Sunday, 29 May 2011

Everest Summit Day Report

Greg & Pasang on the summit ridge just below the Third Step

Well with the dust settling after a very successful summit attempt and everyone safely back at base camp it's time to look back at how it unfolded. On arguably the best day of the season, 8 climbers, 2 leaders and 8 Sherpas from the Adventure Peaks team succeeded on reaching the summit, among them Jaysen Arumugum, the first Maurition, Geordie Stewart, the youngest Brition at 22 to complete the true 7 Summits and then just a couple of hours later the youngest person in the world to complete the true 7 Summits, George Atkinson at just 16 years & 362 days and climbing with Sonam Sherpa.

Our waiting game paid off as we headed up to the North Col on the 23rd passing scores of battered climbers descending from earlier attempts in marginal conditions. In the heat of the day I was again pleased to get to the top of the fixed lines in 2.5 hours for a comfortable night at the col. The next morning all but four of the team had opted to use O2 from 7000m. The small team without planned to use a small cache placed at 7500m, our highest point to date. The forecasted winds of 40-60mph never materialised and it was sole destroying climbing in thick cloud. At 7500m I was very grateful to plug in despite having comfortably matched the pace of those on O2 but made the quick decision to drop down to 7400m with one of the cylinders for one of the team members who was regretting not going on earlier. The final climb to the tents at 7800m was still hard work as our Sherpas in an effort to give us every advantage had placed our tents right at the top of the camp, half an hour beyond the first tents. Unfortunately two of our team had made the decision to retire, returning to ABC to run the comms for our summit push. Another member had a very slow 12 hour day running low on O2 before a couple of Sherpas dropped down to him with a fresh cylinder.

After a night sleeping on O2 we headed for our third and final camp, a rising traverse away from the ridge proper. The weather was looking perfect as we reached the highest camp in the world perched insecurely on a steep scree slope. The summit looked incredibly near from our severely foreshortened view. The afternoon was spent brewing up and resting on O2. One member had turned back from 8000m and another decided Camp 3 (8300m) would be his highpoint. Life was slightly more exciting than planned when one team managed to explode their stove, setting light to the vestibule and necessitating a quick exit. The flames were quickly extinguished and they could return to their laborious task of melting snow - with a little less enthusiasm. In an unrelated incident another team member had somehow managed to rip the main zip out of his down suit giving a somewhat drafty effect. Amazingly an old friend Nuru Wangchu Sherpa was at ABC having summited with his client a few days earlier. Leaving ABC at 6am he reached Camp 3 at 3.30pm hardly looking out of breath, dropped off a spare suit and headed back down for tea and medals!

We'd staggered our start times to help folk leave the tents on time (Getting ready for an early morning start with three in a tent at 8000m is one of the hardest jobs in the world!) and the first group were away just after 9pm. After a quick call to Stu in the Adventure Peaks office, running the live web updates, I began my climb a little before 11pm, a crocodile of head torches stretching up to the NE ridge above me. Putting it delicately I soon began to have problems with my bowels, the practical challenges of which while wearing a down suit and climbing harness at 8000m significantly slowed my progress until after sunrise. I pushed on passing one team member who was making heavy weather of the altitude and would eventually turn back at the First Step, arriving suddenly on to the main ridge. In the darkness an almost continuous thunderstorm was spectacularly raging towards Annapurna in the west. From the col and looking south towards Lhotse a smaller lightning storm was closer but below us - all indicators of the onset of the monsoon just a few days away. Peering through the darkness we could make out the South Col. On a mountain as big as this the different weather patterns had meant that the other 'normal' route from the south had received hundreds of ascents before our route was even open. This morning a solitary torch could be seen at around 8100m inching its way slowly upwards.

On the radio I could hear our lead climbers approaching the Second Step as I approached the first. Easy climbing on Scottish style snowed up rock soon led to the tricky terraces which focus the mind for the traditional crux of the route - the rocks and ladders of the Second Step. In the event this was vastly overrated and is easily climbable by anyone with a basic Scottish winter climbing background. A few seconds later and I was stood on the flat top where the rest of the route suddenly opens up in front of you. As I'd been climbing the sun had risen behind my left shoulder giving the summit pyramid a golden glow above an unending sea of clouds. The weather was perfect with little wind and a positively balmy -20 degrees. However the earlier problems had severely dehydrated me and with most of my fluid by now frozen I was unable to move as fast as planned. Alyhough the summit is now right in front of you another three hours are required. The Third Step easily matches the other two worth a couple of high steps before the never ending summit pyramid in soft snow. As I traversed right below the final rock band I began to meet members of our team descending from the summit, exhausted but elated. The final rock slabs were a sting in the tail before an undulating snow ridge led to the top of the world at 9.35am Nepal time.

The hallucinations really began to kick in as I watched a golfer on the summit address his tee shot and send a ball looping out in to space above the Kangshung Face. Stephen Green hitting the worlds highest (and longest) drive! I paraphrased Sir Ed Hilliary in a quick call home - "Well we knocked the bastard off!" Probably not the best thing to say to your father when you wake him at 5.30am! I spent around 45 minutes on the top enjoying the views, taking photos, ripping my down suit on a snow stake etc. The last 20 minutes were by myself as the others headed down and were pretty special. I'd spent the whole climb in my normal Scottish winter gloves (ME Randonne) but was now down to thermal gloves with my mask off in almost perfect conditions.

Finally it was time to go, a slow and steady descent with no dramas. On the summit pyramid I came across an ascending climber from another team with simple but deadly problem. The dust cap on his replacement O2 cylinder was stuck. The simple solution of a 10p coin in my down suit pocket for this very reason had him sorted in a very short space of time and his summit attempt back on track.

I reached Camp 3 just before 5pm after an 18 hour day. Our normal plan had been to descend to Camp 2 at 7800m but with two other team members opting to stay due to exhaustion we settled down for a second night above 8000m. Not ideal but with plenty of O2, fluid, warm sleeping bags and a good weather forecast not a disaster. In the end I got an excellent nights sleep waking early the next morning feeling 100% better. Wind and snow had come in overnight and a Project Himalaya team were making a very late start in marginal conditions. Four of them summited but they all suffered frostbite and one went temporarily blind on the summit with frozen corneas.

Our descent to Camp 2 was hampered by drifting snow and windslab but we made good time catching the majority of the rest of the team still brewing up at 7800m. My co-leader Chris Szymiec had made a good call the night before escorting a team member down from 8300m after he began to exhibit signs of HAPE. Coffee from Jason at the North Col kept them going but they didn't reach ABC until 3am. Unsurprisingly Chris hasn't woken up since! A brew and a doze in the sun at the North Col and by the end of the 27th May everyone was safe at ABC after an amazing summit day - 18 summits, 3 firsts and everyone safe. A big thank you to the Ghost Writer for keeping the blog up to date throughout the expedition.