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
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.
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
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
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.