Have you ever been so exhausted on a mountain that you wish you could crawl back down?
Have you worn a pack on your back that’s felt like a church organ, with a long descent ahead of you to reach the safety of camp?
Have you ever tried lowering your pack on a rope to see if it’s easier?
Does any of this sound familiar: (i) your knees don’t feel like lifting any more, (ii) the slope looks 30 degrees steeper than it did on the way up, (iii) the welcoming hut far beneath you is still the size of a comma, and (iv) you wish there was a way of rolling down?
Have you ever returned from a holiday so exhausted that you slept for 12 hours four days in a row?
Sometimes you have to dig so deep to get back down again that a spade is more useful than an ice axe.
I’ve been there; I even wrote the book (of which more later). But which mountains provided the hardest physical challenge? Here in reverse order are my five most epic mountain days.
(Note: Hermann Buhl’s summit day on Nanga Parbat lasted 40 hours. That’s ridiculous. There aren’t even 40 hours in a day. This is a blog post for ordinary mortals.)
5. Chimborazo, Ecuador
People in Ecuador enjoy telling you that their biggest volcano, Chimborazo, is the highest mountain in the world. In fact, it’s a full 2000m higher than Everest – when measured from the centre of the Earth. Our planet’s rotation creates a bulge at the Equator, which means the summit of Chimborazo, which lies just one degree south, is the furthest point of land from its centre.
But measured from sea level Chimborazo is only 6310m high, and I’d climbed plenty of 6000m peaks before. Just two days earlier I’d climbed Ecuador’s third highest mountain, 5790m Cayambe, and though it was a little cold it had been a nice easy nine-hour summit day.
I was expecting Chimborazo to be a lot tougher, but nothing quite prepared me for the epic summit day that followed.
A 10.30pm start, 1500m of ascent, a glacier that was drier than a Mormon dinner party, and just one night of rest after climbing Cayambe, were all factors contributing to a very long summit day.
We had to cross two summits, from the lower Veintimilla to the higher Whymper summit. They stood just a short distance apart, but there was no easy route between. Both summits were carpeted in a maze of weird ice formations, and it took some weaving to find a way through.
It was exhausting, and when we returned to the hut at 2.30pm, nearly sixteen hours after setting out, it was an effort to climb back onto my bed in order to sleep.
4. Gasherbrum I, Pakistan
One of my philosophies on big mountains – on any peak, in fact – is to take it easy, and don’t make anything harder than it needs to be. If climbing expedition-style, this can be achieved by placing a series of camps with relatively short altitude gains in between.
On Gasherbrum I our Base Camp was at 5000m, Camp 1 at 5900m, and Camp 2 at 6400m. We were on the mountain for two months waiting for a suitable weather window, so there was no hurry.
When we set off from Base Camp on our summit push, I intended to spend a night at Camp 1 before moving to Camp 2 the following day. But I was tricked into compressing two days into one when we arrived at Camp 1 early, and all my team mates chose to push on to Camp 2. We needed to rope together to get past the crevasses of the Gasherbrum Cwm, so I had no choice but to go with them.
The climb from 1 to 2 took place in the heat of the afternoon sun. I ran out of water halfway up, and was reduced to putting handfuls of snow in my water bottle in the hope of melting some more. Eventually we had to stop on the glacier and unpack the stove.
We considered stopping on the glacier and pitching a tent there and then, but some of the ice cliffs looked in danger of collapsing, so we pressed on.
I eventually reached Camp 2 at 8pm after fourteen hours of climbing. The light was still fading, but I was a broken man and needed a rest day the following day. So much for shoehorning two days into one.
3. Manaslu, Nepal
My Manaslu summit day got off to a bad start when my oxygen mask gagged against my face as soon as we left Camp 4, and it felt like I was choking on an orange (hopefully most of you will not have experienced this feeling).
The real problems only began on the way down. The oxygen cylinder had fallen over in my pack, and I must have completed the whole ascent crouched over like a wheezing tortoise in order to reach the mask. As soon as we started descending and I tried to stand up straight, the mask reached no higher than my nipples, and my back and neck were in considerable pain.
A storm was predicted, and we had to descend all the way to Camp 2 that night. Struggling with a heavy load many hours behind my team mates, I was rigging a prusik cord and carabiner to my backpack in the hope of sliding my pack down the fixed lines, when a group of Sherpas came past and kindly escorted the pack down to Camp 3 for me (compared to theirs, mine was more like a handbag).
It was dark by the time I reached Camp 3 at 6pm and picked it up again. I stopped for a rest around 37 more times before crawling into the safety of camp in pitch blackness at 7.30. But at least my first ever ascent of an 8000m peak had ended in triumph (my arse).
2. Denali, United States
Denali in Alaska is the ideal mountain for gaining experience as a pack mule. There are no porters, which means you must carry your own food and supplies for spending several weeks in the wilderness.
Almost every day for a month I carried a 20kg pack on my back while pulling 30kg more on a sledge behind me. Arriving in camp often meant spending the next two or three hours levelling out platforms in the snow to pitch tents, and cutting blocks of ice to build windproof walls around them.
Denali belches physical difficulty like no other mountain, but if there was one day that stood out among the sweat and the toil it was the last day of our retreat down the mountain, rushing to catch the mountain flight back to Talkeetna for hot showers and cold beer.
Denali is the most northerly 6000m peak in the world. It’s super cold, but it also has the unusual distinction of experiencing 24-hour daylight during the summer months.
We left Camp 3 at 7pm, intending to reach Base Camp that day, a journey that had taken eight days on the way up. By the time we reached Camp 2 at midnight I was mentally exhausted from trying to control the marauding beast that was my sledge. Sometimes it tried to drag me down the slope like an angry horse, while other times it snapped at my heels like a slavering Rottweiler. Sometimes it was a bit more crafty, and tried to trip me up by suddenly tightening the rope around my ankles.
The night passed in a dreamlike, twilight world. We descended in a total whiteout which the night-time sun couldn’t penetrate. Ice frosted over every piece of clothing, and red flags emerged in random places, marking the trail back to Base Camp.
In the morning I was hauled into a crevasse on the Kahiltna Glacier. I didn’t fall far, though. My rope mates simply continued hauling until I was pulled out again and dragged behind them like a sack of potatoes.
The last slope before Base Camp is known as Heartbreak Hill, for the simple reason that you have to climb back up again to reach the refuge of camp. In the very last step I knew how a pack animal feels when the muleteer pulls the pistol and opens the door to donkey heaven.
I flopped in the snow and fell asleep without bothering to erect a tent.
1. Everest, Tibet
These days people like to fall over themselves to tell you that climbing Everest is easy. Easy it may be for those who have never tried, but my Everest summit day is still far and away the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life – and am ever likely to.
I’ve written extensively about my Everest summit day before, so I don’t want to bore you with it ag … oh, go on then.
It took eighteen hours of severe mental and physical toil. I was quite unable to eat anything substantial for days. On several occasions I thought I was going to die. While descending from the Exit Cracks, each time I sat down I felt myself drifting into a sleep from which I might never awake. When I got back to camp my throat was so dry that I thought I was going to retch up a small piece of my gullet …
I’m not exaggerating, but if you don’t believe me, or you want to know more (or this blog post made you laugh), my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, about my ten-year journey from hill walker to Everest climber, is available as an ebook and as a paperback very soon. It took even longer than eighteen hours to write.