Everest Diary: I was metres from the top of the world hanging on to what felt like a washing line. It was there that my dream died

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NOT MUCH more than an hour's breathless climb from the summit of Everest, a well-judged "Let's get the hell outa here" from the American mountain guide Eric Simonson signalled the end of my attempt to reach the top of the world.

About 20 of us were clustered on Everest's South Summit. At 8,760m, we were little more than 100m below the main summit of the Mother Goddess of the Universe, but separated by a narrow crest and that awkward rocky barrier, the Hillary Step. And we had no rope.

Momentarily, it was a relief. As the column of climbers was halted, I was able to push my oxygen mask hard against my face and suck in the cool "O"s until my chest stopped heaving. Before that I had been taking no more than five steps at a time, or maybe only one if it involved a sharp pull up on the rope, before having to rest.

The mask had become a part of me. Moisture trickled from the thing at every gasp. It had frozen in my beard and that, in turn, had frozen to my jacket. It became impossible to lift my head without a painful, icy tearing. Dawn had come up gloriously over the arid lands of Tibet to the north and I had barely been able to appreciate it, mired in the plodding column of would-be Everesters.

The sun brought another discomfort. With the mask clamped to the bridge of my nose, my prescription glacier glasses had to perch some distance from my eyes, allowing the glaring light in above and around the lenses. Only now, three days later in Base Camp, is the bruised pain behind my eyes subsiding, and one eyeball is still haemorrhaging. I should not complain. The day ended with several Sherpas and others being led down snow blind.

The talk about Everest being stitched up all the way to the top, and all that is needed is a strong pair of lungs, does not hold good on the first climbing day of each short season. And on 19 May a mix-up, to put it at its politest, by the heavyweight teams who had offered to fix ropes on the steepest, or most exposed, stretches meant that the safety line ran out.

The wind was whipping over into Tibet and there were some 35 other people between us and the collection of tents we had left nine hours earlier at the South Col. That is quite a crowd for a steep mountainside and by the time the retreat was over there were falls, injuries and nasty cases of snow blindness, but fortunately no fatalities.

Had most, of those climbers - Britons, Americans, a Bolivian, Iranians, two Swedes, a Canadian, a Dutchman and many Sherpas, to my knowledge - made the summit, it would have been a record day's attendance for Everest. It stands in the low forties. The next day, with a Sherpa placing a rope at the Hillary Step early in the morning, 21 people made the summit.

The South Summit was the literal high point of an exhausting roller-coaster of a week for myself and at least some of our Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions team. It started when the leader, Dave Walsh, Rob Owen, a stockbroker, and myself left Base Camp for what we thought would be a single night away, to inspect the damage to our Camp II in the Western Cwm wrought by the 100mph storm of 11 May.

At first sight the destruction seemed so complete that we feared the show might be off. Tents were flattened, poles broken and gear soaked or missing. We slept the night in a dome tent battered to half its size. Optimism rose as we reclaimed the site over the next couple of days. But then we heard an extraordinary weather forecast that a cyclone was on its way from the Bay of Bengal and would strike the region on the night of 19-20 May, dumping two metres of snow.

Something close to hysteria broke out among the teams gathered at Camp II. If the forecast was correct, the best thing to do was to go for it. But was it correct? There were 12 hours of feverish radio exchanges, disagreements and politicking, the upshot of which in our case was that last Sunday, four of us - myself, Rob, the Canadian Byron Smith and the New Yorker David Callaway - were heading up the Lhotse Face to Camp III, a six-hour grind in the baking sun up steep snow and ice.

Camp III offers one of the best views in the world, directly over the Western Cwm and the peaks of the Khumbu. It is also one of the most costly, if you are sleeping on oxygen at $350 a bottle a night. And it can be a fatal spot if you forget to clip into a safety line when stepping outside.

The route continued next day, higher up the face.

Four hours of continually exposed climbing later - looking down is a slide of maybe a kilometre - I arrived at the South Col, a pretty desolate spot. It would have been good to admire the views of Tibet and Nepal, but the priority was to get tents up in the biting cold, weighting them with rocks, then drinking as much fluid as possible before getting some rest.

Dave Walsh had joined us, but coming up from Camp II to the col in one go he had knocked himself out, and was coughing blood. David Callaway had already turned back. Rob Owen also decided he would not be trying for the summit. He had had signs of altitude sickness earlier in the trip and decided that health and happiness with his new wife meant more to him than a mountain he had paid pounds 25,000 for a chance to climb. We also heard that Pemba Tsering, one of the Sherpas with our second party, had been hit by a hurtling block of ice on the Lhotse Face and had a suspected broken leg. A tricky rescue operation was in progress.

So it was just Byron Smith and myself who set out with Sherpas Nima Gymbu and Tsering Dorjee, both former summiteers, in a column of climbers intent on utilising the weather window. Setting out at 11pm in the pitch dark from a campsite at almost 8,000m, wearing an oxygen mask and down clothing as bulky as a Michelin man, is a disorienting experience. I found myself stepping gingerly up an ice bulge which daylight would reveal to be relatively easy-angled. Even so, there are accidents here.

The steepening slope could best be judged by the line of head torches below us. My own packed up but by then there was partial moonlight. Usually, most of this 600m slope is roped. In its absence five people have fallen, including an elderly American who is being stretchered down the mountain as I write.

Another casualty further up the south-east ridge was Tommy Heinrich, a tough Argentinian with the Everest Challenge expedition led by Tom Whittaker. Heinrich, a previous Everest summiteer, tripped while descending and slid more than 100m, puncturing his right arm with his own ice axe and sustaining multiple cuts and bruises. Nevertheless, he was able only hours later to help Whittaker down from the South Col when the Anglo- American, who was planning to become the first amputee to climb Everest (he has only one foot), developed signs of pulmonary oedema, a potentially fatal altitude sickness.

The falls and physical breakdowns came as no surprise. As we ascended the steep ridge to the South Summit, the queuing was more reminiscent of a supermarket check-out than a supposedly wild mountainside. As each section of rope was placed we shuffled up, as many as 20 people clipped to a rope barely half the diameter of that used by an individual rock climber in Europe - not much more than a washing-line. Repeated warnings against putting too much strain on the rope and its "shitty" ice screw anchors were shouted by Simonson, and largely ignored.

As we crowded on to the South Summit and learnt the truth about the missing rope - perhaps 150m would have been needed to secure the Hillary Step and the most exposed bits of the ridge to the summit - teams jostled to take photographs and then to turn round to begin the descent, passing on the bad news to bemused climbers who were still coming up.

Looking across at the main summit with its increasing snow plume, I had little doubt that I could have made it if the step had been roped up. It would have taken perhaps another hour, and despite the traffic jams we had enough time in hand for that and for the return.

Disappointment was, however, tempered by the thought that with 57 people on the mountain in a gathering wind, the casualty list could have been longer and bloodier had the rope not run out.