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Caudwell Xtreme Everest Expedition
March–June 2007

Please click here for more photos of the 2007 Caudwell Xtreme Everest Expedition

After climbing through the night, the red glow of dawn gradually began to fill the eastern sky over Makalu (8,462m). With each breathless step, we had climbed inexorably upwards until eventually we crested the South Summit. There was only a short distance along a twisting knife edge snow ridge to the infamous Hillary Step and a short distance beyond that lay the summit of Everest. An Xtreme dream was about to be realised.

At 6.30 am on 23rd May 2007, five members of the Caudwell Xtreme Everest climbing team, accompanied by their sherpas, reached the summit of Everest (29,035ft or 8,850m) from the Nepalese side.


The Caudwell Xtreme Everest Expedition was four years in the planning and is the largest medical research expedition ever undertaken. There were 240 participants, 22 tonnes of equipment and the total cost of the expedition was approximately £2,000,000. The complex science program aimed to investigate the adaptation of the human body as it acclimatises to extreme altitude, using the shortage of oxygen as a model for patients in intensive care units.

Baseline studies in London
Two months before the expedition left for Nepal, the team underwent a week of baseline testing to assess responses to various physical and mental challenges. This was also the final opportunity to test equipment before shipping it to Nepal.

After a somewhat fraught journey from the UK, we arrived in Kathamndu and rapidly settled into the peaceful haven of the Summit hotel. Once again ground arrangements were by Simon Lowe and his excellent team at Jagged Globe and Kit Spencer and his superb team at the Summit Hotel.

Walk in
There were incredible views of the Himalayan chain as we flew from Kathmandu in a tiny propeller driven plane. Lukla airstrip is angled upwards at 15-20 degrees, meaning not only that it is unfeasibly short, but also that the pilot has only one attempt to get the approach correct. At the airport we were greeted by a chaotic crowd of porters, sherpas, yak drivers and lodge owners awaiting the planes arrival, each vying for potential business. Trekking out of the village, the pace of life slows. You walk for a couple of hours on steep narrow mountain paths, crossing swaying suspension bridges high above the roaring Dudh Kosi, and then take tea at a lodge, before moving on again.

On the long haul up to Namche Bazaar we turned a corner and caught our first glimpse of Mount Everest with a three mile plume of snow generated by the jet stream. At 29,035 feet (8,850m) tall every child learns that this is the highest mountain in the world. It has been formed by the up thrusting of land as two continental plates collide, and is continuing to grow in height. It is named in honour of the first Surveyor General of India and was first climbed in the pre-monsoon season by Edmund Hilary and Norgay Tenzing on May 29th 1953.

After ten days trekking we arrived in Basecamp (5,300m). This bleak and desolate place is on the Khumbu Glacier and was to be our home for the next three months. Our sherpas had cleared a large area for our camp. There were 2 cook tents, a mess tent, a medical tent, 3 experimental tents, a maintenance tent, a communication tent, toilet tents, shower tents and everyone had there own personal tent.


The shrinking world of modern technology made keeping in touch with our families more straightforward than in years gone by. Although letters could be sent by runner back to Namche Bazaar and then on by post, satellite phone or internet communications were much faster and more reliable. The biggest problem was the huge cost- the expedition phone bill came to $45,000.

Initially the food seemed good, but over time and with limited access to fresh food it became increasingly dull. Appetite suppression and weight loss are recognized phenomena and I managed to drop from 80kg to 66kg during the expedition.


The Icefall dominates Basecamp like no other glacier I know. Basecamp is actually placed on the glacier just as it takes a right angled bend and is on the move in two ways all the time. Firstly it is melting fast and everyday new rivulets develop as the glacier melts in the hot sun. Rocks and tents are left high and dry as the surrounding ice melts giving the impression of the tide going out. Secondly the entire camp is slowly on the move down the valley, and every so often there are pistol shot noises as the ice readjusts its position.

Khumbu Icefall and Western Cwm
The route climbs rapidly through some of the most sensational ice landscape in the world. It tackles the vertical seracs and the gaping crevasses head on, using a combination of fixed ropes and aluminium ladder bridges (often using up to 4 tied together). In some ways the route is a sociable place as one meets friends and climbers from other expeditions, but speed is the essence for safety, since it reduces the time spent in this exquisitely beautiful but hostile and potentially dangerous environment. Our strategy was to acclimatise elsewhere on safer ground, so that we could move through the icefall more quickly.


Lhotse Face
‘Coffee, tea or French onion soup?’ was the question Sundeep asked me, as we settled into Camp 3, perched halfway up the Lhotse Face at about 7,100m. The Face is a 1,500m (4,500ft) ice and snow slope angled at between 40-50 degrees. Our campsite (!) was a narrow strip of horizontal space and had been carved out of the steep ice and snow slope by our sherpas. On the one side blocks have been cut out of the slope, and on the other the blocks have been used to build up a ramp to give an eight foot wide horizontal terrace to place our tent.

The intention had been to spend the night at over 7,000m as part of the acclimatisation process. It was a couple of hours before sunset, and we were just settling down to a brew and the slow process of melting snow in order to rehydrate ourselves when a crackle came over the VHF radio. The weather forecast predicted a storm which threatened 20-30cms of snow. The Lhotse Face is no place to be in a snowstorm in particular because of the risk of avalanche. The options were to sit the possible storm out, and hope that the forecast was wrong and complete our acclimatisation sojourn, or to pack up rapidly and descend the fixed ropes and try to get back to the safety of Camp 2 before dark. A rapid conversation took place, and with safety paramount, we packed up and abseiled down the fixed ropes, getting into Camp 2 just as it was getting dark.


South Col
After a week at lower altitudes eating to regain lost weight, it was time to head back up the mountain through the precarious Khumbu Icefall, the immense and very hot Western Cwm, up the steep and treacherous Lhotse Face, through the Yellow Band, across the Geneva Spur and finally up to the South Col (7,980m).

On first arrival, the South Col had a deceptively benign appearance. In the sun and without any wind, it was warm enough for T shirts. It was only later when the sun set and the wind picked up that we began to appreciate the true harshness of the place. Temperatures plummeted to as low as -35C, and with oxygen levels 1/3 of those found at sea level, we began to appreciate what was meant by the term the ‘death zone’. At this altitude, the body is deteriorating all the time, and life is unsustainable for any length of time. Without oxygen even the simplest of tasks such as brushing ones teeth took on gargantuan proportions, requiring a rest to complete the task.

Most teams arrive at the South Col in the early afternoon, they then spend a few hours rehydrating and sleeping before setting off on their summit attempt somewhere between 9.00pm and midnight. Our plan was different; we had the most ambitious range of scientific experiments ever undertaken at this altitude to undertake in the world’s highest ‘laboratory’ at the South Col (8000m). We spent a day setting up equipment, followed by two days of experiments ranging from cerebral perfusion studies to maximal bicycle exercise tests. At rest and off supplemental oxygen our blood oxygen saturations were between 48-56%, (normally 99%) and with exercise these levels dropped further, understandably our bodies were deteriorating continuously. In total, we spent 5 nights on the South Col- we believe this is the longest anyone has ever spent there.


Whilst on the South Col, we became involved in one of the highest rescues ever undertaken. A 22 year old woman with cerebral oedema or brain swelling was left to die by her team at 8,500m. Usha was found alone and unconscious at 8,500m by an American guide Dave Hahn. He spent 30 minutes giving her his oxygen, and as she began to rouse, he radioed down to the South Col asking for assistance. We sent climbers, sherpas and oxygen up to help lower her down the Triangular Face to our South Col Camp. Three hours were spent stabilizing her in a tent before a team of climbers and sherpas began the long carry and lower down through the Yellow Band and Lhotse Face to Camp3, arriving after the dark. A second team spent the night resuscitating her before she was lowered the rest of the way down the Lhotse Face to Camp 2. She was finally carried through the Icefall to Basecamp (the altitude ceiling for helicopters rescues) and flown to Kathmandu. She has subsequently lost a couple of toes and the tip of her thumb from frostbite but has otherwise has made a complete recovery.

Ten sherpas and five climbers had set off from the South Col (7,980m) at 9.30 pm on 22nd May. In a bitterly cold wind we had crossed the South Col Glacier, and steep climbing had led to the 40 degree Triangular Face. The spindrift driven by the strong winds had filled in the previous steps, so breaking trail was hard work. We arrived at the Balcony in good time and took a short break, but a combination of the cold, the dark and the wind meant it was better to be moving.
The cold clear starlight night silhouetted the South Ridge, which lead through a loose rocky section up towards the South Summit. The head-torches of our party twinkled above us as we tackled the steep rock. After climbing through the night, the red glow of dawn filled the sky over Makalu. With each breathless step we had climbed higher until we crested the South Summit; beyond lay the Hillary Step and the summit of Everest. An Xtreme dream was about to be realised.


Between the South Summit and the Hillary Step there is a switchback ridge made up of huge surreal whipped meringue cornices which overhang both the Kangshung Face to the East and the South West Face to the West. There was a strong cross wind, and with drops of over 8,000 feet on either side and clearly this was no place to fall. I turned the flow rate on my oxygen cylinder from 2 to 3.5 litres per minute for the final hour of the climb. The route twists and turns along a knife edge ridge to reach the Hilary Step. This short steep segment was adorned with a mass of rope, mostly old and tatty but there was at least one in reasonable condition. Having surmounted the Step, a further 2-300m of relatively flat ground led to the summit of Everest, the highest point on earth.




At last it was possible to climb no higher. There was a mass of prayer flags fluttering in the bitterly cold and strong wind. It was so cold that we spent the shortest possible time on the summit. Initially there was an enormous feeling of elation shared with Mike, Sundeep, Dan and Nigel, and huge thanks to Tashi, the sherpa, who had shadowed me for the entire climb. Then a few private moments were taken to contemplate the effort and commitment required to get to the highest point on earth. There was also time to remember the support and prayers of those nearest and dearest, and then it was time to leave before the penetrating cold and hypoxia endangered a safe return, focusing on each and every step of the return journey.


There are more photos of the 2007 Caudwell Xtreme Everest Expedition in the Caudwell Xtreme Everest 2007 Gallery

 Why climb mountains?
The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, "What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?" and my answer must at once be, "It is no use." There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It's no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.

George Leigh Mallory 1922


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