Text: Lyndon Chatting-Walters
November 11th 2018 0200hrs. I put my headtorch on and sit up. I am sharing a small tent with two fellow veterans, a Sea King pilot and a Royal Marine. The slightest movement on the canvas and the snow that’s built up inside the tent falls finely, melting on the back of my neck. It is 5800m at high camp on Mera Peak, I haven’t slept and my lungs feel tight. I have spent the last 10 hours with anxiety building in my chest and gasping for air every time my brain tries to rest. Now I am minutes away from the summit attempt, all I need to do is put on my boots, tighten my harness, brave the cold and tie my rope team in. ‘Come on lads, let’s do this’.
Dave Bunting, a very experienced Himalayan expedition leader, mentioned the possibility of an expedition with The Battle Back Centre with the aim to summit ‘Battle Backers’ on Mera Peak on Remembrance Sunday. The Battle Back Centre is a multi-activity recovery centre funded by The Royal British Legion, aimed to provide adaptive sport and adventure for wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans within the British Armed Forces. Carnegie Great Outdoors at Leeds Beckett University were tasked with establishing Battle Back Programme and responsible for providing the specialist coaching staff, technical support and delivery.
Like many other soldiers I found myself as a participant at the Battle Back Centre in 2012 at a time where I was lost and confused and scared for the future. I spent 7 years in 9 Parachute Squadron and with two frontline tours of Afghanistan under my belt, a not so friendly Taliban ambush involving a fairly large explosion left me with multiple life changing injuries including four broken vertebrae, a fractured leg, arm and several shrapnel wounds to my groin. After relearning to walk and years of rehabilitation I attended Battle Back as part of my recovery journey. It was here that I discovered climbing and a passion for the outdoors and adventure. A few years later I went ‘full circle’ and found myself returning to Battle Back as a qualified mountaineering instructor (MIA) and life coach. Now I could give something back to a place that turned my life around.
I have known Dave from my first days at the centre and was always inspired by his Himalayan exploits. I was very fortunate to go on a trip to South America with Dave and the Royal British Legion to climb Cotopaxi (5897m) in 2014. This was my first taste of bigger mountains and my passion grew, taking me all over the world with the drive to climb as much as physically possible. Still one itch was yet to be scratched, the Himalayas, and finally the opportunity presented itself. I first got wind of the expedition over a year ago and what followed was a series of selection weekends and meets taking us to the punishing winter of the Scottish Cairngorms, rugged mountains of North Wales and the spectacular scenery of the Lake District.We have our team. We have our Mammut kit. We have had our send off in London courtesy of Brewdog. Now we have our flight, and Khatmandu awaits us.
"Every corner we turned was like being transported into a different environment."
I arrived in Katmandu a few days early with Dave and our expedition doctor Ade Mellor to arrange kit and get ourselves sorted with ‘Himalayan Ecstasy’, a Nepali mountaineering company Dave has used for many years. The remaining 17 members arrive a few days later and get themselves orientated. We are all excited and somewhat nervous about what is to come. Next stop, Lukla, a notorious airport hanging off the side of a mountain. The gateway to the Everest region. It is here that we began our two week trek towards Mera Peak. Every corner we turned was like being transported into a different environment. We went from jungle to grasslands, from small icy villages to mountains not dissimilar to the North West highlands. Each day brought new challenges, acclimatisation was in the forefront of our minds and we knew we had to take it steady and let our bodies adjust. This is no easy task when you get overtaken by an aged porter carrying the equivalent weight of a small car! We soon settled into the expedition routine, a simple one really; wake up, eat breakfast, walk, eat lunch, walk, eat dinner, sleep.
As acclimatisation goes, our trek was gold standard, this did not however prevent illness setting into the group. Within just a few days the coughing had started and two weeks in some members were almost too ill to walk. By the time we were at Khare Camp (4900m), our base camp for Mera, over half the team were suffering. Remembrance Sunday was creeping up. Dave had some serious decisions to make as a leader and with the advice of Ade on the 9th of November it was clear. We would have two summit teams, one would head up to high camp on the 10th and summit on the 11th and one would set off for high camp on the 11th and summit on the 12th. The next morning ten of us set off onto the glacier and stomped up the relentless slope leading to High Camp, a small area perched on the side of the mountain above the clouds; a place that not many of us have fond memories of. Just cold, headaches and restlessness.
"I am now without a Sherpa and still a long way to go through the night."
Summit day. Its -25 degrees Celsius and I am wearing almost all my Mammut kit. I tie my team in, myself, Chris, Will, Alec and a climbing Sherpa Dende, and we set off into the darkness. Dave and his rope team, Ads, Lee and Simon have set off ahead and are now just flickering headtorches in the distance. A few hours in and Alec is suffering from a tight chest (probably a mix of illness and high altitude). He is determined to carry on but I had to untie him and allow Dende to support him. I am now without a Sherpa and still a long way to go through the night. Another few hours pass of walking in a mesmerizing bubble seeing only my feet moving in the snow and surrounded by the empty darkness. Will drops to the ground. We stop and rest to allow him to recover and then we start again. Moments later Will drops again. His mind is still strong and he refuses to give in but his body is somehow not listening. What do I do? I can see Dave’s team within reach, I know he has another Sherpa with him. With all my strength and some encouraging words I pick up the pace until I am within shouting distance of Dave. Eventually I am heard and the other team waited patiently for us to catch up. Probably a well needed rest for them too.
When I arrive at the resting point Will completely collapses. I explain to Dave, who is already fully aware of the situation, and it is decided he will go down with the Sherpa back to high camp. The sun begins to appear over the horizon revealing a beautiful sight of clouds and jagged peaks but more importantly warmth and comfort. We had all forgotten what it felt like to see beyond our feet. More hours pass and eventually we are greeted with the final summit slope. We carefully ascend the steep side to gain the summit cornice and onto the exposed top. We have made it. We stood and watched. We were in awe of the sight before us. Five of the 8000m peaks were visible, mountains as far as the eye could see and all sitting above a soft blanket of white clouds. We took a moment to reflect on why we were there. Remembrance Sunday. Our brothers and sisters that have been lost at war. Six Veterans stand proud, each with our own story and our own memories, each reflecting in our own way. This is why we came.
"To me that is success, and the summit just a bonus".
The expedition itself was a huge success. The next day three more members summited. This, however was not the end goal. We didn’t go there to summit. We went there for an experience, to spend time on the trail to our own thoughts, to meet the Nepalese people and be integrated into their way of life (and hardship). To have meaningful conversations with each other and focus on the present; make sense of what we have and plan our futures. There are always ups and downs on expeditions but I am confident in saying every member of our team learnt something new about themselves and surprised themselves in one way or another. To me that is success, and the summit just a bonus. We could not be more thankful for what the Royal British Legion achieved in the Himalayas.
You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.