Rohan Harrogate Lectures – October 4th
Tim Ralph Mountaineer The Seven Summits
It was at 6.30 on the morning of 23rd May 2010 that I realised a dream. I was standing on top of the world, at 8,848 metres above sea level the view from the highest mountain on our planet was spectacular. A few hours earlier the sun had crept over the horizon, casting a pyramid of shadow and covering the summits of the Himalayan Mountains with a golden light. Seeing the curvature of the earth showed us just how high we were. Standing amongst the summit pray flags on the mountain with three names, but known to us as Everest, was a dream come true.
Sagamatha, as the Nepalese call Everest, was the last of my Seven Summits. Over recent years I have been fortunate to have summited the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. The quest started with a gift from Mike March, a friend, (who has cost me thousands of pounds). The gift was a diary, 1000 things to do before you die, with January 20th suggesting scaling these mountains and joining a ‘club’ of about 100 other crazy climbers’ world wide. That number has risen and now sits at around 200 crazy people.
There are actually eight Seven Summits, confused, well so was I. Put simply, depending on your view, the Australasian summit is either Kosciusko, a mere 2,228 metres above sea level and a ‘walk in the park’, or Carstensz Pyramid in Papua, at 4,884m, very remote and frequently requires climbers to be smuggled in laying on the floor of a bus with armed guards as escorts. Which mountain you choose depends on which view you take, either the geographical tectonic plate or political boundary augment. I believe Dick Bass, the person who first dreamt up the Seven Summits concept, to be correct in saying that Kosciusko is the true summit. However to satisfy both ‘camps’, I and a few others have climbed both of them.
Training for the Everest expedition started even before climbing what is sometimes called the ‘Himalayan Matterhorn’, Ama Dablam in November 2009. Hours of pushing the body deep beyond the pain barrier and with dietary and altitude advice and training gratefully received from the Carnegie Centre for Sports Performance at Leeds Met. Uni. resulted in a fantastic expedition.
The expedition was in turn ‘training’ for a bike ride. A 1000 mile ride from Lands End to John O’Groats, or so Luke Lengiewicz, who I was to ride with believed. Luke had suggested this charity fund raising ride for Henshaw’s Society for Blind People a year before. So as to maximise on the English summer weather, we decided to do the ride in late June, two weeks after I returned from Kathmandu. It was only later that I learnt that recovery after climbing Everest can take up to two months. Monday 28th June saw us leave Lands End. There are many stories to tell about the ride, but perhaps another time. But our thanks must go to Specialized and Bone Shakers in Harrogate, whose advice and assistance was invaluable.
Back in the Himalayas, we fly into Lukla, a mountain village and start the two week trek to Everest Base Camp with a group of trekkers, they keep our minds from thinking too much about the task ahead. The trekking pace is slow to allow our bodies to acclimatise. From now on the oxygen in the atmosphere will get less by the day for weeks to come. The scenery grabs your eye and holds it. This is not the first time I have been to the Khumbu valley but I never tire of its’ beauty.
After hiking everyday and sleeping in Tea Houses for seemingly ages, we arrive at Base Camp, our home for the next six weeks. We had seen Everest from Gorak Shep (5,220m), but we were now so much closer at the base of the Khumbu Ice Fall. A few days later the trekkers left us and we turn our minds to the serious business of climbing the South Col route up Everest. This route has four distinct sections. Psychologically I prefer to concentrate on each section separately. First is the Khumbu Ice Fall, the highest ice bouldering obstacle course in the world and one that is constantly moving, fail to respect it at your peril. Ladders are bridged across numerous crevasse’s some as wide as 5 metres. Crossing them involves clipping onto two loose ropes on either side of the ladder and with cramponed boots walking across the ladder looking down into the depths. Old hemp ropes hang loose down the vertical sides of the ice walls metres below. These and the discarded tins of food at the base of the Ice Fall belong to a past age. Eric Shipton, who in 1951 reconnoitred the Khumbu and reached the South Col, may well have discarded the same tin I had picked up. By the end of the expedition we would have made 288 crossing of these crevasse’s.
After a vertical climb at the head of the Ice Fall the view opens out. Any body’s first view of the Western Cwm can not fail to stop you in your tracks. Looking up the rising valley, the third section, the Lhotse Face is not yet in sight. However gigantic walls tower above. Nuptse is to your right, rising up even higher is Lhotse. Beautiful blue ice reflects the sunlight. To the left is Everest’s West Buttress. More crevasses require crossing before arriving at Camp One. The Western Cwm continues past Camp Two and on to the foot of the Lhotse Face.
As on all mountains distance is foreshortened, making objectives seem nearer than they are, the Lhotse Face is no different. To climb it is a serious undertaking. From the bergschrund, a crevasse where the moving ice parts from the static ice, the ground rises steeply for hundreds of metres, any fall here would certainly result in death. The wind hammered down from above, blasting spindrift into our faces and making it hard to breath as we laboured up the steep slopes in the reified air. A mixture of blue ice and snow covers the route which has fixed ropes to clip to. The two ropes disappear into the white out as they route towards Camp Three (7,400m), a camp that is perched two thirds up the Face. Above this camp the route swings left up to the Yellow Band and the Geneva Spur. We are in what is known as the Death Zone and to highlight the seriousness of our environment, I come across a corpes that has been prepared in readiness for removal when the weather improves. A relatively level walk from the Geneva Spur to Camp Four at the South Col is welcomed. The South Col gently rises to a steep sustained climb which eventually arrives at the Balcony. Further climbing brings you to the South Summit. It was here that the sun broke the horizon. Looking to my left there was a perfect shadow pyramid cast first with great length and as the sun climbed in the sky, the shadow shortens. As if that was not enough beauty, looking down I saw the Hillary Step and the final ridge leading to the true summit. The Hillary Step had little snow on it and was deserted. Soon I was at the base of it and with only my Sherpa, Dawa Gielte, we enjoyed our solitude. After the Step there was some scrambling to gain the last slopes. Now at 8,700 metres above sea level every step was hard, but the summit was in sight and calling. We arrived at 6.30 and were greeted by a small group who were about to leave. Within minutes our expedition leader, Robert Mads Anderson arrived and we congratulated each other on completing half our task. Rob and I savoured being the two highest people on our plant (with feet still on the ground) for some time. Mesmerised by the views, we saw two climbers approaching from the Tibetan side. The Tibetans call Everest Chomolungma, meaning Mother Goddess of the Universe, similar to the Nepalese calling Everest Sagamartha, meaning Goddess of the Sky. So Everest has three names and a number. Before being given the name of the British Surveyor General – Everest in 1852, it was simply known as Peak 15.
We now had to get down safely, knowing that most accidents happen on the descent we focussed on the job. I was tired and very hot, it was a clear day and the sun was warm. I was also short of water. The night before my thermos had been filled and liquid had got into the threads of the cup and had frozen solid. I could hear the liquid but could not drink it. We had left Camp Four at 8pm and climbed through the night, passing climbers who were sick and being cared for by their Sherpa’s, others had problems with their oxygen apparatus. The pace had been as slow as the slowest climber. It was alarming to think of how many climbers were climbing on the one fixed rope. What was the breaking point of an 11mm rope and what was that rope attached to above our heads?
Returning from the summit I knew that I had only drunk two thirds of a litre since leaving Camp Four, it was now 8am the following day. My crampons caught twice on my legs, something I never do. A fall here would not be good. Regaining control, I rope wrapped down to the Balcony where a total stranger offered me a drink, did I look that bad? With liquid inside me, energy levels returned. Robert, a true mountaineer, had left me for dust (snow) and was probably back in Camp Four by this time. I joined him three hours after leaving the summit. We still had to return to Base Camp, but with attention to detail and care, we would avoid any accidents.
We arrived back in Base Camp after sleeping at Camp Two on our way down. The Ice Field had become more dangerous. Massive chunks the ice some the size of houses had dislodged. A ladder had broken with a climber on it, resulting in a broken leg and displaced vertebra. She had to be helicopter out and was probably taken to hospital in Kathmandu.
We descended the Ice Fall for the last time, we knew it so well having climbed up and down the mountain many times. First climbing just into the Ice Fall and returning, then its full length. After a rest, we then climbed to Camp One, returning to BC. Over the weeks we had progressively climbed and returned to BC many times to acclimatise our bodies, until we were ready to ‘go for summit’. This date coincided with four of us going down with Giardia, this is, without going into detail, a bad sickness. We arrived at Camp Two exhausted, dehydrated and loosing weight. The decision was made that the non-sick ones in our group would continue their climb, summiting on 17th May. Us ‘sickies’ returned to BC to recover. Four days later, still not fully recovered, we made our return and summited on 23rd May. Everest is graded as a 4E climb meaning 4 for technical difficulty – long steep snow and ice slopes with short sections of very steep ice and E for fitness – hard physical effort at extreme altitude, exceptionally strenuous with anticipated weight loss, may cause long term fatigue after the trip.
Tim is available to give presentations about numerous mountains around the world. He can be contacted on his website www.timralph.co.uk
October 4th – Tim Ralph Mountaineer The Seven Summits
All Rohan Harrogate Lectures are free but spaces are limited, to reserve your place please give us a call and we will take your details. The series of lectures will be held at Rohan, 21 Station Square, Harrogate, HG1 1SY, 01423 508766. The doors will be open from 6.00pm and the talks will start at 7.00pm drinks and nibbles will be provided.
Although the lectures are free, donations to Yorkshire Air Ambulance would be appreciated on the night and any money raised through the season will be matched by Rohan up to a maximum of £1500. There will be 15% off all purchases on the lecture evenings, although as it is going to be really busy it would be better to phone ahead and get the stuff you want set aside so you are not attempting to try things on during the good bit of the talk!
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