Reflecting on Everest – Jo Bradshaw

Expedition: Everest via the South Col

Team 360

We asked Jo Bradshaw (Everest 2016 summiteer) about her experience of climbing the highest mountain in the world, after landing back in Blighty!

You have just come back from an incredible expedition to the top of the world. How are you feeling a week after returning home? It’s so great to be home but a little overwhelming to be surrounding by all my stuff after 9 weeks living out of a couple of duffle bags! I still don’t think it’s sunk in yet, 2 weeks ago (as I write) we were a couple of hours in to our freezing climb to the summit and yesterday I was unblocking my sink. Back to reality but it’s great to have time to do things like that now, rather than just thinking about Everest. Life back to normal and Daisy is very happy with that! (my dog!).

We are keen to hear how it all was so let’s start at the beginning; where was your first Alpine climbing experience? I actually climbed Mera Peak in Nepal expedition style before I did any alpine climbing. My first foray into this style was with Rolfe in the Pyrenees, climbing Aneto. We had a training weekend for Manaslu and I absolutely loved it. Since then I have been back to the Oostras numerous times to shadow Rolfe on various 360 alpine expeditions, in the Italian Alps as well as back to Aneto and also to Vignemale. I love the self-sufficiency and freedom of alpine climbing and will certainly be out there doing more.

Was it something you immediately fell in love with and immediately were good at or did it take time? Immediately loved it and hopefully am good at! I’ve learnt a lot from each expedition, honing kit and equipment and am keen to get out into the mountains to do more!

Everest was never your game plan – when did it become that monkey on your back? It was never my game plan for a number of reasons. I didn’t think I was capable, I didn’t want to be part of the media circus that surrounds Everest each year and I didn’t want to go through the Khumbu Icefall and over those ladders (why would you!!) Well, after reaching the summit of Manaslu (8163m) in Sept 2013 the seed was sown. Rolfe said that they had a team together and on 14th April 2014 we had our first Everest meeting. In the end I was the only client so game on!

You guide expeditions all around the globe so did you use these as your training expeditions of did you specifically train for this in other ways?  Training for type is all important. For our 2015 climb I had a pretty hefty schedule of work before I went which included Mera Peak, Aconcagua, 2 x Kili’s, a winter skills course and a training weekend. These helped hugely with altitude training as well as expedition fitness training but I also had the help of Matt Chappell from Evolved Health here in Salisbury who made a huge difference to my core strength. For our 2016 climb I had a more relaxed work schedule but still with some good altitude thrown in for good measure and I worked hard with Matt plus a lot of walking and running in the UK. It seemed to pay off as my energy was never a problem and I relished each day of the climb, when it wasn’t roasting hot!

We know what happened last year (2015) on Everest, did this ever cause you to doubt the expedition when you were trekking in to Base Camp (BC)? I took a group to EBC before Rolfe arrived so had the time to settle my emotions before our big event. I do admit that I shed a tear and had a time of reflection when I arrived at EBC with that group as well as doing a talk to my group about my experiences of the year before, this was all really cathartic for me. When Rolfe and I finally arrived at BC on 20th April, all was good.

Let’s talk about BC. It’s a stunning trek just to reach Base Camp, one you have trekked many times; how did if feel this time walking in knowing you were set to go to the top?  Having trekked up to ‘the trekkers rock’ each time it is a little strange walking passed and half way up the 2km of tents to our camp at BC. This was our ‘Take Two’ expedition and we just hoped for a simpler run than in 2015. So much can happen during the 6-8 weeks that you are climbing and you just have to take each day as it comes.

You head back to Base Camp later this year with a team from 360 (places still are available) what would you say to the trekker who is yet to experience this incredible trek?  I would say that now is the time to go! Tourism is still hugely down in Nepal, this season just 40% of the normal numbers were seen in the Khumbu so it was nice and quiet and I think it will be like that for a little while yet. Nepal is a fabulous country, the people are so friendly and genuine, the scenery is outstanding and when you are walking up to EBC, you are walking in the footstep of the greatest mountaineers in the world (and you may meet one or two in the Danphe Bar in Namche Bazaar too!). It’s a hugely cultural trek and a hugely rewarding one too. I can’t wait to go back, even through I’ve only been back in the UK for 2 weeks! There is something special about this place that steals people’s hearts, it could steal yours too!

We heard there was much playing of games to pass the time – shit-head, back gammon and Monopoly where the top favourites – apart from this what else do you do in BC?  We spent a lot of time doing nothing – passive acclimatisation! Breakfast was at 8.30am and after that we sat around chatting, watching all of the helicopters flying to and from BC. A short nap before lunch or a wander up or down BC to see friends before lunch at 12.30pm, then most of us retreated to our tents to read, listen to music, watch a film (I had my iPad which was a saviour) or another nap. Some days we had 4pm munchies so laid out salami, the 8kg of ham Rolfe brought, nuts, olives, lots of picnic stuff, played a game or two before dinner at 6.30pm then bed again. It all sounds very relaxed and quite lazy, and that’s its aim. We work our bodies hard at higher altitude and BC was a place to vitally regenerate, have a shower, do some washing, sit back and relax. I read a few great books, the best being Find a Way by Diana Nyad, an ultra-distance swimmer and am now reading Stephen Fry’s Memoirs!

What did you miss and what would you bring up if you were to climb Everest again?  I missed Daisy most! I’m used to being away but this trip for me was due to be 10 weeks long, that’s a long haul trip! As a leader you learn to live with very little possessions but having my iPad and Kindle for books and movies was a great help. Next time, I actually wouldn’t change anything apart from my food for C3 and C4. I was advised not to take dehydrated meals or RaRa Noodles but would actually take a packet or two next time. They work for me on Manaslu so it’s best to stick to your guns and take what you know works.

The mood in Base Camp has been described as rather a macho scene and quite competitive; what were the highs and lows of this home from home?  I did find listening to the stories rather hilarious, when one chap told a story then more ‘bigger and bigger’ stories would come out. I was the only female in our camp with 7 male climbers and did miss some female chat that wasn’t centred around ‘male banter’ (if you catch my drift!).

Did you listen to music and if so which song did you listen to when at your low points? Music got me through some tough days, just having a little warbling in one ear helped keep my brain on the right track! I had my iPod on for Island Peak and Lobuche too. My favourites are Kelvin Jones, One Eskimo, Jack Savoretti, Avicii, First Aid Kit (as recommended by Marni) and Elle King. For summit days I had the music on shuffle so never really knew what was going to come on but when ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by the Black Eyed Peas came on about 20 minutes out of the South Col, I had a good feeling!

The ice fall is notoriously known for being the most dangerous part of the climb, was it this you feared the most? On 25th April 2015, before the earthquake, we had had a great trip up through the icefall. Slow and steady as it was busy but it was much more pleasant (it’s all relative!) than I thought. This year was no different and I actually really enjoyed each trip through, even if it did scare me! It was the heat that I feared the most as I don’t deal with heat very well (which is why I like high and cold!)

The summit was obviously your goal; did you have to set daily goals to get you there or was the focus only on reaching this pinnacle? My focus each day was to get into camp with a little extra energy to spare so took things nice and easy without spending energy being out for too long. If I got this part right then I knew that the summit push would be ok, and it was. My plan worked well for me and I didn’t feel tired after any day apart from the ‘Sahara day’ heading up to C3 where heat exhaustion nearly got the better of me. I’ve had a lot of experience on big expeditions to know how my body works best and speeding on to get into camp early just doesn’t work for me. I wanted to enjoy every day as much as possible and that I did.

To reach the summit you have a one on one Sherpa. Tell us a little about who supported and climbed to the top of the world with you. (name, age, and how many times had they summited Everest, and a funny story they might have told)!? Rolfe and I climbed independently (i.e. no one on one Sherpa support) up to the South Col but we got to know our Sherpa team really well. I climbed a lot with Kevin who was climbing Lhotse and his climbing Sherpa, Pedawa, who at 40 has now climbed Everest 20 times (and Lhotse only once!) Alas they didn’t reach their summit this year due to the tragic events which unfurled as we descended back to the South Col. For my Everest summit climb I was partnered with ‘Big’ Dorje, mid 30’s with 11 summits under his belt (one the week previously with KC and Rob). A really cool individual who I got on with really well. Climbing with us too was ‘Little’ Dorje, who a couple of years older than ‘Big’ Dorje, had 4 summits to his name. They were both amazingly supportive, letting me get on with it bar changing my oxygen. I was proud to stand on top of Everest with these 2 incredible individuals, shame I didn’t get that summit photo with them too. We couldn’t have had a better support team from Laxman, our cook boy, to Kami, our Sirdar, and everyone in between, a team of 11 in total. Without these guys behind us life would have been very different and probably more difficult, they were and are such strong and supportive men.

Not only did you have your Sherpa, but also Rolfe as your guide / mentor. How did he motivate you when the going got tough? Rolfe and I have quite a unique relationship as we are co-leaders, he’s my boss sometimes and on this expedition I was his client (for the 5th time) so he knows how I operate and he just lets me get on with it. We didn’t really walk together at all until we headed up to C3 and higher for the final time. I know that he is there to give support if needed but it’s encouraging to know that he is happy for me to climb solo, that he is confident in my abilities as a mountaineer.

Obviously we (the public) always think of Everest as being freezing but you had a day where you literally roasted in your down suit when climbing to Camp 3; did you change your strategy the next time you climbed this section?  Absolutely! We left a good few hours earlier and arrived into C3 at 9am, just as the sun had hit the Lhotse face. On that day though the wind howled, gusting to 50kmh, but it could have been as hot as the previous trip up so our strategy worked. I just don’t operate well when I’m overheating! On the first trip up I would have taken off my down suit and climbed up in my thermals but I was wearing my mesh Brynje thermal leggings so I would have given quite a show on the mountain! They are amazing, a little too much so on this occasion with my PHD down suit!

At Camp 2 there is a mess tent and cooks; what food did you eat here?  The food was incredible given the circumstances! We had the usual eggs/toast or similar for breakfast. For lunch, which was usually when we arrived up from EBC or down from C3 was usually chips beans and coleslaw which for me was food heaven up there. Dinner was always a great soup then pasta/rice or potatoes with veg and sometimes meat. We even had a fondue on a couple of occasions, simply brilliant! You lose your appetite to a certain degree the higher you go so having good food was all important and Ganesh did us proud, along with the help of ‘cook boy’ Chhiring.

At Camp 3 and the South col (Camp 4) you cooked yourselves; what was the menu or was it all based around jelly babies (which we understood got you to the summit and back again)! Life is very simple at C3 and C4 and your appetite is pretty minimal. On our summit push we snacked a lot at C3 but also had RaRa Noodles which went down well. Breakfast for me was one Hobnob, my stomach took exception to being fed at 4am! At the South Col we again ate what we could which was pretty minimal. I had a sachet of porridge for lunch and tried to eat another one at 7pm (it didn’t go down so well!) I had plenty of Biltong (from Beefit Biltong) with me which was a saver too, plus the Jelly Babies during the climbing, a life saver!

When at the south col on your second summit weather window, the wind suddenly picked up and blew a storm making it a freezing and very uncomfortable afternoon. How did you manage to keep positive?  We knew that the weather was suddenly on the turn so were prepared for it. The high winds which we had experienced at C3 were a lot worse than those at C4 for the following day, when we were there. When the radio call came in from BC with the updated weather forecast, giving us high winds in the early hours of the morning and beyond, we did consider delaying our summit push to the 19/20 but then snow was forecast so we went for cold, windy but clear. The cold would not have been such a problem for us on summit night if the speed of the climbing had been greater…but that’s another story!

On the 18th May at 8pm you set out for your summit attempt. There were a fair few teams with the same idea; how this affect your climb?  There was one particular team who were quite large and had headed out for summit before us. They were very slow and were not keen on letting anyone in front of them. This had a huge impact on many teams but we coped with it well. At one point Dorje did unclip me from the fixed line and pull me up passed one particularly slow climber. I wasn’t really prepared for this at the time and my lungs nearly exploded but it was the right move. We then were stuck behind other slow climbers who didn’t really know how to climb up rock in crampons. Our climb was slow but we were up and down safely and knew our own safety limits which we climbed within.

You reached the summit on the 19th May at 06:45am; what was your very first thought and tell us a little of what it was like?  I was on the summit first of our small team, shortly followed by the 2 Dorjes and then Rolfe. It was a relief to get there but we knew that the route down would be extremely busy and with the wind getting stronger with a greater wind chill we were keen not to spend too much time on the summit, which was a shame but we were also contributing to the busyness of the day. I thought I would be emotional but I just sat on the summit watching more and more climbers reaching the same high. Rolfe tried to make a call to his audio blog and was then going to pass me the phone but it was so cold that his battery died so we took some photos, tried not to lose the 360 flag into Tibet, high fived the 2 Dorjes then headed down. Yes, it would have been great to stand there with no one else around but we were up there safely and we got down safely for which I am thankful for.

You stayed at Camp 2 to attempt Lhotse after having climbed Everest but this wasn’t possible, once this decision had been made how did you feel? I decided not to head back up from C2 to attempt Lhotse when we found out about the tragic accident on the mountain when we arrived back at the South Col. I was up for the challenge that we had set ourselves, the traverse, but alas this was not to be.

What were your feelings when popping out of the ice fall that one last time walking into BC having reached the top of the world? Relief at not having to go through it again. We had planned only 2 trips up and down but in the end did 4 round trips. Sometimes your plan A heads down the alphabet! I climbed back down with Kevin and we had a great final climb down, with only a couple of Sherpas and 2 other ‘Western’ climbers in view. It was a peaceful climb but we were very glad to come out of the bottom unscathed and in one piece!

What did you do, have a cuppa, a beer or whisky (or all three!)? When Kevin and I arrived back at the mess tent in our camp Bhim, our amazing BC cook, had made us a Kiwi fruit soda stream drink (yes, we had a soda stream!!) which was my amber nectar! There was no beer at BC so we had to wait until we had our little transit stop at Pheriche on our Heli ride down to Lukla. Kevin bought us all a beer which we gladly supped at 10am on the Saturday morning!

On reflection, physically and mental how does this compare to Aconcagua – a major stepping stone to attempting Everest?  When I first climbed Aconcagua in 2011, I considered it to be my Everest at the time. Aconcagua is an incredible expedition and a great stepping stone from something like Kilimanjaro, on the expedition route up to Everest via a lot of other higher and more technical peaks, and I can’t wait to lead my 4th trip to the mountain in February next year but Everest is a whole new level. Twice as long, at least, time wise and another near 2000 vertical meters which is more technical and more unpredictable. On Aconcagua you are on a flexible but fairly predictable schedule whereas on Everest your schedule can and does change on a regular basis so your ability to be mental flexible is all important. Yes, it is tougher but if you have the skills and experience it should be no problem, relatively.

So the million-dollar question; what’s next?  I have a great work schedule for the next 12 months including a load of fab DofE expeditions in the UK, a couple of Kilimanjaro’s, back to Nepal for EBC and Lobuche East (spaces available!) then Aconcagua in February (spaces available!), hopefully my next DofE Gold residential expedition back to Nepal but personally it’s Denali for me in May or June 2017. This is a mountain that I have always wanted to climb so now it’s time! I’d also like to do more in the Alps and Pyrenees (climbing partners wanted!). Oh and some time off with my lovely dog Daisy, I can see a camping trip or two coming up!

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