When I last blogged we had already been tipped off about a brief weather window in early May, but you can't really go shouting about it online, in case other teams are following your blog and decide to use you as a weather forecast! Usually the best weather starts in mid May, so it was a long shot, but in an attempt to avoid the crowds we set off on our summit attempt on 8th May. Many of the sherpas on our team had gone down the valley for a rest before the main weather windows in mid may, which meant that only a couple of our team could set off this early - myself and Tim Mosedale, the expedition leader, were the lucky ones who were deemed to be the most well acclimatised.
Progress went well through the icefall for the final time. Tim and I made a steady ascent straight to camp 2 at 6,400m - Tim was carrying an extremely heavy pack for his summit 'project' to make the first face time call from the top! I got loads of videos and photos of the icefall, which is still one of my favourite parts of the route. I'll try to put together a short film with all the footage I got.
Bad weather hit again at camp 2 and we were forced to spend an extra night there - all the ups and downs with the weather forecast meant I could never get too optimistic that the final summit window would appear, but still the fingers remained firmly crossed!
On 10th May we got the all clear to progress to camp 3 on the lhotse face. This was our first time fully kitted out in down suits and summit boots, which was an exciting reminder that this was the final push to the top! That night at camp 3 (7,200m) we were supplied with oxygen to help our sleep but I wanted to see if I could do without and it was fine.
The next morning we set out for camp 4 on the south col (8,000m - the final camp before the summit). We made speedy progress up the top of the lhotse face. I was on oxygen for the first time which was a great experience - it makes a huge difference! In fact I turned it right down to the minimum because it was making me go to quickly, and I didn't want to arrive on the south col by myself! There were high winds forecasted for the afternoon, but they were due to die down again in the evening so we could go for the summit straight away.
This was my first time this high and all onward progress meant an ever increasing high point. At 7,600m is an intrusion of yellow streaks of rock - the yellow band. This provided interesting climbing after snowy face climbing. After that another few hundred meters of snowy face climbing brings you to the geneva spur, more rocky scrambling which lies just below the south col. It was so awesome to be on these famous landmarks high on Everest.
The weather was starting to turn windy and snowy by this point, but I was feeling super strong with the oxygen. The first sherpa and I arrived at the south col and got a tent up just in time before a huge storm started. The rest of the team arrived an hour or so later and dived into another tent that was hurriedly erected in the growing winds. The winds continued to rise way beyond what was forecasted and they didn't die down when they were supposed to either - it became perfectly obvious we would not be setting out for the summit that evening. In fact we spent one of the gnarliest nights I've ever had anywhere, with gusts flattening the tents, and snow being driven through all the tent zips so that even getting the stove going was near impossible!
After a savage night the weather improved a bit the next day, so we drank like crazy to rehydrate, and tried to get as much rest as possible hoping to go for the summit that night. We were very low on food due to the unplanned night the night before, but luckily on the way back from collecting ice for melting I came across a load of abandoned food (it's just too much effort for people to take down unused stuff from that altitude) - the highlight was a huge tin of cooked ham, which Tim and I devoured!
That afternoon the anticipation mounted - 24 hours after planned, the winds were still high so we knew a summit push would be bloody hard work - but we all felt strong and we knew that it would mean not many people would go for it and so we would avoid the dangerous queues of people for which Everest has become so infamous..... we got the go ahead from base camp to go for it... GAME ON!
We spent the last few hours nervously preparing as the afternoon light faded. I was so excited. Little things take a long time at that altitude... We had to dress in our suits, put our huge boots on, keep drinking, make sure all our hand and feet warming kit was ready to go, keep melting ice and drinking even more, pack rucksacks with oxygen and water, fit our crampons... And finally there was nothing left to do except get out of the tent into the cold, windy night, and start on the finally leg of our journey...
We set out at 10pm on 12th May. There were a couple of head torches ahead which we quickly overtook. I found out yesterday that my Sherpa turned my oxygen right down to keep me under control! He and I kicked steps up energy sapping powder snow which had been dumped the previous night. We climbed like this for hours in the pitch darkness with just a small white bubble in front of us from our head torches. This was undoubtedly the hardest part of the whole climb - endless step kicking in the dark - but one of those situations were you just have to keep our head down, enjoy the suffering, and just get on with it.
After what seemed like an eternity, we came to the top of an enormous slope and turned left. Mentally this was a turning point for me, because I knew we had just passed a feature called the balcony, the first landmark for hours. I knew that meant we were at about 8,500m and over half way through the summit push. Even though the left turn meant that the driving wind and snow was now in our faces I felt even stronger now, knowing where we were... I knew I was going to do it, and from then on it was pure exhilaration and enjoyment for the rest of the night...
After the balcony you follow a steep ridge which felt excitingly exposed even in the dark. This lead eventually to another snowy face beneath the south summit. It was at this point that the first signs of light emerged on the horizon... It started with a thin green-blue band over a black landscape, adding just a hint of perspective to our position on the mountain - I can't even describe the sense of vastness behind us, it felt like being in outer space. Then eventually the thin green band widened and the horizon lit up, revealing a whole world beneath us which we hadn't been able to see before. The clouds seemed so far below, with giant peaks poking up through them, but still far, far below. As we continued up towards the south summit the giant 8,000m peaks of Makalu and Lhotse lit up orange behind us. Truly breathtaking.
On the top of the south summit the final summit pyramid is suddenly revealed for the first time - you can finally see the top! I hope I will never forget this beautiful image. I had seen it in posters and photos so many times, and now I was there, about to tread the same steps as so many of my heroes, and it was even more beautiful in real life than I had hoped... What an immense privilege to be in this special place on earth.
The final hour involved a stunning alpine style ridge between the south summit and the main summit pyramid. I climbed the Hilary Step, a dream of mine for years, and all the time marvelled at the immense beauty of my surroundings, far below.
And then, as if in a dream I made the final few steps to the top of the world. 6.40am, Monday 13th May, 2013.
I was immediately hit by a huge wave of emotion. I was there. Years of planning at its conclusion. And the rest of the world below looking so incredibly beautiful. I thought about Ellen at home in a warm bed - I didn't feel any tiredness, I just knew I had to get home safely to be with her. I thought about my mum up here in the heavens, I hope she'd have been proud.
After hugging the other three or four climbers on the summit and a few photos we began to make our way down. It was incredibly cold and the wind chill made it about -40 degrees, so after allowing myself a brief emotional pause on the summit, it was back into climbing mode and the descent was rapid and uneventful. I was back at the south col camp two or three hours later, a twelve hour round trip.
The weather deteriorated again that afternoon so I had to spent another night at the south col in a storm (this time without oxygen). Gnarly. The next day I went as quickly and safely as I could from the south col at 8,000m down to base camp at 5,300m. That was on Tuesday - the next day, in a bizarre turn of events, I ended up on a helicopter from base camp to Kathmandu with an ill climber and a couple of mates who'd also been to the summit - I've never been on a chopper before, and after summiting Everest this has to rank as one of the coolest things I've done. The Everest valley is even more beautiful from them sky! What an amazing couple of days!
And now I'm back in Kathmandu, soaking up the hustle and bustle and tring to reflect on the last few weeks... It's been an awesome journey, I have so many people to thank, and I hope if you've made it this far you've enjoyed the blog.