Day 20-21 – Khumbu Icefall
"This is it!" calls out an over-enthusiastic Pete, as we sling our heavy packs over our shoulders. We are taking up summit suits, sleeping bags, oxygen masks to leave up there, and everything else we will need for the five-day round trip to Camp 3 and back.
We move through the maze of the glacier below camp and into the Khumbu Icefall. It is an extraordinary place. I feel like a half-squashed fly making my way through a giant sorbet. Huge pillars of ice loom above us, glistening blue-white in the sun. We leap small cracks and jumar ourselves up ice walls. Occasionally the fissures are too wide to step or hop over, and we move across precarious horizontal ladders. Staring at our feet to make sure our crampons are on the rungs of the ladders, trying to ignore the 500-foot chasm below.
I am white with fear looking down these gaps, and there is a good 10-second gap after clipping myself into the line and wobbling onto the ladder. My pack is suddenly twice the weight and seems to swing on my shoulders. Every step brings a lurch in my stomach as I stammer uncertainly onto the next rung. I can feel my inner gloves feeling slimes with sweat.
I met Pete on the other side – the maniac is clearly thrilled with all of this.
"Awesome, isn't it?"
"Fuck off" is all I can manage.
We carry on like this. The day is a mishmash of terror and absolute wonder. I have never been anywhere quite so beautiful, nor so treacherous.
After about six exhausting hours of hauling ourselves up the icefall, we get to a snowy plateau. Camp 1 – We will be here for two days. It is roasting here. The sun radiates off the snow into our faces, and even our tents offer no respite when the sun is out. We are baking in the snow.
To pass the time, I boil water. I boil water for tea. I boil water for coffee. I boil water for hydrating dry rations. I boil water to fill my bottle for an uncomfortable hot water bottle when the temperature decides to stop being unbearably hot and decides to be unbearably cold.
Day 23 – Camp 2
We set off to Camp 2 at 4:00am to avoid the heat. This is a fucking stupid idea. It is minus 19; I have never been so cold. I trudge behind Jay to the first ice wall. Jay is windmilling his arms like a six-year-old kid, trying desperately to get some blood flow to his fingers. My fingers don't work. I cannot adjust my harness strap. I look back at the team. Geth has developed the infamous 'Khumbu cough', and is doubled over spluttering his guts out. Tom (22 Tom) has a painful headache. Tom (The Got) can't even take photos. Pete is – well I'm not sure. He's probably enjoying himself, I guess, but the whistling has stopped, and his nose is a grey-blue colour. I am just cold. Not uncomfortable cold. Not miserable cold. Soul-sucking-death cold.
"What the fuck are we doing, Sam?" Jay turns to me as we stop to wait for others to climb an icefall below us.
For the first time, I'm not sure. I'm miserable. The cold has sapped all the joy out of me. I'm too cold even to be frightened, and that is what I'm best at.
We stagger on, hauling ourselves over ice, crossing crevasses until we get to another plateau. We can see Camp 2 in the distance. We take our crampons, harnesses and helmets off here. I can't manage, however, and gratefully get some help. Despite two pairs of inner gloves and some mitts, my fingers don't really function.
We stagger on for eternity across this icy plain, until we see Mingma, one of the Sherpas ushering us into a mess of tents, perched precariously on a glacier. Camp 2. We are here.
Day 25 – Camp 2
Camp 2 is a little more substantial than Camp 1. It has a mess area and a kitchen. We don't have to force down disgusting army rations. But it's cold. We huddle in the kitchen, ignoring the fumes and C02 desperately trying to get some warmth back int our bodies by crowding around the pitiful blue flame of a gas cooker.
There's not much to report about Camp 2. We stay here for two nights. We are cold. I piss Pete off by rolling on top of him in our tent each night. Tom (22) has AMS (acute mountain sickness) and is bed bound for most of the time.
We eat, sleep and shit in the worlds most dangerous bog. A 4-foot wide chasm that requires yoga instructor flexibility to get anything done in there. A slip is either fatal or faecal. Quite literally.
Day 26 – Camp 3
Having spent two nights at Camp 2 we embark on a mission to Camp 3. The aim is to touch this, spend as much time as we can there and then head back – hopefully starting the acclimatisation process at over 7000m. All that stands between us and this frosty shelf with two tents on it is the notorious Lhotse Face. This is an enormous slab of near-vertical blue ice – about 680m. In some years it has a fair bit of snow on it, but here it's nothing but ice. Hard, slippery, cold ice.
It takes us about two hours to get to the face – Pete is full of cheer. Geth turns back. His cough is stopping his every other step as he doubles over, blue in the face. Tom (the fot) is with us and has his cameras, although I notice as we near the face he slips a lens back into his pack.
I follow Sange, our Sherpa who got us up Manaslu, and the head Sherpa on this exped. Doubtless, he's keen for a ciggie at the top and sets off at a furious pace. Pete, like a Labrador, happily sets off after him at the same pace, and i'm forced to do the same. Tom more sensibly takes his time over the wall. It's hard graft – gasping for what little oxygen is left in the air at 23,500ft and still trying to claw your way up this wall of ice.
Suddenly we arrive. After an hour and a half of furious leg pumping and gasping we are at Camp 3. Camp 3 is a precariously perched three-quarter of the way up the face. That's it. A slight bit of flatness on top of this impossibly steep slab of ice. We sit there cold and exhausted. Pete rubs my back, keeping me warm, and I reciprocate, as we wait for Tom to get over the top. My hands are going, and the ends are intensely painful. "Frost-nip," Pete gleefully points out. Sange pulls off my gloves and rubs them vigorously. I can feel the blood start to come back and the pain becomes less intense. I'm ready to go down!
Day 27 – Back to Base Camp
At 3 am I am bursting for a piss. Pete is happily snoring in his sleeping bag next to me, sleeping only as something to do in between waking up and pointing out each avalanche he hears.
I reach over, grab my piss bottle, and undo my summit suit, which I am sleeping in. I unzip my fly and relieve myself into my bottle. As I scrabble around looking for where I've placed the lid, I feel the bottle slip from my grasp. I'm covered in piss. It's 3 am in the morning, -15 degrees outside and I am soaked in my own urine. For fuck's sake! I quickly rip off my summit suit, which thankfully has been spared the majority of this grimness and pull off my trousers, which are soaked through. I can't think of anything else to do but pull my summit suit back on and try to go back to sleep. Which I don't.
I wake up early and wander out the tent, holding my now frozen solid trousers. We need to leave soon, but I need these! I head to the camp kitchen tent where King-San, the Camp 2 cook, is sitting.
"Trousers frozen, Can I use the stove?" I ask.
He snatches them out of my hands and holds them over the blue flame of his gas cooker. They immediately start to steam, and the stench of urine is unmistakable.
"Pee?" he asks with a disgusted look on his face. I nod, ashamed. Too tired to try and explain in pigeon English that I spilt a bottle and didn't piss myself.
Sange walks in, and they exchange some words in Nepalese. Sange burst out laughing.
"Baby Sam!" He yells and points at me, ushering in all the other Sherpas.
I walk out humiliated. I need to get back to Base Camp.
Rotation has been hard work. I've left my dignity up there, and I'll need to go back and get it when we attempt the summit.