After our night of radio silence, we breathed sighs of blessed relief upon hearing voices crackling over the radio. It was 6am, and they were at 8750 metres – a stone’s throw from the summit of Everest.
Three team members weren’t with them. Charles Hobhouse and George Rodway were taken ill during their summit attempts and had to abandon their ascent. Rikki Hunt began climbing up from Camp Three but decided “it didn’t feel right”, and opted not to continue. They all made the right decision: the mountain is littered with the bodies of those who didn’t turn around when they should. They all arrived back at Advanced Base Camp (ABC) one by one – exhausted, dehydrated, but safe.
This left only four. Then a Sherpa came on the radio. Mingma translated – they were on the summit! Rodney Hogg, Graham Duff, and Justin Packshaw had all made it by 06:55am on a beautiful, windless day. We went outside to peer at the top of the world, three miles above us. Everest’s summit is only the size of a dining table: it was amazing to think that they were up there. We were delighted, not knowing that the next day and night would be even more stressful than the last.
Where was David? Then we heard him: “I’m on the summit! I’m on the summit!” Fantastic.
David Hempleman-Adams unfurls the Iceland Foods flag at the summit
David Hempleman-Adams and Nga Temba on the summit of Everest, 21 May 2011
Apparently he had problems with his oxygen set that had delayed him, but he’d done it too (for the second time in his life) with minutes to spare before our strict turnaround time. We all breathed a sigh of relief, but also offered them a caveat: the wind was forecast to increase rapidly to dangerous levels, and that they should go down – now.
The original plan – which sounded like a good idea in the warmth and comfort of the mess tent – was for the team to descend to at least Camp Two, or the even safer North Col if they felt strong enough. The problem is, you can never underestimate how tired a climber is after the summit, which is technically only halfway to success. You’ve got to get down alive. We were painfully aware that most accidents and fatalities happen on the way down. Consequently, we didn’t want to celebrate our success until all team members were back safe at ABC. This turned out to be a good decision.
“I can’t go any further”, we heard David transmit back to us. “I’m exhausted, and my oxygen is playing up”. He was at 8300m – still in the “death zone”, where any extended stay is extremely detrimental … worse if you’re tired. He was going to stay there overnight. We begged him to try and get to Camp Two – at a relatively safer 7700m, but he, Nga Temba and two other Sherpas just didn’t have the energy. We could do nothing but cross our fingers and wait.
Meanwhile, we heard that Justin and Duffy had managed to get to Camp Two, and had decided that it had to be their final destination for that night. After resting, they were horrified to discover that the camp had been stripped prematurely and that there was no food, sleeping mats, water or oxygen. Duffy had broken both his crampons, so he was unable to descend the ropes. Even if they felt well enough, it was now too late, too dark and too dangerous to get down further. What to do?
Graham tried to reassure them via radio, but we felt helpless. We had David in danger, and although survival is much easier at 7700m, it was still going to be a very uncomfortable night for them. Our fittest Sherpa had frostbite and sending him up in the dark and wind might send him to his death. We had to tell them to hang on until morning, when we could send more support. The only problem for all concerned was that the wind was forecast to spike up to 100km/h the next day.
Rod, meanwhile, had managed to get to the North Col – we were very thankful he did. It was the only wink of light at a seemingly endless tunnel of uncertainty. Another sleepless night ensued. When he was asleep, poor Graham was having nightmares about the team. I was trying to film some of the radio drama. In the back of our minds, we wondered if this was going to be the fun DVD we were all taking home, or evidence in an inquest…
The winds were howling around camp the next morning, which didn’t make us feel much better. Our spirits lifted after we heard all four climbers were reasonably well, and after we sent some more Sherpa support, they attempted a descent in the high winds. Rod arrived first – looking shattered but pleased, as he should be. David managed to descend to the North Col, and met Justin and Duffy. The end was in sight!
They all arrived, completely exhausted but delighted. I was never so pleased to have three tired, smelly men clad in down stumbling towards me for a hug. Safe at last.
Tomorrow, we’re going down to Base Ccamp. The beer has been ordered, the packing started, and we can’t wait to get to zero metres high. Preferably in the hotel Jacuzzi with some champers because now - members and Sherpas alike - we all have something to celebrate.
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