IT WAS A cold, crystal dear night with the moon, now nearly full illuminating brilliantly the surrounding peaks. For once the air was still, disturbed only by the occasional swirl of snow bouncing down the slope beside me. I lay there amidst this silent world, an insignificant dot perched precariously on the side of this massive mountain. I was biwying out on the small platform, carved out of the snow, on the steep Lhotse face, which is C3 (7400 m) on Everest. I was all alone, just one man, on this great mountain. This was during my solo climb of Everest; however, right from the start I had run into a number of minor difficulties: There were 100 other people dimbing the mountain as well. To be alone was as hard as dimbing the mountain itself. Before this I had dimbed from one crowded camp to another, but now with the other teams resting in their base camps I finally found myself all alone in this white wasteland.
I had not intended to climb solo, I had not intended to climb Everest. I had arrived in Nepal for another climb when, at the last minute a permit for Everest became available. It was too good an opportunity to miss. Unfortunately my partner had not been able to arrive in time so if I was to go, it had to be solo. I pondered whether to take up the challenge. To climb Everest is a major undertaking; to climb it solo even more so. It had been done before but not often. I would have to dimb without oxygen: that had been done before, but again, not often. And on my budget I could not afford any Sherpa support, making it even more demanding. Certainly large expeditions are still very much the norm; after all, the satellite dishes and direct phone links to Europe are standard equipment on Everest these days. It seemed audacious to be mounting an expedition along my modest lines, but I had solo'd on the big peaks before and besides, what about the 100 or so other dimbers on the mountain? It did not take me long to make up my mind.
I spent the next few days in a mad whirl of activity rushing around Kathmandu, from one office here, to a shop there; completing some paperwork here, buying some equipment there, until out of apparent chaos everything was assembled, and I was ready to fly up to Lukla on my way to the base camp. Unfortunately, the plane wasn't, due to bad weather, a common occurrence at this time of year, The planes were unable to fly. After my mad rush to get ready, I now had to spend three idle days waiting in Kathmandu. Nothing could be more frustrating.
Once in Lukla things seemed easy after the commotion of Kathmandu. While I quietly sipped coffee on the veranda of my hotel my porters were quickly and efficiently organised. I would have two porters, young lads about 18 years old, who had been working on a nearby building site, and had promptly stopped work for the more lucrative occupation of carrying loads. I commented that maybe they would not be strong enough, as I looked at their small, sparse bodies against my large, heavy packs. 'Don't worry', I was tolsd, 'They may look small but they are so strong and fast you won't be able to keep up', They were right and I soon found myself hurrying along behind them.
An hour up the trail it started raining, reminding us that the monsoon had not yet ended. The boys stopped and in unison sang out 'plastic, plastic;' so I pulled out the plastic sheets I had brought for them, and now, suitably dressed, we continued on our way.
I was to discover that 'plastic' and 'oxygen' were the only two words of English they knew. They appeared a little cheated when I was unable to produce the latter.
That first night we arrived, tired and wet, in Namche Bazar, where I shared a hotel with some Italian scientists on their way up to study the effects of high altitude at their research station above Lobuche. One of their members had climbed Everest some years previously with what had been the largest expedition ever on Everest. They were clearly unimpressed by my modest expedition. However, they did give me some helpful advice for my climb, and a welcome glass of whisky, which, while apparently not necessary for good acclimatisation, certainly provided useful psychological benefits.
The next day my porters rushed on ahead to the base camp leaving me behind to continue at a more leisurely pace. I wanted to take my time on the hike up the Khumbu valley so I would arrive in the base camp well acclimatised. Unfortunately, in the haste to get to the base camp, my porters had left me embarrassingly underequipped, with only an umbrella to supplement my T-shirt and shorts.
The next few days the monsoon decided to go out in one final fling and several times I found myself completely lost in swirling mist and in driving rain, wondering if I would make it to the next little hamlet. After a few miserable days I stumbled into an inhospitable base camp in the process of being bombarded by a snow storm. It was not the most inviting welcome. The next day the clouds cleared, to reveal, for the first time, the magnificent scenery around me which would be my home for the next couple of months. With that final storm the monsoon bade us farewell and for the next couple of months I was blessed with good weather.
I pitched my tent on the outskirts of what had now become a sizable tent city. Across from me was the massive Spanish expedition with their 16 climbers, countless Sherpas, and 8 tons of equipment; behind me the Khumbu icefall, an impenetrable barrier to any solo expedition. However I would be able to use the ladders and ropes installed in the icefall by the Sherpa team a few weeks before.
While I would be climbing alone, I would still be dependent on the work and equipment put in by some of the teams, without which my climb would not be possible, especially the route through the icefall. Apart from that my expedition would be completely my own effort. I would be making all my own camps and carrying all my equipment, every kilogram of equipment I would have to, step by step, transport up the mountain on my own back. It would mean carrying heavy packs, not just through the icefall but all the way up to C4 (8000 m). Whereas most climbers could go to the South col with a minimal pack I would not only have to carry a full load but have to make the trip twice. I hoped all the extra work would not wear me down too soon.
My acclimatisation up to the base camp had gone well, and it did not take me long to ferry my loads up through the icefall. Soon I was able to establish my C2, (6500 m) at the end of the Western Cwm. Here, I took a few days rest to aclimatise before setting out to make a carry up to what would be my third camp at 7400 rn on the Lhotse face. I did not get far. After just half an hour I had to give up, totally exhausted. I was struck down with a bad case of diarrhoea, which at this altitude leaves one completely drained of energy. With so many people at C2 there is always the risk Of drinking contaminated water, and at some time I must have done so and was now suffering the consequences. I was now at a crucial stage in my climb, I would not be able to recover from my illness nt this altitude but yet it was vitally important for me to make that carry to C3 before I went down to the base camp to rest.
When climbing Everest during the post monsoon season a short period, or 'window', of good weather appears above 8000 m between the end of the monsoon and the beginning of the winter winds. This window can be as short as a day or as long as couple of wi-cks. I had to be ready for my summit attempt when that window of cairn weather arrived, and if I did not establish C3 now 1 would be too late.
This is where being on a solo climb really counts. There was nobody to take over for only I could get that load up the Lhotse face. I envied the bigger teams who in a similar situation could just send up some Sherpas instead. I cursed my luck at being ill at such an important time.
The next morning I set out on this major test. As 1 slowly advanced up the slope 1 would slump down, utterly exhausted, thinking I could go no further but after a brief rest I was able to move on a bit more until, once more, I would have to stop, completely tired. It seemed impossible I would make it to C3, as I climbed each section of the rope I prayed it would be the last, but there was always more climbing its way endlessly upwards. After an eternity I finally collapsed totally drained onto the shelf at C3. It was one in the morning and now, after some sleep, I too could go down and rest.
In the base camp I found myself in the queue outside the makeshift stone shelter that was the French doctor's clinic. Each day during 'open hours' she attended a small line of ailing climbers and Sherpas. She was well prepared for my sort of complaint and on her prescribed medication I was soon regaining my strength. To fully recover 1 decided to go down further and rest for a few days at a lower altitude, So I set off down to Lobuche at 4900 m. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) I fell in step with an attractive Australian trekker on her way down the Khumbu valley, and instead of only going to Lobuche I ended up in Thyangboche, 6 hours further down the trail.
Although I knew the rest at Thyangboche was doing good I found it impossible to relax. On a climb such as this you get immersed in achieving your goal, and I found it unbearable to just sit around. I was itching to get back to the mountain. My impatience did not improve as news of the other expeditions came. The news was not good. It appeared that they had all encountered very strong winds higher up the peak and that all the expeditions had abandoned their summit bids for the time being. I also heard some strange, and rather disturbing news - my tent had blown up. I had visions of all my equipment, which I had laboriously dragged up the mountain, scattered about as debris on the glacier. I could wait in Thyangboche no longer and hurried back to Everest as fast as I could.
Back at C2 I found out it was true, my tent really had blown up but luckily it had not resulted in the widespread destruction I had envisioned. One of my cooking gas cylinders had exploded; shot through the top of the tent; rocketed over the rest of C2, and landed 50 m further on down the glacier. Fortunately the only damage was to the top of the tent, which I was able to repair with the aid of a flysheet borrowed from the Australians. Maybe it was just as well I had gone to Thyangboche, I hate to think what would have happened if I had been in the tent at the time.
I made one trip to C4 but the weather was terrible so I quickly descended back to C2. Without oxygen, staying at C4 will quickly sap all your energy, so you cannot afford to spend one moment longer than necessary at this altitude. You cannot just wait up there for good weather to appear, instead you must wait much lower down the mountain, and when the good spell does come, rush up as fast as possible hoping you will get back up there in time. I decided to wait in C2 until I got news of better weather at the South Col. On the other hand, the Spanish team adopted a completely different approach, more befitting a large expedition. When they realised that the final climb to the summit was going to be so difficult they decided that one all out effort was called for, which would require most of their team to sacrifice their own summit aspirations for the good of the team as a whole. While I waited at C2 some of their members were able to stay at C4 using oxygen to stay fresh. When a small break in the weather came 3 days later, they were ready to go. With some members taking on a supporting role, four of their team managed to force their way to the summit. It was a fine accomplishment, but it was bad news for me, as it showed what sort of effort was required to make it to the top, and without any backup I realised 1 could not make that kind of assault on the mountain.
Although the Spanish succeeded, the weather was still not good and was probably getting worse; it seemed our window of calm weather was not coming this year. I realised I would have to go for the summit now regardless, so once again I set off for C4. As I climbed the final hundred metres to the South Col I met the French and Sherpa teams descending; they too having finally given up. They wished me well, but their failure did not bode well for my success.
When I reached C4, I found Mark Jennings, of the French expedition to be the sole occupant of that desolate campsite. He had stayed on for one last try and from what I know of Mark he was not the one to give up without a fight. We realised that the weather was not good enough, but this was our last chance; so together we decided to go for the summit the next day.
Conditions in the tent were miserable, and the noise of the wind was so deafening that even when we shouted in each others ears we could not hear. We could communicate by sign language only. We forced ourselves to drink a few cups of soup and eat some fruit bars, as we gathered ourselves around the hissing stove. Cooking a meal was much too arduous a task to contemplate. As the night wore on we made a futile effort to sleep, but to no avail. The strong winds continued to shake our tent all through the night and despite our hopes the condition seemed only worse in the morning. When we seKoff, we knew our chances of success were slim; but we had to try.
Soon it ceased to be a quest to conquer the mountain but more a struggle for survival. Pummelled by a hail of snow-pellets we clung to our ice axes, our faces hugging the ground, fighting for breath. When we moved it was in uncontrollable spurts at the whim of the wind. We could not survive in such conditions for long; desperately we clawed our way off the Col, back to the comparative shelter of the Lhotse face.
Back in the base camp most of the other expeditions were preparing to leave; everything was an uncoordinated bustle of activity as large portions of the tent city were dismantled and packed away. Every yak in the Khumbu valley was on hand to carry it all away, and little by little they drifted off down the glacier until by dusk they had all gone, leaving only the occasional tent behind for the few remaining climbers. It all seemed strangely quiet now that the familiar sounds of the base camp had gone. No longer the hum of generator, the chatter of 100 people sitting down to dinner. Now, just the silence of the mountains.
I resolved to make one final attempt, along with the German expedition who had also remained behind. However it was to be short lived: at C2 we met their Sherpas returning from the South Col. Their tents had been destroyed and they had a hard time getting down from the col. Clearly, things had not improved since I was there last. Reluctantly I had to admit it was over, and for the last time make my way back down through the icefall. It was disappointing after all the effort I had put in, especially as the mountain gave me no real chance. But failure is an integral part of mountaineering, and I am glad I still made the trip. If I retain just one of the friends I made on Everest it will be a success enough.
A 'solo' attempt on Everest by a British climber in autumn 1991, amidst many other expeditions operating on the mountain.