Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hot showers and everything

We’re back in Kathmandu and boy does it feel good. The air is thick, hills are no longer a problem, appetites are back with a vengeance and there is hot running water. We had a great last night at basecamp. There were emotional speeches, large quantities of champagne and entertainment from a fantastic Elvis impersonator along with help from our Sybs! Elvis rocked and we all rolled, so by the morning there were some seriously weary looking people. Two days driving back to Kathmandu soon sorted us out though and we now have the pleasure of the Hotel Tibet while we wait for the next flights outta here. Not long now…

Success and heading home

After weeks of rumours and hushed words about early summits – our collective dreams came true, the weather held and the teams headed to the top. All returned home safely, although there were some tense moments when we feared for a few, but now we have Everest summiteers in our midst’s and it looks like we are heading home.
As previously mentioned, Brett hit the wall just before camp 2 and headed down a man no longer burdened by the need to conquer altitude.
Mogens looks like he did suffer from the extra night at camp 3 and endured an attack of Acute Mountain Sickness on the way to camp 4, so made a hasty retreat. Within hours of returning to ABC he was feeling better and already talking about heading back up. So weather permitting, he is doing exactly that, in a few days time….
With two down that only left Bill (guide, US), Terrry (doc, US), Marcel and Kurt (Swiss), and our mountain-goat cameraman Ken (US) in the first group to make their summit attempt. They left top camp around 1am only to run into massive queues all the way up to the top. The infamous 2nd step was the worst with a huge group of dangerously slow Chinese climbers struggling to climb the most technical part of the route. After some rapid negotiations with their base camp leader, a message was passed through to let our stronger climbers past. So before long our four climbers along with their breathtakingly impressive sherpas were standing on top of the world being filmed not only by Ken, but by 3 sherpa mounted headcameras.
Back home safely, the second group set off that night at 11pm in an attempt to avoid the crowds. Max (Lebanon) broke the trail and stormed up the hill to the summit before anyone else, to watch the sun rise over the world. Mark (Inglis, NZ) led the antipodean contingent who followed close behind. He’s quite some guy, powering up that hill on a pair of specially constructed (by Cowboy), crampon fitted, climbing limbs. A fact that apparently hasn’t escaped the world’s media judging by the number of calls he’s been getting and all the reports of front page newspaper articles… With him was Cowboy (NZ) who apparently sported his cowboy hat on the summit, Bob (Aus), Woodie (NZ, guide), Whetu (NZ cameraman) and another set of ridiculously hardcore sherpas. Having escaped the crowds, they spent a long night on the mountain enduring one of the coldest summits physically possible.
Behind these guys, Gerard and Tim made incredible progress, but Russ turned them around on the final snow slope to the summit ridge, about 100m from the top. This may seem harsh being so close, but above 8000m that 100m would have taken an hour or even more, and with only so much oxygen it would have almost certainly meant their death. Naturally neither of them initially wanted to turn around, but a combination of Russ on the radio and the returning summit climbers pointed them in the right direction, and down they came – much to the collective relief of those listening down below.
Sean (guide UK) however did have the experience, oxygen and strength to continue, so headed to the top and returned, catching the others up to make sure all got down safely.
This did have its consequences though, and like almost all the climbers he is suffering some frostbite which saw him heading down from ABC to basecamp on a yak.
Everyone has now come back down the mountain to base camp where we are packing our barrels and preparing for warmer climes. It’s been great to see the basecamp crew again after about a month up high, but this talk of DVD’s each night is kinda galling.
They’ll be a big party tonight to celebrate our successes, then first thing in the morning we head off back to Kathmandu. Two days drive should see us in the city and preparing for flights to the many corners of the earth that we originate from.
We’ll take back some incredible memories from this mountain, (as well as hundreds of hours of great footage!), but also some sad ones. Russ feels bad that there is a fair bit of frostbite in our team, but it seems that most expeditions have lost climber’s lives. I won’t speculate how many will die on Everest this year, but already it is shocking. Some of these we met and befriended. Others were even seen in their final resting place up high. Whatever, this mountain is an unforgiving place that punishes those that don’t give it the respect it deserves. Everest will continue to attract the best and worst of the climbing world - there will be crowds and incompetence up high, but it will remain the highest and most spectacular mountain in the world and it will remain a privilege to spend time on its slopes.
Once back in the real world I’ll post some more pics, but in the meantime I’m looking forward to seeing something green and perhaps even an insect…
Huge congratulations to every climber whether they made it to the summit or not, and to our crew who worked tirelessly (well nearly) in some of the harshest conditions possible.
Thanks again for all your comments and words of encouragement to all.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

24hr Delay

Just a quick update for those awaiting news of their loved ones – the teams made it to camp 2 and 3 respectively, but had to spend 2 nights at these camps as the winds were higher in the morning than expected. Today they headed up to camps 3 and 4, ready for the first summit attempt tonight. This all worked out nicely for the film crew as we have been deeply buried in a cloud and plenty of snow lower down, so any thoughts of long lens’ and microwave links to base camp would have been out of the question – we also shot our obligatory Everest snow storm, so no complaints from us.
As for the climbers, another night at altitude is unlikely to have helped anyone, particularly those at camp 3, like Mogens who is making his attempt without oxygen. Those at camp 2 may however have benefited from an extra day’s rest after the long slog up to 2... but that is just idle speculation from lower down. They all seem in fine spirits over the radio, so fingers crossed.
Brett our US fireman hit the wall on the way to camp 2, so sensibly turned around knowing that this altitude game is just not for him. A real shame, but he almost seems relieved now that the ordeal is over.
Gonna be a long couple of nights listening to the radio… Barny

Friday, May 12, 2006

The view from lower down

So after days of being sworn to secrecy, we can finally reveal that our summit push is on! Russell has been playing a bit of a cat and mouse game – his usual tactic is to wait both for the weather to come good, and to hold back to let other expeditions summit first and get off the mountain – with somewhere in the region of 300 climbers, the choke points can get pretty congested.

This year, tho, he spotted an early weather window, and his sherpas worked their nuts off to get the high camps stocked with oxygen etc and to fix ropes all the way to the summit (they reached there on 30th April, which Russ thinks is a record – and for good measure fixed another 100 meters down the south side, so anyone coming up there will get a surprise).

A lot of the other expeditions have been hampered by delays in getting climbers and kit in through Kathmandu during the Nepalese strikes at the start of the season.

Meanwhile we’re on tenterhooks down at Base Camp. We have a battery of monitors that should bring us live pictures from the summit ridge, shot on tiny cameras mounted on the sherpas helmets and beamed down by microwave link. We’ve tested the system both in the UK and in Chamonix, but when push comes to shove we’ll only know whether the system is working when we power it up on summit day. The whole thing is designed to cope with the expected low temps – so when the sherpa pushes the ‘on’ button, it first of all switches on a heat pad to thaw the system out, then 20 minutes later it powers up the camera. Neat, eh??

For everyone on both summit days it will be an early start and long hours – the climbers will leave camp 4 at about midnight, so from then on we’ll be listening to the radio chat, and waiting for the sun to come up, at which point we’ll be able to see our pictures. We’ll then be watching on three different monitors until the climbers have summited and returned to their chosen camp for the night. Then we’ll do it all again next day. On each day, we’ll also have a high altitude cameraman climbing with the climbers, and a high altitude director at camp 4, plus a camera and sound team at camp one, where Russell manages the whole climb from, and a further two cameras at ABC to catch the climbers returning – successful or otherwise!!

With most of the other expeditions looking at this same weather window, it could be an early end to the season – from my point of view, having spent nearly 6 weeks here last year as well, it can’t come soon enough!!

We’ve been glued to the radio this morning – our lead team spent last night at camp 3, and should have been heading up to camp 4 and their final overnight before the summit – but there have been unexpectedly high winds, so the attempt is being put back by a day, which brings the possibility of more expeditions coming up behind them. Due to weather and altitude, the only way they can communicate between the tents at camp 3 is by radio, even tho they’re only a few feet apart.

So our overnight vigils have been put back by a day, which means more movies – each night after supper we bung the fire on in our studio hut and put on a dvd – as the evening goes on, all the base camp sherpas sneak in through the door to watch as well. They can’t understand a word, but they must think we’re a pretty odd bunch! Three nights ago we were watching Capote, which ends in an execution. Two nights ago we were watching the Man Who Wasn’t there, which ends in an execution, and last night it was the Constant Gardener, which ends … well, almost! Sadly no one thought to bring any comedies!!

Meanwhile the weather is getting better and better (at least down at base camp) – with the direct sunlight, and a slightly chilly breeze, it’s a bit like a July day at Westward Ho! Water no longer freezes in the bottle overnight, the snow that fell a few weeks back has all gone, and even revealed a few patches of grass – the hope of an early summit is getting everyone thinking of home. Lacchu – the base camp manager – has been down ordering up enough yaks to bring all the climbers kit down from abc – hopefully as soon as Tuesday or Wednesday next week.

Having done it last year, I can already start to picture the drive out – following the Rongbuk river down past the monastery to the bottom of the valley, then over a huge watershed to the fairly unappealing town of Tingri (truckstop on the Friendship highway, lots of questionable dogs!!), then on to the high plateau and the last of the big passes – prayerflags and prayer wheels, huge vista of the mountains – followed by the huge drop to the border at Xangmu, through fertile valleys and huge gorges. At Xangmu we have to take everything across the border bridge by hand, then load up into new busses for the boneshaking drive back to Kathmandu – when Lisa, our production manager, did the same drive about a month ago rioting was in full swing at most towns along the way, and the Brits who are camped alongside us had to take shelter on the way in as a gun battle of sorts took place outside.

Now Nepal is quiet again, so the trip should be uneventful. The Hotel Tibet seems a very appealing prospect!!

That’s about it for now – have to go and top up my tan!!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Summit Push

The weather has been unlike that seen on Everest in living memory (ok so there’s some old yak herder that will disagree), but we have been graced with sunny mornings and a winter wonderland of snow in the afternoon, but most importantly, no wind. Last year it blew at 100mph for weeks on end, this year we have a ‘veranda’ outside our mess tent where we sit and eat breakfast in the sun. Remarkably civilised for 6400m.
More importantly though it has meant that our sherpas finished fixing ropes to the summit well over a week ago – on the 30th May, the earliest summits ever (we believe) on the North side. Of course they didn’t rest once they had done this and they have continued to carry improbable loads way up the mountain to stock our camps 1,2,3 and 4 with tents, sleeping bags, cook-sets, bottles of oxygen and the like.
This brings us to the happy and quite remarkable situation whereby team 1 left ABC today on route to the summit! Team 2 will head up tomorrow, so hopefully a week from now I should be writing about a bunch of tired but happy climbers returning safely from the summit of Mount Everest.
Everyone is excited, slightly apprehensive and secretly thrilled by the idea of possibly returning home a little early – or heading to the nearest tropical island. Microwave cameras have been distributed to the sherpas so they can broadcast images directly to base camp, high altitude cameramen are on their way up the hill and the biggest lens I’ve seen will be at the North Col picking out their progress along the summit ridge.
It could be a long and nail biting few days, but this is what we are here for and it is all finally underway. Only a large and unexpected swing in the weather will turn us around, so after a month or so of life on Everest, the final push begins. Please send your thoughts and prayers to all those up high. Thanks again for checking this out. Barny