The Dark Side of Everest – A Personal Reflection | ARTICLE

SCARPA athlete and popular Scottish mountaineer Di Gilbert has shared with us first hand her recent and successful trip to Everest. It is a very honest and authentic story on a side of Everest many people don’t speak about. Read Di’s story here –

“On the 24th May 2019, I stood on the highest point on Earth; the summit of Mount Everest.  Fourteen years previously, I had the privilege to be in this exact same place also, as the Expedition Leader for British based company Adventure Peaks. Achieving this second ascent makes me the first British Female in history to lead clients to the summit of Mount Everest on two successful trips. This accolade is a distraction.  The real motivation behind my story is to share my thoughts and feelings to a side of Everest that is often not talked about – the cost of human life and the impact that has on others who choose to climb.

The 2019 Himalayan pre-monsoon climbing season has come to an end.  But the mainstream media headlines and controversy has not.  2019 will be remembered not for the numerous successful ascents or the fabulous experience for the climbers; it will be remembered for all the wrong reasons and tragic loss of life. 

What follows is a very personal and emotional reflection about guiding the North Ridge with a small team of 3 – Nick, Kirsty and Paula – normal people who were striving to achieve extraordinary things. The team were highly experienced climbers, between them, they had climbed on numerous expeditions including summiting on 8000m peaks.  We were also joined by a 5 strong climbing Sherpa team – Phurba, Pemba, Phirinhee, Phur Semba and Nurbu. 

The Sherpas are an essential part of the team.  Between them they had countless ascents of not only Everest but numerous other 8000m peaks.  Three of the Sherpas were personal friends whom I had worked with on previous expeditions.The most important decision for me on the expedition was deciding when to launch a summit bid; this is never an easy decision to make.  This season on the North side of Everest there were only 2 potential summit day windows – the 23rd May and a ‘sketchy’ 24th May.  Ideally, you look for a 3/4-day weather window which will ensure the climb from the North Col upwards and downwards is much safer.  This season the winds just never seemed to subside, in addition the Tibetan Mountaineering Association (TMA) ‘fixing team’ didn’t seem to be overly keen on fixing the ropes to the summit.  The cards were not stacked in our favour.  On paper, the weather on the evening of the 22nd & 23rd looked perfect – light winds and a summit temperature of around -27 degrees C.  Winds were on the increase later the 24th which would blow the summit out of its safe limit.

Our team had all done their rotations up and down the mountain and the Sherpa team had positioned all equipment in the right place.  It was just a waiting game.  We were all starting to feel as if we had spent too much time at base camp and were super eager to start moving again.  Realistically teams only have resources to make one summit bid before vital supplies are consumed; so, getting the summit day right was critical.  The big dilemma I had was that there were no fixed ropes to the summit but the news around camp was that they planned to put them in place on the 22nd May.  Saying that ‘the ropes will be fixed on the 22nd’ is probably easier said than done.  If I decided to go immediately behind the rope fixers and something unexpected happens, that’s our summit chance gone. 

Everest from Base Camp

The North side of the mountain is relatively quiet in comparison to the South side and apart from a few steps there are opportunities to either overtake (or be overtaken) so I wasn’t particularly stressed about what other teams were planning.  I had seen my team move around the mountain now on a few occasions and worked out that Kirsty and Paula moved roughly at the same speed with Nick being slightly slower.

I’ve been working on mountains over 8000m since 2004 having climbed on K2, Manaslu and Cho Oyu: I have learnt a lot and gained a huge amount of high-altitude experience. For the biggest highs in life you will, at some stage, see and experience first-hand the biggest lows. Before leaving base camp, we had a very honest, frank and open discussion about if things go wrong.  My biggest concern at this stage was the wind increasing earlier than forecast; this combined with extreme low temperatures would expose the team to a high risk of frost nip and frost bite.   When things go wrong on big mountains, they tend to go very wrong. 

There had already been numerous fatalities on the South side which we were very aware of and it could only be a matter of time before the numbers started stacking on the North.  There is no rescue team on Everest, we are it.  When things go wrong, in my experience, you are on your own.  Your own team members and your own Sherpa’s are your rescue team; make no mistake about it.  Your own planning and preparation will hopefully prevent disasters, but accidents do happen. It was crucial that everybody understood this. 

On the 18th May there was a mass exodus from base camp as lots of teams aimed for the 22nd/23rd window.  There was some relief on my part as I knew that it would mean our day would be quieter.     Every day I had been monitoring the weather closely and my heart sank when I noticed that the winds on the 24th had now increased potentially making this day now out of safe limits.  I genuinely felt the weight of the world on my shoulders knowing that the team needed a rest day at advanced base camp (ABC) before launching for the summit. Had I blown the only summit window in the season?  How will I explain this to team members who had, up until this point, taken every word I said as gospel? I phoned the office so that I could speak to somebody else who has been in the very situation as me and were looking at the same information. After a very long call, I decided that I would press on with the plan but would leave very early on the evening of the 23rd before the winds moved in. If all else fails, we could always head up to North Col and then return if things looked unfavourable.

Route to North Col

Adventure Peaks work on a ratio of 1:1 for member to Sherpa on Everest.  This is not only for summit push but for the duration of the expedition.  We had already allocated member to Sherpa so that they can start building a relationship prior to the summit push.  From leaving ABC we were fixed at the hip to our climbing Sherpa.  I was paired with Phirinhee, the only Sherpa from our team who had not summited Everest before but had served his apprenticeship on numerous trekking peaks and lower expedition peaks.  Every guide and leader must climb Everest for their first time and this was to be Phirinhee’s opportunity.  He was very strong, competent, friendly and just a nice all-round guy. Over the next 4 days I shared the same tent as him, shared my sleeping bag with him, we shared our food with each other, we lay on our backs having pigeon English conversations and we created a special bond. I would later call him my ‘Guardian Angel’.

Our journey to camp 2 (c.7600m) from ABC was relatively uneventful and painfully slow. It was windy, and it was cold.  We succumbed to the supplementary oxygen at about 7300m having been overtaken by a group who carried nothing but an oxygen bottle each and were enjoying the relief that supplementary oxygen provides. We felt slow and inadequate, carrying our own personal equipment, so we joined in with the oxygen party.  We arrived at camp where the wind continued to blow the spindrift and all we could do was lie down.  Nobody slept that night, and nobody ate more than morsels of food.  Going to the toilet was a humiliating process since there is nowhere to shelter and everything is on display. 

Kirsty was tucked up with Phurbu, Paula with Pemba, Nick with Phur Semba and Nurbu and me with Phirinhee.  We remained in contact as best as we could by either shouting or on the radios.

Looking down to North Col

Our journey to camp 3 (c.8300m), which was the first summit day of the season, was even slower and we were now starting to experience the aftermath of the previous day – one poor sole getting dragged off the mountain by his 2 Sherpas, to be later rejoined with his team.  This is a common sight on 8000m peaks as people are exhausted, have had little food and water and are pushing themselves beyond their limit. The wind had picked up again, not a show stopper but enough to be a hindrance. 

When we arrived at camp 3 it is hard to describe the setting. Camp 3 isn’t a green flat meadow, with ideal pitching areas for tents.  It has no running water and there is very limited snow to melt for water.  It’s at a horrible angle with tent platforms randomly placed which every now and then collapse.  It was cold, and it was windy and not a place to be standing out in the elements.  Nick was trying to get into his tent which was already occupied.  Phur Semba was doing his best to get the uninvited ‘resident’ evicted.  ‘Tent man’ had recently returned from the summit and was saying that his oxygen had run out.  Nick checked this which showed that he still had oxygen left and after some time finally managed to move him out of the tent.  Later that night, on the radio, Nick radioed saying that he felt really bad about putting somebody out into the elements, but I explained that he probably did do him a favour since another night at 8300m would have probably killed him. 

The Sherpa’s had only managed to get 3 tents erected so with Nick, Phur Semba and Nurbu in one; Kirsty, Paula and Phurba in another and me, Pemba and Phirinhee in the 3rd it was a grim but cosy experience.  At least at camp 3 there is no need for the basic human functions since you probably haven’t had enough water or food to necessitate the need.  Eventually Phurbu joined us in our tent obviously concerned about the weather asking what we shall do. I said that at 20.00, “if weather good we go up, if not we go down”.

Top Camp

We had agreed that Nick, Phur Semba and Nurbu would leave a good hour before us and that the rest of the team would leave as close as 20.30 as possible which meant that realistically we would have a few hours of rest before the big summit push arrived.   We sat/lay in our tent, waiting for our time to come.  We listened outside to the tired and joyous conversations from other teams as they started to realise that they had had a successful summit experience and listened to them packing equipment to return as low on the mountain as possible. The longer we lay there, the more conversations took place and then as time ticked on, conversations became more in cohesive and less easy to understand. Oxygen starved brains and exhausted bodies start to do random things, but we were all tucked up in our one shared sleeping bag trying to, not so much sleep but just rest.

The next conversation I became aware of was a ranting lady. A hysterical lady. The kind of lady that gives ladies a bad name.  I could hear her Sherpa’s groan and could imagine them rolling their eyes.  I chose to ignore the conversation which was happening outside our tent until I recognised Kirsty’s voice.  Now, Kirsty is one of the nicest people I have ever met, who not only was our team doctor but had taken upon herself to become camp doctor who regularly treated Sherpa’s and members from other teams.  She is a Major in the Army, with extensive front line medical experience and a specialist in High Altitude Medicine. Although super confident, Kirsty is rather shy, but clearly ‘Miss Ranty’ got to her as the shy Kirsty unleashed a tyrant of words in the form of “if you don’t shut the f**k up, I am going to slap you!”  Strangely enough, Miss Ranty did shut up and whimpered away and we never saw her again.  All we needed was rest.

As the sun started to set, the wind remarkably started to drop and at 20.30 the team set off from top camp.  I remember looking at Phirinhee and saying to him “If you cold, we turn around.  If me cold, we turn around.”  The corners of his eyes gave away his smile and he nodded his head. 

As soon as we left the relative comfort of the tents and looked up, we saw a stream of head torches coming very slowly down the mountain towards us.  These were the climbers from the day before who had now been on the go for at least 20 hours. The first few parties were people accompanied by their Sherpa’s, all in a bad way but still what I would classify as walking wounded.  All they had to do was put one step in front of the other and keep moving; every step down is a step in the right direction.  Paula was at the front of our team setting the pace; we were the only team moving at this stage so there were no queues and no waiting as we made slow progress upwards.

As we started towards the first short steep wall, we noticed a stationary head torch illuminating a horizontal, stationary body.  There was nobody else there.  My heart sank, and I felt sick.  Here was a person, still on the fixed ropes. Then the head torch moved, and the person managed to move into an upright position.  They were moaning; oxygen mask still in place, oxygen in tank but missing one glove. We had no idea how long they had been horizontal for, we had no idea if they had just collapsed or if they had fallen. I pushed Pemba to the front of the queue so that we could start working on the fixed ropes.  The person then fell again another few metres and landed on a platform, still upright and now talking.  Oh God, we knew her.  I shouted at her to fight for their life, I checked her oxygen which was still good and glanced for the lost glove but no joy.  Kirsty at this stage, unclipped herself from the rope, shuffled along the ledge and reinforced everything I said.  Fight for your life and keep moving.  Fight for your life and keep moving.  She seemed to react to the words of encouragement and starting shuffling along the platform.  Phurinhee helped her set up her abseil and we parted company. Looking below we could see a lone figure making their way up to her carrying another oxygen cylinder.  As we left I couldn’t help asking myself if I should have done more, this was a decision that plagued me for the next few days, let alone hours.

Everest

We continued climbing and I started counting. I started counting dead bodies from previous expeditions which remained in place. The first was sitting down just off the path, knees bent, and head slumped.  I felt sick.  They kept on coming.  If you shone your head torch off the path you would see another body.  They were wedged down rock crevasses, on ledges and next to the path.  Nobody spoke.  It came to the point that I became too frightened to shine my head torch off the path in fear of seeing another body. 

We caught up with Nick, Phur Semba and Nurbu who were all in good shape. I had climbed with Nick on Annapurna IV the previous season and saw that he was starting to tire. I also knew that Nick is very sensible when it comes to mountains and I knew that he would make the right decision depending on how he felt.  I felt comfortable with this because we’ve spent lots of time together over the past 12 months or so. Nick & I had a chat making sure things were ok and then we continued past him.  Not long after this, Nick made the best decision of the trip by deciding that he wasn’t going to make it to the summit within our turn around turn.  He turned around just before the first step and returned the ABC.

The rest of the team continued and negotiated the first step.  We approach the second step to illuminate the famous ladder but it’s not the ladder that my head torch illuminated, but another body.  I am nearly sick in my mask.  Here is somebody that no less than 24 hours ago probably stood on the summit of Mount Everest and celebrated their achievement and now, due to whatever reason, life was taken. This was the only fatality above top camp on the North Side this season.  As the team made slow process up the ladder, I stood for some time just feeling sick. I looked up and saw the blue jacket and the black goretex pants and the recognisable boots.  Oh God, I know this person.  I nudged Phurba and asked him “Is that X?”.  Phurba just looked at me.  I must have waited about 20 minutes as the team negotiated the second step and all I could think of was why? I didn’t know if I could do this, not from a physical perspective but from an emotional one.  I was sick in my mask and could feel the tears started to well up, but then Phurba said “No, it’s not X”. I was hugely relieved but still felt like shit. I pulled myself together and continued up with the rest of the team, desperately trying to not shine my torch at the empty shell or touch him. 

We traversed the long ridge which leads to the summit pyramid, still counting the empty shells. I counted 11 in total.  It got so bad that as soon as I saw a bundle to the edge of the path, I thought it was another body. Sometimes it was, but mostly it was just abandoned piles of empty oxygen cylinders, but the feeling never got any easier. 

We summited at 0600 on the 24th in perfect conditions.  The Weather Gods took pity on us for once.  Strangely enough none of our team felt like celebrating and we probably spent no more than 10 minutes failing miserably to take photos since our camera batteries had frozen.

Summit Team

On the way down, we passed a couple of small teams, all happy and jolly since they knew the summit was near. Naively, I thought to myself that the body at the second step must have been cut from the fixed ropes since they had only just passed it.  How wrong I was.  The body was still there, and it was just as bad going past it for a second time. The team started to slowly spread out as we negotiated the various short abseils and returned off the big mountain.

We got to camp 2 and packed up any equipment we had left there and started to make our way down to camp 1.  It was still early in the day, but the expected bad weather had moved in by 11.00 and staying at camp 2 was not an option.  Along with our Guardian Angels we regrouped at camp 1.  Kirsty needed to continue back down to North Col whilst Paula needed to rest at camp 1.  Phirinhee and I pulled out the sleeping bags again and settled down for our last night on the mountain.  After a couple of hours, I heard Paula say that she needed to go down to North Col so with no questions and with head torches mounted once again, we packed up and headed down to the North Col.

It was now that we heard that somebody else, had died on the mountain. Not knowing who it was, was horrendous; since deep down my fear was that it was the body we left to continue down the mountain on their own.  I was going to have to cope with this knowledge for the rest of my life. 

The following day we all packed up and made the last trip down to ABC.  Our Tibetan cook boy had walked up to ‘Crampon Point’ with a bag full of coke and sprite.  This was the best liquid that any of us had had in days.  No floaters, no grit just badness; SO GOOD.

The group regrouped at ABC where we drank more coke and beer with each other and our Guardian Angels.  We didn’t speak much about summit day, obviously each person was processing the day.  We discovered that the body we did leave had survived which did make us all breathe a sigh of relief.

The following day we packed up ABC and returned to base camp.  We all walked alone and despite being extremely tired we looked and felt good. Others hadn’t faired so well, they looked as if they have just survived a major battle on the front line. Others were perhaps too happy and cheery, obviously pleased with their successful summit but showing no respect to those who remain.  I found that very hard to stomach.

Over the next few days at base camp and on our back to Lhasa, the team slowly started to speak about summit day and start to experience the joy that an expedition like this should provide.  We all needed time to re-adjust and reflect on what had been a very intense experience.  

Back at Top Camp after Summit

As I write this, I have been back in Scotland for a week.  I’ve cleared the desk from the admin that these expeditions generate and spent hours in my garden.  I’m still trying to process everything that happened and rationalise my decisions.  I’ve probably come across as dismissive to friends who asked me about my latest adventure and been reluctant to speak too much about it. When you speak about it you must relive it which can be hard.  Maybe, by them reading this, it will help them appreciate the events I have experienced over the last couple of months. Members and Sherpas all share an unbelievable bond which will have a long-lasting effect on them.  Over time, the trauma will heal, and the joy of success will shine through. We need to remember and respect those that still remain on Everest; the trauma for those families whose loved ones who never return. 

I am often asked ‘why do I keep returning to the world of high-altitude mountaineering’?  As I read once “without death, life has no meaning”. In my experience, there is nowhere else that you experience death first hand like on Mount Everest.  Life isn’t a dress rehearsal and by pushing myself to the limit every now and then I appreciate my life so much more.  I appreciate the little things in life and I fill my life with people that inspire me. I love the explosion of my senses when I return from barren places and I want to share these feelings and emotions with kindred spirits.  Team members and Sherpa’s alike who share the Everest experience together will have a bond between them, a bond that can’t be explained, replicated or broken.

It’s not everybody’s thing, I get that.  But wouldn’t the world be unimaginative and dull if we all liked the same things?”

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