It’s always further than it looks.
It’s always taller than it looks.
It’s always harder than it looks.
– THE THREE RULES OF MOUNTAINEERING (ANON)
Another night from hell
Stop delaying the inevitable
Okay – on the count of three …
Damned sleeping-bag zip sticks, won’t budge
Comes with the territory at 6 700 m
Left boot on
Now right boot
Force down 1 litre of water
Sub-zero in the tent
Much colder outside Biting wind
Objective today: 7 200 m
Five deep breaths
Five more steps
Legs of lead
Seven more hours
The high-altitude insane asylum
No turning back
No turning back …
So, is it cold up there?
VAUGHAN: Dinner parties. You’ve just got to love the questions they ask you at dinner parties when they hear you’re planning on climbing Everest.
Like: Oh, it’s very nice to talk to you while you’re still alive. (My pleasure.)
Or: But why, it’s been done before? (Oh geez, don’t tell me that!)
Or: What’s the big deal? You pay US$50 000 and a Sherpa carries you up there. (Yep, that’s exactly how it works.)
Or: I’ll have you know my husband just climbed Kilimanjaro. (Oh, really?)
Or: But Everest is just a walk, isn’t it? (Sure.)
Or: Does your wife allow you to do this sort of thing? (I have pity for your husband, madam.)
Or, the cherry on the cake: What are you running to, or from, for that matter? (Can’t say for sure, but I have this overwhelming urge to run right now.)
SEAN: Or my favourite: Is it cold up there? (No, we wear those funny down suits so it won’t hurt if we fall.)
Then, apparently, you get the groupies, who just want to talk and talk about Everest. Most of them turn out to be ‘I’ specialists (‘When I used to climb in the Lake District …’).
VAUGHAN: You get the ‘I’ specialists, and then you get the ice specialists.
SEAN: You’re talking about the Icefall doctors?
VAUGHAN: Yes, those guys …
Vaughan ruminates about the suicidal Khumbu Icefall, at the snout of which lies Base Camp. He reckons it’s the most dangerous, foreboding, menacing place on the planet (this from a man who has rubbed noses with quite a few of the globe’s riskier places). It is by all accounts a really horrible place, which over the years has taken more than half of all the lives lost on the mountain. On the average expedition, one not blighted by a slew of accidents as some are, you are likely to pick your tenuous way up and down the fractured glacier ten times, acclimatising and carrying loads to higher camps before your bid for the summit.
SEAN: It’s got to be an even number; if it isn’t an even number, you’ve got a problem.
Vaughan recalls descending the Icefall for the last time. There is a technique to crossing the ladders – 23 of them at the time – that span the crevasses. There are two balustrade ropes, one on either side of the ladder, secured by ice screws on each side of the crevasse. The idea is that you clip on to these ropes, one to the left, the other to the right, before stepping onto the ladder. While you step across, your crampon teeth clinking on the aluminium rungs, you pull against the ropes, creating tension which gives you some stability. It is also a safety measure because if you fall you’re going to hurt yourself, but at least you won’t disappear down the crevasse.
VAUGHAN: It was late in the season and the Icefall was becoming increasingly unstable. I was about halfway across, pulling against the ropes, sphincter puckered, when the ice screw on the far right came unstuck and, still attached to the rope, whistled past my right ear. The sudden loss of tension caused the ladder to lurch to the left, but luckily it didn’t tip. The rest of the crossing was undertaken slowly with buttocks clenched, but this time all squared up.
One year a group of climbers was moving through the Icefall when a chunk of glacier the size of a football pitch collapsed, and away they all went, never to be seen again …
Weaving through the Khumbu Icefall is like moving through a giant bowl of popcorn – you edge your way through step by step, and it’s always shifting.
A map of the Icefall used by the British team in 1953 when Everest was summited for the first time ominously labels various sections as ‘Hillary’s Horror’, ‘Ghastly Crevasse’, ‘Hell Fire Alley’, ‘Atom Bomb Area’ and, for obvious reasons, ‘Nut Cracker’.
The Sherpas move through the Icefall up to 30 times each expedition, which is why their death stats are so high: up to 70 per cent of all deaths on Everest are Sherpa, and most of those arise from carrying loads through the Khumbu Icefall up to Camp One.
VAUGHAN: When we were at Base Camp the message came through that three Sherpas had been buried alive when a huge serac collapsed on top of them. Sean and I had climbed past that very same serac the day before. The news was like a heavy hammer blow: it really does force you to face your own mortality head on. It could just as easily have been us.
In order to minimise the risk, people start climbing in the very early hours of the morning when it is still dark. In these hours the glacier is (hopefully) more stable.
VAUGHAN: This added a whole new dimension. You realise you are in a dangerous place but now you can’t see beyond the pool of light from your head torch. It is deathly quiet, apart from the intermittent sounds of creaking and the snapping of seracs as the glacier adjusts itself. Also, crossing ladders in the pitch dark is something else – just you, the pitch darkness, ice-cold aluminium and a gaping black hole beneath you.
Poles Apart is published by Pan Macmillan.