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CHAPTER FIVE

AMONGST THE GIANTS

‘All men dream, but not equally, those that dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the
dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act upon their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.’

T. E. Lawrence,
Seven Pillars of Wisdom

DIARY, 27 FEBRUARY:

Sitting in the plane finally on our way, at the end of a long, very busy, emotional rollercoaster of activity – raising the funds, organizing equipment, getting
fit, staying healthy and strong, and saying our goodbyes.

Peace at last. But also anticipation. It’s time now to focus on what’s ahead – yet a nervous gulf hovers over us, as to what the future holds.

Mick and I were travelling out about four weeks before Neil and Geoffrey, the idea being to get a bit of extra time at high altitude before the climb itself would start. We
wanted to really begin to focus on the job ahead; away from the ‘busyness’ of before.

One of the pieces of research I had done before leaving was to contact a few of the British climbers who had successfully reached the top of Everest. I hungered for any pieces of advice that
they could offer. One of the recurring patterns that emerged amongst those who had achieved this and those who hadn’t was that the former had often spent a few weeks beforehand training at an
altitude of around 12,000 or 13,000 feet, in preparation. ‘A time of focus before the battle’ was how I heard it described.

And so the two of us found ourselves 30,000 feet up in the Qatar Airways first class section, heading for the Himalaya. Ironically, from a team of four ‘tough’ men, I now found
myself alone with Mick, with whom I had shared rugby boots and maths books since the age of seven. Rather than feeling part of this hardened mountaineering team, off to wrestle with the extremes of
cold and fatigue, I felt more as if we were going back to school at the start of term; as snotty, homesick kids.

But no one would have guessed it, as we reclined in our huge first class seats and ordered another drink.

Qatar Airways had very generously agreed, as sponsorship, to fly the team there and back. Having only ever flown crammed into cattle-class squashed between two sweaty squaddies, or with my
parents, buried under piles of luggage, first class was a treat. I would love to be able to say how we drank the plane dry of complimentary whisky and champagne, and then needed to be wheeled off
at the other end with Moët poisoning. But unfortunately that didn’t happen, and the journey passed more or less in quiet anticipation.

Seeing this young couple in the row next to me, kissing their way across the skies, made me heinously jealous. I thought to myself how I would be able to do that soon; well relatively soon; like
three months soon. Just a bit of discomfort along the way beforehand, then back to England and long kisses. I was annoyed with myself for feeling like this already.

The pilot brought us up to the cockpit and pointed out Mount Everest through the window, as we passed over Northern India. I pressed against the glass and there, as if piercing through a blanket
of cloud on the horizon, stood that place of dreams. The frozen snow poured off the summit, streaming miles across the sky, as the jet stream pounded her upper slopes without remorse. I was
transfixed as I stared at her – lonesome in the sky.

‘Outside temperature’s now reading — 55°C,’ the pilot commented. He looked at us and smirked. I tapped him on the shoulder, thanked him and went back to my seat.

I sat and thought of all that had happened in the last few days before leaving. Already it felt an age away. I wrote in my diary:

My best memory of all that I now leave behind is of that last weekend at home, when all the animals broke out. We put the Shetland pony in the field with the donkeys to see
if they’d get on. They didn’t. Olly, one of the donkeys, charged through the fence, through the trees, and vaulted a four-foot gate. The Shetland must have had something, as
I’d never seen Olly so much as trot before – let alone jump. The pigs then got wind of the excitement and broke out of their sty. Hyacinth, the big female kune-pig, who can hardly
walk as she’s so large, did the 100 metres in about five seconds flat. The other donkey then tried to trample Hyacinth, and chased her eagerly along the river. By this stage Abraham, the
cock, was flapping furiously, the ducks and chickens were fleeing in all directions from the chaos of the moment, and Mum and Dad were running round trying to make amends.

In many ways it was just another day ‘at the ranch’, but I guess it sums up all that I already miss about home.

Dad drove me to the airport, and looked ten times sadder than me, and I wondered if he knew something that I didn’t. He lingered and lingered, until eventually we had to go through the
departures gate. It was horrible. If something happens and I don’t come back, I just want you to know how much I love you both. Thank you for so much.

‘Tough soldier?’ – My foot!

And so we left England, praying that we would see her green grass again, three months later. All that now lay ahead was the mountain and how she was going to treat us.

The smog and diesel fumes of the ancient British-made buses engulfed us as we frantically loaded bags of equipment into the minibus. Kathmandu seemed exactly the same as it was
four months earlier on my way through to climb Ama Dablam. The same hustle and bustle of Nepali officials claiming luggage tax duty, the same kids running around trying to assist in moving kit
– all for a rupee or two.

The horns of the taxis hooted incessantly, as they fought their way through the mayhem of the rickshaw-infested traffic. We piled the last of our bags in and joined the flow, in search of a
little backstreet hotel called the Gauri Shankar. Placed in the middle of the old part of the city, it is a small oasis of calm in the midst of raging chaos. The hotel is used almost exclusively by
climbers, and they didn’t bat an eyelid as we unloaded the mass of equipment. They were used to this sort of thing.

The rest of the day passed with a bit of shopping in the bazaar, a cold shower to wash off the grime of the city, and a huge Nepali-American supper. After a pretty restless night, our minds
buzzing with all that was beginning to happen, we made our way at 5.00 a.m. to the domestic airport to pick up a small helicopter, bound for the foothills of the Himalaya. It was a relief to put in
the earplugs, hear the rotors start, and lift off from the bustle of the city below.

I closed my eyes, leant against a sack of ginger, and breathed deeply. Forty minutes later, the rush of Kathmandu was far behind and we were flying across stunning valleys, rich with
rhododendrons, with tiny mountain villages scattered intermittently along the hillsides. As we rounded the head of one of these valleys, we saw our destination: a small dirt landing strip perched
on the side of a mountain at about 8,500 feet. The village of Lukla was nothing more than a tiny gathering of huts, clustered around a precarious runway.

The helicopter hovered above the ground, sending dust everywhere as the locals crouched from the blast. As we touched down, the Nepalese clambered round helping us drag the bags off the chopper.
It then throttled hard and lifted off, disappearing from view as it dropped away down the steep hill, to return through the valleys to Kathmandu. We wouldn’t see such technology again for a
while.

Already deep into the foothills of the Himalaya at a height of around 8,500 feet, the village of Lukla is where we would start our trek in towards Base Camp. It would be a journey of some
thirty-five miles. This distance would take us about twelve days to cover, partly because of the way one has to cross and recross infinite valleys and gorges that meander through the hills, but
also because of the altitude difference that our bodies would experience. Base Camp is at 17,450 feet, and to reach this height safely requires giving the body enough time to adapt.

The strict acclimatization pattern that we’d have to follow would begin now. From this point upward, we would feel the strain of high altitudes. Acclimatization is all about allowing the
body to adjust to having less oxygen to function with; and the key to this is being patient in how fast one ascends. The effects of altitude sickness can kill very quickly if this is ignored.

I had been told that the statistics of those who reach the summit of Everest successfully on their first attempt is something like one in twenty out of those climbers that try. We were both well
aware therefore of the necessity to acclimatize well, as early as possible. This was to be essential if we were to have even a chance of the top. The struggle to stay healthy and to adapt to the
thin air had begun.

DIARY, 1 MARCH:

It has taken all my energy and resourcefulness to raise the finance to organize this expedition for myself; I doubt if I could do that again. Because of this, I’m well
aware that I’ve only got one chance up here.

Along the way will be harder work than I have ever known before, but I’ve got to throw my everything at this; and then it’s home to fireplaces, the animals and hot chocolate.
We’re in the Good Lord’s hands.

The little village of Toc-Toc was three hours’ walk along the valley side, crossing wooden bridges over small streams and skirting round tiny batches of huts that lay
along the route. The sounds of the yak bells ringing in the terraced fields and children fighting in the mud was all that broke the silence of the hills around us.

As we came round corners and glanced up through breaks in the trees, we would catch glimpses of the mountains far above us. Then they would be lost again from sight, and replaced by the
immediacy of the flora all around. Glades of blue pine and juniper adorned the valleys, and their aroma reminded us of the refuge that these foothills provide from the cold and raw nature of the
huge peaks far away and above.

Our first night in the valleys was spent at Toc-Toc, where we washed in the waterfall outside a little farm hut. A small family lived here, and fed us majestically on their homegrown vegetables
and rice. We read by candlelight until 9.00 p.m., before settling down to sleep. The cushions were full of fleas and the wooden boards were hard on the body; but it felt good in its simplicity.
Listening to the noises of the night, I dozed off to sleep.

I was woken abruptly in the depths of darkness to the heaving and retching sounds of Mick throwing up into a boot. Maybe the altitude was beginning to affect him, or maybe those vegetables had
been just a little too fresh. Whatever it was, though, was sure making itself heard in Mick. The situation only got worse when, in the light of dawn a few hours later, I discovered that the boot
Mick had grabbed had in fact been mine. Many apologies and a few cups of lemon tea later, Mick looked a better shade of green than he had at sunrise, and we slowly began to pack up our gear.

That day we were to reach the market village of Namche Bazaar, perched in the bowl of a hill at about 12,000 feet. This is the local trading place for the little villages scattered throughout
the Khumbu Valley region. It is the last post of any vague civilization on the route through the hills, towards the Base Camp of Mount Everest.

Mick was weakened by his bout of food poisoning and was slightly concerned about making such an inauspicious start to the trek. He remembered hearing of some famous climber who had been
intending to scale a peak out in this region, being forced to abandon the attempt after slipping a disc, chewing on a chapati – a local unleaven bread. I tried to reassure Mick that a bit of
food poisoning wasn’t quite the same and the two of us then set off, contouring along the valley edge before beginning the steep path up towards Namche Bazaar – avoiding at all costs
eating any chapatis along the way.

After crossing a spectacular but precarious old rope bridge spanning a 300 feet deep gorge, we started up a long path through the trees towards Namche, two hours in the distance.

DIARY, 2 MARCH:

Steep terraced houses and plots of cultivated land form this little market town, high up in the forested foothills – it is the most developed place I’ll see for
the next three months. It has a generator to supply the few houses with electric lights, and a primitive drainage system, covered by slabs of wood and stone, that runs through the streets. The
place is full of small stalls selling endless amounts of old climbing equipment that expeditions have left behind on their return journeys.

Mick and I both bought a few final bits and bobs, or ‘monkeys and parrots’ as my old sergeant would say, that we might need as spares. We also took the opportunity to eat our
last bit of vaguely decent food. We both know that from when we leave here tomorrow, the conditions will worsen, and the food we’ll eat will be food that has been carried in – hence
not quite ‘Savoy-esque’.

A plump, middle-aged German lady, who is out here trekking, asked Mick if she could have his autograph, as she’d never met anyone who was attempting to climb Everest. I went and hid in
the loo, chuckling away, as Mick floundered about trying desperately to escape this formidable woman’s grasp.

The loos here are pretty primitive, and are generally just a hole in the floor inside a tiny wooden hut. Plenty of ‘misfires’ ensure that the wooden floor around the hole is well
soiled, and that the pile of poo pokes through the hole like some sort of decaying pyramid. Because of being at 12,000 feet, it’s pretty difficult to hold one’s breath for very
long, as you enter the little hut and desperately try to do what you need to do without inhaling. Inevitably you end up gasping for breath as you give up, and are left squatting there, puffing
in the rancid smell. We hear a rumour of a loo further up, with a natural drainage system from a stream, making it beautifully clean. Maybe I’ll try and hold on until we find it.

I told Mick that I was going to have an early night and was going to change and go down to pyjamas. Mick, slightly confused, asked me where ‘Pyjamas’ was, as if it was some
Nepalese village he hadn’t heard of. I chuckled – must be the altitude, I thought.

It is now snowing hard in Namche. This is the first snow we’ve seen. I wonder what it’s like further up the Khumbu Valley.

BOOK: Bear Grylls
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