File photo Everest on a better day ©EverestNews.com
Well I am in Russia now and
about to climb Mt Elbrus with a wonderful group of people. The weather is
fine, and it's great to be back in the mountains. I was already missing them !
In fact I only had one madcap day in Ireland before flying here, and those
days coming off Everest went by so fast that they seem surreal. But here's my
little story of Everest, which has been such a success and has, as the Everest
archivist in Kathmandu said to me, "rewrote the book on climbing the
mountain". To say I'm proud of my achievement is an understatement. Most
people only get a chance to climb Everest once in their lives, I have now
climbed it three times and each time has been utterly different in style.
Despite always stopping a hundred or so metres short of the summit, no British
person to my knowledge has climbed both north and south sides without oxygen.
I feel I can call myself an Everest veteran now!
One of the most humbling and proud moments was when the Sherpas themselves,
many of whom are close personal friends who all come from the village of Khari
Khola where we support the hospital and we built the monastery (Bupsa is about
20 minutes walk away), named me 'Ang Gavin Sherpa' and made me an honorary
member of the Chomolongma Summitteers Association in Nepal!
Anyway - I had some very strong principles and ideas about climbing Everest
this year and they were - I wanted to climb without oxygen which instantly
puts the whole idea of summitting into a very different league.
I wanted to use the 1953 Base Camp instead of the usual Base Camp at the base
of the Icefall. The two are a couple of miles apart and there is a lodge there
in a small settlement called Gorak Shep. I did not want to sit on my own on a
cold glacier for 7 weeks which I hated during my 2000 climb.
I wanted to use just one camp on the mountain, and to try and summit Alpine
style from Camp 2. I did not have a Camp 1 (top of Icefall) and nor a Camp 3
(middle of Lhotse Face) nor a Camp 4 (south col). Again to my knowledge this
can only be compared to individual attempts by people like Messner, Loretan,
I wanted to carry all my own gear without Sherpa support and make my own
decisions on the mountain, and be wholly accountable for them. This, to me, is
of primary importance if you are going to properly climb a mountain and on
Everest it is without doubt the defining factor since every 'client' on
Everest defers to the experience of either a Western guide or Sherpa (that's
what you pay your money for).
I wanted to do it alone. But of course you can't climb Everest solo nowadays
since there are always going to be other people up there and there's always
going to be a fixed line to clip into. Unless you are putting in a new
route or on a rarely climbed route, the word solo cannot be used. But I
did not have any climbing partners, or Base Camp facilities, or people I could
rely on to help me or keep me company. I bought a place onto an existing
permit but I had my own tent at Camp 2 and cooked for myself, and climbed
myself. I wanted that freedom to move as I wanted to on the mountain.
So out of all of the above there was only one change I made at the last
minute. I decided to employ a Sherpa (Njima) to basically shadow me on the
summit day so that if I did collapse then he would be there to help me. I did
not want to have to be a potential burden on other people. Njima and I did
climb together but in every instance I carried all my own gear up and down the
mountain, even to the extent of carrying 32kgs off the hill after the summit
day because Njima was ill and I carried his gear too. He did use oxygen.
I did not use supplemental but I breathed some oxygen at the south col when we
were testing Njima's regulator and the mask. One of the things I am most proud
of is that I did it without oxygen and I never suffered even a headache. I was
strong and lucid at all times, and felt completely in control of everything
all the way to the summit ridge.
I put this down to several things. One is that I appear to be one of those
lucky people who acclimatise very well. In all my expeditions now I have never
suffered any altitude related illnesses and that is just luck. But I also
train considerably and extensively and my main strategy on Everest this year
was twofold -
To train every single day at altitude, and to work my body as hard as I could
To drink 10 litres every single day
The first strategy came not just from my experience and common sense, but also
sound advice from friend and mountaineer/polar guide Steve Pinfield. most
people who sit at Base Camp on a commercial expeditions do very little except
sit and eat and read books and sleep. I fundamentally disagree with this. I
saw many people drinking beer and whisky at Base Camp which just seemed daft.
Many people got very frustrated and impatient, which can only lead to negative
feelings and perhaps bad decisions.
Being at Gorak Shep down the valley and living in a lodge allowed me every day
to explore the surrounding hills and valleys, to go running at 18,000', to eat
and sleep well at night, and to work my body into such a state of fitness and
acclimatisation, that I would be ready for the summit.
To climb to the summit of Everest from such a low point as Camp 2, with no
oxygen and just a daysack would, I knew, require both a high level of fitness,
acclimatisation but also mental resolve. There is a point when you consciously
make the decision to go into what is melodramatically called the Death Zone;
but it is aptly named, because at this altitude your body organs begin to shut
down and your mental acuity can be 25% of what it is at sea level. A mistake,
a problem, a single error can potentially have very serious consequences.
When you breathe supplemental oxygen it does two things. It effectively alters
your 'real' altitude so that you're not really at 8800 metres but several
thousand feet lower, depending on your flow rate. It also keeps you warm, as
your body is more able to heat itself because of the energy the oxygen
provides. Just like oxygen keeps a fire lit. To not use oxygen takes you on a
fundamental leap into the unknown, your body is literally starved of oxygen
and to some extent you just don't know what will happen to it.
Cold eats into you, and you are constantly aware that your brain is just not
repsonding to plan. It's a very odd feeling. I spoke to Chris from the south
col and he reports I got my words jumbled up, I repeated myself constantly, I
would say something but not complete the sentence.
To that extent the ability to climb Everest without oxygen may become reliant
on an intuition, a second nature that can only come with considerable
mountaineering experience and experience at high altitude.
There is no doubt in my mind that I required huge reserves of mental stamina
and willpower to do what I did, apart from the physical requirements. It goes
beyond the mental stamina to run, say, a marathon (I did the New York one last
year) because you have it constantly in your mind that your mind and body are
severely disabled by the lack of oxygen in the air. Therefore
you have to rely on something else, and it's that something else that I wanted
to test. Just like the north side climb without oxygen in 2002 I wanted to see
how far I could really go. And in order to do that I needed to start from Camp
2, and deny myself the support, the oxygen and the mental reassurance that
everyone else has who is with a team, a guide, Sherpas and oxygen.
That was my intention and I'll be honest and say I never told anyone about it
beforehand because it sounded too far-fetched and ludicrous.
There are people who will say "ahh, there's plenty of people up there, you're
never alone, it's like Piccadilly Circus, loads of people summit every day!"
Etc etc. Look harder and you'll see these are people who've never been there,
who make the simple error or lumping all Everest climbs into one category - 'chequebook
climbers' etc - and who really have little idea about mountaineering, and
about what it actually means to sit up there in a tent, to climb the Icefall,
to arrive on the south col and to go to such a height.
Sometimes these people have hidden agendas and ulterior motives anyway, and
they don't even deserve mentioning.
The truth is that Everest does have a lot of people on it's slopes every year
but of course there is still only about 25% who actually make it to summit
day. People still die up there, six this season, and Everest still presents
massive objective dangers in terms of weather, altitude and terrain.
This year an avalanche wiped out over 60 tents at Camp 1. Seven people were
badly injured and every single tent and equipment in them was lost. I went up
there and saw boulders the size of cars strewn haphazardly about the place,
evidence of the force of that avalanche. So much for twenty first century
equipment and all the razzmatazz that is the modern Everest; the mountain
casually wiped out everything that us humans had carefully put in place.
When the wind blew nobody moved. People still turned back defeated from the
Icefall despite all the high-tech gear. So don't believe the nonsense that
armchair critics spout, they generally know very little.
But it is true that Everest attracts many commercial groups and they have
fantastic facilities and they have highly efficient Sherpas to do the bulk of
the work, and they have Satellite weather reports, Western guides and a
network of support that is pretty much non-existent on any of the other 8000
metre peaks except perhaps Cho Oyu. That much is true and it was that side of
things that I personally wanted to avoid both this year and in 2002.
I suppose it's financial too. For me this years expedition cost me the
standard $10,000 for the permit and then another $4800 for the entire
expedition including flights, hotels and all my food, a portion of the Icefall
Permit and a portion of the garbage deposit everyone needs to pay and the
salary for my Sherpa. I bough my insurance in Nepal but only for the last two
weeks of the expedition when I knew I would be high and I hardly used my
satellite phone other than to make calls.
Compare that to the $45-$60,000 tag that guided clients were paying.
Certainly I didn't feel the same pressure that people have with big
sponsorship deals and so on to adhere to.
My kit came from Berghaus and Tisos courtesy Tony Broderick and Ian White and
that was fantastic. I have a lot of personal gear, since I go on so many
expeditions, so I only really had to buy some gas cylinders for my mountain
When you talk about challenge on Everest you need to understand what it is
that you want out of the expedition and that will come from the way in which
you do it. The route you choose for instance. I chose the normal route so
nothing startling there.
No, I chose a very unusual way of climbing the mountain. The number who climb
without oxygen is around 3% statistically, and I chose to use only one camp
and, as far as possible, to ascend in an Alpine style. I did use the fixed
ropes, although not very often. Most of the time they are not necessary and
certainly I am competent enough a climber not to really need them.
This season there was a big problem on the south side because the weather
windows were never long enough for the Sherpas to put in a fixed line to the
summit, so there were very long delays which led to a multitude of people
going up around the 30th, and I fundamentally disagreed with that in
principle. The fact that I did the same makes my last comment hypocritical,
but I was working to a different schedule and in some ways I had no choice but
to slipstream a summitting party.
Why ? Why couldn't I just have gone for the summit without any fixed lines by
myself, a la Messner or Scott/Haston, and not been confined to what other
teams were doing ? The answer is plain and simple. I'm no Reinhold Messner nor
Doug scott nor Dougal Haston! I wanted to challenge myself to the absolute
limit of what I believe I can do and what I think is within my definition of
safe and reasonable. But to go alone to the top, even with a Sherpa shadowing
my movements, and perhaps have to break trail through soft snow, without
bottled oxygen would have been tantamount to recklessness, and I am not a
No, I had to wait for others and follow up with the crowd, As much as that
ended up being the very reason for me not actually standing on the summit
(that, and Njima being sick - another irony considering he was there to handle
my potential illness ), I do not regret the decision. I did what I did at the
time for the right reasons as a mountaineer and the summit will still be there
in the future.
Somebody wrote and said I should have waited a bit longer to summit; it's a
laughable comment that smacks of gross ignorance. Getting up is an option,
getting down is mandatory.
Anyway I started on the 29th May at 4am and I'm not joking when I say I was
like a freight train. I had my down salopettes and jacket in my Berghaus
Slipstream rucksack, a thermos of coffee, my goggles, spare hat and gloves, a
camera and phone, some food and a few bits and pieces like suncream. A total
of about 6 kgs.
I made Camp 3 in just 3 hours and all the Sherpas were around me. To say I was
happy is putting it mildly, I had never felt so strong. I was keeping up with
the Sherpas and we passed out the Camp in excellent time. Then disaster struck
when I changed my glasses to sunglasses and dropped the glasses.
Anyone who wears glasses will understand the enormity of that mistake. I
honestly considered going down but decided against it. During the day would be
fine, my sunnies are prescriptive, but I would be climbing at night to the
The Geneva Spur was not hard, ten minutes of gasping on rock and thin ice.
Then a long plod on an uphill traverse followed by more mixed group and a
nasty little steep section of snow right at the end just to really make you
pant, before I got to the south col which was moderately windy but not too
bad. Don't forget that at the south col,. at 26,000', you're already higher
than pretty much every mountain in the Himayala and the world so it's quite a
place to be.
I had arranged to 'borrow' a Japanese tent to rest in for a few hours but I
had to put it up! Njima and I did that okay and crawled inside. We both tested
his oxygen system, ate some food and waited. The sun went down and without
sunglasses I was now permanently out of focus. I can focus for a minute or two
at a time but after that i get bad headaches so I had to get used to looking
at things out of focus. It was 4pm when we got the col.
At 9.30pm we got ready and it took about half an hour. Njima helped me with my
crampons because I couldn't see them properly. Ahead of us a line of
headtorches was already ascending the final section to the summit, and I
thought it looked like any night on the Gouter route on Mont Blanc.
Well, I can honestly say that it wasn't very hard. Nose to tail with around 90
people, a rope to clip into if you wanted to (I mostly didn't, it wasn't
necessary) and a nice clear night with wind speed of about 15mph. I had loads
of time to ponder on all sorts of things, mostly EP back at Base Camp to be
honest. I thought of the people who have come to mean the most to me in my
life, the kids in Kenya too, and I suppose just to revel in the reality of
where I was and what I was doing. I was the only one doing the south side
without oxygen who had made it this far and I'd come all the way from Camp 2
unsupported. I think it's fair to say I felt absolutely fantastic.
It was pretty slow going and we got onto the south east ridge as dawn was
colouring the horizon, about 4am. It was cracker views all round and I took a
shot or two. Lightning crackled around Pumori, and it's just an amazing
feeling to look down on all those mountains, just a few hundred feet from the
top of the world. I was ecstatic.
Unfortunately Njima wasn't, he had vomited five times and was having problems
with his oxygen mask icing up. In fact he wasn't really getting any oxygen and
he complained of cold joints. The vomiting could have been due to some dodgy
yak cheese he ate on the south col ,which I had refused on account of its
smell. He looked pretty bad but we carried on and now the single line of
people stretched ahead of us up the ridge and onto the south summit, and then
beyond. My last photo was of that line, the camera was in Njima's bag and we
spent most of our time apart. His secondary job as photographer was forgotten
as he struggled with being sick and cold joints.
But when we got to the Hillary Step after around two hours, 7.30am including
our stops I guess ( I never looked at my watch) I had to make my decision to
turn around. I know very well I could have gone to the summit right there and
then, I was feeling really good and amazingly lucid. But the queue was
stationary for long periods on the Step, and Njima became my primary concern.
We turned around at 8780 metres.
Is that a failure ? Well I'll leave it up to you ! I remember thinking to
myself that I didn't actually want to stand on such a crowded summit and have
to wait another two hours to get there. I knew in myself I could do it, I knew
my decision was based on sound reasoning and mountaineering experience, and I
knew that I can always come back. Also the wind had picked up somewhat, little
knifelike gusts that can develop quickly into a gale.
No, I'm happy with what I did and sure enough over half the entire number on
that morning descended just after us. Oh, and I did it all of it at night half
blind, so there was another reason to feel it was time to go down.
Somebody said "Oh, there were so many other people up there that day! You
could have just hung on...etc etc" It's so childish, it's not worth commenting
on. Primarily I was at the back of the line with Njima, the people who
summitted were at the front of the line. Wind picks up, people get cold, the
back half turn back.
Well, getting to the top or just shy of it, is only half the journey and
here's where my strategy and plan would really come to test me. Everybody else
on the mountain would go back to south col to a tent, fresh oxygen, Sherpas
preparing food, sleep and rest. They would descend the following day. I
however had to get all the way back to Camp 2 in one go. The Japanese tent I
used was already going to be occupied that lunchtime by the Japanese team
From the summit of Everest - nearly, haha! - to Camp 2 in five hours. I still
can't believe it. No stopping, a descent down the summit section, down the
5000' Lhotse Face and along the top part of the Western Cwm in just 5 hours. I
knew I was tired when I stumbled on my crampon and fell flat on my face just
outside Camp 2. I was so dehydrated my throat clicked painfully and I
completely sunburnt my tongue because it swelled so much it protruded from my
mouth. I was back on sunglasses but my eyes were red raw, streaming with
tears. The Sherpa cooks at Camp 2 rushed to give me hot tea and I got the real
shakes and shivers in my tent from all the over-exertion. I had been awake, up
and down to the summit, in 34 hours, and boy was I tired.
In fact what I really wanted to do was go straight to Base Camp and see EP,
there was little else on my mind to be honest. In fact, had there not been a
big collapse on the Icefall I would have done it. I really mean that, I was in
another world of extreme endurance and exhaustion. In actual fact my body had
become little other than a living embodiment of what I can only describe as
undiluted willpower. Nothing else mattered but getting down to EP at Base
Camp. But it was 2pm in the afternoon, not the best time to be on the Icefall,
and I capitulated to reason. Sleep came like a blanket of lead and later on in
the evening the Sherpas came to give me steaming bowls of dahl bhat. Njima
arrived later, very slowly and still in pain. A bomb could not have woken us.
The following morning Njima wasn't entirely better and I had to keep to my
principle of carrying my own gear, so I ended up with 32kgs on my back, all
precariously balanced on the outside of a packed rucksack. The descent to Base
Camp took about 5 hours but it was the most dangerous 5 hours of the whole
trip. Massive crevasses this late in the season yawned hundreds of feet deep
and up to 45 feet wide, spanned by two or three ladders with just 6 inches at
either end holding them in place. My sunglasses fogged up with the heat and
the amount I was sweating so I took them off and went half blind, with Njima
calling out commands. I went without crampons most of the way, boot skiing in
places, and the length of my boot is just the width of the span of two rungs
on a ladder. An inch in the wrong direction and I would tip forward or
backward in a flurry of panic. Njima would shout to me "Gav, boot forward one
inch!" and so we went down. I was really very frightened several times and
more than once turned back from a ladder and actually walked backwards to the
original side to start again with a deep breath and a steeling of the spirit.
32kgs is a lot of weight to carry off Everest and towards the end I was
staggering like a drunk, through the small ice mounds and moraine leading to
Base Camp. But I was determined to get there under my own steam, absolutely
stubbornly, bloody-mindedly determined ! And then EP was there, and Everest
was forgotten, exhaustion forgotten, everything forgotten. It was all
unimportant. I know it was emotion that caused me to reel all over the place
those last yards towards her.
With everybody still up on the south col, EP and I beat an uncommonly hasty
retreat from Everest. It was 31st May and I had to be in a monastery on the
2nd June for the opening of our Moving Mountains Project. Andy had flown in
from Ireland and Helena was waiting, as was Chongbba and all the lamas and
villagers. All my gear had already gone down, I literally just had my rucksack
to carry and the two of us covered about 70 miles in three days.
Again, I don't know how we did it but those days tramping at great speed down
into the now blooming valleys, will stay with me a long time. I was very very
With us came Lokendra, a young lad I found in the lodge serving food and
keeping clear of the Maoists. He's never known anything other than the
mountain life but he was the spirit of enthusiasm and fun. After much talking
we agreed that he would go to school in Kathmandu, another success story for
Moving Mountains. He's there now, as I write, in his new uniform,
happy as anything.
In Bupsa the monastery, fully completed and painted after two years, was ready
for the big celebration and opening. EP and I were dressed in full traditional
Sherpa clothing, but definitely EP looked a million times better than me ! The
lamas were there in force, and the valleys echoed with the resounding Tibetan
music and horns. We ate continually and drank all the time, the villagers
appeared in their hundreds, EP and I received hundreds and hundreds of kata,
silk scarves that mounted round our necks until we could hardly see over the
top of them. All my Sherpa friends from the mountains hugged me and I was in
tears several times.
Inside the monastery hundreds of butterlamps and candles burned, the paintwork
glowed with a thousand depictions of Buddha and the 108 Buddhist gods and
goddesses, the lamas droned their chants over and over for hours, the ancient
paper of Tibetan writings crackled like gold leaf and I sat in the middle of
it all with EP, utterly and totally and completely spellbound.
This was all because of an idea I had to rebuild a monastery two years ago !
How such a simple idea can do so much, it just humbled me beyond belief.
My body was slowly going into denial. My neck and back stiffened, my sunburnt
skin came off, and for a while I was like a crone. But in my head I was
soaring like an eagle above the clouds. I had at last proved to myself what I
could do on a mountain like Everest, and climb it in such an unusual and
difficult way. Like I said, it's not what we do in Life but the way in
which we do it.
Which brings me to people I must thank. And first in line are Chris Little,
Andy MacDonald and Richard Sheane. For running the office which is now running
at saturation point, for keeping the website updated and for being such
stalwart and exceptional friends.
When I rang Chris from the south col I was in a real panic about my glasses.
In fact I was very unsure still of whether to go up or not. I must have
sounded crazy on the phone. But Chris was epitome of support and calm - "you
sound great Gav!' he said, lying through his teeth, "we're all behind you
mate, go for it, you're going to be fine". To have the presence of mind to do
that, and with such sincerity, takes real character and integrity. It's not
the first time either, that Chris has shown his cool.
Richard 'Baz' Sheane quietly goes about making my website into one of the best
and highly regarded in the expedition industry, and this has been the third
Everest Expedition he has covered. He is also a man of great integrity and
ability, I am entirely indebted to him for bringing my small adventures to the
Internet. Thank you very much Baz.
But it is to his Dad that I am also indebted. Derek is a role model and figure
of moral guidance. A man of impeccable reputation and background he gave me
considerable reassurance and help when I needed it. If I ever want to make
sure that what I am doing is right and for the right reasons, I need only
refer to him, and I can only thank him for such an influence.
Thank you too to all the people who wrote with such wonderful support. To all
those who raised money for the charity and who took a bet on me - I can
estimate that the expedition raised around $35,000.00 but there will be more
when I eventually get round to doing my talks. The hydro project is nearly
finished, the monastery is finished and this summer we will be building a
hospital wing in the slum of Kibera, an orphanage in western Kenya and a
rescue centre for mothers in Eastern Kenya. We also continue to support many
hundreds of children in East Africa and some in Nepal.
And thats really what it's all about for me. My climb of Everest simply pales
in comparison to the needs of those street kids and the potential of what we
can achieve in Kenya and Nepal. I am motivated, driven I would say, to
continue that work. And I'd really like your help and support and friendship
in doing that.
I will go back to Everest in 2007. A climb of Shishapangma will be used as an
acclimatisation peak before attempting to do the first north-south traverse,
solo and without oxygen and with no camps at all. Up one side and down the
That way I'll have to stand on the top.
I want finally to thank EP, the person who was with me through those weeks at
Base Camp and during the climb. I'm not lying when I say I couldn't have done
it without her. She was the big surprise in my life, and what a good one! If
nothing else, she made me realise that climbing Everest is not the most
important thing I'll do in my life, and nor should it be for anyone who
aspires to stand on top of the world. Sometimes you don't have to travel very
far to find the things that matter the most.
Terskol, Kabardino-Balkyrie, Russia
15 June 2005
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