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Nspcc/Tait 2013 Everest Expedition: Dispatch 20

Above the Hillary one senses success - the approach ridge is guarded by a furious gale, seemingly hidden until this precise moment. It rears, screams in your ears, sears your exposed skin and tries desperately to throw you like an unwanted intruder from your precarious path.

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 20, Everest Summit - Curtain call, 10 May 2013, 12:14pm.


"Got 10 minutes for me?" asked Russ brusquely, sticking his mop of grey hair briefly into the White Pod where I was diligently typing another dispatch.

"Sure mate" I replied, slowly hauling myself to my feet and gingerly applying weight to my avalanche bruised right leg. I hobbled past the other sedentary climbers ignoring the questioning looks, leaving the warmth of the Pod and emerging into a cold, snowy but sunny late morning and rock-hopping up towards Russ's "command tent".

"Take a seat," he said, dragging one of the stools around for me use. A couple of ladies from a roaming film-crew were holding station in the corner of his tent, camera now trained on me - I felt a little ambushed.

"Here's the deal" he started. "Phurba doesn't think that you climbing with the rope-fixers will be a problem. There is a small weather window on the morning of the 10th May but if you want to make it you need to leave tonight".

And that was it. My mouth was literally hanging open in amazement. It was 11am on the morning of the 7 May. If I accepted this invitation I only had two and a half - three days to complete what normally took five or six.

"So I climb to C2 tonight, from C2 to C4 the next day and then go for the summit that same evening"? I asked, fully aware that this was what was being demanded of me.

"Yes" replied Russ, amusement in his eyes, "It's a huge ask".

At least I now knew why the camera was present!

"Can I think about it over lunch?" I countered, desperate for a little wriggle-room. I had to think this through and was desperate to run it by Vanessa - our morning call was about due.

"Sure" Russ replied, "But let me know asap, as I need to advise the Sherps".

I wandered into the lunch tent and somewhat in a daze, swallowed this days offering. Until 30 minutes ago, I had resigned myself to forgoing any "early ascent" and had accepted a "group-climb" fate and at least another five days of BC rest. Now, another two am departure loomed.


The Icefall:

"You've got to be ******* kidding me!" I mumbled, unable to believe what I had just seen. ¾ of the way through the Icefall a load-carrying Sherpa had taken a terrifying nose-dive off one of the precarious ladders spanning a gaping crevasse and was left dangling like a hooked carp above the abyss, his oversized load still strapped to his back. I was in a three-four-man queue waiting my turn to cross, when he simply lost his balance, and with a guttural scream disappeared into the chasm headfirst. I clearly remember noting the age of his crampons as the soles of his boots were turned towards me.

Other Sherpas, both ascending and descending converged like busy flies, flinging further supporting ropes to the flailing victim for him to attach to his harness. Despite his heart-stopping predicament, the poor guy seemed in capable hands - but what bothered me was that he had chosen to swallow dive from the ladder in the shadow of the cornice that had previously collapsed and formed the avalanche that had so nearly killed me.

With an ever-growing gaggle of noisy, enthusiastic good-Samaritan Sherpas now feverishly fishing their colleague out, I could almost sense the tenuous ice fibres, holding back a million tons of ancient ice 200m above me slowly shearing with every enthusiastic outcry. My eyes barely left the threatening overhanging mass.

Finally our hapless colleague was fished from his premature grave and, a little unsteadily, directed on his way - we followed him across the swaying, barely supported ladder, through the avalanche debris and past the cube of ice that had protected my head - my imprint where I had dived still visible in the packed snow. I grimaced, clenched my teeth and tried to hurry. C2, the target of my first of three marathon legs, couldn't arrive too soon.


The Lhotse Face C2-C4:

1600m vertical - that's all. I kept saying this over and over, in the vain hope that simply uttering the statistics would lessen the physical and mental torture. C2 to C4 - no big deal! At 09:30 am on the 9th May, and five and a half hours after setting off from C2, Lakpa Nuru, my Sherpa and I staggered into a barely populated C3 for a drink and to "bolt on O's" [start using supplementary oxygen].

2/3rds of the vast, but previously experienced Lhotse wall lay beneath and behind us, but ahead, and virgin territory for this expedition, lay the remainder of the face followed by the "yellow-band" and Geneva Spur. Realistically we had another five hours of pain ahead of us before we could expect to arrive at the South Col 8000m [C4]. The intense cold had blighted the previous hours - the next five would be blighted by the sun's heat, the claustrophobia of the oxygen mask and the stifling down-suit.

My body would keep going until I instructed it to do otherwise - of this I was confident. However, although I was reasonably confident I would have enough in the tank to get to C4, I was less confident I would have enough time [and food] to recover in time for the final leg - this evening's summit attempt - a further 850 vertical meters and of course Stratosphere atmosphere.

Lakpa and I finally lay inert in our undersized South Col tent, our faces covered by our oxygen masks, the hiss of the oxygen drowned out by the howl of an 8000m gale, seemingly charged with ripping our little nylon home from its dubious foundations. Every so often the wind would drop from 80kph to zero - a peculiar phenomenon - before returning after a few seconds with a train-like crash. It was almost as if the wind itself had to occasionally rest, before redoubling its efforts to dislodge us. We were promised this maelstrom would abate by the morning allowing us the opportunity to climb; I couldn't bear the thought of this forecast failing and being forced to descend. I squeezed this thought from my mind, curled into a ball and tried to achieve the impossible - sleep.


Summit Day C4-Summit:

Sherpa or Westerner I wondered? The body lay twisted, contorted and very much frozen solid little more that two feet from my path as I ascended the torturous gradient through knee-deep snow towards the "balcony" - a rocky plateau, gratefully employed as a rest point and staging post before the assault on the distant South and actual Everest summits. It was five am, the dawn was breaking spectacularly and this was the marathon's final leg. Summit day 10 May.

I stared at the barely concealed features, worn waxen and baked to parchment by the intense ultra-violet light. I wondered who he had been and contemplated my own family's reaction to me potentially one-day permanently residing here. With one final glance at his day-glow down suit I moved on, in slow but remorseless pursuit of the rope-fixers 200m above and ahead.

Phurba Tashi, my old comrade in arms, and leader of the rope-fixers, was unexpectedly in the lead of the composite [three sherpas from four teams] group. However, any illusions that the Sherpas donated from other teams were of Himex quality were very quickly dispelled. The lime-green Toread/Himex down suits that distinguished Himex crew populated the front of the team; the remainder of the Sherpa contingent unevenly strung out like a comet's tail, their body language screaming exhaustion.

I trailed the last of these rope-carriers, urging him to greater effort every time I heard Phurba appealing for more rope with which to set the route. However it appeared to me this chap was struggling with a deficient oxygen quotient dictated by his team leader and as such was always going to be disadvantaged relative to Phurba and his well-supplied cohorts. Every step between the balcony and South Summit was misery, the snow sometimes mid-thigh deep, but you closed you mind and took another step.

The entire group sheltered in the lee of the South Summit and Phurba and the two other Himex Sherpas attempted to rig an alternative descent route down from the plateau above the Hillary Step, however his ambitions were thwarted by the slow progress of the other team's rope carrying Sherpas. He eventually abandoned his efforts allowing us all to ascend the Step. This point is perhaps the one of the most dramatic moments of the entire climb - there is a sense of true exposure, vertical drop and history - your crampons screech and scrabble for traction, the snow billows like blown sugar, and miles below one can just about make out C2 - just.

Above the Hillary one senses success - the approach ridge is guarded by a furious gale, seemingly hidden until this precise moment. It rears, screams in your ears, sears your exposed skin and tries desperately to throw you like an unwanted intruder from your precarious path. I felt my skin literally burn with the assault - this was my 2011 frostbite moment that previously solidified my left cheek.

But suddenly there is it - the summit, despite the winds best efforts still draped in prayer flags. To this moment I never truly believe that my arrival is certain. 10 meters to go I allow myself a grin and succumb to moist eyes - I've done it - it's over.