Richard's blog: Island Peak - the dry run
The storm has passed. The internal storm that is! You will have gathered from my last blog that I was wrestling the emotional and psychological storm that comes at the beginning of every expedition. In my experience it takes me about 10-14 days to become at peace in the environment. 10-14 days to shed the baggage we all carry from the world I left behind. Every expedition goes through 3, maybe 4 phases. The first being the internal storm. Inevitably it’s been long development cycle of blood sweat and tears to just get to launch day. Then once it’s out there the vulnerability comes as I lay myself bare. Getting on the plane is normally a relief as by then I’ve talked so much all I want to do is get on with it. The first phase of the expedition is a reflection of this – the anxiety, the nerves, the self-doubt, the adrenaline. It’s passed. I’m sat in a teahouse in Lobuche just before Everest Base Camp feeling at peace. Ready for what lies ahead.
There is no shortcut to this mind space, it’s the result of the last week or so since my last blog, although you would’ve heard from Nic and Damian. Pokalde was the first step. A beautiful climb, I would say a grade 2-3 scramble with a couple of exposed sections towards the summit. It’s just off the main trekking and climbing routes out here, and as a result has less traffic. We were the only team there. Our 4 tents at High Camp pitched next to a frozen lake like a post card. High Camp on Pokalde sits at 5,400m and the summit at 5,806m/19,049ft. It was the first significant test to get under my belt and I loved it. Gareth, Pema and myself moving fluidly to the summit in under 2 hours, topping out just before sunrise and back in our tents by 09:00! I love sunrises anywhere, but in the mountains they become primal almost, as the sunrays warm your bones from the bitter cold at altitude, reminding you that it brings life to all on our planet. The rest of the day acclimatising was the toughest part! I’ve maximised every opportunity to sleep high on my strategy, lying in my tent for the day after a tough morning is hard on the mind but crucial to stimulate my body to produce more red blood cells. Performing comfortably (or as comfortable as 5800m feels!) on Pokalde was an important milestone.
Acclimatisation at Pokalde
It wouldn’t be a blog without some toilet humour from me! Neither would it be a blog on this expedition without me geeking out with the help of my 2 proffs! Which leads me to ‘Boyle’s Law’ - at a constant temperature there’s an inverse relationship between pressure and volume. In layman’s terms - the higher the altitude, the lower the pressure and thus the more we fart! Apparently I woke Nic up in her tent pitched 5m away! I’m pretty sure it was Gareth! Ha!
From Pokalde we trekked via Chukkung to Island Peak Base Camp at 5,100m, after only one night, we quickly moved to High Camp at 5,600m. The challenge was water. As a result of the way the glacier has formed this year, it’s a 4 hour round trip to source water at high camp. This is a brutal but powerful way that performance in these extremes puts the things we take for granted back home into perspective. Island Peak was a huge milestone. I can say that now, because I’ve felt the relief after a successful summit. At the time it was all about process, allowing the outcome to take care of itself. This was my final opportunity to test the data collection systems I plan to use on Everest’s summit that we have been developing in the lab. Despite the state of the art environmental chamber in the University of South Wales (USW), nothing can compare with doing it for real on the summit at 6,189m/20,305ft managing Mother Nature. The nerves were palpable the night before our summit push. Getting to the top is one thing, but getting to the top to collect world first physiological and psychological measurements is another. On this occasion I would have Damian with me, come Everest I’ll be on my own.
After little sleep we left high camp at 3am, and under head torches we climbed vertically 300m to the edge of the snowline. Here we put out crampons on and roped up to climb the glacier to the foot of the summit’s headwall. There are a handful of ladder crossings spanning open crevasses in the early part of this section, not for the faint hearted, however relatively short, the largest being 2 ladders tied together. A useful reminder of what’s to come in the Icefall and Western Cwm on Everest. The last time I summited Everest in 2011 the largest crevasse had 5…yes 5 ladders tied together spanning maybe a 20m drop. The headwall is where the excitement begun. It’s 200 vertical meters of fixed line over steep poor quality ice. What should’ve been a simple climb became quite a stressful experience, as this was the bottleneck for many climbers with a wide variety of skillsets. It’s not very often you see the Nepalese lose their temper, but when it happens its noteworthy! Pema and I were acutely aware of how other people’s actions were impacting our safety. Once on the summit ridge, we found ourselves in a serendipitous gap in between teams. And actually had the summit to ourselves. Perfect for the data collection. It was a draining 7 hours, around 2 of it managing the traffic on the fixed lines! There was no time to take a breath or reflect, I was straight into my summit protocol. Expired gases on the capnograph. Blood oxygen saturation on the oxymeter. Then arterialised capillary blood samples from my ear. After struggling in the lab at these simulated altitudes, I had convinced Damian that a deep scalpel incision would indeed be safer than the lancet. This isn’t the place to be f@%£ing about. It worked...well, after Damian found the scalpel! He had decided to put it in his glove, then immediately forgot! Reviewing Gareth’s filming footage, which you guys will see on TV in the autumn, it’s clear and super funny! A funny, but important lesson that the cognitive functions in hypoxia this extreme are seriously impaired. This was 6,100m - 8,848m/29,029ft on the summit of Everest will be a different ball game again. We (the royal we - Damian) got great blood flow and filled our collection capillary tubes without coagulation. This was a huge step for us. The day before a handful of climbers had got seriously frostbitten in the brutally cold winds this early in the season, the heli landed on the glacier to evacuate them as we filled the blood capillaries.
Taking a blood sample on the summit of Island Peak. Main picture at top of page: Breathing in to a capnograph.
I didn’t collect a muscle biopsy for risk of infection this close to the main event, my last self-collection test was back in USW before I left. I ran through every step in real time to simulate it and I can say that I was awesome! Ha! The final measurement was the cognitive function assessment. My Sony Xperia tablet fired up immediately in the cold and the GSK Human Performance Lab/Axon test worked perfectly…it seemed as if the only thing that wasn’t functioning was my brain! I have strict protocols not to know the results of the tests, as my headspace is critical to my performance on this one, however I know I was sh££! Once I’d finished the full measurement protocol we were able to grab the usual summit pics and breathe in the moment. For all the science and the meticulous preparation, Mother Nature will play the biggest card in Project Everest Cynllun. In fact, things outside of my control pose the biggest risk; for example traffic like I experienced on the headwall could be fatal in my summit bid. Working with Pema, David (Hamilton) and Simon (Lowe) on a choosing the right summit window will be critical. These factors outside of my control is where my faith comes in. I love Falcons, all birds of prey in fact. Just as we’d packed our rucksacks for the descent, a flock of 3 eagles flew over us. Yeah, at 6100m, as if I could reach out and touch them. Their under coats crystal clear to us. It’s moments like this that make things magical. I choose to take this as a positive sign. After all this is adventure at it’s limit, and we all need a little lady luck.
The descent was just as harrowing as the ascent negotiating the traffic, but for 34 mins, we had the summit to ourselves. We could’ve been the only people on the planet for that brief moment. Wonderful. After 12 hours of climbing we collapsed into our sleeping bags back at High Camp. Some things could’ve been slicker and it’s certainly going to be monumentally tougher at 8848m, however this was a huge milestone for me, the team and the project. My Rab clothing which has been adapted specifically for this performed impeccably, my adaptations to the electronic data collection equipment enabled them to work well in the cold and the protocols that Damain and I have been developing worked! There are a few tweaks still to be done, but I’m ready. Being hard on myself as usual, it took until Dingbouche (3 days after) for this to sink in.
You will have noticed that at various times, I’ve omitted various team members from Pokalde to Island Peak. The irony here is that my high altitude professor Damian missed Pokalde with severe AMS, and my performance physiotherapist professor Nic missed Island Peak with an injured knee! Ha! With everyone back together and in awesome shape (mentally and physically) in Dingbouche, we took the opportunity to mark this first chapter success. The Nepalese team made me a cake and we had a beer! It was wonderful to share this with all the team, as every one had played a part in making this possible. I only wish I could’ve shared it with the Project team back home and the ones I care about, as this was the culmination of many people’s support.
These last few days have been a further opportunity to decompress, recover and focus as we trek to Base Camp. I will need a full tank as the hard work begins now. My Walkman (yes I can’t help but still use that word) has been filling my soul with Anthony Hamilton, London Electricity and of course Fat Freddy’s Drop. Music is my way of controlling my emotions; I can escape, focus, relax or energise. It can transport me away or ground me in the moment.
With this first chapter behind me, I realise how tough it’s been personally balancing so many points of focus often counter intuitive to performance. With all the team healthy and safe at base camp, having dialed the majority of the science, filming gone awesomely and in good health myself I can feel myself withdrawing to the singular focus of getting to the top. Pema and I have forged a wonderful bond already, sharing photos of our loved ones and developing a trust by demonstrating safe mountain awareness and skills. We’ve even discussed how we’re going to celebrate when we pull this off! Gareth and I have forged an equally strong bond. He’s been a blessing to my team fitting in perfectly, I’m really looking forward to filming together on Everest. Sharing my experiences with you guys is something I take seriously, and is very much a privilege for me.
After the Puja blessing ceremony on the 22nd at Everest Base Camp, I plan to spend 2 weeks based out of Camp 2 at 6,300m above the Icefall, building towards a couple of rotations to the South Col and above 8,000m. My next long blog will be when I’m back in Base Camp. But Nic and Damian will keep you up to speed, and I’ll be tweeting my progress daily. Go well guys.
The storm is passed. The second stage of an expedition is finding my groove. When abnormal things feel normal. I’m at one with my environment. Good thing really, as my level of discomfort will only get worse as I force my body to adapt to the extreme hypoxia. In my experience, performance in the world’s most hostile environments is a fine balance between defiance and humility. I’m ready.