How Everest looks from here

The world's highest peak was almost in his grasp. Back home in Kent, Stephen Goodwin reflects on the experience of a lifetime
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Song and dance can be great unifiers, particularly when accompanied by strong drink. In a chang house in Pheriche, a low stone hamlet about four hours' walk down from Everest Base Camp, weeks of tension on the mountain were soothed away in late-night revelry.

My personal high on the 10-week expedition had been the South Summit, less than 100m below Everest's main top (8,848m). The highest point in the world had seemed within our grasp but inexplicably a US team preparing the route ahead ran out of climbing rope. The dance rhythm was laid down by hand, mainly those of cookboy Pema Tsering, the dreaded cook himself, Arjun, and two of the climbing Sherpas, both called Nema. The same crew also led the singing, though later three Sherpanis joined in, in what seemed to be a provocative dialogue in song.

The chang, local beer of fermented millet, was one of the clearest and strongest I had tasted. By the time I tottered off under a starry sky to find my billet I felt a warm affection for my fellow Everest expedition members. It had not always been so.

Not that our Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions team had been the most openly fractious body at Base Camp. Quite regularly the colourful invective of frayed tempers, usually American, would carry across the glacial moonscape.

The internal chemistry of an expedition can be crucial to its success or failure. Obviously you need to have trust in companions on whom your own life depends, be it at the other end of the rope, sharing the tedious effort of boiling snow for vital drinks, adjusting the flow on an oxygen bottle or taking decisions on the weather. Are you hooked up with players or passengers? But on a big Everest trip it is much more complex than that, with the management of strong-willed Sherpas, and relations with other teams over fixing ropes or sharing supplies.

Our own expedition had one further major imponderable. It was a commercial venture with clients paying around pounds 25,000 each for a place - and an equal right to go for the top. Hardly anyone knew anyone else before we arrived in Kathmandu (or Heathrow) and only gradually did we get an idea of each other's mountaineering ability, or lack of it. In altitude terms, my own record was the weakest. I had only been to the top of Mont Blanc, at 4,807m a good deal less than the elevation of Base Camp. The others had all been to at least 7,000m - yet some struggled to abseil.

So how did our group divide up? There were the players, actively working on behalf of the team and involved in the day-to-day organisation. Foremost was Sundeep Dhillon, 28, doctoring to both our medical needs and tending the computers and satellite phone, and Rob Owen, 39, stockbroker-comedian, tirelessly cranking the fickle electricity generator, and one of the keenest to get up to Advanced Base Camp in the Western Cwm to repair the devastation caused by 100 mph winds. To the pleasure of all, Sundeep reached the summit on 25 May. Rob decided the South Col was high enough, showing a wise sense of his limits not matched by others.

Byron Smith, 37, Canadian car dealer, was in a class of his own, exasperating in his egocentricity and yet likeable. A self-made millionaire, he professed himself not a team player and declared no one would stop him getting to the top. For all his drive and physical power, in the end, like me, he was stopped by whoever it was in one US team failed to ensure there was enough rope to complete the route between the South Summit and the main top. The row over that omission goes on.

New York physicist David Callaway, 41, and Irish nurse Josie Kieran, 44, are able to go to places such as Everest because there are such things as commercial expeditions. To be blunt, neither rank among nature's climbers and if selection depended on demonstrated ability in climbing ice and steep ground they would not qualify. They were "passengers". Quite why David was there remains a mystery. A lot of the time he was absorbed in a weighty professional text book. Occasionally he would growl something enigmatic like "the good die young" and in a rare burst of conversation confided that his evenings were usually spent with five-hour stretches of television. Single, it was his third (I think) visit to Everest but he had never been above Camp 3 (7,200m) on the Lhotse Face. He appeared to panic on a short steep pitch in the Ice Fall and the last time I saw him he was in a similar state on a slippery bit on the Lhotse Face. Retreat followed, all the way to the Big Apple.

Josie would have been the first Irish woman to the top of the world and as such became quite a celebrity. Her most tense moments at Base Camp were telephone interviews for the Gay Byrne chat show. The Irish people are soft enough to come up with the cash for Josie to try again, but I hope they will think hard about the possible consequences. On her unsuccessful summit bid, she had to be "short-roped" by guide Dave Walsh up the 500m slope above the South Col. It's steepish and in previous years sections have been secured with fixed lines, but is still fairly easy ground for any competent climber. No leash should be required.

Then there was Lily Leonard, 42, a wealthy American, resident in Hong Kong, and her guide Jim Williams, 43, from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The pair have climbed regularly together on big mountains all over the world, but even so their plan to bag not only Everest but its neighbours Lhotse and Nuptse seemed a mite ambitious. None was achieved. Lily pretty well collapsed at the South Summit and turned back with Josie and Jim. When I saw her two days later arriving at Base Camp she could barely speak and was painfully thin. She had had a virus earlier and was probably never fully fit.

Such was the state of Lily and Josie, that the whole party - rejoined by summiteers Dhillon, Walsh and three Sherpas - did not get back to their tents at the South Col until around 6pm - some 21 hours after leaving them and many hours after everyone else. A snow flurry had delayed them for a while and it is chilling to think what might have ensued if it had turned into a prolonged storm.

I haven't the experience to pass much comment on our guides. I liked and respected them both, though they are very different - Dave Walsh, 54, our leader, was quiet and laid-back, while Jim was loquacious. Perhaps we missed the third guide, "Barny" Barnicott, 45, a past Everest summiteer, who fell ill on the walk-in and had to drop out soon after arriving in Base Camp. Another hand on the Sherpas and logistics might have been useful.

Given such a disparate bunch of characters and abilities, it may actually be a surprise that we only had one shouting match. But it was of some passion and for Byron and I was perhaps influential in denying us a second shot at the summit. With the party split between Base Camp and Advanced Base in the Western Cwm, those of us at the higher camp had gone for the summit on 19 May, hoping to catch what appeared from the forecast to be a brief weather window ahead of a cyclone. The forecast proved alarmist; the rope debacle cost us the summit and then we were heaped with black looks and abuse by our team mates on descending. Jim accused Byron and I of splitting the team by dashing for the summit. Really his remarks were directed at Dave, we were just proxies.

But the words hit home, particularly Jim's message "you've had your chance and failed". Later he apologised and we shook hands. The Pheriche chang session was the final soothing balm, and friendship was restored. Byron and I descended the Ice Fall early next morning. I had two lengthy articles to write and photographs to transmit. It was some 48 hours before it dawned that members of other teams were getting a second shot.

But no invite came to rejoin the team higher up and I did not push it. Perhaps I will always regret it. Having stood on the South Summit, less than 100m below the main top, I am confident 8,848m was within my grasp. But in the relief of descending to Base Camp I had already told Lucie, my wife, I would not go up again. And having already lost well over a stone and with leg muscles reduced to pipe cleaners, was I as physically up to it as I believed?

Back home in Kent, looking over my computer to a garden lush with early summer foliage and climbing roses, the land of ice and rock and the dusty middens of Pheriche seem a world away. Yet questions of what might have been seem destined to linger in my mind for quite a while.

Comments