The brave journey of Greg Healey
Narration by: Shariq Ali
Greg was alone in his temporarily erected tent in the first base camp to Mount Everest. He was still awake that night in his sleeping bag which was placed higher up than any of the mountain in the Rockies This was his last of the fourteen acclimatization nights in this base camp which was necessary for him to spend in order to achieve the optimum body physiology to proceed further in his expedition to conquer Mount Everest.
The starry night above his tent was calm and serene. But his mind was busy reflecting about the recent past and also about the possible challenges in near future. Chomolungma, which means “Mother of the Universe” as Tibetans calls the Mount Everest, was in front of his eyes. He felt as if his challenger, the five and a half miles above the sea level big summit, the highest in the world, has just smiled at him for few seconds. He looked inward at his passion, his inner strength as an experienced climber and at his inner core of a decent human being and then he smiled back!
Greg had a purpose in mind and nothing could have stopped him now. He wanted to give the gift of his courage, his conquest of the big peak, to alleviate the suffering of burns victims. He was determined to conquer Mount Everest to raise funds for Interburns and other charities.
Greg is a member of the board of trustees of Interburns and for me, as one of the Co Founder of Interburns, and for the entire Interburns team, his climb was a matter of pride and he was duly treated as a hero in our recent meeting in Nepal.
It was a pleasant, slightly chilly but sunny afternoon in the suburbs of Kathmandu while Greg was telling us about his courageous expedition for the big peak. Being a very busy banker in the past and now a very successful businessman in London of an annual turn over of more than 6 million pounds, his typical working hours were 18 hours a day for six days a week. He continued on the same pace for seven years. Though he enjoyed working and learning from very successful CEOs of the business world, but then felt exhausted from this rampant pace of life for years. His life was duly asking for a change. After few months of necessary physical training in Britain, one fine morning, he found himself along with his expedition team in Kathmandu.
There are two approaches to the big peak. One is from the Tibetan or northern side which is technically easier and the other from the Nepalese or southern side. Unfortunately because of the unexpected closure of the Tibetan border, his team has to change the plan and take up the Nepalese route and then approached from the Tibetan side. The area near the first base camp is as baron as Afghanistan, he was telling us. During acclimatization process, one has to travel about seventeen miles at least six times covering a height of more than one mile vertically and this takes strenuous 12 hours walk every day. This routine is extremely demanding physically but prepares you for the ordeal ahead.
Without careful preparation covering all aspects of the expedition and various potential dangers ahead, such an adventurous undertaking is unthinkable. Food and equipment has to be up to the mark especially in the final part of the climb when one is totally on his own and no infrastructure whatsoever is available.
During the acclimatization process walks from the first base camp, one comes across many vertically oriented icy masses. They are not looking so big in the picture but may be about 100 meters in height.
Once the team have completed the acclimatization process, we reached to the next base camp. The next camp is at the height equal to Kilimanjaro.
One can see that even at this stage of second base camp, there is still a reasonable infrastructure in place. But once the team has to move forward from this point, the story becomes one man, one tent and one stove. It’s then ones technical ability and tolerance and strength, and that is the only infrastructure available from this point onwards.
From this base camp the team was now faced with a thousand meter vertical ice wall in front of us. It is about 12 hours hike and mostly vertical but there are zones of flatness one has to pass through.
If you look at the picture underneath carefully, you can identify black dots in the background of icy flatness. These are individual climbers in the background of this vastness. The main battle here is mental and psychological. The mind start wandering in the vast loneliness where even continuous walking is not changing the scenery. Keeping your mind on trek becomes as difficult as your route navigation. The other looming danger is avalanches. This region is typically avalanche prone. The patch we passed through avalanches two years ago and killed some of the local Sherpa.
After this mental battle, there are few very difficult obstacles one has to cross. One of the big killer and remarkable obstacle is to cross multiple crevices on the way. One has to cross them through self-created bridges. There is no chance available for any error. These crevices are hundreds of meters deep. You make your own bridge by joining ladders with ropes. Then you throw them hoping that these will cross over and hit a secure other end. You then also throw a rope on the other side as a fall back to hold it if the bridge breaks down.
Then you come to a climb which is extremely steep and the main problem is that you cannot stop. There is actually no place to stop as everything is so vertical even to take a sip of water. It is about eight-hour vertical climb during which time, it is even impossible to drink anything let alone having anything to eat.
Surprisingly at this point if there is no cloud in front of the sun, temperature can go as hot as 23 degree centigrade because the sunlight is reflecting on to you directly. Although the usual temperature at this point and the gear one is wearing is appropriate for minus forty. This temperature variation in itself is a huge problem at this point.
Then we finally reached to the summit ridge which is then attacked on the summit day. On the summit day, one has to take three major climbing steps each consisting of many hours climb. Second step is the most difficult one. It is a 100 meter totally vertical climb on the icy and slippery wall. Technically it is very difficult at this altitude in a temperature of minus forty. And at this point of the second step, my body was only fed on dehydrated food for many days. To boil a litre of water at this altitude can take two hours. And during a day, the body looses 8 to 10 litres of body fluids. Because of a continuous climbing process, one do not have time to replace the fluids and therefore I was significantly dehydrated even at the start.
At this stage of climb, seeing dead bodies of previous climbers is very common. One of a previous climber George Mallory`s body is probably very close to this second step. You have to cross this zone of death and one come across many dead bodies and sometime it is impossible to avoid stepping over them. It is obviously not easy to manage your emotions.
The summit day virtually takes about 24 hours and I took almost no food and no water and was also not slept for two days before the final two steps. Ideally one wants to complete the second step before the sunrise. Sun rises at about 4 am at this altitude. Unfortunately I reached there at 4:30 am and I had to complete the final climb during the sunlight. This is worse because this is exposed terrain and if you look down it is about 4000 meters drop.
And the valley below you see is called rainbow valley. It is because of the colours of gears of dead and fallen climbers. This makes it an extremely emotional moment but one cannot afford emotions at this point. Because if your adrenaline pumps into your body, your oxygen consumption rises and your oxygen cylinder is your limited life line. Therefore, one has to control the emotion for a simple reason to survive.
And then finally, one gets to the top.
Surprisingly although it was the most exciting moment of my life but very soon a dreadful thought takes over the mind that now there is an extremely difficult journey ahead, back from the summit to the base camp.
The only point where I felt extremely emotional was when I was coming down the summit on my third day. I was alone in my tent in the base camp. This is the point when one actually knows that his life is now safe. Below is the picture of that moment.