I found it impossible to sleep during the few hours rest we had in camp 4 in the South Col, Everest loomed over us in the camp and the sun was blazing hot in our cramped tent full of bodies and equipment and the best I could do was lay still and try and at least rest my weary legs whilst counting down the minutes to us setting off, Mingma and Pemba next to me slept soundly without an apparent care in the world!
Around 9pm the camp started to stir and the Sherpa were making ready for our departure, a cup of tea was thrust in my hand and another bowl of noodles that I managed to drink the flavoured water from but couldn’t manage the actual noodles aware that it was now four days since I had eaten anything remotely close to a proper meal and it probably wasn’t the best preparation in terms of energy to be running so low on fuel but there was little I could do about it if I couldn’t swallow it, I’d just have to hope I had enough in reserve to make it up to the summit and back again.
Getting ready was no easy task as the tent was so full and I was in the middle so had very little room to manoeuvre myself to get my gear on, not easy in a large room normally and an almost impossible task in the tent with my oxygen mask on and bottles on top of me, but eventually after a lot of huffing and puffing I was dressed ready and pulling my boots, harness and backpack on to get myself outside ready to go.
The moon was the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen and looked so close I could almost touch it as Mingma and I did one last check and then started out from camp 4 towards the first rope point. Camp 4 is probably the size of a football pitch and absolutely covered in rubbish, waste and human excrement, quite disgusting really but it is what it is and I clambered over the old and unused tents and rubbish piles to make my start up over a huge roll of ice that had formed on the edge of the South Col, a footpath, of sorts lined with the fixed lines showed us the way up the steep slope and up ahead I could see a steady stream of head torches illuminating the way up.
It felt like we were starting last out of Camp much to my annoyance but it wasn’t long before we had caught up the back of the line and Mingma was twiddling with my oxygen flow rate to give me a short boost to overtake other climbers, I suppose climbing with one of the best climbers in the world I should have known we wouldn’t be sitting back and just strolling up behind the others! So our system of climbing followed a hard hike up to catch the back of the queue, then a twiddle on my oxygen and Mingma unclipped me from the safety rope onto a short rope attached to him (I’m pleased we never had to test this safety as I’m well over 1 1/2 feet taller than him and substantially heavier so if I’d fallen I’m not sure how he’d have stopped my fall so it was more of a suicide pact than a safety rope I think!) and we’d skirt past a few people before he reattached me to the main safety rope and we’d set off again to close the gap on the next group ahead, hour after hour went by doing this and I kind of kept hoping in a daze as we made our steady progress, at one point I must have totally tuned out about what was happening because all of a sudden I felt a hard punch around the side of my helmet, I’d he just punch me half way upto the summit of Everest?? Yes he did! Anyway it worked and brought me back and made my legs move again, fortunately I didn’t need another one!
Around 3am (I think) after veering left and then banking up a curling right we started to go around a steep rising bend, the “Balcony” on the southeast ridge, the moon, now blood red and seemingly below us, lit the landscape and I took a few moments to sneak a rest and admire the views before Mingma gave me an encouraging tug on the rope to keep going - he’s not big on rest stops!
Not that far above the Balcony, or so it felt, is the south summit, a small cone of ice and snow marking the summit that you round and climb over and as you emerge on the other side get your first glimpse of the final climb ahead to the real summit and absolutely crapped myself looking at the knife edge hike we still had to do across rock faces to reach our final goal but onwards we continued, as I looked left and as the sun was coming up the massive pyramid shadow cast by Everest could be clearly seen on the horizon and was just spectacular.
I have to say this cornice traverse towards the summit was the scariest part of the whole climb, so so narrow, very little footholds and clipping onto frayed old ropes and then hanging off to try and get across the rocks more than once made me question what on earth I was doing up here but slowly, carefully and clinging on for dear life we made it across passing a few people who had already summited now and were on their way down and then we were at the base of the Hilary step and a bottle neck had formed causing a jam that didn’t seem to be clearing, at sea level it would have been simple to let three people down and three up but up here no one was giving ground and climbers stood and stared at each other for a good 20 minutes before commons sense prevailed and those going up stepped to the side to let the three climbers down who blocked our path. I’d been so focussed on watching the commotion on the Hilary Step and queue management I hadn’t paid much attention to my immediate surroundings and as I stepped forwards to start my turn up the Hilary Step I wondered what the guy on the ground was doing in his faded summit suit and then it hit me - he was dead, his lifeless body laying on the rock precariously close to slipping off the edge, his dream to summit Everest cut short either on the way up or down but forever stopped here. The shock of this was quite profound and it took all my self control not to fly into a panic attack about it, everyone else just seemed to be acting normal as I gingerly stepped past the body trying carefully not to add to the numerous crampon spike holes in his suit that other climbers had obviously made as they used him to leverage themselves up the steps towards the summit, I continued on several more metres before resting against the knife edge ice wall to get my breath back and take stock of the situation and as I did so looked straight into the face of another dead climber laying in the crevasse of the snow wall in their orange summit suit - Jesus this wasn’t what I had expected to see at the summit!
I had very little time to process any of this as we continued the final short distance up to the summit, past a new weather station recently installed and then a short slope up, covered in prayer flags and climbers flags (an annoying obstacle to add to the day as the flags stuck in my crampons and wrapped themselves around my feet making the final finish very precarious) and then I’m stood up on tight tiny summit, several others are here taking pictures, doing videos, crying and hugging and I look out across the horizon to see several other 8,000ers - Kanchenjunga, Cho Oyu and Makalu - I can’t believe I’m stood on top of the world at 8,849m high!!!
Tears roll down my face as it sinks in and I sit down on the summit, wondering if I’ll make it down, thinking about the dead bodies and taking in the amazing views, what a journey to get this far. I get my Yorkshire flag out and take the obligatory photos hopefully that at least one will be good but too tired to care too much about the photographic quality just now.