This middle-aged, average climber is taking on Everest. Is it the height of madness?

A month ago it seemed laughable. But today The Independent's Stephen Goodwin explains his feelings setting out to scale the mother of mountains
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TODAY I set off to climb Mount Everest. A month ago, the idea would have seemed laughable. Mr Average Climber does not go to Everest, or at least not beyond the trek to Base Camp.

Yet here I am with the air ticket to Kathmandu, surrounded by the specialised equipment needed to climb and survive above 8,000 metres.

Among much else, a sleeping bag "comfortable to around minus 35 degrees centigrade" according to its manufacturer Rab Carrington, a goose down suit, a pounds 320 pair of boots said to be my best guarantee against frost bite and a wide-necked pee bottle to save leaving the haven of the tent. I must remember to mark it a vividly different colour from the otherwise identical drinking bottle.

Assembling the gear, however, is the pain free bit. Everest has its darker side. A ferocious storm high on the mountain in May 1996 killed eight climbers and left others horribly maimed by frostbite. Everest was big box office again. Into Thin Air, the gripping first-hand account by American Jon Krakauer became a mountaineering best-seller. The giant- screen Imax format film Everest, shot in the same fateful season, is enjoying success in London.

This spring, in the weather window before the jet stream changes direction to plaster Everest with monsoon snow, at least seven teams will attempt the 8,848m-summit. I will be one of seven clients with Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions (HKE), who 10 years ago introduced the concept of providing guides for high-altitude peaks to the UK market. The Independent will be publishing a regular diary, reporting on the team's progress, the physical and emotional strains of climbing into the "Death Zone" above 8,000m where lack of oxygen means the body is literally dying, the Base Camp international circus and the Sherpas who have found fame, a modest income, and too often death on the mountain they call Chomolungma.

My paying companions include a New York physicist, two stockbrokers, a British Army doctor, a Ford dealer from Alberta and an Irish nurse - a mixed bunch united by an obsession I do not share. Until four weeks ago, I, like most climbers steeped in the texts of the sport, could recite the staging points on the walk-in - Namche Bazaar, Thyangboche monastery, Gorak Shep - and the camps up the Western Cwm and Lhotse Face to the South Col, but had no more expectation of going there than flying to the moon.

Three of the clients, each paying around pounds 25,000, have been high on Everest before; American Lily Leonard, 41, to within 200m of the summit. First- timer Josie Keiran, 44, a nurse from County Louth could be the first Irish woman to the top of the world.

On Himalayan Kingdom's last expedition via the popular South Col route in 1993 there were 16 summiteers - seven clients, seven Sherpas and two guides. But after the horrors of 1996, when HKE were relieved to be on the opposite side of the mountain, there was a strong whiff of "we told you so" from the purists who abhor commercialism. A traffic jam had built up at the Hillary Step, 20m of steep rock and ice to be surmounted before the final gasping plod to the summit, causing fatal delays as the storm approached.

With Nepal unlikely to impose controls that would hit its income, the leading outfits, including HKE, have formed International Guiding Operators 8000 with the aim of setting professional standards and a code of conduct. Punters should be able to steer clear of cowboys who, in pursuit of personal summit bids, have been known to virtually abandon clients. However it will not deal with the problem of inexperienced or selfish national teams going for glory while imperilling others. Overcrowding is still a risk.

Martin "Barny" Barnicott, one of HKE's guides this spring, was a summiteer in 1993 and the team is led by Dave Walsh who made the first British ascents of Cho Oyu and Nanga Parbat, both over 8,000m. I could hardly be in more experienced company. Yet apprehension is natural - more so perhaps for the family I will leave for 10 weeks than myself. Packing at the weekend, I glanced up to find Lucie, my wife, looking hard at me. "I want to while I can," she said.

The figures are sobering - more than 700 people have reached the 8848m summit but 153 have died in the attempt or while descending.

Having climbed no higher than Mont Blanc, at 4,807m not even as high as Everest Base Camp, it is presumptuous to think I can make the summit.

Who knows how a middle-aged hack's body copes with high altitudes. To put places to those names in mountaineering literature will be enough and I will go no further than I feel able, I tell those dear to me.

Yet I cannot share my colleague Charles Arthur's description of May on Everest as the "killing season". My own approach to the sport we share is less apocalyptic. I take my philosophical cue from Pip and Joe Gargery in Great Expectations: "What larks." We shall see.

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