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Nspcc/Tait 2013 Everest Expedition - Dispatch 12

Posted: 21/04/2013 10:50

My name is David Tait - I'm an NSPCC Trustee and 'charity mountaineer' having now successfully climbed Mount Everest four times - in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011. I climb to raise both awareness and money for the many violated kids - one of whom was I. This is my first of many dispatches that will accompany my effort to summit for the fifth time. I hope you follow along, find it interesting, and spread the word. There are many children in our society who know only too well that monsters truly do exist.

Dispatch 12, Everest BC, 5250m, 21st April 2013.

For a moment I was back at home in my own bed and my iPhone alarm was reminding me it was time to get the 05:52 train to Waterloo. But no; same alarm, but it was 01:45 in the morning inside my tiny ice encrusted tent at Everest BC. I would be leaving the "comfort" of our camp in just 45 minutes for the distant freezing embrace of our rudimentary Camp 2 - a long dangerous climb through the infamous Khumbu Icefall.

I had climbed into the sanctity of my sleeping bag virtually fully clothed at 8pm the previous evening in both anticipation of the premature alarm call but also in a desperate attempt to retain heat. Now, little remained to be done save carefully lacing both the inner and outer layers of my high-altitude Olympus boots. Over a thermal base layer, I wore only a t-shirt, my "lucky" Himex sweatshirt and lastly my Arcteryx windcheater. However, my 2 items of dressing overkill were my gloves - full on summit Hextra gloves - my hands just don't seem to like the cold. It was a relative balmy -10 degrees with no apparent wind.

The concise circle of light cast by my headlamp illuminated the unwelcoming snow outside my tent; I first hauled myself upright, grabbed my pack and gingerly rock-hopped across the slippery surface to the Sherpa mess-tent. The steamy but gloomy interior revealed a dozen high-altitude Sherpas guzzling their "morning" breakfast with Russ standing sentinel in the tent entrance, watching their progress with father-like concern.

I bolted a bowl of Weetabix smothered in sugar, gulped a cup of coffee and had to spin sharply on my heels as the Sherpas all leapt to their feet and grabbed their obscenely huge packs and exited into the night. Tonight I had agreed to carry a "load" of sorts - nothing of true Sherpa proportions; just a tent and picket [aluminium stake] together with all my normal personal gear. However, the weight was more than I was used to - and it was my first time through the icefall - the weight was going to tell.

With my radio tuned and avalanche transponder buried bleeping discreetly in my pack I followed them into the night, almost scampering to keep up. I have to admit that my body responds better for a slow start - but this wasn't it. The Sherpas screamed up the moraine as if they were at sea level, with "Sherpa-Dave" in very hot pursuit with lungs as inflated as a World War 2 barrage balloon. This wasn't as I would have chosen to start this exercise but I had no choice but to keep up or be discarded.

Visible only by the dancing of their headlamps, the platoon of Sherpa's raced their way to the foot of the icefall and "crampon point", the moment when the incline of the ice is deemed to steep for even their practiced unshod feet and the security of crampons becomes necessary. Relieved by the pause the fitting of crampons bought me, I caught my breath and then once again assumed the "tail-end Charlie" role.

The lower reaches of the ice fall are more obstacle course than climb, with the glacier surface peppered with great chunks of ice that act as wall-like barriers to your progress. A path was visible beneath our feet, a legacy of the already numerous transits made by the dozens of daily load carrying Sherpas from both our and the other numerous teams. Some of the obstacles could simply be avoided, but most could be successfully climbed and crossed.

Before very long the incline steepened and we became obligated to hook in [via caribiner] to the fixed rope laid and maintained by the icefall Doctors. As we climbed higher, weaving, rising and falling through the vast chaos of ice that defines this monstrosity of nature, we were forced to negotiate the infamous ladders that spanned the vast tomb like crevasses.

The ladders act as makeshift, but effective bridges and are tentatively anchored either side of the void by just rope and an ice picket. To either side of the ladder are strung two ropes to be used as banisters - one person ventures on to the ladder holding both these ropes, whilst the person either before or after them pulls the ropes taught for extra stability.

I detest these ladders. Each step is an act of supreme will power for me. My crampons scrape and occasionally grip the frozen rungs, inducing heart-stopping seconds of imbalance. Through rungs of the ladder one can almost view Hell; the darkest depths of the earth stare back and seemingly beckons.

As the hours pass and with the darkness cloaking our progress we pass the "popcorn" - a field of smaller, jumbled, smashed ice that to someone, once upon a time appeared either salted or sweet. Sheer walls of blue ice are encountered, deeply pitted with the holes cut by numerous crampons - short strenuous climbs that suck every oxygen particle from you bloodstream are thrust in your path.

I continue, hopeful that the GoPro camera bolted to my helmet is capturing the essence of this hideous but most beautiful of places, but aware that if I can only see what is illuminated by my headlamp, the camera will unlikely perform better. Suddenly we are at the "football field", a relatively large, unobstructed, open space, surrounded by the huge jagged remnants of the gigantic ice collapse of a few days ago. The whole scene is jaw dropping, but so threatening one feels the urge to run. However, running isn't an option - a silent tiptoe more the order of the day.

Yesterday, for the first time in my climbing career I felt intimidated but the sheer malevolent, destructive potential of this gigantic ice cathedral through which I was walking. One tiny shift in its bearing would see me crushed to liquid in microseconds. I focused, tearing my eyes from the threatening deep blue and trudged on in concert with the dawn's early light.

The jagged, jumbled, mid icefall, house size architecture finally gave way to the more rounded, undulating sea of ice [imagine the very lazy top of a waterfall], bisected laterally by crevasses deep and wide enough to swallow residential tower blocks. Most of these grotesque gashes are avoided or skirted, the track instead traversing from one side of the valley to another like a vast snake, but occasionally a multi-ladder bridge had been erected to span the narrower of the gorges to save the painstaking walk.

It was one such 2-ladder bridge that honestly [and I really don't know quite why] chilled me to my core. I honestly couldn't see the bottom. I clipped my caribiner to the left hand guide rope or banister, my Jumar to the right, and forced the first of many gut-wrenching steps. Totally alone in this barren white landscape, I had no one to try and steady me by holding the ropes taught so instead, I just stepped out for the first rung. The first step isn't too difficult - but the second is. With the wind whipping at my pack, I felt as if the devil were trying to prod me into oblivion. I literally told myself to take a further step, and another, and another, trying to ignore the sway and bounce of the roped together platform. Eventually, only 2 feet from the safety of the opposite ice wall I lunged for sanctuary, exhaling with relief as my crampons found purchase. Only at this point was I aware how little I had breathed - my lungs greedily sucking at the air, my head momentarily swimming. I unclipped from the ropes, glancing back and down into the veritable open mouth, and shuddered involuntarily.

Ahead of me lay the ramshackle Camp 1, used by most teams as no more than a staging post or emergency bivouac. It was here I deposited my "load", forcing the picket deeply into the ice to anchor the tent for use another day. It was 6am - 3 ½ hours through the icefall - not bad for my first of the season and whilst carrying "mini-Sherpa weight".

Beyond Camp 1, and a further two hours hard slog away lay a very rudimentary Camp 2. I glanced at the morning sky and noticed for the first time the uncharacteristic, but very welcome, hazy overcast. Many people had made the mistake of getting caught in exposed, intense sunlight in the Western Cym - I did not plan to join them. However, this day didn't look as though it was going to be famous for its wonderful weather, so I immediately pressed on.

The subsequent 2 hours of my life was nothing more than a case of staring at my boots, taking small steps and even smaller glances to see if my destination had moved any closer or at least appeared out of the deepening gloom and lateral snow. Stick markers, driven into the ground by the icefall doctors vaguely marked the route, and it was from one marker to the next that I tracked my painful process. For the first 90 minutes I trudged on, literally blindly, until finally the outline of the rocky wall that defines the Eastern edge of the Cym forced itself through the mist. I recognized the staggeringly beautiful rock formations and knew then that C2 was not too far away. I slowly edged up behind a chap in a red down suit. He turned, smiled and gestured for me to pass, which I did. I had passed him by no more than 2/3 paces when I heard the words "you look too old".

I turned, literally stunned, and was confronted by a young Indian face. I couldn't help laughing at his bluntness and audacity and asked his age - he said 16, but I felt he was a few years older than that. Grinning to myself I marched on.

No more than 15 minutes of torture later I reached my destination - ½ way into the rocky moraine slope that will, in perhaps 7 days time, be a collage of tents, very much mirroring BC. Above me the sun strained to penetrate the thick cloud, casting everything in an eerie glow. I slung my now despised pack to the ground, tried to slow my breathing enough to drink and nibble an energy bar, and prised my son's school mascot from my pocket. Shaun the sheep was to be photographed at C2 if it killed me.

I slumped to my knees and chewed. It was now 8 am. The descent was to come and the light snow had turned to blizzard.

The conclusion and video tomorrow.

Dt

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