Last year, Leslie Binns abandoned his Mount Everest climb near the summit to save a fellow mountaineer. Now the Yorkshireman is returning to finish what he started.
By the time you read this I will already be on my way to the Himalayas. For the second time I will have left my fiancé and young daughter at home and will be attempting to conquer Everest.
Why? Well, the first time I came so close and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering about what could have been.
I think a lot about the events of last year. Having been blinded in one eye when an IED (improvised explosive device) exploded during a tour of Afghanistan seven years earlier, I had been working as a private security consultant in Iraq with an old Army friend of mine and once I heard I was accepted to attempt to climb Everest, I flew out to Qatar then on to Kathmandu and finally on to Lukla.
As we made our final landing at ‘the world’s most dangerous airport’ it was only then that I realised these mountains were on a truly monumental scale. I was a little daunted, but excited.
The initial acclimatisation climbs were beautiful, challenging and unforgettable. Like the day I made my first ladder crossing above a crevasse which was over 300ft deep. I was a third of the way across when a Sherpa coming towards me picked up the rope without warning. I slipped.
For a few seconds, I thought that was it. My heart nearly shot up through my mouth and the adrenalin was pumping hard. Fortunately I managed to re-balance, but it was proof, if ever it were needed, that on Everest you can never be complacent.
Acclimatisation complete, we began the ascent for real. A day into our drive for the summit we passed the body of a Sherpa wrapped in a sheet. He had been fixing a line further up, but had fallen almost 2,000 metres.
There was no point stopping, so we pushed on and by the evening of the next day we were told that our summit attempt would soon begin. With a full moon lighting up the side of the mountain there was almost perfect conditions and we set off at a nice, steady rate.
When we reached a point just below Everest’s famous Balcony, I remember thinking how close we were getting. At that moment everything changed.
Just as I became aware of a commotion in front, a climber came careering down the mountain. She was screaming. My first reaction was to brace myself in the hope of halting the body hurtling towards me.
I dropped my shoulder. It worked and as I steadied myself I knew I had a good grip on the climber, who I later found out was called Sunita. She was in a bad way. Her hands were black and swollen and she was clearly suffering from severe frostbite. I checked her oxygen supply. It had totally run out and her speech was already slurred.
Instantly I said to my Sherpa, who was already on his ascent again towards the Balcony, that it wasn’t happening. I wasn’t going to let this woman die.
I clipped in to Sunita, the Sherpa went behind and we began our descent to Camp. Initially Sunita seemed to rally, but before long the muscles controlling her arms and legs seemed to switch off. Her condition was deteriorating.
After an hour’s slow progress, the snow came in thick; we couldn’t see more than a metre in front and neither of us could find the tracks we’d made on the way up. During a brief respite in the weather, I spotted a figure a little lower down the mountain, waving their arms.
I thought ‘Thank God, it’s a rescue party coming to help us’ and for a moment even entertained returning to our own ascent.
As we got closer, I could see from his clothes that he was another Indian climber who was part of Sunita’s expedition. I would later find out he was called Subash Paul. By now Sunita was semi-conscious and in addition to frostbite was suffering from high-altitude cerebral edema.
While there was no one to translate, Subash’s oxygen levels looked good and the four of us began to make our way down the mountain.
In the two hours that had passed since I had first encountered Sunita we had covered just 100 metres, but worse was to come. It became clear that Subash was also not well and with the pair frequently collapsing we all risked being pulled down the side of the mountain.
The Sherpa had had enough. He left, making his own way back to camp. I, however, decided I was going nowhere and left with no other option I began dragging Sunita and Subash towards the fixed line which was finally in sight. As I did so, I kept telling myself that the situation – as precarious and desperate as it was - wasn’t going to defeat me.
That’s when I slipped. In a few seconds I fell 20 or 30 metres, yet somehow I managed to stop myself. I could have given up, turned and headed to camp, but I resolved to climb back and give it just one more shot.
That’s when all hell broke lose. Subash slipped, he skittled Sunita, then she skittled me. It was terrifying. As I slid down the mountain all I could think was ‘Get ready for the silence, get ready for the silence. You’re going to die’.
This time we fell over 70 metres but somehow I managed to dig a crampon into the ice and when I looked around I saw Sunita had also come to a halt and Subash had also been stopped. Knowing I couldn’t rescue them both at the same time, I started with Sunita.
By the time we reached Camp Four I was screaming at the top of my lungs for help, but no one came. I knew I had to keep moving, dragging Sunita’s deadweight body behind me.
As I got closer to the tents, a light come on. It was my Sherpa. He helped me get Sunita into my tent, and using my last ounce of strength I shoved her inside. I was totally and utterly exhausted.
As I lay next to her on a roll mat I could hear Subash’s screams, but after nine hours of attempting to rescue this couple, I was totally spent. I knew I couldn’t go back.
Today – one year on – I am still in touch with Sunita, who went on to make a full recovery after those treacherous nine hours on the mountainside, but has vowed never to climb again.
Although Subash did make it through the night and was eventually rescued, he sadly didn’t survive the descent. That will stay with me forever, but I know I did all I could.
So with the support of family, friends and also total strangers who have been so generous, I am going to try again over the next month or so to climb the world’s highest peak, in aid of ABF, The Soldiers’ Charity, which helped me when I was medically discharged from the Army in 2009.
As I have waited to leave this past few weeks, I have been both excited and apprehensive. I know of all the hardships – both mentally and physically – that I will no doubt endure up there on the mountainside again, but I am also motivated by the prospect of standing on top of the world.
I do think a lot about what happened last year, and if someone came hurtling towards me in danger again this time, I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same again. It’s just in-built in me, I guess.
All I can say at this stage, as I fly back out to Nepal is to thank everyone who has supported me with this re-attempt and to please follow my progress, as I try once again to reach the peak of the world’s highest mountain.
To donate to Leslie Binns’s epic challenge, visit his fundraising page at justgiving.com/fundraising/EH2017