Climbing Everest

At an altitude of 6m in our local Cambridgeshire pub, my good friend of many years, Tony, was going through the early stages of divorce and was questioning life, the universe and everything. We were joined by another friend and somehow over the course of the evening we all hatched a plan to walk to Everest Base Camp. It had something to do with taking life by the horns…? If I’m honest I hated walking – even walking the dog round the block was enough for me – so I didn’t really take it too seriously and was pleased when the conversation moved onto bike races. It must have been the beer but I agreed to be up at 7am to join the guys for a bike race the next morning. Before I knew it I was in a van with my dusted-off bike, which I hadn’t ridden for over a year, on my way to do a 50-mile coastal ride round Norfolk. Now as I said a few beers had been imbibed the night before and one of the repercussions of this fact was that Tony, having convinced me to come on this race, did not make it. Dale and I managed to power on to the end. When we finally got hold of Tony he apologised profusely and then informed us that he felt so bad about missing the race he had used the time to book a trip for us all to Everest Base Camp. And so our epic trek had begun…

Over the next 12 months we took our new goal seriously and went on several training trips with our partners and the three new-found trekkers who had swelled our numbers to a total of six Base Camp trekkers. We all had varying levels of fitness and were of all shapes and sizes. The one thing we had in common was a will to do this thing. We were at my daughter Ellen’s charity gala event (Red Sock Gala) when it dawned on us all that our trek was another good opportunity to raise money for Ellen’s causes. Ellen set up a GoFundMe page with a target of £1000 and we all carried on preparing and training. Ellen was born without a pulmonary valve in her heart (pulmonary atresia) and has had several bouts of life-saving surgery over her 23 years, so had decided to help raise funds for those groups that had helped her through her ordeals).

At a height of 5364m Everest Base Camp is at an altitude where there is only 10.5% oxygen compared to the 21% we were enjoying on our walk in the Fens. We knew we had to get some experience at altitude to see how our bodies would respond to less oxygen. Having climbed Snowdon (1085m) and various high areas in the Peak District we decided to climb Mt Toubkal at a height of 4167m. If you remember I said I hated walking, and so did most of my pals, but over the months we had found the camaraderie as addictive as the scenery on our walks and before we knew it we had a group of ten signed up and on their way to Morocco. This turned out to be the best training move we could have made, as although the altitude only caused some very minor effects the trek route itself was gruelling and the best mental training we could have had for Everest.

People often asked if we were only going to Base Camp or if we were going to climb the mountain. Everest is still one of the most inhospitable places in the world. Since 1953, when it was first summitted by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, some 300 people, or 6%, of the 4,500 who have tried have died in their attempts to summit. Fewer have died going to Base Camp, but even so less than a quarter of one percent of the world’s population have ever seen it.

Time marched on and before we knew it, after checking and triple checking our bags, we were on our way to Nepal for an adventure of a lifetime. As our flight descended into Kathmandu we got our first glimpse of the Himalayas visible above the clouds, stretching as far as we could see out of the plane’s window. The reality of what we were about to take on was suddenly dawning on us. We were flying at 18,000ft (5488m) according to the flight-info screen and after the plane had landed we would be walking back up to the same height (this being the height we are hoping to trek to at the top of Kala Patthar, above Everest Base Camp)!

Kathmandu hits all your senses at once and we arrived at our hotel wide-eyed and buzzing with excitement. We had just enough time for some sightseeing and shopping before the welcome dinner with traditional Nepalese food and dancing. As crazy as Kathmandu is, I have never felt safer in any other city. The people are warm and friendly and always willing to barter. The dal baht curry is a staple of the local diet and was a real treat. The next day we set off on a 5 ½-hour road trip to Ramechhap airport on some of the worst-kept roads I have ever seen.

After two nights stuck in a campsite near the airport due to bad weather, we finally boarded an early morning flight headed for Lukla, the starting point of our 13 days of trekking. We met our porters and guides at the airport and immediately headed off to our first stop in Phakding. Our tour company prefer to use porters rather than yaks as it helps support the local economy by providing seasonal work for the villagers and farmers. Our guys were a great bunch and we developed a real bond with them over the fortnight, especially once we had mastered the pronunciation of their names!

Our first evening was within earshot of the thundering Dudh Koshi river which is fed by the Kyashar, Are and Minghu glaciers further up the valley. It is possible to travel to Base Camp nowadays staying at ‘tea houses’ rather than in tents. Again, the local population are generating much-needed incomes from the constant stream of visitors and climbers. A tea house generally has a heated common area where dinner is served and then a wing with very basic two-bed rooms. Dinner was dal baht, garlic soup and momos (which are similar to gyoza). We had elected to go vegetarian for two weeks, having seen the way meat (and everything else) has to be carried up the mountains by porters.

If you are lucky the bedrooms are above the common area and have managed to extract a little heat from it. All too often though they are off to the side and freezing cold, as not only are they not heated but the windows never seem to fit the frames and there is absolutely zero insulation, with walls generally being a single sheet of plywood. Our proximity to the river meant our room was indeed cold, as well as damp, so jumping into our sleeping bags as soon as we could was the order of the day.

The scenery even at this early stage was breath-taking and quite humbling. People say this trek is a life-changing experience and maybe it is but, I can tell you, the majesty of the Himalayas really makes you realise how insignificant we are and how precious our world is.

Trekking the next morning was a fabulous experience – working our way up the valley, crossing seven high suspension bridges, including the 344m-high Hillary bridge, and then fighting our way up the near-vertical track past returning climbers and long, winding trains of mules and dzyokpe (dozo) carrying supplies to Namche Bazaar. At an altitude of 3440m pretty much everything was historically carried to Namche by porters or mules. Helicopters now make runs for heavy goods, but the bulk is still carried.

We were supposed to have two days to acclimatise at Namche but the weather delays at the airport meant we only had one day, which was spent climbing to Everest View Hotel at 3880m. As the name suggests its elevated position affords visitors their first, breath-taking view of the mighty Everest.  Built for rich Japanese tourists, and with its own airstrip, the hotel once enjoyed the honour of being included in the Guinness Book of Records as ‘Highest Placed Hotel in the World’. Unfortunately, guests arriving at 13,000ft from sea level encountered difficulties ranging from nausea to vomiting. The hotel desperately tried to resolve the issue by supplying guests with oxygen tanks but, after several deaths, the Nepalese government shut down the airstrip to ensure that guests made the walk from Lukla, giving them time to acclimatise. Very few tourists could endure the walk, and so now the hotel is available for day-trippers to have a sandwich and a coffee. Having descended again to the town we decided to watch the rugby in the highest Irish bar in the world while our bodies made more red blood cells.

We left around 8am the next morning, once again heading up the never-ending steps out of Namche. These seemed a little easier than the day before, so maybe this acclimatisation was working. As on previous days the plan was to ‘walk high – stay low’. This pattern of walking to altitude and then staying overnight at a lower altitude is crucial in allowing your body to become accustomed to the lower levels of oxygen in the air. Our guide insisted this is why the windows don’t fit so well in the tea houses – to ensure you have air in your room.

As we came out of Namche we found ourselves on a smooth, almost pavement-like track. This trail towards Kenjoma has been maintained since 1984 by Pasang Sherpa in exchange for small donations from walkers so he and his team can continue their work. I remember thinking at the time that I wanted a proper trail, not a smooth footpath, but I can tell you that after 11 days, on our return, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Over the coming days the paths and tracks were to become more and more challenging and we would all soon be wishing for Pasang Sherpa’s smooth lines and kerbstones. The mountain was not going to reveal herself easily.

With the early morning cloud clearing we could now see right across the valley to the trail we would be taking up to Debouche after lunch. Across another suspension bridge and then 600m straight up through the trees to Tengboche. Naming car models and football teams beginning with letters A to Z seemed to help us all forget the number of actual steps required to get up this relentless trail. We were finally rewarded with the richly decorated Tengboche Monastery perched on the top of the ridge. Hoping for a blessing we ventured inside, but it appears that even the holy men have days off so we carried on to our stop for the night at Debouche, at 3820m.

Another early start the next day and after a short while layers were being removed as everyone warmed up with the inclines. We were still wandering along the side of the Dudh Koshi river, crossing it once, through the kani archway to Lower Pangboche (3930m) for our tea stop. Along the trail the clouds cleared and Ama Dablam, a towering, snow-capped peak at 6856m, came into view.  With every corner we turned or ridge we crossed the view became more and more dramatic. As we pushed higher, tree-lined gorges became stark rock faces with autumnal bushes, until eventually the way was more like a moon walk with large boulders and rocks lining the way. Gone were the trees and shrubs at this altitude, replaced by small grasses and lichens.

After a long day we arrived at the Good Luck Hotel, our home for the next two nights. At 4350m we noticed how much more expensive things are, no doubt a reflection of the amount of time it takes to walk them up the mountains. Creature comforts like a flushing toilet have been absent for some days now, but this was the first time we had no running water. Water for the sink comes from a bucket on a shelf with a tap on it. In need of a shower, a few of us opt for an al fresco wash in the sun as the paid-for shower doesn’t have any hot water yet.

After a bit of a lay-in compared to normal days, we left at 9am for our acclimatisation trek up Nangkartshang. Again it was a really tough start, with everyone stopping to get their breath soon after leaving. We plodded up, stopping for breaks to get our breath and take in the views, which came and went with the clouds. From our high point of 5100m we saw the trail we would be taking to Lobuche the next morning gently ascending up through the valley towards the base of the mighty Khumbu Glacier. Tired but elated we then made our way down to the French Bakery for fresh cakes and the best coffee we’d had in days as we watched a film on mountain disasters and rescues.

The next morning we realised that the gentle trail was not gentle at all. More a steady, long, punishing incline with the air getting thinner and thinner. As we got higher new mountains appeared that we hadn’t seen the day before, with stark white peaks against bright blue backgrounds. There was also a lot of helicopter movement coming down from what we assumed was Base Camp to Pheriche. We watched them buzz up and down; it seemed strange watching them below us.

There was nowhere for a tea stop so we pushed on until lunchtime at Dughla, which was just over a makeshift bridge crossing the river at 4620m. Bored with fried potatoes and curry, I elected for a Korean ramen soup with an egg and a ginger lemon honey tea.

After lunch was a tough 300m ascent through the first of many boulder fields created by the glacier carving its way down the landscape. About halfway up we stopped at a large memorial area, which was for the climbers that have died on Everest and nearby mountains. It was a sobering stop and we all spent some time reading the moving tributes for the fallen.

After more hours of scrambling over massive boulders and rocks we arrived at the Oxygen Altitude Home at 5030m in Lobuche. We were exhausted, but the excitement was palpable now as we settled in for the last night before Base Camp. So far we had all been relatively well and I was feeling particularly strong. A few of the guys had experienced mild headaches and some had caught colds, which is quite common at altitude. Headaches can develop into terrible migraines which can lead to high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), so the guides are alert to anything out of the ordinary or signs of extreme fatigue or vomiting.

And then it happened. I suddenly felt extremely unwell. Without warning my body decided to explode. I just made it to the toilet in time, but I was shaking and trembling as waves of nausea overtook me. I thought maybe I was just tired, and went to bed. Our room was so cold that I could barely function and only just managed to get myself into my sleeping bag. Lying in my bed, trembling, I hoped I could make it the following day. Waking up some hours later I went to the common area to try and eat my dinner, but one spoonful of the garlic-laden tomato soup and my body went into full rejection mode. Rushing across the room I barely made it to a sink in the hallway, convinced that my trip was finished. Vomiting is a common indicator of high-altitude sickness and I knew it was over. All those months of training, all the pain, all the way I had come meant nothing and I would have to head down.

Luckily for me our guides were experienced and after some discussion it was agreed that I was an unfortunate victim of the ramen. The uncooked egg in the soup I had for lunch was probably off and I was suffering from a nasty bout of food poisoning. Not uncommon in Nepal; the problems of hygiene are exacerbated at altitude as water and good hygiene become more scarce. I was given a blue pill for bacteria, which I am assuming was antibiotics, and a white pill for my stomach and then sent to bed.

The next day was an early start and after a night of vomiting and diarrhoea I was empty and drained. I managed a slice of toast with mint tea and thanked the stars for my chance to carry on. I had been so upset the night before, thinking I would have to stop, that nothing was going to stop me now. I took some sports gels and put on my Red Sock supporters’ T-shirt. The next few hours were going to be the start of two extremely tough days for me, where I would have to dig deeper than ever before. Clambering over boulders and rocks along the side of the glacier was exhausting, but every time I felt I couldn’t go on I just looked at my red shirt and remembered how tough my little girl had been all her life and I felt stronger.

Walking over the glacier sounded romantic but it was anything but. These huge, slow-moving columns of ice are like massive bulldozers cutting their way into the terrain and pushing the mountain down with them. They push massive rocks and boulders to the side with no thought for the tiny bands of climbers trying to make their way to the prize. It was like some sci-fi movie where Everest was protected by ring after ring of defences. First the distance, then the bugs, colds and sickness, the thin air, the freezing cold and now even the ground was swelling up to block our way. At one point we had to traverse up a canyon and back because the glacier ice that had been there last year had melted, adding an hour to our journey. It felt like the massive peaks of Pyramid (4970m) and Nuptse (7861m) would engulf us as we kept telling ourselves, “Just one more ridge!”.

A lunch stop at Gorak Shep (5125m) was our last chance to eat and unload any excess weight before we pushed on to Base Camp. I managed a few chips, but mainly focussed on getting some fluids on board as dehydration is a real danger at altitude. Others in the group were struggling to drink water, and although I had religiously been taking four litres of water a day I was struggling to eat or drink anything now. Even half a Mars bar took me 30 minutes to chew. I had heard of this effect but could not believe how tough it was to eat even though my body knew it needed it.

We assembled after lunch minus one. Catrin had been struggling for a few days now and was unable to go any further. The rest of us crossed the frozen lake Gorak Shep Thso to the trail over the glacier.  More boulders and rocks blocked our path in a last-ditch effort to hide the mountain’s charms.  Respect to anyone who climbs Everest. It is hard to get to Base Camp. I cannot imagine having to then spend another 20 days there before ascending the mountain. Although it is hard it’s not impossible and we eventually all made it to Base Camp, a large rock with ‘EBC 5364m’ painted on it.  There were a few tents on the edge of the ice flow, with climbers hoping to make the most of the one or two good days in the season. There are normally more tents in May, when most climbers attempt the summit. Having seen three massive avalanches already you wouldn’t catch me on the other side of the ice flow.

When I started this I thought it was all about climbing high. What I have realised is that height is just a consequence of the destination. It was the beauty of the mountains that mattered, not the height. The human body is not designed to be at altitude; although it keeps reminding you of that fact it does adapt but, make no mistake, this is Mother Nature’s domain and she is protecting it. Elated and exhausted we took our last few photos and headed back to Gorak Shep. All six of our party made it this far although two of the guys were really starting to suffer and came into the tea house well after dark, and some hours behind the first party. One of them looked really bad and couldn’t eat or drink. The other started vomiting from the exertion and went straight to bed. I managed to eat half a spring roll and some more mint tea. Again sleep started with the uncontrollable shivering for ten  minutes in the freezing cold room, but it was bliss when it came.

Strangely, because of the way the trail winds up the mountain, you don’t actually get to see Everest from Base Camp, so three of us decided to make the freezing-cold extra climb up Kala Patthar at 5am. It is only by making this extra morning walk that you get to enjoy the sunrise over the mountains and see the picture-postcard view of Everest that so many will be familiar with. Although we only made it to a few metres higher than Base Camp the view was other-worldly, and surely we had now earned the right to be at one with the mountain.

After breakfast we started our descent to Lobuche. I am not sure whether it was the altitude or the anti-diarrhoea tablets, but my insides were starting to cramp up terribly. No one had any antacids as we had all packed light and sent our hordes of pills and medications down with the porters. I found the cramping painful and debilitating and ended up being one of the last in our group to make the tea stop. It was at this point that we lost one of group. Ian had decided he could no longer continue, having come in nearly an hour after everyone else. After discussing his condition with the guides they called him a helicopter which flew him back to Kathmandu hospital, where he was treated for dehydration and fatigue.

Our original plan was to stop for the night at Pheriche, site of the mountain hospital, but our guides informed us that we would be going a bit further. I wish I could relay the beauty of the walk that day as we wound our way down the valley, but it was just a blur of pain and mountains. I avoided lunch at the restaurant that had given me the dodgy ramen and just focused on the end of the day. Eventually I was trailing the group by over an hour, with only four wild dogs for company, and was not sure I could make it. The pains in my guts had increased and seemed to be getting worse as we went lower. As it began to get dark I started to recognise places we had been on our way up. Finally, after 13 hours of walking and 1200m of descent, I was met by a couple of the young porters who had been sent out to look for the tail of the group. They offered to take my bag, but I was determined to get there myself. I fell into the tea house, where I was offered a pillow and antacids.

Starting the day with a shower was a treat, my body not having had a wash since Debouche some five days earlier. The antacids had done the trick the night before and I had even managed to eat a small pizza. Some of the guys had a celebratory beer, but I wasn’t quite ready for that. This was one of the nicest tea houses we stayed in and having the place to ourselves gave it a special feeling. The owners were wonderfully warm and presented us all with a traditional Buddhist khata scarf. These are made of white silk to symbolise purity and compassion and are often presented to guests on arrival or departure. I felt my strength finally coming back and was looking forward to the relatively short six-hour trek to Namche and the Irish pub!

We headed back along the trail we had walked on Monday, up the steep hill to the monastery at Debouche, down through the trees and over the suspension bridge for lunch, where we had stopped earlier in the week. Final push up again through the trees, along the maintained path and into Namche. Walking on that smooth path was such a relief after days of constantly having to watch where you put your feet. Then just the staircase back down into Namche. It was a relief knowing we didn’t have to walk up it again. A quick stop at the tea house was followed by a relaxed afternoon of pizza at the German bakery and Gorkha beer at the pub. We convinced the pub to let us put a signed Red Sock T-shirt on the wall, where we are now all immortalised until the next refurb.

We left the tea house around 7.40am and headed down through the town past the massive water-powered prayer wheels. We all made a quick stop at the waste pick-up point to take an extra kilo or two of waste plastic to Lukla. This was a new initiative, started that day in an effort to get rid of the hundreds of tonnes of waste that have made their way up the mountain over the years. Our group alone carried 320 shredded plastic bottles down that day. Working our way along the trail into the forest and down to the Hillary suspension bridge, we were all recalling how hard the trek had been up the hill on our second day in the mountains. Our guide stopped us and pointed through the trees to Everest – this would be the last time we would see the peak and it was a sad farewell to her. For two weeks now she had cast her defences in our way and, having touched her, we were departing, leaving her to stand guard forever against those that would follow.

Today I was strong, my body having recovered and the acclimatisation it had been through now delivering almost superhuman strength as we descended with our extra stash of red blood cells. For the first time I listened to music and just seemed to get lost in the rhythm and the scenery. I had to keep waiting for the group to catch up as we all made the 15.5-mile final trek to Lukla, where it had all started.

Our last night in Lukla was a strange mix of relief at having finished our trek and sadness at leaving a group of young men that had become our friends in a short space of time. We all had a last meal together and were then introduced to Nepalese dancing. Our room was a highlight of the trip, featuring our first and only en suite. Having a private space – even if the door wouldn’t close because the sink was in the way – was a treat. The shower was cold but better than no shower at all, especially with that long minibus trip to Kathmandu looming.

The flight out from Lukla was just as exciting as the landing, with the 250m landing strip proving as difficult to take off from as it was to land on. It is no small wonder that this is listed as one of the most dangerous airports in the world.

Back in Kathmandu we soon settled back into the rhythm of city life as we all reflected on our epic adventure. There are few experiences in the world that would top this and I would urge anyone considering it to go for it. It’s not easy, but with training and determination it’s achievable. I will never forget Sagarmatha (Mt Everest’s original Nepalese holy name) and I know a small piece of me will be in the mountains for ever.

I would like to thank Skyhook Adventure, my travelling companions, and our guides Lukpa, Saroz and Sondiem, without whom I would not have made it. But most of all I want to thank my daughter, who gave me the strength through her example to achieve something I never thought possible.

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