A 5 am start on the 22nd saw the team leave our Camp 3 tents, on the Lhotse Face, knowing that very night, we would be going for the summit. We were now sniffing supplementary oxygen on a low flow rate, as we continued up the steep icy face and the traversed left across the Yellow Band and up the Geneva Spur onto that famous of Everest landmarks, the South Col. We met a stream of climbers coming down from camp 4, and as we carefully negotiated our way around them on the fixed lines we heard stories of 3 deaths the previous night which, as if we needed it, re-emphasised what dangers lay ahead.
James, my 24 year old tent mate, and I got to Camp 4 on the South Col, around midday, which gave us 9 hours to rest and hydrate before the summit push. As much as we tried, no sleep would come and before we knew it, the 8pm alarm sounded and time to get ready. The 9 pm start replaced the usual 10 pm start, in an attempt to get out ahead of what we had predicted would be a busy summit night. As we popped out our tents at just before 9pm we quickly realised that other teams had had the same idea, with a long line of headtorches already making their way up to the Balcony. James and I had been teamed up with Mingma (going for his 13th Summit) and Tshering Sherpa, and were to lead out the team. Mingma seemed to be on a mission and we quickly started passing all the other teams on the way up to the Balcony. We were joined by David and Pasang and within an hour had passed around 60 climbers topping out on the Balcony in under 3 hours, we were motoring as a usual time would 4-5 hours to this point. It is usual to change oxygen bottles at this point but as we had been so quick we hadn't used a lot of the gas and so continued up the ridge a bit before we changed.
We made good progress up the ridge and were cresting the South Summit at 4am when I started to get a suffocating feeling, like someone was holding a pillow over my face, quite frightening at 28,000ft. A quick diagnosis revealed a frozen up valve on my oxygen mask. With hard blowing, banging and prodding of a knife, the valve was freed and I could breath again and the dizziness that ensued quickly disappeared.
From the South Summit you can see the main summit with only the knife edge ridge and the Hillary step guarding the upper slopes, only around 100 vertical feet still to climb. I started along the ridge but part way along my vision went and I was only able to make out shapes not the best position to be in when you have to climb along an icy trail, only a foot wide in places, with a 12,000ft drop on one side and a 10,000ft on the other. Tshering, at only 19 years old, was brilliant and got me back along the ridge to the South Summit and down a few hundred metres where my vision started to return. He made sure I clipped in properly to the fixed line and got my feet placements verified as we negotiated some steep and very exposed terrain, he truly was a hero and I owe this young man a hell of a lot. Half way between the South Summit and the Balcony my vision returned and I could make own way down. That was just the thing, heart, lungs and legs I was in good shape and felt really strong and was able to cruise down to Camp 4 pretty quickly.
The next day I boosted down to Camp 2 and today made it safely through the icefall, for the last time, down here to basecamp. Despite losing 10 kg I physically felt pretty good and am happy to be safe, however I am gutted to have got so close. I am sure I will get over it in time but at the minute it's a bit sore. I have to realise that without the support of my team mates and sherpas I could have been like one of the 5 climbers that didn't make it down on the day before and the day after our summit day.
I would like to thank all those that have supported my expedition and for all the kind comments and emails I have received. We are swinging out of basecamp tomorrow morning and will be back in the UK next weekend.