Everest Diary: Base Camp: Postscript to Everest: I'd rather go real climbing

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The Independent Online
TEN weeks before I stood among the perplexed cocktail party of climbers thwarted on the south summit of Everest, with no rope to reach the main top, I was involved in a serious battle for survival in the mountains of eastern Turkey.

My friend and climbing partner, Steve Lenartowicz, and I sat with our backs braced against one wall of our small tent as a blizzard enfolded it in snow. We could not resist the onslaught and the tent was being moved by the force of the wind.

However dire our predicament, nobody was going to come to our aid. The Bolkar Toros in winter is an empty place. In two weeks exploring its peaks on skis we saw not a soul above the snowline and nobody knew our proposed routes.

So we were faced that morning with doing something that is the essence of adventure mountaineering - making a decision on which one's life could depend. Should we try to sit out the blizzard in the tent? Should we try to dig a snow hole? Or should we try to retreat to lower ground?

We chose retreat. Gradually, moving in the lulls and bracing ourselves against each snowy blast, we inched our way downhill and after some hours found a more sheltered spot to re-erect our distorted tent.

What has this personal drama in Turkey to do with Everest? It illustrates something that is gone from most expeditioning on the Big Hill - any sense of freedom or adventure, that you have got to the top of the world by your climbing skills and nous. Ed Hillary said as much on the 40th anniversary of his first ascent with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

"The sense of freedom and challenge has long disappeared," he wrote in a postscript to a special edition of John Hunt's classic account of the 1953 expedition.

When I asked Canadian Byron Smith about this some weeks ago, he said it would be his "legs and lungs" that would get him to the top. He had only signed up with our tour organisers, Himalayan Kingdom Expeditions, "for the logistics".

The self-confident and self-made millionaire meant that it would be his ascent, not a guide's or a holiday company's. But his literal reply was the more correct. HKE have indeed supplied all the logistics, not just the travel, tents, sleeping bags, cooks, food and porters, but the guides who tell us when to move up the mountain, when to move down, what to wear and what to carry.

The bigger, or richer, expeditions decide which bits of the route up the mountain they are going to secure with rope lines so that members have only to clip in with karabiners (snap links) or jumars (a device that will slide up a rope but not down) and away they go. After that Byron is right, it is "legs and lungs" that get you to the top.

The weather remains a potential killer and there are accidents. But however costly at a personal level, they are mundane.

Two or three old hands here at Base Camp have suggested I go back up again and finish the job now the Hillary Step is laced up. It has been tempting. However, it would be difficult to arrange the Sherpa and other support for a second attempt.

In the hostile atmosphere that greeted our return to Camp 2, it was made plain by our "team-mates" that Byron and I had had our shot and there was no mention of a second chance. There was great resentment that from our higher camp we - including leader Dave Walsh - had gone for what seemed at the time a brief weather window rather than wait for the others to move up from Base Camp.

And could I face the exhausting tedium of re-climbing 3,500 metres of snow and ice? To return to the South Col route would be endurance rather than adventure. And all to tick a summit I had no ambitions upon until a few days before I set off for Nepal.

For the likes of Josie, Byron and Sundeep, Everest had become an obsession. For myself, I'd rather go climbing.