With thanks to Mingma - The Sherpa who saved my life

Posted: Jun 08, 2004 04:00 am EDT
Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant and mountaineer Ted Atkins made the Everest summit on his third attempt in the early hours of May 16 2004. Last week he wrote a very honest post-expeditions report; a close call with becoming a part of the mountain forever. Now this morning Ted sent out this article recounting his ordeal; enjoy:

I am in the middle of the assault. I set off at 21:15 hours with the first wave, but I noticed a friend moving very badly; shuffling along like an old man so I stopped him to check his oxygen supply. It wasn't working. There was nothing we could do to get it going again so he set off back to replace it. This put me near the back of the second wave; however I was on my own and so could move at my own pace.

Lights coming towards me caused me to stop.

I also had the advantage of using my own homebuilt oxygen that was far more efficient than the standard issue Russian equipment. Perhaps it was this that allowed me to move faster than everyone else for I soon overtook the Second wave and found myself in this middle position. Lights coming towards me caused me to stop. Three people, one was obviously in a bad way and being helped down. At a glance he was suffering from AMS, Acute Mountain Sickness, the second man was barely able to move himself and the third was able. My initial selfish thought was 'on no, not again, if I get involved with this there will be no coming back'. I needn't have worried, even after I explained that I had the injectable drugs that would help, my offer to help was declined, perhaps mentioning injection was the key here! In truth it would be no great time before they reached the tents going down and so I pushed on with a clear conscience. I thought about trying to catch up with the leaders, but decided I was better off on my own no one could fall on me, knock anything on me or control my pace, this was perfect.

On my way to end a journey that I unwittingly started 16 years before.

I craned my head back trying to decipher where the train of torch light ended and Everest's stars began. I was on my way to end a journey that I unwittingly started 16 years before. Then I was a member of the RAF contingent of a 36 man Joint Service Team set to climb Everest's West Ridge; a testing and ambitious project. We failed; therefore, I failed and I never forgot. I didn't even forget when I went back for revenge with the 1st RAF team to attempt the summit, and put that team on the top in 2001. I still couldn't forget because when it was my turn to head for the summit one of my team became sick and I had to evacuate him from the mountain. That was my window of opportunity gone, never to be seen again; that time. No regrets, perhaps he did not need me to help him down. In wonderful retrospect I know this to be the case; then it was the right decision.

I had to remove a mitt to use the knife and this hand was going numb.

Half way up the route at the balcony I picked up my second cylinder. I had to unzip my down suite to use the knife that I keep around my neck. In no time I was frozen; I had to remove a mitt to use the knife and this hand was going numb by the time I got the regulator fitted. I was obviously working without O2 for a time. There is something about the O2 that actually helps to keep you warm, so when I got fitted up and moving again all was well. As an engineer I cannot get my head around the fact that aluminium screw caps are used to seal these cylinders. While checking cylinders at camp III I had to wrench several of these off using a cut out in my ice axe and I know that we lost the use of one full cylinder later as the top would not come off. Why not just use the plastic push on fit protective covers used everywhere by industry and they would be cheaper?

Behind me sheet lightning still lit up half the Himalayas.

I don't know what time it was when I noticed Tibet turning pink with the dawning of what will ever be one of the biggest days in my life. Behind me sheet lightning still lit up half the Himalayas; wonderfully surreal, perfect. I have read countless tales of climbing this high and I can remember how it was for me on other mountains at other times; I was only able to move by counting 10 steps, then falling to my knees breathing hard to recover enough to move again and repeat it wasn't like that for me, I just kept moving steadily upward, the effort of it was not a conscious thought. To my right the steep pink snows of the Kangxung Face and the brown highland mass of Tibet; behind me I looked down onto the summit of mighty Lhotse at 8516 M. As pink light turned to daylight it was obvious that I was approaching the top of the South Summit. The way markers to clear any doubt about location were the string of people waiting to tackle the famous Hillary Step the final section to the summit.

One small snag, my oxygen must run out anytime now.

I stood on the South Summit and looked over to the summit tantalizingly close, just drop down into the gap then the last 100M of technical climbing towards the top; one small snag, my oxygen must run out anytime now. People have turned back from the South Summit because they did not have the oxygen to ensure a safe descent, indeed this happened to the first team of Bourdill on and Evans of the 53 expedition to reach this point. I however had summit fever this is a serious condition that kills people every year, a condition where by you push on regardless. It had now become clear to me that there was no more support, something had gone wrong and I would see no third cylinder supplied it was up to me. Defying all logic I pushed down into the gap and on to the Hillary Step.

As per the forecast the weather was perfect and from the top I could see the world

It's quite something to stand on terrafirma and see the curvature of the world. I looked at Makalu and thought about the Joint Services Team attempting that hill. Most of them were friends of mine and I wished them well. Down to the north in Tibet I looked on to my old Base Camp and the route we climbed then. This moment was the culmination of so many years of thought and planning, perhaps my greatest ambition achieved; one small snag, how would I get down without oxygen?

My gauge read 0

There were a number of people on the top, Sherpas and clients and luckily for me I have never been shy so I simply went and asked if anyone had any spare O2. This was quite a feasible idea as there are prescribed cylinder change points and it was easy (for desperate me) to imagine that someone may have changed a cylinder that still had some gas in it, why not, I had done so earlier? One of the Sherpas I asked told me, with a conspiratorial wink, to stick around for a while. He was shepherding three clients and when they announced that they were going down he said that he would follow. I liked that wink, my hopes were high. When his clients were gone he asked me how much gas I had left. My gauge read 0, so that meant between five minutes (rational) and twenty five minutes (exceedingly optimistic) remaining. At which he announced that I was to take his full cylinder as in his words 'I am a Sherpa and will cope without O2 better that you ever could'. Without doubt these are true words but at 8848M this is as high as it gets and Sherpas are human too I couldn't accept his amazing offer.

I might get past the difficulties of the Hillary step.

I explained to my new found best friend Mingma that if I turned down my flow rate from two litres per minute to half a litre per minute that I might get past the difficulties of the Hillary step and up to the South Summit. Once there the route would be down and I might be ok. Mingma nodded and said no more. I turned the gas down and set off, picking up a handful of small stones to give to some of the charities and ATC Sqns that have been raising money with my venture. This was one of the few things I remembered to do of many things that I had planned to do on the summit.

My mind started playing games with me

Hypoxia was already affecting my thoughts. Only five minutes later it was clear to me that the gas had run dry. The level of exhaustion that I felt just minutes later was totally debilitating. Now I was that old man, try and get 10 steps, rest, move, keep moving. My mind started playing games with me, it was split in two parts: good guy keep going, get down, bad guy stop rest, have a little sleep, it will be ok. My body had given up. Mind and body were in collusion to give up. I fell. I don't know what happened. I don't know if I was clipped into the fixed rope. I remember falling and hitting the rocks at the bottom. There was a part of me that was determined to go on to get down. The combination of exhaustion and the sudden shut down of the oxygen supply was just too much. Only one thing could help me now; I had to find an O2 cylinder.

I nodded, then nodded off.

I remembered that there were a pile of cylinders on the South Summit. This was the new focus for that bit of my brain that was on my side, meanwhile the conspiracy against me continued with the bad bit and my body. I came up with a mantra to reach the South Summit. I tried to repeat this, but the bad part got hold of it and twisted it to fall asleep and I did, instantly, perhaps thats how I fell. I had to keep fighting myself awake and push, push for the South Summit. I fell again, but things were a bit brighter now, I had a friend. Just a shadow, a ghost. I couldn't see him, didn't know who he was I just knew that someone was there to help me. I was in a bad way when I reached the bottom of the gap, before the climb to the South Summit. This was the ideal time to crawl out of sight around the Summit and go to sleep. Can you make these last steps to the top? It was my friend, though I never saw him, I remember his words. He caught me at a crucial moment; the forces of the conspiracy were winning for the long sleep. I made those last steps with a supreme effort. Someone, I never saw them, put a cylinder on me and I could taste oxygen. They turned and went to leave me and for the first time I saw my friend. I didn't know who he was, but he was going down, down to camp IV at the South Col. I shouted and asked him to tell people that I would be late because I was going around the South Summit for asleep, I still had this crazy idea. He just pointed down. I think I nodded, then nodded off.

I woke to the familiar sound of the tent fabric flapping in a storm.

No tent. Only me, lying there like a corpse, the fabric of my Everest armour flapping in the storm. I didn't move; like a man who has been involved in a serious accident I just lay there and took stock. I felt good, very good, and content. I didn't think to look at my wife Shona's watch that I was wearing to find the time; I just decided to go down. This was now a lonely place. The often seen plume of wind driven ice crystals was washing over the top of Everest. I stood up and looked at the pile of O2 cylinders next to me. They were all empty. I was lucky to find one that had oxygen in it, no this is not right! Why should there have been just one full cylinder? I can't think about this now, get down. The way down was solitary and pleasant. I felt good and made solid progress back to Camp IV without event.

I asked those there at Camp IV if they knew what had happened.

In Camp IV one of the Sherpas hugged me and was clearly delighted to see me. The Sherpas knew of my O2 situation since about 0900 when one of them had checked my gauge and declared that I must soon go down. Surprisingly, armed with this knowledge at 1600 no one had been dispatched with gas to help me? The Sherpa who was so delighted to see me was on standby, in that if I didn't turn up soon he was to come to my aid. Now he didn't have to and was understandably pleased. I asked those there at Camp IV if they knew what had happened. I was supposed to have had Sherpa support, where was it? What happened to my oxygen, why did I only get two cylinders? Lastly and importantly; who was my friend? There were no answers to any of my questions and I was a bit mad.

Mingma; Mngma, it was you; you helped me.

En-route down to Camp III next day as I stopped to clip a new rope the voice behind me asked if I was ok now. I looked about, no mystery friends today, just a Sherpa repeating his question. I looked at him and stammered yes, yes fine as my brain tried to work out the connection, Mingma - Mingma it was you, you helped me on the South Summit. Yes, he beamed at me through burnt face and panda eyes. He explained; I saw you in the Hillary Gap and knew you were in trouble so I came with you a little bit. At the South Summit I gave you my cylinder and left you as I now had to get down quickly; and so I thought that I was lucky to find the only cylinder at the South Summit, it never did fit quite right for me, but I didn't know anything else. When Mingma put the gas on me I was barely conscious and could just remember that it had happened. I thanked Mingma heartily and promised to catch up with him at Base Camp. It was important for me just to know what had happened. There are few people who ever have dealings with these wonderful Sherpa people who do not come away with the greatest regard for there friendship and courage. Mingma's selfless act quite probably saved my life and I shall be grateful to him forever. I know that we shall remain friends.

So how does it feel to have climbed to the top of the world after sixteen years of dreaming and scheming? I don't know - it still hasn't sunk in. I do know that it feels great to be alive and I think of that every day.

To conclude I need to say a big public thank you to my long suffering wife Shona. It was particularly bad for her this time because of weather delays and no information she thought I had died. I will hopefully never know how she might have felt during those days, but it must have been awful; for that I am sorry."

Ted first attempted Everest via the West Ridge in 1988, a route he called a logistical nightmare. Ted reached to within 800 yards of the summit, where he'd earlier placed a cache with sleeping bag and camp stuff, but now the bag was gone. Ted tried grabbing some sleep in his rucksack, but by morning, his feet were nearly frozen and he gave up the attempt.

In 2001, Ted returned, leading the large, successful RAF expedition up the North side. Two members of the team summited, however his bid ended at 8300m in deteriorating weather.

Ted became a member of the RAFs Mountain Rescue Service in 1979 and led the first RAF Ascent of the North Face of Eiger. He made his first trip to the Himalayas in 1983 and later that same year, joined an 18-month expedition to Antarctica to explore Brabant Island.

This year, Ted is simply joined a permit to make his own attempt on the South Col route.

Images of Ted climbing and of Mingma courtesy of his home team.