No matter what time you arrived at Camp 3 you had only a few hours turn around before the ‘big off’. I was not about to spend it all whinging about how hard we’d had to work over the last few days, and how little time we had now, to do that could compromise the whole attempt. Instead Pete and I snapped into super-efficient admin mode, we boiled snow, ate, as much as we could stomach, checked our oxygen cylinders and then re-checked them, checked our masks, and checked our regulators. We changed our socks - fresh socks for summit day are always most welcome, particularly as we had been wearing the same socks for the past week! We packed our kit together, going through every eventuality, and mentally rehearsing the route we knew we were about to take. There was an air of confidence in our tent, we knew what was expected of us and we knew what we needed to do to achieve what we’d been working hard to achieve this whole year.
For me personally, I got some time to think back over the past month and a bit. It had been a real struggle to get back to the team, to get re-acclimatised and to put myself in with a chance, just a chance of getting to the summit. I had to be realistic, it seemed unlikely that my body would be able to manage this; it would have been easy to settle for what I had reached already and take it on the chin that this year wasn’t to be for me. But I didn’t let my head fill with negative thoughts like that. In my mind there was no question, we were going to summit.
As we set off into the darkness, I remember being so focused I hadn’t even considered how big of a deal it was. It was just a case of cracking on! Having completed more night route-marches than I can remember, climbing in the dark hours did not faze me at all, which was probably quite a big advantage over some of the other guys. The going was tough, but I soon settled into a rhythm and while I didn’t feel that I especially needed his assistance, was very grateful to have a Sherpa slot himself in behind me for company if nothing else. It was only after an hour as I took my mask off for a quick sip of water, that I turned around and recognised the Sherpa as Dorjee Sherpa, I could not help but laugh, and as he recognised me he laughed back. Dorjee Sherpa had escorted me from BC back to the Nepali border before I was Casevaced back to Kathmandu some 11 weeks ago. He had chatted to me and looked after me as we made the long journey back and I will never forget, what he thought, were his final words to me, “I see you on the mountain next year”. He’d seen his fair share of mountain dramas and it was clear he did not expect me to make it back from this one.
Realising Dorjee was behind me gave me an incredible morale boost, and I really began to enjoy the climb as the sun was starting to appear over the horizon and I started to realise how good a time I was making. We had already passed the infamous figure of ‘Green Boots’, the Pakistani policeman who decided to take a nap on the ridge some 10 years ago and never woke up, whose body remains, lying peacefully in a ditch next to the track for all to see and be reminded of how harsh a mountain Everest can be. We nailed the first step without even really thinking about it, and pushed hard and fast on to the notoriously harder second step. I tackled this just after the sun had risen. It consisted of a 30ft sheer cliff face, so imposing that without the use of the precariously attached ladders and fixed ropes now in place it is hard to imagine the likes of Mallory managing to scale. At the top Dorjee and I enjoyed a wry smile and a quick drink, and admired the breathtaking sun rise that was happening all around us, dawning the day that I would remember for the rest of my life. Dorjee and I were enjoying this. But it was still two and a half hours to the top, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen Pete. If we this was going to be a success we needed to summit together, I had to find Pete, but there was nothing I could do, I knew he was ahead of me, and I knew there was no way he wasn’t going to make it, I just had to push on and hope for the best.
I made it to the third and final step behind a bit of a queue of people. By this time it was almost complete daylight, despite being only around half 6 in the morning. I got held up a bit on this final little technical part of the climb as a couple of climbers ahead struggled to get over it, I even laughed out loud as one stumbled on the rock at the foot of the feature, I recognised that ginger back of a head...it was Pete!! We were still too far away from each other to be able to relax or communicate but I gave him the thumbs up and cracked on with what I was doing. Pretty soon I was on the summit cone and a tricky traverse around the back before cruising up to the top! It was at this point that I saw Pete again, about 20m ahead of me, catching a breather. Somehow I’d caught up with him, somehow I’d come within a few minutes of him. He turned, looked, smiled and simply pointed at me...I pointed back! We simply could not believe it! Without any planning we’d managed to simultaneously complete the climb together, there must have surely have been someone watching over us...
I was lucky enough to arrive at Camp 3 in good time, which allowed me to get critical admin points squared away. For me it was important to have everything ready for when Matt arrived, as I knew that the easier our lives were now, the odds would be in our favour for the summit push. With everything sorted, I could now finally focus on our final and biggest test yet. Mentally preparing myself for the route to the summit and going over the images of the summit video shown back at BC, it was valuable time. Most of the ascent is completed in darkness, with first sun light around 4:00AM, the route is hard enough in the day, so it was important to remember key time points, ideally clear of 2nd step before sun rise was a good indicator that you were doing well. My thoughts also dwelled on how much Matt had proved everybody wrong on his return to mountain and the team we had become over this past year. He was defying the odds stacked against him and with style. I had no doubt in my mind that the dream would become a reality and we would both give everything physically and mentally possible to reach the summit. Confidence was high and when Matt arrived our plan swung into action, both knowing what we were each thinking with a knowing tell.
The ‘big off’ came around quickly and we were soon moving under torch light up the mountain. My rucksack contained all my oxygen cylinders required for the gruelling climb that lay ahead, along with enough energy food and water to last me, in all 20kg of weight. Matt was in front of me for the majority of the climb from Camp 3 to just below the ridge. Passing him to take the lead when I knew he needed a longer rest. I had to keep moving as I was starting to feel the cold in my feet. I knew that Matt would be behind me again further along the route.
It wasn’t until I reached the ridge that I realised there was a Sherpa following me. Nima is one of the younger new sherpas within the team, but had made a good impression on me in the weeks leading up to summit day. There was a good bond between us and I had confidence if anything were to happen we would be able to sort it out.
Myself and Nima set a good pace up the ridge, tackling the 1st step with no dramas and carefully edging our way up the rocky terrain on crampons. The darkness for me took away a certain element of exposure, especially with how high some of the drops could have been if I had slipped. However my torch light didn’t fail to hide my first glimpse of the reality of what can happen if something does go wrong... ‘Green Boots’. He was lit up like a Christmas tree as I went past, focusing my mind even more that this would not happen to me or Matt.
I stopped occasionally to share a drink or a bit of food with my Sherpa, every time trying to gain perspective of how far along the ridge I had progressed with my limited Nepali speaking skills... I felt strong and knew I was doing well as the rest of the torch lights on the mountain were falling quite far behind, with only a hand full in the distance to the front. Max O’Meara and his Sherpa Sonam were the only people directly following us; it was good to have someone to banter with along the ridge when we rested.
With the route ahead being clear, there would be no queues at certain points along the ridge, particularly the 2nd step. The risk of getting cold waiting around would not happen.
Even though Matt wasn’t directly behind me, my mind was completely and totally relaxed as I just knew and trusted that we would meet closer to the summit. I cannot really describe why I felt like this, I just had faith it would. This was going to be our day.
The big morale boost and adrenaline rush would come when the first glimpse of sun light came, my mind totally focused during the climb on why and what we are doing this for, winning the mental battle with ease. Thoughts of my family and friends, particularly what the feeling would be like when me and Matt reach the summit crossed my mind.
As I approached the infamous second step and started to tackle the ladders upwards, it wasn’t hard to miss another reminder of how dangerous this part of the climb is. A body of a climber lay at the bottom, which looked like it just happened as his kit was so new. Another sobering moment.
I had ascended the second step before daylight and knew I was getting close. It was then I witnessed one of the most spectacular sun rises ever. Words cannot describe the awesomeness of how the Himalayas looked as the sun rose, with perfect visibility, the curvature of the earth and reflection of the sun on the surrounding mountains was simply stunning. I knew I was witnessing something very special on the highest mountain in the world....
Reaching the third step with the sun rising I could now clearly see the last parts of the route to the summit! I decided to rest a while as I had made good progress, whilst allowing people who had summited at sun-rise to descend down the third step past me. Max went on ahead. I knew that just a few more hours of hard work the dream would become a reality.... excitement started to grow.. It was at that point as I started my ascent of the third step I turned around and who did I find walking up towards me ....yes......Matt!!!!! I heard him laughing as my first attempt to haul myself up the first rock on the third step failed.... Massive thumbs up were displayed between us and it was onwards and upwards to the summit!
The last few hours climb were spent ascending a snow slope, with a traverse around rocky terrain to the North, then a final rock scramble upwards to bring you onto the snow plateau at the top. Standing together on the snow plateau, with only 100 yards or so of assent up wards, I knew the smiles under our oxygen masks were bigger than a Cheshire cats.
Standing on top of the World together...
The last few steps to the summit are completely indescribable for both of us. Complete sensory overload. The view, the pride, the elation, nothing could have prepared us for what we felt as we began to realise that we had achieved the dream, and we had achieved it together. Awesome.
We smiled, we screamed, we embraced, we frantically took photos and videos of anything and everything, we grabbed rocks from the summit, and hugged again. We had planned a few days earlier what we needed to do and what photos we needed to take for our sponsors, particularly with the Help for Heroes Banner and Great Britain flag. But the greatest and most poignant moment came when we placed both a JTYAF and a Help for Heroes wrist band at the top, along with the Air Cadet Junior Leaders Course DZ flash which is where we had all become a band of brothers......
This was our moment and we were loving it! Everything was forgotten, the pain, the hardship, the endurance, the suffering, the fear, and it was replaced by this beautiful beautiful moment knowing that we were stood higher than anyone else in the World.