17 May 2007... Summit Day!
On 13 May we had gained sufficient support from the conflicting weather reports to hope the weather would turn good. It was looking like the winds would drop by the 17th. But they were predicted to rise again on 19th. Willie Benegas was planning to fix the remaining ropes from the Balcony to the summit on the night of the 16th. We left base at 0430hrs
In the early morning half-light the layers of the Khumbu Ice Fall scrolled past; first the Lake District, shallow hills of ice separated by icy ponds. Then the Lower Land Land, the Lower Pop Corn, the Football Field now breaking up into a hopscotch of tables, the Boulder of Damacles, the Valley of Near Death (London Bridge having now completely fallen down), the Upper Corn and finally the three Darwin Award Corners leading to Camp 1. The sun met us there at 0930hrs.
The Western Cwm is deceptive, it looks so short, but in reality the steep reflective side walls of Nuptse and the West Shoulder make it a solar oven. It took us until the early afternoon to reach Camp 2, utterly exhausted and dehydrated. It had been a a clear day, burning hot. At Camp 2 my oxygen saturation was 70% of sea level, which in London would put me in hospital. Here we just walk more slowly!
On 15th we left early for Camp 3 and still arrived exhausted. It took an hour before we could summon up the energy to collect ice chips and boil water. It began to snow gently but persistently till around midnight, then the wind arrived buffeting the tents till early morning. An early start for Camp 4 was out of the question, the chances of frostbite too high.
Across the cwm from us a tragedy was unfolding that night. High up on left side of the South West Face of Everest a Korean expedition was making a new route. At the the top of their fixed ropes the highest team were in a small tent anchored to a single ice screw. They too experienced the same snow fall followed by the winds. But for them the winds brought a catastrophic avalanche which swept away the lead climbers in their tent.
The next morning saw us toiling up the Lhotse Face, unaware of the the Korean disaster. We were using bottled oxygen at about half a litre a minute. The idea was to arrive at the South Col (just under 8,000m) in a good enough state to rest for a few hours before leaving for the summit.
At the South Col we barely managed to produce a litre of melted water each before drifting off to sleep. The alarm had been set for 10pm, and by 11pm our team had picked up their individual Sherpas. Doug with Pemba Gyalzen, Wim with Tundu, Sam with Namgyal, Dave with Tika, and James with Dorji Gyalzin... and me bringing up the rear. That is usually where the problems are on summit day.
By early dawn we had reached the Balcony (c.8500m), it had been cold but windless and for some reason we all had cold feet except Wim who did did not have one-piece high altitude boots but used Scarpa Alphas with over-boots. I found this interesting and quite counter-intuitive; we are so used to believing the hype surrounding modern equipment it is sometimes easier to believe the publicity than our own experience. Shortly after dawn the absence of wind began to make itself felt. The final climb to the South Summit was so warm I tied my down jacket round my waist and took off my mitts.
The top from the South Summit. This is the view that Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay had in 1952 when they turned back. The next year Tenzing returned with Ed Hillary.
The team reached the summit around 10am on 17 May 2007 after 11 hours climbing.
There was no wind and we stayed there around one hour before re-descending. It was so comfortable that for the first time we were able to make satellite phone calls with bare hands. Sam called her mother. I called Jo. Among the group on the summit was our good friend, the tousled haired Omar Samra from Egypt. He turned to us and said;
“With 75 million people and after five thousand years of civilisation, Egypt has finally got someone on the top of the world.”
We had one hiccup on the descent, Omar's Sherpa, Chawang, had unclipped himself from the ropes at the South Summit, where he was found unresponsive by Kenton. Doug arrived soon after and administered Dexamethasone, after which Chawang was able reach Camp 4 under his steam in Doug's company.
The conditions had been perfect, and Willie Benegas's team had made a superb job of fixing the ropes above the Balcony. While we recovered at Camp 4 Willie managed to descend all the way to base camp where, appallingly, he was physically beaten by an American staying with the Nepalese “Super Sherpa Expedition”. I will not name the execrable little man (but you may call him Jerry the Trekker if you like) who decided to take on a man who had just come down three and a half thousand metres. It must have been a singularly one-sided contest. This was not the only example of appalling behaviour; some time between the 18th and 19th our tents at Camp 3 were trashed and shredded by people leaving behind Korean food wrappings. Some calling card eh?.
By 18th May our little team had gathered at base camp. In the intervening week since we left base, the good weather had melted out the glacier, and now our tents stood on stalks like glacier tables. The weather continued to remain excellent till the 23rd making this one of the longest summit windows in recent years. 2007 looks set to be a record year for successful ascents. The next day I walked down to Pangboche with James to make our thanks at the monastery.
This was the end of our adventure. I now head off to Chamonix, James to Bristol to work on his properties, Doug and Dave to their respective medical practices. Wim remains on holiday till August when we all regroup for an attempt on Carstenz and 18 year old Sam, well she has to deal with becoming an overnight celebrity. The youngest non-Nepalese woman to climb Everest!
copyright Victor Saunders 29 May 2007