Mick Allen Interview taken 2016
In 2013 Mick Allen reached the summit of Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world without bottled oxygen. This year Mick was hoping to do the same on Mount Everest.
Do you have a favourite mountaineering book?
Anything by Chris Bonnington – ‘I chose to climb’ and ‘Everest the hard way’ are just a couple of my favourites. But my all-time favourite would be ‘The Crystal Horizon’ by Reinhold Messner which tells of his solo ascent of Everest from the North side in 1980, without bottled oxygen and in the monsoon! An unbelievable achievement.
Was there any reason that you choose the North side of Everest instead of the South side?
I guess the cost was the main reason, at first anyway, as climbing from the North Ridge in China is quite a bit cheaper than going from the Nepal side. The North side is slightly more technical as well so that sounded like a greater challenge. The history surrounding the North side was also a big lure.
Your original plan was to ascend Mount Everest without the use of bottled oxygen. However, things did not go according to plan. At 8400m you decided to use the oxygen you were carrying, what was the main reason for this, was it you were feeling cold, exhausted or something else?
Several factors, I felt strong at camp 2 and felt pretty good starting out to camp 3 but as the day went on it became increasing difficult! I’d say that was my hardest day throughout (harder than the summit), it felt like I was going backwards at times especially when the rest of my team breezed past me under the O’s. I gave it everything and by the time I rolled into camp 3 (8300m) I was exhausted. The rest of my team told me I’d feel better after some oxygen but I held out and felt a little better after rest (no sleep) and food. We set out from camp at 8pm 21st May and after 30 minutes I started to fall behind our Shepra Phurba (the younger) and Alistair Ball. I dug deep and after 2 hours from camp 3 or so I realised I could not feel me feet and really started to worry. It’s very hard to think about more than one thing at a time at that altitude and I’d been so engrossed in counting steps and breathes that I didn’t realise my feet were like blocks of ice. I was stopped in my tracks and sat down, it wasn’t a hard decision at the time, lose my feet and my chances of a summit or put on a mask? Mask please. So Phurba helped me go onto bottled oxygen at 8410m. True I would have loved to have summited without oxygen but I have no regrets at all, it was the smart thing to do.
Near the base of the Second Step you waited for 40 minutes waiting for other climbers to arrive as you did not want to solo climb the step. 40 minutes waiting around at that altitude seems dangerous, did you not feel cold etc?
After I went on to oxygen it took a good 10 minutes for the feeling to come back to my feet. Another 10 minutes and I was steaming ahead and don’t think I looked back for at least an hour. When I did I realised I was way ahead of everyone else on the mountain, tiny lights were making their way along the NE ridge toward me. I didn’t even realise that I’d just climbed up the 1st step. I decided to stop and wait a little instead of pushing ahead as at that pace I’d have been on the summit in the dark. Safety in number too, so I sat down somewhere between the 1st and 2nd steps. I drank a little and had some Kendal mint cake, turned my head torch off and waited in the darkness only for the full moon light over my head. I never really felt cold and never felt in danger. Before I knew it Chris Harling, Andy James and Phurpa (the elder) were in front of me, and soon we were off again.
While on Mount Everest in your dispatches you mention you saw dead climbers at different locations. What were your thoughts at seeing them?
I saw the first body just below the second step. I caught it in light of my head torch while sweeping around looking up for the direction of the route. The body was hunched over a big boulder. I felt sad at first but then felt a sense of urgency to keep moving. I saw several more bodies in the day light when descending from the summit, mainly around the top of the 3rd step. Again I felt sad but by that time was so exhausted I just glanced at them and kept descending.
Do you think climbing Mount Everest is more of a mental thing rather than the difficulty of actually climbing it?
I think that confidence in one’s abilities plays a massive part. Climbing is difficult and the physical aspect is obvious so I’d say fitness is relative to all those who go to climb Everest, given the training involved prior to the climb. The summit push certainly is mental, having the will to just keep plugging away is key. I think that having summited an 8000m peak without oxygen before definitely helped as I knew how I performed at that altitude.
You reached the summit of Mount Everest on the 22nd May 2016 at 04.50 (Nepal time) in the morning. What was it like to be there all alone and seeing the sun rise up?
I was relived at first, then excited to be on the top of the world. Taking in the views with the full moon descending on one side and the sun rising over on the other was breath-taking! Sorry couldn’t help. I took my mask off and sat down amongst all the prayer flags on the summit. Looking down the impressive South ridge I saw the first climber making his way up from the Nepalese side. As soon he was on the summit and we shook hands – that was a great moment! Soon after Chris, James and Phurba joined us and not long after set off on our descent.
On the summit you phoned your wife Maria, was that very emotional or did you hold it all together?
Almost immediately after sitting down on the summit I thought of Maria and my boys who were waiting up back in the UK. With the little time I had alone on the top I managed to call home and spoke quite clearly through a strong phone connection, which is amazing in itself! The call was very emotional, I had a very big lump in my throat as I heard the whoops and cheers at the other end. I told Maria I was on the summit alone and felt okay. She was relieved to hear I had started using oxygen. I told her how beautiful the sunrise was and wished my son Reuben Happy Birthday as he turned 7 years old on the day I summited. I finished by saying I loved them all but must soon start my descent.
You had minor frost bite on your toes and fingers, have these fully healed up now?
At the time of writing this it’s 7 weeks since standing on the top of the world. I had minor frost bite in my toes and fingers. It took a while for the feeling to return but my fingers are fully healed now. I have some nerve damage to several toes which are minus toe nails, but I can live with that.
The Second Step is said to be very exposed. Ascending it during the night must have been a relief not to see the massive drop below your feet?
It certainly is exposed! I cannot say I thought about it much on the way up as was pretty focused in on the climb. The descent was very different – I found myself alone once again. The 10,000ft drop down the North face is immense and I quite I enjoyed negotiating the ropes and ladders. I recorded the whole thing which took about 10 minutes, great to look back on and hope to put a video together at some point.
What was your favourite meal while at Base Camp?
Good question! Variety wasn’t great for me, being a vegan. I brought out a lot of supplements for the trip which kept me going to a point. I fully intended to climb Everest on a vegan diet but after returning to base camp from our second rotation up the mountain I was ravenous and ended up having some fried eggs – so 98% vegan will have to do! Favourite food would have to be pancakes and peanut butter in the mornings. Chips and fried eggs at lunch were also pretty good.
Did you have any scary moments on the long descent from the summit?
It took me about 3 hours to get back down to camp 3 from the summit. The dead climbers above the 3rd step were not great to see.
Once I was below the 1st step I became very weary on the long rocky traverse before picking up the NE ridge. I had to concentrate on my footing quite a lot and still not sure how I didn’t break an ankle, or worse! That was a bit scary but once on the ridge and at mushroom rock I could see camp 3 which gave me a boost of energy.
Do you think that the Sherpas are treated fairly?
That is a difficult question. They do most of the hard work on Everest with many load carries and setting up camps, not to mention going back up the mountain to strike camps after they have been to the summit with their western clients. That’s all good as are paid per kilo they carry and get a summit bonus from the paying clients, although I believe their pay should be higher considering what they do and the risks they take.
Personally I have always found them to be treated fairly within whatever expedition group I’m in, however in generally I believe things could be better. They certainly don’t get the recognition they deserve from their government.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the second Step?
People will debate about this forever, we’ll never really know but Mallory certainly had the skills and I think they managed to pull it off. The 2nd step was the last place that they were seen and would have been getting dark once above it. They would have been so exhausted after a climb like that, without the ladders and fixed ropes we have today, and they would still be 300m below the summit.
If you would like to find out more about Mick Allen then head over to his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/mickoneverest