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Sir Ranulph Fiennes: the final hurdle
The Telegraph UK-24-Aug-2009
Sir Ranulph Fiennes was invited to top the lot by climbing Everest. from Sibusiso Vilane from Swaziland, the first black man to reach the summit of Everest.
After a lifetime of perilous expeditions to the remotest regions of the earth, Sir Ranulph Fiennes was invited to top the lot by climbing Everest. The trouble was, he was over 60, some of his fingers had been reduced to stumps, he had heart problems and a fear of heights. Undaunted, he took up the challenge. Here he describes his quest to reach the roof of the world.
Everest, the highest mountain in the world, attracts climbers of all levels because its summit can be reached by novices with little or no technical climbing ability, provided that they are fit, their climb coincides with good weather, and they are lucky. In the 56 years since Everest was first climbed, 2,700 people have summitted and 212 have died on the mountain. If you decide to have a go, whatever your age, you will have a one-in-12 chance of not coming back.
Not being a climber, I had for 60 years no interest at all in scaling any mountain. But in 2003 I received a letter out of the blue. It was from Sibusiso Vilane from Swaziland, the first black man to reach the summit of Everest. He had climbed the 'big E’ (American for Everest) from its southern (Nepalese) flank and now wanted to have a go from the northern (Tibetan) side. There are many opinions as to which is more difficult or more dangerous.
Sibu’s corporate sponsor, Harmony of South Africa, wanted his second climb to promote harmony between black and white South Africans, and a mutual friend had suggested that, being part South African and having been brought up in Cape Town, I would make a good climbing partner for Sibu. What they had failed to tell him was that I had never climbed anything more difficult than Primrose Hill in London, or that I had a fear of heights. I turned down Sibu’s invitation.
A year later, Ginny, my wife of 36 years, died of cancer and I wanted to wrench myself out of my resultant state of misery. I had, since my youth, hated heights, and it struck me as a good time to try to confront and thereby get rid of this irrational phobia. I asked Sibu if his offer was still open. He said it was but that I must first get accepted by Jagged Globe, the company of professional mountain guides whose Everest base camp, yaks and Sherpas had helped Sibu’s previous climb and who were handling his next one.
Simon Lowe, the boss of Jagged Globe, was honest with me. 'We have to have insurance cover for all our clients,’ he explained, 'and you, Ran, are not ideal. You have frostbitten fingers, no mountain experience, a cardiac problem and you’re 60. You will have to prove your ability up front. We have a two-week Alpine course to teach rock and ice climbing and basic rope work. If you were to pass that course, we would then need to check you out for altitude up to 20,000ft on our Eight Volcanoes course in Ecuador.’
I agreed, and joined 15 other 'students’, mostly 30 years younger than me, tramping up icy ridges and ripping open my newly acquired and expensive climbing trousers with my equally new set of crampons. I was taught various complex climbing rope knots – and forgot them within a week of ending the course. But the instructors passed me, and I moved on to the volcanoes.
The first six, all close to the capital, Quito, were quite low and easy; the seventh, Cotopaxi, was some 19,000ft high and easy; while the last, Mount Chimborazo, four hours’ drive south-west of the polluted pall of the capital, looked extremely impressive from below. I was by then the only remaining student on the course. Pepe, my guide, led me to a hut at 4,800m (15,748ft), from which the volcano’s steep ascent route rose up a rocky gully.
Pepe’s previous ascents included one on which he tried to rescue a Norwegian and his guide who had been struck by lightning. He found a neat black hole had been drilled through the Norwegian’s helmet and skull. Both men’s axes and crampons were molten metal; the lightning strike had travelled down the wet rope from man to man.
'Don’t ever climb in thunder weather,’ Pepe advised. I assured him that I wouldn’t.
I began to feel bad at about 19,500ft when my head throbbed and my pulse raced, but, fearful of an unfavourable report to Simon Lowe, I slogged on and just about made it to the top without collapsing. My heart rate was well over the 130 beats per minute that my NHS cardiac surgeon, Dr Gianni Angelini of Bristol Royal Infirmary (who had given me a double bypass the year before), had warned me never to exceed.
Back in Britain, Jagged Globe signed me up to join Sibu for their Everest 2005 outing. That summer, with two friends, I plodded up Kilimanjaro, not quite as high as Chimborazo. At about 500ft below the summit ridge I suffered sharp angina symptoms and only just made it to the top. I did not tell Jagged Globe. (Coincidentally, two 50-year-old South Africans died that night on Kili’s summit, both of heart attacks.)
None of these training climbs had actually tested my fear of heights, since all had steered clear of dizzy voids. But I knew that I could make it to 20,000ft, and Everest would be only an extra 9,000. So the outlook was good.
A year after my wife died, I married Louise, whom I met while lecturing to the Chester branch of the Royal Geographical Society, of which she was a member. We agreed to honeymoon, that March of 2005, at the Everest base camp in Tibet before the climb with Sibu. Our two-man tent was closely surrounded by many others and at night you could hear your neighbour’s slightest movements. I would advise against anyone having their honeymoon there.
Louise left the camp after a fortnight when the first acclimatisation climb up to the advance base camp (21,000ft) began. Sibu, I soon learnt, was very much fitter than me, as were the other dozen or so Jagged Globe climbers. Ian Parnell, the professional climber and photographer with whom
I walked, gave me valuable advice to avoid altitude troubles, largely by drinking up to eight litres of water a day.
Our group leader, David Hamilton, a tall, friendly Scot, helped by his number two, Neal Short from Liverpool, presided over a mixed bunch who fortunately got on well enough for the two months of forced togetherness in the same cramped communal tent. We ate, played cards and just waited, in between successive acclimatisation climbs upwards to the next highest camp, called the North Col, or back down to the lower base camp. Advance base camp (ABC) was, through topographic necessity, situated above 21,000ft, at which height the human body deteriorates or, in Ian’s word, 'rots’.
Our group included rock-climbing fanatics from South Africa, a Norwegian karate expert on his second Everest attempt, and Fred Ziel, a Californian doctor whose fingers and nose had been badly frostbitten on a previous climb (from the other side of Everest). Also, Jens Bojen, born in Denmark but a British citizen of Grimsby and a trawler captain. At 62, a year my senior, he would be the oldest British summiteer ever if he reached the top.
At ABC many of us suffered from bad migraines, and Dr Fred doled out Diamox tablets, which are meant to help. As the month of May went by and high jet stream winds on the summit ridges continued to prevent ascent attempts, we began to grow anxious. More than 400 people had arrived at ABC, mostly in groups like ours, but there were also individual climbers, some of whom had spent all their savings to climb Everest. As bad weather continued throughout May, many of them grew desperate and decided to 'go for it’, despite the lethal conditions up high. Some died, and others limped back down past our camp having lost fingers or toes up on the ridge.
Since the Indian monsoon was due to hit Everest in the first week of June, at which time further summit attempts would become suicidal, we all faced the prospect of failure. Luckily a weather window appeared at the last minute, and on May 31 David Hamilton led the fastest members of our group out of ABC and up the steep snow slopes to the North Col camp high above.
Neal’s group, including me and three other 'slow’ climbers, followed 24 hours later. For three long days we slogged up ridges of rock, snow and ice, accompanied by a non-stop strong wind. For the final push, each of us would be helped by a Sherpa carrying our heavier gear. My Sherpa, Boca Lama, was small but very strong.
At 27,560ft we reached the last 'camp site’ before the summit ridge, a ragged collection of wind-ripped tents, many of which had been reduced by the last months’ winds to mere skeletal frames. This was often called the Death Camp, for various dead bodies had over the years been found inside the tents, including that of an Italian climber the previous week.
I saw Sibu sitting by a tent and, before I heaved myself, exhausted, into Ian’s tent, I waved at him. He waved back slowly. I assumed that he was on his way back down from the summit with David and the others, all of them a day ahead of our group. I learnt later that, after summitting, Sibu had run out of oxygen and was found by a Sherpa, slouched and bewildered, some two hours’ climb below the Death Camp. He was lucky to be alive.
A few days before, a Slovenian climber had died on the summit ridge, and a Bhutani, close by him, ran out of oxygen and began to hallucinate with hypoxia. He stumbled by an old corpse, probably the one with green boots that most climbers remember, and thought he saw this dead man 'pointing’ at a nearby orange object. This turned out to be a half snow-buried oxygen bottle, still containing some oxygen. The Bhutani clipped it to his system and survived to tell the tale.
After a few extremely uncomfortable hours trying to rest in the cramped tent with Ian, Boca and I left at 11pm, by the light of our head torches. Ian, I knew, would soon catch up.
Just above the tents, feeling strangely dizzy, I began to haul myself up a fairly steep stretch of striated limestone. This was an outcrop of the so-called Yellow Band, where the body of the climber George Mallory was found in 1999.
The team that found his body, mostly Americans, wrote afterwards that they 'looked at the face of the Yellow Band and… where a falling body that had picked up a good bit of speed might come to rest… we found ourselves in a kind of collection zone for fallen climbers… Just seeing these twisted, broken bodies was a pretty stark reminder of our own mortality… It was obvious from the contorted condition of their bodies that these climbers had suffered long and terrible falls.’
With this 'collection zone’ close by in the pitch-black night, Boca and I took special care to clip only to the safest-looking rope.
I adjusted my head torch and began to clamber up the wall of mixed rock and ice, breathing hard and feeling weak. I fumbled and dropped a small water bottle in an insulated cover. I never heard it land, and thought briefly of the yawning void below my scrabbling boots.
I could feel my pulse hammering against the inside of my helmet as the fixed and ice-encrusted Sherpa-rope, to which my climbing device or ascendeur was attached, briefly gave way. Only a few inches, but enough to scare me rigid. This was not the only rope, but it looked less old than the others. Each year Sherpas position new ropes up the ascent route, and in many places you come to a snakes’ nest of coils. The key to safety is to avoid clipping on to the wrong rope which, somewhere above you, has been frayed to breaking point by rock fall or chafing in the wind and will break as soon as you trust it with your body weight.
The previous month, down in our base camp honeymoon tent, Louise had woken me in the night. 'Listen,’ she whispered. A keening, distant scream was plainly audible from the mountain. The sound slowly faded and raised the hairs on the back of my neck. 'That’s the cry of a lost soul,’ Louise said. 'I don’t want you going up there.
I dreamt the other night, but didn’t want to tell you, that your rope will break somewhere high.’
I assured Louise that I would take care with all ropes. But now, in the dark, all the old ropes looked as icy as the new one.
The dizziness increased and, some 40 minutes above the Death Camp, the heart pain I remembered from Kilimanjaro came back, but with a big difference; this time it was like, I imagine, an anaconda’s hug. The post-bypass surgical wire that held my ribcage together felt as though it were tearing through my chest. I was sure I was having a heart attack, and thought I was about to die. No defibrillator. Then I remembered the GTN (Glycerine Tri-Nitrate) pills that Louise had pestered me to carry, which you put under your tongue and which cause you to dilate in all the right places. I crammed a number into my mouth – and did not die.
If you are lucky, GTN will stave off a heart attack and give you time to get to a cardiac unit. Twenty minutes later we were back in the Death Camp from which, after dawn, we descended to ABC, reaching it that same evening. Sibu was safely there. I congratulated him and we made our way next day back to the lower base camp.
Despite my abject failure on the mountain, our charity, the British Heart Foundation, raised £2.2 million for the Ran Fiennes Healthy Hearts Appeal, and a year later Louise and I cut the ribbon of the new MRI scanner unit and catheter laboratory in the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, which our Everest venture had paid for. On Easter Day 2006 Louise gave birth to our daughter, Elizabeth, and, aged 62, I learnt how to change nappies.
Later that year my Everest group leader, Neal Short, wrote to me. 'As you were so close, I often wonder whether you are tempted to give it another go,’ he said. 'Maybe you could go from the south side…’
This thought nagged at me, for a number of reasons. I still wanted to rid myself of the stupid fear of heights, which I resented and which the Everest experience had not even reduced. Second, I was aware that the record was still up for grabs for the first person to cross both ice caps and climb Everest. And, third, before I died I wanted to raise the nice round £15 million for British charities. Since my recent Everest failure had raised more than £2 million, I thought a successful ascent might well raise more.
One of the four instructors during my earlier Jagged Globe Alpine course had been the expert climber Kenton Cool who, with Ian Parnell, had completed various first ascents of huge faces around the world and, at that time, had summitted Everest five times. He had once commented, when I told him that Everest had not really provided a vertigo test, that there was a climb much nearer home that would definitely provide 'big drops’: the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland.
'Could I have a go at it?’ I asked him. 'Not,’ he sounded certain, 'without learning to climb.’
Paul Sykes, the founder of the UK Independence Party and the businessman who had funded the the Everest attempt, agreed to sponsor the costs of an Eiger attempt and to work with Marie Curie Cancer Care as our recipient charity. My late wife and two of my three sisters had died within an 18-month period from cancer, and I had witnessed the wonderful work of Marie Curie nurses. This cancer care charity estimated that a successful Eiger climb might earn them £1.5 million.
So I spent a great deal of time in the Alps training and being shouted at by Kenton. As a warm-up, he suggested climbing a sandstone sea stack
in Scotland called the Old Man of Hoy (449ft), which I climbed with Stephen Venables and Sandy Ogilvie, two great British climbers.
After an unsuccessful attempt to walk unsupported to the North Pole in 2000, the fingers and thumb on my left hand sustained severe frostbite and had all been amputated about halfway down. Now I could not properly hold a standard ice axe, so a Welsh company called DMM sponsored me with a pair of special axes with thin shafts and with a cunning hook that, hopefully, would grip tiny holds that my half-fingers slipped out of.
Ian Parnell later wrote, 'Ran’s hand, of course, proved a real hindrance, and at times his “stumps” would prove completely ineffective at gripping the rock.’ I got around this problem, at least partly, by 'dry tooling’, a technique that Kenton taught me whereby you use the very tips of your axes in tiny rock holes or over fractional rock ledges. On overhangs your legs sometimes dangle.
Much of Kenton’s instruction involved the ascent of great frozen waterfalls. A world-famous Australian climber, Greg Child, once came with us to write for a climbing magazine. 'Halfway up to the ledge, I notice a trail of blood,’ he wrote. 'The droplets lead straight to Ran’s nose, which an ice shard has neatly slit. He’s unperturbed, and he sits on his perch with a bloody grin.
'With Kenton in the lead, on a low-angled stretch, Ran steps on the rope in his spiked boots – a climbing no-no.
'“Get off that bloody thing, Ran,” Kenton barks like a rabid drill sergeant. Ran smiles at me and steps aside. For an alpha male accustomed to unconditional authority over his expeditions, his deference to Kenton is quaint. It’s also pragmatic: he knows he’s on a learning curve as a climber, and he’s soaking up everything Kenton can teach.’
The best weather forecasters in the world were and are based at Exeter Met Office in Britain, and they agreed to sponsor Marie Curie by sending Kenton free forecasts, since bad weather on the Eiger often kills climbers on its north wall. In mid-March 2007 Exeter forecast a good five-day weather window, and we began the climb, Kenton up front and Ian Parnell behind me to shout advice. On this mountain, with an amateur, they were each taking a big risk.
The next four days and nights were distinctly unpleasant, but eventually successful. At 10am on the fifth day of our climb, we reached the summit. Six months later Marie Curie closed down our Eiger Challenge Appeal at £1.8 million. Sadly, my extreme fear of heights remained doggedly lodged in my system.
Early in 2008, getting itchy feet, I called Paul Sykes, who kindly agreed to fund a second attempt on Everest from the other side of the mountain, the Nepalese or north side. Kenton agreed to be my guide and Marie Curie announced the next Everest Challenge Appeal, confident that I would reach the top this time and net £3 million.
I tried hard and Kenton was as encouraging as always but, as in 2005, the final 1,000ft (in height) defied my efforts. Utterly exhausted on the final night, I realised that I might just about make the top, but would not make it back down again. So
I failed once more and Marie Curie fell short of its target by £400,000. Back in Britain, I tried to work out how I could ever overcome my apparent inability to deal with Everest’s special problem of the so-called Death Zone above 28,000ft.
My wife Louise had for many years been a top-notch equine endurance race competitor and had made a living from transporting horses, especially nervous ones that nobody else could get anywhere near a horsebox. She was what a TV show would describe as a 'horse whisperer’.
Some years previously she had observed my poor performance in a couple of marathons and had taken my training in hand by switching it to her equine methods. In a nutshell, horses will keep going even when exhausted and even when an endurance event they are taking part in is 100 miles in distance. They have no idea where they will finish, nor when, unlike humans who during any race know exactly how far they still have to go. This knowledge will have a huge effect on morale, especially as your physical condition deteriorates.
I listened to her advice, and to my amazement, using her system, knocked 65 minutes off my Singapore marathon time compared with the previous year, despite high humidity. Maybe, I thought, Louise’s system could be applied to my high altitude problem, too. One of Louise’s horses would climb a hypothetical mountain without knowing where the summit was, or even if there was one. It would just carry on at a certain pace. Perhaps I could do the same.
Both times I had failed on Everest I had worried about the turn-around time. All guides and Everest Base leaders insist that any of their clients who fail to reach a given point en route to the summit by a certain exact time must turn back, whether they want to or not.
After a spate of deaths of climbers in 1996, this turn-around rule had been even more strongly enforced. Because I moved so slowly, I became more and more fearful that I would be turned back before the summit, so I went faster than was comfortable, which neither my heart nor my lungs could take. Failure soon followed. I resolved to think like one of Louise’s horses which, I hoped, would do the trick.
Before Singapore, Louise had urged me to regularly drink special energy gels and recovery potions from the specialists Science in Sport, as used by the world’s top endurance athletes. I disliked the taste of some of these products and normally drank them only during, not before or after, races. Now, for six months before going to Tibet, I took the gels and drinks on a daily basis.
An additional problem had been the pressure to succeed caused, unavoidably, by the Marie Curie publicity machine. In order to raise funds, they had to let the public know well in advance about each challenge. So TV and other media were briefed accordingly, and I felt the resulting pressure of expectations, which only served to exacerbate my existing subconscious desire to speed up and beat the dreaded turn-around time.
The answer was to have no publicity at all until I was 100 per cent certain that I would reach the summit. This would leave only some 48 hours at most for Marie Curie to make their appeal. Not ideal, but possibly enough to garner the missing £400,000. They agreed to this embargo, and despite the recession being then at its most depressed, the City company Brewin Dolphin agreed to sponsor all costs, including base camp accommodation, Sherpas and yaks. Qatar Air met all flight costs, Satcom provided my satellite phone, and John West sent me a yak-load of high-protein tuna sachets so that I could avoid two months of eating spicy base camp food.
The last big change in my approach to Everest was to avoid sparking off my inbuilt competitive nature. If I were to climb with another Brit, even Kenton, I reasoned it would have the bad effect of making me want to keep up. I decided to climb only with a single Sherpa as my guide. Sherpas didn’t bring out my competitive streak, possibly because their gazelle-like speed and great strength was so superior that I didn’t think of them as fellow human beings.
My base camp boss, a well-known Everest character named Henry Todd, appointed Lhakpa Thundu Sherpa as my guide, and I spent eight days with him and my nephew Tony Brown (an American doctor) slowly walking up the Khumbu Valley trail to base camp, a good method of initial acclimatisation. Life in base camp for any wannabe summiteer consists of a series of climbs, each higher than the last, overnighting briefly 'up there’, then back down again. This was part of the generally accepted acclimatisation policy of 'climb high but sleep low’.
The rests in between each sortie can be very boring if you don’t play cards or if you dislike someone in your particular group. I was lucky: Henry had only six clients, including an old friend of mine, a German-American watchmaker named Mike Kobold, and Kenton Cool, who was his guide. A super-fit Hungarian gymnasium owner was on her own but climbed together with Mike. Then there was Simon, a GP from Guildford, and Yuri, an osteopath from Mexico who had come with his long-time partner Laura, both of them experienced and powerful climbers of big mountains.
Arriving at base camp on April 18, I had a 100,000-word book contract to complete for the publishers Hodder & Stoughton by June 15, which involved a good deal of research material, including 40 heavy books, almost a full yak-load. Between each climb I retired to my own tent and burnt the midnight oil or, to be more exact, a gas-powered heater and bare light bulb attached to a car battery.
To avoid sickness, my book-induced anti-social behaviour made good sense, as a single germ from a friendly cough in the communal tent could end, with lungs like mine, in yet another failure. The whole camp, some 400 people living on a glacial moraine, used local latrines and drank water that flowed through the middle of the sprawling encampment. Khumbu cough, irritated by dust and dry air, was rife, and can be violent enough to cause broken ribs.
I was especially keen to avoid it, since lung tests had shown that my lung flow was only 80 per cent of what it should have been, which the Irish lung expert John Costello explained was 'an important limiting factor in your ability to carry on at 23,000ft and above’. He also found that my ability to saturate my bloodstream with oxygen, a key function when exerting yourself at high altitude, was badly impaired. Coupled with my cardiac status, which dictated never getting badly out of breath, I was not an ideal candidate for an Everest attempt. Since my last heart attack had been caused by a massive blood clot and since high altitude can cause the blood to become thick and prone to clotting, I upped my daily aspirin intake from 75mg to 300mg.
I could not sleep, or even doze, above 16,000ft without being woken by panic attacks caused by a respiratory condition known as Cheyne-Stokes syndrome. So I used oxygen every night at base camp (and above), wearing a hospital nose cannula attached to a climbing bottle when climbing from base camp. I clipped the cannula to a cunningly designed demand valve unit that Henry had thoughtfully located for me. And from the base of the Lhotse Face upwards I used a brilliantly designed Top-Out oxygen mask which an ex-RAF officer, Ted Atkins, had developed from the masks used by Tornado pilots.
Henry and Simon, both over 60, led me on a climb to Camp Two and went so slowly that I really enjoyed the pace for the first and last time ever on an Everest outing. Afterwards, Henry, a past summiteer, assured me that I could make the top even at that slow pace, which was very good for the morale.
Base camp was a far healthier launch point for the summit than the advance base camp in Tibet had been, being 16,000ft, not 21,000ft up. Above 17,000ft the body consumes itself for energy. Sleeping is a problem, even without Cheyne-Stokes, and both muscle wastage and weight loss take place, getting ever worse the higher you are. Above 26,000ft the process of acclimatisation becomes self-defeating.
That most famous of Everest climbers, Edmund Hillary, became, as he grew older, less and less able to visit the higher villages of the Khumbu whose people he continued to help financially for many years. Few individuals over 60 linger long above base camp, but that’s not to say that all will go well just because you are young and fit.
Every few hours by day and by night, the base camp valley echoed with the deep boom of some new avalanche crashing down the cliffs above.
I asked Henry when was the safest time of day to avoid them, but he shrugged and said they happen at any time, not just when the sun shines hot on the snow. The greenhouse effect may well be the cause; the Swiss Alps are running out of snow, having lost half their glacier ice in the last century and 20 per cent of it since the 1980s. One side-effect for the Swiss is an increased incidence of huge rock falls and avalanches.
I was in my tent writing on May 7 when an especially loud rumble sounded from fairly close. A mass of rock and ice roared down, set off by the fall of a high serac, or block of ice, that split away from its host rock. One of the climber groups caught on the main route up the icefall tried to flee, but two were caught and blown into crevasses. Their Sherpa was killed and disappeared.
By mid-May Henry was receiving optimistic met reports from Exeter, and on May 16, after a brief puja, a Buddha blessing ceremony, we set out before dawn to climb through the ice fall and up to Camp One by noon. By nightfall we were asleep in Camp Two, and the following night, after hauling up the steep ice on the Lhotse Face, crawled into our precariously pitched tent at Camp Three.
The next day was long and hard. In the afternoon, on the black rock of the Geneva Spur, I began to flag and, using more oxygen than expected, almost ran out. Thundu and I arrived with another Sherpa to find that no tent had been erected by our group Sherpas. We found a reasonably flat base of frozen ground and, once inside our two-man tent, I clipped my cannula to a fresh oxy bottle and slept like the dead for 10 hours, woken only by the tramp of six men carrying a stretcher case past our tent.
Most deaths on Everest occur on the way down, and above 28,000ft corpses are usually left where they die, rather than risk other lives trying to recover them. People are accused, year on year, of knowingly walking past individuals who are near death without trying to help them. Over my three attempts I have passed many lone figures sprawled in the snow or on rocks beside the rope. Perhaps they were dead or dying; more likely they were resting. Everyone wears all-covering clothes and hoods with goggles and masks. Nobody talks. You simply don’t ask everyone who has stopped to rest (because they are dog-tired, like you) if they are OK.
In 1996, when 15 climbers died in a single day, then you would certainly be on the alert, but this year only five died on Everest out of nearly 300 ascents, and the weather was basically good. More than 150 bodies have never been recovered, even though the majority of people die a few feet either side of the narrow ascent route.
Among those who died having got higher than 26,000ft, 56 per cent died during their descent, 17 per cent after turning back below the top, and only 15 per cent on their way up. Most high-altitude deaths are from pulmonary oedema (fluid on the lungs), and low altitude deaths from avalanches. Deaths by falling, hypoxia or the cold are comparatively rare.
I stayed just behind Thundu and tried to avert my eyes from stray bodies. The previous year I made the mistake of looking at two corpses somewhere between the South Col (the last camp) and a place known as the Balcony. One of these was a 49-year-old Scotsman, Rob Milne, who in 2005 died of a heart attack on exactly the same night and at the same altitude as my own lesser attack on the other side of 'the hill’. Not far above, and by a rock jutting out from the face, I ran right out of steam.
But that was 2008. In May 2009, I slogged on in Thundu’s wake, past the jutting rock and mentally gave it, the scene of my earlier shame, a two fingers sign. In fact, all my fingers, the good and the bad, were firmly engaged with gripping the rope. They were cold, as were my toes, but not as cold as on many polar trips.
I moved incredibly slowly. Four men in a line came past on a parallel rope which looked frayed to me. All were small athletic Asian types in yellow down suits. I wondered if I could ever have moved as fast as they did – maybe 30 years ago. I felt the familiar urge to go a touch faster, but – perhaps for the first time ever – I shouted into my mask, 'Down, Fido’ (which I had practised), and forced myself to plod even slower than before.
The incline became steep, very steep. Everything ached. I thought, 'If the top is more than an hour away, I will never make it.’ 'Shut up,’ another voice in my head replied, 'you weak bastard. There is no top. Just go on. And on. For ever. Plod for ever. Never stop. You are probably well over 28,000ft. Only 1,000 to go.’
One of America’s most famed high-altitude climbers, David Breashears, described the act of upwards movement at such heights. 'Our bodies were dehydrated. Our fingers and toes went numb as precious oxygen was diverted to our brains, hearts and other vital organs. Climbing above 26,000ft, even with bottled oxygen, is like running on a treadmill and breathing through a straw. Your body screams at you to turn around. Everything says, “This is cold. This is impossible.”’
Thundu and I passed a man who was motionless. I tried to talk to him, but no words came. I touched the back of Thundu’s boot and found that Thundu’s voice had also gone. He could only whisper. The still man nodded a bit, so we carried on.
If I thought about the great distance still above, I knew I would not make it. So the answer was clearly not to think of what I was doing. On the Eiger, my rule was never to look at or even think about what lay below me. Now this same rule must be applied about what lay above. This worked, and I believe that I must have spent several hours with my mind on a different planet. (Later, as I descended, I could not believe that I had ever managed to get up there. The climb just seemed to go on and on, always steep, never ending.)
Sometimes I concentrated on the rope alone, gaining 12 inches, hauling up, pausing to grip again. Then another 12 inches. Thundu must have thought we would never get there, but he was extraordinarily patient. We reached the ridge line at the Balcony and, ages later, Thundu indicated that we were at the South Summit. There were rock outcrops; one called the Hillary Step, but none was difficult to surmount compared with many obstacles on the Eiger. Every few steps I stopped to fill my lungs on the steeper steps, and Thundu would always stop to check on me, a genuine mother hen. By the South Summit his whisper had become a rasping whistle, and it struck me that something must be seriously wrong with his throat.
After reaching the South Summit, I changed the repetitive chant in my head from, 'Die high. Die high. No point in dying low’ and 'Plod for ever. Never stop’ to the new mantra, 'Borge Ousland. Borge Ousland’, the name of the Norwegian polar traveller that Dr Mike Stroud and I had striven to beat at various polar records, north and south, for more than a decade. He was one of only two others in the world (a Frenchman, Alain Hubert, was the other) who had crossed both the world’s ice caps, and only one of us would be first to add the highest mountain to complete a neat haul of challenges. I knew that Borge had almost won this race, but travelling with Sibu in 2004, he had turned back at the South Summit.
Thundu turned and touched my shoulder, pointing. My goggles were misted up, so I pushed them up and saw a series of dark rims high above us, outlined by the midnight blue of the moonlit sky: the final serac-laden rim at the world’s highest point.
We reached the summit before 4am and waited for sunrise. I looked over the edge of the tiny snow platform that forms the summit and marvelled at the view. Thousands of feet below, and stretching to the far horizons, an ocean of moonlit clouds was punctured here and there by the black peaks of great mountain ranges that thrust high, but never as high as Thundu and me. The moon was huge and I could almost touch it. I felt happy, relieved and grateful to Thundu. I made the sign of the cross as thanks for letting me get to this wonderful place and to ensure that I would get back down. It was, after all, May 21: Ascension Day in the Christian calendar.
Thundu took some film, but the wind was bitingly cold and we quickly turned back to begin the long, steep descent. On the way down the Hillary Step I knew that vertigo still lurked. I would never defeat it.
Now, back in London, I am working with Marie Curie to reach the £400,000 target for our nurses by appealing to the public and to corporate donors. The recession doesn’t help, but many people are still being generous none the less. As for new mountains, I will leave them to proper climbers and head back to the polar regions. They may be cold, but at least they’re flat.
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