We are resting at Advanced Base Camp today after our ascent to the North Col on Tuesday, and are planning to descend to Base Camp in one 20 mile trek tomorrow. Here is the story of the biggest physical challenge of my life.
Tuesday 3 May
We’d planned another day of rest at Advanced Base Camp (ABC) but the morning looked bright and Richard was feeling much better – we wanted to get this over with, so decided to go for it.
Richard, myself and Alan Hinkes our guide plus Rikki Hunt and five Sherpas left at 9:15am.
We soon split into three groups with Richard powering ahead, me next followed by Rikki who I didn’t think would make it. He’s a strong and determined bugger but has had a serious hacking cough for the last two weeks which is just getting worse.
The North Col is reached by a long hike up hill from ABC to a place called “crampon point”. Here there are a few dozen of those blue plastic barrels where you can leave your crampons if you are on your way down (and planning to return) or in our case fix your crampons. We then had an hour’s trek over a snow plain to the foot of the North Col cliff. The weather can be baking hot one minute and freezing the next if the sun goes behind a cloud, so whatever you’re wearing isn’t right. You’re either cooking or frozen.
I’d decided to go on oxygen from ABC but it didn’t seem to make any difference. In fact breathing was harder with the mask on my face and I kept pulling if off for fresh air. I was constantly fiddling with it.
Eventually you cross the plain and reach the foot of the cliff where the fixed ropes start. Here you leave your trekking poles and start to use your jumar or ascender which is a device you clip onto the rope: it slides up but grips to hold you if you slide down. This is attached to your harness. You also have a “cow’s tail” which is also attached to your harness and has a karabiner which you clip onto the fixed rope when unclipping your jumar from one fixed rope to the next.
At this point one of the Sherpas was helping me get myself set up when he noticed a split in my oxygen hose. No wonder I’d been struggling, I wasn’t getting any oxygen and I also had a mask over my face restricting my breathing! Anyway a bit of black tape made a bodge repair. I think it worked after that!
Looking up at the North Col cliff was terrifying. Tibetan climbers are employed to find a route and fix ropes all the way to the top. These are anchored by screws into the ice. Often five or six climbers will be on one rope putting all their weight on it. The ice cliff seems vertical in places but is 60 degrees most of the way. The first rope was straight up a steep part. You were hanging on by jumar, hauling yourself up the rope and struggling to find footholds in the ice. I’d already been told there were 21 fixed ropes. Richard was already out of sight on his third or fourth rope.
I was half way up the first rope and totally exhausted. I decided I couldn’t make it and wondered whether to turn back now or later. Somehow I kept going. Very slowly, three or four steps and then a rest. At sea level I don’t think this would be difficult but here the shortage of air made it a killer. Not that I was alone. Most people were going at a similar speed to me and I even overtook people who seemed to be on their last legs. In places we had to jump across small crevasses, only a couple or three feet wide but with seemingly no bottom!
It took about three and a half hours of the most physically exhausting work it’s possible to imagine. I was at the limit of my endurance for most of the way but the thought of going back was probably more daunting than carrying on! Eventually we reached “the ladder” which was near the top. The ground flattens out for maybe 15 metres but then we had to cross a deep crevasse maybe 15 metres wide. To compound the problem is a sheer ice wall on the other side.
To get round this the rope fixers had acquired three aluminium ladders that for all the world looked like they had come from B&Q. These were lashed together with rope to make one long wobbly saggy ladder that was propped across the chasm. There was a queue of 12 people in front of me but we had to wait 20 minutes getting colder and colder as another group of people were descending the one way system.
Not for the faint hearted but actually not that difficult. The worst bit was manoeuvring up the ice wall on the other side, clipping and unclipping safety devices. A few more metres and the prayer flags and tents came into view. Never such a welcome sight!
Richard had already been there an hour and half. Surprisingly we had taken only six and a half hours which is exactly the time it says in the guide books for “the first time”. On the way up no less than three Sherpas had said to me, “Your son .... him strong!”
We had four tiny tents perched on the edge of the cliff. Get out the wrong side and you were one metre from a 500 metre drop! The camping site was only a few yards wide over a length of 100 metres with half a dozen expeditions claiming their tiny patch. It had been snowing all day and our tents were half covered with snow.
We collapsed into the “mess tent” which was a circular domed tent maybe 3 metres wide. It also served as the sleeping tent for the Sherpas. The “Cook” Sherpa there had a primus stove and cooked up endless cups of tea to revive us before we found our sleeping tents, sorted out our kit and then we went back to the mess tent for a bowl of pasta soup.
We all thought Rikki had turned back but an hour later he staggered into the tent half dead. He’s totally mad. His cough was killing him but he just wouldn’t give up.
I slept the night on oxygen but gave up with it after a few hours. I didn’t sleep much.
Wednesday 4 May
I awoke to a freezing temperature with my tent almost buried in snow. Some idiot was trying to clear the snow but it only served to partially collapse my tent. The weight of the snow was amazing and for the first time I realised how you would have no chance in an avalanche. It was like concrete.
The sun came up and after a breakfast of granola and hot milk I went to sort out my tent while Richard and Alan kitted up in their summit suits to climb for an hour up the next route. You could clearly see the last route to the summit. A one day climb of four hours up a steady snow incline then camp at the top. Next day a tough rock climb, camp again and finally the summit ridge.
The problem is all climbers make it to the North Col then have to go all the way back down to Base Camp (or lower) for maybe 10 days to recover before climbing all the way back up for the summit attempt. The thought of this was more than I could bear.
Of course my stated objective was to reach the North Col and now I’d done it but also I suppose I had a secret hope of making the summit. That would take another three weeks and a lot more effort coupled with living in Third World slum conditions for longer. I decided to call it a day. Richard on the other hand is undecided but will probably go for the summit. He desperately wants to get home to his family but he knows he’s capable of the summit.
Richard and Alan returned from their one hour trip up the next section, we took some photos and then set off down the mountain.
It only took three hours back to ABC but seemed a lot longer. We abseiled part of the way down. It was a very hot day and the slog across the snow plain seemed harder than coming down the mountain. We got back to base camp at 3:00pm, we’ve decided to rest tomorrow and then go all the way back down to Base Camp in one go rather than stopping at interim camp. That is a 20 mile trek over rough, rough ground. Then I’ll think about getting home.
|< Prev||Next >|
Copyright © Iceland Foods Ltd 2011.
All Rights Reserved.