My long and winding trail to Everest

I can’t quite believe it, but on Saturday I’ll be leaving for my fourth 8000 metre peak expedition in as many years, and this time it’s the big one. Two months of impossible jetstream winds meant my attempts on Gasherbrums I and II in Pakistan in 2009 didn’t get much above 6000 metres, and although I slept above 7000 metres for the first time on Cho Oyu in Tibet in 2010, unseasonable snow left the mountain dangerously loaded with avalanche risk and I was forced to abandon it, again without making a summit attempt. I finally made it up an 8000er at the fourth time of asking on Manaslu in Nepal last year, which means I’m now ready to make an attempt on Everest at last.

Getting the right experience

My first little pootle to high altitude: Poon Hill in the Annapurna region of Nepal. I didn't even have a decent camera in those days.
My first little pootle to high altitude: Poon Hill in the Annapurna region of Nepal. I didn’t even have a decent camera in those days.

It’s been a long road, but a very enjoyable one. In fact, it would be true to say that my preparation has taken 10 years. It started when I first went trekking in Nepal in 2002. By the end of that year I had climbed Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, but I was still very much a walker rather than a climber. It wasn’t until I climbed Mera Peak, a popular trekking peak in Nepal, in 2004, that I made my first steps into mountaineering. Mera was comfortably the hardest thing I had ever done, and I returned home with frostnip in my fingers and a black little toe after a -30° C summit day.

I identified a route to Everest which involved climbing a dozen or so mountains of gradually increasing difficulty. It was very much a wild dream, though, and I assumed that somewhere along the way these climbs would stop being a holiday and become an endurance test. I promised myself that at this point I would quit and do something more enjoyable instead, but it hasn’t happened. The benefit of the gradual approach is that you get used to it, and what was once a hardship becomes quite straightforward. Like using long-drop toilets, for example. I used to hate squatting, but now I find it very comfortable. And on a less mundane level, the climbing has become easier too. I remember struggling down the Banana Ridge on powdery snow in a whiteout on Gasherbrum II. Those pendulum swing falls on the fixed ropes were a bit embarrasing, but the following year in similar conditions on Cho Oyu, I was the one remaining firm while my companions were slipping all around me. I even kept my feet when one of them fell into the back of me.

Me at the spectacular setting of Everest Base Camp on the north side in 2007
Me at the spectacular setting of Everest Base Camp on the north side in 2007

It was 2007 that climbing Everest first became a serious proposition. That year I climbed up to the North Col at 7000m on Everest’s north side, and the summit was in touching distance, though still three days of climbing away. I felt in good shape, and had managed one of the hardest parts of the ascent without any real difficulty. I realised that with a few more mountains under my belt the summit of the world’s highest mountain would be a real possibility. That year I climbed 7546m Muztag Ata in western China, and then spent the next four years chasing that elusive first 8000 metre peak.

I definitely feel getting up another 8000er has been worthwhile, even if it has meant having to wait a few more years before attempting Everest. While physical preparation is important, it’s hard to overstate how much psychological preparation comes into play at high altitude. I’ve seen many superfit people make themselves sick with anxiety (quite literally) on high mountains, because they were inexperienced and worried about the smallest of altitude symptoms. There were times when I allowed this to happen to me on Cho Oyu and the Gasherbrums. By contrast I felt completely relaxed during my summit push on Manaslu, and although the descent was really tough, I actually enjoyed the rest of it when in the past I might have looked upon it as suffering.

Good luck and career choices

It was Mark Dickson who convinced me that combining a working life with months off for expeditions was possible (Photo: Jeremy 'Bunter' Anson)
It was Mark Dickson who convinced me that combining a working life with months off for expeditions was possible (Photo: Jeremy ‘Bunter’ Anson)

Of course, there are other obstacles to climbing big mountains. As 8000 metre peak expeditions take a couple of months, you’re probably wondering how on earth I manage to get the time off work, particularly as I’ve managed one every year for the last four years. In some ways I’ve been lucky, but I’ve also had to make career sacrifices to engineer a lifestyle which allows it. In the 90s I joined a relatively successful dotcom start up, and when we sold it in 2002, I emerged with a decent payoff which enabled me to take time off to go travelling. In 2007 things went awry with my next job and I ended up quitting. With hindsight this was the best thing that could have happened. I met Mark Dickson for the second time. He had been my tent mate on Kilimanjaro, but we lost touch afterwards. I found myself sharing a tent with him again during our climb to Everest’s North Col. Mark had managed to arrange his working life in a way that enabled him to take months off every year, and this convinced me I could do the same if I tried.

I found my method with contract work. I now work on short projects with a defined end date. This enables me to take time off between contracts, and if I’m lucky I’m able to coincide this with Himalayan climbing season. I was on Manaslu with Mark and our friend Ian Cartwright in October, another friend of ours who has found his own method of working and mountaineering. They were both intending to climb Everest this year, and I envied them their conversations about it in base camp with our expedition leader Phil Crampton. Everest is expensive, and I knew I would need to get work in between to be able to join them. That would take time, and most contracts last at least six months. Leaving in the middle of one to climb a mountain doesn’t do your future job prospects much good, but I got lucky again. No sooner was I back home when I got offered my old job back. I accepted on condition I could leave again five months later, and my old boss agreed.

The path is never smooth

Buddhist puja in the peaceful setting of Gasherbrum Base Camp, Pakistan
Buddhist puja in the peaceful setting of Gasherbrum Base Camp, Pakistan

So it seemed everything was falling into place. I topped up my mountain fitness with a spot of climbing in the Andes over Christmas, and I just needed to ramp up my training in 2012 to be ready.

But then: disaster. I’m getting old, and the joints are starting to creak. I’ve had a few niggling injuries over the last year, but the one I suffered while out running in January has been persistent, and has meant my training over the last three months has been limited. I’ve suffered from achilles tendonitis intermittently since rupturing my left achilles in 1995. Usually it lasts a couple of months and then goes away again, but this time it’s remained. I’ve done what I can to deal with it, but I will still be carrying my injury into the expedition, and I’m not as fit as I would like to be.

There are many uncertainties on big mountains. The Sherpas say that successful expeditions are dependent on the will of the mountain gods. Every expedition starts with a puja ceremony to ask the spirits for safe passage up the mountain. Even so, sometimes they’re just not happy, as I discovered on Cho Oyu and Gasherbrum, and no matter how well prepared you may be, they just won’t let you get to the summit. This year, I have two more uncertainties to add to the mix – will I be fit enough and will my ankle hold?

I may not make it to the top this year, but I’m determined to try my best. At any rate, two things are less doubtful. It will be a great experience, and I intend to make damn sure I get down safely.

See how I get on

There are other advantages to working in digi comms aside from paying for my expeditions. I’ll have a satellite connection at base camp, and there are several ways of keeping updated with my progress.

  • I’ll be making longer posts here on the Footsteps on the Mountain blog when I have anything substantial to report. You can subscribe by email using the form at the top right of this page, or by RSS if that’s your thing.
  • I’ll be sending shorter updates and photos to Hozza’s Rambles, my Tumblr blog, which you can also subscribe to using RSS.
  • Updates from both blogs will be posted to my Facebook page and Twitter, if these are what you prefer.
  • Our expedition leader Phil Crampton will be posting regular expedition dispatches on the Altitude Junkies website. These are usually pithy and entertaining, and well worth following if you don’t mind going to his site to read them (he doesn’t do anything as sophisticated as email, RSS or Facebook unfortunately). He’s sometimes able to post from the higher camps by reporting by satellite phone to his wife Trish, who then posts them to the site on his behalf. He also knows a bit more about climbing than I do, so you will find his descriptions about conditions on the mountain more informative than mine.

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14 thoughts on “My long and winding trail to Everest

  • April 4, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Good luck mate, wish you all the best on Everest. I enjoy your books and im a keen reader of your blogs. Looking forward to reading your stories and tales on your safe return.

  • April 5, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Many thanks, David. I’m sure there will be plenty of stories to tell. 🙂

  • April 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm


    I enjoy your website very much and look forward to hearing about your Everest Expedition.

    I too, am a runner so I can relate to your running injury.

    I am rooting for you, all the way.

  • April 5, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    Many thanks for the kind words, Steve. I’m not a very good runner, but I do find it good exercise for mountaineering. I think I need to start varying my training a bit more, though, as I seem to get injured a lot running these days and have been on the exercise bike a bit more this time.

  • April 10, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Can’t quite believe that the same person I met at playschool 37+ years ago is the same one with such a good climbing record! Stay safe, and keep writing, even though this tends to make me super jealous of the adventures you’ve had!

  • April 14, 2012 at 4:40 am

    Thanks, Mike. I’m similarly honoured to have gone to nursery school with the man in charge of Hadrian’s Wall. 😉

  • April 17, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    Mark, I finally caught up with your blog. Congratulations on your Manaslu summit! Best of luck on Everest, I will be following with interest. Cheers, Dean, Cho Oyu 2010

  • April 19, 2012 at 4:44 am

    Thanks, Dean. Nice to hear from you again. Hope you’re still making plans for Shish!

  • February 10, 2013 at 3:16 am

    Hey have you read proprioception by lee saxby it is an interesting book and if you are having injurious problems with running you may want to reference it.

  • February 10, 2013 at 10:30 pm

    Thanks, Jaime. No I haven’t. The book seems to be about running barefoot. Not sure that’s something I’ll be trying any time soon. 😉

  • February 10, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    I’m not necessarily suggesting that you run barefoot, but the concept of natural running form is something you may want to consider.

  • February 10, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    Natural running – I don’t know what that is. You’re not suggesting I run naked? 😉

  • February 11, 2013 at 4:19 am

    LOL, Mark the idea you running naked around base camp would suggest a very entertaining puja! FWIW, I was scheduled for knee surgery but took up natural or forefoot running and am back to my old mileage without the knife. Involves a change of foot strike to land on the balls instead of the heel first. Takes some time to get comfortable with the technique but ’twas the way we evolved 🙂

  • February 11, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Interesting concept, not heard of that one before. I was alright with the injury in the end. It cleared up during my first week at base camp. I think it must have been the full week of complete rest, which was something I wasn’t able to give it while I was still working.

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