Feature-length articles on mountaineering and mountain-related topics, including art, science and history.


Cold Comfort on Chomolungma

In a piece originally published in the 2023 Alpine Journal, Annie Dare, Head of Communications at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), explains why her organisation is moving from a solely knowledge-sharing role to become an active advocate on the issue of climate change and its impact on the Hindu Kush Himalaya. She also explains how alpinists can add their voices to ICIMOD's call for world leaders to take all necessary steps to protect this spectacular mountain region and the people who live there.

Going, going, gone? Seventy years on from the first ascent of Everest, the Khumbu glacier is disappearing at an accelerating rate. (Alex Treadway)

This spring, Catalan athlete Kilian Jornet was training around Everest, in Nepal. This was his 10th visit to the Khumbu region, but it was the first time he and his partner Swedish athlete Emilie Forsberg were accompanied by their two youngest children. Jornet, the son of a mountain guide who reached the summit of his first 3,000m peak at the tender age of three, was hoping to plant the seed for his daughters to develop a love for the people and nature of the Himalaya to equal his own. He delighted in seeing the girls playing with people and in places he felt so connected to.

Yet the trip was bittersweet. A climate advocate who consciously limits how often he flies in order to try to drive down his personal carbon footprint, it had been 10 years since Jornet had first seen Everest, or Chomolungma, ‘goddess mother of the world’ in one translation of the Tibetan. ‘The changes that have taken place in the snow and glaciers here, just in the space of that decade, are so immediately obvious, and so dramatic,’ Kilian told me. ‘It’s happening so, so fast.’

The family’s visit came just before dignitaries from the climbing world gathered at the base of the mountain, in Namche Bazaar, to mark the 70th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent. The glaciologists and researchers I work with at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which for 40 years has monitored the cryosphere across the entire 3,500km long expanse of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), used the moment to zero in on the specific impacts of climate change on Everest. Their data provides incontrovertible scientific evidence to corroborate climbers’ increasingly alarming eyewitness accounts, such as Jornet’s, or that of Lukas Furtenbach, who saw puddles on the South Col in 2022, or another climber who, when climbing Gasherbrum IV in 2021, was shocked to find water cascading down a rock at 7,000m. Worryingly, ICIMOD scientists found that the 79 glaciers around Everest had thinned by over 100m in just six decades and that the rate of thinning had almost doubled since 2009. The iconic Khumbu glacier itself is disappearing up the mountain. And the further east you go, the worse this thinning becomes.

Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa, an early-career glaciologist at ICIMOD, travelled to Namche to join his grandfather, the last survivor of the first ascent, Kanchha Sherpa, and Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, and Hillary and Norgay’s descendants for the anniversary events. Together, this group launched a campaign asking climbers to raise their voices to press for faster action to avert catastrophic, irreversible changes to Everest and other mountains under the banner of #SaveOurSnow. The campaign asks members of the public, but particularly climbers, scientists and mountain communities, to share stories of the climate impacts they’re seeing on social media and to add their name to a declaration that asks for governments to honour their commitments to limit warming as set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

All change in the Icefall. Always danger- ous, climate change is impacting on this key section on the ascent of Everest

Kanchha Sherpa, last surviving member of the 1953 expedition that put Hillary and Tenzing on the summit. (Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa)

‘The sporting community needs to step up,’ Jornet, one of the signatories of the declaration, says. ‘Alongside scientists studying these mountains, and the communities that live here, it is those of us who return year after year to these mountains, to work and to train, who can see with our own eyes the extraordinary pace of changes to mountain glaciers, snow and permafrost. These changes are not only aesthetic, of course. They also pose new dangers to climbers in terms of unstable terrain. But the much more profound impacts are the dangers these changes pose to the people and nature that rely on these mountains, for water, for livelihoods, for habitat.’

Climate impacts across the world’s cryosphere are fast outpacing scientists’ previous projections, with the fight to save summer ice in the Arctic declared essentially lost earlier this year, and revised forecasts suggesting Antarctica is vulnerable to devastating and permanent impacts at just 1.5°C of temperature rise. At 2°C of warming, glaciers in the Alps, the Andes, Patagonia, Iceland, Scandinavia, the North American Rockies and New Zealand are all set to disappear completely, while according to ICIMOD’s latest report Water, Ice Society, and Ecosystems in the Hindu Kush Himalaya around half of glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya would be gone. That even just half might remain is unlikely: our current emissions trajectory sets us on course to smash through the ‘safe’ 1.5°C ceiling. At the currently plausible 4°C of warming, 80% of glaciers in the HKH will vanish by the end of the century. While glacier loss worldwide will devastate local communities and result in sea-level rise, the consensus is that the consequences of glacier loss, more erratic snowfall and permafrost thawing for people and nature in the hugely populated and bio-diverse HKH region, where 12 of the world’s major rivers originate, will be nothing short of catastrophic.

‘Nowhere is safe from climate impacts,’ says ICIMOD’s deputy director general Izabella Koziell. ‘But the Hindu Kush Himalaya holds the third largest frozen body of water on the planet, which provides freshwater services to a quarter of humanity. A staggering half of that population already suffer malnutrition. In the past two years alone we’ve already seen devastating climate-driven humanitarian disasters unfold in this region – in Afghanistan’s droughts, and Pakistan’s floods: a chilling illustration of what our scientists say will be one of the key climate impacts in our region – the issue of ‘too much water, too little water.’ The magnitude of the humanitarian catastrophe that will unfold should the reliable water supply that flows from these mountains be lost – undermining the food and water security of two billion people in Asia – is almost beyond imagining. Yet this is what the science tells us will happen unless world leaders act decisively now.’ 

The case for action is compelling. With very low emissions, most glaciers and snowpack can be preserved for water resources, with scientists saying losses would begin to slow slightly around 2040, with glaciers stabilising sometime in the next century. And the support alpinists have given the campaign has been unequivocal with over 2,000 signatories in the first 48 hours, including Kenton Cool, Rebecca Stephens, Peter Hillary, Wolfgang Nairz, Reinhold Messner, the glaciologist and alpinist Patrick Wagnon, Jamling Tenzing, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, Lakpa Dendi Sherpa, documentary-filmmaker Craig Leeson, and Pemba Sherpa. Other backers include the Nepal Mountaineering Association, the Mountain Research Initiative, the UN Mountain Partnership, and the UIAA.

‘It’s amazing to have had this strong early support from the climbing community,’ says Izabella Koziell. ‘But it feels like we’re barely scratching the surface with what might be possible, in terms of the leadership role alpinists might be able to play at this crucial moment,’ says Koziell. ‘Not just because of their tenacity and influence, but most of all because of their unrivalled intimacy with mountains and mountain people. Many climbers’ lives have often been if not profoundly transformed then at least hugely enriched by encounters with the landscapes and cultures of the Hindu Kush Himalaya. These experiences give them an intrinsic awareness of how much we stand to lose unless we check emissions that are threatening lives, livelihoods and cultures.

Visible changes seen in the terminus of glacier AX010 from 1978 to 2008. Situated in the Shorong Himal, this glacier has lost almost half its surface area in just the last three decades. (Alton Byers)

The terminus of the Rikha Samba glacier between 1974 and 2010. The rate of loss has only accelerated since then. (Alton Byers)

‘It’s hard to have spent any time among such communities too and not be struck by the sheer injustice of what we’re seeing unfold across this region: of the lives of peoples who have trodden so lightly on the Earth for generations being destroyed as a consequence of political and business choices being taken millions of miles away.'

ICIMOD, for its part, is reinventing itself to rise to the challenge of supporting communities and governments in the region that will confront the impacts of the changing climate. The organisation has completely reconfigured its portfolio in order to reduce the region’s vulnerability to disaster risks: biodiversity loss; and water, energy and food insecurity. This work runs from installing early-warning systems to forewarn communities of floods and encouraging governments to share data across national boundaries, to advancing the rights and recognition of nomadic communities and the role of rangelands, to identifying incentives for communities to protect biodiversity and forests.

Critically, the organisation is setting out to build an advocacy voice that is commensurate with the region’s importance and peril. Because, despite how much hangs in the balance in terms of human population alone, knowledge of the consequences of continued climate inaction on the Hindu Kush Himalaya globally remains low. There was no mention of mountain impacts at all within the draft text of this year’s critical Global Stocktake process, an integral of the Paris Agreement under the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In collaboration with and on behalf of its eight regional member countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan – the organisation is setting out to change that lobbying at global fora: for faster action on mitigation globally; for the urgent scaling up of adaptation and ecosystem restoration funds; and programmes and for the mobilisation of loss and damage finance.

ICIMOD glaciologist Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa in the lap of Ed Hillary in 1992.

And with his grandfather Kanchha Sherpa. (Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa)

In seeking to strengthen its impact, ICIMOD is also looking outwards, exploring the creation of a new regional political mechanism, akin to the models used by the Alpine or Carpathian Convention, with the aim of accelerating political change through closer collaboration among countries to build greater resilience to these issues, many of which are trans-boundary, such as floods, and in securing greater prominence and negotiating power for the region.

‘For 40 years, ICIMOD has acted as a knowledge centre for the region, generating and sharing evidence to our member countries to support their policy processes, and this remains our primary work,’ says Koziell. ‘However, with humanity standing at such a crossroads, and our cryosphere being so central to that, our board, donors, regional member countries and stakeholders were all unanimous that ICIMOD should start to take a much more assertive role.

‘I believe that at this moment all of us are being called to go beyond ‘business-as-usual’ – and that it’s for all of use whatever platform we have to urge governments and businesses to transform how we power our lives, feed ourselves, move around so that Earth can sustain life. The science is clear – there really is no time left. Perhaps this transformation will be humanity’s greatest summit yet.’


  • To sign the declaration go to icimod.org/SaveOurSnow and share your story of impacts using the hashtag #SaveOurSnow.




The Phantom Line | Alpine Journal Extract

The Phantom Line | Alpine Journal Extract

In April 2022, Alpine Club members Paul Ramsden and Tim Miller made the first ascent of Jugal Spire, a 6,563m peak in the Jugal Himal. The route of their ascent, an improbable "Phantom Line", was a thin, intermittent route of snow and ice which cut like a scar across the mountain's north face. Their ascent has since been recognised by the jury of the Piolets d'Or which gives out awards annually for new routes accomplished in the best possible style. To coincide with this award, we are publishing Tim's account of the ascent from the 2022 Alpine Journal.

The route’s second ‘White Spider’ where Ramsden and Miller spent their third night on the wall.

The steep headwall pitches loom above. (Tim Miller) 

One thing we knew for certain on our trip to Nepal was that at some point each afternoon there would be snow, usually hail and often thunder and lightning. Every day for a month without fail we encountered an afternoon storm. Frequently it would cloud over from 9am onwards, affording us only a couple hours of sun in the morning. So as we sat in our little tent in base camp after completing our climb as the heavens opened and thunder raged, we couldn’t believe we had managed to snatch such a brilliant route from such improbable conditions.

The adventure began two years earlier when Paul Ramsden invited Richard Kendrick and me to a Gritstone Club hut nestled under a cliff in the Lake District. Inside, Paul swore us to secrecy before showing us a few of his highly confidential new route ideas on his laptop. We discussed them, then picked one and started to make plans for a trip. Not long after, Covid-19 hit and scuppered plans for that autumn – and the following autumn as well. The route we had planned was climbed in the meantime and Richard then had to drop out due to other commitments. By this point Paul and I were frustrated at having our plans fall through so often despite all our efforts at rearranging. We decided on a new objective and planned to go in spring; we didn’t want to wait another year.

Below the wall of chimneys, the key to the face (Tim Miller)

I first met Paul one winter’s day about eight years ago while climbing on Ben Nevis by myself. I was at the CIC hut getting ready to head down at the end of the day. Two other climbers were also packing bags so I asked them if they would be driving past Glasgow and could I get a lift. They were heading all the way to middle England and so they sped me back to Glasgow in double quick time. Paul was one of them and he told me how he had once witnessed a murder while hitchhiking to the Alps when he was younger. One of the lovely things about the world of climbing is how it is so small but welcoming. There are few sports where you can read about your heroes in books, the next day bump into them and a few years later be on a trip together.

We arrived at Kathmandu airport and after the slight panic of not finding our bags (another team had removed them from the conveyor belt) were met by our tour agent with a garland of flowers and driven to our hotel. Paul showed me around the sights of the city while we picked up our permit, gas canisters and other last-minute supplies. We were introduced to our team of porters and then we all jumped on a bus and were off out of the city. The roads got smaller, steeper, became single track and then turned to lumpy dirt tracks.

Paul Ramsden squirming (Tim Miller)

Before long, the bus was bumping and swinging round hairpin bends while clinging miraculously to the edge of steep mountainsides. At the end of the road we arrived in the small mountain village of Bhotang, surrounded by rice terraces and humid jungle.

What’s interesting about our objective is that it hadn’t seen a previous attempt or any interest at all despite being only a six-hour drive and four-day walk. It’s one of the closer 6,000m peaks to Kathmandu. Its obscurity may lie in the fact that its face is hidden and the peak sits in front of the bigger and more famous Dorje Lakhpa so it doesn’t stand out on the skyline.

It was obvious on the first day of the approach that there was quite a divide in experience among the porters. Chatting to them in broken English, we discovered a few had never portered before but had previously worked as hotel clerks in Dubai, before Covid-19 had brought an end to the tourism industry there and they had lost their jobs. Now forced to take whatever work they could get, it must have been quite a contrast to their previous lives. They started to lag far behind the fitter porters up front, who hadn’t understood where we wanted to stop for the night and carried on to the next stop, forcing us all to continue.

It was now that we were introduced to the regular weather pattern with an afternoon thunderstorm. Tired and bedraggled, the last porters arrived in camp 12 hours after setting off on what should have been a two-day journey. We had gained 2,000m of ascent and were concerned the porters, who were from Kathmandu and not acclimatised, might suffer from the altitude. Luckily for us, next morning everyone woke up well and was able to continue. A much shorter day took us to the famous Panch Pokhari religious shrine, a pretty collection of five mountain lakes at 4,100m a popular pilgrimage site.

Nut hunting on The Phantom Line. (Paul Ramsden)
Ramsden’s patented homemade snow-hammock
allowing the team to pitch a tent on a steep slope. (Tim Miller)

Up to this point we had been walking on well-constructed paths that allowed pilgrims and tourists to visit the lakes. These now stopped and we were on to rough tracks over passes and round mountainsides. A few of the porters decided at this point to switch from flip-flops to trainers. White rugged peaks pierced the crisp blue skies, rocky ridges led steeply down to misty green valleys below. And from the top of one pass we got our first view of the mountain we hoped to climb.

We trekked for two more days, sometimes in the fog and occasionally getting a brief glimpse of our peak. Just before arriving at base camp, and not having seen another soul in days, we noticed a solitary figure a few hundred metres behind the group. He must have been following us in the shadows. Despite the snowy passes we had crossed, he arrived with only the clothes on his back, flip-flops on his feet and no bag. Our sirdar spoke to him and declared him ‘a mad man’ who was on some sort of religious journey. He hadn’t eaten for days, so that night we fed him and he was walked back down with the porters the following day.

Base camp was situated in a valley of lateral moraine that was quite muddy from the frequent rain and not a place we felt inspired to hang around for too long. So we set off straightaway, with light bags, on a reconnaissance mission. Our aims were to find a practical route through the maze of the glacier leading to our peak and try to get a view of the face if we were lucky enough for it not to cloud over before we arrived.

Travelling across highly crevassed and moraine-covered glaciers is always an extremely slow and awkward task. Paul pointed out that it was often at these points that injuries happen and the most important thing for us to do now was stay fit and healthy. As soon as he said this, I slipped on a wobbly boulder, fell backwards and put my hand out to catch myself. In doing so I bent my fingers into an unnatural position and tweaked some of the ligaments in one of the fingers. I didn’t want it to affect the expedition but for days after I struggled to hold a knife and fork and tie laces with that hand. I just hoped I would still be able to hang off an ice axe when the time came.

Tim Miller starting on the crux section of steep chimneys on Jugal Spire’s The Phantom Line.

Sacks were hauled as the climbing required getting inside the chimney and squirming. (Paul Ramsden)

The rest of that day we continued up the glacier, eventually climbing an embankment of moraine that brought us to a little alpine lake surrounded by grass and large boulders with views of the peak. It was an idyllic spot. But our first view of the face blew us away. Looking at it in profile we realised it was much steeper than we had thought. The one photo we had seen of the face was from a Spanish team that showed it straight on. We also realised our photo had been taken after a storm, making it look very white and leading us to believe there were lots of lower-angled ice fields on the face. Now we realised it was made up primarily of vertical granite with the exception of one long scar of ice across it. We couldn’t see yet if this ice linked up all the way but walking back down the glacier we knew we had discovered an incredible face. Yet there were several big question marks as to whether it was climbable. On the plus side we discovered a brilliant path that took us down a grassy moraine valley straight back to base camp. Both tasks for the day were complete.

With fresh motivation, the following day we launched straight into the acclimatisation phase. With huge bags packed with food for seven days and all the kit we would want for the climb later, we set off up the moraine valley. Plodding slowly under the weight of the bags and our unacclimatised lungs, we arrived eventually at the ‘hanging garden’ of the little alpine lake. We had hoped to lounge around here stretching and relaxing in sunshine on the grass but the weather had different plans and we found ourselves reading in the tent all afternoon while it snowed around us.

Paul on the breakfast pitch, day four (Tim Miller)

Next day, we stashed under a boulder all the kit that we knew we would need for the climb but wouldn’t want for the acclimatisation. Then we continued up a large flat glacier. Our acclimatisation generally involved slogging for a few hours each morning to gain an extra 400m of elevation and then putting up the tent up and lying there for the next 18 hours mostly reading and sleeping and occasionally eating and getting up to pee. We continued thus to 5,700m and with splitting headaches decided to stop and stay an extra night before descending. What took five days to get up took us a morning to get down.

Back at base camp it was sinking in that months of planning and weeks of in-country preparation was now coming to a climax. We meticulously went through gear, cutting out anything that would add extra grams to our bags and triple-counting our rations. Then it snowed for two days and we were forced to rest in the tent reading books while the thought of the mountain hung over us. With apprehension building it was a funny thing to be tent-bound while so mentally ready to go. Then a nice morning came along and off we went.

Our first stop was at the stash we had left under the boulder. We repacked and with bags now overflowing continued gingerly up the glacier, each of us struggling over boulders while wondering how on earth we were going to climb a face that is 1.5km high. That evening we set up camp not far from our planned descent route, leaving two meals and a handful of bars stashed under a rock for the likely scenario that we would be starving hungry and needing a break when we got to this point after the route.

Steep climbing on day four. (Paul Ramsden)

The following day we continued up the glacier right beneath the face. It towered over us looking monstrously steep and imposing. We dumped our bags and walked up to the bergschrund. All we could see above was a sea of granite, our line of ice totally obscured from below. Paul seemed slightly subdued at this point and I can understand why. At the time I didn’t know what to make of such an impressive wall other than that I was in awe of it. I went to sleep looking forward to giving it a go but I sensed Paul had doubts over it being possible, having seen the wall up close. Had all our weeks and months of preparation been for nothing? Had we bitten off more than we could chew?

At 3am next morning our alarms beeped and we were tugged from our dreams to the monumental task at hand. Without a word we packed our bags in the cold morning air and retraced our steps from the previous afternoon across the glacier just as the sun started to light the tops of faraway peaks. Not yet in a rhythm, I struggled under the weight of my pack while I fought my way up steep snow over the bergschrund. I would stop every so often to pant furiously and warm my numb fingers. As soon as I could, I stopped to make a belay to give myself a rest and pass the work over to Paul.

The route started to steepen, the snow turned to ice and we now fell into a rhythm that worked. Climbing in lots of quick 40m pitches allowed each of us a frequent rest and prevented the belayer getting too cold. After 13 pitches of this we had climbed a huge third of the face, admittedly the easiest portion. On one of the last pitches of the day I arrived at a belay ledge and kicked the ice with the side of my crampon to make a small stance. As I did so the metal loop connecting the ankle strap to the crampon base popped off. The crampon was no longer attached to my foot and skidded down the ice a few meters, then stopped precariously in a patch of snow. As Paul climbed up towards me, he was able to simply pluck it out the snow and hand it back to me without any further drama. We marvelled at the ease with which the situation was solved and grimaced at the thought of the complex retreat that might have followed had it disappeared for good, spelling the end of the trip and months of planning.

Loose mixed climbing at 6,200m. The snow mushroom in front of
Miller fell off a few seconds after this picture was taken. (Paul Ramsden)

Having arrived at a potential bivy site we had spotted earlier through binoculars, to our surprise we discovered an overhanging rock cave with snow beneath that we were able to flatten off and pitch a tent on, albeit with the edges hanging in space. We couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay on such a steep face. Still clipped in and with harness on, the rest of the evening passed quickly with snow melting for tea, juice, dinner and finally tea again, all with the familiar routine to prevent spills, promote efficiency and avoid too much steam condensing on the walls of the tent.

The main task for the following day was to tackle the so-called ‘crux chimneys’. These were a gap in the line of ice and formed one of the bigger question marks that separated us from success. After packing up camp we rounded the corner and our eyes met a 100m steep wall of rock split by an ugly curving chimney. This was the wall’s only line of weakness and we had to get up it. Leaving my rucksack at the belay allowed me to get inside the chimney at points and squirm my way up, feet peddling on small edges and my chest grating against its walls causing several ragged tears to open in my jacket. Loose rocks clattered down as I struggled to hook anything with my axes. I was grateful for my Scottish winter apprenticeship; it had prepared me well for this type of climbing.

Paul seconding with plenty of exposure. (Tim Miller)

After three pitches of this, along with the exhausting job of hauling rucksacks, we re-joined the ice ramp. Hauling was a much harder job for Paul, who not only had to climb the pitch but also simultaneously dislodge the rucksacks with one hand, as they seemed to jam every few metres. Had the face been unlocked? Could we celebrate? Not yet. We knew there were further challenges up ahead but solving the problem of the chimneys was a big step forward.

We completed another few pitches that brought us to a feature we dubbed the ‘first white spider’, one of two circular snowfields reminiscent of their namesake on the Eiger. The hard labour never stopped and after a quick brew we set to work preparing our accommodation for the night. This involved Paul’s very own homemade snow hammock, an invention that when fastened to an anchor at either end can be filled with snow while a ledge is also cut to form a platform big enough to pitch a tent on. That’s quite an unexpected luxury on a 60° ice slope. But as we lay in the tent after dinner, content at having finished a day of good progress, Paul, who had his back to the slope, found himself forcefully pushed forward. A large amount of snow had fallen down the gap between the tent and the face. This was not good news.

I jumped from my sleeping bag, threw on my down jacket, boots, gloves and head torch and stepped outside. Unbeknownst to us, it had been snow- ing while we were in the tent. The face was too steep to be of any avalanche danger but streams of spindrift were cascading down and accumulating behind the tent, threatening to push it off its perch. We had to work constantly, one at either side, to dig out the snow before the next assault came. Wind-whipped snow, reflecting the beam of our torches inches from our faces, and the outline of the other were all we could make out for several hours. After struggling for a while, we realised this wasn’t sustainable. So we pulled the tent in towards the slope and the spindrift fell on its side, flattening it into the platform. Before long it was buried under a meter of snow but at least this way we wouldn’t lose it off the cliff. All we could do now was stand with our backs to the slope while intermittent torrents of snow poured down on us deep into the night. We turned our torches off, slipped into a trance state and embraced the grim position we found ourselves in: standing in a snow storm, strapped to the side of a mountain at 6,000m in the middle of the night.

Tim Miller and Paul Ramsden celebrate on the summit

After an immeasurable amount of time the volume of spindrift partially subsided and we became too cold. So we uncovered the tent, removed the poles and sat inside it like a double bivy bag. Whenever a shower of spindrift fell on us, we pressed our backs against the slope to stop it accumulating behind us and using our arms raised the tent fabric in front of us to help the snow slide off the tent. This prevented us being buried but also kept us busy all night.

Eventually, to our huge relief, the sky started to lighten and brought a bit of warmth with it. We packed up our kit and set off climbing for the day. Having had virtually no sleep our progress was noticeably slower. A couple of pitches got us across the white spider and then the ground started to drop away wildly to our left. Below us lay a huge 700m sweep of granite while our ramp continued across the top of it in a brilliantly exposed position. Then the good ice disappeared to be replaced with large amounts of unconsolidated snow on top of rock slabs. Once again I left my bag at the belay and led a pitch of Scottish-style tenuous mixed climbing up a groove that led to just below the second ‘white spider’. More hauling faff followed, made worse by our exhausted state. We had only climbed 150m higher but were in dire need of a rest. Who knew where the next possible bivy spot lay? Once again, the snow hammock saved the day and allowed us to pitch the tent. At one point we were given a scare when a flurry of spindrift came down; we thought we were about to have a repeat of the previous night but thankfully it was a one-off. That evening we were even treated to a glorious sunset but were so knackered we hardly appreciated it. We were asleep instantly despite our cold and cramped sleeping quarters.

Three very steep and looming pitches on the headwall lay between the final snow slopes and us. Paul started on these next morning; the ice was good and squeaky and the first two pitches proved to be very enjoyable. On the third, the ice thinned out, then disappeared as the groove system moved left around a protruding bulge of rock. Once again, this required bag-free climbing and all my Scottish winter experience of choss before I finally collapsed onto the bottom of the summit ice slopes. It was only 11am so we decided to press on and aim for a shoulder we had spotted just below the summit where we would be able to pitch the tent easily.

By now the altitude had truly caught up with us. Our pace reduced to a few steps before we were forced to stop for air. The ice required a frustrating amount of force before it took pick placements, sapping further our limited remaining energy. Then the sun burst from behind a cloud and, reflecting off the snow, started to boil us in all our layers. Each pitch was taking longer and longer. Even talking became a big effort so conversation was reduced to short, measured bursts squeezed between bouts heavy breathing. Then the sun set and our saturated gloves froze immediately around our hands as the temperature plummeted. We went from being cooked alive to being forced to warm our hands and swing our feet every few paces to keep them from frostbite.

The top of the slope was getting close and I led a pitch to the bottom of a small rock band. As I approached this, I realised it was an overhang with a perfect cave formed beneath with a lip of ice protecting it. I rolled into the cave and lay there panting for several minutes, utterly exhausted and extremely relieved we had found a suitable spot for the night. The cave was only a few feet high, and all our bulky jackets made it tricky to move around, but we managed to create a flat sleeping platform. Just as we were having dinner and laying our sleeping bags out, snow began to blow into the cave and circulate around, settling on our kit. This required an urgent reset to keep things as dry as possible. All this had to be done in bitter cold and simple jobs like opening packets and eating required gloves on. During the previous few days Paul had been developing an altitude cough and exacerbated by the extreme cold and elevation it now became alarmingly constant and rasping. He didn’t tell me till later, but at the time he was concerned it might develop into HAPE and we would have to go down immediately, missing the summit.

We then endured an extremely cold night trying to keep our numb digits from freezing. Waking in the morning, we wrapped ourselves in all the layers we had and stumbled out of the cave. Two pitches of easy snow brought us onto the shoulder and then up to the summit. Dazed by the morning sun and the desperate cold, we fumbled to take a few photos and absorb the view. Any emotions were largely suppressed by a stifling sense of exhaustion. We had summited an unclimbed and unnamed peak via an exceptional route over five days and 37 pitches.

The Phantom Line on Jugal Spire.

Retreating back to the shoulder, we put together a plan of descent. We had spotted an obvious couloir on the opposite side of the mountain that ran from a col 500m below the summit straight back to the glacier. All we had to do was abseil on V-threads down the ice slope and into the couloir yet even this was knackering for our tired bodies in the morning sun. We developed a routine making sure no mistakes were made at this late stage in the game. Once we were halfway down the couloir the angle eased enough to allow us to down-climb the rest of the way with a final abseil over the bergschrund and onto the glacier. What had taken five days to climb had taken five hours to descend.

By now the cloud had rolled in for the day and snow was starting to fall. Feeling utterly drained we stumbled across the glacier in the fog. The crampons I was wearing had steel front points and aluminium bases to save weight. On the climb they had been great, but now after days of being worn down I was forced to front-point backwards down any slightly steep decline. Despite this we made it back to our much-appreciated food stash where we decided to stop for the day since we needed the rest and crossing the moraine-covered glacier with an extra layer of snow on the boulders was too much to handle at that point. Finally able to relax, we felt the relief of being down safe and the satisfaction of our achievement began to wash over us. I wasn’t able to get to sleep for a while despite being warm and having a flat bed for the first time in several nights.

We woke to grey skies and with snow still covering the moraine the going was slow and our steps clumsy with fatigue. With a bit of guesswork we crossed the glacier in thick fog to the grassy moraine valley on the side of the glacier. Every so often, while we walked, we would whistle into the mist to tell base camp we were on the way, being a day late by this point. A few hundred metres from base camp our cook crew came out to greet us with an extremely welcome flask of hot juice, a KitKat and some cheese that provided the essential energy to stumble the rest of the way to camp. We threw our bags down and collapsed into our tent feeling weak but happy.

The next few days passed in a blur of eating the many brilliant meals provided by our cook and sleeping. Our thoughts drifted back to the climb and we simmered in satisfaction. The porters arrived a day later and we started the slow march home. On the first day of the walkout a hailstorm blew in that then turned to snow making the going hard work. Since descending the peak, Paul’s cough had continued and now with this added fatigue he suddenly collapsed. He picked himself back up and was able to walk to our camp for that night where he took antibiotics for a chest infection and over the following days his condition dramatically improved.

We spoke to several locals to ask if they had a name for the mountain that we had climbed, but none did, only referring to the whole group as Jugal Himal. So we settled on Jugal Spire. We then named the route The Phantom Line as we were never sure whether the line would have ice all the way and several big question marks lingered right up to the end. Was it there was it not? Did it exist as a climbable entity?

There were two essential ingredients that allowed this trip to be a success: the first, discovering such an amazing and improbable route on an immaculate, unclimbed face that leads to an unclimbed summit is extremely rare and very special. Finding these gems takes a lot of cunning and knowhow. The second ingredient was the tactical understanding that allows such big routes to be climbed safely and successfully: where to stop, how to bivy, how much food and kit to bring, when to pitch and so forth. Both these ingredients are Paul’s specialty and it is thanks to his experience in these areas that we were able to succeed. I can’t thank him enough for inviting me along on another of his brilliant adventures.

- Tim Miller


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Expedition Essentials for Women Explorers: Tips for Expeditions

In January this year, the Alpine Club, in partnership with the Mount Everest Foundation, the BMC and Montane, hosted ‘Expedition Essentials for Women Explorers’. This first-of-its-kind event, located at Plas y Brenin, was attended by 45 delegates alongside 20 speakers, organisers and sponsor representatives.

All of the obvious expedition information and skills were covered; with advice on destination selection, maps and communication devices, what to eat before and on the trip and greener travel options. Perhaps less obvious were the discussions on how to manage periods and personal hygiene and understanding how to deal with the effects of menopause. There were a series of workshops on how to manage the psychological aspects of being on an expedition, staying safe in remote areas, what to do in an emergency and how to plan a ski expedition.

One of the highlights of the weekend was Paul Ramsden’s session in which he shared his top tips for a hardcore (or not so hardcore) Himalayan expedition. In his talk, Paul managed to perfectly distill the key elements that help lead to happy and successful expeditions. These principles will be useful to anyone planning an expedition, regardless of gender, and are summarised below:

1. Make it about the journey.

You won’t always come away from an expedition with exactly what you planned, but you’ll come away much happier if you’ve spent time somewhere you wanted to visit and kept yourself open to options beyond your primary objective.


2. It’s as tough as you want to make it.

You don’t have to be pushing the limits of the possible to have an enjoyable and worthwhile expedition.


3. If you want to be ‘looked after’, then do so.

It’s about what you want to get out of an expedition and, if the harder elements of basecamp life aren’t something you’re excited for, go to the places where you can employ someone to take them off your hands, such as India or Nepal.


Paul on the way to the Summit of Nyainqentanglha South-East, Photo: Nick Bullock


4. If you can climb VDiff in the rain, navigate in bad weather and understand the basics of crevasse rescue, that is a better test of your capability on an expedition than climbing an E5.

Those bad weather days out in the UK hills often prove to be invaluable experiences, not just traumatic ones. Being able to climb hard in perfect conditions often proves less valuable than being able to get by in bad ones.


5. Choose your partner(s) carefully – trusting them, having a similar sense of humor and shared goals are all more important than being the best mountaineer.

Don’t ignore the personal/human elements. After all, you’ll be sharing a tent with your partner(s) for weeks at a time. Be aware of how situations of stress can affect yourself and your companions and know how to manage them.


6. Research well - Read expedition reports, find out what other people did, (and what they failed on), look at maps.

Journals, the Himalayan Index and report archives like the MEF’s have a wealth of information just waiting to be discovered. Often report writers go above and beyond, drawing their own maps and spotlighting areas where there are potential new routes. For less well-documented areas, Google Earth is brilliant!


Location Finding, Photo: Nick Bullock


7. Allow enough time. 3-4 weeks minimum - maybe more if your objective is over 6,000m.

Weather windows are fickle things. By going for longer, you increase your chances of finding one and you also build slack into the system in case of unexpected problems. Taking a few extra days to acclimatise is a lot less stressful if you have a week to spare and it will get you into better condition for a successful attempt.


8. Put the date in the diary 12-18 months ahead - get others to prepare for you being away.

A month away is a long time. The further in advance you can get things rolling, the less stressful things will be in the period immediately before you depart. Childcare, work and family responsibilities may all need to be handed over to others. This can be mentally and physically prepared for well ahead of departure.


9. Careful what you eat and drink on the way in.

No one wants to abandon an ascent because of an upset stomach, but it happens. Even if you don’t have to bail, sickness will still make the experience less enjoyable overall. Enjoy the local culinary experience on your way home.


10. Acclimatise carefully.

Take your time and you’ll be in better shape higher up. Paul thought ascending slowly and sleeping high, worked best.


Paul descending from Jugal Spire, Photo: Tim Miller


11. Plan your route.

Draw a topo for your intended line, mark on suitable camp or bivouac locations. Consider your descent. Pick objectively safe routes, always remembering that gullies & snow slopes are prone to avalanches and serac fall. Buttress routes are safest.


12. Take a small, lightweight tent.

The difference in weight is more than made up for by the added comfort you get compared to a bivvy bag.


13. If you’re planning a technical route, wear boots warmer than you think you might need. Your toes will thank you!


14. Don’t climb into the dark - stop at 3PM.

You need at least two hours of daylight to set up a camp, melt snow and cook your dinner. Not only does this help to avoid epics and accidents, but it gives you time to rest and recuperate properly in the evening, setting you up far better for the next day.


The vital hanging stove set up, Photo: Paul Ramsden


15. Buy and know how to use a hanging stove.

The weather may preclude cooking outside the tent, so a hanging stove is essential. Practice ahead of time! Pans are very easy to drop and you don’t want to get it wrong at 6,000m!


16. Think about taking a snow hammock if doing a long, steep route.

The many and varied benefits of a comfortable night’s sleep should not be underestimated! A snow hammock is a reliable way of making a decent sleeping platform where otherwise you’d be looking at a cold night sat on a bum-sized ledge.


A Freshly Stamped Snow Hammock Ledge, Photo: Tim Miller


17. Things will break.

Take repair tape with you and use it as needed. Green Betrafol / Rissan tape is a good choice.


Summary by Adéle Long


This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 Alpine Club Newsletter. The Newsletter is published three times a year and, alongside regular trip reports, cultural highlights and news about the Alpine Club, it also features articles on mountain medicine, environmental issues and mountaineering skills. Members receive print copies as part of their membership, but digital copies are also made available to the public via our website with a delay of one issue.




Everest Kangshung Face - First Ascent of the Neverest Buttress | Alpine Journal Extract

Everest Kangshung Face - First Ascent of the Neverest Buttress | Alpine Journal Extract

In 1988, a small team of climbers from America, Canada and the UK made the first ascent of a new route on Everest's Kangshung Face. In the process, Stephen Venables became the first Briton to summit the mountain without the aid of supplemental Oxygen. In a piece for the Alpine Journal, he detailed the ascent. What becomes clear from Stephen's prose is the incredible allure that the adventurous nature of this expedition held for him: to visit the Kama Valley, to set foot on this incredible face and to be a key cog in such a small, interdependent team. What also shines through are the friendships he formed with his compatriots, men who he had not met prior to the expedition but with whom he became lifelong friends. 

The original piece is reproduced below to mark 35 years since the day that Stephen reached the summit.

At 6.30pm on Tuesday, 10 May 1988, Robert Anderson, Paul Teare, Ed Webster and I broke through a cornice at the top of the Kangshung face and stepped out on to the world's most desolate mountain pass. We were the first people ever to reach the South Col from Tibet. Two days later I stood on the summit of Everest. Seven days later - after a protracted, harrowing retreat which nearly cost us our lives - we were all safely down at Advanced Base on the Kangshung glacier.

Everest - Kangshung face 1988. Paul Teare climbing fixed ropes on the lower buttress.

If we had died on Everest, we would perhaps have been dismissed as irresponsible fools but, because we returned, both the public and the mountaineering world have been indulgent, brushing aside uncomfortable questions about some of the risks we took in their eagerness to praise. People like success and ours was a dramatic success. We made the second ascent of the notorious Kangshung face, by a completely new route, starting with some of the most sensational technical climbing ever achieved on the mountain. Our four­ man team, climbing without any support and without supplementary oxygen, was the smallest ever to achieve a new route on Everest, and I was the first Briton to reach the summit without oxygen.

The genesis of 'Everest 88' was haphazard. In 1985 an American climber, Robert Anderson, spent eight days above 8,000m on the West Ridge Direct, eventually being forced to retreat only 250m from the summit. He applied almost immediately for another attempt on Everest; the first available permit was for the Kangshung face in the spring of 1988. The W ridge attempt had been a huge overstaffed shambles, but this time Robert would be leader and the team would be small. He invited two of his companions from 1985, Ed Webster and Jay Smith, who recommended the Canadian Paul Teare. Then he employed Wendy Davis in New York to raise the money. The expedition became the '35th Anniversary Assault', with Peter Hillary also invited on the climbing team and Tenzing Norgay's son, Norbu, on the support team. The leader of the 1953 expedition, Lord Hunt, agreed to be 'honorary leader' of this anniversary attempt, on condition that a British climber was invited to join what was essentially an American venture. And so in the autumn of 1987, quite out of the blue, I was asked to join the team.

I felt honoured, flattered and very grateful to John Hunt, but I had to think hard before accepting. The only previous ascent of the E face of Everest, in 1983, had been the work of a large team using sophisticated ropework, complete with motorized winches, to tame a gigantic rock-buttress and gain access to the central glaciated spur. Robert proposed tackling the face with half the number of climbers, by a route further left which, although shorter and therefore more feasible, was possibly more threatened by the notorious Kangshung avalanches. If his plan worked and we did reach the South Col, there would be no possibility of carrying up oxygen for the remaining 850m to the summit. The risks of oxygenless climbing had been graphically illustrated on K2 in 1986 and, of the 20 people who had so far climbed Everest without oxygen, four had not returned.

Several leading American climbers, including John Roskelley, declined invitations. Jay Smith dropped out. Peter Hillary decided not to come after all. That left just four climbers - Robert, Paul, Ed and myself - for now, by Christmas, I had decided to accept. A visit to Tibet's Kama valley, the beautiful approach to the Kangshung face, was an opportunity not to be missed. And if we did actually set foot on the face...it was the biggest and most spectacular on the mountain, and it would be an interesting problem. With just four of us there would be no redundancy, for each person would be fully stretched, sharing equally in the drudgery of load-carrying and the excitement of leading. It had to be worth a try.

My hunch that this improbable expedition had a chance of working was reinforced in January 1988, when I met Robert and some of the support team in New York. Six weeks later I met the other two climbers, Ed Webster and Paul Teare, in Kathmandu. Now we were on our way to the mountain and, in the best tradition of the pre-war expeditions, it was to be a gentle leisurely approach. Instead of the usual modern rush, we had time to enjoy radiant mornings at the Swoyumbunath temple and to bicycle out to Bakhtepur, time to wait two days at the Chinese border without fretting, time at Xegar to climb up a 5,000m hill and contemplate the great snow-plume streaming from the summit of Everest.

The walk-in from the roadhead at Kharta, which was supposed to take four days, took 23, because heavy snowfalls reinforced the Tibetan porters' traditional antipathy to the work ethic. But again, this gave us the chance to get to know each other, to unwind and acclimatize. Four times we broke trail up to the 5,500m Langma La, and on every occasion the light was different as we enjoyed one of the finest mountain views in the world - Chomolonzo, Makalu, Pethangtse, Lhotse and Everest, encircling the meadows and glaciers of the Kama valley.

When we did eventually reach Base Camp on 29 March, we must have been one of the best-prepared teams ever to attempt the mountain. We were perfectly acclimatized and reasonably fit; but, more important, we were mentally prepared. There was a calmness and confidence which no amount of 'training' at home could have achieved. And now we knew each other, appreciating our complementary qualities. Paul, like me, was no great rock­ climber - more an all-round mountaineer, with a streak of impatience. Our tastes and personalities were very different, but I and everyone else found him warm-hearted and funny, and it was mainly his banter which had kept the porters sweet during the approach. Ed was quieter, more contemplative, slower, perhaps more sensitive to the risks; but he had enormous reserves of strength and experience and was certainly the most talented climber on the team - our chief technician. Robert, as chairman, made the right decision to keep us swapping partners - avoiding a destructive 'A Team'/'B Team' mentality - and as instigator of the whole mad project he maintained an insuppressible optimism that inspired us all.

We made an efficient four-man climbing team, but we needed relief from each other at Base Camp. Mimi Zieman, our doctor, Joe Blackburn, the photographer, Pasang Nurbu, the cook (whose first Everest expedition had been under Angtharkay in 1962) and Kasang Tsering, his young assistant from Kharta, brought our numbers up to eight. Without their company it would have been a much duller expedition, and I doubt whether we could have climbed the mountain. Our only disappointment was that the additional support team never reached Base Camp because of the delayed approach. Wendy Davis, helped by Miklos Pinther of the United Nations and Sandy Wylie from New Zealand, had secured sponsorship from American Express, Burroughs Wellcome, Kiehl Cosmetics, Lindblad Travel, Kodak, Petroconsultants, Rolex and the Weaver Coat Company, thus making the expedition possible. Robert Dorival had done a superb job in organizing the food. Norbu Tenzing had organized all the travel, and it was a great shame that he never saw the E face of the mountain about which he had heard so much from his father.

Base Camp was at about 5,000m in a grassy ablation valley on the north bank of the Kangshung glacier. We kept on 20 porters to do one carry to Advanced Base so that we could install ourselves immediately, at 5,450m, ready to start work on 3 April.

Robert offered me first lead, so that on my very first day's climbing on Everest I found myself exploring interesting ground - in this case an 80m wall of banded granite and quartzite, smeared with enough ice to make it interesting­ probably Scottish Grade 4. We fixed nearly 400m of rope that day, and during the following five days we continued to make steady progress up the initial buttress. I tend to succumb too readily to superlatives, but I really think that those six days were amongst the best I have ever spent in the mountains. Contrary to popular myth, an Everest expedition can be enormous fun. The actual climbing - technical, varied and demanding- would have been a delight anywhere; but it was the surroundings - la grande ambience, as the French guidebooks would have it- that made it so special. Our buttress projected from the back of a huge amphitheatre, with the unclimbed 3,000m NE face of Lhotse on one side and the Americans' 1983 buttress on the right. It was a fantastic world of huge striated rock-walls, exquisitely fragile snow-flutings and improbable ice-towers, which soon acquired names like Big Al, the Greyhound Bus, the Gargoyle and the Cauliflower Towers, prompted by familiarity tinged with fear. Sections of the route, particularly the great seracs of the Cauliflower Ridge, were a little dubious, but certainly no more dangerous than the Khumbu ice-fall in an average year.

Everest Kangshung face. Ed Webster on the easy middle section starting for Camp II on 9 May.
The spectacular 1983 buttress rises out of the clouds.
Khartse, climbed by Mallory in 1921, is the obvious pyramid on the left horizon.

On Day 5 Ed climbed the gently overhanging ice of Webster's Wall at 6,400m, and we thought that we had almost cracked the buttress. However, the next day we were stopped dead by a huge crevasse spanning the entire slope, so we all retired to Base Camp, very conscious that we were due for a rest. Sieging a big route with only four climbers is hard work. During this and later weeks on the mountain we often spent three days in succession leading and load-carrying and they were long days, with perhaps 12 hours spent on the route. In 1975, at the same altitude in the Khumbu ice-fall, the SW face sahibs tended to work only on alternate days, saving themselves for higher up. With our heavier work-load we had to be extremely careful to pace ourselves, so we now spent three days at Base Camp doing some serious eating.

The second phase on the mountain was much slower, hampered by bad weather. While Paul and I ferried loads up to Camp 1 on the Cauliflower Ridge, the other two slept there for three nights and dealt with the crevasse, abseiling into it so that Ed could aid his way on ice-screws up the 30m overhanging wall on the far side. It took another day to fix ropes across the gap, then Paul and I had a turn in front, marvelling at the Tyrolean over the Jaws of Doom, then stomping up deep snow above and fixing a final 100m length of rope through a dangerous jumble of seracs. Now we had finally broken through the lower lip of the hanging glacier and reached the easy undulations of the upper snow-slopes. At 6,650m we had cracked the technical-crux of the route and the way was open to the South Col.

The weather, however, was not good and every day the upper face was becoming more dangerously laden with new snow. So once again we retreated to Base Camp, where we waited a week before returning to the mountain.

There are many attractive reasons for going on expeditions. One is the opportunity during rest periods for unlimited sleep; another is the chance to get some uninterrupted reading done, usually on subjects that have nothing whatsoever to do with mountains. However, on this occasion we did have a small climbing library of Bill Murray's Story of Everest, Audrey Salkeld's Mallory book and White Limbo, the account of the 1984 Australian expedition. During the days of watching and waiting we were all acutely aware of our predecessors, particularly E H Norton and his solo push to 8,600m in 1924. Surely, if he, Wager, Smythe and Wyn-Harris could get that high in the 1920s and 1930s without oxygen - surely we, with our vastly improved climbing gear and clothing, could reach a little higher now? But, of course, far more important than equipment was the huge psychological advantage of knowing that what Messner and Habeler had done 10 years earlier had been repeated by others.

The Australians' 1984 ascent of the N face without oxygen was the greatest inspiration because they, like all of us except Robert, had never been to 8,000m before Everest. Also like us, they were a small team climbing a new route. Ours started lower, with much harder climbing, but theirs finished with Norton's insecure traverse out of the Great Couloir, whereas we would complete our ascent by the easier SE ridge. We were now approaching optimum fitness and acclimatization and wanted to make the big push before we started to deteriorate. Our original plan had been to complete the route to the South Col, leave a cache there and descend to rest before the final push. Now, however, we changed that plan - partly because of delays, partly because of the precedents on the N face. In 1984 the Australians only went once to about 7,000m before leaving on the final push. Messner, during his 1980 solo, and Troillet and Loretan in 1986, barely went higher than 6,500m before dashing for the summit. The message was clear: get really fit and acclimatized between 6,000 and 7,000m, but don't waste energy burning yourself out at 8,000m before the final push - particularly if, like all of us in 1988, you have no fat reserves. So the plan now was to reconnoitre only as far as Camp 2 - 7,450m- and never to sleep above Camp I until the summit push.

Everest Kangshung face. The 1983 buttress is at extreme R. The 1988 buttress is L of the huge central
depression (Big Al Gully) and rises to the South Col.

Everest Kangshung face. Venables, Teare and Anderson leaving Camp II for the South Col on 10 May. Peak 38 is on the extreme R.
In the centre is the skyline of Chomolonzo (L), Makalu II and Makalu.

It was a tense time with all these calculations, hopes and fears going through our minds, even on the beautiful day when Ed, Joe and I walked up towards Khartse, the snow pyramid which Mallory had called the loveliest peak in the world. It would have been fun to have taken Mimi and Joe climbing on some of the lower snow peaks, and to explore further in such magnificent walking country; but, like Mallory, we were compelled to concentrate on the job in hand. Everest, like no other mountain, is a place of history and tradition, and we had a chance to take our place in that tradition. It was very poignant to watch the evening clouds, backlit by great shafts of setting sunlight, swirling around the NE ridge, and to think of Mallory, Boardman and Tasker, and to ponder the problems of ambition. By all accounts, Mallory wanted desperately to finish the job in 1924 so that he would not have to come back again. Boardman and Tasker seem to have been similarly driven in 1982, as were Julie Tullis and Alan Rouse in 1986, on K2.

The third phase started on 28 April, when we returned to Advanced Base. The weather was now much better as Ed and I did two carries to Camp 1, while Robert and Paul started to break trail towards Camp 2. On 1 May all four of us carried loads to the Flying Wing - a huge roof of ice at 7,450m which would provide total protection for Camp 2. This middle part of the Kangshung face, once one has surmounted the spectacular lower cliffs, lies back at a gentle angle - meandering hanging glacier terrain, similar to but less steep than the Lhotse face on the normal route. We had always been concerned about avalanche danger. Judging Himalayan snow-slopes is an extremely inexact science, but these particular slopes did seem quite safe, and we picked a careful route through the hummocks and crevasses, avoiding steep undercut slopes and staying close to the crest of the spur, well clear of the giant avalanche gullies on either side.

It took 11 hours to reach Camp 2, marking the route with wands. On the final stretch I slowed to two steps at a time, with three breaths per step, but I was pleased to discover that I had no headache when we reached the haven of the Wing. We left the supplies for Camp 2 there, then slid back down to Camp I in 1½ hours. Everything was now in place for the summit attempt, but we were frustrated for another week by changing weather before we could finally leave Advanced Base at 4am on 8 May.

The journey to the South Col was long and slow. On 8 May we rested, ate and drank at Camp 1, enjoying the familiar view down to the valley to Chomolonzo. On 9 May it took 14 hours to break a new trail to Camp 2. It snowed most of that day, but the 10th dawned clear; we left at 8am, carrying tents, stoves, gas, food and all our personal gear, and leaving just three gas cylinders and some scraps of food for the descent. In spite of the 20kg load on my back I was enjoying myself, feeling incredibly lucky to be up here on this beautiful morning, completing our new route on the E face of Everest. However, as the day wore on and it began to snow again, elation gave way to resigned drudgery, and in the end it took us 11 hours to reach the South Col.

The Kangshung face from the Langma La. A big plume blows from Lhotse on the L. Everest is on the R, with the 1988 route partially visible,
rising to the South Col in the centre.

We emerged into a blasting wind which continued all night, shaking and battering our tents, pressing the icy fabric against our faces and intensifying breathless claustrophobia. Pasang, who had been here in 1969, had advised us to rest only briefly at the Col before pressing on to the summit. But our plan was starting to disintegrate. Even though we had deliberately placed Camp 2 only 550m below the Col, it had taken us 11 exhausting hours to cover that final stage. We were too tired, and in any case the wind was too strong on 11 May for us to continue to the summit.

Paul was ill that morning, possibly developing oedema, and the only choice for him was to descend immediately. We uneasily accepted his decision to go down alone and he set off, bitterly disappointed, for Advanced Base, which he reached in just seven hours. That left three of us waiting and hoping at 8,000m, eating some food, drinking lots of liquid and discovering that, contrary to received wisdom, it was possible to recuperate slightly at this altitude. By the evening, when the wind miraculously dropped, I felt much stronger.

We left the South Col at 11pm on 11 May, each carrying just one long ice axe, one prusik loop, camera, spare mittens, bar of chocolate and a litre of Rehydrate juice. Our only hope of completing the remaining 850m was to travel light like this, and we hoped to be on the summit, taking lovely photographs in the early light, by about 11 the next morning.

But at 11am on 12 May I was still below the South Summit. Robert and Ed were lower still and I was beginning seriously to doubt whether I was capable of reaching the top. However, after an hour's rest I decided to give it a try. One of the biggest problems, after four nights with little or no sleep, was staying awake, so I took two caffeine pills. They seemed to help and with a new determination I continued to the South Summit, reaching it at 1.30pm. Once again, in spite of chronic exhaustion, I was swept along by emotion and instinct, thrilled to be up there, looking down, down to the Western Cwm and Pumori, and across to the W ridge and the big traverse on the SW face and, just ahead of me, the final narrow crest of the SE ridge leading across to the Hillary Step. I continued, confident that I could reach the summit, turn round by 4pm and return to the South Col before darkness fell at 7pm.

For a while my instincts were correct. I found myself enjoying the rock scrambling beyond the South Summit. The Hillary Step sported the expected fixed ropes and I was able to safeguard myself with a Bachman Knot. Then, on the final 300m or so to the summit, I was thrilled to find the snow firmly crusted and at last, after all the hours of trail-breaking on loose slabby snow, I could walk on the surface, keeping well to the left of the big cornices and stopping every three or four steps to rest and cough, telling myself that it really was time to give up smoking. At 3.40pm, just ahead of my revised schedule, I stepped on to the crest of the W ridge, turned right and took the remaining three or four steps to the summit. Three empty oxygen cylinders left by the Asian Friendship Expedition on 5 May were adorned with prayer flags, the letters 'CNJ' for China-Nepal-Japan and some remains of television transmission equipment.

So far instinct had served me well, but when I started down at 3.50pm the clouds, which had been building up steadily, enveloped the summit ridge completely. Suddenly I was struggling for my life, terrified of re-enacting Mick Burke's sad fate in 1975, as my glasses froze over and I groped my way through the mist, collapsing several times from oxygen deficit, hyperventilating furiously to refill my lungs. I had always suspected that the problem would not be climbing Everest without oxygen, but getting down again, and now for the first time in my life I was having to draw on a whole new reserve of will and strength. I had grossly underestimated my level of exhaustion and the problems of orientation in the mist, so that when darkness fell I had still only just crossed back over the South Summit. Our tents on the South Col were far below and, even with my head-torch, I could not find the correct route.

The only safe thing to do was what we had tried so hard to avoid by leaving the South Col so early - settle down for a long lonely bivouac in the open at about 8,600m. Luckily the afternoon storm had blown over and it was a fine night and, like most of the people who have spent a night out hereabouts, I survived.

At about 3.30 that afternoon Ed had reached the South Summit, frightened by hallucinations and the possibility of blacking out and, like me, very conscious of Mick Burke's fate. He had wisely decided to turn back, soon passing Robert, who later also reached the South Summit before retreating. The two of them had descended as far as an abandoned Japanese tent in the big couloir, where they spent the night sheltering without sleeping bags. In spite of the numbing effects of cold and hypoxia on my dulled brain, I felt incredibly moved when I rejoined them early the next morning and the three of us tied symbolically to one rope to descend the remaining 300m to the South Col.

After all that trail-breaking up the E face, all those sleepless nights, the ridiculously slow 16½-hour ascent to the summit and now another sleepless night, we were exhausted. We knew perfectly well that we should descend immediately, but we were so desperate to lie down, drink and sleep that we stayed another day and night at our Camp 3. On 14 May lethargy started to take over and when we finally left at 3.45pm we had been 93 hours above 8,000m. We had broken the rules and we were to continue to break them - allowing heat, hunger and thirst to reinforce our lethargy as we delayed feebly, wasting another whole day at the Flying Wing, so that when we started down from 7,450m on 16 May, we knew that this was our final chance to escape alive.

Lying in the snow on that final morning, taking one hour to find the strength to stand up, I thought with detachment that this was how they must have felt on the shoulder of K2 in 1986, and we did not even have the excuse of a major storm. We were luckier and we all returned safely, despite many questionable decisions - agreeing to Paul's solo descent, climbing unroped to the summit, allowing lethargy to get the better of us; delaying dangerously, fooling ourselves that it was a good idea to descend unroped so that we could glissade more easily, leaving Robert behind on the fixed ropes on the final night of the descent...However, in our defence I have to point out that, although we ate virtually no food for four days, we still had spare gas for melting snow at the Flying Wing and further reserves and tents at Camp 1. Tackling such a big problem with such a small team obviously has its risks, but we all knew what we were letting ourselves in for. Although people on the Nepalese side saw us above the South Col, we never saw them and we never seriously considered the possibility of outside help, preferring to rely on our own prepared line of retreat down the E face. Our descent to 6,650m was marked, albeit sketchily, with wands and below that we had a safety line of meticulously fixed ropes. It took a whole night excavating and abseiling those final 1,600m of descent, but it was rewarding to discover that one did still have the instinct and control to cope safely with all the changeovers at anchors.

We were too weak to help each other physically, yet I am convinced that during that harrowing retreat we were spurred on by an extraordinary, intangible bond. Afterwards all three of us admitted independently to a strong sensation that Paul had also been on the mountain, and I think that each of us, in his private struggle, was sustained by the close team-spirit that had made the whole climb possible. Down at Advanced Base Paul, Joe, Mimi, Pasang and Kasang took over, nursing us back to some semblance of health for the return to Kharta. Robert eventually lost half a big toe from frostbite. I lost 3½ toes. Ed lost parts of three toes and eight fingers. Many people would say that Ed paid too high a price. I cannot answer for him - only report the courage and humour he has shown throughout the trauma of operations, without the sustaining bonus of those final 80m to the main summit of the mountain. I was luckier and, although I am saddened by the loss of toes, it seems a price worth paying for an incomparable adventure with people who will always remain good friends.

Addendum (2023)

On May 12th this year I shall miss my customary Summit Day call from Ed Webster.  As you may know, he died suddenly and unexpectedly last November, aged just 66.  He was full of plans and had just embarked on his long envisaged biography of Fritz Wiessner. Ed’s climbing friend from early pioneering days in New Hampshire, Henry Barber, has set up a memorial fund with two purposes: to help support Ed’s daughter Joyelle through college and to preserve and make publicly available Ed’s unique archive, which includes not only Ed’s own superlative photos, but also a treasure trove of historical photos, maps, books and correspondence.

You can donate here.

 Ed diarising on Everest, 1988. Photo: Stephen Venables



Why Do Mountain Rescues Occur?

A recent Swiss study looked at the reasons behind the many rescues that take place every year in the Alps. Jeremy Windsor lays out the key findings and what they tell us about safety in the mountains.


A man in red uniform stands on a snowy summit, waving in a recue helicopter.Photo: Kevin Schmid

In the 12 years between 2009 and 2020, the Swiss Alpine Club Registry documented a total of 4,687 high altitude emergencies that required a rescue. Given that the vast majority took place in the months of July and August, that averaged out at no fewer than 7 emergencies per day.

What do you think was the commonest reason for a rescue? Injury? Illness? It was neither. The most common cause of a high altitude emergency was being stranded - 42% of those who contacted the Swiss mountain rescue services between 2009 and 2020 were unable to reach a place of safety and, as a result, requested help.

Were they injured or ill? No, the vast majority were unharmed. The most common reason for getting stranded was exhaustion (60%). In a small number of cases, the weather made a contribution, with fresh snow, thunderstorms and fog all being mentioned in reports.

More than half (55%) of those stranded were located on mountains over 4,000m. The two most common peaks were the Matterhorn (21%) and Piz Bernina (13%).

The second most common reason for contacting the Swiss mountain rescue services was following a fall (29%). However it's not clear from the study what injuries were sustained. High altitude emergencies were also triggered by rockslide (6%), crevasse (4%) and avalanche (1%). Unfortunately, the exact pattern of injury was not available for these groups either.

Illness accounted for 8% of high altitude emergencies. Whilst details of the exact nature of these illnesses were sparse, earlier research suggests that a number of different conditions would have likely been responsible. These would include - high altitude illness, acute infection and exacerbations of chronic disease. 

Photo: Marco Meyer

What should we make of these results? The author of the study, Benedikt Gasser, argues that they need to be seen in a wider context. In the years before the Covid pandemic, the number of people visiting the Swiss Alps had been increasing. However, high altitude emergencies increased at a slower rate than the increase in visitors. During the same time, the number of deaths had fallen. Seen together, the author strikes a note of optimism, suggesting that the proportion of mountaineers who get stranded or die in the Swiss Alps is actually falling. This may be true, but from the results it’s also clear that there are a significant number of mountaineers out there who are choosing routes that are not appropriate for their levels of fitness, skill or experience. As a result, they're becoming stranded at high altitude and placing themselves and members of the rescue services at considerable risk. It’s also important to note that while the proportion of climbers requiring a rescue may be falling, in absolute numbers callouts are increasing, meaning more risk for rescuers.

Here’s John Ellerton, AC member and President of the International Commission for Alpine Rescue (ICAR) with the final word:

At a forensic level, the Swiss Alpine Club Registry has some limitations - colleagues that work in the system acknowledge that this is not a full picture of mountaineering accidents in the Alps. However, this does not detract from the large numbers of ’stranded’, ‘crag fast’, ‘lost’ or ‘exhausted’ clients that impact upon organised mountain rescue teams in many parts of the world. Ask Keswick and Wasdale MRT’s about Scafell Pike and the ‘3 Peaks Challenge’! It would be interesting if evidence from 'honey pots' could show that 'stranded' is a new or increasing problem fuelled by a reduction in the experience, skills or resilience of clientele rather than an increase in the absolute number of participants. 

In the UK, regional reports show that the categories  ‘lost/disorientated, missing or reports of shouts’ account for 22% of incidents with a further 8% being triggered by those who are ‘benighted or crag fast’. Certainly, an increase in rescue requests in some areas is something that organisations are trying to address. For example, Adventure Smart in the UK gives out simple messages with the aim of reducing the number of avoidable callouts.  In addition, modern technology is increasingly used to guide the ‘stranded’ down without deploying a rescue team to the hill."



Jeremy Windsor is a healthcare professional, AC member and part of the team behind the Mountain Medeicine Blog.




'A Line Above the Sky' | Review

'A Line Above the Sky' | Review

Joint winner of the 2022 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and Grand Prize winner in the 2023 Banff Mountain Book Competition, 'A Line Above the Sky' by Helen Mort is an exploration of mountains and motherhood, entwining Mort's own experiences with the tragic story of British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves. It is also, as Terry Gifford discovers in this review from the 2022 Alpine Journal (on sale now via Cordee), an unsparing work that is unafraid to take risks with its subject matter.

A Line Above the Sky

Helen Mort

Ebury Press, 2022, 268pp, £17


Remember Messner’s definition of mountaineering? ‘If no risk has been taken, no climbing has taken place.’ Remember Robert Burton on danger and what he calls ‘a bitter jest’ in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)? ‘A bitter jest, a slander, a calumny, pierceth deeper than any loss, danger, bodily pain or injury whatsoever’. Helen Mort is the victim of at least two ‘bitter jests’, but she is also a risk taker. Halfway through this reflective memoir she catches herself ‘taking liberties with a story that isn’t mine to tell [...] I have no right to narrate this, embellish it, just as I have no right to delve into Alison Hargreaves’s innermost life.’ In this book Mort is intimate and unsparing in examining her experience of pregnancy, giving birth and the first years of motherhood as a climber and fell runner fascinated by the experience of Alison Hargreaves who sits on her shoulder throughout as her ‘ghost companion’. It is a risky writing project. We know that Alison’s story, and that of her son Tom, did not end well. But Mort is up for the challenge: ‘If there is no risk in my writing, no fear, there is no pleasure. I have to make myself feel uncomfortable, take chances in the way a mountaineer does, calculating and recalculating, pitching their frail body against the wind. In risk, we feel most alive.’

There have been other books by women on climbing, the outdoors and motherhood, perhaps most notably Lilace Mellin Guignard’s When Everything Beyond the Walls is Wild (2019), but none so frank, so visceral and so layered in meanings. Teased at school as a 10 year old for being fat – the first bitter jest – Mort turned herself into an athlete. ‘All my life I’d wanted to be a line,’ she writes, giving the book’s title one of its meanings. The others are in a life as a writer of lines, a climber, a runner and ‘underlining the desires of others’. ‘Then there is the line of the pregnancy test’ and the renunciation of lines, together with individuality. With her pink-cropped hair, Mort is uneasy at first in joining NCT classes with the other expectant mums: ‘I did not feel like a mother. I barely felt like a woman.’ But after their babies were born they ‘began to know each other as women as well as mothers.’ She writes: ‘Together, we formed a shield.’ The result of this new-found female kinship is a desire, when Alfie is a year old, to climb with a woman, something Mort had barely done before. The return to leading on Stanage with Anna Fleming as the only women climbing together that day is a reminder of how pioneering this can still feel at a personal level, for all our assumptions about progress.

Of course, the Alison Hargreaves narrative inevitably leads towards the death of her son, Tom and here the parallel ‘ghosting’ story might get uncomfortable. Mort recounts watching reports of Tom’s disappearance and search efforts hourly through the night whilst breastfeeding three-month-old Alfie. Her emotional investment is clear. Later, while Alfie is safe at pre-school, there is a knock at the door. ‘I could not shake the instinct that something must have happened to him.’ In fact, it is an acquaintance calling to warn her that her face has been superimposed on a body on a porn site – the second bitter jest and the ultimate crossing of the line of her own body. In writing about this Mort ‘takes back control.’ Women, she says, have always been judged by the world by more than their subjective selves, as in the duality of mother-climber in Alison Hargreaves’ case. Mort’s conclusion to this book is to reflect upon the multiple roles of the women who came before her, her present friends and, as poet and novelist, her fictional characters: ‘If women are always to be doubled, surveyor and surveyed, then let us be multiple. Let us stand so close that we seem to merge together, the dead and the living, the real and the fictional.’

In the final lines of the book Mort sees, with her eyes closed, a mother and son climbing on Stanage in the winter sun. A male reviewer might be forgiven for seeing, with his eyes closed, other lines above the sky, yet to be written. But that would not diminish his appreciation of this extraordinary revelation of what is also ordinary. The book belies its teasing assertion that to find meaning in climbing is to find meaning in life. Clearly it is not true for Mort to say that, ‘You love it precisely because it means nothing.’ Any reader will come away from this book profoundly enriched by the knowledge of why the opposite is the case.