Where we`d ended up with Phil, it seemed, was what came to be known as "camp 1.5", at around 5750m. Chatting back in BC, it seemed that a lot of the Summit Climb people had also failed to make C2, so there was a good deal of talk about making a potential camp one-and-a-half just above where I stopped to evacuate my stomach. The news that other people were having trouble was obviously rather cheering, but the simple fact remained that the climb from C2 to C3 was likely to be equally hard, or harder.
Despite not feeling a great deal better, Ian decided that he rather had to join in the next sortie up the mountain for fear of being so far behind on the acclimatisation schedule that he`d have no chance at all.
The following morning, Ted, Brad and I started for C1, with the intention of heading up to C2, sleeping there for one night and then trying to climb to camp three. Given that C2 appeared to be practically impossible to get to (for me at least), I wasn`t in the greatest of spirits when we got to C1. At C1, however, I slept much better than the previous time and woke up feeling quite eager to get going. Ian was in fine spirits and Brad (as usual) seemed unstoppable, so off we went.
About half an hour in, the wind picked up rather unpleasantly. About an hour in, snow started falling. Four hours in, at C1.5, Ian declared that he couldn`t go any further. The visibility was very low - we could see the next marker wand, but really no more. Ian looked really rather unwell, and we elected to return to C1 en masse instead of splitting up. Neither Brad nor I had ever been to C2, and there was no question of Ted leaving Ian to descend on his own, as the great majority of the crevasses were below us. It was somewhat agonising to turn around exactly where we had before, but there was no doubting the logic. I felt much better than I had the previous time, but I knew that C2 was at 6200 and that C1.5 really was barely halfway there. Even Brad seemed a little perturbed.
We headed back to C1. Having failed to make C2 twice in a row, we had to get there now. The following day, Ian decided to head back to BC for some more R&R. I think we all knew that this really meant the end of Ian`s summit chances, but he was in good spirits and charmingly optimistic for Brad and I. That afternoon, Brad, Ted and I eventually made it to C2. Whilst not exactly a piece of cake, the climb from C1.5 to C2 wasn`t nearly as bad as C1 to C1.5, mostly because the ascent was generally a little less steep and for large parts we managed to remain unroped, which made the going a lot easier. I felt woefully tired but relieved, cheered partly by the fact that Brad, the seemingly undefeatable mountaneering machine, had spent the last hour of the climb swearing loudly and practically had a fist-fight with a recalcitrent snow-shoe. It`s wrong to gain from other people`s misfortune, but it made me feel a lot less like I was holding the expedition up, which I`d rather thought until then.
At C2 we were three-to-a-tent, which is cosy to say the least. When they say "three man tent", they sure don`t expect anyone to have any stuff with them. That night the weather turned really quite gruesome. Very high winds, and a lot of snow, a good chunk of which made it into the alcove of the tent and completely covered all of the equipment we`d had to leave outside. When we woke up, about ten centimetres of fine powder snow put the nail in the coffin of any ideas we might have had about getting up towards camp three. We sat around for an hour or two optimistically waiting for this snow to, erm, blow away or something, and then trudged slowly all the way back down to base camp.
In base camp, the other teams appeared to be in similar positions. We already had a pretty good idea of this as Ted and the other guides were keeping a strict schedule of night and morning radio calls to keep abreast of what was going on upon the mountain. This was a more complicated affair than it might have been, because BC could only hear C1, so any messages from the higher camps had to be relayed via C1.
It seemed that only two people (Ben and Nigel, both on skis) had made any progress above C2, and even then they`d given up after just a couple of hundred metres. Time constraints meant that all of us were now going to make a summit attempt _without_ having spent a night at camp three, which didn`t look to have great chances of success. Because I knew I adapted to altitude very badly at first exposure and took a day or so to get used to it, I regarded this as being the end of my chance of the summit. This bothered me a lot more than I thought it would - I hadn`t realised when I started this trip quite how important it was going to be for me to summit, as I`m not generally that focused. I`d spoken to Kiki (then girlfriend, now wife) a couple of times on Ted`s satellite phone as she tried to help me sort out another passport, and I told her that evening that I was fifty-fifty for the summit. I think she was a little surprised, but to be honest I felt it was a lot less than fifty-fifty, because there was no way I could spend a night at C3 without spending the next day recovering at base camp.
Ian was now resigned to staying in Base Camp, and divided his time between reading books and chatting to recuperating climbers from the Summit Climb expedition. Brad, Ted and I rested in Base Camp for two whole days before making our final C1-C2-C3-summit attempt. During these rest days, Ted`s girlfriend Ashley became my favourite person in the world. For some reason she`d been under the impression that I couldn`t manage to successfully perform a perfectly simple task, like checking that the bag that I`d left at the Seman hotel didn`t contain my passport. As she was returning to Kashgar anyway, she popped into the Seman hotel and, well, found my passport in the bag that I`d left at the Seman hotel.
Boy, was it a relief to be clambering up this revolting scree slope for the last time. As Ted skipped lightly up it, he announced cheerfully that the whole of Aconcagua was like this. I crossed Aconcagua off my list of Things to Do. I slept well at C1 despite some pretty horrible weather and then made it to C2 in reasonable shape, spurred on mostly by the fact that I`d never have to do this again, whether we made the top or not. After a much better night`s sleep at C2, we started the climb to C3.
But wait! What sweet pleasure was this? The climb to camp three was EASIER than we expected! The weather was lovely, the incline was shallower and in four hours we were at C3, ready to start feeling ill again. But further joy - I didn`t feel nearly as ill as I had upon my arrivals at BC, C1 or C2. We were now at 6700m, a full thousand metres over my personal altitude record, but I felt in remarkeably good spirits, with only the usual nagging headache and tiredness, and no nausea at all.
I managed to maintain this state all night - in more ways than one, unfortunately, as I didn`t sleep at all. As we awoke at 5am to a bright morning with no fresh snow, we began to wonder whether this really was attainable after all. Ted and I were both worried about my lack of sleep, but there wasn`t much we could do other than start up for the summit.
Within an hour or so we were up and climbing. The climb was as gradual as the C2-C3 leg, and we were in good spirits for the first couple of hours. After that, though, the lack of oxygen began to really take its toll. As we reached 7000m I felt really quite elated - for me reaching 7000 was the best consolation prize I could manage if I didn`t make the summit.
We climbed on - since C2 we`d been on snowshoes rather than crampons and, while they do certainly do their job, they add some ill-required weight to your already extremely heavy boots. Our packs were now almost empty, containing nothing more than some ultra-warm clothes, a bit of emergency gear and some food, but the thin air more than made up for this and I felt like I was carrying 20kg again. As we broke through 7000m in the early morning, I began to feel as if I was running out of energy.
Both Ted and Brad were tiring too - once you get very high up, oxygen starvation really does addle your brain and having even a simple conversation about which direction to head in becomes both amazingly tiring and amazingly complicated to think about. Conversation, therefore, tends to be limited to "can we stop now" or "my snowshoe is falling off" type chit-chat.
By now I had pretty much given up looking ahead of me for a clue as to how far we had to go (the summit was still very much out of sight) and was instead just watching my altimeter readings. Too much effort was involved in looking away from my feet, which required constant supervision otherwise I stood absent-mindedly one snowshoe on the other, or slipped in the icy snow. At 7100m I first felt the sensation of quite honestly running out of energy. I`d eaten a decent breakfast for the altitude (appetite is a great victim of AMS) but the lack of sleep was starting to get to me. At 7200m, I was gutted to find that I was slowing to a stop. Ted and Brad were making good but sluggish progress, and I quite simply just stopped. They waited patiently as I leant on my ice axe and panted for a while. I really couldn`t see how things would be different when we started off again, but I couldn`t bear the idea of turning around. We carried on for ten minutes, and I had to stop again for another five. If they were starting to get pissed off with this, they did very well not showing it.
At about 7300m, I stopped for fifteen minutes. For every step I now had to take several large gulps of air, and I felt as if I hadn`t eaten anything for weeks. Brad and Ted stopped with me, but I don`t think they realised how close I was to turning around. If anyone else had suggested it, I`d have given up. There was a rocky false summit just to the right of us, but I knew the real summit was another quarter kilometre above us. I managed to eat one of the reconstituted something-meat sausages Ted had procured for us - a no mean feat, as it`s almost impossible to eat anything.
I don`t know if it was the sausage of unknown origin, the sight of the false summit or just a "pull yourself together" instinct, but I suddenly switched into "do or die" mode. I started off again, surprising Ted and Brad, and steamed uphill (if one step every five seconds is steaming). For the next two hours I plod, plod, plodded. I didn`t really feel much less tired than I had before, but somehow I had developed this grim determination to summit. The summit turned out to be a sort of rocky patch with a few flags stuck in it and some French skiers sitting around. Ted and Brad arrived there some ten minutes after I did, looking really quite shattered. As expected, I was feeling tired but exhillerated - we shook hands rather solemnly, took a couple of photos each and started to head down. It`s amazing how hard it is taking photos up there - not only is it a complete pain removing gloves and getting the thing out of a pocket, but it`s amazingly hard to concentrate on things so complex as keeping the horizon straight and pressing the right button. I pressed some buttons a few times and then gave up. Ted told me subsequently that the only conversational words he and Brad had exchanged on the last few hundred metres were when I`d suddenly upped and zoomed off, and Brad was lead to gasp "is Chris on fucking drugs?".
Back at camp three a few hours later, I was asleep within two minutes of getting into the tent, with all my gear on. I awoke after a couple of hours and we cooked and headed straight to bed. We were yet to engage in the whooping and back-slapping that I thought would be a part of any successful mountaineering expedition with Americans in it, but I was too tired to care.
The following morning we had to descend all the way from C3 to BC. The weather was glorious and, as Ted was skiing and we weren`t, Brad and I walked down together. It was really now that the sense of achievement kicked in, coupled with the great joy of not having to climb up this thing again - particularly the C1-C2 stretch.
At C1 there were a selection of Khyrgyz and Tajiks wanting to porter loads back down to BC for some cash. Brad, Ted and I lapped up this chance and hiked back to BC alone with relatively small packs. Halfway to base camp down the scree and thinking of nothing in particular, I missed my footing, fell backwards and slid for a not inconsiderable distance on what turned out to be the skin covering my right arm. Startled as much as hurt, I jumped back to my feet to discover that one side of my arm had turned into a mess of gravel and blood. So it`s true that 90% of accidents happen on the way down! Well I never. I was consoled only by hearing from Ted at BC that Alan Hinkes, arguably Britain`s best living high-altitude mountaineer, dropped out of a Kanchenjunga expedition because of an injury he sustained at base camp whilst trying to teach his sherpas how to make a cake. Imagine explaining that to the sponsors.
Back at BC the atmosphere was a little unusual - approximately half of the climbers on the mountain had reached the summit, fewer than most people had expected. It`s fair to say that a handful were inexperienced or not quite prepared but what really struck me was that most of them was just plain unlucky. A few had caught the cold that was going around base camp; a few more had picked up diarrhoea or bad AMS; a lot had hit bad weather. I know everyone says that joining a high-altitude expedition is by no means a summit guarantee but I don`t think it had sunk in for any of us what this really meant. If you join a mountaineering trip you should make an estimate of your summit chances based on your health, mental attitude and fitness, and then toss a coin for the rest.
Knowing that we had to be on the plane at 8am out of Kashgar, we decided not to have too wild a night out. I was greatly surprised, therefore, to find myself at 5:30am completely drunk and sitting in a street-side cafe trying not to vomit whilst looking at the whole guinea-fowl that Ted was enthusiastically eating. Back in the hotel I was awaked by Brad banging on my door and shouting at 7:30. "What is it" I mumbled. "Get up!" yelled Brad. "Why?" I said. "I DON`T KNOW" he moaned.
We boarded the plane twenty minutes after it was due to leave and in an embarassingly high state of inebriation. I can`t tell you much more about that journey or the morning, as I don`t recall a great deal.
The whole trip was absolutely extraordinary. Much more than I expected I was completely taken with China, particularly the rural parts. I`ve never been anywhere before in my life where people don`t know the English words "yes" and "no", or where people would go out of their way so much to make you welcome even if it didn`t look like there was going to be any money in it for them. To get into the United States I am required to fill in a selection of forms, have my retina and fingerprints scanned and sit for five minutes being questioned about where I`m staying, and when I`m planning on buggering off again. To get into the ghastly communist citadel that is the People`s Republic I am required simply to have a visa - and if I don`t have one, I can get one at a desk in the airport, all in English. Given that most things in China currently cost approximately one fifth of what they do in the UK, I`ll be amazed if fifty years down the line the USA isn`t begging to have back all the business and tourism that disappeared to the other side of the planet.
This is the end - lots of other things happened, but I`ve already written too much. If you ever decide to climb a big mountain then remember to toss that coin. If you ever plan to visit China, can I come too?