Wednesday, 24 June 2009

King of the World

The one question I want to ask Bill Goodland (pictured in red at the top of the world's highest mountain) when we sit down for coffee is so obvious I can’t bring myself to do it. Luckily, I don’t have to. “Everyone’s been asking how it feels to reach the summit of Everest,” he says, which he did on May 19 this year. “Relief. It’s overwhelming: in that moment you’re excused from all the pressure you’ve put yourself under to reach the top. I'd told all my friends about my trip – so to know I wouldn’t have to be forever explaining why I didn’t quite make it was a huge relief.”

We’d been discussing his fellow climbers. Was there any awkwardness after he made it and some of them didn’t? “Yes. We tiptoed around each other for 24 hours, and many who hadn’t summited left early. It was a bittersweet experience.”

But social pressure and post-climb etiquette aside, how does it feel to stand on top of the world? “You get to sit down. You get to stop walking. It’s sort of that simple.”

Climbing Everest involves a lot of walking up and down the mountain to acclimatise to the altitude. You inch up, camp by camp, back and forth, until you adjust. Then, when you’re within sight of the summit at Camp Three, you head all the way back down, past Base Camp, to relax, build up your strength for the final climb and wait for good weather.

Goodland found this frustrating. “This way of climbing, the way [Edmund] Hillary did it, doesn’t suit most people. Altitude saps your strength, but acclimatisation makes the climb gradually easier. At some point, the two cross – ideally at the summit.

“For me, it happened about two weeks before that. The first time I reached Camp Three, I felt great and was ready to go on. The second time was worse, but that’s when I continued up to the top.” What would he do differently? “I’d start the climb later in the season. I’d be surprised if, in 20 years time, things aren’t done that way.”

Everest is well-chronicled: the cold, the wind, the frostbite – “That was one of my biggest fears, losing my nose or something.” What you don’t hear so much about is the boredom. Before the final push, the team holed up in a village called Pheriche, below Base Camp. “There is absolutely nothing to do apart from walk round the village one way, then the other way, then go and talk to the yaks," wrote Goodland in his excellent blog of the trip. “Luckily the next village along has a tiny internet cafe in a shed (from where I'm typing this), so my daily routine (after discussions with the yaks), includes a walk over the mountain for a couple of minutes online.”

The summit team was accompanied as far as Base Camp by a lively group of trekkers (I met them all in Snowdonia in February. We laughed a lot and they drank everyone else under the table.) “I was very sorry when they left,” he says. “They were a broader mix of people and ages, and more interesting than [us climbers]. We were quite similar: mid-life crisis single men who work in IT.”

What was the highlight of his trip? “The icefall was fun,” he says – great stacks of ice that shift around, pitted with crevasses. "You clamber over it, like a giant adventure playground." Wasn’t he scared? “You’d have to be jolly unlucky to be squashed by a falling piece of ice.”

But his favourite moment was on summit day, just before dawn. His group set off for the top in the dark. “When the sun rose, over Tibet, you could actually see the curvature of the earth. Sunrise also meant we were nearly there."

And his secret for climbing the world’s highest mountain? “Think only of the day ahead. You need a sort of Zen-like understanding of what the climb involves – and that even when you’re going down instead of up, it’s still part of the journey.”

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