(Last updated on: 15/06/2021)
This guest post is brought to you from a friend of mine, Pete Bell, who has inspired me to climb mountains more than anybody else! Maybe I’ll hit Everest next… 😉
Planning to climb to Everest Base Camp
In February 2013, I worked as head of outdoor education at an Academy in Worcester. I had also taken on the role of education visit coordinator across the trust. As a huge believer that learning happens best outside of the classroom, I always supported trips of all kinds.
Whilst quality-assuring, a risk assessment, and other planning for an upcoming visit to Nepal and to Everest base camp, I was offered the opportunity to attend this 21-day expedition due to leave at Easter. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance: trekking in the Everest region was something that I had always wanted to do. I immediately decided I needed to start training as we would be taking 35 students, staff and their partners, I had to be mountain fit. The time flew by and before I knew it I was out of time and approx. £2000 lighter with all the kit I’d bought. I’d like to say that the journey there went without any problems, but it didn’t. A member of the teaching staff collapsed on the plane about an hour before landing in Kathmandu. A quick trip to the local medical centre and everyone was fighting fit again – or should I say ‘hiking fit’.
Climbing Mount Everest can be a fantastic addition to any backpacking trip through Nepal. I will not bore you with the details of our typical tourist visits to the monkey temple, Boudhanath etc, as this post is all about the expedition to Everest Base camp. Check out this post for details about choosing between Everest Base Camp or Annapurna Base Camp!
The Climb- Attempt 1
Now, having trained pretty hard prior to leaving the UK I decided I was going to get there without the use of Diamox (A tablet that helps with acclimatizing to altitude). Naively I thought having been in the mountains a lot in the UK I would be fine. Naive I was. Becoming ill 2 days before reaching BC, I was unable to eat or drink so just slept whenever I could. Then we reached Gorak Shep, the last village before reaching EBC. This place appeared filthy, with rubbish just thrown in the street. Overnight I became worse, getting an altitude headache – which is unexplainable unless you have experienced it. We departed at 5am the following morning on what should have been a 3-hour slow walk but unfortunately, my illness became worse until the point where my guide was asking me to turn back. As an ex-soldier who had never failed anything physical I was determined that I would get there. Squatting behind a rock to keep out of the wind and snow I waited for the remainder of the group to catch up with me. Again, my guide asked me to turn back. I refused until spoken to by a close friend who informed me with tears in his eyes that I was not well, with blood pouring from my nose. At that point, I realised how ill I’d become and my survival instinct kicked in. I was escorted down to a much lower altitude. The raft of feelings I endured while waiting for the others to come down was the worst of my life. I felt weak and a failure. Months of grief from friends at home and work didn’t help, but this just made me more determined that I would be back.
The Climb- Attempt 2
5 years later, I had just broken up for the Easter school holiday. I decided I was going back, but this time I would be alone, not having to look after anyone other than myself, and I would be taking Diamox. I’d do whatever I could to ensure success. Although, my stubborn side kicked in and I refused to buy insurance – I was going with the mindset that I’d make it or die trying! I booked my flights and a guide, and it was off to Kathmandu.
With limited time I knew I had to be fast going up, so I informed Santosh (Guide) we only had 6 days to reach EBC. Much to his disapproval, he agreed. Unfortunately, as happens a lot in the Himalayas, the weather meant my flight across to the mountain was cancelled until the following day. A long boring night in Kathmandu followed. We departed at 6am the following morning and arrived at Lukla, home of many Sherpas, guides and porters as well as the scariest runway I’ve ever seen. We immediately started hiking, with no time for pleasantries. Having picked up the pace we had agreed to reach Namche Bazaar on day 1, approx. 13km with a gain in altitude of around 600meters. The advice says that this should take 2 – 3 days. Unfortunately, with a pre-existing injury from the military, my ankle is not as strong as it should be. This proved to be an issue. I mis-footed within an hour and went straight over resulting in immediate swelling and severe pain. With my foot dipped in a stream I decided that speed was not going to be an option, but we would have to hike further each day – just not this day. So, with strapping on my ankle and some strong pain relief we were off again, but losing the light fast. We did not reach NB. Unhappy but determined I would continue and we booked into a cosy Tea lodge for the night.
After an uncomfortable evening (due to pain) we were off again, and today we would reach NB. The last time I had been here I had helped a British army doctor escort a student into the town who had shown early signs of sickness. This pre-dated the devastating earthquake that had ripped through Nepal in 2015. It was clear that huge amounts of money had been poured into the town with all the new infrastructure that been built. I was glad to see that the local people of NB were benefitting in some way after the devastation. The town still holds a great feeling of welcome to all people of all nations. Hundreds of shops selling the same items, but the banter is what lures you in and that’s where the bartering begins.
After booking into some very nice accommodation called the “Yak Hotel” I took a well-earned shower. The higher you get, the more expensive everything becomes, including showers! Then we had dinner. With a limited palate, my choice of food was not vast (garlic soup and eggs pretty much for the duration) although the menu was large enough to cater for all. Following a quick rest, I went to look about – knowing I did not need any extra clothing I still somehow found myself buying more walking trousers! This was thanks to a great display of salesmanship by the young lady who was no older than a year 10 I’d been teaching in the UK less than a week before. I spent the following few hours drinking hot chocolate in a local bar watching a documentary on Everest. After reading a few pages of my expedition book of choice, Everest: It’s Not About the Summit, I drifted off only to wake in the early hours. Looking out my window over the rooftops, the snow fell hard and fast. Unfortunately, my lack of photography skills meant I was unable to capture the beauty of this.
The following morning the sun was rising above the mountains surrounding NB, and the snow was already starting to melt as we departed the hotel. People from across the world were wrapped in every colour for today’s hike. Knowing the gradient that we would hit straight away I opted for my walking shirt, and I was so glad I did. The hike from NB to the Tengboche Monastery is a long slow difficult climb to reach 3,867 metres. We stopped for lunch (my usual – 2 egg omelette) whilst sat on the balcony of a teahouse overlooking the Buddhist monastery. I cast my mind back to my 2013 expedition where I had spent the duration of this day supporting two members of teaching staff who were struggling and asking to turn around. At one stage I felt like a porter carrying 3 daysacks, but we had got there about 2 hours after the main group. After settling into my accommodation, we had dinner and my students went outside to play football. It was a surreal feeling watching children kick a ball about at almost 4000 meters. This was amplified when a group Monks donned in the traditional maroon robes but wearing trainers came and joined in, and a full game ensued. After a night where all bar myself and a colleague were ill, we split the group. The main body headed back down and a smaller group headed further up into the mountains. There was an unusual silence within the group which I believe to be a form of separation anxiety. However after lunch today we pushed on further to Dingbouche where we would spend the night.
Unfortunately, as we were now “off any real schedule” and making decisions as we went, Santosh had been unable to pre-book accommodation. We ended up in a “low end” tea hut, but it was dry and had somewhere to eat. Being at this altitude was starting to affect me – not the headaches or sickness, but exhaustion. I rested for most of the night, reading and watching downloaded films on my tablet. Some people believe you should leave modern tech behind, but it’s my belief that hanging on to a small part of what is “normal” helps get you through the downtime when negative thoughts can creep in.
With a 7am start and a belly full of porridge we were off again. Only a short but difficult walk of about 6km to Lobuche. Reaching the climbers memorial is a somewhat emotional experience. Here we found people in large numbers, some laughing and joking, some in a more sombre frame of mind showing respect to those climbers who paid the ultimate sacrifice trying to achieve their dream of summiting Everest. I stopped here only briefly, reminiscing about 2013 and how I felt back then compared to now. Then, I wanted to take it all in, show my respect but at the same time be “the tourist” and do what so many do, relax, take photos and look at the different names. I even had the opportunity to meet a highly accomplished climber who had summited Everest several times. David Tate became a patriot for our school and gave a memorable speech at an awards evening about his journey to Everest. A remarkable man. If I remember correctly he had just been to EBC with his son who was around 12. Today, however, I had no interest in photos, no interest in the memorials, no interest in resting. Today I kept my head down, with my breathing becoming shallower, each step became more difficult and here it came: the headache and feeling of nausea. I couldn’t stop, couldn’t rest, and just pushed on. Reaching the hotel in Lobuche was a great feeling.
Exhausted, I was sat down in the restroom to re-strap my ankle when a newlywed couple from New Zealand engaged me in conversation. It occurred to me that this was the first conversation I’d had with anyone since buying my trousers in NB. We spoke of previous hikes around the world, about our reasons for being here. They even invited me to visit them in New Zealand. I’m not the most social person at the best of times but I really liked these two and talking helped to stop the negative thoughts creeping in. After a bowl of garlic soup we were off on an acclimatization walk up to 5000meters (the highest I had been to at this point). I really struggled, but the view of the Khumbu glacier was magnificent, and we sat for a while taking in the scenery. I was glad we had done the acclimatisation walk – The old saying “hike high sleep low” was paramount to me now with the way I’d started feeling. Santosh gave me some local medication which helped initially. I found myself feeling low. I thought texting home would make me feel better, but it didn’t. I spent a very cold night running back and forward to the toilet, each time making me question my ability to make it.
The Final Ascent
After a horrendous night, with my health in question, I sat staring at my porridge when a young man from Leeds started talking to me. His opening words stuck with me “You will make it mate, one more night”. Little did he know at that point, I was not staying at the last village of “Gorak Shep”. I told him about 2013 and how ill I had become, and how Gorak Shep had become a bad omen for me. It’s silly I know, but whatever it takes! My memories of this village were of me becoming so ill I couldn’t eat or drink. The place had been filthy back then. He seemed to take this on board as he changed his plans and was going straight to Everest base camp (EBC). I set off with Santosh after donning my down jacket, hat and buff covering most of my face. I still should have put sunblock on – schoolboy error! Having decided we were going to fly off from EBC by helicopter to go to another mountain range for my last few days, my spirits were lifted slightly. Now, I am probably the most non-religious religious person you will come across, but I found myself praying and asking my mother who has passed to give me the strength to make it.
After a long slow slog, we eventually arrived at EBC. The feelings I expected didn’t come, just a quiet internal sense of relief. Yes, I was happy that I’d made it this time, but almost immediately I was looking across the icefall, not at it. I was already decided that my next visit would be to tackle the Khumbu icefall. Santosh had brought the traditional string of prayer flags which we laid, and it occurred to me that we were the only people here. That felt surreal, sitting mesmerised by the views, with only the quiet sound of the breeze and the faint distant voices coming from the actual Base Camp, the camp that ultimately would be my home for the evening. A few minutes later the couple from NZ arrived followed by a continuous stream of people. The quiet was shattered with the sound of people praising each other, video blogs and messages being sent home. I sat alone taking it all in, wondering why I was not overcome with similar reactions.
A Change of Plan
Santosh and I moved off to the small landing site to await our lift. 3 hours later the helicopter came flying up the valley. His approach was wrong, and I knew he couldn’t land from this direction. I was amused when he flew off, but Santosh was mortified. I found out that he had never been in a helicopter so couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. After explaining about wind direction and downdraft he tried to call the operations centre but was told we would need to start walking down. Annoyed but still amused I set off. I think my amusement came from being let down by the RAF on a number of occasions while on operations due to weather – it’s kind of expected when dealing with helicopters. No sooner had we started walking than shouts came down the valley for us “to get to the big HLS” located at the far end of the climbers’ base camp. Santosh took off like the mountain goat he is, altitude seriously does not affect him! His aim was to get there and hold the helicopter as I was not able to run at this height. After about 25minutes walking I had lost sight of him, I stopped and looked around, I was stood on the very edge of the icefall, this brought on a sense of excitement and fear at the same time having read all about the dangers this part of the mountain held, I looked and thought “it doesn’t look that bad” but I was also aware that the ice could give way at any second and I’d be a goner. I moved up across rock walls away from the edge finally reaching what was classed as “the big helicopter landing site” (able to take larger heli’s if necessary). We were welcomed by 2 brothers and their admin team who were here in advance of their climbers to prepare the camp. These guys were awesome, the older having summited Everest 9 times, and his younger brother who would be climbing for his 7th this season.
We were handed mug after mug of hot ginger tea which was gratefully received as the temperature was dropping quickly. After several phone calls, we were told that no heli would be coming now. A young Sherpa from another team appeared from nowhere and announced: “Pete you will be staying here tonight with us, we will equip you with food, water and a sleeping bag”. We had to go back to the other side of the camp as they needed to ensure we had o2 close to hand. Moving back along the icefall I asked Santosh to take a photo for me: the sun was all but gone, and the whole place felt slightly eerie.
I was fed and watered by the lead Sherpa who also talked me through his life to become the man he is. From a small village in Tibet he had trained as a porter, then guide, eventually being offered the opportunity to summit Everest. He now lives in America with his wife and children and works as an international mountain rescue guide. We talked of Acuncagua and Cho Oyo, and he offered to assist in any way he could when I chose to attempt these climbs. Finally, he asked if I’d be ok if he checked my heart rate and o2 stats. Having had this done a few days before I was shocked to find that my o2 levels had depreciated from about 97% to 27% with a HR of 127. Now he wasn’t worried, and I would love to say “neither was Santosh or I” but that would be a lie! Throughout the night my breathing became more and more shallow, causing me at one point to start to panic, somehow, I was able to control this with 3 deep slow breaths, but it was taking ¾ breaths to open my bottle, drink and close the lid. I had never experienced anything so difficult. In the early hours I found myself outside the tent in just shorts, boots and a down jacket staring at the icefall. This is a memory only imprinted on my mind as I had gone outside on autopilot to use the toilet, without my camera. The moon was full, stars shone brightly as the mist rolled down the front of the icefall. The ice glistened in the moonlight. This was without doubt the best mountain view I have had. Santosh has subsequently sent me photos from the camp which he and others have taken on my behalf, trying to give me something tangible as a reminder of that night, but nothing comes close. Maybe the memory has been amplified in my mind due to the conditions and other real-life factors that can not be captured in a photograph.
Having not slept at all, I found myself staring at the light coming through the tent exterior, still concentrating on making every breath count as I had been throughout the night. I was later given porridge and tea, which I surprisingly was able to consume. Then came the sounds of the helicopter coming up the valley, we stepped on to the HLS as the sun lit it up. As the helicopter landed I felt all the feelings I’d expected to feel the day before sweep over me. Pride, success, relief, but the biggest feeling was of regret. This was a challenge that had hung over me for 5 years and within minutes it would all be over. I didn’t want to leave, I’d not only proved I could get there but now I had survived at high altitude through the night with worrying stats, and I wanted to go further up the mountains.
Now some people may say “it’s only basecamp” “why didn’t you get to the top?” but people die going to basecamp. Yes, it is do-able for anyone that is fairly healthy with a basic level of fitness and determination, would I recommend doing it, yes without doubt, would I recommend doing it in 6 days……… Not unless there is an underlying reason. A good reason. As it turned out my reason had not occurred to me when booking this, that I would reach BC and remain there only to come down exactly 1 year on from my mother’s passing.