Everest Diary: Lobouche: Full moon promises a cure for summit fever

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The Independent Online
THERE is a full moon next Monday. That is the day most of the expeditions cloistered in Base Camp are aiming at for their bid for the summit. How much easier a full moon will make the climb from the South Col of Everest when we will be leaving our tents there at midnight, no one really knows.

So far we have had no weather forecast to suggest a May 11 ascent is even possible, but around the expedition camps there is a strong sense of wanting to get on with the job and get out. My team-mate Rob Owen is not alone in admitting to "summit fever".

The gossip as we walked up after our rest and fattening-up session at Dinboche is that there is still deep snow on the approach to the South Col. Even so, Sherpas have deposited 41 loads at the Col, so in all probability tents and oxygen are in place for summit bids as soon as the weather allows.

The upshot of all this seems to be that once again there will be congestion on the highest climb in the world - exactly the circumstances which contributed to the carnage on the mountain in 1996 when 12 people died around 10 and 11 May. With at least 10 expeditions, including three from the United States, Britain (two), Singapore, Iran, Switzerland (two) and various odds and sods - including a lone Dane who has been here since February - there could be up to 70 or 80 climbers and at least as many Sherpas converging on the South Col over a few short days.

Heavy traffic does not necessarily mean fatalities. But things go wrong quickly at such extreme altitudes when crowding is combined with incompetence or some oversight. In 1996 there were delays at the rock barrier known as the Hillary Step because there was no pre-placed rope. On another occasion, a team arrived at the Step with insufficient jumars - a device used by climbers to haul up ropes - and one jumar had to be repeatedly passed down.

Any idea that expedition leaders might agree to stagger their summit attempts to avoid congestion seems fanciful. The egos of the veteran mountaineers who lead some of the premier expeditions here, notably the Americans, have already clashed about fixing the route up the Lhotse Face and the "non-rescue", as it turned out, of a member of a US environmental team who took 13 hours to get from Camp Two (advanced base) to Camp Three on the Face. (Even I only took six hours). Exhausted, he had unclipped from the fixed line and collapsed in the first tent he saw. Unfortunately it was not one of his team's tents and his comrades didn't look in it before raising the alarm.

So tension is rising as we return to Base Camp. This time it's "shit or bust", no more acclimatisation climbs. We just have to wait for the weather and hope a window comes soon. The last time Himalayas Kingdoms Expeditions, our tour organisers, went for the South Col route up Everest seven clients, seven Sherpas and two guides reached the summit. It will be a hard act to follow even in the best of conditions. There are only seven clients, including myself, and if four of us reached the summit I would be pleasantly surprised.

Our three days at Dinboche have cleared the throaty cough I came down the valley with but left me with a sniffy cold. As for my chances on the mountain, I still really don't know. I shall take each stage as it comes. I got up to Camp Three last month and, with a better night's sleep and oxygen, I fancy my chances of reaching the South Col. Beyond that, who knows?