Authors: Bear Grylls
The noise of these avalanches shatters the silence of the place. As the weight of snow can no longer sustain itself, large sections break off and tumble like ‘white thunder’ down the
sheer faces. The noise echoes around the mountains, shaking the foundations of the glacier as the avalanches plummet to earth.
These are extraordinary moments, as you hear the initial crack of the snow coming loose far above. We would scramble to the edge of our tents and stare out as the cloud of snow picked up
momentum. We knew that we were far enough away from the danger; but still in the dead of night when we first heard those rumbles and saw the moonlight glistening on the tumbling mass of snow, our
hearts stayed still.
These serve as a sober reminder of what lies ahead on the mountain, outside of Base Camp’s ‘safe’ zone. In the mountains, avalanches kill more people than the cold and the
altitude put together – here you’re never allowed to forget this.
During those first few days Mick and I struggled to get used to this new environment. An environment that consisted of the cold, extreme altitude, and a wilderness of rock and ice. The
occasional groan of the glacier moving beneath us at first frightened me. I was finding it hard not to be able to find refuge in anything familiar. No trees, no flowing water, no earth below us.
The only comforts now seemed to be a second roll mat to pad out the sharpness of the stones beneath us and a battered old three-stringed guitar to strum.
I wrote in my diary:
I think that the fear of what lies ahead accentuates the harshness of this place. I’ve never known an environment quite like it. I must learn though to think of this
as ‘home’, as one thing is absolutely certain – Base Camp will be the tamest place on this mountain.
That afternoon, like many afternoons later on, I sought the solitude of my tent and whiled away the hours reading the letters that my family had given me before leaving. Tucked into one of the
side pouches of my rucksack I found a note from my mother. It said simply, ‘Angels are watching over you.’ I folded it and carefully put it away.
I knew a couple of the Sherpas at Base Camp from the climb on Ama Dablam, namely Nima and Pasang; it was good to see them again. They are both great characters who live for the
mountains, and take great pride in their climbing. They laugh ferociously at almost anything, and then can keep laughing at the same joke for hours. You couldn’t help but like them. It was
good to be spending time with them now, before the pressure started. Later on, we knew that we would be together in much less pleasant situations.
A couple of days later, Mick was feeling much better and was more his usual self. He is fiercely resilient, and recovering like this was typical of the way he overcame obstacles throughout the
Whether he was ill, or had taken a nasty fall whilst climbing, or was just feeling the frustration of endlessly waiting for suitable weather, he would always calmly ride through it. This would
often involve him just quietly retreating to his tent, and sitting things out; coping with it in his own way. But he would never be beaten. Mick knew how to cope with hardship, and always seemed to
emerge from it fighting. It was of no surprise therefore to see Mick, who had hardly been seen now for three days, climb out of his tent – smiling and fit again.
Because our families were very close, we had grown up as kids together. I will never forget his mother telling me before we left that she was confident Mick would be okay, as long as I was with
him. But I felt the same reliance towards him. I sensed that I was stronger when I was with him, and he inspired me to work to my limits. Our partnership together, even at this stage, kept me
going; and my respect for him grew daily. They say that if you see someone’s vulnerability, then you realize their fallibility; but with Mick it was the opposite. In the weeks ahead I saw him
almost daily at his physical limit, and this has left me with a deep admiration for the man.
Now that we had spent a few days at Base Camp, and Mick was feeling healthy again, we planned to pack a small rucksack of equipment and head back down the valley to about 14,000 feet, to train.
We still had ten days before Neil, Geoffrey, and Henry’s team would arrive at Base Camp, and we hoped to do a last week of climbing before they got here. We decided to leave the next day.
DIARY, 15 MARCH:
Another very cold night here, but I’m slowly learning the tricks of the trade. The most fundamental one being that to fill a waterbottle with boiling water before
going to bed keeps the toes warm for hours, and evokes all sorts of good emotions.
The coldest hours are between 4.00 and 5.00 a.m. and by that stage the water bottle is cold and lies uncomfortably in your bag. This morning I took mine out at 5.00 a.m. and it was frozen
solid within forty-five minutes. During these early hours I just seem to curl up and hide away in my own little world – the world of my sleeping bag.
When the sun comes up, it burns so strongly because of the high altitude. Less particles to diffuse the rays makes the burning effects pretty obvious. Mick’s already got panda eyes and
we’re both going this dark, dark brown. Rather than looking golden and sexy though, we just look this ‘dirt’ colour. Not that there’s anyone to look sexy for, apart from
three yaks. Talking of which . . . I wonder what the yaks like best, brown or golden . . . Hmm!
The sky also looks this wonderful deep blue colour, which seems to fade at the edges into a darker shade. I guess though that’s to be expected – after all, we are 17,450 feet
closer to space.
We headed back out of Base Camp the next morning – equipped with our rucksacks and fifty feet of rope. Once across the glacier, we were to head down to Dingboche, rest
there and then climb the next day. But we found getting across the glacier from Base Camp harder than we had expected. The absence of any path meant that we wound our way through the ice in the
rough direction we thought the edge of the glacier to be.
What should have taken two hours took us four, but eventually we found our way onto the ridge. The two of us sat exhausted and looked at the vast expanse of rock and ice that we had crossed. We
didn’t say anything as we stared, each of us lost in our thoughts – grateful to be on solid ground.
That afternoon, as we approached Dingboche, 3,500 feet lower down, we were relishing the prospect of sleeping in a hut with a warm fire, in the thicker oxygen. But when we arrived, the place was
full of trekkers, now that the trekking season was fast approaching; and there wasn’t room. We pulled out our little tent and put it up outside. It was a bit colder than being in the warmth
of the hut and we didn’t get our fire, but at least we could be in peace, and were able to hear the sounds of the night clearly.
The next day we walked for two hours, through strong wind and hail, down to the village of Pangboche. When we arrived we were starving and we tucked into a hearty lunch of rice, stewed
vegetables, and yak cheese. We wanted to climb the ridge that led to the foot of Ama Dablam that afternoon, and to spend a night there acclimatizing; but now, curled up round the fire after a good
lunch, we felt reluctant to head back into the weather and start climbing.
We both wanted to stay put, but we knew that we were due to meet a couple of friends in a few days’ time, who had come out to see us. When they arrived it would be harder to train. We
therefore felt it important to do some climbing these couple of days beforehand. So, reluctantly, we put on our thick clothing and rucksacks, and headed out into the snow, leaving the fire still
We got rid of any superfluous stuff, and left it in the village. After crossing a small wooden bridge over a swollen stream, we began the ascent onto the ridge that would lead
to Ama Dablam. It was hard work fighting against the wind and hail, and we tightened our fleeces around us to keep warm. I remembered the path we were on from when I had been here the year before;
then it had been just rock and scree, but now it was covered in thigh-deep drift snow. After two hours we were beginning to tire. Even at these lower altitudes, the body becomes tired so quickly,
as it tells you it needs more oxygen.
I led the way, kicking steps into the snow; but because of the thick mist that had now moved in, it was almost impossible to keep on the right line of path. The higher we got, the deeper the
snow became, and at times, because of carrying forty-five pounds of rucksack, I found myself up to my waist in drift snow. Time and time again we would fall, as the crusty slabs gave way under our
weight. The weather was worsening as the wind drove the snow ferociously across the slopes. My leather hiking boots had now frozen, and we were getting irritated by the slow going.
Eventually, three hours later, we reached Ama Dablam’s Base Camp. We rested for a few moments. I was amazed by how different it appeared from when I was last there. The post-monsoon warmth
of October had now been replaced by a stark icy cold, and the grass that I had lain on then, as I contemplated the climb ahead, was now snow-covered and desolate.
We had an hour and a half of daylight left, and decided to go a little further above the ridge before nightfall came, when we would be forced to pitch our tent. Minutes after setting off though,
we found ourselves in even deeper drift snow. Mick was now leading, and soon found himself floundering in the loose powder. We kept going, but forty minutes later we had still only gone about 200
metres. We soon realized that we were getting into dangerous avalanche territory and decided to retreat the few hundred metres back to the mountain’s Base Camp. We were tired; it had been a
On our way back, part of a large slab of snow behind us groaned and cracked open. We hurried to the side, out of the danger. It stayed silent and still. We watched it carefully and then began to
make our way tentatively back down, treading a fresh trail.
Back at the Base Camp, we found a site safe from avalanches, and tried to put up our tent in the howling wind. When we eventually got it up, we clambered hurriedly inside, cowering from the
cruel weather. It was dark by now. My gloves and boots were frozen solid; I put them in my rucksack and stuffed the whole lot down my sleeping bag, in an attempt to thaw them out. We shuffled and
tried to get comfortable.
The tent we had was known as a ‘Himalayan Explorer’, but it was so small that there wasn’t exactly a lot of room for exploration; and the two of us, almost wedged on top of
each other, tried to sleep.
At 8.00 p.m., we both woke up, gasping for breath. The tent was so well sealed that we had been breathing the same air over and over again. It felt as if we were at 114,000 feet instead of
14,000 feet. We cursed the tent and decided to rename the ‘Himalayan Explorer’, the ‘Himalayan Suffocator’; we undid the flap a bit, lay back down and told each other
stories late into the night.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
was the crowning glory to us both falling deep asleep, exhausted by the day.
We woke at 6.30 a.m. It was now a beautiful clear day outside the tent, but still icy cold in the pre-dawn frost. We crawled out, grimacing as we put on our damp boots, and began to pack up our
equipment. We found that the tent poles had frozen together, and refused to budge. Our hands were becoming freezing cold as we tried to free them.
Without the pressure of bad weather, though, everything seemed remarkably calm. We jumped up and down, trying to warm our feet up, and relished the fresh air. Soon I was busying myself trying to
find some juniper under the snow, as Mick rummaged for his lighter. Five minutes later we had a lovely fire burning. We warmed our hands and our feet by the flames and thawed out the poles.
The warmth and smell of burning juniper made us feel glad to be alive. Alone in the hills on this stunning crisp morning, we waited for the sun to rise over the mountains.
As we left Ama Dablam’s Base Camp and started down the ridge, the warmth of the new sun strengthened. For two hours we walked down in silence, lost in the joy of the moment, and revelling
in the thought of the fresh omelette that awaited us back in Pangboche, only a few kilometres away.
That day we felt tired but happy. We just ate and wrote our diaries, and watched our kit steaming as it dried over the fire.
I’m feeling stronger now and I think our training is paying off. We have much to look forward to. Tomorrow we’re meeting Emma and Alex, who have come out from
England to trek in the valleys. Just the thought of them seems to lift our spirits. I hope they aren’t shocked by my mountain smell.
We sat in the sun during the afternoon, and enjoyed the good hospitality of the Sherpa who ran the lodge. He was now elderly, but recounted stories to us of his days in the
‘Great Mountains’, as he fried rice over the mud stove. The day slipped by in such a manner, and we soon found that sleep swept over us.
The next day, with great excitement, we raced down the valley some four kilometres to the village of Thyangboche in order to meet the girls. We had arranged before we left
England to meet them at 12 noon on that date, in the main lodge of the village. Nothing more had been said, and part of me wondered if they would be there. I hoped they would.
It had been a while since we had seen anyone we knew, and I was so excited by the thought of seeing friends. One of the joys of the hills for me is the way that life is so simple. One’s
focus is on living and expressing rather than keeping up or keeping on time. One of the downfalls of normal life is that you hardly have time to remember who you have seen in the past few days, let
alone savour that time together. Out here, though, we knew these days together with our friends would be precious, before we began to wrestle with the mountain. I wanted to savour every moment that
they were here.
We went into the lodge and looked around. There, curled round a fire, smothered in jerseys and rugs and grinning from ear to ear, sat Emma and Alex. It was as if a small part of England had
arrived in these valleys to encourage us. It brought back feelings that I had never expected to feel. We sat up late that night and talked.