News release: 24 May, Full storyTummy troubles in the night. Had a look out of the tent before dawn, didn't look too good so went back to sleep.
Woke up later (at least it was light) and suprise! It didn't look too bad. Got out of my tent and climbed the small hill at the side of the strip to have a look down the valley to Lukla. Big suprise; clear, no cloud waiting to surge up the valley and envelop us in fog which has been the norm for the last two weeks. Started to rig my machine, Barty joined me a bit later.
Unlike our brief effort on the 16th, this time we weren't really ready. I had to sort a few things like my high altitude helmet visor and we had to dig out our last remaining full bottle of oxygen.
In the meantime we alerted the film people's sherpas to please clear their stuff off our strip. To begin with it didn't look like there was too much activity going on over there but it takes us quite a long time to prepare so we didn't feel the need to immediately chivvy them along.
With machine rigged I climbed into all my clothes and amazingly by the time I was ready the film people had rigged their 3 cameras on my machine and the strip was clear of stuff. Turned it round to point it towards the strip, got in and started the machine. It wouldn't start. I cranked it some more, the odd cough but no life. Normally it is a really excellent starter, I thought it might be the fact that I was on a bit of a slope so Barty pushed me onto a more level bit of ground. Crank crank crank; nothing. Dead.
Barty then rushed over and pulled off the plastic bag over the air filter, placed there to stop it getting full of helicopter generated dust. That was the reason it wouldn't start. But would it start now? No. Flooded.
Crisis time. Battery rapidly running flat. Barty ran off to get the plug spanner supplied at the last moment by Nigel Beale at Skydrive and brought out to Nepal by Barty. (the one tool I forgot to bring). I got out and pulled out 4 spark plugs and turned it over to try to vent the excess petrol in the engine. Replaced them and tried again. Nothing. the odd cough, but no life, and then the battery died.
Barty ran off again, this time to get our big battery, the one I had bought in Kathmandu for just such an eventuality and which had been carried up here by porter, and our jumper leads, or rather my father's jumper leads, now he knows where they are! Pulled open the instrument panel, attached the leads and tried again. Nothing.
I supposed the thing was to keep trying, at least until that battery was flat too. I kept at it with short rests so the starter motor didn't overheat and eventually - when the big battery was nearly dead - with a cough and a choke the engine finally sprang to life and started running happily. A big relief, I can tell you. It seemed the same for the many onlookers which had by this time gathered round to offer advice too.
Removed the leads, taped up the panel and taxied round to the start line. Of course I have to stop the engine for the tow line to be attached. Would the engine start again with a nearly flat battery? Well we had to try, but I left it running while my helmet, oxygen mask, visor and gloves were fitted by Barty. I stopped the engine. Tow line attached, release tested, line attached again and.... yes it started, on first touch of the button as usual.
Called Angelo on the radio, he was ready, it was five to seven, rather later than usual. Looked ahead - cloud swirling over the end of the strip, were we too late after all?
We waited for 5 minutes, it didn't look like the same sort of really persistent stuff we are used to, just a temporary bit of cloud - probably....
It cleared, Angelo said he was ready, I revved up the engine against Barty's rock, made sure the cameras were running, signalled to Barty to pull his rope to remove the rock and we were off. A long roll over the newly roughened strip but I was off with about 100 metres to spare. Circled round to the right over Namche - seemed to be climbing well, better than the other day, not turbulent, and it was only a minute or two before we were high enough to be able to land back again - that first bit is really scary - there's simply nowhere to go in the event of an engine failure or propellor damage on takeoff...
Settled down to a nice climb of 450 ft / min or so, circling overhead Syangboche as planned to get a really good bit of safety height before heading off towards Everest. Water temperature looked really good, the duct our tailor made in Namche the other day was really doing a good job, it never got above 101 degrees even at full power.
Our plan was to circle a bit over Syangboche at 12,000 ft, and get a few thousand feet and then head off directly to Everest straight over the Nuptse - Lhotse ridge. We headed off to Everest at 16,500 ft and passed the striking mountain Amadablam at just over 19,000 ft. Syangboche to Everest is only 30 Km and by this time it became apparent that at this rate of climb we were never going to get over the great wall of the Nuptse - Lhotse face so we turned left towards Everest Base Camp to make an approach up the Western Cwm. We came round the corner of Nuptse at 21,000 ft, I could make out the yellow and blue specks of tents at Everest Base Camp below in the rubble of the Khumbu Glacier and my first sight up the Western Cwm was incredibly dramatic, probably the most striking sight of the whole flight. It is really difficult to describe the sheer vastness of the South West face of Mt Everest, this is one BIG rock. An the same scale, the Western Cwm, the valley with the great Khumbu Icefall in it and surrounded by Nuptse, Lhotse and Everest looked rather a small space so I circled to gain height in front of it until we got to about 24,000 ft and then we started circling up and up, over Nuptse and then on up towards Lhotse (27,890 ft), the fourth highest mountain in the World. Occasionally there was some mild turbulence but generally it was blisfully calm, on one occasion I got a bit too far into the lee of the west ridge and it got a bit bumpy and I had to make rather a sharp left turn to get clear of it, I saw Angelo bouncing around a bit in my mirror and there was a jerk or two as the tow line smapped tight but he hung on in there. My oxygen gauge, which I can only see in reverse in my mirror was showing a good quantity and fuel was OK. Engine temperatures OK, by this time the water had dropped to below 90 deg, oil temperature was about the same, both well within limits, and I was at full throttle at 5600 rpm, just under one bar of turbo boost and what I thought was rather high fuel pressure at just under one bar, but it all seemed to be working OK.
All the time we had that massive South West Face of Everest in front of us. The colours were striking; grey rock with streaks of white snow and the famous 'yellow band' glowing in the early morning light. Up we circled, higher than Lhotse, a formidable spiky peak unlike the great hump of Everest just above us. Visibility was perhaps 150 miles; Makalu (27,765 ft) the fifth highest mountain in the World clearly visible off to the East and the vastness of the Tibetan plateau to the North speckled with low puffy clouds far below. At about this time in no turbulence there was a slight jerk and I realized we had a line break, and by the way my machine leapt forward I could immediately tell it was my end, whether it was the safety 'weak link' fuse which had broken or something else I had no way of knowing. Angelo suddenly would have been landed with 65 metres of rope. With all my high altitude kit on I don't have much neck mobility so I couldn't look round to see him and I didn't see anything in the mirror; by the time I had circled round, Angelo, in a white glider against the vast white background of the upper Khumbu Glacier was nowhere to be seen. Vanished into thin air.
In the meantime it was all happening at Syangboche. We are used to maybe one helicopter a day, the two that came yesterday was unusual, but after we left not two but three heicopters arrived, though one was a small one which didn't get in the way. One was our friends from Asian Airlines who had heard from Lukla on the radio we were airborne and know to keep off our narrow bit of strip, and the third one was driven by the bloke who dumped all his stuff all over our strip yesterday and obviously keeps his radio switched off. We thought he understood our request to please stay the other side but he did it again, and parked right where Angelo or I might land any minute and tons of plywood and angle iron was dumped on it too. Barty, bless his cotton socks, went bezerk and gave him an earful and a half (though the Russian probably didn't understand most of it) bur didn't really care less, so much for the fellowship of aviators. The Sirdar in charge of the remains of the film crew's stuff came to the rescue and all his people moved all the stuff off the strip in very short order and got their stuff loaded. Barty says he never saw a helicopter unloaded and loaded so quickly - and they were off. Good riddance.
Of course as soon as Angelo was no longer attached I shot upwards. The summit of Everest was just there in front of me so I flew by, it was about 8:15, an hour and a quarter since takeoff. Incredibly there were half a dozen people standing on top and four or five more very close, all taking a step a minute on their long last painful grind up the hill. I flew past two or three times too busy taking photos to really take it all in. On one pass I waved at the climbers and they waved back! I don't know who they were though there is a rumour that the Irish Everest Expedition is one of the few remaining on the go. I hope one of them might have a photo of me!
After a few minutes I turned for home. I could see a bit of green through the clouds where Syangboche was supposed to be, it still seemed reasonably clear of cloud but it was a long long way down. I headed directly for it. Once over the Lhotse - Nuptse Ridge I throttled back - the inlet manifold temperature plummetted from +10c to -25c and my engine nearly died.... I shoved it back to full throttle but, as I discovered, any throttle position would only give 3100 rpm - the throttle had probably iced up in the sudden change of temperature, I left it at full throttle just in case it decided to pick up again.... This was an acute reminder that getting to the top of Everest is only half the journey, in fact more climbers have died on the way down than on the way up.
Still, I had plenty of height and at least my engine was still running, I carefully conserved my height and sailed several thousand feet above the summit of Amadablam to arrive over Syangboche at about 20,000 ft, a nice safe 8,000ft to spare. This wasn't quite the end of my troubles though; the cloud was definitely increasing by the minute over the airstrip, in fact sometimes I couldn't see it at all. I tipped my machine on its wing to get down as quickly as possible in a steep spiral, I was doing over 2000 ft min at one stage. About 1000 ft above the strip my engine suddenly unfroze and started working normally, I did a reasonable circuit, a lousy approach, my engine stopped, and I landed at about 100 miles an hour, but I came to a halt without damage.
Of course after the immediate elation of having actually made it back intact, my first concern was what had happenned to Angelo. I had no idea, but we expected him to return here so there was no immediate panic. I rang my beautiful wife Nicky to say we had done it - to say she sounded relieved - even if it was 3am her time - is a bit of an understatement.
Massimo, Angelo's assistant came over to me with Angelo's satellite phone - he'd forgotten to take it with him. This was a rather serious development as we had planned to use the 'SMS a GPS position' feature of our phones in an emergency outlanding situation, and as time went by with no sign of him it became increasingly clear that Angelo might have had to outland. We contacted Kathmandu to try to arrange a search helicopter but this seemed to be difficult for several hours at least. I thought the most likely place he would have landed was the old Hillary strip at Mingbo which we had planned for - the only problem being that it is in the middle of nowhere and of uncertain condition, it was last used in 1961... Massimo organized a medical kit and oxygen for when the helicopter arrived.
After an increasingly tense couple of hours the lady who runs the Lodge here suddenly came out shouting something. She has a radio link to the Police station in Namche, and they have links up the valley and Angelo had been located, apparently a bit bruised from a rough landing but otherwise safe and well. He had landed - perhaps appropriately - near the 'Italian Pyramid', a scientific research station at Lobuche, a long way up the valley not a million miles from Everest Base Camp.
As it turns out no helicopter could be arranged for today so one is coming first thing tomorrow (weather permitting) to rescue him and his machine. He's not completely out of the woods yet, it is jolly high at Lobuche compared to here so we can only hope he will be OK from altitude sickness.
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