Of course I spent far too much time discussing the overall Everest Test this year in general terms. But now I should describe how our own Himex team did, as we also have some interesting points to learn from.
To start we had a strong team, and we did our normal slow acclimatization trek into BC. But this year we were heading to Pumori for our acclimatization, rather than going back down to Lobuche. I have already explained all the reasons for this previously. Looking at Pumori during the trip in was all rather daunting, and so we discussed the actual aim of acclimatization on this hill at length with members. But by having a Climbing Permit allowed us to camp at all the camps and we could use these for acclimatization. We immediately ruled out staying at C1 as this is just 2 hours out of EBC, although we did have a tent there to store equipment. So the first real camp was C2 at 5,850m which was a really good place to acclimatize before going through the Icefall on Everest. But by camping at C3 6,800m was even much better, and of course the summit at 7,165m which is almost as high as our C3 on Everest, would save us another trip through the Icefall.
So it was interesting to see how members performed on Pumori, and then how well they performed on Everest…..and frankly there were no surprises. In past years Himex has always asked members to come and climb another 8,000m peak before attempting Everest, but in recent times we have lowered these standards …….to come into line with practically all the other operators. Of course there have always been exceptions in the past…..one of the more notable exceptions being David Tait who had no previous 8,000m experience when he first came with Himex…..but he has now been to the summit of Everest five times. So this year we did take some exceptions to the rule. We discussed this with those members….and sent them on various training courses around the world. We also discussed these matters at BC, because it became apparent even from our trips up and down Pumori there were certain shortfalls in ability, pace setting and confidence on technical ground. As I have repeatedly said, Everest is not the place to be learning to climb mountains.
In hind sight, I feel that the Pumori experiment was a success…..we learnt quit a lot about the route, where to put camps, how to use the camps effectively, and of course we also had success. And it did save us one trip through the Icefall for members, so in the end we only went through the Icefall once on the way to the summit and once on the way back down. This also saved us many Sherpa trips through the same area, something we are always trying to reduce. And of course when on the Lhotse Face and are able to look down on Pumori….it is now no longer so daunting….and is put into perspective.
So by the time we got to C2 on Everest we had a pretty strong and effective team, although those who lacked the 8,000m experience, were struggling the most. It was very unfortunate that Jaco was unable to feel comfortable with the warming of his toes and hands. We knew we were going to have to endure colder than normal temperatures when higher on the hill, and Jaco made the very difficult decision not to continue higher and risk the likely chance of frostbite. Can I point out that at this point Jaco was still strong and was looking like a likely summiteer. Jaco was a popular member in the team, so everyone felt so sorry for him, as I am sure he did as well…..but in typical Aussie / South African style…..he put on a brave face and came back to BC with a pretty philosophical, positive attitude. Mick who also had no previous 8,000m experience struggled from the onset with acclimatization climbs, never quite being able to pace himself to the higher altitude. Normally a fast and efficient climber on peaks in Europe, it was hard for him to feel the frustration of going so slow when at altitude. It is something that is hard to explain….you still want to go faster…..but the legs just don’t work the same….and this can become incredibly irritating. Unfortunately Mick suffered from altitude at C3 on Pumori, and then he was doing so well on Everest, but again struggled with the altitude at the Balcony on summit day. He also made the very wise decision to turn back, and not cause himself and the rest of the team problems later in the day. That left us with Martin….who has been to the summit of Manaslu, and also who summited Pumori, Dan who has been to Manaslu previously and of course Woody and Steph.
Now let us digress for a short while and look at the weather. Very early on during the season I realized that we were not going to have a fast season like the previous two years. Despite us arriving early….it looked like we were in for the long haul. Temperatures were generally colder, and as I have already discussed the jet stream did not move far away. But even when we were still on Pumori I was thinking that we would be heading to the summit around the 25 May. But as time got closer, it did look that 22 – 24 would become better summit days. Even when our team left BC, I was thinking that the 22 was now going to be to windy, and that we should summit on 23 or 24. But during the time at C2 I saw that the 24th was again going to be windy……and it became apparent that 23 was going to be the best summit day. The wind was going to drop to just 7 km at S Col as from 11.00 on the 22nd, but also the wind changed direction just a few degrees….which also offered more protection when on the route up to South Summit. It was still expected to be cold -20 which is at the outer limit that I really want to be going to the summit as wind chill was still about -31. But there was also expected to be more moisture about, and I expected to have clouds up to about 8,000m level. But by the time members should be reaching the summit, there should be no cloud and about 11 km of wind.
We never leave C4 at midnight…..that is the time that the spirits change in local folk law, so the Sherpas never want to leave then. The Sherpas wanted to leave at 11.30……but I asked Woody to leave at 01.00 as I felt that this would be a better time to reach the summit. We see so many teams that leave at 18.00 or 21.00 the night before….but I never really quite understand that. We normally leave at about 01.00 and often seem to be some of the first to the summit. I suggested that we should do the same on this summit day.
As it turned out, the team left at 00.45 from C4, there was no wind, however the cloud was a bit higher than expected and so they were in very light snow fall as they made their way up to the Balcony, but this in fact made it warmer. The guys were complaining to me over the radio that they were too hot. Of course we were expecting colder conditions and so I had asked that everyone dress warm. Nick and Nima turned around from the Balcony at 05.07. By the time our team reached the South Summit it was clear of cloud and I could see them through the telescope from BC. And there was a clear way ahead with no crowds, so as we have done so many times before, we were able to pass the bulk of people between C4 and South Summit. Of course this takes time, and requires a certain amount of extra work to make your own trail as you pass slower climbers……but all totally possible. And with Sherpas who have made on average about 17 ascents of the hill, they also know where to pass and where not to. Only Dan somehow managed to get stuck behind some group or another, so he was a bit later getting to South Summit…..but once with a clear route ahead, he managed to get up and down to the summit quite quickly. So 06.45 Martin and Son Dorgee reached the summit followed at 07.00 by Steph and Woody. It was now clear and calm, so the forecast was actually worse than it really was, the long wait had paid off.
Another small digression: I think I am allowed to mention this now.
This was Woody’s 10 ascent of the hill, and he became the first Kiwi to do so. But to everyone’s surprise….he collapsed…….to his knee……and called to BC by radio to speak with Rochelle……his partner who was visiting BC at the time…….and very modestly proposed to her. Once we had all recovered from shock ……I believe that Roche agreed.
Dan and Nima were on the summit at 10.13 and left to come down at 10.41 at about the same time as Mick and Nima were reaching the bottom of the Lhotse Face. Dan and Nima were back down to South Col where they decided to stay for another night at 14.18….just as Steph and Woody were leaving to go down to C2, and the wind as predicted started to return. Martin was having a hard time to get down the Lhotse Face, and so he wisely decided to stop at C3. This left us strung out a little more than I would normally like…..but that is why we leave these camps in place.
So why was Martin having such a hard time to come down….when he has continually been first on all these summits. Well that is a different story, and one that needs to be explained.
I first meet Martin in 2010 when he was part of Walking With The Wounded (WWTW). At that time we were discussing what it would take to form a team of injured ex-servicemen to the summit of Everest. It was decided that there would be a selection process where various applicants would be interviewed, and those who were successful would then go to Chamonix and do some mountaineering training before climbing Mont Blanc. Everyone did that and then those who had proved to be the best to move on then came to Manaslu. Again practically everyone went to the summit of Manaslu on this trip, so it was then a hard selection as to who to take to attempt Everest. Of course Prince Harry is one of the major sponsors of WWTW so we had to take good care and attention to detail before we were allowed to take ex-solders who had been injured…..we certainly could not injure them further. Glenfiddich was also one of the major sponsors so this involved having to drink whisky with Prince Harry at a fundraising auction in London, which presents its own dangers.
But in 2012 is when I stopped my expedition because I felt that conditions were to dangerous. And surely as the Lhotse Face was so dangerous from rockfall, very few teams actually went to C3 for acclimatization, and they just pushed for one summit push, therefore taking many more people without the correct acclimatization or climbing ability, and pushing them to the summit…..taking far too long…..running out of oxygen….and so suddenly the death rate jumped that year. Some of you may remember, that was the first time that we saw photos of long lines of climbers on Everest. (Something that just repeated itself again….but worse this year).
Well Martin never stopped his own personal ambition to climb Everest. He then set up his own trust Adaptive Grand Slam (AGS) firstname.lastname@example.org
Again this was a project to climb the “Seven Summits and go to the two Poles”, but he opened this project to civilians and women who had been injured…..an ambitious project for any able-bodied person….but made even more difficult if one is disabled in some way or another.
But what I have learnt during my time of working with these people, is their constant mental drive to overcome all of life’s problems that are presented to them by not being as physically able as others. That drive along with an incredibly high pain threshold, and a totally sick sense of humor seems to be a common theme with those who I am in contact with.
So again Martin set about doing his own selection course before coming with a small team to Everest this year. Working with my long term friend from Everest North East Ridge in 1988, Harry Taylor where we became the first people to cross the “Pinnacles Route” which we also survived unscathed after a bivouac at 8,400m. Harry was a fellow guide in Chamonix, and has been closely involved with Martin and AGS, so they have already climbed Aconcagua, Vinson and the like. And with the help of Mark Slatter the owner of Olympian Homes who was the major sponsor for this year’s trip. www.olympianhomes.com As it turns out Mark is a close friend of Chris Dovell who summited Everest with Himex several years ago, and who more importantly privately we have climbed all the other Seven Summits together over a period of years. I have to say an interesting group of highly motivated people.
Martin was shot three times during service in Afghanistan, you would think that he would pull his head in and hide, but as he says….the shooters must have been rotten shots. This injured his Brachial Plexus with the gunshot through his upper chest. This effectively pulled a nerve out of the central system and makes one of his arms ……although still attached….to be ineffective what so ever. So of course that makes everyday life difficult, from cutting up steak on the plate, going to the toilet, doing up shoe laces…..all those things that we just take for granted. So you can see why Martin decided to stop at C3, he has just climbed to the summit of Everest and come back to C3 using one arm…..so the lazy sod decided to stop…..actually his good arm was getting too tired, and he did not want to risk having an accident on the final lower slopes of the Lhotse Face. So even when it is hurting so much, and much easier terrain is just another hour away…..he is able to keep a clear head and make rational decisions.
But think about it for a little while, how to support a useless arm, which still has the weight of bone and flesh when climbing, so he had a sling integrated into his pack. The fitting of the pack is rather important as it is always trying to slip off the useless shoulder. Of course this does not help with balance, especially when crossing ladders with a crevasse underneath. And that arm does not sweat, so there is a big difference in body temperature, and he needs to be especially careful not to get frostbite in that hand. This also effects the core temperature….all side effects that the normal climber does not have to worry about.
Excuse me, again I am going to digress again. A couple of years ago the MoT in its wisdom suggested that physically disabled people would not be allowed to climb on Everest, and that would help reduce the numbers climbing. Just total lip service from an organisation who has no idea of what they are talking about. Are they also going to stop all the Sherpa’s who have lost toes and fingers to frostbite….lets face it…..that is also disabled. I agree those who have major problems like being blind…..and then require a large team of Sherpas to help….does put more people in danger. But there was another disabled woman…..with above the knee amputation who also made it to almost South Summit, an amazing effort, but she turned around, did not cause anyone any fuss, and made it back down to BC, not causing any traffic jams, or requiring rescue. So MoT are just a little out of touch with the reality of disabled people.
But Martin did not just come by himself, he also brought Terry who has a below the knee amputation that he also endured whilst serving in the services. Unfortunately he stood on a land mine….which seems like not such a good idea. Again a man with tremendous courage and unassuming mental strength. His artificial leg stays on with a compression sleeve. There is a compression latex sleeve that creates the friction to the upper leg and then this is covered by a standard sleeve. Amazingly when you walk behind Terry you would not even know he had an artificial leg, he does not walk with a limp or any outward signs.
Apparently there are various ways to deal with artificial legs. There is the suction system where there is a rippled liner that creates a suction when you put the prosthesis into the leg. This leg has an air valve so one has to release the air pressure to take the leg off. Or the pin lock leg that has a titanium pin on the liner, and this fits into whatever leg one might select. This has a release button to release the leg and apparently is the most secure. And then there is the titanium pin that is drilled into the end of the bone and then you clip on your artificial leg, but of course there is always an open wound to deal with where the pin comes out of the flesh. All rather gruesome….but at the same time interesting, however it does save having to put one shoe on and off each day….even if that shoe seems to wear out more quickly.
I must say this reminds me of our local butcher when I was a kid, he had an artificial wooden leg, actually I think it was made of fibreglass and had holes in the side. Ed our butcher used to go water skiing. It was great if he could stand up straight away, then he could ski, but if he had a false start his leg would fill up with water …..and would sink…..with rather dramatic effect.
Unfortunately Terry suffered from the decent from Pumori, and he managed to bruise his lower stump. In typical fashion he did not just say he was quitting, no he stayed for many days, initially resting, and going on small walks, but always the pain returned, and we could see his lower leg getting more and more inflamed. To the extent that he could not sleep at night due to the pain, so everyone decided that he had best get back home to see his specialist as quickly as possible. It was so sad to see him going home, but by the sounds of it, it was just as well, and he has now made a full recovery.
Martin also brought along Samantha for the trek to BC. She had a climbing accident several years ago and also is not able to use her arm as well as suffering from some brain damage which still affects her speech in small ways. Sam was such an amazing person, and although she suffered every day of the trek with the altitude as well as to deal with her disability….but she always had a smile on her face. The tears that rolled down her cheeks upon reaching Base Camp and seeing the summit of Everest was so impressionable.
All of these people can teach us how to deal with our own hardships…..we do not need to be seeking pity from facebook logs, and most of us never have to undergo this pain or frustration of not being able to do normal things in a normal way. The determination that these people have is quite amazing….so it was of no concern to me that Martin was going to reach the summit of Everest…..and he was not responsible for any hold ups to others on the hill. In fact the opposite, he was often being held up by inexperience climbers….they are the ones that should not be on this hill.
So sorry not a story of line ups, speed ascents, hero antics or selfies….just another normal safe and successful trip to the summit…..like it should be.