On Saturday 14th May – five weeks ago today – I had the privilege of standing on the top of the world. Actually, I sat down when I got there. It was 7.30am in the morning; I’d left base-camp six days previously; and had just climbed 13 hours through the night from Camp 4 on the South Coll.
If you don’t know this news yet – I’m sorry. I haven’t done much shouting about it and if you read on maybe you’ll understand why. I emailed a few family and friends when I got down safely – most of whom didn’t even know I was going back to Nepal after my ‘non summit’ of Everest last year. And I did the obligatory post on social media (which probably isn’t obligatory but I did it anyway). And that’s it. I haven’t said anything else publicly about the expedition. Until now.
So… just to recap in case you’ve not been following my life as closely as I have… for some time now I’ve been trying to achieve the ‘Pond to Peak Challenge’ – swimming the English Channel (which I did in 2015) and then climbing Mount Everest. When I started this journey, I had no idea what a crampon was; let alone crossed a crevasse. But I knew I had a lot of mental toughness (11 rounds of IVF and 21 Miles of sea were already under my belt). Even so, I never imagined it would take as long as it has – over six years of my life.
I was originally supposed to go to Everest in March 2020 (but just a few weeks before I was due to leave, the mountain was closed – I’m sure there’s no need to say why). I did go in 2021 (but a combination of cyclones, a chest infection and a covid outbreak amongst our sherpa team resulted in a non-summit). However, I learnt a lot from this expedition, not least that I wanted to go back and try again.
So, this year, I quietly left London and returned to my mountain. There were many things about it that felt right. I was super strong all the way to base camp. On my first acclimatisation rotation, I ‘touched’ Camp 3 before anyone else on my team. And then I waited patiently for a good weather window – during which time I watched all six series of Downton Abbey and would like to formally thank Julian Fellowes for that.
In the early morning of Sunday 8th May we left for our summit bid climbing up through the Khumbu icefall – the portcullis of the mountain. And that’s when things started to go awry… I’m not going to tell you every detail now as that would be boring. Plus, I’m still processing a lot of what happened; and the headline is I GOT TO THE TOP. But suffice to say the climb up was longer and tougher than it should have been which is why, when I eventually summited, I didn’t jump with jubilation, I sat down for a rest.
Then, on the descent, things took a further traumatic twist. On the triangular face above Camp 4 – ie. still in the death zone at over 8,000 metres – I got hit by a free-falling oxygen bottle in a freak accident which fractured my fibula. Obviously I didn’t know that then, I just knew I couldn’t walk and was in a lot of pain. Again, I’m not going to say too much more except it was my very own ‘Touching the Void’ moment. Maybe not quite as dramatic as Joe Simpson’s but I did look death in the face.
What followed were two of the hardest days of my life but I somehow managed to get myself down to where I could be rescued by helicopter and taken to Kathmandu. When I got to the hospital and they confirmed my leg was broken, it was the first time I allowed myself to cry. This was not how I wanted my Everest story to unfold or to end. And the truth is I didn’t feel any triumph, just humility and gratitude to the mountain for allowing me to survive, as well as to everyone who helped get me up and back down.
As some of you might recall I had been trying to become the first woman to ever achieve the ‘Pond to Peak Challenge’. That didn’t go to plan either. Last Autumn I learnt that a wonderful woman called Anna Brown had pipped me to the post. She climbed Everest in 2018 and swam the Channel last year in September 2021. Lots of people have been disappointed for me – including dear Anna who didn’t even know she’d achieved a world record until she’d done it! But the best word for how I feel about it is ‘melanjoy’. It’s not in the English dictionary because I invented the word myself during my unrequited ‘pursuit of motherhood’ for when hearing other people’s pregnancy announcements. It’s the feeling of being happy for someone and sad for yourself at the same time (a fusion of melancholy and joy). I am very happy for Anna, and a little bit sad for myself. And I am still the second woman and the fourteenth person in history to achieve the Pond to Peak challenge. Not bad for a 51 year old who until a few years ago didn’t know what a crampon was and had never crossed a crevasse. Right?
So there’s the story. Well, a summary of the story. I’m currently working hard on my third book and if you want to read more you’ll have to wait for that. It’s about music and mountains and in my last few days on Everest the song that played over and over in my head was Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. Which is weird because I was never a big fan of the band, although I am now because they clearly wrote these words for me…
“These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be…
Someday you’ll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you’ll no longer burn to be
Brothers in arms”
Thankfully, I’m now back home in the lowlands of London and under the care of the marvellous NHS. They don’t get many patients who have been hit by oxygen bottles on Everest so I’m quite the celebrity, and my leg is well on the mend.
I’m not planning on climbing any higher or taking on any more major challenges anytime soon. I’ve hung up my mountaineering boots and laid down my arms. However, I have just been north to Liverpool for a few days of book research which is my favourite kind of adventure. I went and visited John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s childhood homes (now under the ownership of the National Trust) and also took the magical mystery tour bus. You’ll have to wait for my new book to understand how all this interconnects with Everest but I assure you it does.
And after I’d visited Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, I went to a lovely hotel called Moor Hall for the night where I had a stunning two Michelin star supper (with matching wines, of course). All by myself. And for the first time since I came down from sitting on top of the world, I raised a glass to me and said: ‘Well Jessica, you did it, and you’ve lived to tell the tale.’ And then I wrote you this letter…
Living big and brave as ever,