The highest-ever science lesson

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Maths teacher Chris Mothersdale recounts his Everest experience "When I arrived in Kathmandu in March last year, little had changed since my first visit 14 years ago. The last time I visited Everest, trekking to base camp on the Nepalese side of the mountain, I had only looked in awe at the hard black rock the icy cold of the snows and glaciers. After many expeditions and climbing adventures I thought I was ready to attempt an unguided ascent in my own right.

We climbed with Adventure Peaks, a company offering unguided expeditions.

Many of the team were firm climbing partners I had climbed with in Scotland, and I climbed to the top with Stuart Peacock, Dave Pritt (the leader) and others who provided a steady strong influence. I raised the money myself but was fortunate enough to be involved with New Media, who helped raise funds for the equipment required for both climbing and data capture for the website. We sent data back for use in science classes and completed the highest lesson ever taught.

Base camp at 5,200m was too high to go straight into, so we acclimatised on the way up, gradually climbing higher to allow our bodies to produce the extra red blood cells that would enable us to cope with almost half the volume of oxygen at that height and only a third at 8,848m on the summit.

The towns were dirty and scruffy with very few facilities and I wondered how the inquisitive grubby faces viewed our intrusion as we swept by, cocooned in our four-wheel drive land-cruisers with our expensive western tastes and equipment. The relief at reaching base camp after a long dusty bumpy journey was short-lived. It was cold and windy, and we had two lorry-loads of equipment to unload before we could eat and sleep. We cleared a space for our tents and then worked until dark to prepare the camp.

We spent about a week sorting equipment, acclimatising to the environment and completing short acclimatisation climbs before the yaks arrived (late) to help carry two tons of equipment up to our next camp (ABC), at 6,400m.

This allowed us to save energy in the early stages of the expedition and move a massive amount of equipment quickly up to the mountain, which was still 22km away.

The next five weeks were spent establishing camps on the mountain with tents, food, stoves and oxygen. Each climber carried their own equipment with the Sherpas taking the rest. After about a week of carrying we would return to the base camp where our bodies could recover from the cold and the altitude. The human body cannot exist for long periods above 5,500m due to lack of oxygen, so we had to walk the 22km back to base camp each time.

We finally had the camps established by the first week in May. Exhausted, we returned to base camp for the last time with clouds, cold and snow showers blowing around us as they had done for most of the previous few weeks. We prayed for good weather. Each day we looked at the forecast, hoping for the jet-stream winds on Everest to lift and allow us the chance of the summit. At last we received a half-decent report for May 15-17. We started the slow process of making our way back up the mountain on May 11 and by May 15 we crawled in to our camp at 8,200m.

We used oxygen to sleep and ate as much as we could force down, drinking the melted snow until we snatched a couple of hours sleep before preparations started again at 11pm for food and drink and equipment checks.

At 2.30am we were ready and started the dark, bitterly cold climb, head torches cutting the blackness as we gradually climbed higher. By 5.30am the twilight world of dawn gave colour and some warmth to our bodies. We reached the Northeast Ridge and for the first time looked back into Nepal and the Kangchung face, along the ridge to the three steps (the most demanding part of the climb at over 8,500m) and to the summit, still hours away.

The ridge was quite easy to start but soon it was knife-edge and we were scraping along loose rock in crampons to the steps. It was slow because of the altitude (about 8,500m) and also because we were caught behind a guided group but finally we hauled our bodies over the last real obstacle - the second step - and for the first time thought I had a real chance of getting to the summit. I stood on the summit looking into Tibet and Nepal, and my friends Stu and Dave making the tortuous final few steps to the top at 12.30pm on May 16 2002, a day I had dreamed of and worked for, for so many years. Now I only had to get down - but that is another story!"

Chris Mothersdale is a teacher of maths and head of Year 9

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