The upper limits

Phil Purdy
Phil Purdy
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Tough conditions and a traffic jam of people wanting to summit have been blamed for the deaths of climbers this year. Catherine Scott talks to Phil Purdy about his Everest experiences.

Mount Everest has always held a magical fascination with climbers.

Since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first conquered the mountain nearly 60 years ago, more than 200 people have lost their lives chasing the dream, most on the descent. And summiting the 8,850m peak has become big business not only for the Nepalese tourist industry, but for the organisations who charge thousands of pounds to people willing to push themselves to, and beyond, the limit.

Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to scale the world’s highest mountain. For many it is a personal challenge as they pit themselves mentally and physically against some of the most treacherous conditions Mother Nature has to throw at them.

For others, like Phil Purdy, it is a way of raising thousands of pounds for charity.

Having already scaled a number of mountains including Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world, raising £100,000 for Cancer Research UK with friend Jeff Crooke, the 52-year-old father-of-four decided to take on the ultimate climbing challenge.

This time Phil and Jeff’s aim was to raise money specifically for research into oesophageal and pancreatic cancer at CRUK’s cancer centre in Cambridge – a cause close to his heart. It was also important to Phil to inspire other people, to show them what is possible if you put your mind to it, especially his own children. However just weeks before they were due to leave, Jeff had to pull out, leaving Phil to join the seven-man Jagged Globe expedition without his friend.

And 2012 was to be one of the toughest and most deadly seasons on Everest, with high winds and bad weather limiting summit windows to just two.

Phil and the expedition team spent 72 days on the mountain, many of those acclimatising themselves to the high altitude and lack of oxygen by repeatedly walking between the three camps at different heights on Everest, but nothing could really prepare him for what lay ahead both mentally and physically.

“While we were waiting for the weather to clear I was willing for them to call it off. I had made a commitment to so many people that I knew I had to go ahead if it was possible, but it was extremely frightening.”

Phil had to cross 200m deep crevasses in the Khumbu Icefall using ladders, negotiate rock falls due to melting snow and witness first hand the dangers ahead. Just days before they were due to make the final push to the summit they learnt that four people had been killed as they attempted the descent.

After weeks of bad weather prevented climbers from summit attempts, when the conditions improved a bottleneck was created when an estimated 150 people rushed to reach the peak.

“There is just one rope which you have to use whether you are going up or down and with that many people something is gong to happen.”

Most of the people are believed to have died from the effects of high altitude and when Phil’s time eventually came to tackle the push to the summit there was an tragic reminder of what could happen.

“We had to walk past the bodies, which really reminds you of your own mortality and just what you are doing to your body. It makes you realise that it could be you next. I had problems with my oxygen mask, my Sherpa disappeared and I did become disorientated. It is the hardest thing I have ever done.”

The lateness of the season and unusual weather coupled with high winds meant temperatures at base camp could plummet to -20C while higher up the mountain they could be plus 20C. The risk of avalanche was high and a Sherpa was killed and a member of Phil’s team was severely injured when he was hit by an avalanche of ice. In another incident an avalanche hit Camp One, destroying many tents and sweeping a Sherpa into one of the many crevasses. He had to be airlifted to hospital

During his expedition Phil kept a moving blog which gives some insight into just what he was going through.

“Well the last few days have been very,very hard,” he wrote on April 23. “Up 1.45am and left Base Camp for Camp One. It was very cold and windy. The temperatures must have been approaching -20C. It is a little morbid, but I did notice crossing one of the crevasses that there was a lot of blood – it was obviously where the poor Sherpa had fallen and been killed.”

Because of the treacherous weather, some expeditions decided to call off their attempt to summit and return home. Although Phil’s leader, David Hamilton, said they were among of the worst conditions he had ever experienced, they decided to continue and, not only reached the summit, but all 11 team members safely made the descent.

“In summary, this is no holiday,” Phil continued. “It is very very hard. I knew it would be hard, but I think it is harder than I expected. I am relieved that I have completed all the acclimatisation rotations. It is clear from the expedition leaders that this year is not an easy year on Everest. The dangers are brought home by the number of injuries and climbers who have had to retire through mountain sickness.”

Back home in Brighouse, Phil, who works for Yorkshire Water, is still recovering from the ordeal both physically and mentally. He has frost bite in one finger, a trapped nerve down his right side and he is suffering from severe fatigue as a result of living at high altitude for so many weeks.

But it is also the mental exhaustion which has knocked him for six.

“I have never felt so physically and mentally exhausted,” he says. “I have no plans to climb any more big mountains, although I can see how easy it is to get sucked into ticking boxes. Ask me in three months time and I may start to wonder what it’s all about.

“But it is incredibly selfish as it takes up so much time. I’m an average person and I feel quite lucky in many ways that I have had this opportunity to do this and to do something for charity.

“It was my ambition to climb Everest and it’s Cancer Research UK’s ambition to beat cancer. Both challenges take a great deal 
of stamina, team work and the support 
of many.

“By supporting Cancer Research UK I’m hoping to help to make a real difference and give others the chance to make and meet their own challenges. 

“Each day of research into oesophageal and pancreatic cancer at the Cambridge institute costs £2,700. My ambition is to raise enough money to pay for 50 days of research. That’s £135,000, and thanks to the amazing support I’ve been given, we are almost there.”

To read Phil’s blog in full and to support his fund-raising, visit http://everestchallenge2012.co.uk

Diary: Extracts from Phil Purdy’s blog written while climbing Everest.

May 3: We left Base Camp for Camp Two at 2.30am. The climb seemed very hard. Although I could get my breath, I seemed to have little energy. I have to confess I did feel like turning back in the ice field. It took eight hours to get to Camp Two. I was the last and felt absolutely exhausted. It was take 40 steps, gasp for breath and then repeat the process.

May 6: The weather improved significantly (against the forecast) and we left at 6am for Camp Three. It was very tough at this altitude – you just could not suck enough air in. We took an alternative route to avoid the Lhotse Face (due to danger of falling rock). We arrived at camp three at 2 pm, very tired.

May 11: At least one of the other teams has pulled out. The conditions here have been very difficult this year. There is less snow than usual to freeze and bind the rocks to the mountain so rockfall has been a major hazard on some routes. Himalayan Experience, one of the major operators in the region has abandoned their expedition.

May 15: Our expedition leader, David Hamilton said it was go. We anticipate a potential summit between May 22 and 24. I must admit I was more than a little apprehensive.

May 16: The conditions through the ice fall have deteriorated and many of the ladders that cross the crevasses are more than a little wobbly and not for the faint-hearted. The climb through the ice fall is demanding and there is a steady climb to Camp Two.

May 17: One of our Sherpas, Perchhirr, had been hit above Camp Three by an avalanche of ice. It had taken out many of the tents and washed them away down the Lhotse Face. Perchhirr’s initial injuries were not fully known, but were considered to be very serious.

May 19: There is a potential incident brewing on the mountain due to congestion. Too many climbers attempting to summit. A number have been stuck near the top for a long time.

May 20: It has been confirmed that at least four are dead on the mountain. This toll may rise further as there are still a number of climbers who are still not accounted for. On a brighter note the weather has stabilised and we are leaving at 1am tomorrow with the intention of summitting on the May 25.

May 27: I am now back in base camp, extremely exhausted. I must say that this has been the most mentally and physically challenging activity I have undertaken. When we left Camp Four we passed four dead climbers. A very vivid reminder of how precious life is.