Everest Diary: Dingboche, Nepal: With Houdini helping, I break my own record

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The Independent Online
THE GREAT Houdini yesterday took me to a personal altitude record in our expedition's preparation for the oxygen-thin air of Mount Everest.

Perhaps the biggest question mark over my chances on the Big One is my lack of high-altitude experience. The highest I had climbed before coming to the Himalayas was the summit of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps at 4,807m but not much more than half the height of Everest (8,848m).

Everyone on our Himalayan Kingdom's expedition has climbed to far more impressive altitudes than me. All three of the guides and two of the clients have been above 8,000m - into the so-called death zone - and the others have all been above 6,000m.

Had the addition of a journalist to the Everest team not appealed to Himalayan Kingdom's appetite for publicity, I would probably have been advised to try a more modest mountain trip for starters. Altitude sickness can be a killer, and along with the weather is the biggest reason for climbers failing on high mountains.

So my middle-aged body's ability to cope has been my biggest worry, the sort of thing the mind dwells on in the middle of the night in the lodges on the walk-in, when the snores and clumping to the rudimentary toilet keeps you awake.

Yesterday's small milestone, when five of our group climbed to a rocky point at 5135m, above the Sherpa village of Dingboche, has not banished all my apprehensions about altitude, but it was a welcome fillip. And Houdini's part in it?

The great escapologist was the character whose name we tried to guess in a form of the Any Questions quiz that we played on our 750m climb. Dave Walsh, our guide, uses the game to stop groups from trying to ascend too fast. If you can talk, the pace is about right, and you do not become breathless.

Health and acclimatisation are necessary obsessions with expeditions such as ours. "Is anybody crook?" was Sundeep Dhillon's first question at breakfast yesterday. As the team doctor, Sundeep, who serves with 23 Parachute Field Ambulance, has a very direct interest. He has already had to treat Rob Owen for a gut infection which left the London stockbroker an expert on the long-drop toilets of the Khumbu. He is now fully recovered.

Physicist David Calloway from New York also dosed himself with Biamox yesterday to clear an altitude headache.

Besides the medical kit, we have also taken out more spiritual insurance. Before arriving in Dingboche, we stopped at the Buddhist monastery at Pangboche, where a lama blessed our expedition.

The lengthy service, with the lama chanting and banging a large cheese- shaped drum, was all in Tibetan, unintelligible not only to us, but also to the Sherpas. However, as Nima, an Everest summiteer, said afterwards, understanding the words was not important, what matters is to believe.