Warning: this could be a ‘long read’.
I hope not too long because I hate long reads myself (unless they’re by Jackie Collins or Jilly Cooper which – top tip – make for perfect reading on a mountain). But I’m conscious it’s been a while since my last public email/blog/social media post – which was entitled ‘news from near to the top of the world’… That was on the 5th May and, well, quite a lot has happened since then…
I tell myself it’s not like you’re all waiting to hear from me… You’re living your life; I don’t suppose you’re sitting wondering whether I fell down a Crevasse (I didn’t). But my expedition to Chomolungma (aka: Everest) was filled with a lot of other ‘C’s’ – Cyclones, Chest-infections and Covid. And sadly in the end it was what is known in the mountaineering trade as a ‘Non Summit’ (aka: I didn’t get to the top of the world).
I’m sure if I had, I would have written/posted earlier – we show off about these things: right? But the fact that I haven’t doesn’t mean I’ve been wracked with disappointment. And I’m genuinely surprised about that because if you’d told me six months ago, this would be the result – I’d have felt Crushed, maybe even Cursed.
So here’s a quick summary of exactly what happened in case you’re interested (or skip to the next paragraph if you’re not).
- After a long wait (mainly due to bad weather), I finally left Base Camp for my summit attempt mid-May.
- I climbed through the Khumbu Ice-fall, the most difficult and dangerous part of the Everest ascent.
- Up to Camp 1 and then across the Western Cwm to Camp 2 where we got stuck for three nights due to a Cyclone.
- There I developed a chest infection and after a dark night of the soul in my tent made the difficult decision to descend. (In the end none of my team summitted anyway due to that Cyclone.)
- Back in Base Camp, I started taking antibiotics in the hope that I might be able to make another attempt at the end of May.
- But then there was a severe outbreak of Covid amongst our Sherpa Team that immediately shut our whole expedition down.
- In addition to that my chest infection was not improving fast enough and an air ambulance eventually had to fly into Base Camp to take me back to Kathmandu (it took three days to arrive because of heavy snow).
- After a short trip to hospital, I then found out that all scheduled flights out of the country had been Covid-cancelled.
- I eventually got a seat on an emergency repatriation flight and arrived in London where I was whisked off to 11 nights in hotel quarantine at Terminal 4 Heathrow (Nepal is now on the red list – it wasn’t when I left).
- And now I’m finally home.
Suffice to say my Everest expedition wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for. But, truly, the most important thing about it is how much I’ve learnt. I don’t consider myself a ‘real mountaineer’ – I’m just an unlikely athlete with a dream. And I’ve worked incredibly hard at this dream for the last five years. But now, I feel like I really know what it takes to climb this mountain, and there’s more training I want and need to do.
I’ve often described my ‘Pond to Peak Challenge’ as an ongoing conversation with Nature – who wouldn’t let me conceive and carry a baby; and then let me swim across her sea (well, 21 Miles of it). And I had hoped she was going to let me climb 8,848 metres to the top of the world. To use a football metaphor (topical) – I genuinely thought she was going to let the conversation end 2:1 to me.
However, what I realised whilst I was confined to that tiny hotel room at Heathrow is that whilst I was calling it a conversation, it was really a battle. That football reference proves it. And what I’ve concluded is that as long as I was making it a battle, she had to win. Because she’s Nature. She’s unconquerable. She needed to remind me that she’s in control, not me.
And I think this is why I’m ok with the outcome because it feels right. It feels like it was the only possible outcome for my expedition this year. It’s brought with it a new level of acceptance to my fertility/life story that I’ve never felt before. And seems to have marked the end of something, at the same time as the beginning of something else.
So to draw a close to this longish read, I want to finish with a few things I now know:
- Chomolungma is so much more than her summit. She’s the Ice-fall; she’s the Western Cwm; she’s the Lhotse Face; she’s the Yellow Band and the Geneva Spur; she’s the South Coll and many more things too. I might not have reached the top but I feel privileged to have had the chance to get to know the most famous mountain in the world up close and for real.
- I already know what my favourite sentence of 2021 is going to be. It’s when Kami, my Sherpa guide, looks at me and says: ‘a little bit much better.’ I spent two months on the mountain and despite getting sick I also got stronger and that’s a wonderful feeling when you’re living out of your comfort zone. My second favourite sentence of 2021 is when Kami says: ‘nothing to do today’. Because ‘rest days’ will always be my ‘best days’.
- In the words of the brilliant song by Baz Luhrmann: ‘Wear sunscreen’, I admit I didn’t always bother and by the end of the expedition looked like a lizard. It’s just one of the many rookie mistakes I’ve continued to make in the mountains, which I’ve promised myself I will never make again. Another is not wearing a ‘Buff’ which helps ward off the notorious ‘Khumbu Cough’ which, in turn, prevents chest infections at Camp 2…I’ve written a long list of all the things I learnt this year and if I heed them, I think I might stand a chance of becoming a ‘real mountaineer’ one day…
- It hasn’t yet stopped feeling good to sleep in a bed again and not to have to get up three times a night in the freezing cold to pee in a bottle. It’s worth climbing mountains, just for this.
- And finally I do plan to go back. I don’t know whether Chomolungma – ‘the mother goddess of the world’ – will ever let me reach the top but I do know this: I won’t let it be another IVF journey – 11 attempts no summit.
It’s no longer a battle. But it’s still a dream. And we all need those.
With much love
PS. Thank you to everyone who has written to me over the last few months – your words and support have meant so much. I’m still in the process of replying to everyone personally – I promise I will!