On Saturday 30th March my brother-in-law Sam Taylor and Pete Newland will leave the comforts of Kenya and head to Nepal, with the goal of summiting Mt. Everest, Crazy? Yes. Inspiring? Hell yes!!
To give a bit of context as to why they are heading out on this expedition, I've shared an article Sam wrote after they successfully summited Manaslu in Nepal last year, which they climbed in preparation for this massive adventure.
God speed Sambo and Pete!
For Rangers was started three years ago by Pete Newland and me. We were both working in wildlife protection – I was the Chief Conservation Officer on Borana and Pete was training our rangers. In a small moment of madness after a run with Joss Craig and Pete, I tentatively suggested running the Marathon des Sables to raise funds for the welfare of the rangers we worked with. For Rangers was born.
I have now done a fair few expeditions with Pete for our charity. Whereas Pete spends these pushing his pain threshold to the max and trying to discard parts of his anatomy along the way, I tend to leave nothing behind but my dignity and the contents of my bowels. We’ve crossed large parts of the Sahara on foot, staggered through the Amazon Jungle and stumbled around the Alps. He knows my incompetence well. So, when between us we decided to attempt to put the For Rangers flag on the world’s highest peak he would have been wise to have reconsidered his partner.
For a start, I suffer from chronic vertigo. I get sweaty palms on bar stools. My velcro shoes should have set off some alarm bells as to the reliability of my knot tying, and while I’m quite often sober, I still fall over a disproportionately large number of times.
Regardless of all these glaring indicators of disaster – we had shaken hands, and the lunatic had rushed off to some climbing shop to buy some hugely expensive sleeping bag onesies, and a lot of colourful metal objects that for a terrifying moment I thought were sex toys. We were in.
In May this year, we are hoping to summit Mt Everest. But first, as part of the expedition, we had decided to train on and if possible, summit Mt Manaslu - the eighth highest mountain in the world; only marginally lower in altitude, and perhaps technically more demanding, than Everest.
Pete and I left the hotel at 8 am to meet our fellow climbers and be registered by the Himalayan statistics board. In truth, I was slightly unnerved to be regarded as a statistic already, although, given my chaotic summit of Mt Blanc a few weeks earlier, I wasn't entirely surprised. The driving was mental in Kathmandu, and Ram our driver was living up to his name. After T-boning several rickshaws we arrived at the HST offices. I tripped over the doorstep and fell at the feet of Jamie and Adam. Jamie was to be our guide. A former colleague of Pete’s in the military – he had recently retired and had unpixellated his face for this expedition. He looked at me with the face of a parent whose turn it is to look after the class hamster. Adam was from Venezuela, looked like a benevolent Mujahedeen, but lives in London where judging by the brightness of his clothing I guessed he either worked selling tickets for Glastonbury or volunteers helping the blind. We shook hands at the foot of the stairs and introduced ourselves. “Climb On!” I yelled enthusiastically as we moved up the stairs. I heard Jay mutter, "More duck cakes". I’m not sure what this is but am intrigued to try this Nepalese delicacy. I made a mental note to ask him. We were then randomly given a cucumber and were introduced to a nerdy little man who informed us he was from the Himalayan statistics commission in Delhi. He wanted our nationalities and any other interesting things about us for a database that has been kept for 65 years detailing every climber summiting mountains over 8,000m. I informed the man that I was from Kenya, at which he looked at me disbelievingly. I told him that I was hoping to be the first Kenyan to summit Manaslu. He seemed sceptical. So did Jamie. I suspect for different reasons.
We jumped into a small Mahindra to drive to the start of the Base Camp trek. There are no roads out of the Kathmandu valley, and the roads in Kathmandu can only loosely be described as such. There was not a huge amount of room in the vehicle, and so I volunteered to sit in the back with all the packs. There was little argument to this, and as no rotation policy was suggested I lay under a North Face pack for seven hours. In truth, I think I was the lucky one, as I could not see the terrifying sliding round mudslides and near collisions with livestock and people. I was quite smug to see two former Special Forces operatives and a man who looked like an Afghan Warlord looking pale and frightened.
We had been trekking to Base Camp for three days now. The scenery was incredible. We’d moved through sweaty rainforest up onto higher country now over raging glacial grey rivers. It was becoming increasingly mountainous, and each mountain I saw was quite literally the largest thing I’d ever seen. I was trying to lift morale with some games of 'shoot, shag or marry' and more light-hearted banter, but we were obviously short of time as my climbing colleagues just walked faster and faster. Each night we stayed in Teahouses, ramshackle little inns where for the equivalent of Ksh 200 you get a bed and a meal. Dahl bat (a sort of lentil curry) was pretty staple, although sometimes I’d mix things up with a garlic soup. I lucked out with my own room a surprising number of times!
We arrived at Samagaun a tiny village below Mt Manaslu where we would spend a few nights before beginning the 5-hour hike to Base Camp. Samagaun is on the famous Manaslu hiking circuit and has a tiny bit of infrastructure. We made the most of the last chance to have a few luxuries. I bought a coke, some chocolate and sent a few last messages on Wi-Fi. The others said they wanted to enjoy the luxury of silence. I’m not entirely sure what they meant, but I assumed they were referring to meditation given the very spiritual vibe of the village with all the temples and prayer wheels.
We arrived at Base Camp to what was to be our home for the next month. I was amazed at how big it was. There were hundreds of tents all bunched next to a large glacier. We were now at 17,000ft.
There was an Australian expedition below our camp, a Czech party above us, three large Chinese expeditions and a Korean party. We were told that over 200 climbers were going to attempt Manaslu this year.
Base Camp itself was basic. There was an open kitchen tent, a larger mess tent and some tiny tents. We would become very familiar with each crease as we lay there hour upon hour staring at the canvas! The loo tent overlooked an incredible view to the south. It was, however, strangely orientated to face the kitchen tent. We had an awesome team there - Lal the cook, Pravat and Susan the porters. Samir was our Base Camp manager and he ran a tight ship! Ram and Sangay were the two Sherpas. Sangay was a seven-time Everest summiteer and had summited K2 in winter. He was also a man of very few words.
Today we had a Puja. This is where a Lama comes up to Base Camp and blesses our gear. In return, we give him money and beer. It seems like a good career. I placed all my gear out around a large cairn. My ice screws seemed very short compared to everyone elses. This is not an unfamiliar feeling. I ask Jamie about the length of my ice screws. “Is this normal?” I asked. “Do I look like an agony aunt?” came the reply.
There is a lot of chanting, and some other fellow bangs a drum for a bit. Then rice and flour are thrown at my gear. It missed and hit me in the face. I’m not sure whether this is lucky or not. More of a concern is my tiny ice screw.
The past few days had been spent training on the glacier and setting up fixed lines. We were now pretty well acclimatised to Base Camp, and in a few days were about to start the real acclimatisation phase. It was all about a balance between rest and recovery and acclimatisation. We spent a lot of time just lying about thinking and over-thinking. It’s not healthy. I spent a lot of time worrying. Hoping everything was OK at home. Wondering if my wife and daughters were missing me. Agonising about the size of my ice screw. That sort of thing. We played a lot of cards in the evening, listened to music and read books. We tinkered with gear, tied prusiks, and set up crevasse rescue scenarios. You began to look forward to the small things. Going for a wash in the glacial stream below camp. Washing your gear. Morning coffee routines. The simple things became essential and all-encompassing. I was lucky I had a Garmin inReach Device and could text home. These small bits of correspondence became hugely important, be it a message from Flick, my wife with news of the kids, or reassuring me about the size of my ice screw. Or a message from Jackie Kenyon telling me about foot and mouth on Mogwooni. Or my friend Sean asking me if I would shag a Yak. You began to crave the text message beep for any titbits of information about life away from the frozen pile of scree that had become home.
Today we started out on our main acclimatisation push. We were to head up to Camp 1 and sleep there, to Camp 2 and 3 and then back down in stages. Suddenly it all seemed real. We were going to start stashing oxygen at strategic points for the ascent, as well as tents in the various launch camps. Base Camp to Camp 1 was a long but relatively gradual slog over an ice field. There were large crevasses everywhere, and fixed lines had been set up to manoeuvre through this ever-changing minefield. Moving with crampons is laborious at the best of times, but as we snaked up to 22,000 ft, our feet became torturously heavy. Over 10 yards or so you would have a mild hyperventilation episode, where you gasped like a stranded goldfish for ten seconds.
The climb to Camp 2 was hard and technical. The entire route was steep serats that tested my vertigo to the full. Sometimes you were cutting holds with your ice axe. Sometimes just relying on the fixed line screwed into the ice (I hoped that the line was anchored on a longer ice screw than mine). It was ridiculously hot in the sunlight and freezing in the shade, and you could never quite adjust. At one point, on a ledge waiting to climb a small wall, Pete slipped. It is always good to know how you react in a crisis – and I acted thusly, by throwing myself on top of him thereby adding to his momentum as he fell. Luckily, he was clipped into the fixed line, as was I. After providing a fairly frank character assessment of me, he was able to pull himself up and continue on, but the lessons on the importance of staying on the fixed line were well learned.
After a long hard day, we got into Camp 2 at about three o'clock. I wasn't feeling well at all and was beginning to get a headache. I managed to swallow a bit of tea and then went to lie down. In about 20 minutes, I was in agony. My head felt like someone was boring into it with a corkscrew, and my gums and nose were bleeding. I had blurry vision and was dry heaving. I was now genuinely frightened, and strangely depressed. I was in a tent with Pete, who managed to get some water into me and some Diamox, and within about 20 minutes, everything had subsided. The downside was the Diamox had made me piss like a racehorse. In our tiny tent, inches from his face, poor Pete had to endure me trying to extract my willy from my down suit every 10 minutes and piss in a bottle. It wasn't easy, but the upside was that in comparison my ice screw now seemed less puny. It was a nuisance, but I was eternally grateful the pain had gone. For the first time on the expedition, after hours of climbing and walking, I had felt genuine despair that I might not make it.
The next day we climbed on to Camp 3. This would be the furthest we would go without oxygen (apart from Adam who was attempting to summit without). At the camp we found an American climber coming down from Camp 4. “Go down” he warned us. “There’s been an avalanche above and two climbers and their Sherpa have been buried.” These last few days things had all become a bit real.
We decided to turn back, and get back to Camp 2, spend the night and make our way down to Base Camp.
We had decided to get off the mountain to recover and rest before our summit attempt. We trekked back down to Samagaun where we enjoyed such luxuries as a few beers, wi-fi, a bed and being able to get changed standing up. We were even joined briefly by two female German hikers for a few beers, but my neurosis about my ice screw surfaced again after a few beers, and they suddenly decided that their booking was in fact for another tea house. We agreed that it was probably best if we headed back up the mountain away from other people again.
This was it; the summit window. The forecast for the 27th and 28th looked reasonable, and this was our chance. We set off again for Camp 1. The going was easier this time, having acclimatised and we were feeling pretty good. The crevasses had widened, however, and there were nervous moments moving over the ladders to get across.
We spent a night at Camp 2 and then set off early for Camp 3 where we rested, until about 7pm. The idea was to make the summit push from there. It was a risky strategy – especially for Adam who would be a lot slower than us not having any oxygen, but if we got it right, it would mean that we would summit early the following morning.
We carried two bottles of oxygen in our packs, a couple of energy gels and that was about it. It was -20 degrees as we set out. I had a scratchy throat developing, and the oxygen mask felt oppressive. Jay had also developed a bad cough, and Pete was also having issues with his mask. The altitude was catching up with us all. We were now at 25,000 ft.
I was with Sangay, with Pete behind me. We staggered up the fixed line towards Camp 4. It’s hard to describe, but even on oxygen, moving 20 metres can take half an hour. The only way to describe it is like being drunk. You cannot concentrate on anything at all, and my mind would wander, almost as though I was half asleep. When we got to anything technical, Sangay would turn my regulator up so I could think. Even then he would be watching me carefully, making sure my jumar was on the line, and that I was clipped in. There’s not really much to say about the summit climb as in truth it is still a bit hazy. I remember at one point on a long steep section pulling off my mask to shout at Pete that I had gone blind, but Sangay just wiped my left eye which had frozen shut, with his mitt. Pete's thermostat measured -28 with a -10 wind chill. It was bloody cold.
Suddenly we were on the summit. It was 4am in the morning, and we couldn't see anything. There was no celebration or anything like that. I just remember thinking, “Fuck, we’ve got to get down". The summit is tiny – the size of a dining room table on top with sheer drops on either side and all the things I'd planned to do - put pictures of my daughters there, take a video, etc. went out the window. I just wanted to get off.
The approach is the same going up or down. Descending, we met a Chinese party of eight climbers. I had to unclip to move round one, and he grabbed me. "Fuck You!" I screamed at him. In hindsight, this might actually have been his name, because he suddenly enveloped me in a passionate bear hug. I'd managed to clip in behind him, but we were both panicking now, and I thought about headbutting him to get him off me. Realising my energy levels would barely have permitted a sensual kiss, let alone a vicious headbutt, I was relieved to feel Sangay pushing us apart and guiding me past him.
We got around these guys and staggered down. With every step, we got stronger, and I turned my oxygen up to full. Suddenly we were feeling good, and the most amazing sunrise appeared, with the shadow of the peak on the ranges in front of us.
We found Jamie on his way up – still with a bad cough. His oxygen tank had failed or was empty, and he was battling. Jamie is an experienced climber who last year summited Everest solo. Seeing him like this was a wake-up call.
We carried on and made it to Camp 2. There I had the best cup of tea I’ve ever had. We stripped off our summit suits, and feeling so much better, we staggered back to Base Camp. We arrived at 6:30 am, exhausted. Twenty-four hours of solid climbing to 27,000 ft had taken its toll, and we fell asleep into our soup that Lal had prepared. The next morning, we could savour the climb. This was slightly tempered by the news that two Czech climbers from the camp next to us, who were going unsupported, had died, and that the third was being flown off the mountain with severe frostbite. We would later learn he would lose both arms.
It was a savage reminder of the respect with which these mountains should be regarded, and how important an experienced and prepared team is. I am incredibly proud to have summited Manaslu but am acutely aware that without an amazing group of experienced and well-prepared people as we had, I would have barely made it to Base Camp.
I hope that we have the same fortune in May with Everest and that we get the For Rangers flag on the summit. But in truth, being part of another expedition with the team that we have will mean that it will be an incredible experience regardless. I can't wait.