By Matthew Dieumegard-Thornton
In November 2011, I climbed Mera Peak (6,746m) and Baruntse (7,129m) in Nepal in preparation for an attempt to summit Everest in 2012.
The expedition began in earnest at Lukla, home to what is dubbed the most dangerous airport on the planet. From there, we took a 17-day acclimatisation trek through some of the world’s most beautiful scenery, including the highest mountains in the world.
In our group there were ten climbers, two British guides and 42 porters and Sherpas. Everyone bonded well as a team during the trek, which was a crucial element in being successful once high in the mountains.
Arriving at Mera Peak base camp, at 5,400m, was the first time I felt the debilitating effects of altitude. Everything becomes ten times harder and simple tasks, such as getting into a tent or putting a pair of boots on, are mammoth chores. Sleep was perhaps the only relief from the lack of oxygen, but even that was hard to come by.
The views from base camp were stunning. It was the first time on the expedition that we had slept above the continual snow line and regardless of the apprehension of what lay ahead, it was a relief to have finally put on the crampons and made those first steps up the mountain.
The next day, however, was the climb to Mera Peak high camp, at 5,750m, and here, the effects of altitude were magnified. The ascent went strangely well, despite being a just a plodding speed. We were only a few hours above base camp, but the higher ground gave us our first view of Everest.
The vistas were awe-inspiring. High camp was situated above a vertical drop on one side, which gave a magnificent panorama towards the direction of Baruntse, and the highest mountains in the world.
On summit day, we woke at 3am, but I hadn’t slept well with three people crammed in a tent, and bulky down gear and sleeping bags taking up the rest of the room. The outside temperatures were about -15C and, buffeted by a bitter wind, we started the climb at 4am.
Head torches shining, we headed off into the darkness. I was roped to other climbers in the group, but the constant climbing sent me into my own personal realm, where I felt truly alone in the cold and dark world, just staring down at my feet.
The route was well-defined in the snow, but it was deceptively narrow. At one point, in the darkness, I stepped off the side and sank up to my waist in deep snow. Totally depleted by the altitude, I was barely able to lift myself out.
Climbing at high pace was still not sufficient to warm up, and my fingers started to freeze, eventually resulting in minor frostnip. My hands recovered enough once I had changed to a warmer pair of mitts and after about four hours of utterly exhausting climbing, we reached a final steep climb up fixed ropes that led to the summit.
I summitted some time between 8.30am and 9am, and took in spectacular views of Everest, Makalu, Ama Dablam, Chamalang and Kangchenjunga. It was total elation.
After descending, we trekked for two days before reaching Baruntse base camp, at 5,450m, where we had our first rest day after a punishing 17 days.
Having decided we were all well-acclimatised after the ascent of Mera Peak, we opted for an upwards itinerary on Baruntse, which meant that once we had left base camp, we would not return until we had made our attempt on the summit.
The first day of our summit bid was climbing to camp one, and this was my worst day of the whole expedition. We had heavy loads and hauling at high altitude is truly exhausting and debilitating work. After an epic effort on the fixed ropes at around 6,000m in the dark, I finally made it to camp at 7pm.
After a rest day, we climbed up again, to camp two, and this time things were much better, as a slow but steady pace helped me gradually make progress. Camp two is situated at about 6,400m, roughly the same height as the summit of Mera Peak. At this height, things happen extremely slowly, as you try to preserve what little energy you have, as well as being inextricably limited by the altitude.
On summit day we woke at about 1am. The outside temperature was in the region of -25C to -30C, and at this altitude it took an hour to get ready into down jackets and high-altitude boots.
The wind was biting and every step was exhausting. On average, I was taking between three and five breaths per step at the early stages of the summit attempt.
The ground was painfully steep and fixed ropes were used to cross multiple crevasses and the main crux of the route, a 20m ice step.
After about six hours of effort, I made it onto a long and committing summit ridge, with 5,000ft drops either side. The scenery was stunning, but I could hardly take the view in since I was so hypoxic.
On the final summit slope, where I often fell to my knees under sheer exhaustion, I was counting ten breaths per step, and probably taking more. After nine hours of climbing, however, I finally reached the top of Baruntse, at about 11am.
On the summit, there was only around 40 per cent of the oxygen normally found at sea level. The mountains that surrounded us were the highest mountains on Earth and the 20 minutes we spent on top of the mountain will live with us forever.
Sadly, we had little chance to bask in the success of the climb, as getting home proved far harder than we first imagined however.
After descending Baruntse, crossing the stunning Amphu Lapcha Pass and making our way back to Lukla, the weather took a turn for the worse and we became stranded there for three days, only escaping by walking down to a lower village and taking a $900 helicopter back to Kathmandu.
I later completed the journey back to England – and that was it, the expedition was finally over. An unforgettable 35 days after leaving, I was back home; ten fingers, ten toes.
It was an experience of a lifetime, which I will simply never forget.
* The climb was promoting the awareness of the charity Global Angels, and the organisation Climate Unchange.
To read more about Matthew’s expedition, visit http://blog.matthewdthornton.com/2011/12/baruntse-mera-peak-expedition-2011-part.html