An excerpt from To the Summit


Chapter 1 — Rushing to base camp

October 2015, Everest region, Nepal

The track from Chukhung crossed the ice-laced waters of a cloudy glacial stream as it wove its way through the moraine fields, the remains of a glacier long receded. It was a beautiful morning, with a cloudless sky and a heavy chill in the air. I have always loved mornings like this — clear, cool, carrying a sense of exploration, of imminent discovery. This morning, as we walked across the glacier towards Island Peak Base Camp, was no exception.

But the process of dressing and thinking my day through had also brought a sense of unease. As I considered how I would address any problems as they arose, it was easy to become anxious. I could think through the obvious scenarios — a twisted ankle or a graze — and take comfort from the fact that I had what I needed to deal with them. But then there were all those situations that you cannot really prepare for: legs broken in a fall, a collapse from exhaustion, a total loss of strength to a leg, the disappointment of failing to summit.

These scenarios played in the back of my mind, slowly undermining my confidence, as we wound over and around the old moraine mounds, now covered with hardy grass and mosses, beneath the towering peaks. I tried to focus on enjoying the stunning environment — the ravens circling, the impeyan pheasants running along the ground, the movement of ice across the mountain faces, the creaking and groaning of the glacier.

Staying on top of my thinking and remaining unstressed is both a necessity and a battle for me. Stress is one of my primary enemies when I’m trying to manage fatigue, as it quickly leaves me drained and makes me slow to recover. The danger of stress has been reinforced through my many crashes over the last few years, and never more powerfully than at Stok Kangri. But then the benefit of managing stress has also been evident in my many successes. As I walked through the moraine fields I knew I needed to return to basics, settle my thoughts and kill the stress.

I was doing just that as we walked into a beautiful little valley sandwiched between the southern moraine wall of Lhotse Glacier and the peaks towering above. The valley floor was flat — such a pleasant break from the unstable moraine fields — and supported by a braided stream, cloudy white and silver with the fine glacial powder and reflected morning light. The air was still and I felt a sense of the idyllic, of walking into a place that I had always longed for, where there is a view against which you judge all others lacking. For a moment, at least, I felt that childhood sense of wonder, with its pure thrill of being up high among the frozen white peaks.

This is what it is about, I thought. Walking along the valley floor, I felt a renewed determination to enjoy the journey, to go as far as I could, and to not let the success of the trip be determined by my ability to summit. I was aware that my concerns about success and failure were reducing my enjoyment of the landscape; a crying shame, I told myself, when I was in one of the most spectacular places on earth. With time, though, I felt a sense of peace and calm, happy to give the peak my best shot and to give away all those things outside of my control.

After we had been tramping for a couple of hours we decided to take a break near the top of the valley before crossing the base of the Imja Tsho glacial lake. We rested in the shade of a massive boulder, facing the stream and the sharply rising peaks. In the distance we could see three men — two climbers and their guide — returning from Island Peak Base Camp. The climbers looked fit and strong, but were obviously tired. The older of the two was relying heavily on his walking poles, while the younger was carrying the pair’s ice axes, one in each hand. When they finally reached us they joined us in the shade, dropping their gear, the ice axes clinking as they bounced on the rocks.

‘How’s it going?’ I asked.

The older climber glared at me. ‘OK,’ he replied, with what sounded like a German accent.

‘Did you make it?’

The younger man started digging into his pack, absorbed in the search for his water bottle.

‘No,’ replied the older man.

I never know quite how to respond to answers like this. You want to acknowledge their frustration and pain, but don’t want to devalue their attempt with an offer of pity. After all, in less than 24 hours there was every possibility that I might be replying ‘No’ to someone who asked me the same question.

‘Oh, sorry to hear that,’ I said. There didn’t seem much more to say. I stared off towards the face that rose thousands of metres up out of the stream in front of us.

Pasang began talking to the men’s guide. They spoke quickly in Sherpa. I stole a glance back at the two climbers. The older man looked as if he was about to cry. Raw disappointment was written on his face as he looked blankly at his water bottle, his jaw clenched.

I went back to the little drawing I had begun making with my finger in the dust — a spray of lines, forming a star of sorts.

Pasang shook hands with the other Sherpa and rose to leave. He looked at me and gave a quick nod. Once we were well out of earshot, I turned to him. ‘What was up with those guys?’

‘They got to Base Camp yesterday and were very sick at night. Vomiting and stuff. Their guide thought that it was acute altitude sickness.’

‘Did they climb at all?’

‘No, they did not even make a start. The guys were both too sick.’

I felt sorry for them, recalling how devastating it had been coming off Stok Kangri, even though the reason was different. And my sense of calm was now ruffled. Although I was quietly confident that altitude sickness would not be a problem — Pasang had done an excellent job of preparing me — I was still not sure how the altitude would affect my ability to manage fatigue. So far my track record at altitude was not great, and I knew I would be devastated by a second failure to summit: it would be unspeakably, crushingly disappointing.

I had begun to feel tired by now. Moraine is not the easiest to traverse at the best of times, but I was feeling a particular type of tiredness — the type that had proved dangerous in the past — and that worried me. Would I feel like this tomorrow?