In January 2015, the Irish Independent ran an article on our plans for Everest 2015. The published interview between journalist Joanna Kiernan and Paul Devaney was part of a larger Q&A exchange which took place in December 2014 and which is shown here.
Can you tell me a little about the aborted Everest mission in April 2014 – what happened and what are the chances of getting back next year?
We were 18 days into a two-month expedition to climb Everest as part of our Seven Summits challenge. On the morning of Good Friday we were completing our acclimitising phase by climbing to the summit of a 6200m peak overlooking base camp. At around 7am across the way on Everest, a serac collapsed on the Khumbu icefall between Everest Base Camp and Camp 1. The collapse triggered an avalanche of large ice sections, some as big as cars, which came thundering down the icefall and into the path of a large group of sherpa who were making their way up to Camp 1 to prepare for the following week of climbing. The icefall is one of the trickiest sections on Everest. It is a frozen waterfall sitting atop a moving glacier, and the route through it involves negotiating ladders across deep cravasses. The sherpa had encountered a broken ladder (not unusual on the icefall) and were delayed as they attempted to fix it. The delay meant that there was now a back-up of teams at the broken ladder location, and when the now larger group moved off the serac collapsed above them. 16 sherpa were killed (13 bodies were recovered, 3 remain missing) and in excess of 6 more were seriously injured. Over the following 7 days a stand-off of sorts began between sherpa and the Nepalese government as the sherpa sought better conditions including helicopter support at base camp and better compensation for families affected by death or injury during the climbing season. Meetings started to take place 50ft from our tents, some were sherpa only meetings, others were sherpa and climber meetings which we attended. Some sherpa did not want to continue, fearing that the mountain was angry. Other sherpa were under pressure from family to come home as news of the disaster filtered into the valleys below. And in the end a very small minority of younger sherpa started making threats towards other sherpa citing consequences if they proceeded up the mountain. Little by little teams started to pack up and leave the mountain, and a week after the avalanche we also packed up and headed for home. The mountain was then effectively closed from the Nepal side.
It must have been a huge disappointment considering the effort/training/resources to get you there – what was the feeling in camp after news of the disaster broke?
Our initial feeling was complete shock. We did not know about the avalanche until we came back down from the peak we were climbing that day and into the nearby village of Lobuche. It was actually Pat Falvey (who was trekking with a team up to Everest Base Camp) who informed us of the news. You could see the immediate anxiety in the faces of our sherpa team – they knew many of those who were missing/dead. The following morning we arrived back into Everest Base Camp and to our tents which were right at the base of the Khumbu Icefall. We could see the area of the serac release from our tents. By then the bodies of the 13 Sherpa had been recovered and transferred to Kathmandu but the search for the 3 missing sherpa was still ongoing. As we arrived into Base Camp I remember feeling like I was walking into Camp Bastion with helicopters zooming in and out around us. The mood was understandably sombre and surreal. Everyone was thinking about the sherpa, their families and the villages which have been decimated by this dreadful event. We had prepared ourselves and our families for a lot of eventualities, but we had not prepared for having a front row seat at the worst event in the history of Everest. It was a strange and sombre time.
Considering the concerns over safety and the Sherpas striking this year is there a chance that the 2015 may also be affected?
Everest is intrinsically unsafe and concerns over safety were no different this year to any other year to be honest. This was unfortunately the year when the serac came loose while climbers were on the icefall. Legitimate concerns have been raised about the number of times we (climber and sherpa) travel through the icefall over the course of an expedition. Both Niall and I were due to climb through the icefall 8 times (starting 3 days after the avalanche) during a series of rotations up the high mountain aimed at preparing you physically for the summit push. For some sherpa that number could be as high as 12 crossings of the icefall. The icefall is one of the most unpredictable sections of the mountain and so any efforts to reduce crossings is welcome. That was one of the demands cited by the sherpa during their standoff with the Nepalese government, but there were many other demands mostly related to sherpa welfare. It is unlikely that the events of 2014 will effect the 2015 season in any significant way. Climbers will return in high numbers, some will pay slightly more for permits to help fund some of the initiatives promised by the Nepalese government and expedition teams will examine ways to reduce crossings on the icefall (including acclimitising on other peaks instead). The process of climbing Everest has been constantly evolving since Charles Howard Bury from Westmeath led the very first expedition to Everest in 1921 and that process will now adapt to the significant lessons learned from 2014.
What are your hopes for 2015?
I hope to be able to return to Everest next year and complete the climb. Nepal has had a very tough and tragic year with the avalanche in April and the weather related tragedies in October, and so I hope that the experiences of 2014 will bring sherpa and climbers closer together in unity to protect and preserve one of the great mountaineering challenges and protect the livelihood of thousands of families in the Khumbu who rely on the Everest season for their livelihood.
You mentioned that you are deciding at the moment whether to go back or not – what are you basing this decision on? What are the key factors?
The biggest challenge is funding. There are no refunds when an expedition is cancelled. The Nepalese government has agreed to honour our climbing permits for next year which is worth $10k, but the majority of the mission needs to be funded again and finding backers and sponsors is a big challenge especially in the current economic climate. We are also reviewing North route (Tibet) versus South route (Nepal) – The north route does not have any icefall to contend with and the chance of industrial dispute with the government is significantly less on the Tibet/China side. Our preference would be to return to Nepal but there are some obstacles to overcome before we hammer out the final route and itinerary.
If you do decide to go back to Everest next year, what training/preparation will you need to do?
Training is already underway. The Everest climbing season is April/May each year, hence training had to start in September. From January we will need to be training for 15-20 hours each week, including long hikes with 25kg backpack at weekends and lots of endurance and conditioning work. In tandem with this we need to develop our funding strategy and reach out to folks who might be interested in backing our 2015 attempt. This includes a fresh new marketing approach, redesign of our website etc. etc. so its pretty much a full time activity from now until 1st April when the expedition is set to begin. You have to assume a positive attitude and work hard to ensure everything converges by 1st April.
How does one ready themselves – physically and mentally – for such a challenge?
The climb relies on two major components – endurance and mental strength. I have returned to University of Limerick (where I trained for Everest 2014) to train at the UL Sports Arena where Aidan O’Keefe is helping with my training. This includes TRX, boxing, pulling and pushing sleds, gym strength work, stairmaster and Pilates. I plan to get out into the hills more from January (I don’t have transport so getting around is tricky right now) and if I can secure funding in early 2015 I can then start to empty out the mind in preparation for the challenge ahead. Mental strength is the hardest thing to train – I have thought about this climb every day for 2 years now, and I have thought about completing the Seven Summits every day since 2005 so it already owns a lot of real estate in the grey matter. But the real challenge is to imagine the toughest days and work out how to combat the urge to quit when the going gets toughest. That involves going right back to why you are doing this in the first place, your core motivation, the sacrifices you have made and are making and the imagined feeling of success and completion. Our summit day will be 16 hours of climbing in the death zone above 8000m while our bodies are shutting down, so the mental strength focus is how to deal with that.
How are you getting on re fundraising? I see you have raised €35k so far across the summits, how much more are our hoping to raise?
Our Seven Summits mission has raised €35,000 for six amazing charity organisations including Concern, Self Help Africa, Make a Wish USA, Susan G Koman, Laura Lynn House and Liams Lodge. Our Everest expeditions are raising funds for Liams Lodge, an initiative driven by the Heffernan family in Kerry to build a rest-bite centre for children with rare and genetic diseases. Tony and Mary Heffernan have suffered the loss of both of their children Saoirse and Liam due to Battens Disease. Liam passed away just a week after our return from Kathmandu earlier this year. I would like us to raise another €5000 by the end of Everest 2015 to bring our charity fundraising total to €40,000 by the end of our challenge and help the Heffernans to make Liams Lodge a reality.