Project 314 Blog #12 – Close, but no cigar

May 19, 2023

Jake Meyer

Client Accounts' Director
Jake with Semba about to depart for summit attempt

Monday 15th May – Friday 19th May : Days 36-39

Okay – so I’ve probably given away the outcome of our summit attempt with the title of this post. Ultimately we didn’t make it to the summit, but we tried, and MOST importantly, everyone who gave it a go came back down. I can’t quite say that everyone came back completely unscathed – there were a few injuries, but like a fighting dog licking its wounds, we may have a few scratches, but we live to ‘climb’ another day. I’m deliberately not going to do a diary-style entry detailing our step-by-step journey up the mountain, as considering the now known outcome, it all seems rather mute. Instead, I’m going to talk more generally about what happened, and my personal feelings about it all.

We had great weather – clear skies, almost zero wind, good snow conditions – it would have been a perfect summit day by anyone’s books. But unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

I suspect that rumours and potential accusations are already flying online and on social media – and even for us there at the sharp end, it’s not entirely 100% exactly who is to blame for what happened: there are several claims and counter-claims. The one thing that I can say with confidence, is that what happened on the summit attempt was the result of human error. I certainly don’t believe that there was any malice involved, or that it was deliberate sabotage – as much as the gossip mongers would like. Whilst expeditions often play out like juicy soap operas, with their cast of heroes and villains, we didn’t have a ‘Dirty Den’ orchestrating some pre-planned failure with salacious enthusiasm. As a result, I’m deliberately not going to name names. Some may. Some will seek to position blame on others.

Photo from camp looking up the valley towards the summit of Kanchenjunga

From camp looking up the valley towards the summit of Kanchenjunga

There are a lot of people hurting at the moment. Plenty of ‘clients’ and independent climbers alike, who have paid a lot of money to have an experience, and plenty of Sherpas who are now missing out on their summit bonus. Whilst Sherpas are paid well (by Nepal standards), the summit bonuses that they can collect for each season is substantial.

Whilst we all accept the challenge, and therefore uncertainty, of mountaineering, on any expedition which doesn’t end in success, there is always a lot of soul-searching for cause and effect, and this often includes searching for someone to blame.

There is potentially an individual who is an easy target to focus blame for what happened on the summit push, and I suspect that they may catch a significant amount of responsibility (rightly or wrongly) for what happened. Having now spoken to this person and close members of their team, naturally nothing is quite what it seems, and they also have their own version of events. As much as we’d all like someone to blame, there isn’t going to be a court case or an official enquiry – so the ‘real’ truth may never quite come out, and no one will be held officially responsible. I recognise that initially, I had a certain person in my ‘blame cross-hairs’, but less than 24 hours later as more information comes out, I’m not so sure anymore.

The simple party line about what happened, is that ultimately the fixing team ended up going the wrong way – and as a result used up the limited amount of rope that we had on a false route to the summit. This didn’t leave enough rope (or time) to successfully fix the correct path to the summit and thus provide a safe route for everyone.

In the end, the fixing team reached around 8350m (I was probably only around 50-100m below them). We were within 200m of the summit (vertically) before the push was called off. Later on, a small team of three did manage to summit, but in alpine style (very impressively). Whilst technically, we and/or others could have done the same, it really wasn’t appropriate to even think about it. The slopes are incredibly steep, and there was a lot of rockfall (a number of members and Sherpas were hit and have minor injuries – although fortunately all the ‘walking-wounded’ were able to descend under their own steam). Even the successful summiteers had some extremely close near misses (falls), and I suspect that if more people had tried for the summit (without rope and/or appropriate equipment), we’d have had more accidents, and most likely some fatal ones.

There were a number of people (Sherpas) on the mountain who have summited Kanchenjunga several times. Whilst the route to the top is not as clear as it is on many other mountains, there are some obvious route markers which can help people navigate, even when climbing in the dark. It appears that someone in the fixing party (still unclear exactly whom) influenced the team to push in the wrong direction – despite advice (bordering on orders) from others to go in another (correct) direction.

There are potential questions about the quality of the official fixing team on the mountain – and their achievements during the 30+ days that they had to fix the route. There are also questions about the amount of rope that was available for the summit attempt. There are questions about the choice of individuals who were part of the secondary fixing team on the summit push (ultimately those who took on the responsibility of completing the fixing to the summit) – there were a number of changes up until the very last minute.

In an ideal world, you don’t start your summit push until you know that the route is fixed to the top. However Kanch isn’t Everest, where there is huge resource out into the fixing of the mountain, and it wouldn’t have been the first time that I’ve been on a summit push where ‘we’ were fixing as we went. Certainly for the ‘clients’ (of whom may aren’t proper climbers, even on Kanchenjunga), we took a chance by pushing for a summit even when we knew that the mountain wasn’t fully fixed. Whilst we had confidence that things would play out fruitfully, despite the known risk in the plan – in the end, the cards didn’t quite fall in our favour.

The results of big expeditions like this are always a game of playing the odds. You play the odds with acclimatisation. No one wants to do multiple long rotations, but ultimately the science does back up the fact that to stand the best chances of reacting well to the altitude, you need to spend a decent amount of time high(er) on the mountain. You play the odds with summit pushes – everyone wants to be on the first push – as ultimately no one wants to be here any longer than they need to be.

Photo of Jake in climbing gear including oxygen face mask just as they turned around at 8300m - so close, and yet so far

Jake at the point where they turned around at 8300m – so close, and yet so far

Perhaps regarding that last point (time on mountain), I’m a little more prosaic about length of expeditions. I suspect that it’s borne from the experience that I had on my first big trip (Everest), where I was away for 70 days. In my head, when attempting an 8000m peak, one must be prepared to be away from home for 2 months. These days, people’s experience (as well as their patience) is much shorter. Many on trips to Everest may be away for only 5 weeks. There are expedition companies offering ‘flash’ ascents of Everest which may only be 3 weeks total (although I should add that this involves/requires significant pre-expedition physical preparation (pre-acclimatisation). I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard people on this trip say ‘this is the longest I’ve been away’, or ‘we’ve already been here for over a month’. I’ve often spoken about the requirement for patience on expeditions like this, as it seems like people arrived at basecamp having already run out of patience. I even heard someone today say “It’s not the $20k that I’ve spent on this trip that I care about. It’s the month that I’ve spent away from work where I probably could have earnt $100k”.

I’ve now done five expeditions to 8000m peaks. Only two of them have resulted in successful summits (although one of those also included an unsuccessful attempt on another 8000m peak). I also know of people who’ve successfully summited 10x 8000m peaks and only had one unsuccessful expedition. The odds are always changing, sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes your not. Often, the way you approach an expedition can significantly affect your odds (and yes – this does include how much money you’re prepared to throw at it, and/or the style in which you try and climb).

However, when I reflect on my ‘success rate’, I don’t see it as a 40% win rate. By measurement of getting home safely (which should always be the true measure of success), I’ve been 100% successful. I can clearly identify decision points that I’ve had on several expeditions where whilst I may have limited my chances of summiting, I significantly increased my chances of safe return. Whatever the future holds, I hope that I can continue to maintain this ‘run-rate’.

I’m proud of how I’ve performed on this trip. I felt strong throughout the 4 days of the summit push. I only used oxygen above Camp 4 (many used it getting from C3 to C4, and then to rest with at C4). I had my oxygen on a lower flow rate on the summit push than my Sherpa… and was going faster than him!). I believe that I ‘behaved’ well on the mountain. I helped others who needed help (even if they had made poor decisions). I hope that I’ve been an ‘effective follower’ within our team. I hope that I’ve made positive contribution and had a positive impact, and that other members are pleased that I’ve been part of the team, and that given the choice, they’d want to climb with me again. In the ‘football in the park – jumpers for goal-posts’ analogy, I hope that given free choice, my partners would pick me first, and not leave me till last.

There was the usual cast of characters who had played a poor game on this mountain – and frankly, if this was a business environment, would have been ‘sacked’ for their actions and behaviours. I won’t name names publicly, but hopefully I will have a chance to offer some direct feedback to individuals before I leave. This is less about ‘getting things off my chest’ for my own benefit, and more about ensuring that they are aware of the negative impact that they’ve had on other people. Normally, I’m not one to burn bridges, and naturally will err away from confrontation – but for some people specifically, I do think that it’s important that they hear what I have to tell them – as I know that it’s not something that I’ve experienced in isolation, but I also don’t believe that anyone else will actually give them the feedback. Whilst I don’t care about my future relationship with them, if some feedback has even the smallest chance of influencing their future behaviour, then I think that it’s well worth it.

There are plenty of team members who I’ve grown very fond of, and will miss dearly, and there are several who I hope that I never cross paths with again. As usual, it is no reflection on climbing ability or experience, and purely based on our shared (or differing) values. As previously mentioned, an expedition is a microcosm of reality – just more intense and concentrated into a shorter amount of time. There are times in our life when we are thrust together with people that we don’t necessarily agree with (or like), and need to work hard to do our best in that situation. I also recognise that there are people who in all likelihood, our paths may never cross again, and I’m very sad in the knowledge that shortly I’ll be saying goodbye to some people who I’ve come to hugely respect – and who’ve made the last six weeks a joy. They’ve been fleeting characters in my life, but they’ve made a big impression, as I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to share the importance of their impact before we depart.

As always, feedback is a gift, and for the good, the bad and the ugly of the expedition, I think that it’s important to share the feedback which I hope will either be a recognition of positive experience, or an articulation of something negative which I genuinely believe may prove constructive to them in the future.

When I returned to C4 after the aborted summit attempt, I pinged out a short text (via sat phone) to a few key people to let them know of the unsuccessful outcome. To the one to my wife, I’d added – ‘I hope that the girls (our daughters) aren’t too disappointed’. She came back later with a priceless response from our eldest (aged 8) – ‘Ottie said, “you know – it took Daddy three times to climb K2!”’

Well, if my children’s attitude towards success and failure is that matter-of-fact and accepting, then I’m quite proud of our parenting skills. I hope that our 8 year old’s Kipling-esque equal treatment of those two imposters is something that she takes throughout life, and I think that it’s a lesson to us all. Let’s not judge each other (and ourselves) purely on our successes, but on our willingness to try things that are difficult and challenging, and that perceived failure can be every bit as valuable for the experience it provides and the lessons it teaches us.

Nearly everyone else around me at basecamp on Kanchenjunga is faced with the choice of ‘to go home, or to hold on and hope that there is another summit window’. Even for those who decide to stay, it’s not quite as simple as just sticking it out. The problem of fixing to the summit remains. Can we get more rope to the mountain? ‘Who’ will fix the final part? Whilst there are plenty of people with lots of mountaineering experience, there aren’t many who are capable of fixing rope on the mountain. Some of the strongest climbers are the ones who ‘are finished’ and want to go home. Will there be other teams coming to Kanchenjunga who will bring some fresh blood and renewed vim and vigour?

All that being said – for me, this expedition is slightly different, as it’s not a ‘one and done’ type of trip. I’ve only reached the end of stage one. Stage two starts imminently with a return to the Everest region, and an attempt on Everest and Lhotse. There have already been multiple ascents of both of these mountains this season. They’ve had their first good summit window. They’ve both been fixed to the top. The questions for me, is ‘am I physically capable of a good summit push’ – especially following the exhaustive effort of this attempt on Kanchenjunga, and ‘will I be able to coincide my time on these mountains with decent weather and conditions?’. Only time will tell, and I now sit patiently in BC waiting for the ‘wocka-wocka’ of an approaching helicopter which will take me to the next peak.

So stay tuned – it’s not all over yet: there are still hills to be climbed.







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+91 955 271 5800

IDG Middle East
5th Floor One Business Centre DMCC, Jumeirah Lake Towers, Dubai UAE
+44 (0) 1276 686644