Everest Summit: Alan Millard
7am Friday 20th May
It’s now Saturday and we are back at base camp. It doesn’t count unless you make it back!
Yesterday I sat on top of the world. My dream fulfilled. It’s amazing to know that for a moment I was the highest person in the world, standing on a pile of prayer flags looking down on the other Himalayan mountains poking up above a sea of clouds in the morning sun. Absolutely magical.
It was an eventful but ultimately successful summit day. We had to pass over 60 other climbers on the way. I got knocked over by a rucksack full of oxygen bottles. Two of our team got frostbite and a Japanese guide didn’t make it. However, conditions were perfect at the top and I did get great summit pictures, some of them with Hiscox proudly shown so my sponsors and my boss, Steve, will be pleased.
We started getting ready at 10:30pm to begin climbing at 12:30am. Yes, it takes that long! Deciding what to wear is an important thing for climbers…as well as some other people I’m sure you know well. Getting the right number of layers can be a difficult balance between over-heating when climbing hard and freezing when standing still. Plus sorting all the gear: oxygen supply and mask, harness, ice axe, crampons, goggles etc. When we emerged from our tents at the South Col (camp 4), we looked up towards the Balcony and saw a long string of headlamps lined up the hill. This was bad news. These were climbers and Sherpas from other teams who had left much earlier and now were between us and the summit. Some of our team quickly got moving and my Sherpa and I started off in the middle. Even with oxygen, we are all out of breath within a few minutes.
When it comes to climbing speeds, I’m the tortoise rather than the hare. I like to get into a slow rhythm but never stop, many others take a dozen quick steps then stop to catch their breath. Like the story, within an hour I ended up at the front of our main team (with our lead guide and Serpa waiting way ahead). Our team is strong and well acclimatised so we caught up with the big group within 1.5 hours…and then stopped. There was a rocky section that some people were struggling with and the whole procession had come to a standstill and we had a decision to make. On summit day there is only a certain window of safety (and oxygen available) to reach the top which for us was about 10 hours. This group had been climbing for 4-5 hours already and weren’t even 1/3rd of the way. So, we unclipped from the fixed rope and free-climbed passed the group. (That was easy to write but was one of the hardest things I have ever done, I was at the front of the group and had to fight for breath every step. The snow was deep and unrelenting, the slope was steep and exposed and required my full attention.) Near the balcony, Woody, one of our guides shouted to me that my Sherpa was supposed to be leading with me behind?!? As my Sherpa, Passang Kami, passed me I got too close and he wacked me with his rucksack which had three oxygen bottles in it. I was still unclipped from the rope and fell to the right onto my shoulder but luckily managed to stop myself from falling further. Within an hour, we had passed the whole group and reached the balcony. The way ahead was now clear which was crucial to our summit success.
We made good progress to the South Summit as the dawn started to appear on the horizon. This was hard, slow work up snow and rocky terrain at 28,000ft but the wind was light and I felt comfortable. At the top, the wind picked up and quickly chilled us to the bone reminding us of the -20c temperature. We wrapped up more and leant into the snow drift lifted by the wind. It was at this point that two of us got frostbite on their cheeks in the gap between their mask and goggles – easily done but not noticable until they warmed up later. After the South Summit, the route to the top is a corniced ridge interrupted by the Hillary Step. It was fun clambering over this famous vertical rock section, especially one large rocky outcrop that required an undignified shimmy with one leg over each side of a large rock that had a 10,000ft drop over the edge. Once over this, it was a short climb to the top. We had made it up in under 6 hours, a very fast time..for a tortiose. Once there, my main concern was to get some good photos and my tent mate and fellow climber, Matt, and I worked together as we had promised each other which worked great. Photos done, I just sat down and took in the beauty and majesty of the view around me. I found it hard to believe where I was and had to tell myself to concentrate and take it all in. The reality was that my fingers were hurting with the cold and one of them had lost all feeling and was just a frozen block, and my Sherpa was keen to start down. I gave myself a few minutes more (with my hands tucked in my armpits) and then we headed down.
We got down to the South Col campsite in good time, passing all the other climbers still on the way up with some unlikely to make it. Just below the Balcony, we passed the body of a Japanese guide being taken down on a body sled. He had suffered from HAPE (high altitude pulmonary adema). With the swelling of his brain, he had lost his mind and stripped down to his T shirt before dying. A sobering last event to remind us of the dangers. Our team all made it back to camp 4 within 8.25 hours, a record for Himex! and brilliant that all my climbing friends had made it. We felt good, so rested for a few hours then made our way wearily but happily to Camp 2. Job done.
We got back to base camp this morning (Saturday) to the welcome of our expedition leader, Russ, and his team. We’ve started on the champagne and we are already planning to trek out tomorrow and begin the long journey home. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again and sharing the stories of the Himalayas and of home.
It’s been a long, satisfying, epic adventure. I started to prepare for it physically over a year ago, and the emotional journey has been incredible. On the way down from Camp 2 as I started to relax and ‘climb down’ mentally, I shed some tears of relief and gratitude. Thank you for following me and being part of it.
p.s. What’s your dream?