Edward Buckingham Interview taken in 2018
In 2011 Edward became the first Cornishman to stand on the summit of Mount Everest via the North Col route. He has also climbed the ‘Seven Summits’.
Apart from your own book ‘7 Summits’ which mountaineering book is your favourite read?
I can get immersed in reading mountaineering books especially the early mountaineers when I think they did not have the diet available to what we have now. They also would be gone from families a lot longer because of travelling by boat as opposed to flying. When you read accounts of climbers from the same expeditions the facts to what actually happened can be distorted. This is down to the sheer pressure on the mind because of the altitude. One of my favourite books is A Day To Die For by Graham Ratcliffe. It is based on the true disaster of 1996 when eight climbers died through ignoring rules and lack of communication. The Everest film is good. But yes 7 Summits by Ed Buckingham is an unmissable read.
Which of the Seven Summits did you find the hardest to climb?
Everest was the hardest and biggest hurdle to conquer. For years it toyed with me before even getting to the Base Camp. The final straw after following accounts of climbers I had been on previous climbs with was being taunted driving in the Glyn Valley, Cornwall. Faced with the white van advertising Everest glazed windows in my view as I followed unable each morning to pass. In the end it was the combination of timing, confidence and most of all the belief that I had a chance of summiting. The trimming was being the first Cornishman, raising some money for the British Heart Foundation and recognition from the Cornish Gorsedh in 2013 for Exceptional Endeavour. Vinson, Antarctica was financially the hardest challenge but apart from the cold not as difficult as Aconcagua, Denali or Everest. I would also like to add Cho oyu 8201m I climbed in 2005 without oxygen.
At Mount Everest how did you find the 12 mile trek between Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp?
Very much used to walking as a postman for the Royal Mail and before that coming from a family of hillwalkers and coastal walkers not a problem. I covered the journey three times in different conditions. People argue the fact that it became monotonous but if you have listened to the guides and expedition leader it becomes a great boost for the psyche. The acclimatisation program is crucial to your success. Walking slowly, staying healthy, good rest, drinking copious amounts of fluid and remaining positive.
While at the top camp how hard was it to eat and drink and get some sleep before leaving for the summit?
It was a struggle to eat noodles. I think it was my time in the death zone where I lost most of the half a stone through the entire trip. Anything that required chewing just became a chore and hard work. Neither did I drink much fluid. Predominantly you relied on the oxygen which I had been on since 7000m the final time. Once we had arrived in at Camp 3 8300m and pitched the tent we cocooned ourselves inside the tent until approximately 2200hrs when we left for the summit. I did not rest at all just prepared myself mentally and what I wanted at the summit ie: St Piran’s and camera in the inside pockets of my big down coat.
What was the weather like when you left the top camp on Mount Everest heading for the summit?
It was dark but moonlit by the many stars in the sky. It was like it was lighting up Everest and showing the way to the summit. Added to this as you looked up you could see the procession of headtorches winding the way up the mountain. Crucially there was no wind making it feel warm cocooned inside the duvet jacket and pants. The familiar weather pattern which we had witnessed throughout the time spent on Everest was for the winds to sweep across from about 10am on the summit. Hence the reason for leaving at 2200hrs was to arrive on the summit between 6 – 8am the following morning.
How long did you spend on the summit and did you take your oxygen mask off?
After nine hours of climbing from Camp 3 I stood on top of Everest at approximately 7.30am on the morning of the 21stof May 2011. We were on the summit for around twenty minutes only. That sounds a long time but I can assure you it takes a lot longer for the body to respond to the what the mind wants it to do. You are suffering from severe dehydration, hunger, sleep deprivation and from the lack of oxygen. Even with the use of supplementary oxygen our bodies are not designed to be at this altitude. It is called the ‘Death Zone’ for the specific reason the body is slowly dying. I did not take my oxygen mask off through fear of not fitting it back on properly. After twenty minutes it was time to turnaround and descend. Added to the above problems comes the light now available and the fear of losing concentration through switching off.
While at Base Camp or on the mountain what was your favourite and least favourite meal?
We were very fortunate. We had a Tibetan cook who served Western style food. Because he was on Summit Climb’s books he had spent time in American restaurants learning the cuisine. His demeanour could be grumpy and very much liked his own way. The expedition leader learnt very quickly that if he wanted him to serve up edible food to let him have his own way.
Did you pass any dead bodies while on Mount Everest and did this have any effect on your climb?
On the way back down is when you see the dead bodies now in daylight. Having read many books on Everest and watched various dvd’s I was fully prepared for seeing them. What I was not prepared for was witnessing someone die within two hours of ascending and then descending. A client from another company clearly in distress who went no further. I had been speaking to him a few days prior whilst down at Base Camp. The protocol on Everest is to leave the bodies as it is too dangerous for guides to leave their clients to potentially rescue a client. Let us not forget they are also slowly dying in the ‘Death Zone’. Memorials are built down in Base Camp. Of the other bodies I passed one was in the middle of the route down. Like the trunk of a tree. Just the torso the arms and legs long since eroded away. Others were sheltering behind rocks perhaps taking a break but did not go no further. Seeing this was a spur for me to keep on going and not become a statistic on the mountain. I cannot confess to seeing the famous ‘Green Boots’ remains on the mountain.
Was there at any point you thought ‘what the hell am I doing here’ while on the mountain?
No. Never. I remained positive all the way through. Through my mountaineering I have learnt apart from the heart which keeps us alive the strongest part of the body is the mind. If at any point the mind goes weak you are in serious trouble. High altitude can toy with you. When I speak I describe altitude like getting drunk. The higher you go the more disorientated and incoherent you become. The same as drinking. The only way to stop it to descend. But how many do? This is when if you are not strong mentally you can get into serious trouble potentially leading to death.
Did you have any worrying thoughts about ascending/descending the Second Step?
I had concerns mainly because it is a known bottleneck. If you stop too long the biggest threat is not wanting to move again and die. I don’t want to sound like a parrot but you are in the ‘Death Zone.’ If the bottleneck had been whilst descending I would have abseiled down to the left of the fixed ladder. In previous years climbers have been waiting well over an hour to get on to the ladder. Not a good situation especially when only one is allowed on it at a time.
Was there much of a queue to ascend or descend the Second Step?
I was very lucky. One client was descending with a guide when I was ascending and on the return the ladder was clear.
Given the chance would you climb Mount Everest again, maybe from the South side this time?
No. My reasons are the same as when choosing before. The Khumbu Glacier just outside of Base Camp. The ever changing series of crevasses caused by the weather warming up potentially leading to avalanches. In 2014 sixteen Sherpas were killed whilst on the Khumbu Glacier on one of the many trips they make up the mountain. If you look at the Khumbu Glacier it is situated at the bottom of a valley. Over the winter the mountains above get loaded with snow. Consequently when it warms and thaws, what happens? Last year (2017) some of the Second Step collapsed due to the earthquakes in 2015 and subsequent snowfall on it. It is well known that the north is colder than the south. Looking at old footage you can’t help noticing there used to be a lot more snow than now. Global warming? The Khumbu Glacier is the reason I will not attempt Lhotse.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
I would like to think they did of course because they were British but I don’t think you will ever find for sure. Mallory’s body was found seventy five years after. We know he had a fall and was injured but there was no evidence of a summit. Irvine’s body has never been found. Again I don’t think you will. Several attempts have been made to look for it but proved unsuccessful. I think his body has blown into a crevasse or off the mountain completely. The first man to summit Everest was Sir Edmund Hilary on the queen’s coronation in 1953. He was a New Zealander.If you would like to find out more about Edward Buckingham then head over to www.onecornishman.com or www.facebook.com/Onecornishman