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Why we turned back…

Dear Friends and Everest watchers,

We got back to Basecamp yesterday, after a long long 21km trek from Advanced Base Camp. For me , it was a somewhat tearful moment, to be greeted by my longtime expedition buddy Beng Cheong, as well as the relief of returning relatively unscathed. We count the days before our departure from Basecamp on May 29th, nursing a variety of aches, frostnip, coughs and whatnots.

Right now, I’d like to plunge into what happened to us on our summit push but first, some serious and unfortunate news from Everest. Two rescues/assists have happened this morning on the summit route and one rescue is still underway for two climbers who spent the night out after a summit climb. We also know of one fatality unrelated to this rescue that befell another team. On the third brilliant (in terms of weather) summit day this season, people are in trouble. We can’t release further news until the next of kin and the right people have been notified by their respective expeditions. Everest is proving once again to be merciless and forgiving all in the same week.

On May 18th, after a 6-day wait at ABC (6,500m), the summit team comprising Rozani, Gil and myself received the news we had been waiting for – good weather predicted for May 22 – 26, at least weather with reasonable winds. Waiting and living for long stretches at altitudes is no easy matter. On an interpersonal basis, close quarter living breeds intolerance, minor irritations, opportunistic infections and so on and we were not spared these problems. The team however, headed up the North Col in good spirits and reasonable health on May 19th. Being the slowest of our trio, I left earlier and reached the 7,000m Col after a steady 6 hours on the fixed lines. I immediately went to work, clearing snow from our tents, setting up the stoves, collecting chunks of snow and began to melt snow for water. Gil and Roz appeared sometime later and slumped into their tents, tired from the climb up. A few selective words eventually got them to join me to discuss the food plans and other details for the continuation of the summit climb.

We would have our summit sherpas join us at Camp 6 (8,200m) on the 21st, the sherpas being swift enough to make the climb from the North Col to Camp 6 in a single day. Their role would be to assist us in carrying extra oxygen supplies. In the meantime, we would be left alone to make the very long day to C5. The North Col-Camp 5 day is a difficult one, Himalayan veteran Andy Politz describing it as one of the ” hardest days in the Himalayas “. Usually from 7,500m on other big peaks, supplemental oxygen is used. But here, one has to do the climb from 7,000m to 7,900m without oxygen. In our case, our sharing resources with an American expedition meant that for various reasons, Camp 5 was located at 7,900m, about 200 vertical metres higher than the usual campsites. This was to prove decisive in what happened next.

Leaving North Col at 7.15am on the 20th, we joined a growing number of teams also headed on the same summit schedule as us. I tucked in with Gia Tortaladze, a Georgian climber who had got to within 50 metres of the summit in 1999. Gil picked a spot which kept hi pace about 50 metres ahead of me. Roz eventually moved up and scooted beyond sight. The ridge itself is about 40 degrees in steepness but is unrelenting for about 700 vertical metres.

We each shouldered packs weighing about 10 kilos, containing 2 days’ food, supplies and personal clothing. This amounted to the heaviest pack I had ever carried at this altitude. On Everest in 1998, almost no Singapore team member carried anything like this above 7,000m, unless the pack also contained an oxygen tank (which would aid the actual climbing). One European lady climber had two sherpa to carry everything for her! You get to meet all kinds on the North Ridge.

The weather, initially clear, began to deteriorate badly from 2pm. When I reached the top of the snow ridge at 7,650m, Gil was about 50 metres ahead, no sign of Roz and I was very tired. I had estimated taking 10 hours to get to Camp 5 so had to look forward to another 2 – 3 hours of really tiring climbing above the snow in the rocks. A plume had fallen on top of Everest.

The wind, occasionally gusting to 100km/h began to merge into one single howling wind that swept across from west to east. About 50 vertical metres of climbing later, my tightly velcroed cowl was caught by the wind and burst open and my elasticated goggles were almost wrenched off my head. Fitting mittens over my fleece gloves took so long it only worsened my half-frozen hands. Radio communication was really difficult in the roar of the wind. I was exhausted and had shot my bolt. I was now too tired to go up AND fight the wind. Descent to the Col so far below also seemed unacceptable and possibly dangerous knowing the condition of my disabled right ankle. 90% of the other team had already found refuge lower down in their tents.

I turned to go down only to bump into Gia once more. We descended back to knot of tents at 7,650m. A member of Stefan Gatt’s friendly Austrian expedition thrust both Gia and myself into one of their vacant tents and there, recovering somewhat, we explored our options. Gia was to eventually go back up late in the afternoon when the winds had died down. Staying put without a sleeping bag (ours were already pre-placed at Camp 5) and oxygen on which to sleep eventually changed my initial decision to try to stay the night.

But here’s the clincher as to why we turned back. Roz, in absence of radio calls from me but for the initial call that said I was in trouble had made a unilateral decision to turn around. He had also asked for our sherpa summit team (at north col) to come up part way to meet me as I descended. However, there have been too many instances of tired team members descending late in the day to disappear, fall or injure themselves whilst the rest of their team were on their jolly way to the summit. It would have been too easy for him (being just 50 vertical metres from Camp 5) to have made a decision with Gil to continue with the summit mission whilst I descended to Col on my own.

Gil, himself tired, took a tumble on the descent which made several spectacular tears to his downsuit.

I picked my way down slowly, stopping every 20 paces or so to rest. I found the slipping sun and beautiful and unnerving at the same time because we were losing the light fast. Eventually, the 4 sherpas, led by my old sherpa friend MB Tamamg met us with hot tea and helped us down. I was by far in the worst shape. I had primed myself for a ten hour climb and now had been battered by strong winds when i was at my weakest and then faced with an additional four hour descent into the darkness. Only by grabbing MB’s shoulder and elbow for support could I manage to haul myself up the final rise to the tents at the Col. It was past 9pm.

On reflection, if I had been a party of Roz’s decision, I would have probably urged them to continue with the mission. The actual descent to meet the sherpas proved not as hard as I had believed and my ankle had held up well. Roz and Gil would have then made a great push on summit day (which eventually was all blue skies and good conditions). But by making the decisions that he did, Roz must have known that none of us would have had the energy (or time left) to make a second summit bid.

In short, he gave up a certain summit bid (and possible success) to ensure I made a safe passage back to the Col. I can also reflect on such possible elements which might have aided us eg. a Camp 5 situated a 100 metres lower; extra sherpa support even to Camp 5, my turning back earlier, avoiding the situation which arose etc etc.
However, none of these really dilutes the essence of the decisions and events on May 20th; that one climber had the moral courage and made a team decision for safety ahead of personal aspirations, ambitions and summit dreams. I might be thought to be disappointed at our lack of summit success. But I find it hard to find any expression in my heart but that of gratitude and admiration. Rozani may never summit Everest but earns more respect from me from his decisions than many so called Everest heroes. Thanks for everything, Roz!!

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