Project 314 Blog #14 – On top of the world (again) part 2

June 1, 2023

Jake Meyer

Client Accounts' Director
Photo of Jake sipping a margarita in Camp 4

This is Part 2 of the Blog – if you haven’t read part 1 yet, you can do so here.

When we left Jake he had just reached the summit of Everest with his Sherpa, Fursang. Incredibly, they had it to themselves…. but the weather was bitterly cold.


It was a surreal experience. Instantly I went into operational mode, getting my phone out to snap a few selfies of me and Fursang. Despite having been kept in an inside pocket, and having a healthy battery charge, the cold instantly sapped the life of the phone. Trying to manipulate it with one bare hand, I felt sudden sharp pangs of burning in fingers, as I suffered instant cold injuries. The camera screen went black, refusing to play ball. I struggled to restart the phone, again, managing to squeeze off a couple more pictures before it died once again. I tried again with my 360 camera to get some video footage. The screen appeared blurry, and then after a few seconds it too died – who knows what I’ve actually managed to capture.

To quote Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. We were blessed to have the summit to ourselves, and yet it was so cold, windy and miserable, with the flat light of pre-dawn barely giving us any warmth, that it reinforced the inhospitality of the environment that we found ourselves in.

Photo of Jake appraching the summit ridge at daybreak

The summit ridge at daybreak – completely to ourselves

Once again I’m reminded that ‘Human beings are not meant to be up here’. The myriad of activities that I wanted to do – the flags, the banners, the pieces to camera, the ‘ridiculous media friendly beverage-making activities’ that I had planned were rapidly thrown out of the window, as it became a race against time to get out of there. I managed to get a few more photos of some key sponsors’ flags on Fursang’s phone, but as quickly as we’d arrived, we were already starting to head back down. On my first ascent of Everest I’d spent around 20 minutes on the top. On K2 I’d probably spent 40 minutes (in glorious weather). This time I suspect that it was not much more than 5 minutes – and I didn’t even try and take off my oxygen mask.

The descent was relatively straightforward. By the time we were returning along the summit ridge towards the South Summit we did cross a few other climbers – but it was simple and safely done. Returning down from the South Summit to the Balcony was probably the worst section, as by this time the wind was really whipping up the snow into a stinging spindrift which peppered my face. My ill-fitting oxygen mask meant that I was unable to put on goggles or glasses without them steaming up badly – and frozen condensation had welded large chunks of ice to my eyebrows and eyelashes – further obscuring my vision. I was all too aware that the real risk would come from potential snow blindness – a temporary and painful burning of my corneas due to the extreme UV light at this altitude. It was important to either get down as quickly as possible, or to rig up my sunglasses in a way that would provide protection from the sunlight, yet still allow me to see during the descent.

In the end, it took around 90-120 minutes to get back down to the relative safety of Camp 4 (7900m). Whilst it may appear quick (in comparison to the 10 hours it had taken on the way up), it seemed to go on forever, and time-warp of the midnight grind to get up the mountain was now swapped for the mirage-effect of seeing the brightly coloured tents of our destination, and yet they never seemed to get any closer – no matter how far down we climbed.

Eventually getting back into C4, we knew this would be a brief and temporary respite before further descent. I’d already decided (and shared with Fursang) that I had chosen not to pursue stage three of the challenge with the attempt on Lhotse. By this stage, I was acutely aware of the freezing damage to several fingers, and what with the continued pain in my intercostal muscles, it seemed pointless to add more risk to the equation by maintaining our time in the death zone, and our exposure to risk. I’m not chasing the 14x 8000m peaks, and just trying to bag another one seemed like pushing our luck. Fursang seemed very nonchalant about my decision, and I suspect that whilst he certainly would have done everything in his power to have facilitated Lhotse, he was secretly probably rather pleased at my decision.

After an hour’s rest, and refilling our water bottles, we packed up our kit from the high camp and started on our way down to C3, and eventually C2. Departing C4, we were able to say goodbye and good luck to the teams who were now arriving – especially Sandro, Tonya and Tyler – who we’d bonded with in C2 on the way up. We also passed a Sherpa Team who were bringing down what at first I assumed was a dead body wrapped up in a sleeping bag, until I saw it moving inside the bag – and realised that said individual was still alive – just. Amazingly, we later found out that they were retrieved via a long-line rescue from C3, and had made it back to hospital in KTM – alive, just.

We crossed back over the Geneva Spur, then across and over the Yellow Band before descending to C3. The hubbub of this camp, perched precariously on the Lhotse Face had died down, since the vast majority of its previous residents were now up in C4, poised for their own summit attempt the following morning. We stopped briefly again for a drink (we were unimaginably thirsty), and shared an apple which I had carried all the way up from basecamp the several days earlier. The semi-frozen sweetness of the flesh was pure ambrosia in the heat. 90 minutes later I stumbled into C2 – which felt lush with its rich oxygen and a suitable place to crash for the night. Whilst it would have been possible to have continued on down to basecamp, I didn’t really fancy another four hours on my feet after such a long day. Refuge was initially provided in the kitchen tent, with the comfort of the hubbub of activity and water and fluids on tap. Invariably, the first thing I was offered as I crashed in through the tent flaps was a bottle of coke – the modern nectar of the Nepalese mountain gods.

The final few hundred meters of icefall, with the dots of the base camp tents on the moraine in front

The final few hundred meters of icefall, with the dots of the base camp tents on the moraine in front

I can’t say that the night was particularly comfortable – my single thin foam thermarest pad providing little in the way of padding between my raw and tender body and the stony frozen ground underneath, and I emerged the following morning seemingly aching even more than when I’d gone to bed. Fursang had a quick breakfast, and were away by 0800 – aiming to get through the Khumbu icefall before noon and the heat of the day.

Whilst I started off quick and spritely, making swift progress over the gently undulating terrain of the Western Cwm down to C1, by the time we hit the icefall my bruised and battered body was really rebelling. Just at the moment where I needed the most litheness and agility I also seemed to hit my apex of pain – with every tender muscle or part of my body in open and vocal rebellion. Particularly painful were the abseils on the serac faces – something which should have been second nature to a seasoned climber, and yet the pressure from the harness exacerbating the agony in my lower ribs and chest. Fursang could only watch in impotent concern as I whimpered my way down the rappels tentatively.

Any positive head start was rapidly eaten-up by our snail pace as I crawled through the various obstacles of the icefall like a nonagenarian with his shoelaces tied together. I watched us near, and then pass our aim of completing the icefall by 1200, and once again the never-increasing mirage of our target destination seemed to lie frustratingly distant.

Eventually however we did stumble those final steps into the supposed sanctity of basecamp. Once again, the surrealness of the amenities hit like an electric shock – climbers and staff wandering round in shorts and t-shirts, and the first port of call being the basecamp coffee shop (tent) for a barista-made cappuccino, hot chocolate and slice of freshly made cake.

Fortunately, one of the first people I met was the basecamp doctor, who immediate gave me the once over. Content that there was nothing life threatening – and that I was carrying the usual list of uncomfortable but expected bumps and bruises, he gave me a powerful dose of anti-inflammatories and sent me on my way.

Fast forward 24 hours, three helicopter rides, and un-expected overnight in the village of Pheriche and a fair wait for good weather in Lukla, we touched down in Kathmandu. With some of the other passengers emerging from the helicopter still dressed in their down suits and big boots, we felt like we’d been transported directly from the ridiculousness of the battlefield to sublime of domesticity  – thrust immediately back into the veracity and clamour of reality – back down to earth with a bump.

 

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As I write this report several days later, with the benefit of hindsight and appreciation of the whole, I am still struggling to process the experience I’ve had over the last seven weeks. It was a game of two halves (although utterly imbalanced halves) – six weeks struggling on Kanchenjunga, and then four days flying up and down Everest.

If I think about what I set out to achieve at the start of this expedition – Project 314 – then of course I haven’t been successful in reaching my target of successful summits of Kanchenjunga, Everest and Lhotse. However, when I reflect on our achievements – coming within 200m of the summit of Kanchenjunga, thwarted only due to human error, and none so on my part – and then a lightning visit to Everest, then I’m extremely proud.

As far as I’m aware, there are fewer than 30 Brits who’ve climbed Everest more than once, and around half of those are ‘guides’. The number is even fewer of those who’ve climbed from both sides (or more than one route). As I’ve mentioned numerous times – the true measure of success is safe return – and once again, I’ve got home safely to my family, with all my fingers and toes, and hopefully most of my brain cells (although some might debate that).

I’m proud of my actions and behaviours on the mountain(s). I maintained my cool with those who annoyed me. I believe that I retained my empathy and humanity with those around me who needed help, and for whom I was in a position to help. I think that I managed to balanced my British stoicism with a sense of humour, and hopefully provided inspiration and enjoyment to those around me. The acid test of course would be to ask my teammates if they’d have me on their team again… and I hope that the answer would be a positive one (even if the answer might not always be the same if the question was reversed).

As always, the past seven weeks have been an incredible exploration of self, and human nature. Of effective (and ineffective) leadership, followership and partnership in both the extreme and the mundane.

Luis Stitzniger

Luis Stitzniger

Sadly, as a postscript – upon arriving back in Kathmandu – where I should have been at my apex of contentment, I was informed that following a second summit push on Kanchenjunga, my dear teammate and friend Luis Stitzniger had reached the summit, but never returned to C4. It was a crushing sense of sadness and impotence that I received the news – stupidly asking ‘What can I do?’.

In memory of Luis – a man whose infectious enthusiasm for life was equalled only by his generosity of spirit and prestigious experience of pushing the boundaries in the mountains all around the world. Rest easy my friend.

I’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to my sponsors and supporters throughout this endeavour. To Stephen and Peter and IDG; to Alan, Paul and the team at Fleetcor; to Nick et al at London Wall Partners; To Nick M, Steve B, Hugh M, Jo M and the countless others who’ve financially supported the journey. To Matt for managing the media, blogs and socials, and Ayda and Deniz for their design expertise at the start of the trip. To All of my colleagues at IDG (especially Iain, Heather and Martha) for managing my clients and workload during my absence.

Most of all, to Saskia – my wife – for allowing me to continue to chase my dreams (however mad they may be), whilst managing a house, a family, a full-time job and everything else that life threw at her in my absence. There is an old adage for those in the military – “for a soldier to be at war, his(her) mind must be at peace” – i.e. the importance of those at the sharp end to focus on their job, they must feel as though everything else is covered on the home front. I suspect that some of the time, it might have been difficult to recognise which ‘front’ was the sharp end… but you’ve been a rock. Grazie mille my darling.

 

 

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