It’s 2am, Friday night, and I’m at a bar in London Bridge, drinking “just one more” negroni with two friends when two guys sidle up to us. My friends launch into their favourite new topic of conversation.
“Guess what Lucy’s doing tomorrow?” Claire asks them, grinning. They can’t.
“Going to Everest!” she and Meg trill in unison and the men’s jaws drop – possibly believing I’m walking to the summit, possibly wondering why I am still out if I’m about to fly for 15 hours to walk 70 miles to over 5,000m and still haven’t packed.
“Just base camp,” I say, in case it’s the former.
“Shots!” one of them shouts, ordering a tray of coffee Patrón.
I hate tequila, but given everything I’ve been told about the trip I’m about to set off on, I’m starting to believe it could be my last supper.
Mount Everest. The highest mountain in the world at 8,848m and in the news a lot in the past month. Since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first successful ascent to the peak 66 years ago, more than 4,000 people have made it. Last year, a record 807 climbers reached the top, but record numbers create a record amount of waste.
For the first time the Nepalese government this year employed a team of 12 Sherpas in the biggest clear-up attempt to date. In May, during dozens of dangerous trips over a fortnight, they collected three tonnes. This February, China closed the base camp on its side of the mountain to tourists without climbing permits, in order to deal with the mounting rubbish problem.
In total, around 280 people have died trying to reach the summit – 11 last month, most of them within one week. More than 200 bodies still lie on the mountain, too difficult or dangerous to remove, it’s believed. The most recent death was that of a 44-year-old British climber, Robin Fisher, who collapsed at 8,600m while descending from the summit.
In the past two weeks, overcrowding and queues at the summit have been blamed for death by falls and exhaustion in the “death zone” around 8,000m where climbers can’t breathe without supplementary oxygen.
Getting to Everest base camp (EBC) at 5,380m is easier than scaling the summit, but not easy. EBC is higher than Mont Blanc or Mount Kenya, and the danger increases with each breath at higher altitude, given the effects lower oxygen levels have on the body. But because you don’t need a huge amount of training or money – I paid £2,000 for flights and a 14-day tour – compared with between £10,000 and £20,000 and a year’s training for the summit, around 30,000 people sign up for EBC each year.
Somewhere between 2 and 15 people die each year, according to climbing experts, and it’s common to hear climbers from previous seasons saying they “heard of three in a week” when they were there. I know for certain that there were 4 deaths in the 10 days in April I was on the mountain, plus half a dozen on life support in hospital and a handful evacuated from my group of 20 alone. The constant whirr of helicopters overhead made the Himalayas sound like the Third World War.
Really I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but my reasons for signing up were several. My friend Sam had joined an organised group trek to EBC in April, and suggested I join her last December, just after I’d decided to make 2019 a year of new things. The 52 things also included learning to make cheese soufflé and getting a bikini wax, so EBC was – granted – one of the more extreme. Still, I’d never been on a “trek”, a walking holiday or even a particularly long walk before, to be honest, so I signed up.
It quickly became the talking point among my friends and anyone I met. “Are you training?” people would ask first, subtly checking me out to judge how fit I might be.
“Mainly we’re just smoking loads,” I’d say, of Sam and my training regime. “Apparently it’s good for oxygen levels … lung capacity or something.” Then I’d go out for a cigarette to prove how seriously I was taking the trip. “Bear Grylls smoked before Everest … apparently,” I’d add, if they looked too horrified.
But, really, I couldn’t easily have trained if I’d wanted to, because I’d injured a knee while gearing up for a half marathon in February and been told by a doctor to give it a rest.
“When are you walking to base camp?” my physio said.
“Two months,” I told her. She winced. I quit the gym for Marlboro Gold.
When we got there, I quickly realised few of us had much idea what we were getting ourselves into. I’d taken two friends with me to the Sussex Downs for a ten-mile pub crawl to wear in my boots, but that was it. Travelling among a group of 20 with me and Sam, 33, from London, were Steve, 27, a political consultant in Washington; Joe, a trainee doctor from Brighton in his mid-twenties; 22-year-old Sarah, an Australian who’d moved to Ireland to work in IT; Sachin, a 33-year-old Indian software developer, and a Los Angeles family with their 21-year-old son, Chris. EBC had been firmly bucket-listed for many for years, but between us, no one seemed to have much idea of what we were embarking on, because everyone we asked had had very different experiences, depending on how sick they got. You didn’t know how the altitude would affect you until you were there, so basically you had to wait and see.
Everyone else’s experiences were actually the problem. Sam and I had been told that smoking helped in the run-up (lung exercise), but a friend of a friend said their friend had “been stupid enough to smoke all the way up and got really ill”.
Then Peter – my former 67-year-old flatmate – and Bill, his neighbour, started talking about the graveyard of “defrosting bodies” that I’d walk through on the way up. “Global warming,” Bill said, before continuing to prune the tree in his front garden.
My friend Gemma had been there with her school in 2005 and sent me a photo of a Mars-like terrain. “Where’s the grass?” I asked. My disappointment was that of someone who walks to the beach expecting to lie down on sand and sees only sharp, dagger-like shingle. No one had said anything about rocks. “You’ll be fine!” she said, despite just telling me, “Some of the fittest people in the group didn’t get past day three. Just remember: dry shampoo and two pairs of thin socks.”
“But everyone’s been telling me one pair of thick socks,” I wailed.
I decided to ignore all advice and carry on drinking until we had to leave. Given it was largely booze-free on the mountain, I was beginning to see EBC as a sort of rehab. I could do what I wanted before I left, surely?
This worried Sam, who told me every time I saw her that “on Instagram people are saying it’s dropping to minus 10C at night”.
“I know,” I said, calmly.
“But I’m a very cold person,” she’d say.
“I know,” I’d say again, lighting a cigarette.
As for the gear, I’d had no idea, and still didn’t after downloading an extensive kit list from the tour company’s website. Somehow I had to make 87 items weigh under 10kg. “How?” I asked my suitcase.
Online, people said things like, “In Tibet they used to wear the same thing for a year, then wash themselves with yak butter. When in Rome.” By now, I wished I was going to Rome.
Luckily Meg, who’d been trekking in Patagonia, owned everything and turned her bedroom into a showroom, inviting Sam and me to take anything. Essentially, women wore leggings and layered up on top: vest; long-sleeved top; fleece and/or coat. Higher up, we donned down jackets and when it poured we’d chuck waterproofs over everything. The focus was on anything wicking we could get hold of, with laundry not an option and the walks stretching up to 20km a day. Hot showers were on teahouse menus alongside egg-fried rice for 500 rupees (£3.50), but “hot”, some of the group reported back, was optimistic. They were often outside and once you’re cold at 4,000m, you’re not warm for days. Mostly people were too sick to risk it or too tired to want to. The saviour was merino wool, which never smelt, and was coveted like crack in a prison.
With Meg’s kit (largely Lululemon yoga gear and Patagonia jackets) and my Sweaty Betty ski thermals, I had most of what some people, at least, said I’d need. A £60 Boots shop later ticked off the medicals, but even this list freaked me out. If their calculations were correct I’d have the flu, nappy rash, diarrhoea, a bad cough, blisters, a headache and my period in a few days’ time. After a visit to my doctor in which I asked for “everything”, I hoped at least I wouldn’t have hepatitis A, B, typhoid and rabies on top, and I skipped off with a prescription for Diamox – the tablet defence against altitude sickness that I was told at the chemist would give me fantastic nightmares. “Is this one of them?” I asked.
Meanwhile, Sam was still following several EBC accounts on Instagram.
“Have you got a sleeping bag yet?” she kept asking. “On Instagram they’re saying …”
“YES I KNOW,” I snapped, marching off to Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports, where a very nice woman sourced me a Mountain Hardware “mummy bag” that would keep me alive in minus 18C temperatures, she promised.
“When are you going?” she asked casually.
“Tomorrow,” I told her. “I think.”
“You’re relaxed for someone who doesn’t yet have a sleeping bag,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, assuming it was a compliment.
In the “walking sticks” section she told me to call them “poles” and picked out a pair. “Some people hate them, but they’re great for going downhill,” she said. “Oh, and this,” she said, handing me a head lamp.
“Really?” I said. “Bit Chilean miner, no?”
“You’ll be glad if you need the loo in the night,” she explained. “I did Killy.”
“Sorry?” I asked.
“Kilimanjaro,” she said. “I climbed it. Walked down with a broken foot.”
“Jesus,” I said, gripping the Kendall mint cake I’d picked up like it was a stress ball.
We left London for Kathmandu the next day.
If you want to do a small group trek, choosing who to sign up with is hard, given there are dozens of similarly named Western-run companies, all with subtly varying reviews. The advantage of joining a well-known company comes down to the Sherpas, and we quickly trusted Sabin and Suman, both of whom had been guides from a young age and knew the mountain like the back of their hand, with our lives. On the way down I met a girl who’d signed up to a “yoga trek” to EBC and her instructor wasn’t a big enough noise on the mountain to be able to guarantee them rooms in the teahouses. At Gorakshep, the frozen lake bed at 5,164m and the closest we stayed to Mount Everest, her guide told her they’d be sleeping in tents overnight.
“I didn’t have a sleeping bag that could have withstood temperatures outside,” she said. “He said we could have hot-water bottles. Then they didn’t turn up. I had to argue with him until he got us in but the room was disgusting. The walls and sheets were stained. Plus, I don’t even think he was a yoga instructor. We did some light stretching in the morning in the breakfast room, with the Sherpas still asleep on the seats, until I asked him to stop.”
By the time Sam and I got to Kathmandu from London it was gone 10pm and we were rushed back to a hotel in Thamel, the hectic, down-and-out city centre, for a briefing with a tall, adept-looking Asian man who’d been on the same flight.
“I didn’t make it last year,” he told us. “I got altitude sickness. Had to be evacuated by helicopter.”
“Please stop talking,” I said, under my breath, sort of.
The next day we were due to get an internal flight to Lukla, the Himalayan airport that acts as a starting point for treks, and be walking by lunchtime. I was petrified. After shifting everything we needed for ten days on the mountain into the holdalls the Sherpas carried ahead of us, we went to bed, setting an alarm for two hours’ time. Leaving for Ramechhap airport at 2.30am meant we’d be one of the first groups in a queue for a plane, we were told.
When we arrived, we were shocked to see hundreds of people slumped over their bags. Ramechhap is less of an airport than a piece of scrubland with a few tin shacks connected to a runway. It looked half refugee camp, half disaster zone. Children ran begging among the tourists while goats ate the shoelaces of our Salomon boots and people dozed, waiting and watching nervously as 20-person planes took off.
“Why is it so busy?” I asked someone.
“There was a crash yesterday,” he said. “Plane flew into a helicopter. Three dead and the rest in hospital.” That was April 14. The story made world news. We just hoped our parents hadn’t seen it. Lukla is often described as the most dangerous airport in the world, but I hadn’t expected it to be so obvious, so quick.
We’d had to wear the outfit we’d start walking in – heavy boots, thick socks, layers of thermals – and the heat that day was intense. Highs can reach 30C in April and people desperately stripped off and applied suncream, sheltered from the heat in the shacks selling Coca-Cola and egg-fried rice. By lunchtime we were getting tetchy – many of us only having had an hour’s sleep and a 4am breakfast of a boiled egg, dry pastry and banana.
Then, around 1pm, we were finally let through to board, which essentially meant joining another chaotic pen of people sweltering in the heat. The confusion was alarming. Every so often we’d be told the airport was shut, then it would reopen, a group walked to a plane, then walked back. There seemed to be another problem with one of the planes, and we prayed we wouldn’t pull the short straw. I was so tired I was falling asleep sitting up and jolting awake torturously.
Hours later, when visibility was deemed too bad for any more flights that day, there was a fist fight for helicopters and Sam and I managed to get a seat on the last one out of there. Somehow “visibility” was fine for helicopter pilots, but then again someone was making $500 per tourist to get us to Lukla.
The reason everyone was so stressed was that acclimatisation days had been built carefully into our walking schedule and we needed to get to certain heights, then rest before continuing. If you “rushed it”, there was a high risk you’d need a medi-vac: mountain speak for a medical evacuation to the nearest hospital.
“Is that the … ?” somebody asked, as we neared Lukla, pointing to a plane that had nosedived and lay squashed in the ground with its tail in the air. Next to it was a destroyed helicopter. It looked like an elaborate display at the Imperial War Museum.
G, a tiny, Irish blonde who worked at a bank in Sydney, was the first casualty, we realised when we met the rest of our group in the hotel. She lay in a ball in the restaurant, having thrown up for the past two hours.
“I don’t know whether it’s sunstroke or the Diamox,” she said, having believed you popped the pills whole, when half lasts 24 hours.
It was also 6pm, thanks to the delays, and the sky was darkening fast, but we had a four-hour walk ahead of us if we wanted to keep the acclimatisation days ahead. We took a vote, then donned our Chilean miner head torches and set off.
“Pipe!” “Yak shit!” “Steps!” we called to each other all the way up, feeling our way up the mountain with group camaraderie. We couldn’t see it but we could hear water rushing below. Luckily, the bridges – high above the caverns – weren’t until the next day. By the time we arrived at Phakding, only one broken pole later, for our first night in a teahouse, we couldn’t keep our eyes open.
Day two on the mountain: we were walking from Phakding to Namche Bazaar, a green, lush route with rivers below us as we walked narrow rope bridges hundreds of metres above. “Donkeys,” Kamal, one of our guides, told us, was the danger ahead today and by the end of it I must have seen 1,000 trailing along after the Sherpas with supplies for villages and restaurants or climbers’ North Face bags strapped to their backs. There were horses everywhere too, and shaggy yaks with huge skewering horns. “Hillside” was the rule when they were coming at you. “Or they’ll push you off,” Kamal warned. We leapt, mountain-goat style, up the sides of sheer cliffs while they passed. Three days in, we heard an American tourist had been pushed off the mountain by a horse. That made four dead in two days.
The half of our group who’d been left at Lukla were being made to do two days of walking in one to catch up, but we didn’t see the first until Steve from Washington came charging up behind us. “Every time I flagged, Tiger sang the opening chords to Lose Yourself by Eminem. I’ve been rapping since Lukla,” he said, exhausted. Tiger, an assistant guide, had earned his name when he was 11 and killed a tiger with his hands, we were told. It had attacked his family’s goat herd, then his mother. He was 5ft 2in, but we liked to believe it was possible.
We didn’t see anyone else from the other group until early evening at the teahouse, when “old Chris” (there was also 22-year-old, waterpolo-playing Chris) turned up in the middle of a torrential downpour on a horse that had carried him for the last 10km. He’d fainted en route and I don’t know who looked worse by that stage, him or the horse. As it wobbled down the steps to the teahouse and Chris hung on for dear life, rodeo-style, on the back, I was sure at least one of them was going to throw up. The next day the same horse took him back down the mountain and he flew home.
We were all sick of egg-fried rice, but had to stick to plain carbs for energy and to limit the chances of food poisoning. People came to breakfast in the morning pale-faced, uttering things like, “I shouldn’t have had the pizza.” Mostly people blamed “yak cheese”.
I didn’t get knocked badly by the altitude until we reached Dingboche and started walking above 4,000m, but in the middle of every night in the Himalayas I’d woken up unable to breathe, sitting bolt upright in my sleeping bag and drinking water until it went away. It always did, but it felt like someone was sitting on my chest until I’d rasped enough air, imagining I was breathing into a brown paper bag. Every morning, I’d wake up feeling fine, as if sleeping at the higher altitude had temporarily cured me, until the next night.
As we got higher, paths got narrower, and queues of climbers wound round the mountain like ants. There were people everywhere, which was a shock, because you don’t believe you’re in a tourist trap until you’re there. Overcrowding is a problem everywhere, not just at the summit, but of course the danger is highest near the top. We overlapped with the same groups a lot in the queue for base camp, and then noticed people had disappeared.
At the prayer flag-strewn boulder at base camp and, below, on her way back down
By day three I knew it was my turn to get ill. We’d left Tengboche for Dingboche that morning, walking first in shorts, T-shirts and sun, then the snow as we neared 4,400m. For an hour at the highest point it was freezing, the snow beautiful but flung into our faces by a razor wind, and by the time we reached the teahouse I had a rasping cough.
I bought a small bottle of local rum from the Sherpa running the teahouse and snuck off to bed to lie swigging it in my sleeping bag.
The next day I woke feeling as if I’d been run over during the night, but we had only a four-hour walk to 4,800m in the morning to acclimatise. I struggled up, then stood shivering with the overwhelming feeling that I should immediately go back down. Tiger ripped my bag off my back and I followed him down as quickly as possible. The feeling was surreal, but I remember having tears in my eyes behind my sunglasses, which I tried not to allow to blur my vision enough to make me fall through the dust. We lost our grip going downhill a lot and the effect of walking at altitude was like running on a treadmill. After another day sleeping at 4,400m I was fine, thankfully, because we were two days away from base camp.
Despite the constant disasters, life on the mountain was amazing and – weirdly – most of us loved not showering and hadn’t bothered in a fortnight. Even if you’d wanted to, hooking up on the mountain would have been virtually impossible. We were sleeping, 99 per cent of the time, in small single beds a metre apart. Then in Namche, a really gorgeous Icelandic guy came up to me when I was washing my hair in icy water at the sink outside the one toilet in our tearoom.
“Hi,” he drawled. “Where are you from?”
“London,” I said, trying to look as sexy as possible, while expunging shampoo from a head full of dripping, wet knots. “You?”
“Iceland,” he told me. “I’m a long way from home.”
“You certainly are,” I said, in my head looking like a wet Bond girl, but in reality more like Medusa.
“See you at base camp,” was his parting line, as though this would be a place full of champagne and fine dining and not a queue for selfies in a blizzard.
Later, though, I felt more enthused. “I met this really fit Icelandic guy earlier,” I told G, as we brushed our teeth at the same sink. Only when the loo flushed did I realise someone was in there and out he came, of course, followed by a smell that you should not have to inhale when you’ve just started fancying someone, even if mountain rules are different. I gave up the idea of a Himalayan hook-up.
Our key ambition was not to be evacuated, because, some claimed, one in ten is. The day before base camp we’d only lost Old Chris (who had a heart condition), so we were feeling like lottery winners when Sarah, a young Australian, started worsening. Joe, the trainee doctor, diagnosed what he thought was high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPO). He said she needed to be medi-vac’ed fast. The guides agreed, and after we sang Sarah Happy Birthday (she was 22 that day) she was flown to Kathmandu. Five days later, she was still there, having been diagnosed with gastroenteritis and pneumonia as well as HAPO. She’d been put on a drip of antibiotics, steroids, codeine, bronchodilators and diuretics and needed oxygen for three days. We tried not to imagine what might have happened if she’d tried to get to base camp that day.
Later, we passed Gorakshep and walked to EBC in a blizzard. One of our group turned back halfway along the high, rocky paths, but the rest of us made it. The day after, another three from our group decided they couldn’t handle the walk back down and so then we’d lost five.
The “queues” at Everest’s summit that have been so documented in the news recently didn’t surprise me after my trip. At EBC, streams of selfie-takers join queues at the famous prayer flag-strewn boulder, stroppily arguing in minus 15C temperatures about who’s jumping ahead of whom. I was so happy to have made it, but didn’t want to stick around.
Four days later, we were back in Lukla, and a day later in Kathmandu, and the atmosphere was riotous. Despite most of us having had no interest in hook-ups through the trip, the dynamic on the last night was that of a pick-up party: it was as though we felt collectively that we’d escaped death and craved sex in some deep subconscious way, because sex equalled life. I didn’t really understand what was happening until, when everyone was drunk on Rocksi, a hideously strong local spirit, a guide from another group asked if I wanted to come to his room.
“What for?” I asked, without thinking. Then I realised.
“You’re beautiful!” he said.
“I haven’t showered in two weeks,” I squealed.
Later, a Canadian lesbian from another group we’d been walking alongside asked Sam which room I was in and tried to come and “find” me, but Sam, hammered, gave her the number of our previous teahouse, and she arrived at someone else’s door. One of our group had sex that night in the toilet of a Kathmandu club. “I can’t even remember her name,” they said. “What a slut.”
Days later we were home, with tanned faces and yak shit-smeared boots, wondering what the hell had just happened. Then 20 tents blew off EBC in Cyclone Fani – empty, Indian media said – and the news of the summit deaths came in one after the other, and we couldn’t believe that we’d got away so lightly. Being close to so much death certainly makes you feel alive.