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  Mt. Everest 2005: Gavin Bate: Gav reflects on expedition

File photo Everest on a better day ©EverestNews.com

Update: 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, Hargreaves.

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 stove.

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 reckless person.

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 top!

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 coming up.

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 happy.

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 other.

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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