Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper have recently returned from climbing Ama Dablam (6,856m) in the Nepal Himalaya. This is one of the most important steps along the way to becoming the youngest Britons to climb Everest, which they hope to attempt in April/May 2006. In the climbing world so often dominated by older climbers it is an incredible achievement to build up this kind of experience on such a technical and exposed peak. Furthermore it is rare that mountaineering partners ever know each other as well as Rob and James, who have cycled and climbed throughout Europe together, and who grew up together as the closest of friends in the same boarding house: an invaluable base for the task ahead of them. This time Rob and James summitted on separate days, and this report provides an insight into one of their climbs, but it was written together with a shared vision of their experiences on the mountainside.
The last of the rolling hills disappeared from view as we stared from the rain spattered window of our train. We were returning to Christ's Hospital after a difficult and inspiring cycle tour of the Lake District. With burning calves, the whirr of freewheels and the cold wet wind on top of the passes, this tour had finally brought back my thirst for energy and adventure. As the train lamentably wound away from the hills, our conversation turned to climbing. The comfort of a warm express train and some good bacon sandwiches always provides a dangerous atmosphere for romanticising, and a crazy idea emerged. As children, just like many others, we had heard of the heroes and seen the pictures of Everest, with its tremendous snow-streaked bulk majestically dominating the sleeping giants of the Himalaya, and we decided here, ever keen to pull faces in front of a camera, that we want to be in those pictures.
As we neared Ama Dablam's small 6856 metre summit, doggedly gasping up the final precipitous snow ridge, my mind began to wander from the single goal that had transfixed it since we'd arrived in Nepal almost three weeks previously. The last four days, from when we began the final push for the summit, had taken their toll on my body, and my lungs were labouring on about 40% of the oxygen that they are used to. I was physically exhausted. The long days, the steep and exposed terrain, and most of all the altitude, had made them some of the hardest of my life. The exhilaration, and my enjoyment, had pulled me through so far; but I knew that on the descent, the more dangerous part of the climb when the adrenaline and energy of the summit waned, I would need all my grit to concentrate on the technical ground below. During the last few strenuous, over-stretched steps to the summit, my mind turned back to our conversation in the warmth of the train. 'How naive we were' I thought, yet as I arrived at my goal I knew how inexplicably glad I was that we had set ourselves this challenge. A panorama from China to India spread out beneath us, and the scale and number of the jagged and serene monuments of the Himalaya was the greatest and most startling reward I could have dreamed for.
Our trip to Ama Dablam had been riddled with uncertainty from the start, because we were determined to save as much money as possible, and to climb as independently as we could. With a week to go the trip was effectively off without the funds to pay for it, and we were despairing that our whole project would be a non-starter without Ama Dablam: everything hung in the balance. Fortunately we were advanced a very generous loan, and although this was a worrying prospect for our return and not a situation in which we want to find ourselves again, we were overjoyed when we were finally given the opportunity to cut our teeth on such a technical preparatory peak. Our work and training however did help to keep the focus of the trip alive, and we had spent months waiting on party guests and lifting bricks in the cold early morning to cobble together what money we had. Any complaint about cold hands on a building site is obviously met with quick retorts about the nature of mountaineering. Our training fitted in around this, including evening pack walks with the dog, running, indoor climbing to hone the technique and finger strength, and rock climbing in Swanage or the Peak District to practise rope work.
Mountaineering, contrary to what some people perceive, is not about speed. It is a task for the patient, and involves days and even weeks of slow plodding against the ever-increasing limitations of fatigue and a lessened oxygen supply to the muscles. The most technical bits of the climb on rock and ice must be taken far more slowly than a quick run up an indoor wall or a grit stone crag in the Peaks. Indeed prior to our four day summit attempt we spent a week trekking in, with built-in acclimatisation days, as well as time waiting at base camp and days acclimatising on the lower slopes to transfer gear to the lower camps: a simpler version of the pyramid of lesser ascents that is required of the Everest summitteer. Himalayan mountaineering generally involves early starts, of the sort that morning drill detentions at school prepare you for. Starting in the crisp light of the morning enabled us to avoid the clouds that swim down the valleys in the early afternoon and the stronger winds that sweep up the slopes later: you only have to look at the white plume that provides an unmistakable appendage to Everest to realise the power of these winds. As the day continues, the regular intake of snacks and solid meals becomes increasingly difficult, and the body's expenditure is, however hard one tries, greater than the intake of chocolate bars and boil-in-the-bag meals can provide. At nights we collapsed exhausted into our down sleeping bags, in full clothes and accompanied by our water bottles to keep them warm for the morning, just as our camera batteries always had to occupy an intimate spot under the armpit.
As we stopped at the snowy plateau of camp 3 to pick up our sleeping bags, I remembered climbing the other way earlier in the morning, when my feet had frozen minutes after we had left the tent. For all the wasted energy that went into stamping and kicking, no blood had returned to my feet, and I had considered turning back. Here, descending in the full light of the sun and with the blood jostled back to the extremities, that crucial decision seemed distant as we gazed over the autumnal browns of the Khumbu valley.
Our Sherpas, Padawa and Ang Nuru, work long hours through much discomfort on the slopes of these Himalayan mountains, and patiently encouraged us as we fought the demons of tiredness: they are proud of their mountains: indeed their homes are adorned with Everest peak certificates. They were at the same time wonderful ambassadors for the country beyond the snowy and unpopulated peaks that they work on, an important element for mountaineers to understand. Nepal is, as well as being an obviously beautiful country, a hugely tolerant one in which religions share ceremonies and gods, and in which the staple dish of rice and lentils is always accompanied by an infinite refill. No one tries to impose themselves upon you, and they are always keen to share experiences and thoughtful opinions. The Maoist problems have almost arisen from the social dynamics of the mountain existence and the tolerant mentality of the Nepalese, and it remains the case that, despite being the second poorest country in the world, Nepal's level of contentment is very high, even amidst the seemingly disorganised craziness of Kathmandu.
After an emotionally and physically arduous day, it was with great relief that we rounded the last pillar of rock to once again see camp 2 perched on its improbable rocky pedestal. A small cluster of tents hugs every inch of rock space on the little platform of camp 2, and there is only room on top of the column for 5 tents, in which you are held above the emptiness only by the material of the tent if you get a late spot. The sunset sent deep red and purple hues across the jagged horizon, with the snowy peaks standing guard as white sentinels: it was a perfect ending to an incredible day. At lunchtime the following day I limped in to base camp: dehydrated, aching and never so happy to see a cup of tea and a broken plastic chair.
At Christ's Hospital we greatly valued the generosity, commitment and trust of a few individuals who opened up this world to us, and we are very fortunate to have had the opportunities through the school that have given us the chance of being at Everest base camp, although much remains to be done in the funding line. Ultimately we would like to provide other youngsters with these opportunities starting by taking a number of Blues and Old Blues to the Himalaya in 2007, at the same age that we were first able to climb in the Karakorum, although we must first focus on Everest! Our early cycling and climbing expeditions were often supported by the Charitable Awards scheme at CH, which provides an important capacity for pupils to discover the world of experience that runs in parallel to examinations and work.
After our winter training in the Alps and Scotland, we will return to Nepal from March to June next year on our quest to become the youngest Britons to climb Everest. This has become an endeavour that can no longer be funded by our wages, such we are currently devoting our energies in public speaking, letter-writing and research to the time-consuming search for sponsorship: any recommendations or suggestions in this line would be very much welcomed. We are hugely appreciative of the interest and support that we have received so far, at the many different levels from which it has arisen.
Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper