anything. Frankie had looked so beautiful then, like a Chinese porcelain doll. She looked no less now. When I had desperately wanted her to help me to help her, all her strength would allow was a gentle whisper of, ‘I’m an American’. So now, with the steadily reducing hiss of our oxygen bottles reminding us that time was our enemy, we quickly but tenderly wrapped Frankie in the Stars and Stripes, tucked a Teddy Bear under her arm for company, whispered a personal message from her son Paul, and then, unable to find any rocks under the deep snow to cover her, Phuri and I eased Frankie to the very end of our ropes, and then slipped her gently over the edge and down the north face, so she could join her beloved Serguei lying somewhere below.
It took us eight hours to retrace our steps back down to advance base camp – an eighteen-hour day in all. I’ve probably been more tired than I was then, but I can’t remember when.
From a hot and steamy restaurant in downtown Kathmandu, to laying our friend to rest at 26 000ft, it had been a journey of triumph and tragedy, of love and loss.
But most of all it had been a journey of making memories, and perhaps that was the most important. Because it doesn’t matter how old we are, every day is important, every day is precious. Whatever we are planning to do in the future, perhaps we should consider doing it now. Because when our time does finally come, and our whole life flashes before our eyes, we must make sure it’s worth watching, because tomorrow is promised to no one, and it’s never too late to make one more memory!
Twelve months after he disappeared, Bruce was found sitting just below the summit. He looked as if he had just sat down for a rest, fallen asleep, and never awakened. He was laid to rest nearby.
Serguei Arsentiev, Frankie’s husband, was the first Russian to climb Mount Everest without bottled oxygen, a feat for which he was presented the National Friendship Medal by President Gorbachev. After sneaking away to get married at the Soviet Consulate in Kathmandu, Frankie and Serguei were affectionately known as the Romeo and Juliet of the Cold War. They later settled in Norwood, Colorado, where Serguei built them a home of their own. Serguei’s last resting place is thought to be down the north face directly below where Frankie was lying.
The Tao of Everest story was only made possible by the hard work and friendship of our Nepalese friends and team-mates. Particular gratitude is owed to Pemba, Jangbu and Phuri Sherpa without whose contribution none of this would have been possible.
Cathy said yes…………!
Once we’d returned to a sensible altitude my iPod came back to life – all was forgiven!
Copyright © Ian Woodall 2012Go to kickstarter