Friday, 25 June 2010

Final Thoughts by Matt Snook

It’s been almost a month now since Pete and I brushed the Top of the World. I’ve just about regained the feeling in my fingertips, the damage done to my right eye is healed and I’ve regained about a stone of the 2 and a half I lost whilst on the mountain. And yet, things still haven’t sunk in. It doesn’t feel real; to be honest I don’t think it ever will.

As young lads, John and I used to dream about Mount Everest; to us it was a magical place, the summit of achievement, and the pinnacle of our ambitions. We used to gaze at pictures and images of the mountain in sheer wonderment. Even as I arrived at Base Camp a few months ago, seeing her for the first time in all her glory, I still got goose-bumps and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. She looked so special, so untouchable, so magical.

For me, having climbed it, the magic has gone. No longer do the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I look at a picture of Everest, no longer do I get the goose-bumps on my arms as I try to convince myself that one day I’ll get there and no longer do I see it as the most amazing thing I could ever do with my life. They say you should never meet your hero in life, maybe the same rings true for mountains…

I hate that the magic I once shared with John has gone. But I have nothing to complain about, as that magic has been replaced by the memories. For that beautiful, beautiful moment of standing higher than anyone else in the world, I would go through it all again and more.

I am extremely proud of the work we have done for Help for Heroes and the John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation. Our aim for the next few months is to tell our story to as many people as will listen, aiming to double our current fundraising total to £30,000. It’s not the £100,000 we initially set out to raise, but times are tough, something about a recession??

We have been completely over-whelmed by the support we have had. Even now I’m hearing from people I have never met before who have followed our adventure. A massive and sincere thank you to everyone who has followed us this year, read our blogs, and donated to our cause. A particular thank you also to our sponsors, SFL and NorthwoodUK, who have supported us no end and we are so grateful to them for believing in us. Also a massive thank-you to the Tasty Marketing girls, the guys at RVOps, Steve Howard at Lloyds Pharmacy, Jag Sarmotta at The North Face and Jill Borrie at Mansell Mason. We really couldn’t have done it without your help.

At the risk of making this sound like an award acceptance speech (probably not the Oscars, something a little more low-key maybe…), I’d also like to thank my friends and family. Especially my parents, who now seem to be more knowledgeable on the history of Everest than I am, to Vicky and Tom for sorting out everything at home while we’ve been away and to Bex for enduring me this last year, you are more than I deserve.

Last month we achieved something we had been working hard towards for the last year, but had been dreaming of for all our lives. It didn’t come easy, nothing in life that’s worth having ever does, but we dared to dream, we worked hard to accomplish it and we’re very proud to be the first to summit for Help for Heroes and the JTYAF.

Thank you once again for being a part of our incredible year.


Thursday, 24 June 2010

Reflections by Pete Sunnucks

What an incredible year its been. I’m still coming to terms as to what we have just accomplished, it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. Its an absolute honor for us to be the first to stand on Top of the World for Help for Heroes and JTYAF. Reflecting on the last twelve months, we have pretty much lived, breathed, ate and slept Everest, in order to achieve the ultimate dream. We've had an amazing time together, both in raising funds for two outstanding, poignant Charities and training for the big event. What makes me smile is the longest period of time Matt and myself spent apart was when he was evacuated from base camp! I believe the fact we stood on Top of the World together is a fair reflection of how much a strong team we have become, particularly that we are still on speaking terms after sharing a tent for two months.

There have been many twists and turns along the way, some of which we could have not foreseen; it’s not been an easy journey. The satisfaction of succeeding against adversity is certainly one to savor. It’s certainly pushed myself outside my comfort zone both physically and mentally, living each day on the mountain with the thought that at any moment I would have to make a life or death decision, whilst at the limits of my capabilities. I can definitely draw on these experiences, particularly when Matt fell down the crevasse at over 7000m, and know that I've proven myself in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. On the spectrum scale on how you can climb Everest, we took on one of the hardest and triumphed. I am deeply proud of what we have achieved, especially how much Matt has proven people wrong, its unbelievable.

However, I really hope that one member of our expedition group, Geordie Stewart, someone who we both come to know very well and has become an immense friend, finish and achieve his dream on Everest next year. Unfortunately this year it wasn't to be, but we have complete confidence he will do it next time. He will be the youngest Brit ever to complete the Seven Summits.

I have some fond and incredible memories from this adventure, as well as making some life long friends. The question of ‘Would I do it again?’ has been asked a couple of times now and my response is simply ‘I’ll get back to you on that...’ As much as I’ve found mountaineering a remarkable experience, it has shown little evidence of sportsmanship, particularly with all the politics that surrounded our summit day, and the atmosphere we had to endure back to kathmandu. I think it's fair to say that the expedition was very much a group of individuals rather than a true team.

This achievement would have not been possible without both our families, friends and sponsors support. Its been unbelievable. We are completely staggered and humbled with the amount of good wishes and congratulations messages we’ve received, and how much money we are continuing to raise for Help for Heroes and JTYAF. I really hope we have both contributed to the growth and success that the JTYAF deserves. We really cant thank people enough.

As for the future, integrating back into society and gaining back the amount of weight lost is a priority, particularly as we have running water, home cooked food and a bed! The incredible experiences and lessons learned from this past year will no doubt allow us take on what ever challenges arise in our future careers and lives, always living by the mantra of ‘Climb as high as you can dream.'

The quote below by T.E Lawrence below will certainly remain with me for the rest of my life.

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Once again, thank you all for your support


Sunday, 20 June 2010

The Long Journey Back Home...

(continued from Matt's "Getting back down to Camp 2)

We were abruptly awoken from our sleep coma by one of the Sherpa team shaking our tent violently. It was 6am. We initially thought it was the start of some strong winds until a friendly voice said “hello, good morning, you need to start moving further down the mountain now…”

We woke feeling dazed, groggy and extremely tired, with our oxygen bottles completely depleted. The summit day had clearly taken a massive toll on our bodies, but the thought of what we had both experienced at 07:20 the previous morning brought massive smiles to our faces. The muscle aches and pains seemed to fade into the distance as we reminisced in disbelief on what we had just accomplished. I remember having to pinch myself to remind me that it wasn’t a dream, we have just both stood on top of the world. With what little physical strength we had left, the next painstaking four hours were spent getting ourselves prepped and ready for another long hard day ahead. Everything took 6x longer than usual and the fact that we were not safe off the mountain was a pressing thought on our minds. You would anticipate the descent being a lot easier, but the route ahead would be as precarious as the assent. This was not going to be a straight forward climb down to advanced base camp.

Eventually we surfaced from our tent and ventured out into the snow blizzard that had set in. We found Geordie sitting with the Sherpas not far from our tent. There was quite a bit of banter about how long we had taken to get ready, even Geordie tried to join in which was pleasing as the condition he was in when he arrived last night was quite alarming. It seemed we were the last of the group to leave camp 2. With a fresh oxygen bottle we were ready to start our climb down to the North Col camp.
We were the last of the whole group to leave the camp and the three of us set out on what proved to be another precarious descent, collapsing every five minutes against the nearest rock as we were all extremely physically tired. It was unbelievably slow progress. The terrain down to the start of the snow slope is fairly rocky, not ideal with crampons. Concentration on every foot step was paramount, made that little bit harder when you're totally fatigued.

Finally we reached 7500m and the top of the snow slope. The weather conditions had deteriorated further, with over a foot of fresh snow now on the ground and increasing. It was a true white out, with strong winds! We had to get down quickly as this wasn’t the environment to hang around in. The pace down the snow slope was slow and relentless, but an easier more efficient way was soon discovered. Sledging! Well not quite, but simply sit down, check your safety line, adopt a safe sliding position and let gravity do the rest! The next 400m of descent was probably the most fun we had on the mountain.

The last part of the route, however, crosses a few crevasses before you reach the North Col camp, so we got to our feet and reluctantly started walking again. We had seen the Sherpas that were a few meters ahead of us, detour of the fix line route. It seemed that the weather conditions and heavy snow had covered the exact locations of where we had to cross, and the risk of falling down had dramatically increased. The Sherpas were precariously using walking poles to test the stability of the snow one or two feet in front of them. With the risk being so high, and to avoid the crevasses completely, the new line the Sherpas took, meant we had to hand rail the edge of the ridge, almost stepping off the snow slope trying to avoid not falling down the mountain. We waited whilst they went ahead to find and prove a new path.

Thankfully the fixed lines had enough slack to allow us to attempt this, we gingerly made our way along the new proven route. I was leading, with Matt and then Geordie close behind. At this point the weather had closed in even more, with visibility now reduced to around 2m. Following the exact path we had seen the Sherpas take would prove difficult in normal weather conditions, let alone a complete white out!

I managed to find traces of the Sherpas footsteps, but the was weather massively against us and was fast covering up their tracks. Soon there was no evidence at all where they had been. I hand railed the rocky edge on my crampons, carefully edging further down the ridge, to a rocky feature where I remember the sherpas crossing back up to join the normal route. Lightly placing my left foot, I stepped back onto the snow, it held. I then proceeded to place my right foot on the snow, it took my body weight. I cautiously started to make my way back up to centre of the snow slope, each time dreading that at any moment my footing would find the start of a crevasse. I made it. I then waited for Matt and Geordie to join me. Five minutes past and still no sign of Matt, but I knew he would be taking his time like I did. Ten minutes passed and still no sign of either of them. At the 15 minute mark I could tell something was wrong. It was then I tried to retrace my steps back down to the edge of the snow slope.

Peering through the blizzard, my eyes suddenly caught sight of Geordie sitting down on the rocky ridge, scanning further around I saw that Matt's shoulders and head were protruding out of the ground….Bo%^%ks he was in a crevasse. Managing to cautiously make my way over to him, I found Matt in a frantic state. His foot was stuck in the ice below and every time he moved he sunk deeper in. Getting him out was not going to be easy…

My initial reaction when I finally got him was he had broken a leg, due to the manner he was frantically moving his arms around and cowering over into the crevasse. Shouting at each other so we could hear over the weather, he assured me that he was in no pain, but I couldn’t tell if it was just the adrenalin or not. I could see in his eyes he was deeply worried that we wouldn’t be able to get him out. I reassured him that I would never let them happen. Attaching another safety line from my harness to the fixed lines, I precariously lay down onto the snow and crawled up to the edge of the crevasse to peer in for a closer look. I could see his left foot was encased in ice and at an awkward position. With a reassuring thumps up, I conveyed with Geordie a plan to dig him out. He would watch my safety lines as I leaned into the crevasse to dig him out with my ice axe. After about 30 minutes of chipping away I finally got his foot loose. Making sure his foot was okay, I hauled him out away from the crevasse. We all fell into a heap by the edge of the ridge and rested.

We all knew we had a lucky escape. Checking his body over and moving his foot around, Matt was confident that nothing was broken, but the adventure wasn’t over yet. We still had to get back onto the normal path of the snow slope, then descend the North Col to reach ABC.

After a few minutes rest we set off again to find a safer way back across. Leading again and using my ice axe to check the snow in front, we found a route to bring us safely back to the centre of the snow slope. We continued our decent down to the North col camp, at which point the weather had changed and blue skies were now upon us. We couldn’t believe it! What was left between us and safety, was the North Col…

Not taking any chances, a fast but safe descent was required. However, with the weather now being kind to us, we made sure we savoured the breath-taking views and our last time on the slopes of this magnificent mountain. We eventually made it back down to ABC at 10pm, totally exhausted, both physically and mentally. It had been one hell of a day. Sleeping was not a problem as another coma was entered once we reached the mess tents and finally had some real food!

We spent the next day trying to recover from the arduous couple of days on the mountain. It had certainly thrown everything at us, but we had survived and more importantly completed it as a team.

The mountain wasn’t going to let us escape easily, so after finally managing to summon up enough energy to make the 15mile trek to Base camp, we endured another blizzard for the whole day.

With our final foot steps taken on Everest's rocks, we had our last meal with the group before we departed the following morning for Kathmandu. The 14 hour drive back was made bearable with the knowledge that a beer and shower (in that order) were waiting for us in our hotel. We had been through so much on the mountain the last few months we weren't even phazed by the start of Nepal's infamous 'Monsoon Season' which was triggering river banks to burst, roads to flood and landslides all over the place.

Our last few days in Kathmandu were all about recovery. The mountain had certainly taken its toll on our bodies, both Matt and I losing a significant amount of weight, in total 4 stone between us! It was a shock to see. We could also finally make those important phone calls home to the parents to let them know we were finally safe and well (if a little underweight…)

Before we flew home we visited the famous Rum-Doodle Bar to sign the 'Summiteers Log Book' and backboard of the bar, joining the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Ranulf Finnes and Bear Grylls, it was a great moment. We also, now officially have free food and drink for life there if we ever return…

When it finally came to getting on the plane back to Blighty, it was sad to leave, but we were both very happy to be going home. Little did we know of the total surprise that awaited us at Heathrow...


Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Getting back down to Camp 2...

As we'd been told so many times before even flying out to Nepal, climbing a mountain is not about summiting - it's only halfway to the top, it's only a successful summit if you get down safely. With this in mind, and with the cold starting to chill the elation of being able to touch the roof of the World we didn't loiter, the weather had been kind to us so far, and we didn't much feel like pushing our luck.

Negotiating the descent at first was relatively easy. It felt nice to have the pressure off our legs, we could relax and actually enjoy the views, plus we were still pretty overwhelmed at the idea we'd just achieved what we'd been working towards for the past year and been dreaming of for most of our lives. Things started to get tricky, however, when we reached the second step. Both being fairly competent climbers and both being completely focused on the task in hand we'd had no problems coming up in the dark, but now things felt different. The ladder somehow felt less stable, and our tired, frost-nipped hands struggled to keep a tight grip. I'd made sure I was clipped onto as many of the fixed ropes I could find, and shakily lowered myself to the foot of the cliff face after Pete had very hesitantly done the same. As I turned to look at Pete, he'd frozen in his tracks. I turned to look at what he was looking at, a chill shot through my back. I'd missed it on the climb because it still would have been dark, but lying about 10 feet away from the foot of the second step was the familiar shape of a body, lying face down in the icy rock. He was wearing a yellow 'romper-suit' and red boots, almost identical to what Pete and I were wearing. I've got no idea about the details of this poor lad's death, when it happened or whether it happened coming up or on the way down, but it was obvious he'd clipped into the wrong rope and lost his grip on the ladder. I stark reminder to us, that this adventure was not over yet, and we needed to stay switched on.

For what seemed like hours we pressed on, forcing ourselves to make certain every time we un-clipped off the fixed-line, that we clipped back on again. It was a tough mental battle, and tiredness was starting to overcome us. Physically we were exhausted, but we had no time to spare as the oxygen in our final cylinder was dwindling away.

We finally descended off the North-East ridge, and down the valley into the high camp. It was a relief to see the campsite and our tent, but we knew we needed to push on further down the mountain. At 8300m we were still vulnerable to the altitude, especially in our current physical condition. Succumbing to the tiredness and spending the night at Camp 3 without Oxygen could have been fatal. We were greeted at our tent by Geordie. He looked in a bad way, exhausted, frost-nipped/sunburnt face and still struggling to talk. He told us he hadn't managed to make the summit and he explained to us his day. I was gutted for him, we both were. Over the course of the expedition we had come to know Geordie quite well, and had a lot of time for him. It turned out our tent was being used to shelter one of the members of the team who had gone down with a severe altitude sickness and very probably HACE. Stu, the team leader and a number of Sherpas were preparing to stretcher him down to the next camp. Unfortunately this meant we couldn't get on with our descent, so we took some time out at Camp 3 - by which I mean we (all 3 of us) went foetal behind the nearest rock!!

This was a big mistake! We ended up leaving Camp 3 far too late and had a real epic fighting through snow-storms and darkness getting to Camp 2. At 7800m it was safe enough for us to sleep here, but we had another problem now. It was pitch black, snowing, bitterly cold, we were utterly exhausted and we couldn't find our tent. Delirium had set in by now. The past 36 hours had been the hardest of our lives, we'd had no sleep and had pushed our bodies through some of the extreme conditions you could imagine, not to mention the emotional side effects of fulfilling a dream...I sat down and got on the radio. I was pretty confident that we were the last to make it down to Camp 2, at least if I could find the team tents, I'd be able to find one that was empty - ours! Pete and Geordie hadn't realised I had stopped to radio, and so kept heading down the mountain towards a group of tents at the bottom of the camp. As I reached for my radio, I paused, just long enough to recognise Simon's voice, in the tent I had stopped next to! Lucky for me, unfortunately, Pete and Geordie had gone about 50 metres too far down the hill. On a normal day it would have taken them about 2 minutes to walk back to where I was, but this was no normal day! Eventually we found a tent, crawled in, and just about summoned enough energy to boil half a pot of snow, drank and, still in or down suits, passed out.

It had been a long day. It was now 10pm and we'd been on the move since 6am the day before. We'd climbed and down-climbed in excess of 2000m and been through all the physical and emotional turmoil of an incredible summit day on Everest. It had been one of the longest and toughest few days I have ever experienced, little did we know what the next day held in store for us...

(To be continued...)