Race to be first to the summit could prove fatal

Everest Diary: Base Camp
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The Independent Online
THIS could be my last diary from Base Camp before our push for the 8,848m summit of Everest. The weather is still unsettled, sun in the morning and snow showers in the afternoon, but we have had a favourable forecast and Dave Walsh, our guide, is keen to move up to a higher camp to be poised should a summit opportunity arise.

Lengthy, that is diary length, communication from higher camps is unlikely. The team has VHF radios for operational and emergency use but the only diary pieces I have got down from higher up during our earlier acclimatisation climbs have been written on paper and carried down to Base Camp by a Sherpa for onward transmission by friends.

So this may be the occasion for me to talk of my hopes and fears before once again we enter the moving labyrinth of the Khumbu Icefall en route to Advanced Base Camp (Camp 2). Hopes are simple. I would like to get as high as possible consistent with getting down safely. Unlike my team- mates on this commercial expedition, marketed by Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions of Sheffield, I have not personally invested pounds 25,000 to pounds 30,000 in attempting to climb to the top of the world, and I have no flag to wave.

I feel some sympathy for Josie Kieran, the 44-year old nurse from Dundalk, who is carrying an Irish flag presented to her by the president, Mary McAleese.

Josie would be the first Irish woman to the summit. Though she would probably brush aside my concern that the "flag and the first" are potentially dangerous pressures - liable to push one beyond a point of safe return - history suggests it is real enough. Flags and nationalism have been a bane of mountaineering.

For Josie, more hillwalker than climber, it is going to be a testing few days. So I have fears for my team-mates, all of whom have more invested in the summit, financially and emotionally, than I do.

This morning, before breakfast, I lay in my sleeping bag and re-read Sir Edmund Hillary's account of reaching the summit with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953 - the first ascent. What comes through is the sheer physically wearying ordeal of it - even for a supremely fit man, as the big New Zealander certainly was at the time.

I am no Hillary and exhaustion is one of my fears. Going up the Lhotse Face to Camp 3 at 7,200m was sapping enough. This time we will have bottled oxygen from then on. But I will have to carry two bottles on my back and what if the Russian-made system malfunctions or freezes in the bitter cold?

So far I have coped pretty well with altitude and have had no bad headaches. We have done all the right things about acclimatising slowly - goodness, we have been in Nepal for nearly seven weeks. So maybe I am being irrational, but even so the possibility of serious altitude sickness striking suddenly, and my not being able to descend quickly to relieve it, is perhaps my biggest fear.

Another nagging worry around the camp, certainly among the clients, is how closely engaged the Sherpas are in our enterprise. John Hunt is unstinting in his praise for the Sherpas' "magnificent" effort in 1953 and their co-operation in the essential teamwork of the whole party.

Well our nine Sherpas seem a friendly, cheerful enough bunch but I suspect the idea of teamwork and joint enterprise has faded since 1953. It is hardly surprising. Everest climbing is business. Just as we are a commercial expedition, Sherpas are contractors, doing a job for a price and often in a manner they themselves largely dictate.

Perhaps I should dispel a myth that may linger in some minds. Everest expeditions do not advance up the mountain with the lightly ladened sahibs followed Indian-file by bow-backed Sherpas, cooks and cook boys. On the mountain, we hardly ever see our Sherpas, except coming in the opposite direction. Both groups carry out their tasks independently.

Sherpas these days are analogous to jobbing builders. You employ them, but they will have their own fixed ideas about how best to do the job and when they will turn up or knock off for tea.

Unfortunately our Sherpas seem to have decided not all the team will get high on Everest and therefore, contrary to instructions, they did not need to put up another tent at Camp 3 where last month we crammed three people into each of two cosy two-man tents.

The job should have been done days ago while we were away down the valley in Dingboche. Dave Walsh will now have to insist on another tent, but the Sherpas' bolshy stubbornness does not augur well for the vitally necessary co-operation we will need at the South Col and above.

A signal difference, of course, between the 1953-type expedition and commercial ventures such as ours is over the selection of summiteers. Hunt, or Chris Bonington in his big 1970s climbs, could pick the strongest pair for the summit bid and the rest of the party would have to be content with some reflected glory as part of the team.

On a commercial trip, once the punter has paid his or her pounds 25,000, he or she must feel entitled to an equal shot at the summit, no matter how illusory, or even dangerous, the guides - or Sherpas - may feel this is.