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  Everest 2006: Fi and Paul: What climbing Everest is really like...

Location: Everest Summit
Altitude: 8,850m
Local Time: Now 8pm
Weather: Fine and sunny with low winds, seriously cold at night, and just really cold in the sun

Hey there everyone, Fiona here.
Thought I'd give you my perspective on my climb of Everest last night and today.

Getting going
We ended up planning to leave at 9pm but actually left around 9:30. My fault - it's amazing how much time those last minute things like heating up your chemical warmers, strapping some onto your toes, dressing (when you're wearing 90 layers), putting on your climbing harness and crampons, getting boiling water for your bottles, etc takes! My friends will inform you that I am a stickler for punctuality and am normally never late (hardly!).

Anyway, Mingma and I headed out, accompanied by another Sherpa whose job it was to cart my second bottle of oxygen to "The Balcony" (about half way through the climb). The idea is that you start with a full bottle, use less than half of it getting to The Balcony, then switch to a new full bottle leaving your other half to switch back to on your way down. This Sherpa (whose name I have momentarily forgotten), then decided to come to the summit with us - so it was the 3 of us all the way.

Climbing Through the Black
We've climbed at night before and always seemed to have a little light, but last night was pitch black except for a small amount of starlight. There were also a few climbers ahead of us - and their distant head torches showed me the way the route wound up into the mountain. It was so dark that most of the night you couldn't tell where the mountain ended and the sky began.

The First Half
The climb starts by making our way up the Triangular Face and onto the Balcony. Initially, it's a gentle snow slope that gets steeper and steeper, and then is scattered with rocky sections. Most people have a short rest at the Balcony while they change oxygen tanks - us included. As anticipated, Paul caught up to us - but earlier than expected (due to my less than cracking pace and delayed start). We shared the break together but it was not very relaxing. We obviously needed to use our hands to get out our drink and Gu's and take off our oxygen masks to ingest them, but were paranoid about leaving them out of our big mitts for too long. Although I was quite warm when climbing (bordering on hot), as soon as we stopped moving, you could feel the chill overtaking your body.

We continued heading up together, but then Paul found the pace too slow to keep him warm so overtook our little group.

Trudging On
Using head torches to see the track, you could only really make out the next 10 metres or so of the route and had no idea of the surrounding landscape - except to know that we kept heading upwards. In my case, I had Mingma ahead of me - often waiting at the end of a fixed line. With my problem of getting cold hands and history of frostbite, I was wearing big down mitts stuffed with handwarmers - great for warmth but also makes then useless for any fiddly tasks. Thankfully Mingma clipped my safety clip jumar into all the fixed lines during the night. There was very little speaking - just an occasional "you alright?" or "hands warm?".

We plugged on through the endless hours of the night - must be a while since I've had and all-nighter because it was astonishing just how long the night was. And all the while stepping and resting, stepping and resting. I kept trying to minimise the resting by telling myself you're not going to get there unless you're moving - but at over 8000 metres, it's hard work when your body keeps saying it can't go any further.

When the first glows of dawn showed, it was absolutely amazing. We were already far higher than most of the mountains I could see and the changing light on those peaks and the low-lying cloud was spectacular. Unfortunately I didn't stop to get any photos as I was so concerned about making it to the top and back in time.

The Second Half
On the way up to the South Summit, some of the rocky section proved to be extremely taxing and my fatigue started to set in, slowing my pace even further. Migma was urging me to go faster (or risk having to reduce the oxygen flow rate so that it would last the distance) but I just couldn't do it.

Oh No!
Just here at over 8600m we ran into Paul and his Sherpas again. At first I was elated as I thought we'd somehow caught up to them, but then he told me of his predicament with his oxygen, the only option being for him to go down. What a heart-breaker. Of all the scenarios we'd thought might happen, this was certainly not one of them. He urged me to go on saying "you've got it in the bag!". Which was anything but how I felt at the time. Just to get over the ridge line they were resting on probably took half an hour. At the time I was so focused on the reality of seeing whether I could get to the top or not, I didn't really think of any other options but putting my all into getting as far up as I could. But as I plodded on, I began to think of the disappointment for Paul and the shame in not being able to achieve this together. As well as wondering whether I should have gone down with him so that we could try again together some other time, or whether I should have offered my oxygen and gone down (which to be honest, didn't even cross my mind - maybe the altitude?). We said a brief good bye and good luck and then parted, up and down the mountain.

Getting Close
Not far from here, we reached the South Summit - which gives incredible views of the actual summit - something we had not yet seen in the flesh. This was the first time I'd really noticed the views around us. We were surrounded by thousands of peaks (in Nepal and Tibet) - some grass and some snow covered, but all with sharply defined edges and pointed peaks (many pyramid shaped). And the distance we could see was enormous - I'm sure I could see the curvature of the earth. I noticed the weather here too - not a cloud in the sky and hardly a breath of wind (by Everest standards anyway).

At this stage I was utterly exhausted and found myself wondering why there had to be two summits and why the South Summit wasn't the one. My arms and back were aching from pulling myself up on rock and rope, and my calves were wrecked from so much French pointing and climbing on rocky sections holds for only one or two of your crampon points.

From here we traversed across a very exposed section linking the South Summit to the Summit. I was very glad it wasn't a windy day as a fall from either side would send you thousands of metres down into either Nepal or Tibet.

A rocky section and then another exposed traverse and we were at the Hilary's Step. This is a lot different from how I'd imagined. It butts into the traverse so is really a narrow chute - which explains why there can't be separate up and down routes to avoid congestion. It also doesn't strike me the most technical part of the summit climb. There are around 50 ropes which have been strung up over the years. So to climb it, you just grab a handful of ropes in each hand and haul yourself up - not the most graceful climbing maneuver ever! But it was only after climbing the step that I actually began to think - hey, I'm actually going to make it!

After this obstacle, the climb traversed across the snow covered corniced peaks that make up the summit. As you can imagine, every peak you climb up you're thinking "this has got to be the summit", only to be disappointed when you crest over the top to see that the next corniced peak is higher. After not too long, we crested one peak, and there was suddenly nowhere left to go. No more up! I didn't look at my watch but I believe it was around 8am.

The Summit
The summit area itself is very small - probably 10 people could fit but they'd need to be very sure-footed. There was no one else though. There are lots of things left on the summit. Mostly Nepalise prayer flags. Mingma actually brought a set up and unravelled it specatularly in the wind before letting them settle on the summit. The view from here was absolutely amazing. 360 degrees of long-reaching views and we're standing head and shoulders above everything else.

We radioed to basecamp to let them know our position and then proceeded to pull out our drinks - we were very thirsty. But unfortunately the lids on both my thermos and the Sherpas water bottles were frozen solid and no amount of brute force could open them. Oh well, time to get the camera out for the first time to get some summit shots, as well as a panoramic shot which would be amazing. No go - despite the camera being kept on an inside pocket of the down suit, it's battery refused to cooperate. Mingma spent around 10 minutes heating the battery in his hands and managed to take 2 photos before it would freeze up again. Imagine my disappointment! I also had a satellite phone there and planned to call my family and a some close friends, but it was just to windy and cold.

Heading Down
By this time we were starting to get very cold so decided to start heading down. This is when my fatigue started to kick in violently. I kept thinking that all I needed was a tent, a sleeping bag, and about 100 bottles of lemonade (still soooo thirsty!). Camp 4 seemed so far away.

By around 12:30pm we finally made it back - although I thought it felt more like 4pm. In total, I was climbing solidly for around 15 hours and I have now not slept for nearly 40 hours. No wonder I'm zonked. And with only 1 litre of water downed during the climb, it's now time for some serious rehydration.

Back at Camp 4
Back in the tent with Paul and discussing both our joy and disappointment. Very mixed emotions at the moment.

Climbing Mount Everest has been the hardest night & day of my life. I'm not sure I'd do it again! It was spectacular up there but my gosh, the pain to get there! I'm actually not sure that the experience has sunk in yet - nor the fact that this huge goal I've been working towards for so long has been realised.

Still extremely tired with sore limbs - so will sleep very well tonight (even in the astronaut suit).

Over and out, Fiona


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