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Monday, 26 May 2014

Day 60 - Descending from Camp 3

I come to early the next morning and for a couple of seconds bask in the warmth of the sun coming through the tent walls until I am jolted back to reality with the realisation that I am stuck on the side of Everest well into the Death Zone at 8,300m with broken ribs, a barely functioning respiratory system and very little oxygen left to help me get down. My hope is that I can get to the snow field below camp 2 from where it is an easy snow slope down to Camp 1 and with any luck I should be able to breathe 1,000m down from here.

The sunshine turns out to have been just a small break in the clouds as after a quick drink and a snickers for breakfast I head out into a growing blizzard and white out. It is pretty chilly and blowing an absolute gale but luckily the fixed lines provide a good path down the mountain. Surprisingly there are a few other people up here still in addition to some Sherpas clearing their group's equipment off the mountain - they look in very bad shape and are moving very slowly. I am feeling a bit better this morning and can walk (albeit slowly) with my oxygen on a low setting which is pretty crucial as there is not too much left in the bottle.

The going is very tough as I am now walking through fairly deep snow which has covered up the nice, hard path that has been created over the past few days. Not only is it simply more tiring to walk in knee deep snow, but it also covers up the various dips and rocks under the surface causing a number of staggers and trips which are pretty exhausting.

This soon becomes dangerous on some steep traverses as I can't tell where the path has weakened or, in some cases, collapsed down the side of the mountain and on a few occasions end up hanging from my ice axe after breaking through the snow beneath my feet and falling down the side of the mountain. Whilst there are some ropes around to clip into a number of the anchors have blown and others do when we put any real weight on them. Whilst this would normally be quite exciting, I have nothing like the energy or strength to enjoy dealing with this at the moment, but there is a different type of reward from struggling through terrain, conditions and a situation which is really rather serious. After a bit of this slow going, there is quite a queue of the other straggling climbers behind me but oddly none of them seem keen to take turns at the front, breaking trail or dealing with the treacherous terrain.
After a few hours of fun the traversing comes to an end and we start the easier descent towards Camp 2 - given the conditions this remains challenging and the other parties soon fall behind and are out of sight by the time I get to the top of the Camp 2. The place seems post- apocalyptic! There are broken tents and abandoned equipment strewn all over the side of the mountain and a thick layer of snow over everything save the larger rocks. The low cloud keeps visibility down to 10-15 metres and things and people come looking out of the cloud before disappearing again back into the cloud.

There are many more people down here and a number of them are in a bad way - anyone capable would have left first thing in the morning to get down the mountain. A number of these are having arguments with their team mates and/or Sherpas about staying here for longer with the Sherpas especially anxious about getting off the mountain and out of the weather - I have never heard a truly worried Sherpa before and to hear so many of them in such a state is rather concerning. The lone Sherpas all seem to be clearing the mountain and again it is pretty worrying to see how much of the equipment they are leaving behind to give them an easier and quicker descent - there is a clear atmosphere that we are in a really dangerous situation and it is imperative to get out as quickly as possible!

My oxygen bottle is again pretty much empty and I have been asking everyone that I have come across for some but no one has any spares left at this stage. My big concern is that despite starting well my lungs and throat have been deteriorating all morning and even though I have descended a long way I am far from convinced that I will cope well when it stops. I have also still got quite a long way to go to get to the easy snow slope so I looks as though things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Sure enough my oxygen soon runs out and without it I am back to an unsafe stagger through the rocks and snow of Camp 2. At times, I revert to a mixture of crawling, rolling and sliding down the slope. However, even at this slow speed it becomes dangerous as the storm has got a lot worse and and I am now in white out conditions which mean that I really can't see what the ground is doing when there aren't rocks to help provide depth to my field of view. I fall off a couple of snow ledges (one that is about 2m) and the now much stronger wind is driving snow inside my gear which is starting to become wet. This is very dangerous as down become useless when wet and if I am stuck up here for long in a storm without fully functioning down gear I will end up with hypothermia pretty quickly and in these conditions death could well follow!

I make what feels like a big, final effort to get to some tents ahead and collapse inside the least damaged of them managing to stick my ice axe and crampons through the worst tears to give me some protection from the elements. Luckily I am still warm which gives me a bit of a chance to undo my zips and dry some of my clothes out before my shelter gives way. I also get a chance to drink some water and enjoy what's left of my last pack of Haribo - I am now out of food and water.

Taking refuge in a tent - sitting in a pile of snow but at least I am out of the storm for a bit!

After dealing with my most pressing needs, I have a look round the tent I have chosen and see that it seems to have been used as a bit of dumping ground for equipment to be left behind and at the bottom of a pile seem some telltale cylindrical forms which can only be oxygen bottles - I don't let myself hope that there is a full one here but with any luck they won't all be empty. I go through all the ones in the first two piles I come across but they are all empty and to my great joy, the penultimate bottle in the third pile has about a sixth left. I just hope that if I keep this on the lowest setting that there is enough to get me back to Camp 1 on the North Col.

In renewed buoyant spirits I decide to try and radio camp again to see what is going on and whether there is anything else to help me on the mountain. Finally, for the first time in really quite a while, I manage to get through to camp and it is great to hear positive voices rather than the weak, weary and scared ones of others on the mountain. They confirm that pretty much all our equipment has been cleared down to Camp 1 and the forecast is for more bad weather so I really need to get down quickly as I have been up in the Death Zone for far too long.

A short while later it seems as though the peak of the storm has passed so I set off again. As before it is painstakingly slow but the ground is treacherous, visibility is very low and the wind is still so strong that I am frequently blown off my feet. If this happens on a tricky, high technical section there is a big risk of injury which would quite probably prove fatal up here. But at the same time I need to move quickly as I really don't want to risk my oxygen running out again when I am short of camp given my continually worsening throat and lungs. As before, I am staggering through a desolate landscape. A few people come and go, Sherpas overtaking me and me overtaking some struggling groups. There is little more than a barely perceptible nod, as we can do little more than recognise the presence of another human being before returning to our grinding task of getting down the mountain. Despite stumbling countless times, I managed to avoid falling; despite the high winds, freezing temperatures and driving snow I manage to keep warm although as before my down jacket is starting to accumulate snow in pockets and folds which then melts and starts to wet the down; despite the fact that my throat and lungs have continued to deteriorate rather than improve as I have been descending, I finally make it out of the rocky top section of the mountain onto the steep snow slope that leads down to Camp 1.

Whilst normally this is the home stretch as in good conditions it is a pretty easy quick walk, it is probably going to be a bit tougher than that now. Although not technical, there is deep snow and very strong winds meaning that the going is slow and tiring as opposed to the hard icy surface that is normally here - not really ideal when I am in a race against my oxygen running out.

Anyhow, I set off and start making some good progress however I find that whenever I start getting up a good rhythm and so pick up some speed I soon need to sit down and rest completely out of breath. This is rather worrying as I was hoping that at this altitude (7,500m) I would be able to cope without oxygen but apparently not. Anyhow, I bow my head to keep my face out of the howling wind and trudge on through the gloom of the snow and cloud, occasionally stumbling after falling into an unseen dip or hole and eventually after about two or three hours I near the saddle of the North Col before my oxygen runs out. The big problem is that my throat and lungs have continued to tighten and my breathing has become increasingly laboured throughout this time. Whilst I am only a few hundred yards from camp there are two small hills between the saddle and the tents. Although I am back down at 7,000m I am unconvinced that I will be able to cope with them without oxygen.

I manage to stagger the short distance to the base of the first one but can make no progress up it with any attempt leaving me on the verge of passing out if I don't sit down. My next plan is to try to crawl up the slope but this falters in the deep snow on the gentle incline at the start of the hill. I try slowly clearing a path in the snow but whilst this gets me up the start, the incline rapidly steepens and again I am back to almost fainting when I try to move up it. While having a rest, I come up with the bright idea of radioing ahead as if there is anyone still in the camp, they can get out here and help me within a matter of minutes.

Again luckily, I manage to make contact with ABC who say that they will do what they can to help but there are two problems. They are unable to contact people up at the North Col but will go to one of the other expeditions with working communications to get them to help or pass a message on to one of our Sherpas up here and secondly there is a big rescue going on at the moment and a large number of the people still at the North Col are involved in that. Unable to move for the time being, I dig myself a snow hole to get out of the wind and lie back and relax as dark descends on the mountain. This coincides with the arrival of the last few teams who are in a terrible state (many of them are out on their feet) although they have had sufficient oxygen for the descent and so can carry on into camp. I ask the guides / Sherpas for each group to see if anyone is in our tents to bring me some oxygen or to do so themselves if not - I am not filled with confidence by the responses. After about 15 or 20 minutes, one of our Sherpas appears over the hill to come and help me and once I have oxygen again it is only a matter of minutes before I am staggering into one of our tents - two of the remaining four have blown off the mountain earlier in the day despite being laden down with our gear and oxygen bottles!

First thing to do is get some hot water on to drink and given the continuing wind we have to do the tent right up and melt the snow right inside the tent. Combined with the steam coming off my wet clothes I am soon having paroxysms of coughing fits which are rather painful given my irritated lungs and throat not to mention broken ribs but all of a sudden two huge globules of soft, gooey stuff the size and consistency of reasonably large oysters come out - whether this is just phlegm or part lung / throat lining I don't know. All of a sudden my airwaves feel a lot freer and I can breathe a lot more easily. Despite this, the fluctuations in my respiratory system and the fact that I don't understand why they are happening means that I need to keep the oxygen on its lowest setting so that I have enough for the descent to ABC tomorrow which is unlikely to be easy!

I am absolutely exhausted and have no real appetite and so shortly after fall into a deep sleep although I do wake a number of times throughout the night as I continue to cough and more worryingly find that I am struggling with my breathing again.

The effects of the storm at ABC
The effects of the storm at BC

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