As the dust now settles on my Everest endeavours this past spring season I finally feel ready to be able to talk about what transpired or didn’t as the case may be. Plenty has been written already about the events that happened post serac collapse on the 18th April and I do not wish to rehash what has already been said about the tragic loss of life and the political agenda which hijacked proceedings after, systematically ending the climbing on the south side of the mountain. There are a few very well written accounts of the ensuing standoff which engulfed the southern base camp this year by the likes of Mark Horrell, Alan Arnette and Tim Mosedale and I would encourage you to track them down as they are well worth a read and offer a very balanced perspective from both a western and Sherpa viewpoint.
What I would like to offer up here in this blog post are my own personal feelings of events and how I felt at the time when the collapse happened and the subsequent 7 days spent playing the waiting game at base camp.
A 20-year passion, 14 years of dreaming and obsessing, 18 months of relentless training and fundraising and 19 days of trekking to reach the foot of the mountain was completely wiped out in one disastrous and heart-breaking event which literally lasted seconds yet its ramifications will likely last for years to come. This single awful incident on the 18th April changed Everest forever and as well as extinguishing the lives of 16 fathers, husbands, uncles, cousins and brothers it also snuffed out the dream and personal ambition of hundreds of western climbers of which I was one.
It is hard to objectify ones dreams against loss of human life and I wouldn’t even begin to attempt to compare the loss of a dream against the loss of life. What happened was appalling on such a large unprecedented scale and when the moment came to pull the plug this year there was no bitterness or resentment shown by any of my team members. In light of the catastrophe up in the ice I think we all fully understood that to continue up the mountain this year would have been a foolish and ultimately ill-timed endeavour showing complete lack of respect to the Sherpa climbing community. I am proud to of shown the solidarity with our Sherpa brothers that we did and retreat off the mountain.
Finally reaching Everest this year for me was the conclusion to what had been a laborious two year campaign. In late 2011 I began to put the wheels in motion to my Everest Dream yet again. I say again as I had attempted to reach Everest on numerous occasions over the past decade with all my attempts being met by failure after failure. It wasn’t for the lack of trying but I just couldn’t summon anywhere near the amount of money I would in due course need to attempt to climb the mountain.
My whole drive to raise the funding for Everest became one of my main priorities in life and over the course of the past 27 months hardly a day passed when I wasn’t pestering somebody for a lucrative sponsorship deal which I hoped would come along and finally enable me to climb this mountain. Sadly that never came to pass, and to take my place on the team that I became part of this spring I had to take out an obscenely large loan from my bank of which I will probably be paying back for years to come. When the moment came on Everest when I knew I would be returning home empty handed- so to speak- I knew that it was more than just the loss of a dream that I would have to accept. Not only did I not get to step foot on the actual mountain itself but I knew that in not doing so I was also going to be returning home £20,000 worse off than I was when I left for Nepal. This was the risk I took I guess. I gambled everything on what I hoped would be a successful conclusion to my endeavours over the past several years. At no point in any of my thinking did I nor could I have foreseen the outcome which sadly played out.
In the cold light of day the harsh reality is that on my actual attempt to climb Everest, I went no higher than I had done on my previous visit to the mountain in 2000 as a trekker, the only difference being this time that it had cost me almost £28,000 more for pretty much the same experience that I had already lived 14 years previously at a considerably smaller cost of just over £1000 including flights. Ouch I here you say.
Since returning home in early May a few things that I repeatedly hear are “well at least you tried” and “now you can get on with your life” and very similar comments. These comments although well-meaning do cut right to the heart as although yes I reached the foot of the mountain I in no way feel I am able to say “at least I tried” and it is hard to put what happened out of my mind and “get on with my life”. Everest had been such a huge part of my life for so long and for it to all go so wrong in such devastating circumstances will take a huge amount of getting over as well as time. I accept that eventually I will get over this; after all I am one of the lucky ones who got to return home to his family. If we had reached base camp 72 hours earlier I may very well not of been so lucky. After all this was an undiscriminating accident that could of struck at any time to anyone? It could have been me and my team members that where in the direct firing line in the ice that morning, so I count my lucky stars that I got to come home and see my loved ones again.
Prior to April 18th and the ensuing tragedy in the ice fall everything had been going according to plan. On the morning of the avalanche myself and the team had just crossed the Kongma La, a high pass at 5,500 metres linking the Chhukung valley to the Khumbu valley. The trekking had been simply spectacular and with 18 days of trekking in some remote areas already under my belt I was feeling fit and strong and relishing the prospect of reaching base camp the following morning where the business end of the trip would begin. Upon delicately weaving a path across the Khumbu glacier that morning we reached Lobuche, which was to be our final night on the trail sleeping in a teahouse before hitting the canvas at base camp for the next several weeks. It was within an hour of arriving at Lobuche that the terrible events that had happened just 4 hours from where we were began to filter through to us. I then spent the remainder of the day in a state of shock and with a sense of disbelief whilst watching a wave of helicopter after helicopter fly past towards base camp. It would emerge later that these where the choppers that were used to help with the search and rescue and subsequent retrieval of the bodies from within the ice fall. A very sombre and dark mood began to take hold and remained with me for the remainder of my time in the Khumbu.
The next week was spent hunkered down at base camp awaiting our fate while certain fractions of the world’s media had already accused, charged and tried us and found us guilty of being vane bigoted tourists. Blithe cretins and necrophiliacs was how one over excited female journalist of the Guardian described us in a scathing comment on the 23rd April which to its discredit the paper ran with. We were made out to be selfish glory seekers who were willing to step over the dead and dying in our insatiable quest to reach the top of the world and now we had the new blood of 16 Sherpa’s on our hands who were only where they were when the serac released that terrible morning because of us egotistical westerners and our own self vanity. As anyone who shares a love and passion for this mountain will know, this is all misguided nonsense fuelled by a desire to be nothing more than controversial and outlandish.
The fact is there were 300 western clients on Everest this spring, along with hundreds of Sherpa’s and Nepalese support staff, who all had an active roll on the mountain. Every single one of us could have been a casualty this year. The mountain doesn’t discriminate. And there by the grace of god go I.
After 19 days of trekking and after hearing about the worst accident in the history of attempts on Everest we arrived at base camp not fully knowing what to expect. A 4 day mourning period had begun and most Sherpa’s with climbing teams had descended down the valley to be with their families where I am sure they will of held their children that little bit tighter.
Most Sherpa’s returned to be with their teams after this period of mourning and reflection, and some chose not to return. You cannot blame them for not doing do, whether pay was at stake or not. Henry Todd our base camp manager kept us informed of how the situation was unfolding and we were asked to play the waiting game on two occasions over the 7 days I spent at base camp. It was our 3rd big team meeting with Henry a day after we had participated in our Puja ceremony that he informed us that we would be going down, with climbing no longer viable or a safe proposition for our team of climbing Sherpa’s. The realisation that the flames of a 20 year dream were being rapidly extinguished began to sink in, and as I took stock of all that was happening around me an air of inevitability and calm acceptance began to sweep over me. After all, the Sherpa’s are fundamental to the success of any Everest climb and without them it became rapidly apparent that we could go no higher. Henry knew this, our guides knew this and now it was the turn of us the clients, to know this. Talk of trying to climb without Sherpa support was instantly dismissed even by the more independent stronger mountaineers amongst us. The decision had been made, there was to be no climbing on Everest -on the south side at least- for 2014.
What had taken 19 days to reach on the way in took just two days to reverse as I reached Lukla after a hasty descent from base camp. Now that the expedition was officially over I was keen as we all were to get back to Kathmandu and bring our international flights forward so we could get home. An intoxicated evening of dancing and inebriation supervened in the Irish pub in Lukla first though, one which I thoroughly threw myself into after 4 weeks of clean living in the high thin air of the Khumbu.
Kathmandu went by in a whirl and after spending several nights in Sam’s bar with fellow expedition members and Everest climbers from places far and wide I enjoyed an emotional reunion with my two daughters and wife in the international arrivals hall of Manchester Airport. I found myself home, 4 weeks early still pretty much in a haze and a daze about what had happened up on Everest.
When the avalanche hit I just wanted to return home to my family as quick as possible, I feared that the same thing may happen again and I had to look deep inside to find the inner resolve to keep my focus and determination strong. I have never been one to suffer from home sickness but boy did I for those first few days at base camp. I felt as detached and isolated from my loved ones as it is possible to be. For the first time ever my dream to climb Everest no longer mattered. What counted the most was surviving and being there for my family when they needed me, and right at that moment I needed them desperately. As the days passed I began to control my emotions better and I soon learnt to deal with the fear that had covered me since April 18th. By the time the decision was announced that the climb was off I was back to being mentally ready and physically determined for the challenge ahead.
I guess as expedition members of Everest 2014 we all went through our own feelings of guilt and anxiety at events as they unfolded and no matter what else happens in my life or where I go I will always carry around the dramatic events that happened this spring out in Nepal. They are indelibly stained into my psyche now. It is hard not to of been out there and share in the sense of loss and profound sadness at what conspired to end mine and countless other climbers personal dreams of climbing to the roof of the world. But the price to pay this year to enable the realisation of that dream was too costly and that is why today 23rd May I now sit in my study writing this account rather than making an attempt to achieve that dream.
Will I ever return to the mountain? Right now I do not know the answer to that. This passion for Everest hasn’t gone. I don’t think it ever will. Alan Arnette in an interview I gave for his website described my drive to reach the mountain as unprecedented in his opinion and of that I am incredibly proud. Everest became a metaphor for the attainment of success in my life and it is hard to imagine a life without this mountain in it. A good friend of mine has told me since I got home that Everest need not define me as a person, and I know that. It doesn’t define me per say but it is an incredibly important passion that I have had in my life for so long now and to not have that passion anymore makes me feel somewhat empty.
If your dream is to run a marathon and despite all the odds stacked against you, you get to mile 20 and are then told you can’t continue to the finish line, you would be heartbroken. As an Everest climber on the south side this year that is what we all have had to endure. I got so tantalisingly close to the achievement of a life’s dream only for tragedy and nefarious politics to intervene and put a stop to things and it is an incredibly bitter pill to swallow.
Climbing Everest carries with it a fair amount of risk and if you put your head in the lion’s mouth there is a chance that it may snap shut. On April 18th at 6.30 in the morning the lion’s mouth did just that and unfortunately 16 brave Sherpa souls paid the ultimate price.
Of all the years I could have gone to Everest and try to achieve this dream I could not have picked a worse year, but I cannot allow that train of thought to begin creeping in though. What happened could have happened any year. Russell Brice of Himex suspected in 2012 that this incident was going to eventually play out and fast forward two years and maybe his decision to pull his expedition early that spring season can now be vindicated.
So as I look back on the dust and embers of my Everest Dream I remind myself of the following which I take great comfort from
“It’s hard to wait around for something you know might never happen; but it’s harder to give up when you know it’s everything you want because life is short so live it. Love is rare, grab it. Anger is bad, dump it. Fear is awful, face it. Memories are sweet, cherish it.”
For now the dream is over, a dream I came so close to realising, and for that I am incredibly proud. My heart bursts with pride when I think how far I came along this journey. Everest will continue to inspire future generations, and it will be for years to come one of the world’s most gruelling challenges and other peoples dream. I will watch with fondness as those brave individuals set out in the attainment and pursuit of this dream. It didn’t happen for me but for reasons outside my own control. I gave it my all and for that reason I will never have any regrets