A year ago today Rolfe and I had made the rather hot and sweaty climb up to Camp 3 on the Lhotse Face. At 7000m, the ‘camp’ is perched rather precariously on a 60 degree slope with platforms cut into the snow and ice by our incredible team of climbing Sherpas who would a week later follow our every step up to the summit, like shadows making sure we were safe for each and every one of those steps.
This was due to be our summit bid and we just couldn’t wait. Our expedition had been going to plan although I had experienced rather cold feet (literally not figuratively!) on my first run up the Lhotse Face and then was fried in the microwave effect sun on this climb up. I had arrived at the base of the camp, about 50m in height from our tents and called up to Rolfe for some help. I never ask for help unless I am in dire straits and this time I was in dire straits. I had cooked on the way up in my down suit, having bought the warmest suit I could get from PHD which would save me a week later, at this point it was just like being in a sauna. I had stripped down the top to my base layer but was still cooking. The sun bounced off the snow and ice, the going was slushy under foot, I ran out of water, and what should have taken me 4 hours took 6 or 7, I can’t really remember but I remember it being hell.
What I do remember is that Rolfe came down to my perch, took my pack with a muttering of ‘you’re not going to get all feminist on me’ with me replying – I need help, please. When I finally got into our tent I just wanted water and lots of it. Rolfe had made a big pan of tomato soup which, in hindsight, was the best that I could have downed at that moment in time.
Settled into the tent with oxygen bottles keeping us company but being saved for the summit push, we soon had a radio call with Henry, our Camp Manager. He had a plethora of experience on Everest and a personality to match the mountain. He called to say that our summit attempt was in doubt due to a sudden turn in weather (or he actually said if you go higher you will die – to the point!). What was due to be a clear(ish) and calm(ish) next 48 hours had turned into a storm with high winds and freezing temperatures (think the -50s rather than just a zero!)
There were various mutterings from others in our Everest base camp team about giving it a go but for Rolfe and myself, we wanted more than ‘let’s go and see’. Sometimes the ‘let’s go and see’ approach works but on this occasion we knew that our chances of getting higher than Camp 4 at 8000m on the South Col were less than slim so we decided to turn around in the morning, head back down the Lhotse Face, a quick strip of down suits at the 6400m Camp 2 in the Western Cwm then head back down through the much feared Khumbu Icefall and back to the relatively oxygenated luxury of EBC.
So, time to re-plan. Climbing big mountains is all about planning, re-planning, waiting, pushing on, waiting again and then going for it, with maybe another re-plan thrown in for good measure. On Manaslu in September 2013 I remember we had completed our acclimatization rotations, were on our rest day and were due to be hunkered down at our base camp for a week or so due to bad weather coming in. Rolfe had said to keep our expedition packs ready to go, just incase. Then an hour after breakfast, whilst I was thumbing through Top Gear magazine (desperation!) he popped his head through the mess tent door and said ‘we’re off in an hour’. I nearly brought up my breakfast, this was it, this was what we had come here for, summit time!
Roll back to Everest and this time we weren’t on course to summit until a few days time. It would take us 3 days to get from EBC to the South Col so a couple of extra days of rest at EBC was, although not planned and potentially frustrating for some, actually well received. You make it what it is. If we had had our summit window on our original plan then so be it but plans change, and so must we.
Flexibility is the key to any expedition, whatever its size, and patience must be a big part of your kit bag. Travel very rarely goes according to plan at the best of times, let alone on a big expedition such as on an 8000m peak and if you are not willing or able to go with the flow then it’s probably best not to be there. ‘Yes, you are going: no, you are not’ twice, thrice or more over. Could be frustrating or just taken as all part of life on expedition, that’s your call. I know which way my brain swings and it is the ‘hey ho, time for more sleep’ way. In our case, a week later, 19th May 2016, we were stood on top of the world and that summit was well worth the wait but that’s another story.
All the very best to all of the teams playing the weather waiting game on Everest at the moment. They’ve put in the hard work and now it’s time to be patient. I’ve been following the season and wish everyone I know and everyone I don’t the very best but a special ‘climb safe’ goes to the amazing Mollie Hughes and Jon Gupta on the North Side and on the South Side the effervescent Vibs who I first met in 2015 and the incredible Azim (an Iranian mountaineer and all round lovely person who I met last year on the mountain when he was attempting to complete the last 2 of the 14 8000ers with no Os (yup, no Os!) I last saw him on his way up to the summit of Everest whilst I was coming down. No Lhotse for either of us so he is back this year.) and to my incredible Sherpa friends, who without their support none of us would be there. Climb safe all x