Setting off from High Camp Mera Peak at 0300 in the morning with my rope buddies Lyndon, Chris and Alec I already had quietly accepted that things weren’t looking good for me and my summit bid.
Sleeping at altitude brings its usual discomforts and complexities (high winds rattle the ‘torture tent’, frozen boulders for pillows etc) but it was the sleep apnea that I had been experiencing for the last couple of nights that was really challenging me.
‘At altitude, the reduced oxygen content of the blood induces breathing instability, with periods of deep and rapid breathing alternating with central apnea. This breathing pattern is called high-altitude periodic breathing. It occurs even in healthy persons at altitudes above 6000 ft. It may lead to sleep disturbances with frequent awakenings and a feeling of lack of air.’ (jamanetwork.com)
The frequent awakenings / no flipping sleep at all, had left me feeling pretty run down and understandably knackered. The associated feelings of anxiety due to lack of air were reminiscent of times when I have been less resourceful. I was certainly feeling immersed in the lower segment of Joseph Campbells’ model!
So what do you do? I decided it was an awesome opportunity to think less and simply put one foot in front of the other. The challenge was to be observant of how I was feeling, both physiologically and emotionally, but not get hijacked by any catastrophic thinking and take myself out of this opportunity unnecessarily. So one foot in front of the other it was (and in the cold dark of 0300 your world is pretty limited to your torch lit feet).
A couple of hours in and Alec decided to go at a slower pace and make his summit attempt with Sherpa Kharma leaving Lyndon, Chris and I to continue as a three. I was running on empty at this point but the strategy of one foot in front of the other was still working so I elected to continue. However at around 6100m the feet, and the body, would no longer listen. I’m not going to pretend that I objectively and simply turned around and thought ‘chalk that up to experience’. I was gutted that I wasn’t going to be able to summit with my fellow veterans on Remembrance Sunday. More importantly I was desperately aware that if I couldn’t continue then Lyndon and Chris would also have to turn around to accompany me back to high camp safely and hence also abandon their summit bid.
In the distance a group of seemingly stationary lights indicated another team resting on the steep slope. With the support of Lyndon and Chris we pushed on (with the occasional crawl from me!) and got within shouting distance of the team to discover expedition leader Dave and his team with two Sherpas.
Salvation for me as Lyndon and Chris could join the others for the summit bid and with little objection I was sent down to high camp with Sherpa Ram. During the descent the sun was starting to rise and the vista was incredible with Mount Everest front and centre in the distance. I silently descended with Ram and my thoughts were starting to get the better of me; had I failed? Had I given up? I was entering a pattern of habitual thinking about the meaning of failure.
Upon reaching base camp I realised that this ‘failure’ was simply another opportunity. This was an opportunity to practice what I believe in; to take control of my internal state no matter the outcome or environment. For me personally, summiting may have been less of an opportunity for growth than failing to summit. I had taken the opportunity to go for something already knowing that there was a high chance I would fail. I had chosen not to be afraid of failure. Now I had the opportunity to be happy, strong and supportive in the aftermath of failure. After all it is so much easier to be those things after a great success.
And with the decision to ‘try it on’ with that approach I could be genuinely happy for the successful summit team and be present and mindful of my own experience now back at base camp in this incredible Himalayan valley.