Everest - blood, sweat, a few tears, nausea and double deckers of falling ice
We are proud to welcome back our CEO Rob following his Everest and Lhotse challenge. Just back in the UK, Rob has written an account of his experiences up two of the world’s highest mountains. Read about the magic of oxygen, double deckers of falling ice and a terrible moment when he thought they had taken his guide - Kenton – down during a hazardous descent. You can sponsor Rob here
Everest – why I feel a sense of completeness
“This is a very personal account on my experiences on Everest. I went to Everest looking for a sense of completion after attempting to summit 20 years ago. In this respect, I feel a real sense of closure. But my main motivation to go was to say thank you to the amazing staff and Peer Advisors we are so fortunate to have at St Giles Trust, the charity I'm very proud to work for. It's gritty, complex and challenging work that is vital to society. It is undertaken with compassion and effectiveness by people with real credibility and determination. So to all you out there grafting for our clients - I salute you. You do extraordinary feats day in - day out.
I'd also like to take this unique opportunity to thank all our supporters and funders. You are the fuel that keeps our engine running and without you none of our work would happen.
Finally, I'd like to thank my family. Your support and encouragement has been unwavering and life-affirming. So to C, M, S, B and K thank you. As promised I looked at the stars every night and felt very close to the Chief. I'm not sure what he'd make of my exploits! Probably think I'm bonkers - but also I think he'd be proud that I was giving it a go.
So here goes - the big highlights. For two separate days I loved being one of the tallest humans on the planet. To achieve this I was pushed way, way out of my comfort zone. Way beyond the self-perceived capacity of my own capabilities. The icefall and the Lhotse Face are fascinatingly testing playgrounds for an Everest climber. It's a real sense of Russian Roulette and called ‘Bomb Alley’ for a reason. You are crying out for oxygen to feed your muscles. It was well documented as being extremely icy this year. Lhotse is really the gateway to the summit - it's hard graft and I have to say my proudest moment.
It was humbling to be in the majesty, purity and immenseness of the mountains for six weeks. The Sherpas in particular are remarkably impressive. The loads they carry - the determination and the endless grins. It was very contagious. I know some are saying this is changing - but from my experience there was nothing but camaraderie.
But the biggest gem - the biggest diva and certainly a true rock legend of high altitude climbing was my guide Kenton. Kenton I owe you my life and sanity. You are the Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles of mountaineering. A positive force for good and a sense of fun when I needed it most. It was an honour to share the mountain with you. My favourite moment - and one that will stay with me until my end – was when we were climbing over the Bergstrum, onto the Lhotse face back on the 26th April. It was gusting 50mph plus - spindrift whipping over our faces. We were the only ones there. In the squall I looked up as I was clinging on the 8 millimetre rope to hear Kenton scream with pure ecstasy 'This is why I love xxxxxxx climbing'. Now that was a magic moment.
If you get the chance read Kenton's instagram entry about his 'Tour rules'. It's fabulous and brings it all home. As an ex-rugby player - I obviously love tour rules. But these are the best I've come across.
So how do I feel a sense of completion when I didn't get the brag photo - the summit shot?
In many ways, we’d already completed the really hard yards - the icefall and the Lhotse Face. But it was the altitude that really affected me. I would constantly feel nauseous until the magical effects of supplementary oxygen. My oxygen saturation figures where always alarmingly low to me. Normally at sea level our 'sats' are about 98/99%. In an A&E situation if your levels go below 80% you're a goner. Regularly on Everest mine were in the low 60s. But even the smallest amount of 'O's had the most wonderful of effects. I stopped feeling nauseous. I’m not saying it transformed me into the life and soul of the party but it certainly made me feel 'normal' and more my usual self. I went from being a slug to at least a donkey. In fact the biggest change from 20 years ago is the exponential leap in oxygen technology. So I was pumped to be aiming for the stars.
Sadly our bubble was burst that fateful morning as Russ - the big, big Boss and Everest legend - had to give us the bad news. Poor weather, lack of Sherpa cover and problems with the ropes meant our summit push had to be scrapped as it just wasn't safe. It was completely crushing as it was such a shock.
We pleaded on the radio but we had to make the call. On reflection - and a cooler analysis -there was no real option. Everest isn't the place to take unneeded risks. No Sherpa cover is unprecedented. Despite great incentives being offered all the Sherpas either felt it too unsafe or were too exhausted to go on.
Our moment in the sun evaporated in a radio call. But life is way too short for regrets. This was Mother Nature at her grandest. We are but temporary lodgers - lucky to be allowed to stay at all.
The best account of this - and I can't come close is David Tait's blog of this moment. David is the most remarkable of humans. Someone whose new life has just started and I know will do great things in the future (and has achieved so much in the past). But his very poignant blog is a riveting read.
Once the rug is pulled - it's a tsunami of descending. We were descending all the way to basecamp in one truly exhausting day. The adrenaline of the summit possibility quickly disappeared to be replaced by the sheer lactic acid pain of the gut wrenching descent. If ever I needed a reminder that there was divine intervention in our decision it was in the icefall.
There were a number of huge chunks of ice balancing precariously on each other. It was like a giant playground of twisted contorted ice cubes the size of double decker buses. I heard a crack and a sickening feeling came over me. Like some sort of horror film, I saw a huge block start to slide off its perch right down into the path of Kenton who was about fifty feet in front of me. Ker-Crash - silence. I shouted “Kenton! Kenton! Kenton!” in increased desperation. Silence. A weird calmness came over me - but with an overriding sense of a sinking feeling. My very first feeling was the bollocking I was going to get from Russ as Kenton had used his radio so much that morning that it had run out of juice so he'd been using mine and I now had no way of radioing for help. Instantaneously, it was also the complete emptiness of what the heck would I say to Jazz, Kenton's amazing wife. So I shouted again - nothing. All this happened in seconds - although to be honest it felt like minutes. I shuffled as fast as I could - fearful of what I might find. The route suddenly steepened and sharply veered off to the left, out of the path of the block of fallen ice. There, in the distance, I saw Kenton calmly sat on a block of ice. I didn't know whether to kiss him or kick him! But either way I was so happy to see him chuckling at me. I will never look at a double decker bus the same way!
So to round things off. We were all so relieved that Tenzing, who fell off the Lhotse Face is now all well. It must be a huge relief for his father who was on the mountain. It seems fitting to pay tribute to such a great man in Ueli Steck too. Russ and Kenton were highly emotional about your passing away. A huge tribute to you - and thank you for your amazing smile and warmth the day before. And I agree - 2am is time for sleeping, not time to be going up the icefall.
I pray for all those waiting their turn. Go well - stay safe.
But ultimately this is to all those who give it a go in life in general. As a very good mate in Sundeep Dhillon once said to me - it's better to be in the arena than just one of the crowd.
I agree. Maybe my dream was unachievable ultimately but I don't regret giving it a go - not for a moment. My huge admiration to those that do achieve their goals. As my wonderful Canadian Godfather used to say - go for it.
I went to stand on the shoulders of giants. Just as I do at work. In its literal sense I certainly did. That's something I feel a great deal of pride to have done and I'm humbled by the amazing people I shared Everest with.
Lastly my overarching plea to all from my experience - life is amazing, it's a gift; so hug whoever is precious to you.”
15 May 2017 - Rob Owen OBE
Chief Executive, St Giles Trust